Much speculation surrounds the fate of Hyon Yong Chol, the North Korean defense minister who was allegedly purged and executed in late April, but not immediately removed from all video footage. However, this controversy should not obscure one important fact: In the last three years the North Korean military, political and security police bureaucracy have been subjected to a purge on a scale not seen since at least the late 1960s.
It seems that the recent events give us the first ideas of Kim Jong Un’s own peculiar style of purging officials he considers dangerous, useless or annoying. Indeed, while purges have remained a constant feature of North Korean political life for many decades, the style of purges has not remained unchanged.
KIM IL SUNG’S CAMPAIGNS
The first purges took place in the early 1950s when Kim Il Sung was yet to assume full control over the young North Korean state. The North Korean top leadership was sharply divided in rival factions, determined by the particular politician’s origin and pre-1945 experience. Kim Il Sung himself led the “guerrilla faction” which included those leaders who in the 1930s fought as anti-Japanese guerrillas in Manchuria, and then served in the 88th Brigade of the Soviet Army. In those days, this was the weakest of all four factions, even though it was its leader, Kim Il Sung who managed to secure Soviet support and was made into the new North Korean ruler in 1945-46.
Thus, it was vital for Kim Il Sung to get rid of potential rivals. His first strike was directed against the “domestic faction,” which consisted of the communist leaders who before 1945 had been involved in underground revolutionary activity in Korea proper. This faction included some of the best-known names of the Korean revolutionary left, like Pak Hon Yong, founder of the Korean Communist Party in the 1920s. Nonetheless, the “domestic faction” was especially vulnerable since it lacked great power support – unlike two other rival factions: In theory, the Soviet-Korean and pro-Chinese factions could, respectively, count on Soviet and Chinese assistance.
The purge of the “domestic faction” was done in a manner remarkably similar to the purges of the top communist bureaucrats in Eastern European countries and Stalin’s Soviet Union in the 1930-50s. The arrest of people who had, until recently, been major political leaders was big news. Official media ran stories about these “unmasked” traitors and conspirators.
… all defendants pleaded guilty to all accusations, most of which were remarkably improbable
Two show trials were staged, in 1953 and 1955, much in emulation of the infamous Moscow trials of 1937 and their copycat shows in the Eastern Europe of the late 1940s and early 1950s (like Slansky trial in Czechoslovakia). Everything went according to script, all defendants pleaded guilty to all accusations, most of which were remarkably improbable. The official story held that the former leaders of the communist underground were actually Japanese and American spies who for years had worked hard to undermine the people’s state in North Korea.
However, the second wave of purges occurring in 1956-1961 proceeded in a different manner. This time Kim Il Sung targeted two other factions which included the ex-Soviet and ex-Chinese officials. In the late 1950s those people were subjected to some open critique at the party meeting and media, but this critique was remarkably muted. The top leaders of the Soviet and Chinese factions stood trial in 1960, but this trial remained secret and has never been mentioned in the open-access North Korean publications.
The North Korean authorities confidentially notified the Soviet Embassy about the 1960 secret trial, but the information they provided was at least partially wrong: One of the persons who, as they claimed, had gotten a death sentence and been executed, eventually reappeared and came to play a minor but noticeable role in the North Korean politics.
So, the 1956-1961 removal of the Soviet and Chinese factions can be described as “low-profile purge.” However, the last massive purge campaign to seriously change the personal composition of the North Korean leadership was even less visible for outsiders.
This 1967-68 purge campaign is known as the “Kapsan incident.” Unlike the victims of earlier campaigns, nearly all these people in the 1930s and early 1940s were Kim Il Sung’s loyal subordinates, so it remains unclear which criteria were used to sort these people out, even though it is widely believed that the entire affair was in some way related to the promotion of Kim Jong Il.
