Four experts explain the impact of Jang Song Thaek’s execution

Experts predict variety of scenarios after very public execution of Kim Jong Un’s uncle


News of Jang Song Thaek’s Thursday execution is a significant development and one that could have far-reaching consequences for Kim Jong Un’s grip on power in the medium to long term. But while official state media will continue stressing the legitimacy of Jang’s execution, the manner in which it was announced is unprecedented and will no doubt send a clear message to anyone thinking of challenging Kim’s leadership in future. How will this affect the future stability of North Korea? Should we expect imminent, high-level defections? Could this be the beginning of the end?

To make sense of the startling developments, NK News spoke to leading experts Dr. Andrei Lankov, Victor Cha, Sunny Lee, and David Straub.


Director, Korean Studies Program, Stanford

This execution underlines the nature of the system: I think lots of people around the world find it hard to imagine that things like this happens in the 21st century, but now they find that they do.

“As someone who has followed North Korea for 30 years it’s highly unusual” 

Nobody knows what this means for stability in North Korea. Everyone has a view, it’s all speculation. It could, for a time, mean more stability, it could mean less stability. We just don’t know, we don’t have enough insight into the leadership dynamics to know. If we did, fewer people would be surprised about this.


Korea Chair, CSIS

My initial reaction is that it’s less a sign of confidence and more a sign that there is some real competition going on inside the leadership. It’s not clear to me what his leadership is based on now. When you take out the key elements of the party and the key elements of the military you’re kind of building from scratch again. It’s a very risky strategy.

“With Jang Song Thaek gone, there’s nobody else to execute” 

Is the country more stable now that Jang Song Thaek has been executed? Probably not. But again, we don’t know. We don’t know the whereabouts of Kim Kyong Hui, who’s clearly very important to all of this too. If the predominant narrative back in June was that Kim Jong Un is methodically consolidating his power, I think people are less certain of that narrative today. We don’t know what it is but we’re less certain of that narrative today, even though

With Jang Song Thaek gone, there’s nobody else to execute. It’s a sign of the brashness of the regime, the ruthlessness of it. He clearly want to give the impression that nobody should mess with him. In a sense it’s quite unprecedented, we haven’t seen these sorts of theatrical purges since the 1950s when Kim Il Sung was consolidating power, so it’s quite interesting to watch.


Professor of Korean Studies, Kookmin University

With what we have seen over the last week, I would say, this news is not that surprising. Actually it was quite likely to happen. But It has bad implications.

“These actions broke a very big part of the North Korean identity: the unity myth”

This might be part of Kim Jong Un’s plan to show that nobody is immune, nobody is safe: if he decides he can kill everybody, nobody will dare say anything. It just might scare them, for they will see the fate of Jang Song Thaek and be terrified, and they will become more obedient. But, a side-effect will be less initiative. Officials will be afraid of doing anything they are not explicitly ordered to do. Such passivity is not good in a country which needs new and imaginative ways to get out of the current crisis.

But it might go absolutely a different direction.


Pantech Fellow at Stanford Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center

I think my view is slightly different. The popular view is that this is the beginning of turmoil. But I disagree: I think this is the beginning of stability under Kim Jong Un, consummation of power grip, with him completing the process of establishing himself as the number one single leader, just like his father and grandfather did.

“I think this is the beginning of stability under Kim Jong Un, consummation of power grip” 

Of course, there will now be a massive, bloody purging of Jang Song Thaek’s people. As I understand it there are about 20,000 to 30,000 who received orders from Jang Song Thaek and there will be tremendous bloody purging and executions of these people. That will make it look like there is disarray – and it will look confusing – but it will be an orderly step in Kim Jong Un’s further consolidation of power.

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