North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il has been dead not quite two years, but his son, Kim Jong-un, appears to have taken control. And in a much bloodier fashion than predicted, with the execution of his uncle and one-time mentor Jang Song-taek. However, no one knows whether the regime is stabilizing or destabilizing.
The ascension of Kim fils never seemed certain. Not yet 30 when his father passed, Kim had had little time to secure the levers of power. Moreover, Pyongyang is a political snake-pit.
Over the last two years hundreds of officials, many in the military, have been removed from office. Until Jang the most dramatic defenestration was of army chief of staff Ri Yong-ho. His departure in July 2012, alleged for reasons of health, was dramatic and sudden.
Of greater concern to the West was North Korean policy. The country had established a reputation for brinkmanship and confrontation. The new government reinforced this approach.
For instance, rhetorical attacks on and threats against South Korea and the U.S. rose to unprecedented heights. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea recently detained an 84-year-old American Korean War veteran and tourist for six weeks on bizarre charges.
Equally important, there is no evidence of reform, either economic or political. Observed Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation: Kim Jong-un “has increased public executions, expanded the gulags for political prisoners, and increased government punishment for anyone caught with information from the outside world.”
Now comes Jang’s ouster. There is no reason for the West to mourn his passing. But previously family members only disappeared.
Jang’s execution could demonstrate that Kim Jong-un is solidifying his rule. Removing another minder appointed by his father would seem to leave Kim more securely in charge. Moreover, a willingness to execute likely deters anyone but the most determined or desperate from challenging the leadership.
Nevertheless, the DPRK could be heading for further instability. The episode is unprecedented, which suggests that something is amiss in paradise. Jang could have been the casualty of a messy power struggle likely to grow worse. If he can be taken down, no one is safe. Fear may widen leadership divisions, spur internal resistance, and draw in the military.
Political uncertainty in Pyongyang almost certainly will reduce the already minimal likelihood of domestic reform and foreign engagement. If Kim truly has consolidated power, he might feel freer to act. However, even then orchestrating a wider purge would absorb time and effort. And if he fears continuing opposition to his reign he probably will put off any potentially controversial policies, especially if they conflict with the interests of the military, which still potentially wields ultimate power.
Further, Jang was associated with economic reform and China relations. After his death Jang was criticized for his economic activities. It is hard to imagine economic reform speeding up in a government sundered by a power struggle in which a top economic official was just executed.
The greatest danger is that Kim Jong-un’s apparent ruthlessness may be less constrained internationally than that of his father and grandfather. If the younger Kim is taking on full dictatorial power, he might misperceive domestic authority as translating into international strength. Or if his authority is under challenge at home, he might be tempted to provoke a foreign crisis.
The DPRK long has been the land of no good options, the geopolitical problem with no good answers. Even if Jang’s execution changes nothing, it reminds us that North Korea remains a threatening yet mysterious presence in Northeast Asia. And the ongoing leadership transition—whether solidified or unsettled—isn’t likely to bring peace or stability to the region.