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The Purge of Jang Song-thaek

End of the road for Beijing’s Man in Pyongyang.

Dec 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 15 • By DENNIS P. HALPIN
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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.

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