North Korea’s execution of Kim Jong Un’s uncle and de facto deputy raises the risk the leader may take military action against the South to demonstrate his authority after the purge.
South Korea has heightened its combat readiness since Kim’s uncle Jang Song Thaek was executed last week following his conviction for treason, the highest-ranking official to be purged since Kim took over upon the death of his father in December 2011. President Park Geun Hye warned Dec. 16 of possible “reckless provocations” from the North.
Concern that North Korea will instigate a hostile act adds to regional tensions already heightened after China last month set up an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea, straining relations with Japan and South Korea. Japan this week approved new defense plans and increased military spending as it seeks to counter China and North Korea’s growing muscle.
“Kim may opt for the largest provocation we have seen since 1950,” Patrick Cronin, a senior adviser for the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, said in an e-mail. “I don’t think he will launch an invasion, but a deployment of a nuclear-tipped missile, more bellicose rhetoric and an attack or island seizure across the northern limit line should not be ruled out.”
In March 2010, a South Korean warship sank near the western maritime boundary, known as the northern limit line, killing 46 sailors in what the South called a torpedo attack. The North denies the charge. Later that year, the North bombarded a South Korean island in the Yellow Sea, killing four people.
South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin said Dec. 17 the probability of provocations from the North, a nation with 1.2 million troops, will be highest between January and March. In February, the North celebrates the birth of Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, who chartered its military-first policy. The country has routinely stepped up war threats before annual U.S.-South Korean military drills beginning in March.
“Kim is too young and too inexperienced to be running the country on his own, and will probably need to stage provocations to prove that he really is in charge and can do whatever he pleases,” John Pike, head of the Globalsecurity.org, an aggregator of security analysis, said by e-mail.
Under Kim, believed to be about 30 years old, North Korea a year ago launched a long-range rocket carrying a satellite, a move the U.S. and South Korea dubbed a test of ballistic missile technology, prompting new United Nations sanctions.
Between February and April, the North conducted its third nuclear test, declared a state of war, deployed missiles in the east, threatened pre-emptive nuclear strikes and temporarily shuttered an industrial park jointly run with South Korea. On April 8, the won slid to the weakest level in more than eight months in South Korea as the risk of war with the North spurred outflows of foreign funds.
Since the South Korean spy agency first raised the possibility of Jang’s purge on Dec. 3, Speco Co., a maker of defense products such as fin stabilizers and water jets, has added 12 percent in Seoul as of the close today. Electronics warfare equipment maker Victek Co. has also gained more than 5 percent, while the benchmark Kospi index fell 1.7 percent.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Dec. 16 he was “shocked” by the news of Jang’s execution and urged against speculating on “any other further situations” arising from it.
“It is unlikely that Kim will choose to carry out a provocation immediately or soon after making this statement with the execution,” said Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at Washington-based Heritage Foundation and former head of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s Korea desk. “He wouldn’t want to distract the North Korean public from his message of fear with an attack against South Korea.”
The purge of Jang has so far not hampered production at the inter-Korean industrial park at Gaeseong, which reopened in September. South Korean officials left today for the North Korean site for talks on improving its operations while representatives from the Group of 20 nations will tour the factory park later in the day, according to the Unification Ministry in Seoul. Former basketball star Dennis Rodman today makes his third trip to North Korea this year, according to Irish bookmaker Paddy Power, which is sponsoring his visit.