Purges in North Korea: the route to security or instability?

The decision by North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-Un to execute his chief advisor and uncle, Jang Song-Taek, has led to considerable speculation as to what this will do to the security of the isolationist country and the Northeast Asia region in general.

The purge of Jang (right) has led to fears of increased insecurity on the Korean Peninsula
The purge of Jang (left) has led to fears of increased insecurity on the Korean Peninsula

At his father Kim Jong-Il’s funeral in December 2011, Kim Jong-Un walked beside the leader’s the coffin flanked by seven men. These were designated regents, dubbed the ‘gang of seven’, chosen by the late Kim to provide advice to his son, the fledgling dictator. After Jang Song-Taek’s execution, only two of these men remain in office. Kim Jong-Un’s purges send out a signal; he is the man in charge and will be held accountable to no person, whatever sound judgement they may provide.

It has been suggested that Kim Jong-Un’s purge of Jang is a sign of impulsiveness, bordering on weakness, which marks the young dictator’s desperation to be seen as the sole arbiter of North Korea’s future. This sign of weakness, it is argued, may embolden potential agitators to manoevure Kim from power, potentially sparking factional infighting within the North Korean Workers’ Party and thus destabilising the Korean Peninsula as a whole.

Despite the apparent suddenness and brutality of the purge, however, Kim is merely following in the footsteps of his father who overcame his own obstacles en route to consolidating his authoritarian position.

Even before the death of North Korea’s revered founder, Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il (his son) was ousting potential rivals and usurpers from the political scene. In October 1992, he purged 20 military officers whose loyalty to the regime was in doubt, sacking a further 300.

After succeeding his father, who died in July 1994, Kim Jong-Il instigated further purges. In April 1995, he removed and executed the entire officer corps of the Sixth Army, apparently issuing death warrants for several hundred other soldiers on tenuous accusations of treason.

The reclusive Kim Jong-Il purged officials and military officers throughout his reign
The reclusive Kim Jong-Il purged officials and military officers throughout his reign

During a time of high famine in 1997, Kim publicly executed his agricultural minister, along with several hundred other officials, as a means of deflecting criticism of his handling of the economy. He followed this in 2000 with another purge of senior political figures for “alienating the party from the masses and playing into the enemy’s hands.”

Even Jang Song-Taek, Kim’s brother-in-law and the man at the centre of the current debate, was dismissed from his party posts in 2004, although he was later reinstated.

If there was ever any inkling that an individual was becoming too powerful, or had designs on undermining the all-powerful Kim dynasty, he was swiftly brought to book, along with anybody unfortunate enough to have links with the said individual.

Past loyalty was irrelevant; paranoia and suspicion remained essential characteristics for Kim in his bid to retain dominance over the country. His willingness to purge people, often executing them subsequently, led to the failure of many policies and the imposition of incompetents in positions of power.

That in itself, however, prevented any significant challenge to Kim’s rule and consequently denied the possibility for the sort of infighting that could lead to the violent breakdown of the one-family dynasty, a scenario most Western diplomats are terrified about.

By initiating his own purges, Kim Jong-Un might encourage his potential opponents to overthrow him whilst any chance remains. It is more likely, however, that his ruthless decision-making will consolidate his rule, as was the case with his father. It might lead to the execution of many innocent people, but such a policy will also root out potential usurpers.

Kim Jong-Un's preservation of his family dynasty is reliant on a policy of purging
Kim Jong-Un’s preservation of his family dynasty is reliant on a policy of purging

This means continuing misery for the North Korean people, destined to live lives of impoverished brutality under the Stalinist regime. Simultaneously, however, it reduces the risk of an internal rupture within the North Korean Worker’s Party. As such, the chances of a bloody civil war in a nuclear-armed country are decreased rather than the feared reverse.


Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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