It has now been five years since one of the most memorable events of the Kim Jong Un era: the public announcement that the Supreme Leader’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, had been executed. To the day it remains, arguably, the biggest sensation Kim Jong Un’s North Korea has offered the world.
To remember it, let us look back on the life – and death – of uncle Jang.
Jang Song Thaek was born on January 22, 1946 in Chongjin. This was a terrible time for his mother to be pregnant. The economy of northern Korea was in a state of collapse and the very fact that Song Thaek and his elder brothers Song U and Song Gil survived 1945, and the Korean War five years later, is a credit to his parents.
His brothers also later joined the ranks of the DPRK elite: Jang Song Gil became a two-star general and Jang Song U a Vice-Marshal in the KPA. Both died before Song Thaek did and, thus, were spared the consequences of his purge.
Reportedly, in the 1960s the Jangs faced some minor political problems, though this did not prevent Song Thaek from entering Kim Il Sung University, the country’s most prestigious college.
It was at university where Jang met his love: Kim Kyong Hui, the daughter of Kim Il Sung. Or rather she met him. She was impressed with the young man, at the time Jang Song Thaek was a mild and romantic person, with a taste for music – he played the accordion.
Kim Il Sung, reportedly, did not like his daughter’s choice. Jang was transferred to study in Wonsan, but this was not enough to extinguish Kim Kyong Hui’s love. She took her father’s car and went to Wonsan, shocking the locals, who thought that the Great Leader himself had arrived for a surprise inspection.
Kyong Hui repeatedly visited her boyfriend and, when she learned that the President of the Wonsan Economic College was mistreating him, the young lady simply walked into the bureaucrat’s office and asked him: “Comrade President, how is it that you interfere with love of others?”
Some say it was her persistence, some say that Kim Jong Il pleaded for his sister, but eventually Kyong Hui managed to achieve what few, if any, others were able to do and Kim Il Sung conceded. After the Great Leader approved their relationship, the couple finally married in 1972.
By 1988, Jang already began to be mentioned in the South Korean press, which had learned that he was Kim Kyong Hui’s husband. Now a relative of the Great Leader, he became a rising star in the DPRK bureaucracy.
In 1995, Jang Song Thaek was appointed to the position of First Vice Chairman of the Organization and Guidance Department of the Central Committee. As the Chairman, reportedly, was Kim Jong Il himself, this meant that Jang received a position similar to that of Joseph Stalin in the early 1920s – as the man who controlled the Party bureaucracy.
This was a position ideal for building one’s own web of connections and to begin to consolidate the elite among themselves.
Power corrupts. By the 2000s, there was little left of the gentle Song Thaek that Kyong Hui fell in love with – those who knew comrade Jang by that time remembered him as a power-hungry and arrogant man, often dismissive of his subordinates.
In 2006, a tragedy struck the family: their daughter, Jang Kum Song, took her own life. Apparently, her father was against her marrying a commoner – forgetting that a similar logic had once almost prevented him from marrying Kim Kyong Hui.
In the second half of the 2000s, international observers were considering him a potential successor to the throne
THE UNCLE AND THE SUPREME LEADER
Jang Song Thaek’s career was not a smooth one. He was rumored to belong to the reformist camp, favoring the Chinese way over the North Korean one. It may explain why he suddenly disappeared in 2004 – the year which opened up an era of counter-reform and reaction in the DPRK, with the reason for this almost certainly being the Ryongchon explosion – possibly an attempt on Kim Jong Il’s life.
Yet Jang amassed so much power that when he started to reemerge in the second half of the 2000s, international observers were considering him a potential successor to the throne. The earlier Taiwanese and later Cuban examples show that the second man in the family dynasty could choose not to transfer power further down the line, so this did look plausible. Of course, this is not how things ultimately turned out.
Jang’s ambitions became even more apparent when Kim Jong Il died. The Great Commander left the world on December 17, and on December 25 Jang Song Thaek was seen for the first time in the uniform of a four-star general. Interestingly, promotions to that rank require the order of a Supreme Commander, and at the time Kim Jong Un had not yet formally been appointed. Thus, not only did Jang managed to push his career during a period of national mourning, but also managed to find some workaround to circumvent the law.
The uncle also did not respect his royal nephew very much. There are a few stories to testify to this.
One of them refers to the infamous visits of Dennis Rodman to North Korea. Apparently, as some visitors remember, Kim Jong Un had a Coca-Cola can in front of him and, when the time came to take photos, Jang Song Thaek came and removed the can without saying a single word. Obviously having Kim taking a photo with one of the most iconic capitalist products would not have been good, but the way it was done was very disrespectful.
