The purge of Jang Song Thaek has gotten “curioser and curioser”; today, we focus on interpretations of the purge; our synthesis of these theories; the reports of an unidentified aide to Jang who may or may not have escaped to China; and the wider implications.
Last week, we traced Jang’s ascent. His ouster was confirmed in a highly unusual KCNA report on an “enlarged” meeting of the Politburo of the Workers Party. The Politburo has just over 30 members; subsequent pictures of the meeting show an audience of over 200 in attendance including a substantial number of uniformed military officers. More surprising than the decision to oust Jang was the publicity with which it was done. These include not only the “report”—reproduced in full below—but an 11-minute TV story broadcast on North Korean television on the meeting, replete with stills of Jang being escorted out of the meeting by security personnel; North Korea Leadership Watch does the Kremlinology. Both KCNA and Yonhap have now run stories confirming Jang’s execution; we will review the charges in a coming post.
The function of such humiliation is clear: to send a signal of the overwhelming power of the leadership to fell even the mightiest. His “arrest” at the meeting was almost certainly staged. The question is why it happened and with what implications?
Alexandre Mansourov at 38North provides an excellent recap of Jang’s gradual marginalization and an inventory of the dominant theories, of which there are four: Jang’s attempt to form a center of power independent of Kim Jong Un; a power struggle between Jang and Choe Ryong Hae and their proxies within the regime (detailed by New Focus International); policy disagreements over nuclear, foreign and/or economic policy; and a purely familial tussle in which Kim Kyong Hui—Jang’s wife and Kim Jong Un’s uncle—may have played a role. In a new revelation on the family front, the Chosun Ilbo reports intelligence (caveat emptor!) that Kim Jong-chol, Kim Jong Un’s older brother, “personally led” a team of soldiers protecting Kim Jong-un in the arrest of Jang and that he was also behind the executions of Jang’s close confidants Ri Yong-ha and Jang Soo-kil.
These explanations are not mutually exclusive; here is how they fit together. The Politburo report places primary emphasis on “factionalism” and challenges to the “unity and cohesion” in Kim Jong Un’s leadership. Jang need not have launched an overt challenge, although in his position as head of the Ministry of People’s Security he did manage to purge two high-ranking officials in the competing Ministry of State Security (Ryu Gyong, executed in 2011 and Wu Dong Cheuk, purged in 2012). He needed only to have controlled personnel and material resources that gave him weight within the political system apart from his connection to Kim Jong Un or other core organizations within the party, particularly the Organization and Guidance Department. The Ministry of People’s Security provided one such base; control of various state-owned enterprises, including those earning foreign exchange would be another.
We thus discount the idea that principled policy positions were at stake; as we have said repeatedly, reform has proven elusive so it is hard to portray Jang as a reformer. But if he controlled foreign exchange—including through his diplomatic connections with China—and used it to expand his influence within the state, then the report’s charges about selling resources on the cheap and ignoring the Cabinet system are wholly disingenuous. The issue is not that Jang did these things, but that they diverted resources that the leadership wanted to monopolize. We therefore predict that there will be little policy change as a result of Jang’s ouster. Rather, his networks will simply be taken over by Kim Jong Un loyalists; we report some evidence to this effect below.
It is pretty clear that Jang’s ouster is another step in the succession process, indicated most clearly by the fact that he is now being referred to as Great Leader.
But in the last few days, an altogether different thread of this saga has surfaced: the possibility that one of Jang’s aids fled China in September or October carrying with him highly classified information not only on accounts Jang managed for himself and the regime but on North Korea’s nuclear program; Reuters broke this story in English last week, drawing on information from the South Korean cable network YTN. SBS (Seoul Broadcasting System) subsequently elaborated, arguing that the aide was attached to the Central Administrative Department of the Workers Party, that he fled in anticipation of Jang’s ouster, and has since been taken into custody by South Korean authorities. But South Korea’s Ministry of Unification has denied any knowledge of the individual, let alone custody of him.
This story has since wagged the dog, as revelations of this sort would have wide-ranging repercussions. Here are three outstanding questions (quite apart from whether the defector exists):
- Cause or effect? Did the aide flee as his boss went down or did the aide fleeing bring the boss down?
