SEOUL — The surprise execution of a key figure in the North Korean regime last year is expected to have little impact on the stability of Kim Jong Un’s rule or defense policy, according to a Department of Defense report released Wednesday.
Kim ordered the execution of close adviser Chang Song-taek — who was also his uncle — in December 2013. Chang, a four-star general and vice-chairman of the country’s National Defense Commission, had been a fixture in Kim Jong Il’s government and a “relatively pragmatic” adviser to the younger Kim, who assumed power after his father’s death in December 2011, the report said.
“Chang’s execution is the most significant step to date in Kim’s establishment of his authority, eliminating arguable the most influential senior Party official remaining from his father’s era,” the annual report to Congress said. “The sudden and brutal purge sends a strong message to regime elites that the formation of factions or potential challenges to Kim Jong Un will not be tolerated.”
The number of public appearances Chang made with Kim Jong Un dropped 50 percent last year compared to 2012, signaling that his influence had dropped.
Chang – whose name is frequently spelled Jang – had little control over the defense and military sectors. However, he was in charge of several important initiatives to bring foreign currency and investment to North Korea, his absence will most likely be felt in the economic sector, the report said.
The release of the assessment comes as the U.S. and South Korean militaries are wrapping up their annual Key Resolve command post exercise. About 5,200 U.S. troops, including 1,100 from off the peninsula, participated, as well as troops from four major South Korean units, and four sending states of the United Nations Command: Australia, Canada, Denmark and the United Kingdom.
According to a press release issued Thursday by U.S. Forces Korea, the drill rehearses “various scenarios” that hone skills needed to protect South Korea.
Some 12,700 U.S. and 200,000 South Korean troops also are taking part in the Foal Eagle field exercises, which began last month. That drill is scheduled to end April 18.
In what defense officials see as a response to the exercises, Pyongyang has conducted several low-level actions in recent weeks — from rocket launches to brief incursions of a patrol boat across the disputed maritime border between the two Koreas.
While the North has criticized the exercises, it has been far less vocal than it was during last year’s drills, when it levied a number of unusually bellicose threats at the U.S. and South Korea, substantially raising tensions on the peninsula.
The report says that the past year marked the end of North Korea’s “institutional readjustment to Kim Jong Un’s leadership and began implementation of his broader national agenda,” which includes gaining acceptance as a nuclear state.
During 2013, Pyongyang engaged in a series of provocative acts, such as conducting a nuclear test in February and withdrawing workers from the inter-Korean Kaesong Industrial Complex in April, while at times increasing its diplomatic overtures to other countries in the region. By late spring, North Korea had begun calling for renewed dialogue with the international community and sent high-level officials to Russia and China, though that outreach was followed later in the year by hostile rhetoric and the cancellation of inter-Korean family reunions.
The DOD report noted that the North’s diplomacy failed because of concerns about its nuclear program, though “the North likely believes a ‘charm offensive’ will eventually lead to improvements in regional relationships and gradual advancement of its strategic objectives.”
Pyongyang also seems to believe that China, while disapproving of the North’s nuclear program and provocations, is unlikely to cut off diplomatic or economic relations and risk destabilizing the region, it said.
According to the Pentagon report, Pyongyang continues to advance its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities, though much of its conventional weapons and other military equipment remains outdated.