Last week’s execution of Jang Song Thaek, who was widely seen as offering a modicum of adult supervision to North Korea’s impetuous young ruler, Kim Jong Un, was an ominous turn in a dangerous place. Kim Jong Un, already “the most dangerous man in the most precarious nuclear state in the world,” as Patrick Cronin put it, just became even more menacing.
While purges are nothing new in North Korea, executions of someone as senior and well-connected as Jang are unusual. Married to Kim Jong Un’s aunt, Jang was often seen as the state’s second most powerful official. North Korea’s previous dictators, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, normally controlled senior leaders like Jang by pushing them from power but leaving them alive. Often they were brought back later. That Kim Jong Un broke from the pattern is significant and may indicate that a wider purge has begun. But it also shows that co-optation and playing potential opponents against one another, both standard methods for sustaining a dictatorship, are not functioning, perhaps due to North Korea’s continued economic decay, which limits the ability to reward loyalists, and Kim’s lack of political skill. The execution could be a sign that the cohesion of the North Korean elite is crumbling. If so, it is the beginning of the end for the parasitic Kim dynasty.
While North Korea’s dysfunctional political and economic system cannot be sustained forever, the challenge is knowing when the state’s demise has begun and identifying an effective response. Sclerotic dictatorships can collapse quickly, with few warning signs, but, unfortunately, the United States needs time to build a domestic political consensus to react to big changes in the security environment. Even if the end of the Kim dynasty is not in fact imminent, the prospect of collapse and the internal conflict that would follow are so disastrous that the United States, neighboring states and the world community should begin serious planning for it regardless of when it comes.