Why Kim's purge raises concerns

Why Kim's purge raises concerns

Reaction to an execution within the ruling Kim clan in North Korea has run to a conventional narrative. The dominant line, lent some weight by South Korean intelligence and the American Secretary of State, has it that the young leader Kim Jong Un would go on to upset the unstable North Asia security balance, as he has shown himself to be impulsive and reckless. The dispatch by firing squad of a leadership rival or obstructive person, in this day and age, could suggest that the nation is undergoing a messy agenda review and personnel changes in the upper echelons.

It is not hard to draw from that supposition a reasonable inference that North Korea is still not done with its adjustment period until the 30-something leader has commanded the absolute obedience of ruling party and military chiefs. Mr Kim is of an age that could not possibly inspire unalloyed confidence among the aged military leadership - itself believed split into older and younger factions, each with its worldview. His light preparation for the role also counted against him.

The word "uncertainty" is stamped all over. So, should Asia brace itself for more bouts of instability? It could be a nuclear test or missile launch, staged provocations against South Korea, or baiting of the United States. Mr Kim has actually done all of these - quite a start for one so young. These acts if managed for propaganda value alone may not necessarily alter the strategic landscape of Asia, although they will spark concern.

A more likely scenario is that Mr Kim has arrogated all power to himself in eliminating his uncle Jang Song Thaek, presumed to be the regent and economic point man with the outside world. Intelligence reports say there have been some 60 public executions since Mr Kim succeeded his father two years ago, with nearly half the country's top 200 officials having been purged. Government and business people close to Jang are still being removed or sidelined. There has been a pattern of power consolidation.

The world is as usual left to speculate whether some calm will follow, to the extent possible in the Korean experience. It is intriguing that China has not shown its hand, as the loss of a man with whom it has been conducting state-to-state economic exchanges raises questions about the Pyongyang constituent in the overall China-US relationship. Host China and North Korea have been keen to restart the Beijing six-party talks as a means of bringing Pyongyang into the international fold. To everybody's surprise, the US, South Korea and Japan are now the holdouts, insisting Pyongyang scrap its nuclear programme first. Add a new complication to North Asia's ever changing calculus.


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