Jang Song Taek’s execution: an ominous sign for North Korea?

Author: Nah Liang Tuang, RSIS

The execution of the second-most-powerful man in North Korea, Jang Song-taek, on treason charges might be a portent of more destabilising decisions by Kim Jong-un, and this in turn may further cripple the prospects of North Korea’s denuclearisation.

Jang Song-taek was widely seen as the second-in-command to North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un, and a key policymaker in Pyongyang. His public expulsion from the Korean Worker’s Party on 8 December, swift trial for treason, and rapid execution on 12 December serve as an example of the acute insecurity within Pyongyang’s powerful elite.

While ruling-class purges within authoritarian states are not uncommon, and usually do not concern the international community, this period of governance instability in Pyongyang has serious implications for global nuclear non-proliferation efforts. Further nuclear arms aggrandisement by the DPRK, on top of its three nuclear tests to date, could encourage other potential nuclear aspirants.

The 2009 and 2013 DPRK nuclear tests served well to rally North Koreans around Pyongyang’s leadership in the wake of Kim Jong-il’s debilitating stroke in 2008, and bolster Kim Jong-un’s leadership credentials after the elder Kim’s death in 2011.

Now, there is a possibility that the younger Kim might conduct another nuclear test to serve the same purpose.

Prior to the purge, Jang Song-taek held key positions in Pyongyang, and there is the possibility that his execution has created a power vacuum that needs to be filled. In a ‘theatre state’ like North Korea, a nuclear test is one of the few demonstrations of power that really matter.

A fourth nuclear test, in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions, would once again display Kim Jong-un’s leadership mettle against external ‘imperialism’, showcase North Korean technological achievement, and help the young leader impress his citizens and consolidate his authority.

Unfortunately, a fourth nuclear test by Pyongyang will provide ample encouragement to rogue regimes that nuclear armaments are feasible and realisable.

When Kim Jong-un assumed leadership upon his father’s death, some commentators speculated that his Swiss education, familiarity with Western culture, and even fluency in English might usher in an era of greater economic, cultural, and even political openness for North Korea, making stubborn issues like the DPRK’s nuclear disarmament more easily negotiated. Unfortunately, Jang’s execution reveals that Kim is more the totalitarian student of Machiavellian politics like his father and grandfather before him than a believer in liberal reform. This has been demonstrated by Kim Jong-un allowing the Jang episode of local power-politics to occur, even given the concern from China — North Korea’s most important ally — about the regime’s political instability.

While Kim’s diplomatic stance towards external powers vis-à-vis crucial matters like nuclear arms proliferation in the days ahead is difficult to deduce, it can be reasonably assumed that, since he only took power in December 2011, he has not fully consolidated his power base and might place foreign engagement on the backburner. Hence, during this phase, in order for Kim Jong-un to convey an image of strong leadership and sovereign independence to the North Korean people, his government is likely to project an attitude towards the United States, South Korea and Japan that is stridently antagonistic and nationalist.

Jang was impressed by Chinese and South Korean economic progress when he visited these countries in 2013 and 2002 respectively, after which he backed the promotion of North Korean special economic zones. His purging may mean the Kim regime will pay less attention to China’s encouragement toward economic reforms, and instead see the regime focus on military development to cultivate support from the DPRK armed forces.

Domestic politics in the DPRK remains as opaque as ever, and Pyongyang has displayed a tendency to be volatile and unpredictable. To avoid compelling Kim to test a fourth nuclear device, launch another long-range missile prototype, or shell a South Korean island to demonstrate his political moxie, it may be prudent for the governments of North Korea’s established adversaries, namely the United States, South Korea and Japan, to refrain from strongly worded official comments about Jang’s execution or even Pyongyang’s uncertain political trajectory. In this case, North Korea should perhaps be accorded Westphalian courtesy and be given the political space to reorder its leadership.

Pyongyang’s last major ally, China, can be approached to mediate an equilibrium between the Kim regime and the international community that encourages respect for the North Korean political status-quo in return for a North Korean foreign policy that is devoid of military adventurism and nuclear aggrandisement.

Nah Liang Tuang is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.