It was astonishing to know that the number two leader in North Korean politics, Jang Song-thaek was accused of sabotaging the regime and some other charges and within a few days, was executed by the young leader Kim Jung-un. It was also unique that the whole story was extensively reported in North Korean media with several pictures of his arrest and trail. Most probably, the recent incident is not going to cool down soon. There are reports that at least two of his deputies Ri Ryong-ha and Jong Su-gil were executed in November just before reaching to Jang Song-thaek. There are unconfirmed reports that Jang Song-thaek’s wife Kim Kyung-hui has also been interrogated and her fate still hangs uncertain. Furthermore, more leaders and officers who worked with Jang Song-thaek are going to be secretly or openly targeted. So North Korea has entered into a phase of ‘decisive’ power struggle. It is going to be more testing time for North Korea than succession of power happened few years back from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un.
North Korea was predicted to enter into a phase of instability, when Kim Jong-il died in December 2011. It was considered to be a difficult succession to the third generation as two elder sons of Kim Jong-il were considered to be unsuitable for the job and the third son Kim Jong-un was too young to take over political control of the country. Kim Jong-un had no experience in politics and the world hardly knew about him. However, the succession process moved smoothly and the credit goes to early preparation by Kim Jong-il from 2008 after his serious illness was reported and he realized that he did not have more than two or three years to prepare a roadmap for the succession. The person who was the key to Kim Jong-il’s succession plan was undoubtedly Jang Song-thaek, who was married to his sister Kim Kyung-hui. Kim Jong-il elevated his position and made him Vice-Chairman of the National Defence Commission along with inclusion of Kim Kyung-hui in the central committee. The succession process was indeed remarkably frictionless and swift and it proved all skeptics wrong.
However, at the surface formal succession might appear eventless, the real succession and future orientation of North Korean polity and economy have been quite tumultuous. Jang Song-thaek was able to provide a close cover to Kim Jong-un as he had strong hold in party and had experience to work in various departments along with his close relations with China. The initially indication in North Korea policy that it may dilute its military-first policy and chart out an economic reform plan was basically spearheaded by Jang Song-thaek. It was resulted in several policy changes such as economic reform, which did away the requirement to take permission of military to start an industry, announcement that farmers and cooperatives could submit fixed part of their agricultural production and keep remaining part for themselves, announcement of SEZs and execution of military leader Ri Yong-ho. In a way, it was a success for Jang Song-thaek to push for economic reform in line of the Chinese model and dominance of party over military. However, many observers warned that there might be backlash from military to take up central position in North Korean polity and recent execution of Jang Song-thaek is most probably the expected assertion of military in North Korean politics.
Jang Song-thaek had a remarkable career of being close and far in political affairs in North Korea from 1972, when he married to Kim Il-sung’s daughter. He worked along with North Korean Embassies to earn foreign currencies but got demoted in 1978 because he did not follow the official line. In early 1980s, he got associated with the Youth Department of Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) and gradually moved up in hierarchy. In the early 1990s, he became member of Supreme People’s Assembly and Central Committee of WPK. After the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994, the succession of Kim Jong-il took some time and in the mid 1990s, military elites of North Korea had more control in the midst of several economic hardship and famine in North Korea. In 1997-98 food crisis, millions of North Korean lost their lives and ruling regime rather than working for economic reform initiated its ‘military-first policy’. When North Korea started responding positively to the engagement policy of South Korea, known as Sunshine policy from late-1990s and did not remain averse of limited opening up and economic reform, Jang Song-thaek was again brought back to the center stage. He was responsible for the development and management of Special Economic Zone (SEZ) established at Shinuiju in 2002, which was largely focused to invite Chinese business. Even though Jang Song-thaek’s ability was never questioned, his working style was not appreciated by leader Kim Jong-il and he was suspended from his position in 2004 on the allegation of ‘abuse of power’.
This was a temporary set back for Jang Song-thaek and he was subsequently brought back and given responsibilities of Construction and Labor Department and Administrative Department of the Central Committee of the WPK in 2006 and 2007. In 2008, when it became known that Kim Jong-il had a fatal health problem and he would not survive more than two-three years, Jang Song-thaek was considered the most important person who could ensure smooth and successful succession process. For the same he was elevated to the position of Vice Chairman of National Defence Commission and informal caretaker of young leader Kim Jong-un. It is important to note that Kim Jong-il again had full faith in his ability but not about his intent. It is said that although he was elevated as the key person in the ‘project succession’, reportedly, 200 of his supporters were purged to weaken him and his wife Kim Kyung-hui was also involved in the Central Committee of WPK to keep a check on his ambition.
