North Korea: totalitarianism in transition?

Periodically wracked by famine and lambasted in a UN human-rights inquiry, North Korea remains a state without parallel. What lies behind the regime’s latest purge?

Alex Franquelli
20 February 2014

It is recent news that the North Korean regime has purged Jang Song Thaek— uncle of the hermit state’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un—with accusations ranging from “traitor” to “careerist” and “womaniser”. All direct relatives of the once second-most-powerful figure in the regime were executed in ways the popular media, not without the usual hint of sensationalism, have defined as both “horrific” and “shocking”. Apart from the array of unconfirmed and truculent details—120 rabid dogs, it was suggested, had mauled the man’s body, a rumour that had instead originated from a Chinese social network—the episode brought the North Korean regime to the attention of the general public once again.

But what direction is the new North Korean leadership taking? Is there a logic behind the apparently incoherent series of actions undertaken?

Any analysis is inevitably burdened by the secrecy of this totalitarian regime but we can start with the Korean Central News Agency statement on Jang ’s execution. Behind the rhetoric and the somehow naïve comparisons (“worse than a dog”) and imputed petty motives (Jang was said to have confined an autograph sent by Kim Jong-un, carved on natural granite, to a “shaded corner” in front of a state building), the statement tells a much more compelling story.

First, the elite is undergoing a transition that sees the younger generations (represented by the Supreme Leader himself) replace the older functionaries. Whether this could result in a new set of reforms remains to be seen.

Secondly, and perhaps more alarmingly, Jang, one of the most tenaciously pro-China figures, had been accused of selling off coal and leasing out land at Rason port in the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) for 50 years. In both cases, the beneficiary was none other than China, thus sparking a controversial debate as to whether Pyongyang is indirectly sending a bitter message to Beijing.

Reassurance has come from one of the most senior officials in the State Economic Development Committee, Yun Yong Sok, who told the Associated Press in December that things continue to be “the same as before”. But doubts remain as to whether the accusation implies a reopening of the agreements signed with the Chinese government, especially since these transactions had allegedly been carried out by Jang without any consent from the Korean elite.

This apparently contradictory behaviour reveals an important change within the leadership, which in the first year has appeared more domestically focused than under Kim’s predecessors, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. A contributing factor has been the lack of a clear strategy by the Obama administration.


US-led economic sanctions had forced the North Korean leadership to adopt a more conciliatory stance, preventing the construction of nuclear weapons or the implementation of a long-range missile programme. Such plans were routinely announced by Pyongyang to maintain a state of fear in the region and gain material benefit in aid. The Agreed Framework of 1994 managed to put a stop to the North Korean nuclear-weapons programme in return for aid from the west and the Clinton administration worked on sorting out the causes for concern between the two countries, before leaving the stage to the George W Bush presidency.

Bush forestalled the negotiations and included North Korea in the now infamous “axis of evil”, before initiating the six-party discussions which would later bring substantial aid to Pyongyang on condition that it abandoned the nuclear-weapons programme. This hard-line approach and the significant stop in the negotiations resulted in, among other things, the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, not far from Seoul’s Incheon International Airport in 2010, and the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel that same year. Once again, this was rewarded with aid by the US, Japan and South Korea.

But with the death of the former Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-il, the nation’s foreign relations seem to have been downplayed. True, the 2013 crisis, sparked by the launch last April of the first North Korean satellite, issued in the familiar rhetoric against the usual suspects (the US, Japan and South Korea). But, once again, the mountain brought forth a mouse and the crisis ended with a vague promise of a resumption of talks between the two Koreas.

Kim Jong-un’s focus on domestic politics and the continuing recourse to internal purges may betray uneasiness and distrust towards the military leadership, the Supreme Leader concentrating more on stabilising his authority than utilising the well-known threat-for-aid mechanism. For his part, President Obama has been rather ambiguous, breaking with the hard-line Bush stance of “harsh cautions before a launch, increased sanctions after” when he failed to act decisively on the North Korean rocket launch (which failed to achieve its target).

Washington needs to adapt to the new scenario by toughening its injunctions or, less realistically, finding new channels of possible agreement with Pyongyang. The purges and a leader working on consolidating his position seem to represent the perfect occasion for the US to act but this could irritate China, which remains North Korea’s only ally.

Economic reforms

Totalitarian regimes need continually to reinvent themselves to remain the same and for North Korea stability is the real goal, not growth. And North Korea remains a loose cannon, particularly in times like these. The country’s leadership is undergoing a deep transformation, which could even lead to economic reforms following the experience gained in the SEZs. According to some observers, its relatively-untouched mineral deposits could drive the country’s development in infrastructure (mainly transport and processing) and know-how—though this would undermine the existing economic bastions.

In 2015, China will open a high-speed rail line that will connect Shenyang, a major industrial and commercial hub, to Dandong, the city on the banks of the river Yalu which separates the Middle from the Hermit Kingdom. But that will only be the first of a series of projects aimed at intensifying trade between the two countries. Another, probably even more revealing, will see a rail line run from Jilin to Hunchun, a border city strategically close to the Rason SEZ.

These assets betray an increasing interest in the advance of Pyongyang’s economy and apparently contradict Beijing’s growing annoyance with this unpredictable and volatile neighbour. Some analysts argue that these investments represent an attempt by the Chinese government to prevent a total collapse of the North Korean economy and to support a shift of focus from the military to a more market-minded mentality, while increasing Pyongyang’s reliance on China and consolidating North Korea’s position as a buffer against the United States.

A state without parallel

This unconventional alliance has been criticised following a United Nations inquiry, which catalogued the systematic human-rights abuses in the “Democratic People's Republic”. It reported that “the gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”.  China’s practice of sending illegal immigrants and defectors back to North Korea was condemned as "aiding and abetting crimes against humanity", since those forcibly repatriated often ended up tortured or executed.

Beijing rejected the claim, arguing that “politicising human-rights issues is not conducive towards improving a country's human rights”—not thereby contesting the substance of the accusation but rather the UN approach. China has made clear on more than one occasion that it will not accept charges being laid against North Korea at the International Criminal Court, thus vetoing any UN effort to arraign Kim Jong-un for human-rights violations.

Has North Korea really entered a phase of transition? Only time will tell. But what appears reasonably certain is that 2014 will say more about North Korea than its recent rhetorical outbursts. It is a story of traitors, purges, money—and a secret, regressive revolution.

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