North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is believed to have ousted his uncle Jang Song Thaek, long regarded as the second most powerful man in North Korea, and ordered the execution of two of Jang's close confidants. There has been widespread speculation about the possible reasons behind Kim’s abrupt purging of Jang, often seen as the young leader’s protector and mentor. Changsop Pyon of RFA’s Korean Service interviewed Bruce Klingner, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, about Kim’s possible motivations and his challenges ahead. Klingner, formerly an intelligence analyst with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency, has written extensively about Korean affairs since he joined Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, in 2007.
Q: Since the South Korean intelligence agency revealed on Dec. 3 that Jang was abruptly ousted from power, there has been lots of speculation and informed analysis about why Kim Jong Un took such a sudden action at this time. What is your take?
A: With all of the purges in North Korea, there is an uncertainty as to whether it shows that a weak and embattled Kim Jong Un is striving to fight off various factions for attempted purges, or alternatively that a strong and confident Kim Jong Un is removing potential sources of challenge, or simply that he’s consolidating his power. I think it tends to be the latter. I think that Kim Jong Un is in firm control, and that he has the ability to remove even the most senior-level officials.
Q: Does it mean that Kim Jong Un doesn’t care at all even about family members when they stand in the way of his quest for absolute power?
A: Right. And that’s consistent with Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung. They removed family members and they exiled family members, so it really is power politics taken to the extreme in North Korea. Remember Kim Jong Il removed Jang Song Thaek three times from power. So, even under Kim Jong Il, Jang Song Thaek didn’t have immunity or exceptionally strong power. Again, he was purged three times by Kim Jong Il. No one is safe other than the leader himself.
Q: Some suggest Jang’s sacking might mean Kim’s trying to further consolidate his power. What are your thoughts on Kim’s motivations?
A: Jang Song Thaek has often been referred to as the second most powerful man in North Korea, and yet this is the fourth time he’s been purged. The other times he eventually returned to power. But clearly even if the second most powerful man is repeatedly purged, it shows that no one is safe. He was three times purged under Kim Jong Il and now apparently under Kim Jong Un. Whether it was because of his corruption as sometimes seen in the past, or whether it was because he was seen as a potential challenger, we are not sure. It may simply be that Jang Song Thaek was not of the Kim family other than through marriage, so even his power base would eventually be eroded once Kim Jung Un assumed more and more direct control of government.
Q: Some analysts interpret Jang’s purge as the outcome of a fierce rivalry between those favoring reforms led by Jang and the hard-liners led by Gen. Choe Ryong Hae, director of the powerful Army General Political Department. Do you think Kim removed Jang with the help of Choe?
A: I don’t think it’s with the help of anybody. We knew right from the beginning when Kim Jong Un assumed power that he was very reliant on Jang Song Thaek and Kim Kyong Hui. But over time we suspected that eventually he would be seen either as a rival or at least as an alternative power base. It was predicted that his purge would likely happen after Kim Kyong Hui died. But if she’s still alive, Kim moved more quickly than one might have expected.
Q: Is there any possibility that Kim might see his power weakened or eroded without his long-time right-hand man Jang?
A: No. I see it rather as a further consolidation of Kim Jong Un’s power. I think the weakest he was was immediately after his father’s death. And yet even then we didn’t see signs of struggles for power or competing factions or even references to a council ruling North Korea. Right from the beginning it was Kim Jong Un who was the anointed one. He acquired six all-important titles in positions in the government. With each of these titles he assumed greater control of the government, and it made it harder for any potential challenger to go against Kim Jong Un because that would go against the constitution and the government itself. So, with all the purges we are uncertain what the reasons are. But it could be that those either seen as potential challengers or simply people with a great deal of power [are those] Kim Jong Un wants to undermine. Or it could be various [people] fighting for control for access to Kim Jong Un—not a challenge to Kim Jong Un, but fighting amongst rivals. And I don’t think it’s in any way a fight between ideological differences over reforms.
Q: Despite personal sufferings and purges in the past, Jang eventually came to power after some time during Kim Jong Il’s days. Do you think Jang could make a comeback at some point in the future?
A: It could happen. Even under Kim Jong Un, we saw the chairman of the ministry of defense was removed and then came back as the chairman of the general staff. Jang Song Thaek does seem to have many lives. Like a cat, perhaps he has nine lives. He’s already used up three of them. So he may come back, and he’s shown a remarkable ability to come back in the past, but we are not sure. I think even as we’re uncertain as to what the purges mean, the really important point is to focus on North Korean policy rather than getting lost in the labyrinth of the Byzantine power of rivalries in North Korea. North Korea continues to show resistance to political reform, and despite rumors of economic reform we’ve seen nothing significant. We’ve certainly seen no moderation in North Korean behavior since Kim Jong Un came in office.
Q: Surprisingly enough, Kim took the bold step to purge not only Jang but other top-level government and military officials including Gen. Lee Yong-ho since he assumed power. Does this indicate that he has mastered the brutal power politics that date back to Kim Il Sung’s days in North Korea?
A: He’s reportedly purged hundreds of officials and executed a number of them. Since he remains in power, it shows that he’s weathered any kind of backlash against those purges. So, I think he seems to have mastered power politics. But there are still questions as to whether he’s mastered the ability to run his country economically to improve the conditions of his people as well as to implement foreign policies that do not threaten his neighbors.
Q: Jang’s gone now, and the outside world is getting curious to know what the future holds for Kim Jong Un. Do you see any political vulnerability for Kim’s power?
A: Well, Kim Jong Un will likely remain in power for quite some time. He has taken steps to remove real or perceived challengers. If even Jang Song Thaek is removed from power, then it shows that Kim Jong Un is confident enough to take out the most senior level officials in his quest to absolutely consolidate his power. So, contrary to some people’s predictions that Kim Jong Un would not last long, I think we’ll likely see him in power for quite some time.