North Korea’s sudden and very public purge of Kim Jong-un’s uncle-in-law and mentor Jang Song-thaek, who was executed on 12 December, is an extraordinary turn of events. It seems a stretch to regard this as positive for stability – although some do argue so, as discussed below.
Purges are of course routine in a regime originally created by and modelled on Stalin’s USSR. Fought out publicly in the early days when North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il-sung – the grandfather of Kim Jong-un – liquidated rival communist factions (pro-Soviet, pro-Chinese, South Korean – in the 1950s, and then in the 1960s got rid of those who dared to oppose his dynastic succession plans, in more recent decades such processes had become more discreet. Individuals simply disappeared sans explanation, or were retired on the pretext of ill-health. Jang himself vanished thus in mid-2003, reappearing only in early 2006. The likeliest reason is that Kim Jong-il feared his brother-in-law and his networks were becoming too powerful – but then needed him back to smooth the succession of the young and untried Kim Jong-un.
Readers of the drearily hagiographic party daily Rodong Sinmun are not used to subjects like gambling and orgies, much less talk of inciting a military coup on grounds of mass poverty. Yet the supposedly unthinkable in North Korea was plastered all over the Pyongyang media, not once but twice, in the two rambling, ferocious and eye-opening screeds that accompanied Jang’s denunciation and purge on 8 December and his trial and execution four days later.
It is risky to air such matters: telling a shocked public in graphic detail that even such a pillar of the system was in fact a thrice-cursed traitor. Two questions arise: who had it in for Jang, and what this all portends for stability. It may not have been simply the nephew disposing of an uncle-mentor who had outlived his usefulness and might pose a threat. Just as likely, hard-liners in the Party and military saw Jang and his gang as simply too powerful; and perhaps also too keen, as the charge-sheet suggests, on economic opening and reform. (Jang’s widow Kim Kyong-hui, the younger sister of Kim Jong-il, whose own fate was at first unclear, was spared and remains powerful: she was named to a state committee on 15 December. She and Jang may have been estranged; there is now speculation that she had a hand in his demise.)
Purging Jang so publicly is an act of state terror pour encourager les autres, warning elite and masses alike to stay in line. But it could backfire. If top nomenklatura figures must now fear for their lives, as they mostly need not have before, they may consider options thus far off the table, such as defection. Despite many fissures, the DPRK elite has been remarkably cohesive hitherto, on the basis that if they did not hang together they risked hanging separately; but all that could now unravel. Time will soon tell, if further purges – besides Jang’s people, already in the firing line – follow in 2014. If however the dust settles and all is stable, then Kim Jong-un’s cruel chutzpah and gamble might just pay off and allow him to consolidate his rule.
And then do what? The US scholar and quondam policy maker Victor Cha sees Jang’s ouster as confirming “the regime’s turn to a hardline, fundamentalist ideology by the young Kim, not one of opening and reform.” That is too simple, and also a misplaced either/or. On the contrary, Kim Jong-un’s Byungjin line is a both/and: declaring that North Korea will keep its nuclear weapons while also seeking economic development. Guns and butter, in a word.
To be sure, Kim may well be deluded in supposing he can (to mix the metaphor) both have his nuclear cake and eat the fruits of inward FDI. Capital shortages, UN sanctions and an as yet unreformed economy – where blind loyalty trumps and squelches enterprise any day, as the young Marshal has just bloodily emphasised – all militate against this amalgam of chalk and cheese actually working. Byungjin may even be less a coherent policy than a stalemate between hard-liners and modernisers at the time it was promulgated, on 31 March.
And yet the regime seems serious about economic opening. Pursuant to a law passed in May, on 21 November the DPRK proclaimed nine new Economic Development Zones (EDZs), all around the country, with incentives for foreign investors. Wasting no time, on the very day (9 December) Jang’s purge was revealed, the Chinese city of Tumen in Jilin province signed a deal to develop one such EDZ: a nearby site in the small DPRK city of Onsong, just across the eponymous Tumen river which forms the border. A Chinese source says this is to be “a high-class foreign tourists’ resort with a golf course, swimming pool and horse racing;” suggesting a closed enclave, alas, rather than an engine of wider national development.
Global Times, the Chinese paper that broke this story, in the same article quoted a South Korean opposition law-maker as claiming far bigger joint ventures are in the works. By this account, on 8 December (the day of Jang’s purge) China and North Korea agreed to build a 380 km high-speed railway – other reports add a motorway alongside it – all the way from Sinuiju on the border to Pyongyang and on to Kaesong, on the border with South Korea.
And further, to Seoul? Cross border North-South rail links already exist from the sunshine era (1998-2007) of cautious inter-Korean detente, but the North has refused to let them be used. Kim Jong-un may be more confident than his late father, especially if (to great chagrin in Seoul) it is China, not South Korea, that will be doing the construction and footing the bills.
In sum, the dust from Jang Song-thaek’s purge has yet to settle and will not do so for several months, as the mopping-up continues. Publicly liquidating his uncle is a high-risk strategy for Kim Jong-un, which may incite rather than prevent further ructions within the elite.
Yet analysis must avoid essentialism and false antitheses. It does not follow from this brutal act that Kim is benighted and reactionary on all fronts. On the contrary, rather than opposing economic opening (market reforms are another matter) he seems to favour it in some degree. Jang Song-thaek may have been purged not for doing the wrong thing, but for doing the right thing too well and independently; forcing his nephew to bump him off and steal his clothes.
If from next year the massive new bridge already rising over the Yalu river does indeed link China’s own modern road and rail networks with new ones beginning to be built across the DPRK– and what is the point of it otherwise? – then perhaps North Koreans, though cowed and surely worried by Jang’s purge, may not yet abandon hope that their headstrong young leader will deliver them, if not glasnost, then at least a modicum of perestroika. At all events no one is asking them, so unless insanely brave they have little choice but to wait and see.