NIS: More senior cadres flee purges in North Korea

In recent weeks, our speculation about Choe Ryong-Hae — described by some (but not all) observers as North Korea’s third-highest official — has been resolved, if you believe South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, which says Choe was “sent … to a rural collective farm for reeducation” over “the alleged collapse of a water tunnel at a power station.” To let Choe live would depart from recent precedent for Kim Jong-Un, who made sure that Jang Song-Thaek and Hyon Yong-Chol would be safely out of the way before the Ides of May. It’s also a departure from the classical wisdom on such affairs:

Men ought either to be indulged or utterly destroyed, for if you merely offend them they take vengeance, but if you injure them greatly they are unable to retaliate, so that the injury done to a man ought to be such that vengeance cannot be feared. – Niccolo Macchiavelli

For a while, I was starting to wonder who was still giving His Corpulency his adult supervision, after Yonhap reported that Number Two Hwang Pyong-So had vanished, sought medical treatment in China, and then (never mind!) reappeared. Because in extreme cases, sucking up can fracture your palate:

Top North Korean official Hwang Pyong-so has campaigned to spread a song expressing strong allegiance to the country’s young leader throughout the military, a South Korean think tank said Thursday.

Hwang, the 75-year-old director of the general political department of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), has introduced the song, tentatively named “Yes, Sir,” to his troops, which stresses the need to follow every instruction from leader Kim Jong-un, according to the Institute for National Security Strategy. [….]

“With the song, Hwang is seeking to induce the military into swearing allegiance to the leader,” said an official at the institute. [Yonhap]

A leader who trusts in the loyalty of his army shouldn’t need such infantile affirmations. In fact, there is ample evidence that morale and discipline in the North Korean military are low, and there is also ample evidence — admittedly, much of it from the NIS — of discontent within the ruling party because of purges and surveillance. That evidence continues to accumulate:

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has executed around 100 party and military officials since he took office in late 2011 in a bid to tighten his grip on power, a Seoul think tank said Wednesday.

But a number of North Korean power elites are disenchanted with the leader’s so-called reign of terror, according to the Institute for National Security Strategy, a think tank under South Korea’s spy agency.

“Deep doubts about Kim’s leadership are spreading among working-level officials. Some officials based in foreign nations are trying to seek asylum,” it said. [….]

A source familiar with North Korean affairs said that North Korean officials are increasingly irritated by Kim’s iron-fist rule and some of them have applied for asylum in South Korea. [Yonhap]

Another NIS-sourced report claims that “[a] growing number of North Korean key party and military officials has been fleeing” the North to escape the purges. The recent defectors reportedly include “some officials from the North’s state security department.”

In August, the Daily NK reported the security forces were demoralized by revenge attacks by angry citizens. Last week, it reported that a man disemboweled himself in front of a ruling party office as an act of protest:

“The person had filed a grievance case, claiming to have been wrongfully accused of something, but after that didn’t go well, the resident committed ‘seppuku’ in front of the central Party’s office building in protest.” [….]

“We do not know the details of this grievance letter, but it is said to involve reports about losing everything the person owned because of a Ministry of People’s Security [ MPS, or North Korea’s equivalent of a police force] cadre.” [….]

People who know the individual have criticized MPS personnel, noting that this (injustice) could happen to anyone, she said, adding most people even in Pyongsong are already aware of this incident and that it would hard to control this rumor from spreading. [Daily NK]

It reminds me of how the Arab Spring began. It also shows how fragile North Korea’s nascent merchant class is. If the long term trends favor marketization, it’s less clear that marketization is a function of a state policy, much less reform. Lax enforcement is more likely to be a function of the state’s pervasive corruption, its knowledge that a heavy-handed approach could spark unrest, or some combination of these things.

[Hat tip: Curtis Melvin]

Even so, the wealth some have eked out can evaporate with one currency confiscation, land seizure, or shake-down. Such small gains do not necessarily lead to popular contentment. They may well cause angst by those fearful of losing what little they have, and envy by the poor, and by those who’ve already lost their savings to a predatory state.

Make of this what you will; three of the Korea analysts I respect the most all disagree. Bruce Klingner views the purges as a sign of Kim Jong-Un’s confidence and control; Ken Gause thinks the regime is stable for now but has a high potential for instability if the economy doesn’t improve soon; and Bruce Bennett thinks the regime could fall tomorrow.

“We have to think that sooner or later someone in that military chain is going to consider that if they don’t do something about Kim Jong-un, they will be next,” Bennett told South Korean journalists in a meeting Friday organized by the Korea Press Foundation and the East-West Center. “Even in Germany during World War II, where security was extreme, there was still an assassination attempt against Adolf Hitler by the military. So it could happen.” [Yonhap]

For those who haven’t yet done so, do read this analysis by Bennett now.

Myself, I incline toward the view that totalitarian systems are inherently unstable. Just as rigid materials can’t deform under physical pressure, rigid systems can’t evolve under political and social pressure. They eventually shatter when the pressure becomes great enough to fracture them along some latent flaw, although it’s seldom possible to predict when. The reports also fit with the limited psychological evidence we have, that Kim Jong-Un, though rational from a certain perspective, is addicted to risk-taking. The safest predictions are usually those that look the most like the status quo — in this case, a system that continues to erode gradually. The problem with the “safe” view is that it looks increasingly like a trend that can’t continue.

1 Comment

  1. That “100 purges in 4 years” statistic needs some historical context. I wonder how many people Kim Jong-il, or Stalin, purged in a typical year.

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