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View more articles by Hamish Macdonald
Hamish Macdonald is an NK News contributor and has previously worked at The Korea Herald and for the Australia Centre for Independent Journalism in Sydney.
News of Jang Song Thaek’s Thursday execution is a significant development and one that could have far-reaching consequences for Kim Jong Un’s grip on power in the medium to long term. But while official state media will continue stressing the legitimacy of Jang’s execution, the manner in which it was announced is unprecedented and will no doubt send a clear message to anyone thinking of challenging Kim’s leadership in future. How will this affect the future stability of North Korea? Should we expect imminent, high-level defections? Could this be the beginning of the end?
To make sense of the startling developments, NK News spoke to leading experts Dr. Andrei Lankov, Victor Cha, Sunny Lee, and David Straub.
Interviews conducted by Hamish Macdonald & Oliver Hotham
This execution underlines the nature of the system: I think lots of people around the world find it hard to imagine that things like this happens in the 21st century, but now they find that they do.
Nobody knows what this means for stability in North Korea. Everyone has a view, it’s all speculation. It could, for a time, mean more stability, it could mean less stability. We just don’t know, we don’t have enough insight into the leadership dynamics to know. If we did, fewer people would be surprised about this.
As someone who has followed North Korea for 30 years it’s highly unusual, something we haven’t seen since the fifties. It means the situation now is somewhat different, it means we have to watch North Korea even more closely than before and be prepared for the possibility of even worse things to come from North Korea. Even China’s Global Times, for example, was speculating about the heightened provocations from North Korea as a way of compensating for its problems, the internal problems this reveals.
The Chinese leadership over the past few years has become increasingly uneasy, at times angry at the North Koreans. There’s a debate among people in China about whether China is on the path towards fundamentally changing its approach toward North Korea or not. I’m in the camp that says ‘yes,’ they do have more complicated feelings towards North Korea but are unlikely to change their fundamental approach to North Korea for some time.
Sooner or later there will be a dramatic dis-juncture in North Korea – whether its for the better or worse, time will tell. But that kind of regime cannot stay, it is strong but very brittle.
My initial reaction is that it’s less a sign of confidence and more a sign that there is some real competition going on inside the leadership. It’s not clear to me what his leadership is based on now. When you take out the key elements of the party and the key elements of the military you’re kind of building from scratch again. It’s a very risky strategy.
Is the country more stable now that Jang Song Thaek has been executed? Probably not. But again, we don’t know. We don’t know the whereabouts of Kim Kyong Hui, who’s clearly very important to all of this too. If the predominant narrative back in June was that Kim Jong Un is methodically consolidating his power, I think people are less certain of that narrative today. We don’t know what it is but we’re less certain of that narrative today.
With Jang Song Thaek gone, there’s nobody else to execute. It’s a sign of the brashness of the regime, the ruthlessness of it. He clearly want to give the impression that nobody should mess with him. In a sense it’s quite unprecedented, we haven’t seen these sorts of theatrical purges since the 1950s when Kim Il Sung was consolidating power, so it’s quite interesting to watch.
With what we have seen over the last week, I would say, this news is not that surprising. Actually it was quite likely to happen. But It has bad implications.
This might be part of Kim Jong Un’s plan to show that nobody is immune, nobody is safe: if he decides he can kill everybody, nobody will dare say anything. It just might scare them, for they will see the fate of Jang Song Thaek and be terrified, and they will become more obedient. But, a side-effect will be less initiative. Officials will be afraid of doing anything they are not explicitly ordered to do. Such passivity is not good in a country which needs new and imaginative ways to get out of the current crisis.
But it might go absolutely a different direction.
Historically North Korea was unique in one regard: it was a Stalinist dictatorship where high-level officials were seldom killed. If you look at the history of North Korea after 1960, you will discover that if you were lucky to belong to the top 100, you were generally secure physically. People who were purged would lose their jobs and occasionally their freedom, but it was very unusual, it did happen but was very unusual, that a purged official was killed. So in the past the best thing to do was to relax. Because you knew that you are not going to be killed. You will spend a few months writing a self-critique, telling about your deviations, and then you will be exiled to the countryside, maybe doing some manual work more likely low-level manager, and if you behave yourself you are likely to make a comeback. North Korean officials have been purged, and they are now back in the positions of power. So the chances of being pardoned were quite high. This was the old game. This was only for the top officials, by the way, it is not applicable to all purges. If you were low level, mid level it was very different.
