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Leader's uncle rose to No. 2 in North Korea

Saturday - 12/14/2013, 12:12am  ET

FILE - In this Aug. 14, 2012 file photo provided by China's Xinhua News Agency, Jang Song Thaek, North Korea's vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, attends the third meeting on developing the economic zones in North Korea, in Beijing. North Korean state media say Kim Jong Un's uncle has been executed, calling the leader's former mentor "worse than a dog." The announcement on Thursday evening, Dec. 12, 2013, comes days after Pyongyang announced that Jang Song Thaek had been removed from all his posts because of allegations of corruption, drug use, gambling, womanizing and generally leading a "dissolute and depraved life."(AP Photo/Xinhua, Li Xin, File) NO SALES

JEAN H. LEE
Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- Jang Song Thaek rose from a municipal bureaucrat to North Korea's No. 2 official -- behind only leader Kim Jong Un.

But his ties were more than political: Jang was Kim's uncle, married to the leader's aunt, Kim Kyong Hui.

Jang's execution, announced early Friday, marked an unprecedented fall from grace of one of the most powerful figures in the country as well as its most serious political upheaval in decades.

The 67-year-old Jang held the posts of vice chairman of the National Defense Commission and member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party.

In late 2008, Jang was assumed to be serving in a regency role while the young Kim Jong Un was being groomed to succeed his father, Kim Jong Il. Jang often accompanied Kim Jong Un on guidance trips and stood at his elbow at public events.

A well-traveled operator with a network that spread to China, Jang was considered the chief architect of economic policy that focused on partnering North Korea with its neighbor and ally.

Rumors of Jang's dismissal began surfacing in Seoul earlier this month. On Sunday, he was fired from all posts at a special party meeting and dragged away by soldiers. Four days after his dramatic public arrest, Jang was tried for treason by a special military tribunal and executed, state media reported.

The list of crimes against Jang was long, with plotting to overthrow the leadership the most serious of the allegations. Jang confessed, according to Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency.

For the outside world, KCNA's 2,700-word treatise ripping Jang's reputation to shreds provided an intriguing and revealing glimpse into the murky, feudalistic world of politics in the secretive country.

For North Koreans, the shocking public pillorying of a man seen as a father figure to Kim Jong Un was designed to send a clear message about the intolerance of opposition in a totalitarian state that demands absolute loyalty to the leader.

It was a humiliating end to a complicated career.

Jang, a native of the far northeastern border city of Chongjin, had humble roots but was sharp enough to gain entry to prestigious Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang. He started as instructor for the Pyongyang City Committee of the Workers' Party, and he rose post by post until reaching the top ranks.

He was purged and sent to a labor camp for two years in the mid-2000s, according to Kim Young-soo, a North Korea expert at Sogang University in Seoul. That purge was widely seen as a move to clip his wings.

It was after Kim Jong Il's stroke in 2008, as the regime began preparing Kim Jong Un to succeed him, that Jang began his meteoric rise to the inner circle, an ascension that gained speed after Kim Jong Il's death from a heart attack in December 2011.

Jang was not a career military man but was made a four-star general, and often appeared at state events in a trim white general's uniform. He was appointed director of the Administration Department of the party's Central Committee, a position that gave him power over security agencies as well as the judiciary.

And as a core member of the Political Bureau, he helped engineer a campaign to bring the once-powerful military into the party's fold.

Jang played a key role in shaping economic policy in the impoverished country, particularly in expanding international joint ventures, particularly with China. Under Kim, the government has made improving the economy one of two main party objectives, along with building nuclear weapons.

Jang had recently added a new title: chairman of the State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission, one of Kim Jong Un's pet projects. Until his dismissal Sunday, he last was seen publicly in early November meeting a sports delegation from Japan.

A shrewd-looking man who wore tinted glasses, Jang had basked in his special status as the second in power. He displayed boldness at public events where the rest of the top officials sat at attention, applauding with the kind of ennui only displayed by one other man: Kim Jong Un.

In its sharply worded character assassination, KCNA castigated Jang for "unwillingly standing up from his seat and half-heartedly clapping" when Kim received an important title.

State media portrayed Jang as a power-hungry and ambitious challenger to the throne who resorted to nepotism and favoritism to build his "little kingdom" as he plotted a coup against his nephew.

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