As it was reported on December 3, 2013, by the deputy of the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea from the opposition Democratic Party, Chon Chung Ne, with reference to the National Intelligence Service of the RK, the uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, 67-year-old Chang Sung-taek was, possibly, relieved of his posts as the head of the organizational department of the Central Committee of WPK (Worker’s Party of Korea) and vice-chairman of the National Defense Committee of DPRK. Last time he appeared in public was on November 6, and in the presence of Kim Jong-un on October 10.
At the same time, news came out about the public execution of two of his staff members – the first deputy head of the organizational department of the Central Committee of WPK Lee Yong-ha and the deputy head of the department Jang Soo-keel, who were accused of corruption and “anti-party activities”. After that, Chang stopped appearing in public. According to the intelligence of RK, work is being carried out to remove from power other people associated with Chang: Chang’s relatives were recalled home – Ambassadors of North Korea to Cuba and Malaysia.
Until recently, Chang Sung-taek, who is married to Kim Kyong-hui, aunt of the DPRK leader, has been considered at least “Number 2” in the power hierarchy of the DPRK, he has held several key positions and enjoyed the special confidence of Kim Jong-un, which allowed him to have influence in various spheres. Chang was ranked among the reformers and supporters of the development of relations with Seoul, and the current Prime Minister is considered as his protégé. In addition, Chang was the head of the trade and economic zone project – Hwanggumphyong, on the border with China, for which reason some analysts believed that he was a representative of the pro-China lobby, rather than a reformer.
What can we say about this? Experts on North Korea often draw their own conclusions based on indirect information and hints, which is why the experts have to guess, relying on their gut instincts, rather than making forecasts in the classical form.
This piece of news requires us to answer two questions. First: Whether this event happened at all. Second, how likely issuch an event and what the context is, the studying of which enables us then to say that this event occurred, or may occur in the near future.
Nothing is clear on the first issue, at the moment when I am writing these lines. According to Chon Chung Ne, intelligence services organized a sudden briefing to parliamentarians, saying that they had to announce something important.
The facts we have, tell us only that Chang did not appear in public for a certain period of time, and the intelligence agency of the Republic of Korea interpreted this accordingly, and gathered parliamentarians for a special meeting where it presented the news as its analytical achievement. At the same time, the intelligence services did not specify any sources of information that would confirm their version and provide information as to where Chang was at the moment.
There is no information even about the execution of Chang’s subordinates. According to the Yonhap, it took place on November 18, 2013, but intelligence services referred to “numerous credible sources”. The media advanced the version of interception of telephone conversations.
Head of the Ministry of Unification, Ryu Gil-jae, provided some additional information: Chang and his wife Kim Kyong-hui, Kim Jong-un’s aunt, are alive and well. “We know where they are, but we cannot provide this information. However, they are alive, and they are well, if we talk about their health”. However, Ryu did not explain when and in what way the two Chang Sung-taek’s major assistants were arrested and executed: “We have information about this. But, please, understand me correctly, we cannot tell it to you”.
There were no official announcements of any resignations in the North. The U.S. also did not comment on Chang’s resignation. Attempts to check the information through Chinese sources stumbled upon the following. On the one hand, South Korean TV channel “MBC” writes with the reference to a top source in the government of China that North Korea has notified Beijing that the resignation is coming, “Chang Sung-taek and his milieu will not be in charge of relations with China any longer. Please treat this with understanding, there is no subtext here”. On the other hand, according to Yonhap, China said that it had no information about Chang’s resignation. “We have seen reports in the press, but do not know anything about it,” said Hong Lei, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China.
Can this be accepted as circumstantial evidence? According to the Ministry of Unification, Chang’s appearances in public were reduced from 106 in 2012 to 52 in 2013, which is considered a sign of a decrease in influence by the RK. Moreover, on December 4, 2013, the organ of the Workers Party of Korea, the newspaper Rodong Sinmun quoted Kim Jong-il’s words that “at the moment of betrayal, a person’s loyalty is doubted regardless of how long he had been loyal before”.
However, according to the author, the correlation between public appearances and influence is not obvious, and the quote should be considered more closely in the broader context of combing-out corrupt officials, which was really started.
Therefore, it seems to the author that the National Intelligence Service was in a hurry, and its reasons are quite clear. Scandals involving the intelligence agency and its interference in the presidential election continue, therefore security officers still have to “keep the brand” and to demonstrate progress. Besides, the news hook coincided with news unpleasant to the intelligence agency once again – a committee to reform it was created, and the powers of the security services may be reduced significantly. However now, all the talk is not about this, but about Chang’s resignation.
That is why most analysts, both Russian and foreign, perceive the sensation provided by the intelligence service with a certain scepticism. Yes, maybe it is so, but we need more evidence. A. Mansurov, a graduate of Moscow State Institute for International Relations, who has lived in the U.S.A. for more than a decade, believes that it is too early to say that Chang was removed. He proposes to wait until the New Year celebrations. If Chang does not appear there, it means that he is either in disgrace, or seriously ill. Expert on North Korea at the Australian National University (Canberra) Leonid Petrov also notes that if Chang does not appear on the scene any more, and his name is not mentioned in the newspapers, there may be a number of reasons for this: from health problems to an open conflict with his nephew. A.N. Lankov’s opinion is a little different: it seems to be true. North Korea is known for its information closure, and some resignations and appointments are made public only years later.
