North Korea: Sliding into Chaos, or More Stable than Ever?

By Geoffrey Cain

On Sunday, North Korea announced that Kim Jong Un's uncle, the powerful guiding-hand regent, had been excommunicated from the leadership.

Four days later, after a special military tribunal found him guilty of treason, Jang Song Taek was executed.

In many ways, the news leading up to the execution was unprecedented in recent decades. State media released an unusually scathing statement and a television broadcast, railing against Jang's "depraved" lifestyle and supposed anti-party scheming.

Jang was an entrenched regime veteran, placing this sudden shake-up among the most significant in North Korean history.

In the late 2000s, Kim Jong Il, the father of the current leader, was in poor health, culminating in his death in December 2011. Experts believed that Jang took the role of kingmaker, ushering Kim Jong Un to the throne and playing a hand in his everyday affairs.

As news of Jang's death emerged, South Korean President Park Geun Hye called the current leadership a "reign of terror" and warned that North-South relations could deteriorate even further.

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Beijing, too, is uneasy about the treatment of a man who was a preeminent figure behind both Chinese trade deals and a special economic zone where the country is a major investor. The execution amounts to a "serious" attack on China, said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul.

Predictably, Jang's excommunication was followed by a torrent of unsettling (and unconfirmed) reports this week: Rumors of an ideological schism in the highest party echelons; a possible gold sell-off to avert economic chaos; and news of a senior aide's supposed defection.

But look more closely, and perhaps things aren't what they seem, observers tell GlobalPost.

Experts - unable to see into the black box of elite North Korean politics - are debating two main theories on what the recent events mean (along with a smattering of views in between).

For a world nervous about a nuclear-armed rogue state, neither scenario is good news.

For some, the purge appears to be a paroxysm of an internal power struggle that could lead to chaos or collapse.

For others, it smacks of a more timeless narrative: As kings commonly oust their regents, the boy dictator could be casting away any possibility of a titular reign, consolidating power over a fading generation of elderly lieutenants. In other words, for a ruthless dictatorship, it's business as usual.

Here's a look at what the possibilities mean for the mysterious garrison kingdom.

Scenario 1: North Korea is sliding into chaos

One camp of observers says that Kim Jong Un is a hot-headed and irrational leader who cannot be easily understood. Like his father, his reign has proven difficult to decipher, they say. Some of his decisions make little sense.

Why, for instance, would the regime publicly test missiles in violation of United Nations sanctions, inviting more embargoes? Why would it fling bold war threats against two enemies that harbor superior military firepower, the United States and South Korea?

Part of the answer could be found in the autocrat's temperament, some say.

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