The Effect of Jang Song-Thaek’s Execution on North Korean Society

A discussion with South Korean human rights activists


  • Leading up to Jang Song-thaek’s execution

When Kim Jong-il suddenly died on December 17th 2011 and Kim Jong-un rose to power, many people were hopeful. They thought that with his experience of studying overseas Kim Jong-un would improve the economic and human rights conditions in North Korea.

However when he came to power in 2012 he began constructing statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il across the country and slowly started executing any people or groups that even somuch as irritated him. There was of course the infamous ‘Unhasu Orchestra Execution’ in August 2013.

From the end of November 2013, rumours starting circling that Jang Su-gil and Ri Yong-ha who were deputy directors of the Administrative Department of the ruling Workrs’ Party, had been executed. Then finally on December 8, 2013, at the Enlarged Politburo Meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, in which Kim Jong-un was in attendance- it was announced that Jang Song-thaek would be purged.

Four days later, on December 12, Jang Song-thaek’s execution was decided through a special military tribunal of the State Security Department which was then reported through the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

At the time, I was posted as the deputy Ambassador at the North Korean Embassy in the UK and the news came as a big shock.

While the KCNA announced that “Jang was so reckless with his greed for power that he persistently worked to stretch his tentacles even to the People’s Army with a foolish calculation that he would succeed in staging a coup if he mobilized the army.” But it was clear that this was just one of Kim Jong-un’s bloody purges.

Before Jang Song-thaek’s execution, Ri Yong-ho, a former chief of North Korea’s military general staff was also executed in 2012.

But the execution of Jang Song-thaek was a bit different. Not only was the execution decided at an Enlarged Politburo Meeting and carried out within four days, the announcement made at the execution made it clear that a large-scale purge was going to be carried.


  • The Effect of Jang Song-thaek’s execution on North Korean diplomats

Jang Song-thaek’s execution not only had a profound effect within North Korean society, but the aftermaths could also be felt by diplomats abroad. Jang Song-thaek’s brother-in-law, Jon Yong-jin who was the ambassador to Cuba; Jang Song-thaek’s nephew Jang Yong-chol, who was the ambassador to Malaysia; Pak Kwang-chol the ambassador to Sweden; Yun Yong-il the permanent delegate to UNESCO and Hong Yong the deputy permanent delegate were all sent back to North Korea.

In December 2013, North Korean foreign officials were sent a list of 16 anti-party and anti-revolutionaries and were told to get rid of their photos and any of their work, as soon as possible.

The official list that was given was as follows:

“Jang Song-thaek, Ri Ryong-ha, Jang Su-gil, Pak Chun-hong, Choe Kum-chol, Kim Dong-i, Ryang Chung-song, Han Ryong-gul, Gil Gyung-nam, Jung Sung-il, Choe Byung-hee, An Jong-hwan, Cho Won-bum, Ri Chul-ho, Kim Kyong-su, Jun ung-ryul”

Aside from Ri Ryong-ha, Jang Su-gil and Ryang Chung-song who were executed, the rest were all executed at the same time as Jang Song-thaek.


  • The Ripples of Jang Song-thaek’s Execution on North Korean society

Jang Song-thaek’s execution shocked the North Korean people, including myself, not just because for its ruthlessness.

The announcement of Jang Song-thaek’s execution revealing his corruption unveiled the ugly realities of the Kim Family that had been hidden for so long. Jang’s affair with many women and the millions of dollars he spent on gambling and drugs overseas was all finally revealed.

However, as much as these were the corrupt acts of Jang Song-thaek, they were also the corrupt acts of Kim Jong-il.

Through the Jang Song-thaek incident, the North Korean people finally knew what really happened to the pretty girls that were taken from across the country to be a part of the 5th Section of Party Departments.

In reality, behind the veil of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-un’s Communist and Proletariat Dictatorship, a Slave Society was being built in North Korea.

Honestly, I can say I am so ashamed to say that I worked for this type of North Korean government.


  • The People who were executed alongside Jang Song-thaek

I was class-mates with Ri Ryong-nam, whose older brother was Ri Ryong-ha who was executed before Jang Song-thaek.

When Ri Ryong-ha was executed, Ri Ryong-nam was a secretary for the Propaganda Department in Janggang Province. After the execution, Ri Yong-nam and his family were taken away to a political prison camp.

Ri Ryong-ha’s in-law Ri Hui-chol was the former North Korean Ambassador to Sweden. At the time of execution, Ri Hui-chol was the Head of Circumstantial Evidence at the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs but was deported to the Grand People’s Study House. His son was Ri Ryong-ha’s son-in-law, but due to the fact that his father-in-law was executed, his wife and sons were all taken away to a political prison camp.


Pak Chun-hong’s in-law is Pak Kwang-chol, the former North Korean ambassador to Sweden. As Pak Kwang-chol was recalled to North Korea in December 2013, he was purged from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and currently works at the People’s Committee in the Sosong District in Pyongyang.


