Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s first leader, reportedly took such exception to the boyfriend of his daughter Kyung Hui that he had him expelled from university and despatched to the distant city of Wonsan.
Undaunted, Jang Song Thaek eventually returned to Pyongyang to claim Ms Kim’s hand in marriage, and began his rise to the highest level of the state apparatus. Reportedly purged from the central party in the late 1970s and again in 2003, Jang seemed to bounce back stronger from each setback, developing a reputation as the great survivor of North Korean politics.
Jang’s summary execution – reported by state media on Friday – marked a spectacular demise for a man seen until recently as the most powerful adviser to Kim Jong Un. It also raised questions about the potential for further instability in the court of the world’s youngest national leader.
Describing him as “despicable human scum”, state media said Jang had been put to death immediately after his conviction for treason by a military tribunal, where he confessed to having plotted a coup against Mr Kim.
“I was going to stage the coup by using army officers who had close ties with me,” Jang was reported as saying. “It was my intention to . . . become premier when the economy goes totally bankrupt and the state is on the verge of collapse.”
As vice-chairman of the powerful national defence commission and head of the ruling party’s administration department, Jang was seen by some analysts as a regent to the inexperienced ruler, and was shown frequently by his side at official events.
Yet that same media footage contained hints of an overly confident attitude that may have prompted his demise. During a big speech by Mr Kim in January, as other top officials sat ramrod straight in rapt attention, Jang slouched casually to one side. On a day of site visits two months earlier, he was shown strolling behind his nephew with one hand in his pocket, and later flanking him with both hands behind his back – a gesture of superiority in Korean culture.
“Jang tried hard to create [an] illusion about him by projecting himself internally and externally as a special being on a par with [Mr Kim],” state media said.
Some analysts have portrayed Jang’s demise as a natural step in Mr Kim’s assertion of power as he replaces an older generation of officials with new ones who will owe their positions to him. South Korean intelligence suggests he has overseen the replacement of about 100 of the top 218 party and military officials.
By ousting and shaming Jang so publicly – including vivid coverage on domestic television and the front page of the national Rodong Sinmun newspaper – Mr Kim appears to be seeking to demonstrate his absolute authority to the broader population, as well. “This is about flexing muscle,” says John Delury, a professor at Seoul’s Yonsei university. In recent days, state media has begun referring to him as uidaehan ryongdoja, or “great leader” – a title also used by his father and grandfather.
But the lurid detailing of Jang’s alleged crimes comes with risks. “Nobody can now say there isn’t factionalism in North Korea – there is clearly a form of intra-regime factionalism, and the window on that has now been opened to the ordinary North Korean people,” says Sokeel Park, research director at Liberty in North Korea, a non-governmental group.
Rather than present Jang’s as an isolated case of counter-revolutionary thought, state media described an extended network of senior dissenters. It also drew attention to rampant high-level corruption, as it condemned Jang for illicitly profiting from the country’s abundant natural resources.
Moreover, by describing Jang as expecting North Korean economic collapse, state media has indicated doubts at the highest level about Mr Kim’s promise to drive national development and raise living standards. In a speech in 2012, the leader said he would ensure the people “will never have to tighten their belts again”.
“There is now an explicit linking of the regime’s legitimacy with being able to deliver for the average person,” Mr Delury says.
Visitors to Pyongyang report conspicuous signs of greater prosperity, such as better stocked shops and more cars on the streets, as well as a spurt in construction activity. But this increase in consumption and state expenditure could prove dangerous, says Rüdiger Frank at the University of Vienna.
“The sudden increase in unproductive state spending without [major] reforms suggests that the North Korean state is living on its reserves,” Mr Frank wrote this week. “Once they are depleted, trouble is inevitable.”
Under Mr Kim, North Korea has experimented with allowing more autonomy in agricultural and manufacturing production, and announced new special economic zones to attract foreign investment. It has also maintained the policy of turning a blind eye to the thriving informal markets that have filled the gap left by the defunct state distribution system.
But the condemnation of the “reformist” Jang, “influenced by the capitalist way of thinking”, bodes ill for any hopes of sweeping structural change in North Korea.
“He was willing to listen . . . he was interested in the South Korean economy,” says Moon Chung-in, a former South Korean presidential adviser who met Jang three times. Even during a heavy late-night drinking session in 2002, Jang “never lost his composure”, Mr Moon recalls.
“I was surprised to see him accused of these counter-revolutionary acts . . . he was very prudent, unassuming. He was always trying to stay in the shadows.”