Lifting Pyongyang’s veil of inscrutability

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North Korea watchers fear a bloody purge following the execution of Jang Song Thaek, the uncle of Dear Leader Kim Jong-un, for, among other crimes, “dreaming different dreams.”

Jang was widely perceived as Kim’s regent and mentor until his arrest last week. North Korea’s Politburo literally buried Jang under a pile of accusations, the most serious of which was “attempting to overthrow the state by all sorts of intrigues and despicable methods with a wild ambition to grab the supreme power of our party and state.”

That’s a mouthful, but there’s more. Jang was also accused of being “an anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional element and despicable political careerist and trickster.”

The charges were laughable if not “Kafkaesque,” as one Western magazine described it.


If Jang’s arrest was a surprise, his execution came as a shock.

Jang’s dizzying fall from the second most powerful man in North Korea to the most reviled enemy of the state does nothing to lift the veil of inscrutability that shrouds the Hermit Kingdom.

It, however, provides an emerging picture of a young leader who is ruthless enough to eliminate even close kin who displeases him as he tightens his grip on power.

Forget about earlier notions of Kim Jong Un as a benign, reform-oriented figure who is less belligerent to the West (he loves the NBA and studied in Switzerland) than his grandfather and father were. We are looking at a man who is simply unpredictable and dangerous.

The days ahead will be a particularly volatile episode for North Korea. There are reports that Jang’s close associates in China are being recalled to Pyongyang, where they face an uncertain fate. As Pyongyang’s point man in China, Jang was mapping out an economic game plan to open up North Korea to more Chinese investments. The speculation is that he may have gotten too cozy with Chinese businessmen, and this did not sit well with the powers-that-be back home.

A clue could be gleaned from the Politburo’s charge that Jang was “throwing the state financial management system into confusion and committing such acts of treachery as selling off precious resources of the country at cheap prices.”

Whatever the reason, it was serious enough to order Kim to have his uncle done away with.

Observers are also keenly watching the military in Pyongyang and how it will react to Jang’s death. Right now Kim appears to be in firm control of the armed forces but cliques within identified with Jang could be driven to drastic action as a matter of survival. A military putsch could trigger a conflict that could start North Korea’s descent to hell.

Any dissension within the Pyongyang regime impacts not only on the region but Western powers as well. Many countries already look at North Korea as a rogue nuclear state. A leader who is unpredictable and vindictive makes it doubly dangerous.

The Philippines will do well to closely follow developments in the Hermit Kingdom. We are within range of North Korean missiles and that’s not a comforting thought.

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