Kim Jong Un’s Purge of His Uncle May Test Ties With China

The dramatic purge of Jang Song Taek, uncle to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, highlights the ongoing power struggle in the Hermit Kingdom and Pyongyang's awkward relationship with China, its longtime ally

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Jung Yeon-Je / AFP / Getty Images

A South Korean man watches news about the dismissal of Jang Song Taek, Kim Jong Un's uncle, at a railway station in Seoul on Dec. 3, 2013

North Korea today confirmed that Kim Jong Un’s once powerful uncle Jang Song Taek, has been purged — and purged in a spectacular fashion.

In a television segment broadcast on Monday, Jang — the erstwhile No. 2 — is shown being arrested in front of an audience of top party members. State media kept up the drumbeat with charges Jang was “affected by the capitalist lifestyle” and allegations ranging from economic mismanagement to womanizing and drug use. “Jang pretended to uphold the party and leader,” reported KCNA, the party mouthpiece. “But was engrossed in such factional acts such as dreaming different dreams and involving himself in double-dealing behind the scene.”

“Dreaming different dreams” may be one of the stranger ways to accuse an official of what amounts to treason. But the charges against Jang seem to reflect the fact that there is to be only one vision for North Korea and one leader — Kim Jong Un. Kim’s tenure has seen a flurry of promotions, demotions and purges that suggests the young dictator is shoring up his base. “This is probably a step toward the consolidation of power under Kim,” says Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Jang Song Taek was both his supporter and his biggest threat.”

(MORE: American Detained in North Korea Arrives Home in California)

Jang’s ouster is the biggest shake-up in North Korean politics since young Kim came to power. A longtime associate of Kim Jong Il, Jang was once seen as a regent to the young dictator. He also had strong patronage networks of his own, and within the ultraconservative halls of North Korean power was seen as something of a liberal. He visited Seoul in 2002 and has made several official trips to China, most recently in August 2012.

These experiences seem to have made him a target, at least according to the official narrative, with state media lambasting his “depraved,” “capitalist” ways. And, it seems, he wasn’t just a capitalist, but a lousy capitalist. The excoriating KCNA report faults Jang for “throwing the state financial-management system into confusion and committing such acts of treachery as selling off precious resources of the country at cheap prices” — a reference, in all likelihood, to China.

Although it is still too soon to know what Jang’s ouster will mean for North Korea, many wonder if his sacking could hurt Sino–North Korea ties. Jang was the principal North Korean backer for a joint economic zone near the Chinese city of Dandong. The site, officially called the Hwanggumpyong Island Special Economic Zone, is supposed to bring North Koreans to work in Chinese factories and even play host to some banks.

But progress has been slow, says Adam Cathcart, who studies North Korea and China at the University of Leeds, mostly because of North Korea’s failure to get its economic house in order. A bridge to the area stands unfinished after 2½ years — a rarity in China, where major infrastructure projects seem to spring up overnight. Just before Jang first went missing, North Korea announced a new, separate economic zone at Sinuiju without consulting the Chinese. The whole Dandong project, Cathcart says, “is just limping along.”

(MORE: Why China’s New Air-Defense Zone Matters)

Of course, the same might be said for Sino–North Korean relations. Mao Zedong famously said North Korea and China were as “close as lips and teeth,” but the alliance has seen better days. China is frustrated by the north’s ongoing economic woes and believes Pyongyang’s nuclear theatrics led to the U.S. reinforcing its strategic position in East Asia.

But China is stuck with its neighbor for now. “The cost of sustaining the Kim regime may have increased and the benefits may have declined,” says Daniel Pinkston, the International Crisis Group’s deputy project director for North East Asia, in a new report. “But the calculation remains that the potential consequences of cutting Pyongyang loose are unacceptable.”

Indeed, in an editorial published late on Monday, China’s Global Times noted the “political” nature of Jang’s fall, saying his removal reflected a split between those who emphasized economic development and those who are holding strong to the country’s “military first” stance. In the end, though, Jang’s fall “won’t exert influence on East Asian dynamics,” it says. North Korea may wobble, but China will stand firm.

MORE: China and South Korea Plan to Build a Statue, and Now Japan Is Upset

116 comments
MarkPossemiers
MarkPossemiers

There's another rumour doing the rounds: that 10 years ago his uncle slept with his present wife. She already had the previous singers killed. And that now she wanted him out as well ...

Might all be simpler than most people think ...

Lembeck17
Lembeck17

Dismiss me as some geo-political innocent but methinks Jang Song Taek is simply a victim/symptom/poster child of the new Beijing Realpolitik.  Regardless - and in the immortal words of Ricky Ricardo - some 'handler' in the PRC's intelligence apparatus has some serious 'splainin' to do' - waahhh!"  What a sad international confederacy of bumbling dunces!

Sam Raj
Sam Raj

lol , let's all go to the lobby!!

