Sometimes I am asked who I would like to be, and, after all these years, I am happy just being me. But I know who I don’t want to be: Jang Song-thaek, the uncle and former mentor of North Korea’s corpulent young dictator, Kim Jung-un. Jang, who many saw as the regime’s regent while Kim learned the ropes, was stripped of his power, publicly humiliated and forcefully removed from a special party meeting last week. Jang has bounced back before, but two of his closest associates have already been executed, and others coldly denounced their one-time benefactor, while hundreds of party lackeys stared impassively ahead, all dressed identically, their faces showing nothing but a numbing blankness, lest they be singled out for the deviancy of individualism. When the bully is agitated, you do not want to catch his eye. Jang apparently committed many sins during his “dissolute and depraved life”, from fornication to cornering the iron-ore market, but none worse than being a potential rival to his 30-year-old nephew. And so, on the eve of Machiavelli’s 500th birthday, Jang learned the regent’s lesson that dates from Nero’s murder of his mother Agrippina almost 2000 years ago: Beware when they grow up – as Cheney learned during Bush’s second term.
We may never know the fate of Jang, one man in a country that seems to find men expendable. But I will not soon forget the chilling photo of rows of robotic functionaries watching without emotion. I wouldn’t want to be them either.