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.
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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.
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.
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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.
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).