North Korea is a country where everyone agrees on everything – or so their officials and the state-run media would have us believe.

It’s something Channel 4 News has experienced first-hand. In July, we spent five days in Pyongyang, listening to our bright and chirpy minders sell us their message of harmony: North Korea is united behind their magnificent, munificent Kim Jong-un, they said.

Pre News refresh player – this is the default player for the C4 news site – please do not delete. Ziad



I wonder then, how our minders greeted today’s announcement – namely that Jang Song-thaek, the second most powerful person in the country, had been executed. I expect they felt a little confused.

Mr Jang, 67, had two things going for him. First, he was chosen to guide and mentor the inexperienced Kim Jong-un, when the 20-something was selected to succeed his father Kim Jong-il as leader.  Secondly, he was part of the family. Mr Jang was married to Kim Kyong-hee – Kim Jong-un’s aunt.

However, his high-profile and his proximity to the leader offered little – or no protection. On Sunday, Mr Jang was stripped of all of his powerful posts and he was expelled him from the Workers’ Party.

On Monday the State News Agency KCNA said: “Jang and his followers committed criminal acts baffling imagination”. The next day state-television revealed an extraordinary photograph of him being hauled off from a party meeting by uniformed guards.

Today, we got a better idea of Mr Jang’s imagination-defying acts. In a lengthy press release, KCNA said Mr Jang had been “attempting to overthrow the state by all sorts of intrigues and despicable methods with the wild ambition to grab the supreme power of our party and the state”.

In other words, the ‘Vice-Chairman of the National Defence Commission’ was found guilty of organising a coup.

KCNA described him as, “despicable human scum” and ended their statement with the news that Mr Jang had received the death sentence. “The decision served as sledge-hammer blow brought down by our angry service personnel and people on the head of Jang.”

But here is what the news agency did not say: the week’s events are an extremely unusual admission of instability in North Korea. It is the first time in decades that we have heard talk of an attempted coup in North Korea – and certainly the first time we have ever heard it from official sources.

In September, Channel 4 News interviewed a highly-placed defector who told us that factionalism and deep rivalries fester at the very top of the regime. The man, who called himself Mr Kim, said, “discontent has long been accumulating. Currently, among the closest confidents of Kim Jong-un, there are a number of angry people who are awaiting their chance to strike fervently.”

The defector, who said he was a senior official in the Workers’ Party for more than 20 years, predicted that the Kim regime would soon implode. “We are human beings and it seems the breaking point is imminent. It will soon reach an explosion,” he said.

If true – and there is no way to verify such claims – it may explain the regime’s current reign of terror. It is thought that several of Mr Jang’s assistants have also been executed and Mr Jang’s wife – Kim Jong-un’s aunt – may also be at risk.

Whether Kim Jong-un is trying to eliminate threats to his leadership – or consolidate his hold on power – we cannot be sure. But he is following a well-established pattern. In the name of power, the boyish looking dictator has acted swiftly and brutally and he is willing to do so against members of his own family.

Follow @c4sparks on Twitter.