On Dec. 3, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) abruptly claimed that Jang Song-thaek, head of the Central Administrative Department of the North Korean Workers’ Party (KWP), had been purged. More than a month had passed since Jang had last appeared in the North Korean media, despite the fact that he is the uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and considered the number-two man in the regime. And yet, this was the first time that the NIS claimed he had been purged.
If it proves true that Jang has been ousted, there are sure to be ramifications in the short term. Since Kim Jong-un came to power in Pyongyang, Jang has played a role in shifting the center of the North Korean regime from the military to the KWP. In addition, Jang was effectively the man behind measures to improve and reform the economy that began in 2012 and have been actively promoted in 2013. Economic policy-maker Pak Pong-ju, who was reinstated as premier of North Korea in April, is close to Jang as well.
Furthermore, Jang was involved with international relations, including relations with China, negotiations with the US, and inter-Korean dialogue. There are no immediate replacements for these roles. This is the reason that his downfall is sure to affect how various policies are carried out.
The removal of Jang could indicate the instability of Kim’s regime. But it also could be a sign that Kim already has a firm grip on power. They say that Kim’s regime has entered a period of stability in which a guardian such as Jang is no longer necessary and argue that Kim is building a power base largely composed of a new generation of figures who are loyal to him.
In a general sense, it is also very likely that Pyongyang will maintain its strategy of improving the economy through the so-called two-track economic and nuclear approach. The most vulnerable area is foreign relations, as quite a few of the officials working there were close to Jang. It will not be easy for the North to gain traction in its relations with the South, which are already weak, or in its relations with the US, which have shown no signs of improving.
But these considerations aside, the NIS deserves criticism for the way it released the information about Jang’s ouster. On the afternoon of Dec. 3, the NIS suddenly reported to lawmakers from the ruling and opposition parties who are on the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee that Jang had been removed from power. On the same day the ruling and opposition parties were holding talks to discuss the creation of a special committee for reforming the NIS, and the media was focusing on testimony that an administrator in the Blue House had been closely involved in the leak of information related to allegations that former prosecutor-general Chae Dong-wook had an illegitimate child.
It is hard not to suspect that the NIS jumped into action to prevent the formation of an unfavorable atmosphere. In addition, the key evidence that the NIS offered in support of its report - that two officials who were close to Jang had been publicly executed - had not been confirmed. Even if true, the executions do not provide any direct evidence that Jang was purged.
Before long, we will learn for sure whether Jang was actually ousted. Even if his dismissal leads to considerable changes inside North Korea, countries in the region, including South Korea, have ample ability to deal with these changes.
We should be more cautious about allowing ourselves to be distracted by dubious information that can cloud our judgment and distract us from the issues that really matter.
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