ANALYSIS: Jang Song Thaek’s very public purge

Dr. Andrei Lankov discusses the very public political purge of the once powerful Jang Song Thaek
December 9th, 2013
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One cannot say that the two year long rule of Kim Jong Un has been tranquil and quiet. As a matter of fact, it has been marked by series of large scale purges – on a scale that North Korea has not seen for decades. Last year was a time when the top echelons of the military were systematically replaced. It now appears that the time for a similar purge of the civilian bureaucracy has come.

The very recent downfall of Jang Song Thaek – Kim Jong Un’s uncle – is an important event. It can be described as both unexpected but also anticipated. On the one hand, Jang’s displacement has been expected within certain circles for sometime now. On the other hand, the dramatic form this purge took is completely unexpected.

DANGERS OF A MENTOR’S JOB

When, in October 2010, the hitherto almost unknown Kim Jong Un was suddenly promoted to become his father’s heir designate, it was rumored that in the case of his father’s death (then not seen as a imminent prospect), the young Kim would be advised and assisted by a trio of elder officials.

This council of regency included Kim Jong Un’s aunt Kim Kyong Hee, her husband and lifelong bureaucrat, the aforementioned Jang Song Thaek  and Lee Yong Ho, a career soldier. It was widely assumed at the time that Kim Jong Il would be alive for another 5-10 years and that, therefore, the new heir would have some time to learn the wheels of the state and gather his own group of confidants gradually over time.

Things did not however turn out as expected, Kim Jong Il was to die in December of 2011, and Kim Jong Un suddenly found himself in charge of the country. Under the circumstances, the young leader had no choice but to rely on his father’s team. It created manifold problems for Kim Jong Un – since virtually all his immediate subordinates are roughly double his age and have a dramatically different worldview and life experiences.

“There is little doubt that one of Kim Jong Un’s major goals was to gradually dispose of his father’s team”

 
Such things in a Western country would create a lot of trouble for a company CEO even in the most individualist Western societies. Of course, it creates the greatest discomfort for an authoritarian leader in a nation with a strong Confucian background.

There is therefore little doubt that one of Kim Jong Un’s major goals was to gradually dispose of his father’s team, replacing these old people with a new generation of officials who are far closer to Kim Jong Un himself in their worldview and age. However, one should not expect that the old guard would go quietly. It is therefore not surprising that some would have to be removed forcibly.

The purge began in spring of 2012 when Kim Jong Un, having made an alliance with Jang Song Thaek and other civilian bureaucrats, essentially decapitated Kim Jong Il’s army command. Established military leaders were replaced by lower leaders, and in July 2012, Ri Yong Ho, one of the three mentors, was removed. Soon after he became a non-person whereby his image was airbrushed out of photos, and his name was removed from all documents and texts that once mentioned his name in all subsequent prints.

Many observers expected that Kim Jong Un would eventually turn against top civilian bureaucrats, replacing them as well. This has happened, Jang is very similar in power terms to Ri Yong Ho, and his purge can therefore be seen as the first step in undermining the power of Kim Jong Il’s old guard.

“A smart mentor must know when to retire, to be rewarded with a nice castle in the countryside”

 
The fate of Jang has obviously been further aggravated by his position as mentor – he was by default supposed to pester and boss around the young ruler, giving him largely unsolicited advice. Being a mentor has always been a risky job, sooner or later the young king – or in this particular case ‘Kim’ – was going to come of age.

When this happens, he is likely to take out his grudges on the old men who used to boss him around and poked their noses into something that was clearly the King’s exclusive business. A smart mentor must know when to retire, to be rewarded with a nice castle in the countryside. Many mentors however are too ambitious to know when is the time.

It indeed seems that, in this particular case, the King has developed a great deal of personal dislike and irritation for this particular mentor – this might be the reason why the long anticipated purge of Jang took a peculiar turn.

Nonetheless, one should not forget that Kim Jong Un’s move against his father’s old guard was logical and had little to do with his personal feelings. Until these people are removed from power, it is difficult – perhaps impossible – for Kim Jong Un to begin to execute a policy of his own, whatever that policy may be.

Jang leaves the building | Picture: KCTV

A MOST PECULIAR POLITICAL SHOW

While Jang Song Thaek’s removal has been expected for some time, the North Korean public has been treated to a most unusual piece of political stagecraft. After several days of rumors, on early morning of the 9th December 2013, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), North Korea’s official wire agency, issued a lengthy report about the alleged crimes of Jang Song Thaek. On the same day, the entire first page of Rodong Sinmun was dedicated to the same topic.

Finally, in the afternoon of the same day, North Korean television broadcast dramatic pictures of Jang being arrested at the extended meeting of the Korean Workers Party politburo. While the arrest itself is reminiscent of Beria’s downfall in 1953 – Stalin’s right-hand man was also arrested at a politburo meeting – it might be the first incident of this kind to ever be shown on TV.

The accusations against Jang are both nebulous and voluminous. He has been accused of counter-revolutionary factional activities, and also anti-state anti-party activities. It was said that he had had numerous affairs, used drugs and was a gambler to boot.

