North Korea: Danger Ahead!

December 16, 2013 Topic: Security Region: North Korea

North Korea: Danger Ahead!

We don't know much about the purge of Kim Jong-un's right hand man—but we know the DPRK has tended to engage in belligerent acts to shore up support at home.

That it should come to this! But two years dead, and Kim Jong-il’s son is earning his own reputation for brutality in the preservation of his own power.

Shortly after the death of Kim Jong-il two years ago, I
wrote that successions rarely go to plan, and that “when the prospect of absolute power and unlimited resources are combined with familial intrigue and a military and civilian leadership whose ambitions have been tempered by decades of despotic rule, succession could become downright Shakespearean.” With the recent announcement of the execution of Kim Jong-un’s uncle and regent Jang Song-taek, the Bard came to mind again – a mix of Hamlet and Richard III, with hefty helping of Stalin and nuclear weapons as well.="#sthash.zayogddb.dpbs">="#sthash.zayogddb.dpbs">

When studying the inner workings of North Korean politics, what one knows is often dwarfed by what one thinks based on an understanding of Pyongyang’s history, some Kremlinology, and a great deal of educated guesswork. In the coming days and months, analysts will likely posit several explanations for Jang’s rather sudden arrest and execution. But when you pore through these analyses, it is important to delineate between what we know and what we think.

We know that being a leader in North Korea can be hazardous to your health, unless your name is Kim Jong-un. Of the eight senior leaders that surrounded Kim Jong-il’s hearse during his official funeral ceremony, only two elderly military officials and Kim Jong-un himself remain. The rest have been purged, as have a slew of officials and aides linked to the ancien regime. And this is not the purge when an official turns old and gray under house arrest or flees to a villa overseas – the purged in North Korea tend to be summarily killed, often in sadistic fashion.

The most recent round of purges, so far as we know, centered around Jang and several of his confidants, including North Korea’s former Ambassador to Switzerland Ri Su-yong. Among his other responsibilities, Ri had managed Kim Jong-il’s personal funds. Potentially linked to these purges are reports that an aide to Jang had recently defected to South Korea with information about Kim’s economic activities and North Korea’s nuclear program. Other theories of what precipitated this purge abound, from Jang’s losing a power struggle with elements of the military leadership or with other regents, significant policy disagreements between Jang and Kim about economic reform, and even that Jang’s ouster was due to the scorn of his wife and Kim’s aunt, Kim Kyong-hui, for infidelity. Additionally, some believe that Kim’s aunt may be in poor health, which may be driving Kim to accelerate the transition away from the regency system to a more unified power structure.

One of the most striking aspects of these purges is their public nature. Not since the 1950s, according to one prominent North Korea expert, have Pyongyang’s internal political machinations been aired so publicly. One reason for keeping things private, especially when it comes to deputies like Jang who had been trusted for decades by two generations of Kims to be one of the nation’s most powerful officials, is that it suggests a tremendous error in judgment by leaders supposedly imbued with superhuman abilities.

Broadly speaking, the purges of Jang and his associates suggest two mutually incompatible scenarios. On one hand, Kim Jong-un may have seen Jang as an unacceptable competitor for political power who had to be destroyed. In this scenario, Kim’s purges are fundamentally a reflection of his own lack of confidence in his political position. On the other hand, Kim Jong-un may be confident enough in his own power that he has shaken off the shackles his father had left him with in the form of a regent.

Still, regardless of the scenario at hand, there are several implications of Jang’s execution. First, these purges are likely deeply unsettling for China. Jang and Ri were also rumored to be instrumental in managing North Korea’s relationship with China, the regime’s primary source of political and economic support. Moreover, several Chinese officials and scholars privately saw Jang as a reliable and moderate voice in Pyongyang that would moderate the unpredictable behavior of Kim the Younger. The loss of Jang and Ri, especially in such a public and unsettling manner, will reverberate throughout Beijing’s halls of power. How China reacts remains to be seen, but Beijing will likely be especially sensitive to signs of instability or disunity in Pyongyang.

These purges also likely portend a period of continued turmoil in Pyongyang, as officials scramble to keep themselves and their families out of the crosshairs. While for many this will mean singing ever louder the Leader’s praises and keeping one’s head down, it will certainly raise concerns among some about who may be next. Kim’s ability to maintain the loyalty of, and control over, North Korea’s internal intelligence and security services—and especially the military—will be crucial.

Finally, and most significantly for the rest of the world, instability at home could translate to more belligerence abroad. Many North Korea watchers believe that past acts of aggression, including limited-scale attacks against South Korea, reflected Kim’s attempts to demonstrate strength and resolve in the face of foreign opposition in order to burnish his domestic reputation—especially with the military. This suggests that 2014 may be a difficult year with North Korea, with the potential for military attacks and nuclear tests in the offing.

Abraham M. Denmark is Vice President for Political and Security Affairs at The National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR).

Image: Flickr/yeowatzup. CC BY 2.0.