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Robin Lustig - An Execution In Pyongyang

by Dilip, 14 December 2013

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Perhaps Shakespeare isn't the most obvious place to look when trying to make sense of the latest dramatic events in North Korea, but when I heard last night of the execution of Jang Song-thaek, the powerful uncle of the country's leader, Kim Jong-un, my thoughts immediately turned to Hamlet.
Shakespeare's play ends with Hamlet murdering his uncle the king, a man he calls "incestuous, murderous, and damned." Last night, the North Korean news agency called Jang Song-thaek "despicable human scum... worse than a dog, [who] perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery." In its way, it was almost Shakespearean in its fury.
Jang was considered the power behind the throne in Pyongyang (he was married to the sister of Kim's father), and his power stretched back to long before the young and untested Kim Jong-un came to power two years ago. He was regarded as one of the most powerful men in the country since the time of Kim's grandfather Kim Il-sung — and when the grandson inherited the crown from his father, it was thought that Jang would probably be the man really in charge.
Now, he's dead, for reasons that we can only guess at. North Korea remains the most secretive place on the planet, and even in countries like South Korea and Japan, which have good reason to want to know exactly what's going on in Pyongyang, analysts usually have very little hard information on which to base their assessments.
So for now, we have just the overblown reporting of the State news agency to go on: "The accused Jang brought together undesirable forces and formed a faction as the boss of a modern day factional group for a long time and thus committed such hideous crime as 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.
"The accused is a traitor to the nation for all ages who perpetrated anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts in a bid to overthrow the leadership of our party and state and the socialist system ... Jang committed such an unpardonable thrice-cursed treason as overtly and covertly standing in the way of settling the issue of succession to the leadership ...
"In a bid to rally a group of reactionaries to be used by him for toppling the leadership of the party and state, he let the undesirable and alien elements including those who had been dismissed and relieved of their posts after being severely punished for disobeying the instructions of Kim Jong-il."
Which I take to mean that he and the younger Kim fell out. The question is: over what? Most likely, according to the first analysts' assessments, is that the issue that led to Jang's death was relations with China. And that is sending the alarm bells ringing across the region... 
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