Gwynne Dyer: North Korea’s purge foreshadows future collapse

Purges in Communist states have rarely stopped with the execution of one senior party member, especially when he has been tortured into “confessing” at his show trial that he was planning to stage a coup using “high-ranking military officers” and other close allies.

“I didn’t fix the definite time for the coup,” Chang Song-thaek, the former number two in the hierarchy of the world’s last totalitarian state, said at his trial. “But it was my intention to concentrate [my allies in] my department and in all the economic organs in the cabinet and become premier when the economy goes totally bankrupt and the state is on the verge of collapse.”

It’s most unlikely that Chang was really planning a coup, but all of his suspected allies and associates in his own department and other parts of the government, plus any senior military officers suspected of less than total loyalty to Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, are in grave danger. Only two of Chang’s aides have been killed so far, but hundreds or thousands of other people thought to be linked to him may suffer the same fate.

This is unquestionably the biggest internal crisis in North Korea since the early years of Kim Il-sung, the founder of the regime and grandfather of the current dictator. Challengers to the Kim family’s monopoly of power have often been killed, but this is the first public show trial in North Korea since 1958.

It’s also the first time that the regime has publicly admitted that there are rival factions in the senior ranks of the Workers’ (Communist) Party. It’s hard to believe that this will not be followed by a wider bloodbath among the leading cadres along the lines of Stalin’s purges in the former Soviet Union and Mao Zedong’s in China. It’s harder to understand what is driving the current upheaval, but some plausible guesses are possible.

When Kim Jong-il, the father of the current ruler, was dying, he chose Chang as the man who would ensure a smooth transfer of power to his son. (He was married to the elder Kim’s sister, and was therefore presumably loyal to the family.) Chang acted as chief adviser to Kim Jong-un, who was only 28 and quite inexperienced when he inherited the leadership in 2011, and Chang’s manner sometimes seemed quite overbearing.

At the same time, he was the principal advocate within the regime for an economic opening on the Chinese model to rescue North Korea from its crushing poverty. To achieve that goal, he first had to wrest control of the country’s leading industries from the military, whose enterprises account for a third of the entire economy. This naturally made him an enemy in the eyes of the military establishment.

So we can speculate that Kim Jong-un, as he gained confidence in his own abilities, grew increasingly hostile to the dominating influence of Chang, who was more than twice his age. He would need allies before he moved against Chang, and many military officers were glad to oblige.

On this reading of events Kim wants to get rid not only of Chang but of the entire generation of older military and civilian leaders who secretly regard him as an upstart. His objective would be to replace them wholesale with younger men who owe their positions directly to him. Or maybe something else is at the root of all this turmoil: we simply don’t know.

What we do know is that there is great turmoil in North Korea, a nuclear-armed country with the fifth-biggest army in the world. Most people assume that at some point in the future the regime will collapse, and some well-informed people worry that the collapse could come quite suddenly and quite soon. Interestingly, almost nobody wants that to happen.

Most North Koreans don’t want it to happen despite the dreadful conditions they live in, because a lifetime of propaganda has convinced them that South Koreans (and everybody else) lives in even worse conditions than the citizens of the Workers’ Paradise.

Most South Koreans don’t want it to happen because they would then have the duty of rescuing 24 million North Koreans from dire poverty. In theory they want unification, but there are only 50 million South Koreans to bear the burden, and it would take a generation of sacrifice to accomplish that task.

Neither North Korea’s Chinese neighbours nor South Korea’s American allies want it to happen, because the collapse of the Pyongyang regime could bring them into direct conflict. As a recent study by the Rand Corporation pointed out, it would cause a race between Chinese troops and South Korean and American troops to take control of North Korea’s territory.

The Chinese would be determined to keep American troops away from their own border with North Korea. The South Koreans and their American allies would feel compelled to go to the aid of a North Korean population that was probably facing starvation by then. And both sides would be racing to gain control of North Korea’s nuclear weapons before something terrible happened.

In such circumstances, a collision between Chinese and South Korean/American forces is all too easy to imagine. Kim Jong-un is a very nasty piece of work, but a lot of people are praying for his survival.

Comments (13) Add New Comment
RUK
The DPRK news has had to work incredibly hard to give Kim Jong-Un even a semblance of relevance. I don't see him as having any role in this at all other than figurehead. He was chosen over his older brothers, which suggests that they were looking for something other than maturity and experience - pure vacuity is my guess.

