As the shock sinks in of North Korea’s extraordinary announcement of the execution of leader Kim Jong Un’s uncle and former protector, government officials and analysts are trying to decipher what the brutal move means.
Some saw the execution as a chilling demonstration of total control by Kim, the young leader who came to power two years ago. “I think what he’s telling people — the United States, South Korea, China, others — is that he is his own man, that you are going to have to deal with him,” said Philip Yun, executive director of the Ploughshares Fund, a nuclear nonproliferation group.
One big question is whether Kim acted out of strength, consolidating the power he has amassed over the past two years, or out of fear his uncle Jang Song Thaek was building a rival force inside the regime.
Suh Sang-ki, a lawmaker in South Korea’s governing Saenuri Party who sits on a parliamentary intelligence committee, said the decision to kill Jang suggests Kim’s power is weaker than that of his father. Suh said the execution appeared to be a pre-emptive effort to prevent any internal unrest over Jang’s ouster.
A U.S. official said, “Executing someone with Jang’s pedigree would be a dramatic statement that Kim Jong Un intends to be ruthless in consolidating his control. The public airing of the power play under way — which is highly unusual — is probably sending shockwaves through North Korea’s leadership cadre.”
Few analysts interpreted the execution, which took place days after the North had said Jang had been dramatically removed from his government posts, as a healthy sign.
Analysts said North Korea was likely to continue with provocative moves. “I think there’s going to be a clear amount of brinksmanship,” said Yun of the Ploughshares Fund. “I think if we continue to wait for him to do things, he’s going to continue to shoot missiles, and he’ll probably at some point decide to test a nuclear weapon.”
Exactly what is going on inside the notoriously opaque North Korea regime remains as murky as ever.