The spectacle of North Korea’s former number two, Jang Song-thaek, being stripped of all his titles at a December 8 party meeting in Pyongyang and then arrested by uniformed guards left no doubt about his fall from grace. Jang’s former protégé, Premier Pak Pong-ju, was in tears as he denounced his old friend while he was being dragged away. Such a public display of political disarray, broadcast the next day on state television, was unprecedented in the North Korean hermit kingdom. Four days later, Jang’s execution was reported by KCNA, the official news service of the regime.
The fall of one of North Korea’s most artful dodgers—the uncle of ruler Kim Jong-un—was accompanied by a laundry list of his reported transgressions. He was accused of engaging in a “depraved, capitalist lifestyle” that included “gambling, womanizing, and drugs.” On a more sinister note, Jang was denounced for “throwing the state financial-management system into confusion and committing such acts of treachery as selling off precious resources of the country at cheap prices”—likely a veiled reference to the economic zones created near the Chinese border at Dandong and in Rajin-Sonbong in the northeast. The official state announcement pledged a follow-up purge of Jang’s supporters, which must make Pyongyang’s elite very nervous.
This purge seems already well underway. In an eerie echo of George Orwell, the Korea Herald reported on a December 7 rebroadcast of a North Korean television documentary in which Jang Song-thaek had been deleted from 13 scenes. The uncle had been filmed side-by-side with his nephew during an autumn inspection of a military unit, but now, suddenly, he was airbrushed out of the scene. Other South Korean media report that Jang Song-thaek’s fund manager has fled with the accounting books to China, where he is reportedly in hiding with South Korean assistance. Jang’s relatives overseas, including a nephew who is serving as the North Korean ambassador to Malaysia, have been abruptly ordered back to Pyongyang.
Pyongyang watchers are waiting to see if Jang’s reportedly estranged wife, Kim Kyung-hui, attends the December 17 memorial service for her late brother, the former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, on the second anniversary of his death. Kim Kyung-hui had been able to shield her husband from execution during previous purges.
When the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il suffered a debilitating stroke in the summer of 2008, he reportedly turned to his little sister Kim Kyong-hui and her husband, Jang Song-thaek, for assistance. The Dear Leader, facing his own mortality, understood that he did not have the decades of tutelage to prepare his own untested son and heir that he had received from his father. The stroke indicated that it might be necessary to turn over the reins of the family enterprise, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), much sooner than expected. Jang, having once been purged, gladly stepped into the role of mentor to Kim Jong-un. When Kim Jong-il died in December 2011, it was Uncle Jang who stood directly behind his nephew in the funeral procession.
Jang’s elevated status in the new regime was confirmed when, as vice chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC), he was dispatched in August 2012 on an official visit to China, isolated North Korea’s sole ally and guarantor. Kim Jong-un himself, in contrast, has yet to garner such an invitation to Beijing as the new leader of North Korea, although South Korean president Park Geun-hye was invited within six months of her assumption of office. Using convenient excuses, such as the Chinese leadership transition, Beijing has repeatedly rebuffed Kim Jong-un’s request to travel there. The Chinese leadership is apparently piqued by his erratic and provocative behavior, including a series of missile launches and even a nuclear test, which has embarrassed Beijing and severely disrupted Six-Party diplomacy.
Beijing, in contrast, rolled out the red carpet for Jang, a “lao pengyou” (old friend), scheduling meetings with all of China’s key leaders, including then-president Hu Jintao. Beijing’s leaders were familiar with Jang, in contrast to his young nephew. Despite a secret “getting-to-know-you” visit to China in 2010 in the company of his late father, the young Kim remains largely an enigma to the Chinese leadership. Jang Song-thaek, by contrast, was a frequent visitor to North Korea’s embassy in Beijing in the 1990s. He was also a promoter of a style of economic reform, with no liberal political strings attached, which was music to the ears of the Chinese leadership. Beijing is known to be concerned by the abysmal state of the North Korean economy, which requires continued, generous subsidies from China. Jang had not only visited China frequently over the years but even South Korea. In the heady days of Seoul’s “sunshine policy” in 2002, Jang saw how economic engines like the Samsung conglomerate produced the South Korean miracle on the Han River.
Economic reform in North Korea, however, has proved no easy path to maneuver. For unlike the vast Chinese mainland of 1.3 billion people which, so far, has had little to fear from the contrasting example of a democratic and free-market Taiwan of 23 million, South Korea is a potentially enormous magnet. With twice the population and a GDP roughly 40 times that of North Korea, the example of South Korea is a constant, potential threat to opening and reform by Pyongyang.
