Thursday, August 16, 2012

Is Jang Sung Taek Going to Walk the Walk?

At some point in the second half of the 1980s, Hwang Jang Yop and Jang Sung Taek met. Hwang had called on Jang, then a newly elected candidate member of the Chosun Workers' Party Central Committee, to discuss his concerns about the state of the North Korean economy, which he had already begun to worry was in an uncontrollable downward spiral. Hwang was not an economic hand, and felt helpless.

“Comrade Jang,” Hwang is said to have begun. “What are we going to do? Our nation is going bankrupt!”

However, Jang seemed surprisingly indifferent. “There’s no need to worry,” he responded flatly.

“What do you mean?” an incredulous Hwang bounced back. His voice was as composed as ever, but there was unmistakeable concern on display, too. “By whatever measure you choose to look at, our economy is failing!”

“I said don’t worry,” Jang declared again. “And I said it because we are already bankrupt.”

Many Korea watchers have long seen Jang Sung Taek as one of the most astute, capable figures within the North Korean elite, and many of those who dealt with him in Seoul in 2002 firmly support this assessment. As such, it is hardly surprising that he would be among the first to realize that the North Korean model of socialist economics was a failure, characterized as it was (and to an extent remains) by unrealistic state economic targets, the mis-allocation of increasingly scarce resources and entirely meaningless exhortations to greater feats of Stakhanovite labor.

To that extent, it should also have come as no surprise that Jang was the one who travelled to China on Monday as head of a joint committee of North Korean and Chinese officials charged with making a success of the Hwanggeumpyong-Wihwa Island and Rasun Special Economic Zones (SEZs).

With a coterie of around 50 officials, far more than any simple economic delegation has need of and closer to the number one would expect a national leader to travel with, Jang certainly looked the part; debonair and sharply dressed, he moved confidently from airport to waiting car. In short, his own man; by no means a messenger dispatched by the office of Kim Jong Eun.

A full list of the identities of the 50 officials adeptly clinging to the tails of his perfectly tailored suit may never make it into the public domain, but those who have contrived to appear on camera with the bespectacled bigwig make sense in the context of a bilateral economic dialogue; Ji Jae Ryong, North Korea’s man in Beijing, and Ri Gwang Geun and Ri Cheol, two members of the cosmopolitan elite that contribute to the Joint Investment Committee.

In addition, with an agenda of meetings today and tomorrow that North Korea appears to hope will lead to Zainichi-Korean and international [and no doubt South Korean, post-Lee Myung Bak] involvement in the Hwanggeumpyong SEZ project, there is a clear overseas agenda, making the presence of Kim Sung Nam of the International Dept. of the Party and Kim Hyung Jun of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs equally logical.

[On an attendant note, we would be wise to feed the idea of attracting Zainichi-Korean investment into our analysis of the future course of rapidly warming North Korea-Japan relations.

Though the idea that Zainichi-Korean business people with memories of having their businesses expropriated at the first sign of success during past moments of brief 'reform' would actually be willing to, as it were, “buy the same horse twice” may be baffling, the fact is that Jang is nothing if not persuasive and pure-blooded nationalism is nothing if not a good way to cover for the absence of raw economic logic.]

All of which is fortuitous, since Jang will need every ounce of his charm, every able associate and every single piece of luck on offer if he is going to turn two pieces of modest arable land in the Yalu River estuary into economic powerhouses with a chance of salvaging the broader North Korean economy.

And it is this that he claims to want; when Jang came to South Korea at the head of an economic delegation back in 2002, he reportedly had tears in his eyes as he called on Sunshine Policy-era Seoul to support the North Korean economy. Not for his own sake, he said, but for the sake of the North Korean people who were suffering so profoundly.

Was Jang bluffing, using appeals to deep-seated nationalist emotions to fish for assistance? Or did he really mean it, despite all the horrific things he has helped to perpetuate both before and since? It seems to this writer that he may now have been given a chance to prove it one way or the other.


  1. Well done.

    You know, since North Korean-Chinese parallels are the flavor of the week, it would be nice to see a good Zhou Enlai-Jang Song-thaek character comparison in either fictional (historical) or purely non-fictional writing.

  2. Considering they're trying to stamp out private enterprises and farming (see today's Daily NK) I think this is, yet again, just about regime survival.

    Far from being a reformer Kim Jong Un is, IMO just trying to claw back the control over illegal trading and farming that his father lost and use he wants to use the income from state owned enterprises to fill the gap. But this requires capital the bankrupt NK can't muster itself, so they're using Chinese worries about rising wages and Zainichi-Korean nationalism to attract foreigners. Jang Sung Taek is just the salesman out to get the foreigners involved, as to how badly everything will be managed afterwards who knows. Even the cheap wages wouldn't attract me to invest in NK as the potential loss of plant and equipment would be too great a risk.

  3. Jai, I am inclined to agree. While Jang does now have a chance to prove it, I'd not bet a cent on him taking it...