In recent months, there have been numerous cases of North Korean elites reemerging after months of absence from public view. For several of these officials, there is evidence to suggest they were undergoing reeducation and even punishment due to some infraction or shortcoming. These examples may be evidence of a shift in Kim Jong Un’s method of disciplining senior officials and exerting his supreme authority over regime elites. This trend itself may be a sign that Kim and the rest of the core leadership now feel more secure and stable as the rulers of North Korea.
Throughout much of Kim Jong Un’s reign thus far, he has become known for a “reign of terror” in which many senior elites and even his own uncle, Jang Song Thaek, have been executed in violent purges intended to remove potentially disloyal or rival elements from the regime. As of July, Kim reportedly has had around 70 senior officials executed since coming to power in December 2011 (not including deaths, by execution or otherwise, of average North Korean citizens).
But lately Kim appears to have largely shifted from conducting purges by execution to using punishment by labor and reeducation over the course of several months to discipline senior officials (again, this is separate from the regime’s handling of average citizens). Aside from the early years of removing rival factions that had predated the founding of the DPRK itself and who had quite different backgrounds then Kim and his Partisan guerrillas, this was generally the method used by Kim’s grandfather and founding ruler of North Korea, Kim Il Sung. Once Kim had eliminated the greatest rivals and threats to his own authority, he switched to milder form of punishment, but one which still demonstrated his supreme authority over all other elites.
Several North Korean elites have notably disappeared only to reappear months later during the past year. These men were most likely sent into temporary exile and spending their time doing labor in the countryside, getting ideological reeducation, or both, as rehabilitative punishment for some perceived infraction or failure. Perhaps the clearest case of this is that of Ma Won Chun.
Several North Korean elites have notably disappeared only to reappear months later during the past year
Ma, director of the Designing Department of the National Defense Commission and Pyongyang’s chief architect (literally) disappeared after November 1, 2014, when Kim Jong Un publicly expressed dissatisfaction with the construction of Terminal 2 at Pyongyang International Airport, for which Ma was responsible. During Ma’s 11-month absence, some sources reported that he had likely been executed while others reported he had been sent to work on a collective farm. Ma resurfaced in the North’s state media on October 8, debunking the execution rumor and lending much credence to the idea that he had undergone reeducation by labor – further supported by the fact that he was demoted.
Even more recently was the reappearance of Han Kwang Sang. Han – who served as director of the WPK Finance & Accounting Department – disappeared from public view after March 3. After eight months, Han’s named appeared as a member of the state funeral committee for Ri Ul Sul. Later, Han accompanied Kim Jong Un in a public appearance, reported by state media November 20. According to Michael Madden of North Korea Leadership Watch, an increasing exodus of North Koreans affiliated with foreign currency operations – falling under the aegis of Finance & Accounting – contributed to speculation that Han had been executed. Given his absence, apparent drop in stature (his name being listed last on November 20), and possible reassignment, it is likely Han was punished and underwent some type of reeducation.
Yet another likely example is the case of Jang Jong Nam. Jang disappeared from public view in July 2014, shortly after being replaced as Minister of the People’s Armed Forces by Hyon Yong Chol (who was later executed). According to state media, Jang was transferred to another post in June but went unseen for seven months. He reappeared – reduced in rank – at a meeting of the WPK Central Military Commission in February. While it is unclear if Jang underwent any sort of rural exile or reeducation, his case of being removed, demoted, and falling out of sight for some time does appear to be an example of a more lenient form of punishment.
It is very possible that Choe Ryong Hae is currently undergoing some sort of punishment and reeducation as well. Choe, the WPK Secretary of Workers’ Organization, last appeared in state media on October 22 and his name was conspicuously absent from the state funeral committee for Ri Ul Sol. According to South Korean media, citing South Korean government intelligence sources, Choe is “receiving reeducation at Kim Il Sung Higher Party School” as a result of problems with the construction of a power plant at Mount Paektu near the country’s border with China.
Choe has temporarily disappeared from view multiple times in the past only to reappear seemingly still in a very high standing within the regime. Just last year he had absences from February to March and, shortly thereafter, from April to May. The second coincided with Choe’s reassignment from the Korean People’s Army General Political Bureau to the post of WPK Secretary of Workers’ Organization, but Choe appears to have remained well-placed in the regime hierarchy and close to Kim Jong Un. It is very likely that given Choe’s place within the regime, his being viewed as a loyal confidant of Kim, and his history of returning after absences, that Choe is at most being reeducated and will return to view after several months. Michael Madden has also suggested that Choe and others may reappear around the time of the 7th Congress of the WPK in May of next year.
POLICY SHIFT & REGIME STABILITY
Given these recent examples, Kim has apparently moved beyond the violent purges of his early reign and into a phase of punishing officials through reeducation or labor before allowing them to return, much as his grandfather Kim Il Sung did. The last prominent North Korean official believed to have been executed who has not reappeared is Hyon Yong Chol, who disappeared in April. This does not mean that Kim will never execute another elite, but that the greater perceived threats have been purged and now most officials accused of wrongdoing can now be punished instead of killed. The fact that this shift comes following the milestone three-year anniversary of Kim’s ascension and just before the Pyongyang declared plans to convene a rare party congress next year indicates that is likely tied to an increased sense – at least among the rulers of North Korea – of regime stability.
Kim’s shift to this policy may be a sign that the regime under his rule is becoming more stable and feeling more secure internally
Kim’s shift to this policy may be a sign that the regime under his rule is becoming more stable and feeling more secure internally (though this solidification process is not yet complete). He is exercising his supreme authority without continuing a reign of terror. This method has definite advantages over killing off too many elites. It is not wise for any government to keep killing off top officials for too long. Aside from the simple fact that it eliminates experienced people, if influential officials become so worried about losing their lives, they may decide the rebellion would give them better chances of survival. Pyongyang likely continues to kill average citizens – who have limited power without strong, well-placed leadership – but it must be more careful in dealing with officials who may hold influence or power over certain sectors and could even side with restless citizens if they see such a path as giving them better odds.
Even an authoritarian government can only carry out violent purges for so long and needs to limit them. They require a remaining core of people who believe they are safe and need to demonstrate that not everyone who is punished will be punished by death. After removing the biggest internal threats and potential rivals it is necessary to shift to a less violent method and demonstrate to the remaining elites as well as the populace that the regime is not indiscriminately ruthless and intent on killing everyone for even minor infractions. North Korean elites need to believe that, as long as they are not seriously disloyal to the regime, they are safe. However, the regime will want to ensure that these elites know they will face reeducation and punishment for failures to please the leader. This helps continue to demonstrate Kim’s authority while also reassuring people they won’t necessarily die.
Featured image: Korean Central News Agency
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