The North Korean regime announced the execution of its second-in-command yesterday; the latest casualty in a far-reaching purge by Kim Jong-Un. The rift may increase the chances that the world’s largest exporter of WMDs and persecutor of Christians will collapse, but that scenario opens up dangers of its own.
The excellent One Free Korea blog says that the execution of Jang Song-Thaek is “immensely important” as he was widely seen as the man pulling the strings from behind the curtain. He was Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission and had long personal relationships throughout the regime’s pillars of power. He was also Kim Jong-Un’s uncle and husband of the late Kim Jong-Il’s sister.
The regime’s announcement accused Jang of “attempting to overthrow the state by all sorts of intrigues and despicable methods with a wild ambition to grab the supreme power of our party and state.” The intelligence analysis firm Stratfor assessed that “there was a slow coup forming in North Korea.”
His death comes shortly after his public arrest and dismissal from all positions. He was charged with various offenses, including betraying the country and selling resources at unapproved low prices. This was a reference to trade with China. Shortly after Kim Jong-Un took over, he upped the cost of iron ore and minerals being sold to China.
The One Free Korea blog observed that China was enraged by the dismissal of Jang. It demanded that Kim Jong-Un immediately travel to Beijing and the Chinese military even conducted a simulation of a night landing on the Yellow Sea Coast with 5,000 troops.
Kim Jong-Un apparently felt there was a threat from a pro-Jang faction, though the killing of him can either be seen as a sign of confidence or of fear. Jong-Un’s older brother oversaw the arrest of Jang’s two closest aides last month.
Jang’s money manager defected shortly before or after Jang’s dismissal. It is the highest level defection in 15 years. It is unclear if the defection caused Jang’s arrest or vice versa. He is believed to have taken Jang’s assets and confidential information about the nuclear program to China, another indication that China favored Jang’s wing of the regime.
“Jang worked with the Chinese even before Kim Jong Il’s death to solidify his own power and effectively be China’s regent for running North Korea,” says Stratfor.
Jong-Un sacked his father’s top financial advisor who had a close relationship with Jang. Even the elites that secured his own ascent weren’t spared, leaving behind only one senior official, the chief of the Politburo. About 44% of military commanders have been dismissed, as have 97 of 218 of the party heads, government ministers and senior military officers.
In one case, the regime made a dramatic public display with one official. The Assistant Chief of Staff for the Ministry of the Peoples’ Armed Forces was blown apart with a mortar round so, in the regime’s words, it’d “leave no trace of him behind, down to his hair.”
There is also a crackdown on outside culture to slow down the crumbling of the information blockade that has sustained the regime so long. He executed 80 people for allegedly possessing Bibles, having pornography and watching South Korean videos. In August, the regime killed a dozen entertainers by firing squad, including his ex-girlfriend. They were accused of being involved with pornography distribution.
Some experts interpret North Korea’s selling of its gold reserves as an indication of increasing economic troubles. It sold two tons to China last year to make $100 million. Other experts feel this is routinely done and is not an indication of anything abnormal.
These developments come shortly after the RAND Corporation concluded in a study that there is a “reasonable probability” that the regime will collapse in the foreseeable future. It predicts a massive humanitarian crisis requiring a major international intervention. The top national security advisor to the President of South Korea predicted the regime will collapse within 2 to 3 years after Kim Jong-Un’s takeover.
There are three ways that this regime change can happen and they are not mutually exclusive.
The most stable transition would be a coup, perhaps with covert Chinese assistance. However, even under this scenario, it is hard to believe that the bloodthirsty regime will non-violently step down. It could easily become a civil war or an insurgency.
The second scenario is a civil war. There is no viable armed opposition group, but that could change as Kim Jong-Un alienates large parts of the military. In 2010, about 200 former North Korean soldiers announced an armed campaign to overthrow the regime but it fizzled.
The third scenario is a popular uprising. In November 2009, plans to reform the currency sparked an unprecedented public expression of opposition. The frightened regime apologized and Kim Jong-Il executed the advisor responsible for the policy.
In February 2011, protests were again sparked in a market when promised goods didn’t arrive. Security forces intervened, beating one man unconscious and escalating the situation.
It is easy to hope for the commencement of regime change when you look at North Korea’s record on human rights abuses and WMD trafficking.
There are around 200,000 political prisoners. Testimony from escapees will one day be the basis of movies that will shock the world. There are countless stories of concentration camp-like persecution, cannibalism, torture, starvation and widespread human experimentation, including on children.
North Korea is the number one oppressor of Christians. If you are caught practicing the faith, you and three generations of your family are sent to a lifetime of labor. An estimated 400,000 of the 20-million population is Christian. One prison alone is thought to house 6,000 Christians.
If and when the regime starts falling, North Korea will be seen as a gold mine for criminals, terrorists and rogue states around the world. Huge stockpiles of unconventional and conventional weapons will be up for grabs. Between 2,500 and 5,000 tons of chemical weapons and 5,000 tons of biological weapons are there. Cyber warfare experts, special forces operatives, weapons scientists, and average soldiers will be looking for jobs.
In addition, there is a consistent pattern where North Korea engages in provocations during times of internal transition. Every major step in the succession process that brought Kim Jong-Un into power coincided with an outburst to draw international attention.
British intelligence believes Jong-Un has an “explosive temper” and suffers from severe hypertension. North Korea has carried out three nuclear tests. Dr. Peter Vincent Pry, one of the nation’s top experts, recently gave a bone-chilling webinar on the Electromagnetic-Pulse (EMP) threat, and included a frightening examination of North Korea’s capabilities in this area.
For things to get better in North Korea, things will have to first become far worse.
The Institute on Religion and Democracy contributed to this article.
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