North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's execution of his powerful uncle Jang Song-thaek has certainly raised more questions than answers about what's going on inside the secretive North. It stunned even long-time North Korea specialists, including government analysts, in Seoul and elsewhere.
The opaqueness of the North Korean regime is prone to imagination, suspicion and speculation about its motives, stability and plans. The punditry and the press, often fed on unsubstantiated rumors from dubious "North Korean sources," have produced countless speculations regarding Jang's elimination to explain why, when and how it happened, and who was behind it.
The "content analysis approach" of scrutinizing public statements, which was effectively used to study target countries during the Cold War, still remains a useful method of looking into North Korea, given the limited efficacy of the sophisticated technological and human intelligence gathering capability available to watch the North Korean leadership today.
My take of Pyongyang's official indictment of Jang on Dec. 8 and its sentencing report of Dec. 13 was: (1) Jang's surging power and his imprudent behavior were running out of control to the point of threatening the young leader's grip on the regime, and (2) the North Korean economy was in deep trouble, for which Jang was made a scapegoat.
In 1956, the DPRK's founder and Kim Jong-un's grandfather, Kim Il-sung, publicly executed his Vice President Park Hun-young as a scapegoat for North Korea's defeat in the 1950-53 war. Park was accused of being a spy for U.S. imperialists. Since then, the North Korean rulers have carried out several massive purges of practical or potential opponents, but they eliminated them quietly.
Jang's execution had been widely speculated since Seoul's National Intelligence Service (NIS) on Dec. 3 revealed its assessment of Jang's highly probable purge. This was confirmed by the North Korean announcement to the NIS's credit. However, there has been no satisfactory explanation with respect to its motive.
To find some sense of the motives behind the incident, a few theoretic frameworks have surfaced. Among them, the "power traits" theory stands out: "absolute power" cannot be shared even between a father and his son, and the holders of such power tend to be insecure from, or threatened by, any potential or real challengers ― so they eliminate them.
Historic precedents suggest another framework to explain the latest incident of purge in the North. The media compared Kim Jong-un to Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Saddam Hussein, who all practiced the horrible reign of terror, purging and eliminating their political adversaries, although Kim's practice so far seems to be on a minimal scale.
Perhaps, the real answer lies in what I call the "dynasty theory." North Korea is a monarchy in which power is succeeded from father to son and the ruler has absolute power. I called North Korea "the Confucian, nationalist monarchy" in my article in the Washington Post eight years ago.
The "dynasty theory" finds some answers about the North Korean dynasty. The history of Korean dynasties is full of fratricides in power struggle and executions on charges of treason. There was a king who killed his son, after the son became the crowned prince. There was a king's son who killed his brother and took his throne.
More fittingly, a young king's uncle (Sejo) took the thrown from his nephew, his older brother's son, and sent him in exile and later sent him a bowl of poison drink to finish the young deposed king (Danjong). Sejo was insecure as long as his nephew was alive.
This story fits to explain Jang's case. He was Kim Jong-un's uncle not by blood, but by marriage to the sister of Kim's father, Kim Kyung-hi. According to the sentencing statement, Jang had wanted to become a prime minister, if his coup plan would have succeeded. This was because only a direct blood-relative can become a highest ruler in the Kim dynasty.
The photograph of Jang being pulled away by two security officers from the expanded politburo meeting after the readout of an indictment and another photo showing Jang roped and handcuffed being dragged into a simplified court marshal reminded Secretary of State John Kerry of Saddam Hussein killing his opponents.
Kerry and other U.S. officials have characterized Kim Jong-un as reckless, ruthless, insecure, violent, and unpredictable. There are concerns about provocation from the internal instability of the regime. The ROK defense minister has predicted a likely timeline of provocation from January to early March next year. The U.S. JCS chairman has detected a precursor to provocation from Kim Jong-un's dictatorial action.
It is imperative to prepare for any possible form of provocation. Many discuss a timing and a range of likely provocations ― including a missile launch, a fourth nuclear test, another clash on the West Sea, skirmishes along the DMZ, or a new type of terrorist disruption against transportation and industrial facilities. But, nobody really knows what the North might do.
In my view, Kim Jong-un will be busy taking care of the aftermath of Jang's execution, solidifying his power base with emphasis on loyalty from the military and the people, and more importantly concentrating on the economic projects, before he would think of adventurous provocation.
Yet, the regime may consider provocation as a distraction, if dangerous upheavals are about to occur beyond its control. It is also possible that some military general might act independently to show his loyalty to Kim Jong-un in an attempt to win his favor. What's your take?
The writer is a research professor at the Illmin Institute of International Relations at Korea University and a visiting professor at the University of North Korean Studies. He is also an ICAS fellow. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.