Those who advocate economic reform, like Jang Song-thaek, are always at risk of being suddenly purged. Such was the fate of Kim Jong-u, a Kim family cousin, who touted economic reform as chairman of North Korea’s Committee for the Promotion of External Economic Cooperation during the Great Famine of the 1990s. His activities included hosting an economic seminar attended by over 300 foreigners in 1996 in Rajin-Sonbong. (Like Jang Song-thaek, he had connections to the Rajin-Sonbong Free Economic and Trade Zone near the Russian and Chinese borders.) But as North Korea made a marginal recovery from famine, and fear of external “impure elements” increased, the door to economic reform abruptly shut. In 1998 it was reported that Kim Jong-u was purged and then executed, just as two of Jang Song-thaek’s closest aides were recently.
Jang himself also suffered when the bloom of economic reform faded. He was reportedly sent in 2004 for “re-education through labor” to a steel mill, although his marital tie to the only daughter of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung likely spared him a firing squad. Jang’s relationship to his spouse, four-star general Kim Kyong-hui, did not appear to be any less dysfunctional than was the case with the rest of the Kim family. Kim Kyong-hui, who suffers from chronic health problems related to alcoholism, reportedly drove their only child to suicide. Their daughter Jang Kum-song died of an overdose of sleeping pills in Paris in 2006, where she was studying. She had reportedly been ordered back by her mother to Pyongyang in order to break up a relationship with a boyfriend.
The purge of Jang Song-thaek was as abrupt as Kim Jong-un’s purge of Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho in July 2012. The removal of the former chief of the general staff of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), who had been described as “a mentor” always at the side of Kim Jong-un during the transition to the new regime, was as much a shakeup of Pyongyang’s military establishment as Jang’s is in the political sphere. This was followed this past May by the sudden removal, after only six months, of hardline general Kim Kyok-sik as the minister of defense and his replacement by an unknown general. Kim was kept on for three months as chief of the KPA general staff until he was completely removed from the scene in August following the seizure by Panama of a North Korean vessel carrying a shipment of illicit arms. General Kim has long been involved with North Korea’s arms smuggling, most notably to Syria where he was once an assistant military attache, and he is credited with carrying out two major attacks on South Korea in 2010, the torpedoing of the Cheonan naval vessel and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. He reportedly allowed Kim Jong-un to take the credit for these operations, permitting the young and inexperienced leader to gain a measure of gravitas with older, skeptical North Korean military brass.
A pattern of purging experienced advisers has clearly emerged as part of Kim Jong-un’s modus operandi. Some see this as a move to replace the old guard of his father’s generation with persons beholden to Kim Jong-un personally. But it may be more of an indication of youthful bravado by a cocky but inexperienced leader than a sign of stability and strength. Some point to Jang’s reported rival, Choe Ryong-hae, as the instigator of his dismissal and see this as a reassertion of military power over party officials close to Jang. Choe, however, while carrying the title of vice marshal, is not a career military man but from the Socialist Youth League and has questionable leadership experience with which to guide Kim Jong-un through the labyrinth of Pyongyang politics.
Kim Jong-un himself was hailed by some as a breath of fresh air when he emerged out of nowhere just a few years ago to assume the succession mantle. He was seen as a Swiss-educated, basketball-loving citizen of the world who might bring a degree of enlightenment to isolated Pyongyang.
Instead, in his erratic and brutal behavior, including issuing shoot-to-kill orders for refugees, blowing to smithereens a hapless comrade who showed insufficient mourning upon the death of the Dear Leader, and reportedly ordering a musical entertainer and her entire troupe in front of a firing squad at the behest of his jealous wife, the Young General has proved every bit as bloodthirsty as the rest of his infamous family.
The execution of Beijing’s man in Pyongyang may give Kim Jong-un one more opportunity to thumb his nose at the Chinese for agreeing to greater sanctions in the wake of his missile and nuclear adventurism. However, when push comes to shove, an experienced leader would have recognized that there is, at present, no alternative to China for Pyongyang and that Jang Song-thaek represented a valuable conduit to the mandarins in Beijing. Bejing’s nervousness about North Korea may be reflected in the fact that it staged a live-fire landing exercise with about 5,000 army, navy, and air force troops in Bohai Bay near North Korea on Sunday night, December 8, just after the purge of Jang Song-thaek was confirmed.
The question being raised not only in Beijing but elsewhere seems to be: With experienced hands like Jang Song-thaek, Ri Yong-ho, and Kim Kyok-sik removed from the scene, and with the Young General often distracted riding roller coasters with his wife or hanging out with Dennis Rodman, who in Pyongyang will be minding the store? Does the new kid on the block have the brains and skill to keep the Kim family enterprise going?
Dennis P. Halpin is a former U.S. consul in Busan and adviser on Asian issues to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS (Johns Hopkins).