Possible turmoil in the DPRK as reports are swirling about the execution of Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Un’s uncle and nominal second-in-command of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. A full-scale purge is believed to be underway as thirty-year-old Kim Jong Un seeks to eliminate factionalism within North Korea to consolidate his nascent rule and push forward with nuclear programs.
Jang Song-thaek is believed to have controlled North Korea‘s lucrative clams, crabs, and coal trade with China, the DPRK’s largest trading partner. Jang Song-thaek assumed control of this area of the state economy after taking it from the hands of the North Korean military which had used the funds to support itself. After touring northern border bases, Kim Jong Un was reportedly shocked at the state of his military who were malnourished and lacking in basic materials. Interestingly, Jang Song Thaek assumed control over the trade with China after a reorganization of the economy that saw the cabinet take control of critical sectors of the DPRK’s struggling state apparatus with the goal of revitalizing state-run industries and restoring some semblance of economic activity to the northern regions bordering China.
Officials at a fishery in the north refused the orders of Kim Jong-un’s military representative and allegedly said that they would have to check with Director Jang before turning over control of the fishery. Events escalated out of control from there. The unit dispatched by the DPRK military to retake the fishing grounds from Jang Song-thaek’s faction were repelled and suffered two deaths according to reports. Reports say that an enraged, and possibly drunk, Kim Jong-un sent a much larger force that succeeded in retaking the fishery and arrested Director Jang’s associates present at the site. Both of Director Jang’s assistants were taken into custody and executed by firing squad using an anti-aircraft machine gun.
The fissure was publicly discussed on DPRK state television (video above), a rarity for North Korea, and Director Jang was accused of everything from money laundering and moral dissolution to actively plotting to overthrow the Kim dynasty and establishing a “state within a state.” He allegedly represented enough of a threat to the Paektu line that swift action was necessary less the public or outside begin to question Kim Jong-un’s control of the situation and the DPRK military’s ability to defend and maintain control over the state.
United States officials have reportedly believed that Jang Song-thaek might even be running the country behind the scenes, but the swift downfall of his faction has dissolved any possibility that they will pose a threat to Kim Jong-un.
South Korea’s Director of its National Intelligence Service Nam Jae-joon does not believe the purge is related to an attempt by Director Jang Song-thaek to usurp Pyongyang or the Kim dynasty, rather it is related to Jang’s lucrative fiefdom of economic projects that drew the ire of the DPRK elite, particularly the military which sought to regain control of the fisheries they had previously controlled. North Korea has engaged in a number of trading activities including the export of natural resources to China but also including things like the production of methamphetamine which has become a social crisis in the northern areas of the DPRK, the same region allegedly under the control of Director Jang.
The relationship between the methamphetamine crisis and the military’s state of affairs in the northern provinces of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is unclear, yet it would be foolish to imagine that they are wholly unrelated. Events bear a remarkable similarity to the currency crisis that occurred under Kim Jong-un’s father, Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. For those who may be unfamiliar, a currency revaluation meant to curb black market trade with China and within the DPRK itself led to even greater economic chaos as many families in the DPRK, elite and non-elite alike, watched their life savings reduced to nothing. The minister in charge of the program of revaluation was very publicly condemned and executed, as were all those associated with the fiasco.
The combination of region-wide economic disarray in the northern provinces, coupled with an indigenous methamphetamine production and addiction problem, all while being under the seemingly monolithic control of an influential cabinet member who administers lucrative sectors of the state-run economy and has a close relationship with the People’s Republic of China, may have coalesced into the perfect storm that led to the reformist Jang’s demise. Remarkably, his wife and Kim Jong-un’s aunt has retained her position within the state hierarchy. Kim Kyong-hui was Kim Jong-il’s only sister and is thus directly related to the Kim family.
South Korean intelligence speculates that Vice Marshal of the North Korean People’s Army, Choe Ryong-hae, and Kim Won-hong, head of the DPRK’s intelligence and secret police, are two rising officials to watch in the wake of Jang Song-thaek’s purge.