Families under tremendous emotional stress

Jang’s demise attests to instability, hints at more purges

Jang’s demise attests to instability, hints at more purges

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Published : 2013-12-13 20:16
Updated : 2013-12-13 20:44

A photograph from North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun shows Jang Song-thaek (center) in handcuffs as he is escorted by military officers to his trial on Thursday. (Yonhap News)
The sudden announcement of the demise of Kim Jong-un’s uncle underscores the instability and fierce power struggle within the 2-year-old regime and prefigures a string of bloody purges, officials and analysts said Friday.

Pyongyang’s state media on Friday released information about the execution of Jang Song-thaek, former vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, for conspiring against Kim, the party and the state. It labeled him a “traitor for all ages” and “worse than a dog.”

The incident caps the brutal ouster of Kim’s guardian and the communist state’s second-most powerful person. He was married to the young leader’s aunt, Kim Kyong-hui, the younger sister of late strongman Kim Jong-il.

It also marked the latest in a series of purges that Kim has carried out to tighten his grip on power over the last two years. Two of Jang’s associates, Ri Ryong-ha and Jang Soo-kil, were believed to have been executed late last month, while Kim Kyong-hui’s whereabouts remain unclear.

Speculation has long persisted about a power struggle in Pyongyang, with Jang himself kicked out of the inner circle twice in the past. But he had managed to creep back up the political ladder and continue to wield power, before seeing his clout gradually shrivel over the last year.

But Kim Jong-un’s reign of terror may indicate the fledgling leader’s insecurity two years after he took the helm. When he sacked former General Staff Chief Ri Yong-ho ― a hard-line military big shot and one of his father’s loyal aides ― in July 2012, it was deemed a sign that the new leader would dilute the influence of the powerful, rigid military in his state governance. 

Three military judges presided over Jang’s trial. (Yonhap News)
“(Jang’s execution) is evidence that (Kim Jong-un’s) authority is relatively weaker than Kim Jong-il’s, and it is aimed at preventing the spread of controversies surrounding Jang,” said Rep. Suh Sang-kee, chair of the parliamentary intelligence committee, citing a briefing from Seoul’s spy agency.

The possibility of the Kim regime encouraging reform has decreased, he said, adding that the developments prove that “North Korea has no future under Kim Jong-un’s strengthening reign of terror.”

With the second anniversary of his father’s death drawing near, Kim is forecast to embark on further housecleaning, likely focusing on those close to Jang, tightening discipline and taking other steps to cement his power, experts say.

“Given its ultra hard-line position toward Jang and his aides, the North Korean leadership is inevitably expected to take on bloody purges in the future to remove all traces of them,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute.

According to the National Intelligence Service, the number of public executions in the North shot up to around 40 this year from the 17 recorded last year.

“(Executions) could be designed to avoid internal discontent, and Kim Jong-un is likely to push to expand his power by creating an atmosphere that calls for blind obedience to him,” NIS director Nam Jae-joon told the National Assembly recently.

Concerns are rising that the apparently increasing instability at home could tempt the inexperienced leader to stage a military provocation against the South or a missile or nuclear test to rally the people behind him.

Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said there is a “reasonable” chance that a fourth atomic test will take place.

“Traditionally we have seen cases in which North Korea attempts to tighten internal discipline through an external provocation at a time of internal unrest,” he told a parliamentary session later in the day.

But other officials and experts forecast that future purges and personnel shake-ups will have a limited impact on Pyongyang’s domestic and foreign policies for the time being.

The North on Thursday proposed to open a meeting next week of an inter-Korean panel in charge of setting rules and settling disputes at the joint factory park in Gaeseong. It also accepted the South’s request for a visit to the district by delegates from the Group of 20 countries and international finance agencies the same day.

In a separate dispatch on Friday, the KCNA carried an all-too-familiar call for a shift in Washington’s “hostile” policy toward Pyongyang.

“Kim Jong-un is rather likely to maintain the status quo in his foreign policy for the short term,” said Ha Tae-keung, a former anti-North Korea activist and lawmaker of the ruling Saenuri Party.

“So there is no need to emphasize the possibility for an inter-Korean military clash when there is no substantive evidence of escalated threats against the South.”

Ryoo also said the Seoul government will see no immediate impact of the latest purge on cross-border projects.

“Inter-Korean exchange programs are underway smoothly, including the Gaeseong industrial complex,” he told lawmakers, vowing to “actively manage the situation.”

By Shin Hyon-hee (heeshin@heraldcorp.com)

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