Pyongyang's Never-Ending Purges

February 19, 2016 Topic: Politics Region: Asia Tags: North KoreaKim Jong-unNuclear WeaponsSecurityPolitics

Pyongyang's Never-Ending Purges

There's a reason North Korea is taking even more risks than usual.


CHOE RYONG-HAE, North Korea’s second- or third-ranked figure, did not attend a state funeral in November, and, more significantly, his name did not appear on the list of the event’s organizing committee. Choe’s sin? A water leak at the newly constructed Mount Paektu Hero Youth Power Station.

A South Korean government spokesman said the omission of Choe’s name was unprecedented, but transfers, demotions and executions of senior regime figures—in the top levels of the Korean Workers’ Party and especially the Korean People’s Army—have become all too common under young leader Kim Jong-un, who came to power on the unexpected death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in December 2011.


Many thought that Choe had been executed. The speculation was only natural. Since Kim Jong-un took over, many senior figures have lost their lives, like Kim Yang-gon, who died in what was portrayed as an early-morning car crash in late December. The death is considered suspicious, as Kim Jong-il often used vehicular accidents to rid himself of unwanted officials.

Politics have become brutish in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service reported sixty-eight senior officials were killed from 2012 to 2014. Last April, a South Korean intelligence assessment indicated the young North Korean leader had ordered the execution of fifteen senior officials so far that year. In addition to those deaths, high-ranking army officers have disappeared.

Disappearances often mean death. “Most of these executions are not public,” says Bruce Bechtol of Angelo State University. “Guys disappear or they end up in a camp where they die.” Some Korea watchers like Bechtol estimate that once junior officials and officers are counted, the total number of deaths could be closer to five hundred.

As it turns out, Choe was sent to a reeducation program at the Kim Il-sung Higher Party School and then either forced to toil on a farm or sent down to work in a mine. It is thought he was brought back to Pyongyang to fill a spot created by Kim Yang-gon’s untimely passing.

Choe was fortunate to be needed at a crucial moment. Some, however, see in his relatively mild punishment evidence of a significant shift in the now deadly game of regime politics. The narrative is that Kim Jong-un has slowed the pace of executions because, as NK News’s John G. Grisafi notes, “Kim and the rest of the core leadership now feel more secure and stable.”

Most Korea watchers have for some time believed that Kim Jong-un was able to establish control quickly. Choe Sang-hun of the New York Times, for instance, at the end of 2013 reported that Kim “has swiftly consolidated his grip.” That opinion is consistent with the views of the South Korean foreign ministry, which in its white paper issued in the middle of that year stated Kim was firmly in command of both the military and the Party apparatus. And last year, South Korea’s intelligence service noted that Kim, because of the lack of an opposition, was not in any imminent difficulty.

“The strategy seems to be working: There’s little sign of any real opposition to Kim’s rule among the Pyongyang elite,” wrote the oft-quoted Andrei Lankov last May. Lankov, based in Seoul at Kookmin University, thinks purges are signs that the leader in Pyongyang is solidifying his position by removing disloyal elements.


YET SUCH VIEWS are surely a misreading of the disturbing changes in the regime. In addition to the sudden removal of Choe Ryong-hae and the death of Kim Yang-gon, the killing of two senior generals last year indicates the situation in Pyongyang remains unsettled.

Pyon In-son, a four-star general, was put to death, probably in January, for refusing to obey orders to replace junior officers. Next, General Hyon Yong-chol, then the North’s defense minister, was executed at a military academy near Pyongyang sometime at the end of last April, apparently killed for disrespecting Kim—snoozing at a public event—and for insubordination. Specifically, he was charged, in Pyongyang-speak, with advocating “militarism-oriented bureaucracy.” Pyon’s execution occurred out of sight, but Hyon’s was meant to send a message, evident from the gruesome method of his killing, by antiaircraft fire at extremely close range, and from the semipublic spectacle of the event. The general was reportedly put to death in front of hundreds. The fact that Kim had to send a message as late as the middle of last year is a clear indication that he was not, as analysts thought, in firm control in 2013.

