SEOUL – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shares a family trait with his father and grandfather: a penchant for purges to hold onto absolute power.
Since the reclusive nuclear nation’s founding in 1948, the Kims have eliminated people perceived as a threat to their cult of personality. Charges have ranged from spying for the U.S. to gossiping about a leader’s mistress.
“North Korea’s history is a history of purges,” Oh Gyeong Seob, a North Korea researcher at the Sejong Institute near Seoul, said by phone. “And purges are increasing in frequency under Kim Jong Un. It’s a sign he is resorting to the politics of fear to cope with his sense of insecurity.”
Kim recently ordered the shooting of about 10 senior Workers’ Party officials on charges including graft and watching South Korean soap operas, Shin Kyoung-min, a South Korean lawmaker and member of the intelligence committee, said Wednesday by phone. Shin cited a briefing by the National Intelligence Service and didn’t say when the officials were killed or who they were.
The latest executions were part of a drive to remove the remaining influence of Kim’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, whom he had killed late last year on charges of factionalism, corruption and sexual misconduct, according to Lim Dae Sung, an aide to ruling party lawmaker Lee Cheol Woo, who attended the briefing in Seoul.
They also follow a six-week period where Kim vanished from public view, prompting speculation about both his health and his hold on power. He reappeared this month in photos released by North Korea’s official media showing him walking with a cane.
Kim, believed to be about 30, controls North Korea’s 1.2 million troops and nuclear arms program, having taken over the 24 million-strong nation after his father, Kim Jong Il, died in December 2011. Since coming to power he has expunged a series of officials, including Chief of General Staff Ri Yong Ho, who guided him in the succession process.
South Korean soap operas have gained popularity in recent years among North Koreans, who mostly watch them on DVDs and memory sticks smuggled from China. That’s created feelings of admiration for the South among North Koreans, Kang Dong Wan, an international relations professor at Dong-a University in Busan, said in a book he co-authored, “Korean Wave, Shaking Up North Korea.”
The latest executions show Kim’s as willing as his father as well as his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, to remove threats, whether real or perceived.
In 1956, just three years after the Korean War shifted to a cease-fire, the nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung, executed his deputy, Pak Hon Yong, saying he was a U.S. spy who hampered efforts to win the war.
“Pak was scapegoated for the failed military campaign in the same fashion Kim Jong Un purged and executed his uncle, Jang Song Thaek,” Leonid Petrov, a Korea studies researcher at the Australian National University, said by email.
Kim Il Sung kept up his purges well into the 1970s, even implicating former guerrilla comrades who previously helped remove political rivals, according to a 2009 publication by the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
His son, Kim Jong Il, included in his sights those who crossed him over his personal life. After sending his mistress to Moscow at some point in the 1970s, he ordered his security commander to find anyone who spread gossip about the affair — one that produced Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam. Agents in Moscow killed any North Korean studying there who said they knew of her, according to a memoir by Hwang Jang Yop, a former party secretary who defected to South Korea.
Kim Jong Il’s biggest purge began in 1997, three years after formally taking power.
He executed a senior agricultural official — one who had been loyal to his father for decades — on the charge of ruining the economy as a U.S. agent, and then sent loyalists around the nation for three years to weed out spies.
Many people, including high-level officials, were “revolutionized,” a euphemism for being sent to prison camps, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said in a 2008 report.
“Kim Jong Un has no choice but to rely on purges because people remain very unhappy about their country,” said Sejong Institute’s Oh. “There is so much more outside information now in North Korea than ever. That makes him feel more insecure and aggressive.”