North Korea's family purge

Kim Jong-un's execution of his uncle casts a revealing light on the tensions and weaknesses within the Pyongyang regime, says Charles K Armstrong.

Charles K Armstrong
18 December 2013

North Korea’s public denunciation, show trial and summary execution of supreme leader Kim Jong Un’s uncle by marriage Jang Song Thaek, considered by many the number-two person in the leadership hierarchy, stunned the world and puzzled many long-time North Korea analysts who saw the succession to Kim Jong Il’s rule as going smoothly until now. In broad terms, there are two ways of interpreting the extraordinarily dramatic and violent elimination of Jang - with the twist that both of them may be true.

The first interpretation is that Kim Jong Un may simply be a ferociously vindictive, ruthless and egotistical character who has wanted all along to amass all power as quickly and definitively as possible. Kim's father Kim Jong Il put Jang Song Thaek in place before the elder Kim died in December 2011, to look after the his son as he was establishing his rule. But Kim Jong Un was impatient to get him out of the way. Rather than remove Jang quietly, as Kim Jong Il did with his own uncle in the 1970s, Kim Jong Un wanted to send an unmistakable message that he was the man in charge and no one dare try to dilute his power. But this approach is very risky: for in exposing an extensive and explicit list of crimes, some of which may sound quite plausible to the average North Korean, also overturns the official narrative of unified leadership and smooth succession that the regime has articulated over the last two years.

The second interpretation is that Jang Song Thaek and his cronies represented a genuine threat to Kim's leadership and, although many of the specifics of the charges are absurd, really wanted to push Kim aside. In this case, all real or potential conspirators had to be taught a lesson. Quiet removal would not do; pulling up internal dissent by the roots in the most public and violent way possible was needed to instil fear into all potential dissenters.

Behind the charges

The charges against Jang Song Thaek, published on the front page of the Korean Workers’ Party newspaper Rodong Sinmun, fall into four general categories: lèse-majesté, or not being sufficiently respectful of the Kim family cult (for example, not clapping with sufficient enthusiasm, and refusing to allow a mosaic of the founding leaders to be built); economic sabotage, corruption and self-aggrandisement; debauched living (including distributing pornographic pictures among his friends); and, most serious of all, fomenting insurrection against the Kim regime. Jang was quoted at length confessing to the latter charge, stating that he deliberately undermined the economy to bring the state to the verge of collapse, at which time he would present himself as the people’s saviour and push Kim out. All of this made Jang, in the words of the prosecution case, “despicable human scum,” “worse than a dog,” a “thrice-cursed traitor.”

Outlandish charges of treason and conspiracy are nothing new in North Korean leadership purges. It has been done time and again, going back to the early years of founding leader Kim Il Sung's rule in the late 1940s and 1950s. Grandfather Kim, a protégé of Stalin, was in turn inspired by Stalin's show trials of the 1930s. For example, in 1955 the prominent communist veteran Pak Hon-yong, the number-two man in the North Korean leadership hierarchy, was accused of betraying North Korea to the Americans during the Korean war and conspiring with American missionaries as early as 1919 to undermine the Korean communists (see Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950-1992 [Cornell University Press, 2013]).

Like Stalin’s show-trial victims, Pak never denied these charges and was executed not long after his trial. As with Jang today, the charges against Pak were public, extensive, quite specific and utterly outrageous. But the point is that Pak was not only a potential rival to Kim, but also a scapegoat for Kim’s failures. Pak was blamed for North Korea's failure to unify Korea and defeat the South and the United States during the Korean war. The manner of Jang's demise suggests that the North Korean leadership is similarly worried about its current failures, especially in the economic realm (the disastrous currency devaluation of 2009 is mentioned in Jang’s denunciation) and is trying to deflect attention and blame to a scapegoat. Jang’s removal may signify deep divisions within the leadership over economic policy and other matters, in turn implying more bloody purges and internecine conflict to come.

The political implications

The implications for the future stability of the Kim regime are ambiguous. If Kim Jong Un succeeds in reducing any real or perceived threats to his leadership, the regime will presumably be stabilised. But the very fact that such threats have been “uncovered” and described at such length suggests serious weaknesses in Kim’s rule. The charges against Jang also imply deep concern about the results and future direction of economic reform. This may be just the beginning, rather than the end, of severe and potentially destabilising struggles among the top leadership.

The rest of the world, China in particular, has much at stake in what happens next in North Korea. Jang Song Thaek was especially close to China and seemed to be moving Pyongyang closer to Chinese-style economic reform. Although China has downplayed recent events and has proceeded with business as usual in their relations with North Korea - as well as calling for the US to re-enter multilateral talks on North Korea’s nuclear programme - the Beijing leadership is without doubt troubled by the mercurial and violent streak Kim Jong Un has displayed. An unstable and disintegrating North Korea on its eastern border has long been one of China’s worst nightmares.

For its part, North Korea seems to want to reduce its dependence on China, for which Jang has been blamed, and diversify its economic and political ties. Russia is the most obvious place where North Korea may turn, but it remains to be seen whether North Korea will make new overtures toward Russia and whether Russia will respond in kind.

A Korean proverb says that wealth and power only last three generations. Kim Jong Un, taking the reigns of power from his father and grandfather, seems to be putting this proverb to the test. If the latest vicious purges help to solidify Kim’s rule, he may be able to continue and strengthen North Korea’s family dictatorship. If not, Kim may just be accelerating the demise of a dynasty that has now lasted for sixty-five years.

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