Jang Sung Taek’s Return… What Does It Mean?

[imText1]Jang Sung Taek had been called “the second leader-to-be” or “the actual influence” since the death of Kim Il Sung.

Hwang Jang Yop, the former international secretary of the Worker’s Party, in the open debate at the National Assembly July 2003, said, “Although Kim Jong Nam is the heir of Kim Jong Il, the actual successor is to be Jang Sung Taek.” He also said, “(In case of a coup d´ tat) the leader-to-be after the transition would be Jang Sung Taek.”

This does not mean that there is a high possibility of Jang causing a coup d´ tat, but it meant realistically, there was no other person in North Korea who had general influence over the party, politics, economy, military and foreign affairs. In case of a transition and the absence of Kim Jong Il, there needs to be a person who is experienced in managing the current North Korean regime, and there is no other person who has ability to do so than Jang Sung Taek.

The Reason Why the One and Only “Kim Jong Il’s Man” Disappeared

Jang Sung Taek is Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law. Jang married Kim Jong Il’s only sister. Kim Jong Il has a special love for his sister, Kim Kyung Hee. During the power struggle with his brother from a different mother, Kim’s love for his “blood relatives” grew even deeper. Jang stood in between for Kim Jong Il.

After Jang Sung Taek and Kim Kyung Hee got married in 1972, Jang became “Kim Jong Il’s man” and played an important role in stabilizing Kim Jong Il’s absolute power. Jang did all the dirty work Kim Jong Il could not do with his own hands, and guarded him as his shadow. Starting from the early 1980s, Jang took charge of the “Party Young Adults Business and 3 Generation Revolution Small Group Business” and secured a younger generation support base for Kim Jong Il.

However, Jang Sung Taek disappeared from all public scenes after July 2003. Rumors spread of him being ill or being purged. In the beginning of 2004, an internal source in North Korea sent news that, “Jang Sung Taek was ordered to stop all his activities and is under confinement,” which let us know of the change in his status. The reason was assumed to be his loss in the power struggle with Koh Young Hee (Kim Jong Il’s wife). The assumption was that the force supporting the sons of Koh (Jong Cheol, Jong Woon) attempted to drive Jang’s force out of the future competition.

After Koh died in July 2004, the map of succession became an enigma and there was a temporary prediction that Jang would return. However, in September 2005, the government of North Korea called Jang and his force as a “side branch” getting in the way, and there had been reports that all those who had contacted Jang were being purged. Upon hearing the news that Kim Kyung Hee is undergoing treatment for alcoholism, many predicted Jang’s return as being impossible.

Then for the first time in two years, Jang reappeared in the public scene. His presence beside Kim Jong Il watching a performance was caught on TV. Does that mean Jang has completely returned?

Rumor of “Side Branch”, a Harm to Hereditary Succession

The assumption that Jang was driven out of the political arena during the power struggle with Koh Young Hee regarding the succession problem is probable and valid. In fact, after the rumor spread that there had been a change in Jang’s status, high level officials who had close relations with Jang were all dismissed.

About 40 persons, including Choi Ryong Soo, Minister of People’s Safety Agency, Lee Young Bok, Secretary of General in Nampo City Party, Lee Kwang Kun, Minister of Ministry of Foreign Trade, Choi Chun Hwang, Director of First Department in Propaganda and Agitation Department (KWP) and Jee Jae Ryong, Vice Director of International Department (KWP) were dismissed in chain.

Jang Sung Taek being called a “side branch” during this process reminds us of how Kim Jong Il purged his brothers of different mothers, such as Kim Sung Ae (the son of Kim Il Sung’s second wife) and called them “side branches.” (“Side branches” means that they come from the same tree, Kim Il Sung, but the branches are different.)

Possibly Only a Superficial Return

Why did he not root out the tree, but instead made him reappear on the scene? There are several hypotheses.

One, Jang Sung Taek’s confinement may not be related to his power struggle with Koh Young Hee, and may be just a punishment for his wrongdoing. However, the disposition of all Jang’s entourages in the central party makes us think twice about this presumption.

Two, some presume that there is a possibility of Jang’s force winning the power struggle. Recently, it was reported that Kim Jong Il banned discussion of the successor issue. Some say Jang, who was harmed in the process, was returned. However, considering the precedence of the North Korean regime, possibility of someone’s return does not exist.

Three, Jang’s return is a superficial one, and his power is actually handicapped, just like what Kim Jong Il did to his half brothers during the 1970s and 1980s. Kim prohibited all the power play of his brothers, but under extraordinary surveillance, Kim secured a “certain level” of their status. Kim Pyong Il, who was driven out of the power struggle with Kim Jong Il, wandered around Hungary, Bulgaria, Finland, and Poland as an ambassador, although he was originally in the military. Kim Young Il had also been away in Germany and Malta until his death in 2000. Kim Sung Ae was in charge of the Women’s Alliance Committee, but she was isolated so perfectly that none of the high officials would ever talk to her.

For this reason, many predict that Jang Sung Taek, being the husband of Kim Kyung Hee, cannot be purged but is to be treated as a “side branch” forever. His reappearance on TV is further proof that he has now become a definite side branch. However, others counterargue that although simple gestures of apology may have been sufficient, sitting right next to Kim Jong Il may signify something more.

Fourthly, some argue that Jang’s sudden return is considered an emergency occupation of vacancy. They say there is no other person who could possibly replace Yeon Hyung Muk’s (who died last year) absence, except Jang. After Kim Jong Il’s visit to China in the beginning of this year, Kim will make his policies for reform clearer, and they argue that Kim needs someone like Jang to support him. However, there is no possibility that Kim Jong Il, who puts power security above everything else, return Jang because he values his talents. Jang had long been known as the person who opposes to the reform policy.

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