Pyongyang’s state-run media reported on December 8 that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s powerful uncle was dismissed from all posts in the ruling party and administration for trying to form his own faction within the party. Jang Song-thaek, the former vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, had long been viewed as the young leader’s backer.
Via the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency, the political bureau of the ruling Workers’ Party said on December 8, “Jang desperately worked to form a faction within the party,” adding, “He has tried to increase his power and build a base to pursue his political ambitions.”
The political bureau also argued that Jang has abused his power and had improper relations with several women, abused drugs, and squandered foreign currency at casinos while he was undergoing medical treatment abroad.
North Korea’s state television aired the scene of Jang’s arrest at the party’s political bureau meeting in Pyongyang on December 8. He was whisked away by two military officers. It is the first time since the 1970s that North Korea released footage of the arrest of a senior official.
The Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s main official newspaper, also reported Jang’s purge on the front page, while carrying lyrics praising Kim on the second page, making the suspicion more persuasive that Jang’s purge and his aides’ public executions were designed to consolidate the power of Kim Jong-un, who took over the communist regime after his father Kim Jong-il died in December 2011.
“The purge appears to be aimed at establishing Kim’s monolithic leadership and solidifying his power base,” said an official of the Unification Ministry. “Jang’s purge and the public execution of his aides could create a sense of insecurity among the power elites, which in turn could prompt them to compete with each other to pledge their allegiance to Kim,” said a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute. Some analysts forecast that it could trigger a power struggle in the North’s power hierarchy.
Jang, who is married to the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s younger sister Kim Kyong-hui, was believed to have exerted strong influence in state affairs, but his whereabouts now are still unknown. Some speculate that Jang could be sent to a political prison camp.
With Jang and his followers labeled as anti-party counter-revolutionary factional figures, however, they could face a severe punishment. The lowest punishment for “anti-party figures” is known to be imprisonment in a political camp.
Pyongyang’s confirmation of Jang’s purge came a few days after Seoul’s spy agency reported to the national Assembly that Jang has likely been removed from power and two of his blandishers have been publicly executed.
China Says Jang’s Purge is an “Internal Affair”
In the meantime, China said on December 8 that Jang’s purge is the North’s “internal affair,” as Jang’s purge was known to the public. Asked about Jang’s purge, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei said, “We have noted the situation, but that is the internal affair of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK),” adding, “China will stay committed to promoting traditional friendship and cooperation with the DPRK.”
The Chinese government is reportedly on the watch for future change in the power structure of North Korea. Although the Chinese government is expected to have gotten information in advance on Jang’s downfall and purge, it has refrained from showing any particular response except for that general comment, while being chary of the rumors of Jang’s execution and his aides’ asylum in China.
Chinese experts on North Korea forecast that Jang’s purge will bring about changes in the North’s policies. In particular, they analyze that it will create not a little stir in economic cooperation between Pyongyang and Beijing, because Jang used to control general economic cooperation with China.
Experts said, however, that Jang’s purge would not cause any radical changes in its foreign policies, but pointed out that it could bring instability to the North’s political structure. In particular, Taiwan’s Central News Agency reported that amid the continuing power struggle among high-level personnel in the Party and different voices among the military after Kim Jong-un took office as the chief of North Korea’s Central Military Commission, the North regime’s stability would depend solely on Kim’s ability to control those situations.
The US government has not given any official response to Jang’s purge so far, but experts in the US see the North’s measure against Jang to consolidate Kim’s leadership centered on military hardliners. Madeleine Albright, the former US secretary of state, said in an interview with Bloomberg TV on December 7 (local time), “North Korean leader Kim Jong-un wants to demonstrate that he is responsible (for the North),” analyzing, “Kim is consolidating power by dismissing Jang Song-thaek, vice-chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission.”