North Korea announced Monday through state-run media that Jang Song Thaek, the uncle of leader Kim Jong Un, had been deprived of all titles and expelled from the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea for “anti-party, anti-revolution factional activities.”
The husband of Kim Kyong Hui, the younger sister of deceased leader Kim Jong Il, Jang had been regarded as the second most powerful person in North Korea and is the most prominent official to be purged since Kim Jong Un came to power following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011.
The North Korean leadership’s measures against Jang are so severe as to preclude the chance of his re-emerging on the country’s political scene. It is safe to say that power will increasingly concentrate in the hands of Kim Jong Un, consolidating his position in North Korea’s power structure. He also may appoint younger people to positions to serve as his aides.
In announcing Jang’s removal from all his posts, the state-run Korea Central News Agency even aired photos showing guards taking Jang away from a party meeting. The KCNA’s report also hinted that a large number of people regarded as close to Jang will receive harsh treatment.
It is imperative that Japan, the United States and South Korea carefully watch Kim’s regime for indications of shifts in North Korea’s policy direction. North Korean officials may compete with each other to show their loyalty to Kim and to try to please Kim, thus leading to the adoption of rigid policies.
Jang, who was considered to be well-versed in economic matters, had been in charge of persuading entities in China and other countries to invest in North Korea. When he visited China in August 2012, he met with China’s then leaders President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, and was given treatment similar to that typically extended to a head of a state. Jang had represented North Korea in meetings and ceremonies related to business cooperation projects in the border area between China and North Korea.
In the second half of this year North Korea turned toward an open economic policy as part of its effort to reconstruct its economy, including announcing in November that economic development zones, mainly in the countryside, were being established. Unfortunately, Jang’s downfall will likely slow down the speed of economic reform.
It’s possible that while its economic reforms slow, North Korea will renew its efforts to develop missiles and nuclear weapons, thus increasing tension in Northeast Asia. Japan, the U.S., China and South Korea need to consider what they can do to prevent this from happening.
Jang apparently had some level of communication with Japan as evidenced by the fact that he met with Upper House member Antonio Inoki when the latter paid a visit to Pyongyang in early November.
Japan needs to determine which individuals are close to Kim in the new power structure that he is building and focus on opening new channels of communication with them.