Experts Puzzle Over Jang Song-taek's Ouster

The ouster and execution of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's uncle Jang Song-taek has laid bare the fault lines running through the secretive regime, where various factions jostle for control of diminishing resources.

The picture is going to become clearer over the following weeks and months, but already it is clear that the regime is far less monolithic than some observers believed based on state propaganda alone.

Meanwhile, feverish speculation continues among North Korea watchers here trying to make sense of the mess.

◆ Instability

Kim may have eliminated the greatest threat to his rule, but he also exposed the instability of his power base, according to some experts.

Ryu Dong-ryeol of the Police Science Institute said Kim probably eliminated his guardian because he either felt confident enough to go it alone or felt his power threatened.

Nam Sung-wook at Korea University pointed out that nation founder Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il also eliminated their rivals "but never organized rallies to denounce them" as Kim Jong-un is doing. He said this demonstrates a "weakened power base" for the young leader.

Yun Duk-min, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, told a seminar in the National Assembly on Thursday that he doubts about the stability of the Kim regime given the rapid changes that have taken place recently.

This could weaken Kim's own power base and lead to internal chaos, Yun warned.

Experts believe that it usually takes about two years to consolidate power again after a purge, so it will not be until 2015 to see whether Kim has succeeded.

◆ Uncertainties

The Workers Party Politburo said Jang had been warned several times and steps were taken to rein in his ambitions, but he did not acquiesce. Jang may have been guilty of hubris, with followers worshipping him personally or prioritizing Jang's orders over than Kim's.

But other experts say Jang may have been targeted for elimination a year ago as he was relieved of his duty as head of the administrative department of the Workers Party.

If Jang directly challenged Kim's rule, there is a strong change that the reign of terror will intensify in North Korea. The overseas businesses Jang controlled could also be scaled back, which would slow the pace of timid economic reforms.

Pyongyang's relations with Beijing are also expected to be impacted because Jang had many connections in China.

◆ The Kim Family's Role

There are reports that Kim Jong-un's older brother Jong-chol personally led a team of security guards to arrest Jang. Others say Kim's half sister Sol-song and her husband Sin Bok-nam led the purge. It is unclear what role Jang's wife and former leader Kim Jong-il's sister Kim Kyong-hui played.

Japanese and other foreign media say Kim Kyong-hui had an active role in the ouster of her husband, while others believe she quietly condoned it. If the Kim dynasty closed rank to remove Jang, the regime could have gained a measure of short-term stability.

◆ Military Role

One aim of Jang's ouster may have been for military Politburo chief Choe Ryong-hae to regain control over the money-making operations Jang had monopolized. That would mean that the powerful military is once again in the ascendancy, and with it all the reactionary belligerence that caused the international community such headaches during the reign of Kim Jong-il.

But some pundits think Jang's ouster was a matter for the party leadership and a corps of soldiers protecting the North Korean leader. Ryu at the Police Science Institute said, "Even Choe may see his power threatened in a while." / Dec. 13, 2013 11:58 KST