Sue Mi Terry, Senior Research Scholar the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University, former Senior Analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, and former Director of Korea, Japan, and Oceanic Affairs at the National Security Council (NSC), discusses the consequences of the recent purge within Kim Jong Un’s family. You can also read Professor Charles K. Armstrong’s interpretation of the purge here.
Two years ago, in the aftermath of the longtime ruler Kim Jong Il’s sudden demise on December 17, 2011, some Korea analysts hoped to see a shift in North Korea’s foreign and domestic policy toward greater moderation, democracy, and free market policies under the elder Kim’s hand-picked successor, his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. Those hopes have been dashed. It is now obvious not only that young Kim is no reformer and every bit the megalomaniacal, absolutist dictator that his father and grandfather were—but that he is actually even more reckless and dangerous than either of them. The very public execution of Jang Song-taek, Kim’s uncle and up until now the second-most powerful man in the regime, is unprecedented. It is the first time in the 65-year history of North Korea that a high-level member of the Kim family has been executed. Admittedly, purges are a tried-and-true technique to maintain political loyalty that Kim Jong-un inherited from his father and grandfather. But Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il orchestrated such purges quietly. When Kim Jong Il purged his own uncle in the 1970s, he did so behind the scenes and did not execute him. The fact that Kim Jong-un is doing so publicly is a sign of how determined he is to send a signal to the North Korean elites of what happens if they even think about crossing him.
Meanwhile, the only changes Kim Jong-un has made in the past two years have been cosmetic and superficial, which included building an extravagant ski resort (which Kim visited only a few days after executing his uncle and reportedly stated that “everyone would marvel” at its magnificence), a massive water park, and a horse riding club. Jang’s ouster further threatens to squelch any reformist tendencies in the North since Jang was seen as being in favor of Chinese-style economic reforms. Jang was the one responsible for the appointment of Pak Pong Ju, a career technocrat, to the post of premier to spearhead a push to improve the economy. Jang’s execution now means both Pak and the putative economic opening are both endangered. In many ways, the North’s human rights situation has also gotten worse under the new leader, with more public executions and a fewer people managing to escape. Moreover, as we’ve seen with the North’s third nuclear test earlier this year and its threats to attack the United States and South Korea with a nuclear weapon, Kim has no intention to shift away from brinkmanship policies.
So what does all this mean for the future of the Korean Peninsula? In the short-term, the news is bad. Increased instability at the top of the North Korean government suggests that another round of provocations from Pyongyang is very likely. Expect another missile or nuclear test or another limited attack against South Korea before long. But in the long run the current shakeup in the North could turn out to be good news, because it shatters the façade of regime unity and shows that some of the elites may not truly have accepted Kim’s rule. Jang’s execution could cow the elites, at least temporarily, but the long run effect could be corrosive. The elites now know that young Kim is capable of turning on any of them. If he could kill a close relative, then no one is safe.
Perhaps the most interesting geopolitical implication of Jang’s ouster is also that it is likely to strain the close alliance between Pyongyang and Beijing. Jang was known to have close ties to Beijing, so his ouster has likely angered the Chinese leadership. That may make China more amenable to enhancing pressure on North Korea to curb its nuclear weapons and missile programs—a trend already evident. In late September, Beijing issued a 236-page list of “dual-use” and other materials with potential military applications that it was banning from export to Pyongyang. This presents an opportunity for the US if we are canny enough to exploit it. China has traditionally been unwilling to exert much of its leverage on North Korea for fear of triggering a regime collapse that would flood China with refugees and bring the US army and its South Korean allies to the Yalu River. Those considerations still apply but with Jang’s downfall there is at least a chance Secretary of State John Kerry could exploit Chinese pique to exert enhance pressure on North Korea.