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North Korea's party purges: standard or destabilizing?

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North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong Un purged his uncle and pseudo-second-in-command Jang Song Thaek in a very public display earlier this week. A report citing Mr. Jang’s crimes against the state — including corruption, drug use and womanizing — was published on the front page of North Korea’s main newspaper, according to the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Jang's forced, televised removal from a meeting of the North Korea Workers' Party marks the last time he was seen.

"Kim Jung Un wants to show his officials and the world that in spite of being short and fat, and with a strange haircut, he is not a person to be taken lightly," Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, told USA Today. Taken with the fact that the supreme leader made headlines earlier this year for reportedly executing his ex-girlfriend by firing squad, the above statement seems reasonable. Kim Jung Un follows in the (carefully muffled) footsteps of many totalitarian leaders; Stalin and Mao, for example, notoriously “disappeared” countless party members who were deemed threats.

Still, many scholars including Lankov insist that this purge was a “completely unprecedented” move for Kim Jong Un, mainly due to its implications for both the ruling party and the military. Korean officials could face public outcry over the purge of a longstanding and well-known official like Mr. Jang. Or, they could become nervous at the chance of realizing a similar fate to Mr. Jang. The purge could also reflect an internal power struggle if, say, Mr. Kim is staying true to the “military first” strategies of his father and Mr. Jang got in the way of resource allocation (as suggested in an opinion piece by Robert Manning for the Financial Times).

If the purges continue, it could mean big changes for North Korea, its neighbors and everyone involved. All except for Mr. Jang, that is, whose fate has been permanently sealed.



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