Kim Jong Un’s “Unitary Leadership”: Future Policies and Our Choices

About a week ago, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) disclosed Jang Song Thaek’s “likely” loss of power in North Korea. This news about Kim Jong Un’s regent, commonly considered as North Korea’s “number two” in power, was shocking. On December 9, 2013, North Korea’s official media carried a report on the “Decision” of the Enlarged Meeting of Political Bureau of Central Committee of Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). According to the report, Jang Song Thaek had been relieved of all posts, deprived of all titles, expelled from the party, and his name removed from the party during the meeting convened the day before. And, to the surprise of all, North Korea’s KCTV broadcasted the scene of Jang being taken away from the session by security forces, unambiguously confirming his loss of power.

Why was Jang removed from power? What does this mean for Kim Jong Un’s establishment of a “unitary leadership?” What impact will Jang’s removal have on current policies in the areas of economic reform and opening and the resumption of Six Party Talks? And what is our best policy option towards North Korea for the resolution of pending issues including peace settlement and denuclearization?

First, to simplify why Jang was removed, Kim Jong Un perceived Jang’s overgrown power as a stumbling block to solidifying Kim’s rule so he purged Jang and his group. By removing Jang, a key potential challenger, and establishing a “unitary leadership,” Kim Jong Un could resolve the “who-guards-the-guard problem” and stand on his own as the supreme leader of North Korea. It was striking to watch KCTV broadcast a scene in which the most senior members of the North Korean power elite—Choe Ryong Hae (Director, General Political Department of the Korean People’s Army), Kim Young Nam (Head of State, DPRK), Pak Pong Ju (Cabinet Premier, DPRK), Kim Ki Nam (Politburo Member, Secretary of WPK), and others—were standing around Kim Jong Un, with pencils and notepads in their hands to take note of his words and directives just like lower level officials would do. This kind of notetaking by these dignitaries has never been seen in public since Kim Jong Un came into power. What is more striking than this visual message to the North Koreans and people around the world is that Kim Jong Un is now fully exercising the “unitary leadership” accorded to the “supreme leader.”

At the Enlarged Politburo Meeting, according to North Korea’s official media, the Jang Song Thaek group was accused of committing “anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts as gnawing at the unity and cohesion of the party and disturbing the work for establishing the party unitary leadership system and perpetrated such anti-state, unpopular crimes as doing enormous harm to the efforts to build a thriving nation and improve the standard of people’s living.” Jang’s actions were described as demonstrating “treacherous obedience”: agreeing with Kim Jong Un in public, but working against him behind his back. History tells us that it was usual for the crimes of “money, sex, and power” to be applied to rivals and challengers as rationale for purges. This case is no exception. Jang was accused of financial corruption, immoral sexual affairs and abuse of power. Why would Kim Jong Un apply all three categories of crime to his uncle-in-law, once his regent, in such an atrocious way? Kim must have recognized the political need to completely trample the “symbol” of any actual or potential challenger to his power. This is reminiscent of the political tactics Xi Jinping applied when he recently purged Bo Xilai.

Since Jang was Kim Jong Un’s regent, it was natural that many of the power elite were attracted to him in their pursuit of power. But when his power dangerously approached the level of a so-called “the party above the party” and “the cabinet above the cabinet,” this caught the attention of Kim Jong Un. We do not know exactly the full extent to which Jang actually challenged Kim or the degree to which Kim had a “political need” to purposefully remove Jang, but it is likely that both elements led to Jang’s purge.

What is noteworthy, though, is that within a relatively short time span—less than two years—Kim Jong Un could fully stand on his own feet as the “supreme leader” of North Korea. It is interesting to note the change of Kim’s title in English from “Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un, first secretary of the WPK” to “supreme leader.” On December 9, 2013, KCNA referred to Kim as “supreme leader” while reporting on him sending a letter—“Let Us Usher in the Period of Great Prosperity in Construction by Thoroughly Embodying Party’s Idea on Juche-based Architecture”—to construction officials.

