Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY
BEIJING - After executing his powerful uncle last month, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un took his purge to an extreme degree by putting to death almost all the uncle's direct relatives, including children, an unconfirmed report by the South Korean news agency Yonhap.
If the wave of killings is ever confirmed, it suggests Kim's brutality exceeds even that of his father and grandfather, his predecessors in power, said one North Korea expert Monday. The move also reveals Kim's fear of opposition forces, said Hong Kwan-hee, a professor in the Department of North Korea Studies at Korea University.
Citing multiple but unnamed sources, Yonhap said Kim ordered the killings, which took place after the Dec. 12 execution of Jang Song Thaek, husband of Kim's aunt, the daughter of the regime's founding father Kim Il Sung. Jang's removal surprised most North Korea watchers, as he was considered the second most powerful figure in the highly repressive and isolated state.
"The executions of Jang's relatives mean that no traces of him should be left," one source told Yonhap. "The purge of the Jang Song-thaek people is under way on an extensive scale from relatives and low-level officials."
The relatives killed include Jang's sister,Jang Kye-sun; her husband Jon Yong-jin, North Korea's ambassador to Cuba; Jang Yong-chol, ambassador to Malaysia; a nephew of Jang Song Thaek; and Jang Yong-chol's two sons, said Yonhap. All had been recalled to Pyongyang in early December. The sons, daughters and grandchildren of Jang's two deceased elder brothers were also executed, sources told Yonhap.
Some of them were shot to death as they were dragged from their homes, the report said, while some relatives by marriage, including the wife of the ambassador to Malaysia, were instead banished to live with their families in remote villages. North Korean defectors have long reported that the regime often punishes entire extended families for the alleged crimes of one family member.
Executing the extended family also recalls traditional punishments under past dynasties such as the Joseon, said Korea University's Hong. The "possibility is quite high" that the Yonhap report proves accurate, said Hong, but he cautioned that South Korea's spy agency has yet to issue any confirmation of the alleged events over the border.
North Korea remains so removed from the world, and its behavior so bizarre and belligerent, that strange and sometimes fictitious stories quickly gain global currency. Pyongyang did not confirm how Jang was executed last month. Into that information gap rushed a rapidly viral story that he was fed to starving dogs, although that tale originated in the mind and blog of a satirical writer based in mainland China.
Kim Jong Un's extermination of Jang's family, if confirmed, highlights "his fear that other family members could form an anti-Kim Jong Un movement, so this is a measure for rooting out opposition," said Hong. The scale of the purge appears more wide-ranging than similar punishments imposed by Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un's father, he said.
Kim seems more brutal, radical and unstable than his father and grandfather, said Hong. "In the short run this kind of action could give him a more strong power base, but in the long run North Korea will be faced by very fundamental political instability," Hong predicted. Kim's own instability, and reported quick temper, also endangers the entire Korean peninsula, he said.
The U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy, Ambassador Glyn Davies, is visiting Beijing Monday and Tuesday, to discuss China's troublesome neighbor and the regional response to North Korea's nuclear program. He then flies to South Korea and Japan. China is the North's only significant ally, and a vital source of food, fuel and diplomatic support.
There appears no immediate prospect of Washington holding bilateral or multilateral talks on nuclear issues with a thoroughly unrepentant Pyongyang. In the North Korean capital, the personality cult of the ruling Kim family, now in its third generation of absolute power, is literally in full bloom, the state news agency KCNA reported Saturday.
Soldiers, officials and civilians are busy preparing potted flowers for the 18th Kimjongilia Festival, celebrating the former leader with a flower named after him. This year's theme: "Kimjongilia in full bloom promising a rosy future of the great Paektusan nation."