Another incident reportedly took place in 2013. Amid a crisis in which the DPRK threatened South Korea with annihilation, the Kaesong Industrial Complex suffered a temporary shutdown. It was when then Jang reportedly told his wife: “We can’t just go and close the Kaesong Complex. Tell Jong Un to stop this.”
Obviously, such treatment was not exactly what the Beloved and Respected Marshal expected.
A VERY PUBLIC PURGE
Jang Song Thaek’s downfall was not a completely unexpected event. A power shift in any country usually means significant changes in the elite, and Jang was not the first to go. The first was actually Vice-Marshal Ri Yong Ho, removed from all positions in July 2012. However, no one could have predicted that Jang’s removal would be the first public purge in North Korea in decades.
Normally, North Korean outer track press did not report on purges to the top brass. The last such event occurred on December 18, 1955, when the newspaper reported on the “DPRK Supreme Court’s trial of Pak Hon Yong, the traitor to the motherland, the leader of the spies hired by the American imperialists.” Since then, and especially since 1967, outer track publications tried to present North Korea as a country populated solely by radical loyalists to the Kim family.
Thus, when South Korean intelligence reported in early December that their sources indicated that Jang Song Thaek had suffered a downfall, no one was surprised by the absence of messages about this in the Rodong Sinmun. Those interested in the country made a quick check: last time he was mentioned in the newspaper on November 7, while frequently appearing before. The rate of his appearances with the Supreme Leader had also fallen since 2011.
These are pretty standard analytical methods for people who study the North and the final confirmation was also quite standard – uncle Jang was quietly removed from chronicles. The film “Great comrade. Part I (on the road of Songun)”, previously shown in October was replayed on December 7, with Jang Song Thaek removed from it.
Everyone thought that this was just another purge – but what happened next showed that this was not an ordinary event at all.
Jang Song Thaek’s downfall was not a completely unexpected event
On December 9, 2013, Pyongyang decided to throw the rule book out the window. The Rodong Sinmun released an announcement about an extended meeting of the Politburo being held – “to discuss the anti-Party counterrevolutionary factionalist activities of Jang Song Thaek.”
For half of the century, the newspaper had duly reported on a population eternally loyal to the Kim family, but now it spoke of betrayal coming from the very top – from a full member of the Politburo!
Moreover, on the same day, at 15:18, the KCTV showed a report on Jang being arrested. Apparently, it was done at that very meeting of the Politburo – the uncle was sitting in his place and two police officers – notably from the criminal, not secret police – took him away.
I remember how one of my North Korean refugee friends, watching this video with me, said: “This is quite similar to how they show a spy being arrested in films.”
There were some rumors about the whole thing being staged: that Jang had allegedly already being arrested and brought to the Politburo solely to be taken away.
This seems unlikely: first of all, this would have been very odd and unnecessary to do. Second, before his arrest at the meeting, Jang had a Kim Il Sung-Kim Jong Il badge on his clothes – like any other good citizen, and the badge is confiscated when one is arrested. Next, there is a historical precedent for a high-ranking official to be arrested at a Politburo meeting in the Communist world: Lavrentiy Beria was dealt with in exactly the same fashion.
Photographs of the arrest allow us to pinpoint Jang in the big photo published by the Rodong Sinmun on the very same day.
Also as one can see on the photos, there was a recording device next to each and every participant in the meeting, meaning that it was recorded and there is a good chance of the international community getting a hold of it one day.
Propaganda Secretary Kim Ki Nam, Premier Pak Pong Ju, Responsible Secretary of the North Phyongan Province Ri Man Gon, and the first Vice-Chairman of Organisation and Guidance Department of the Party Jo Yon Jun were shown speaking. Undoubtedly, they all condemned Jang – doing otherwise would meant being killed along with him.
December 13 brought another sensation
During the days when the purge was being conducted, North Korea was constantly published new songs hailing Kim Jong Un. Obviously, loyalty to him was never as important as in these momentous days.
A VERY PUBLIC TRIAL
December 13 brought another sensation. On its second page, the Rodong Sinmun reported on Jang being tried by the Special Tribunal of the Department for the Protection of the State Security and sentenced to death. Judging by the photos, the trial took place inside the Supreme Court building.
Given the extremely ritualistic nature of the newspaper, it may be that the second page was chosen as a reference to the trial of Pak Hon Yong 58 years prior – also published on page two.
Jang was still dressed in the same costume as he was at the time of the arrest and was even wearing a watch on the left hand. He was handcuffed, and his hands looked either frostbitten or suffering from internal bleeding, suggesting that either he was kept in cold cell or simply beaten.
The “leader of the modern factionalists” Jang was found guilty of the following:
- He obstructed the process of transfer of power to Kim Jong Un and applauded halfheartedly when the latter was appointed the Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission in 2010.
