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South Koreans Concerned About Pyongyang's Political Purge

  • Junghwa Baek

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends an event to mark the second anniversary of the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in Pyongyang, Dec. 17, 2013.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends an event to mark the second anniversary of the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in Pyongyang, Dec. 17, 2013.

South Korean social media are filled with comments expressing concern over the sudden execution of North Korean official Jang Song Thaek.
According to Korean Central News Agency, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered Jang, his uncle and adviser, executed last week. The execution came just a few days before the second anniversary of the death of Kim’s father, and predecessor, Kim Jong Il. Jang was married to Kim Jong Il's sister.
In South Korea, citizens are nervous about the implications of a political purge in their secretive neighbor, considered one of the world’s most repressive nations.
“I am shocked that his execution took place as soon as his trial ended without chance of defense," writes “Nadakik” on the Korean site Naver Blog. "I am worried about how quickly Kim Jong Un executed his uncle.”
Jang, long a prominent figure in North Korea's senior leadership, was abruptly removed from his posts and tried on charges that ranged from gambling and womanizing to plotting to overthrow Kim. Some of Jang's allies also have been executed.
Cheon Jeong-bae, the former South Korean justice minister, tweeted, “I am not sure whether Jang committed a serious offense or not, but North Korea has to be severely punished for their action.”
Most South Korean writers shared worries about North Koreans’ human rights. They were shocked by Kim’s action and felt sympathy for their fellow Koreans in the North.
“I think South Koreans have to take up a positive attitude to solve the question of human rights for North Koreans,” writes “Michael” on an Internet newspaper for North Korean defectors, noting that since United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is a South Korean, those in the South have a special responsibility to protect human rights. “We must do the right thing for people living all over the world.”
South Koreans also feel uneasy because in 2010 there were two deadly incidents involving the North Korean military: early that year, a North Korean torpedo sank the South Korean ship, the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. Several months later, the North shelled Yeonpyeong island, killing two South Korean civilians and two Marines.
There are some fears that Jang Song Thaek’s execution could indicate social unrest in North Korea. Because of that, one Naver blogger writes: “Especially, I am worried about the relationship between South Korea and North Korea. Since Jang Song Thaek was executed there is high probability of a provocation by North Korea to South Korea, to distract the North Korean people. Therefore, the [South] Korean government has to prepare for that, and I hope nothing goes wrong.”
Indeed, after Jang’s execution last week, the powerful head of North Korea’s military’s political bureau, Choe Ryong Hae, warned, “War will break out without advertisement.”
In the South, the government is paying attention to such statements, and to the possibility that Pyongyang’s political changes are a sign of instability.
South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told military commanders that “North Korea wants to consolidate their [political] system with [Jang’s] execution, but the unrest could be aggravated. For this reason, they may provoke us in the first half of next year. I will command the army to punish the threat instantly, without gloves.”
Jang’s execution has brought new tensions between North and South Korea. The two countries remain technically at war, since they never signed a peace treaty after an armistice ended fighting in the Korean War in 1953. The animosity has at times flared up, resulting in limited military action and deaths. Now, the world is watching North Korea’s young leader, waiting to see if his next moves aggravate tensions.
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