Skip to main content

Opinion: North Korea's young Kim there to stay

By Bruce Klingner, special for CNN
updated 11:38 PM EST, Thu December 5, 2013
A S. Korean man watches the news about the alleged dismissal of Jang Sung-taek (left), uncle of Kim Jong Un (right).
A S. Korean man watches the news about the alleged dismissal of Jang Sung-taek (left), uncle of Kim Jong Un (right).
  • Jang Sung-taek was the vice chairman of North Korea's top military body
  • Klingner: Shows that leader Kim Jong Un is firmly in control and confident
  • Widespread rumors that Jang was defeated in a struggle with personal rivals, he says
  • Klingner: Departure of his uncle will have little impact on North Korea policy

Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of Bruce Klingner, Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation. He previously served 20 years with the CIA, where he was deputy division chief for Korea, responsible for the analysis of political, military, economic and leadership issues for the U.S. president and other senior policymakers.

Washington D.C. (CNN) -- Kim Jong Un has further solidified his control over North Korea by reportedly purging his uncle Jang Sung-taek, Vice Chairman of the important Nation Defense Commission.

Although Jang was often referred to as the "second most powerful man in North Korea," he may now been ousted from the leadership elite for the third time. He has twice returned to the inner circle of power, but this cat may now have run out of lives.

Kim's uncle 'probably' ousted, S. Korean lawmakers say

What does the move say about the stability of North Korea? Some experts perceive a weak, embattled Kim feeling forced to fend off challengers. But it is more likely that Kim's purge of Jang -- as well as hundreds of other officials since 2011 -- shows that the North Korean ruler is firmly in control and confident enough to target even the most senior strata of power. Like his father and grandfather, Kim is playing rivals off against each other to eliminate real or perceived challengers.

Debate rages amongst experts as to why Kim felt it necessary to purge his former mentor and protector. Potential explanations revolve around four Ps -- power, parity, people and policy. Although a classic struggle for power between the leader and potential contenders is a possible explanation, Jang had seemed content to play the role of éminence grise, exercising power behind the throne.

Bruce Klingner
Bruce Klingner

The best chance for Jang to have grabbed the ring of power would have been when Kim was weakest immediately after his father's death in 2011. But even then, the young Kim was immediately presented as the sole ruler and not as a part of a leadership consortium. After Kim acquired each of his father's titles affirming control over the government, military, and party, it became increasingly more difficult for potential challengers to oust him.

Kim Jong Un more bellicose than his dad was?

Then there's the issue of parity between the Korean Workers' Party (KWP) and the military. Under Kim Jong Il, power shifted to the military, as the National Defense Commission became the preeminent center of government power. But under his son, the KWP has regained some power. The KWP's Central Military Commission has now eclipsed the National Defense Commission as the arbiter of North Korean military policies.

North Korea leadership shake-up?
N. Korea leader's uncle possibly ousted
The power of the Kim dynasty

Rather than a struggle to wrest power from Kim, the purge may instead result from people fighting for closer access to him. There are widespread rumors that Jang was defeated in a struggle with personal rivals.

The least likely explanation for the purge is a debate over policy. Although Jang was often referred to as a "reformer" by the media, there is little evidence that he or any hidden cabal advocated implementing significant economic and political reform or moderating North Korea's threatening behavior.

Pyongyang created the perception of factions of hardliners and reformers as part of a "good cop-bad cop" strategy to elicit benefits during negotiations. As a Korean adage warns, "The same animal has soft fur and sharp claws." When Kim ascended the throne in 2011, he was erroneously perceived as a reformer simply because he had spent a few years in Switzerland as a teen.

The likely departure of his uncle will have little impact on North Korea policy. Kim has shown himself to be just as inimical to reform and pursuing a less belligerent foreign policy as his predecessors. He showed his willingness to escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula to dangerous levels earlier this year, threatening nuclear attacks against the United States and South Korea.

The young leader has also made clear he has no intention of abandoning his regime's nuclear weapons, even revising the constitution to enshrine North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. Pyongyang declared, "those who talk about an economic reward in return for the dismantlement of [North Korea's] nuclear weapons would be well advised to awake from their daydream ... Only fools will entertain the delusion that we will trade our nuclear deterrent for petty economic aid."

Rather than seeking an illusory North Korean reformer, Washington and Seoul should instead prepare for the extended rule of yet another member of the Kim family willing to test the resolve of his opponents.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of Bruce Klingner.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:35 PM EST, Mon December 1, 2014
CNN's Brian Todd reports on the hacking of Sony Pictures and whether North Korea could be behind it
updated 8:57 PM EST, Mon December 8, 2014
A retired Silicon Valley executive and Korean War veteran was hauled off his plane at Pyongyang airport in late 2013. Here's what happened next.
updated 5:57 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
A recent defector from North Korea tells of the harrowing escape into China via Chinese 'snakehead' gangs.
updated 7:39 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
CNN's Amara Walker speaks to a former North Korean prison guard about the abuses he witnessed and was forced to enact.
updated 12:59 AM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
The chief of the Commission of Inquiry into North Korea's human rights says the world can no longer plead ignorance to the regime's offenses.
updated 7:34 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Kim Jong Il's former bodyguard tells of beatings and starvation while imprisoned in the country's most notorious prison camp.
updated 1:34 PM EST, Mon November 10, 2014
Putting the United States at the same table as lawless thugs isn't just morally repugnant -- it's ineffective, writes Christian Whiton.
updated 1:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
Despite tense relations, China benefits from Kim Jong Un's rule in North Korea. David McKenzie explains.
updated 4:51 AM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
North Korea has "the world's most advantageous human rights system," the country declares.
updated 6:41 AM EDT, Tue May 28, 2013
Beijing-based tour company posts exclusive photos and video from inspection visit.
updated 4:52 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
The crowd cheers as the stars make their way to the ring for first pro-wrestling bout North Korea has seen in almost 20 years.
updated 8:16 AM EST, Mon December 2, 2013
Visiting the DPRK is easy these days, so long as you don't forget to play by their rules.
updated 10:45 AM EDT, Tue September 2, 2014
CNN's Will Ripley is given a rare look inside North Korea and tours Kim Jong Un's pet project, a waterpark.