When a political crisis hits Pyongyang, the leadership’s normal antidote is to hide the real drama in rumors and shadows while assuring the world that outside forces are no match for North Korea’s spirit of “single-hearted unity.” But North Korea’s real-time media coverage of the vituperative public denunciation and execution of Jang Song Taek, the uncle by marriage of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, has exposed deep divisions within the Kim family leadership and has shocked North Koreans and outsiders alike with its suddenness and its brutality.
By making this bold move to consolidate his power, Kim has shown great confidence. But Jang’s public humiliation and execution for, among other things, “half-heartedly clapping” for Kim at a party conclave, have likely bred fear and shock at every level of North Korean society. Under Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s late father, senior cadres (and especially family members) were sidelined but not executed. Jang’s execution broke this pattern.
The fear pervading North Korea is likely to further sap productivity, setting back the stated goal of achieving a strong and prosperous nation. The task of excavating the roots of Jang’s network of supporters will further weaken the resiliency of the regime.
The elimination of Jang also has ramifications for North Korea’s external relations. Jang was China’s best business partner among North Korea’s leadership and was one of the few elite North Koreans who seemed to grasp the importance of economic reforms. China was not directly implicated in the litany of Jang’s crimes, but the crime of selling North Korea’s natural resources too cheaply to foreign countries at the very least suggests that Kim Jong Un will demand a higher premium for its resources from China.
Although careful not to publicly choose favorites, China saw Jang as an economic partner and a channel for communicating its political concerns regarding North Korean nuclear pursuits. But there is no evidence that Chinese thinking holds sway with the young Kim.
Beijing has tried to enhance its economic leverage to bring North Korea’s nuclear and missile provocations to heel, with little to show for it. An unmentored Kim presents Chinese President Xi Jinping with unpalatable choices: build a relationship with the North Korean leader in hopes that he will curb his adventurism, risk the costs of turning Kim’s ire more in China’s direction or join an effort to pull the plug on his impulsive behavior.
A North Korea consumed with settling internal political scores will likewise leave little hope for South Korean President Park Geun-hye to gain traction with her policy of “trustpolitik.” Following the shutdown of the inter-Korean Kaesong industrial complex this year, the two Koreas worked to restore those operations. But Park’s policy anticipates that North Korea should show actions worthy of trust.
As long as Kim is consumed with reasserting internal stability, South Korea must understandably guard against spillover effects from potential political instability in North Korea. Such effects could include renewed provocations near the inter-Korean border or increased flows of refugees from a North Korean internal crackdown. There will be little space for South Korea to take political risks while Kim remains focused on securing his political control.
Last spring, North Korea’s threats of a preemptive nuclear strike on the United States and Pyongyang’s continued pursuit of nuclear and missile development earned Kim a reputation among Korea-watchers in the U.S. as a wild card whose behavior is not as predictable or sure-footed as that of his father. Moreover, following Jang’s demise, there is no advisor other than his ailing aunt who can risk challenging Kim or telling him what he does not want to hear, including the message that the U.S. will continue to oppose a North Korea that insists on nuclear development.
Consolidation of power under a reckless Kim Jong Un will only presage provocation and miscalculation; on the other hand, purges and fear are factors likely to weaken the regime’s viability from within — as Kim’s minions clap vigorously for him so as to avoid becoming his next target.
Scott Snyder is a senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-editor of “North Korea in Transition: Politics, Economics, Society.”