North Korea celebrated the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the Korean People’s Army in February. As it showed off 12 of its massive intercontinental ballistic missile in a military parade, expert Korea-watchers spotted there appear to have been some significant changes in the country’s military and political hierarchy.
Choe Ryong-hae, the chairman of the standing committee of the Supreme People’s Assembly, was reportedly the only member of the politburo presidium not in attendance. But the Workers’ Party of Korea (North Korea’s sole and ruling political party) has reportedly recently replaced five of the 12 officials in the party secretariat and seven of the 17-member politburo. This is according to South Korea’s unification ministry, which exists to promote the reunification of the two countries.
Two officials whose careers are reportedly on the rise are Song Yong-gon (a member of the Worker’s Party central committee and previously the commander of the 9th Corps of the Korean People’s Army) and Choe Kil-ryong, until now commander of the 2nd Army Corps. The pair have been promoted as commanders of the new units for two classes of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The promotions appear to confirm Pyongyang’s focus on long-range missiles which have become central element in Pyongyang’s nuclear testing regime. In recent months, North Korea has tested two Hwasong-class missiles – intercontinental ballistic missiles with ranges of up to 15,000km, capable of reaching the continental United States.
The wider context of the reported purges is characterised by rising tension on the Korean peninsula. The Workers’ Party plenum in Pyongyang in December 2022 emphasised a hardline policy towards South Korea, including the possibility of preemptive nuclear strikes. South Korea’s president, Yoon Suk-yeol, has indicated that Seoul won’t hesitate to retaliate and could develop its own nuclear capability.
At the same time, the Kim regime is facing severe domestic crises due to its weak economy, exacerbated by the challenges of COVID and harsh international sanctions. Food insecurity in the North was recently described by a US thinktank as “at its worst since the country’s famine in the 1990s”.
North Korea’s political system gives absolute power to the leader, which is both a strength and a vulnerability. Kim Jong-un, who came to power in 2011 shortly after the death of his father Kim Jong-il, has had to constantly struggle to prevent the emergence of alternative centres of power. Unlike his father, Kim had only a short time to prepare for leadership and was (and remains, at 39) quite young in a culture that reveres elders. His first few years were particularly dangerous for him.
At the third party conference in September 2010, Kim Jong-il replaced 78% of the politburo. This was seemingly to formally establish his third son as heir apparent and to put in place “guardians” for the young Kim such as his uncle Jang Song-thaek and senior military figure Vice-Marshal Ri Yong-ho.
Kim Jong-un replaced his father in December 2011 and, at the party conference the following April, 42% of the politburo was replaced, followed by another 13% removed at the 2013 party plenum. It was reported that some in the top leadership – including members of Kim’s own family – were scheming against him.
A dangerous family
These purges continued to create a climate of fear in Pyongyang. In 2012, the vice minister of the army, Kim Chol, was executed “for reportedly drinking and carousing during the official mourning period after Kim Jong-il’s death”.
A similar fate befell Ri Yong-ho, one of senior team which had guided Kim Jong-un as he was preparing for leadership and by then the chief of staff of the North Korean military. Ri was removed from his positions and is believed to have been executed amid rumours of disagreement over economic policy.
But the most prominent victim of the early consolidation of Kim’s rule was his uncle and former mentor. Jang Song-thaek was the second most powerful person in North Korea until his execution in 2013 (lurid reports of either being torn to pieces by dogs or executed by machine gun have never been confirmed).
Jang, who was accused of being part of a bureaucratic clique engaged in sedo (lust for power) may have become a real threat to Kim due to his close relations with the Chinese government and his efforts to consolidate control over key elements of the economy.
On February 13 2017, Kim Jong-un’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam was murdered in an assassination which made international headlines. He had been in exile for some time in Macau after falling from grace, which he claimed was due to his advocacy of political reform.
He was exposed to VX nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur International Airport by two women – one Indonesian and one Vietnamese – who claimed they had been were asked to play a prank and had no idea of the identity of their target. This was another sign of the intense power struggle within the Kim family itself.
These fairly regular purges of North Korea’s elite are partly to fend off alleged coup plots, but studies of Pyongyang’s leadership show that they are also a key mechanism to maintain control over the bureaucracy, a system also effectively used by Kim Jong-il .
In an absolute dictatorship, it is an important mechanism to inoculate the leadership from responsibility for policy failure by blaming others. An absolute leader who demands complete allegiance and unquestioning loyalty from his population cannot be seen to accept responsibility for any of his government’s mistakes, especially when they result – as they have recently – in hardship for so many in the North.
For Kim Jong-un, as with his predecessors in the North Korean leadership, a purge is a political tool similar to a reshuffle in Downing Street. Expect to read of more while the “Respected Comrade” remains in power.
Christoph Bluth received funding from the Korean Foundation and the Academy of Korean Studies.