The Demise of Jang Song Thaek

On December 12, North Korea’s official state news agency, Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), announced that Jang Song Thaek, uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jung-un, was executed shortly after a special military trial. The announcement came only four days after Jang Song Thaek had been removed from all his positions. Jang was found guilty of attempting to overthrow the state, building his own personality cult, and involvement in economic corruption.

Q: What is unusual about Jang Song Thaek’s execution?

A: Jang’s purging was an unexpected event, even by North Korean standards. The late leader Kim Jong-il appointed Jang as a guardian of Kim Jong-un to help his son to take over power after his death, but Jang’s existence as the second-most influential figure was eventually perceived to be a direct threat to North Korean single-man leadership. Why? There appear from KCNA statements to be clear indications of an internal challenge by Jang and his network to the young Kim.  More interestingly, the official statement makes reference to “enemies” who have corrupted the youth of the country in collusion with Jang.  This could all be propaganda by the regime to justify taking down Jang, but it could also be seen as a clear and organized resistance to Kim’s rule, possibly with help from the outside. 

Political purging is not unusual inside North Korea, but the country has never publicly announced an execution of a top-level government official in the past five decades.     In the early 1950s, a young and inexperienced Kim Il-sung, handpicked by Josef Stalin and relatively unknown among the North Korean people, ruthlessly purged his political enemies.  Perhaps the Junior Kim sees parallels with his grandfather.

Q: What are the implications of Jang’s execution?

A: The immediate impact of Jang’s execution would be that North Korea will go through a period of political instability. It is likely that we will see a more widespread purge of government and military officials with ties to Jang. Kim’s “reign of terror” may trigger a defection of many North Korean officials to abroad. Given Jang’s role in the country’s economic reforms and his involvement in the special economic zones near North Korea’s border with China, many of these economic projects will likely come to a halt until Kim brings the situation under control.  The KCNA statements deplore Jang’s selling off all of North Korea’s economic resources to China as a treasonous act.  The problem for Beijing is that Jang was their main interlocutor while it disapprovingly kept its distance from the junior rambunctious Kim.  China may be forced to deal with Kim now, if it values some insight into the situation in Pyongyang and if it continues to have equities in maintaining stability in the North.

Q: What will be the road ahead?

A:Unclear.  Kim has demonstrated his ruthlessness in disposing of threats, but it remains uncertain the basis upon which he will rule with his attacks on large parts of the leadership of both the Korean Worker’s Party and the Korean People’s Army.  Taking down both institutions of power in the North leaves him more isolated than either of his predecessors, even as the personality cult of leadership remains the primary mantle of power.   Can young, inexperienced cronies of junior Kim take the reins and manage the country?  Or will the disenfranchised elite find some way to resist?  We just do not know.  In the short-run, it is likely that we will see a shift to a more hardline policy. North Korea has often responded to domestic instability with external provocation.

Q: Is there anything that we can be sure of?

A: The only certainty about Kim Jong-un is his unpredictability.  On the same day that he executed Jang, the North reached out to the South to cooperate on Kaesong, and only a few days earlier Pyongyang released without explanation an 85-year old American tourist, Merrill Newman, who was detained in the country for over one month.  Is there anyone in North Korea who knows whether this is a comprehensive strategy or randomness?  Maybe not.

Victor Cha is a senior adviser and holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. Sang Jun Lee, research assistant with the Korea Chair and Dana D’Amelio intern with the Korea Chair, provided research assistance.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair

Ellen Kim