Breaking: N. Korea announces purge of Jang Song Thaek for “anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts” (Updates below)

KCNA has just published a lengthy denunciation of Jang Song Thaek after an unusual, hastily scheduled meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea.

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 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.

The denunciation blames Jang for everything from wrecking the iron, fertilizer, and vinalon industries, to “selling off precious resources of the country at cheap prices,” to offenses against North Korea’s purity.

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.

Presumably, Jang won’t be welcome at Kim Jong Un’s yacht for Dennis Rodman’s next visit, to enjoy that “seven-star” lifestyle North Korea is so justly famous for. The denunciation ends by announcing that “the party eliminated Jang and purged his group.” I’ve posted KCNA’s entire denunciation below the fold, because I think its very tone of desperation is telling.

In case you’re wondering what all this means, it means that North Korea’s absolute ruler is a volatile man-child with a small nuclear arsenal and no adult supervision. It means that although South Korea’s National Intelligence isn’t gifted at domestic politics, it is at least a competent intelligence agency. It could also mean that Kim Jong Un has just suppressed a coup by Jang and his followers.

~  ~  ~

Several days ago, as the news of Jang’s ouster first hit the wires, I wrote about a recent wave of executions in North Korea, cited evidence that these they could indicate a fratricidal power struggle within the security forces, and suggested that Jang’s reported purge could be related to this. At the time, I still saw little evidence that Jang had really been purged, so I decided to wait a few days and see what else emerged. After all, how many times had we heard that Kim Kyok-Sik was demoted or purged before he appeared again, like Lazarus from the grave? The answer is either three (1, 2, 3) or four, depending on where he is now (I lost track). Jang himself had experienced at least one resurrection.

Over the weekend, other reports provided circumstantial support for the report of Jang’s removal. We heard that Jang’s associates have been summoned to Pyongyang, both from abroad and within North Korea. The Daily NK, tapping into its sources inside North Korea, reported that cadres had been summoned to Pyongyang en masse and were afraid that a bloody purge was coming. The new reports also caused me to take a second look at a months-old report that Jang was then in a power struggle with Choi Ryong-Hae, a man without a deep military background whom Kim Jong Un appointed to oversee party control of the military, but whom the military reportedly distrusts.

It was this report that finally persuaded me. It showed that Jang had been Trotskied out of 13 different scenes in a North Korean TV program that had already been shown several times with Jang appearing prominently. Have a look.

Screen Shot 2013-12-08 at 1.06.30 PM Screen Shot 2013-12-08 at 1.06.18 PM[via Yonhap]

At this point, I had written most of this post was was prepared to publish it tomorrow. When I read the KCNA announcement, I decided to update and publish it now.

~  ~  ~

The speculation about Jang’s fate can now give way to the speculation about Kim Jong Un’s, and North Korea’s. Jang’s purge is immensely important. Plenty of us used to think that he was the real power behind the scenes, or at the very least, Kim Jong Un’s adult supervision. Jang is married to Kim Kyong-Hui, the sister of Kim Jong Il and daughter of Kim Il Sung. He was the Vice Chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, had a strong power base within both the party and the military, and had a reputation for being a relatively pragmatic and competent technocrat and infighter (though by no means a nice person).

The first obvious question is whether this hints at instability in Pyongyang. As of this afternoon, opinion on this question was decidedly split. Gordon Chang predicted “a new period of instability,” and quoted Bruce Bechtol, who wrote in his new book, “Sections of the elite have felt increasingly betrayed because of the large number of purges and executions that have occurred, presumably because of succession issues.” At least some South Korean experts agreed. One said, “With Jang gone, the overall stability of the North’s regime will decrease.” Even so, Chang conceded that most experts think Kim Jong Un has effectively consolidated his control, although the only example of this majority view I can cite is Bruce Klingner, who infers from this that “the North Korean ruler is firmly in control and confident enough to target even the most senior strata of power.”

Klingner is one of the very best in the Norkromancy industry — even-keeled, objective, and almost always right. This time, however, I think his conclusion rests on a questionable premise, which is that Kim Jong Un must have thought through the consequences of this purge and made a well-supported, logical calculation that he could get away with freaking out a significant percentage of his power base. This is a premise that can’t be assumed. We don’t know why Kim Jong Un makes a lot of the decisions we think he makes, but we know that at least some of them do not have a logical basis.

For example, it cannot be logical for the nominal leader of a political system founded on the intellectual superiority, monastic self-sacrifice, moral and ethnic purity, and martial discipline of its leaders to allow himself to be filmed with the likes of Dennis Rodman — twice. It’s no great loss to Rodman (or to us) that he went from being an object of ridicule to an object of loathing; it’s far more consequential to Kim Jong Un that domestic perceptions of him were probably just as negative.

It cannot be logical that a man whose power depends on the capacity for patronage funded by foreign capital would have received Rodman, but spurned Eric Schmidt, a receiving line of foreign diplomats, the President of Mongolia, and God-knows-how-many interview requests from the AP. Imagine all the aid Kim Jong Un could have bilked out of gullible foreigners who desperately wanted to believe he was a Western-oriented reformer, if only he’d chosen his company more advisedly. Imagine all of the loyalty he could have bought with that aid. But, hey! Dennis Rodman! Kim Jong Un’s personal and professional history both point to him being an impulsive person who makes impulsive decisions. The poor quality of those decisions suggests that he’s surrounded by yes-men who are afraid to caution him against yielding to those impulses. Is it possible that Jang was the last man in North Korea who tried to tell him “no”?

Jang’s removal suggests that a rift is opening in North Korea’s security apparatus. Unlike Jang, neither Kim Jong Un nor Choi Ryong-Hae has Jang’s long-standing personal connections, seniority, or gravitas. There are rumors of widespread purges in the military, both past and future, and The New York Times quotes one U.S. intelligence official who sees signs of “some kind of broader contest for control, which Jang lost, at least for now.” New Focus also sees Jang’s removal in the context of a wider power struggle between various factions, backed by different parts of the internal security apparatus.

Many in the power structure probably fear for their lives now. Those who were close to Jang have probably heard that two of his closest associates were publicly executed last month, and the head of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service is not exactly denying reports that one senior Jang protege fled to China and sought asylum. Memories of Ri Yong-Ho’s purge in July of 2012, so shortly after his promotion, must still be fresh. In October, Kim Jong Un is thought to have fired the head of the armed forces for the third time since December 2011. At that time, Aidan Foster-Carter said that was “not normal.” Needless to say, this is less normal than that. The message for North Korea’s nomenklatura must be that rank and privilege offer no protection. And while we’re on that subject, when when is the last time anyone saw Kim Jong Un’s wife?

Jang’s ouster could have security and financial consequences. I’ve never bought into the description of Jang as a “reformer,” but he did have a reputation for pragmatism, and he had extensive connections to the regime’s overseas financial lifelines. Leadership that is less pragmatic and in greater need of external enemies is more likely to provoke. Jang was closely associated with cash cows like the special economic zones at Rason, which are often confused with reform. A few days ago, a sensational Chosun Ilbo report made Rason sound like the next Wendover, Nevada, but the Joongang Ilbo now writes that Rason is “a ghost town,” and that several of its officials are under arrest. Jang was also deeply involved in North Korea’s foreign currency earnings, and those called back to Pyongyang include the North Korean Ambassador in Malaysia, a suspected haven for North Korean money laundering, and its recently purged Ambassador to Cuba (both were relatives of Jang’s). One South Korean expert predicts that “[t]rade and operations, such as the dispatching of North Korean laborers to foreign countries, will probably be hit.” Again, a logical analyst would infer that Kim Jong Un knows he has other sources of foreign income, but an impulsive mind would not have thought that through, listened to his experts, or even sought their advice.

So be it if what follows will be read as wishful thinking — wishing for something that I know could be very awful, but probably less awful than the status quo. What we’re seeing now looks a lot like my best guess about what the earliest stages of North Korea’s collapse would look like. This doesn’t mean that’s what we’re seeing, but that collapse, though long behind schedule, has never seemed more inevitable. A combination of support from China (and sometimes, South Korea) and Kim Jong Il’s Machiavellian competence delayed it for two decades, and even overcame the long odds against hereditary successions in modern times — once.

What if North Korea is purging its last reserve of Machiavellian competence, just as it encounters those long odds for the second time?


UPDATE: Robert Koehler, who kindly links to this post (thank you), has a photograph of Jang being perp-walked out of the Central Committee meeting. I couldn’t help being reminded of this, which proves that a volatile and impulsive tyrant can take on a significant part of his own power base and still spend the next quarter-century palace-hopping. There are both similarities and differences between the two cases, but how North Korea’s future plays out will be a function of Kim Jong Un’s Machiavellian competence. The next few months will tell us much about that.

