We have just witnessed a coup in North Korea
After the fall of Jang Song-thaek, many saw the removal of such a supposedly influential figure as evidence of Kim Jong-un’s absolute power. But the public purging and execution of Jang Song-thaek at once exposed Kim Jong-un’s lack of power, and the attempts of Kim Jong-il’s associates to uphold a power structure that lacks an unquestioned head.
Our analysis is based on an understanding of Kim Jong-il era politics from within, and according to its internal structure rather than its external manifestations.
In this series, we provide an overview of differences between the Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un systems, in an attempt to provide a clearer understanding of both. Here is the link to our first, second and third installments, which focus on the differences in political presentation, procedure and content between the Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un political eras.
In this final installment, we use the Politburo meeting and its aftermath to explore what these events portend.
A note on Kim Jong-il’s KWP Organisation and Guidance Department
The origins of the current shape of the Korean Workers’ Party Organisation and Guidance Department lie in the circumstances that led Kim Jong-il to build an entity that concentrated all executive, personnel appointment and enforcement powers in the OGD Party Secretary – himself – without publicly dismantling Kim Il-sung-era structures and positions.
The Kim Il-sung cult and Kim family sanctity, with its associated anti-Japanese and anti-imperialist narratives, were crucial for legitimising the Kim family’s hereditary succession.
But it was the routing of enforceable powers through the OGD’s totalitarian structure that empowered Kim Jong-il – above anyone or anything else – as the enforcer of Kim family sanctity, ousting the long-designated successor Kim Pyong-il in spite of the endorsement from Kim Il-sung’s power bases in the government and military.
The DPRK Government became an empty shell, and even the military was subsumed under the OGD through its personnel appointment and political surveillance rights; the apparently powerful General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army has been a sub-branch of the OGD since 1992, reporting to Section 13 (military surveillance).
The systemic discrepancies between a North Korean elite’s surface and de facto powers have their roots in this history: the honorary power holders and proxies of Kim Jong-il’s era were not the brokers of real power.
They were the powerless remnants and descendants of Kim Il-sung era politics, left with symbolic posts or appointed as proxies in the surface manifestations of Kim Jong-il’s actual power structure.
The men who exercised power on behalf of Kim Jong-il remained behind the scenes through the parallel OGD structure, then as now. The secret of this fundamental duality was fiercely guarded to prevent penetration of the power structure by the outside world.
There’s much more to say in this regard. In terms of our final installment on the purge of Jang Song-thaek and the onset of the “Kim Jong-un” era as seen through the Politburo meeting and statement, we should note that the OGD has not yet seen a replacement Party Secretary since Kim Jong-il’s death.
The closest candidate for this role is Kim Kyong Ok, who may be regarded as the current de facto head of the OGD.
In 2007, Kim Jong-il removed the Administration Department from the OGD and handed control of it to Jang Song-thaek. The Administration Department held political surveillance and enforcement powers separate from those held by the OGD-controlled Ministry of State Security.
This curtailed the OGD monopoly over political surveillance and enforcement powers, perhaps to ease the way for an eventual succession that Jang Song-thaek could facilitate using his Kim family immunity.
But Kim Jong-il died before seeing completion of de facto power transfers. In this political vacuum, after the centralising authority of Kim Jong-il was gone, it was only a matter of time before the gridlock between Jang Song-thaek and the OGD would break down.
The actual power structures established by Kim Jong-il turned out to be stronger than the Kim family sanctity established by the same man.
We have just witnessed a coup in North Korea. In this execution of Jang Song-thaek, Kim Jong-un is the avatar of the Kim family cult, the legitimiser of a state ruled by an OGD established by Kim Jong-il – the man who had established Kim Il-sung as the legitimising face of his own rule through the OGD.
The messy mishmash of Jang Song-thaek’s alleged crimes reveals multiple voices.
In the charges against Jang Song-thaek released by the KCNA, all kinds of crimes and insults that might historically be attributed to a North Korean cadre are included. Many outside commentators have already suggested that the incident was mishandled.
Not only was it unnecessary to include so many charges, they also undermine the position of Kim Jong-un. When the ruling Kim’s authority is taken for granted, there must be no graver crime than crossing Kim Jong-un.
