In many ways, the purge and execution of Jang Song-Thaek, North Korea’s number two and the uncle of Kim Jong-Un, is not at all surprising.
For the regime in Pyongyang, purging senior officials is like holding an election in a democratic state. Periodically, North Korea’s hereditary leaders have felt it necessary to remove some senior officials, likely to prevent any individual from growing too powerful, as well as to instill fear in those who remain.
In his short tenure as North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-Un has shown a special fondness for purging senior officials and other members of the North Korean elite. When viewed together, these purges clearly have a defined purpose; namely to help Kim Jong-Un consolidate power by removing vestiges of his father’s rule. This has at times bordered on the absurd, such as this summer when Kim Jong-Un order the executions of members of two music groups closely linked to his father, before ordering at least one of them be disbanded. The executions were reportedly carried out because sex tapes of some of their members surfaced. More than likely, Kim Jong-Un just wanted to eliminate the competitors of the all-female music group he created soon after taking office.
Kim’s other purges were of a less bizarre nature. Notably, many of his most high level ousters have targeted the military brass. In July 2012, for example, Kim expelled the country’s top military official, Ri Yong-Ho. The young leader installed Kim Jong-Gak as Ri’s successor, only to replace Kim Jong-Gak himself in November of that year with Kim Kyok-Sik. By August of this year, Kim Kyok -Sik had all too predictably disappeared. In October North Korea’s media officially confirmed that Ri Yong-Gil had been the unlucky soul Kim Jong-Un had tapped for North Korea’s most thankless and dangerous position.
The extensive purges of the military are notable for at least three reasons. First, they are consistent with a number of other signs that suggest Kim Jong-Un is seeking to end his father’s military-first policies. This is not surprising; after all, Kim Jong-Il had adopted the military first policies precisely because he needed to weaken the power of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), which had been the dominant institution during his own father’s time in power. Kim Jong-Un inherited a situation in which the military was both extremely powerful and loyal to his father. This is an intolerable position for a dictator like Kim.
Secondly, besides weakening the military in general, Kim’s military purges also are likely aimed at elevating a group of young and inexperienced generals who lack independent power bases and who will owe their allegiances to Kim Jong-Un rather than his father.
Thirdly, the military purges were notable in that they removed from power Ri and Kim Jong Gak, two of the handful of leaders Kim Jong-Il had tapped to guide Kim Jong-Un through the succession process. Removing these figures was essential for Kim Jong-Un because of their allegiance to his father, their independent power bases, and simply to signal to the rest of the North Korean elites that he was emerging from his father’s shadow. As long as these men were in place, Kim Jong-Un’s consolidation of power would be incomplete.
Another figure the late Kim Jong-Il tapped to oversee his son’s succession was his brother-in-law, Jang Song Thaek. If Kim Jong-Un viewed the Ri and Kim Jong Gak as serious enough threats to remove them, then Jang’s ouster was only a matter of time. After all, while the generals may have had some networks in the armed forces, Jang’s protégés, loyalists, and supporters number in the thousands and are spread out across all the various agencies and institutions of the North Korean government (which is why it’s quite possible a massive bloodbath will ensue in the months ahead.)
Jang’s status as a member of the Kim family was even more troubling for Kim Jong-Un, given that the entire legitimacy of the North Korean regime is predicated on the top leader being related to the DPRK’s founder and eternal President, Kim Il-Sung. While Jang lacked the crucial blood ties to Kim Il-Sung, he was still related to him. Moreover, Kim Il-Sung had given Jang a strong endorsement when he entrusted Jang with marrying his daughter. These ties to the eternal leader might have just been enough for Jang to claim power without bringing down the entire DPRK system. At the very least, Jang might have been tempted to try.
Thus, Jang’s removal is hardly unexpected. In fact, it would have been truly surprising if Jang had not been purged at some point.
What is far more interesting about the events in North Korea this week is the manner in which Jang’s removal was handled, and what this says about the state of North Korea today. The first surprise came on Sunday with the announcement of Jang’s removal. The North Korean regime has long prided itself on complete secrecy, with senior regime officials often just disappearing overnight with no explanation given. In many cases, they just as suddenly reappear years later, with Pyongyang again seeing no reason to explain this odd course of events. This fate had befallen Jang himself earlier in his career.
Kim Jong-Un has not always followed this script to a tee. Ri’s removal was announced, for instance, although it was attributed to medical problems. This pales in comparison to the drama that played itself out on Sunday. Official media offered a melodramatic account of Jang’s removal replete with pictures of him being literally dragged out of a Party meeting by soldiers. The government also levied damning charges against Jang, hardly comparable to the mundane medical problems it used to explain Ri’s dismissal.
This all required some degree of commitment from the regime. After all, Jang’s removal was almost certainly decided upon before Sunday, and known to regime insiders and Jang himself. Nonetheless, Pyongyang evidently decided to convene a large Party meeting for the sole purpose of staging this dramatic scene of Jang being dragged off. As Victor Cha notes, Pyongyang hasn’t held “theatrical purges” like this since the 1950s.
Nor was Kim Jong-Un content to leave it at that. Just days after Jang’s theatrical purge, North Korea announced Jang had been tried by a special military tribunal, convicted and executed. Again, much of this was unusual, starting with the brazen nature of the crimes Jang was accused of, and the fact that Pyongyang felt it necessary to explain them in such detail. In doing so, the regime entered into uncharted waters. As Andrei Lankov points out, accusing Jang of such serious crimes is dangerous for the regime given that it implicitly calls into question Kim Il-Sung’s judgment in having so strongly endorsed him. For the North Korean regime, any suggestion that Kim Il-Sung is anything less than infallible represents a threat to the regime of the highest order.
Also notable was that Jang had been executed, and so quickly at that. Lankov points out that “Historically North Korea was unique in one regard: it was a Stalinist dictatorship where high-level officials were seldom killed.” While Pyongyang has been purge-happy, it has accorded its top leadership a degree of immunity from prosecution. They have usually only faced minor punishments and always had the possibility of being suddenly thrust back into power. This policy no doubt helped temper the intensity of power struggles by limiting the stakes involved. When lives are not at risk, and purges are often temporary, those being targeted have a stronger incentive to simply accept their fate quietly. Jang’s execution is risky for the regime as it gives targets of future purges more incentive to resort to desperate measures to save their skin.
Taken together, the very public and dramatic removal of Jang, as well as his quick and highly publicized execution, all point to one conclusion: namely, Kim Jong-Un is extremely concerned that Jang’s removal could produce a backlash from within the regime. By removing him so publicly, Kim was undoubtedly sought to eliminate any hope Jang’s supporters might have had of restoring their patron to power. Evidently, Kim judged imprisonment insufficient to the threat at hand, and thus had Jang executed in hopes of denying his supporters a person and cause to rally around.
This is a high-risk gamble, however. Given the fate that Jang himself suffered despite his seniority and familial ties, his supporters are now in an extremely precarious situation and they know it. And desperate people are unpredictable and risk-prone, making it all the more important for Kim Jong-Un that they be quickly eliminated.