The post-Jang Roundup: Executions, Purges, and Purges That Weren't

March 14, 2014 7:00 AM

We have been collating interpretations of the post-Jang political environment, and will go through the more significant entries in some detail today. But we start with a cautionary tale.

We observed in an earlier post on the Jang Song Thaek execution that Choe Ryong Hae, Director General of the Political Department of the KPA, appeared the immediate beneficiary. But we also noted that Choe was in his 60s—closer in age to Kim Jong Il than Kim Jong Un—and there was no particular reason to believe that he was immune from being purged as well. Much sooner than we expected, press reports had Choe arrested and purged. But within days, he reappeared Lazarus-like at Kim Jong Un’s side, albeit with a limp. We suspect we will ultimately be proven right and Choe will be eased out. But the case is reminiscent of when Kim Chong U, head of the External Economic Cooperation Committee, was reportedly arrested and executed for corruption. A UNDP official went to meet him at his home and found that following a stroke he was alive and kicking, albeit with one leg. In sum, it is not only hard to get interpretations right; it is hard to get basic facts right. So as always, caveat emptor.

Our position is that the political significance of Jang Song Thaek’s execution for the political pecking order in the country is undeniable. A major center of power, and within the Kim family if not the bloodline, was eliminated. As has been widely reported the trimming of “side branches” was not limited to Jang alone; his family members, including children, were purportedly put to death in scorched-earth fashion as well. According to multiple press sources (DailyNK version here), a list of 16 of Jang’s cronies who had been executed was circulated to North Korea’s embassies. Both the RFA and the DailyNK provided early reporting on how purges were hitting military officers with links to Jang as well.

But the effect on how the country is actually governed or on the prospects for instability are much less obvious, a position we took in our in our analysis of the indictment and that is staked out in greater detail by Chung-in Moon at 38North. In a personalist system, networks of loyalists are not easily transferred during a succession. Incoming leaders will purge potential rivals and promote their own, a process that we have tracked in some detail (on military promotions here; at the top of the military hierarchy here) and which continues in the military purges noted above. Moreover, such a system depends on the distribution of rents to followers. Leaders are unlikely to appreciate high-level officials who control—and shield—profitable activities from the top leadership.

But purges and battles over rents do not necessarily mean fundamental changes of the system. Purges require replacements, and the key question is whether the new men who benefit are fundamentally different in kind from those who went before. Our answer to date is “no”: Kim Jong Un still needs the military and security apparatus—or core nodes within them— and has catered to them as institutions. Aside from a predictable tightening of control and a renewed emphasis on loyalty—to which we will return—we do not see any fundamental shifts in the regime.

What are the alternative theories? One interpretation reads the events of the last year through a broader arc of an effort by “the party” to reassert control over “the military,” including through the demotion of hardliners. The replacement of Vice-Marshal Ri Yong Ho with Vice-Marshal Hyon Yong Chol as Chief of General Staff in July 2012 and the replacement of General Kim Kyok Sik with General Ri Yong Kil as Chief of General Staff in August 2013 are taken as examples of these efforts. This theoretical approach to the regime, in which the major institutions of party, military and state were treated as actors, was pioneered by Patrick MacEachern in his must-read Inside the Red Box. In one of the best pieces to appear to date, Alex Mansourov notes several reasons why this narrative doesn’t work. But the most obvious is the persistence of the songun-byungjin line and the difficulty of discerning any fundamental differences—beyond loyalty—between those who were purged and those who followed in their wake; as always Michael Madden has exhaustive profiles; his post of February 9 is exemplary.

A more sophisticated variant of this party vs. military line is the idea, advanced by New Focus International, that the nerve center of the purge was the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) of the party. This interpretation requires a brief review of Jang’s recent return to power. Jang was reportedly purged from his position of Deputy Director of the OGD in 2004. He returned as First Deputy Director of the Korean Workers Party Organizations and Capital Development Department in 2006, which had oversight of the Youth League and unions, two pillars of the party’s organizational control over society. In October 2007, he was named director of the Administration Department, which had oversight of the crucial Ministries of Public Security (MPS)—which he ultimately headed as well—and State Security (MSS). His ascent to head of the Administration Department marked the entry of both a family member and civilian with effective oversight of other members of the NDC, recognized in his standing as number two on the Commission. In these positions, he purged two high-ranking officials in the competing Ministry of State Security (Ryu Gyong, executed in 2011 and Wu Dong Cheuk, purged in 2012).

In addition, he also controlled numerous SOEs and trading companies that were an important source of rents for the regime. In addition, he was associated with the Joint Venture Investment Committee and was also the primary negotiator with China over the island zones and had a writ with respect to foreign direct investment more generally.

