The mighty Jang Song-thaek ― who until very recently was seen as the second-most powerful man in all North Korea ― not only fell from grace, but did so in a spectacular fashion. He was dragged away from a Politburo meeting, forced to stand trial and then executed.
It seems that Jang's purge is a sign of things to come, an indication that Kim Jong-un has a completely different playbook. It might even indicate that the era of Kim has at last begun in earnest.
On the one hand, Jang's downfall was not altogether unexpected ― many observers expected it to happen eventually. Kim Jong-un inherited his father's team and was annoyed by these old people poking their noses into what he saw as his own business.
It was therefore only to be expected that he would eventually begin to replace his top officials. One would also expect that Jang, an influential and overbearing man, would be first to go.
However, Kim decided to go about the purge using methods that are dramatically at variance with North Korean norms when it comes to party-state purges.
In the early stages of North Korean history, in the 1940s and 1950s, North Korea used to emulate the Soviet model. So when an official fell from grace, they were publically accused of manifold crimes (espionage and sabotage being almost de rigour). Sometimes show trials were staged. At the very least, the public was notified when a dignitary was suddenly unmasked as a spy and traitor.
For example, in 1953-55, Kim Il-sung purged his opponents (who were actually the real founders of the Korean communist movement) and the major figures were subjected to public trials.
However, starting around 1960, North Korean purges began to follow a different pattern. A disgraced high official just disappeared, often never to be seen again.
In some cases, the government issued classified statements that described the alleged crimes of the purge victim, but such statements could be read only by members of the political elite.
In other cases, purges were mentioned years later in history books, in which one could see the name of the official who had disappeared on a list of traitors and deviationists.
Top officials were seldom physically exterminated. Disgrace usually meant exile to the countryside, where a former party secretary or general would spend time doing physical labour or clerical work. Frequently, after a few years of exile, dismissed officials were subsequently called back and reinstated.
That was very different from Stalin's Soviet Union, where top level officials had less chance of surviving arrest than the common people.
Such a soft approach may have been a result of the fact that starting in the early 1960s almost all of North Korea's top leaders were Kim Il-sung's former Manchurian guerrilla comrades from the 1930s.
Kim sometimes ordered the exile and imprisonment of his former comrades-in-arms, but he seldom authorized their physical extermination. There may have been exceptions, of course.
Members of the ruling Kim family have been generally untouchable as well. There have been cases when they were sent into exile (of a very comfortable kind) ― like, say, Kim Jong-il's uncle Kim Yong-ju in the mid-1970s. Nonetheless, the usual fate of a family member who ran into trouble or lost out in a power struggle was a comfortable placement overseas ― as an ambassador, perhaps.
Such a lax attitude may have contributed to the political stability of the country because top officials knew that in case of a disgrace, they were unlikely to be killed and had a high chance of being pardoned eventually. Consequently they were far more likely to accept their fate and not challenge the authorities.
However, now it seems that this decades-old rule has been thrown into the proverbial dustbin of history. The execution of Jang Song-thaek was marked by an unprecedented amount of publicity. Nothing like this has ever happened in North Korea, even in the 1950s when Soviet patterns were followed.
It remains to be seen what impact this will all have on the country's future, but one thing is clear: Kim Jong-un has little regard for the established rules of the game in North Korea.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.