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."
Nevertheless, the DPRK could be heading for further instability. The episode is unprecedented, even shocking, given past experience, which suggests that something is amiss in paradise. Jang could have been the casualty of a messy and vicious power struggle likely to grow worse. If he can be taken down, no one is safe. Moreover, Jang was a long-time power, to whom scores or hundreds of officials owe their positions. All are vulnerable to being removed, imprisoned, and even killed. Already, two of Jang’s top aides were allegedly executed (according to South Korean intelligence reports, not DPRK government announcements). Fear may widen leadership divisions, spur internal resistance, and draw in the military. Lim Eul Chul of Kyungnam University argued: "North Korea's announcement is like an acknowledgement that Kim Jong Un's government is still in a transitional period."
Political uncertainty in Pyongyang will almost certainly reduce the already minimal likelihood of domestic reform and foreign engagement. If Kim truly has consolidated power, he might feel freer to act. However, even then, orchestrating a wider purge would absorb time and effort. And if he fears continuing opposition to his reign, he probably will put off any potentially controversial policies, especially if they conflict with the interests of the military, which still potentially wields ultimate power.
Further, Jang was associated with economic reform and China relations. He was involved in economic management and thought to support policy liberalization, or at least placing a greater emphasis on economic development. Last year Jang headed a large delegation to China which discussed expanding special investment zones. Support for these positions may weaken if not dissipate—no one wants to push the cause of a political loser, unless Kim had offered his enthusiastic endorsement as well.
However, Jang actually was criticized for his economic activities. He was accused of having “seriously obstructed the nation’s economic affairs and the improvement of the standard of people’s living” and “making it impossible for the economic guidance organs including the Cabinet to perform their roles.” Of course, these charges likely reflect a desire to discredit Jang for any reason. Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine economic reform speeding up in a government sundered by a power struggle in which a top economic official was just executed.
The lengthy press indictment of Jang also included the “selling of precious resources of the country at cheap prices” and having "made no scruple of committing such act of treachery in May last as selling off the land of the Rason economic and trade zone to a foreign country for a period of five decades under the pretext of paying those debts." The People’s Republic of China is the “foreign country” cited.
Maybe Jang gave sweetheart deals to Chinese allies. Maybe Kim wants to reduce Chinese economic influence. Maybe Pyongyang was just tossing the proverbial “kitchen sink” at Jang. The Associated Press’s Christopher Bodeed noted: “Even as Pyongyang was announcing Jang's purging, North Korean and Chinese representatives were signing contracts on cross-border high-speed rail and highway connections, [Shanghai’s Fudan University’s Xiuyu] Fang pointed out.”
Chinese with whom I spoke while visiting that country last weekend could only speculate. However, bilateral relations have long been strained. The North needs Beijing but always has attempted to balance the strong powers surrounding it. Indeed, Pyongyang has long acted as if China has no choice but to support the DPRK. So far, that judgment has been vindicated, despite growing irritation by the PRC toward North Korea. Whatever the truth behind Jang’s execution, negotiating with Pyongyang has just gotten harder for China.
The greatest danger is that Kim Jong-un’s apparent ruthlessness may be less constrained internationally than that of his father and grandfather. Kim Il-sung paid the consequences of starting and losing a major war. Kim Jong-il implemented a policy of permanent provocation, but knew when to stop. If the younger Kim is taking on full dictatorial power, he might misperceive domestic power as translating into international strength. And that could be dangerous for everyone in the region.
The DPRK long has been the land of no good options, the geopolitical problem with no good answers. Even if Jang’s execution changes nothing, it reminds us that North Korea remains a threatening yet mysterious presence in Northeast Asia. And the ongoing leadership transition—whether solidified or unsettled—isn’t likely to bring peace or stability to the region.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World (Cato) and co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea (Palgrave/Macmillan).