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Does North Korea’s purge signal rising instability?

December 13, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what does the execution say about what’s going on in North Korea?

We have two views. Robert Carlin had a 31-year career at the CIA and the State Department focused on Korea. He’s the co-author of the new edition of the book “The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History.” And Sung-Yoon Lee, an assistant professor of Korean studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.

Welcome to both of you to the NewsHour.

Robert Carlin, let me begin with you.

How surprising is this?

ROBERT CARLIN, former CIA and State Department intelligence analyst: Surprising.

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I wasn’t surprised that Jang fell from power. I had thought for some time that was going to happen. I was surprised…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why did you think it would?

ROBERT CARLIN: Because he’s been up and down in the leadership before, because he’s very ambitious, a little bit cocky, and is the sort of figure who you don’t want too high up in the North Korean leadership, a little bit dangerous.

He had a lot of enemies. He made enemies. He had some friends, but he also had a lot of enemies, and he was very vulnerable. So it was only a matter of time. Whether or not it would be this theatrical was the question.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor Lee, just a matter of time?

SUNG-YOON LEE, Tufts University: Yes, indeed.

In a totalitarian system, the de facto number two man is an unenviable position. The de jure number two man poses no threat, and North Korea has such an individual who is charged with ceremonial activities like receiving foreign dignitaries. But because Jang Song Thaek has been considered as the de facto number two man for at least 10 years, he becomes a target.

And in a totalitarian system, oftentimes, the life of the number two man is short and precarious.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Robert Carlin, what about his relationship with the son? Kim Jong-un is just about to observe his second anniversary of coming into power. What was known about that?

ROBERT CARLIN: Nothing.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nothing?

ROBERT CARLIN: Seriously. Seriously.

No, we don’t know anything about really the personal relationships in North Korea. So we have to judge on the basis of photographs, little bits and pieces of information. If you go back and you look at the indictment of Jang, it suggests, if you can believe it, that he’s been under observation for some time, that he was throwing his weight around, that they knew it and they were watching him and, they were just waiting for the right moment to take him out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Professor Lee, is it — they charged him with a long list of crimes, gambling, womanizing, not showing respect to Kim Jong-un. Do we believe all this, or do we just — I mean, what do you make of that?

SUNG-YOON LEE: Well, some of it is credible. North Korea was very kind enough to give us a detailed account of Jang Song Thaek’s offenses, unwittingly even admitting that the economy is in a catastrophic situation.

Catastrophe is the word that North Korea used. Also unwittingly, North Korea in detail admitted that there was a plot, an attempt to overthrow the Kim family regime. Now, in the people’s paradise, paradise on earth, so-called, the leader is omnipotent. He is almost a deity. And even to dream that one day a person like Jang Song Thaek may try to overthrow the Kim family is a taboo.

That taboo now has been broken. And I think this bodes ill in the short term for the long-suffering North Korean people, because we can expect more purges and violence and accelerated, enhanced, intensified internal repression in the short term. But in the long term, I think it is hard for me to imagine that Kim Jong-un, now 30 years old, although it is entirely feasible he may live another half-century, it’s inconceivable to me that he will have a long and happy, healthy life.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Robert Carlin, you agree, though, this, in the short term, this bodes ill for the people, that this suggests not only instability in the regime, but that others are going to be purged, as the uncle was?

ROBERT CARLIN: You know, it is only 24 hours since we heard this new. And I think the best thing analysts can do and observers and pundits is sit back and wait at least a week.

There’s a lot of dust that has to settle. This is an entirely new situation that we’re confronting on the outside. And so we’re laying on a lot of our fears and preconception on this, without really understanding where he might go. He might equally pardon a lot of the people, rather than execute them. He might show how benevolent he is and say, well, you were misled by this man, but I’m the great leader, and I can — I can forgive you your sins.

We don’t know what he’s going to do. And — and my advice, again, is, let’s watch. Every single day, let’s watch the information come in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Professor Lee, it sounds like you feel more certain that in the short term, bad things could happen to some of these people who were around Mr. Jang?

SUNG-YOON LEE: That’s right.

And to Kim Jong-un, I think this is an affirmation of his impetuous, brash nature. Over the past two years, we have seen an accelerated path of internal repression and external military exploitation, marked by two ballistic long-range missile tests and a nuclear test earlier this year.

Purges have, of course, the primary purpose of removing any potential from the scene — potential rival — pardon me — from the scene. But there is a secondary objective, which is to instill fear. This demonstrative effect, the theatrics, the swift execution of such a high-profile person suggests that Kim Jong-un is now quite confident, recklessly so, perhaps, and probably prone to miscalculation.

The system he inherited is — makes him one of the world’s richest men, presiding over one of the poorest countries, with his finger on the nuclear button. And that’s a very bizarre and dangerous formulation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you’re arguing — or your point is, Robert Carlin, that a little time needs to pass. And does that mean the rest of the world should hold off passing judgment here?

ROBERT CARLIN: Obviously, every country has to make its own decisions on what it thinks is moral and immoral and proper government behavior.

But why we would — why we would express that right now is beyond me. It seems to me, it’s — if we’re worried about the situation in North Korea, and we’re uncertain about what is going to happen, it doesn’t make any sense for us to make it worse by voicing criticism of the North Koreans.

Just wait. Watch. If our militaries need to tweak up their watchfulness, we can do that quietly. The North Koreans will understand it. We need to get past this jittery period. Neither of us knows what the other is thinking right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We hear you.

Robert Carlin, Sung-Yoon Lee, we thank you both.

SUNG-YOON LEE: Thank you.

ROBERT CARLIN: Thank you, Judy.