On Sunday, December 8th, Pyongyang officially acknowledged the ouster of Jang Song-taek, vice chairman of the important National Defense Commission. Despite being Kim Jong-un’s uncle and mentor and the “second most powerful man in North Korea,” Jang was stripped of all his titles for “anti-party, counter-revolutionary acts.”
Jang’s purge shows that Kim Jong-un has firmly consolidated his grip over the country and is confident enough to remove even the most senior strata of North Korean leadership. Kim has purged hundreds of officials since ascending the throne two years ago; a number of these, including two of Jang’s closest aides, were executed. Kim originally focused his wrath against the military, but by removing Jang, a senior Korea Workers Party official, the bloodletting may now be directed against real or imagined enemies within the party structure.
Although Jang has often been labeled a “reformer” by the media, there has been no evidence that he or any hidden cabal have advocated economic and political reform or the moderation of North Korea’s threatening behavior. Pyongyang has created the perception of factions of hardliners and reformers as part of a “good cop, bad cop” strategy to elicit benefits during negotiations. As a Korean adage warns, “The same animal has soft fur and sharp claws.”
By accusing Jang Song-taek of being “affected by the capitalist way of living [and] not accepting the policies of the party,” Kim Jong-un made all too clear that he is just as inimical to political and economic reform or pursuing a less belligerent policy as his predecessors. He has refused to abandon North Korea’s nuclear weapons and demonstrated his willingness earlier this year to escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula to dangerous levels by threatening nuclear attacks against the United States and South Korea.
Kim Jong-un continues to augment his nuclear and missile delivery capabilities while purging challengers and subjugating his populace. North Korea’s leadership may have changed two years ago, but the policies haven’t.