North Korea is back in news yet again, as usual all for the wrong reasons. It has conducted nuclear tests in defiance of the UN resolutions, faced sanctions from the international community, committed indescribable atrocities on its own people, committed aggression against its immediate neighbour South Korea, abducted citizens from Japan, eliminated potential political rivals and the list of North Korea’s horror politics is endless.
In the latest unacceptable acts of consolidation of political power, the regime’s young leader Kim Jong-un is believed to have purged the country’s defence minister, Hyon Yong Chol, on treason charges after he allegedly fell asleep at an event presided by Kim. This was confirmed by South Korea spy agency, National Intelligence Service (NIS). This marked the most high-profile demise of a top Pyongyang official since the purge and execution of Kim’s powerful uncle, Jang Song-thaek, in December 2013. Jang was once considered the second most powerful man in Pyongyang’s leadership circle and the charge against him was corruption such as stealing the state funds and that he was committing crime that was damaging the economy, besides plotting to overthrow Kim. Therefore, he, along with a group of officials close to him was executed. By dozing off at a military event presided by Kim, Four-star General Hyon was charged to have shown disrespect and disloyalty and was therefore executed with an anti-aircraft gun in front of hundreds of senior military officials. Unauthorised napping could be an excuse and the real reason seems to be outright subordination.
Though the NIS confirmed the news to Seoul’s lawmakers, China said that it had “no information” about the reported execution of Hyon. Analysts, including the present author, are of the view that Kim’s latest act underscores his drive to consolidate power, which too can be read as sign of instability in Pyongyang, which if true could be the precursor of a huge political earthquake in the peninsula with serious consequences in the region and beyond as the scenario of the regime’s collapse could seem imminent.
According to the NIS, Hyon, the People’s Armed Forces Minister, was machine-gunned at a shooting range on the Kang Kon Military Academy around 30 April. Though the NIS information could be accurate, North Korea’s activities ought to be treated with a degree of scepticism because of the secretive and closed-off nature of the regime. But going by the recent report from the Greg Scarlatoiu-led US-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, information for which was collected from defectors and satellite imagery of the area just outside Pyongyang where human rights violations have been rampant, it becomes difficult to disbelieve the information the NIS has obtained.
Ever since Kim Jong-un assumed power in 2011 after the death of his father Kim Jong-il, the military leadership has been in a flux. Hyon was the fourth person to hold the defence portfolio in two and half years, though the military chief was changed only three times during the two-decade tenure of Kim Jong-il. There could be several reasons why Kim has become so ruthless. One reason for the frequent reshuffle could be that Kim’s demands on officials are too high than the officials’ capacity to meet as resources are always in short supply, constraining their capacity to meet Kim’s demands. The other could be the execution shall encourage loyalty from others. Kim does not realise that such acts could lead to political instability, which again shall encourage more ruthlessness until probably it reaches the tipping point.
Military chiefs are not the only ones who have faced Kim’s wrath; or high-profile executions limited to Hyon. The Director of Military Operations, a position that controls conventional military forces, was changed six times since Kim assumed power. Besides executing his uncle Jang in 2013, according to NIS report, Kim executed 15 senior North Korean officials in April 2015 accused of challenging his authority. It is possible that Kim’s strategy of purging is to check the military old guard, from whom he perceives a plausible threat to his rule and therefore pushing a reign of terror to solidify his leadership. But these impulsive decisions could be symptomatic of an insecure leader and Kim’s efforts are unlikely to succeed if he fails to improve the country’s shattered economy. This shows that Pyongyang’s military leadership has been in a state of perpetual reshuffle since Kim took power to establish his monolithic authority in the state.
Among the 15 high-ranking officials killed this year was a North Korean vice minister, who was executed in January after he complained about Kim’s policy on forestation. In February, another vice minister in charge of economic planning was killed for objecting to Kim’s decision to change the roof design of a building under construction in Pyongyang. In March, four members of the Unhasu Orchestra, where Kim’s wife, Ri Sol-ju, once performed as a singer, were executed by firing squad on espionage charges. These executions are meant to be setting an example for the rest. So, his “reign of terror” continues.
