Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. There's a sort of medieval feel to what just happened in North Korea. A ruler apparently decides to eliminate a rival from its inner circle, never mind it's his own uncle, but beyond the disturbing details, this shocking tale could also signal instability in Pyongyang and spell serious trouble for US policy in the region.
Announcement: [Speaking Korean]
Werman: That's the announcement from state run media that the once powerful Jang Song Thaek had been executed. Jang supposedly confessed to plotting a coup against his nephew, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and he was publicly accused of everything from treason, to depravity. Sokeel Park is with the group Liberty in North Korea. It's an NGO based in Seoul, South Korea, that works with refugees from the north. Park says Jang's downfall is unprecedented, especially for the way it's been reported inside North Korea.
Sokeel Park: You know, North Korea has had purges for a very long time, all the way back to when Kim Il-sung founded the country, but especially if we compare it to Kim Jong Il's times for instance, he managed this competition between different factions within the regime just quietly and people would disappear. You know, some people died in car crashes, for instance. They were sometimes mysterious, but you never had this level of publicity on a purge or an execution. Right now I think the hypothesis is that they've designed this message to show the North Korean people and also the outside world that Kim Jong Un has absolute power and you know, absolute centralized UDC that cannot be challenged. However, I think reading between the lines it actually reveals weaknesses and division at the top level of the regime in the statements and in how public they've been with this.
Werman: So the unspoken message is one of slight concern within the ranks of the leadership? Is it a sign you think of Kim Jong Un consolidating his power?
Park: That's one hypothesis. I actually think that it's interesting that they spoke explicitly about Jang Song Thaek organizing a coup against Kim Jong Un. They accused him of not just corruption, but factionalism and also trying to create division within the regime. That suggests actually that there is some form of problem with the succession. And so maybe this is you know, they've opened a rare window into the top level politics in Pyongyang, and the picture that we see there is not very pretty. It's a picture of the highest level of corruption and division, and differences on policies...and also blaming parts of the regime that used to be controlled by Jang Song Thaek for economic problems that they traditionally used to blame on external factors like American-lead sanctions or even the weather. So they've revealed something here to the outside world, but also to the North Korean people, which is a picture of North Korean politics that's quite different to what they used to show.
Werman: Do you think that slightly darker message is one that's being packed up by North Koreans?
Park: Well, unfortunately, we don't have access to the North Korean people right now, but from previous example, like for instance the fall out of teh 2009 currency evaluation that kicked off just economic chaos in the country, we know that there was low level scapegoating of the finance chief, but even then the North Korean people definitely did pick up on that. And what they read from that was fallibility of the North Korean regime, and it also interestingly enabled them to talk about the North Korean regime's fallibility and mistakes. And so this will be the same thing. You know, these huge statements from North Korean state run media will give the North Korean people a kind of new vocabulary, a new framework to talk about problems at the very top level in Pyongyang that previously they weren't able to talk about.
Werman: Is it possible that Uncle Jang, Jang Song Thaek, was just acting solo? Was he a rogue lone wolf or is it kind of indicative of larger divisions among the leadership?
Park: One of the interesting things as well is that the North Korean official statements and revelations of Jang Song Thaek's so-called crimes have not put him as a single person acting by himself. They've actually put him at the top of a whole group of a whole faction, so this is not just him. We know from North Korean politics that it's impossible for Jang Song Thaek to act completely alone. He's an establishment figure in Pyongyang. He's been there for a long time. And he has had control of various institutions for a long time.
Werman: Sokeel Park with the Seoul based group, Liberty In North Korea, there.