By Nicholas Hamisevicz
After South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) told National Assembly members Jang Song Taek had been removed from his positions of power in North Korea, more stories have surfaced that, if true, would mean the NIS is on to something. South Korean media recently reported that Jang Song Taek’s money man had defected and is being protected by South Korean officials in China. Additionally, other reports have indicated that some of Jang Song Taek’s relatives have been called back to North Korea. The two sets of stories respectively provide a possible reason for and an indication of Jang Song Taek’s purge. All these stories have to be confirmed, but they can likely be added to trends suggesting 2014 will be another volatile year with North Korea.
YTN and the Kyunghyang Shinmun in South Korea have stories about an aide that managed funds for Jang Song Taek defecting and being protected by South Korean officials in China. Reports say South Korea’s NIS, its Ministry of Unification, and its Ministry of Foreign Affairs could not confirm the media reports. If true, though, this would be a very significant defection. The aide is believed to have knowledge of the money and funds used by Kim Jong-un and his father, Kim Jong-il. His understanding of where the money is located, how it comes in, and how North Korea could try to move it knowing of his defection, would be an extremely valuable window into how the North Korean regime’s inner echelons operate as well as how the country survives overall. The timing of the defection appears unclear, but if it did happen before Jang’s purge, it could have been one final strike against Jang.
The second group of stories involved Jang Song Taek’s relatives abroad. Reports suggest Jang Song Taek’s nephew and North Korea’s ambassador to Malaysia, Jang Yong-chol, has been recalled. Sources in the story say they saw the ambassador’s wife and children at the Shenyang, China airport boarding an Air Koryo flight back to North Korea. The Chosun Ilbo then reported Jang Song Taek’s brother-in-law and North Korea’s ambassador to Cuba, Jon Yong-jin, is being called back to North Korea as well. In order to tightly control their country and people, the North Korean regime often maintains ties to its officials overseas through a strong family or personal connection back in North Korea to prevent defections or the release of important information. Thus, family members being recalled to North Korea could convey Jang really has lost his power and influence.
Both rumors again sound possible and would also imply that Jang Song Taek has lost his leadership positions. If all these rumors turn out to be true, it strongly suggests that it will be even more difficult to work with North Korea. Jang Song Taek was an influential person in the leadership and was one of the most senior people to meet Chinese and South Korean officials outside of North Korea. These rumors and the events surrounding Jang Song Taek’s possible removal from power need to be constantly monitored, double-checked, and cross-referenced; moreover, we should prepare for a North Korea that is more provocative and difficult to handle in 2014.
Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research & Academic Affairs at the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from roujo’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.