His other methods of consolidating power have been frequent shifting of jobs among his close aides, demotion and promotion of top generals. In October 2014, Kim ordered the country’s borders to be closed to foreign tourists for fear of the Ebola virus. His instructions were strictly followed and top government officials returning from overseas were required to go through 21-day quarantine. North Korean diplomats abroad were banned from home visits and all these restrictions were in place till early March 2015 when the Ebola ban was lifted.
The US reacted to the alleged execution of the top military official as showing “another extremely brutal act” by the communist regime. I use the word ‘alleged’ because there are conflicting information about the said execution as information from the reclusive regime is difficult to prove. For example, a Tokyo-based organisation that monitors the reclusive country as reported in Asahi Shimbun on 15 May 2015 observed that Hyon may still be alive. According to the Asahi report, Radiopress Inc. said on May 14 that Hyon appeared in a documentary about Kim that was broadcasted the same afternoon, suggesting that Hyon was very much alive. Pyongyang has made no official statement regarding Hyon. Even the NIS subsequently seemed to have retracted from its earlier statement about the execution, saying that it was unable to verify if Hyon was put to death.
It is possible that the confusion was partly because the way the NIS briefings to Parliamentary committee meetings are carried out behind closed-doors, after which selected lawmakers leak the information to the media. For example, lawmaker Shin Kyoung-min who attended the briefing said that Hyon was killed by anti-aircraft gunfire with hundreds watching at a shooting range at Kang Kon Military Academy in late April. Another lawmaker, Lee Cheol-woo, released similar information.
According to the NIS, Hyon could have been charged with treason but it was unlikely that he was executed as he showed some sign of disrespect to Kim rather than plotting a rebellion. Hyon was believed to have expressed dissatisfaction with Kim’s governing style and Hyon’s dozing off at a military event held on 24-25 April in Pyongyang might have sealed his fate. Given the nature of Kim’s past conduct, it is difficult to disbelieve NIS’s initial findings. Kim is believed to be sensitive about subordinates falling asleep in his meetings and given repeated warnings against it. Lesser rank officials, when caught dozing off, have been either demoted or purged. Hyon had no such chance. North Korea refrained from commenting on the reports released by the NIS.
Does his execution reaffirm to the theory that Kim is maintaining a firm grip over the elite in Pyongyang through purges and killings? It is possible to believe such a theory because there were no legal proceedings before he was proved to be disloyal and showed disrespect and executed thereafter. This seemed a bit unusual because in Jang’s case, even though he was once-powerful uncle of Kim, he was found guilty of numerous charges, including a plot to revolt against the state, four days after his dismissal from all of his powerful positions and was executed right after a military trial on 12 December 2013. Even there were conflicting reports when Jang was executed in December 2013. Though Jang’s death was confirmed by North Korea’s state press, reports circulated at the time that Jang had been fed alive to a pack of starved dogs. It transpired subsequently, however, that this version of event originated with a satirist.
It was indeed a dramatic fall for the 66-year-old Hyon, a graduate of the elite Kim il-Sung Military University. He had visited Moscow in April 2015 as Kim’s emissary to meet with his Russian counterpart and speak at a security conference before he was executed. Hyon enjoyed a towering stature and accompanied Kim to public events 14 times in 2015 alone, the maximum by any military official. Only three other people were seen more often with Kim.
Since he took power in December 2011, Kim has engineered a series of executions, purges and frequent reshuffles in the governing clique he inherited. Since then he has been resorting to a mix of terror and rewards to thwart any challenge to his inexperienced leadership. Hyon was the second most powerful military man in North Korea after Hwang Pyong-so, director of the General Bureau of the North Korean Army. Since taking power, Kim Jong-un is believed to have executed around 70 senior party and military officials. This compares with around 10 who were executed during the first four years of reign of his father and thus a dramatic increase in number. He started executing three officials in 2012 and the figure dramatically jumped to 30 each in 2013 and 2014. In 2015, Kim has executed already eight officials up to mid-May. The figure could be much more as all information is difficult to be confirmed.
