It seems to be the beginning of a decisive twist in North Korean domestic politics as well as North Korea’s relations with China with the ouster of Jang Song-thaek, Vice Chairman of the National Defence Commission and uncle of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. In North Korean domestic politics, it may herald an era of full control of Kim Jong-un without any patronage. Jang Song-thaek, who is married to Kim Kyung-hui, sister of Kim Jong-il, was supposed to work as the patron, guide and chief advisor of Kim Jong-un after his appointment in 2011. Apparently, he enjoyed a key position in the political affairs of North Korea and could be called the chief executive of the ‘succession project’. It was considered remarkable that he was successful in accomplishing his responsibilities smoothly.
Jang Song-thaek was considered an efficient organiser and so, even though he was demoted a few times during Kim Jong-il’s era, he was chosen to be the main facilitator of the succession process. The reason for the trust was that he was experienced, pragmatic, had family relations with the Kim clan, and had close contact with China. However, Kim Jong-il was not sure about his future aspirations. So, he was promoted to be the unofficial caretaker of young Kim Jong-un, but reportedly, more than 200 of his supporters were purged from party positions before his promotion, and his wife Kim Kyung-hui was also prominently brought into the loop to have control over any possible disloyalty.
It is interesting to note that there are two opposite views on his purge. According to one view, it symbolises full control by Kim Jong-un on the North Korean system and confidence that he can manage without him. However, according to another view, if Kim Jong-un himself did not take the decision, then it means that a dangerous power struggle has begun in North Korea. It was earlier considered that military was not in the driving seat in North Korea under the new leader. Kim Jong-un removed military general Ri Yong-ho and introduced a few economic reform plans in which it was not required to take permission from the military to start an industry. It was considered that the new leader had full control over the military. However, the purge of Jang Song-thaek, who was considered to be from a pro-civilian group, makes it clear that either the military has been trying to re-assert itself or Kim Jong-un has got full control over even political elites in the country. Thus, there is no clear answer to whether the purge means North Korea is going to be more open to economic reform or move away from it. Jang was associated with North Korean special economic zones (SEZs) set up with China, and it would be difficult to say whether it means that the recent North Korean announcement to establish fourteen more SEZs would be delayed/stopped or organised according to different rules and conditions.
A very significant implication for Jang’s removal would be on North Korea’s relations with China. He was considered to be close to Chinese leaders and there are speculations that by his removal, Kim Jong-un wants to send a strong message to China. Apparently there was some friction in North Korea’s relations with China, especially after the third North Korean nuclear test in February 2013. China was considered to be cooperating with international community to impose sanctions, and reportedly forced North Korea to engage in talks with South Korea in June 2013. China has also been pestering North Korea to restart Six-Party talks, even though North Korea is not willing to do so. Kim Jong-un has not been able to visit China after his inauguration and it shows some distance between North Korea and China under his rule.
With the purge of arguably the most important link with China, Kim Jong-un wants to convey to China that the regime can afford to get by without China. China constitutes the most important window for North Korea to the outside world and it would not be easy for North Korea to do away with official and unofficial help and concessions from China. If the purge of Jang Song-thaek by Kim Jong-un is largely seen through the lens of his uncomfortable relations with China, it would mean severe desperation on the part of Pyongyang may lead to a major upheaval in North Korea and in the region. However, if the purge is largely caused by domestic factors, North Korea might try to find the next link with China and try to replace the role of Jang in North Korea-China relations.
In the entire scenario, the purge of Jang Song-thaek is indeed a serious indication that everything is not well inside the ‘closed country’, and it may prove to be beginning of a real tumultuous phase for North Korea. Either North Korea will survive and Kim Jong-un will emerge more powerful and in control, or it will lead tothe disintegration of the regime.