So that was the date with destiny for Jang Song-thaek, 67, uncle of North Korea's leader Kim Jong-eun (arguably 30), according to state news agency KCNA. In North Korea, the revolution is definitely not a bulgogi party.
KCNA maintains that Jang -- married to Kim Kyong-hui, the very influential sister of the late Dear Leader Kim Jong-il -- admitted he wanted to stage a military coup d'etat. The inevitable follow-up is -- what else -- a purge (at the Central Committee's administrative department). Who said all that Cold War shtick was over?
Jang was, in theory, young Kim's Cardinal Richelieu. And then, out of the blue, he is shown on state TV dragged out of a meeting, publicly humiliated, demonized as a drug addict and womanizer, stripped of all posts and titles (chief of the Party's administrative department, vice chairman of the National Defense Commission), accused of corruption, tried and whacked, as if this was a North Korean Pulp Fiction remake. What gives?
Re-educate or else
Let's see the reaction from the usual suspects. South Korean President Park Geun-hye said this is a "reign of terror." Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said this is a remix of the Cultural Revolution in China. Beijing, demonstrating trademark restraint, called it just "an internal affair."
The most obvious interpretation is Kim telling North Korea, the Korean peninsula and the world at large "I'm in charge. And don't you mess with me."
Now for the details. Little Kim, since he acceded to the leader's throne, was already deep into a sequential reshuffle of especially the military nomenklatura (that's according to South Korea's Unification Ministry). The most probable scenario is that Jang's slow-motion purge started a few months ago. Or even before that, because Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il always suspected him of social (and especially political) climbing. Some of Jang's aides had already met the Pulp Fiction treatment, but his money manager is lucky enough to be in China, taken care of by the South Koreans.
Make no mistake: Jang was very powerful and well connected. So powerful that the inevitable "re-education" campaign to follow -- either you worship Kim or he'll go medieval -- will not be that easy.
Jang was right at the center of North Korea's crossroads, which could be roughly summarized as the rarefied elite deciding to fully support the primacy of the Workers' Party to balance the military to then embark in a unified manner on some sort of economic opening.
We should always remember that Kim Jong-il's top policy was originally "military first." But then he started veering the other way to prepare his succession. Little Kim predictably promoted a lot of party officials to important positions; now the mantra is party supremacy. In this context it's also important to keep in mind how the Workers' Party emphatically denounced Jang's "crimes."
Any significant economic reform directly depends on party supremacy over the military -- because after all the top economic planners in North Korea are party people, busy emphasizing that economic development is as crucial as missiles and nuclear weapons.
Apart from his alleged coup attempt, Jang was a firm defender of North Korean special economic zones (SEZs), attraction of foreign direct investment (FDI) and more commodity exports (it's as if Pyongyang was flirting with its own remix of Beijing in the early 1980s). Pyongyang is already moving this way -- for instance investing in road, rail and port infrastructure on both the Chinese and Russian borders. And it's not only China and Russia that want to invest in North Korea; candidates also include Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, Indonesia and Mongolia.
I want more money
Once again, it always, one way or another, has to do with China. Jang was close to Beijing -- and he wanted a lot of Chinese investment. No one knows how this purge will affect business. Those subscribing to the view of North Korea as a Mob operation will see the purge as a tactic to raise the price for North Korean "cooperation" with the Chinese.
That's not so far-fetched. Pyongyang does depend on China, but it will never allow itself to become a mere puppet. Myanmar has played it beautifully -- although without the Pulp Fiction element; one day it was hermetically closed and totally dependent on China, the next it "opened up" and was immediately "diversifying" with multiple partners, Westerners included.
What's certain is that the top Kim Jong-eun policy -- the Worker's Party as strong or even stronger than the military - does not change. As for what happens next, Little Kim could even add a twist, like rattling the whole planet by launching a nuclear missile or setting up another nuclear test to foment "internal cohesion." North Koreans -- not to mention South Koreans, Japanese and Americans -- will certainly get the message; don't mess with him or he'll go medieval on your ass.