- He did not allow the people to venerate Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il even more.
- In an act of impudence, he ordered the mosaic showing the Great generalissimos and the writing of the Beloved and Respected Marshal to a unit of the People’s Interior Troops to be displayed in a shadow instead of venerating them in front of the unit’s command.
- He opposed the monolithic ideological system.
- He was deliberately waiting for the change of the generations of the revolutions to put his plans in motion.
- He misused Kim Jong Un’s trust, while the Supreme Leader kindly had allowed him to join during on the spot-guidance and even gave him a promotion.
- He loosened the control of the Party over the criminal police and justice.
- He raised demoted officials, building himself a power base.
- He transformed organizations subordinated to him to a sort of a small kingdom of his own.
- He orchestrated a small cult among himself so that his subordinates called him “number one”.
- Since the 1980s, he was engaged in factional activities, raising his protege Ri Ryong Ha to the post of first deputy director of the organizing committee of the Central Committee.
- He betrayed the motherland, having rented land in the port of Rason for 50 years to foreign powers (i.e, to China and Russia, although they were not explicitly mentioned in the text).
- He, alongside with the Head of the Department of Finance and Planning of the WPK Central Committee Pak Nam Gi, was guilty of the 2009 hyperinflation.
- He ignored the new leadership structure created by the Great Commander at the 1st session of the Supreme National Assembly of the 10th convocation (i.e. in 1998)
- In 2009, he withdrew EUR 4.6 million from his secret accounts and squandered them in foreign casinos.
- He was preparing a military coup in order to overthrow the Supreme Leader, and in case of success, he was going to become prime minister and fix the economy so that the people would shout “hurray” to him. In doing this, he was going to rely on the experience of foreign reformers and present himself as a reformer to the outside world.
The whole above constituted the crime of conspiracy to overthrow the state, as prescribed by Article 60 of the DPRK Penal Code (2012 edition), decided the Special Tribunal. The penalty is death. To be carried out immediately. The tribunal has spoken.
On the same day the execution was announced, the DPRK initiated a massive purge of online archives
On the same day the execution was announced, the DPRK initiated a massive purge of online archives, removing mentions of the uncle appearing next to the Supreme Leader. Thousands and thousands of entries were altered or deleted. Kim Kyong Hui has disappeared from public view ever since, and there were rumors that she was receiving treatment in a mental hospital.
The execution of Jang was such an unusual event that it sparked some insane rumors, one of which was that Jang was fed to a pack of hungry dogs alive. The source for this was a parody account, which some journalists mistook for a legitimate source.
The North Korean elite was terrified by what happened. From what we know, many more people close to Jang were purged as well, and many others fled fearing for their lives. I would not be surprised to learn about some former high-ranking officials living under protection in China, ROK, or even the United States since late 2013.
What of ordinary North Koreans? I visited the country about a month after Jang Song Thaek was killed, and raised the topic of the dead uncle in some of the discussions I had there. Apparently, at the time, one of the common stereotypes about Russia was the prevalence of mafia there. Possibly, this was a consequence of some inner-track propaganda campaign about results of “rejecting socialism”, as, arguably, organized crime is not the biggest social problem in modern Russia.
I asked my interlocutor: but does not Korea have the same problem? What about Jang Song Thaek and his activities? The answer was: “He was not a mafiosi. He was a counter-revolutionary and a nasty man.” I got a feeling that my interlocutor genuinely agreed with the decision to purge Jang. Another Korean was overjoyed when I mentioned that Jang Song Thaek’s purge was the top news across the globe – although, it seems that it was more about his home country being spoken of than about the uncle’s sorry fate.
It is a dog-eat-dog world at the top of most dictatorships. Jang was not the first to be killed, nor was he the last.
The real question is why publications reserved for the inner track (and usually also classified) ended up being in the Rodong Sinmun. Apart from seemingly the entire folder of compromising materials on Jang being published in the open press, the existence of the Special Tribunal of the Department for Protection of the State Security was revealed urbi et orbi – as well as its location, composition and the faces of its judges.
North Korea’s acknowledgment that Pak Nam Gi and Ri Ryong Ha had been purged and are still considered to be enemies, or that the state thinks that Rason port deal was a bad idea is also notable.
In short, this was the biggest, if authorized from the very top, leak in North Korean press since the creation of the DPRK – and remains such until now. The only man who could have given an order to do it was Kim Jong Un.
Why did he not prefer a standard quiet purge, but instead chose to proceed in a such a highly unusual way? The amount of information released – even if not directly related to Jang – suggests that the decision was spontaneous. Something tipped Kim off, so he wanted Jang not only finished – but finished in such a spectacular way, never seen before or after in North Korea.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
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