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Jang Song Thaek: From powerful uncle to ‘scum’

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2013-12-13

Jang Song Thaek was the uncle of North Korea’s current leader, the brother-in-law of the previous leader and the son-in-law of the nation’s revered founding father. His rapid fall from grace is the stuff of political thrillers.

From a powerful insider, a family man who was viewed as a sort of regent to North Korea’s young leader, to a “despicable human scum” who was “worse than a dog”, Jang Song Thaek’s fall from grace was stark and swift.

In a statement released Thursday, North Korea’s state news agency KCNA announced that it had executed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s once-powerful uncle for “acts of treachery”.

Official images showed a bent, beaten Jang in a severe Chinese-style suit apparently being led by armed guards to face a military tribunal.

The contrast between the dapper, elegant man often seen besides his nephew and the frail, abject figure facing an execution has shocked seasoned North Korea observers, sparking a discourse on what could have led to Jang’s fall.

Just days ago, the former vice-chairman of the National Defence Commission (NDC) and several other senior posts was accused of corruption, womanising, gambling and taking drugs. For his offences, state media announced, Jang had been “eliminated” from all his official positions.

The ratcheting up of charges against Jang from the relatively minor womanising and gambling to treason and insurrection took only a few days and the very public execution announcement has stunned analysts.

In a story worthy of a political thriller, the man executed for these crimes was the uncle of the current leader, the brother-in-law of the previous leader and the son-in-law of North Korea’s revered founding father.

Falling in love with the Great Leader’s daughter

Jang Song Thaek – sometimes spelled Chang Sung-taek – was born in 1946, according to a variety of sources.

He was the youngest of five children, according to the North Korea Leadership Watch, a blog dedicated to monitoring the nation’s political elites. He was educated at the prestigious Kim Il-sung University, where he apparently met Kim Kyong Hui, the daughter of the university – and nation’s – founding father.

Legend has it that the Great Leader initially disapproved of the match and the young Jang was dispatched to Moscow for higher studies. But the relationship between Jang and the Great Leader’s daughter continued. Upon his return to North Korea from the Soviet Union, the couple married in around 1971 or 1972.

Climbing up and down with the Dear Leader

Following the marriage, Jang and his wife gradually rose up the North Korean political ladder, working in various youth and labour brigades. But it was not until Great Leader Kim Il-sung died and Dear Leader Kim Jong-il took over from his father in 1994 that Jang started to get the attention of North Korea observers.

Relations between Jang and his omnipotent brother-in-law appeared to be smooth in the early days of Kim Jong-il’s reign, with several photographs of the Dear Leader featuring Chang in the sidelines, sufficiently close to the North Korean seat of power to merit careful examination by Pyongyang watchers.

But between 2003 to 2006, the brother-in-law mysteriously disappeared from public view, sparking questions over whether the family insider had displeased Kim Jong-il.

According to the US-based website,, the three-year fall from grace was due to allegations that Jang was attempting to accumulate power.

Setting the stage for a power struggle

But Jang had a way of reappearing in the public view just as mysteriously as he would disappear.

In 2007, the seemingly disgraced brother-in-law was reinstated as head of public security at the Worker’s Party, according to South Korea’s The Chosun Ilbo newspaper.

Between 2007 until Kim Jong-Il’s death in 2011, Jang was a highly visible figure, a rise to power that was formalised by his 2009 appointment to the NDC (National Defence Commission) and his 2010 promotion as the top military body’s vice-chairman.

During the period when Kim Jong-il was ill and disappeared from public view, many analysts believe Jang was holding the reins of power, a situation that, in retrospect, could have set him up for a power struggle with his young, inexperienced nephew.

When Kim Jong-un, who was probably around 28 at that time, was named supreme leader of North Korea in 2011, some analysts warned that there was a potential for a power struggle – with grave regional security implications.

"There is the potential for tension between Kim Jong-un and Jang Song Thaek which could result in one or both precipitating a crisis to prove the new government's power to other senior leaders,” Brittany Damora, an analyst for the London-based risk consultancy AKE, told Reuters in December 2011.

"I anticipate increased foreign policy tensions and, later down the line, with policy likely to remain highly erratic, there is the possibility of small-scale military attacks on South Korea,” she continued.

An eye on China

While the past two years have indeed seen a ratcheting up of tensions on the Korean peninsula, some analysts say the tensions between the uncle and nephew may have also been rooted in differing visions of North Korea’s future.

A dapper, sophisticated man who frequently handled Pyongyang’s relationship with Beijing, Jang made a high-profile August 2012 visit to China, where he met then President Hu Jintao. The two sides later signed a raft of economic deals, including the development of two special economic zones: Rason, on North Korea's east coast, and Hwanggumphyong, on the border with China.

Some analysts believe Jang was impressed with China’s economic model and wanted to institute the sort of politically controlled economic reforms that has turned China into the world’s second-largest economy.

The true story of what led to the speedy fall of the world’s most powerful uncle is likely to emerge only gradually. In the short term, analysts will be focused on what Jang’s demise means for security in a volatile zone. And above all, who has taken Jang’s place in advising one of the world’s most secretive and potentially destructive leaders.


Date created : 2013-12-13


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