Change in North Korea but not for the better

Jerry Guo looks at how power is shifting in the hermit state, the Kim dynasty and who really pulls the strings

NORTH Korea’s Kim Jong-il made his mysterious youngest son a four-star general in a major promotion seen yesterday as confirmation that he is slated to become the country’s next leader.

The announcement was published in state media hours before a historic Workers’ Party meeting where Kim, 68 and apparently in deteriorating health, was expected to grant son Kim Jong Un and other family members top posts in plans to take the communist dynasty into a third generation.

The North Korean capital was in a festive mood, with banners and placards celebrating the country’s biggest political gathering in 30 years. Kim Jong-il was re-elected to the party’s top position of general secretary, but state media gave no further details on what was discussed or decided.

It was the North Korean state media’s first mention of Kim Jong-un, who has remained so well hidden from the outside world that not even his face or exact age can be confirmed. He is believed to be 27 or 28, and is said to have been schooled in Switzerland and educated at Kim Il Sung Military University in Pyongyang.

However, it is clear that “Kim Jong-un’s promotion is the starting point for his formal succession to power”, said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University.

But in the shadows stands an even more obscure figure, a power player at the centre of an uncertain struggle over who will hold the reins to the nuclear-armed hermit nation after the ailing leader.

It’s 64-year-old Jang Song-taek, not Kim, that North Korean hands should be scrambling to unravel. The brother-in-law of the “Dear Leader”, Jang has over the last couple of years become Kim Jong-il’s right-hand man, groomed to be the regent for the younger Kim.

While Kim Jong-il was introduced to the world at the last party conference in 1980 and spent the next 14 years watching his father, Kim Jong-un’s succession has been more rushed. The younger Kim cannot match his father’s power base or charisma, particularly because he never played a role in the far-reaching military apparatus.

And while he is expected to take up other top military jobs such as commander of the 1.2 million-member military, at least at the start, he will be little more than a figurehead.

That’s where Jang comes in. The anointed caretaker was promoted this June to vice chairman of the National Defence Commission – which controls the military – making him the second most-powerful man in the country. “The National Defence Commission and the Workers’ Party are the two most important, powerful governing organisations, in which only Jang is holding positions that can exercise enough power and influence in both,” explains Kim Kwang-jin, a mid-ranking North Korean defector.

According to An Chan-il, a North Korean defector and head of the World Institute for North Korean Studies, Jang is only one of three confidants who speaks directly to the Dear Leader – the other two being Kim Jong-un and Jang’s wife, Kim Kyong-hui, who happens to be the Kim Jong-il’s sister.

In the last year, Jang and his wife have been the most frequent travel companions of the elder Kim; between January and June Jang accompanied him on 44 of 77 inspection visits. Jang is also rumoured to be the leader’s best drinking buddy.

That’s bad news for the West: most security analysts believe that Jang will carry on Kim’s erratic policies of confrontation, repression, and economic mismanagement.

But at least he’s not Kim Jr, now heralded as the “brilliant comrade” in Pyongyang propaganda. Some analysts believe he was the brains behind the March attack on the South Korean ship Cheonan, killing 46 sailors.

That’s not to say it will be business as usual. As North Korea’s state-run economy spirals downward – and even the elite turn to private markets to survive – Pyongyang politics grow more bitter. Just days before Jang’s promotion on the NDC, one key rival, Ri Je-gang, died in a suspicious car crash, suggesting that the power struggle is less than civil.

The rubber-stamp meeting that announced Jang’s promotion was called in a last-minute special session, hinting at a battle to the wire. Several generals are reportedly upset at Jang’s new position, including Kim Jong-gak, head of the Korean People’s Army; O Kuk-ryol, vice chairman of the NDC; and Kim Yong-chun, minister of the People’s Armed Forces.

In his new defence post, Jang officially controls the internal security forces, including the secret police. Part of this portfolio includes customs and border patrols, which have recently been ramped up to forestall the growth of private markets and cross- border smugglers. But his reach extends much further.

During the shaky period following Kim Jong-il’s stroke in August 2008, he was thought to have taken over everyday decision-making power. If all goes according to plan, he will now serve as the behind-the-scenes administrator to Kim Jong-un until the younger Kim can keep the party chiefs in line himself.

Jang began his quick rise within the KWP soon after marrying his college sweetheart and Kim Jong-il’s older sister, Kim Kyong-hui, in 1972. Although their father and founder of the Democratic Republic, Kim Il-sung, did not approve of the relationship, Kim Jong-il was quite fond of Jang. During the 1970s and 1980s Jang became the architect of North Korea’s state-sanctioned mafia operation – according to Helen Louise Hunter – a retired CIA analyst on the Far East desk, using diplomats to smuggle illicit goods like counterfeit cigarettes, drugs, and, later counterfeit US bank notes across the border.

Now that the 68-year-old Kim is suffering from diabetes and the effects of possibly two strokes, it looks as though his third son will soon step in as leader of the world’s most secretive and hostile state. With Jang pulling the strings, don’t expect the new Kim to bring any change for the better.


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