North Korea: Leadership Schisms and Consolidation During Kim Jong Un’s Second Year in Power

The Year of Reckoning

Kim Jong Un and Jang Song Thaek at the Korean General Satellite Command and Control Center seconds after the successful lift-off of the Unha-3 on December 12, 2012. A year later on December 12, 2013, Kim Jong Un marked the first anniversary of the “successful launch of the second version of artificial earth satellite Kwangmyongsong-3” by executing his uncle-in-law for “anti-party and counter-revolution crimes” and state treason. (KCTV screengrab).

The year 2013 will be recorded in North Korea’s political history as the year of “anti-party and counter-revolutionary crimes and capital punishment,” most notably marked by Kim Jong Un’s acknowledgment that his own relatives refused to accept his absolute rule and his triumph over the family traitors, and the Icarus-like rise too close to the sun and the downfall of “grey cardinal” Jang Song Thaek. These events highlighted a deepening divide within the Kim clan between blood relatives and in-laws: by ordering the execution of his uncle-in-law, the supreme leader drew the line in his clan between all blood relatives and in-laws, implying that his brothers and sisters may still be untouchable but putting all their spouses and relatives on notice. 2013 was also a year of relative decline in the political influence of the Kim family’s side branches as compared to the growing political stature of the descendants of other first generation revolutionary families. It was the pivotal year when the military hardliners mounted a successful comeback and the long simmering war of co-regents—Choe Ryong Hae and Jang Song Thaek—unexpectedly entered the shock and awe phase and abruptly culminated in Jang’s execution.

The guardianship system created by Kim Jong Il to ease his son’s way to power began to unravel in the wake of the “7.15” purge of the first guardian Ri Yong Ho in July 2012. The “12.12” execution of the second guardian Jang Song Thaek last December detonated its bedrock foundation, and as the signs of the third guardian Choe Ryong Hae’s declining influence begin to emerge in 2014,[1] the system is entering the twilight zone.

In 2013, Kim Kyong Hui, Kim Jong Il’s sister and sole direct survivor of the regime’s founder Kim Il Sung, who was long assumed to be the executor of Kim Jong Il’s estate and the real power behind the successor’s throne, lost her presumed influence as the “king-maker” and her stature as the “queen Kim.” She disappeared from the public view, probably for good. I expect Kim Jong Un to completely dismantle the guardianship system and solidify his position as supreme leader by the end of 2014—less three years since his father’s death.

Unraveling of Jang’s “Bubble Kingdom”

As a sign of special trust, Kim Jong Un presents a handgun with his autographed message to Jang Song Thaek at the enlarged meeting of the WPK Central Military Commission, on February 3, 2013. (KCTV screengrab).

North Korea did not unravel last year, but the ruling regime lost one of its vital parts. The official narrative of a smooth succession backed by single-hearted, army-people unity collapsed when the regime published a sanitized account of Jang Song Thaek’s unprecedented attempt to hijack the succession and build an alternative center of power rooted in his own unified guidance system with the aim of replacing the Kim dynasty with his own. The bursting of Jang’s “bubble kingdom” left the regime limping and bleeding from within.

When we look back, prior to Jang’s purge, the contemporaneous narratives explaining the possible rationales of the leadership changes in 2013 revolved around two dominant themes: 1) the party-military strife, whereby the party rolled back the military-first (songun) policy, re-asserted its control over the military, and replaced military hardliners with more moderate and low-profile generals;[2] and 2) accelerating generational change, with the Kim Jong Il-era generals giving way to the younger generation of military leaders more amenable to Kim Jong Un’s leadership style.[3]

The Jang saga compels us to rethink the history of North Korea’s political development over the past year. The post-purge narrative of leadership changes must incorporate the rise in power and confidence of the Jang faction in 2012 and 2013, emphasize its struggle against the rest of the North Korean leadership who did not want to lose their privileged positions if he were ever to succeed. This narrative hypothesizes that Kim Jong Un may be the Joker manipulating the playing field to his political advantage. He is the boss, and everyone else serves at his pleasure.

