The day before Laura Ling and Euna Lee were apprehended at a section of the Chinese-North Korean border in Mapai village, the U.S. Congressional Research Service issued a report proclaiming that in the aftermath of Kim Jong-il’s August 2008 stroke, “a collective decision-making apparatus has emerged, apparently headed by his brother-in-law, Chang Song-Taek.” Since then, the Dear Leader’s health appears to have remained sub-par or perhaps even deteriorated, while heir apparent Kim Jong-un is far from the day when he will be embraced by the military hardliners.
So who is this Chang Song-Taek, the man whose daily To-Do List may well hold the key to Ling and Lee’s release? Married to Kim Jong-il’s younger sister, who convinced her brother to end a year’s worth of husband house arrest in 2003, the 63-year-old Song-Taek consolidated his power in April when he was elected to North Korea’s National Defense Commission. On the personal side, he was struck by tragedy in 2006, as his only daughter – after refusing to come home from Paris – committed suicide allegedly because of her parents’ opposition to a boyfriend.
In Western media circles at least, Song-Taek is very much a man behind the scenes, barely ever popping up by name in the stream of current coverage about the North Korean situation. And yet, here is the guy who very likely rubber stamped the order to turn the suspicious Kang Nam 1 ship around, hold off Ling and Lee’s transfer to a hard labor camp and declare this week that North Korea is done with the six-party talks concept.
It’s critical when dealing with a situation like that of Ling and Lee to know, or at least be able to visualize, your opponent. So think not of an ailing Kim Jong-il or his basketball-loving third son Kim Jong-un (even though the idea of a one-on-one game of high-political-stakes-B-ball between Jong-un and President Obama has a certain appeal). Rather, envision a lifelong, healthier politician who is said to be helping prepare Jong-un for the era of the “Dearly Departed Leader.”