Yongusil 38: The Long Shadow of Jang Sung-taek, Adam Cathcart at KEI
Rescaling dramatic and tumultuous events from the national to the local or, between field of interests, is often an acute and difficult challenge. In North Korea’s case, difficulties in analytic energy are complicated by linguistic and source complexity as well as a politics of opacity and obfuscation. The purge of Jang Sung-taek in late 2013, for instance, created both immediate narrative shock and continuing institutional and analytic feedback. The external commentariat and research community both struggled to ascertain the import of the event and came to quick and assertive conclusion on the political, institutional scale, while acknowledging its obvious and deep importance.
What was not immediately clear from any reading or analysis of the events was its impact on the field of North Korean development. Hints abounded during the aftermath of Jang’s death and, in fact, were present within the document denouncing him and asserting the needs for his removal. Was Jang executed for co-opting the financial interests of the Kim family, the KPA, or other state apparatus in the realms of fishing, railways, or trans-shipment of resources? While various hypotheses have been tendered, there yet remains little analytic clarity around them.
Adam Cathcart’s paper for the Korea Economic Institute (KEI), entitled “In the Shadow of Jang Song-Taek: Hwanggumpyeong Island and Pyongyang’s Evolving SEZ Strategy,” seeks to extract and utilize the clarifying, empirical balm of both a wider contextualization and unexplored, contemporaneous resources. While the distinct developmental focus for Jang’s apparent malfeasance is not clear in absolute specific terms, much of the focus was on Jang’s Chinese connections, and the reality of his influence lay in the northwestern Korean frontier with China. Dr. Cathcart thus situates his documentary review in that most crystallized of Sino-North Korean connections, trans- or cross-border economic zones.
North Korea’s Special Economic Zones (SEZs) are, in a sense, as diffuse and obfuscatory a context as many of its other institutional arrangements. Long on some combination of aspiration, ambition, hope, and perhaps even willful misdirection, their crystallization at ground level has often been short on economic or developmental reality. Just as is the case with zones involving its southern neighbor and estranged sibling at Kaesong and Kumgang, North Korea’s zones on its northern borders have been subject to vagaries and confusions of its institutional, ideological, and narrative confusions and dead ends. While Rason has been the site of much discussion and analysis (including Sino-NK’s own Tumen Triangle Documentation Project, vol. 2), the northwest frontier remains both underdeveloped and under-analyzed.
Cathcart utilizes various difficult-to-access Chinese language sources, presenting translations and interpretations which ought to clear some of the obfuscatory gloom surrounding North Korea’s partner to the north. The paper also aims to gain insight into China’s conception of the events of the Jang purge as well as its institutional and developmental impact, all of which in turn shape and proscribe the possibilities for future engagement and interaction with the northern SEZs, in whatever permutation the DPRK finally allows. Focusing particularly on the responses of interested parties and those in authority in Dandong, developmental and geographic urban sibling to North Korea’s Sinuiju, to Jang’s death and its implications for the Whiwa and Hwanggumpyeong Island SEZs, Cathcart teases out a more subtle potentiality.
It seems while the death of Jang and the eradication of his affiliates was a moment of potential fracture for North Korean-Chinese economic and political relations, the violence and terminal nature of his fall has not broken or reduced the efficacy, potential, or attractiveness of the developmental model. In spite of North Korea’s institutional confusion and the nascency of some of the recent SEZ announcements, Wiwha, Hwanggumpyeong, and the wider development of SEZ infrastructure will, it is revealed by Cathcart’s intriguing reading of the sources, not wilt in the shadow of Jang Sung-taek, but will develop further, if only at a pace and in a shape determined by the circle of power-holders in Pyongyang, now freed from Jang’s active influence if not his legacy. Business, will, if not as usual, continue on.