SEOUL – South Korean media reported that Kim Ok, the last wife of Kim Jong Il, was removed from all official positions on Wednesday. If the same reports are to be believed, her father Kim Hyo, a senior official in the Workers Party’s Finance and Accounting Department, also lost his job.
These reports have been widely relayed by many media outlets across the globe, but what does all this mean for those who strive for better understanding of North Korean politics? Frankly, not much.
To start with, we cannot be absolutely sure whether the reports are correct. Unlike his son, Kim Jong Il never officially acknowledged any of his numerous wives, so North Korean official media never mentioned Kim Ok. Stories about some high-level officials being purged, imprisoned and even executed have regularly appeared almost since the inception of North Korean state. In some cases, these stories were eventually proven correct, but in many others the supposedly ‘purged’ and ‘executed’ officials were soon seen again – alive, well and powerful. We cannot, therefore, be sure whether Kim Ok has been really purged.
Nonetheless, since we have seen somewhat similar situations in the past ,the reports appear to at least be plausible. North Korea is an absolute monarchy, whose male leaders have been relatively promiscuous. As every historian knows, this is the recipe for friction and conflict, since harem politics makes even more complicated the usual problems surrounding the ever contentious succession issue.
The Kim family of North Korea has never been immune to such quarrels. One can mention the disappearance of Kim Yong Ju, the brother of Kim Il Sung, the regime’s founding father. In the 1960s Kim Yong-ju made a brilliant career and was considered a likely successor to his brother, should Kim Il Sung have suddenly died. However, Kim Jong Il came of age, and it was only prudent to remove the old successor candidate away from the capital. So, Kim Yong Ju disappeared in 1974, not to be seen or heard about for the next two decades. He made a comeback in the early 1990s when his nephew was in full control, so aging Kim Yong Ju was not a threat anymore.
This was a rational political decision, but in some cases it seems that there was a mutual dislike between the stepson and stepmother. In the late 1960s Kim Song Ae, then the wife of Kim Il Sung, began to nurture political ambitions. For a brief while she was even the chairperson of the Women’s Union – and did much to increase the political clout of this hitherto marginal organization.
However, the rise of Kim Jong Il destroyed the short political career of his stepmother. She lost all official jobs in the mid-1970s, and was only occasionally seen attending some protocol functions. There are good reasons to believe that Kim Song Ae’s demise was brought about by the active dislike Kim Jong Il felt for her.
Interestingly, Kim Song Ae’s sons were also removed from the capital, in full accordance with the basic principles of the dynastic politics. Both half-brothers of Kim Jong Il received diplomatic postings In Europe where they could enjoy a very agreeable lifestyle while still being safely remote from North Korean politics and easy to keep an eye on. To the best of our knowledge, Kim Jong Il was quite hostile towards his half-brothers with whom he had little, if any, interaction.
It seems that the next generation of the Kim family followed the tradition: children sired by Kim Jong Il with different women seldom interact between themselves. Kim Jong Nam, born to Kim Jong Il by the famous actress Song Hye Rim, eventually found himself in comfortable exile in Macau.
It is known that he has tense relations with the current North Korean strongman. Kim Jong Nam’s son Kim Han Sol has just finished High School in Bosnia, and seems to be completely isolated from the family. He also made some waves with online critical remarks about communism, expressions of sympathies towards the Arab spring, and his Facebook and Twitter accounts use the V for Vendetta mask avatar adopted by the Anonymous hacktivist group.
THE BIG PICTURE
So, taking into account this background, one should not be surprised by the news of Kim Ok’s demise. It is not a simple job to be a late dictator’s widow, especially when the country is run by a son born by another woman.
But, assuming that the reports were true, what does it tell us abut the general state of affairs in North Korean politics? Frankly, not much. Kim Hyo’s job was lucrative and prestigious, but he had little say on the grand strategic issues. Kim Ok herself was, essentially, Kim Jong Il’s chief secretary – again, a position of great tactical but little strategic significance. Little is known about the political views of Kim Ok and her family, but at any rate their political influence – assuming it has ever existed – ended with the death of Kim Jong Il.
If Kim Ok was indeed removed and lost access to the life of relative luxury the chosen few enjoy, it will tell you something about the treacherous nature of harem politics in an absolute monarchy.
However, most of the avid watchers of the historical TV dramas know this anyway – while policy analysts have little to learn from this development, even assuming that the reports in question are correct.
Headline image: KCNA
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