WASHINGTON – A striking feature of North Korean communism has been the remarkable measure of physical security enjoyed by the uppermost reaches of the brutal and repressive regime.
Elsewhere in the communist world, the highest tiers always enjoyed physical comforts. But the tumultuous, cutthroat nature of communist politics meant that their physical fate, up to and including cause of death, remained perilously contingent. (As the Bo Xilai affair in China underscores, this is still the case under “reform socialism.”)
By contrast, North Korea’s “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung laid down a system of dynastic succession that protected not only the revolutionary royals but also those aristocrats closest to them.
Consider the case of Choe Kwang, chief of the general staff of the North Korean People’s Army in the late 1960s. In 1968, Kim Il Sung personally denounced Choe for “anti-party activities,” and the man disappeared. Under Stalin or Mao, those particulars would have been a death sentence. Yet Choe — whose family had close connections to the Great Leader’s — not only lived but went on to prosper. By the late 1980s, Choe was once again chief of the army general staff. By 1997, when he died of natural causes, he had been elevated to defense minister.
Kim Yong Ju, the Great Leader’s younger brother and onetime right-hand man, was once presumed to be Kim Il Sung’s successor. He was muscled aside in the 1970s during the rise of Kim Jong Il, the Great Leader’s firstborn son.
By 1975, Kim Yong Ju had vanished from public view. But in the early 1990s, he reappeared as a member of the North Korean Politburo and rotated through a series of top-level sinecures.
To be sure: North Korean generals and other functionaries to Pyongyang’s royals have ended up in front of firing squads. But top families were exposed only sparingly to the routinized violence and terror they counted on to maintain their rule — and often transgressions that would have resulted in the ultimate sanction for commoners were pardoned or ignored for blue bloods. Unlike the French Revolution, which was famously said to “devour its own children,” and almost any other communist revolutionary descendants, the North Korean model, until last week, had followed Kim Il Sung’s hallowed injunction to grant “special favors” to “those who have performed feats … for reunification of the country [and to] their descendants.”
This brings us to the defenestration of Jang Song Thaek, Pyongyang’s putative second in command, by Kim Jong Un, the young Dear And Respected Leader who is Kim Il Sung’s grandson and Jang’s nephew.
Last Monday, before a hall packed by his Politburo comrades, a passive Jang was repeatedly denounced for “anti-party activities” and other crimes, then frog-marched out of the chamber by uniformed guards. On Thursday, North Korean media announced the execution of “traitor for all ages Jang Song Thaek.”
This spectacle of public humiliation — and liquidation — of a royal marks a radical departure from business as usual. The North Korean state has its internal code of honor, and its paramount precept had always been that The Royals Stay Safe. But no longer can a regent and adviser in chief like Jang expect to be pensioned off to some posh inconsequential place once his services are no longer needed.
Palace politics have suddenly become life-and-death. There are three immediate implications of this affair.
First: There is no obvious reason that a purge of the North Korean aristocracy, once begun, should necessarily end with Jang. And if it is open season on Pyongyang royals, Kim Jong Un has ample motive for doing away with a great many of his nearest and dearest. There is his auntie Kim Kyong Hui — Jang’s wife and, until last week, de facto co-regent. There is Kim Jong Nam, his older brother in Macao who has publicly criticized both the regime and Kim Jong Un. Indeed, any number of blood relatives and inner-sanctum grandees could be deemed a threat, or an alternative, to Kim Jong Un’s authority — and find themselves before the latter-day guillotine.
Second, there is the potential impact on regime cohesion. Up to now, cohesion among North Korea’s elite has been extraordinary. That may help explain why this otherwise failing communist state is still with us when so many others have been swept into the dustbin of history. Faced with the possibility of an impending reign of terror, some royals and courtiers may be so loyal as to offer themselves up on a sacrifice pyramid. But others near the pinnacle of power might interpret the Jang affair as a wake-up call: time to check bank accounts in China; to polish up damning dossiers on those who should go down before them; or even to think the unthinkable about a new and better dictator. After all, once a reign of terror gets started, ending it usually involves replacing the executioner. A concerted if concealed shift in calculations and personal survival stratagems by those at the regime’s core could have unpredictable — even destabilizing — consequences for the state.
The third implication concerns Kim Jong Un’s judgment, or lack thereof. Does he understand the forces he may have set in play domestically? There is scant reason to accord him the benefit of the doubt. In his brief tenure to date, he has left his fingerprints all over decisions that are cringe-worthy at best (being too busy in January to meet visiting Google chief Eric Schmidt but clearing his schedule the next month for Dennis Rodman) and patently self-defeating at worst: The first round of international saber-rattling on his watch fell flat this year. Washington did not rush to negotiate when North Korea tested its third nuke, nor did Seoul blink when Pyongyang shut down the last remaining North-South project, the Kaesong Industrial Complex. North Korea is in the international military extortion business, and the first outing by the new management diminished the value of the brand.
North Korea occupies a high-tension, high-stakes niche in the international system wherein there is precious little margin for error. It is incalculably dangerous to have a decider prone to miscalculations running the show. But in the regime’s next crisis, who is going to counsel the Dear And Respected Leader that his preferred option is a dumb idea? Not Uncle Jang.
Nicholas Eberstadt holds a chair in political economy at the American Enterprise Institute. He is a visiting fellow at the Asan Institute in Seoul and a founding member of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.