[Viewpoint] The man behind the North’s changesWhen he was alive, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il appeared not to give too much credit to the economic insight of his brother-in-law Jang Song-thaek. In April 2004, Kim hosted a dinner for the delegation of then-President Kim Dae-jung’s special envoy.
After Jong-il decided that a North Korean economic delegation would visit South Korea for observation, he pointed to Jang and said, “He doesn’t know economics well. You should show him many things.”
Jang spent his career in politics and military affairs, serving as the administrative department director for the Workers’ Party and the vice chairman of the National Defense Commission. He didn’t serve an important post in the economic sector. But, he has participated in projects designed to attract foreign investment, including economic cooperation with China.
Jang has experienced ups and downs, but undeniably became the second-most powerful man in the North after Kim died. He is currently visiting China with a large entourage and having bold negotiations over opening up the North.
After the third Workers’ Party conference in September 2010 and Kim’s death, speculation was high over his ranking inside the party. But after chief military officer Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho lost power in July, no one questions Jang’s status.
He, however, is not in control of his nephew Kim Jong-un. Jang has a support role when it comes to the young North Korean leader. But Jang’s thoughts and intentions are included in all foreign and domestic politics of the North. It is, therefore, interesting that the North has been handling its economic issues with a completely different approach since Kim Jong-il’s death.
The remarks and policies of Kim Jong-il show that he had a certain degree of will to open up and reform the North. But he only thought about it. He never actually acted on it.
Although he made it clear that the reclusive communist regime will not follow the model of China, he still pushed forward the Kaesong Industrial Complex, Sinuiju special economic zone and July 1 economic reform. He made it clear that he wouldn’t open the front gates wide open, but he would still open a wicket gate.
When the North Korean nuclear crisis damaged the international community’s response toward the North, he scrapped that plan. The vicious cycle came from the inefficiency of the North’s system, in which Kim controls everything with a firm grip.
But under the Kim Jong-un leadership, the North has changed its governance style from the leader’s micromanagement to separation of power. Kim focuses on his site inspections to militaries and amusement parks. By making close contacts with the soldiers and criticizing public servants for poor performance to serve the people, he is portraying himself as a benevolent leader.
Prime Minister Choe Yong-rim is now in charge of inspecting major industrial sites such as the steelmaking factory. Most of his activities are published in the Rodong Shinmun, which has never happened before.
Pak Pong-ju, director of the light industry department of the Workers’ Party, is reportedly in charge of the recent economic reform in which the North gave factories and farmers the unprecedented right to set their own prices of some products.
It is also a significant change that the North is emphasizing globalization. Kim repeatedly stressed that North Koreans should keep their feet planted on the country’s soil while their eyes should look at the world. The North’s Korean Central News Agency is responsible for translating various foreign news reports and distributing them to party officials. Its president is inevitably a person who is most informed about the outside world.
The North recently appointed Kim Byong-ho, president of the news agency, as the deputy director of the party’s propaganda department and allowed him to accompany Kim’s site inspections. It demonstrates the North’s change that it will no longer be indifferent to the international community as it had in the past.
The architect of the North’s changes is likely Jang, taking into account his powerful ranking and abilities. Professor Kim Hyun-shik, a defector who was Kim Jong-il’s tutor, told the Dong-A Ilbo that he had worked with Jang since 1975.
“I believe Jang will lead Kim Jong-un toward the direction of opening up the North,” Kim said.
When Jang visited South Korea in October 2002 as a member of the economic survey team, a South Korean official remembered him for having deep insight into how to rebuild the North Korean economy. Jang’s dream could be realizing his nephew’s declaration that the North Korean people will never have to tighten their belts.
To realize the dream, the North must maintain the changes, while making a bold decision on denuclearization. There is no brilliant way for the North to keep its nuclear programs and revive the economy at the same time.
If Jang’s bold decision will recover the North’s economy and allow the people not to tighten their belts, the late Kim will happily regret his remark for having dismissed the economic insights of his brother-in-law.
*The writer is a senior fellow of the JoongAng Ilbo Unification Research Institute.
By Ahn Hee-chang