It’s January and that means everyone is into purges. Dry months, caffeine enemas, herbal teas. You name it, the DLR is avoiding that nonsense.
In North Korea, though, a recent purge has followed a slightly different script. First, it began in December, before the usual annual orgy of excess that is, unsurprisingly, missing from North Korean tradition. And second, and this is arguably more important, it involved the summary execution of three generations of a powerful political family rather than abstinence from fatty foods for a couple of weeks.
The original execution of Jang Song-thaek caused a bit of a stir in the Western media. This was not only because he happens to be the uncle (by marriage) of international playboy and all-round chilled-out entertainer Kim Jong-un but also because rumours circulated, as they are wont to do, that the chosen method of execution was to strip Jang naked and feed him to a pack of 120 dogs that had been starved for three days.
That particular canine story was probably untrue, emanating from an unverified single source of a Chinese website. What is certainly true, though, is that the purge was unusual in its ferocity. Executions of officials are infrequent though not altogether out of the ordinary. However this particular purge not only involved a member of Kim’s family, but also fierce accusations in North Korean state-run media that Jang was ‘despicable human scum’ who was challenging Kim’s position and perhaps preparing for a coup. Now, it seems that the purge was also very comprehensive: Jang’s sister, brother-in-law and nephew (the latter the ambassadors to Cuba and Malaysia, respectively) have all been killed, as have the children and grandchildren of Jang’s two brothers.
How cheery. Not the family holiday everyone expects at that time of year. But what brought on this paroxysm of familial self-harm? It’s unclear whether there was a specific incident that sparked Kim’s ire, but it is the DLR’s hunch that he was merely seeking to secure his position. Jang was probably Kim’s regent, the young king being perhaps too inexperienced at the tender age of 28 to take on the various responsibilities of being the supreme head of state of a highly militarised and ideological society. At 28, the DLR was largely trying to emulate Jarvis Cocker (but probably looking more like Shaun Ryder instead), and would have been a dubious supreme leader.
But Jang had his own power base too, particularly in the commercial world, so his removal not only leaves no doubt as to who’s in charge but also eliminates a potential rival. It’s perhaps no coincidence that only a few weeks after Jang was summarily removed, North Korea is electing the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly, the rubber-stamp parliament that likes to clap in unison and agree with whatever Kim says. This is the first SPA since Young Kim came to power, acting as a clear demonstration of his further centralisation of power.
Jang’s execution is also the latest in a line of sackings that have occurred at the top of the Korean People’s Army, as the young’un has tried to assert his own presence on the military — a clear consolidation of power as the mercurial Kim tries to ensure the longevity of his reign. Without Jang, and with a pliant military supporting him, he could be set for the next four decades in power. That’s a lot of basketball matches with Dennis Rodman to watch. (Side-note: on one of his trips to North Korea, images of Rodman and Kim at one of the latter’s palaces gave us the first glimpse of the supremely dear leader’s 200 ft swimming pool boat. It’s a swimming pool on a boat. That’s moored on water. What is the chuffing point?)
What does this mean for the outside world? Well, interestingly, since the purge of Jang, North Korea has adopted a notably more conciliatory tone towards its southern neighbour. Oh sure, there have been some warnings to South Korea, but the North Korean media also has recently claimed that they would end verbal attacks on the South Korean government and seek to build closer relations. This follows a New Year’s message from Kim that highlighted ending confrontation between the two Koreas.
So, it could well be that Young Kim is using his newfound stability to try and forge a better relationship with the South, thereby possibly buying more time for the development of its proto-nukes. Ultimately, though, North Korea’s strategic position has not changed, and while there may be much change at the top, there’s only continuity in its long-term interests and policies. Expect more batshit crazy statements and ructions from Pyongyang as Kim beds in.