Elimination of Jang Song-taek contradicts usual narrative in North Korea

Elimination of Jang Song-taek contradicts usual narrative in North Korea

kim jang photo

In eliminating his uncle Jang Song-taek, North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong Un acted like a character out of a Shakespearian drama with Stalinist characteristics. Whether Jang’s show trial and summary execution will help to consolidate or undermine Kim’s power remains to be seen. But the statement on Jang’s indictment confirms—apparently unwittingly—the enormous economic, political, and social problems facing his regime. This stunning contradiction by North Korea itself of decades of official bravado about the unity of the leadership and people and its narrative of steady progress on all fronts may or may not have serious consequences in North Korea, but it certainly will abroad.

In attempting to transfer blame for all the country’s economic troubles to Jang, the statement reports that his alleged confession referred to “the present regime … not tak[ing] any measures despite the fact that the economy and the country and people’s living are driven into catastrophe” and that “the [standard of] living of the people and service personnel may further deteriorate [italics added] in the future.” The statement also implicitly acknowledges that the botched currency re-denomination in 2009 was responsible for “sparking off serious economic chaos and disturbing the people’s mind-set.” Jang is accused of undermining Kim’s pet project of dressing up the capital of Pyongyang through massive apartment and other construction projects for the elite there at the expense of ordinary people in the rest of the country. Without citing China by name, the statement blasts Jang for making cozy deals with that country for the sale of North Korean minerals and for Chinese investment in North Korea’s special economic zones.

The regime’s leaders may have felt that releasing this statement and punctuating it with Jang’s execution were necessary for their purposes at home, but they clearly must not have understood the consequences it will have abroad. For example, whether or not it signals that the regime itself plans to backtrack on economic deals with China, PRC leaders will be further angered by the regime’s disrespect of Chinese interests. They will be more cautious about economic engagement with Pyongyang, and they will be more amenable to increasing sanctions against North Korea when it engages in its next provocation. North Korea leaders apparently are uneasy about their extreme reliance on China for economic support and hope to diversify their economic engagement. But for the rest of the world, too, Jang’s execution and this statement will only underline for a long time to come the extremely high political risk of economic dealings with Pyongyang.

U.S. and South Korean officials will look closely at the assertion that Jang intended to “grab the supreme power of the party and state by employing all the most cunning and sinister means and methods, pursuant to the ‘strategic patience’ policy and ‘waiting strategy’ of the U.S. and the south Korean puppet group of traitors [italics added].” Already determined to maintain sanctions pressure on Pyongyang to force it to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons, U.S. and South Korean officials will take this as an acknowledgement by the North Koreans themselves of the efficacy of their policy and double down on it.

In the wake of Jang’s execution, Pyongyang, predictably, is trying to send signals to the outside world that all is well. A North Korean ambassador reiterated that North Korea is open for all kinds of talks with foreign countries to reduce tensions, and the regime has invited South Korea to talks about their joint industrial park in North Korea. Kim Jong Un may now seek to increase economic exchanges with Seoul to reduce his dependence on Beijing. South Korea is not opposed to economic engagement with North Korea, but President Park Geun-hye will insist on international standards and transparency, something that Kim Jong Un will find very hard to swallow.  

Earlier this year, Kim declared his fundamental policy to be byeongjin, that is, “parallel progress” in developing nuclear weapons and growing the economy. Jang’s execution and especially Kim’s explanation for it will make it that much harder for Kim to accomplish either goal. The North Koreans do not seem to understand that Jang’s execution alone would likely not have had a large lasting impact abroad but that issuing this kind of a statement will. It has underlined the brutal and anachronistic nature of the North Korean regime to governments and peoples throughout the world, which will now view the regime with even more skepticism for a long time to come. Moreover, Washington and Seoul must now prepare for an increased possibility that Kim will stage another sneak attack on South Korea to rally support at home.

It’s hard to find reasons for optimism at this point, but if there is any glint of a silver lining, it is that the regime itself has unintentionally revealed its desperate need to find remedies for its domestic political and economic troubles. Working together, the United States, South Korea, and China should take this as an opportunity to induce the young and inexperienced North Korea leader to give up nuclear weapons and join the international community by increasing both the pressure on his regime and the credibility of their offer of incentives for finally taking the right course. 

Gi-Wook Shin is director of Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. David Straub is associate director of Stanford’s Korean Studies Program and a former State Department Korean affairs director.

A later version of this article was published by the Christian Science Monitor, a joint initiative of two academic research networks, the East Asia Bureau of Economic Research and the South Asian Bureau of Economic Research.

Shin was interviewed in NK News on Jang’s removal from power, the article is available in Korean only. Straub analyzed the execution with three other experts in an article in East Asia Forum, a news agency at the forefront of North Korean news coverage. Straub was also quoted in the CBC News and the MK News.