Outside View: North Korea's 'Whack-a-Mole' leadership

By JAMES ZUMWALT, UPI Outside View Commentator  |  Dec. 17, 2013 at 12:04 AM
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HERNDON, Va., Dec. 17 (UPI) -- What happens when a "kid" inherits a country?

If the country is North Korea, if the kid is third-generation dictator Kim Jong Un, 30, and -- two years after receiving his inheritance -- if he feels comfortable wielding the hammer of authority, he plays real life "whack-a-mole" with subordinate leaders to secure his throne.

The sudden removal from power of Kim's uncle, Jang Song Thaek -- No. 2 in the power hierarchy who helped the boy king transition to power after his father's death in 2011 -- isn't surprising. Yet another Kim, this one the world's youngest head of state, flexes his muscle at the expense of subordinates to instill fear and blind obedience.

However, for a country normally keeping such internal matters quiet and having shied away from senior leader executions, Pyongyang's public disclosure to the world of Jang's death by firing squad is surprising. It demonstrates a ruthlessness not seen since Kim's grandfather.

In so acting, Kim failed to give thought to possibly tainting his grandfather's reputation by labeling Jang, among other things, a traitor. His "do-no-wrong" grandfather, after all, had approved Jang's marriage to his daughter -- Kim's aunt -- decades earlier. The grandfather's godly image continues two decades after his death.

Most North Korea watchers, searching for hints of normalcy in actions of a family making a business for almost seven decades of running the world's first successfully established communist monarchy, believed Jang, 67, was fairly secure. But, isolated from the rest of the world -- including its few allies -- Kim governments have long hidden their intentions within the dark shadows cast by the energy-starved state.

For the United States, North Korea -- dubbed the "Hermit Kingdom" -- has proven to be an intelligence officer's nightmare concerning predictability. But trends are found:

1) Each generation paves a succession path for the next;

2) Each conducts purges aimed at ensuring personal loyalty, replacing the old guard with a younger one;

3) Family members have no immunity from purges; and

4) Certain government actions foretell a purge is under way.

Kim's father and grandfather both initiated purges, minimizing or eliminating family member influence perceived as a threat.

The Kim family's priority is always self-survival -- both from internal and external threats -- secured by any means. It includes building a nuclear weapons arsenal at the expense of feeding their people.

The world has witnessed well-fed generations of Kim leaders rule over underfed generations of their people. It has resulted in Pyongyang fielding successive generations of North Korean soldiers who, ravaged by food famines as children, are of increasingly diminutive size compared to their much larger South Korean brothers. It wouldn't be inaccurate for Pyongyang to claim it has reduced the size of its military -- sadly from decades of starvation yielding a hobbit army!

Despite the "Wizard of Oz-like" curtain behind which Pyongyang's leadership secretly functions, some telling indicators suggest internal power struggles are brewing.

Diplomats are recalled from international assignments for fear they might defect -- actually prompting some to do so. Two of Jang's family members received recall orders -- one has returned; one has not.

A sudden deployment of military forces occurs. Earlier this month, military assets were redeployed near the North's disputed western sea border with the South -- a move to prevent Seoul from taking advantage of Pyongyang's purge.

The rate of public executions increases, which is most evident today. Purportedly, these have already included other members of the "Jang gang."

We may never know the real reason for the fall of Jang's star power. Commission of "anti-state" crimes has been cited; however, that includes wide-ranging crimes, both minor and major.

Some reports suggest corruption by two and defection by one of Jang's underlings triggered an angry reaction from Kim who felt Jang's extracurricular activities interfered with his state duties. (Ironically, Jang may well have gained his lust for such activities from Kim's father.)

Another possibility is Jang was a convenient scapegoat for Kim's financial largesse, renovating family memorials and building entertainment facilities for the elite. If so, it wouldn't be the first time a high level official was sacrificed for Kim's poor judgment.

Kim's aunt Kim Kyong Hui -- Jang's wife -- 67 and ailing, was also a powerbroker during his transition. Of interest will be whether she maintains any future role. With the second anniversary of Kim's father's death Tuesday, her presence or absence will prove telling.

Jang's demise undoubtedly was well-received by the military. His push for economic reform over nuclear arms development did not win him friends within the army.

Perhaps Kim will take a break from his killing purge to welcome former basketball player Dennis Rodman, scheduled to arrive Thursday in Pyongyang.

Jang wasn't Kim's first "whack-a-mole" victim.

Many months earlier, senior military leaders were executed, some, allegedly with mortar rounds fired pointblank. In 24 months, Kim has purged about 40 percent of these leaders as he seeks to breed a younger generation of his own loyalists.

As did his father, Kim embraces the military as his major support base. He will demonstrate his bravado to them with an unwavering commitment to continue Pyongyang's nuclear arms program. Thus, meaningful nuclear negotiations with the West will not happen.

Kim's brutal actions lead one to believe he is following the late Saddam Hussein's "leadership blueprint," hoping he is savvy enough to avoid its deadly pitfalls.

North Korea repeatedly runs the same television programs on its state-controlled networks. In a documentary, previously run nine times, Jang appeared in 13 scenes. His presence in all scenes since then has been scrubbed.

Tragically, North Korean dictators eradicate victims' current existence as easily as their technicians eradicate their past.


(A retired U.S. Marine, Lt. Col. James Zumwalt served in the Vietnam War, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf War. He has written "Living the Juche Lie: North Korea's Kim Dynasty" about the country he has visited 10 times. He was the first to report on Pyongyang's brief engagement against U.S. forces during the Vietnam war.)


(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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