According to the NIS, Byon In-Son, director of operations at the military’s General Staff, Ma Won Chun, the head of the National Defense Commission’s planning committee, and Kwang Sang, director of the Chosun Workers’ Party Finance and Accounting Department, were also allegedly purged. According to the NIS report, Hwang Pyong So, a standing member of the Political Bureau Standing Committee of the Workers’ Party (WPK) and director of the General Political Bureau of the Chosun People’s Army (KPA), also fell victim to the purges. Hwang is alleged to be “alive and has not been purged.”
Kim Jong-un could be “trigger happy” when it comes to executing top officials but executing people with anti-aircraft guns could be false as was the story earlier that Kim had fed his uncle – Jang – to 120 hungry dogs. The regime’s actions have been so brutal that such salacious reports do the rounds quickly after an incident occurs, before it is proved false. But satellite photos available in October 2014 showed that a large number of VIPs buses moved into a military area, where they watched as several Soviet-made anti-aircraft guns fired down a range at small targets about 100 feet away.
According to Adam Taylor of the Washington Post, the targets were almost certainly people being executed. If true, on would shudder at the imagination of 24 heavy machine guns being fired at human beings and there can be no more gruesome public execution than this. By resorting to such methods, Kim wants to send a message to other officials of “both the strength of the regime and the price of any disloyalty”. Kim probably knows better than anyone else that the greatest danger to his regime would not be outside threats or even a popular uprising but rather “the circle of elites who surround him and keep him in power” and therefore Kim feels the need to constantly send the signal that he is in charge and the top officials must toe the line. If anti-aircraft guns are indeed being used for executing people with a purpose to send a message, it could be possible to believe that Jang too faced a similar fate than fed to starved dogs. An anti-aircraft gun is essentially a mobile platform of four machine guns large and powerful enough to shoot down an airplane. One would dread just at the thought of using such machine to kill a human being.
This “trigger-happy” chubby tyrant is aware that he is inexperienced and has to deal with many senior top military generals. To conceal from being the potential object of being ridiculed and contempt by older and more experienced officials, Kim has been resorting to continuous series of high-level and ultra-violent purges in a show of his strength. Even he did not spare his own uncle in 2013 and now the highly decorated military leader like Hyon. Ordering hundreds of his officials out to a firing range to make them quietly watch the brutal execution is to demonstrate how powerful he must be. Generally North Korea’s elites have been loyal because they know that remaining loyal can make their positions pretty safe but with increasing purges and executions, that could no longer be the case. Once a frustrated official knows that he is in the firing line, the option to resist rather than making a short trip to the execution grounds could be more attractive. Other options could be to flee the country with bags of state secrets or to stage a coup. Those could make sense. In the absence of real credible information, it is tempting to suspect in the light of the purges and the spate of executions that there is some dramatic change in the fundamental relationship between Kim and his coterie of senior-most officials. The potential ramifications of these developments are as difficult to understate as it is to predict.
There is a fear psychosis among officials that deter most to take important decisions for the fear that they could be executed for trivial reasons. Hyon’s case is typical example how Kim demands absolute loyalty from his officials. There are reports Hyon made an official complaint to Kim on behalf of senior military officials on promotion and demotion issues, which offended Kim and Hyon’s elimination became inevitable as Kim had to consolidate his firm grip on the military and therefore Hyon became the fall guy.
Can Kim Jong-un go on repeating such brutal acts for ever to protect his monolithic rule? The answer is, Yes, for some time at least, but certainly not forever. Certainly, Kim’s distrust of members of his core policy group has worsened, which is why his reign of terror has increased. If not execution, Kim has punished key officials with other means. For example, Ma Won-chun, director of the Designing Department at the powerful National Defense Commission was forced to work on a farm in Yanggang Province with his family after “Ma complained about the renovation of the Sunan International Airport last December, saying it lacked ‘Juche Ideology’, or North Korean identity”. Ma was known as North Korea’s chief architect of new infrastructure under Kim.
