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Game of Thrones in Pyongyang: the execution of Jang Song Taek

In a drama reminiscent of George RR Martin’s epic book A Game of Thrones, court politics at the pinnacle of the Kim dictatorship in North Korea have taken a brutal turn with the purge and execution of…

Jang Song Taek, the uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was summarily executed by the regime. EPA/Rodong Sinmun

In a drama reminiscent of George RR Martin’s epic book A Game of Thrones, court politics at the pinnacle of the Kim dictatorship in North Korea have taken a brutal turn with the purge and execution of the regime’s number two man, Jang Song Taek.

Rise and fall of Jang Song Taek

Jang Song Taek is North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s uncle by marriage and husband to Kim Kyung Hee, Jong-un’s aunt and brother of Kim Jong-il, who he courted when both were students at Kim Il-sung University in the early 1970s.

Jang’s career benefited from his connection to the Kims. He became a member of the Supreme People’s Assembly in 1986 and a member of the Party Central Committee in 1992, before being elevated in 1995 to First-Vice Director of the Party Organization and Guidance Department.

Jang was purged (not for the first time) in 2004 for an alleged bid to enhance his own power, but was reinstated in 2005 to become Kim Jong-il’s right-hand man, having responsibilities for oversight of domestic intelligence, police and judicial institutions.

In April 2009, Jang was promoted to a key role within the National Defence Commission, the country’s peak military organisation, and assumed a caretaker role for domestic affairs while Kim Jong-il was unwell. Following Kim Jong-il’s death in December 2011, Jang was installed with a core group of senior figures to act as a regency while Kim Jong-un cemented his power as the new leader.

Jang’s precarious position came to international attention on November 12 when his deputies Ri Ryong Ha and Chang Su Kil were reportedly executed. After being placed under house arrest, Jang was formally placed into custody for public spectacle at the Politburo Central Committee meeting on December 8.

According to Korean Central News Agency, on December 12 he was convicted of his accused crimes at a special military tribunal of the Ministry of State security and summarily executed.

Why was Jang purged?

As anyone familiar with North Korean politics well knows, the exact machinations of the government elite in Pyongyang are murky to outside observers.

However, the spectacle of Jang’s purge and execution has been given unprecedented publicity by the North Korean government. This is both an unusually frank admission of schisms within the North Korean elite and a powerful signal by Kim Jong-un to other members of the hierarchy of his power over the institutions of state.

What is the genesis of these internal factional fractures? The past two years have been a period of rapid change in the North Korean economy. The accusations against Jang, published by Korean Central News Agency, point to his mismanagement of his economic opening portfolio as one of a number of reasons for his removal.

Jang was a known champion of a Deng Xiaoping-style opening and reform of the North Korean economy, in opposition to a rival faction within the Ministry of State Security with greater commitment to nuclear weapons development and the military-based politics of the Songun model. Jang may therefore have been the loser in this institutional power struggle.

It is also plausible that Kim Jong-un has outgrown his need for a regency and is shedding the team of senior officials installed around him by his father to ensure a smooth leadership transition. The removal of his elder protectors would be an indication that Kim Jong-un is in full control of the government.

A history of purges in the DPRK

The formative phase of authoritarian regimes usually culminates with a great purge in which the leader eliminates all other potential challengers to his power. Because there is no concept of a loyal opposition in authoritarian systems, nothing less than a monopoly of power is sufficient to ensure the security of the new regime, requiring the liquidation of all rivals.

During the post-liberation period in the 1950s, the new president Kim Il-sung slowly beginning the process of weeding out dissenters from the other factions of the North Korean revolutionary movement, which had evolved in a number of different countries with each group developing unique characteristics, with their own regional affiliations and connections to external organisations.

Kim first weakened the Soviet-Korean faction in November 1951 and by 1958 had purged the leadership core of the Yan’an and Soviet factions as well after they attempted to replace him as leader during a Korean Workers’ Party Central Committee Plenum in 1956.

Between October 1958 and May 1959, approximately 100,000 people were eliminated on political grounds. By the Korean Workers Party’s Fourth Congress in September 1961, Kim had solidified his position as absolute ruler of North Korea.

Smaller purges are undertaken periodically to clean out potentially disloyal elements from the military and bureaucracy, though no purge event has occurred on the scale of the present episode since the 1950s.

