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View more articles by Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin, a former Foreign Service Officer and senior Congressional staff, is a consultant on Asian issues.
Those in the inner circle in Pyongyang must have been unnerved once again with the recent news of the sudden fall of Defense Minister Hyon Yong Chol. As he reportedly went before a firing squad, Hyon could have reflected upon Cardinal Woolsey’s alleged warning to future Lord Privy Seal Thomas Cromwell, who later went to the scaffold for beheading on London’s Tower Hill: “Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition: by that sin fell the angels.”
“Here today, gone tomorrow” has become just as much a part of court life under Kim Jong Un as it was during the Tudor reign of Henry VIII. People must be asking each other: Is anyone safe? There was even speculation about a possible fall from grace when Kim Jong Un’s attractive wife Ri Sol Ju suddenly disappeared for a time off of the radar screen. She had previously maintained a far higher public profile than any past wives in the North Korean leadership. While Ri has resurfaced again, her status remains far from certain. If Dennis Rodman is to be believed, she has produced – like Anne Boleyn – only a daughter as heir apparent for the sacrosanct Baekdu bloodline. And we all know what happened to that English queen after she failed to produce a male heir.
CASTING A PALL
Senior advisors surrounding the mercurial Kim Jong Un have fared just as badly as Henry VIII’s erstwhile courtiers Woolsey, Cromwell and Sir Thomas More. The BBC reported on May 16 that, “Of the seven pallbearers at former leader Kim Jong Il’s December 2011 funeral, apart from Kim Jong Un, all have either been executed, have lost their jobs or have not been seen in some time.” One of the pallbearers, U Dong Chuk, a first deputy director of the state security department, was reportedly used to conduct a purge of security personnel to assure loyalty to the new leader before suddenly disappearing himself two months later in February 2012.
An even bigger fish to be caught up in the Kim Jong Un security net was General Ri Yong Ho, another pallbearer in Kim Jong Il’s funeral procession. General Ri was at first widely presumed to be the military mentor of the inexperienced “Young General” when Kim Jong Un first assumed power.
Yet Ri didn’t even last six months. South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo reported that he was “stripped of all posts” in July 2012 “and further noted that “a gun battle broke out … leaving 20 to 30 soldiers dead, according to unconfirmed intelligence reports. Some intelligence analysts believe Ri, who has not been seen since his abrupt sacking earlier this week, was injured or killed in the confrontation.” The hapless general is subsequently presumed dead.
The greatest shock of all followed in December 2013 when Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Un’s uncle by marriage and the presumed second-in-command in the Pyongyang regime, was suddenly publicly charged with corruption and summarily executed. Jang was also considered Beijing’s point man in North Korea. The fact that the economic crimes with which he was charged involved Chinese commercial interests served to further underscore the rapid downward spiral in relations with North Korea’s closest ally. Those in Jang’s inner circle were also caught up in the purge, with some being recalled from diplomatic postings overseas. (New reports indicate that the purge of Hyon Yong Chol is now being extended to his followers as well.)
It seems unthinkable … that even the impetuous Kim Jong Un would order the killing of an offspring of the founder of North Korea’s Juche state
The status of Jang’s wife, Kim Kyung Hui, Kim Jong Un’s aunt and a daughter of North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung, has remained murky since her husband’s demise. She dropped out of the limelight with varied reports claiming that she had had a stroke, was undergoing medical treatment abroad or had even quietly died. It seems unthinkable, however, that even the impetuous Kim Jong Un would order the killing of an offspring of the founder of North Korea’s Juche state.
Hyon’s recent purge, as with that of Jang Song Thaek, seems to have had some foreign policy implications. Hyon had only recently returned from attending a security conference in Moscow when he was rounded up. Pyongyang has been seeking closer military and economic ties to the Kremlin in order to balance its overdependence on Beijing. Plans are afoot for joint military exercises to be conducted by the two countries. Kim Jong Un had also originally been expected to make his first official overseas trip to attend Putin’s WWII victory celebrations in Moscow, according to a March 17 report in the Washington Post.
However, things reportedly did not go well at the 4th Moscow Conference on International Security, which Hyon attended this spring. Hyon was reportedly tasked to broker a weapons deal as well as to pave the way for Kim Jong Un’s planned visit to the Kremlin. According to the Telegraph newspaper, in a report on May 4th, the Russians balked at the idea of supplying Pyongyang with the requested four S-300 launch units and their missiles, which would have escalated the missile buildup on the Korean Peninsula. Kim Jong Un reportedly flew into a fury at Hyon’s failure to bring home the bacon and abruptly snubbed Putin with a last-minute cancellation of his Moscow trip. The hapless Hyon then learned the lesson which many Tudor courtiers knew – when the monarch gives you a mission, whether it is to obtain a royal divorce or to procure a missile system – you had better deliver or else. It appears that it was the failure to fulfill the will of the ruler rather than the excuse of falling asleep at important meetings that led to Hyon Yong Chol’s demise.
