Initial reports on the purge of Jang Song Thaek have understandably focused on his abrupt, brutal execution and the hysterical denunciation issued by the Korea Central News Agency. “The accused Jang brought together undesirable forces and formed a faction as the boss of a modern day factional group for a long time and thus committed such hideous crime as attempting to overthrow the state by all sorts of intrigues and despicable methods with a wild ambition to grab the supreme power of our party and state,” KCNA said in a statement.
Terms like “medieval” and “Games of Thrones” have been bandied about, along with expressions of amused contempt at the crude and barbaric character of the DPRK regime and its power and succession struggles. I enjoy a bout of condescending snickering as much as anyone, but perhaps attention should be paid to the risky geopolitical gambit that might underpin the move against Jang.
Jang was the architect of the DPRK’s nascent economic reform movement, which apparently relied to a significant extent on PRC models, PRC assistance and, we can assume, acceptance of the idea that a cost of reform was to allow Chinese companies unfair and resented advantages in exploiting economic opportunities in North Korean mines, factories, animal products, and electrical power (I wish to pause here to address the canard that the DPRK is dependent on the PRC for its energy. True, the DPRK has no petroleum resources to provide fuel for gas and diesel engines and is desperately reliant on imports; then again, so is South Korea. North Korea, thanks to its abundant hydropower, is a significant exporter of electricity to the PRC’s Northeast).
Anyway, Jang was Beijing’s guy in Pyongyang. His removal might mean that Kim Jong Un had it up to here with Uncle Jang’s bossiness, or his way of injecting PRC views and interests into the center of DPRK decision-making. But it also might mean that Kim Jong Un decided to make a bold move to finally obtain direct U.S. engagement on security and economic talks.
Although it doesn’t seem to be discussed much in Western reporting, the DPRK has tried for decades—ever since its security and economic vulnerabilities were mercilessly exposed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of Russian aid in 1990- to wean the United States from its wholehearted backing of South Korea, and its willingness to let the PRC act as DPRK’s impatient patron, so Washington would engage with Pyongyang directly as a significant chess piece in the Northeast Asian great game.
One element of this struggle has been North Korea’s nuclear weapons gyrations. Given the U.S. preoccupation with hostile states possessing nuclear weapons, it was considered that developing and testing nuclear weapons was perhaps the best way to attract U.S. attention and negotiate concessions. Unfortunately, this exposed North Korea to a fatal contradiction, given the absolute U.S. insistence on nuclear deproliferation: to exploit its leverage and gain something from negotiations, the only way was to get rid of its leverage. Since then, US-North Korea diplomacy has not borne fruit.
Now, with the Swiss-educated and Dennis Rodman-entertaining Kim Jong Un in power, the DPRK desire for direct, productive relations with the US is stronger than ever. And Kim can look to two positive developments. First, Iran, an indication that the Obama administration will pursue diplomatic engagement with a nuclear power without insisting on complete deproliferation as a condition. New guy—Rohani—in Tehran, so open hand. Kim’s a new guy, too. Maybe he can get some of that open hand. Second, Myanmar. It is safe to say that the United States told Myanmar and is telling the DPRK that it is not going to be suckered into providing security and economic assistance while its interlocutor snuggles comfortably in the bosom of the PRC. A clean break with China is, in other words, the price to be paid for nice words and things from the United States.
In the case of Myanmar, the government sacrificed the Myitsone Dam, a gigantic hydroelectric project funded by the PRC that threatened to orient the country’s power grid permanently toward China in the north and east (instead of west to Thailand, where we want it).
DPRK, instead of killing a dam, killed a guy: “Uncle Jang.”
Even so, a decisive and catastrophic break with the PRC is probably not going to happen. The PRC’s highest priority is probably the continued survival of the northern regime and avoiding a scenario in which the ROK occupies the peninsula, and becomes a world power on the scale of Japan with troops on China’s border. And if the DPRK can parlay a US tilt into economic growth, then the transition from basket case to Asian tiger will have knock-on economic benefits for the PRC that might compensate for the loss of its economic monopoly (thoughtfully created, as in the case of Myanmar, by a counterproductive US sanctions regime).
And, it should be remembered, immediately prior to the purge, the DPRK released American detainee Merrill Newman as a show of good will. And hapless evangelical Kenneth Bae is still in inventory to be released if US-North Korean discussions bear fruit.
It will be interesting to see how the U.S. government decides to play this.