Analysts here see a parallel between the current purge and that conducted by Kim Jong-Il after his father’s death on July 8, 1994. “They executed people when Kim Jong-Il took over,” said an academic contact here. “They always have to conduct a purge when there’s a change in power.”
The extent of the current purge is uncertain, but there have been reports of scores of senior civilian and military officials losing their jobs and facing uncertain fates — some simply to less desirable positions, others to prisons where execution by firing squad is a likely way to get rid of those seen as the least loyal to the Kim dynasty.
The purge had its origins in the realization that somehow dissidents are able to exist in North Korea and may be capable of deadly plots against the regime.
The most dramatic evidence came in 2004 with an explosion at a railroad station about 16 kilometers south of the major crossing of the Yalu River at Sinuiju. At least 160 people died, and North Korea officially attributed the blast to an electric cable coming into contact with a load of ammonium nitrate used in fertilizer.
The North Korean account did not say that Kim Jong-Il’s special train had passed through the same station several hours before then carrying him from a visit to China. Nor did North Korea report the disappearance of the man who had been railway minister for the previous six years.
The name of the minister, Kim Yong-Sam, disappeared from state media four years after the explosion, and South Korean intelligence sources are spreading the word that he was executed for leaking the time of Kim Jong-Il’s return. Whether others faced the same punishment for their roles in the blast is uncertain, but it’s clear North Korean security people saw it not as an accident but as an assassination attempt. Defectors and cell phone contacts assume that version is correct — though no one can prove it.
Word of one other execution is also beginning to surface here — that of the man who was minister of finance when the North made a seriously flawed attempt at currency reform in late 2009.
The latest scapegoat for the failure of a plan that is believed to have been encouraged by both Kim Jong-Il and his son is reported to have been Mun Il-Bong, the former minister of finance, who had the job of overseeing the reform but was not responsible for dreaming up the scheme in the first place. The mastermind of the whole thing was Pak Nam-Gi, the chief of the Workers’ Party planning and finance department, who was reportedly executed one year ago.
Those executions are a foretaste of a much wider purge that analysts say is central to a generational shift in which younger leaders are rising to replace an old guard within the Workers’ Party and also to crack down on corruption that’s endemic within the entire ruling structure.
“The old generation became a fifth wheel within the party,” Cheong Song-Chang, a researcher at the influential Sejong Institute, told Daily NK, a website that follows North Korean affairs with meticulous care. “Now that Kim Jong-Un has started to establish his leadership system personally, the range of the purge has expanded.”
The flow of illicit foreign currency — or goods, including rice donations that never make it to those who desperately need it — often leads to those whom Kim Jong-Un would like to liquidate. “The best way to maintain discipline in general is to monitor embezzlement,” Cheong was quoted as saying.
Kim Jong-Un, though, is so unpopular that it’s difficult to repress gossip and bad-mouthing. “Ordinary people don’t like him,” said Choi Jin-Wook, long-time analyst of North Korean issues at the Korean Institute of National Unification. “Nobody speaks out publicly, but they’re not afraid to talk among one another. He is not popular.”
It may have been the recognition of that reality that accounts for the Supreme People’s Assembly not confirming Kim Jong-Un’s appointment as vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, which his father serves as chairman. That’s the center of power in North Korea, and his appointment was widely expected.
The failure of the assembly to anoint Kim Jong-eun with another title, beyond that of general and vice chairman of the military commission of the Workers’ Party, was not seen, however, as suggesting a problem in his rise to power.
The issue, as explained by analysts here, was when to time his next leap up the ladder. The armed forces, the party and the government need to undergo extensive reforms, said these sources, to be sure the kid had enough support to control the entire structure. Yet another question is the health of his father, who suffered a stroke in August 2008 but has hung on while masterminding a power transition in which he does not seem to be losing his grip.
The Supreme People’ Assembly did put its ritual chop of approval on the appointments of a minister of people’s security, the top national police position, in place of a man who lost his job earlier this year. The former top police official was said to have been dismissed for failure to curb unrest in the wake of currency reform, but it was not clear whether he faces drastic penalties for dereliction.
Much of the purge seems to focus on the pervasive national security agency. “Officials in Pyongyang are not having a stable or peaceful life,” said Kim Chun-Ae, who defected from North Korea via China in 2000 and keeps in touch via conversations on Chinese networks with contacts near the Chinese border. “Security officials are being purged or expelled.”
Kim Yun-Tae, secretary general of the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights here, believes the current purge had its genesis in aborted currency reform. “We think reports of execution were a continuation of this punishment,” he said. “They are for the failures that have made this regime unpopular.”
At the same time, while North Korea asks foreign countries for food aid, defectors report the routine sale on private markets of food shipped into the North.
“The military, police and security have separate distribution networks,” said Kim Chun-ae. Within the armed forces, she said, “Each officer embezzles a certain amount of food, and only a portion goes to soldiers.”