The surprise execution of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un's uncle suggests the country is undergoing a period of instability, the New York Times reports.
Jang Song Thaek was killed on Thursday by a machine-gun firing squad right after he was found guilty of trying to usurp power from his nephew, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a South Korean lawmaker said, citing information provided by intelligence officials. Pyongyang's state-controlled media broadcast the news of Jang's execution, describing him as "despicable human scum," CNN reported.
Widely thought to have been the second-most powerful man in North Korea, Jang was seen to have groomed his nephew for power and often acted as a family representative during visits to China. Though he was purged once before by the late Kim Jong Il only to return to power later, the public manner in which his final axing was carried out has taken aback observers of the Kim regime.
"We haven't seen anything this public or dramatic since Kim Jong Un's grandfather Kim Il Sung purged his last major rivals in the late 1950s," Columbia University Professor Charles Armstrong told the Times.
"This seems to indicate the divisions within the Kim regime were more serious than previously thought," Armstrong said.
Lee Byong-chul took a similar viewpoint: "If Kim Jong Un was sure of his control of power, he would not need to execute his uncle," said the senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation.
Lee predicted there would be future "big and small bloody purges, and at a time like this, desperate extremists may lash out. Pyongyang is no longer safe."
North Korea's neighbors have long been concerned about stability in Pyongyang. The fear is that an abrupt regime collapse could lead to more provocations against the outside world, waves of refugees fleeing the country and -- particularly worrisome for the United States -- the proliferation of North Korea's ballistic missiles, nuclear weapon-technology and fissile material.
"If two weeks ago, we thought that North Korea was somewhat stable, I think today people feel that it's not as stable as we thought it was," Victor Cha, the Bush administration's former special envoy for North Korea policy, said in an interview with CNN.
South Korean lawmaker Suh Sang-ki said the determination to execute Jang indicates Kim has consolidated less power than his father and wanted to head off any early domestic opposition to his uncle's dismissal.
Philip Yun, executive director of the Ploughshares Fund, said there is now a greater risk of Kim employing "brinksmanship" tactics. North Korea this past spring brought the region perilously close to war with its third atomic test and its repeated promises to carry out nuclear-missile strikes on South Korea and the United States.
"I think if we continue to wait for him to do things, he's going to continue to shoot missiles, and he'll probably at some point decide to test a nuclear weapon," Yun said.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf in provided comments said if the execution is confirmed, it would be "another example of the extreme brutality of the North Korean regime. We are following developments in North Korea closely and consulting with our allies and partners in the region."
Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera on Thursday said he believed Jang's purge suggests North Korea might be embarking on its own "Cultural Revolution," Agence France-Presse reported.