Reports on Wednesday said North Korea in November executed two confidants of eminence grise Jang Song-taek, who has also been striped of all his posts recently. This could have a lasting impact on the reclusive regime's power structure.
Jang lived under a constant threat to his life under former leader Kim Jong-il, but when Kim suffered a massive stroke in June 2008 without designating an heir, it was Jang who became the de facto interim leader because no one else was thought to have the ability. Jang seized the moment to win over officials by pardoning many who had been imprisoned by Kim.
He also started to remove his political rivals to strengthen his power. Ri Je-gang, a senior apparatchik in the Workers Party's Organization and Guidance Department and key confidante of Kim's, was killed in a mysterious car accident, and spy chief Ryu Kyong was purged for treason.
Kim Jong-il had hoped Jang would serve as the mentor guiding his son Kim Jong-un through the difficult early years of hereditary power, just as his own uncle Kim Yong-ju had trained him to succeed Kim Il-sung. But Jang, who was well aware what happens to such mentors when their pupils outgrow them, schemed tirelessly to broaden his powers.
In the Workers Party, government and military, the belief grew that Jang was the one with real power in the regime.
That suggests two possible scenarios that led to his ouster. He either became too hungry for power and overreached himself, or Kim Jong-un has already grown powerful enough to take full control as Kim Jong-il had planned.
The ouster of Jang, which came sooner than expected, attests how much power he had managed to accumulate. He could also hold a sizeable foothold in the military as some 200,000 troops fell under the control of the Worker Party's Administration Department he headed. And he further boosted his power and wealth by commandeering army-controlled businesses that earned hard currency from overseas trade.
The offenses by Jang's coterie offered the perfect excuse to attack him, and Kim's supporters were quick to seize the opportunity to eliminate them. Still, though Kim may have become wary of Jang, it would be unwise to get rid of him for good. Jang and party Politburo chief Choe Ryong-hae comprised the two pillars of power and maintained the stability of the regime. But Choe, who has no military background, has purged many seasoned generals the troops respect, turning the military into a powder keg. Under these circumstances, if Jang is removed completely now, Kim stands to lose more than he gains.
If Kim wields his axe too indiscriminately to consolidate his grip on power, he could be paving the way for his own demise.
By Kang Chol-hwan at North Korea Strategy Center