Apprenticeship over for North Korea's young leader

Apprenticeship over for North Korea's young leader

SEOUL - Nearly two years ago, seven elders of the North Korean regime marched with Kim Jong-Un alongside his father's hearse on a bitterly cold and snowy day in Pyongyang.

The funeral on December 28, 2011 - held nine days after the regime announced the death of Kim Jong-Il - was a powerful symbol of continuity as the untested new supremo took over a nuclear-armed country that was frozen in decades of economic and diplomatic isolation.

Today, after the shock purge and execution of Kim's uncle Jang Song-Thaek, five of a core leadership group dubbed the "Gang of Seven" have now been discarded.

Aged only around 30, Kim himself appears to have shaken off his apprenticeship to emerge the uncontested master of his fate, and North Korea-watchers worry about what that means for a regime that already ranks as the world's most opaque.

The purge in fact masks "chronic instability" in North Korea as Kim surrounds himself with a new generation of yes-men who lack the experience of the old guard, according to Korea Foundation analyst Cha Du-Hyeogn.

"The North needs a scapegoat to shift the blame for all its policy failures," he added, after Jang was accused of an array of crimes ranging from undermining industrial production to consorting with prostitutes at foreign casinos.

His crimes were seen as so extreme that they entailed a rare admission from North Korean state media that people's livelihoods in the "socialist paradise" have suffered, quoting a confession from Jang that his machinations had driven the economy "into catastrophe".

The 67-year-old's misdemeanours also encompassed a failure to pay due respect to Kim Jong-Un, according to an exceptionally vitriolic attack from the KCNA news agency.

That suggests that North Korea is reinforcing the world's most potent cult of personality with a new level of adoration focussed on the young Kim himself, and not just on his venerated father and grandfather.

"It is quite rare that the execution of a high official was carried out in such a public way. This shows a high level of brutality," professor Yang Moo-Jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul said.

"It aims to inject maximum terror among the people in order to rally loyalty to Kim Jong-Un and cement his one-man rule," he said.

But in presiding over what South Korea's president calls a "reign of terror", one that Japan fears could presage a long period of chaos, Kim has lost decades of accumulated experience and trouble-shooting ability embodied by Jang and the others who are no longer on the scene.

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