SEOUL – North Korea’s propaganda machine has long kept alive the myth of a serene, all-powerful ruling dynasty that enjoyed universal love and support at home. In a single stroke last week, that came crashing down.
In attempting to justify the execution of his uncle, who was also considered North Korea’s No. 2 official, young leader Kim Jong Un has given the world a rare look behind the scenes of a notoriously hard-to-read government.
It is not a pretty sight, and many analysts believe Pyongyang’s eagerness to pillory Jang Song Thaek not only destroys the image of unity projected by state-run media but also acknowledges dissension and a dangerous instability. That’s an alarming prospect as Kim tries to revive a moribund economy even as he pushes development of nuclear-armed missiles.
The subtext to the over-the-top demonizing of Jang — he was accused of drug use, gambling, a planned military coup and massive corruption — was a shocking admission: the Kim family is not in total control. Contradicting past assertions of unity and strength, North Korea has acknowledged that the leadership had indeed been roiled because of the challenge by Kim’s mentor and uncle after the 2011 death of Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il.
As nervous officials and apparatchiks pledged complete loyalty to Kim in Pyongyang for the second anniversary of the death of his father, the as-yet unanswerable question now is: what comes next?
The charges against Jang must be taken with a large dose of skepticism; as always, the world only gets to see what the North Koreans want seen, and there’s no way to prove what’s true and what’s not. But the fact that the claims are being aired in public, and in such detail, opens up a new view of a struggling leadership in Pyongyang, one that outside government officials and analysts are scrambling to figure out.
Kim “has managed to tarnish his own image, look like a modern Caligula and give the lie to 90 percent of the bombast emanating from Pyongyang,” said Bruce Cumings, a Korea specialist and history professor at the University of Chicago, adding that the move indicates high-level and deep divisions.
“Whatever one thinks of this regime, from the standpoint of the top leadership, this was a politically stupid, self-defeating move,” he said.
The closest historical parallel to Jang’s fall may be in North Korean show trials during the 1950s, which eliminated opponents of Kim Il Sung, the country’s founder and the current leader’s grandfather.
For many years, outside interpretations of internecine struggles were at best educated guesses. Analysts tried to determine who had fallen from favor by the physical distance between an official and the leader in pictures or from a void in state media or an announcement of sudden illness. Assumptions were also linked to the sometimes questionable assertions of North Korean defectors, many of whom had been out of the country for years and had axes to grind.
All the while, Pyongyang usually insisted that all was well domestically and, without fail, the Kims were firmly in control.
Now, astonishingly, state media say someone tried to usurp the leadership. And not just anybody, but a man closest to the leader because of family ties and shared history. Jang was once also seen as the closest thing the country had to a reformer and a darling of Beijing.
“We now know for sure that the Kim regime is afraid of the emergence of a renegade insider who may attempt to take advantage of the North’s economic problems and the people’s yearning for a better life to seize power with military backing,” Alexandre Mansourov, a North Korea specialist, wrote on the website 38 North. “This prospect keeps Kim Jong Un awake at night.”
The portrayal of the Jang episode in North Korea’s propagandist media, which had always tried to cloak Kim Jong Un in greatness, also opens up the leader to suggestions that he was a bad judge of character.
“What is remarkable here is that Kim clearly trusted Jang,” Adam Cathcart, a history lecturer at the University of Leeds and editor of SinoNK.com, wrote in a recent analysis of the state media reporting about Jang’s fall. “Why would Kim be so naive as to install a man so dangerous in his inner circle? It’s a question that’s implicit in the article — but one that must not be asked.”
There will be little public questioning in Pyongyang of what’s actually happening, of course.
State media are already getting back to business as usual. Kim Jong Il is being glorified on the second anniversary of his death. Kim Jong Un has visited a military institute, a ski resort, a fish factory, all in keeping with the long-standing propaganda message that he’s deeply engaged in the business of running the country.
Jang’s wife, who is Kim Jong Il’s sister, has also been listed prominently in state media, an indication that she has survived her husband’s purge, at least for the time being. South Korea, meanwhile, sees no signs of unusual North Korean military activity, though Seoul is boosting border security just in case.
The recent purge may show that Jang and his cronies represented a genuine threat to Kim’s leadership, according to Charles Armstrong, a history professor and Korea expert at Columbia University. Or it could show “a ferociously vindictive, ruthless and egotistical” Kim Jong Un wanted “to send an unmistakable message that he was the man in charge.”
“But exposing an absurd list of crimes, some of which may sound quite plausible to the average North Korean, is very risky as it overturns the official narrative of unified leadership and smooth succession that the regime has articulated during the last two years,” Armstrong wrote in an email.
At the very least, it suggests a serious misstep by Kim Jong Un and his propaganda specialists.
“The Kim dynasty legend is the main capital he has, and he’s squandering it like there’s no tomorrow,” said B.R. Myers, a North Korea scholar and professor at South Korea’s Dongseo University.