The historic conference of the Korean Workers’ Party this week is Kim Jong-il’s coming-out party for his third son, Kim Jong-un, the heir apparent who is so enigmatic, the outside world isn’t even certain what he looks like. But in the shadows stands an even more obscure figure, a power player at the center of an uncertain struggle over who will hold the reins to the nuclear-armed Hermit Kingdom after the ailing Dear Leader.
It’s 64-year-old Jang Song-taek, not the late-20-something Kim, that North Korean hands should be scrambling to unravel. The brother-in-law of the Dear Leader, Jang has over the last couple of years become Kim Jong-il’s right-hand man, groomed to be the regent for the younger Kim. While Kim Jong-il was introduced to the world at the last party conference in 1980 and spent the next 14 years watching his father, Kim Jong-un’s succession has been more rushed. Educated in Switzerland, the younger Kim cannot match his father’s power base or charisma, particularly because he never played a role in the far-reaching military apparatus. At least at the start, he will be little more than a figurehead.
That’s where Jang comes in. The anointed caretaker was promoted this June to vice chairman of the National Defense Commission—which controls the military—making him the second most-powerful man in the country. “The National Defense Commission and the Workers’ Party are the two most important, powerful governing organizations, in which only Jang is holding positions that can exercise enough power and influence in both,” explains Kim Kwangjin, a midranking North Korean defector. According to An Chan-il, a North Korean defector and head of the World Institute for North Korean Studies, Jang is only one of three confidants who speaks directly to the Dear Leader—the other two being Kim Jong-un and Jang’s wife, Kim Kyonghui, who happens to be the Dear Leader’s sister. In the last year, Jang and his wife have been the most frequent travel companions to the elder Kim; between January and June he accompanied Kim Jong-il on 44 of 77 inspection visits. He is also rumored to be the Dear Leader’s best drinking buddy.
That’s bad news for the West: most security analysts believe that Jang will carry on Kim’s erratic policies of confrontation, repression, and economic mismanagement. “I would expect to see more of the same,” says Andrei Lankov, a noted North Korea scholar. “There might be a minor relaxation, but no full-scale reform.” As a pillar of the old guard, Jang must realize that any Chinese-style economic reform would mean the end for the top party apparatchiks, and for himself. But at least he’s not Kim Jr., now heralded as the “brilliant comrade” in Pyongyang propaganda. Some analysts believe he was the brains behind the March attack on the South Korean ship Cheonan, killing 46 sailors.
That’s not to say it will be business as usual. As North Korea’s state-run economy spirals downward—and even the elite turn to private markets to survive—Pyongyang politics grow more bitter. Just days before Jang’s promotion on the NDC, one key rival, Ri Je-gang, died in a suspicious car crash, suggesting that the power struggle is less than civil. The rubber-stamp meeting that announced Jang’s promotion was called in a last-minute special session, hinting at a battle to the wire. Several generals are reportedly upset at Jang’s new position, including Kim Jong-gak, head of the Korean People’s Army; O Kuk-ryol, vice chairman of the NDC; and Kim Yong-chun, minister of the People’s Armed Forces.
In his new defense post, Jang officially controls the internal security forces, including the secret police. Part of this portfolio includes customs and border patrols, which have recently been ramped up to forestall the growth of private markets and cross-border smugglers. But his reach extends much further. During the shaky period following Kim Jong-il’s stroke in August 2008, he was thought to have taken over everyday decision-making power. If all goes according to plan, he will now serve as the behind-the-scenes administrator to Kim Jong-un until the younger Kim can keep the party chiefs in line himself.
Jang began his quick rise within the KWP soon after marrying his college sweetheart and Kim Jong-il’s older sister, Kim Kyong-hui, in 1972. Although their father and founder of the Democratic Republic, Kim Il-sung, did not approve of the relationship, the Dear Leader was quite fond of Jang. During the 1970s and 1980s Jang became the architect of North Korea’s state-sanctioned mafia operation, according to Helen-Louise Hunter, a retired CIA analyst on the Far East desk, using diplomats to smuggle illicit goods like counterfeit cigarettes, drugs, and, eventually, counterfeit U.S. bank notes across the border. This influx of hard currency funded the regime’s patronage system, which Jang perfected, says Michael Madden, who studies the North Korean leadership at Suffolk University in Boston. In return for loyalty to Kim Jong-il, top party cadres would receive coveted goods like luxury cars, imported alcohol, and plush apartments.
But North Korean politics can be perilous. Jang fell out of favor at the start of 2004. Some analysts say it was because of his lavish personal spending. Others say his high profile risked eclipsing Kim’s. Either way, he disappeared from public life for 18 months before being rehabilitated in a midlevel party position. Since then, he has taken a central role in Kim’s dynastic succession plans. Now that the 68-year-old Kim is suffering from diabetes and the effects of possibly two strokes, it looks as though his third son may soon step in as leader of the world’s most secretive and hostile state. With Jang pulling the strings, don’t expect the new Kim to bring any change for the better.