- If the Chinese stopped the defector from leaving the country—as has been rumored—how did he end up in South Korean hands? Or did he fall into South Korean hands and then they tried to spirit him out of China and failed? Or have they succeeded and this achievement has just not yet been leaked? What kind of access have the Chinese had? The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the issue was a purely internal matter, but that would not be the case if the defector carried high-level information on China-DPRK relations.
- How much does the US know about this or have they even had contact?
We do not believe that the Jang ouster will bring the regime down; to the contrary, it will become more leaderist in orientation. But the purge will have a number of short-term implications.
Purges and crackdowns. DailyNK is picking up evidence of tightened border controls. The reason: concern that widening purges will drive Jang allies to defect. Purges of individuals of this stature are never solo affairs, but involve getting rid of wide-ranging networks of appointments and loyalists. Municipal and provincial party secretaries and cadres from the judicial and security organs have reportedly been summoned en masse to Pyongyang. Family relatives of Jang’s, who had been posted abroad, have reportedly been asked to return to North Korea.
The security situation. In testimony before the National Assembly, intelligence officials noted that Pyongyang has deployed attack helicopters and rockets to an area adjacent to the Northern Limit Line; South Korea responded by promising to increase the positioning of sensors. Our guess is that these moves are defensive, but if North Korea fears that the US and South will exploit domestic vulnerability they may want to send a signal to the contrary (New York Times coverage here). But perhaps the most interesting military news is Chinese and again comes from the DailyNK. China’s 39th Army is undergoing “intensive military training” on the border with North Korea, and moved to the Mt. Paekdu region on the 4th.
The elusive quest for reform. If our interpretation is correct, the question is not whether the country will reform more or less with Jang gone, but who will control crucial sources of foreign exchange coming in from Chinese foreign investments and their related exports. The Joongang Daily reported several days ago that the Rason zone has been like a ghost town since the purge. Hankyoreh and the Asahi Shinbun report on particular investments tied to Jang being reversed, including China Merchants Group participation in Hwanggumpyong and Rason. But we expect that these are short-term perturbations and that investors—and particularly those with sunk capital—will have little choice but to make peace with the regime; indeed, the investment zone proposal will require a post-Jang leadership to send signals to Chinese investors of continued interest. This process may have already started—Choe Ryong Hae, not Jang Sung Thaek, made the most recent high-level visit to China.
Report on Enlarged Meeting of Political Bureau of Central Committee of WPK
Pyongyang, December 9 (KCNA) — A report on the enlarged meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) was released on December 8.
The following is the full text of the report:
An enlarged meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the WPK was held in Pyongyang, the capital of the revolution, on Dec. 8.
Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un, first secretary of the WPK, guided the meeting.
Present there were members and alternate members of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the WPK.
Leading officials of the Central Committee of the WPK, provincial party committees and armed forces organs attended it as observers.
Our party members, service personnel and all other people have made energetic efforts to implement the behests of leader Kim Jong Il, entrusting their destiny entirely to Kim Jong Un and getting united close around the Central Committee of the WPK since the demise of Kim Jong Il, the greatest loss to the nation.
In this historic period for carrying forward the revolutionary cause of Juche the chance elements and alien elements who had made their ways into the party committed such anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts as expanding their forces through factional moves and daring challenge the party, while attempting to undermine the unitary leadership of the party.
In this connection, the Political Bureau of the C.C., the WPK convened its enlarged meeting and discussed the issue related to the anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts committed by Jang Song Thaek.
The meeting, to begin with, fully laid bare the anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts of Jang Song Thaek and their harmfulness and reactionary nature.
It is the immutable truth proved by the nearly 70-year-long history of the WPK that the party can preserve its revolutionary nature as the party of the leader and fulfill its historic mission only when it firmly ensures its unity and cohesion based on the monolithic idea and the unitary center of leadership.
The entire party, whole army and all people are dynamically advancing toward the final victory in the drive for the building of a thriving nation, meeting all challenges of history and resolutely foiling the desperate moves of the enemies of the revolution under the leadership of Kim Jong Un. Such situation urgently calls for consolidating as firm as a rock the single-minded unity of the party and the revolutionary ranks with Kim Jong Un as its unitary centre and more thoroughly establishing the monolithic leadership system of the party throughout the party and society.