New Focus International (and other links there) sees the purge as the revenge of three Vice Directors at the Organization and Guidance Department of the Party--Cho Yon Jun (party appointments); Hwang Byong Soh (military appointments) and Kim Kyong Ok (security appointments). New Focus goes so far as to call them the most powerful men in the country—with Kim Jong Un little more than a puppet (interestingly, this interpretation of events was even cited in Chinese media). In mid-January, of this year a high-level briefing of party personnel rolled out the OGD's version of events. In December 2012, the OGD had planned a three-stage expansion of Party Conventions to be held throughout 2013. This would begin with the KWP Convention of Party Cell Secretaries, and then the KWP Convention of Party Division Secretaries (collections of Party cells make up Party divisions) and finally, the KWP Convention of First Party Secretaries (First Party Committees represent all important North Korean institutions and departments). Jang Song Thaek opposed these efforts as a waste of time, but probably with the deeper motive that he didn’t want to strengthen the OGD’s discretion over appointments and promotions.

We have high regard for the work of New Focus International, but have a hard time believing that these individuals are acting on their own accord; as Chung-in Moon points out, these are precisely the people who were installed to assure the leadership’s control. The fact that they exercise such powers does not mean that they are the decision-makers.

A second idea is that this was a policy fight: that Jang was a reformer and that Kim Jong Un wanted to rein these processes in. This idea does not make sense to us either and Chung-in Moon goes after it as well in the Huffington Post. First, we now believe that the attempt at reform initiated by the top leadership 2012-13 was real (see here and here). But the political restraints on reform did not break along Kim Jong Un- Jong Song Thaek lines, or at least not in obvious ways. The idea that Jang violated the “cabinet system” is also misdirection in a regime that remains highly personalized. We will see evidence of a “cabinet system” if Premier Pak Pong Ju and technocrats becomes more influential, are able to rationalize military- and party-controlled enterprises, and delegating at least somewhat greater autonomy to technocrats. In fact, as we pointed out in earlier posts, the very operations that Jang controlled were being contested by other military units, not the cabinet. We thus agree with Brad Babson at 38North that Jang’s demise is an opportunity to reform the financial system. But we are doubtful that this opportunity will be seized.

A third set of theories are more salacious. Multiple press sources in South Korea and the US have picked up the affairs of the rich and famous, including both Choe Ryong Hae and Jang Song Thaek. Unidentified sources have claimed that Choe had a relationship with Yeom Sol-mi, 47, when he was the first secretary of
Chongnyon Society of the Communist Party. Yeom is reputedly from a Korean-Japanese family repatriated to North Korea. The same unnamed source claims that it was “90 percent certain” that the cause of Jang’s execution was his past affair with Ri Sol-ju.  Jang and Kim Jong Un’s future wife met when he was considering her as a member of EunHaSoo (Milky Way) Orchestra, the state’s prestigious pleasure group for top officials commonly known as Gippeumjo. Jang’s transgressions might have enraged Jang’s wife Kim Kyong-hui, or brought forces to the fore that sought to defend her honor; unlike Jang, she did constitute a link in bloodline.

Early speculation on the conflict over rents—part of our favored story--first broke in December during closed-door testimony by Nam Jae-joon, the director of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service before the National Assembly’s intelligence committee, as relayed by two legislators designated as spokesmen (Jeong Cheong-rae and Cho Won-jin). Nam’s views presumably reflect those of the South Korean intelligence community; the findings are summarized in The New York Times and South China Morning Post. The conflict centered on control over foreign exchange earnings from coal and marine products, including crabs fished along the Northern Limit Line. The marine products were previously under the control of local military units, but were taken over at some point by Jang. When soldiers from an undisclosed military unit were sent to reassume control of these activities in September or October—by whom, we don’t know—they were physically rebuffed in an armed clash. This event apparently set in train Kim’s decision to execute two of Jang’s top-level subordinates and ultimately Jang himself. Jang’s control over lucrative coal contracts were also at issue—thus the dig in the indictment of giving away natural resources for free. But crabs and coal were hardly the end of it given Jang's involvement in a host of economic activities including joint ventures with China, labor exports and the booming Pyongyang construction business.

It should not be surprising that if the motive of the execution was to tighten the leadership’s control, that steps to that end would also follow. Among them:

One closing thought. It could be that the elimination of potential rivals and the consolidation of power provide the basis for a new turn in both foreign and domestic policy; we cannot rule it out. As with Brad Babson’s analysis, there may be an opportunity for such a shift. But to date we see little evidence to support that such a change might be coming. We do not see some fundamentally different coalition coming to the fore, with the important exception of age: new appointees appear younger and they may reflect the ideas of a newly-empowered Pyongyang economic and social elite. But are the policy consequences of such a group coming to office any different than what we have seen since Kim Jong Un assumed office? Let’s hope so.

Our thanks to Michael Madden at North Korea Leadership Watch.

Previous Posts on Jang Song Thaek:



Using "steady diet" and Kim Jong Un in the same sentence is somewhat comical

Adam Cathcart

Great post; extremely helpful. "In sum, it is not only hard to get interpretations right; it is hard to get basic facts right."

Adam Cathcart

We at SinoNK are working through some of the Chinese analysis of the purge, which takes time to come out, and time to translate, but this discussion with Zhang Liangui (CCP Central Party School) may be of interest to you and readers:

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