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North Korean leader reaches for power

SEOUL, South Korea— When Kim Jong Un became leader of North Korea two years ago, he was surrounded by advisers two times his age, and some of them were even older. Most had decades of experience in the Workers' Party or military. Two were members of Kim's own family.

But rather than lean on that support team, Kim has instead sought to dismantle it, using demotions and purges to grab power. North Korea on Friday announced the execution of the most prominent of Kim's advisers, his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, accusing him of opposing Kim's rise and plotting an overthrow.

The pace and brutality of Kim's attempted power consolidation far exceeds what analysts expected and carries significant consequences for the region and the United States. If Kim can indeed lock down power, one of the world's most secretive and repressive nations may continue as it is for decades. If Kim fails, a 65-year-run of family rule could face resistance, and a nuclear-armed nation could plunge into chaos.

For now, there are no outward signs of instability in the North, and it's unclear whether Jang's execution marks the last stage of Kim's ascendancy or the first hint of opposition. In Jang's execution some analysts see a Stalin-style warning sign sent to other potential rivals, those who feel that Kim is either too untested or unqualified to run the country.

Kim is thought to be 30 years old, making him among the world's youngest heads of state. Some who study the North say that Kim, as a product of his age, has felt it necessary to quickly remove those from older generations who owed their loyalty to his father, Kim Jong Il. Well before the purge of Jang, Kim had ousted scores of second- and third-level functionaries in the Workers' Party and military in one of the North's biggest personnel turnovers in decades.

As a telltale signal of the change, Kim has removed or demoted five of the seven elderly officials who walked alongside the hearse of Kim Jong Il at a state funeral two years ago.

"Kim Jong Un has proven to the nation and his people that he is capable of taking out even those closest to him," said Suh Choo Suk, an expert at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul.

The effect of Kim freeing himself from his senior advisers remains uncertain. Several Beijing-based analysts and scholars said Friday they feared that North Korea's relations with China would suffer, as Jang had been a key interlocutor with Chinese officials. Other experts, such as Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said that Kim has no potential "moderating influence" and might behave more recklessly.

South Koreans in Seoul watch coverage of change in North Korea on Friday after the execution of top figure Jang Song Thaek, left on TV screen with his nephew, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Getty Images

South Koreans in Seoul watch coverage of change in North Korea on Friday after the execution of top figure Jang Song Thaek, left on TV screen with his nephew, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

North Korean leader reaches for power 12/13/13 [Last modified: Saturday, December 14, 2013 1:02am]
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