Since Kim Jong Il passed away in December 2011, concerns about the stability of the North Korean leadership have been numerous, but so far the smooth continuation of political and economic affairs has been a key priority. The North Korea-watching community has therefore been taken aback by the rumored removal of Jang Sung Thaek, a figure with deep connections to the Kim family and involvement in maintaining administrative and economic matters.
According to South Korean authorities’ reports, Jang – the de-facto no. 2 in North Korea – was removed as Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission at some point in November 2013. According to unconfirmed reports, two of Jang’s aides – Jang Su Kil and Ri Yong Ha – were executed in mid-November for corruption and anti-state activities. Nevertheless, an analysis of Jang’s (apparently diminished) role in the regime indicates that this is not as destabilizing a change as it may appear. Changes of this sort are not unheard of in the North, and for the time being it appears that Jang continues to play a role in the DPRK government.
Jang the man
Much of the confusion following Jang’s removal stems from his history in the regime, especially his very close ties to current leader Kim Jong Un.
After studying at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang and in the Soviet Union during the 1970s, Jang Song Thaek became involved with the Kim Il Sung Youth League and in urbanization efforts in North Korea’s capital. Continuing his upward climb, Jang was nominated as vice director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Korean Workers Party in 1982. In 1989, he was chosen as an alternate member of the Korean Workers Party Central Committee, eventually promoted to full member in 1992. Between 2004 and 2006 Jang disappeared without explanation, however, only returning in 2006 during a Kim Jong Il visit to China. In 2010 he was named Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission, a position he kept until the latest rumors of his dismissal.
Jang had been seen as instrumental in cementing Kim Jong Un’s rise to power and after the death of Kim Jong Il, widely referred to as the unofficial No. 2 in the North Korean hierarchy. Alongside his wife Kim Kyong Hui, Jang’s “guardian” role could be seen from an early age, as he chose the people who would educate Kim Jong Un. And according to observers it was Jang – in cooperation with Ri Chol (the former DPRK ambassador to Switzerland) – who was most committed to the political education of the current leader.
Upon Kim Jong Un’s rise to power after his father’s death in late 2011, Jang was frequently seen with the new leader – Jang’s nephew – leading many to speculate that he was the power behind the throne.
The meaning of his absence
If Jang was removed from the National Defense Commission, it is critical to analyze the organization’s role before judging how his dismissal may affect stability in North Korea.
It is true that in the past the National Defense Commission has been a very important organization within the North Korean political system. According to the 1998 constitution, the NDC is the highest guiding organ of the military and the managing body for all military matters. But following an amendment to the constitution in 2009 the importance of this institution increased further, supplemented by the Party Central Military Commission.
The Party Central Military Commission is jointly managed by Kim Jong Un and Choe Ryong Hae – political director of the North Korean military, who is also highly connected to Jang (suggesting that Jang’s ouster is not the sign of a widespread purge).
However, it can be noted that Jang made fewer public appearances in 2013 than in the past (he was seen in public 183 times in 2010, 177 in 2011, 105 in 2012 and 53 in 2013) and had shifted his priority toward sports. Jang seems to have new responsibilities, but it’s impossible to deduce whether his responsibilities enlarged or were reduced to sports matters (on November 6 he met former Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki in Pyongyang, with no reasons nor aim for this meeting stated).
So how far-reaching is the dismissal of Jang, if true? The answer to this depends on just how many positions he lost and above all, whether his revenue-earning capacities have been severed. There has so far been no information about whether Jang has lost his positions as manager of important business assets around the DPRK.
It’s also important to note that we do not know whether Jang has lost his other positions. According to Nkleadershipwatch.com, Jang is responsible for the Administration Department of the Korean Workers Party and he is still a member of the Politburo Presidium, the head of the State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission and a director in some Special Economic Zones.
Therefore his ousting of the National Defense Commission carries a lower degree of importance than many argue. While in previous months other politicians were expelled from their positions, they received other opportunities. Kim Jong Gak, the former Minister of the People’s Armed Forces, was expelled in November 2012 but received a new appointment as dean of Kim Il Sung Military University.
Nevertheless, someone must fill the power vacuum Jang’s absence leaves, and this person will probably be a close counterpart to the Kim family. If not, it would mean that the power of the Kim family is decreasing, and this could potentially be a serious issue.
A targeted removal?
Ji Jae Ryong, the current North Korean ambassador to China and a close associate of Jang, has kept his position. Choe Ryong Hae, the head of the political bureau of the North-Korean Army, and Kim Kyong Ok, responsible for propaganda matters within the party were also not dismissed. According to a South Korean source, other associates of Jang who are working in the tourism industry were also not expelled from their positions.
This suggests the removal of Jang is a targeted removal, rather than an elimination of his network, and this has important implications for regime continuity. By ousting important persons within the North Korean political system, the DPRK could experience difficulty in attracting foreign investors. These removals could be interpreted as a lack of stability within the considered system.
But at this point in time, North Korea’s political system is not likely to change, as the Kim family maintains a tight grip and is expected to continue its policies. Furthermore, the ousting of Jang probably won’t change the nature of the regime, as Jang seems to have kept his other positions within the political system.