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.
Jang scored several successes in the first year of the Kim Jong-un era that might have indicated that the future had finally arrived. In July 2012, Kim Jong-un purged the man who many regarded as an obnoxious militarist element General Ri Yong-ho. Now that the General was out of the way, argued one rather important observer, Jang and the oligarchs at the apex of the North Korean elite could put their full energies behind economic endeavors, move to alleviate suffering outside of Pyongyang, open up the country to foreign investment, and perhaps even begin to consider the merits of bartering North Korea’s nuclear program.
No such liberalization was forthcoming. In November 2012, Jang and his wife Kim Kyong-hui remained enmeshed with the highest levels of power and control in North Korea. At the new “Mirim Riding Club,” they surrounded Kim Jong-un – now sporting his dead father’s wrap-around sunglasses – and his rarely-seen sister. About a month later Jang Song-taek, ostensibly acting as the vice chair of the National Defense Commission, was in the control room with a palpably agitated Kim Jong-un for the testing of the DPRK’s new Unha-3 missile. It was almost as if Jang was there not to calm the nerves of the fleshy, chain smoking young man with his fingers on the cold telephone of command, but rather to assure North Korea's citizens and the interested outside observers that the DPRK's ballistic-missile program was indeed under adult supervision.
Like the young leader's smoking habit, with the missile test, the DPRK had returned to its traditional craving -- arms development, the lengthening of the tunnel of the Songun (military-first) policy. In February 2013, the DPRK tested a nuclear device and the spring witnessed a ratcheting up of tensions that obviated any overriding focus on economic matters. Jang’s role in the massive tremors in the spring of 2013 and the alarming ratcheting up of tensions on the Korean peninsula may never be known. There is nothing in the North Korean statement describing the rationale for Jang’s purge that would appear to indicate he favoured a more conciliatory line with the United States, South Korea, or China. But knowledgeable voices in China are depicting Jang’s views as having been opposed to “the Byungjin line,” which places nuclear development as a necessary precondition for (and, oddly, a stimulant to) economic growth.
The North Korean state now faces the matter of pressuring its citizens to voice something resembling authentic public anger for how such an inescapably corrupt man was allowed to linger for so long in the presence of the Respected General. Like the Chinese Red Guards forced in 1967 to swallow a rapidly produced interpretation of thirty years of Liu Shaoqi’s treachery against Chairman Mao, the task will not be comfortable. However, it will at least be familiar – the North Koreans to whom I showed photos of General Ri Yong-ho mere weeks after his purge in 2012 professed to have no idea who he was. Fortunately for Kim Jong-un, North Korean state founder Kim Il-song set the pattern set the pattern long ago. Jang Song-taek is now following the path of Foreign Minister Bak Heonyeong, who was put on trial in 1953 and said to have been executed two years later, then blamed for a host of Kim Il-song-generated problems during the conflict.
In the months that follow, some details of Jang Song-taek’s dismissal may become clearer. In the meantime, a number of questions remain. At what point, if ever, did he explicitly argue for a retreat from the Byungjin line? When did he – the last son-in-law of state founder Kim Il-song – get a divorce? Are the survivors around Kim Jong-un now more powerful than ever before, or next on the list? Were Jang’s alleged extramarital affairs in any way connected to the late August rumors about salacious behaviour by the members of the Unhasu Orchestra, or the members of the Moranbong Band (who, according to a Swedish businessman, accompanied him to China in 2012)? Did the Chinese really have a friend in Jang Song-taek – and could a North Korean politician survive in Pyongyang if his ties to the patrons in Beijing were seen as too warm? Perhaps Jang’s regency never stood a chance of surviving, and in the aftermath of his fall, external hopes for the future of North Korea will have to find new avatars.
Adam Cathcart is a lecturer in history at University of Leeds & editor of SinoNK.com