North Korea’s announcement Friday of the execution of Jang Song Thaek, who had been seen as the country’s second-most powerful figure, has further consolidated leader Kim Jong Un’s one-man rule, but the punishment that experts describe as a “reign of terror” may become a hefty price to pay — especially in respect to his pursuit of economic development.
The ghastly purge of Kim’s 67-year-old uncle has shocked the rest of the world, strengthening the negative image outsiders have of North Korea as a very different type of country with high political risk to foreign investment, at a time when Pyongyang is trying hard to boost its economy.
“Jang’s execution is a frightening development that reinforces the outside world’s worries about the North Korean regime and its young dictator,” said Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii.
Masao Okonogi, a research professor of Korean affairs at Kyushu University, believes North Korea is currently going through the process of “power realignment” rather than a power struggle, and Kim’s efforts to solidify his dictatorship are “near the final stage of completion.”
The execution took place only four days after a meeting Sunday of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea that decided to strip Jang of all his posts for committing “counter-revolutionary factional acts.”
North Korean watchers see the swift execution of Jang, instead of keeping him under custody, as evidence of Kim’s strong desire to tighten his grip both on the Workers’ Party of Korea and the army after taking the country’s helm following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011.
“This is a kind of reign of terror,” Okonogi said.
Kim is thought to be 30 years old, making him among the world’s youngest heads of state. Some who study the North say that Kim, as a product of his age, has felt it necessary to quickly remove those from older generations who owed their loyalty to his father. Well before the purge of Jang, Kim had ousted scores of second- and third-level functionaries in the Workers’ Party and military in one of the North’s biggest personnel turnovers in decades.
As a telltale signal of the change, Kim has removed or demoted five of the seven elderly officials who walked alongside the hearse carrying his father’s body during a state funeral two years ago. Those officials, dubbed at the time the “Gang of Seven,” were described in the South Korean media as the likely backbone of Kim Jong Un’s rule. Several in the group knew Jong Il from his college days or even before. Their average age at the time of the funeral: 73.
Among the gang, U Tong Chuk, who oversaw the North’s secret police, has not been seen in public since March 2012, his absence unexplained. Ri Yong Ho, a high-ranking military chief, was relieved of his duties for what the North tersely described as an illness. Two other top officials were demoted. Jang’s ouster was by far the most public. The only two who have kept their positions — Choe Tae Bok and Kim Ki Nam — are in their mid-80s and represent little threat.
“Kim Jong Un has proven to the nation and his people that he is capable of taking out even those closest to him,” said Suh Choo-suk, an expert at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul. Suh added that the turnover recalls the 1950s and 1960s, when founder Kim Il Sung purged a group of more moderate challengers with ties to the Soviets and Chinese. Kim Il Sung banished or killed those opponents, replacing them with a hand-picked group of former guerrillas who fought alongside him in northeastern China.
Even for Kim Il Sung, a full consolidation of power did not come until 1972 — 24 years after he established the country — when the North adopted a constitution that authorized his supreme power. The next leader, Kim Jong Il, needed almost as much time to cement his own rise: He was groomed by Kim Il Sung starting in the mid-1970s and gained full control of every major institution in 1998, four years after Kim Il Sung’s death.
For Kim Jong Un, the father-to-son power transfer was not nearly as well-planned. Kim Jong Il died in 2011, when the succession process was in its infancy and before Kim Jong Un had built up his own network of lieutenants.
As a result, many outside experts and U.S. officials believed that Jang and others — including Kim Jong Un’s aunt, Kim Kyong Hui — would play key caretaker roles, perhaps with a power-sharing system. That has not proved to be the case. In the months after his father’s death, Kim Jong Un received multiple and redundant leadership positions, placing him clearly in supreme command. Although Kim still might rely on his aunt for guidance, she is thought to suffer from liver problems and is rarely seen in public.
Roy, an expert on Northeast Asian security issues, said that even if one fully accepts North Korean media reports regarding Jang, the question remains how he managed to gain the trust of the two previous leaders and rise to the de facto No. 2 position. “It makes Kim Jong Un look desperate and the regime look unstable,” Roy said. “This may indicate that the young Kim is fearful of a coup and feels he needs to send a strong message to deter any other would-be plotters.”
The purge also could spread and bring down more people, said Victor Cha, a former senior White House adviser on Asia. “When you take out Jang, you’re not taking out just one person — you’re taking out scores if not hundreds of other people in the system,” Cha said. “It’s got to have some ripple effect.”
South Korean intelligence officials say two of Jang’s closest aides were executed last month.
Narushige Michishita, a security expert at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, suggested that Jang’s removal shows “that Kim Jong Un has the guts to hold onto power, and this might have shown his will to power, his willingness to get rid of anything that stands in his way.”
One of the biggest opportunities for the world to see what might happen next will come Dec. 17, the second anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death. North Korea watchers will be closely following whether Hui, the younger sister of Kim Jong Il, and other figures are present in official ceremonies marking the day.
Jang’s removal leaves no clear No. 2 under Kim, whose inner circle now includes Vice Marshal Choe Ryong Hae, Premier Pak Pong Ju and the ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong Nam.
A North Korean man in his 30s, who arrived at Beijing’s international airport from Pyongyang on Friday, said Jang deserved punishment for what he did and people in the country “all completely approve and back it.” Asked whether North Korea will become unstable, he strongly denied the possibility, saying, “On the contrary, (the regime) will become stronger through this.”
Still, the execution of Jang, who was vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission and had assumed many other key posts, could have negative consequences to its economy as it increased factors of potential uncertainty in North Korea.
North Korea said last month it plans to set up 14 additional economic development areas around the country. But now the biggest political upheaval in Pyongyang since the death of the previous leader will make it even more difficult to attract foreign investment and persuade the international community to lift sanctions.