Is Kim Jong-un Rudderless Without Jang Song-taek?

With eminence grise Jang Song-taek out of the way, the North Korean regime has become centered entirely around leader Kim Jong-un. That may give the young leader some room to breathe, but it also means there is now no one senior enough to keep him in check if he blunders.

The ouster of Jang, who although a corrupt part of the old guard was also in favor of cautious reform, means a safety valve for the North Korean regime has been lost.

◆ Purge of Old Guard

Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae in the National Assembly's Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee on Wednesday said, "If it was a purge, it spells the end of the Kim Jong-il era and the start of the Kim Jong-un era."

Ryoo added, "Kim is young and inexperienced, but given the special nature of the [hereditary] North Korean political system, there's no reason to believe that he has failed in his attempts to tighten his grip on the party, government and military."

Experts believe that with the ouster of Jang, Kim's uncle and a guardian appointed by his father, the young leader has now finished his housecleaning. In the course of it, he already fired Army chief Ri Yong-ho, the other guardian, in July last year.

Jang Song-taek (in dotted circle) lounges informally in his chair (bottom) or stares off into the distance while Kim Jong-un delivers a speech in this screen capture from [North] Korean Central TV on Jan. 29, 2013. Jang Song-taek (in dotted circle) lounges informally in his chair (bottom) or stares off into the distance while Kim Jong-un delivers a speech in this screen capture from [North] Korean Central TV on Jan. 29, 2013.

The North's official Rodong Sinmun in a thinly veiled commentary on the matter wrote, "Anybody can turn treacherous in an instant, no matter how long they have been loyal to the party."

Quoting Kim Jong-il, the daily said, "During the days of the early revolution, the revolutionary comrades held the great leader [Kim Il-sung] in high esteem, although they were 10 to 15 years his senior. They wholeheartedly accepted the great leader because they admired his greatness. There should be no qualms and hesitation at all in serving the leader." 

"There can be no 99 percent-proof loyalty but only 100 percent-proof loyalty. You remain loyal if you stick to convictions and obligations, but if you do not you may end up treacherous," it added.

◆ One-Man Leadership

Some experts worry that North Korea will become more unstable under the new one-man leadership.

Ryu Dong-ryeol of the Police Science Institute said, "The regime could become seriously destabilized unless another safety mechanism takes the place of the old."

Some pundits point out that Kim Jong-un is inexperienced and lacks political nous, which has resulted in some peculiar turns and volte-faces from the regime in the last two years.

These were often interpreted as reactions to some kind of power struggle between various organs of the state, and it remains to be seen whether Kim will handle them any better alone than with his wily old uncle.

englishnews@chosun.com / Dec. 05, 2013 12:30 KST

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