On a more serious note, he was accused of selling the country’s resources too cheaply – a hint at deals with Chinese mining companies – and attempted to undermine the cabinet system. The much trumpeted accusations of factionalism have gained a lot of traction outside North Korea, but such accusations are rather unremarkable as pretty much every purged dignitary since the late 1950s has been accused of the sin of factionalism.

“These events have little or no precedent in North Korean history”

 
It is important to remember though that these events have little or no precedent in North Korean history. It is not widely understood, but since the late 1950s, all purges in North Korea have been done surreptitiously, with no direct mention being made publicly until long after the event.

In many, but by no means all cases, party cadres were issued with secret letters that described the alleged crimes of the purged officials. Such letters however were classified, and theoretically should remain beyond the reach of normal people. In some other cases, purges were mentioned writings on history – usually published many years later.

Even in the early 1950s, when the North Koreans still followed the Stalinist model of open, widely publicized purges, reports about the sins of unmasked counter-revolutionaries were never as prominent as the recent reports about Jang Song Thaek’s misdeeds.

For example in December 1955, Pak Hon Yong the founder of the Korean Communist Party, had the report of his death sentence published in Rodong Sinmun but only as a small and short item. Needless to say, the decision to broadcast the footage of Jang Song Thaek’s arrest is without precedent in North Korea’s history and that of the Socialist bloc.

“The theatrics of Jang’s public arrest might be designed to send a signal to all officials”

 
Why did Kim Jong Un initiate such a dramatic departure from established patterns? Of course, we can only guess, but two mutually compatible explanations are possible. First, it seems highly likely that the young leader holds a great personal grudge against Jang who is indeed known to be an overbearing and pushy person. Therefore, the usual irritation of a young king against an old mentor might be particularly strong.

Second, it is possible that the young leader is driven not merely by emotions but also by political calculations. The theatrics of Jang’s public arrest might be designed to send a signal to all officials, telling them that the young leader, in spite of his weakness for exotic looking basketball players and Western music, is a tough leader one should never mess with.

Indeed, this seems to have been the intention. Contrary to many earlier expectations, Kim Jong Un has proven himself to be a surprising tough and ruthless leader, quite capable of outsmarting powerful enemies, and always ready to use violence against real or potential resistance.

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

Of course one might ask what this all means for the country’s future. Currently, many things remain uncertain, but some suggestions can still be made. The world media has recently described Jang Song Thaek as a closet reformer, this might indeed be the case, but we should not forget that the same man used to be a rumored hardliner.

In both cases, it is not clear where such assumptions come from. Most likely we are talking about generally unreliable hearsay, and we should therefore not see Jang’s removal as a deadly blow to incipient reforms in North Korea.

It is also remarkable that changes in North Korea’s economy (a new system of agricultural management, 14 new economic zones etc.) began to speed up in recent months, when Jang was out of favor. It is therefore likely that his removal will have little impact on the speed and direction of Kim Jong Un’s moderate economic reforms.

Jang’s removal might however have some impact on North Korea’s relations with China. In Pyongyang, Jang was often seen as a China expert and was heavily involved with Sino-North Korean economic exchanges. Critical remarks about sales of resources to other countries at bargain prices might indicate that North Korea will become more hostile toward Chinese investment. Generally it seems that Kim Jong Un still harbors some expectations about the possible arrival of Western capital, and is therefore rather unenthusiastic about Chinese money.

“It is possible that the current political show will have an impact on the regime’s internal cohesion”

 
However, one should not overestimate the significance of a such possible problems with China. At any rate, the Chinese are not too eager to dramatically increase their investment portfolio in North Korea. Their reluctance has to do with Jang.

It is possible, however, that the current political show will have an impact on the regime’s internal cohesion. On the one hand, it might produce a healthy terrifying effect on officials, but it also likely to plant seeds of doubt into the minds of many common people and lower bureaucrats.

Jang’s removal is an indicator of cracks in the North Korean leadership, and as history has shown many times, an obvious lack of cohesion among the top elite may encourage domestic discontent. However, it may take a rather long time before such an impact comes noticeable.

At any rate, Jang’s removal has shown that the rules of the political game in Pyongyang are changing fast. It is clear that Kim Jong Un’s North Korea will be very different from the North Korea once ruled by his father and the one ruled by his grandfather before him.

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About the Author

Andrei Lankov

Andrei Nikolaevich Lankov is a Russian scholar of Asia and a specialist in Korean studies. He completed his undergraduate and graduate studies at Leningrad State University in 1986 and 1989, respectively; He also attended Pyongyang's Kim Il-sung University in 1985. Following his graduate studies, he taught Korean history and language at his alma mater, and in 1992 went to South Korea for work; he moved to Australia in 1996 to take up a post at the Australian National University, and moved back to Seoul to teach at Kookmin University in 2004. Dr. Lankov has a DPRK-themed Livejournal blog in Russian with occasional English posts, where he documents aspects of life in North (and South) Korea, together with his musings and links to his publications. He also writes columns for the English-language daily The Korea Times.

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