North Korea’s formerly powerful number two, the ill-fated Jang Song Thaek, was very publicly and brutally executed, along with key aides — either as part of leader Kim Jong Un’s plan to consolidate his unrivalled power; as retaliation for fomenting a military coup against the boy leader; or as punishment for simply “not clapping with sufficient enthusiasm” (as mentioned in the litany of charges against him).
The state’s propaganda organs were in rare form when they denounced him: “Despicable human scum Jang, who was worse than a dog, perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery,” pronounced the official news agency. “Every sentence of the decision served as a sledgehammer blow brought down by our angry service personnel and people on the head of Jang, an anti-party, counter-revolutionary, factional element and despicable political careerist and trickster.”
The problem with closed, totalitarian states is that we cannot truly know why things happen. Jang’s sentence was handed down perhaps because of some combination of the above – or it could have been because the “Great Successor” (as Kim Jong Un is occasionally called, to remind all of his lineage) did not like the look in his eye during a sideways glance at a military parade. This macabre exhibition both appals us and draws us to look more closely: how is this Asian hybrid of Hobbes and Orwell even possible in 21st century northeast Asia, the veritable cockpit of the global economy?
Jang was seen in China and in the South Korean security establishment as a kind of human bellwether for North Korea’s trajectory. How he went would tell us how the country goes. He had long been viewed as the most experienced, cosmopolitan member of the elite — and the one best positioned to perhaps help embark the cloistered country on a path towards gradual opening and reform. Married to the aunt of Kim Jong Un and bestowed with military honours and privilege, he was regarded by some as almost family, which did not save him from the executioner. In truth, he was the favoured son of China, the only senior official in Pyongyang in whom Beijing had any confidence or indeed hope. Now that he has been dispatched, the anxiety levels have crept up perceptively along Beijing’s corridors of power.
There are indications that China has grown steadily more concerned by the brutal goings-on in Pyongyang and the provocations staged against its neighbours. Jang’s elimination will only add to the worry. The repeated nuclear tests, the sinking of a South Korean warship, the shelling of disputed island territories, and repeated missile tests and military exercises have dialled up tensions in China’s immediate neighbourhood. They have served as the driving force behind defence modernisation and military deployments for the US and its friends – certainly not in a rising-China’s best interests. There have been many reasons posited for China’s reluctance to entertain regime change in the North. There is, of course, the desire to maintain a kind of buffer state on its periphery, and the fear of instability immediately on the border. There is also the very reasonable fear of North Korean instability triggering the intervention of outside powers, with the potential for profound geopolitical miscalculations and large armies clashing.
But there is also, in all likelihood, a kind of recognition and form of empathy in Beijing for the bizarre machinations and public trials of Pyongyang. Strip away the hereditary power transitions and unique qualities of juche (a North Korean concept of self-reliance verging on deprivation), and North Korea most resembles Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China going through the horrors of the cultural revolution. Surely it would be painful – even for the current generation of modern, technocratic Chinese leaders – to consider abandoning a fraternal progeny, even one as horribly deformed and so belonging on the ash heap of history as North Korea. No, China will not cast away its ideological cousin and comrades from the Korean war, but instead continue to counsel patience, gradual reform and restraint – and, bluntly put, hope for the best.
Jang obviously did not survive this hoping for the best, and looks remarkably like an Asian version of Arthur Koestler’s protagonist in Darkness at Noon. Jang, like the old Bolshevik Rubashov, probably had an inkling of his destiny. Before he is carefully excised from all the photographic history of North Korea, examine one of the few existing pictures of Jang with Kim Jong Un. There he is at a factory site with the young genius still with his baby fat, standing just in the background, uncomfortable, knowing his ultimate fate, but still hoping for the best.