The U.S. military’s top-ranking officer on Thursday said he is “absolutely” concerned about potential fallout from recent leadership purges in North Korea.
“These kind of internal actions by dictators are often a precursor to provocation to distract attention from what they’re doing inside of that country,” Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said to reporters on Thursday. “If you’re asking me, am I concerned? Absolutely.”
The sacking, trial and summary execution for treason of Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek — the North Korean leader’s onetime mentor and relative by marriage — has startled and worried the international community, particularly Seoul and Washington. Concerns are that instability in the Kim regime could lead to new provocations or a loss of control over Pyongyang’s fissile material, nuclear warheads or missiles.
There is also a real possibility that North Korea could carry out another military attack on South Korea — as it threatened to do on Thursday — in a bid to shore up domestic support for its young ruler.
“The unpredictability of the actions that we see coming out of North Korea … is very concerning to everyone,” said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, speaking alongside Dempsey at the same press conference. “The reality of that uncertainty heightens the tensions.”
A week after Jang’s execution, Pyongyang appears relatively calm, though it is difficult to get accurate information from inside the famously closed-off nation.
North and South Korean officials held their first talks in months about joint economic activities at the Kaesong industrial zone; the regime commemorated the two-year anniversary of the death of Kim Jong Il; and NBA star Dennis Rodman traveled to Pyongyang, where he was expected to do a coaching session with the country’s basketball team.
East Asia experts differ in their views over what Jang’s execution will mean for the Kim regime’s long-term prospects.
“I think it’s still stable,” said Hwang Jaeho, dean of the Seoul-based Hankuk University’s Division of International Studies, who is wrapping up a four-month fellowship at the Brookings Institution.
Hwang was speaking at a Brookings event on Wednesday that also included remarks from other visiting fellows: Jun Osawa of Japan and Zhong Zhenming of China.
Osawa, a senior research fellow at the Institute for International Policy Studies in Tokyo, projected that hard times are ahead for the Kim regime. He noted that Jang is understood to have played a leading role in efforts to acquire foreign currency.
The Kim regime relies on foreign currency to import products that can be useful for its nuclear-arms related programs, as well as luxury goods that are given as gifts to maintain the loyalty of Pyongyang’s ruling elite.
Experts say North Korea has made considerable headway in acquiring the capability to indigenously produce many of the components it needs for its nuclear and missile programs. Still, there are some things the North cannot manufacture wholly on its own, such as the road-mobile missile launch platforms it built using imported Chinese construction vehicles.
“I don’t think without [Jang] the North Korean regime can get the money to import the goods,” Osawa said. “So that’s the reason I think the North Korean regime will be unstable.”
Though Osawa did not elaborate further, Jang has been cited elsewhere as a principal Pyongyang conduit to China, involved in Beijing’s efforts to develop North Korean mining resources and expand cross-border trade.
Zhong, who is an associate professor at Tongji University in Shanghai, believes it is still too early to comprehend the full ramifications of Jang’s execution. He noted the Kim dynasty has lasted for decades, surviving widespread famines and years of harsh international sanctions.
Although it is widely believed the economic pressure of heightened sanctions ultimately prodded the Iranian government to the negotiating table this year, North Korea has consistently refused to meet U.S. terms for returning to aid-for-denuclearization talks.
“Sanctions right now has limited effect” in North Korea because of how closed-off the country already is, Zhong said. “It’s [a] more limited effect than sanctions imposed on Iran, so that tells something about the endurance and the persistence of the regime.”
This article was published in Global Security Newswire, which is produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. NTI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group working to reduce global threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.