The Rise and (Possible) Fall of Jang Song Thaek

Stephan Haggard (PIIE) and Marcus Noland (PIIE)
December 4, 2013 3:00 PM

During the succession that began in 2008, the rehabilitation and meteoric rise of two Kim family members received substantial scrutiny: Kim Jong Il’s sister, Kim Kyung Hui, and her husband Jang Song Thaek. South Korea's National Intelligence Service has now claimed that Jang has been purged. In addition, two of his deputies at the Korean Workers Party Administration Department have reputedly been executed. The NIS has been wrong before, as the Huffington Post points out. And, as with most things North Korean, it may be a long time before we know the truth and what it means.

But let’s suppose that the story is true. Theories abound about the change, from corruption at the Administration Department to the claim that Jang was a reformer who has been sacked on policy grounds; The South China Morning Post provides an overview. The simplest explanation, however, is that the removal of Jang reflects a steady process of replacing the top personnel that Kim Jong Il had appointed to support the succession in the 2009-2011 period. Kim Jong Un is maintaining the highly personalist nature of the system by purging potential rivals and installing his own people; he may have even dismantled the entire department that Jang had headed. We are skeptical that this decision will be challenged outright; the dispatch of Jang’s aides suggests that Kim Jong Un has the power to punish. But to the extent that Jang was a stabilizing influence, had traveled to the South, and had experience and high-level connections with China in particular, decision-making could become more erratic and unpredictable.

Jang—67—had a long history in the party (and the family) but was reportedly purged from his position of Deputy Director of the powerful Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) in 2004. He returned as First Deputy Director of the Korean Workers Party Organizations and Capital Development Department in 2006, which had oversight of the Youth League and unions, two pillars of the party’s organizational control over society. While his new position did not have the stature that the 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 (MPS) and State Security (MSS) but also controlled numerous SOEs and trading companies that were an important source of rents for the regime; thus the speculation that corruption in the Administration Department were part of his undoing. In addition to these positions, he was part of the Joint Venture Investment Committee, and was also the primary negotiator with China over the development of the Rason Economic and Trade Zone and the Hwanggumphyong and Wihwa Islands Economic Zone, and attempted to encourage Chinese investment in North Korea more broadly. These positions as a gatekeeper for foreign direct investment would have provided an additional platform for rent-extraction, yet are also part of the reason he has been associated with “reform.”

During the high transition period, Jang became an alternate member of the Politburo, but also entered both the National Defense Commission (NDC) and the party’s Central Military Commission (CMC). These were not small steps. Except for the inclusion of one provincial secretary, all of the personnel sitting on the NDC in 2003 were connected with the military, the security apparatus and the military industrial complex (for example, the chairman of the Second Economic Committee which oversees military production; the one provincial secretary was from Jagang, where much of the military-industrial complex is located). Jang Song Thaek’s inclusion as head of the Administration Department marked the entry of both a family member and civilian with effective oversight of other members of the NDC, recognized in his standing as number two on the Commission. He also appeared to survive the substantial churning in top military positions during the transition. By 2009, the heads of both the MPAF and the MPS had been replaced. By 2012—in the early days of the Kim Jong Un era—there were further personnel changes at the MPAF, the MPS, the KPA General Political Bureau and the Secretary of Machine-Building and Military Industry; most notable of these changes was the fall of Ri Yong Ho and the rise of new “civilian military” personnel with close ties to the Kim family, including both Jang and Choe Ryong Hae. Without much fanfare in December 2011, Jang appeared on state television in a military uniform and a four-star general rank.

Kim Kyong Hui saw an even more rapid ascent up the official ranks. Though she became Director of the Light Industry Department in 1997, she was not listed in the formal ranking of the top-20 elite in the 2005-8 period. However, she was promoted to the rank of four-star general in September 2010, a perfect example of “civilian military” personnel. She was also made a full member of the Politburo. At the 4th Party Conference in 2012, 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, possibly the powerful Organization and Guidance Department itself. Increasingly, the informal stature that Jang and Kim Kyong Hui enjoyed was matched by a rise up the formal political rankings.

In sum, if Jang has been purged it is significant. The fate of his associates provides few clues, beyond the fact that the crimes were obviously serious “anti-state” ones; we simply reproduce what Michael Madden at North Korea Leadership Watch has to say about them:

“The two KWP officials rumored to have been publicly executed in mid-November are Ri Ryong Ha (Senior Deputy Director of the KWP Administration Department) and Jang Su Gil (Deputy Director of the KWP Administration Department). Ri Ryong Ha began his career in the KWP Organization Department in the early 1970s where he spent much of his career. Ri was a key player in establishing Kim Jong Il’s authority in the 1970s and 1980s, and he was selected in 2009 to manage aspects of Kim Jong Un’s hereditary succession. Jang Su Gil (no relation to Jang Song Taek) was a party manager in the construction and building materials sector. He was given the rank of Lt. General in February 2013.”

What are the implications? In turns of “who is down, who is up” Choe Ryong Hae, Director General of the Political Department of the KPA, appears the immediate beneficiary. Since Kim Jong Un’s installation, Choe’s appearances with Kim III have risen as Jang’s fell. Jang and Choe share certain characteristics, however: both are from a very tight group of familiarly-related elites (Jang, Kim Jong Un’s uncle; Choe, the son of a Kim Il Sung confidante, grew up with Kim Jong Il) who were parachuted into high positions in the military, and both could be expected to draw a certain amount of quiet derision from uniformed professionals. We should therefore be cautious about drawing broad policy implications from these personnel shifts. Indeed, Choe is in his 60s—closer to Kim Jong Il in age than Kim Jong Un, and there is no particular reason to think that the personality shuffling will end here. In all likelihood Choe will be replaced at some point by a less experienced operative, someone closer to Kim Jong Un in age who is even more dependent than Choe on Kim Jong Un for his stature within the regime. This is likely to mean less experience and more sycophancy but also continued reliance on key figures within the military. You can’t do what Kim Jong Un appears to have just done without having someone willing to arrest and execute top aides; he can’t do that by himself.

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Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff
Marcus Noland Senior Research Staff

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