A Purge too Far
In my last article, we walked through the structure of North Korea’s government and its various organs. Despite having a robust government on paper, the reality is that only a few formal and informal organs have any tangible power. This week we will go over why power is concentrated within so few branches of North Korea’s government, and how, over time, the North Korea we all know and love came into being.
What we need to understand about the bizarre nature of North Korea’s present political system is that it’s masquerading as itself. Yes, you read that correctly. North Korea has always had some more dictator-ish tendencies; however, the current politics didn’t emerge until after Kim Il-Sung, the country’s founder, began purging his political rivals in the 1950s-1960s. While it isn’t at all unique for communist countries to have a political purge from time to time, it is somewhat unique for communist purges to create such strict, lasting control.
To begin, let’s define what a communist purge is. Much like the verb definition of the word, a communist purge is simply the expulsion of unwanted persons from the political system. In practice, communist purges have taken deadly turns. Joseph Stalin, the notorious successor to Vladimir Lenin, is said to have killed approximately 1.2 million people through a succession of purges while leading the USSR. Mao Zedong, the revolutionary founder of Communist China, is estimated to have killed over 4 million people through successive purges.
While no purge by the Kim dynasty is able to hold a candle to Mao or Stalin’s death tolls, the Kim’s do stand out for the near institutional nature of their purges. In contrast to the reactionary, phased nature of Maoist and Stalinist purges, purges in North Korea are ubiquitous. You may notice that a few times each year news stories pop-up stating that high-ranking officials within North Korea have been arrested and, usually, executed. These stories are often accompanied by various assessments of Kim Jong Un’s control over that government and party. A recurring conclusion regarding Kim Jong Un’s purges is that the regularity of them is indicative of his shrinking political power. While I do not contest this analysis, it is important to remember that the logistical requirements of orchestrating the arrest and execution of powerful party members is a testament to the sheer amount of power Kim Jong Un still holds.
Despite more recent stories of political purges, purges as a feature of North Korean politics goes back to before the country’s founding. Kim Il Sung, upon returning from his time in exile during the Japanese occupation of Korea in World War II, began the first political purges in an effort to ascend to leadership. Between 1945 and 1950, Kim Il Sung, with support from the USSR, successfully purged rival communists, socialists, democrats, and more in order to consolidate power, while demonstrating his supremacy. After the Korean War (1950-1953) Kim Il Sung conducted a purge of faction leaders within his own party. By 1956, Kim Il Sung had successfully purged all party members powerful enough to challenge him, and thus his absolute authority over North Korea was completed.
A person gaining power over a country through violence is neither new nor unique. What is different, however, is Kim’s decision to move away from the traditional communist practice of tapping a supporter to succeed him. Rather than allow the mantle of leadership to pass to a successor, as Mao did in China and Stalin did in the USSR, Kim Il Sung’s son, Kim Jong Il, rose to power.
While the Kim dynasty has been written into law as the only family able to occupy the highest echelon of power, this is a rather recent occurrence. For his part, Kim Il Sung chose to assist Kim Jong Il’s ascension to the throne instead of depositing him upon it, as Kim Jong Un was. You may be holding out some hope for Kim Jong Il’s rise to be less blood-soaked; unfortunately, it was not. Starting in the 1970s and continuing into the early days of Kim Jong Il’s rule, many senior party members, including longtime supporters of Kim Il Sung, were purged and/or summarily executed. The same process occurred and continues to occur, preceding Kim Jong Un’s rise to power in 2011.
The process of actively suppressing the development of dissent instead of waiting to suppress developed, active dissent has been a feature of North Korean politics since before its inception. True, some of Kim Jong Un’s purging has been notable even compare to his father and grandfather; however, the process of amassing political power and preparing the party for your successor remains unchanged. Due to North Korea’s secretive nature and our limitations in quick, accurate assessments of what occurs there, we usually can’t say with complete certainty why someone has been executed or disappeared. Regardless, had the purges under Kim Il Sung and his descendants not occurred, North Korea could have potentially bore no resemblance to its present form.
This is not to say that Kim Jong Un wields absolute power in the same manner as his father and grandfather. In fact, next week, in this series’ final iteration, we will discuss why Kim Jong Un’s power is shrinking and how that prevents him from making any major aggressions without also losing all his power forever.
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