On March 9, North Korea held its highly ritualistic parliamentary elections, with the predictable turnout of 99.9 percent and a whopping – but also expected – 100 percent positive vote for the officially endorsed candidates. However, this seemingly meaningless exercise provoked a small frenzy among Pyongyang watchers, who were scrutinising the list of newly elected candidates to find out who has disappeared and who has arrived.
It has always been assumed that the list of those nominated and elected to North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) is a good indicator of what is going on at the apex of power in Pyongyang.
Like the results, the composition of the newly elected parliament is not surprising. It reconfirms the fact that North Korea is seemingly undergoing a reshuffling of leadership at the top. However, for anyone who reads North Korean media, this has been known for some time.
When, in December 2011, Marshal Kim Jong Il, the second hereditary ruler of North Korea, suddenly died, his hearse was accompanied by seven top officials, as well as his son and successor Kim Jong Un. Two years on, only two of these seven are known to be alive and in some position of influence while the other five have either retired, or have been executed.
Their number includes the then head of the North Korean military, the head of the security police, and the top official in the country’s ruling (and for all practical purposes sole) political party. The North Korean elite has not seen purges of a comparable scale since the late 1950s.
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The speed and intensity of these purges came as a surprise to many who watch Pyongyang, though the purges were widely expected to happen eventually. Indeed, if Kim Jong Un wants to become the real master of his realm, he has no choice but to rid himself of the old guard – the officials, military and civilian, that dominated North Korea when he rose to power.
Kim Jong Un’s father spent almost 20 years as heir designate to the dynasty’s founder. During this period, he was able to promote a number of people whom he trusted (and whose views and ideas he shared). When Kim Il Sung, founder of the dynasty, died in 1994, his successor already had his own team firmly in place. It also helped that for a number of years, Kim Jong Il was actually his father’s co-ruler. As a result, the power transition went smoothly in 1994.
A difficult position
Kim Jong Il’s son faced a far more difficult position. When Kim Jong Un was appointed heir designate in October 2010, the assumption was that his father would live for a decade or so, if not longer. This would give Kim Jong Un enough time to learn the dictator’s craft, as well as select like-minded and trustworthy advisers of roughly the same age and experience. However, things took a unexpected turn: Kim Jong Il died suddenly. The young ruler discovered that he had to run the country with a team of people twice (or more than) his age, and whose members had massively different views on life and politics.
Therefore, for the young leader, the most pressing need was to clear the field – getting rid of the “out-dated” folks, people who might lack true respect for the embarrassingly young leader and whose ideas are clearly out of tune with Kim Jong Un’s.
For the young leader, the most pressing need was to clear the field – getting rid of the ‘out-dated’ folks, people who might lack true respect for the embarrassingly young leader and whose ideas are clearly out of tune with Kim Jong Un’s.
Thus far, the young leader’s moves appear to have been well thought out and thorough, though the execution has been quite erratic.
The military has been the major threat and potential challenger to the status quo, so Kim Jong Un started his rule from a sudden and powerful attack on the top brass. The most significant strike was delivered in July 2012 when Ri Yong Ho, then head of the General Staff and widely respected general, was suddenly relieved of all his posts.
The official explanation was the allegedly poor state of the general’s health. It was soon noticed, however, that Ri Yong Ho’s image had been edited out from old photos.
In North Korea, like in many Leninist states in the past, purge victims are usually erased from history (i.e. official publications) as if they never existed. Thus Ri’s disappearance, first physical and then photographic, means that he probably got himself into serious trouble.
The fall of Ri was accompanied by a serious purge of second-tier military leaders. By late 2012, nearly all top military commanders had lost their positions and disappeared, being replaced by slightly younger, but significantly less influential generals. The actual control of the military was entrusted to Choe Ryong Hae, who is a lifelong party bureaucrat, and not a career soldier. He is looked upon by the military top brass with some suspicion.
Having neutered the military, the young leader turned to the Party, which is the second important institution in North Korean society. Once again, he delivered his first crushing blow to the then most significant civilian/party bureaucrat. In December 2013, Kim Jong Un purged Chang Song Taek, the top official in the country’s ruling Korean Worker’s Party.
Among other things, Chang was related to the young leader himself, he was married to Kim Jong Un’s aging aunt. Unlike the removal of Ri Yong Ho, the purge of Chang was done very publically, and even images of the scene of his arrest at a government meeting were broadcast on TV. Chang Song Taek was accused of real and imaginary crimes, stood a mock trial and was executed as a traitor to the leader and revolution.
The decision to make the purge very public goes against decades of North Korean precedent. In the past, disgraced officials disappeared without trace and without comment. The purge itself however made sense, as it meant the removal of the biggest threat to the young Kim’s power.
However, one should expect that changes and, perhaps, purges will continue: The task is not over yet. So far, old ambitious officials have been replaced by officials who are less ambitious, but only marginally younger. One might expect that in due time Kim Jong Un will start promoting his peers to positions of power, but this process has barely begun.
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The election results have generally confirmed these trends. Neither Ri Yong Ho, nor other recently retired and purged senior military leaders of Kim Jong Il’s era are to be found amongst the members of the newly elected North Korean parliament.
The same fate has also befallen people known to have been close associates of Chang Song Taek.
Tellingly, however, Chang’s wife (and Kim Jong Un’s aunt) Kim Kyong Hee, who has not been seen for quite some time now, is to be found among the members of the SPA – perhaps, as a sign that the ruling family is going to keep and even enlarge its presence at the apex of power.
There might also be signs of the emergence of new young faces. For example, Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, now aged 27, has begun to enjoy much prominence in the official media in recent days.
She might the first of the young officials who will rise to replace the old guard in due time – and of course it helps that she came from the core of the Kim family. If anything, the family-orientated and hereditary nature of North Korean politics is likely to become even more pronounced under the reign of Kim Jong Un.
Andrei Lankov is professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University, Seoul. He is the author of “The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia”.