Those hoping for regime change in North Korea may have just had their wish granted. It is just not the type of change they had been hoping for.
The purge and swift execution of North Korea’s second-most powerful leader, Jang Song-thaek, proves once again the dangers associated with being next in the chain of command in an authoritarian society. Even being the No. 1 guy’s uncle (by marriage, not by birth) may not save you.
What this means for the stability of the regime and for its future policy is anyone’s guess, and it is important to remember that when it comes to North Korea, everyone is guessing. The frustrating part about analyzing North Korea’s actions is that every event has at least two equally plausible, but diametrically opposed explanations.
The experts seem divided between those who think that Jang’s removal from power reflects North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s total control — he is now secure enough to remove his father’s chosen mentor — and those who believe that it reflects just how unstable and insecure the young leader really is.
The latter seems the more likely explanation, but the truth will be revealed if more people are purged or rehabilitated. More than 40 percent of the senior leadership has been removed or retired in the not quite two years since Kim came to power, including some who were potentially Jang’s rivals, who might now make a comeback.
One thing is sure: The previously once-purged Jang will not be making a comeback. Putting him to death — common for lower-ranked individuals, but rare for senior leaders, especially if they are members of the ruling family — could show how insecure Kim is about his ability to truly neutralize his once-powerful uncle.
While much remains to be sorted out and understood, what seems clear is that “Chinese-style reform” is increasingly unlikely for North Korea. Jang had long been seen as its No. 1 advocate; the Chinese treated Jang like a visiting head of state when he went to Beijing last year. While there, he reportedly assured the Chinese leadership that, in return for Chinese support for the new leader, Kim would, with Jang’s encouragement and supervision, eventually take North Korea down the Chinese path.
In all likelihood, this line of thinking has been at least temporarily discredited. Even if his purge was all about power and personalities vice policy, it would be very dangerous for others to be seen as supporting Jang’s policy prescriptions at this time. If reports that China received no advance warning of this event and that some Jang supporters are seeking asylum in China are true, this bodes ill for the China model, and perhaps for the Sino-North Korean relationship as well. That Jang’s long list of sins included selling North Korean assets too cheaply to China must be additional salt in the Chinese wound.
Chinese colleagues sometimes tell me, only half jokingly, that they want to take their children to North Korea to let them see what China was like in the old days, before Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) led China down the path of reform. Many seemed to believe that Jang would turn out to be the North’s Deng. It was the twice-purged Deng who pulled off his own internal coup in 1976, bringing about the regime change in China that saw the so-called Gang of Four, led by Mao’s widow Jiang Qing (江青), ousted.