The announced execution of North Korea's de facto number two leader, Jang Song-thaek was a message from his uncle, and the country's boss, Kim Jong-eun, to his domestic audience and the international community that he's in charge; that anyone in North Korea who questions or doubts his absolute authority will be removed.
We should not be too surprised with this type of behavior from Kim Jong-eun. During his two years in power, he has replaced all of the senior leaders in the military, party and security services, all loyalists to his father, Kim Jong Il. The exception was the elevation of his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, married to Kim Jong-il's younger sister, Kim Kyong hui, to the second-most important position in the North.
In addition to being the vice chairman of the National Defense
Commission and Director of the Korean Workers' Party Administrative Department, Jang Song-thaek was also appointed head of the newly established State Physical Culture and Sports Commission, a position that would give him access to and visibility with the international community.
Indeed, it was Jang who, during his visit to China in August 2012, had well-publicized substantive meetings with then president Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiaobao, during which China agreed to enhanced economic and political cooperation with North Korea.
Although Jang's red-carpet treatment in Beijing was not surprising, given his frequent trips to China and his close personal relationship with leaders in Beijing, what was surprising was that his visit did not materialize into an invitation for Kim Jong-eun to visit China. Thus, after two years in power, Kim still has not visited China, the North's closest ally.
The period after Jang's visit to China was dominated by unprecedented nuclear and missile escalation by North Korea. A successful rocket launch in December 2012 that put a small satellite into orbit was followed by a February 2013 successful nuclear test of a claimed miniaturized nuclear device. What then followed was months of vitriolic commentary from Pyongyang, to include threatening South Korea and the United States with pre-emptive nuclear attacks.
The US response, to include enhancing its missile defense capabilities and introducing B-2 Bombers in a joint military exercise with South Korea, undoubtedly got Beijing's attention. And China's reaction to the North's extreme escalation was clear - their support of a UN Security Resolution sanctioning the North for its misbehavior, Beijing's decision to cease banking relations with key North Korean banks, and its decision to embargo the sale of hundreds of items to the North.
No doubt some officials in Pyongyang must have been concerned with Kim Jong-eun's brazen escalation of tension with the international community, and with China in particular.
Dating back to December 2012, the media in Pyongyang ran stories of "disloyal" forces in North Korea. They carried reports of Kim's visits to the Ministry of State Security, the police and the judiciary, in the context of weeding out those disloyal factions in the country. Media reports of this type, at that time, were rare but apparently indicative of Kim's concern with elements in the leadership questioning his decisions.
Given that his decisions resulted in additional sanctions, greater isolation and strained relations with China, it's likely that some in leadership positions, like Jang Song-thaek, expressed concern with the North's deteriorating situation.
It was reported that on December 8, 2013, the Korean Workers' Party decided to "relieve Jang Song-thaek of all posts, depriving him of all titles and expelling him from the Party." It went on to say that he had a political ambition to challenge Kim as the "unitary center" and his group was purged, with separate reports from South Korea that Jang's deputies, to include his closest aide, Ri Ryong-hae, were arrested and executed.
Indeed, the televised images of Jang's arrest at a Politburo meeting on December 8 in front of senior officials was a stark and powerful message that disloyalty, at any level, would be dealt with harshly and publicly. This public humiliation of such a senior official, twice previously purged by Kim Jong-Il, was unprecedented and cruel, even by Pyongyang's standards. What followed was even more extreme - the official announcement that Jang had been executed.
The road ahead for North Korea is unclear. Kim has succeeded in removing the old guard from leadership positions and has installed a predominantly younger generation of loyalists. However, international tension with North Korea has intensified during this transition period. The execution of Jang appears to have been Kim's attempt at removing a potential threat to his rule. Making the execution public was Kim Jong-eun's message to others that those who are disloyal will be treated harshly.
The question is: Will the execution of Jang deter others from questioning leadership decisions that result in continued isolation and greater poverty for its people? Hopefully, it will not.
The obvious issue now for Kim is whether there are others in North Korea who think some of his recent decisions have unnecessarily exacerbated relations with the US, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia; and whether Kim is capable of moderating his behavior and capable of convincing the US, South Korea and other nations that North Korea wants good bilateral relations and is thus prepared to return to Six Party negotiations to resolve verifiably a myriad of issues.
Joseph R DeTrani is president of the Intelligence and Security Alliance, a nonprofit organization. He was the Special Envoy for Six Party Talks with North Korea from 2003-2006; the ODNI North Korea Mission Manager from 2006-2010 and until January 2012, the Director of the National Counterproliferation Center. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and are not representative of any US Government department, agency or office.