Given that he was widely seen as the crucial second-in-command to North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Un and a key policymaker in Pyongyang, Jang Song Taek’s public expulsion from the Korean Worker’s Party on December 8, swift trial for treason, and rapid execution on the 12th suggest 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, governing instability in Pyongyang has serious implications for global nuclear non-proliferation efforts. Since North Korea is the world’s newest nuclear weapons proliferator, any nuclear arms aggrandizement by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) will serve as a beacon of encouragement for potential nuclear aspirants.
Inasmuch as the 2009 and 2013 DPRK nuclear tests served 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, there is a distinct possibility that the younger Kim might conduct another nuclear test soon. Since an atomic detonation in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions arguably shows leadership mettle against perceived external “imperialism” and showcases North Korean technological achievement in the nuclear sphere, setting off a fourth atomic warhead would help Kim Jong Un impress his citizens and consolidate his authority. As Jang Song Taek held key positions in Pyongyang, it stands to reason that his execution created an influence void that urgently needs to be filled, and in a “theater state” like North Korea where impressions count, a nuclear test is one of the few demonstrations of power that really matter.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Unfortunately, a fourth nuclear detonation by Pyongyang will provide ample encouragement to rogue regimes that nuclear armaments are feasible and realizable.
Dark Days Ahead
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 would usher in an era of greater economic, cultural and even political openness for North Korea, where stubborn issues like the DPRK’s nuclear disarmament could be more easily negotiated. Unfortunately, Jang’s execution reveals that Kim is more the totalitarian student of Machiavellian politics that his father and grandfather before him were, than a believer in liberal reform. Indeed, the pre-eminence of local power politics over issues like how Pyongyang’s only ally, China would regard North Korean political instability, can be illustrated by the fact that Jang was Kim’s uncle by marriage to his paternal aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, herself a figure of authority in Pyongyang and the next likely target for a purge.
While Kim’s diplomatic stance towards external powers vis-à-vis crucial matters like nuclear arms proliferation in the days ahead is anybody’s guess, it can be reasonably deduced 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, as Kim strives to shore up his authority and control, it can be rationally expected that his government’s attitude towards the U.S., South Korea and Japan will be stridently antagonistic and nationalist in equal measure, in order to project an image of sovereign independence to his people. Correspondingly, even as the recently executed Jang was suitably impressed by Chinese and South Korean economic progress when he visited these countries in 2013 and 2002, respectively, thereafter lending his influence to the promotion of economic trade zones in North Korea, we can expect the Kim regime to pay little attention to Chinese encouragement of economic reforms and instead 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. As such, to avoid creating a paradigm where Kim feels compelled to test a fourth nuclear device, launch another long-range missile prototype or shell a South Korean island to demonstrate his political moxie, it might be advisable for the governments of North Korea’s established adversaries, namely the U.S., South Korea and Japan to refrain from opinionated official comments about Jang’s execution or even Pyongyang’s political trajectory. In essence, North Korea should be accorded Westphalian courtesy and be given the political space to reorder its leadership apex.
Concurrently, as Pyongyang’s last ally of consequence, Beijing can be approached to firmly council Kim Jong Un that the international community will respect the status quo for the time being but that his regime must reciprocate with a foreign policy that is devoid of military adventurism and nuclear aggrandizement.
Nah Liang Tuang is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.