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(News Focus) Dismissal of Kim Jong-un's uncle to trigger big change in regime

2013/12/03 20:59

By Lee Joon-seung

SEOUL, Dec. 3 (Yonhap) -- The likely fall from power of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's uncle, Jang Song-thaek, is expected to bring about significant changes in the communist regime and even heighten uncertainty on the Korean Peninsula, observers said Tuesday.

The assessment comes after Seoul's spy agency told lawmakers that two of Jang's closest confidants were publicly executed last month on charges of corruption and acts against the ruling Workers' Party of Korea (WPK).

It said 77-year-old Jang, who held the post of vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission along with other senior titles in the party and government, has not been seen in almost a month, a tell-tale sign of his fall from grace.

The National Intelligence Service (NIS) did not confirm Jang's immediate whereabouts, other than to say that the purge may be an ongoing process that could result in the wholesale dismantling of the administration department of the WPK. The department had been Jang's support base in the party.

"If the uncle has been ousted and his close associates executed, they are a sure indication of Jang being defeated in a fierce power struggle," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

He speculated that with Jang out of the picture as a patron of the leader, the country may experience a period of big and small power struggles that can undermine the stability of the regime.

This view was echoed by Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University, who speculated that Jang's dismissal can be a harbinger of rapid changes in the isolationist country.

"With Jang gone, the overall stability of the North's regime will decrease," the scholar claimed.

Others said that there is a good chance of some backtracking on reform measures or, at the very least, a slow-down of reformist policies undertaken by Kim Jong-un since he took power in late 2011.

Such developments, North Korea watchers claimed, are not good news for the region, because an unstable North Korea is more likely to take provocative action and fuel tensions with its neighbors to divert attention from its internal issues. Ratcheting up tension can also motivate the people to rally around the leadership.

This would prove true especially if hardliners filled the power vacuum. Jang has usually been viewed as an advocate of economic reform and change in the country.

"Judging by past behavior, the North can up the ante and take aggressive action against South Korea, which will only worsen already chilly cross-border relations," Yang said.

Reflecting such concerns, senior security officials in Seoul said that they are keeping close tabs on the possibility of the military gaining more power.

"If Jang has lost to the military, then there is a risk that inter-Korean tension will mount," a defense ministry source said. He added that efforts are under way to see if other senior military officers have been purged along with Jang. If officers have been kicked out as well, this can give clues as to who won the power struggle.

On the other hand, some said that Jang's likely fall was not totally unexpected, since Kim Jong-un may have used his uncle as a temporary expedient to secure his power base following his father's death.

"He may have been referred to as the No. 2 in the regime, yet his power base did not really seem rock solid as some have suggested," a government official said. He argued that Jang, like any other person in the North, was vulnerable to losing power.

Jang had made far fewer appearances in the company of his nephew this year than in 2012, an indication that he may have been losing his power for some time.

In regards to future developments, Kim Keun-sik, a professor at Kyungnam University, said Jang's exit will not drastically change key policy goals of the North.

"The North's goal of simultaneously pushing forward economic construction and nuclear force building will not be altered," the scholar said. He, however, added that the North could take an even more aggressive stance than before.

He said a way to gauge how the North will act in the future is to observe the role played by Choe Ryong-hae, the director of the military General Political Bureau and top ranking officer in the North Korean armed forces.

If Choe has filled the vacuum from Jang's ouster, it can be said that "new members" of the military have wrestled and subsequently gained control.

Others even speculated that even if Jang was unseated and his confidants executed, this did not necessarily mean that he was "completely out of the political picture."

   "He had been purged before, under the incumbent leader's father, yet made a comeback, so he can lie low for the time being to wait for the right opportunity to return," said Chang Yong-seok, senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University.

yonngong@yna.co.kr

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