BMI View: The execution of Jang Song Thaek will presage greater instability within the Kim regime. We caution that there is a high risk of dramatic political change, for better or for worse.
The execution of Jang Song Thaek, uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the de facto number two man in the regime, will presage greater instability in the country. The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported Jang's execution in the early hours of December 13, 2013, after he was sentenced to death by a military tribunal for allegedly plotting to overthrow the regime. Earlier in the week, state media outlets confirmed rumours circulating in the international media about Jang's dismissal from all government and party posts, and carried images of Jang being led away by security guards during an expanded meeting of the Politburo.
Jang's Execution Shows That No One Is Safe In Regime
Although purges of regime officials in North Korea are fairly common, Jang is the most senior official to fall so spectacularly from grace for many decades. Jang had been married to Kim Jong Un's aunt Kim Kyong Hui (the sister of the late leader Kim Jong Il) since the early 1970s and had been recognised as the de facto number two man in the regime since the mid-1990s. He served as head of the ruling Korean Workers' Party (KWP)'s Central Administration Department, and in 2010 was made one of several vice-chairmen of the National Defence Commission, the highest body in North Korea. In those capacities, Jang had oversight of internal security organs. Jang also spearheaded North Korea's special enterprise zones, which are designed to allow the country to experiment with economic reforms. From the late 2000s, when Kim Jong Un emerged as his father's heir-apparent, Jang played the role of guardian and mentor of his nephew. The fact that such a prominent and central figure in the regime can suddenly be publicly denounced in the harshest possible terms and be executed demonstrates that no senior official is beyond reproach. The manner of Jang's dismissal will certainly increase stresses within the regime, as key figures compete to demonstrate their loyalty to Kim Jong Un.
Public Nature Of Jang's Dismissal A Risky Strategy
The biggest surprise about Jang's dismissal and death is the openness with which it was carried out. North Korea has always presented a united front to the outside world, and any purges or executions are typically conducted behind closed doors or are attributed to non-political factors. For example, when Ri Yong Ho, another of Kim Jong Un's very powerful mentors, was sacked as army chief in July 2012, state media attributed this to Ri's ill health, even though this was almost certainly due to his political ambitions or policy disagreements. In Jang's case, official media released a long diatribe against virtually every aspect of his career and his character. Aside from plotting to overthrow the regime with the support of the military, Jang was accused of opposing the rise of Kim Jong Un, creating his own faction, expanding his personal power, undermining the work of the cabinet, orchestrating the currency crisis of December 2009, selling off national assets cheaply to foreign entities, and gambling, womanising, and distributing pornography. Jang was even criticised for only reluctantly standing up and clapping for Kim at the KWP party conference in 2010 that marked Kim's political debut.
While the accusations about Jang's ambitions and private life may not be unrealistic, the extent to which he has been condemned and blamed for so many of North Korea's ills is risky for the regime, for it raises the question of how the country's three 'flawless' leaders, Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un, could have placed so much trust in Jang in the first place and allowed his misdemeanours to have gone unpunished for so long (although Jang was briefly purged in the mid-2000s). In other words, because Jang was so central to the regime, any explicit criticism of him is an implicit criticism of the regime itself. Furthermore, by speaking openly of factionalism and possible anti-regime plots, the regime is admitting that there is considerable dissent even at the highest levels.
Timing Of Jang's Execution Also Raises Questions
The timing of Jang's fall also raises questions. Jang was active in public life throughout 2013 (albeit less frequently than in 2012), right until November 6, when he met sports officials visiting from Japan. Two of his top aides, Ri Ryong Ha and Jang Su Gil, who were also implicated in Jang's alleged coup plot, were reportedly executed in November. Other reports suggest that another Jang aide defected to China or South Korea recently with sensitive information, and that this may have been the trigger for Jang's removal. It is possible that the regime acted speedily to thwart an imminent coup led by Jang, but South Korean authorities have not detected any unusual troop movements in the North. Most probably, Kim Jong Un, or possibly a separate faction, had planned to sideline Jang for some time, and found an opportune moment to act against him.
Further Implications Of Jang's Downfall
Jang's downfall could trigger a wider purge against his perceived loyalists within the KWP and the military, and could serve as a catalyst for a broader cull of older generation officials from the Kim Jong Il era. There are two risks stemming from this. Firstly, if the purged officials are not killed, they could flee to China or South Korea and form an active opposition group against Kim Jong Un. Secondly, the removal en masse of many experienced officials and political operators could lead to an administrative vacuum which might not be filled easily.
In addition, Jang's downfall could set back North Korea's highly tentative economic reforms, given that Jang was thought to be a reformer and his sentencing explicitly mentioned the sale of land of the Rason economic and trade zone to a foreign country (most probably China, although China was not mentioned by name) and Jang's "decadent capitalist lifestyle". Indeed, by eliminating Jang, the Pyongyang regime may have been seeking to reduce Chinese influence.
Furthermore, with North Korea tightening regime unity around Kim Jong Un and veering away from reforms, it is quite possible that Pyongyang could initiate some sort of provocation against the South, such as a naval battle in the West Sea, or more long-range missile or nuclear tests.
Conclusion: North Korea Headed For Interesting Times
Jang Song Thaek's downfall represents the biggest shake-up to the North Korean regime in decades, excluding the sudden deaths of Kim Il Sung in 1994 and Kim Jong Il in 2011. Although the regime has emerged stronger after mass purges in the aftermath of the Korean War in the 1950s and in the 1970s-1980s when Kim Jong Il began his rise, the risks are arguably higher now, given Kim Jong Un's youth and inexperience, and the increasing flow of information within North Korea and between the country and the outside world. In the near term, the attendees of events marking the second anniversary of Kim Jong Il's death on December 17 may provide observers with clues as to the regime's formal hierarchy. Beyond this, North Korea is scheduled to inaugurate a new parliamentary session in April 2014, which will provide an opportunity for a sweeping reshuffle. Overall, we caution that dramatic changes could come sooner than many expect.