In Game of Thrones, the queen-regent Cersei Lannister states that “in the game of thrones you either win or die”. This is an apt summation of the process of leadership consolidation currently underway in Pyongyang as factional rivals vie for influence or survival under the solidifying leadership of Kim Jong-un.

Indeed, the Kim family has been remarkably efficient “coup-proofing” its rule by playing off potential institutional rivals against each other and purging individuals when become too prominent within the institutional hierarchy.

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14 Comments sorted by

  1. David Stein


    Thank you Benjamin - fascinating and horrifying at the same time. I have always thought in 1949 Kim Il Sung got a copy of Orwell's nineteen eighty-four and thought 'hmmm - what if we gave this a go?'.

  2. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    Does the Peoples Republic of China not lose face by keeping such a rabid "rat" so well fed and supported in its own "backyard"?

    1. Darren G

      logged in via email

      In reply to James Hill

      The answer to that is no. I have worked with Chinese companies who work in North Korea. My impression is the chinese are as s...t scared of the north Koreans as everyone else. I don't know how far up the chain that goes but its an interesting phenomenon. I don't think that relationship is quite how it is often portrayed.

    2. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Darren G

      Thanks for that further information, Darren, the situation seems to be an enigma wrapped in those other things that Churchill mentioned.
      Then there is the question of the final destination of some of the kilograms of missing plutonium from the Japanese nuclear industry, and the subsequent discovery of a lot of gold in the luggage of a North Korean diplomat travelling to Japan.
      The acquisition of nuclear weapons in Korea being beneficial to those Japanese wishing to overturn their "Peace" constitution.
      And Korea was a Japanese colony for thirty years, what long term relationships were developed which could have survived the imposition of both communism and capitalism in either country?

  3. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    What a waste of space these people are.

    It reads like a throwback to Stalin and his dirty habit of executing anyone posing a threat. And back even further, a reminder of the vicious and deadly Roman emperors.

    What to do?

    Many comments in TC have denounced invasion by the West as a means to an end. And as North Korea seems to exist at China's pleasure, an invasion of sorts would be impossible.

    Ultimately the solution may rest with China, who may find that the Kims are just too unstable to promote any longer.

    An overthrow a la Romania seems very remote, and the West has no influence whatsoever on the country.

    1. Darren G

      logged in via email

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      While the article is extremely informative it is only about a small part of the picture. The famine led to great mobility, a lot of information coming in across the porous China border, and the introduction of rudimentary markets in basic houseful goods. That has shown the north Koreans that they are not better off than the rest of the world, the Juche policy is nonsense, and things can be different. North Korea is changing. While awful and tragic the spate of recent public executions there show that. We cannot know the full context of these latest public murders but that background context of change is now ever present.

    2. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Darren G

      North Korea may be changing, but is it for the better.

      And the executions per se are not the real point, it's the executions, torture, corruption etc that we don't know about that is more the point.

  4. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    We do not have too many peaceful examples of government overthrow about, People power in the Philippines being about the ultimate and then NK would seem to have a government structure right off the scale compared to the Phillipines or any Middle Eastern or African nations where some form of violence continuing seems to be par for the course.
    It is not as if even an uprising from within could have much success given that purges occur of those near the top and you would have thought if there was to…

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Greg North

      Unless China decides that enough is enough and sends in some very persuasive guys to smarten the place up.

      Sooner or later it won't be a good look having such a basket case next door to a superpower trying to rise in the world.

      North Korea might be the next Tibet, only this time without the angst.

    2. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      That's a likely unless Stephen and anything happening in that regard is first of all going to need the Chinese in power to want to do something.
      There could be plenty of Chinese politicians who are happy enough with allowing NK to do their thing and reap the ire of the planet, keeping them out of the limelight and with a few problems developing in northern asia, it could be that there may even be some strategic thinking along the lines of just how angst against NK can be used in their favour.
      Then of course, you would be needing NK to take any notice of the Chinese and that would certainly be no given.
      As for basket cases, the US has had much of Latin America and Cuba close enough.

  5. John Crest

    logged in via email

    If Kim Jong-un keeps killing his relatives, his life will be so ronery.

    1. John Crest

      logged in via email

      In reply to Michael Courts

      I never thought a comment of mine would win an accolade like that around here. ;-p

  6. Chris Borthwick


    If you want to investigate unclecide further, have a look into Shakespeare's Richard II. Richard offs his uncle Gloucester, leading to tensions with and threats to uncle York and uncle John-of-Gaunt. Any dynastic court has much the same problems.