In the post-Kim Jong-il era, it was a contest in North Korea between military elites and political elites and between ‘military-first policy’ and economic reform and Jang Song-thaek apparently sided with political elites and economic reform. There are two reasons, which resulted in fall of Jang Song-thaek. The first explanation could be given in terms of the contest between military and political elites and future of reform. Jang Song-thaek was trying to minimize role of military and bringing authoritative power to the WPK. Military elites were looking for an opportunity and they pushed Kim Jong-un to take this extreme step to remove any obstacle in the way of military dominance. Another explanation says that even though Jang Song-thaek was the main architect of succession, Kim Jong-un personally always felt overshadowed by his presence. In various pictures of North Korean leader during his official inspections tours, it was quite obvious that Jang Song-thaek did not show enough respect and regard to Kim Jong-un, which was shown by other top elites. His age, family connection and status of number two always created a perception that the young leader is not in full command. Probably, Kim Jong-un wanted to move out of Jang Song-thaek shadow and wanted to prove that he is in full control of North Korean affairs. It has also been reported that Jang Song-thaek was connected to Ri Sol-ju, wife of Kim Jong-un and it was not a comfortable fact for Kim Jong-un. If we connect these two explanations, it seems that Jong Song-thaek had some control over Kim Jong-un and meddled with his wife’s affairs. Kim Jong-un used Jang Song-thak’s rift with military elites to eliminate him and openly demonstrate that he and military are in command. Public demonstration of Jang Song-thaek’s execution also meant to send clear signal to all that any attempt to challenge this dominance would be treated ruthlessly.
But the process, which has been unleashed by elimination of Jang Song-thaek is not going to be easy on North Korea and Kim Jong-un. Kim Jong-un after the death of Jong Song-thaek does not have any core group, which is going to be loyal to him because of any special ties. This kind of high-level purge happened in North Korea in 1950s and 1960s under the leadership of Kim Il-sung. But Kim Il-sung had a core of friends and comrades who fought with him in guerrilla war against Japanese imperialism prior to the Korean independence. The core support group of Kim Il-sung was relatively intact through out his reign. Kim Jong-un does not enjoy such core group and after the death of Jong Song-thaek, it would not be easy for him to deal with contest between political and military elites of the country.
The next big challenge in North Korea would be a possible reconsolidation of political elites, which has been closely associated with Jang Song-thaek. There are reports that all the officials who were associated with Jang Song-thaek are going to be punished and ousted but practically it is not easy. There were expectations that the North Korean ambassador to China, Ji Jae-ryong who was close to Jang Song-thaek, could be recalled after the incident but he seems to be carrying forward business as usual. Actually, Jang Song-thaek worked in several departments such as Central Administrative Department, United Front Department, Youth Department, Construction and Labor Department and many more. He enjoyed a wide network in North Korean elites and it is almost impossible to target them all. But the problem is that these people who worked with him and had good opinion about him might not take this decision of Kim Jong-un lying down. They can also see this incident instructive about their own fate and it is quite scary for them. They might think to target, if not Kim Jong-un leadership per se, military elites of the country. Any such move in future might lead to power struggle in North Korea, which would be quite decisive.
Jang Song-thak’s good office in China is also going to be another important factor, which would perturb Kim Jong-un in future. There are reports that North Korea was unhappy with China going along with various sanctions imposed by international community, especially from the third nuclear test in early 2013. North Korea was also forced by China to negotiate with South Korea to restart Kaesong Industrial Complex and also come back to the Six-Party talks and by the execution of Jang Song-thaek wanted to send a strong message to China. However, it is a very risky and dangerous proposition. If China withdraw all its official and unofficial support to North Korea, it would be more difficult for Kim Jong-un regime to survive. Although China has reacted just by saying that it is ‘internal’ matter of North Korea, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has acknowledged that it is an ‘important change’.
Thus the recent execution of Jang Song-thaek by Kim Jong-un would have a ripple effect in North Korean politics for sometimes. It may lead to a destabilizing power struggle in North Korea between political elites and military elites. If Chinese support also dries out, it would not be easy for Kim Jong-un to sustain, as he does not have any specific core group of supporters in North Korean elites. However, every prediction about North Korea must be moderated by the fact that it is a unique country in which a totalitarian state has full control over every strata of society, including power elites. North Korea has defied many times; ‘end of North Korea’ predictions and they may do so again. If Kim Jong-un survives next one or two years of upheavals, he may continue for another ten-twenty years. However, it would be appropriate to suggest that all the concerned North Korea watchers must look at future developments in North Korea with the question in their mind whether this is the beginning of end for North Korea.
The author is Assistant Professor of Korean Studies at the University of Delhi and Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies.