NA’ALEHU Hawaii — North Korean First Uncle and erstwhile power-behind-the-throne Jang Song Taek may be down, but it’s too early to count him out.
South Korea’s spy agency notes that Jang hasn’t been seen in public since around the time last month when, it says, two of his close associates were executed on charges of corruption.
That suggests he may have been purged (though this can't be confirmed, and South Korea's intelligence hasn't always been right).
But Jang has been on the outs before, only to return to the inner circle of power.
One hint that he may not have been kicked out completely this time but simply demoted is the wording of the item from the regime’s official Korean Central News Agency that reported his last public appearance on Nov. 6, at a meeting with Japanese pro wrestler and lawmaker Antonio Inoki.
The article described Jang as chairman of the state Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission, one of the lesser titles he had carried earlier.
Probably there was more to that than simply adjusting his stated title to the nature of a meeting with a foreign sports figure. Not long before, even on inspection tours to sports facilities — the last one to Pyongyang’s May Day Stadium on Sept. 24 — Jang had been mentioned with his largest titles: member of the party Central Committee’s Political Bureau and vice chairman of the National Defense Commission.
Besides, the fall-off in Jang’s reported public appearances wasn’t dramatic, as a graph illustrates. KCNA news articles chronicling appearances in October — when the investigation into his subordinates’ wrongdoing probably would have been reaching its conclusion — still showed him high in the regime’s pecking order.
Still, if he was demoted it must have stung.
How could his 30-year-old nephew justify humiliating the avuncular elder who, along with his aunt, did much of the groundwork to smooth Kim Jong Un’s succession after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, two years ago?
Easy. That’s Kim Jong Un’s nature. Although he’s only the third son in a culture that exalts first sons, the young man got the job because his dad considered him the toughest and most aggressive of all his kids. As Kim Jong Il knew from experience, a totalitarian dictator has to be a mean son of a bitch to survive and keep iron control.
As for the proximate cause of the alleged personnel action, do you suppose the young Kim was shocked, SHOCKED to learn – assuming the South Korean account is true – that corruption riddled the party administration department, whose top officials, including the two who were executed, reported to Jang?
For him to muster surprise at that, Kim’s head would have to have been stuck in the sand. Jang is known far and wide, among both the North Korean elite and foreign business people, for high living and for never having missed a chance to grab a cut of any deal involving money.
He reportedly got sent away from the center of power to reflect on his shortcomings not once but twice — after he racked up a record to rival that of Pakistan’s open-palmed Mr. Ten Percent, Asif Ali Zardari, husband of the late Benazir Bhutto — and again in the 2000s.
Of course we can’t rule out the possibility that Jang overdid the corruption. A report in September said he was deeply involved in the Northeast Asia Bank, which was building a new skyscraper in Pyongyang.
Maybe the uncle was getting too high a profile. It could have hurt his nephew’s feelings to read persistent Western headlines describing Jang and his wife as puppeteers, the new Kim on the block as a mere “figurehead.”
Another possibility: Some members of the elite no doubt resented the recent trend to downgrade the military’s power and rebuild the power of the ruling Workers’ Party. Some — maybe including Kim Jong Un, who apparently has only a rudimentary acquaintance with economics — may have grown tired of what are reported to have been Jang’s arguments for emulating China to some extent, by focusing on the economy more and military preparations correspondingly less.
In the end, of course, these are no better than informed speculations. As with so many aspects of self-isolated North Korea, we simply don’t know.
One final question: IF Jang has been humbled, will he make a comeback? We can do the math. Both times previously after he was sent into the political wilderness he did return.
On the other hand, there’s baseball math: Three strikes and you’re out.
Veteran Asia correspondent Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.