Monday, December 16, 2013

North Korea Execution: The Devil We Knew

Gen. Chang is arrested.
All is not well on the Korean Peninsula. Earlier this week, reports surfaced that the man believed to be Kim Jong-un’s second-in-command in the pariah state of North Korea, Gen. Chang Son-taek, was forcibly removed from a Communist Party meeting. The public spectacle of his arrest was later confirmed by North Korean media, and pictures of him being led out of an assembly were met with reports that two of his close associates had been executed, and another had defected to South Korea. Today, observers were shocked by news (accompanied by graphic pictures) of Gen. Chang’s execution. Shocked not only because for years Gen. Chang was believed to be Kim Jong-il and then Kim Jong-un’s right-hand man, but also because he is in fact family: an uncle by marriage to the man who just had him killed.

Of course, a despot murdering a family member is not so extraordinary. After all, Chang Son-taek had been purged before, in 2004, when it is believed that Kim Jong-il had grown uncomfortable with the amount of power he wielded, only to return to public life following his “reeducation” in 2006. Yet his position of power and favor do render his execution out of the ordinary, especially since he likely has the backing of much of the powerful military. He served as head of the National Defense Commission, North Korea’s ruling military body, and was second only to the Supreme Leader. His execution indicates that a full-scale purge of the top ranks of the NDC is underway or about to be, since he has hundreds of close associates and allies that Kim Jong-un would necessarily need to get rid of if he wants to maintain his grip on power and avoid any chance of a military coup. The possible purge of longtime leaders, more than anything else, has sparked fears of coming instability on the Peninsula.

Since taking power of North Korea in 2011, Kim Jong-un’s policies have seemed ad hoc and disorganized from the outside, but the common thread appears to be a desire to assert and consolidate power. At the time of his ascendancy, observers believed that top generals would be the true leaders in North Korea due to Kim’s age, inexperience, and lack of military connections. Generals Ri Yong-ho and Chang Son-taek were both rumored to be the true hand of power in North Korea, having served for decades under Kim Jong-il. In 2012, however, Ri Yong-ho announced his resignation from Party duties citing a suspicious illness, despite the fact that he appeared in good health in officially distributed images. In November 2012, Chinese media announced that he had been executed, although the North Korean government has never confirmed his death.

Chang Son-taek stands behind Kim Jong-un at his
father's funeral.
Thus the very public sacking and execution of Gen. Chang marks a commensurately public battle for power at the upper echelons of North Korean leadership. While observers can only guess at Kim Jong-un’s motivations, his policies in the last two years reveal where the fissures in North Korean politics likely lie. One of the primary battlegrounds for conflicting policies has been in the economic realm. Under Kim Jong-il in 2002, incremental economic reforms were introduced that allowed for small, private markets and private agriculture, largely as an effort to combat the food insecurity that is endemic to North Korea. The relaxation of Communist principles and collectivized agriculture led to a significant growth in the informal economy, and North Korean citizens have become dependent on the semi-legal and illegal markets not only to meet basic needs but also to access consumer goods. Some economists estimate that up to 75 percent of North Koreans’ household incomes are earned in these markets, making them a vital lifeline for citizens deprived of access to adequate food, medicine, and other “black market” goods.

The markets have not come without a cost to the North Korean regime: they have led to increased access to foreign media, a flood of foreign currency laundering, and greater economic independence of the populace from the government. Kim Jong-il himself recognized these problems, and, fearing cultural and ideological infiltration through the markets, led attempts to crackdown on markets and foreign currency in 2008-2010. The crackdowns led to once-rare reports of civil unrest, including a protest by women in Chongdin in 2008 and a protest in North Pyongan in 2010. These protests have been met with arrests and imprisonment for participants; they do also mark a break with the past when even sporadic reports of unrest were extremely rare.

Chang Son-taek is believed to have been an advocate of economic reform, perhaps even favoring the “China-style” reforms encouraged by North Korea’s greatest ally. He met with Chinese officials several times in 2012 to attempt to foster further economic cooperation between the two nations. Currently, observers believe that his arrest and execution may stem largely from his vocal support for economic reforms that Kim Jong-un appears to want to roll back. China itself is dismayed at its once steadfast ally’s recent behavior. When, in February 2013, the North Korean regime went ahead with a nuclear test despite having been explicitly instructed not to by Chinese Premier Xi Jinping, China for the first time voted to increase sanctions against North Korea with UN Resolution 2094. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has also expressly stated that China will not tolerate “troublemakers” on its doorstep. Although pressing the need for “China-style” reforms itself, China has not appeared to make much headway with the Kim regime.

In the end, the regime’s intransigence with its most powerful supporter is likely to lead to further economic malaise and isolation. China is North Korea’s largest trading partner by far, with 67.2 percent of North Korean trade taking place between the two countries in 2011, and in 2012 that share is believed to have increased. China also provides 80-90 percent of North Korea's fuel at "friendly prices," although North Korea still suffers from constant fuel shortages. North Korea has already experience low or negative GDP growth rates since 2006, and the years of positive growth in 2008, 2011, and 2012 coincided with times of high Chinese investment in key industries such as mining, construction, and agriculture. The already-fragile growth would be dealt a deathblow if significant amounts of Chinese investment were rescinded. The shaky plan to create 14 Special Economic Zones in the next few years also will never get off the ground unless Chinese companies are willing to participate in them. Despite the obvious advantage of appeasing its much larger, richer, and better-armed neighbor, however, Kim seems only concerned with acting tough towards its onetime friend.

With the shake-ups both at the international and domestic levels, one thing is assured about North Korea’s future: it is going to be even less predictable than it is today. While it is nearly impossible to state anything about North Korea with certainty, a few trends do appear to be emerging from within the Hermit Kingdom. First, Kim Jong-un, like his father, has placed a premium on asserting himself as the sole leader in control of the North Korean government. Second, this indicates that the centrally planned economy will continue to take a back seat to leadership and military concerns, leading to possibly negative growth rates in the next year and likely another food crisis or famine. Third, Kim’s desire to assert his authority even over his regional ally China will lead to worsening relations between the two neighbors, and provide opponents such as Japan and South Korea with a rare opportunity to work with China to contain the North. And finally, in the near future we are likely to see a missile or nuclear test from North Korea, as it continues to flex its muscles to the international community. Barring a change in course by the Kim regime, it appears that the world must forget the devils that it knew in the Kim regime, and prepare for the devils yet to come.

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