Dempsey is ‘Absolutely’ Concerned About North Korean Instability

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Stafff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey deliver remarks earlier this month in Washington. The two leaders on Thursday said they were concerned about potential ramifications following the execution of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un's powerful uncle.
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Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
Dec. 20, 2013, 7:02 a.m.

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.

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