Vijay Banga
Vijay Banga

You can control and destroy a person physically but cannot control dreams however Kim is getting sicker in the mind

Sameh Elgindy
Sameh Elgindy

Paralleled team Abdel Fattah Sisi comes out of the vote, despite his victory in the vote for democracy Fein freedom in America Fein press freedom do you have Time lost all confidence of the Egyptian people by Time magazine has its guidance from the U.S. administration and the idea Sisi leader in spite of Waltham and Obama and all the world Sisi Sisi Sisi

Huang Li Chen
Huang Li Chen

That's quite funny !!get arrested for different dreams!!

Dom Cardinale
Dom Cardinale

This administration is only going to arrest those with an IQ under 85. You know who you are.

김태형
김태형

Well this freaking idiot has been doing horrible things to mankind.. This undisciplined geek will never stop until he thinks that the whole world is under his control... Wow... What an idiot !!! Wake up....! Thats not gonna happen. I bet he will soon pay the price when we really really really run out of patience...

jhridder
jhridder

China is not going to be a happy customer. China doesn't like an unpredictable DPRK, so in order to "know" North Korea they have to be able to "know" the ruling class. China is already unhappy with KJU for ousting several generals and other elites from their positions and putting in other elites into their positions that China didn't know and now KJU has taken out the primary diplomatic lifeline between the two regimes (no China can't be happy at all). It wouldn't surprise me any if China started cracking down even more on DPRK. Before the missile launch and nuke test last winter China never really enforced the sanctions that were put on the DPRK afterwards China started upholding the sanctions (some at least). Now, China might just try to increase the pressure on KJU (how I'm not sure).


As for why KJU did this, I can think of three reasons, it could be one, some, all, or none of them but here they are:

1. It's been commonly commented in the media that Jang Song Thaek and his wife are the powers behind the throne (heck even I thought this since KJU is so young in a country that only respects age). He may have authorized this in order to show that he isn't anyone's puppet.

2. Jang may have been told by China to try to push economic reforms and KJU may have taken offence. Jang spent a lot of time in China  so it wouldn't be too much of a leap of imagination for China to put pressure on Jang to do as such

3. It's possible Jang Song Thaek may have had a falling out with his wife, Kim Kyong Hui, and since divorce is looked down upon (though not completely illegal) she had her nephew KJU (related by blood) have him publicly humiliated and ousted.

Romas Nordman
Romas Nordman

So just like in medieval Europe when kings were so paranoid about their position, they would murder their own family members...

Melody Wagler
Melody Wagler

No. Pie, or at least apple pie, would be too American.

Sol_
Sol_

Well, North Korea will officially be the last country on earth not have a Mc Donalds.

smece9a
smece9a

the biggest prison on earth

Mahmoud Hassan
Mahmoud Hassan

The rule of Field Marshal Abdel Fattah Sisi \ is defeated wars of the fourth generation of wars and put America remains exclusively in the ground and what he has done this by Gamal Abdel Nasser and Mohammed Ali Pasha of Egypt Vthia = Egypt or world and will have the world -

yutubenut
yutubenut

Ahh a good old fashion Stalin purge... NK is still China's puppet, both sides know NK would collapse in a year or two without China's material and financial support.

China wants NK as a physical buffer between them and the US (via friendly SK).

Mike Clarkson Sr.
Mike Clarkson Sr.

This probably isn't true. However, Have you looked at Kim Jong un. I mean what makes you think he isn't as stupid as he looks

Barbara Jo Wenger
Barbara Jo Wenger

the PERFECT example of total tyrant--- control of the UNCONSCIOUS mind......

quatra
quatra

Strange. Some people seem to be able to read but not to write English. That explains why they understand you in Paris or Madrid but don't know how to answer simple questions.

Regarding what Kim does or doesn't, I really don't care.



Laura Nancy
Laura Nancy

the guy participated in orgies, is a drug addict, and a gambler. I don't understand why TIME is distorting the news for people that don't get to read the article. You lost a follower, TIME.

Christopher Quezada
Christopher Quezada

was he not dreaming of cake? he was probably dreaming of pie, pie doesnt fly with kim jong un. he's a cake guy and so should everyone

Martin Rockett
Martin Rockett

If we are not careful this administration will be arresting us for the same thing.

Rick Cortez
Rick Cortez

For a minute I thought this was a headline from "The Onion"

jhridder
jhridder

Another thing I'd like to add. This may have been a long time in the making. For a while now some analysts have speculated that Jang may have been distancing himself from KJU in order to maintain stable ties with China (especially after the missile and nuke fiasco last winter). There have been pictures of Jang not paying attention during committee meetings while KJU was speaking, pictures where Jang was seated farther away from KJU, and then there was the fact that China would agree to meet with Jang and not with KJU (that one was in particular was a slap in the face for KJU).

jhridder
jhridder

family only by marriage though

BrentJatko
BrentJatko

I figured some jackwad would compare President Obama with Kim. 

Ding-ding-ding! 

You win the prize!

eagle11772
eagle11772

I agree.  The Obamaniac worships ONLY Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin & Uncle Joe Stalin.  He is Evil.  PURE EVIL.

BrentJatko
BrentJatko

@eagle11772 I figured some jackwad would compare President Obama with Kim. 

Ding-ding-ding! 

You win the third prize!