Pak Gwang-chol’s daughter is the famous North Korean actress Pak Mi-hyang who starred in the North Korean film ‘The Schoolgirl’s Diary.’ This was a movie that was also shown worldwide. After her father-in-law was executed, Pak Mi-hyang, her husband and children were all taken away to a political prison camp.

(Pak Mi-hyang in The Schoolgirl’s Diary)

Ryang Chung-song’s brother-in-law was Hong Yong, the former deputy permanent delegate to UNESCO. Hong Yong was recalled to Pyongyang in December 2013 and his transfer through Beijing was captured by South Korean journalists who then reported it all over South Korean media. Ryang Chung-song was shot and all his family members were taken to a political prison camp, while Hong Yong was banished from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and he now works in the People’s Committee in a district near Pyongyang.


Ri Ung-gil, the former section chief for the European bureau at the International Department of the ruling party and had heard many of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il’s speeches as he had once been an Italian interpreter for Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il for many years. You will probably be able to find his picture on Youtube easily. He was very close with Jang Song-thaek and as a result he, along with his wife, son, daughter-in-law and grandson were all taken to a prison camp.

Ri’s daughter-in-law is the daughter of the current head of the US bureau in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs- Han Sung-ryul. Han Sung-ryul’s wife is from the family of Lim Chun-chu, one of Kim Il-sung’s fellow partisan fighters. As a result, Ri’s daughter-in-law was released from the prison camp and returned to Pyongyang.

Ri’s son-in-law, Kim Kang-rim was the head of the UK bureau in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs until April 2014 but as his father-in-law and family were taken away to the mines he was stripped of his position as section chief but was luckily allowed to stay in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a researcher in the Circumstantial Evidence Department.

Cho Sung-kyu, who was born in 1965, is the husband of Jon Eun-young (born in 1968, graduate of English Studies from Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies). Jon Eun-young is the daughter of Jang Song-thaek’s older sister and former North Korean Ambassador to Cuba. His entire family was taken away to a political prison camp with the execution of Jang Song-thaek. Cho Sung-kyu was in fact my class-mate at Beijing Foreign Studies University.


Jon Hye-young is Jang’s niece through Jang’s older sister and Jon Young-jin, the former North Korean Ambassador to Cuba. She was also Hwang Jang-yop’s eldest daughter-in-law. But when Hwang’s family were all taken away to political prison camps- Jang Song-thaek only saved Jon Hye-yong. She re-married after this, but eventually was still taken away to a political camp just for being Jang Song-thaek’s niece.


Jang Yong-chol was the former North Korean ambassador to Malaysia and his wife was a famous actress in North Korea who starred in ‘Hong Kil-dong.’ Jang’s family was also taken away to a political prison camp.

  • The Cause of the Execution

I believe that Kim Jong-un’s execution of Jang Song-thaek had been a result of a build-up of hatred against him.

When Kim Jong-il was alive, Kim Kyong-hui and Jang Song-thaek had been extremely burdened by the presence of Ko Yong-hui. Ko Yong-hui and her children had never been brought to Kim Il-Sung because Kim Jong-il had hidden them away, but on top of this, Kim Kyong-hui was strongly opposed to them. In fact five years into his rule, Kim Jong-un is unable to produce a picture taken with Kim Il-sung. It can also be assumed that Kim Kyong-hui was not on good terms with Ko Yong-hui. Although, generally, there aren’t many women who have good relationships with their sister-in-law. As a young boy, Kim Jong-un probably saw his biological mother’s strained relationship with Kim Kyoung-hui and Jang Song-thaek and thus may have executed Jang Song-thaek with vengeance for his mother.


  • The Number of People who were Executed in the Aftermath of Jang Song-thaek’s Execution.

At the time of execution, 15 high officials were executed from the Administrative Department.

There were about 400 people in the Administrative Department, 300 people in ‘Bureau 54’ and 200 people in Department 9 of the Ministry of People’s Security who were also executed. Additionally, many other state officials from departments like the military engineering department.

As for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs- the people who were taken away to political prison camps were Pak Gwang-chol’s daughter, Yun Yong-il’s daughter, Kim Kang-rim’s father-in-law, Kim Jung-ae (the head of the Gobangsan Guesthouse)’s son-in-law and daughter, Han Sung-ryul’s daughter, Ri Hui-chol’s son, Jon Young-jin (the former North Korean Ambassador to Sweden)’s family and Jang Yong-chol (the former North Korean Ambassador to Malaysia)’s family.

While they were not executed, there were over 10 people were taken away to political prison camps. It appears that about 0.1% of Ministry of Foreign Affairs employees were affected by Jang Song-thaek’s execution, and about 20,000 people out of the 20 million people living in North Korea. At least 10,000 people were taken away to political prison camps, sent away to mines or deported to the countryside.

The case of Jang Song-thaek’s execution is of a much bigger scale than the ‘Intensification Campaign’ (심화조 사건) in the 1990’s. We need to raise awareness about the realities behind this case.

Many North Korean diplomats were purged as a result of the execution and I believe that if we were to file a case against with the ICC against Kim Jong-un, there will be a ripple effect in Pyongyang.