Through a glass darkly


The dispatch of North Korea’s Jang Song Thaek by machine-gun on Thursday was true to form for the secretive Stalinist regime, although it rarely admits publicly its routine brutality or explains the purpose of its many purges to its hard-pressed people.

Jang’s fate, like that of ambitious Chinese Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai, though he escaped with his neck, illustrates the problem such regimes have in managing any political challenge or transition in a peaceful fashion. Democratic structures allow the gradual emergence of countervailing forces and provide both the public and the regime with measures of their real influence. In Pyongyang and Beijing, despite massive internal security machines, in truth crude and blunt instruments, rulers have no accurate way of assessing the real danger represented by rivals. The result is a state of permanent paranoia and responses to “threats” based on fearing the worst. The more paranoid, the more brutal.

Not surprising, then, that just as external observers of North Korea are deeply divided over the significance of the Jang purge and the extent of dissent, leader Kim Jong Un, just two years in charge, is almost certainly also in the dark about which of his government’s preposterous propaganda lines about late uncle Jang is actually true. (Although he will certainly have long been aware of Jang’s womanising and corruption as Jang is said to have managed the Kim family’s deeply corrupt “business” interests and fortune).

But Jang is alleged by North Korea’s Central News Agency to have confessed during his court martial that, “I was going to stage the coup by using army officers who had close ties with me or by mobilising armed forces under the control of my confidants ... I thought the army might join in the coup if the living of the people and service personnel further deteriorate in the future.” Highly plausible. But then it could also be a complete fabrication by Jang or the propaganda ministry. Kim will hardly be sleeping easy, despite Jang’s removal.