In fact, the transition of power to Kim Jong-un should have been completed by now. Kim Jong-il was able to secure his position within three years of the death of his father, Kim Il-sung, the founder of the North Korean state. Kim Jong-un, now ruling four years, looks far less established than his father was at this point in his tenure. There are two principal reasons why this time the father-to-son leadership transition has been especially troubled. First, Kim Jong-un was not ready to rule when he took over. Great Leader Kim Il-sung took more than two decades to get his son, Kim Jong-il, ready to succeed him. The training started sometime in the early 1960s, and by the time of his father’s fatal heart attack in July 1994, Kim Jong-il was in a position to rule without training wheels.

Kim Jong-il, however, did not start the transition process as early as his father. He delayed preparing his son until after his stroke, which occurred sometime in the second half of 2008. That meant Kim Jong-un had insufficient time to learn the ways of his family’s complex regime and to build his own political base. Because he started so late—and because Kim Jong-un was so young at the time—Kim Jong-il appointed his sister, Kim Kyong-hui, and her husband, Jang Song-thaek, to be his son’s regents. Young Kim’s protectors, especially the avaricious and ambitious Jang, caused even more instability for the new ruler. It is not clear what happened in the Richard III-like politics in Pyongyang, but now Kim Kyong-hui has disappeared from view, possibly killed, and Jang Song-thaek was executed in December 2013.

Jang’s execution, carried out not by ravenous dogs as first reported but by large-caliber rounds, is especially consequential. His elimination triggered months of instability once Kim Jong-un realized he had to kill or sideline Jang’s family members and members of his nationwide patronage network, which reached from the capital into far-flung hamlets. As he continued the executions, Kim also cut himself off from China, because he had entrusted Jang and his subordinates with the responsibility of maintaining relations with Beijing.

The continued killings, partially the result of the ill-planned transition from father Kim Jong-il, undermined confidence in Kim Jong-un—and not only with the Chinese. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service noted that senior leaders in Pyongyang doubted Kim’s “governing style,” as did the common folk. As one source in South Pyongan province told the Daily NK site, “People say that considering the fact that Kim had executed dozens of high-ranking officials within the few years since coming to power, ‘there’s no hope left.’” Koh Yu-hwan of Dongguk University in Seoul notes the regime could “reach its limit” if purges continue. Thus, the resort to the ultimate punishment puts Kim at risk. The spilling of blood—what South Korean President Park Geun-hye last May called a “reign of extreme terror”—creates a dynamic hard to stop. As was evident from Stalin’s Soviet Union, the act of killing intimidates subordinates, but at the same time it creates enemies, who then have to be eliminated. Blood demands more blood. Some attribute the light punishment of Choe Ryong-hae to Kim Jong-un’s realization that he had to put an end to the bloodletting. Kim, Grisafi notes, must demonstrate “that the regime is not indiscriminately ruthless and intent on killing everyone for even minor infractions.” “Even an authoritarian government,” the news site states, “can only carry out violent purges for so long and needs to limit them.”

The second principal reason why the ongoing leadership transition has been particularly difficult is that Kim Jong-un has been extraordinarily ambitious. He is not only trying to put his loyalists in place—something every new leader attempts—he has been changing the nature of the regime. His grandfather, Kim Il-sung, created a one-man system where no one element of the elite—the Korean People’s Army, the Korean Workers’ Party, or the security services—dominated politics. One-man regimes are generally the least stable forms of government, but the scheming leader was a master of keeping all the elements in check, surveilling, reporting on and challenging each other. He perfected the art of keeping everything in balance, which meant everything revolving around himself.

Kim Jong-il, Kim Il-sung’s son, was a far weaker figure, and as a result needed to create his own base of power. He did that the fast way by allowing generals and admirals to elbow the Korean Workers’ Party—and even the security services—to the sidelines. That is the concept behind Kim Jong-il’s iteration of songun, the military-first policy. Kim Jong-un, rejecting songun politics, has been returning the regime to what Kim Il-sung would find familiar, a balance of competing groups. To do so, young Kim has had to strip the military of power, prestige and cash, specifically, the trade flows the military appropriated during his father’s tenure.