The Fall of Jang Song-taek

Kim Jong-un purges his right-hand man.

Sixteen months ago, Jang Song-taek reached what can now be called the apex of his long career on the narrow and perilous stage of North Korean politics. In Beijing to discuss a bevy of economic deals and clad in a three-piece suit, Jang moved through the city’s formidable smog and on into the promising expanses of the Chinese northeast, cutting a modern and technocratic figure as a de facto head of state. Representing his nephew Kim Jong-un - a young man less than half of his age, with little discernable political experience prior to filling the role of third-generation dictator - Jang paid but passing obeisance in China to the greatness of the Kim family. When accompanying the effervescent young despot, Jang would dutifully take notes as Kim Jong-un babbled on about such vital matters as shrubbery at theme parks, but when the older man went abroad, he was less mindful of the need to inflate Kim Jong-un’s ego than he might have been.

Jang appeared to be, at long last, a North Korean pragmatist focused on economic improvement. For outsiders longing for the arrival of a Deng Xiaoping figure in the DPRK, Jang represented the hope for gradual change in North Korea. As his brother-in-law Kim Jong-il visibly declined in 2009, Jang’s stock had risen, and he became increasingly visible and was regularly discussed as the core of a possible collective leadership, or, at the very least, a moderating influence as regent figure for a young successor. Like the Chinese strategist Lü Buwei in the ancient Qin court, Jang understood he would wield more power and have more freedom behind the throne than on it. Trailing Kim Jong-un past legions of wailing, freezing, and hatless North Koreans at the snowy funeral of Kim Jong-il, Jang seemed at ease with the power of his position.

When a long documentary film was broadcast to the North Korean masses on the new leader’s birthday on January 8, 2012, it became absolutely clear that Kim Jong-un’s preparation for his role had been undertaken in tandem with, among other close associates, Jang Song-taek. When Kim Jong-un stood in the massive empty belly of the Huichon dam – the vital new infrastructure that now provides power to Pyongyang’s partying class – he gazed upward into its black void with Jang Song-taek. Along with the lack of a long mourning for Kim Jong-il, he messages were obvious: The new era was starting, and it would match the charismatic elements of the old system with a focus on economic growth – a transition helped along by an existing 1% growth rate in the national economy when Kim came to power.

The opaqueness and frequent misdirection of the North Korean rumor mill makes assessing Jang’s position as a crypto-reformer difficult to verify, and the very notion of “reform” in the Pyongyang context is necessarily relative to what scholar Leonid Petrov calls its “Byzantine” character. But North Korea did undertake a vigorous push in spring 2012 into the diplomatic realm, quickly cementing the ‘Leap Year Deal’ with the United States, which, while broken shortly thereafter, indicated that the post-Kim Jong-il DPRK was not incapable of negotiating with the United States. A regime orchestra (the Unhasu of later salacious rumor fame) made a trip to Paris, and a new North Korean female musical group (the Moranbong Band) seemed to indicate the potential for a limited cultural liberalization.