Welcome to North Korea's Game of Thrones

The plot thickens in Pyongyang.

The Kim regime in North Korea, as with any hereditary dynasty, must base its claims to legitimacy to a large extent on sacred mythology. Being an atheistic regime, however, eliminates the most common rationale for transmission of rule from one generation to another—the divine right of kings. The juche philosophy of “self-reliance”—that the North Korean people are the masters of their country’s fate—was long promulgated by North Korea’s founding Great Leader Kim Il Sung as the primary justification for regime legitimacy. This, however, has slowly given way to an increased emphasis on the “Baekdu bloodline”—blood descendants of this same Kim Il Sung. (Despite his death in 1994, Kim Il Sung remains as “Eternal President” of North Korea.)

The “Baekdu bloodline” has, in fact, adopted some of the same mythological symbolism used in the past to surround other great leaders with a special aura. Mount Baekdu, an extinct volcano on the Korean-Chinese border with a pristine crater lake, is considered the ancestral home of the Korean people. Linking Great Leader Kim Il Sung’s anti-Japanese guerrilla activities and the birth of his son, Kim Jong Il, to this sacred mountain is the equivalent of the linkage of Moses, the Burning Bush and the Ten Commandments to Mount Sinai. Additional symbols used to depict the birth of Dear Leader Kim Jong Il on the sacred Mount Baekdu have included a star in the heavens—as with the Star of Bethlehem—and a simple log-cabin-like structure—as with depictions of the birthplace of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln. Further, North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported on the occasion of Kim Jong Il’s death in 2011 “peculiar natural wonders” on Mount Baekdu including: the cracking of ice, despite freezing temperatures, on the lake atop the mountain “shaking the lake with a big noise” and the casting of a red glow at dawn on Kim Jong Il’s calligraphic writing on the mountainside: “Mount Baekdu, Holy Mountain of Revolution.”

Soviet archives, however, indicate that Kim Jong Il was born as Yuri Irsenovich Kim in the village of Vyatskoye near Khabarovsk in 1941. His father, Kim Il Sung, was then commanding the 1st Battalion of the Soviet 88th Brigade, made up of Korean and Chinese exiles, having withdrawn from Manchuria due to Imperial Japanese military pressure. These Soviet archival records are not, however, conducive to the official North Korean narrative.

The centrality of the Baekdu bloodline to Kim family legitimacy was further demonstrated in August 2013 by a report in South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper. North Korea had reportedly revised the ten fundamental principles of the Korean Workers’ Party for the first time in thirty-nine years to include the statement that the “party and revolution must be carried ‘eternally’ by the ‘Baekdu bloodline.’” B.R. Meyers, in his work The Cleanest Race, presents a comprehensive explanation of the North Korean obsession with bloodlines and racial purity.

Given this “Baekdu bloodline” connection to regime legitimacy, any challenge to this concept would be considered treasonous. However, even though the guerrilla camp in the area of Mount Baekdu in opposition to Japanese colonial rule is a key component of this legitimacy, there are indications that the wrong person may be occupying the throne in Pyongyang. In this familial Game of Thrones, another family may have a greater claim to legitimacy.

Choe Ryong Hae, considered by many as Kim Jong Un’s right-hand man following the execution late last year of Kim’s uncle Jang Song Thaek, has his own blood-line connections to North Korea’s revolutionary past. Choe, according to North Korea expert Aidan Foster-Carter, helped smooth the way for Kim Jong Il’s succession back in the 1980s and nineteen 1990s through his position as head of the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League. In 2010 Choe was appointed to the Central Military Commission (CMC) and as an alternate member of the Politburo. He was then made a Vice Marshall in April 2012, despite having no military career. But such honors in North Korea are often derived from one’s family background and Choe has sterling revolutionary credentials.

He took over as Vice Chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission (CMC) around the same time (2012) when leading General Ri Yong Ho was purged. Choe’s reported mandate from Kim Jong Un was to restore party control over the military, which had eroded during the era of Kim Jong Il’s “songun” (military first) policy.