PYONGYANG, North Korea - The execution of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's uncle brought a swift and violent end to a man long considered the country's second most powerful figure. But while Jang Song Thaek is now gone, the fallout from his purge is not over.
In a stunning reversal of the popular image of Jang as a mentor and father figure guiding young Kim Jong Un as he consolidated power, North Korea's state-run media announced Friday that he had been executed, portraying him as a morally corrupt traitor who saw the death of Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011 as an opportunity to make his own power play.
Experts who study the authoritarian country, which closely guards its internal workings from both outsiders and citizens, were divided on whether the sudden turn of events reflected turmoil within the highest levels of power or signaled that Kim Jong Un was consolidating his power in a decisive show of strength. Either way, the purge is an unsettling development for a world that is already wary of Kim's unpredictability amid North Korea's attempts to develop nuclear weapons.
"If he has to go as high as purging and then executing Jang, it tells you that everything's not normal," said Victor Cha, a former senior White House adviser on Asia.
The first appearance of the new narrative came out days ago, when North Korea accused Jang, 67, of corruption, womanizing, gambling, and taking drugs. It said he had been eliminated from all his posts. Friday's allegations heaped on claims that he tried "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."
"He dared not raise his head when Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were alive," it said, referring to the country's first leader and his son. But after Kim Jong Il's death, it claimed, Jang saw his chance to challenge Kim Jong Un and realize his "long-cherished goal."
The purge also could spread and bring down more people, Cha said. "When you take out Jang, you're not taking out just one person - you're taking out scores if not hundreds of other people in the system. It's got to have some ripple effect."
South Korean intelligence officials say two of Jang's closest aides were executed last month. Narushige Michishita, a security expert at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, suggested Jang's removal shows "that Kim Jong Un has the guts to hold onto power."
On Dec. 17, the second anniversary of Kim Jong Il's death, North Korea watchers will be closely following whether Jang's wife, Kim Kyong Hui, the younger sister of Kim Jong Il, and other figures are present in official ceremonies.