The charges reveal a lot more. In North Korea, invocation of the ruling Kim’s authority means stability, and justification of actions signals insecurity. In the charges against Jang Song-thaek there are many justifications that contradict and undermine the official narrative, until now so fiercely and institutionally guarded.
Jang Song-thaek’s crimes begin: ‘Consolidating his own power with factional manoeuvering, Jang Song-thaek dared to challenge the Workers’ Party. This led to an extremely dangerous factional and anti-revolutionary incident.’
This is the first time in post-70s North Korea that the term ‘factional manoeuvering’ has been used in an official statement.
How could the ruling Kim have allowed factional manoeuvering to take root? Could the ruling Kim not control his uncle?
If the ruling Kim held the absolute power to purge Jang Song-thaek, why was the man allowed to commit crimes such as ‘grave and evil damage to institutional stability, national policies and the people’s security’, or ‘putting state finances into disarray and selling precious state resources off too cheaply’?
To admit these oversights, let alone to have allowed them, necessarily undermines the authority of the ruling Kim.
If Jang Song-thaek had really led a “faction” that betrayed the ruling Kim, why is it not Kim Jong-un’s prestige that has been wronged, but rather institutions, policies, surveillance entities and financial interests?
This is not Kim Jong-un’s condemnation of Jang Song-thaek, nor is it a condemnation of him on Kim Jong-un’s behalf. This is a condemnation of Jang Song-thaek by those who had seen their powers curtailed by the man.
The charges are not in the voice of the ruling Kim, and neither is the voice collective or ideologically unified; it is not an individual, but many individuals, who ‘knew Jang Song-thaek’s crimes for a long time and observed them’, and ‘could not watch any longer, but had to remove Jang Song-thaek’ in this ‘third year since the passing of eternal Leader Comrade Kim Jong-il’.
The invocation of Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy in the immediate aftermath of the purge reveals the insecurity of a politics legitimised by Kim Jong-un.
After the Jang Song-thaek purge and public condemnations, the Rodong Sinmun and other state media began heavily to promote the legitimacy of Kim Jong-un through the invocation of the Kim cult.
This is strange: no one had challenged or undermined Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy; and even more spectacularly, only days before, ordinary North Koreans’ anger was roused en masse against his uncle.
The purge was not only socially amplified for the North Korean public and the larger world but shockingly drummed into the consciousness of ordinary North Koreans. There was no need to demonstrate Kim Jong-un’s will and ability to violently purge powerful figures if the legitimacy of his leadership as sanctioned and passed on through the Kim family cult was strong.
The façade of Kim Jong-un’s absolute legitimacy was ruined in the eyes of North Koreans by the process of the purge. Nevertheless, upholding the sanctity of the Kim cult is the most important legitimiser of the status quo – which now needs to be stabilised. Yet Kim Jong-un’s authority is not at the centre of this cult.
In the Politburo statement, there is a sentence asserting that ‘Jang Song-thaek and his supporters did not submit to the organisational will of the Party, he did not sincerely accept the Party’s direction and policies.’
This is remarkable and extraordinarily problematic. In the history of North Korea’s official narratives, any statement of ‘the Party’s direction and policies’ must be preceded by the formula ‘under the guidance of the Great Leader’ in reference to the ruling Kim.
The propaganda infrastructure never spoke of ‘the Party’s direction and policies’ without reference to the guidance of the ruling Kim, let alone according to ‘the organisational will of the Party’.
The phrase ‘organisational will of the Party’ itself is not new, but it was only used from a collective perspective, such as when referring to a public vote or endorsement under ‘the guidance of the Great Leader’.
An assertion of the ‘organisational will of the Party’ was made but it was not accompanied by the will of the ruling Kim, let alone formulated under ‘the guidance of the ruling Kim’. Is that why Kim Jong-un did or said nothing as his uncle was dragged away to a violent end?
The Kim Jong-un era can be summed up in the following way: Kim Jong-un does not hold absolute power, he legitimises the status quo. The men behind the coup will no longer just act on orders from the ruling Kim. Instead, they will legitimise and stabilise their power by upholding and “obeying” the cult of the Kim family.