In a plain courtroom in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, a 67-year-old man called Jang Song-thaek was sentenced to death as a traitor to his country.
His “crime”, according to the special military tribunal of the country’s Ministry of State Security, was to attempt “to overthrow the state by all sorts of intrigues and despicable methods with a wild ambition to grab the supreme power”. Announcing the sentence, the North Korean regime did not mince its words. Jang was “despicable human scum” and “worse than a dog”. He also “perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery in betrayal of such profound trust and warmest paternal love shown by the party and the leader for him”.
His supposed crimes included having “improper relations with several women” and having “wined and dined at back parlours of deluxe restaurants”.
Jang was said to have “squandered foreign currency at casinos while he was receiving medical treatment in a foreign country under the care of the party”. Worse, Jang was guilty of “such factional acts as dreaming different dreams”. After supposedly confessing, Jang was executed, apparently by firing squad - further evidence, say Western critics, of the “extreme brutality of the North Korean regime”.
This week, pictures of this broken man being led to his death were beamed around the world, in a rare and graphic display of the workings of this highly secretive nation. These images followed those showing Jang being dragged away from a meeting of the ruling Politburo last Sunday, and his subsequent airbrushing from official photographs.
What the regime’s official report fails to mention was that Jang, as well as being one the most senior leaders of the government, was the uncle of the country’s despot, Kim Jong-un, 30.
This brutal inter-familial conflict marks the culmination of an extraordinary week in North Korea which has forced the world to ask how much of a threat to peace is this rogue state that’s busy creating nuclear weapons, and who exactly is Kim Jong-un?
As the world’s youngest head of state, there is no doubt he is shaping up to be the very model of a modern dictator. The first thing to appreciate is that he is not mad. He is what psychologists call a “rational actor” – meaning his actions are not irrational at all.
He is behaving in a way many people would if born into a family that’s the subject of an extreme personality cult. His father and grandfather were long-time leaders of North Korea before him.
Like any Mafia boss or medieval warlord presiding over a crumbling territory, Kim’s first priority is to stay in power. To do that, like any sane man, he is creating the spectres of enemies within - such as his uncle - and enemies without, such as the US.
To deal with the enemies within, Kim publicly strips them of office, then has them liquidated and airbrushed from official photographs. For Kim, the best enemies within to choose to vilify are those closest to him - such as his uncle - because this gives the public the impression that the enemy is capable and dangerous. And to foster a sense of terror, the executions are often gruesome.
Less than a year after he came to power in December 2011, Kim had his deputy defence minister, Kim Chol, killed by army mortar rounds for disrespecting a period of mourning for his father’s death. The condemned man was told to stand in a deserted spot on an army range where North Korean troops regularly carried out manoeuvres. Mortar shells then zeroed in on him and he was blown to pieces. Kim Jong-un had ordered that “no trace of him, down to his hair” should remain.
This week, South Korea confirmed rumours that the North had publicly machine-gunned members of a female musical group, Unhasu Orchestra - which included his ex-girlfriend - apparently for watching pornography and filming themselves naked. (Kim’s current wife, whose name is Ri Sol-ju, was a former singer with the group.)
The number of mass public executions has soared, with estimates of between 40 and 80 this year in towns across the country, when last year the total was under 20. It is compulsory for the public to attend these gruesome spectacles, even children as young as 7. Judges have pronounced sentences for crimes as trivial as owning a Bible, communicating with South Koreans or Christian missionaries, or complaining about the hardship of life.
The prisoners - a rock stuffed in their mouths to prevent them shouting out and “defiling the great leader” - are tied to a post and shot by a three-man firing squad. Armed with rifles or machine guns, their killers shoot them so many times their faces are unrecognisable. The bodies are thrown into bags and dumped.
As with any “offences against the people”, not only are the perpetrators punished, but three generations of their families - with grandparents and children “disappearing” into horrifyingly brutal prison camps. Hundreds of thousands of political prisoners such as these are locked away in a network of North Korean “kwan-li-so”, or penal-labour colonies.
One former prisoner, Kang Chol-hwan, in his book The Aquariums of Pyongyang, said a bulldozer preparing ground in his prison camp unearthed masses of body parts. “Scraps of human flesh re-emerged from the final resting place,” he recalled. “Arms and legs and feet, some still stockinged, rolled in waves before the bulldozer. I was terrified.”
So punitive is the regime that even when an unfortunate - and almost certainly innocent - victim is shot dead, fellow prisoners are sometimes made to throw rocks at the corpse until its skin comes off as a final insult. Casual cruelty is a grim fact of everyday life.
One prisoner who fled to South Korea, Shin Dong-hyuk, recalled the punishment when he dropped and broke a sewing machine. The chief foreman grabbed his right hand, and with a kitchen knife hacked off the middle finger. Shin’s reaction? Gratitude that he still had his hand.
To Kim, such cruelty is merely logical to stay in control of a dysfunctional hell such as North Korea. The dictator spent much of his teenage years in Switzerland, where he reputedly attended an international school near Bern, and was glued to his PlayStation. According to Kenji Fujimoto - his personal chef who fled the regime - after Kim returned to North Korea he acquired a habit for Johnnie Walker whisky.
The oddest Western influence was his setting up of North Korea’s answer to the Spice Girls. The all-girl Moranbong Band consists of five singers (chosen by Kim). They wear spangly mini skirts and heels, shunned in North Korea as decadent. In their first performance last year they appeared in Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh costumes.
“But they very rapidly turned into this pro-military act with missiles going off in the middle of their performance and songs about the war effort,” said Dr Adam Cathcart, a Korea specialist at Leeds University in the UK. Behind them, a giant TV screen showed computer-generated footage of a devastating nuclear attack on the US, with New York and the White House going up in flames.
Kim likes to be seen as more down-to-earth than his father, appearing on TV chatting to ordinary citizens. But such events are carefully choreographed.
Even his ridiculous hairstyle - reportedly the product of his cutting his own hair because he is scared of barbers - is venerated. In North Korea, it is known as the “youth” or “ambition” haircut.
For some, the latest violent events suggest Kim’s grasp on power is weak, and that he is acting recklessly to secure his position. But that would be to underestimate the young man the North Koreans are made to call the “Shining Sun”. For Kim, the step from playing on his PlayStation to dictator has been a short one - and now he has shown that he plays the game frighteningly well. - Daily Mail