The security dichotomyNorth Korea experts and media at home and abroad are making various interpretations over the alleged downfall of Jang Song-thaek, the uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and vice chairman of the paramount National Defense Commission. This overgrown chaos of opinions was caused by the National Intelligence Service, which wanted to divert public attention away from the National Assembly’s plan to reform the top spy agency and opposition politicians who crave the media spotlight.
According to the revelation, Jang lost a power struggle and two of his confidants were publicly executed, while Jang himself faced a political purge. But the motives behind the NIS’s abrupt briefing to the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee about the alleged purge and opposition lawmakers’ leak of the information to reporters seemed to be dubious.
The spy agency suddenly revealed Jang’s supposed fall without proper details. And a lawmaker who was inconsiderate but ambitious called a North Korea expert before receiving a comment that “Jang appeared to be the loser in a power struggle against Choe Ryong-hae, director of the General Political Bureau of the North Korean People’s Army.” Then the lawmaker leaked the information to the reporters.
JoongAng Ilbo reporter Ha Sun-young, who filed the exclusive report on the behind-the-scenes process of the revelation, wrote that it appeared to be a trick by the NIS. That observation is sharp, but the behavior of the spy agency is far more than a trick as it amounts to be a carefully calculated attempt to use North Korea to influence domestic politics, often referred to as “north wind.”
If Jang actually fell from power, it is a significant event. If it were true, the National Intelligence Service should have explained the background of the incident to avoid - or at least minimize - confusion. In other words, Jang’s purge could have been caused by various reasons, including corruption, tyranny and abuse of power. There is also a wide range of punishments that he could have faced from censure to house arrest to purge.
What we should pay heed to is if Jang actually was pushed out after losing a power struggle against Choe and the military, as many experts said, or if it was the outcome of a higher, wider power struggle. We also need to pay attention to how Jang’s removal will impact Kim Jong-un’s power elite and if it will shake up our security climate.
Lee Jong-seok, a former unification minister who participated in planning the 2000 and 2007 inter-Korean summits and accompanied the two South Korean presidents to Pyongyang for the meetings, dismissed the theory of a power struggle. “Unless Kim Jong-un is a pushover, there cannot be a power struggle in North Korea,” Lee said. “It is also unconvincing that Jang lost in the competition over economic policies.”
Jang was known to be in charge of coordinating the Military First policy since the Kim Jong-il era and led the reform to hand over the rights and interests in foreign currency business from the military’s sole control to the government and the Workers’ Party. Of course, the military could have harbored hostility toward Jang because he took away the honey jar of the foreign currency business. But without Kim Jong-un’s strong will, Jang could have not pushed forward with a decision that was directly linked to Kim’s control over the military.
If it were a power struggle, the winner must take responsibility for the aftermath. Kim is highly motivated to push forward his new project on special economic zones. The economy, along with nuclear programs, is one of the two wings that will decide the fate of the Kim system. The projects can only succeed when China makes more investments, while the North invites investments from other countries.
If Jang’s downfall caused a failure in the projects, those who won the power struggle and expelled him will have to take responsibility. And that factor will be taken into account when Kim decides punishment for Jang.
Former Unification Minister Lee, who has been following North Korean affairs at the Sejong Institute, pointed out that the South Korean government is too quiet if it has determined that Jang’s fall was serious enough to have an impact on the South’s security. He said Jang had not lost a power struggle and the North’s South Korea policy won’t change as long as Pyongyang continues its current economic policies. Based on his two meetings with Jang in Pyongyang, Lee said Jang was not a person who would challenge his boss. Then why were two of his confidants executed? “They could have abused their power and been corrupt, believing that Jang had the power to protect them,” Lee explained.
The government also toned down its rhetoric a day after the revelation. There was no emergency meeting of security ministers and President Park Geun-hye made no mention about the situation in the North. The Chinese government also said it has no information and is still collecting intelligence.
But our incumbent unification minister, Ryoo Kihl-jae, was giving inconsistent comments. At the National Assembly, he said he knew the whereabouts of Jang, but couldn’t confirm it. Later, he changed his words and said it was not what he meant. The Ministry of Unification sadly danced along with the National Intelligence Service’s move because of its lack of information.
North Korea is always a sensitive issue, so we must approach it carefully and empirically. The National Intelligence Service, which has long monopolized information on North Korea, must have a strong urge to use intelligence to dilute growing public demands for reform of the spy agency. But it must refrain from doing so and make public the thoroughly verified and refined information within the framework of a concerted North Korea policy. The Blue House, too, must adjust the roles of the Ministry of Unification and the NIS, while politicians must think about the future of inter-Korean relations before their ambitions. The media and experts also should refrain from simply relaying foreign media’s subjective commentaries without proper filtering.
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Young-hie