Like me, you probably wondered just what KCNA meant when it said that “the party eliminated Jang.” NK News, citing Free North Korea Radio, passes along a rumor that Jang was actually executed on December 5th. If that’s true, it would bolster the theory that Jang attempted a coup. And if someone as close to Kim Jong Un as Jang Song Thaek tried that, you have to think that (1) Jang tested the waters and first and found Kim Jong Un’s support weak, and (2) others who do not have personal and familial ties to Kim Jong Un have had similar thoughts.

GI Korea posts about a tantalizing report on the recent high-level defection in China I refer to above. Evidently, the man was something of a pezzanovante. Says Reuters: “If true, the defection would likely be the first time in 15 years a significant insider from the Pyongyang regime has switched sides.” Reuters, citing YTN, reports that the individual “had knowledge of funds belonging to Kim and his father, former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il,” which is like porn to anyone with a serious interest in regime modification through financial pressure. The individual is reportedly under the protection of South Korean officials “in a secret location in China.” So this would be one of those “financial consequences” I was talking about.

Oh, and Yonhap notes that North Korea’s Ambassador to China is also a close associate of Jang. That could get interesting. For its part, China says it’s all an internal matter.

The Daily NK has an immediate reaction from its North Korean informants in North Hamgyeong Province, in the far northeast. One says his (unspecified) city is “reeling” at the news. Others echo the theme that Jang’s presence had been reassuring, as they had presumed that he was Kim Jong Un’s adult supervision.

“Jang Sung Taek is a familiar face for people, and one of the most trusted as well. He watched over the Marshal (Kim Jong Eun), and is even his uncle. People thought that if there were ever to be a problem within the Party Jang Sung Taek would play a big role, so the fact that he has been disposed of in a purge like this is causing great discomfort.” [….]

“We assumed that the captain of the Kim Jong Eun regime was Jang, and that the young and inexperienced Kim Jong Eun was getting a lot of political advice from his uncle.There is now the rumor that this incident occurred because Jang went against the orders of Kim on economic reform,” he added. In fact, today’s Rodong Sinmun denunciation of Jang’s actions contains this information.

The Daily NK reports that even North Koreans who rarely discuss politics are noting Kim Jong Un’s ruthless willingness to dispose of his own family members. Others were concerned that their country could become unstable. A separate analysis piece, co-authored by Chris Green, predicts that “[f]ierce competition to show loyalty to the center will grow fiercer as a result, and ordinary people will surely suffer as the incentive to toe the line grows, and rules are more rigidly adhered to.” Another expert points out that Kim can’t be having an easy time pulling off this transition, given that “he has not attended a single foreign summit or event to date,” although Jong Un hasn’t been so inclined to meet foreign leaders who come to his doorstep, either.

At the root of all of this is the high probability that the one experienced and pragmatic person in a position to observe Kim Jong Un’s style of governance either decided to oppose him, or was purged for giving him candid advice. Neither alternative is comforting.

Author’s note: I made minor stylistic and grammatical edits to this post after publication, along with one correction (see comments).


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 and Kim 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 aroundKim Jong Un under the uplifted banner of great Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism. -0-


  1. Well well well.

    I wonder if there was an actual coup by Jang (“Kim Jong-Un is crazy/a moron we have to stop him before this business gets out of control!”) or if this is Baby Kim’s way of “emancipating” himself from his father’s influence and minders?

    Either way, I kind of feel like Kim Jong-Un just cut the emergency brakes on a runaway train.


  2. An excellent report and evaluation.

    That this is happening just as China appears intent on provoking a confrontation with Japan suggests 2014 has the potential for sanguinary chaos in East Asia.


  3. Regarding sentence: “Jang is married to Kim Kyong-Hui, the sister of Kim Jong Il and granddaughter of Kim Il Sung.” Shouldn’t it read “daughter of Kim Il Sung”? Looks like a typo. TC


  4. If Kim Kyong-Hui is going down with Jang, doesn’t that technically mean that as her nephew, Kim Jong Un has to report to Camp 16 too?

    Wishful thinking, I suspect.


  5. I know I have been out of this game for a while, however I wonder if that makes me read these tea leaves differently. Jang’s purge is certainty a milestone, and I might even go so far that there may have been a coup of some sort in the air, however I am unsure if it shows what the beginning of a collapse would look like.

