By Nicholas Hamisevicz
Reports indicate South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) believes that Jang Song Taek, Kim Jong-un’s uncle, has been removed from all of his leadership posts in North Korea. If true, this would possibly be the biggest power move under Kim Jong-un’s new leadership. Jang Song Taek, husband to Kim Jong-il’s sister, Kim Kyung Hui, has power, experience, and the family connections to be an important part of the North Korean leadership elite for many years and was seen to be a key person under Kim Jong-un. It is difficult to immediately confirm if the NIS is correct and to know why Jang Song Taek is out. The potential ramifications of the reported move could be an important sign on the stability or instability of the new Kim Jong-un regime in North Korea.
First, it will be hard to independently confirm if South Korea’s NIS assessment about Jang Song Taek being removed is correct. The NIS has been off before with predictions. Moreover, North Korean leaders have often not been mentioned in North Korean state media reports for extended periods of time only to reappear at a later date. Jang Song Taek is one individual that will be even more difficult to verify if he is out because he was previously purged and was able to return. Plus, he is thought to be running and interacting with the day-to-day operations in North Korea, a job that might keep him from traveling or appearing with Kim Jong-un as much as other leaders.
It will also be hard to verify Jang’s status because North Korea sometimes announces position changes for some of its top leaders and sometimes changes go unmentioned. The removal of Ri Yong Ho is an example of an announced change. Furthermore, under Kim Jong-un, top generals have been demoted and then later reinstated to their former position. No North Korean media reports have said anything about Jang Song Taek yet, and because of his stature and personal relationship to the Kim family, he might not be mentioned at all. Confirmation of Jang Song Taek’s removal might have to come from an announcement of another North Korean leader being named to a position that was once held by Jang. Besides his high ranking political positions, one job to watch is if a new person is named as Chairman of the State Physical Culture and Sports Commission. Kim Jong-un has emphasized the importance of sports, and many of the top senior leadership in North Korea are also members of this group.
It is uncertain why Jang Song Taek has been reportedly removed from his posts at this time. Reports of his dismissal have also included stories of two of Jang’s confidants being executed for “corruption and activities that countered the stance of the ruling Worker’s Party of Korea.” Jang was likely purged under Kim Jong-il because of his powerful connections and supporters; thus, it is possible Kim Jong-un felt that same pressure and competition from his uncle. There are also suggestions that despite being married to Kim Jong-il’s sister, the marriage connections to Kim Kyung Hui were no longer strong. It has also been suggested that Jang Song Taek really relies on his wife’s connections and abilities in order to remain in power. Kim Kyung Hui has also been rumored to have serious health problems, and so if Kim Kyung Hui is close to being out because of illness or death, then it is possible that Jang’s influence was greatly reduced, and thus he was able to be purged.
There are other ideas that Jang Song Taek and Choe Ryong Hae are rivals over influencing Kim Jong-un. Choe Ryong Hae is Director of the Korean People’s Army General Political Bureau and has good family connections and heritage with the Kim family. There is also some thought that Choe Ryong Hae has closer ties to Kim Kyung Hui rather than Jang, and that his reports to Kim Jong-un don’t have to be cleared by Jang Song Taek. Choe Ryong Hae is seen as a close advisor to Kim Jong-un and his influence may have won out over Jang Song Taek.
A last theory that would suggest a reason for Jang’s removal is that he was in a faction that fell out of favor. Ken Gause talks about the theory of factions, which suggests Jang Song Taek was part of the moderate faction that pushed for the economic reform aspect of the byungjin line policy of pursuing both economics and nuclear weapons. Gause notes that this theory suggests the moderate group had influence early on in Kim Jong-un’s tenure, but it has lost out to the hard line faction wanting improved development of North Korea’s missile and nuclear systems.
The impact of the reported removal of Jang Song Taek could be vital for the future of North Korea. Does the removal of a key leader with power, experience, economic knowledge, and family connections suggest that there is trouble within the North Korean leadership? Or does it indicate that Kim Jong-un feels secure enough to get rid of his powerful uncle and can rule the way he really desires? Missteps, mistakes, and missed opportunities by North Korea could be even more dangerous for the future of the regime and for security in the region. This is one report that needs to be watched very closely in order for the U.S. and South Korea respond to a North Korea with or without a powerful figure like Jang Song Taek.
Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research & Academic Affairs at KEI. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
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