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5 theories to explain North Korea's big mysterious purge
The Hermit Kingdom boots Kim Jong Un's right-hand man, though no one really knows why
 
Jang was once seen as Kim's right-hand man.
Jang was once seen as Kim's right-hand man. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

In what is being called the most dramatic public purge in North Korean history, state-run media on Monday televised images of Jang Song Thaek — leader Kim Jong Un's uncle and a formerly powerful government official — being stripped of his titles and ousted from the ruling party.

It was an extremely rare public spectacle from the notoriously secretive state. The ouster was all the more shocking considering that Jang, bolstered by his family ties, was essentially the nation's second-most-powerful man and one of Kim's closest advisers.

As usual when it comes to the Hermit Kingdom, interpreting the motivations behind the move has turned into a global guessing game. Why did North Korea boot a prominent official in such spectacular fashion? Here, 5 theories:

1. Jang lived a corrupt, "depraved" life
At least that's the state's official take.

In a Sunday meeting of the central committee of North Korea's Workers' Party, Jang was accused of a rash of criminal and moral failings, including drug abuse, womanizing, corruption, and mismanagement of the nation's finances.

"Jang and his followers committed criminal acts baffling imagination and they did tremendous harm to our party and revolution," the state-run KCNA news agency reported. "Affected by the capitalist way of living, Jang committed irregularities and corruption and led a dissolute and depraved life."

Of course, North Korea is not the most transparent place — for reference, see any of the country's failed Photoshop propaganda pieces — so the official party line should be taken with heaping doses of skepticism.

2. Jang was too capitalist-friendly
But there could be a grain of truth in the regime's line: Foreign observes also noted that Jang was "the de facto chairman of the capitalist wing of North Korea," Michael Breen, who authored a biography of the late Kim Jong Il, told the Christian Science Monitor. "He was in charge of moves toward capitalism and reviving the economy."

Jang had relatively close ties with China, and advocated moving toward that country's hybrid model of capitalism. When Jang visited China last year, he was "seen to be highly outspoken on promoting his own view on economic reform," according to the Independent, and "did so without reference to the vision of Kim Jong Un, who is believed to believe in more limited development."

Jang was already viewed cautiously by some in Kim's family who considered him problematically "open-minded and economically savvy," according to the Los Angeles Times. In other words, he was what the Chinese in Mao's era used to call a "capitalist roader."

3. Kim is further consolidating his power
The ouster has been called the highest-level purge since Kim came to power two years ago following his father's death. Yet it is hardly the first time Kim has replaced the officials who served under his dad.

Last year, Kim aggressively purged members of the military, including high-ranking officers, with some allegedly executed for drinking liquor during the mourning period of Kim Jong Il's death. Jang's ouster could be yet another example of Kim eliminating a perceived rival and further cementing his control of the country.

"This is probably a step toward the consolidation of power under Kim," Scott Snyder, of the Council on Foreign Relations, told TIME, because "Jang Song Thaek was both his supporter and his biggest threat."

Though there are still questions about Kim's grip on power, the purge signaled that he felt capable of leading on his own after two years spent operating with the help of older, entrenched officials.

"What you have is an absolute monarchy and a young king who is very ambitious. And then you have regents who are supposed to support him," Dr. Andrei Lankov of South Korea's Kookmin University told the Independent. "Being a regent is a politically difficult job because once the king becomes powerful enough he decides he does not need the older guard."

4. Kim wants to be taken more seriously
When Kim assumed control of the secretive state, analysts wondered if the baby-faced prince was truly prepared to run the country.

In removing the man seen as his caretaker, Kim sent a message that "Washington and other capitals must accept the young leader, about 30 years old, as the man to deal with on urgent security issues," wrote USA Today's Calum MacLeod.

5. Kim is warning other party officials
Jang was believed to have been instrumental in aiding the transfer of power to Kim, and as such was something of his right-hand man. His ouster, then, served as a sign to the rest of the party that anyone could be purged, no matter how powerful or well-connected.

"By purging his own uncle," wrote the Associated Press' Jean H. Lee, "Kim has delivered a more chilling message: No one is beyond reach, not even family."

The extremely public nature of the purge only served to reinforce that theory. Though such purges are relatively common in North Korea, wrote the New York Times' Choe Sang Hun, "these often bloody machinations almost always take place behind the scenes." There was likely a reason this ouster was so public: Intimidation.

There have been rumblings of a power struggle since Kim assumed control of the country. It's possible that Jang lost a confrontation that was "serious enough to compel Kim to publicize Jang's ouster as a warning to the rest of the elite, rather than send him into silent isolation," said Choe.

 
Jon Terbush is an associate editor at TheWeek.com covering politics, sports, and other things he finds interesting. He has previously written for Talking Points Memo, Raw Story, and Business Insider.

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