Guest Column: Jang Song Thaek and family: could they improve the life of North Koreans ?

Monday 4th March, 2013
In this guest piece, Nicolas Levi offers a background to Jang Song Thaek’s family members, focusing on their ties to the North Korean economy. Whether or not these elites are interested in improving the lives of ordinary North Koreans, Levi suggests that they are, at least, equipped with the experience and positioning to take the lead in this area.
Jang Song Thaek and family: can these elites improve the life of North Koreans?

Jang Song Thaek is an advisor to Kim Jong Il and probably the second most powerful person in North Korea. It is interesting to see that members of his family also hold important positions. This concerns not only those who are alive, but also those who are deceased. Unlike Jang, who was a civilian officer of the Korean Workers Party – although now a general of the North Korean Army – his older brothers (Jang Sung U, Jang Sung Hyeol, Jang Sung Kil, Jang Sung Seop and Jang Sung Ho) made their career in the North Korean Army.

One of the nephews of Jang Song Thaek is Jang Yong Chol, whose father was the late Jang Song U. He is the current ambassador of the DPRK in Malaysia. It is also interesting to note that he was a former officer of the North Korean army. His career in the army was enabled by the support of his father. According to some sources, he is a one-star general. Jang Yong Chol also had a career in the Kim Il Sung Youth League, where he cooperated with Ji Jae Ryong (the current North Korean ambassador to China) and Choe Ryong Hae (the head of the political bureau of the North-Korean Army). Jang Yong Chol’s brother is an officer in a North-Korean trading company.

A son-in-law of Jang Song Thaek, Jeon Yong Jin, is the current ambassador of North Korea to Cuba.  He was previously Vice Chairman of the DPRK Foreign Culture Liaison Committee. Jeon Yong Jin’s father is Jeon Hee Jeong, a close advisor to the Kim family on foreign affairs and a member of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers Party. Jeon Hee Jeong is said to hold a position in the Personal Secretariat of Kim Jong Eun. It should be noted that Jeon Yong Jin was a tutor of economics to the son of Jang Song Thaek: Jang Song Kim. Both of them lived in Sweden. His role should be compared to Ri Chol, the former ambassador of North Korea to Switzerland, who educated Kim Jong Eun (the current leader of North Korea) in economic matters. Jeon Yong Jin is also a trusted advisor of Ri Ryong Nam, the minister of foreign trade of the DPRK.

These elements inJang Song Thaekdicate to us that Jang Song Thaek and his relatives have great knowledge about international economics. Most of them have lived or currently live abroad, and also manage foreign currency businesses. In my humble opinion, I believe that they are key-decision makers with regard to large-scale economical projects that involve North Korea. In this regard, it was not a surprise to see Naguib Sawiris, the CEO of Orascom, with Kim Jong Il and Jang Song Thaek in January 2011.

Another important conclusion may be drawn: in a new North Korea, we could imagine the relatives of Jang Song Thaek controlling the economic direction of the country. Who knows ? They may be the key figures who will introduce dramatic changes into the North Korean economy. Some of Jang Song Thaek’s brothers who served in the army also lead North Korean companies trading under military auspices.

Nicolas Levi is a researcher at the Polish Academy of Sciences and an analyst on Korean Issues at the Poland Asia Research Center ( Holding a PhD regarding the North-Korean leadership, his personal website ( focuses on North Korea issues.

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