On the eve of the second anniversary of his enthronement, North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un faces the biggest test of whether he will be able to consolidate his one-man rule.
On Friday, the North executed Jang Song-thaek, Kim’s uncle who has long been regarded as the No. 2 man, for committing treason, mismanaging the economy, engaging in factionalism and indulging in corruption.
Jang’s execution came just four days after he was removed from all his positions and expelled from the Workers’ Party. It not only shocked many here but raised questions about the future of Kim’s 2-year-old regime.
Among the numerous charges made against Jang, the treason charge appears to have been fabricated to justify his swift execution. The coup plot that the state media said Jang had confessed to sounds implausible.
If Jang had really pursued to subvert the state, the first thing Kim would have done is to round up and execute the military officials who participated in the plot. But Kim instead had two of Jang’s henchmen in the party shot to death.
The speedy execution of Jang, former vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, can be seen as demonstrating Kim’s absolute power. It shows he has the ability to take out anyone who stands in his way.
Yet at the same time, it illustrates the shakiness of Kim’s power base by highlighting the existence of a large faction in the North’s ruling elite that is apparently beyond his control. Kim’s resort to an extreme measure to remove Jang suggests the magnitude of the threat that this faction poses to his one-man rule.
Jang had amassed considerable power, especially while playing the role of guardian for the young leader. He is believed to have had 30,000 to 40,000 followers, with many holding important positions in the party, government and military.
Kim rushed to execute his uncle to show his resolve to purge this faction. The bloody purge may help him solidify his rule. Yet it could also cause his downfall and may ultimately lead to the collapse of the impoverished state.
In the short term, Jang’s brutal execution is unlikely to create political turmoil in the North. At the moment, few will stand up to challenge Kim’s reign of terror.
Yet over time, political unrest will increase as Kim steps up his crackdown on Jang’s followers. The more he resorts to the politics of fear, the more officials will turn their backs on him. A political upheaval cannot be ruled out as some of those targeted may stand up to him in order to survive.
Kim’s regime is bound to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. It needs external investment to feed its people. But the moment it opens up, its system of lies and deception will be brought to light, triggering a mass revolt. So whether it opens up or not, it cannot escape a collapse.
What is happening in the North could speed up Kim’s downfall and the regime’s collapse. The government needs to prepare for this likely scenario. At the same time, it needs to be prepared against any possible provocations the North may stage to suppress internal discontent and enhance unity.