Friday, December 13, 2013

North Korean intrigue-His final purge

JANG SUNG TAEK, the uncle and right-hand man to Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s young dictator, was no stranger to official resentment. By some accounts, he fell out of favour with all three of the country’s Kims in sequence. He was purged around 1978, when he was banished to a steel mill and forced to do “reformation work” for two years. He disappeared in 2003 too, presumed purged and probably sent for a refresher course on regime loyalty. Again, he came back. But the nature of the publicity surrounding his latest ouster, which was confirmed on December 8th by the North’s state-run news agency, KCNA, leaves little doubt that this will be his last. 

On December 12th KCNA announced that Mr Jang had been executed.

This confounds the long-held assumption that “a Kim doesn’t kill a Kim”, according to Andrei Lankov, an expert on North Korea who is based in Seoul. The story of Mr Jang’s ejection from a Politburo meeting filled the front page of the Rodong Sinmun, the state newspaper, on December 9th, treating readers to a lengthy list of his perfidies and philandering. This, too, runs counter to a decades-long tradition of quiet dismissals and fuzzy Party shuffles. Every public gesture had been choreographed to demonstrate unity in North Korea: to unveil the depth of factionalism in the leadership is extraordinary, says John Delury of Yonsei University in Seoul.

To reveal just how rotten someone so close to the Supreme Leader could become might look unwise. But it also showed that Mr Jang’s execution was a foregone conclusion. “The message to the people is that corruption is punishable by death, and that no one is spared—not even family”, says Jong Chang-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Kookmin University in Seoul. The allegations will also have disgraced Mr Jang’s wife, Kim Kyong Hui, who is also a sister to Kim Jong Il, the country’s previous ruler and father to the current dictator.

The scale of the publicity is a surprise for other reasons, according to Jang Jin-sung, a former propaganda official who defected to South Korea in 2004. He thinks it suspicious that the purge took place in a Politburo meeting. Kim Jong Il rarely convened such pow-wows; after all, quietly orchestrated dismissals were made at his sole discretion. That Mr Jang’s ouster took place in such a public setting suggests that it was out of Mr Kim’s hands, he says—as do the charges of womanising, which damage Ms Kim and, by extension, the young Mr Kim himself. Another oddity is that the news was broadcast first to the outside world on KCNA, and only then on internal media. Previous purges were usually publicised (if at all) weeks or months after the event.

Some think, then, that the removal is a message to the outside world too, and China in particular. Mr Jang was seen as a key proponent of Chinese-style economic reform in North Korea and visited China a number of times (though he had been replaced as the official envoy in May). But the relationship between the two countries is in poor shape anyway, says Mr Delury. Mr Jang’s visit there last August was seen as a failure. He was closely involved in opening special economic zones along the North’s border with China, but their development has been sluggish. And almost nothing in the indictment suggested that his ouster was about policy experiments to open the North’s economy. Instead, it suggests he resisted the regime’s sacred “pivot to the Cabinet principle”. Mr Kim has already made clear that the Cabinet, the state’s top executive body, is supposed to lead the state’s economic policies. The implication is that Mr Jang was undercutting its reformist efforts.

The trial statement is rich with references to Mr Jang’s taking advantage of a position which allowed him to control the regime’s resources and money. He sold off “precious resources of the country at cheap prices” and “squandered foreign currency at casinos”. That he was able to do this shows the power he and his group had accumulated, says Jang Jin-sung. Another report from last week—that his fund manager had defected to South Korea—appears to confirm this.

Mr Jong does not take Mr Jang’s execution as harbinger of a tough new anti-China stance. Rather he expects it to “speed up internal reform”, including the expansion of special economic zones and the reorganisation of control over state finances. The day after Mr Jang’s arrest the Joongang Daily, a South Korean newspaper, reported that North Korea had signed a contract with China’s Tumen prefecture to form an exclusive industrial zone in Hamkyung province. It is to be designed as a “second Kaesong Industrial Complex”, run on Chinese financing and North Korean labour. ‘The Economist’

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