North Korea is not a place to play fast and loose with business deals, at least if you might be crossing financial swords with the country's leader, Kim Jong-un. When Kim had his own uncle put to death earlier this month, most North Korea-watchers believed that the 30-year-old dictator was simply consolidating his power, eliminating a rival who sought to stage a palace coup.
That, anyway, was the officially stated reason for the execution of 67-year-old Jang Song-thaek, generally thought to be the second-most powerful official in the highly secretive communist country. In an unusual public declaration, the government of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea — as North Korea calls itself — said that Jang attempted to overthrow his nephew's regime and seize the reins of North Korean power.
The announcement and the rare execution of a member of the family that has ruled North Korea since its creation in 1948 led many Pyongyangologists to believe that the young Kim's hold on the title of Supreme Leader was coming loose. Apparently, that was never the case.
Now, it turns out, Jang was likely killed for being too pushy in the state's business dealings.
That, at least, is the information put forth by the intelligence chief of rival South Korea, delivered in a briefing to his country's parliamentary intelligence committee. National Intelligence Service Director Nam Jae-joon's comments were relayed by South Korean lawmakers on the committee and reported in the New York Times and other news outlets.
"It appears that there is no big problem with Kim Jong-un's grip on power, because the purge of Jang Song-thaek was not the result of a power struggle," Nam reportedly told the committee.
Word of corruption in various business deals, especially a large sale of coal from North Korea to China, reached Kim, who then took steps to purge his powerful uncle from the government, the reports say.
Jang "instructed his stooges to sell coal and other precious underground resources at random," according to the charges against him from within his own government, Nam said.
According to a CNN account of the South Korean spy chief's briefing, Kim intervened and gave his uncle a chance to clean up his business dealings. But unwisely, perhaps overestimating his own standing in the North Korean government, Jang refused.
That left Kim no choice, but to order his uncle's execution.