The execution of his girlfriend a few months ago was clearly a warning shot over his bow to stay out of it. Now they have terminated his father's chosen overseer with extreme prejudice.

Put it together and I think that North Korea's generals are very slowly easing the country out from under the Kim crime family. They have a weak sap as the figurehead and have done intimidating murders to his closest people.

Very interesting times, Dennis Rodman.
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CANZUK
The best case scenario for North Korea (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) is for a cadre of young and reform minded military officers to launch a coup against the new "Dear Leader" Kim Jong and after he has been overthrown he can then be put under house arrest with his wife and daughter, after this has been accomplished, the junta of young and reformed mined military officers can then invite the eldest brother of Kim Jong Un who is Kim Jong Nam to come back to North Korea and become the "Dear Leader" of the nation. Kimg Jong Nam is very much a liberal progressive who believes in reform and democratication of the the DPRK. Kim Jong Nam is reguarded as the black sheep of the family and is considered a playboy gambler but he is very smart and he has the ability to end the tyranny and despotism in North Korea and he can be a transistional ruler of North Korea as it is today and eventually through slove and gradualy steps will lead to the destruction and end of the Stalinist-Maoist Communist rule in the north and the unification of North Korea and South Korea into a single nation. Kim Jong Nam is the right man for the job and I believe he can control and nuetralize the hardline military generals and government officials and make them submit to his rule. Kim Jong Un is too young and immature to govern and rule North Korea and he should never have been allowed to succede his father (Kim Jong Il) to lead and rule North Korea, Kimg Jong Nam is just old enough and mature enough for the job and if he was the "Dear Leader" of North Korea, the country would be in a much better situation and place than it is today. Kim Jong Nam could go down in Korean history as it's greatest hero and unite the Korean penninsula into 1 nation again. We must prey that one day we wake up and hear that Kim Jong Un has been overthrown and Kim Jong Nam has replaced him.
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One nit-pik
Most North Koreans don’t want it to happen despite the dreadful conditions they live in, because a lifetime of propaganda has convinced them that South Koreans (and everybody else) lives in even worse conditions

Heard on a BBC podcast not too long ago (From Our Own Correspondent probably) that there's a fairly large and growing awareness of the lifestyles in China particularly, and South Korea too.


This was illustrated when the correspondent was interviewing a NK refugee in SK and the NK person said, "Hang on, I'll ask my dad" then proceeded to call dad's mobile phone.

BBC person was *shocked*. NK person indicated it wasn't too big a deal - family was from near Chinese border and lots of people had mobiles with Chinese SIM cards connecting to Chinese towers.

Sure it's dangerous, but didn't seem too uncommon there.


Then there are the SK TV shows that are smuggled in on DVDs. Seeing as radio & TV tuners are hard-wired to NK stations, not sure how they play them, but where there's a will there's a way I suppose.

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OWEN KEELER
Where are all the Reds ? Are you not going to defend marxism lenninism from this attack ? Or are the facts presented here so bad you recoil in shame as your ideology is impotent without your reflex hatred of the west? Of course not every marxist is a moral hypocrite .Thankfully we had good men like Gorbachev and Mandela who each in their own way helped to put and end to this this evil called marxism lenninism . And Joan Baez with her scathing letter to the Vietnamese government that rocked the Left .And David Lewis a great socialist and slayer of Reds .And my parents and other party members in the sixties who left the party in droves .Mandela especially deserves special mention at this time .The ANC on his death stated online Mandela was a party member .Mandela said all his life he was not .I would prefer to believe Mandela .If he was central committee like Gorbachev he steered his country and the world away from this vile anti human ideology .As he said in regards to being used by the reds -Who is to say I was not using them ?Of course we must not forget the soldiers of Canada who died for the country and people Of Korea .And lastly the ordinary people who toiled and died under communism while still dreaming of freedom .Now lets get down to building the world Joan Baez and David Lewis want and not the central committee and their corrosive fantasy .
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dekker
The West is starting to believe its own standards as correct far too much.
We all houseclean when we "elect" a party to power or when a corporation brings in a new CEO.New leader, new support team. The only difference as yet is we don't kill the outgoing party leader nor the CEO.
Dictators don't have that luxury. The cannot afford to have you get up once they pull the rug out from under your feet.

