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Title Kim Jong Un, Standing on His Own Feet Date 2014.01.09

Keun-Sik Kim

Attach 140103_IFES Forum_KimKeunsik_KJU Standing on his own.docx
The execution of Jang Song Thaek may have been forewarned. It was critical for Kim Jong Un to make the transition from the passed down power from his father to the ‘acquired’ power as soon as possible. The decision to dismiss his father’s man, Ri Yong Ho, Chief of the Korean People’s Army in July 2012 was only the beginning. Last April, Kim Jong Un also replaced the Cabinet Premier Choe Yong Rim with Pak Pong Ju. This was a natural move as a part of a larger attempt to replace all major posts in the military and the Cabinet with own elite group. He needed to step out of his father’s shadow in the Workers’ Party (WPK) and needed to truly make the Party his own. In order to do this, Jang Song Thaek was an inevitable target as someone with the greatest power in the party. Ultimately, removal of Jang Song Thaek was a politically necessary step for Kim Jong Un to finally stand on his own and consolidate the three-generation hereditary power succession.

While Jang Song Thaek’s purge was expected, his public arrest and execution was not. There was insufficient explanation for his public execution. There must be additional and decisive circumstances. The little republic of Jang Song Thaek became the subject of jealousy and distrust from the elites. His excessive abuse of power and privileges in the WPK’s Administration Department went beyond the organization and extended to the Ministry of State Security, Political Bureau, and even to the Cabinet, which probably was a big eye sore for many. If Jang Song Thaek went against Kim Jong Un’s order, it was likely to have provided the perfect opportunity to accuse him for his resistance to the supreme leader’s monolithic leadership and supreme commander’s order, and raised sufficient grounds for “anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts.” It also appears the timing of elimination of Jang Song Thaek concurred with the power struggle between the elites and Kim Jong Un’s attempt to consolidate his hereditary power created the necessary condition which led to a dramatic event of the execution.

At last, Kim Jong Un has finally grasped the sole power for himself but the future is still insecure and desolate. The people around Kim Jong Un are displaying “treacherous obedience” that appear to agree with him on the surface but are working against him behind his back. Unlike his grandfather who had his “Manchurian Faction” and his father with twenty years to build his powerbase, Kim Jong Un lacks such reinforcements. He must make and take responsibility for his own decisions. This is why his power stability is increasing while the regime on the other hand is growing unstable.

Therefore, our approach to understanding Kim Jong Un’s stand-alone power should be more cautious and realistic. In fact, we should refrain from spreading unconfirmed rumors as if military coup or a sudden change in the North Korean regime was imminent as what some media sources and experts have put forth. Just as the National Intelligence Service analysis have revealed, Kim Jong Un regime has normalized and stabilized swiftly after the purge. While claiming the legitimacy of the overthrow of Kim Jong Un is a free choice, the analysis of the actual power trends in North Korea must be based on the cold light of reality. The objective stability of Kim Jong Un’s power should be acknowledged while avoiding emotional and subjectiveconjectures.

What is rather more important is to induce change in Kim Jong Un regime in the direction toward an open power. Trailing down the path of international isolation, even ignoring the Chinese with only domestic power consolidation in mind is a risky business for Kim Jong Un. In other words, we need to stop Kim Jong Un from going down the road of so-called 'autistic' power. The system transition in Eastern Europe and the Jasmine Revolution in the Middle East was possible because it was dictatorship that was also opened to the outside world and exposed to various exchanges. Democracy is only possible when that society is open and exchanges can be freely made with the international community. South Korea under the Park Chung Hee era was able to experience democracy after it was incorporated into the world economy and opened up to international exchanges and norms. For Kim Jong Un to truly stand on his own feet, he needs to put up a policy performance of economic development and advancement in people’s living conditions. This is more the reason why the DPRK-PRC economic cooperation and inter-Korean relations need to improve unwaveringly. Only when Kim Jong Un regime is directed in the path toward opening up and exchanges with the outside world, the absolute authority of Kim Jong Un can be swerved and eventually lead to the system transition and democratization. This is why the window of dialogue and exchange with dictatorship should remain opened.