News that a firing squad executed Jang Song Thaek, uncle to North Korea leader Kim Jong Un, came as a shock to Korea watchers the world over. North Korea has previously indulged in purges and the permanent dispatching of party members, but not like this. And while the causes and implications of this dramatic turn of events remain unclear, there is reason for concern, at least in the near-term.
Jang, until recently the second most powerful figure in the Hermit Kingdom, had been purged before, but his punishment this time around was unprecedented. Family lineage is the organizing principle of the state, and the elder uncle had been appointed by Kim Jong Un’s father to help the young Kim get his footing. Jang’s wife, sister to Kim Jong Il, is reported to have pleaded for her husband’s life, but was rebuffed.
Executing a high-ranking member of the clan is unusual enough but to do so publicly and to accuse Jang of plotting to depose Kim was even more surprising. North Korea is a country whose propaganda emphasizes national unity, the “accomplishments” of the state, and love of the Leader. In contrast, the indictment of Jang admits that there are divisions within the Kim family. What’s more, claims that Jang was planning to use the North’s economic woes as the pre-text for a power grab is a public admission that life in the people’s paradise is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Finally, Jang’s demise came as a jolt, because the consensus opinion among area experts was that the power transition in Pyongyang had gone swimmingly — that the young Kim had consolidated power in a fraction of the time it took his father, despite his inexperience and relative lack of time to prepare. Skeptics, like yours truly, wondered how that could be. Power transitions are difficult enough, but this one was taking place with the added element of a regent (uncle Jang) and the regime’s decision to build up the power of the long dormant Korea Workers Party (KWP). Building power in one group almost always means taking it from someone else.
As with all things North Korean, we are now left with more questions than answers. First, is Kim’s dispatching of his elder an act of strength or an act of weakness? Did he remove Jang because he could, because he is confident and wanted to clear the deck of a potential rival or because he had to, because Jang was threatening his control? And why air the dirty laundry in public, thereby raising questions about Kim’s governance? Is the young leader reckless, shrewd, or something else entirely?
We do not have good answers to those questions. Still, the idea that Kim’s actions reflect strength seems like a tougher sell. If he is so powerful, why would he need to remove Jang this way? Since Jang’s removal, Pyongyang is reported to have stepped up its domestic propaganda efforts, stationed more guards at its borders, and ordered all North Korean business officials in China to return home. These moves do not signal panic, but they do not exactly signal confidence either.
Whatever the reasons for Kim’s dramatic move, it will certainly have implications for North Korea as well as the region.
In the near-term, the North will suffer a downturn in revenue as Jang’s enterprises are shut down and Chinese investors mull the wisdom of business with the Hermit Kingdom. If nothing else, a more tightly controlled border will slow trade between China and its southern neighbor. It is also hard to imagine that Pyongyang will embark on a broad program of economic reform, while it is in the middle of domestic fratricide. Historically, market reform has been risky business for the North, with several spectacular failures. It entails the kind of political hazard that is more likely to be taken on by a powerful and confident leader, not one focused on hunting down perceived and real traitors.
Jang’s departure comes at a time when Chinese-North Korean relations have been at low ebb, particularly given the North’s nuclear and missile tests earlier in the year. China may have to quietly endure Kim’s behavior as it hews to its national interests, but Beijing cannot be happy about events and must worry that a prickly and paranoid Pyongyang will act out in ways that undermine the Chinese position, especially when regional disagreements over disputed islands have already raised tensions with Japan and South Korea.
And all of this has implications for the U.S. An internally focused North Korea more concerned about consolidating power than relations with its neighbors may feel the need to rally its people. Shows of strength — like another nuclear test — or picking a fight with the South are time-honored ways for Pyongyang to manage its internal politics, the foreign policy consequences be damned. Washington will want to reassure its allies but also urge restraint. When countries are in the grips of internal struggles for power, it is often best to back off and let it play out rather than force a showdown. Better to let the fever pass and deal after the fact with a consolidated leadership.
Which brings us the slimmest of silver linings. If it is true that there really were factions and plots inside of North Korea, and the current purge resolves those conflicts, then in the intermediate term, countries like the U.S. and China may yet again be able to engage the North. That possibility will depend on many things, not least of all the kind of unified North that emerges, but it is at least possible.
Unfortunately, the path to that point is likely to be a rough ride.