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Source: Adam Dean/Panos

On the border line at the DMZ in Panmunjom

Problems No Matter What Happens

The Spy Who Told Me: Look Out for North Korea

Why you should care

North Korea’s young leader is flexing his powers – purging rivals, revealing his volatility, and heightening instability for his people and the countries he’s aiming missiles at.

North Korea has once again seized the world’s imagination, and not just because the mercurial Dennis Rodman is spending his retirement coaching their basketball team for an NBA exhibition game next month.

What sparked a new round of intense curiosity was the recent execution of Jang Song Thaek, a leading political figure and the uncle of the country’s new young leader Kim Jong-on, who came to power two years ago at the age of 29 following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il. Jang was widely seen as the mentor in charge of grooming his inexperienced nephew to run the country.

There’s a lot of confusion about what’s really going on in this isolated and unpredictable Communist country – often dubbed the “hermit kingdom” – and what it means for North Korea’s stability and international posture. It’s clearly a violent time. North Korea has long been the world’s most opaque country, even for intelligence pros, and most experts freely admit to being stumped by this latest North Korean surprise.

Asian man in blue outfit being held up by 2 soldiers.

Jang Song Thaek in court prior to his execution

Some say it could show that the young leader has consolidated his power and feels secure enough to take this provocative step, motivated perhaps by concern that his uncle was building an independent power base – always a grievous offense in the eyes of the Kim dynasty. Others suggest it shows Kim’s weakness, volatility, and immaturity and may presage a period of instability in the country, which is my personal leaning.

The key question is whether there will be further purges and if so, of whom – military circles, political figures, economic officials? Or is the purging over?

The best clues will come out of what happens next. The key question is whether there will be further purges and if so, of whom – military circles, political figures, economic officials? Or is the purging over? The South Korean intelligence service recently said publicly that some of Jang’s closest associates are also missing and that executions have risen sharply, from 17 in 2012 to 40 in 2013. If this sort of thing continues, it will show that the young Kim feels it necessary to weed out anyone suspected of disloyalty so as to establish his undisputed supremacy – a familiar pattern with his father.

Apart from the human rights abuses involved, there are a number of reasons to care about all of this and to be concerned. Here are my top four:

1. High Price of Societal Collapse

There’s always a concern about sudden instability in a country as poor and oppressed as North Korea. The country has been astonishingly durable, but Western analysts have for years acknowledged that it could surprise us with a catastrophic societal collapse.

If this ever happened, there would be huge refugee flows both to the prosperous South and north into China. There would be worries about the location and condition of its nuclear material and possible weapons. And South Korea and the international community would inherit a massive rehabilitation task costing hundreds of billions of dollars. Rebuilding East Germany after reunification in the 1990’s cost the German government $100 billion annually for a number of years. Rebuilding North Korea would be much more complex and the price tag would be dramatically higher.

2. Nuclear Capabilities

North Korea is a nuclear power. It has weapons-grade plutonium and admitted two years ago that it also is enriching uranium. It could once again defy the international community and carry out another nuclear test. It has done three nuclear tests in the last seven years.

Scientists say the most recent test earlier this year produced a yield of somewhere between 6 and 15 kilotons (WW II’s Hiroshima bomb was 16 kilotons). North Korea claims that this was to test a miniaturized nuclear device, which suggests it is trying to mate such a device with one of its missiles. Late last year, the North finally succeeded in launching a satellite into orbit, which indicates it is getting closer to success with the sort of three-stage missile that could have intercontinental range and reach the United States (although probably not with great accuracy).

Protest with signs written in Korean and a fire on the street

Source: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty

South Korean conservative protesters burn an effigy of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and flags on November 23, 2013 in Seoul, South Korea.

3. Precursor to Aggression?

Kim’s recent actions could be a precursor to another act of aggression against the South – a tactic often used to demonstrate the control and power of the North’s leader, fuel nationalism, and distract citizens from domestic problems that range from widespread hunger to a stalled economy.

In March 2012, a North Korean torpedo sunk a South Korean vessel, killing 46 sailors. Later that year, North Korea bombarded the South’s Yeonpyeong Island with artillery, killing a number of South Korean civilians and inflicting substantial damage. Over the last year, the North has repeatedly threatened to preemptively attack again. This may be a bluff, but with Seoul within easy range of the North’s conventional artillery, South Korea and the U.S., which has more than 28,000 troops in the South, must take this very seriously.

4. Weapons Supplier

Finally, we must worry about the cash-strapped North stepping up its proliferation of military technology, including its nuclear know-how. It has a long record of doing this with missiles; Iran’s principal intermediate range missile is essentially a copy of the North Korean No Dong. And the North was caught red-handed assisting Syria with the design of the nuclear reactor that Israel destroyed at Al-Kibar, Syria in 2007.

So the bottom line is that much more is at stake in North Korea than the skill of its basketball team. It clearly will be an abiding concern for its neighbors and the international community as long as the current regime exists. And it will be a burden and responsibility of mammoth proportions if that regime ever falls.

Cover Image: Mark Ralston/Getty

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