The Policy Impact of North Korea's Latest Purge and Execution

6 MINS READDec 12, 2013 | 17:28 GMT
The Policy Impact of North Korea's Latest Purge
(JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
South Korean TV broadcasts news about the alleged dismissal of Jang Song Thaek on Dec. 3.

Analysis Update: Shortly after the North Korean government confirmed Jang Song Thaek's execution Dec. 12 for crimes against the state, South Korean media reported that two deputy prime ministers were rumored to have fled to China. The rapid purge and subsequent execution suggests the regime feared there was a slow coup forming in North Korea. However, this did not necessarily entail a rapid military move.

Jang worked with the Chinese even before Kim Jong Il's death to solidify his own power and effectively be China's regent for running North Korea. He was also in charge of keeping Kim Jong Il's successor, Kim Jong Un, in line. Jang's power and influence were relatively substantial, but it came with a high cost. There are many among North Korea's elite families and interest groups who have seen themselves and their power eroded by Jang and his allies. So most likely, there was a strong internal struggle among these groups to get Kim Jong Un's ear.

However, Jang's ties to China may have been at once his biggest strength and his biggest weakness. North Korea depends on China for its survival, but it does not want to be completely subservient. Jang's execution will serve as a clear directive to purge those from the government who have allied themselves more closely with China than they have with the interests of the state or the ruling elite. However, Pyongyang is unlikely to renounce all ties to China.

During the three or so years it took Kim Jong Il to fully assert his authority, there were several purges, defections and reports of public executions. In the course of a North Korean transition, the elite maneuver feverishly to position themselves in the new configuration of power.

It is a dangerous time to be an elite in North Korea right now, just as it was in the mid-1990s. During that time, Kim Jong Il essentially sealed off North Korea from the rest of the world. Kim Jong Un has tried a different tactic, but the underlying struggle is similar. In his efforts at "opening up" North Korea, some individuals and factions will be cut out of everything. Others will gain tremendously. Many second-generation leaders in particular will lose the most, while those of the third generation — Kim Jong Un and a handful of rising figures in their 30s and 40s — will probably gain the most. Thus, there is also likely a generational struggle underway in addition to the struggle among families, clans and various interest groups.

It would not be a surprise if Kim Jong Un launched another missile or generated some other kind of agitation in the near future. An episode like this would undermine the Chinese, emphasize that Kim Jong Un is in charge and could force some internal unity. For its part, China is nervous about the situation in North Korea; Beijing depended on Jang as their point of contact.  Chinese security forces have reportedly bolstered their presence near the North Korean border. But China will abide the purge so long as North Korea is stable.

In the aftermath of Jang Song Thaek's ouster, North Korea faces a period of heightened uncertainty, though the major trends in national policy are well underway and are unlikely to be reversed solely as a result of this development. Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera warned Dec. 12 that North Korea's latest purge may mark an extended period of instability, comparing it to China's Cultural Revolution. His comments came days after South Korean President Park Geun Hye warned that inter-Korean relations could become less stable as a result of the North's "reign of terror." Meanwhile, China has refrained from such characterizations, with officials calling it an "internal affair" and editorials in state media suggesting the country likely remains stable. Global media have been rife with speculation over the downfall of Jang, uncle of supreme leader Kim Jong Un (through Kim's influential aunt Kim Kyong Hui). As a chief overseer of the succession process from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un, Jang had a reputation as the second-most powerful figure in the North, but on Dec. 8 the Workers' Party of Korea Political Bureau formally denounced him for factional activities and moral corruption and stripped him of his titles as chief of the Party's administrative department and vice chairman of the National Defense Commission.

Jang wielded extensive influence, so the coming months will be a sensitive time in the North. Though the purge has not yet run its course, Jang's ouster suggests that Kim has taken a major step in consolidating his power as the supreme leader. Relations with other states could become tenser as Pyongyang focuses inward and tries to appear threatening to prevent others from sensing an opportunity to take advantage of internal weakness.

Jang's downfall did not happen overnight. Since Kim rose to power, he has engaged in extensive reshuffles of civil and military leaders, replacing personnel in nearly half the roughly 200 most important posts, according to South Korea's Unification Ministry. Before Jang, the most consequential replacement was that of Ri Yong Ho, the vice chair of the Central Military Commission, another of the regime's chief supporters through the succession and one whom Jang himself may have had a hand in ousting.

