North Korea Leadership Watch

Research and Analysis on the DPRK Leadership

Where was Jang Song-thaek?

(N.B.: some material in this posting is drawn from my forthcoming short biography on Jang Song-thaek The Juche Jump (Hey, Mr. Jang!) which will appear in print at the end of the month)

The SK Ministry of Unification’s report and list about the KWP Central Committee’s memorial meeting to commemorate the 15th Anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s death seemed to miss several members of the DPRK internal security apparatus.  Neither listed nor taking their seats were State Security Department Senior Deputy Director U Tong-chuk, Minister of Public Security Ju Sang-song and most notably, CCKWP Administration Department Director and Kim Family in-law, Jang Song-thaek.  Here was a particularly important meeting of KWP Central Committee members and its administrative director was not in attendance.  Also, Mr. Jang’s absence is weighted against a new player on these lists–Gen. O Kuk-ryol (#7).  Some may take this as indicating that Gen. O and the KPA has won out in the (imaginary) power struggle between Mr. Jang and him, between the Party and Army.

Then again, Gen. O is a new addition to the DPRK’s public honor roll.  This can be adduced to the constitutional-enhancement of the National Defense Commission and O Kuk-ryol’s promotion to Vice Chair.  Also appearing on the list from the NDC and KPA was Gen. Kim Jong-gak, Vice Minister of PAF and Senior Deputy Director of the GPB; it is highly likely that Gen. Kim was present and listed as a surrogate for the elderly and supposedly ill VMAR Jo Myong-rok, GPB Director.  But the question remains, if he is as important as many a Pyongyang watcher thinks he is, where was Jang Song-thaek?

The easy answer is that Jang Song-thaek was in a meeting more vital to the continuity of power in the DPRK than a Party tribute to a leader who has been dead for fifteen (15) years.  One can take Mr. Jang’s absence in conjunction with that of Gen. Ju and Col. Gen. U, his direct subordinates in the internal security apparatus.  Mr. Jang spends most of his time on the “road to the People’s Revolution” with Kim Jong-il and one can not think of a better opportunity to gather the internal security apparatus’ top players together, particularly to announce policy or personnel changes.  Then again, this supposes Mr. Jang was in Pyongyang at the time.  For all we know, he could have been attending to a sensitive errand in the provinces on behalf of Kim Jong-il.

VMAR Kim Yong-chun, Pak Nam-gi and Mr. Jang at a guidance visit to the Huichon Power Station, mid-September 2009 (Photo: KCNA).

VMAR Kim Yong-chun, Pak Nam-gi and Mr. Jang at a guidance visit to the Huichon Power Station, mid-September 2009 (Photo: KCNA).

But this speaks to Jang Song-thaek’s status as an internal player, the consummate insider.  Looking at the Top 23 platform list one will find the Party, State and Army’s public faces.  90% of those listed had direct personal connections and close ties to Kim Il-sung.  One can look at KWP Secretary for Munitions and NDC Member Jon Pyong-ho (#5) and former Chair of the Second Economic Committee and former NDC member Kim Chol-man (#18) whom the late President Kim installed as managers of the North Korean military-defense industrial sector.  Yang Hyong-sop (#16) and VMAR Ri Yong-mu were Kim Il-sung’s relatives, and MAR Ri Ul-sol was his long-time bodyguard, close aide and surrogate father to a teenage Kim Jong-il.  One of Kim Il-sung’s relatives missing from the list was SPA Presidium Honorary Vice President Kim Yong-ju.  It should also be noted that many of the memorial meeting’s participants are in their 70’s and 80’s, so it is entirely possible that this was one of the last occasions when these people will be listed on a DPRK honor roll.

Jang Song-thaek had public representation at the memorial meeting.  Mr. Jang’s late eldest brother VMAR Jang Song-u (#21) attended, one of the last, if not final, public event at which he was present.  While Jang Song-thaek’s brothers advanced when Mr. Jang advanced to the North Korean power center, VMAR Jang actually was the first Jang brother to have significant political power when he became a Deputy Director of the Organization and Guidance Department in 1971 (one year prior to Jang Song-thaek’s marriage to Kim Kyong-hui).  Kim Kyong-hui’s (#15) attendance was a matter of course, being Kim Il-sung’s daughter (then again, where were sidebranches Kim Kyong-chin and Kim Pyong-il?).  But Kim Kyong-hui is her own political player in the Party with her husband and brother,  and on her own as managing agent for the Kim Family who has kept her relatives in line, and conveyed sensitive messages to them on behalf of General-Secretary Kim.

The absence of Jang Song-thaek on the new list says very little about the power he actually holds.  These lists convey a lot, but to another extent they have the distracting characteristics of cohort analysis.  This list is Kim Jong-il’s way of pledging fidelity and honoring the legacy of the First-Generation leadership that supported his father’s leadership, and his own succession.  Jang Song-thaek was one of the few Party officials who joined General-Secretary Kim at the banquet for Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, and Mr. Jang’s political beneficiaries populate powerful Party and State positions, and they are likely to continue so to do.

Jang Song-thaek, at the far right, sharing a good laugh with the General-Secretary. (Photo: KCNA)

Eyes wide shut? Jang Song-thaek, at the far right, sharing a good laugh with the General-Secretary. (Photo: KCNA)

As a final note, it is necessary to recall that Kim Il-sung never liked Mr. Jang much to begin with.  Jang Song-thaek may have appeared on Kim Il-sung’s Funeral Committee List in 1994, but this had more to do with his tight connection to Kim Jong-il.  When Kim Kyong-hui started dating Mr. Jang in the 1960’s, Kim Il-sung did whatever he could short of executing Mr. Jang to prevent the Jang-Kim relationship from blossoming into marriage.  So, in a personal context, it is little surprise that Mr. Jang is not shown as publicly honoring a man who tried to exclude him from the family in the first place.

An affiliate of 38 North