Korea Execution Is Tied to Clash Over Businesses

Published: December 23, 2013

SEOUL, South Korea — The execution of the uncle of Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, had its roots in a firefight between forces loyal to Mr. Kim and those supporting the man who was supposed to be his regent, according to accounts that are being pieced together by South Korean and American officials. The clash was over who would profit from North Korea’s most lucrative exports: coal, clams and crabs.

North Korean military forces were deployed to retake control of one of the sources of those exports, the rich crab and clam fishing grounds that Jang Song-thaek, the uncle of the country’s untested, 30-year-old leader, had seized from the military. In the battle for control of the fishing grounds, the emaciated, poorly trained North Korean forces “were beaten — very badly — by Uncle Jang’s loyalists,” according to one official.

The rout of his forces appears to have been the final straw for Mr. Kim, who saw his 67-year-old uncle as a threat to his authority over the military and, just as important, to his own family’s dwindling sources of revenue. Eventually, at Mr. Kim’s order, the North Korean military came back with a larger force and prevailed. Soon, Mr. Jang’s two top lieutenants were executed.

The two men died in front of a firing squad. But instead of rifles, the squad used antiaircraft machine guns, a form of execution that according to South Korean intelligence officials and news media was similar to the one used against some North Korean artists in August. Days later, Mr. Jang himself was publicly denounced, tried and executed, by more traditional means.

Given the opaqueness of North Korea’s inner circle, many details of the struggle between Mr. Kim and his uncle remain murky. But what is known suggests that while Mr. Kim has consolidated control and eliminated a potential rival, it has been at a huge cost: The open warfare between the two factions has revealed a huge fracture inside the country’s elite over who pockets the foreign currency — mostly Chinese renminbi — the country earns from the few nonnuclear exports its trading partners desire.

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Only a few months ago Mr. Jang was believed to be the second most powerful man in North Korea. In fact, American intelligence agencies had reported to the White House and the State Department in late 2011 that he could well be running the country behind the scenes — and might edge out his inexperienced nephew for control. In part that was based on his deep relationship with top officials in China, as well as his extensive business connections there.

His highly unusual public humiliation and execution on Dec. 12 set off speculation about the possibility of a power struggle within the secretive government. But in recent days a more complex, nuanced story has emerged.

During a closed-door meeting on Monday of the South Korean National Assembly’s intelligence committee, Nam Jae-joon, the director of the National Intelligence Service, disputed the North’s assertion that Mr. Jang had tried to usurp his nephew’s power. Rather, he said, Mr. Jang and his associates had provoked the enmity of rivals within the North’s elite by dominating lucrative business deals, starting with the coal badly needed by China, the North’s main trading partner.

“There had been friction building up among the agencies of power in North Korea over privileges and over the abuse of power by Jang Song-thaek and his associates,” Mr. Nam was quoted as saying. Mr. Nam’s comments were relayed to the news media by Jeong Cheong-rae and Cho Won-jin, two lawmakers designated as spokesmen for the parliamentary committee.

In interviews, officials have said that the friction described in general terms to the South Korean Parliament played out in a violent confrontation in late September or early October, just north of the western sea border between the Koreas.

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There, the North harvests one of its major exports: crabs and clams, delicacies that are also highly valued by the Chinese. For years the profits from those fishing grounds, along with the output from munitions factories and trading companies, went directly to the North Korean military, helping it feed its troops, and enabling its top officers to send cash gifts to the Kim family.

South Korea was a major market for the North’s mushrooms, clams, crabs, abalones and sea cucumbers until the South cut off trade with the North after the sinking of a South Korean Navy ship in 2010, forcing the North Korean military to rely on the Chinese market.

But when Mr. Kim succeeded his father two years ago, he took away some of the military’s fishing and trading rights and handed them to his cabinet, which he designated as the main agency to revive the economy. Mr. Jang was believed to have been a leading proponent of curtailing the military’s economic power.

Mr. Jang appears to have consolidated many of those trading rights under his own control — meaning that profits from the coal, crabs and clams went into his accounts, or those of state institutions under his control, including the administrative department of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, which he headed.

But this fall, the long-brewing tensions that arrangement created broke into the open. Radio Free Asia, in a report last week that cited anonymous North Korean sources, reported that Mr. Kim saw North Korean soldiers malnourished during his recent visits to islands near the disputed western sea border. They say he ordered Mr. Jang to hand over the operation of nearby fishing grounds back to the military.

According to accounts put together by South Korean and American officials, Mr. Jang and his associates resisted. When a company of about 150 North Korean soldiers showed up at the farm, Mr. Jang’s loyalists refused to hand over the operation, insisting that Mr. Jang himself would have to approve. The confrontation escalated into a gun battle, and Radio Free Asia reports that two soldiers were killed and that the army backed off. Officials say the number of casualties is unknown, but they have received similar accounts.

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It is hard to know exactly how large a role the episode played in Mr. Jang’s downfall — there is more money in coal than in seafood — but Mr. Kim was reportedly enraged when he heard of the clash. Mr. Nam said that by mid-November his agents were already reporting that Mr. Jang had been detained. The Dec. 12 verdict noted that Mr. Jang “instructed his stooges to sell coal and other precious underground resources at random.”

Mr. Nam said the fact that such behind-the-scenes tensions had spun so far out of control that Mr. Kim had to order his own uncle’s execution raised questions about the government’s internal unity.

“The fissure within the regime could accelerate if it further loses popular support,” the lawmakers quoted Mr. Nam as saying.

Mr. Jang was the husband of Kim Kyong-hui, the only sister of Mr. Kim’s father, the longtime leader Kim Jong-il. Mr. Nam told the committee Monday that Mr. Kim’s aunt had retained her position in the hierarchy, even while the purge of Mr. Jang’s other associates continued. But he denied news reports in South Korea and Japan that some of Mr. Jang’s associates were seeking political asylum in Seoul and Beijing.

Mr. Nam pointed to Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae, the top political officer in the North Korean People’s Army, and Kim Won-hong, the head of the North’s secret police and its intelligence chief, as the government’s new rising figures since Mr. Jang’s execution, the two lawmakers said.

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