On Dec. 9, North Korea’s official media confirmed the country’s second-most powerful figure, Jang Song Thaek, was sacked. It broadcast the shocking scene of Jang being taken away during the enlarged meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, chaired by Kim Jong Un on Dec. 8. Jang was executed on Dec. 13.
A battle within the court of a hereditary dynasty, bloodshed, and a ruthless power struggle in a communist regime have once again unsettled the world.
Among the 20 counts laid on Jang Song Thaek, “anti-Party and counterrevolutionary” were the main charges. In authoritarian regimes such as mainland China and North Korea, these are synonyms for “rebellion and usurping power and the highest leadership of the Party.”
Other counts, including corruption, gambling, and having unlawful sex with women, were just pretexts. These things are quite common for both mainland Chinese and North Korean officials.
The North Korean palace infighting is a replica of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) palace infighting during the Cultural Revolution. However, the shocking scene of Jang being taken away still made Beijing’s high-ranking CCP officials quite frightened. They must have broken out in a cold sweat.
Trust and Distrust
Jang Song Thaek was known as the most powerful man in Pyongyang and a member of the pro-mainland China faction. During the two years before Kim Jong Il died, Jang had accompanied Kim Jong Il to visit mainland China several times. After Kim Jong Il died, Jang also led a delegation to visit mainland China.
In addition, while in charge of the economic and trade relations with mainland China, Jang tried to introduce the “China model” into North Korea to carry out economic reforms by establishing special economic zones. He was in the process of implementing a series of Chinese investment projects.
One crime that Kim Jong Un accused Jang of was “cheaply selling national resources.” This charge clearly aimed at China because China was the largest buyer of North Korean minerals.
Beijing trusted Jang Song Thaek and regarded Jang as a link in the alliance between China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
In contrast, Beijing distrusted the new young North Korean ruler, Kim Jong Un. After North Korea’s third nuclear test explosions in February, Beijing participated twice in the United Nations resolutions condemning Kim Jong Un’s regime.
Kim Jong Un answered back through North Korea’s mouthpiece media, blasting the CCP as “a puppet of the United States.” After Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping both took power, the relationship between China and DPRK became obviously tense.
Resolute and Ruthless
Right after North Korea released the news that Jang Song Thaek might fall, more than 3,000 soldiers of the CCP’s 39th Army, under the name of training, were urgently moved toward Baekdu Mountain, in the direction of the China-North Korea border. China intended to monitor the North Korean political situation and to be ready to intervene at any moment.
Kim Jong Un has not obeyed Beijing’s orders. It’s very likely that the Chinese regime’s leaders conspired with Jang Song Thaek to overthrow Kim Jong Un with a coup and replace him with Kim Jong Nam.
Kim Jong Nam, the eldest son of Kim Jong Il, is currently stranded in Macau, China and protected by the CCP. Kim Jong Nam has publicly criticized Kim Jong Un sternly from time to time, obviously following directives given by Beijing. If Kim Jong Nam were installed, Pyongyang would become a puppet regime under Beijing’s orders.
To Beijing’s surprise, the seemingly inexperienced Kim Jong Un acted pre-emptively and took extraordinary measures to take down Jang Song Thaek, crushing any plot by Beijing. What is expected from him next is a massive purge of Jang’s henchmen, just as his grandfather Kim Il Sung did in his days.
His grandfather conducted a massive purge of the “Yan’an faction” in the DPRK Communist Party, undermining China’s domination over North Korea and solidifying his power. In fact, North Korean businessmen in China—presumed to be Jang cronies—have been recalled.
Publicly broadcasting the pictures of Jang Song Thaek being taken away, Kim Jong-un not only awed his political opponents within the Party but also Beijing by showing that he is in power. He gave a warning Beijing to stop its wishful thinking.
Like his grandfather Kim Il Sung and father Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un sent a message that in the face of political opponents within the Party and Chinese forces, he is resolute and ruthless.
Beijing does not want to see Kim Jong Un hunt for Jang Song Thaek’s henchmen either because those people are pro-Beijing forces that Beijing has painstakingly fostered over many years. In any case, with the fall of Jang Song Thaek, China-DPRK relations will further cool down. The so-called alliance (the CCP’s last formal ally) will become even more of an empty name.
Given that Jang Song Thaek is brother-in-law to Kim Jong Il and uncle to Kim Jong Un, the court fight is not so much about a domestic power struggle within the Party, as it is a power struggle within the Kim family. Kim Jong Un only narrowly won. The struggle could easily have turned out differently, in which case North Korea’s future would have been rewritten.
As a member of the Kim family and very shrewd, Jang Song Thaek has long been a powerful figure within the North Korean ruling party. In December 2011, a dying Kim Jong Il suddenly promoted Jang Song Thaek to general and left a testament conferring the titles “assistant minister” and “regent king” on him, so he could assist Kim Jong Un in taking the throne.
However, someone in such high positions and with so much power may make the new king nervous. Court dramas have played out in this way since ancient times: Thirty-year-old Kim Jong Un taking down 67-year-old Jang Song Thaek is like the scene in China’s Qing Dynasty in which the 14-year-old Emperor Kangxi took down the 58-year-old, powerful minister Ao Bai.
Because of a different time and different domestic and international situations, today’s Kim Jung Un will not be the same as Emperor Kangxi, who ruled China steadily for a long time after the incident. Domestically, Jang Song Thaek’s forces can counterattack. Internationally, Beijing can continue to meddle.
More importantly, if Kim Jong Un does not reform himself, does not abandon evil for good, and continues to resist the trend of world civilization, then his ultimate fate will not necessarily be better than that of Jang Song Thaek.
Chen Pokong is a Chinese dissident and political commentator living in the United States. A veteran of the 1989 democracy movement, Chen fled to the United States after spending five years in prison in China.
Copyright 1998–2013, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.