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By killing his uncle, Kim has burned bridges to world

The summary execution of North Korea's second most powerful leader Jang Sung-taek after a hurried trial by military court has turned the spotlight on a likely power struggle in Pyongyang. It also shows that the pariah state's young leader is consolidating his position with ruthless disregard even for family connections.

Jang was Kim Jong-un's uncle by marriage as well as vice-chairman of the National Defence Council (NDC) and No 2 to Kim in the Korea Workers' Party (KWP). Jang also oversaw the transfer of power to his young protege after the death of the latter's father Kim Jong-il in December 2011.

In the past two years Jang and his wife, who is the younger sister of Kim Jong-il, smoothed Kim's rise to the head of the KWP and the National Defence Commission.

Jang's downfall and execution has shed new light on the relationship with his nephew. Jang was known as a reformer and a pragmatist, and was the trusted intermediary in developing economic relations with China, North Korea's only ally. However Kim Jong-un recently began to chart a different course, declaring his intention to strike a balance between North Korea's controversial nuclear weapons programme and Chinese-style economic reform. This followed an unsuccessful visit to Beijing in May by General Choe Ryong-hae, chief of the Korean People's Army (KPA), which signalled an attempt at reconciliation with China. Jang had earlier visited China in August 2012 to promote economic cooperation.

Power struggle in Pyongyang

South Korean observers have speculated that Kim's reduced focus on the military represented a humiliation for the army. That Kim had also appointed both himself and his aunt, Jang' wife, as four-star generals seem to have been aimed at shifting power from the NDC and army towards the KWP, where Jang's power lay. North Korea had also neglected to take advantage of Chinese and Russian technological assistance to upgrade its ageing and outdated conventional weapons, leaving the nuclear weapons programme as the army's only real dividend from the military-first policy. The status and influence of the army was further reduced by the extent of Kim's control over the organisation.

The losers in the struggle for power in Pyongyang are portrayed as having committed anti-party, counter-revolutionary acts intended to disrupt the unity and cohesion of the party. This is typically characterised as undermining popular support for the Kim family leadership and their resistance against imperialism, represented by the United States, Japan and the South Korean "puppet" government.

All those who fail to uphold the slogan "Isolation is Glorious" are guilty, and therefore deserve execution - though Jang's case is very unusual for the publicity it has received from the North Korean media. The Korean Central Network Agency, as the mouthpiece of the KWP, provided extensive coverage from December 8-13 of Jang's public arrest, his trial by a special military court, and his immediate execution. The Ministry of State Security was responsible for organising this process, though it seems that the army was pulling the strings.

Questions about Kim's grip

These unexpected developments have fuelled questions about the firmness of Kim Jung-un's grip on power, and the succession struggle which might transpire if he fails to establish full control over the army. Jang's ouster was announced at an enlarged meeting of the KWP politburo on December 8. But this was apparently driven by the Ministry of State Security and the commissioner for political warfare, responsible for monitoring the ideological correctness of the North Korean elite, both KWP and the army, which strongly implies that the army is currently in the ascendancy.

Jang's execution seems to confirm that Kim has been obliged to side with the army, rather than the KWP. Kim has, therefore, probably done enough to avoid any attempt by the army to take power away from his family, at least for the present. But if any such challenge does arise, it will likely be from General Choe Ryong-hae.

It is clear that Kim Jong-un prefers "glorious isolation" if this is necessary to retain the support of the army. Given his lack of experience, and the need to strike a balance between the KWP and the army, it is the army that will continue to be a very influential force enjoying robust leverage. Yet the struggle between the KWP and the army remains unresolved, with Kim so far unable to establish complete dominance.

The situation in Pyongyang will remain fluid and pose a challenge to North Korea's strategic partner, China, as well as its foes in South Korea and the US. China will need to exercise quiet diplomacy to engage Kim in a strategic dialogue rather than just working-level talks, while the US and South Korea will need to be patient to work out a modus vivendi with the Pyongyang leadership.

Sukjoon Yoon is former captain in the South Korean navy and currently a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for Maritime Strategy and visiting professor at the department of defence systems engineering in Sejong University, Seoul.


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