Turmoil in North Korea

Turmoil in North Korea

Jang and his associates were accused of a litany of 'anti-state' crimes, ranging from corruption to womanising and drug taking.

Turmoil in North Korea

The news of first purging of the country’s army chief Jang Song Thaek, the uncle of Kim Jong un, and the subsequent confirmation of his execution in North Korea suggests that the country is in the midst of intense political instability.

Pyongyang’s highest-profile leadership purge and then execution since Kim Jong Un took power could be a possible move to consolidate power. The worry is that this could trigger instability if it upsets the balance between the military and the ruling party. The elimination of Jang, a man believed to have acted as a regent for the junior Kim, marks Kim’s boldest move since taking power at the end of 2011.

Jang Song Thaek, second in command, was first removed for his allegedly disloyalty and corrupt behaviour. Also, two of Jang’s assistants were executed in public in November and the regime is going after his followers. While the young dictator Kim Jong-un seems determined to consolidate his hold in the country by taking stern actions on any suspicious elements, North’s immediate neighbour South Korea is worried about the implication of political instability for the peninsula. With the execution of the hawkish army chief, Kim Jong-un is apparently keeping up his purge of undesirable elements within the upper echelons of North Korean society. The question that remains unanswered is, can the young dictator succeed in pursuing this ‘reign of terror?’

Instance justice and execution by firing squad are the methods adopted by the regime to keep the political dissidents at bay. Human rights violations are rampant and the international community has not been able to persuade the regime to stop these medieval methods of punishment. Kim Jong-un’s ex-lover Kim Kyok-sik, believed to have been behind the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan and the bombardment of Yeongpyeong Island in 2010, has disappeared from the list of senior regime officials attending public events in recent weeks. It is also believed that Kim Kyok-sik has been replaced by Ri Yong-gil as the chief of operations for the Army General Staff with four-star insignia.

The purging of the army chief and replacing of Kim Kyok-sik are the young dictator’s attempts to stamp his own influence on the military and replace those who were loyal to his father’s regime with his own hand-picked acolytes. The junior Kim believes that if he is to manage his dictatorship carefully to stay in power, he has to gradually phase out the people who potentially pose a threat to his rule. In particular, he suspects the biggest threat could come from professional military officers who have commanded lots of troops in the field in the past.

The execution of Jang follows the execution of 12 female singers and musicians with the Unhasu Orchestra, including Hyon Song-wol, Kim’s former girlfriend, for reportedly making and selling pornographic videos. The severity of the inhuman and barbarity of the regime can be understood if reports from South Korea and China are believed that the women were machine-gunned in front of their relatives, who were then sent to labour camps.

South Korea was the first country to condemn such barbarity on the part of Pyongyang. It termed that such barbarity and political purge at the top of the North Korean leadership as “reign of terror” and feared that such acts could further destabilize the shaky relations between the two Koreas. South Korea feels that such dismissals and executions amounted to dictatorship with potentially destabilizing effects. South Korea fears that North-South relations could become more unstable from now on and therefore the developments in North Korea could impinge heavily on its own security.

Jang was labelled as leading a self-indulgent “capitalist” lifestyle that included drug use, womanizing. There are reports that Jang was first arrested at a Korean Workers Party meeting by uniformed officers. Jang and his associates were accused of a litany of “anti-state” crimes, ranging from corruption to womanising and drug taking. The official Rodong Sinmun pleaded that Jang should be put to death as he had become a traitor. Jang’s execution will definitely stiffen the dynamics within the country and this could prompt Pyongyang to temporarily adopt a more stringent stance.

Being the man in charge of negotiating Chinese investment in special economic zones, Jang was accused of selling off North Korea’s resources at a cheap price to China, North’s main importer. The young dictator apparently did not feel comfortable that Jang was becoming too close to Beijing. Whether this is true or not, Beijing would not be bothered as much of Beijing’s strategy is to keep the regime in Pyongyang afloat. In fact, Beijing is too keen to see that the young dictator visits Beijing as soon as possible for the benefit of friendly ties and long term stability.

Beijing-Pyongyang relationship is often termed as close as lip and teeth. Yet Kim Jong un has neglected to visit China since coming to power two years ago. Even after conducting a third nuclear test last March, the junior Kim has ignored visiting Beijing, widely seen as a snub. So far as China is concerned, balancing friendship with Pyongyang and opposing its nuclear weapons tests is a test for China’s diplomacy. Beijing feels frustrated that the long-stalled six-party talk, which it hosts, still remains in a limbo. The other members – Japan, South Korea, the US and Russia – are refusing to negotiate until Pyongyang demonstrates it is serious about giving up its nuclear programmes.

(The writer is visiting faculty at the Centre for Japanese Studies, JNU)

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