The summary execution of North Korea's second most powerful leader, Jang Sung-taek, after a hurried trial by a military court for anti-state activities, has turned the spotlight on a likely power struggle among the leadership of the Pyongyang regime. It also shows that the young leader of North Korea is consolidating his position with ruthless disregard for familial connections.
Jang was the uncle by marriage of the young Kim Jong-Un and vice-chairman of the National Defence Council as well as second man in the hierarchy of the Korea Workers Party (KWP) after Kim. Indeed, Jang had overseen the transfer of power to Kim after the latter's father, Kim Jong-Il, fell ill and died in December 2011.
Jang, whose base is in the KWP, was appointed vice-chair of the NDC and made a four-star general along with his wife, to bolster his position within the military.
Jang and his wife, who is the younger sister of Jong-Il, were most influential in appointing Kim as the new general secretary of the KWP and installed as chairman of the NDC with the rank of four-star general as well. In the past two years, Jang and his wife were prominent among Kim's closest advisers as Kim assumed his position as Supreme Leader of the country, like his father before him.
Jang's downfall and execution shed new light on the relationship between Jang and his nephew. Jang was known as a reformer and pragmatist and was the trusted intermediary in developing economic relations with China, North Korea's only ally. However, Kim had recently begun to chart a different course: he declared his intention to strike a balance between North Korea's controversial nuclear weapons programme and Chinese-style economic reform. This followed an unsuccessful visit to Beijing in May by General Choe Ryong-hae, chief of the Korean People's Army (KPA), which signalled an attempt at reconciliation with China. Jang had earlier visited China in August 2012 to promote economic cooperation.
South Korean observers have speculated that Kim's reduced focus on the military represented a humiliation for the KPA. That Kim had also appointed both himself and his aunt, Jang's wife, as four-star generals seem to have been aimed at shifting power from the NDC and KPA towards the KWP, where Jang's power lay.
North Korea had also neglected to take advantage of Chinese and Russian technological assistance to upgrade its aging and outdated conventional weapons, leaving the nuclear weapons programme as KPA's only real dividend from the military-first policy. The status and influence of the KPA was further reduced by the extent of Kim's control over the organisation, albeit nominally.