By Nicholas Hamisevicz
It looks like South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) got it right when they suggested to National Assembly members that Jang Song Taek had been removed from his leadership posts in North Korea. Kim Jong-un made it very clear and very public that Jang Song Taek was out of favor and out of power when North Korean media broadcast Jang’s dismissal. This very public purge changes the questions this week about Jang’s actual fate to the actual fate of North Korea. Two main areas where Jang Song Taek was thought to have influence, the economy and relations with China, are key indicators of North Korea’s future. Jang’s dismissal will focus attention on these aspects of Kim Jong-un’s policies for North Korea, yet many questions will still remain, and unfortunately, there are still very few good opportunities and options for the outside world to try to address them as well.
Jang Song Taek was believed to have influence over some economic policies in North Korea, and one of the main accusations against Jang was his selfish and contrary economic policies to the desires of Kim Jong-un and the Workers’ Party of Korea. Among the various issues raised to discredit him and his economic power, North Korean media said Jang “seriously obstructed the nation’s economic affairs and the improvement of the standard of people’s living,” that he was “making it impossible for the economic guidance organs including the Cabinet to perform their roles,” and the “selling of precious resources of the country at cheap prices.” Before the purge, Jang was thought to be playing a big role in attracting foreign investment, especially from China in the SEZs along the border. Although there are thoughts that Jang did not have as much economic influence as is portrayed, the perception was there. How important was Jang Song Taek to the pursuit of economic reforms in the dual track policy of economic growth and a strong military? Will North Korea be able to attract investment and projects, especially from China, without Jang Song Taek?
Part of Jang Song Taek’s apparent power was his connections with China. As mentioned, Jang had been important in some of North Korea’s economic ties. He had visited China multiple times, and Kim Jong-un sent him to China in 2012. However, one of the pieces of information thought to indicate Jang’s demise was Kim Jong-un sending Choe Ryong Hae to China in 2013. With Jang Song Taek out of power, how will China perceive the internal dynamics of North Korea? China is North Korea’s most important ally and friend. Did China see Jang Song Taek as an important stabilizing factor during the transition to Kim Jong-un? The Global Times, a Chinese publication often meant for a foreign audience, suggested in an editorial that Chinese leadership invite Kim Jong-un to China for a meeting to assure China of North Korea’s stability.
The key questions on North Korea’s economy and its relationship with China are key determinants for the future of North Korea itself, which is the biggest question itself. Does Jang’s removal mean that Kim Jong-un is in charge or does it mean he is in trouble? Initial reaction seems to lean toward Kim Jong-un being in charge. If true, decisions and actions taken by North Korea will be seen even more so as Kim Jong-un’s. It appears Kim Jong-un still wants to pursue the byungjin line of both economic reforms and enhancing their nuclear capabilities, and now he will have to do it without Jang Song Taek.
Whether Kim Jong-un is in charge or is in trouble after the purge of Jang Song Taek, both possibilities present problems for the U.S. and its allies, demonstrating once again why North Korea is seen as the land of no good options. The rules are changing in North Korea, as the whole country and world saw with the removal of Jang Song Taek, Kim Jong-un’s own uncle. These changes, along with vicious purges, heightened border security to reduce defections, detaining tourists, and provocative rhetoric suggest unfavorable trends for meaningful positive interaction with North Korea by the U.S. and its allies.
Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Academic Affairs and Research at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Felix42 contra la censura’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.