Jang's Removal from Power

Jang first began to be sidelined in late 2012. The process continued this year but accelerated in recent months. One of his money managers attempted to defect to South Korea in late September or October, but the real crackdown began in November and Jang's formal arrest was publicized in early December. His gradual decline over the past year suggests that he fell from grace not by suddenly attempting to seize control but rather as a result of Kim's power consolidation reaching a high point. His entire history in the Party has been characterized by ambitious climbing despite Kim Il Sung's and Kim Jong Il's suspicions, and he has fallen in and out of favor several times before. His personal power base made him the figure most likely to pose a challenge to Kim, hence his downfall does more than anyone else's would to reinforce Kim's supremacy.

Jang's purge has mostly affected his family relations and close confidants. Two of his aides were executed in mid-November; another partner in running foreign investment policy was reportedly executed; his nephew and brother-in-law were recalled from their posts as ambassadors to Malaysia and Cuba, respectively; and his money manager is reportedly in South Korean custody in China. However, Jang was known for maintaining close relations with China, especially promoting an active Chinese role in furthering the North's economic opening, and thus his ouster poses questions of whether economic or broader relations with China will suffer. Already some Japanese and Korean news reports claim that China Merchants Shekou Industrial Zone has backed away from deals arranged by Jang to invest in North Korean special economic zones in Hwanggumpyong and Rason. China has especially prioritized Rason, and any problem there would mark a notable setback in economic cooperation.

The North cannot escape China, its overwhelming economic, political and military patron. Thus any change to North Korean economic policy related to Jang's downfall would likely be more about trying to open a few alternatives to Chinese investment or raise the price of North Korean cooperation with China. Myanmar has recently provided an example of how an isolated state dependent on China can, if it adjusts its internal politics, pave the way for renegotiating economic deals and diversifying its partners. North Korea has fewer options, but it may be attempting to create more.

Policy Trends in Pyongyang

There are two dominant policy trends in North Korea since Kim rose to power. Both rest on too broad of a base and are too well established to be reversed because of the fall of one man, unless his downfall should trigger broader intraregime struggle and unforeseen consequences.

The first is the reassertion of the Workers' Party to balance the military, which had grown too powerful under the previous decades' "military first" policy. Kim Jong Il launched this party revival in order to prepare for the succession, and it has continued under his son. The younger Kim has stacked leading bodies with Party officials more so than soldiers, has altered the nation's ruling doctrine to emphasize Party supremacy and is attempting to refocus the military on its core functions while turning economic activities over to separate authorities.

Jang was a player in the Party's revival, but the process extends far beyond him. The Workers' Party's denunciation of his crimes even appealed to these changes. Moreover, like Jang, Choe Ryong Hae, who stands to benefit most from Jang's downfall, is a party leader rather than a true military leader and not long ago had even been viewed as belonging to Jang's clique.

The second major trend is economic reform and opening. It is related to the reassertion of the Party over the armed forces, since the Party provides the chief economic planners and the idea of elevating economic development to the same level of importance as missile and nuclear weapons programs requires a more assertive Party. Jang was a strong promoter of special economic zones and schemes to bring in foreign investment and increase exports of commodities and cheap goods. While his absence may hurt some specific initiatives, there is a broad consensus across the Party that recognizes the need to improve the economy through policy changes. While this trend is by no means radical or predestined to success, Kim and the Party have allowed farmers in some cases to retain more of their profits and have pledged to expand special economic zones in every city and province, with 14 projects in particular highlighted during the very time when Jang's ouster was underway. Road, rail and port improvements on the Chinese and Russian borders are also making progress. Renewed international interest in gaining access to North Korea, not only from mainland China and South Korea but also from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Russia, India, Indonesia and Mongolia, suggests that there are higher expectations than usual of some new economic openings, despite the North's severe limitations and the long-term nature of any opportunities.

Jang was a very powerful figure, deemed excessively so by North Korea's other top leaders, so dismantling his patronage network comes with substantial disruptions to the regime, which appears to have prompted an intensified propaganda and "re-education" campaign stressing loyalty to Kim. The internal power consolidation is ongoing, and there could still be surprises. In addition to upsetting a range of relationships in the North Korean elite, his absence could obstruct or delay plans for economic opening toward China. However, the regime's attempts to resurrect the Workers' Party as a pillar of power standing alongside the military, and to experiment with new economic policies to bring in revenues and stave off social instability, will continue. In the longer term, Jang's ouster may say more about Kim's consolidation of power and the gradual generational shift in the political elite than about the direction of national policy.

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