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Kim Jong Un’s deadly power play stokes fear in foreign governments

December 19, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: This week, North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, embarked on his third year as head of the isolated kingdom, after a week that has raised questions about his intentions and his country’s stability.

Today, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey, commenting on Kim’s execution of his high-ranking uncle, said: “These kind of internal actions by dictators are often a precursor to provocation.” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called it concerning to everyone.

Tonight senior foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner takes a closer look at the erratic 30-year-old.

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MARGARET WARNER: NBA Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman returned to Pyongyang today to renew what he calls his basketball diplomacy and his curious friendship with Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s young leader for the past two years, who remains a mystery to the outside world.

The visit comes a week after Kim staged a theatrical and deadly power play. He had his uncle and presumed mentor Jang Song Thaek arrested in public, tried for treason and executed. Kim’s summary dispatch of his high-ranking relative perplexed and disturbed foreign governments and longtime observers.

Secretary of State Kerry spoke on ABC last Sunday.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: It tells us a lot about, first of all, how ruthless and reckless he is, and, well, he is spontaneous, erratic, still worried about his place in the power structure, and maneuvering to eliminate any potential adversary or competitor.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet, on Tuesday, a smiling Kim was front and center, marking the second anniversary of his coming to power after the death of his father, Dear Leader Kim Jong Il. Early Western hopes that the younger Kim Jong-un might govern differently haven’t been borne out, says Joel Wit of the U.S.-Korea Institute.

JOEL WIT, Johns Hopkins University: One of the narratives when he took over was, because this guy seems to have been educated in Switzerland, is younger, he might be more likely to pursue reform in North Korea. And, of course, that hasn’t proven to be true yet.

VICTOR CHA, Center for Strategic and International Studies: The way he moves around with his wife socially, his interest in things like basketball and ski resorts and amusement parks, so, in that sense, quite different.

MARGARET WARNER: North Korea’s economy is in desperate straits, yet Kim hasn’t moved toward the market reforms embraced by his fellow communist neighbor China. But Kim is not different on issues that matter, says Victor Cha of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

VICTOR CHA: Two years in government, no sign of economic reform, any serious economic reform.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think he’s a serious person?

VICTOR CHA: You know, it’s really hard to say and, at least in policy, doesn’t seem to be interested in the things that the country really needs, whether that’s food or energy or hard currency or some sort of economic growth.

MARGARET WARNER: While much is not known about Kim Jong-un after these two years, two trends in his leadership appear clear and worrying: the internal instability revealed by the way Kim’s uncle was purged and executed, and North Korea’s ongoing buildup of a nuclear weapons and missile arsenal that could threaten the world.

On the day Jang was killed, a state TV newscaster recited a litany of shocking charges against him.

NEWSCASTER (through interpreter): The accused Jang committed hideous crimes, such as attempting to overthrow the state by all sorts of sabotages and despicable methods, with a wild ambition to grab the supreme power of our party and state.

VICTOR CHA: There’s an incredible admission of infighting in the country and factionalism, which has — has been completely unheard of in North Korea, that are two incredible admissions for a country that tries to keep a very public profile of them having everything under control.

MARGARET WARNER: Kim’s ostensible enemies weren’t named, but this former North Korean military, intelligence and Workers’ Party official who defected to South Korea just before Kim Jong-un came to power offered some insights.

We agreed to conceal his identity and name.

NORTH KOREAN DEFECTOR (through interpreter): Military officers generally were outraged that they had to accept Kim Jong-un as the new leader. Do they think the military is all stupid? Discontent among the military elites began soon after Kim Jong Il demanded we transfer our allegiance to his son. The feeling of betrayal turned into anger.

MARGARET WARNER: Military and party officials scorned Kim for his inexperience, the defector said, and his rudeness to subordinates.

NORTH KOREAN DEFECTOR (through interpreter): His father had more confidence and so was more relaxed, because he earned the power. But Kim Jong-un didn’t have the chance to learn and prepare for the leadership. This is why Kim Jong-un heavily relies on intelligence officers to control and spy on his people, so to suppress dissent.

MARGARET WARNER: Jang was the ideal target, the defector said, for Kim to eliminate a potential rival and offer a scapegoat for two years of little economic progress.

NORTH KOREAN DEFECTOR (through interpreter): The ruling elites became very disappointed at the new leader, and the dissent began to set in. Jang Song Thaek perfectly fit for the bill as the scapegoat. Everything can be blamed on him, and spare Kim from criticism for not delivering the powerful nation he promised.

MARGARET WARNER: Victor Cha found the whole episode unnerving.

VICTOR CHA: Instability in North Korea, I think, would be probably one of America and the region’s worst nightmares, because we don’t have any sense of how things progress or happen inside the regime, because they do have a stash of nuclear weapons and fissile material, that I think it would be a big concern if there were some sort of instability inside the country.

MARGARET WARNER: Kim Jong-un has continued his father’s nuclear and missile programs, following the warhead tests of 2006 and 2009 with one of his own this past February. It’s estimated that North Korea has between six and nine nuclear warheads.

JOEL WIT: Those programs have a lot of momentum behind them.

MARGARET WARNER: What about proliferation?

JOEL WIT: Right now, we don’t see any signs of it, but what I would argue is, as their stockpile grows of nuclear weapons, as their missile capabilities grow, the chances that they will be exporting the kinds of technologies we don’t want them to export will grow also.

MARGARET WARNER: Victor Cha says the North’s missile program is a particular danger.

Would you say that North Korea now, when you talk about missile capability, is more or less threatening than it was two years ago?

VICTOR CHA: It’s certainly more threatening. The last major test they did was successful in terms of putting a payload vehicle into orbit, which is something that they have been trying for years to do and they had not been capable of.

Secretary Gates two years ago said that he believed North Korea could pose a threat to the U.S. homeland within five years. So that is within the term of this president. So, I think there’s good cause to be concerned.

MARGARET WARNER: All this has caused deep worry in neighboring South Korea among the public.

MAN (through interpreter): Kim Jong-un was educated in Europe, so I thought he could be more open, more flexible. But he’s worse than his father, and so I’m very disappointed. He’s really cruel.

WOMAN (through interpreter): Looking at the way he’s killed his uncle, I think he’s not just bluffing. Many of my friends are in the army, and when I talk to them, they tell me how scared they are. They talk about there could be war any time. So, it does scare me.

MARGARET WARNER: And it also alarms those in government. After the uncle’s killing, new South Korean President Park Geun-hye warned of the danger of a new provocation from the North.

RPESIDENT PARK GEUN-HYE, South Korea (through interpreter): We cannot rule out emergencies such as reckless provocations. Considering the gravity and unpredictability of the current situation, the government, army and civilians, the entire nation should be thoroughly prepared.

MARGARET WARNER: Practicing the sort of vigilance the South has been forced to maintain for decades, and with this new, untested leader to the North, there’s no end in sight.