Officials see now that if they are purged, they can be killed. It’s a completely new situation. It means that if you are an official, and your positions are threatened, it means that you might start thinking about some drastic options: staging a coup, starting a conspiracy, running away to South Korea, so it might be bad for stability. So they may be terrified. But it means they can do a lot of things they would not do otherwise.
Furthermore, these actions broke a very big part of the North Korean identity: the unity myth. For decades North Koreans were supposed to believe that their society is unique in being absolutely and completely unified around their great leader, around the current great leader. So the assumption was there are no bad people at the top, and there is an unbreakable unity at the top. Finally, Jang Song Thaek is a member of the Kim family, through marriage but still. It means that Kim Il Sung, the father of the nation, married his daughter, to a traitor. What does that tell about him? How can a genius of leadership be so easily deceived? He married his daughter to a traitor. Isn’t that strange? Doesn’t that mean that Kim Il Sung’s judgement of people was absolutely unique? Doesn’t that mean that his judgement of policy wasn’t unique too? How many people are going to start asking these questions very quietly today?
A purge of the top civilian bureaucrats is going to happen. It’s the beginning of something, until Kim Jong Un has his entire cabinet replaced. He will replace the entire civilian leadership. What else can he do? How can he managed a country run by people twice his age? They have very different ideas, very different experiences but are simply very old. He will replace them with much younger people, from the same social group. People who happen to be Kim Jong Un’s drinking buddies. I think most of the people will come from the top 100 families. They will be much younger, they might even leap one generation. The current leadership will be replaced by their grandchildren.
It means something, but not much, for North Korea’s relationship with China. But what can China do? Does it mean that China will stop aid to China? Absolutely not. China doesn’t want an outbreak of instability.
I think my view is slightly different. The popular view is that this is the beginning of turmoil. But I disagree: I think this is the beginning of stability under Kim Jong Un, consummation of power grip, with him completing the process of establishing himself as the number one single leader, just like his father and grandfather did.
Of course, there will now be a massive, bloody purging of Jang Song Thaek’s people. As I understand it there are about 20,000 to 30,000 who received orders from Jang Song Thaek and there will be tremendous bloody purging and executions of these people. That will make it look like there is disarray – and it will look confusing – but it will be an orderly step in Kim Jong Un’s further consolidation of power.
…We are tempted to create a lot of scenarios that we have been thinking about but I think when we analyze North Korea it is very hard to detach ourselves from our subjective inclinations and our common sense. So by looking at the situation from North Korea’s historical perspective – and when you look at their very bloody bloody history – we can say that purging will ensue, it will be very noisy, bloody and tremendously shocking to those with an outside perspective, but these have been the norms in North Korea for the last several decades….
Kim Jong Un is a leader who has been underestimated because of his young age and inexperience, but the interesting thing is that – from my understanding – Kim Jong Un has been planning to get rid of Uncle Jang for many months, at least since April, and perhaps earlier even since last December one year ago.
Kim Jong Un was following a step by step process. He was trying to seize the right moment to execute and get rid of his powerful uncle and I think if he regarded this stage where the people surrounding him committed crimes – the money embezzlement and aide defection to China – all these issues provided a golden opportunity to implement an action that he had been planning for months.
…I see this situation to be confusing for many people but I see this situation as a confirmation of Kim Jong Un’s power. Kim Jong Un has been replacing senior cadres from the military from the workers party and from the government for the last 2 years and he has replaced more than 50% to help promote his power base. He has also been getting rid of the very elders who were planted by his father to help the power transition. Kim Jong Un has been getting rid of people like the General Ri Yong Ho and it got to the final stage when Kim Jong Un saw the opportunity to get rid of the final obstacle for his power grip.
Sensing that Jang Song Thaek has been also trying to consolidate his own power base, Kim Jong Un seized the opportunity to get rid of his final guardian and uncle whose shadow became much bigger than Kim Jong Un’s – Kim Jong Un has increasingly felt uncomfortable in that shadow and now he has got rid of Jang and now there is only one single leader in North Korea, period.