PIIE Blog | North Korea: Witness to Transformation
The Peterson Institute for International Economics is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan
research institution devoted to the study of international economic policy. More › ›
Subscribe to North Korea: Witness to Transformation Search
North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Family Politics: the (Further) Rise of Jang Song Thaek

by | January 16th, 2013 | 07:00 am

If there is any doubt about the centrality of family politics in North Korea, the continuing rise of Jang Song Thaek—Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law and thus Kim Jong Un’s uncle—should put them to rest. According to a typically-careful analysis by Michael Madden at North Korea Leadership Watch, Jang has apparently been appointed to the Politburo Presidium. The information comes from the standard “unnamed diplomatic source,” as reported to the Kyunhyang Shinum, a daily based in Seoul. But Madden does due diligence and shows that Jang has consistently been listed in fourth rank (behind Kim Yong Nam, Choe Yong Rim, and Choe Ryong Hae and not counting Kim III) in reports of recent functions. This ranking is at least consistent with the Kyunhyang Shinum report.

On paper, the Presidium is the equivalent of China’s Politburo Standing Committee. As we have documented, the Politburo shrank prior to the transition and we have expressed doubts about whether the Presidium actually functioned in a comparison we did with the Chinese Politburo and PBSC. According to Madden’s sources, the Presidium is in fact functional and works in conjunction with the NDC with which it shares members. State media also depict Kim Jong Un interacting with Presidium members, and even the wider Politburo has recently started to issue statements in its name. The first of these came following Kim Jong Il’s trip to China in 2011, but both the firing of Ri Yong Ho and the formation of the Forming the State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission.

There has also been speculation for some time—including in the excellent sleuthing by Alex Mansourov (see our summary here, original starting here at 38North) ) that Jang might replace Premier Choe Yong Rim in April when the SPA reconvenes either this spring or next. Unlike some of the other comings-and-goings we have tracked, this would not be a purge: Choe has been a central confidante of the family and his retirement would be age-related. Madden casts doubt on the theory, though, noting that Premiers typically have at least some experience with the government. From a policy perspective, this could be an important thing to watch: Jang’s institutional muscle comes from positions in the party and NDC. His ascent could mark a renewed focus on the government and cabinet, a long-standing hope of the reform optimists (including Mansourov).

A brief review of Jang’s formal return to the top of the political hierarchy:

Jang was reportedly purged in 2004, although this has never been corroborated. Previously Deputy Director of the powerful Organization and Guidance Department (OGD), he returned as First Deputy Director of the KWP Organizations and Capital Development Department in 2006, which had oversight of the Youth League and unions according to Ken Gause’s excellent North Korea under Kim Chong-il. While his new position did not have the stature that OGD did, it had strong ties to the Pyongyang municipal party apparatus. In October 2007, Jang was named director of the Administration Department, which not only had oversight of the crucial Ministries of Public Security and State Security, but also controlled numerous SOEs and trading companies that were an important source of rents for the regime. The interpenetration of the elite at the top is demonstrated by the fact that when Jang took over the Administration department he also took control of the Military Security Command. In 2010, he took the reins of the Guard Command, one of the key security units for the leadership.

During the high transition period—which we define as the period between Kim Jong Il’s stroke in August 2008 and his death–Jang becomes an alternate member of the Politburo, but also entered both the National Defense Commission and the party’s Central Military Commission. However, in research with Luke Herman and Jaesung Ryu we found a sharp divergence between Jang’s formal and informal standing: he entered the formal rankings during this period at position 17, but was far the most high-ranking member of the political elite if measured by frequency of accompanying Kim Jong Il during the transition period, accompanying Dear Leader on just over 70 percent of all on-the-spot guidance tours. Interestingly, Madden reports that Jang accompanied Kim Jong Un almost the exact same share of the 146 OSG tours he took in 2012.  And Adam Cathcart reports that a number of cultural events have shown pictures or footage of Kim Jong Un accompanied by Jang, including even Moranbong Band performances.

Kim Kyong Hui—Kim Jong Il’s sister—saw an even more rapid ascent up the official ranks, entering at number 12 during the transition period. Director of the Light Industry Department since 1997, she was not listed in the formal ranking of the top-20 elite in the 2005-2008 period. But she was promoted to the rank of four-star general in September 2010, a perfect example of what we call “civilian military” personnel: individuals from outside the military or security hierarchy who are given general ranks (members of the security apparatus, Guard Command and several other units are not technically under the KPA General Staff/Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces but nonetheless have military rank). She was also made a full member of the Politburo.

The Fourth Party Conference and meeting of the SPA in April 2012 resulted in formal promotions for both Kim Kyong Hui and Jang Song Thaek. At the 4th Party Conference, Jang became a full member of the Politburo (previously he was an alternate); Kim Kyong Hui became the Secretary of Organization and Director of an unknown department, likely the powerful Organization and Guidance Department. Over at SinoNK in October, David Miller reviewed the speculation about the significance—if any—of Kim Kyong Hui’s ailing health. Since then, she appears to have bounded back.

What it means substantively is hard to say. But there may be more than symbolic significance in the fact that Jang fills a vacancy on the Presidium left by former Chief of the Korean People’s Army [KPA] General Staff Ri Yong Ho, who was removed from all party and military positions during the July Political Bureau meeting. One plausible narrative: since 2010, the organs of the party are being rebuilt at the top and the civilians back.

(Thanks to Luke Herman, Adam Cathcart and Mike Madden)