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Jang’s ouster raises prospect of shifts in N.K. power balance, foreign policy

Jang’s ouster raises prospect of shifts in N.K. power balance, foreign policy

After Jang’s downfall, moderate voices could weaken, tougher policy could emerge: analysts

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Published : 2013-12-04 20:35
Updated : 2013-12-04 20:37

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (left) and his uncle Jang Song-thaek (right) participate in an event to honor the country's former leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il on Dec. 24, 2012. (Yonhap News)

The apparent ouster of Jang Song-thaek, a key guardian and uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, has raised the prospect of shifts in the reclusive state’s power structure and external policies.

Some analysts said that the dismissal of Jang, seen as a dovish reformist, could weaken moderate voices among the power elites and push the regime toward a tougher policy.

“One possibility is that Jang was ousted in a power struggle between his faction, which favors change and cooperation with the outside world, and conservatives favoring nuclear armament and tougher policies,” speculated Chang Yong-seok, an analyst at the Institute of Peace and Unification Studies, affiliated with Seoul National University.

“This raises concerns that the North Korean regime could face some destabilizing factors that would make it difficult to reach some moderate decisions on crucial national and international issues.”

Seoul’s National Intelligence Service on Tuesday said that Jang was highly likely to have been dismissed from the reclusive state’s power circles since two of his closest confidants were executed in late November for unspecified corruption charges.

Seoul’s Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said Wednesday that Jang appeared to remain unharmed, but the possibility of his dismissal was high.

The NIS cited the significant decrease in the number of Jang’s public appearances this year as signs of his declining status. Last year, Jang was seen accompanying the North Korean leader on 106 occasions, while the figure decreased to 52 this year.

Pyongyang has also strengthened ideological education to stress loyalty to the dynastic ruler recently ― a sign of the regime trying to ensure social stability and cohesion, which could be undermined after the dismissal of a high-ranking public figure.

Some analysts remained cautious in their predictions.

“Historically, when a perceived ‘hardliner’ has been removed, there have been lots of media reports citing the removal as evidence that Kim Jong-il or Kim Jong-un will implement a softer policy,” said Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.

“But this optimism is out of step with reality. And when a perceived ‘engager’ has been removed, there is not a similar plethora of stories assessing the North Korean leader will pursue a tougher policy.”

Klinger went on to say, “There is no reason to believe with this latest ouster that there will be a change in North Korean policy, that the Kim dynasty will suddenly turn around its bad behavior.”

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said it was even doubtful that Jang was a reformist.

“During the Kim Jong-il era, Jang was seen as having a dovish, reformist disposition. But during the Kim Jong-un era, we can’t simply classify him as a real reformist just because he led economic projects and headed the athletic committee, or something like that,” he said.

“Rather, one possibility is that Kim Jong-un has further consolidated his power system, and could speed up the implementation of his own reform policy (now that he has been) weaned from his uncle’s assistance.”

Yang added that should another series of purges of high-profile officials ensue, this could disrupt political stability and lead to some provocations designed to defuse internal conflict and strengthen public unity.

After Jang’s downfall, analysts say Choe Ryong-hae, the director of the General Political Bureau, a powerful military organ under the direct control of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, could emerge as the most powerful military figure.

“Should Jang disappear from the political scene, Choe will be consolidating his position as the No. 2 man in the North,” said Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute, a think tank.

With Kim taking power upon his father Kim Jong-il’s death in 2011, Choe has risen to prominence. His General Political Bureau wields unrivaled power as it oversees military personnel affairs, including promotions, position assignment and disciplinary action.

Choe rose up the political pecking order thanks to his father’s close ties with the Kim dynasty. His father, Choe Hyon, was a key member of the partisan guerrilla campaign against the Japanese colonialists in the 1930s, which was led in part by the communist state’s national founder Kim Il-sung.

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)

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