North Korea’s community of businessmen in China is being called home by Pyongyang following last week’s dramatic purge and execution of Jang Song Thaek, the uncle of leader Kim Jong Un and North Korea's highest-ranking proponent of ties with China.
Jang's publicly broadcast purge from office and subsequent secret execution made headlines around the world, leaving watchers to speculate about the leadership’s intentions. One expert, Chris Torrens, the London-based director of global risk analysis at Control Risks, said that Jang’s execution may have been related to his business connections in China, a theory that continues to hold water as more details emerge. Torrens explained that while North Korea and China are close political and economic allies, Jang’s successful dealings, particularly given his vocal support of Chinese-style economic reform and development, could have been threatening to Kim’s leadership.
According to South Korean news outlet Yonhap News Agency, a recent directive to North Koreans in China told them to make their way home, a move that an unnamed source says is targeting anyone “classified as having connections” with Jang. Jang, who served as the country’s vice chairman of the National Defense Commission and de facto second-in-command, was known for his business relations in China, traveling to the neighboring nation on multiple occasions. It’s his connection to China that may have raised a red flag for Kim, and ultimately cost Jang his life.
The announcement of Jang's removal from office, carried by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), said that he was responsible for “throwing the state financial management system into confusion” after “committing such acts of treachery as selling off precious resources of the country at cheap prices.” The common opinion is that Jang, a known advocate of Chinese trade, had cheaply sold North Korean iron to China.
Jang was the main link between Pyongyang and Beijing, based on a foundation built during his time as part of the previous regime led by Kim Jong Il, building popularity among citizens wanting to see the economically destitute nation bolster trade. “A very real and simple potential explanation is that Jang was simply becoming too powerful,” Torrens said.
China has kept a relatively low profile following the execution, despite the nation’s connection with Jang. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called the recent events shaking up North Korean politics as an “important change” and described the purge and killing of Jang as an “internal affair."