BEIJING — A stooped figure in handcuffs, condemned by a military tribunal, then taken for immediate execution Thursday, Jang Song Thaek is now vilified as "traitor" and "human scum" in North Korea, where until recently he counted as its second-most-powerful figure.
The dramatic downfall of Jang, the uncle and apparent mentor of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, surprised even veteran observers of the brutal regime founded by Kim's grandfather. Many analysts agree Kim Jong Un, 30, is trying to consolidate his rule, but the wider implications for this tightly sealed state remain as tough to fathom as ever, they said.
In the South Korean capital of Seoul on Friday, security ministers quickly convened a meeting to discuss "analysis and predictions," reported the Yonhap news agency. Pyongyang has regularly threatened South Korea and its main ally the USA, which maintains thousands of troops there.
North Korea watchers worldwide are likewise scrambling to make sense of Kim Jong Un's move against the husband of his aunt Kim Kyong Hui, sister of Kim's father Kim Jong Il, the nation's previous ruler.
"His father and grandfather got rid of a lot of people, but did it in a very quiet manner, not making big news out of it," said Tong Kim, a North Korea expert at Korea University in Seoul, who expects the aunt, as a direct blood relative, will survive.
Kim Jong Un and his close associates "must have felt intimidated if not threatened, so decided to get rid of Jang first," Tong Kim said.
"No one can be sure what this young leader may do," he added, but his priority must be stabilizing the domestic political situation. That leaves little room for the North Korean leader to consider military provocations in the West Sea or another nuclear test, at least for now, Tong Kim said.
Jang enjoyed a reputation as an able project and personnel manager, but he belonged to the older generation, while Kim "needs a coalition of younger loyalists," said Daniel Pinkston, senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Seoul.
"North Korea is a centralized, authoritarian dictatorship, and that's how personnel turnover happens in dictatorships," he said of Jang's execution.
Pinkston's latest visit to North Korea last month confirmed the control the Kim dynasty exerts. "The intensity of the Kim family cult is arguably stronger than it ever was," he said.
As for foreign relations, in a region long troubled by Pyongyang's belligerence and "military first" policies, "North Korea has a hostile orientation towards the rest of the world, and I don't see that changing for now," Pinkston said.
Even China, the North's single significant ally and key source of food and fuel, is worried by Kim's actions, said Cai Jian, a North Korea expert at Fudan University in Shanghai.
"Beijing won't invite Kim to visit in the short term, because Beijing is not happy about some of his policies," Cai said. Unlike his father, a regular guest whose visits prompted hope of Chinese-style economic reforms, Kim has yet to visit China during his two years in power.
Several of the charges against Jang, who previously steered economic relations with China, mention a "foreign country" and "show Kim Jong Un doesn't want to rely too much on China like before," Cai said. Still, Jang's removal will "postpone" but not cancel economic co-operation between the two countries, he added.
Although Chinese leader Xi Jinping "gave North Korea more pressure on some issues, China won't change the policy of supporting Kim Jong Un to maintain strategic balance," Cai said.
South Korean media have reported that two North Korean vice premiers fled to China after Jang's downfall, but Cai doubted Beijing would risk further damaging relations with Pyongyang by providing asylum.
China's stubborn loyalty to its neighbor sparks increasing questions from some of its citizens.
"Kim Jong Un's regime is so evil, it's crueler than the fascists," wrote Liao Rui, a lawyer in southwest Sichuan province, on China's Twitter equivalent, Sina Weibo. "China unexpectedly still wants to align with this kind of evil regime and support them, (but) sooner or later, they will bite and betray China."
"Nobody knows what this means for stability in North Korea," David Straub, director of the Korean Studies Program at Stanford University, told the NK News website. "It could, for a time, mean more stability, it could mean less stability," he said.
"Sooner or later there will be a dramatic dis-juncture in North Korea — whether it's for the better or worse, time will tell," Straub added. "But that kind of regime cannot stay, it is strong but very brittle."
Contributing: Sunny Yang