North Korea’s Urge to Purge

BEIJING – Just when and how the North Korean regime will end cannot be predicted. Its demise could come via a military coup or a palace coup; a worker uprising or a peasant uprising; a consequence of economic failure or something that simply reflects the banality of the entire place. But one element of the Kim dynasty’s end is certain: China will have abandoned it.

It is always difficult to assess what is going on in North Korea, which seems to regard its opaqueness as a national-security asset – routinely keeping foreign observers guessing about even mundane issues like the precise date of current leader Kim Jung-un’s birthday.

There was nothing opaque, however, in the sudden purge and swift execution earlier this month of Jang Song-thaek – or Uncle Jang as the media have taken to calling Kim’s not-so-avuncular one-time regent. The 67-year-old über-bureaucrat was removed from his front-row seat at a Politburo meeting by two security guards and escorted out of the room. Within days, he was tried, convicted, and dead – a model of judicial efficiency. “Kill the chicken to scare the monkey,” the old Asian proverb goes. But why bother with the chicken when you can just kill the monkey?

Having been banished twice, Jang’s emergence as a regent to the boy king seemed to confirm his status as a North Korean Talleyrand capable of surviving anything and anyone. But he was considerably less conspicuous during his young charge’s second year in power. After standing at Kim’s side during every ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2012, he was nowhere to be seen in 2013.