Jang Song Taek trial
Former Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission Jang Song Taek was arrested and put on trial before being executed for being a "counter-revolutionary." / Image: KCTV screen capture

There has been a sudden rise of high-level officials in Pyongyang mentioning Jang Song Taek, the uncle (by marriage) of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in the run up to the six year anniversary of his execution this December, according to multiple high-level Daily NK sources in Pyongyang. 

Jang was executed by the Kim Jong Un government in 2013 following his arrest and trial for being a “counter-revolutionary.”

Nostalgia for Jang’s comparatively open-door economic policies may be underpinning the resurgence of interest in the former high-level official given the growing sense of concern among the elite about North Korea’s economy. Some see renewed attention toward Jang as a sign that loyalty of high-ranking officials toward the regime is faltering.

“Top officials go around saying that when Jang Song Taek was around there a lot of people throwing around money and doing business. They seem to be wondering about how things might be if Jang had continued to guide economic policy,’” a high-ranking source in Pyongyang told Daily NK on Tuesday. 

“When mutually agreeable high-level officials in Pyongyang get together to talk, they generally express positive opinions about Jang,” continued the source. “They say that thanks to him North Korea had a functional economy in the past.” 

This all suggests that top North Korean officials believe the country’s economy would be better off today if Jang’s initiatives for special economic zones, luring foreign investment and increased commerce with China had continued.

“There are many who reminisce about the economic policies that Jang Song Taek implemented,” another Pyongyang-based source told Daily NK. “Even among the merchants there are murmurs that no one has been able to fill Jang’s shoes and that back in his day those with money would come and spend a few hundred dollars. They complain that this doesn’t happen anymore.”

While ordinary citizens may not be familiar with the details of Jang’s economic initiatives, they do appear to recognize the positive role he played in stimulating the country’s economy. 

“The public does not exactly know why the economy is doing badly, but those who understand economic matters view the decrease in foreign currency as the biggest reason for North Korea’s economic stagnation,” the source said. “People believe that the economy at that time did well because Jang’s people would lure in capital from overseas and ensure that it circulated into the economy.” 

North Korean officials claim that the country’s economic troubles are due to sanctions against North Korea. Daily NK sources in Pyongyang, however, say that people believe the country’s economic difficulties have been brought about by the regime’s failure to attract foreign investment and establish special economic zones.

Some experts told Daily NK that the fact favorable opinions of Jang Song Taek are circulating in Pyongyang is further evidence of the poor state of North Korea’s economy and may also signal that loyalty among top regime officials is weakening. 

“It is undeniable that businesses in North Korea are facing a rocky time these days,” said Seo Jae Pyong, executive director of the North Korean Defectors’ Association. “Considering that only top regime officials would know the extent of what Jang Song Taek did, all of these murmurs in support of Jang are trickling down from the elite, meaning either powerful party officials or donju (the nouveau riche) in the capital.”  

“People talking positively about Jang’s economic initiatives also suggests that many high-ranking officials are blaming the country’s economic troubles on the failure of Kim Jong Un’s economic policies, not sanctions implemented by the United Nations,” Seo added.

*Translated by Violet Kim

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