by Stephen Bryen
The purge and execution of Jang Song Thaek in North Korea has touched off concern about the future of North Korea, and it has stimulated a variety of comments about what was behind Jang’s fall.
There are certain points to keep in mind in evaluating the North Korean situation.
1. The purge and execution of Jang Song Thaek was relatively quick. A few days before Jang Song Thaek was snatched by soldiers at a Politburo meeting in Pyongyang, reports leaked through sources in South Korea’s intelligence organization that two of Jang Song Thaek’s top aides had been executed. Even so, Jang went to the Politburo meeting where he was arrested, taken before a sort of military tribunal, and sentenced to death. It was only after the announcement of the execution that the official charges were announced by the North Korean mass media.
2. Jang’s arrest and immediate execution are unprecedented by the standards of modern totalitarian regimes. In modern times the two most notorious, Stalin’s Russia and China after Mao, behaved in a decidedly different manner. Typically, the subjects were arrested and held incognito for some time, in some cases as long as five years. Once matters were satisfactorily organized, state trials commenced. Many of these trials were public or semi-public in character, although other were secret trials. The accused were expected and, in many cases cooperated, in providing “confessions” of their “crimes.” Some, but not all were executed, some were sentenced to execution but received reprieves, and others were sent to labor camps and Gulags.
3. In China and Stalin’s Russia the purpose of the purges and trials was primarily the consolidation of power. The trials served the purpose of discrediting political factions and movements, creating a justification for the action of the state in making the arrests, and produced an aura of fear among those would-be opponents of the regimes. In Russia the purges of the old Bolsheviks morphed into the massive Great Purge that led to millions of deaths and a chain of prisons known as the Gulag Archipelago (the title of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s famous book).
4. Confessions are the essential element of a successful show trial. In some cases, the confessions that were given were filled with coded messages, put there by the victims, to try and communicate to the global audience the real nature of their persecution. In other cases, such as Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, the effort to obtain a confession failed; more recently in the case of Bo Xilai, the “trial” was actually closed and only summaries were provided to the press (the actual court transcripts still are suppressed), because Bo, a powerful political figure, was uncooperative. He got a life sentence (his wife was previously convicted of murder and got a life sentence), but this saga is far from over.
5. In the case of Jang Song Thaek there was no confession, no open trial, no proceeding’s summaries, and no appeals. The sentence apparently was carried out immediately. In this circumstance, it more approximates what happened in the so-called trial of Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu in Romania by a sort of revolutionary court. The couple were executed immediately on the conclusion of the proceeding, itself a shouting match. To add more insult to the affair, the condemned couple broke loose and ran around a courtyard until they were cut down by the executioners.
6. If we use the above as a guide, the execution of Jang is more like what happens in a revolution than in a power consolidation. But how can that be? How could Kim Jong Un be operating as a revolutionary? Only if his grip on power was so tenuous, and the situation so dire, that this was the only way he could survive.
7. Professor Kang Myong-do is the son in law of a former North Korean Prime Minister who is now a professor at Kyungmin University in South Korea. His explanation is one of the few that partly explains what is going on in North Korea. He says that Jang, in October, had traveled to China, probably Macao, which is a special administrative region of China and a former Portuguese colony and gambling center. He went there to take a monthly stipend to the older brother of Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Nam. According to the Professor, this trip made Kim Jong Un very apprehensive and suspicious. It also conferred in Kim Jong Nam a much higher status than an exile who was passed over when power was transferred to Kim Jong Un. One recalls that Kim Jong Nam was poorly regarded,before this visit by Jang, and that he was passed over for succession by his father after it was exposed that he traveled to Japan under a false passport, ostensibly to go to Disneyland. In the eyes of the North Koreans, he would either have been regarded as a defector or a traitor for the unauthorized trip.
8. It is extraordinary and unusual for a very high ranking official, technically the number two guy in North Korea, to personally deliver money to Kim Jong Nam. Kim Jong Nam was a special “guest” of the Chinese government, and it does not take much to see that the visit was regarded, and probably was, a plot to get rid of Kim Jong Un. This plot can be surmised to consist of Jang, regarded as a major pro-China partisan, and Kim Jong Nam, a sort of hapless fellow but useful if the idea was to replace Kim Jong Un.
9. We recall that Jang is officially accused of treason, of “day dreaming” about “being recognized as a new regime” and of plotting a “premeditated coup against” Kim Jong Un. It is also worth noting that the official charges talk about the “discovery and purging of the Jang group….” In short, Kim Jong Un was in serious trouble and feared for his life.
10. Professor Kang says that Kim Jong Un had been trying for some time to assassinate his older bother and that some of the agents sent to kill him had been arrested by the Chinese.
11. Jang was married to the biological aunt of Kim Jong Un. There was speculation she may also have been involved in the plot, but according to the latest leaks from North Korea, she was consulted about the imminent purge of Jang and supported it. This story is almost certainly fabricated, but Jang’s execution and the threat to the aunt may have caused a great deal of panic in the larger family of the dictator. The leak was certainly designed to calm them down.
12. China’s game in all this is not clear, but it appears that China probably supported a coup d’etat and a more compliant North Korean leader in the form of Kim Jong Nam. Temporarily at least, China is the loser in the struggle. Kim Jong Un’s intelligence apparatus sniffed out the threat and Kim Jong Un liquidated it by cutting off its head. It is said, a fish rots from the head down. At least one of the heads, Jang’s, is off. Kim Jong Nam has a lot to worry about these days.
13. Where does all of this lead. Most of the experts are saying that all of Jang’s people will be purged. If this is true, there are some 20,000 who were directly dependent on Jang. If they are purged in a ruthless fashion, it could trigger heavy internal conflict. If the purge is gradual and measured, Kim Jong Un may survive for a while longer.
14. Meanwhile North Korea continues to fester and its economy continues to falter. The country is dysfunctional, and danger is always lurking when dealing with frightened and hungry people. That North Korea has nuclear weapons and rockets, and that the U.S. failed completely to make a deal with North Korea, creates a danger that goes far beyond the Korean peninsula.
A Brief Update
Since the above was written two events have been reported. The first is that a series of Chinese military “exercises” have been shifted to locations along the northern border area of North Korea. Observers say that normally the Chinese Army (PLA) spends time scouting the exercise area and makes sure that the troops are properly equipped to work in the training environment. In this case, the PLA forces were moved quickly with no prior preparation, deployment of supplies, etc. China would not have taken these steps unless it had concern about any surprise moves by Kim Jong Un. Some reports say the Chinese are also concerned about refugees pouring into China in the midst of big purges that could occur there. This has long been a legitimate worry of the Chinese government, and in the past it has repatriated refugees to North Korea (who generally would meet an unpleasant end). On the Chinese side of the border the population is around forty percent Korean.
A second report is that North Korea is recalling businessmen that are in China, especially those in the north-eastern Chinese cities of Shenyang and Dandong. These businessmen are probably regarded as Jang’s men, and if they go home they will be purged (meaning, most likely, either killed or put in North Korean gulags).
In sum, there is considerable tension between North Korea’s Kim Jong Un’s regime and China, reinforcing the point made in the article above that China was likely in on the plot to replace him with his older brother and a more pro-China leadership that would be more reliable. China has considerable economic and political interests in the Korean peninsula, and has friendly and positive relationships with the Government of South Korea. South Korean industry is strongly partnered with China these days, especially in electronic device manufacturing. China would want to control North Korea and prevent a rash of adventurism and nuclear saber rattling that hurts China’s political, economic and strategic interests.