Jang Song-thaek execution: it’s Game of Thrones in Pyongyang

Kim Jong-un’s uncle made enemies by championing economic reform, writes Benjamin Habib

Column LAST UPDATED AT 10:19 ON Fri 13 Dec 2013

IN A DRAMA reminiscent of George RR Martin’s epic book A Game of Thrones, court politics at the pinnacle of the Kim dictatorship in North Korea have taken a brutal turn with the purge and execution of the regime’s number two man, Jang Song Taek.

Jang Song Taek is North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s uncle. Following Kim Jong-il’s death in December 2011, Jang was installed with a core group of senior figures to act as a regency while Kim Jong-un cemented his power as the new leader.

Jang’s precarious position came to international attention on 12 November when his deputies Ri Ryong Ha and Chang Su Kil were reportedly executed. After being placed under house arrest, Jang was formally placed into custody for public spectacle at the Politburo Central Committee meeting on 8 December.

Yesterday, according to Korean Central News Agency (which described Jang as “despicable human scum”), he was convicted at a special military tribunal of “attempting to overthrow the state” and summarily executed.

As anyone familiar with North Korean politics well knows, the exact machinations of the government elite in Pyongyang are murky to outside observers. However, the spectacle of Jang’s purge and execution has been given unprecedented publicity by the North Korean government. 

This is both an unusually frank admission of schisms within the North Korean elite and a powerful signal by Kim Jong-un to other members of the hierarchy of his power over the institutions of state.

Why was Jang removed?

What is the genesis of these internal factional fractures? The past two years have been a period of rapid change in the North Korean economy. The accusations against Jang, published by Korean Central News Agency, point to his mismanagement of his economic opening portfolio as one of a number of reasons for his removal.

Jang was a known champion of a Deng Xiaoping-style opening and reform of the North Korean economy, in opposition to a rival faction within the Ministry of State Security with greater commitment to nuclear weapons development and the military-based politics of the Songun model. Jang may therefore have been the loser in this institutional power struggle.

It is also plausible that Kim Jong-un has outgrown his need for a regency and is shedding the team of senior officials installed around him by his father to ensure a smooth leadership transition. The removal of his elder protectors would be an indication that Kim Jong-un is in full control of the government.

The formative phase of authoritarian regimes usually culminates with a great purge in which the leader eliminates all other potential challengers to his power. Because there is no concept of a loyal opposition in authoritarian systems, nothing less than a monopoly of power is sufficient to ensure the security of the new regime, requiring the liquidation of all rivals.

Kim Il-sung and the 1950s purge 

During the post-liberation period in the 1950s, the new president Kim Il-sung slowly began the process of weeding out dissenters from the other factions of the North Korean revolutionary movement, which had evolved in a number of different countries with each group developing unique characteristics, with their own regional affiliations and connections to external organisations.

Kim first weakened the Soviet-Korean faction in November 1951 and by 1958 had purged the leadership core of the Yan’an and Soviet factions as well after they attempted to replace him as leader during a Korean Workers’ Party Central Committee Plenum in 1956.

Between October 1958 and May 1959, approximately 100,000 people were eliminated on political grounds. By the Korean Workers Party’s Fourth Congress in September 1961, Kim had solidified his position as absolute ruler of North Korea.

‘You either win or die’ 

Smaller purges are undertaken periodically to clean out potentially disloyal elements from the military and bureaucracy, though no purge event has occurred on the scale of the present episode since the 1950s.

In Game of Thrones, the queen-regent Cersei Lannister states that “in the game of thrones you either win or die”. This is an apt summation of the process of leadership consolidation currently underway in Pyongyang as factional rivals vie for influence or survival under the solidifying leadership of Kim Jong-un.

Indeed, the Kim family has been remarkably efficient  at “coup-proofing” its rule by playing off potential institutional rivals against each other and purging individuals when become too prominent within the institutional hierarchy.

Benjamin Habib is a lecturer at the School of Social Sciences at La Trobe University, Australia. This article was originally published in The Conversation

The Conversation ·