Jang's downfall did not happen overnight. Since Kim rose to power, he has engaged in extensive reshuffles of civil and military leaders, replacing personnel in nearly half the roughly 200 most important posts, according to South Korea's Unification Ministry. Before Jang, the most consequential replacement was that of Ri Yong Ho, the vice chair of the Central Military Commission, another of the regime's chief supporters through the succession and one whom Jang himself may have had a hand in ousting.
Jang's Removal from Power
Jang first began to be sidelined in late 2012. The process continued this year but accelerated in recent months. One of his money managers attempted to defect to South Korea in late September or October, but the real crackdown began in November and Jang's formal arrest was publicized in early December. His gradual decline over the past year suggests that he fell from grace not by suddenly attempting to seize control but rather as a result of Kim's power consolidation reaching a high point. His entire history in the Party has been characterized by ambitious climbing despite Kim Il Sung's and Kim Jong Il's suspicions, and he has fallen in and out of favor several times before. His personal power base made him the figure most likely to pose a challenge to Kim, hence his downfall does more than anyone else's would to reinforce Kim's supremacy.
Jang's purge has mostly affected his family relations and close confidants. Two of his aides were executed in mid-November; another partner in running foreign investment policy was reportedly executed; his nephew and brother-in-law were recalled from their posts as ambassadors to Malaysia and Cuba, respectively; and his money manager is reportedly in South Korean custody in China. However, Jang was known for maintaining close relations with China, especially promoting an active Chinese role in furthering the North's economic opening, and thus his ouster poses questions of whether economic or broader relations with China will suffer. Already some Japanese and Korean news reports claim that China Merchants Shekou Industrial Zone has backed away from deals arranged by Jang to invest in North Korean special economic zones in Hwanggumpyong and Rason. China has especially prioritized Rason, and any problem there would mark a notable setback in economic cooperation.
The North cannot escape China, its overwhelming economic, political and military patron. Thus any change to North Korean economic policy related to Jang's downfall would likely be more about trying to open a few alternatives to Chinese investment or raise the price of North Korean cooperation with China. Myanmar has recently provided an example of how an isolated state dependent on China can, if it adjusts its internal politics, pave the way for renegotiating economic deals and diversifying its partners. North Korea has fewer options, but it may be attempting to create more.
Policy Trends in Pyongyang
There are two dominant policy trends in North Korea since Kim rose to power. Both rest on too broad of a base and are too well established to be reversed because of the fall of one man, unless his downfall should trigger broader intraregime struggle and unforeseen consequences.
The first is the reassertion of the Workers' Party to balance the military, which had grown too powerful under the previous decades' "military first" policy. Kim Jong Il launched this party revival in order to prepare for the succession, and it has continued under his son. The younger Kim has stacked leading bodies with Party officials more so than soldiers, has altered the nation's ruling doctrine to emphasize Party supremacy and is attempting to refocus the military on its core functions while turning economic activities over to separate authorities.
Jang was a player in the Party's revival, but the process extends far beyond him. The Workers' Party's denunciation of his crimes even appealed to these changes. Moreover, like Jang, Choe Ryong Hae, who stands to benefit most from Jang's downfall, is a party leader rather than a true military leader and not long ago had even been viewed as belonging to Jang's clique.
The second major trend is economic reform and opening. It is related to the reassertion of the Party over the armed forces, since the Party provides the chief economic planners and the idea of elevating economic development to the same level of importance as missile and nuclear weapons programs requires a more assertive Party. Jang was a strong promoter of special economic zones and schemes to bring in foreign investment and increase exports of commodities and cheap goods. While his absence may hurt some specific initiatives, there is a broad consensus across the Party that recognizes the need to improve the economy through policy changes. While this trend is by no means radical or predestined to success, Kim and the Party have allowed farmers in some cases to retain more of their profits and have pledged to expand special economic zones in every city and province, with 14 projects in particular highlighted during the very time when Jang's ouster was underway. Road, rail and port improvements on the Chinese and Russian borders are also making progress. Renewed international interest in gaining access to North Korea, not only from mainland China and South Korea but also from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Russia, India, Indonesia and Mongolia, suggests that there are higher expectations than usual of some new economic openings, despite the North's severe limitations and the long-term nature of any opportunities.
Jang was a very powerful figure, deemed excessively so by North Korea's other top leaders, so dismantling his patronage network comes with substantial disruptions to the regime, which appears to have prompted an intensified propaganda and "re-education" campaign stressing loyalty to Kim. The internal power consolidation is ongoing, and there could still be surprises. In addition to upsetting a range of relationships in the North Korean elite, his absence could obstruct or delay plans for economic opening toward China. However, the regime's attempts to resurrect the Workers' Party as a pillar of power standing alongside the military, and to experiment with new economic policies to bring in revenues and stave off social instability, will continue. In the longer term, Jang's ouster may say more about Kim's consolidation of power and the gradual generational shift in the political elite than about the direction of national policy.