The Jang Song Thaek group, however, committed such anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts as gnawing at the unity and cohesion of the party and disturbing the work for establishing the party unitary leadership system and perpetrated such ant-state, unpopular crimes as doing enormous harm to the efforts to build a thriving nation and improve the standard of people’s living.
Jang pretended to uphold the party and leader but was engrossed in such factional acts as dreaming different dreams and involving himself in double-dealing behind the scene.
Though he held responsible posts of the party and state thanks to the deep political trust of the party and leader, he committed such perfidious acts as shunning and obstructing in every way the work for holding President Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in high esteem for all ages, behaving against the elementary sense of moral obligation and conscience as a human being.
Jang desperately worked to form a faction within the party by creating illusion about him and winning those weak in faith and flatterers to his side.
Prompted by his politically-motivated ambition, he tried to increase his force and build his base for realizing it by implanting those who had been punished for their serious wrongs in the past period into ranks of officials of departments of the party central committee and units under them.
Jang and his followers did not sincerely accept the line and policies of the party, the organizational will of the WPK, but deliberately neglected their implementation, distorted them and openly played down the policies of the party. In the end, they made no scruple of perpetrating such counter-revolutionary acts as disobeying the order issued by the supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army.
The Jang group weakened the party’s guidance over judicial, prosecution and people’s security bodies, bringing very harmful consequences to the work for protecting the social system, policies and people.
Such acts are nothing but counter-revolutionary, unpopular criminal acts of giving up the class struggle and paralyzing the function of popular democratic dictatorship, yielding to the offensive of the hostile forces to stifle the DPRK.
Jang 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 WPK.
The Jang group put under its control the fields and units which play an important role in the nation’s economic development and the improvement of people’s living in a crafty manner, making it impossible for the economic guidance organs including the Cabinet to perform their roles.
By throwing the state financial management system into confusion and committing such act of treachery as selling off precious resources of the country at cheap prices, the group made it impossible to carry out the behests of Kim Il Sung andKim Jong Il on developing the industries of Juche iron, Juche fertilizer and Juche vinalon.
Affected by the capitalist way of living, Jang committed irregularities and corruption and led a dissolute and depraved life.
By abusing his power, he was engrossed in irregularities and corruption, had improper relations with several women and was wined and dined at back parlors of deluxe restaurants.
Ideologically sick and extremely idle and easy-going, he used drugs and squandered foreign currency at casinos while he was receiving medical treatment in a foreign country under the care of the party.
Jang and his followers committed criminal acts baffling imagination and they did tremendous harm to our party and revolution.
The ungrateful criminal acts perpetrated by the group of Jang Song Thaek are lashing our party members, service personnel of the People’s Army and people into great fury as it committed such crimes before they observed two-year mourning for Kim Jong Il, eternal general secretary of the WPK.
Speeches were made at the enlarged meeting.
Speakers bitterly criticized in unison the anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts committed by the Jang group and expressed their firm resolution to remain true to the idea and leadership of Kim Jong Un and devotedly defend the Party Central Committee politically and ideologically and with lives.
The meeting adopted a decision of the Political Bureau of the Party Central Committee on relieving Jang of all posts, depriving him of all titles and expelling him and removing his name from the WPK.
The party served warning to Jang several times and dealt blows at him, watching his group’s anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts as it has been aware of them from long ago. But it did not pay heed to it but went beyond tolerance limit. That was why the party eliminated Jang and purged his group, unable to remain an onlooker to its acts any longer, dealing telling blows at sectarian acts manifested within the party.
Our party will never pardon anyone challenging its leadership and infringing upon the interests of the state and people in violation of the principle of the revolution, regardless of his or her position and merits.
No matter how mischievously a tiny handful of anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional elements may work, they can never shake the revolutionary faith of all party members, service personnel and people holding Kim Jong Un in high esteem as the unitary centre of unity and unitary centre of leadership.
The discovery and purge of the Jang group, a modern day faction and undesirable elements who happened to worm their ways into our party ranks, made our party and revolutionary ranks purer and helped consolidate our single-minded unity remarkably and advance more dynamically the revolutionary cause of Juche along the road of victory.
No force on earth can deter our party, army and people from dynamically advancing toward a final victory, single-mindedly united around Kim Jong Un under the uplifted banner of great Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism.