Western analysts have scrambled to learn as much as possible about North Korea’s Jang Song-thaek. His skill in not only surviving political purges, but rising to the top of North Korean power circles stands out among the current North Korean leadership. He’s the current Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission and uncle of the “Great Successor,” Kim Jong-un. Many have argued that he could serve as a key advisor or even as caretaker of North Korea while Kim gains experience and builds loyalty within the regime. Anyone looking to understand North Korea after the passing of Kim Jong-il would, then, be well advised to keep an eye on Jang.
As with all things North Korea, though, hard facts are difficult to come by. What is known about Jang is that he came from a humble background and attended Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang. While there, he dated Kim Il-sung's daughter, Kim Kyong-hui. Kim Il-sung strongly disagreed with the relationship and ordered Jang should be expelled from the university and transferred to the Economy University of Wonsan. Despite her father's opposition, Kim Il-sung was persuaded to give his blessing for them to marry.
From 1978 until the early 1980s, it was believed Jang underwent re-education as a steel worker because of his inability to curb his alcoholism and neglect towards his governmental duties.But Jang was welcomed back to the inner elite after he completed the construction of the 13th Festival of Youth and Students in 1989. In 1992, he was elected to the Central Committee's Central Delegate and then to Vice Director of the Guidance Division. It seemed Jang was once again on the rise.
In 2004, Jang was the victim of another purge. There are several possible explanations for his downfall. One could be his rumored support for Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-il's eldest son, who was exiled for disgracing the family while trying to illegally enter Japan. The official reason for being purged was that he was reportedly attempting to build his own support base within the military, and Kim Jong-il was afraid that Jang was attempting to seize power. Another possible reason is Jang's connection to Hwang Jang-yop, who stated after his defection that it was likely that Jang was going to be the next leader after Kim Jong-il since Kim's children were unsuitable candidates to succeed their father.
Regardless, in 2006 Jang seemingly reappeared and was given the position of First Vice Director of the Guidance Department, which handled the governing of the Korean Worker's Party (KWP) and the KPA. The reasons for Jang's rehabilitation are unknown, but it’s assumed by North Korean analysts that he was welcomed back after fully accepting Kim Jong-il's desire to install his third son, Kim Jong-un, as successor.
Jang’s influence was seemingly enhanced in 2010 after the mysterious death of Ri Je-gang, the deputy director of the Workers Party Organization and Guidance Department, who died in a car accident in Pyongyang. There’s dispute among analysts as to whether Ri Je-gang’s accident was the result of foul play or an actual car accident. Ri was considered one of Jang’s main rivals, and his death allowed Jang to move into the vice chairmanship of the National Defense Commission and closer to Kim Jong-il to help secure Kim Jong-un’s succession.
After the death of Kim Jong-il, Jang was seen wearing the uniform of a four star general. South Korean officials stated that this was the first time Jang had been seen in a military uniform on state TV. This could signal that he has secured a prominent position within the North Korean military.
The rallying by the elites and the military around Kim Jong-un was seemingly born out of necessity to preserve stability. Kim Jong-un will likely remain a symbol of unity while Jang could become a strong leader as the military and other elites may seek his blessing on critical issues facing the country.
Either way, with Jang’s ability to survive North Korean politics and rise to the inner circle of the regime, it seems entirely possible he will have a strong influence over the young Kim. Time will tell whether he could rise even higher, or whether he will be purged again if the political winds shift against him once more.
Nicholas Miller is an analyst with the Center for Strategic Research and Analysis.