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The Fall of Jang Sung-taek, One of North Korea’s Strongmen

With the death of Kim Jong-il, his son Kim Jong-un, took over as the leader of North Korea in December of 2011. Speculation was rife on where this western educated and young leader would take his kingdom. The first few years of Kim Jong-un’s rule are instructive in understanding not only the way in which North Korea’s leadership has maintained it’s grip on power, but also in just how little western observers actually know about North Korea.

Jang Sung-taek was married to Kim Kyong-hui, daughter of the founding leader of North Korea and grandfather of Kim Jong-un, Kim il-Sung; as such he was seen in positions of power and given his proximity to the ruling family seen as being in a position of security. Jang Sung-taek was a four star General, Vice-Chairman of the National Defence Commission, and as Kim Jong-il’s health declined, was seen by foreign observers as the leader of the country prior to Kim Jong-un formally assuming power.

Because of the power and position of Jang Sung-taek, in particularly given his ties to the family that has lead North Korea since it’s inception, it was believe  that he would be a mentor to Kim Jong-un; and continue in a position of power and security as he had with the new leaders father. This speculation along with the hopes that Kim Jong-un might take his country down a path completely unlike his father show a degree of hope from foreign observers, as well as a great deal of naivety.

Within two years of Kim Jong-un’s rise to power, Jang Sung-taek had been accused of treason and arrested. North Korean state media reported his execution on December 13, 2013. Further reports have suggested his extended family including two ambassadors had been executed; additional reports have claimed as many as 200 more supporters were executed, with their families being sent to prison camps. Given little information on the events that precipitated, and resulted in the death of Jang Sung-Taek, we are left to make eductated guesses. It is easy presume that given the position of power he held prior to and after the death of Kim Jong-il, that he was seen as a serious threat by the future leader. In fact there had been speculation that he was a contender for the role Kim Jong-un would take. The fall of Jang Sung-Taek marks Kim Jong-un’s demonstration to his people of his willingness to do what ever is needed to remain in power.

To understand the extent to which Kim Jong-un was willing to go to consolidate power, we must look at Jang Sung-taek’s past. Jang Song-Thaek’s positions over the years have been extensive and have included management in industry, posts with the Korean Workers Party Central Committee, and having been elected to the Supreme Peoples Assembly and the National Defense Commission. He held the distinction of being conferred with the award of People’s Hero, and also was a member of the Order of Kim il-sung. He was present on state visits to China as well as during South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun’s visit to the North. In short, Jang Sung-taek career which spanned from the 1970s until his arrest, covered  much of North Koreas positions of power. The execution of Jang Sung-Taek and ostensibly his supporters is effectively the extirpation of a great many persons of power and influence; many no-doubt who had the rare opportunity to benefit from luxuries only afforded to the most loyal (including extended education). If in fact his children shared his fate as has been suggested from reports, this further illustrates the depths to which Kim Jong-un was willing to go; as these people where in fact part of Kim Jong-un’s extended family.

The details of Jang Song-Thaek’s fall from grace include symptoms of infighting between the nascent leadership of Kim Jong-un and the established power base of Jang Song-Thaek. There are signs that Jang Song-Thaek was being moved from positions of power; if in fact this was the case, for his sake he would have done well to heed these changes with greater alacrity. Instead he chose a vain attempt at holding onto vestiges of power even as he was only a few years from his 70th birthday. For a North Korean, the average life expectancy is 69.5 years; perhaps Jang Sung Thaek wagered that in the event of failure, he had lived long enough.

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