- By J. Dana StusterJ. Dana Stuster is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. He has studied at the American University of Beirut and graduated in 2010 with degrees in English and International Relations from the University of California, Davis. Before coming to FP, his work appeared in the Atlantic and the National Interest, among other publications.
At Kim Jong Il’s funeral in December 2011, the dear leader’s casket was flanked by eight people — his son and successor, Kim Jong Un, and the "gang of seven," a collection of the late Kim’s closest advisors. These officials were hand-selected "regents" meant to guide the young dictator as he grew into his new role. Now, nearly two years later, only two of the seven remain in office after the apparent execution and very public shaming of Jang Song Taek, thought to be the second-most powerful man in North Korea.
On Dec. 28, 2011, these were the eight men standing alongside Kim Jong Il’s hearse (clockwise, starting from front left of the vehicle; two are hidden behind the hearse in the image above):
Kim Jong Un: Dear Leader, still very much in office
Jang Song Taek: Director, Worker’s Party Administration Department, Executed
Kim Ki Nam: Chief Propagandist, Worker’s Party
Choe Thae Bok: Chairman, Supreme People’s Assembly
U Tong Chuk (not visible): Head of State Security, Disappeared
Kim Jong Gak (not visible): Minister of the People’s Armed Forces, Fired
Kim Yong Chun: Vice Marshal, Korean army, Demoted
Ri Yong Ho: Chief of the General Staff, Korean army, Disappeared
With Jang’s sudden execution this week, all of the military personnel in the gang of seven have been, at least, forced from office. The North Korean government has been unusually public about Jang’s fall from grace, releasing pictures of him facing a military tribunal and putting out a forceful, florid statement on his alleged crimes. That’s a marked departure from some of the other members of Kim Jong Il’s inner circle, who have simply disappeared and their positions quietly filled.
"People survive, especially at the highest ranks, by proving themselves useful, completely nonthreatening," Abraham Denmark, vice president for political and security affairs at the National Bureau of Asian Research, told Foreign Policy. He noted that it also "helps to have connections to Kim Il Sung," which the remaining advisors do.
Denmark says there are many theories for Jang’s sudden removal, ranging from the regime’s stated charge that he was plotting a coup to theories that he was actually killed by his wife, who is also Kim Jong Un’s aunt. "My guess is it had something to do with his handling of the Kim family’s money," Denmark said, though he stressed that, as with most matters concerning the hermit kingdom, all the theories are extremely speculativek, and in this case "we know even less than usual."
Military officers have borne the brunt of the young Kim’s leadership purge. U and Ri have both disappeared from state media and had their prominent offices filled by others. Kim Yong Chun, one of the army’s highest ranking officers, took a sudden demotion to head up the military’s reserve training office. Kim Jong Gak was briefly promoted to the highest military office in the country after Kim Jong Il’s death, was fired from every military position he held and is now only occasionally seen among the civilian leadership.
Kim Jong Un has begun building his own inner circle and dismantling the old, says Denmark. As he does, he appears to be drawing more from the country’s civilian leadership that have risen through the Worker’s Party — a marked shift from the previous government.
But that probably won’t help Kim Ki Nam and Choe Thae Bok, the last remaining members of Kim Jong Il’s gang of seven sleep any better.