KJU did the expected and followed up with the unexpected. The execution was clearly a signal message to China.
China is now scrambling to set up a meeting with Kim and China's head of state. However, they could not resist a slight dig by saying that this had been the purpose of the Uncle's last trip to China.
Kim's message to China is very clear. New Leader, new support team, new deal.
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@OWEN KEELER
You're a brave & courageous man, refusing to bow to the Marxists Lenninst Maoist enslavement of the punctuation immediately following a sentence instead of the FREEDOM LOVING punctuation that PRECEDES a sentence, as GOD AND LIBERTY intended.

And not for the STRONG and RIGHTWARD leaning man, such as yourself, to waste a carriage return on such trivialities as paragraph breaks, for those are the tools of the evil men wishing only to enslave the world in a faux workers' paradise, full of false promise of "white space", a racist and segregationist exploitation of the true principle of property rights for all (who righteously deserve them through shrewd accumulation and use of capital).



Keep up the good fight sir, for us mere mortals are depending on you.

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Owen Keeler
Sorry about the grammar . When you put a Joan Baez in front of me I will vote for her or MR.Mandela or MR Lewis . I am very much center left and anti extremist of all stripes . However as a red diaper baby whose Mothers party organizer knew Lenin and was raised to the tune of Bolshevik polemics I do have some opinions . My grammar is poor but I do not hide behind the cyber screen as you did .
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@Owen, again
Thumbs up on your reply to my facetious first comment.

A general response to what I gleaned from your first post, a) I hardly expect many Marxists to be reading the Strait; b) I hardly find NK to be a Marxist or communist state in practice, but more accurately I would submit that they use that rhetoric to prop up a feudal monarchy in all but name; c) I join you in deriding the integrity of anyone outside NK that stands up for anything the government / military does there.


Finally, I *never* reveal my true identity online. While I'm no Brian Krebs, I've done what I can to "interfere" with the business models of spammers, black hat hackers, and trolls and it seems naive to reveal one's true identity. Even my Linked-In profile is pseudonymous...


Good day.
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Lance
Why would anyone give loyalty to that soft little punk?
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Owen Keeler
Actually the old CP is fairly well represented in the Straight . They publish more than the mainstream media articles by the party candidates .Also several staff writers seem to be quite sympathetic to the old party .Check George Gidoras statement from the last election . I have not seen any Cpcml types here though,When Mao put an army across Korea armed with Russian pattern smgs you bet North Korea was part of world communism. Marxism Lenninism has deteriorated so badly little is now left except the damaged remains of the countries it infected . North Korea just happens to be one of the worst examples that"s all .On the other hand those former red states who have moved away from Marxist economics have improved . I sign my name in the memory of my parents and all the others in this country who had their dreams of a better world so cruelly destroyed by that rotten political movement called marxism -lenninism .To me , after seeing people that came out of the great depression treated like dirt by the old CP when they would not tow the party line spam is of little importance .
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JohnCan
It's a nightmare if the Kim regime stays and a nightmare if it goes. So what to do?

If they had the nerve, Washington and Beijing would just sit down and work things out. The broad deal would be a unified, non-aligned and non-nuclear Korea. No US or PRC military within its borders. The South would run the show, like the West Germans did after their reunification, but they can get along with all sides and it's not like anyone worries about capitalism v. communism. All parties share the bill for reunification, including Japan and Russia, in exchange for future business opportunities.
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Frosty
Well, that was an informative read. I don't remember learning all that in school!
Of course, I probably did and just forgot most of it.
By the way....think I'll go out and build me a snowman.
That's snow-man!
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cassius
Should the regime collapse, China would move in to secure the regime's nukes and make sure that Korea is not reunified. The Chinese won't tolerate an economic and military powerhouse on their border. They consider the North part of their sphere of influence. Unless the US wants a repeat of the Korean War, it will sit back and do nothing and see that the South Koreans do the same. That would leave the Chinese to feed the starving NKs and set up a puppet regime practising a freemarket Communism similar to what's on display in Laos and Vietnam. In time, the Chinese will wear out their welcome as they did in Vietnam and Myanmar and be given their walking papers.
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