Last year, we witnessed several rounds of major military and government reshuffles which we have to review through the lenses of Jang’s factional struggle—in February at the Ministry of People’s Security, in April at the Cabinet and National Defense Commission, in May and August at the General Staff and Ministry of Defense, and in November-December at the Central Committee’s Administrative Department and its subordinate units. These “organizational issues” were decided at two enlarged meetings of the Central Military Commission (February 3 and August 25, 2013), three Politburo meetings (January 23, February 11 and December 8, 2013), the Plenary Meeting on March 31, 2013, and the Seventh Session of the 12th SPA held on April 1, 2013.

It appears that Jang’s influence peaked in late 2012 when he was able to considerably strengthen his power by securing the demotions of his military rivals including Vice-Marshals Choe Ryong Hae and Kim Jong Gak and Generals Kim Yong Chol and Choe Pu Il, while expanding the roles, authorities, personnel and resources of his “kingdom” headquartered in the party’s Administrative Department.

Suffering Tactical Defeats

However, Jang’s triumph did not last long, and his fortunes turned in the beginning of 2013. According to KCNA, at the Politburo meeting held on December 8, 2013, “The party served warnings to Jang several times and dealt blows at him, watching his group’s anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts as it has been aware of them from long ago.” Looking back, these “warnings” may be reflected in the fact that Kim did not invite Jang to participate in the consultative meeting of senior officials handling state security and foreign affairs held on January 26, 2013. Four days later, in a speech at the Fourth Conference of Cell Secretaries, Kim Jong Un in a veiled reference to his uncle said:

As he is not a Buddhist image made of stone, man may make mistakes in his work and life and even commit unforgivable crimes. No matter what serious mistakes or crimes he may make, and even though we find in him 99 per cent of demerits and only one per cent of merit or conscience, we should value his conscience, boldly trust him and lead him to start with a clean slate.

At the Politburo meeting held on February 11, Jang was apparently severely reprimanded for his obstruction of building the Kim dynasty’s personality cult and ignoring the order of KPA Supreme Commander—the same themes which were repeated in the December indictment.

That same month, Jang also lost the battle to bring the Ministry of People’s Security under his absolute control when the “legacy” Minister Ri Myong Su was replaced with one of Kim Jong Un’s close confidants, his former basketball coach Colonel-General Choe Pu Il,[4] who was appointed as a National Defense Commission (NDC) member in April and promoted to full general in June for “devotedly defending the leader.”

In the meantime, Jang’s arch-nemesis Choe Ryong Hae regained his Vice-Marshal epaulettes in January and consolidated his grip on the military, backing up its hardline elements headed by Generals Kim Kyok Sik and Kim Yong Chol. The “loyal fighter” Kim Kyok Sik saw his stature rise from commanding the fourth corps to defense vice-minister to defense minister to chief of general staff from 2012 to summer 2013.[5] In May and August,[6] Choe succeeded in installing former frontline corps commanders[7] in positions of power at the center. By the fall of 2013, Choe was well positioned to move against Jang with the help of the hardline military elements backed by Defense Security Commander Cho Kyong Chol and Minister of State Security General Kim Won Hong.

The Cabinet changes made at the Seventh Session of the 12th SPA in April 2013 should now be viewed in a very different light, as compared to last year’s assessments. When the “legacy” Premier and seven ministers[8] were replaced, the original interpretation was that Jang succeeded in installing his own protégé Premier Pak Pong Ju and younger technocrats of his choice in the positions of executive authority to promote the cause of economic reform. If that is true, then they should all be removed from office in the wake of Jang’s purge, presumably at the the First Session of the 13th SPA to be held in April this year if not before. The examples of the ministers of state construction control, metal industry and coal industry are very telling. The Minister of State Construction Control Kim Sok Chun was replaced with Kwon Song Ho last May, although Jang put him in this position only in September 2011. When his power was at its peak, Jang succeeded in getting his protégés Rim Nam Su and Han Hyo Yon appointed as ministers of coal and metal industries, respectively in October and December 2012, but they both lost their ministerial jobs right after his purge in December last year.