In fact, Kim Jong Un did not suddenly achieve power only after his father’s death. His training for the supreme leadership began when he officially became the heir at the Third Party Conference in September 2010. Kim Jong Un rapidly took control of the intelligence community and the military with the help of Jang under the supervision of Kim Jong Il. Jang had been assigned to help promote Kim Jong Un and to consolidate Kim’s power for the opening of a new era. No wonder the young leader has been functioning rather normally as the supreme leader over the past two years. A close monitoring and analysis of the reports from North Korea’s official media—both print and TV—have unambiguously shown that Jang was under Kim’s control all along. Kim was strong enough to supervise Jang during the transition period and purge him when he felt it necessary.

All of the above means that Jang’s “political life” has come to an end. By now, few people believe that he can make a comeback in the future as he did in the past during the Kim Jong Il era. Jang belonged to the past, that is, to Kim Jong Il’s era, not to Kim Jong Un’s. The role assigned to him by Kim Jong Il was to “bridge” the two and now his part is over. That role could be compared to “John the Baptist” who served as a bridge between the era of the Old Testament and the era of Jesus Christ. Someday Jang could come back as vice chairman or “honorary” vice chairman of the standing committee of the Supreme People’s Assembly, just like Yang Hyong Sop (Kim Il Sung’ cousin’s husband) and Kim Young Ju (Kim Il Sung’s brother), for example, but that will not be a return to power. Rather it would be a show of respect by Kim Jong Un for relatives of the royal family.

What impact will the purge of Jang have on North Korea’s economic reform and opening and the potential for resuming the Six Party Talks? So far, it appears that this event will not have any serious impact on either of these issues. The dramatic economic reform applied to agriculture and industries in the domestic realm since June 2012, and the economic opening to the outside world through establishing special economic zones almost up to thirty in number since May 2013 were all designed to open Kim Jong Un’s era for survival and development in the 21st century. In other words, the policies of reform and opening in North Korea were what Kim Jong Un introduced and pursued with the help of Jang Song Thaek, Pak Pong Ju (the recently named prime minister) and other reform-minded officials.

Moreover, economic reform and opening were introduced to achieve “economic (and cultural) development” and “improvement in the standards of living of the people,” which will help legitimate the third-generation power succession and Kim Jong Un’s rule. The success of reform and opening, North Korea’s official media argues, will depend on the ability to create a “peaceful environment” for economic development and improved living standards of the people by resolving key pending issues in the security and foreign policy arenas. This is why Kim Jong Un has made efforts to resume the Six Party Talks—to resolve the “war and peace” issue in Korea as well as denuclearization of the peninsula. Jang was simply one of the key implementers of Kim’s policy.

Finally, what is our best policy option towards North Korea under these circumstances? The most feasible choice for us seems to be to accept the North Korean political system and its leadership “as they are” for the purpose of starting dialogue and negotiation. Jang successfully played his assigned role of bridging the two eras, old and new, but his time is over. Kim Jong Un has successfully strengthened his unitary leadership by decisively purging Jang and his entourage, and now stands on his own as the “unitary center” of the party, like it or not. While the “Decision” of the Enlarged Politburo Meeting referenced a criticism of Jang’s “committing such act of treachery as selling off precious resources of the country at cheap prices,” it did not mention plans to change the overall policies in either economic areas or foreign affairs and national security.

While it is too early to be sure, it is almost certain that Kim Jong Un will continue pursuing a policy of reform and opening, and to seek resumption of the Six Party Talks. In fact, according to the report of Tongil News (Unification News), an online news media in South Korea, on December 9 after Jang’s official purge was known, North Korea’s development agency signed a contract with the Chinese city of Tumen on developing the Onsong Economic Development Zone. The Sinuiju Special Zone located at the estuary of the Yalu River is scheduled to hold a groundbreaking ceremony in February next year with the investment of a big business group from Hong Kong. It is also known that North Korea signed a contract with a consortium of investors from Singapore, Hong Kong, and China to invest in the Kangryong Green Development Zone in South Hwanghae Province in mid-November 2013. By that time, Jang had practically lost all his power. Along the same lines, the release of Merrill Newman, the 85-year-old US veteran of the Korean War detained by North Korean authorities earlier this fall, seems to have been a goodwill gesture to the United States and a sign that Kim Jong Un still hopes to improve relations with Washington.