The opinion of the author of this article is as follows. An elderly person may stop appearing in public due to a number of reasons. For example, it may be because of a serious illness. Let us remember when Kim Jong-il’s health grew worse five years ago (a stroke is considered the most likely reason for this), and he missed several important events, it also gave rise to a wave of speculations – from death from natural causes to assassination in a coup. Nevertheless, some time later, Kim Jong-il returned to activity. The second person in the country has chances to burn himself out in working for a young leader.
Perhaps, Chang did fall into disgrace just like, according to some reports, he did before, at the time of Kim Jong-il. However, here we must remember the common practice in the North, when a member of the Central Committee of WPK may be “degraded to being a combine operator” or sent to the backwoods to take the post of a director of a sawmill. Then his career either begins anew, and he can rise once again to a high post after a while, or the disgrace is simply removed, and he returns to the old post. One of the latest examples of this kind is the current Prime Minister Pak Pong-ju, who was forced to resign in 2006, after which a number of experts and analysts buried him. Nevertheless, a few years later, he took the post of Prime Minister again. Let us remember that the two-week absence of Kim Jong-un’s wife, Ri Sol-ju, had been chewed over as well, until she appeared again (by the way, they accused Chang of her “disappearance”).
In addition, there was no confirmation of information on the execution of two of Chang’s assistants in other sources, though if mass public executions that were trumpeted at the beginning of November 2013 captured such a big fish, it would have been reported by many sources. However, it seems like a serious combing-out of corrupt officials, which has really started in North Korea, and this is closely associated with the new course of the young leader. However, this will be the subject of a subsequent article, and we will not digress to it here, in our story about Chang. We will only note that someone in his milieu could actually be convicted. And it could affect both his health and his political status.
Be that as it may, Chang’s resignation is considered a settled business, and the reasons for the alleged resignation gave rise to many rumours and gossip – from the confrontation between reformers and the military, to Chang’s too frivolous behaviour in the presence of the young general.
However, let us now turn to the second question – how likely is such an occurrence. After all, the experts who believe this news, are basing it on the assumption that sooner or later the young leader of the DPRK would began to get rid of the old comrades of his father, including Chang. All the more, this process is underway already. At Kim Jong-il’s funeral at the end of 2011, eight people besides Kim Jong-un followed the hearse, including Chang and Ri Yong Ho, who was dismissed from his post earlier. On the basis of their proximity to the chief, the experts believed that these eight people would form the future “core of the leadership”, but only two of them have stayed in power as of today, and these are quite elderly people. The remaining six people have already been dismissed.
A situation where a young man directs people who are old enough to be his father or even grandfather is not normal to a traditional society, which North Korea is. From a psychological point of view, it can put pressure on the both sides. All the more, Kim Jong-un has proven to be an active, extroverted man, more like his grandfather than his father.
A similar situation existed in the early years of Kim Jong-il’s leadership, when Kim Il Sung’s old comrades were gently moved to ceremonial posts, or waited for their death by natural causes, as all of them were quite elderly people. And before that, Kim Jong-il dismissed his uncle Kim Yong-ju, who was also considered the successor to Kim Il Sung in those days.
There are several versions of what the political power model of the young general and his milieu looks like. Some suggest that Kim Jong-un is trying to strengthen his personal power in a short time, removing all those who came to power in his father’s era, while others talk about the struggle between traditionalists and reformers (military and civilian as a variant), and others suggest that Kim Jong-il’s milieu is trying to move his son to a ceremonial role, but he firmly opposes this. There is insufficient evidence for all of these versions, and they are the same as the personal opinions of the experts.
Nevertheless, each of these positions notes that Kim Jong-un is trying to untie his hands.
What are the risks? Either Chang is sick or in disgrace, but in any case, his influence on events has been significantly reduced. And that is why analysts and experts are beginning to think about what the DPRK will look like without such a figure as Chang Sung-taek.
Some are waiting for a surge in the struggle for power that can undermine the stability of the regime. They predicted the backtracking on reforms that were allegedly supported by Chang, the increasing power of the military and return to provocative actions: the instability inside the country will be “treated” by shifting attention to external problems. First of all, this concerns inter-Korean relations: in order to bring people together around the leadership, Pyongyang can move to stir up tensions.
Another group of experts believes that North Korean policies will not change much, and the question is who will fill the power vacuum that has formed after Chang’s resignation. Choe Ryong-hae, the head of the Main Political Directorate of the Army, who accompanied Kim Jong-un on trips more often than the other during the final year of Kim Jong-un’s life, is named as the most likely candidate by South Korean analysts, but if the new leader does not support any faction, Choe may be the next candidate for retirement, as the next most influential person.
What can I say in the final analysis? At the moment, it is unclear why Chang does not appear in public. It is too early to draw any conclusions without additional information, as it is very easy to be mistaken. However, the probability of resignation or reduction of Chan’s influence is not equal to zero, since the policy of the young leader will include a certain renewal of the country’s leadership. And if Kim Jong-un has decided to untie his hands, sooner or later his father’s milieu will have either to go into the shadows, or to withdraw from their posts one way or another. The consequences of this resignation may be different, and we should not trust those who treat any changes in the situation as follows: “the tyrannical regime of Pyongyang is becoming increasingly tyrannical”. The discussions about a factional struggle in the higher echelons of the DPRK remain the subject of assumptions and speculations, and although everyone has the right to their opinion, we should remember that it is a personal opinion, and not a judgment based on the facts.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, exclusively for the New Eastern Outlook online magazine.