North Korea: The Power Struggle Intensifies

Reports have emerged today that Jang Song Thaek, the uncle of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, and one of the most powerful men in the country, has been dismissed from his post as vice-chairman of the National Defence Commission – the highest decision-making body in the regime. It is unclear if Jang, 67, has also lost his positions as head of the central administration of the ruling Korean Workers' Party and chairman of the State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission. Jang's apparent demotion came amid reports that two of his close aides were recently executed in public for corruption. Jang himself has not been mentioned in the North Korean media since November 6, when he met some visiting Japanese sports officials.

If today's report is true, then this would represent the biggest shake-up in the Pyongyang regime since Kim Jong Un succeeded his father Kim Jong Il on the latter's death on December 17, 2011. When the younger Kim took over, there was speculation that he would largely be a figurehead, due to his youth (he is around 30 years old) and inexperience, with real power wielded by Jang, his wife Kim Kyong Hui, and several top generals. Almost two years later, it remains unclear if Kim Jong Un has managed to accumulate real executive power for himself, but he has repeatedly reshuffled top military posts since early 2012, giving the impression that he is gradually stamping his authority on the powerful armed forces.

And yet, the frequency of military reshuffles has led us to believe that a power struggle is in fact underway in North Korea – although it has been unclear whether Kim was purging older generals on his own initiative, or was being steered in this direction by Jang. Meanwhile, there have been reports that Jang has been competing for influence with another senior regime figure, Vice-Marshal Choe Ryong Hae, who heads the General Political Bureau of the military – a sort of watchdog that monitors all military personnel. Choe, 63, is the son of a former revolutionary fighter and defence minister who died in 1982. Choe's position has been subject to speculation, given that he is essentially a party bureaucrat in military uniform, a fact that has apparently raised the ire of North Korea's 'real' generals. The armed forces are said to resent Kim Jong Un's attempts to subordinate them to the Korean Workers' Party. Choe himself has had his ups and downs in the hierarchy, having been purged in 1998, only to re-emerge a few years later. In late 2012, he was temporarily demoted by one military rank.

If Jang Song Thaek has indeed been removed from his National Defence Commission post, it may be that Kim Jong Un is trying to 'outgrow' his uncle, who has long been seen as North Korea's most plausible alternative leader, at least from within regime circles. The last high-profile figure to have been purged was Vice-Marshal Ri Yong Ho, chief of the general staff, in July 2012.

Several questions are now emerging. Firstly, will Jang accept his demotion, or will he try to crawl his way back up the ladder? After all, he was temporarily demoted in the mid-2000s, only to regain influence by 2007. It must be assumed that he has a support base within the party. Secondly, what is the status of Kim Jong Un's aunt, Kim Kyong Hui? Some Pyongyang watchers have argued that Jang's influence is largely drawn from his wife, who has repeatedly been reported as seriously ill. Also, the couple have allegedly drifted apart in recent years. Thirdly, if Jang is down, what of Choe Ryong Hae? Will his authority increase by default, and at what stage might he become too powerful for Kim Jong Un's comfort? Fourthly, what of economic reform, given that Jang was thought to favour liberalisation?

Some of these questions may be answered by April 2014, when North Korea conducts is five-yearly reshuffle of state and parliamentary posts.

Overall though, we believe that North Korea's apparent political stability in the post-Kim Jong Il era is only skin deep, and that internal power struggles could eventually weaken the regime substantially. Change might come faster than expected.