After decades of loyal service to the Kim dynasty, "despicable human scum ... who was worse than a dog" was probably not the epitaph Chang Song-thaek hoped for. But the very public and very final defenestration of the "traitor for all ages" says a couple of things I think professional Kimologists and the BBC are missing. The idea the "Great Comrade", or whatever absurd title he's using this week, offed his uncle to secure his power is true. But making that kind of observation is a bit like saying Lehman Brothers collapsed because it ran out of money. It doesn't grasp the underlying dynamics, the shifting factions and patterning of influence cloying for favour and office in Kim the Younger's new regime.
Unfortunately, no American or South Korean intelligence assets report directly to me but there are a few points that might help in making sense of the purge, and that about to engulf Chang's hapless allies. First, there is a generational aspect to the purge. The idea Chang was somehow plotting Kim's overthrow is preposterous. Had he been left in post there was every chance he would have carried on as per normal. Chang's real crime was being a holdover from Dad. The pre-eminent position he held in the bureaucracy was independent of Kim III's largesse - at least in a sense, and therefore had to go. And other North Korea watchers are probably right that this is a moment in a wider purge. Beneficiaries of Chang's patronage have to be rooted out because, on paper, they represent a potential source of opposition. Yet it's an opportunity for some, too. Solzhenitsyn's analysis of Stalin's terror, whatever its problems, was nevertheless right to acknowledge how the pattern of denunciation, arrest, and purge cleared out parts of the bureaucracy. It was a career opportunity and a refresh of the apparatus. Old officials, whether loyal or not were packed off to the gulag and in came new blood loyal to the boss at the top. We saw it in Stalin's USSR, in Mao's China, and now (again) in North Korea. Sometimes though a purge can develop a dynamic all of its own. Like China, the party/state bureaucracy is stuffed full of office holders who've been in place for decades. This is a gerontocrat bloc, and a gerontocrat block wedged in the machinery preventing younger, aspirant careerists from climbing the greasy pole. A denunciation here, a whisper there can be all it takes to improve one's promotion prospects. However, when this happens a purge can quickly get out of hand. An exercise in stabilising matters can risk destabilising the whole edifice. I can't see Kim's looking to carry through a terror-scale clean out for precisely this reason, but stranger things have happened.
That said, whether the purge is small or large scale it will certainly be conducted with all the theatrics the regime can muster. All dictatorships are brittle, and history has proven that unreconstructed Stalinist regimes are especially vulnerable. In a society where the party/state reaches into every aspect of social life, so it will inevitably be blamed for absolutely everything that goes wrong. In China and Vietnam, an unintended consequence of market reform is that, occasionally, opposition to the party (from grumbles to protests) are directed at particular enterprises or certain corrupt officials. And in China, there are subordinate political parties that recognise the primacy of Communist Party rule, and a degree of freedom of discussion in the approved media. Hence aspects of the party/state can bear the brunt of dissent without necessarily calling the legitimacy of the set-up into question. Though that still does happen too. In North Korea the relationship between party/state and citizen is not even partly mediated. The perverse personality cult is never out of people's faces, Kim Jong-un's person is identified with the party, the state and the country. So when the drain is blocked or there's yet another queue at the supermarket, it's not the party's fault - it's Kim's.
The lack of mediating relationships helps explain the personality cult and level of repression. Without institutions that can act as diffuse, independent sources of legitimacy and hegemony it has to rely on shock and awe to keep the populace quiescent. For example, what are the Mass Games if not a display of totalitarian power, of coordinating thousands of human being in perfect synchronicity? How to explain the violent rhetoric greeting the fall of Chang, or its penchant for blood-curdling rhetoric vis a vis the USA, South Korea and Japan? The threat of terrible retribution against internal and external enemies is always a matter of managing an atomised population, as much as the dynastic cult and juche ideology tries gluing together 'one nation' out of Brilliant Comrade photo ops and canary melon harvests. Whatever would Disraeli have thought?
Making way for Kim's lackeys and providing someone new for a very cynical two-minute hate, and keeping its cold war opponents on their toes taken together are not satisfactory explanations for the purge. Internally, since Kim III's accession there have been moves to trim down the military. As expensive as they are, nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles are cheaper in the long-run than keeping over a million under arms. From the dynasty's perspective this is rational - not "mad" as outside commentators like to portray. However, managing down a military that is a key prop and source of power within the bureaucracy is far from straightforward. Issuing decrees and expecting generals to meekly accept a trimming of their power will not happen, even if you're a Kim. In the 80s the Chinese Army accepted a diminution of their size in exchange for state-run companies, giving them a stake in Deng's economic reforms. Kim does not have that chip to bargain with, and DMZ brinkmanship can only "distract" the military brass so many times.
But this could put the move against Chang in a different light. Chang was responsible for North Korean business in China, and was known to be an advocate of Deng-style reforms. After all, they've kept China, Vietnam and Cuba from going the same way as the USSR and its satellites. Chang and his faction were, if you like, "realists" and were helping bring home the reddies from Chinese markets. According to China, trade between the two were perfectly balanced, though 90% of transactions are with Chinese currency. Not good news for jucheist self-reliance. Liquidating Chang and his cadre of business bureaucrats could have something to do with the state protecting its sovereignty from Chinese capitalism. Periodic crackdowns on domestic black markets are not unknown, and Kim does not seem sold on Deng-style policies. Or it could be that this potentially lucrative sector of government activity is turned over to some bureaucrats in fatigues. I guess we'll know if those operations are closed down, or continue with new personnel. It could be either of these things, both of them, or neither.
North Korea is unfortunate enough to be inflicted with a disgusting regime, and one that could well be the worst currently in existence. Yet these things are always creatures of circumstance, of economics, politics, development, classes, and geopolitics. If the cold war frontier can be sorted and relations between the Koreas and the US normalised, that could contribute to the fall of the Kims over the long-run, and see the welcome passing of its grotesqueries into history.