North Korea is regularly sensationalized in the international media as an irrational and impulsive state, led by a harsh regime that executes key Party members in outlandishly brutal ways for apparently minor errors. The reality is likely to be significantly more complex, and purged North Korean officials are often found to be back in the public eye in the months following their reported demise. In a regime that lacks a depth of technical expertise, does a purge always lead to death?
In August of 2016 multiple news outlets reported the death of Kim Yong Jin, a vice premier in the North Korean cabinet for supposed crimes against the Communist Party and for sleeping during a high level ministerial meeting. The news was based on a single, unnamed South Korean intelligence source and has generally been taken at face value given North Korea’s long history of human rights abuses. It is easy to buy in to a narrative of high level purges occurring across Pyongyang, especially given the circulation of lurid details and rumored methods of execution that often follow any reports of missing ministers.
While the significance of purges shouldn’t be discounted, it seems that any time senior Party members, defense officials, and even North Korean entertainers fall out of the public eye, the immediate reaction is to label them as victims of a ‘purge,’ only for them to resurface months later appearing in good health. The reality is that given Pyongyang’s lack of technocratic depth, the regime simply lacks the manpower to waste valuable elites, and is likely seeking a “humiliate and reform”approach to Party discipline.
Take for example, the reported purging of Choe Ryong Hae, the secretary of the Workers’ Party. In 2014, Choe stepped down as director of the General Political Bureau, which led to speculation that he had been purged by the recently-ascended Kim Jong Un. However, he still maintained his position in the Politburo and his son reportedly married Kim Jong Un’s younger sister in 2015. His absence from numerous events as well as a snub-like non-attendance from a state funeral in late 2015 led the South Korean media to another round of speculation that he had fallen out of favor with the regime and had possibly been purged. Amidst this speculation Choe resurfaced three months later at Kim Jong Un’s side for the opening of a new museum. While his removal from high level leadership positions and prolonged disappearance does indicate that he has lost some power within the regime hierarchy, he is still very much a player in the North Korean political game.
The drama does not end with party officials. In 2013, the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo wrote a story that members of North Korean musical acts that had drawn the displeasure of the regime had been executed by machine gun in front of their families. If that wasn’t sensational enough, one of those reportedly executed was Kim Jong Un’s ex-girlfriend Hyon Song Wol, who was reportedly accused of making and selling sex tapes, and paradoxically, being in possession of Christian bibles. Titillating gossip quickly spread to several western media outlets, which in turn lead to a flurry of scandalous reports culminating in the supposed sex tape being leaked online, which turned out to be far tamer in reality. For nearly a year the execution was represented as fact until Hyon herself made an appearance on North Korean television decisively reputing her rumored demise.
The only confirmed execution, of Kim Jong Un’s uncle Jang Sung Thaek, became fodder for outrageous speculation with grisly but wildly divergent details of the method of his execution: being fed to dogs, being gunned down by antiaircraft fire, or flamethrower. These have since been debunked and revealed to be based on inconclusive satellite evidence or from questionable anonymous sources. At this point, the only definitive conclusion that can be made is that Jang Sung Thaek was arrested and charged for “anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts,” dismissed from his post, expelled from the Worker’s Party, tried and then executed in an unknown fashion. This level of information is more likely to be reliable as it was broadcast on Korean Central television; North Korea’s official and only television channel.
The more that these overblown accounts and other outlandish stories dominate the North Korean narrative, the easier it is underestimate or ignore North Korea and the Kim regime as a serious and rational political and military force.
North Korea does have a history of purges and while these have had elements of melodrama, the reality is nowhere near as outrageous as portrayed by the media. Kim Jong Il himself purged his half-brothers during his initial rise to power. His half-brother Kim Pyong Il was considered a serious contender to take over from Kim Il Sung, but fell out of favor when Kim Jong Il made reports that Pyong Il was challenging the personality cult of the elder Kim. Pyong Il and his younger brother were then posted to far flung outposts in Europe, where he quietly remains the North Korean ambassador to the Czech Republic while the younger half-brother died of cirrhosis in 2000.
Similarly, when Kim Jong Un rose to power there were internal family struggles as to who would be the heir apparent. Kim Jong Nam, the eldest son of Kim Jong Il was the front runner until he fell out of favor after being caught illegally entering Japan with a forged passport, apparently with the intention of visiting Tokyo Disneyland. Reports on both Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il’s other children are also thin, and appear to have been intentionally left out of the North Korean public record so that the line of succession can remain pure and uncontested. Given the public appeal of internal power struggles, family betrayals and secret offspring, lurid speculation and salacious rumor does nothing more than to muddy the waters of North Korean affairs.
A large number of these rumors can be traced back to the Chosun Ilbo; a very conservative leaning South Korean newspaper with close ties to the Conservative Party in the ROK. Their North Korea slant is typically very hawkish, and any opportunity to portray the Kim regime as bloodthirsty fits into their overall narrative, even if the sources are vague and unattributable. Sex and violence in the headlines can be a motivator to sell more newspapers, however another major source of these rumors is the South Korean intelligence service. The National Intelligence Service (NIS) and its preceding agencies have long been accused of influencing domestic South Korean politics, and most recently stand accused of meddling in the Presidential election and being embroiled in the current scandal gripping Seoul. The ruling Conservative Party has a well-known combative stance towards North Korea, and the agency has been a key instrument in supporting that policy by exaggerating NIS reports of executions and purges, which have led to the knee jerk reaction of declaring anyone out of the North Korean public eye as purged and executed.
The more that these overblown accounts and other outlandish stories dominate the North Korean narrative, the easier it is underestimate or ignore North Korea and the Kim regime as a serious and rational political and military force. It is easy to laugh at the stories about unicorns, or invisible cell phones, but this overlooks the fact that North Korea is now almost certainly a nuclear armed state that is looking to increase their capability. The greatest consequence may be that constant rumors of purges does nothing but create more background noise for intelligence analysts to filter through to understand an already opaque North Korean system. Crying wolf at what amounts to tabloid sensationalism plays into North Korea’s hands and furthers its strategy of volatility and unpredictability while working against meaningful dialogue or rapprochement.
Charlie Song is former U.S. Army Infantry NCO and Officer turned geopolitical risk expert in the private sector, with a focus on the Asia Pacific region, the Korean peninsula and U.S. government affairs.
Photo credit: KCNA