When North Korea retired its chief military officer Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho last month, it could be interpreted as a move on leader Kim Jong-un’s part to subordinate the army to the party’s wishes. Behind the scenes, it may have been a victory for one of the regime’s most enigmatic but powerful officials, Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Sung-taek.
Jang, who traveled to China on Monday, according to North Korea’s state media, to discuss trade relations, married Kim Jong-il’s sister and is considered one of the most powerful figures in Pyongyang. Currently the vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, the body Kim Jong-il used to rule North Korea, and a member of the Politburo, he sits at the heart of the regime’s power structures.
“Ri’s ouster,” writes Doug Bandow in The National Interest, “looks more like consolidation of power by Jang than Kim.” The latter, he believes, “didn’t need to defenestrate Ri” if he was firmly in control. The vice marshal had been appointed by his father to guide the young Kim through the transition late last year and was considered one of this closest allies until he gave up his post this summer, supposedly because of illness.
Meanwhile, Kim’s second guardian, Choe Ryong-hae, not only survived Ri’s purge but was promoted to vice marshal although he has no military experience.
A longtime party apparatchik, Choe, with Ri, often appeared by Kim’s side during military parades and other public occasions during the first half of 2012. As party chief, he now oversees the military and remains a member of the executive body of the Politburo, the four man presidium that also includes Kim.
Bandow believes that Choe is Jang’s ally. “South Korean sources,” he writes, “indicated that Jang and Choe together prepared to move against Ri by monitoring military units that the latter might attempt to deploy.”
Jang’s history in the Korea of the Kims is ambiguous. He fell off the radar in 2004 but reappeared by Kim Jong-il’s side on a visit to China two years later. Analysts had speculated that he was purged for challenging the former ruler’s position. In 2007 though, he was promoted to the newly recreated post of first vice director of the Workers’ Party. In 2009, he joined the National Defense Commission.
“Even if there is genuine affection between Kim Jong-un and his uncle,” writes Bandow, “Jang no doubt would prefer to eliminate any chance that his nephew might decide to dispense with his services in the future.”
Jang understands the danger of merely orbiting the supreme leader: he twice disappeared from public view, apparently falling from favor under both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Moreover, last year Kim Jong-il reportedly limited Jang’s authority, perhaps in an attempt to enhance Kim Jong-un’s position as heir apparent.
After Kim Jong-il’s death in December of last year, there was speculation of Jang acting as a regent while the younger Kim was groomed for the leadership position. Kim Jong-un appears to have consolidated power quite rapidly so for Jang to mount a challenge to the dictatorship now seems highly unlikely. But with Ri removed from office and the army apparently back under party control, his position is almost certainly enhanced, regardless of whether Choe Ryong-hae is merely his proxy or a power player in his own right.