Now that the dust has settled in Pyongyang, the question arises as to how can we effectively communicate with Kim? I suggest the United States and South Korea initiate a strategic conversation with North Korea. What is the rationale? Two things loom large in our need to talk to North Korea now while Kim Jong Un is focused on opening a new era in the 21st century: the need to fully exploit the strategic choices Kim Jong Un has made in the realm of economy and denuclearization, and the need to re-engage North Korea in an effort to settle issues related to peace and denuclearization on the peninsula.

First, as pointed out above, Kim Jong Un made a critical choice of embarking on a “bold” economic reform and opening effort roughly one and half years ago to promote economic development and improve the standard of living of his people. He also launched an offensive of “dialogue and negotiation” to resume the Six Party Talks for the making of a “peaceful environment” for economic development in close coordination with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. In that context, Kim proposed high-level talks with the United States in a “crucial” statement made on June 16, 2013. But this proposal has not been accommodated by the United States. What was noteworthy about this offer was that North Korea hinted at the potential for its ultimate denuclearization if that could be achieved for the whole Korean peninsula and if the US nuclear threat against North Korea were terminated. This signified room for potential change in Pyongyang’s denuclearization policy as expressed on March 31, 2013 in the so-called “strategic line” of dual track development (“byungjin”) of nukes and economy.

Second, we are obliged to fact-check the arguments and records with regard to “dialogue and negotiation” vs. “pressure and sanctions” in terms of their problem-solving capacity. The supporters of pressure and sanctions have argued that the success or failure of “stronger” pressure and sanctions has been due to China’s level of cooperation. But the oft-forgotten reality about this approach is that sanctions—of whatever kind—have not had any significant “direct” impact on North Korea’s nuclear or missile programs, since Pyongyang possesses its own technology and resources in those areas, while sanctions are focused on the import and export of materials for weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Moreover, considering its geostrategic interests in and around the Korean peninsula, it is against China’s national interests to support sanctions against North Korea when the stability of the peninsula per se is at stake. Clearly, applying pressure has not helped solve the problem, but rather has aggravated the situation further, as North Korea’s response has been to strengthen its WMD capabilities. Then, why do the US and other countries continue to apply pressure? It is largely because their politicians do not incur additional costs for punishing North Korea—an enemy country—as the general public is used to this type of policy approach.

In contrast to pressure, dialogue has produced “agreements,” which were “control mechanisms” over North Korea’s nuclear-related policy and actions in the short-run and “resolution formulas” for the Korean problem including the issues of peace settlement and denuclearization in the long-run. Pyongyang agreed to such mechanisms because its strategy of survival and development for the 21st century was reflected in the agreements. The problem, however, was that the agreements were not fully carried out due mainly to problems related to the implementation process: sustained mutual distrust; North Korea’s defensiveness and inflexibility due to its siege mentality; democratic system-specific attributes such as the lack of consistency in policy as a result of the change of governments through elections. To be blunt, the democratic political system does not guarantee keeping the promises made by previous governments. But critics of dialogue and negotiation have attributed the failure to implement agreements to the policy itself, not to the aforementioned problems that hindered implementation.

Seeking dialogue and negotiation with North Korea is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of responsible and strategically savvy leadership. We truly need to give a chance to another round of dialogue with Pyongyang toward another “comprehensive agreement” for the resolution of the multifaceted “Korean problem”—including issues such as the termination of the Korean War, transformation of the Armistice into a permanent peace regime, the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, cessation of Pyongyang’s missile programs and the reduction of dangers of inter-Korean conflict. In principle, success or failure of any policy is the result of the interaction between policies toward one another. We have to be ready to be more aggressive and proactive this time, because Kim Jong Un, having consolidated power by removing his potential challengers, is likely to double his effort to resume the Six Party Talks. Only with continued dialogue and negotiation will we have a chance to halt the expansion of North Korea’s WMD programs and to build peace and security on the Korean peninsula. We need a clear departure from the past and the start of strategic engagement with North Korea more than ever, to boldly confront the challenges of our time on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia.

Stay informed about our latest
news, publications, & uploads:
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea