On the guy who REALLY is running North Korea

Years ago and while still a cub reporter, I had to accompany Muhammad Ali, Bundini Brown and rest of the Ali retinue on a week long tour of speaking engagements and exhibition fights in New Zealand. It was only on the last day of the tour that I finally figured out that Ali was not the kingpin of this troupe, and that the road manager (a guy called Harold Smith) was actually the boss of the entire operation. Smith had hired Muhammad Ali (and not the other way around) as a franchise operation for the duration of the trip, to pull in the punters. The evidence had been there, all along. It just took a mindset change to see things in the right light.

That same arrangement came to mind yesterday, while watching the news about the death of Kim Jong-Il in North Korea. Ever since the family patriarch Kim Il Sung died in 1994, the Kims have become more and more like a franchise operation – with a succession of Kims being wheeled out to command the adoration and obedience of the population. The question being… who’s now really running the show, and is there any way of making even a reasonable guess? Short answer: the real power broker appears to be Kim Jong Il’s 65 year old brother in law Jang Song Thaek, who has now virtually completed a cleanout of the last powerful figures from the era of Kim Il Sung.

That scenario makes sense. Kim Il Sung had been the real deal, the dictator who founded the modern nation. His sons (and now) grandsons rule at the pleasure of the competing security/military cliques. When Kim Il Sung died 17 years ago, his cronies in the military and intelligence services never really surrendered power but merely allowed Kim Jong-Il to become the titular leader, under their guidance. The rise of Jang Song Thaek – who has been rumoured to be the de facto leader of the country ever since Kim Jong–il suffered a stroke in 2008 – has been assisted by the deaths and/or removal from office of several of Jang’s elderly opponents from the Kim Il Sung era.

Significantly, these exits included the convenient death last year in a ‘traffic accident ‘ of Jang’s bitter rival, Ri Je-gang, the official (and former personal secretary to Kim Il Sung) who had been given the job of guiding the succession process to Kim Jong-il.

So what else do we know about Jang Song-Thaek? Well, he married Kim Jong Il’s younger sister, Kim Kyong-hui. The couple had a daughter who lived in Paris as an international student, but she committed suicide in 2006 at the age of 29 after her parents vetoed her choice of boyfriend. Jang’s progress through the ranks has not gone unchallenged. In late 2004, he was briefly purged before re-emerging in early 2006. By early 2007, he reportedly had gained oversight responsibility for the intelligence apparatus, police, judiciary, and other organs of internal security.

Currently, Jang holds the top position in North Korea’s defence establishment, heads the security intelligence oversight body and is director of the State Development Bank. Early on, he had been reported as favouring Kim Jong Il’s oldest son Kim Jong-am as the likely successor. By early 2009 however, Jang had got solidly in behind the youngest son Kim Yong-Un, according to this Foreign Policy article by Korean expert Ken Gause:

Yonhap [South Korean news agency] reported that Jang… had shifted his support to Kim Jong-un in light of Kim Jong Il’s special affection for his third son and out of consideration for his own future political power. According to senior North Korean defectors in South Korea, Jang reached a deal with Kim Jong Il. Worried about being purged, as he was in 2004 for becoming too powerful within the regime, Jang agreed to throw his support behind Kim Jong-un. In return, Kim Jong Il has allowed Jang to engineer the succession by placing his allies in key posts throughout the regime. Many of the recent key appointments allegedly have Jang’s backing. The new chief of the general staff, Yi Yong-ho, is allegedly close to Jang, as is the new minister of the People’s Armed Forces.

The development of a collective leadership centered on Jang appears to have emerged out of the recent meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly. Some analysts point to the NDC, of which Kim Jong-un is now reportedly a member, as the platform through which the succession will be carried out, much as the KWP was Kim Jong Il’s platform. In addition to Jang, the NDC is now populated with powerful military and security officials with ties to Jang, including vice chairmen Kim Yong-jun and O Kuk-yol and members Chu Sang-song (minister of public security) and U Tong-juk (deputy director of the State Security Department). Many think this collective leadership, which probably extends beyond the NDC to the party as well, will provide the support network for a dynastic succession. In this scenario, Kim Jong-un would be the public face of North Korea, while Jang led behind the scenes.

In other words, North Korea is a franchise operation, with a succession of figureheads from the Kim family serving in the front of house as figures of public adoration, while various cliques – engaged, from time to time, in deadly rivalries – hold the real power. For now, Jang Song Thaek seems to be the man in charge. The real battle for succession – and the ultimate fate of the Kim family franchise – will begin when Jang passes from the scene. It can be rough being the back room power broker, and staying on top. Harold Smith, the guy who hired Muhammad Ali for that tour of New Zealand, went to jail a couple of years later for masterminding a massive embezzlement of $21.6 million from the Wells Fargo Bank in California.

I particularly liked this story about Harold Smith and Ali, a scene that belongs in a Martin Scorsese movie :

But on the way to [Larry] Holmes’s office in Eastern, Pa., Smith stopped off to see Muhammad Ali at his training camp in nearby Deer Lake. Smith and Ali went back a ways; Ali had helped Smith obtain the closed-circuit rights to his first fight with Joe Frazier, in 1971. Ali said, “What you got in that suitcase, Harold?” Smith revealed the cash. Ali was delighted. He made Smith pour the money all over him and then summoned his friend and aide Bundini Brown to come to the door and look in on him. Brown stood by the screen door and looked upon the great man, lying in state beneath $1.5 million.


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