Expect the unexpected from North Korea

News coming from North Korea, including domestic purges and nuclear development, is once again causing concern in the region.

The world has, for better or for worse, grown rather accustomed to the strange and provocative behavior coming from North Korea. While nuclear threats and tests are obviously worrisome developments, the resulting headlines fail to surprise readers almost to the extent that they are not taken seriously. However, the behavior displayed by North Korea in the past month has definitely managed to raise a few eyebrows.

Since early December, official North Korean propaganda has spouted accusations against Jang Sung-taek, long considered the second most important individual in the country after its young dictatorial leader, Kim Jong-un. While this was not the first time Jang had been targeted during his long political career, the declared crimes were more serious than before as he was basically charged for planning a coup against the country’s leadership. The accusations eventually culminated in his very public death sentence on December 12, presumably carried out a few days later.

These kinds of internal power struggles in a mysterious state such as North Korea are troublesome because it is hard to know the facts surrounding them. However, two aspects in particular should raise some concern.

First of all, the extensive press coverage surrounding the whole affair is unheard of in North Korean history. Though Kim Jong-un’s father and grandfather both reorganized and executed members of their political fellowship, they were only reported to the public much later, if ever. Why Kim feels the need to do so now, or if it is in fact his decision in the first place, is impossible to know.

Second, the persecution of Jang is only a part of a larger purge of the political elite. Since he came to power in late 2011 after his father’s death, Kim Jong-un has removed dozens of higher-ranking North Koreans and recently recalled ambassadors from both Sweden and Malaysia. In fact, the purge is rumored to continue well into 2014, perhaps until the Supreme People’s Assembly convenes in April and Kim’s leadership is more solidified. Interestingly, Jang’s wife, Kim Jong-un’s aunt, seems to have so far survived the purge, raising questions over her real political power in the cryptic country.

One certainty is that these intimidating political actions will promote further domestic insecurity, probably leading to more defections or even a stronger opposition to the Kim regime. However, it also causes North Korea’s East Asian neighbors and the United States to become defensive. After Jang’s execution, South Korea and China both expressed fears that Kim’s political theatrics may pave the road for more incendiary foreign policy as well.

Unfortunately, it seems they were correct. Reports of steam rising from the Yongbyon nuclear development complex (a central part of North Korea’s nuclearization process) came out as early as December 5. On December 24 it was then confirmed that the facilities have restarted production of materials used in manufacturing nuclear weapons. To make matters worse, reports from the following day claim that Kim Jong-un had advised the military to prepare for war as it may break out ‘without prior notice’.

The international community has so far failed to come up with concrete responses to these developments, but they are unlikely to be light. While moves such as these have occurred in the past, the memory of North Korea’s third nuclear test in February 2013 is still very fresh.

Somewhat paradoxically, all of this is occurring at a time when North Korea has high hopes for its own economic development. New railroad investment from China, progress at the Kaesong industrial complex, and plans to boost foreign investment are at the top of the priority list, yet seem to be outweighed by domestic political concerns. If these economic goals fail to be achieved, political problems will only worsen.

In any case, the reasons behind developments in North Korea are clouded in secrecy, but it is safe to say that all is not well. How North Korea under Kim’s leadership will act in the coming months, or how the world will respond, is merely guesswork for the moment. Nevertheless, we should expect the unexpected.

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Categories: Pacific Asia, Security

Author:Karl Sorri

U.S./Finnish multilingual journalist. Scholar of International Relations. Worked in various international organisations and looking forward to advancing his career . Key future developments include multilateralist approaches to trade, the environment, the Arctic, and East Asia.

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