However, if the above seven ministers stay in office, in light of the extreme charges levied against Jang, it would be fair to argue that Kim Jong Un must have made the ministerial appointments at the Seventh Session of the 12th SPA to achieve the opposite goal: while yielding to Jang on the choice of Pak Pong Ju, who was also regarded as Kim Kyong Hui’s favorite. Kim Jong Un removed the ministers who were in fact Jang’s confidants or susceptible to his pressure. Indeed, the Politburo later implicated them in undermining the Juche iron, fertilizer and vinalon industries, violating construction laws and land use regulations, and selling off land, coal, marine products, ores and other natural resources at dumping prices to foreigners.

In that sense, the government reshuffle last April can be interpreted as Kim’s move to stall Jang’s efforts to take over the Cabinet and as another early indicator of Jang’s diminishing political clout because his presumed protégés ended up losing their positions of power. In short, Jang’s greatly reduced public appearances with Kim Jong Un, his failure to attend a number of important national meetings and leadership functions in the fall of 2013 as well as various leadership changes throughout the year can be re-interpreted as telltale signs of impending collapse for Jang’s “bubble kingdom.”[9]

Preparing for Counterattack and Assembling the Compromat

If we try to connect the dots, then the chain of odd developments that took place in North Korea last year may lend themselves to an alternative explanation in light of the Jang ouster. No one knows for sure whether Jang played a role behind the scenes in instigating, manipulating or quelling the scandals mentioned below. But, one can posit that if Jang indeed was seeking to topple his nephew, in addition to placing his people wherever he could and beefing up his financial war chest, he was probably building a case against Kim Jong Un’s leadership that could be presented to noncommittal elites sitting on the fence in order to legitimize his power bid. Judging by recent revelations, Jang assembled quite the compromat file on Kim, including accusations of nuclear brinkmanship jeopardizing national security, short-sighted actions harming the cause of national unification, immoral behavior, outright fraud, military incompetency and diplomatic ineptness.

  • The nuclear crisis in the spring of 2013 may have enabled Jang, who reportedly advised his nephew against the escalation, to argue that Kim Jong Un’s brinkmanship nearly brought about a catastrophe on the Korean peninsula, endangering the very existence of the North Korean state and the physical survival of its people.
  • The temporary closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex on April 9 may have allowed Jang to claim that Kim completely destroyed the inter-Korean relationship and annulled his predecessors’ accomplishments vis-à-vis the South. Jang allegedly claimed that only his intervention revived inter-Korean dialogue in late summer and led to the re-opening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex on September 16.
  • After the “Ri Sol Ju 9 sex scandal” erupted in mid-August, Jang could condemn his nephew as being morally flawed because he married a woman who had allegedly led an undesirably “provocative lifestyle” in her past.[10] Jang was rumored to have had something to do with planting these vicious rumors and instigating the scandal that raised questions about Kim Jong Un’s character as well as the moral desirability of his wife producing a successor to the Juche and Songun revolution.
  •  The disqualification of the Sonbong Soccer Team in late August confirmed accusations of moral corruption: Kim Jong Un supported cheaters to tip the scales in favor of his pet team.[11] At the time, it appeared to undermine Kim Jong Un’s public image and moral standing because he attended the game, said publicly he liked it, blessed the Sonbong team for future successes and had a commemorative photo taken with it.
  • The military scandal with the sinking of two naval vessels during tactical maneuvers personally guided by Kim Jong Un in mid-October[12] could be used as proof that he was unfit to be Commander-in-Chief. Jang was rumored to have repeatedly questioned Kim’s military credentials and his competency to defend the country.
  • Finally, the diplomatic scandals caused by the last minute cancellation of US Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Robert King’s visit in late August and Kim’s abrupt refusal to meet with the visiting Mongolian president in late October could be construed as vivid demonstrations that he was unfit to take charge of the nation’s foreign affairs. At the time, both anomalous developments raised the eyebrows of external observers who attributed them to Kim’s whimsical behavior, lack of professionalism and inexperience in foreign relations. But, now it is fair to ask whether uncle Jang might have played any role or been a factor in these diplomatic faux pas. In particular, Kim Jong Un might have interpreted the Mongolian President’s controversial behavior during the botched state visit, especially his public appeal “to end tyranny” in Pyongyang on October 29, as a call to arms for the “the second-in-command,” and that might have pushed Kim over the brink in his determination to eliminate the threat posed by his uncle once and for all.

