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Jang Song Taek sought to rescue North Korea with Chinese-style reforms.
NA’ALEHU, Hawaii — When dictator Kim Jong Un executed his uncle Jang Song Taek last week, he left hungry and oppressed North Koreans bereft of the man who could have become the country’s greatest hero, according to the latest news from South Korea.
Jang, we learn, had been plotting to overthrow the Kim regime not just briefly but for nearly two decades, living courageously in the very belly of the beast while risking discovery all the while.
It’s an account that makes sense.
Let’s begin the tale in February 1997, when Hwang Jang Yop, former secretary of the ruling Workers Party, appeared at a reception in Tokyo. Three or four foreign correspondents approached the 74-year-old senior official to sound him out on such current issues as the awful North Korean economy and the regime’s nuclear program.
We got nowhere. Hwang was totally uncommunicative. He seemed distracted, downcast.
Later the reason became apparent: Hwang was trying to defect. He had planned to make his break while in Japan, but North Korean security officers were watching him too closely. At his next stop, Beijing, he did manage to defect, first taking refuge in the South Korean embassy.
In South Korea he devoted the remaining 13 years of his life to spilling the details of the Pyongyang regime’s inner workings, and warning against underestimating its capacity for evil.
To one obvious question — whether there was anyone remaining inside North Korea who had the capability to take over from the second-generation ruler Kim Jong Il — Hwang answered yes. But then he refused to identify publicly the person he had in mind, for obvious reasons. He did give the name confidentially to South Korean security officials, though.
And now according to the Seoul daily JoongAng Ilbo Hwang’s answer can be told — because there is no longer anything the Pyongyang regime can do to the man of whom Hwang was speaking: Jang Song Taek.
Jang’s death sentence last Thursday for treason against his nephew by marriage, the current North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un, was carried out immediately, the regime announced.
According to the paper’s unnamed official source, Hwang told South Korean officials the real reason for his own defection: The regime was catching on to his unfulfilled plot, hatched in 1996, to overthrow then-ruler Kim Jong Il and assassinate him. Allied with him in that plot, he’s now quoted as saying, was none other than Jang, who was married to Kim Jong Il’s sister.
The JoongAng Ilbo story passes various plausibility tests. For one thing, it suggests a more pressing reason for Hwang to have fled than the weak one he recited for public consumption back in 1997: disillusionment with the regime, and criticism from Kim Jong Il that suggested Hwang was to be put out to pasture, excluded from the inner circle, with no further overseas travel privileges after that trip.
Students of North Korea who interview defectors quickly learn that very few of them have left merely because of disaffection.
Normally, uprooting themselves so drastically takes some event that threatens their ability to survive in their home country in reasonable comfort. Getting caught plotting a coup definitely qualifies as such a life-changing event.
Some people hearing his earlier version felt Hwang had been dishonorable to leave his family behind to die for his betrayal (his wife and son were executed). Others thought there might be more to the story because Hwang’s character as it became known was that of an honorable man.
What we know for sure is that it was the rule in North Korea that three generations of the families of political criminals must suffer punishment along with the actual perps.
If the new story is correct about the gravity of the charges Hwang would have faced, we can guess that returning most likely would not have spared his loved ones grievous suffering. Meanwhile, we would not have the information Hwang was determined to bring out with him.
Adding to the newspaper story’s plausibility is the horrible situation that Kim misrule had created for the population by the mid-1990s. Virtually all North Koreans would agree: That was the low point since the formation of a communist state after World War II.
A famine — which experts blame largely on poor policies carried out by leaders who valued their own luxuries and the development of nuclear armament more than the lives of the people — killed multitudes. At least 600,000 died and some estimates put the number in the millions. Somebody within the official apparatus had to find that unacceptable. According to the new story, Jang was prominent among those who, secretly, did.
Also adding to the plausibility of JoongAng Ilbo’s story is that it offers a persuasive narrative that can explain why the young Kim’s action against his uncle last week was so ferocious. That requires explanation because Jang had been known for years as a corrupt official, a womanizer and boozer with views somewhat sympathetic to China’s reform and opening policies. All those were charges against him in his “trial.” But with only that sort of evidence, why would Kim have been surprised and angry enough to have his uncle offed with such haste?
A theory to explain that ferocity that had been gaining ground was that sex was at the root of it. Gossip reported in South Korea and China had it that Jang had been involved sexually with Kim’s beautiful wife, entertainer Ri Sol Ju, before her marriage to Kim and had even made sex tapes with her. This theory fit with the fact that Ri, once a staple on national television, had not been seen on TV since October. Kim was said to be in the market for a new first lady.
The sex theory lost ground over the weekend when Ri was shown once again on national TV. (Also reappearing in the news was the name of Kim Jong Un’s aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, whose fate had been in question after her longtime husband was put to death. She was reported to be high on the list of personages to attend another dead official’s funeral. Reports say she divorced Jang before the sentence was carried out.)
We don’t particularly need that gossip-based sex theory now that we have better evidence for an alternative explanation of why Kim would want to dispose of his uncle so brutally: specificially, that the charges Jang was plotting a coup — charges that he allegedly admitted to — were true.
With proper understanding, who knows? Maybe much of the rest of the world will shout “Nice try!” and mourn the fallen Jang.
It’s true that the mantle of mythic would-be savior may not now appear to rest well on Jang’s very human figure. But perhaps some day, when the Kims are gone and the northern part of the Korean peninsula needs a hero from this period to put in the history books, we’ll read that his dissolute behavior was part of an act he put on as disguise — to survive while he watched and waited for a chance to carry out his coup.
And don’t forget that the indictment against him says he confessed that his plan was to wait for Kim’s misrule to collapse, then take over the government and use the piles of money he had squirreled away around the world to rebuild the economy. (Next question: Where is that money? And who will grab it now? Kim? The US Treasury?)
Maybe we’ll even learn that his extreme corruption, grabbing a cut out of every deal to the point foreign investors called him “North Korea’s Mister 10 Percent,” was for the common good.
Maybe. But of course it’s North Korea we’re trying to read here and there is no country more inherently unreadable.
Veteran Asia correspondent Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.