There are also reports that Kim poisoned his aunt Kim Kyong-hui to death in May 2014 after she complained against the execution of Jang. Kim Kyong-hui was the sister of Kim Jong-un’s father Kim Jong-il and wife of the executed Uncle Jang Song-taek. Jang was widely seen as a tutor and unofficial regent to the young leader was frog marched out of a formal assembly in December 2013 and killed along with some others who supported him.
However, conflicting reports have surfaced more recently about Kim Kyong-hui’s alleged poisoning. Way back in July 2014, after she disappeared from public life, rumour started circulating that Kim Kyong-hui was recuperating at a location in Sobaeksu Villa in Samjiyeon County, Yangkang Province. It seems after her husband’s execution, she became dependent on alcohol and prone to nervous breakdown and therefore was receiving treatment at Pyongyang’s Ponghwa Treatment Centre. She was not dead but still alive, was this version. However Japan’s NHK still claimed that Kim’s aunt was dead, though NIS confirmed in February 2015 that she was alive.
These incidents demonstrate that the internal politics is too volatile. There seems to be little respect for Kim within the core and middle levels of the military. Kim probably senses this trend and therefore becoming more belligerent as his sense of insecurity increases. Political dissent at any level is met with the harshest of punishments and this explains the purges of senior officials in such frequency. Being run by one of the most repressive regimes on Earth, Kim is apparently deeply fearful that his rule could be challenged and eliminating those seen as threats to his regime has been his preferred strategy.
Was it because of this reason why Kim Jong-un cancelled his planned trip to Russia for Russia’s celebration of the 70th anniversary of V-E Day and instead sent Hyon to represent him? Russia was candid in admitting that “internal Korean affairs” was behind the cancellation. Christian Whiton of the CNN makes some interesting observation that “Kim may be fitting comfortably into tyrant role”. According to him, “precariousness and insecurity are two different things”. He says that there are enough signs which suggest that the regime is “actually stable”. Whiton backs his argument that North Korea’s actual ties with China is not strained. He sees Chinese statements that it is fed up are merely double-speak because Beijing is unlikely to ever abandon North Korea and Kim is well aware of this reality. He further says that Pyongyang is in possession of “as many as 20 nuclear weapons and the ability to strike North America directly”.
Besides possessing nuclear weapons, the regime also launched test-fired submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Kim Jong-un is projected as the “beloved figure jovially dispensing military, industrial, and social guidance to a degree that equals or exceeds his father’s and grandfather’s cults of personality”. Thus, argues Whiton, “contrary to the image of a panicky, unsure, inexperienced boy dictator, Kim may be perfectly in his element as an effective tyrant. Furthermore, those who hope Kim’s purges will inspire North Korean officials who fear that they could be next on the chopping block to eliminate Kim, may be disappointed. One needs only to examine the reigns of Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung to see that those most apt to murder their colleagues can also be the most durable and seldom challenged”. Even when the country’s economy continues to flounder amidst stricter international sanctions, Kim has been making frequent visits to catfish farms, textile factories and military barracks to build his image as a caring leader and legitimate successor in his family’s dynasty. But his tactics of “inspiring fear of purges” and stoking competition for his favour “have fostered strong resentment among North Korea’s elite”. The North Korean regime has become so repressive that one sees the regime no different from what Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot did in their respective countries – Soviet Union, Germany and Cambodia – and to their peoples.
Is the argument made by Whiton sustainable in the light of Kim’s recent acts, which is why he has attracted so much of international opprobrium? The international community has no choice but to continue pursuing both carrot and stick policy towards the regime. The regime could be at fault in its policy but the people of the country deserve decent living and therefore need support of the international community. The real worry is that the regime “has grown in a decade from an exotic regional nuisance to a more direct and significant threat … led by a young dictator who looks less buffoonish and more diabolical by the month”. This calls for use of more stick and less of carrot or else the threat from the North shall continue to increase further, worsening the present security situation of the region and beyond.