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N. Korean hell on earth: Purges, gulags for unconvincing mourning loom

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com

The rise of the son as “supreme commander” of North Korea’s armed forces gives rise to nostalgia. Already the reign of the father is beginning to seem like the good old days.

At least as long as Kim Jong-Il was around a certain sense of security prevailed. South Koreans could be sure, despite “incidents”, that North Korea was not going to stage more than isolated attacks. And North Koreans could be sure, as long as they suffered in silent acceptance of their fates, they would not be consigned to the country’s vast gulag system or some lesser form of torture and imprisonment.

Kim Jong-Un and Kim Yong-Nam, left, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly of North Korea walk to pay their respects to former leader Kim Jong-Il lying in state in Pyongyang on Dec. 26, 2011. / KCNA

Now, as Kim Jong-Un begins to throw his considerable weight around, that sense of security is gone. The rules are tightening. Families are subject to execution unto the third generation if one of their members is caught sneaking across the Yalu or Tumen River borders into China. Authorities are cracking down on private markets, the lifelines for millions in the starving countryside.

More than anything else, the specter of purge hangs over the populace. It’s begun with confessions and punishment for those who did not mourn convincingly over Kim Jong-Il’s death; those who missed mass weeping and wailing in cities and towns around the country or who did not seem sufficiently sincere, according to underground media reports from North Korea.

The punishment for insincerity and absenteeism can range from the humiliation of public confession to imprisonment or worse, and that’s just the beginning. From purging those who failed to display the requisite grief, the purge extends from the general populace into the party and finally to the armed forces, the 1.1 million troops at the center of control over the country.

The ultimate purpose of the purging is to insure if anything more loyalty for Kim Jong-Un than was demanded by his father. The need for this level of assurance is the obvious insecurity of the rule of North Korea by a young man, not yet 30, with no experience in running or governing or doing anything other than going through a quick course in leadership administered by his father in the last two or three years of his life.

Just as Kim Jong-Un rose with incredible speed as “great successor” in the days of mourning after his father’s death, so he now has to spread his writ, harshly and without hesitation, over a populace that has every reason to want to rebel against him. Armed with the title of “supreme commander”, he chose to inspect a tank unit enshrined in history for roaring into Seoul in first week of the Korean War.

The heroes of that triumph may be long gone, but the tradition lives on, the symbolism a portent of the durability of the sangun, military first policy enunciated by his father as chairman of the national military commission.

Not that Jong-Un is alone in his work. Presumably those around him are calling the shots, doing the meticulous planning that establishes his supremacy. But who’s carrying out the details, from the fire-eating editorials to the visitations to military units and factories and farms that he will have to be making, to the carefully staged appearances on the state TV networks?

The answer to that question is so much a matter of mystery as to defy speculation. Intelligence beneath the highest level is notoriously slim. All we really know a little about are the grim-faced old men seen trudging along with Kim Jong-Un on either side of the hearse that carried his father’s flag-draped coffin on top and then lining up beside him the next day on a balcony overlooking thousands massed on Kim Il-Sung square.

The conventional wisdom is that Jang Song-Thaek, installed by Kim Jong-Il as a vice chairman of the national defense commission, who was walking beside the hearse right behind Kim Jong-Un, seems to be the acting regent. As everyone knows, that has a lot to do with the influence of his wife, Kim Kyong-Hui, who happens to be Kim Jong-Il’s sister. Then there are the generals, led by Ri Yong-Ho, chief of staff, walking on the other side of the hearse from the kid.

And there’s Kim Yong-Nam, at 86 still the chairman of the presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, a post that makes him titular head of state. It was Kim Yong-Nam who proclaimed Jong-Un “supreme leader” and demanded total loyalty to him at the ceremony on Kim Il-Sung square — an event that was roughly equivalent to a coronation or inauguration though Kim Jong-Un remained stolidly silent.

No one is likely to know where all these characters really stand, however, until the transition shakes down — and other faces emerge as contenders. The prospects for a purge permeating the highest levels are high, but when that’s going to happen is anyone’s guess.

Wouldn’t a purge be a great way, though, to get rid of Jang, seen for the first time preening as a full general while standing with Kim Jong-Un before his father’s glass-enclosed coffin? Surely Jang, having never served in the armed forces, cannot have the real respect of those glowering generals who actually had to make their way up through the ranks.

Jang, in fact, has been “purged” before — or at least forced out of the limelight. From 2004 to 2007 he seems to have been relegated to distant positions after asserting himself a trifle too forcefully among those surrounding Kim Jong-Il.

He might not have recovered at all had it not been for the influence of his wife, made a general by her brother in 2010 at the same time Kim Jong-Un acquired the same rank. Neither auntie nor son had been known to have had any military training — clearly not a prerequisite for rising to the top of the armed forces if that’s what it takes to show the real generals who’s boss.

Kim Jong-Un, though, needs to acquire still more titles before he can claim to have filled his father’s platform-heeled shoes.

Sure he’s “supreme commander”, and a general to boot, but he’s still not chairman of the national defense commission, the basis of his father’s power, the reason fawning visitors, from Madeleine Albright when she was U.S. president Bill Clinton’s secretary of state to South Korea’s late president, Kim Dae-Jung, when he flew to Pyongyang to pay homage to the leader of the North at the first inter-Korean summit in June 2000, addressed him as “chairman”.

Indeed, Kim Jong-Un is not even chairman of the central military commission of the Workers’ Party. Nor is he general secretary of the party — his father’s other high post. Instead, he was hailed a few days after his father’s death as “leader” of the party’s central committee while remaining, so far, vice chairman of the party’s military commission. Clearly the kid has a way to go.

That’s all the more reason why Kim Jong-Un has to act tough, to go along with the wishes of the generals when it comes to getting rid of malcontents who want to cross into China. That may also be reason enough for perpetrating a few more “incidents” against the South, for testing missiles, maybe for conducting a third nuclear test.

A lot of people presumably must be trying to figure out what Kim Jong-Un should do. It’s in the interests of all of them, though, to sublimate factional strife and compete to showing their loyalty to him in order not to destroy one another. That’s until the kid has enough confidence to get rid of a few of them, maybe more than a few — all on the pretext, of course, of not showing enough depth of grieving over the passing of his father.

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