Hong, Jang, and the Mysterious Railroad Deal

By | December 12, 2013 | 1 Comment

One thing is clear: the DPRK's decrepit rail network needs some investment. | Image: Wikicommons

One thing is clear: the DPRK’s decrepit rail network needs some investment. | Image: Wikicommons

A lawmaker from South Korea’s Democratic Party, Hong Ik-pyo, told an event held yesterday at the National Assembly complex in Seoul that on the very day of the Jang Sung-taek purge, China and North Korea agreed to a deal which, if carried through to completion, would lead to the construction of a high-speed rail link between Beijing and Kaesong via Pyongyang and the border cities of Sinuiju and Dandong.

Hong, a member of the House Steering Committee, its Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee, and a special committee devoted to inter-Korean relations development, said that the agreement, which he claimed to have seen, also provides for the construction of an 8-lane highway. It has, he told the audience, been made between agencies acting as proxies for their governments.

In Hong’s view, the important takeaway from the deal is that it means North Korea is pushing forward with economic development come what may, and shows that Jang Sung-taek was not the only economic hand in the upper echelons of the Pyongyang elite. Indeed, Hong is also a supporter of the thesis that Jang and his clique had actually become a major roadblock to the development plans of others.

He declared:

North Korea’s recent opening to the outside and projects with China are not solely the will of Jang Sung-taek; rather, they are being decided by the high leadership and will continue as-is, irrespective of Jang’s position.

And continued:

It has been confirmed that following Jang Sung-taek’s arrest, NDC 1st Chairman Kim Jong-un once again ordered that this problem be settled, and as a result there is an agreement relating to railway and highway projects.

Hong’s story is fascinating primarily because if it could be verified then it would provide an intriguing postscript to one element of the detailed list of crimes supposedly committed by Jang Sung-taek. The list in question was published via a front page Rodong Sinmun article on December 9th.

Whereas it was Jang’s selling of state assets for a song, taking drugs and frequenting casinos that seems to have attracted the most attention externally, more interesting was its treatment of what the official English translation of the report described as the “pivot-to-the-Cabinet principle” (내각중심제). It states:

Jang Sung-taek seriously obstructed the nation’s economic affairs and the improvement of the standard of people’s living in violation of the pivot-to-the-Cabinet principle and the Cabinet responsibility principle laid down by the Party [장성택은 당이 제시한 내각중심제, 내각책임제원칙을 위반하면서 나라의 경제사업과 인민생활향상에 막대한 지장을 주었다].

Of course, like any media output from North Korea, the article cannot be taken purely at face value. The Korean version will have been written at the very highest level, probably signed off by Kim Jong-un, and then published by state-run media. The primary goal was to justify the purge itself.

Such grand theater was important because the act of purging Jang was a dangerous step to take. It was needed by a young leader who is not yet the Suryeong (수령; Supreme Leader) but fully intends to become so; indeed, must become so in order to fulfill the absolutist logic of Suryeongism (수령주의). But Jang was a big fish to net all the same, and precautions had to be taken. The post-event media coverage provided rhetorical cover for this authoritarian power grab.

Nevertheless, the statement remains interesting even if taken with the requisite pinch of salt, precisely because it was handed down from the very top of the regime and will have been considered very carefully before publication. Like so-many missiles in fields by the shores of the East Sea, Pyongyang knew the world would be watching, and that such opportunities are rare.

It has been argued for some time that the intention of the Kim regime is to “pivot” to the Cabinet, i.e. re-assigning the role of resource allocation to an entity that has been controlled since late March 2013 by so-called “reformist” Premier Pak Pong-ju. If accurate rather than pure froth, the #JangGate statement confirms this re-assignment goal. Moreover, it also seems calibrated to say that the North Korean government remains open for business. Taking the logic to its natural terminus, Pyongyang is saying that #JangGate was an internal affair, and the outside world must not assume that North Korea is about to refocus its energies away from mushrooms and back onto mushroom clouds.

Hong, for one, appears to believe this, and the railways deal provides circumstantial evidence to buttress his perspective. As with all things related to Jang Sung-taek, only time will tell. For the time being, however, one thing is extremely clear: No matter what Pyongyang’s intentions may or may not have been, concepts such as “investor confidence” and “risk perception” have yet to find space for full expression in North Korea, an absolutist dynasty where politics trumps economics and grip on relative and absolute power is paramount. The risk premium on investments between Kaesong and the Yalu River is higher now than at any time since Kim Jong-il passed away in December 2011, and it will take more than talk of a high-speed railway to solve that particular problem.

Source: “Hong Ik-pyo ‘The day Jang Sung-taek was arrested the North and China reached agreement on things including railway construction‘” [홍익표 "장성택 체포된 날 北中 철도건설 등 합의], Yonhap News Online, December 11, 2013.

One Comment

  1. Thankyou for your considered analysis. I’ve just read media reports of Jang’s execution. To be honest I can’t make head nor tail of any of these events. But I’ll continue to watch sinonk.

    – Steve

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