Failing to Act and Losing the War

We do not know whether Jang had a chance to make the case against his nephew before the party-military collective leadership or if Kim Jong Un was able to connect the dots by himself and preempt his uncle. Whether the purge was a stunning surprise to Jang or he saw it coming but could not stop it as he was gradually losing power will remain a mystery for now.

My own theory is that in the past several years, Jang consistently underestimated his nephew, overplayed his hand and ultimately fell victim to his own hubris and ineptitude. Jang’s purge also proved his inability to survive the demise of his wife. Throughout his life, Jang lived in the proverbial greenhouse safeguarded by Kim Kyong Hui, who brought everything on a silver platter to him, saving Jang when he was in trouble and watching his back when he was riding high. But, as Kim Kyong Hui’s health seriously deteriorated in fall 2013, so did her husband’s fortunes. Jang’s heavy-handed approach to his nephew proved to not be a match for his wife’s light touch, causing an unrepairable rupture in his relations with Kim Jong Un and costing him his life in the end.

[1] The absence of new North Korean No. 2 Choe Ryong Hae at a major military conference headed by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un on January 4, 2014, sparked speculations over his future tenure. The national conference, in which Kim outlined the new tasks and goals for the KPA in 2014, was reported extensively by state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun. While Defense Minister Jang Jong Nam and Chief of General Staff Ri Yong Kil were both mentioned as being present at the conference, Choe Ryong Hae, the director of the KPA General Political Bureau was not mentioned at all. I regard Choe’s failure to attend such an important conference, whatever the reason, as highly unusual by North Korean standards.

[2] For instance, the replacement of Vice-Marshal Ri Yong Ho with Vice-Marshal Hyon Yong Chol as Chief of General Staff in July 2012, and replacement of General Kim Kyok Sik with General Ri Yong Kil as Chief of General Staff in August 2013.

[3] For instance, Kim Jong Il’s close confidants people’s security minister Ri Myong Su, GPD Deputy Director for Propaganda Pak Jae Kyong, and First Vice-Minister of Defense Hyon Chol Hae were replaced with a younger cohort of military leaders Choe Pu Il (Jang’s protégé) in February, Ryom Chol Song (Choe’s protégé) in February, and Chon Chang Pok (transitional figure) in May 2013 (who was in turn replaced by So Hong Chan in August), respectively.

[4] Choi was made full general in September 2010 when Kim Jong Un, who was regarded as the heir apparent at the time, made his public debut. He was demoted to Colonel-General in November 2012 when Jang orchestrated the demotion of a number of senior military leaders including Choe Ryong Hae.

[5] Kim Kyok Sik was also elected as a member of Worker’s Party of Korea Central Military Commission and National Defense Commission, respectively in February and April 2013.

[6] Chief of General Staff Vice-Marshal Hyon Yong Chol was demoted to Colonel-General and replaced with General Kim Kyok Sik in May 2013. In turn, General Kim was replaced with Colonel-General Ri Yong Kil on August 25, 2013, who was promoted to full general at the same time. First Deputy Chief of General Staff and Director of Operations Bureau Choe Pu Il was replaced with Ri Yong Kil in February 2013, who was replaced with Colonel-General Pyon In Son on August 25, 2013. Defense Minister Kim Kyok Sik was replaced with Colonel-General Chang Chong Nam on May 12, 2013. First Vice-Minister of Defense Vice-Marshal Hyon Chol Hae was replaced with Colonel-General Chon Chang Pok in May 2013, who was replaced with Colonel-General So Hong Chan on August 25, 2013.

