Was Jang Song-thaek’s execution a sign of weakness in the third-generation Kim regime? I think so, and here’s something from a Korea JoongAng Daily editorial:
The brutal ousting would suggest both the young ruler’s need to consolidate his grip and the inherent vulnerability of inherited power. It may show that Kim felt so threatened and insecure about his single-man leadership that he had to resort to such an extreme measure against a member of his own family. In the seven-page report released by the Korean Central News Agency, Jang was said to have built a “little kingdom” of his own and was planning a military coup to overthrow his nephew. That also suggests a growing resentment of the third-generation leader among the party, military and government.
The announcement said Jang confessed he wanted to fan resentment in the military and society toward the government for failing to restore the crumbling economy or improve the poor state of the people’s lives. He wanted to ascend to power when the economy went totally bankrupt and the state was nearing collapse by concentrating resources in the divisions and economic institutions he had power over. It shows that even Jang had doubts about his own regime’s viability.
And a reminder from our own Richard Fernandez:
Scratch any communist country — or communist party — and you will find aristocracy. Nicholas Eberstadt, writing in the Washington Post explains how “Pyongyang Royalty” works. There is a ruling house in North Korea and indeed one reason why the regime was stable for so long, Eberstadt argues, is because its Royals observed an unwritten rule never to execute each other. It is a rule that Emperor Kim Yong-un has just broken.
The fact they wouldn’t kill members of the Ruling House made leadership struggles a safer affair thereby opening the door to negotiated outcomes. That contributed to stability. But the death of Grand Moff Jang Song Thaek means that North Korean politics has now become a zero sum game.
The North Korean economy has been a zero sum game since at least the dissolution of the Soviet Union. There have been enough goodies since then to keep the nomenklatura fat and happy, and enough fear and hunger to keep the masses in line.
But what does a fat & happy member of the nomenklatura do when the payoff for obedience is a bullet to the back of the head?