North Korea's Dangerous Shakeup

It isn't clear what's causing the purges—but they make reform and stability unlikely.

North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il has been dead for two years, but his son, Kim Jong-un, appears to have taken firm control—and in a much bloodier fashion than many predicted, with the execution of his uncle and one-time mentor Jang Song-taek. However, no one knows whether the regime is stabilizing or destabilizing.

The ascension of Kim fils never seemed certain. Not yet 30 when his father passed, Kim had had little time to secure the levers of power. Kim Jong-il began the succession process only after recovering from an apparent stroke in August 2008. In contrast, Kim Jong-il’s father, Kim Il-sung, the North’s first and “eternal” leader, spent two decades moving the former into authority.

Moreover, Pyongyang is a political snake pit. Both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il had multiple children by different mothers, all with some claim to dynastic succession. Kim Jong-il shifted power from the Korean Workers Party to the military, unbalancing his father’s control system. And Pyongyang was full of people waiting for their opportunity to get the top post.

Kim Jong-un’s supposed mentors—Jang, Aunt Kim Kyong-hui, and army chief of staff Ri Yong-ho—had little obvious interest in aiding his rise. All were powerful in their own right and likely had their own ambitions. Jang certainly understood the value of being number one: he had acted as Kim Jong-il’s stand-in when the latter was ill, and previously had been purged and rehabilitated by Kim Jong-il.

Over the last two years, hundreds of officials, many in the military, have been removed from office. Until Jang, the most dramatic defenestration was of Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho. His departure in July 2012, alleged for reasons of health, was dramatic and sudden, and was accompanied by unconfirmed reports of a firefight between his bodyguards and forces attempting to arrest him, supposedly resulting in his injury or death. The party appeared to be asserting control over the military, but it was not clear whether the decision was made by Kim Jong-un or a competitor of Ri holding the real power, such as Jang.

Of greater concern to the West was North Korean foreign policy. The country had established a reputation for brinkmanship and confrontation, and the new government reinforced this approach.

For instance, the US finalized a new agreement with Pyongyang that had been initiated by Kim Jong-il, only to quickly abandon the accord in response to a rocket launch by North Korea. Rhetorical attacks on and threats against South Korea and the US rose to unprecedented heights. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) shuttered the Kaesong Industrial Region—which was subsequently reopened—even though the operation provided the DPRK with tens of millions of dollars in hard currency every year. The Kim government recently detained an eighty-five-year-old American Korean War veteran and tourist for about six weeks on bizarre charges. There’s still no reason to believe that North Korea desires war, but the possibility of a serious mistake or miscalculation has increased.

Equally important, there is no evidence of reform, either economic or political. There has been some talk of economic liberalization, but little meaningful change in practice. And Kim fils is more repressive than Kim pere. Observed Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation: the former “has increased public executions, expanded the gulags for political prisoners, and increased government punishment for anyone caught with information from the outside world.” Of course, the theory that a Western education creates liberals should have died with Kampuchea’s Pol Pot.

Now comes Jang’s ouster. There is no reason for the West to mourn his passing. Politics in North Korea always has been a high wire act, and Jang long enjoyed life at the top. But previously, family members merely disappeared; their executions were never publicly announced. So everyone wonders: does Jang’s dramatic departure mean something for North Korean stability or policy?

No one knows.

Jang’s execution could demonstrate that Kim Jong-un is solidifying his rule. Removing another minder appointed by his father would seem to leave Kim more securely in charge. Moreover, a willingness to execute likely deters anyone but the most determined or desperate from challenging the leadership. The prospect of dying tends to concentrate the mind. Chin Hee-gwan of South Korea’s Inje University observed: "By showing a little bit of a reign of terror, it's likely that Kim Jong Un's power will be further consolidated."