SEOUL – The shock purge and execution of Jang Song Thaek, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s uncle, means five of the country’s former core leadership, dubbed the “Gang of Seven,” have now been discarded. Though widely interpreted as a move to consolidate Kim’s power, the purge in fact masks chronic instability in Pyongyang as the young leader surrounds himself with a new generation of yes men who lack the experience of the old guard, according to some experts.
Aged only around 30, Kim appears to some North Korea-watchers to have shaken off his apprenticeship to emerge the uncontested master of his fate following the execution of Jang, 67. However, other analysts worry about what that means for a regime that already ranks as the world’s most opaque.
“The incident is a reflection that the regime’s power base is still not stable,” said Toshimitsu Shigemura, a North Korea expert at Waseda University in Tokyo. “An uncle was trying to control a young leader. The uncle tried to take power and failed.
“He (Jang) needed to be executed because otherwise his followers would remain and could retaliate.”
Korea Foundation analyst Cha Du-hyeogn said: “The North needs a scapegoat to shift the blame for all its policy failures,” after Jang was accused of an array of crimes ranging from undermining industrial production to consorting with prostitutes at foreign casinos.
His crimes were seen as so extreme they entailed a rare admission from the official Korean Central News Agency that people’s livelihoods in the “socialist paradise” had suffered, quoting a confession from Jang that hismachinations had driven the economy “into catastrophe.”
The exceptionally vitriolic nature of the North Korean state media’s attack on Jang suggests Pyongyang is reinforcing the world’s most potent cult of personality with a new level of adoration focused on Kim himself, and not just on his venerated father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather, Kim Il Sung — the nation’s founder.
Nearly two years ago, the seven elders of the North Korean regime marched with Jong Un alongside his father’s hearse in Pyongyang. The funeral on Dec. 28, 2011, was a powerful symbol of continuity as the untested new supremo took over a nuclear-armed country that was frozen in decades of economic and diplomatic isolation.
But through instead of presiding over what South Korean President Park Geun-hye last week called a “reign of terror” — one that Japan fears could presage a long period of chaos — Kim has lost decades of accumulated experience and troubleshooting ability embodied by Jang and the others who are no longer on the scene.
The United States also is looking on with concern as the Obama administration, Seoul and Tokyo try to discern Kim’s intentions.
Jang was at the pinnacle of economic policymaking and a key go-between for relations with China, and foreign capitals along with North Korea observers are poring over the past week’s events to divine the young leader’s next steps.
Does Jang’s ouster mean more reform for a country in desperate need of outside investment, or less? Will Kim proceed with another nuclear test to declare emphatically that he is in control, or will he now lie low for a while?
Kim has already substantially reshuffled his top brass — an all-important center of power in a country that lavishes the lion’s share of its resources on the armed forces. That was perhaps to be expected as he builds up a cadre of loyalists in the military.
But the very public purge at the heart of the Kim dynasty — Jang was married to the late leader’s sister — has few parallels in the history of a regime that has tended to consign high-profile dissidents to internal exile rather than outright oblivion.
In the 1970s, when he was still the dauphin, Kim Jong Il purged a powerful uncle he saw as a rival to succeeding his own father. But Jang’s execution is particularly noteworthy given the crucial role he was seen as having played in securing Kim Jong Un’s own succession just two years ago.