[Excerpts of a Forbes Opinion piece by Doug Bandow, a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, and former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan.]
As usual, no one knows what is going on in Pyongyang. Its internal politics appears to be bloodier than usual. Ironically, this might provide an opportunity for Washington to initiate talks over a more open bilateral relationship.
The latest rumor is that young dictator Kim Jong-un had his defense minister executed with anti-aircraft fire for disrespectful conduct, including falling asleep in meetings. If Hyon Yong-chol was killed quickly and unexpectedly, it probably wasn’t for dozing off, even in front of the new strongman. More likely the military man was plotting, or at least feared to be plotting, against the North’s leadership.
There has been striking turnover among party and military officials, including multiple appointments for some positions, since Kim Jong-un took over after his father’s death in December 2011. Half of the top 218 officials have been changed, according to the NIS. Even more dramatic was the arrest and execution of Kim’s uncle, Jang Song-taek, another “regent” seen as the regime number two, in December 2013. He was charged with treason, among other offenses, and his blood relatives were said to have been later executed as well.
In April the NIS reported that so far this year 15 high ranking North Korean officials, including an economist whose advice Kim Jong-un disliked, had been executed. Overall some 70 top apparatchiks and more than 400 lower level officials apparently have been killed this year.
This brutality towards the power elite sets Kim apart from his father and grandfather. While Kim Jong-un’s apparent penchant for executions may reflect a peculiarly sadistic nature, it more likely grows out of insecurity. Continuing turnover and executions after more than four years in charge suggests that Kim is not, or at least does not see himself, as yet secure.
Recent events suggest that something unusual is going on in that normally abnormal place.Kim’s bloody rule offers at least a possibility of a shift within the ruling elite. A clear American willingness to reward a more reform-minded government might aid the least bad actors in any power struggle. The Kim regime likely would not reject a process seeming to offer the respect it long has craved. Proposing talks and suggesting rewards would be the best response to an uncertain situation. Someday Pyongyang will change. Engagement is the best way to prepare for that day.
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