North Korea’s purge: How to read the execution of Jang Sung-taek?

Is it a signal that Kim Jong-un is now an undisputed, absolute leader or maybe is is somehow sign of uncertainty? Read few comments.

Keith Howard, Professor, Centre of Korean Studies, SOAS, University of London

My opening comment would be that the role of a prince regent is perilous, and always has been in East Asia. So, there was going to be a time when Kim Jong Un felt the need to demote Jang, which I guess everybody had assumed would have been a matter of easing him into the background, unless there were reasons to act more decisively. With that in mind, his removal came earlier than commentators had expected.

How to read the execution? Many people are struggling with this, as you will know, some maintaining it is a signal of Kim as a family dynastic leader proving he is the sole and undisputed leader, others suggesting quite the opposite – that he has been forced to act (or others have acted against Jang while he was powerless to stop them) to quell dissent. Certainly, purges within Communist systems are often brutal, and what we have already seen (two of his senior aides/associates executed not long ago, now him) suggests this is what we are experiencing, and if we are, then the rumours coming out about his associates and family being brought back from abroad to Pyongyang and the hint that his associates within the Politburo may already have been rounded up, suggest this is about right. Rumours that his aunt and older brother were involved in Jang’s downfall also suggest a concentration in promoting Kim as the undisputed family dynastic successor. The military has already been purged quite violently, and seeing Jang’s execution as Kim Jong Un moving against another grouping of older power-brokers can be situated fairly simply within this scenario.

However, the rumours about a defector with nuclear secrets/economic secrets complicate the picture, and if true, could have been enough to spell the death-knoll for Jang, as could his dealings with China/control of foreign exchange – the near silence reported at the SEZs in the border region indicate difficulties there, as does Chinese military activity in the Changbaishan/Paektusan region. Kim Jong Un hasn’t started his time well in terms of his own relationship with China, but one suspects we will now see him putting his own choice of people in charge of SEZs and Chinese negotiations – his aunt was in China, recently, rather than Jang, I believe.

And then there is South Korea. They are clearly worried, and that should not be the case if their intelligence merely suggested Kim Jong Un was strengthening his position. It is in their interest to run with the story that Jang had formed a political grouping in the South, which is being suggested by some news reports. Mind you, South Korea has some serious domestic political issues going on that the focus on North Korea allow them to temporarily move away from media attention. On balance, the South Korean stance does indicate that more is going on than just a purge, but I don’t feel like speculating beyond stating this.

Sung-Yoon LeeProfessor in Korean Studies and Assistant Professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University

The life of the No. 2 man in a totalitarian system must be short and precarious, as he often becomes a target of purge. Such was the case in the Soviet Union and also Mao’s China. Hence, it does not come as a surprise that Jang is no longer with us.

The primary purpose behind a purge is to remove a potential political rival. Its secondary objective is to instill fear in all others who may harbor illusions of accumulating a power base. Kim Jong Un’s expeditious ouster and execution of his uncle suggests that he is firmly in control. It, along with his accelerated policy of internal repression and external military extortion, also suggests that he is brash and impetuous. This means that over the long term, Kim is prone to making a miscalculation–perhaps even a fatal one–on matters of court intrigue. But, for now, he has shown that he is in full control and effectively deterred any pretender to his throne.

Jennifer LindAssistant Professor of Government, Dartmouth College

In most countries, a major government shake up like this would have far clearer implications. We would look at the reshuffling, and have a good sense of what it meant for the future direction of the country.

But because North Korea is so opaque, Jang’s ouster raises more questions than it provides answers.

First, is this is a sign that Kim is losing his grip on power in Pyongyang, or now has actually established a firmer grip on power? This is a crucial question because political instability in North Korea would have such serious implications for regional stability. But we just can’t be sure.

We also want to know what Jang’s ouster means for the future direction of the country. Many argue that Jang was a reformer, so his ouster means that hardliners are cracking down, and we should not expect to see economic or political reform in North Korea anytime soon. But again, it’s hard to know what direction Jang was advocating for North Korea, and therefore what his ouster means for its future.

The one thing we do know with certainty is that serious political instability in North Korea–such as a coup or civil war–has a risk of triggering a major regional crisis. This crisis could drag not only South Korea into war, but also China and the United States. In short, Jang’s execution is a very big deal.

Charles ArmstrongProfessor of Korean Studies in the Social Sciences, Department of History, Columbia University

Jang’s dramatic ouster is clearly meant to show that Kim is fully in  charge, and that he will no longer abide by the caretaker rule of his  uncle. But there are important forces backing Kim, and it’s not clear  yet if he is leading them or being pushed. We will have to watch and  see if Kim continues the reform process that Jang began, or if the  latest events are a coup by military hardliners trying to slow down or  stop reforms.

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One Response

  1. […] 1) The Fate of a Guardian: Jang’s Inevitable Demise | Very much contrary to the shock, excitement and, for some, confusion that greeted it, Jang Sung-taek’s downfall was entirely predictable. To counter the obvious […]

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