    My main reason for doubt is this was done in typical North Korean fashion. It was an orderly progression of action. There were orderly “leaks” about Jang, from which even the most clueless would know what was coming. All of Jang’s cadre orderly returned to Pyongyang and lined up. Even Jang himself obediently allowed himself to be rounded up before a public crowd of officials and cameras.

    What I think is more profound is the non-orderly, the defection a member of the Jang cabal. That is certainly off-script. Even more interesting is China’s shrug of shoulders to bringing him back, which, even if not stated, we all know the North requested. In addtion to China’s history of sending back your average North Korean defector along the Yalu, China has a stated foreign policy of not getting involved in internal politics, and urging other countries to do likewise with it. This goes so far as exhorting other countries to return those it finds to be “criminals”. China’s indifference, particularly when it would cost them nothing to return yet gain a ‘favor’ of the North, is off-script for not just the North but China/North relations.


  6. Baby Kim is a vicious, immature, unintelligent figurehead. His wife is a tart. He concerns himself with ridiculously expensive prestige projects — Disneyland North, swimming pools, dressage, ski jumping and, with Dumbo Rodman’s assistance, making the DPRK Number 15 in the Olympics. He is too young still to have any personal following. Certainly he approved the dismissal and probable death of his uncle by marriage, but he did so as a puppet of other forces.

    The question one might wish to follow through is “Who leaked the news of his wife’s porn flicks?” That was the single most devastating act of anti-Kim family subversion we have seen in 50 years, and it came from a senior faction within the DPRK, not from outside. (It is far worse than suggesting his own mother’s Japanese birth…but note again, those are rumors from within the Hermit Kingdom.)

    If it was Jang who spread the rumors, in order to take Baby Kim down, it failed…for the moment. The accusation against Jang of meeting with loose women is mild when compared to Lady Kim’s hard-core porn for foreign sale, but it is perhaps the strongest response that the editorial sycophant could manufacture and still stay alive.

    My reading of the entire KCNA statement suggests that Jang, together with the military-industrial generals of the intelligence section of the Army, was trying to establish a parallel economy. That, ostensibly, was the different dream crime that he was killed for. There are cadres who are loyal to the Revolution and to Juche, who resent a hereditary dictatorship, and who wish for improved food and industry and a happier populace. Jang may likely become a martyr for them.

    I think Jang was building his own economic engine and misappropriated military-owned mines, and Party-owned finances, expecting to hold them all apart until real results began to show. Rason, the mines and the other SEZs didn’t come in on time. It was subversive and divisive, and it was correctly seen to be so. The danger of a parallel economy, and their personal exclusion from its rewards, was the reason the Party Uppers and the Army abandoned Jang.

    The Great Devaluation shows how totally incompetent the Kim family is at any form of money management. It is likely that the Kim family would have personally profited from Jang’s success, but Baby Kim couldn’t see that far: all he could see was that Jang failed to get the ski gondola mechanisms and other goodies for Baby Kim’s prestige projects, so he failed.

    The need for the death of his uncle was sold to Baby Kim as a warning that those who fail the Kim family by allowing subversive rumors to circulate are as guilty as those who circulate them. The reported arrogance of Jang and his probable diminishment of Baby Kim may’ve made his destruction more likely, with a resulting increase in the perceived power of Baby Kim, but he was himself a puppet of the Excluded Uppers, not their controller.

    Still, the history of Stalinism shows there is no level of depravity to which toadies will not stoop, to crawl at the feet of ostensible power, if they think they can gain another hour’s life for themselves at the cost of another’s.

    Wait for the dream crime tribunals, and the DPRK’s own version of Yagoda.


  7. Jang sang is dead , murdered , hung, brutalized by his own nephew . Thats Communism, thats a sample oh brutal this maniac is


  8. 1985, maybe he thought he had enough of his own power base that if he tried to start something he would have support to see it through to the end?

    I worry with the pragmatic Jang gone that North Korea has gone from “crazy like a fox” to just plain crazy.

    If/when HR 1771 passes, I can almost see Kim Jong Un throwing a 12-year-old temper tantrum better than any his hero Dennis Rodman threw whilst a member of the Pistons in the 90s.


  9. A supposed Jang coup? I doubt it. That sick system requires an Emperor of the Kim Il-Sung bloodline to keep functioning. They all know that. Millions of people are going to keep slowly starving to death under the leadership of some anonymous apparatchik or general?