We are Kim’s kin too

I can’t even pretend to know something about North Korea, but it seems to me The Daily Beast has it right:  rather than being a sign of strength, Kim Jong Un’s purge and execution of his uncle reflects weakness and foreshadows instability.  The military is coming out on top, regime cadres will be running scared and Pyongyang will become more isolated.  Uncle Jang Song Thaek was a key liaison with the Chinese, which had been encouraging economic opening and discouraging nuclear adventurism.

This is a difficult situation for the rest of the world.  North Korea is a threat to regional stability either way:  Kim may gain full command and brandish nuclear weapons against his neighbors (and Washington, though no one thinks he has the capability to target the continental United States), hoping to be paid off in fuel and food.  The US has done that several times, but President Obama has sworn off the practice.  Or North Korea might collapse, sending refugees into China and the South and leaving behind nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction in the hands of who knows who.

The least likely outcome is the one we all hoped for:  a peaceful, gradual and successful transition to a more normal state capable of protecting and feeding its population.  But hope is not a policy.  We should be talking with the Chinese, South Koreans and Japanese not only about restraining North Korea’s nuclear capabilities but also about how to encourage a peaceful evolution.  The South Koreans in particular have tried to nudge the North in that direction, but Kim Jong Un seems even less interested in their economic approach to easing the transition than his father and grandfather were.

Kim Jong Un’s motive for the purge and execution was Jang’s alleged resistance to Kim’s succession and plans to take power.  The regime’s press release is clear enough:

In a bid to rally a group of reactionaries to be used by him for toppling the leadership of the party and state, he let the undesirable and alien elements including those who had been dismissed and relieved of their posts after being severely punished for disobeying the instructions of Kim Jong Il and kowtowing to him work in a department of the Central Committee of the WPK and organs under it in a crafty manner.

Treason, in a word.

I can’t imagine that Jang was a nice guy.  He may even have been a traitor.  But he had survived decades in a system that commands absolute loyalty, as it has no other way of preventing a challenge to its hold on power.  When such a regime starts consuming its own, it is in trouble.  Its trouble could become the world’s trouble.  Kim’s relatives and close associates are not the only ones who have reason to be concerned.  We are Kim’s kin too.


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