Jang Sung-taek: Chopped Off at the Knees
Reporting on North Korea is a tricky business; it is often difficult to independently verify what happens inside the country, the consequence of which is the continuation of an old Cold War practice for studying the ruling elite of the DPRK: Kumsusanology. The practice, as with Kreminology, requires one to rely upon what one North Korea analyst called “extremely flimsy evidence.” Be that as it may, the world– avid North Korea watchers, bona fide analysts, and interested persons alike– demands news and explanation about the going-ons within the circle of elites ruling over the northern half of the peninsula. With reports that Jang Sung-taek has been removed from power, such demand is as high as ever. In this piece, Nick Miller, with support from Christopher Green, reviews what we know to this point and how we should approach finding out more, with plenty of historical context for the interested reader. — Steven Denney, Managing Editor
Jang Sung-taek: Chopped Off at the Knees
by Nick Miller, with additional reporting by Christopher Green
What Do We Know? The Story to Date | Reports throughout the major news services state that Jang Sung-taek, Kim Jong-un’s uncle and political guardian, has been purged and relieved of his positions within both the National Defense Commission (NDC) and the strategically useful Administrative Department of Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK). The source of these reports is a briefing document provided to the South Korean National Assembly Intelligence Committee by the National Intelligence Service (NIS). The briefing states that Jang’s removal was preceded by the public execution of two of his close associates in the Party hierarchy, Ri Yong-ha and Jang Soo-kil.
“Gumiho:” The Nine Lives of Jang Sung-taek | This is not the first time Jang has been purged by the Kim family. Born in the port city of Chongjin in the late 1940s, Jang was courting Kim Kyung-hui while a student at Kim Il-sung University when he ran afoul of Kim Il-sung, who famously disagreed with their relationship and had the young man transferred to the east coast city of Wonsan. Although Kim would eventually give his blessing to the pair’s 1972 marriage, Jang’s fortunes continued to oscillate thereafter.
In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s the general trend was clearly up. Jang was a member of the Supreme People’s Assembly by 1986, at the age of 40, a member of the Party Central Committee in 1992, and first-vice director of the Party Organization and Guidance Department in 1995, before his fiftieth birthday. Outsiders remember particularly his visit to Seoul in 2002.
However, in 2004 Jang met his political downfall once again: some say he was purged for backing disgraced eldest son Kim Jong-nam to succeed Kim Jong-il, though others cite his “anti-socialist” lifestyle. His will to power surely provides the most logical underlying explanation; Kim Jong-il always said he couldn’t be trusted.
In any case, Jang was not seen again until March 2006, when his rise began once more: promoted in October 2007, he became director of the Administration Department of the KWP. In 2009 he became a member of the NDC, and in June 2010 was elected vice-chairman of the same organ after the mysterious death of ageing rival Ri Je-gang.
After Kim Jong-il’s death in December 2011 it appeared that Jang had taken firm control of the country as one of the senior guardians to the youthful Kim Jong-un. He appeared in the uniform of a four-star general to pay his respects at the coffin, despite never having served in the military, and appeared to be helping to bring the People’s Army to heel in order to support and secure the new leader’s ascent. At the same time, Jang, who received the Kim Jong-il Medal in February 2012 and was a full Politburo member by April the same year, was also held to be one of the most reform-orientated elite officials, a belief strengthened when, dressed in an urbane manner uncommon to North Korea, he visited China in late summer 2012. By the end of 2013 it had become “common knowledge” to some regular visitors to the North Korean capital that Jang was the de facto leader of the country (sources withheld).
This is why his purge is the most significant removal of an official for years, and trumps the summary dismissal of Chief-of-Staff Ri Yong-ho via a Politburo meeting in July 2012. Ri’s dismissal is considered the standard model of a political purge, with no specific reason given and a brief KCNA dispatch all that remains in the externally available public record. A la Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Yezhov, Ri was subsequently erased from the funeral committee for Kim Jong-il, too. Where he had been fourth on a funeral committee list published by Rodong Sinmun at the time of Kim’s death, by the time the KCNA Yearbook was published a year later, he was gone.
