It would be hard to find a figure in the North Korean power elite who receives a more conflicting assessment than Jang Sung Taek. While some view him as a “vulnerable No.2” in the regime, others believe that he is either the de facto ruler, or that he is in a power-sharing arrangement with Kim Jong Eun.
Given the existence of such divergent opinion, there is the clear need to examine Jang’s political trajectory in order to more accurately judge the origins, and likely limitations, of his power.
Therefore, this article will chart Jang’s political rise and provide background information on his removal from power in 2004 and subsequent reinstatement in 2006. The role he played in both the Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il eras will be analyzed, in addition to an explanation of how he rose to become the regime’s undisputed deputy.
▲ Life, Love and a Head Start in the Party
Jang was born in the post-liberation era, on January 22nd 1946, in the Chongam area of Chongjin, North Hamgyung Province. His father had been an active participant in the struggle against the Japanese during the colonial period, albeit not in the faction led by the charismatic Kim Il Sung.
While as yet unconfirmed, it is widely believed that the young Jang graduated from the Mangyungdae Revolutionary School, a school for the children of revolutionary heroes established in Pyongyang by the fledgling North Korean regime. He then went on to study economics at Kim Il Sung University, where he famously met and fell in love with Kim Il Sung’s eldest daughter, Kim Kyung Hee, who was then a student in the same department. It was this that would determine Jang’s fate.
High-profile defector Hwang Jang Yop, who was chancellor of Kim Il Sung University at the time, recalled, “[Jang] didn’t study unduly well in class, but as the head of the Arts Club his accordion performances were excellent, and he was a good dancer and singer. Above all, he was sensible and intelligent.”
However, as soon as Kim Il Sung became aware of the relationship between Jang and his daughter, he launched an investigation into Jang’s family background. Upon learning that the young man’s father had participated in the struggle against the Japanese in a group unaffiliated with his own, a most dangerous situation in North Korea at the time, Jang was expelled and ordered to transfer to the University of Economics in Wonsan, which is now known as Jong Jun Taek University of Economics.
However, Kim Kyung Hee’s affection for Jang did not fade, and she travelled to Wonsan to visit him. Determined to marry the young man, she pleaded with her father to reverse his decision. She succeeded: Jang returned and graduated from Kim Il Sung University.
Thereafter, in 1989, Jang and Kim left to study in Russia. When they returned some time later, Jang began working for the municipal branch of the Chosun Workers’ Party in Pyongyang. Then, at around the time of their marriage in 1972, he was promoted to the regime core: the Central Party Committee. From this point on, his rise was to become rapid and seemingly unstoppable.
▲ A Man Who Knows How to Follow Orders
At the time, in 1972, Kim Il Sung had reached the age of 60, a symbolic age in East Asian societies governed by the Chinese zodiac. It was then that the movement to establish Kim Jong Il as the successor to his elderly father got underway. While this was going on, Jang was working his way up the hierarchy, and by 1985 had become First Vice Director Jang in the department overseeing youth organizations. In November of 1986, at the age of just 40, he was elected to the Supreme Peoples’ Assembly as a delegate member. In 1988 he was again promoted, becoming department director.
There are around 100 members of the Central Party Committee, and these form North Korea’s true core power elite. Lesser elites are candidate members of the committee, and it was this position that Jang took up in June of 1989.
In the late 1970s, Jang was not a particularly high-ranking official. However, he had already gained the trust of Kim Jong Il, and was working on important state projects under the then-successor’s wing, including the construction of the special villas for Kim that continue to dot the country today.
Therefore, by the 1990s Jang’s power far outstripped his rank in the regime. In 1989, for example, even then-Premier Yon Hyong Muk was unable to procure the twenty tons of bronze he required for railroad electrification projects. But Jang is said to have made a single phone call, and the procurement issue was resolved.
Jang also played a crucial role in Pyongyang’s “successful” hosting of the 1989 World Festival of Youth and Students.
Following Kim Jong Il decision that Pyongyang must host the festival, the departments of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cabinet in charge of procurement and logistics seemed to agree that the idea would be a costly folly. Yet Jang used the strength of Kim Jong Il’s trust and pushed his agenda hard. Even the Party secretaries were like ‘mice facing a cat’ in Jang’s presence. The festival went ahead, despite the huge economic and social costs.
In the early 1990s, Jang was keenly involved in the construction of homes along Tongil [Unification] Street in Pyongyang. At the time, Premier Yon Hyong Muk told Kim Jong Il, “It will be difficult to construct fifty thousand homes. Let’s reduce the number to forty thousand.” But Kim refused and told Jang to mobilize the power of the Party.
The Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces answered Jang’s call, mobilizing soldiers and military equipment, while special forces units from the People’s Guards and the National Security Agency crammed the construction sites.
In this way, Jang continued to carry out Kim Jong Il’s orders to the letter, and thus his words came to be recognized as the words of Kim Jong Il himself. Thus, he became second only to the leader himself.