UPDATE: North Korean official news service KCNA reported that Kim Jong Un’s uncle and former king-maker, Jang Song Taek, has been executed.
The report called Jang a “traitor” who was “worse than a dog,” and accused him of committing “such hideous crimes as attempting to overthrow the state by all sorts of intrigues and despicable methods.”
KCNA reported that all the crimes Jang was accused of “were proved in the course of hearing and were admitted by him.”
NA’ALEHU, Hawaii — Although the corrupt character of First Uncle Jang Song Taek could not have been much of a surprise to his fellow top officials, including 30-year-old nephew Kim Jong Un, current indications are that the uncle’s coterie was and still is in position to cause the North Korean supreme leader a world of hurt.
Accordingly the regime is exhibiting seriousness bordering on panic.
As propaganda designed to instill loyalty to Kim intensifies in the wake of Jang’s show trial, a source from the North’s Yanggang Province is quoted in one South Korean news report as saying that “the atmosphere near the border areas has been like nothing anyone has seen before.”
Double the usual numbers of soldiers “rigidly stand guard with stern expressions on their faces,” apparently because the authorities fear that “some of Jang’s associates may attempt to defect to the South,” that unidentified source continues.
That level of regime concern may seem strange at first glance. After all, the portrait of Jang that emerged from the charges leveled against him was not only accurate, at least for the most part; it was also common knowledge, both to regime insiders and to close observers from outside.
As the husband of Kim Kyong Hui, the beloved sister of the current ruler’s late father and predecessor Kim Jong Il, Jang had shown himself over the decades of his marriage to be corrupt in terms of both finances and the personal moral standards that upright North Koreans are supposed to uphold.
In any deal, he wanted a cut of the money. Precisely as charged, he was a womanizer and substance abuser, accustomed to being wined and dined.
As for the charge he “dreamed a different dream in the same bed,” it was never any secret that Jang was close to the Chinese, who for decades have urged serious reform and opening in the economy of their much smaller neighbor — something North Korean conservatives opposed.
But new reports suggest that Jang in his role of overseeing the country’s and Kim’s overseas interests was playing it even faster and looser than anyone back home imagined.
Domestically he also reportedly was nailed for skimming the funds dedicated to providing food and clothing for the military.
One unconfirmed report originating with Seoul’s defector-staffed Free North Korea Radio says Jang himself has been not merely removed from all his posts but executed.
Even if he’s no longer around, however, the authorities have to worry about the thousands of ambitious officials who joined his network over the years. Reportedly many of his overseas associates have been ordered home. Probably not all will have complied. And there is also that fear in Pyongyang that Jang associates inside the country who have not yet been arrested will escape and defect.
Unconfirmed news reports vary in saying that one Jang associate — or two individuals — fled to China carrying potentially damaging information including details of the North Korean nuclear program and account books for Kim’s slush funds, used for his and his family’s luxury purchases and for buying luxury gifts to pay off military and civilian officials for their loyalty.
US Treasury officials, if they had access to such materials, could use them to isolate North Korea even further financially. Former Treasury official Juan Zarate in a new book explains how such campaigns have proceeded in the past.
Another man close to Jang who had a major role looking after Kim’s money, Ri Su Yong, is reported to have defected to China — or been caught and arrested inside North Korea. The Japanese daily Mainichi’s version — unconfirmed like the others — is that Ri was executed.
Then there’s a report that North Korea is selling to China large quantities of gold, which South Korea’s Yonhap news agency suggests is a sign it’s having economic trouble related to the Jang case.
We have not heard the end of the Jang case, by any means.
Veteran Asia correspondent Bradley K. Martin is the author of “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.”