Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2013.12.19

James Bond Villain in the North and Touchiness in the South

JBPress on December 11, 2013

A cold-blooded "number one" eliminates his "number two" for disobeying orders in front of their comrades. This is not SPECTRE from the James Bond movies. It is what happened last week to Chang Song Taek, the powerful uncle in law of North Korea's young leader Kim Jong Un.

Chang's purge was formally confirmed on December 8, which surprised many in Tokyo. It was not only because of its timing but also of the details of the alleged transgressions. North Korea's official statement described his crimes as follows:

- Chang abused his power and was engaged in irregularities and corruption.

- He had improper relations with several women and dined at luxurious restaurants.

- He was ideologically sick as well as extremely idle and easygoing.

- He even used drugs and squandered foreign currency at casinos.

Wait a minute. Aren't these the very wrongdoings that some high-ranking party officials and EVERYONE in the Kim family have committed for generations? If Chang were to be guilty, so should everyone else at the top of the hierarchy be too. Some in Tokyo wondered why only Chang, and why now.

Of course, it is premature to make any final judgment, since information is limited and nothing can be taken for granted in North Korea. However, at least for now in Tokyo, there seem to be two schools of thought over the future stability of this notorious North Korean regime.

One says it is just a prelude to a larger and more serious intra-party power struggle which will follow for months to come. The other, on the contrary, claims that the new young dictator has finally solidified his power base inside North Korea's ruling party.

Nobody knows but one thing is for sure. In the world of private business, even if you are a family member, it is not always easy to take over and sustain your family business, as I have personally experienced. Sometimes it gets more difficult because you are from the owner's family.

It is especially so in the case of the Kim family enterprise for the following three reasons.

- First, just consider North Korea as a family business, not as a country. Its business model of the 1940s is too obsolete. While China switched to the open-door policy in the late 1970s, North Korea remained unchanged. The only new element is its recent acquisition of nuclear weapons in a bid for political survival.

- Secondly, the young new CEO with virtually no experience may not have enough skill and charisma to manage this old-fashioned company. He has potential enemies everywhere. The old guard who supported the founding grandfather and succeeding father are on one side and his brothers and relatives in his own family on the other.

- Finally, the grandson seems to be flip-flopping. Since he assumed the supreme leader's post two years ago, he first purged the powerful old guard of the military and then his own uncle in law in the royal family. If he keeps on following the advice from one side to eliminate its enemy on the other, there will soon be no good advisers he can rely on.

Naturally, Tokyo is concerned about instability in the Korean peninsula. The United States, Japan and South Korea all need to remind the young Kim that what he inherited is not a large blue-chip corporation but just a small family enterprise with an outdated business model.

All in all, Pyongyang is very difficult to deal with, because their mindset is somehow peculiar. Tokyo, however, sometimes finds Seoul as hard as Pyongyang to do business with. For example, last week South Koreans repeatedly criticized Vice President Joe Biden for his remarks in Seoul.

Reportedly, Biden's words were interpreted as an implicit U.S. warning against South Korea's increasing economic and political dependence on China. The South Korean government tried to explain that Biden's off the cuff comments were interpreted out of context.

Out of context? Hardly. Here is what Biden said. "As I said in my visits thus far in the region, it has never been a good bet to bet against America. It has never been a good bet to bet against America. And America is going to continue to place its bet on South Korea."

Oddly enough, to many English speaking Japanese Biden's words don't sound particularly provocative against Seoul. At least, it is not "the rudest comment" against the Korean President and its people, as some South Koreans claim.

Some even stated that "Biden was demonstrating the power of the U.S. to Korea." However, Biden said this repeatedly in Japan and China as well. Why do South Koreans call it "Biden's diplomatic gaffe"? Many in Tokyo are puzzled. These are the neighbors Japan is trying to deal with.