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(News Focus) Execution of N.K. leader's uncle may herald fraught inter-Korean relations

2013/12/13 16:12

By Park Bo-ram

SEOUL, Dec. 13 (Yonhap) -- Already fragile relations between South and North Korea may face a bumpy road ahead following Pyongyang's shock execution of leader Kim Jong-un's once-powerful uncle, analysts said Friday.

The North's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) announced earlier Friday that Jang had been executed on Thursday immediately after a military tribunal sentenced him to death for "such hideous crimes as attempting to overthrow the state," including plotting a military-backed coup.

A photo, taken right before the execution and carried by the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper, showed Jang, gaunt, handcuffed and looking down, being led by two uniformed guards.

Jang was considered North Korea's No. 2 man and held the vice chairmanship of the country's powerful National Defense Commission. Married to Kim Kyong-hui, the younger sister of late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, 67-year-old Jang was known to be a guardian of the young leader, exerting influence mainly in the economic sector.

The execution came several days after the North announced Jang's dismissal from all of his official posts, including the vice chairmanship, as the country simultaneously launched a public campaign warning against treason.

In addition to plotting to topple the government, Jang's alleged crimes also included sympathizing with American and South Korean policies and selling North Korean land and natural resources overseas with unpatriotic motives.

"All facts go to clearly prove that Jang is a thrice-cursed traitor ... he had desperately worked for years to destabilize and bring down the DPRK ... by employing all the most cunning and sinister means and methods, pursuant to the 'strategic patience' policy and 'waiting strategy' of the U.S. and the South Korean puppet group of traitors," read the sentencing, released by the KCNA.

Experts said the purge of moderate-minded Jang may cool relations with the South and the U.S., while increasing the political influence of hardliners in the military and security ministry who favor military agitation rather than engagement with the outside.

"Nobody may be willing to propose cooperation with the South, because Jang Song-thaek was convicted of sympathizing with the South," said Chang Yong-suk, a researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University. "Pyongyang's relations with Seoul may become akin to walking through a minefield (in the long term), albeit not immediately."

   He said the purge of Jang, seen as accommodating to economic reforms and international engagement, may also result in the North tightening business exchanges with the outside world, citing part of the sentencing.

"He (Jang) instructed his stooges to sell coal and other precious underground resources at random. Jang had no scruples about committing such acts of treachery as selling off the land of the Rason economic and trade zone to a foreign country in May by lending it for a period of five decades under the pretext of paying debts," the sentencing also read, referring to the North's economic dealings with neighboring countries like China and Russia.

Jang's execution publicly declared such transactions as treasonous meaning the country will likely step back from opening up its economy and roll back its special free economic zones, Chang said.

Pyongyang may also consider resorting to military provocations while it internally continues to root out followers of Jang in the on-going purge aimed at solidifying the power of the young leader and deterring rebellion, experts also said.

The North conducted its third nuclear test last February and has been seeking a resumption of the six-party talks on ending their nuclear weapons program.

If their demand for unconditional resumption of the six-nation forum is not accepted, Pyongyang may escalate regional tension in the coming spring when Seoul and Washington conduct their annual joint military drills, the experts said.

The joint Seoul-Pyongyang industrial factory park in the North's border city of Kaesong was operating as usual on Friday, with the unification ministry announcing that the two Koreas will hold a working-level meeting on how to upgrade the last remaining symbol of inter-Korean economic cooperation.