Why would North Korea powerbroker fall?

By Dr John Swenson-Wright
Chatham House

Image source, AP
Image caption,
There has been no word in North Korean media about the fate of Mr Chang (circled)

Reports from South Korea (ROK) suggest that Chang Song-thaek, a senior and long-standing influential figure close to the North Korean leadership, may have been removed from his position as vice-chairman of the country's National Defence Commission.

If true, this development may indicate that Kim Jong-un, the 29-year-old relatively inexperienced North Korean leader, may after almost two years in office be growing in confidence and seeking to assert his personal and political authority by limiting dependence on older advisers closely associated with his father, the late Kim Jong-il.

For now, the evidence of Mr Chang's dismissal is largely circumstantial and based on the public statements of two South Korean legislators citing testimony provided to them and a number of South Korean journalists, by the ROK's National Intelligence Service (NIS).

The NIS findings, although reportedly based on "multiple sources", are themselves an extrapolation from reports that two close advisers to Mr Chang were publicly executed in November for economic corruption-related offences.

In contrast to past senior leadership changes, such as the dismissal in 2012 of Ri Yong-ho, the North's top military figure, Mr Chang's alleged change of status has not been confirmed by official North Korean sources, nor significantly have there been corroborating reports in the Chinese media.

Centralised control

Mr Chang's past influence has been a function of his age (67) and experience, the senior positions he has held in the military, party and state security apparatus, and his family ties to the Kim dynasty - a consequence of his longstanding marriage to Kim Kyung-hee, the sister of Kim Jong-il and aunt of the current leader.

If the NIS reports are reliable (bolstered by the private assertions of at least one senior ROK analyst and former North Korean defector), then it suggests a number of interpretations.

Kim Kyung-hee's influence may be declining, partly a function of her ill-health, Consequently, her ability to safeguard her husband's position may have diminished.

As early as the autumn of 2010 there were suggestions that Ms Kim and her husband would function as mentors to Kim Jong-un, following his designation as his father's heir apparent, but this regency-type model of leadership now appears to have been replaced by a much more explicitly centralised system of control in which the new leader is seeking to emphasise his monopoly of power.

While Mr Chang has fallen out of favour in the past, having temporarily disappeared from public life between 2004 and 2006, arguably for overly ostentatious financial displays, his removal this time is likely to be permanent.

Power base

Mr Chang has often been viewed as an economic reformer and there is a possibility that his dismissal might presage a reversal in the North's admittedly guarded and partial support for economic reform.

However, Kim Jong-un has made a number of high-profile and public statements, most notably in April 2012, underlining his personal commitment to improving the economic condition of the North Korean people, and he is unlikely to retreat from this position.

Mr Chang has had close ties to China, having travelled to Beijing for a high-profile visit in August of 2012. His removal may irritate policy-makers in Beijing keen to believe that they once had a potentially sympathetic ear close to Kim Jong-un.

However, this is likely to have been wishful thinking and it is more likely that Chang's engagement with China reflected self-interested pragmatism rather than sympathy for the Chinese position.

In the North Korean context, loyalty more than anything is the key to personal influence and survival, and it is unlikely that Mr Chang would have jeopardised his position in the past by appearing unduly pro-Chinese.

His dismissal now may have reflected concerns on the part of Kim Jong-un (and those close to him) about Mr Chang's reliability or worries that he was arrogating to himself influence within North Korea's elites tantamount to establishing a rival power base challenging Mr Kim's authority.

Dr John Swenson-Wright is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge, and Senior Consulting Fellow, Asia Programme, Chatham House

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