North Korea's Purges Past

The execution of Jang Song Thaek was highly unusual when looking at North Korea's history.

How do we understand the purge of Jang Song Thaek? The Korean official and uncle of the leader, Kim Jong Un, was dragged out of a meeting of the Korean Worker’s Party Central Committee by uniformed officers, removed from all offices, and executed days later. He was accused of "anti-party, counterrevolutionary factional acts" and "attempting to undermine the unitary leadership of the party," along with a litany of other charges, including corruption, womanizing, and selling the country’s resources cheaply. The state news agency called him "despicable human scum" and "worse than a dog."

It is hard to speculate about such an opaque society. We simply do not know enough about power dynamics inside the Kim Jong Un regime to determine how much of a threat, if any, Jang posed to the young leader. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that, as ruthless as North Korean leaders may be, bouts of Shakespearean violence like this are highly unusual. The last execution of such a high-ranking official was just after the Korean War.

There had been indicators that something was shifting. In August 2013, changes were made to the ten points of the Monolithic Ideological System, a system first developed in 1967 by the young leader’s grandfather to ensure absolute loyalty to the unitary leader, and to him alone. This was as important a step in regime consolidation today as it was in 1967. The meaning would have been unmistakable to the North Korean people and to aspiring cadres: “There are not two suns in the sky, nor two sovereigns over the people.”

Jang, who had been purged at least twice before, still cast a long shadow over the young leader and was perceived by many as a type of regent. Kim Jong Un’s actions send a clear signal that there is no No. 2 in absolutist North Korea.

This is not the first time top North Korean officials have been purged and denounced for alleged anti-party and anti-people factional activities. Some of the more well-known purges of alleged high-level “factionalists” occurred in 1953, 1956, and finally, in 1967. Yet, executions, at least of top officials, are a rare event.

The 1953 purge occurred toward the end of the Korean War. Though no evidence has emerged to support the claim, a number of prominent officials, primarily with southern Korean origins, were accused of being agents of the United States and of planning a direct challenge to North Korean founding ruler Kim Il Sung’s authority. Most of the alleged conspirators, including the most well-known Korean communist of the colonial era, Pak Heonyeong, were executed. This was the first, and according to existing evidence, last purge that resulted in the execution of such a high-ranking official.

The next major purge of highly-placed officials came in 1956 on the heels of a two-and-a-half year debate over economic development. The North Korean leadership was divided into two camps. Kim Il Sung’s camp supported a policy of general industrialization, with a focus on heavy industry. On the other side of the debate was a broad coalition of ethnic Koreans who had returned to northern Korea from the Soviet Union and China after the country’s 1945 liberation from Japan. They advocated for the replication of the post-Stalin Soviet development strategy that prioritized consumer goods and improved living standards. From early 1956 Kim’s opponents also began to criticize the North Korean leader’s Stalin-inspired cult of personality after the new Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, delivered a scathing attack on his predecessor that February. Recognizing that the Soviet-Koreans and China-returned Koreans would continue to serve as conduits of outside (i.e. Soviet and Chinese) influence as long as they remained in positions of authority, Kim Il Sung purged his opponents, sending them to manage pig farms and rural cement factories. This process lasted nearly two years and affected all levels of society. The purge was designed primarily to limit the influence of Moscow and Beijing on the future trajectory of North Korean political and economic developments.

The 1967 purge of the so-called Gapsan faction was the most significant in terms of repercussions. At a time when North Korea was faced with tremendous security challenges, particularly from the radical Cultural Revolution, several senior officials began to challenge economic policies and the expansion of Kim Il Sung’s cult of personality. The criticism was similar to that made by the Soviet-Koreans and China-returned Koreans from 1953 to 1956, except the critics had been close allies of Kim Il Sung, including Pak Geumcheol, the fourth ranking member of the KWP CC’s Political Committee who foreign diplomats described as Kim’s “right hand man.”

Starting in late 1966, Pak and his associates began to criticize the continued mobilization of the nation through the so-called Byungjin line (reintroduced in March 2013 by Kim Jong Un) that focused on the simultaneous development of heavy industry and national defense. Pak and others gave voice to the frustrations of the North Korean people by suggesting that it was finally time to focus on elevating living standards in the DPRK.