It doesn’t pay to be number two in North Korea. In December the young dictator Kim Jong-un executed his uncle, Jang Song-taek, supposedly Kim’s top advisor. Now Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae, who climbed atop Jang’s corpse, has been relieved of his important positions.
Choe’s fall is particularly important because, though he was an aide to Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, he rose rapidly under the younger Kim. Dumping Choe reshapes the political environment of Kim’s making.
While Kim’s dominance in Pyongyang does not guarantee the regime’s survival, it dampens hope for any change outside of Kim. Today’s Korean Winter isn’t likely to give way to a Korean Spring.
Moreover, nothing suggests that the North’s communist monarchy is about to give way. Many observers have waited a long time for regime collapse in the North. They probably will have to wait a lot longer.
So far Kim Jong-un doesn’t appear to be much interested in reform. If anything, he is more committed to his government’s nuclear weapons program and confrontational foreign policy than were his predecessors.
North Korea’s policy toward the South has oscillated wildly, but has headed mostly downward. The North also appears to be preparing a fourth nuclear test. The DPRK recently test-fired two medium-range missiles, predicting “next-stage steps, which the enemy can hardly imagine.”
The Obama administration obviously is frustrated, and reportedly is considering easing preconditions for resuming the long-stalled Six Party Talks. However, it’s unlikely that renewed negotiations would lead anywhere. Which has left the major U.S. response to tie itself closer to its South Korean ally, loudly reaffirming that America will defend the Republic of Korea if necessary.
Washington needs to reflect first on why the North is such a problem for America. A small, impoverished, and distant state, even with a handful of nuclear weapons (but no delivery capacity), obviously is no match for the globe’s superpower. Ordinarily the former wouldn’t be interested in the latter.
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