Monday, March 14, 2016

In a Hail of Bullets and Fire

In late 2013, Jang Song-thaek, an uncle of Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, was taken to the Gang Gun Military Academy in a Pyongyang suburb.

Hundreds of officials were gathered there to witness the execution of Mr. Jang’s two trusted deputies in the administrative department of the ruling Workers’ Party.

The two men, Ri Ryong-ha and Jang Su-gil, were torn apart by antiaircraft machine guns, according to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service. The executioners then incinerated their bodies with flamethrowers.

Jang Song-thaek, widely considered the second-most powerful figure in the North, fainted during the ordeal, according to a new book published in South Korea that offers a rare glimpse into the secretive Pyongyang regime.

“Son-in-Law of a Theocracy,” by Ra Jong-yil, a former deputy director of the National Intelligence Service, is a rich biography of Mr. Jang, the most prominent victim of the purges his young nephew has conducted since assuming power in 2011.

Mr. Jang was convicted of treason in 2013. He was executed at the same place and in the same way as his deputies, the South Korean intelligence agency said.

The book asserts that although he was a fixture of the North Korean political elite for decades, he dreamed of reforming his country. “With his execution, North Korea lost virtually the only person there who could have helped the country introduce reform and openness,” Mr. Ra said during a recent interview.

Mr. Ra, who is also a professor of political science and a former South Korean ambassador to Japan and Britain, mined existing publications but also interviewed sources in South Korea, Japan and China, including high-ranking defectors from the North who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Mr. Jang met one of the daughters of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung, while both attended Kim Il-sung University in the mid-1960s. The daughter, Kim Kyong-hee, developed a crush on Mr. Jang, who was tall and humorous — and sang and played the accordion.

Her father transferred the young man to a provincial college to keep the two apart. But Ms. Kim hopped in her Soviet Volga sedan to see Mr. Jang each weekend.

Once they married in 1972, Mr. Jang’s career took off under the patronage of Kim Jong-il, his brother-in-law and the designated successor of the regime.

In his memoir, a Japanese sushi chef for Kim Jong-il from 1988 to 2001 who goes by the alias Kenji Fujimoto remembered Mr. Jang as a fun-loving prankster who was a regular at banquets that could last until morning or even stretch a few days. A key feature of the events was a “pleasure squad” of young, attractive women who would dance the cancan, sing American country songs or perform a striptease, according to the book and accounts by defectors.

Mr. Jang also mobilized North Korean diplomats abroad to import Danish dairy products, Black Sea caviar, French cognac and Japanese electronics — gifts Mr. Kim handed out during his parties to keep his elites loyal.

But North Korean diplomats who have defected to South Korea also said that during his frequent trips overseas to shop for Mr. Kim, Mr. Jang would drink heavily and speak dejectedly about people dying of hunger back home.

Few benefited more than Mr. Jang from the regime he loyally served. But he was never fully embraced by the Kim family because he was not blood kin. This “liminal existence” enabled him to see the absurdities of the regime more clearly than any other figure within it, Mr. Ra wrote.

Mr. Ra said Hwang Jang-yop, a North Korean party secretary who defected to Seoul in 1997 and lived here until his death in 2010, shared a conversation he once had with Mr. Jang. When told that the North’s economy was cratering, Mr. Jang responded sarcastically: “How can an economy already at the bottom go further down?”

Mr. Jang’s frequent partying with the “pleasure squad” strained his marriage. Senior defectors from the North said it was an open secret among the Pyongyang elite that the couple both had extramarital affairs.

Their only child, Jang Kum-song, killed herself in Paris in 2006. She overdosed on sleeping pills after the Pyongyang government caught wind of her dating a Frenchman and summoned her home.

Still, the marriage endured. When Kim Jong-il banished Mr. Jang three times for overstepping his authority, his wife intervened on his behalf.

After Mr. Kim suffered a stroke in 2008 and died in 2011, Mr. Jang helped his young nephew, Kim Jong-un, establish himself as successor. At the same time, he vastly expanded his own influence — and ambition.

by Choe Sang-Hun, NY Times | Read more:
Image: CreditKyodo, via Reuters