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Kim Jong Un Dismisses Uncle From Defense Post On State Television


The signal from North Korea could not be any more emphatic: Kim Jong Un is decisively in control. And he's gone so far as to purge his uncle, who was considered the number two power in North Korea, publicly on television.

The uncle, Jang Song Thaek, was accused of a long list of criminal and counterrevolutionary acts. He was stripped of all power and was seen on state television being forcibly removed from a party meeting. Korea watcher Victor Cha, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, joins me now to talk about what this means. Mr. Cha, welcome to the program.

VICTOR CHA: Thank you.

BLOCK: And why don't you talk about those images that were seen on state TV of Kim Jong Un's uncle being dragged out of that meeting by the police.

CHA: Yeah, sitting very much in the front row in what was considered to be a expanded politburo meeting; these meetings usually are signs of tremendous unity. The sort of meetings where they have vote some things and everybody puts up the same card, including the leader of the country. So to use this particular venue to show actual dissension in the system is very unusual.

BLOCK: Very unusual. Is it unprecedented?

CHA: I think it's unprecedented. And on the one hand, it may be a sign of confidence that this young, 30-year-old who suddenly was thrust into power now feels so confident that he can take out people like Jang Song Thaek. On the other hand, it could also be a sign of how much he distrusts everybody in the system, even his closest confidants, which to me would not be a sign of stability. It would be a sign that there's something terribly wrong on the inside.

BLOCK: Well, the accusations against Kim Jong Un's uncle include depravity, drugs, gambling, womanizing, things like that, but also that he has committed anti-party and counterrevolutionary acts. What do you read into those various charges?

CHA: A couple of things. First, I think that Jang Song Thaek was considered to be very close to China, was probably the person in the system mostly in favor of North Korea undertaking more economic opening and reform, along the lines of what China has done - not so much political opening, but at least economic opening and reform. So I think that's one sign that that's not the direction in which North Korea is moving, despite earlier speculation that this young leader might be doing that.

Secondly, ideologically, I think, by the nature of the charges against Jang Song Thaek, it's a manifestation of a hardening of the ideology in North Korea and much more against opening and contact with the outside.

BLOCK: What do you assume will happen to Jang Song Thaek now?

CHA: Well, you know, he has been purged before in the North Korean system. When he was a lower-level official, he had been purged before and was able to come back. I mean, the nature of the charges and the formality through which it had been read out in public and on TV, I think, means that he's never coming back again.

BLOCK: Well, for the United States and for other Western powers watching North Korea, watching this young leader, what's the message? What's the takeaway, do you think?

CHA: I think there are two. The first is that this is a regime under Kim Jong Un that is much less predictable than it was under the previous two leaders. Not that North Korea was ever predictable, but there was a logic, even if it was a North Korean logic, to their actions. And there's just so much variability in this new fellow's behavior. On the one hand, he's opening ski resorts and hosting Dennis Rodman. On the other hand, he's purging his most important people and doing nuclear and missile tests, and abducting and seizing American citizens. So I think one is unpredictability.

The other is that, most likely, the external behavior of North Korea is not going to become softer. When you have dictatorships like this that go through an unstable leadership transition, they tend not to be more conciliatory and open in their behavior. And so I think we're in store for more difficult behavior from North Korea over the months to come.

BLOCK: Mr. Cha, thank you so much.

CHA: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: That's Victor Cha. He is Korea chair with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.