There is nothing like a good purge to spark off speculation about the future of an opaque totalitarian regime like the one in North Korea. The problem, of course, is that unless one knows what is going on inside the leader’s head (a tough task for even the most seasoned analyst) events are impossible to predict and exceedingly difficult to explain.
Having said that, the removal from senior party posts of Jang Song-taek, who has served as Kim Jong-un’s “regent,” was to be expected. Andrei Lankov aptly observed that “a smart mentor must know when to retire, to be rewarded with a nice castle in the countryside.” Signs of Jang’s waning influence included his replacement by Choe Ryong-hae as special envoy to Beijing last May, following a high-profile visit to Beijing in August of 2011 and a decline in Jang’s public appearances with Kim Jong-un over the past year. Ken Gause correctly anticipated Jang’s eventual removal from North Korea’s power circles as part of Kim Jong-un’s consolidation of power, but predicted it would occur two years later, in 2015. By this measure, Kim Jong-un appears to be quite confident in his ability to wield power.
Perhaps more interesting than Jang’s removal itself is the unprecedented manner in which it occurred. Jang’s official removal from power at an enlarged meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party included publicly released images of Jang’s arrest and public escort from the meeting. Jang’s public humiliation inside North Korea, the apparent execution of two senior Jang associates, and the extent of the charges—including drug use, philandering, and most seriously, responsibility for a “anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts [such] as expanding their forces through factional moves"—makes clear that this is intended to be the end of Jang’s political career. By removing Jang, Kim Jong-un has sidelined the only individual with a cross-institutional network of relationship ties that could constitute a threat to Kim Jong-un’s power.
The disempowering of Jang’s associates that must follow will no doubt be carried out efficiently and ruthlessly. In the near-term, the purge will strengthen Kim Jong-un’s power and eliminate thoughts among the highest-level cadres that Kim is subject to challenge. But it does not remove the sharpening policy contradictions the regime faces as it establishes special economic zones despite being under international sanctions for its nuclear pursuits or promotes tourism while arbitrarily detaining elderly foreign visitors. South Korean reports that the incidence of public executions has risen dramatically in 2013 compared to the previous year are evidence of consolidation, but under a “reign of terror” in which Kim Jong-un’s decisions are made on impulse and people at every level of North Korean society are governed primarily by fear. Under these circumstances, the main threats to the viability of an otherwise economically and structurally stable DPRK will come through internal challenges in response to a leadership that either makes questionable choices or is spooked by its own shadow.