Plenty of doubts have been raised about claims that North Korea executed its defense minister by anti-aircraft gun at the end of April. Whether or not Gen. Hyon Yong Chol met such a grisly end, though, the fact remains that top officials face increasingly uncertain fates in Pyongyang.
Since coming to power three years ago, dictator Kim Jong Un has presided over a large-scale and very violent purge of North’s military and civilian leadership. Some 70 high-level officials and generals have reportedly been executed during Kim’s brief reign.
This marks a dramatic reversal of the strategies Kim’s father and grandfather used to stay in power. As dictators’ courts go, the palaces of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were remarkably safe places for their inner circle. After an initial period in which he exterminated all hostile factions, Kim Il Sung surrounded himself almost exclusively by the former guerrillas who had fought under his command in 1930s Manchuria.
Compared to Stalin, who had a habit of killing half of his closest associates every few years, North Korea’s founder was relatively forgiving of trespasses. Disgraced officials might lose their jobs and disappear, but then in many cases reappeared a few years later back in the top ranks of the state and party hierarchy.
The system encouraged loyalty. While a general or minister might suddenly find himself a clerk in a rural office or even a miner, he also knew that if he braced himself for humiliation and kept professing his devotion to the regime, he’d likely survive and prosper again.
At the same time, both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il adopted a much more brutal approach toward ordinary North Korean citizens, hundreds of thousands of whom were dispatched to prison camps and execution grounds even for minor deviations. The strategy worked: The Kim family survived the collapse of other communist regimes, nearly all of whom were much softer on their populations.
Thrust into power in his 20s, Kim Jong Un seems to perceive the threats to his rule differently. It’s entirely likely that the old guard didn’t take him seriously at first, given his lack of political experience or even knowledge about the country he runs. Previously, the rank of four-star general, or blood relations with the First Family, served as virtual security guarantees and perhaps encouraged disrespect. Kim appears to have decided that only a campaign of terror would ensure obedience: Under his watch, disgraced officials aren’t merely sent to retirement or low-level office jobs, they’re frequently killed.
By contrast, Kim appears to have come around to the idea — long promoted by ally China — that the best way to control average citizens is to distract them with money. Incipient market reforms have given farmers the right to keep more of the profits from their crops — up to 60 percent — and factory managers the freedom to hire and fire, buy necessary supplies and pocket a significant part of whatever they sell.
For now, this gives average North Koreans more of a stake in maintaining the status quo: They can legitimately aspire to owning a cell phone or even a motorbike, while having less fear of being carted away for minor infractions.
While still guilty of appalling human-rights abuses, the regime has over the last few years steadily reduced the size of its gulags.
The strategy seems to be working: There’s little sign of any real opposition to Kim’s rule among the Pyongyang elite. But it’s likely to prove destabilizing in the long run. Previously, any officials under suspicion knew their best bet was to remain calm and redouble their professions of loyalty, hoping to be rehabilitated. Now, when a purge means almost certain death, threatened officials might well consider actions which would have been unthinkable before — fleeing overseas with bags of compromising documents to trade, or even trying to foment a conspiracy or coup in Pyongyang.
Meanwhile, the more economic freedom average North Koreans are given, the more their aspirations will grow.
It’s long been known that revolutions seldom happen during periods of despair and economic collapse, but rather when commoners have tasted a bit of the good life and long for more.
Kim’s efforts to stabilize his regime could just be what end up provoking a crisis.
Andrei Lankov, a history professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, is the author of “The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia.”