The real reason for the ouster and execution of North Korea’s Jang Song-thaek, considered the second most powerful person in the nuclear-armed nation, may have little to do with his supposed crime of planning a coup.
Bruce Bueno De Mesquita and Alastair Smith, New York University Professors of Politics and coauthors of The Dictator’s Handbook, say that it fits a pattern of dictators consolidating power.
“When you come to power, you automatically inherit supporters, people like uncle Thaek. The problem is, you don’t know how loyal they are to and they don’t know how loyal you are to them. So in the first few weeks when a new leader assumes power, everyone is scared,” Smith said.
New leaders can shake up the inner circle quickly, but they may also wait and see, getting a feel for whom they can count on and building allies before getting rid of prominent play makers.
“Kim Jong-un, just completing his first two years, has learned who within his coalition of key backers are most trustworthy and who are potential threats to his long-term political survival. To survive he must remove the lower loyalty components of his coalition and replace them with people who will be more loyal and carry out his demands in exchange for opportunities to enrich themselves,” wrote De Mesquita in an email.
Last year, Kim Jong-un personally ordered the execution of North Korean army minister Kim Chol who was reportedly drinking during the offical mourning period after Kim Jong-il’s death. Chol’s “misbehavior” resulted in immediate execution, reportedly by mortar round.
Smith claims the accused crime doesn’t have much to do with why the person was executed.
“It’s very much about finding who is loyal to you. If you a
ren’t you will be punished in the harshest way. This person was no longer considered to be favourable and I believe they just made an example out of him,” Smith said.
Another strategic element in the removal of the Kim Jong-un’s uncle how swift the purge was.
“Uncle Thaek had a lot of personal power and many supporters. When they dragged him out of the front row during that meeting it was clear what was going to happen to him. If he knew or his supporters knew this beforehand they have organised a coup,” Smith said.
De Mesquita detects the same pattern happening in China where Xi Jinping is wrapping up his first year in office.
“He has already removed some influential leaders whose loyalty to his predecessor was stronger than to him and he continues to do so. Autocrats who fail to sort out their inherited cronies generals, senior civil servants are ousted quickly, Bueno De Mesquita wrote.
Scott Snyder, Senior Fellow on Korean Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said more factors would have to come into play in order to tell if the North Korean regime is unstable, despite apparent weaknesses.
“The fact that the execution was so publicly advertised suggests that Kim Jong-un needs to instill fear and that suggests he is not confident about fully consolidating his position. His father used loyalty as a tool and Kim uses fear, which is a much weaker basis,” Snyder said.
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