The recent news that the chief of North Korean State Security Department, or political secret police, Kim Won Hong, had been purged, surprised very few people. It is one of many high-profile purges that have happened in recent years.
What should draw our attention – and this might have escaped many – are the accusations alleged to have been made against him. Among the typical ones that are notoriously repeated in such instances, such as corruption, or abuse of power, a new one has appeared: he was also discharged for perpetrating “human rights abuses” in his agency.
Why would North Korea bother to present public accusations of human rights abuses and implicate one of its institutions? There can be many explanations, but I propose to look at such developments using a historical perspective.
The secret political police implanted in countries that fell under Stalin’s sphere of influence after World War Two were the very institutions that enabled each Communist Party to take full control over the country. Yet, in times of social unrest, or an internal transition of power, the party and its leaders would often distance themselves from the secret police and would purge their officials.
Take for instance Lavrentiy Beria, one of the most sadistic chiefs of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs). Beria introduced a rule of terror in the country, overseeing police, secret police, as well as Gulag labor camps.
After Stalin’s death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev, despite taking an active part in purges and terror instigated by Stalin with Beria’s help, made a famous speech criticizing Stalin’s rule of terror and cult of personality. Khrushchev’s actions also led to Beria’s swift arrest at a Central Committee meeting, and he was dragged away by the army and then executed.
In Poland too, during the communist era, the “reforms” of Wladyslaw Gomulka, the First Secretary of the Polish United Workers Party initiated in 1956, were to mend the wrongdoings of the previous Stalinist period of harsh repressions and targeted the secret police and thousands of its secret policemen. Yet, these “reforms” in secret police had to stop somewhere, if the whole communist system was to remain in power.
In times of social unrest… the party and its leaders would often distance themselves from the secret police
While there could be other explanations for such actions, such as competition for power and fear of the influential personnel of one of the most powerful institutions in the country, incoming party leaders undoubtedly used accusations to distract from the individual and institutional responsibility of the party.
The secret police was the most hated institution of the population in each communist country, and blaming them for distorting the “Party line” was an obvious method to appease society by misleadingly suggesting that violations happened without the Party’s knowledge or approval.
There is no doubt that secret police from the Soviet Union and its satellite countries, and now from North Korea, were the institutions most directly responsible for torture, extrajudicial killings, operation of political prison camps, persecution of religion, control of society through a system of “informers”, manipulations, provocations, and actions against anything that was believed by the agency to be an “anti-state crime”.
Yet, communist secret police did not operate in a vacuum and, in countries to which the Soviet system was transplanted, the secret police played a subservient role to the ruling party. Its major task was to be “a sword and a shield” of the party: its military arm, in fact.
Unfortunately, direct linkages for the purposes of criminal responsibility are difficult to establish under such a command structure, and they often came to light only when the archives of these organizations were opened by subsequent democratic regimes, as was the case in Europe.
Blaming secret police for distortions in the otherwise “perfect” and “civilized” communist system was a method to maintain the innocent front of the Party and to establish a “clean slate” for the next party leader. More importantly, it served to avoid accusations of responsibility for crimes committed under such system.
The accusations against Kim Won Hong come at a time when the international community has, for the third year in a row, called for the referral of the North Korean leadership to the International Criminal Court
CHAIN OF RESPONSIBILITY
How simple it is for such mechanisms to work may be illustrated by the fact that when I conducted interviews in 2011, some North Korean victims responded “no” to the question of whether North Korean leadership should be held accountable.
They reasoned that the human rights violations which had happened to them personally were the direct result of misconduct by the personnel of the North Korean secret police. They reasoned that if the top leadership had known, they would have surely stopped such practices.
This method of avoiding responsibility by the party and its leaders also worked well during the transition of former communist countries in Central Europe or East Germany. In fact, none of the top party leaders there have been sentenced for large human rights violations under the previous system – while prosecutions which have occurred in few instances affected mainly police officials, secret police, and border guards.
It does not appear coincidental that the North Korean leader now accuses the secret police of “human rights violations”
Why would the North Korean leadership be “concerned” about human rights violations undertaken by secret police only now? Interestingly, the accusations against Kim Won Hong come at a time when the international community has, for the third year in a row, called for the referral of the North Korean leadership to the International Criminal Court to investigate crimes against humanity in the country.
Since 2014, North Korea has been going to great lengths to stop such motions against its leader at the UN. It does not appear coincidental that the North Korean leader now accuses the secret police of “human rights violations.”
In any future criminal justice proceedings involving North Korea, lessons from history and from similar systems should be properly drawn. Although the responsibility should be shared by secret police, or police which directly oversaw and conducted wrongful acts, the directives always came directly from the leadership of the Workers’ Party and its steering body. The leader and officials of the KWP, as the top level of the chain of command, should be held accountable first and foremost for giving orders and allowing for crimes in the country to continue.
Join the influential community of members who rely on NK News original news and in-depth reporting.
Subscribe to read the remaining 1128 words of this article.
Featured Image: by jfjwak on 2013-05-25 08:09:00