[7] Ri Yong Kil, Chang Chong Nam, Pyon In Son, and others.

[8] These included the ministers of state resource development, land and environment preservation, fisheries, chemical industry, oil industry, city management and agriculture.

[9] Jang Song Thaek failed to attend the national meeting to mark the 65th anniversary of the DPRK, held on September 8, 2013, the national meeting in commemoration of the 16th anniversary of leader Kim Jong Il’s election as General Secretary of the WPK, on October 7, 2013, and Kim Jong Un’s visit to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in the company of senior military and security officials on October 10. He also failed to attend the following important national meetings organized by Choe Ryong Hae and OGD: the 4th meeting of KPA company commanders and political instructors held on October 22-29, 2013 (attended by his subordinates Kim Won Hong and Choe Pu Il), the 4th meeting of active service personnel of KPA for political work with the enemy held on November 12, 2013, the 2nd meeting of KPA security personnel, held on November 21, 2013 (attended by Kim Won Hong and Cho Kyong Chol), as well as Kim Jong Un’s visit to Samjiyon county in Ryanggang Province on November 30, 2013 (“an opportunity to harden the determination and will to accomplish the revolutionary cause of Juche started in Mt. Paektu”).

[10] Nine members of the Unhasu Orchestra including Kim Jong Un’s reported ex-girlfriend singer Hyon Song Wol and Mun Kyong Jin, head of the Unhasu Orchestra, as well as singers, musicians and dancers with the Wangjaesan Light Music Band were arrested on August 17, allegedly for violating North Korean laws against pornography and were reportedly executed in public by firing squad three days later. They were reportedly accused of videotaping themselves having sex and selling the videos. Some allegedly had Bibles in their possession, and all were treated as political dissidents. But, their main crime allegedly was that they spread the rumor that Ri Sol Ju, the wife of Kim Jong Un, had engaged in similar acts in the past. On August 29, 2013, Asahi Shimbun broke the story that nine people had been executed to conceal the fact that Ri Sol Ju once led an undesirably “provocative lifestyle.” In a commentary published by KCNA on September 22, North Korea hit back at South Korean media reports detailing an alleged scandal involving Ri Sol Ju. The DPRK state media branded the reports an insult to the “highest dignity” of North Korea, meaning leader Kim Jong Un, and stated that those responsible “will pay a high price.” For details, see

[11] The Committee for Examining Discipline in Sports Matches of the DPRK Ministry of Physical Culture and Sports under Jang Song Thaek’s control nullified the results of the men’s premier soccer Torch Cup final game between the Worker-Peasant Guards’ Sonbong SoccerTeam and KPA’s April 25 Team held in the presence of Kim Jong Un and the entire NK leadership at Kim Il Sung Stadium on August 28 and disqualified the winning Sonbong Soccer Team on September 11, 2013. That decision was unprecedented. But, it restored “justice” by giving the big prize to the defeated traditional powerhouse team sponsored by the KPA to the great disappointment of the amateurish challenger sponsored by the feeble worker-peasant red guards.

[12] Kim Jong Un looked around newly built warships and guided their maneuvers in the East Sea waters near Wonsan on October 11. During the exercise, two vessels reportedly sank, killing scores of sailors. Kim Jong Un had to take personal responsibility as the KPA Commander-in-Chief. South Korean military authorities spotted attempts by the North Korean navy to salvage their hulls. The two ships reportedly were a Hainan-class 375-ton submarine chaser No. 233, which belonged to KPA Navy Unit 790, and a 100 to 200-ton patrol boat. For details, see

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