North Korean state media have just made official, via a surprisingly harsh communiqué and revealing visual footage, what South Korean intelligence officials already asserted in the South Korean National Assembly last week: the powerful Jang Song-taek, Kim Jong-un's uncle, has been relieved of all his duties within the reclusive North Korean power structure.
Jang's downfall and even rumored execution marks the latest in a string of purges that Kim Jong-un has undertaken to cement his power over the past two years. The unprecedented prominence given to Jang's ousting also sends a strong signal on the need for absolute loyalty to the young leader and, according to some experts, also a clear message to the outside world: Kim Jong-un is not really aiming at reforming the crippled North Korean economic system with the so-called Byungjin Line – adopted during a Central Committee of the Party plenary meeting last March 31 and putting equal emphasis on nuclear and economic development – and is instead bent on pursuing his late father's Songun, or military first, policy under a new name.
However, Jang's demise could just indicate a strategic shift in Kim's gradual economic opening policy, and not its outright fall into oblivion. As asserted by Andrei Lankov, a reputed scholar and expert in North Korea, economic reforms are perfectly compatible with an increase in the level of political persecution to guarantee internal stability.
Even if Jang Song-taek was widely considered a relevant reformist figure, he was mostly associated with Pyongyang's increasing economic ties with Beijing, including the development of the Special Economic Zones near the Chinese border. We should not forget that he was never the main symbolic figure behind the adoption of the Byungjin Line: the reemergence of Pak Pong-ju as Prime Minister in April 2013 was indeed the clearest signal of Kim Jong-un's commitment to strengthened economic development. It is no coincidence that a Chinese state-run newspaper, Huanqiu, has been quick to quell speculations that bilateral relations with China may experience a period of unpredictability or even be damaged by Jang's ouster by emphasizing Premier Pak's numerous on-site tours related to economic projects. As asserted by Yonsei University professor John Delury, "Pak Pong Ju is the face of economic reform, such as it exists — reform with North Korean characteristics."
The wide array of accusations against Jang Song-taek featured an unmistakable hint at the North Korean characteristics of the planned economic reform: Kim Jong-un's uncle was accused of living a "lavish, depraved life" infected with capitalism. As Adam Cathcart, an expert at the University of Leeds, told The Guardian, this statement indicates the potential for massive corruption and personal corrosion that lies beyond the borders of the DPRK.
In other words, Jang's harsh removal from power, mostly aimed at sending a strong signal to North Korean internal audiences, shows how the North Korean leaders might be trying to steer economic development away from increasing dependence on Beijing and Chinese interests – Jang was also accused of selling the country's resources on the cheap, a hint directed at deals he signed with Chinese mining companies – by reasserting the central role of the Pyongyang leadership and the North Korean People's Army in the internal and economic affairs of the country. However, as also confirmed by Alejandro Cao de Benós, special representative of the North Korean Foreign Ministry, the Worker's Party has no plans to change its line of simultaneous development of economic and nuclear power.
Therefore, the future of Pak Pong-ju, widely considered to be a member of the pro-Jang faction within Pyongyang politics, might be the real key to knowing if the Kim regime plans to revert the ongoing capitalist reform of its economy or stick to its planned dual development course. His eventual purge, and not Jang's, would be the one sending a clear signal to the wider outside world – not just to Beijing and Pyongyang power circles.