However, the Kapsan purge of 1967-68 had two peculiar features. First, the purge was never made public. Even though some critical remarks of Kim Il Sung in regard to particular officials were published, the commoners did not learn much about these people’s sins and their subsequent fate. The disgraced officials simply disappeared without a trace, references to them were edited from the books, and their images were airbrushed from the re-published photos and documentary footage. Only the party cadres were allowed to read the classified circular letters describing the wrongdoings of these people at some length and detail.
However, the Kapsan purge was peculiar in one other regard: Some people who were purged then and universally believed to be dead eventually made a comeback. The best-known example is Choe Kwang, who at the time of the purge was chief of the General Staff. He disappeared for years – according to unconfirmed later rumors he spent these years working at a mine but, in the mid-1970s, much to the surprise of the Korea watchers, he reappeared as a humble official in provinces. Then he returned to the military, in due time was promoted to the rank of marshal and even reassumed his earlier position as the chief of the General Staff.
YOUR POSITION IS SAFE
If they accepted their fate stoically enough, there were fairly high chances of their eventual return to the capital
In later years, from around 1970, Kim Il Sung refrained from large-scale purges, but still followed the same model. First, if some high-level official fell out of grace, he (seldom she) would disappear without any public announcements or explanations. Second, the disgraced officials seldom risked facing a firing squad. Usually they were sent to “labor re-education” to the countryside where they worked as manual laborers or low-level clerks. If they accepted their fate stoically enough, there were fairly high chances of their eventual return to the capital.
For Pyongyang watchers, such a tradition created a lot of problems. Frequently, they pronounced dead people who were merely in a short-term exile and soon were seen alive and well. For example, it was universally believed that Kim Yong Ju, Kim Il Sung’s brother, was dead, probably executed – until he made a comeback in the 1993, after nearly two decades of absence. It took time to realize that Kim Il Sung, unlike his mentor Joseph Stalin, was not particularly trigger happy when it came to dealing with people in his inner circle.
This pattern was followed by Kim Jong Il. Under his watch a number of officials suffered short-term disgrace. Among those officials one can mention Jang Song Thaek, later executed by Kim Jong Un, and Choe Ryong Hae, who still is a member of Kim Jong Un’s inner circle. Both suffered exile in the early 2000s, but eventually resumed their careers.
There were cases when high-level politicians were executed under Kim Jong Il, but such incidents were rare. For example, in 1997 they executed So Kwan Hui, the party secretary for agriculture. At the first glance, it was a revival of the early 1950s pattern: the poor bureaucrat, who once was 26th in the party leadership roaster, was accused of being an American spy who, acting on CIA orders, deliberately provoked a famine in North Korea. However, these very Stalinist accusations were lobbed only behind the closed doors. Another case is the 2010 execution of Pak Nam Ki, the party official responsible for finance policy. Like So Kwan Hui, he was made a scapegoat for the spectacular failure of the 2009 currency reform, and was accused of espionage. However, his case also did not make it to the pages of the newspapers – until 2013, at least, when Pak’s “treacherous activity” was mentioned in passing. And, of course, both incidents were rather isolated occurrences.
At any rate, as dictators and their coteries go, it was remarkably safe to be a close confidant of Kim Jong Il and, after 1970 or so, Kim Il Sung. Compared to other dictators, they were remarkably less inclined to kill their lieutenants.
THE KILLER COURT
The era of Kim Jong Un has been marked by remarkably frequent and violent purges. Some observers have compared these developments with the 1937 Great Purge in the USSR, but this is clearly an exaggeration: The chances of getting killed for a North Korean official of Kim Jong Un-era are still much lower than the same chances of his Stalin-era Soviet counterpart.
Nonetheless, there are some important departures from the established tradition. First, while some reports about executions might be unfounded, there is little doubt that Kim Jong Un, if compared to his father and even grandfather, is a trigger-happy dictator. The Pyongyang top elite is now far less secure than in the previous decades.
Second, as the Jang Song Thaek affair has demonstrated, the purges nowadays again occasionally go public. This is a partial revival of the early 1950s tradition. The North Korean elite politics have become much more “normal” by standards of a dictatorship or an absolute monarchy: The court is again the place where one can easily get killed.
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