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[Editorial] Reign of terror

Seoul should be prepared for N.K. provocations

North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un marks the second anniversary of his enthronement on Dec. 17. As if to demonstrate that he has secured a firm grip on power, he recently purged Jang Song-thaek, his uncle, and the man who was once regarded as the power behind the throne.

Jang, vice chairman of the paramount National Defense Commission, was sacked in an unprecedented way. He was not only accused of “anti-party, counter-revolutionary sectarianism” but was charged with mismanaging the economy and partaking in all types of corruption, including womanizing and drugs.

The North’s Workers’ Party expelled the No. 2 man after removing him from all his posts. To add insult to injury, state TV broadcast a picture of Jang being arrested by uniformed guards during a meeting of the party’s politburo.

Jang’s purge appears to be designed to further consolidate the young leader’s power. The uncle must have been seen as an obstacle to cementing Kim’s one-man rule. Paradoxically, Jang’s removal could end up shaking Kim’s power base and destabilizing the current regime.

The punishment meted out to Jang was extraordinarily harsh in that he was accused of factionalism. This suggests a wide-ranging purge is in the offing to get rid of his followers.

Given that Jang has been a powerful figure in the North for nearly four decades, he must have many followers in important posts in the party, government and military.

Kim is expected to seek to purge the entire group of people close to Jang in order to extirpate “noxious weeds.” And he is likely to execute many of them to infuse fear into the populace and warn high-ranking officials against disloyalty.

To avoid executions, some of the targeted figures might attempt to flee overseas. One of Jang’s payoff men has reportedly sought refuge in the South. Some might even resist.

Consequently, Kim’s reign of terror could increase political and social instability in the North. Mindful of this scenario, the North’s state media has started a campaign to justify Kim’s absolute power and rally the public behind him.

The problem is that this media campaign is unlikely to work, as many North Koreans are resentful toward the ruthless young leader. Kim might then resort to an old tactic that his father frequently used ― heightening tension on the Korean Peninsula to turn the people’s attention away from what is happening in the North.

It is in this context that President Park Geun-hye has said Jang’s downfall could lead to shakier inter-Korean relations. The government needs to step up monitoring of the North and raise its guard to ensure that the latest development in the North does not lead to a new crisis in inter-Korean relations.
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