The reports of repressions in North Korea have recently started to appear in the international media quite frequently. The last such report came from the South Korea’s National Intelligence Service on May 13. It relates the execution of DPRK’s former defense minister Hyon Yong-chol in early May.

The Mythical and Real Repressions

According to the reports that actively circulate in the world media, North Korean generals, party functionaries, government officials and even artists that displeased the young North Korean leader for one reason or another are primarily singled out for punishment. On April 29, the head of South Korean National Intelligence Service said in his speech to the parliament that according to the data collected by his agency, only in the first four months of 2015 fifteen high-ranking North Korean military and civilian officials were executed. At about the same time, the press reported on the alleged arrests and executions of several musicians from the popular Unhasu Orchestra.

Media also publish more exotic reports that are based on the rumors that circulate around Pyongyang.  For instance, it’s been alleged that a number of North Korean architecture and construction officials were shot for “sabotaging the leader’s instructions.” They were guilty of failing to redo the roof work in one of the newly-constructed Pyongyang public buildings to comply with Kim Jong-un’s last-minute instructions (had they redone the work, there would’ve been cost overruns, and they would’ve probably been prosecuted on other charges).

These types of reports should be taken with a grain of salt. Quite a few times, North Korean public figures that were supposedly “prosecuted and executed,” later appeared in public unscathed. The most characteristic case involved the popular singer Hyon Song-wol, who was rumored to have been one of Kim Jong-un’s first lovers (the rumors are most likely untrue, but who knows?) In the summer of 2013, the world media reported that Hyon Song-wol was arrested and executed along with some other artists from Moranbong Band in which Kim Jong-un’s current wife once sang and danced. It was then alleged that Hyon Song-wol participated in filming a pornographic video.

Since that time, one can occasionally happen upon claims in both international and Russian print media and blogosphere that Kim Jong-un once “ordered to have his lover shot”. The authors of these stories treat Hyon Song-wol’s execution as an indisputable fact and might be surprised to find out that the “executed” singer appeared in public in 2014 (incidentally, as a senior colonel of the North Korean Army). She continues to delight the North Korean audiences with her songs about the fatherland and the leader to this very day.

Six Executions

Thus, one does need to exercise caution on this issue. But as the adage goes, where there's smoke, there's fire. Even if a significant number of these reports are false, there is no question that the Supreme Leader, Marshal Kim Jong-un, has been much tougher on his inner circle than his father, the Dear Leader, Grand Marshal Kim Jong-il, and his grandfather, the Great Leader, Grand Marshal Kim Il-sung. One may distrust South Korea’s current intelligence reports, but it’s absolutely clear that six out of seven highest-ranking military and civilian officials that accompanied the hearse with Kim Il-sung’s body at his funeral in December 2011 have now vanished without a trace.

One of the six, the former WPK Central Committee Secretary, Jang Sung-taek, who had long been the second most important political figure in the country, was arrested in December 2013 right at the government meeting (the news of the arrest was broadcast on North Korean television the following day). He was later tried and executed for his multiple crimes. One of these crimes was “not applauding Marshal Kim Jong-un enthusiastically enough”; another was his order to place a granite monument honoring Kim Jong-il in a shaded corner, thus keeping it away from the life-sustaining sunlight.

Another member of the group of six, Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, was the most influential figure in the North Korean military at the time of his death. He was removed from all his posts in July 2012. After that, any mention of General Ri’s existence on this planet was removed from the North Korean official documents (as is always the case, the removal went beyond written documents: Photographs were retouched, and videos edited).

Finally, General Hyon Yong-chol may’ve joined the list if the reports of his execution are true. Actually, in the last three years Hyon Yong-chol had a chance to have been a general, a vice marshal, then a general again, then a colonel general, then yet again a general, and at last a colonel general: Kim Jong-un likes to promote and demote his military officials in rank without removing them from their posts.

His Father’s and Grandfather’s Legacy

Kim Jong-un’s unceremonious treatment of high-profile officials, generals, and Central Committee secretaries is a popular conversation topic in Pyongyang. Paradoxically, such talk is not that precarious, since the terror is limited to the upper echelons, at least for now – it affects the nobility rather than its subjects.  Even though the North Korean society is extremely repressive by most countries’ standards, there is no sign that a talkative guy on the street is in greater danger now than, say, five years ago. Generals and Party officials are the one to be concerned, while the simple folk seem to watch the goings-on with a certain sense of schadenfreude.

An important fact that escapes many outside of the North Korean borders has to be remembered here. Both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were quite ruthless and didn’t have  many qualms about sacrificing thousands of soldiers or peasants from remote provinces in the name of their country’s greater good (or what they believed it to be). But at the same time, they were unusually soft to their entourage.

At the first stages of establishing the Kim familial regime in 1945—1960, Kim Il-sung acted the way any rookie dictator would: he exploited the conflicts between his party factions and skillfully incited his rivals against each other. But Kim Il-sung adopted another approach starting in the 1960’s. Executions by the firing squad and truly fierce repressions against those in the Great Leader’s inner circle had become rare. The change can probably be attributed to the fact that by the late 1950’s Kim Il-sung had already eliminated—either physically or through expulsion—the members of competing factions within the communist movement (the Russian and Chinese Koreans, as well as the underground activists from the colonial period). From the early 1960’s up until his death in 1994, his inner circle almost exclusively consisted of the partisans that fought alongside him against the Japanese in Manchuria in the 1930’s.

