Jong-un consolidates his power

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Jong-un consolidates his power

North Korea made it official. Jang Song-thaek, uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and vice chairman of the paramount National Defense Commission, was purged over a chain of charges both grave and frivolous. Pyongyang attributed Jang’s downfall to his “anti-party, anti-revolutionary sectarianism, which damaged the unity of the Workers’ Party and hinders a sole supreme leadership.” North Korea enumerated a long list of charges, including challenges to the dignity of Kim Jong-un and all types of corruption and depravity. Such harsh punishment of such a major political bigwig was unprecedented in the long history of political purges in the secluded country.

Behind the cruel penalty toward Jang, once Kim’s guardian, were highly calculated, double-edged political motives. Internally, Kim Jong-un was planting the fear that anyone reluctant to show blind allegiance will be inexorably removed from power. Externally, he was showing off his “unquestionable” power.

Assessments of the stability of the North Korean regime vary. On the surface, Kim has succeeded in solidifying his power base, considering what has happened since his enthronement two years ago. Given the ongoing executions, purges and frequent replacements of top brass, however, insecurity could be inherent in the system. It is time for the government to closely monitor the power shift in the North, analyze the ramifications and prepare for all worst-case scenarios.

As Jang’s purge could be a prelude to a completion of the foundation of Kim Jong-un’s regime, he might be expected to show his true colors as foreshadowed in his relentless push of a third nuclear test and the unilateral shutdown of the Kaesong Industrial Complex - a far more provocative and belligerent approach than his father’s.

Despite the bellicose style, Kim is also pursuing more drastic reforms economically. Since he kicked off new economic initiatives aimed at resuscitating the moribund economy, various capitalist features have begun to spread in society. Lately, North Korea established more special economic zones across the country even though Kim’s economic push appears mostly about pursuing showy projects like the construction of a ski resort and a theme park.

Seoul-Pyongyang relations hit rock bottom over the past seven years. Washington-Pyongyang ties were just as bad. That’s probably due to the North’s internal situation. It could hardly seek exchanges with the outside world during a critical transitional period. At the same time, however, security uncertainty was heightened by Seoul and Washington’s sclerotic North Korea policies. Such precariousness will likely decrease after Kim Jong-un’s power consolidation. It is time for the government to review its North Korea policies.


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