Friday, January 03, 2014

Did Kim Jong Un execute his uncle by feeding him to a pack of ravenous dogs?

Not long ago a very high-ranking member of North Korea's ruling elite, Jang Song Thaek, was suddenly purged and executed.  In a hyper-Stalinist regime like North Korea's, that sort of thing seem normal enough.  But it appears that the method of his execution may have been a little exotic, at least in the context of a 21st-century government shake-up:
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's powerful uncle was stripped naked, thrown into a cage, and eaten alive by a pack of ravenous dogs, according to a newspaper with close ties to China's ruling Communist Party.  [....]  Hong Kong-based pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po reported that Jang and his five closest aides were set upon by 120 hunting hounds which had been starved for five days.
Is that story true?  I have no idea.  Perhaps it's just lurid propaganda.  But two things about this incident do strike me as interesting.

First, given what we know—and don't know—about North Korea and its ruling circles, this story doesn't seem inherently implausible. I'm not saying that it necessarily happened, just that it doesn't sound obviously impossible.  That's significant in itself.

Second, it's intriguing, and possibly significant, that this story appeared in a Chinese newspaper.  True, the newspaper is published in Hong Kong rather than China proper, but it's identified as "a mouthpiece for China's Communist Party."  Far from being an enemy of the North Korean regime, China is its indispensable patron and supporter.  But North Korea can also be a very irritating client.  I've read several accounts suggesting that the Chinese government may have been especially taken aback by the execution of .Jang Song Thaek, since he was one of the figures in the North Korean elite with whom they had especially good relations (and, indeed, some speculate that this may have been one of the reasons he got purged). Perhaps this article was a way of signaling displeasure.

If so, my (highly non-expert) guess is that it did not alarm Kim Jong Un and his circle in the slightest.  They no doubt feel confident that, no matter how upset the Chinese government gets, it is not going to stop propping them up with economic subsidies and other forms of support.  The fact that North Korea is a thoroughly dysfunctional economic basket case with a hermetically isolated, paranoid, and rigidly un-reformable regime is, paradoxically, one of the regime's major assets.  What most terrifies the Chinese government, along with a number of other governments, is the prospect of a North Korean collapse—which could generate unpredictable chaos on a massive scale, millions of refugees, and other unpleasant consequences.

Why, therefore, would a newspaper linked to the Chinese Communist Party want to publicly advertise the pathological weirdness of its North Korean client regime?  (That's quite separate from the question of whether or not this particular story is accurate or fabricated.)  This NBC News report offers the following speculation:
The newspaper has acted as a mouthpiece for China's Communist Party. The report may be a sign of the struggle between those in the party who want to remain engaged with North Korea and those who would like to distance themselves from Kim's regime.
Is that informed analysis, guesswork, or wishful thinking?  Who knows?  You can read the story and ponder for yourself what it means.

—Jeff Weintraub

P.S.  Anyone interested in the question of what actually happened to Jang Song Thaek might want to read Max Fisher's characteristically thorough and well-reasoned debunking of this report:  "No, Kim Jong Un probably didn’t feed his uncle to 120 hungry dogs".  (Thanks to James Jesudason for the tip.)  Apparently, the Hong Kong newspaper that ran this story has a reputation for being sensationalist and unreliable, and that's just one of several reasons for being skeptical.  Also, the number 120 did seem excessive.  However, one can't help noting that Fisher feels compelled to hedge by including the word "probably":  "The only problem [with this story] is that it's probably – probably – not true."  With North Korea, you never know for sure.

==============================
NBC News
January 3, 2014
Kim Jong Un's executed uncle was eaten alive by 120 hungry dogs: report
By Eric Baculinao and Alexander Smith

BEIJING -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's powerful uncle was stripped naked, thrown into a cage, and eaten alive by a pack of ravenous dogs, according to a newspaper with close ties to China's ruling Communist Party.

The man who was believed to be in charge of training his young nephew to take over was executed as a traitor, indicating a shake-up in Kim Jong Un's regime. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

Jang Song Thaek, who had been considered Kim's second-in-command, was executed last month after being found guilty of "attempting to overthrow the state," North Korea’s state-run news agency reported.

The official North Korean account on Dec. 12 did not specify how Jang was put to death.

U.S. officials told NBC News on Friday that they could not confirm the reports. "This is not ringing any bells here," said one senior official.

Hong Kong-based pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po reported that Jang and his five closest aides were set upon by 120 hunting hounds which had been starved for five days.

Kim and his brother Kim Jong Chol supervised the one-hour ordeal along with 300 other officials, according to Wen Wei Po. The newspaper added that Jang and other aides were "completely eaten up."

The newspaper has acted as a mouthpiece for China's Communist Party. The report may be a sign of the struggle between those in the party who want to remain engaged with North Korea and those who would like to distance themselves from Kim's regime.

Jang was seen by many experts as a regent behind North Korea's Kim dynasty and a key connection between the hermit nation and its ally China.

In the highly scripted execution, North Korea accused him of "attempting to overthrow the state by all sorts of intrigues and despicable methods with a wild ambition to grab the supreme power of our party and state."

Kim's government also accused him of of corruption, womanizing, gambling and taking drugs, and referred to him as "despicable human scum."

Jang was married to Kim's aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, the younger sister of Kim Jong Il.

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