Jang Song-taek Gains Control of Kim Jong-un's Guards

Jang Song-taek Jang Song-taek

Jang Song-taek, the uncle and patron of new North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, has apparently put himself in charge of the top guard unit that protects Kim. "Despite being a civilian, Jang Song-taek began appearing dressed in military uniform adorned with four-star insignia on his epaulettes after the death of Kim Jong-il," a source familiar with North Korea said. "A close inspection of his uniform reveals that it is characteristic of the elite unit."

The source declined to elaborate citing security reasons.

"The Guard Command's status was recently elevated and it seems to have been reorganized," an intelligence official here said. "In the process, Gen. Yoon Jong-rin appears to have stepped down and been replaced by another official who is controlled by Jang." Besides being in charge of protecting Kim Jong-un, the command also quells public uprisings or attempted coups d'etat and handles security at the numerous retreats owned by the Kim family.

A three-layered security detail protects Kim during all his travels in North Korea. The outermost layer is supervised by the Ministry of People's Security (police), the second by the State Security Department (intelligence agency) and first layer by the Guard Command, which consists of around 30,000 troops. The number rises to more than 100,000 if the troops of the Pyongyang Defense Command are included.

"The elite Guard Command has tanks and armored vehicles with enough firepower to quell any uprising by a corps-level force," said the source.

Jang's grip on the Guard Command demonstrates his power, experts say. "This shows how much trust Kim Jong-un places in his patrons Jang Song-taek and aunt Kim Kyong-hui," a government official here said. "That also means that the fate of Kim's rule lies in their hands."

Since 2007 Jang has been the director of the Workers Party's Administration Department, which guides and controls North Korea's top security agencies. "If Jang has gained control of the Guard Command, that means he now has full control over all means to protect the regime," said one high-ranking North Korean defector. "This would be impossible unless Kim and Jang agree that their fates are intertwined."

Some experts recently said Jang's status is probably not as significant as others believed who saw him as the eminence grise of both the Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un regimes. The reason for that claim was that Jang's name did not appear on a list of top officials in the Workers Party Politburo, the highest decision-making organ within the party, during the last high-level party meeting on April 11.

But Ryu Dong-ryeol at the Police Science Institute said, "Don't believe what you see. Kim consults with Jang and his aunt on every important matter and completely depends on them."

Regarding the ascent of Choe Ryong-hae as the de facto No. 2 figure through his appointment as standing committee member of the Politburo and vice chairman of the party's Central Military Committee, Ryu said, "Jang has inserted his own puppet in order to help Kim Jong-un gain control of the military."

englishnews@chosun.com / Apr. 30, 2012 13:11 KST