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.