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.”

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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.”

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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.

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