Focus on Jang Sung Taek, Second-in-Command – Part I.

This year, the eyes and ears of international society are expected to be focused on Kim Jong Il’s ailing health and North Korea’s political system.

In particular, Kim’s brother-in-law Jang Sung Taek, Director of the Ministry of Administration, has been drawing some attention.

In North Korea’s governing system, which is sustained by both “Great Leader Absolutism” and the “idolization of the Kim Il Sung lineage,” Jang, albeit not a part of the Kim blood line, as the husband of Kim Kyung Hee (Kim Jong Il’s younger sister), is a main figure in the “royal family.”

In the midst of Kim Jong Il’s reported illness and his delay in selecting a successor, the level of influence that Jang — the one and only kin among North Korea’s highest class — will cast on North Korea’s succession planning in 2009 is as an urgent point of interest.

◆ Who is Jang Sung Taek? The North Korean “Cinderella”?

When looking at Jang’s union with the Kim dynasty, there can be no other North Korean “Cinderella” story.

The marriage of Jang and Kim Kyung Hee did not begin smoothly. Hwang Jang Yop, the Committee for the Democratization of North Korea Chair and former Secretary of the Chosun Workers’ Party, observed the two people’s meeting and marriage closely, and noted that the marriage was achieved despite the objections of Kim Il Sung. The following is an anecdote from the meeting, which is contained in “The Memoirs of Hwang Jang Yop (Zeitgeist, Seoul, 2006).”

Jang and Kim were classmates on the Political Economy degree course at Kim Il Sung University. It is not clear when, but rumors of their dating began to circulate. These also reached Kim Il Sung, who immediately ordered an investigation into Jang’s family relations. The investigation results revealed a problem in the background of Jang’s father; Kim Il Sung excluded activists outside his clique, so he became angry and ordered his daughter to immediately end the relationship. However, when Kim Il Sung found out that the two had been continuing to meet, instead of breaking up, he ordered his brother Kim Young Ju to expel Jang from the university and transfer him to the Economy University in Wonsan.

Kyung Hee’s subsequently persuading of Kim Il Sung to allow the marriage is recounted in detail in “Kim Jong Il’s Loyal Family (Zeitgeist, Seoul, 2004),” the memoirs of Lee Han Young. He is the nephew of Sung Hye Rim, who was Kim Jong Nam’s mother.

Apparently, Kyung Hee liked Jang Sung Taek so much that she would throw tantrums to try and get bring about the wedding. Further, she followed Jang all the way to Wonsan. Finally, Kim Il Sung permitted the marriage. A rare love story in North Korea.

Jang then became a close acquaintance of Kim Jong Il, who was beginning to build his power from that time; Kim, before the marriage between Jang and Kim, would take Jang to where he was shooting films. The younger Kim also supported their marriage.

However, Jang, from the end of 1978 into the early 1980s, was taken on as a worker at the Gangsun Steel Mill and had to undergo a “revolutionary education.” Kim Kyung Hee reportedly asked Kim Jong Il to order the education, since her husband apparently did nothing but consume alcohol and constantly neglected his duties.

Lee Han Young identified the reason for Jang Sung Taek’s sentence to “revolutionary education” as “his pride in being powerful,” according to his memoir. He recounted the time when Jang invited a group of his own and held a party in an attempt to imitate Kim Jong Il’s secret parties. Kim Jong Il, upon finding out the news, apparently became irate.

At the time, Kim Jong Il is said to have scolded Jang vehemently, “Who do you think you are to imitate me and host a party? There is only one person in this land who can flaunt authority. It’s me.”

In another incident, Jang drew significant censure by trying to gain Kim Jong Il’s favor; at the time, Jang commanded a foreign-currency earning department, working as a manager of overseas embassies for the Guidance Department. He is said to have inadvertently started a fire while building a submarine villa to impress Kim.

◆ After two falls, the rise to Kim Jong Il’s “right arm.”

Meanwhile, the reason for Jang’s re-ascendance can be traced back to his successful completion of a construction project in Pyongyang for the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students in 1989. Kim Jong Il put Jang in charge of projects, including the construction of Gwangbok (Liberation) Street in Pyongyang; Jang tapped resources and manpower from all over the country and successfully completed construction. Due to his efforts, Jang even received the “Hero of Labor” title, and seized the opportunity to become a candidate member of the Party Central Committee and a delegate to the Supreme People’s Committee.

In 1992, he was elected Central Committee’s Central Delegate, rose to be 1st Vice-Director of the Guidance Division in 1994, and now to 2nd-in-command of North Korea. Jang Sung Woo, his older brother, carried out key duties protecting Pyongyang as the commander of the 3rd Corps and his second eldest brother Jang Sung Kil worked as political representative of an army unit. In sum, all three brothers enjoyed significant power in North Korea’s elite class.

Subsequently, however, another trial visited Jang. He was overthrown for debauched acts, such as creating factions within the party in 2004 and scheming to seize power. Even the officials who were identified as “Jang Sung Taek’s people” inside the Workers’ Party were demoted.

But two years later, Jang was reinstated as the First Vice-director of the Capital Construction Department of the Party and ascended to the center of power, such as managing prosecutions, the People’s Safety Agency and National Security Agency (NSA). Intelligence also suggests that he was reappointed as the First-Vice Director of the Guidance Department, the man who actually governs the Party and the Army.

(to be continued)