By Paul Liem l December 31, 2013
The arrest, trial, and execution of Jang Song Thaek, the uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by marriage to the latter’s aunt and a figure considered to be the second most important leader in North Korea, has led to speculation of a leadership crisis in Pyongyang. Secretary of State John Kerry described the execution as an “ominous sign of instability” brought about by the ruthless and reckless nature of Kim Jong Un. South Korean President, Park Geun-hye, called it a “reign of terror” and warned of the “possibilities of contingencies such as reckless provocations.”
Jang’s demise was unusual in that the state’s rationale for his expulsion from the Workers’ Party on December 8, 2013 and execution on December 12, 2013 was highly publicized not only internally, but also in a lengthy report published December 13, 2013 by North Korea’s official international news service, the Korean Central Daily News Agency (KCNA). Jang was reportedly purged and executed as a “traitor.”
In military tribunal proceedings, Jang allegedly admitted plans to stage a coup by “trigger[ing] off discontent among service personnel and people.” Jang, according to the KCNA, testified that “Comrade supreme leader [Kim Jong Un] is the target of the coup.” To accomplish his aim, Jang, utilizing control over political and economic institutions and resources, “schemed to drive the economy of the country and people’s living into an uncontrollable catastrophe,” the report also said.
In reference to U.S. and South Korean policies of non-engagement, Jang was accused of working “for years to destabilize and bring down the DPRK … pursuant to the ‘strategic patience’ policy and ‘waiting strategy’ of the U.S. and the south Korean puppet group of traitors.” Jang was executed immediately following the tribunal.
To date, fears that Jang’s execution might be a harbinger of uncertainty for the direction of North Korea or that it might lead to “reckless provocation” have yet to materialize. North and South Korea resumed talks regarding the operations of the Kaesong industrial complex on December 19, 2013, and on the same day, North Korea allowed a 30-member delegation consisting of representatives of the world’s leading 20 economies (G-20) and officials of the IMF and Asian Development Bank to tour the complex. Moreover, on the day of Jang’s arrest, North Korea was pursuing a contract with a Chinese consortium to connect Sinuiju, Kaesong, and Pyongyang via high speed rail and expressway, and on the day of Jang’s execution, North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations Secretariat in Geneva reportedly called for dialogue of “whatever kind” to resolve “security concerns in Korea.”
China’s response was circumspect. In reply to questions raised at a press conference on December 13, 2013 concerning Jang’s execution, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hong Lei, remarked, “It is the DPRK’s internal affair. As its neighbor, we hope to see the DPRK maintain political stability and realize economic development and people there lead a happy life. The development of economic cooperation and trade between China and the DPRK serves the interests of both sides. China will continue economic interactions with the DPRK based on friendliness and mutual benefit and advance practical cooperation. We hope and believe that China-DPRK economic cooperation and trade will move ahead in a sound and steady manner.”
The immediate outcome of Jang’s execution has been the consolidation of Kim Jong Un’s position as North Korea’s undisputed leader and his control over the country’s economic resources. The latter is significant insofar as Jang was accused not only of attempting to disrupt the North Korean economy but specifically of selling “coal and other precious underground resources at random … resulting in huge debt.” This is no small matter as North Korea’s mineral resources are its most important export commodity. The country has sizeable deposits of some 200 minerals including coal, iron, gold, magnesite, zinc, copper, tungsten, and graphite, all of which have the potential for large-scale development and badly needed revenue generation. Most recently, privately-held SRE Minerals announced a joint venture with North Korea to develop what is estimated, at 216 million tons, to be the world’s largest deposit of rare earth elements (REE). Used variously in cell phones as well as high-tech military systems such as cruise missiles, North Korea’s REE deposit is valued in the trillions of dollars. In 2011, China controlled 95% of the world’s REE market. If managed profitably, North Korea’s mineral resources, and in particular its REE deposits, could be a game changer for its economic recovery.
During his political career, which began under the rule of Kim Il Sung and continued under Kim Jong Il, Jang fell in and out of favor with North Korea’s leadership. His purge under Kim Jong Un was not unexpected as his visibility at political functions had diminished noticeably over the past year. But the public spectacle of his humiliation and his swift execution came as a shock. Of this event, New York Times journalists, Choe Sang-Hun and David Sanger reported that Jang’s execution “had its roots in a firefight between forces loyal to Mr. Kim [Kim Jong Un] and those supporting the man who was supposed to be his regent [Jang Song Thaek].” Jang reportedly refused an order by Kim Jong Un to return control of a fishing ground to the military and when forces loyal to Kim showed up to take possession of the resource, last September or October, a battle ensued resulting in the deaths of two of Kim’s soldiers. The North Korean military returned in larger numbers and “prevailed.” Jang’s two top lieutenants were executed subsequently, Choe and Sanger reported. The rest is history.
Like the finale of countless tales of failed palace coups, Jang’s fate, at the hands of a relative, was dramatic and brutal but not to be unexpected. Choe and Sanger’s report of a shoot-out was based on “accounts that are being pieced together by South Korean and American officials.” If true, Jang was in armed rebellion against the state. If not, likely we may never know what tipped the balance in favor of execution over banishment. In either case, with the commemoration of the passing of Kim Jong Il, observed only days after Jang’s execution, Pyongyang appears to be moving on. At the start of the New Year, it continues to promote international trade and joint ventures to spur economic growth, and it continues to seek dialogue with the U.S. and South Korea to address military tensions on the peninsula.
Whether or not the greatest fears of the U.S. and South Korea come to pass, namely, that Jang’s execution is a precursor to political instability in the north leading to external “provocations,” remains to be seen. Thus far, there is no evidence that substantiates this narrative. To be sure, South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) Director, Nam Jae-joon, reported, “There is a high possibility that they [North Korea] may attempt to provoke the South sometime in January-March next year.” However, the upcoming annual U.S.–South Korea joint war exercises, Key Resolve/Foal Eagle, which are scheduled for the same period and which last year featured B-2 stealth bombers dropping dummy nuclear munitions off the Korean peninsula, are likely to spike tensions on the Korean peninsula, as they do every year, the execution of Jang Song Thaek notwithstanding.
Paul Liem is the chairperson of the Korea Policy Institute Board and a long time activist and writer on Korean peninsular issues.