SEOUL: Nearly two years ago, seven elders of the North Korean regime marched with Kim Jong-Un alongside his father’s hearse on a bitterly cold and snowy day in Pyongyang.
The funeral on December 28, 2011—held nine days after the regime announced the death of Kim Jong-Il—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.
Today, after the shock purge and execution of Kim’s uncle Jang Song-Thaek, five of a core leadership group dubbed the “Gang of Seven” have now been discarded.
Aged only around 30, Kim himself appears to have shaken off his apprenticeship to emerge the uncontested master of his fate, and North Korea-watchers worry about what that means for a regime that already ranks as the world’s most opaque.
The purge in fact masks “chronic instability” in North Korea as Kim surrounds himself with a new generation of yes-men who lack the experience of the old guard, according to Korea Foundation analyst Cha Du-Hyeogn.
“The North needs a scapegoat to shift the blame for all its policy failures,” he added, 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 that they entailed a rare admission from North Korean state media that people’s livelihoods in the “socialist paradise” have suffered, quoting a confession from Jang that his machinations had driven the economy “into catastrophe”.
The 67-year-old’s misdemeanors also encompassed a failure to pay due respect to Kim Jong-Un, according to an exceptionally vitriolic attack from the KCNA news agency.
That suggests that North Korea is reinforcing the world’s most potent cult of personality with a new level of adoration focused on the young Kim himself, and not just on his venerated father and grandfather.
“It is quite rare that the execution of a high official was carried out in such a public way. This shows a high level of brutality,” professor Yang Moo-Jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul said.
“It aims to inject maximum terror among the people in order to rally loyalty to Kim Jong-Un and cement his one-man rule,” he said.
But in presiding over what South Korea’s president calls a “reign of terror”, one that Japan fears could presage a long period of chaos, Kim has lost decades of accumulated experience and trouble-shooting ability embodied by Jang and the others who are no longer on the scene.
Anxiously peering in
China has declared the purge of Jang and his associates an “internal affair” for its erratic ally. But the United States is looking on with concern, as is South Korea, as they 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-watchers are poring over the past week’s events to determine 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 centre of power in a country that lavishes the lion’s share of its meagre 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.
“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 Japan.
“An uncle was trying to control a young leader. The uncle tried to take power and failed,” he said. “He [Jang] needed to be executed because otherwise his followers would remain and could retaliate.”
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—founding leader Kim Il-Sung.
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 two years ago.
The new lineup of Kim’s cronies at the heart of power may become clearer at events next week marking the two-year anniversary of his father’s death.
“In the ceremony, we might see new people and those who have been promoted. That should indicate who planned it (the purge) and whose performance was rewarded,” Shigemura said.
Those insiders will bask in the warmth of proximity to Kim. For Jang’s followers, the climate has turned sub-zero, matching the icy winter that again has Pyongyang in its grip. AFP