North Korea’s Urge to Purge

It is always difficult to assess what is going on in North Korea, which seems to regard its opaqueness as a national-security asset. But there was nothing opaque in the sudden purge and swift execution of Jang Song-thaek earlier this month.

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?

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