By Jay Holmes
On December 8, 2013, Jang Sung-taek, the uncle of North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Un (a.k.a. Kim 3.0), was arrested at a meeting of the North Korean politburo, removed from all of his official posts, and expelled from the ruling Workers’ Party. He was accused of mismanaging the state financial system, abusing drugs, and womanizing. His closest associates had already been executed in November for supposedly plotting to dethrone Kim Jong Un. On Friday, December 13, the North Korean News Agency (“NKNA”) announced that Jang was executed on the 12th after a special military tribunal found him guilty of treason.
According to the NKNA, “The accused Jang brought together undesirable forces and formed a faction as the boss of a modern day factional group for a long time and thus committed such hideous crimes as attempting to overthrow the state.” They cited one of Jang’s most outrageous crimes as clapping with less than full enthusiasm when his nephew took the podium to deliver one of his frequent speeches to military officials.
So who was this uncle that Kim 3.0 had executed? Jang Sung-taek was born in Kangwon, North Korea, on February 2, 1946. He was an avid young communist, and after graduating from Kim Il Sung High School, he studied in Moscow from 1968 – 1972. When he returned to North Korea, he married Kim Kyong Hui, the younger sister of Kim Jong Il (a.k.a. Kim 2.0). In 1977, Kyong Hui gave birth to a daughter, Jang Keum Song. Keum Song was living in Paris in 2006 when she received an order to return to North Korea. Rather than return, she committed suicide.
In early 2010, Kim 2.0 appointed his brother-in-law Jang to serve as a mentor to his son and heir apparent, Kim Jong Un. Kim Un’s political tutelage under his aunt and uncle lasted less than two years. After Kim 2.0’s sudden death in December, 2011, it was not clear if the then 28-year-old Kim Un would be able to hold on to his inherited power.
Not everyone in North Korea was looking forward to another half a century of cold winters and near-starvation diet under yet another ineffective Kim dictator. Some of the top NK military leaders likely smelled an opportunity for capturing the throne of North Korea for themselves. It was only with the very visible support of Kim Un’s aunt and uncle that Kim 3.0 was able to claim his deceased father’s position as Dictator of North Korea.
So why did Kim 3.0 kill off Uncle Jang after he and Aunty Kyong played a critical role in helping him to power? The answer depends on which analyst you listen to.
The most popular theories revolve around the likelihood that the spoiled and insecure Kim Un was anxious to get rid of the man who had exercised authority over him as his regent while his father was still alive, and as his guarantor while he was trying to consolidate his authority. History is replete with examples of royal regents having sudden fatal accidents when their charge has his or her head placed securely under the crown of state. This theory is the most popular one and makes sense based on what we know about North Korea.
But therein is our problem. The hermit kingdom of North Korea remains so opaque from Western view and so filled with propaganda and misinformation that events in North Korea can be difficult to understand. In any police state, uncertainty in the minds of its citizens and its neighbors is a useful thing. It helps avoid being overthrown. The first step in planning a smooth coup is to accurately assess the status quo. If you can’t get a clear picture of what is occurring, it remains difficult to plan a takeover.
Constant confusion can hinder social progress and economic development, but it also helps protect the dictator from his people. Since the dictator and his closest supporters live in an insulated, gilded kingdom, safe from the hunger and discomfort of the bad economy that constant confusion generates, it is tolerable to the dictator and his pals. That same constant confused state of affairs in North Korea leaves room for other possible factors in Jang’s execution.
Jang’s world view extended beyond North Korea. He was well received in China, and had become China’s preferred contact in North Korea. Jang was also a fan of Chinese economic reform. Reform in China has not brought prosperity to everyone, but it has all but eliminated starvation in that country and has allowed improved Chinese technological and scientific foundations. Maoist dogma could not feed China and was not going to get a Chinese rocket to the moon. It took capitalist methods to improve the sciences and the standard of living there. Jang was partial to this “Chinese” model.
But not everyone in North Korea wanted those reforms. The hard liners in the military live with the assumption that, given the opportunity, no North Korean would tolerate the continued abuse that the privileged few are able to heap upon them. In their minds, Chinese style reforms would open the floodgates of change, and they would be the first to drown in the resultant deluge of social upheaval.
Jang’s demise may have been prompted by unforgiveable sin in particular. Jang and his pals got the Economics Ministry to announce that foreign trade was the responsibility of the Economics Ministry, and not the responsibility of North Korean generals. This meant that the top generals could no longer conduct private foreign trade deals with N.K. assets for their own profit.
A recent decline in relations between China and North Korea further exacerbated Jang’s attempts to reform foreign trade in North Korea. China has nuclear weapons. The idea that Kim—any Kim—would dream of threatening N.K.’s neighbors in the region and in the Western World by acquiring an effective arsenal of nuclear warheads and missiles is in itself understandable to Chinese political theorists. What communist ideologue worth his salt doesn’t threaten to annihilate the capitalist dogs?
The problem for China came when North Korea moved from the usual fun Armageddon propaganda to actual fission detonations. After all, pretending to like and trust their beloved fraternal comrades in the North Korean leadership is a lot easier for China when China has the only nukes on the block. Further, North Korea’s quest for its share of Armageddon resulted in something worse than the potential incineration of millions of innocents—it negatively impacted Chinese export business. The entire new China is built on the strong trade balance that is in its favor. Nobody in the Chinese leadership wants to see what the carnival that is modern China might look like if the cash flow stops.
Kim 2.0 had become increasingly more inconvenient for China, and Kim 3.0 is even worse. North Korea’s last missile test was a huge propaganda success in North Korea. National celebration was encouraged. There was no cheering in Beijing. While continuing to publicly claim that North Korea was their most beloved ally, the missile test infuriated Beijing, and China decided to cut off cash infusions to the feeble N.K. treasury and stop high-level meetings with the North Koreans. However, they were still willing to receive Uncle Jang–something that did not go over well with the N.K. generals.
To Westerners, it might seem strange that North Korea would shoot itself in the foot by aggravating their one almost-friend, the Chinese. From Kim’s point of view, it looks a little different. Before Kim can enjoy a friendship with Beijing or anyone else, he needs to stay alive in North Korea. In large measure, Kim’s decision to execute Jang may have come down to placating his own hard-liners and trusting that China would be too busy promoting its new We Own the Entire Ocean and All That’s In It and Under It agenda. Kim may be betting that Beijing will not turn on its one almost-ally and will back down from its newer economic sanctions.
Many observers believe that Kim 3.0 has not effectively consolidated his power and was not strong enough to ditch his annoying old reformist uncle on his own. But maybe he was. It could be that he simply decided it was easier to kill his Uncle Jang than to back down the N.K. military leaders.
So what does this all mean to those of us who are fortunate enough to not live in North Korea? To the Chinese and the rest of North Korea’s neighbors, it means that they are dreading that Kim 3.0 may now use the standard North Korean propaganda tool of executing another round of brinksmanship. From the Chinese point of view, if anyone is going to play brinksmanship in Asia, it’s going to be China, and North Korea needs to stay out of the way while China struggles to extend its kingdom over the Pacific seabed.
For the West, Jang’s execution is more evidence of what we already knew. North Korea remains unstable and troublesome. Western leadership might feel an urgent need to return focus to North Korea and get it back to a non-proliferation bargaining table. Kim and his handlers are waiting for the call, and they undoubtedly have a Christmas wish list handy for when it comes.