Being a North Korea one percenter just got dangerous.
While the recent execution of the uncle of North Korea’s ruler suggests power consolidation inside a nuclear-armed nation, a deeper look also reveals an insecure leader who feels threatened by the growing power of the North’s economic elite.
Many outsiders regard North Korea as a nation in a state of perpetual, widespread famine. The country sealed its borders to the outside world 60 years ago, and glimpses inside the hyper-secretive country are rare. But not all North Koreans are starving—and its economy is far from isolated.
Through revenue-generating business ventures that often are managed by military and political leaders, North Korean state trading companies have generated millions for North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and the nation’s ruling class. While the North’s 99 percent search for food scraps, its “1 percent”—through private enterprise, ironically—has become increasingly wealthy.
Even in a communist country like the North, there’s anentrepreneurial hierarchy. And among the state trading firms, Jang Song Thaek amassed and managed one of the largest and most influential group of state trading companies in North Korea. With high-ranking connections from the military to the North Korean Cabinet to the ruling Kim dynasty, Jang was the North’s ultimate influence man before he was executed last week.
“Jang was like a prince maker,” said John Park, northeast Asia security specialist at the Harvard Kennedy School. “In North Korea, it’s a parallel existence between the 1 percent and 99 percent. And Jang’s execution was about managing the power of the 1 percent,” Park said. “He built the North Korean equivalent of a North Korean business empire.”
With Jang’s execution, Kim Jong Un now faces a delicate balancing act between ferreting out his uncle Jang’s collaborators—while not entirely dismantling the cash cow of state firms Jang built. Weeding out Jang’s network is a short-term fix. “Medium-, long-term, you’ve cut off this machine and that’s almost like a self-inflicted wound,” Park said.
And the purge is far from over.
“North Korea has ordered home almost all their agents in China, suggesting that they will be examined and at least some will be purged,” said Bruce Bennett, senior defense analyst at the RAND Corp.
And unlike previous purges that protected the North’s most inner circle, the current North Korean leader—in his early 30s and just two years into power—is digging deeper. “Even the central group is being disrupted in ways that had never been done before,” Bennett said. “You have to wonder if Kim Jong Un is being immature.”
Voting ballot in the DPRK. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Coat of Arms of North Korea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
VLADIVOSTOK. President Putin talking with Kim Jong-Il, Chairman of the National Defence Commission of North Korea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Demilitarized Zone, North Korea (Photo credit: yeowatzup)