North Korea’s Kim Jong-un Has Uncle Executed for Treason

North Korea’s state media reported on Friday that Jang Sung-taek, its leader’s Kim Jong-un’s uncle, had been executed for treason. If true, it caps the spectacular downfall of a man who had long been considered a power behind the throne of the secretive communist regime.

Describing Jang as a “traitor to the nation for all ages,” KCNA, the primary source of information on the impoverished Asian country for outsiders, quoted him as confessing to plotting a coup d’état. “I thought the army might join in the coup if the living conditions of the people and services personnel further deteriorated in the future,” he allegedly said.

KCNA also said Jang had stolen €4.6 million and spent much of it in foreign casinos. “He led a dissolute, depraved life, squandering money wherever he went,” according to the news agency which is seen as a mouthpiece for the regime. Read more “North Korea’s Kim Jong-un Has Uncle Executed for Treason”

Kim’s Uncle May Have Plotted to Oust Army Chief

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.

Kim Jong-un Consolidates Control of Korean Army

Kim Jong-un named himself marshal of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the communist country’s state media reported on Wednesday, in a move that is apparently designed to consolidate his control over the army.

The news follows the ouster of Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, former army chief of staff, who was considered a Kim ally but recently sidelined because of “illness.” The timing of his departure and Kim’s promotion to the highest military rank in the isolated North Korean regime suggests that Ri was actually purged. Read more “Kim Jong-un Consolidates Control of Korean Army”

Kim Jong-un Is Indispensable to North Korean Regime

North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party named Kim Jung-un its first secretary on Wednesday. The position replaces that of secretary general which, in good family tradition, the young ruler’s deceased father Kim Jong-il will hold “eternally.”

Kim’s grandfather and founder of the dynasty, Kim Il-sung, is remembered as the people’s republic “eternal president.”

In his new capacity, Kim Jong-un has become a member of the presidium of the Politburo, the executive branch of the North Korean government. He already commands the armed forces and is assumed to wield far more power than the remaining four members of the body that nominally rules the country. Read more “Kim Jong-un Is Indispensable to North Korean Regime”

The Kim is Dead, Long Live the Kim!

North Korean state television announced the death of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il on Monday and labeled his son, Kim Jong-un, “the great successor.”

The third and youngest son of North Korea’s former dictator is untested and relatively unknown. He came into the public spotlight in September of last year when his father appointed him vice chairman of the country’s Central Military Commission, one among a myriad of commissions and committees that helm the Stalinist hermit state.

Behind the scenes, the dead leader’s brother in law, Jang Sung-taek, has apparently assumed de facto control of the government since Kim Jong-il suffered a stroke in 2008. A technocrat educated in Russia during Soviet times, he is vice chairman of the National Defense Commission which commands the armed forces and could emerge as a regent while the younger Kim consolidates power.

The third Kim in a dynasty of Korean leaders inherits control of one of the poorest places on Earth. His people are undernourished, ever on the brink of starvation. Energy shortages are a common occurrence. North Korea maintains almost no trade relations with the rest of the world. Its regime is a pariah among nations, surrounded by adversaries in Japan and South Korea, both economic powerhouses and allied to the United States.

By keeping North Korea on a perpetual war footing, Pyongyang justifies spending a gargantuan share of its budget on the military — 25 percent of annual economic output compared to just 4 percent in the South.

The alleged threat posed by America, Japan and their brethren in the South is artificially exacerbated every so many years by the North when it invents a crisis to affirm the legitimacy of the regime.

According to analysis from the geostrategic consultancy firm Wikistrat, recent acts of aggression, including the torpedoing of a South Korean corvette and the artillery barrage of a disputed island last year, suggested a determined effort to speedily credentialize Kim Jong-un among the military leadership that controls much of the government, economy, and, most importantly, mineral exports to, and humanitarian aid from, patron China.

Internationally, however, these crisis coupled with the North’s renegade nuclear program, make it increasingly difficult for its one erstwhile ally to shield the regime from repercussions.

There is mounting discord among the Chinese leadership over how to cope with North Korea’s erratic behavior. On the one hand are hardliners who occupy prominent posts in the military and at Communist Party schools. They suspect that the United States are conniving to deceive China and keep it poor and see in the North a necessary buffer to prevent American troops, permanently stationed along the demilitarized zone, from reaching China’s border.

On the other side, internationally-oriented bureaucrats, including many in the Foreign Ministry and banking sector, argue for peaceful ties with the West and have expressed growing puzzlement and anger about the North’s posturing.

The change of leadership that is expected to take place in China over the next couple of years could enhance or complicate Kim Jong-un’s ability to consolidate power. In an effort to bolster his credentials with the military and stave off the possibility of a coup, the new Kim could instigate crises or organize shows of force which could be interpreted by South Korea and Western powers as provocations, necessitating retaliation.

“Everybody,” Wikistrat predicts, “especially an incoming fifth generation of leadership in Beijing, will want to appear decisive because of the perceived precedent setting nature of the moment — namely, what it says about the future of American military hegemony in the region versus China’s potential for the same.”

China’s incoming leaders may well observe that an offensive on the part of the younger Kim serves their interests as it would force the United States to divert resources from other efforts in the region that limit China’s rise.

If rather they decide that it’s time for China to become the “responsible stakeholder” in international relations that the United States would like it to be, they could rein in the regime’s ability to stir crises but risk ultimately undermining its legitimacy if China suspends food and military aid.

This article also appeared in The Seoul Times, December 20, 2011.