It appears that Kim Il-sung, who didn’t display much humanity toward Moscow or Beijing protégés, was quite soft on his wartime buddies. A transgressing official could be demoted and sent to the province or into early retirement. But quite often the censured official later returned to Pyongyang to a rather prominent post.

The fate of the former chief of the general staff, Marshal Choe Kwang, is one of many examples of such treatment of one’s associates. In 1967, Choe Kwang suddenly vanished. It was rumored that he was sent to work at a mine as a low-ranking official or maybe even a miner. However, his fall from grace didn’t last forever: Ten years later he reappeared as a midlevel provincial leader and subsequently returned to the military, once again becoming the chief of the general staff.

Kim Jong-il, who had a softer personality than his father, generally continued with Kim Il-sung’s approach.  His rule had surprisingly few instances of repressions against the elite. The WPK Agriculture Secretary Soo Kwang-hee was perhaps the only official executed during Kim Il-sung’s reign. There was an attempt to make him into a scapegoat by accusing him of sabotage that led to the catastrophic famine of 1996—1999. But there was no massive propaganda campaign on that account: After Soo Kwang-hee was shot, the role of American and Japanese saboteurs in spreading the famine wasn’t mentioned at all.

The Risk of Executions

Kim Jong-un has clearly departed from the legacy of his father’ and grandfather, whose rule didn’t spell physical elimination for the high-ranking government and military officials. Although we should be skeptical of most arrest and execution reports, there is no question that Kim has been exceptionally active with his elite reshuffles in the three years of his rule. It will suffice to say that his defense ministers served in this capacity for an average of six months.  In fact, the Army is now effectively controlled by the head of the General Political Department. Two individuals held this post in the three-year period, and both of them were civilian administrators appointed to work with the military.

Constant personnel changes also occur in the party leadership with the Central Committee secretaries replacing one another with the speed of lightning (just the economic bloc could boast relative stability). Most ousted officials vanished without a trace, which has not happened in Pyongyang since the times of the inter-faction strife of the 1950’s.

Where does such ferocity of the young leader come from? On the one hand, one may say that Kim Jong-un is attempting to shore up his power. He was appointed the successor in the eleventh hour, just a year before the unexpected death of his father. Prior to that, no one outside the inner circle even knew the correct spelling of his name.  Understandably, many government officials and generals see him as an upstart.

In addition, Kim Jong-un may believe that many of his subordinates secretly sympathize with his paternal brother, Kim Jong-nam. The North Korean leader is not on good terms with the elder Kim, who is currently living in Macau and Beijing. In this context, the unprecedentedly ruthless purges make sense: Kim Jong-un is seeking to demonstrate that his youth and not the most attractive appearance notwithstanding (as a matter of fact, for the Kims, excessive weight runs in the family), he should be treated seriously, and his orders are not be trifled with.

However, the policy of intimidating the generals and other government officials may have negative consequences for Kim Jong-un. During his father’s and grandfather’s rule, a disgraced official had no reason to be terrified of the storm clouds gathering around him. True, being removed from his post spelled serious trouble, a possible exile to the provinces and long hours of public chastisement and contrition. Nevertheless, the official knew that his physical safety, and the physical safety of his family, is not subject to serious harm. Moreover, he knew that many officials that had fallen from grace in the past eventually returned to the top. Therefore, the most rational behavior for such officials was to submit to their fate and the will of the Leader. If the sinner had convincingly demonstrated that he acknowledged his transgressions, repented, and now passionately accepts the Great Leader’s greatness and is willing to redeem his disgrace with blood and toil, he stood a good chance of eventually returning to power and privileges.

But it has become harder to expect a positive resolution now, which means that many of the North Korean officials and generals are going to feel cornered at the prospect of impending ouster.  They will have every reason to believe that the loss of their position will no longer mean being a bookkeeper at a remote mine or a party leader at a backward collective farm. In fact, it may bring arrest, imprisonment and quite possibly death, which will also be disastrous for their family and close associates. Under such conditions, the corner generals and Central Committee secretaries may entertain the idea that would’ve never occurred to them in the past – they might think of taking on Kim Jong-un directly.

Such a scenario is not very likely, though: The North Korean elite understand that Kim Jong-un’s presence to an extent guarantees the country’s stability. His regime has no alternatives: The country must be ruled by Kim Il-sung’s progeny.  However, faced with the choice between stability in the country and preserving one’s life, people are likely to opt for their own survival (they will find appropriate rhetorical justifications for their choice if necessary). Thus, an attempt to bolster one’s power through selective terror against the political and military elite, which ostensibly became the distinct characteristic of Kim Jong-un’s rule, may ultimately work against him.

Andrei Lankov is a historian, Korea scholar and professor at Kookmin University (Seoul)

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  • Andrei Lankov