The reign of terror in Pyongyang seems to have only accelerated following Jang Song Thaek’s death. Bloomberg carried a comment in October 2014 by Oh Gyeong-seob, a North Korea researcher at the Sejong Institute that Kim Jong Un “was resorting to the politics of fear to cope with his sense of insecurity.” A briefing by Seoul’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) was cited as well, indicating that from 40 to 50 Workers’ Party officials had been shot during that year for crimes varying from corruption to watching South Korean soap operas.
And prior to this year’s purge of the defense chief, another report surfaced claiming the executions of 15 people, including two vice ministers who allegedly opposed Kim Jong Un’s economic plans. Kim has spent lavishly on such large-scale entertainment projects as a ski resort and dolphin aquarium while neglecting the implementation of improvements for the people’s livelihood.
The tentacles of Kim’s security apparatus reportedly even reach into the entertainment industry, with a number of prominent musicians supposedly killed. This attack on musicians also has its parallel in the Tudor era, as the luckless court musician Mark Smeaton was caught up in the adultery trial of Anne Boleyn and was beheaded. The reputation of Ri Sol Ju was similarly connected to the purged members of the Unhasu Orchestra where she is said to have once worked as a singer. In Ri’s case, however, the musicians were apparently silenced to conceal rather than to reveal her alleged past indiscretions.
Kim Jong Un’s willingness to mark close family members for extinction appears to have crossed a line
While purges have been the modus operandi for the Kim family dynasty throughout its almost 70 years in power, Kim Jong Un’s willingness to mark close family members for extinction appears to have crossed a line. While his father Kim Jong Il apparently had Committee for the Promotion of External Economic Cooperation Chairman Kim Jong U, reportedly a distant cousin, executed for failure in implementation of the Rajin-Sonbong Free Economic and Trade Zone project back in the 1990s, he avoided killing closer relations with whom he had power struggles. For example, when he was challenged as presumptive heir by his father’s brother back in the mid-1970s, Kim Jong Il had his uncle Kim Yong Ju sent to a remote corner of the country and placed under house arrest rather than killing him. And when his half-brother Kim Pyong Il became overly politically ambitious, Kim Jong Il had him effectively sidelined by sending him to take up diplomatic postings in Eastern Europe. In contrast, North Korean security agents in China were reportedly actively involved in an attempt to assassinate Kim Jong Un’s highly vocal older half-brother Kim Jong Nam in 2011. This older brother now reportedly must live in exile under the protection of Chinese security forces.
Besides having made purges highly personalized, Kim Jong Un gives the impression of being far more impulsive than strategic in his purge choices. North Korean founder Kim Il Sung was involved in the purge of organized factions – including a South Korea Labor Party faction, led by Pak Hon-yong, a Chinese “Yanan” faction, led by Kim Tu Bong and Cho Chang Ik, and a Soviet faction, led by Pak Chang Ok – which he perceived to have the potential of ultimately challenging his absolute authority. Kim Jong Il executed those, such as the agricultural minister in the aftermath of the great 1990s North Korean famine and the finance minister after the 2010 controversial currency reform, who were connected to major policy failures. While Kim Jong Un has purged powerful members of the military establishment, reportedly to limit the Songun (military-first) policy of his late father, a number of purges appear to have been conducted for more personal reasons, such as those instigated at the whim of his wife and others involving his personal vanity.
A KOREAN TUDOR?
Henry VIII purged key courtiers in a game of musical chairs which threw them and their chief supporters off balance and allowed the king to retain ultimate power. The question remains: Is Kim Jong Un as skilled as Henry VIII in playing the purge game effectively, or will his personal vindictiveness and impulsiveness ultimately get the better of him?
A recent report in International Business Times titled “Purge of North Korea Leadership Tests Loyalty of Public” quoted a North Korean woman who observed that, “People say that, considering the fact that Kim has executed dozens of high-ranking officials within the few years since coming to power,’ there’s no hope left.’” Could Kim Jong Un, in the end, become the victim of that very cycle of endless Pyongyang purges which he himself instigated?