The execution of Jang Song Thaek raised as many questions as it answered, and as a result we are getting a steady flow of stories claiming to shed light on this high-level familial purge. We report on these stories with the usual injunction of “caveat emptor,” but comment on those that seem more and less probable.
Joongang Ilbo covered a story broken by the Yomiuri Shimbun on Kim Jong Un’s decision to go after Jang’s network. The motive, according to Yomiuri, was the failure of Ri Ryong-ha and Jang Su-gil, the officials in the KWP’s Administration Department who were the first to be executed, to turn over an enterprise under Jang’s control to the military. So much for violations of the “cabinet system” outlined in the Jang indictment. If true, this fact would confirm our suspicion that the episode was more about control of rents than the normalization of economic policymaking. The Yomiuri story also makes reference to foreign bank accounts controlled directly by Jang and used to maintain the loyalty of his network.
On a more salacious note, the story claims that Kim Jong Un was drunk at the time he made the decision to execute the aids, setting in train the scramble for the exits among Jang loyalists and the decision to widen the purges.
Debate continues among those with a Kreminological bent over how far the purges have actually gone, and South Korea’s Ministry of Unification has even commented. Intelligence estimates of the post-Jang executions have been surprisingly small, running as low as five. Moreover, several high-ranking officials purportedly linked to Jang were prominently visible during the ceremonies surrounding the second anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death, including Vice Premier Ro To Chul, Party Secretary Kim Yang Gon and Chief Secretary of the Pyongyang KWP City Committee Mun Kyong Dok; they also showed up on the funeral committee of Kim Kuk T’ae, a regime stalwart close to the Kim family who had held a range of high-level positions.
Two theories present themselves. The first is that Kim Jong Un has made his statement, sent the signal he wanted to send, and can now play the “wide politics” of retaining people who might have use. Alternatively, the purge will continue more quietly when the uncertainty generated by Jang’s execution has passed.
A tremendous amount of attention has been given to the fate of Kim Kyong-hui, Kim Jong Il’s sister, Jang’s wife and Kim Jong Un’s aunt. Going after Jang is one thing; going after the bloodline is another. The dominant interpretation is that her absence from the Kim Jong Il memorial was primarily a result of health– which continues to deteriorate–and that she survived the purge; for example, she was ranked sixth on the Kim Kuk T’ae funeral committee, a standard mechanism for issue ordinal rankings of the leadership. Yet Jang’s family is another matter. The DailyNK reports that as many as “several hundred” of Jang’s relatives were rounded up the day after his execution and removed from their homes in an elite neighborhood of Pyongyang. The speculation: that they have fallen victim to the practice of incarcerating whole families of political dissidents in the political prison camps, partly in order to thoroughly extirpate any blood feud challenges to the regime.
The more serious issues have to do with the long-run stability of the regime: how, exactly, does Kim Jong Un maintain power over the longer-run? At the personal level, attention continues to rotate around the centrality of Choe Ryung-hae, who appeared prominently at the Kim Jong Il memorial. It is hardly coincidental that the Rodong Sinmun posted a full-page piece on December 20 lionizing Choe’s father, Choe Hyun and his service to both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
But Choe is what we—following Aidan Foster-Carter’s lead—have identified as a number of “civilian military” appointments without genuine military bona fides. Choe entered the military at the rank of General in 2010 and was promoted to Vice Marshal in 2012 on his path to his appointment as director of the KPA General Political Bureau, a pivotal position vacated by the November 2010 death of Jo Myong Rok. But we cannot imagine that Choe enjoys Jo Myong Rok’s respect, nor the organic control of military networks.
It is around that fact that much of the ongoing speculation about regime instability ultimately rests. We are still betting strongly that the advantages of the family dynasty brand, the continuity of songun policies—of which the byungjin line is a variant—and the distribution of rents will keep the political and military elite in line—and Kim Jong Un similarly beholden to them.
But if we are asking the question of whether Kim Jong Un is up to the task of governing, others in the elite have to be asking the same question. For the contrarian view—that the execution shows weakness, vulnerability and an ad hoc style of governance rather than strength—a series of pieces at New Focus International makes the case in depth. Going further still is the theory advanced by Ahn Hong-joon, chairman of the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee, that Choe orchestrated the execution in league with an anti-Jang faction within the military and that Kim Jong Un is little more than a figurehead (Korea Times coverage here). If true, these theories portend even more uncertainty and risk on the peninsula, including with respect to military provocations (leaflets threatening the islands; the exchange of threats by fax).