The recent execution of Jang Sung-taek epitomizes the inherent political survival practices in North Korea, and once again proves that even the most senior cadres can be disposed of after their utility is exhausted. Yet the purge of the young dictator’s uncle indicate the true colors of the Kim Jong-un leadership.
While Jang Sung-taek did play a pivotal role in Kim Jong-un’s ascension to power, his reputation has never been clean. In the late 1970s, Jang was ordered by Kim Jong-il to work as a factory worker and receive “ideological education” for misbehavior to his wife and sister of Kim Jong-il, Kim Kyong-hui. Further, in 2004, Jang was reportedly suspended for attempting to form his own faction within the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK).
Whether it be conspiracy attempts, private affairs, or differing policy viewpoints, it is not surprising that Jang Sung-taek’s actions displeased Kim Jong-un—only this time producing harsher consequences. Yet what raised eyebrows is the extent of the purge. North Korean state media publicized a snapshot of Jang being roughed up and arrested by military officers, and repeatedly linked his name to a constellation of “crimes”. While the North Korean state media is known for their combative expressions, it is not often that the coverage goes this far with their own senior political figure.
So Jang Song-thaek is out, and many question who would replace him in the WPK and the Vice Chairman of the National Defence Commission. Some have pointed to the prospects of Choe Ryong-hae’s rise, but he too is vulnerable to follow Jang Song-thaek’s fate. There are also mixed reports that Kim Kyong-hui – Kim Jong-un’s aunt and wife of Jang Song-thaek – was either behind the purge of her husband or is lined up to be ousted herself. Some clearer picture of the renewed regime will be unveiled from the lineup at Kim Jong-il’s memorial. While the questions triggers curiosity, predictions regarding North Korea are often at risk of being proven wrong. Rather, it is more important is the trends in North Korea’s politics and strategic behavior accelerated by the Jang Song-thaek affair.
The purging of Jang Sung-taek confirms the centralization of the WPK under Kim Jong-un and a political refinement of his aides. But for now, what is certain is that Kim Jong-un would further bolster his leadership through purges, manipulating senior personnel, and preventing them from becoming influential within the political system.
From the graphic removal of Jang Sung-taek by Korean People’s Army (KPA) officers and Kim Jong-un’s resistance to reform, it is clear is that Kim Jong-un is favoring the hardline KPA as a more effective political tool as opposed to more innovative economic policies. The problems are compounded with Kim Jong-un’s overconfidence in his own leadership and politicization of the KPA. North Korea will be filled with intense campaigns of absolute loyalty to Kim Jong-un, ridding any elements that were linked to "anti-party", "counter-revolutionary” and “factional" activities. Volatility could lead to the leadership’s instability, but as long as the leadership continues to shutdown horizontal communication and organization of factions in North Korean politics and society, the collapse of the regime would not be so easy.
The combination of centralization and politicization of the KPA pushes the WPK leadership to rely more on symbolism and solidifying its rigid path-dependence. Kim Jong-un would pursue military behavior and capability developments that glorify his status as the Supreme Commander of the KPA. Throughout its history, the KPA has developed the concept that modernization is about the use of technology, rather than the innovation of technology itself. Investments would focus on the KPA’s strategic and cyber warfare capabilities, rather than overhauling the dated conventional capabilities. Adding to this, Pyongyang will pursue asymmetric capabilities to be employed in future provocations against South Korea, Japan and the United States.
Such developments are concerning for the Asia-Pacific region. Not only do we face an increasingly combative and possibly volatile dictatorship, but the combination of Kim Jong-un’s political bravado and insecurity could also lead to greater military adventurism to shore up loyalty. South Korea and the United States have claimed their readiness to retaliate against any bold actions by North Korea, but Pyongyang may find new ways to penetrate the weaknesses of Seoul and Washington.
While the Korean War has not resumed, deterrence and diplomacy have fallen short of fixing the North Korean problem. So what are the options? On the one hand, intervention is an option, but it carries a torrent of military, economic, societal and political consequences. On the other hand, rapprochement makes the states in the region (including the United States) vulnerable to North Korean exploitation and extortion. Intervention is risky simply because we cannot measure the extent of the potential chaos in North Korea.
Despite the attempts to be more innovative, the most that can be done is to maintain a tough policy of deterrence and readiness for response, while opening the door for compliant dialogue and potential engagement. Such measures, however, only deal with the strategic behavior of North Korea, not the internal political instability that is one of the glaring concerns.
Hence we are back to square one with more questions than answers, and the exact fate of “North Korea 3.0” is certainly unclear. Yet, a step towards formulating a plausible set of answers starts with the correct observation and analysis. The implications of the Jang Sung-taek affair provides hints regarding how Pyongyang would act both internally and externally, allowing regional states and the United States to prepare more viable strategies—a significant step forward in dealing with “North Korea 3.0”.
Dr. Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Pacific Forum CSIS, Visiting Lecturer at the University of Muhammadiyah Malang, and a Sergeant First Class in the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force reserve. The views expressed in this article are entirely the author’s own.
Image: Flickr/yeowatzup. CC BY 2.0.