Charles K. Armstrong, the Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies in the Social Sciences at Columbia University and the author of the new book Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950-1992, provides his interpretation of the recent purge within Kim Jong Un’s family in North Korea for the Weatherhead East Asian Institute blog:
Last week, North Korea’s public denunciation, show trial and summary execution of supreme leader Kim Jong Un’s uncle by marriage Jang Song Taek, considered by many the number two person in the leadership hierarchy, stunned the world and puzzled many long-time North Korea analysts. Broadly speaking there are two ways of interpreting the extraordinarily dramatic and violent elimination of Jang; both interpretations may be true. First, Kim Jong Un may simply be a ferociously vindictive, ruthless and egotistical character who wanted to amass all power as quickly and definitively as possible. Kim’s father Kim Jong Il put Jang Song Taek in place before the elder Kim died in 2011, to look after the younger Kim as he was establishing his rule. But Kim Jong Un was impatient to get him out of the way. Rather than remove Jang quietly, as Kim Jong Il did with his own uncle in the 1970s, Kim Jong Un wanted to send an unmistakable message that he was the man in charge and no one dare try to dilute his power. 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. The other interpretation is that Jang and his cronies represented a genuine threat to Kim’s leadership and, although many of the specifics of the charges are absurd, really wanted to push Kim aside. In this case, all real or potential conspirators had to be taught a lesson. Quiet removal would not do; pulling up internal dissent by the roots in the most public and violent way possible was needed to instill fear into all potential dissenters.
Outlandish charges of treason and conspiracy are nothing new in North Korean leadership purges. It has been done time and again, going back to the early years of founding leaders Kim Il Sung’s rule in the late 1940s and 1950s. Grandfather Kim, a protégé of Stalin, was in turn inspired by Stalin’s show trials of the 1930s. For example, in 1955 the prominent communist veteran Pak Hon-yong, the number two man in the North Korean leadership hierarchy, was accused of betraying North Korea to the Americans during the Korean War and conspiring with American missionaries as far back as 1919 to undermine the Korean communists. Like Stalin’s show trial victims, Pak never denied these charges and was executed not long after his trial. As with Jang today, the charges against Pak were public, extensive, quite specific and utterly absurd. But the point is that Pak was not only a potential rival to Kim, but also a scapegoat for Kim’s failures. Pak was blamed for North Korea’s failure to unify Korea and defeat the South and the US during the Korean War. The manner of Jang’s demise suggests that the North Korean leadership is similarly worried about its own failures, especially in the economic realm (the disastrous 2009 currency devaluation is mentioned in Jang’s denunciation) and is trying to deflect attention and blame to a scapegoat. Jang’s removal may signify deep divisions within the leadership over economic policy and other matters, which in turn imply more bloody purges and internecine conflict to come.