Kang Cheol Hwan, “North Korea: Recent Changes and Outlook”
By Matthew McGrath
The final event in the North Korea Strategy Center’s “Strategies for Change: A Speaker Series on North Korea” on May 21, 2014, featured a talk by Mr. Kang Cheol Hwan, NKSC’s executive-director and author of the book “Aquariums of Pyongyang.” Mr. Kang’s talk focused on future trajectories of the North Korean state in the wake of Jang Sung Thaek’s execution late last year.
Mr. Kang began his lecture by saying that before Kim Jong Il died the North Korean leader was interested in exploring the possibility of economic reform in his country. After witnessing the Libyan revolution, however, Kim feared that a similar situation could develop in North Korea. Mr. Kang explained that this was actually not the first time the North Korean government had shied away from economic reforms. Deng Xiao Ping had previously attempted to convince Kim Il Sung to undertake Chinese style economic reforms as well, but his suggestions were turned down by both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
Jang Sung Thaek was considered by many North Korea watchers to be the Deng Xiao Ping of North Korea. A savvy businessman married to Kim Kyung Hui, Kim Jong Il’s sister, Jang had the incentive to pursue liberalizing economic reforms and the necessary political clout to do something about it through his marriage into the ruling Kim clan. According to Mr. Kang, after Kim Jong Il died, Jang began to pursue his vision for North Korea’s future. He dismantled key parts of the North Korean state that financially supported the Kim family, including Department 38 and Department 39. These two departments managed the Kim family’s personal finances, and operated offices and factories that produced food or harvested natural resources to earn money for the Kim family’s coffers. Reports from inside the country also reported that Jang allegedly expressed opposition to North Korea’s third nuclear test last year. According to Mr. Kang, these actions demonstrated fundamental differences between Jang’s vision for North Korea and Kim Jong Un’s. Ultimately, the two men’s differences became the impetus behind Jang’s execution and subsequent erasure from official North Korean history.
Mr. Kang pointed out that the many purges Kim Jong Un has implemented since his father’s death have threatened the stability of North Korea. Many key members of the party and military, who were appointed by Kim Jong Il to help usher in his son’s reign, are no longer a part of North Korea’s ruling class. Mr. Kang explained that the purge of Jang was shocking because of his relationship with the Kim family. He showed the audience an image of Kim Jong Un riding horses with some officials, including Jang. Both Kim and Jang’s horses were adored with special decorations to indicate their places within the “Kim Dynasty.” According to Mr. Kang, Jang’s purge is ultimately “a reflection of the instability of the government and an indication of power changes between the military and administrative branches.”
Mr. Kang characterized the reign of Kim Il Sung as a “secure and stable nation, politically and economically,” while the Kim Jong Il regime “began to dissolve this stability” and the Kim Jong Un regime “faces a state of crisis.” His prognosis for the future of North Korea and Kim Jong Un’s reign is that in the short-term, “Kim Jong Un will be able to … maintain political power. Due to internal changes, however, in the long-term, North Korea is bound to go through a crisis.” Ultimately, Mr. Kang concluded, the question on the table is how a “crisis” might manifest itself and how the international community can and should respond to it.