Banging on the Door of the Kremlin: Issues in Kumsusanology | However, the problem with reporting on such purges as established fact is that, as any good Kumsusanologist knows, there are too many “known unknowns” to give a perfectly accurate picture of what is occurring. Analysts must do things like assessing positioning relative to Kim Jong-un, for example in the context of accompanying the Supreme Leader on his customary onsite guidance tours, to try and determine rise or fall from the pinnacles of state power. It goes without saying that there has been no confirmation of Jang’s removal in the North Korean state media, but this does not mean it did not occur. Quite the opposite; the media frequently withholds stories to be published at a later date (like Kim Jong-il’s death in 2011, or secretive journeys north to China or Russia), and if something is particularly sensitive it may never be reported at all.
Examples of misreading such “esoteric communications” are legion. Look at Chinese politics, where a photograph once appeared of Mao with the Kuomintang military commander Li Zongren. Western analysts assumed that Mao was giving Li a position of power, when he actually wanted to fool outsiders while rendering Li powerless. Closer to home, in 2011 Chosun Ilbo reported that protégés of O Kuk-ryol and Jang Sung-taek were being purged and eliminated to prevent further power accretion by both senior officials. Yet Jang went from strength to strength, at least until now.
Analysts can readily fall into the trap of seeing too much in statements and images, when in fact multiple explanations are possible. North Korea could even be sending out false information to throw its interlocutors off balance. Hidden messages have long been utilized as a tool of communication between Party officials to help strengthen networks of supporters, too; in other words, dog-whistle politics. Could Jang even have been removed for (see image) his “unreserved behavior?” Probably not in toto, but Myron Rush teaches that indirect evidence such as this must not be dismissed. Analysts still rely largely on their instinctive feel for the hidden meaning of the available data: the role of the Kremlinologist was always to sift through state output to find hidden messages. It was a task fraught with the potential for error, yet while the Cold War may be over, the tools of North Korean political analysis have not changed.
It is also important to note that not even the NIS claims to know with certainty that Jang has been purged. As Christopher Green noted during an interview with the BBC World Service, the claimed purge was initially only an extrapolation from the twin public executions, something of which the South Korean intelligence agency seemed relatively more confident. Subsequent evidence has added conviction to the initial conclusion, but for a time the evidence was really rather flimsy.
Reading the Tea Leaves: Questions and Things to Look For | Even if Jang has truly been purged, this is unlikely to lead to trouble for Kim Kyung-hui. Kim Il-sung’s daughter, Jang’s wife and the primary guardian to Kim Jong-un, still holds tremendous power in North Korean politics, and if anyone were to move against her they would be undermining the ruling logic of the “Mt. Baekdu bloodline” itself.
Equally, female members of the Kim family have historically not been treated as threats to the power structure, something that Kim Kyung-hui’s own longevity and the rising star of Kim Jong-un’s sister Yeo-jung both amply prove. In any case, Kim Kyung-hui is in ill health, looking weak in October at the 67th anniversary of the founding of the KWP. She was recently spotted in Singapore, where it is likely she goes to receive some of Asia’s finest medical treatment. Stoic in her sunglasses, this Kim is not giving anything away.
There is also no evidence that the business interests of the Jang-Kim nexus are under threat. The couple, pragmatists for the most part, have been building their commercial empire over decades, and UN and Western sanctions have proven to be little threat to their financial clout. As long as Jang can keep his finger in the deep commercial pie, there is little to be gained from looking there.
However, the status of Jang’s family members does have the potential to provide signals to his own situation. There is already evidence that North Korea’s ambassadors in both Cuba and Malaysia have been recalled; both gentlemen are members of the Jang family. In the former instance, Jeon Yeong-jin, the husband of Jang’s elder sister Jang Gye-sun, departed Havana via Russian carrier Aeroflot on the afternoon of December 4, while former Ambassador to Malaysia Jang Yong-cheol was spotted with his family in Shenyang en route to Pyongyang early yesterday morning, after KBS went the extra mile by having someone report from outside his (seemingly now former) house in Kuala Lumpur. Diplomatic recalls such as these are not generally reported domestically, but when KCNA announces replacements for the two, as it surely will, it will help to reinforce the established narrative.
The next major event at which Jang would unquestionably have to be present if he had not been purged falls on December 17, the second anniversary of the death of Kim Jong-il. At midnight, the leading lights of Songun North Korea will stride en masse into Kumsusan Sun’s Palace and bow before the embalmed corpses of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. He may appear regardless, of course, but just like Kim Jong-nam before him, the non-appearance of Jang Sung-taek at such a vital event would be proof positive that he has been purged, the better to remind him, yet again, that in the brutal logic of Suryeongist absolutism, he is but a mere footnote in the ranks of North Korea’s “side-branches.”