In fact, it was a great success…! A comprehensive review of the 10 years of Kim Jong-un’s dictatorship | FRIDAY DIGITAL

In fact, it was a great success…! A comprehensive review of the 10 years of Kim Jong-un’s dictatorship

Maintaining the legacy of his father, Kim Jong-il, who helped maintain the regime, and making further progress

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It has been 10 years since 27-year-old Kim Jong-un became the leader of North Korea. The history of the young leader, who has steadily strengthened his dictatorship and increased his presence in the country, is filled with the smell of blood.

In December 2011, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il died, and his third son, Jong-un, took over the dictatorship. Ten years later, Kim Jong-un’s regime survives and maintains a strong dictatorship. From Kim Jong-un’s point of view, this means that he has succeeded in his top priority of maintaining his personal dictatorship. It is not my intention to evaluate the power of a ruthless dictator, but Kim Jong-un is a “winner” in this sense.

In this age of advanced information tools, maintaining a personal dictatorship is a difficult task. There are far more disadvantaged people than advantaged people in the country, so there will always be potential opposition vectors, but they must be continually suppressed.

The only way to achieve this is through a thorough rule of coercive power. In other words, Kim Jong-un has been able to maintain his power for the past ten years by not letting up for even a moment on his draconian rule.

The 27-Year-Old Dictator

When his father, Kim Il, died on December 17, 2011 at the age of 69, Kim Jong-un was just 27 years old. He was the youngest of three brothers (and a sister), but it was his father, in his later years, who selected him as his successor. Officially, he became a member of the Party’s Central Committee in September 2010, and was promptly appointed Vice Chairman of the Party’s Central Military Commission. This was only a year and a few months before his succession to power.

Even though he is the son of a dictator, his experience level is too low. However, in his later years, Kim Jong-il had established a system to firmly support his 27-year-old son. He kept the personnel of the party and the military quite young. The reason for this was that old officials with rich personal connections in the party and the military could pose a threat to the hereditary system of his younger son.

On December 28 of the same year, at Kim Jong-il’s funeral, seven high-ranking officials accompanied Kim Jong-un in the hearse, the first group of Kim Jong-un’s inner circle, chosen by his father to help his son maintain power. The first was Jang Sung-taek, Kim Jong-un’s uncle and vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, followed by Ri Yong-ho, vice chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission and chief of the General Staff.

Jang Sung-taek, an exceptional figure, was the head of the party’s administrative department, in charge of the party’s practical affairs, including the judiciary, while Ri Yong-ho was the head of the military, a major choice of Kim Jong-il in his later years. With these two men in charge of the party and the military, the Kim Jong-un regime was launched. Incidentally, of the seven others, two are elderly party officials, one is the nominal head of the People’s Armed Forces, but the other two are the first deputy director of the secret police, the Ministry of State Security and Defense, Woo Dong-keun, who was selected by Kim Jong-il in his later years. The other two were Woo Dong-keuk, the first deputy director of the Ministry of National Security and Protection, a secret police force selected by Kim Jong-il in his later years, and Kim Jong-kak, the first deputy director of the General Political Bureau, a political control body within the military.

Shortly after taking office, the purge of senior officials began.

Immediately after that, however, Kim Jong-un’s regime began purging more and more of its top officials. The purge was carried out by U Dong-geuk, the first deputy director of the Ministry of State Security and Defense, who himself lost his position as early as April 2012. His whereabouts are unknown, but it is believed that he was purged because he had too much power behind the scenes.

In the military, a number of senior officers were replaced under the leadership of Chief of General Staff Lee Yong-hao, who himself lost his post in July 2012. Since the fall of Li, Jang’s power has grown even stronger. In addition, Kim Jong-kak, the first deputy director of the military’s General Political Bureau, who had led the internal purge, was appointed head of the People’s Armed Forces in April 2012, but he was also dismissed in November of the same year (although he was later temporarily reinstated).

In any case, immediately after its inauguration, Kim Jong-un’s regime hastened to take control of the military by replacing a large number of senior military officials. The dictatorship is most wary of a military revolt. Before Kim Jong-il died, he probably instructed his brother-in-law Jang Sung-taek, the guardian of his son, to keep a close eye on the military leaders.

The Chief of the General Staff and the Director of the People’s Armed Forces, the two most senior officials, were also changed one after another in a short period of time. Among military commanders, for example, about 40% of the front-line military commanders were replaced within two years of the regime’s inauguration. As a result, it can be said that there is no such thing as a “competent military leader” anymore.

Thus, from the very beginning of the Kim Jong-un regime, a fierce purge has continued. As mentioned above, it was Kim Jong-il in his later years who established the system to assist Kim Jong-un, and it is highly likely that the intensification of the purges after the inauguration of the regime was also Kim Jong-il’s last wish.

Executing the Number Two in a New Regime of Fear

However, this new regime of fear and domination has drastically strengthened the authority of Jang Sung-taek, Kim Jong-un’s guardian. Relying on his uncle Jang Sung-taek to maintain the dictatorship seems to have been Kim Jong-il’s last will and testament to his son.

In this way, both in name and in reality, Jang Sung-taek was able to consolidate his position as number two in the regime, but his power lasted only two years. In December 2013, Kim Jong-un executed Jang Sung-taek.

Kim Jong-un executed Jang Sung-taek in December 2013, eliminating the number two position, which is extremely dangerous for a personal dictatorship. This was two years after Kim Jong-il’s death, and it is hard to imagine that this was indeed his father’s last will and testament. It was probably a decision made by the 29-year-old Kim Jong-un himself, who had gained confidence that his power would not waver even without his uncle’s assistance, but the truth of the matter is unknown.

The execution of Jang Sung-taek strengthened Kim Jong-un’s position as a dictator, and his reign of terror became more solid. It showed that anyone who exerts great power under the regime, or whose loyalty is even slightly questioned, whether in the military or the party, will not be disqualified or purged, no matter how much they have achieved.

For example, Hwang Byung-rui, who played a major role in the purge of Jang Sung-taek at the direction of Kim Jong-un, was later promoted to Director General of the General Political Bureau and Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission. In 2014, he became the de facto number two in the regime (he also became a member of the Standing Committee of the Party’s Political Bureau in 2015 and Vice Chairman of the State Affairs Commission in 2016), but lost his position in October 2017.

In addition, Kim Won Hong, Director of the National Security and Defense Department (later Minister of National Security and Defense), who led the department after the aforementioned purge of U Dong Chui, First Deputy Director of the National Security and Defense Department, was the leader of the crackdown in the country for about five years, but lost his position in January 2017. He was ousted in January.

Loyalty for survival

Thus, the aides who were in charge of the practicalities of the reign of terror, purging other cadres at the direction of Kim Jong-un, were also destined to be eliminated themselves if they became feared by the people for doing so. The cadres literally had no choice but to be thoroughly loyal in order to survive.

Among those who have served in key positions in the regime’s leadership but still remain in power are Choe Yong-hae, the second-ranking member of the Standing Committee of the Supreme People’s Assembly, who has remained loyal to Kim Jong-un despite being demoted at one point, and Kim Yong-chol, the head of the party’s United Front (former director general of the military reconnaissance office), who has survived multiple demotions. Kim Yong-chol, former head of the military reconnaissance department, who survived multiple demotions.

The presence of Kim Yo Jong, the beloved younger sister

On the other hand, Kim Jong-un’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, deputy director of the party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department, is an exceptional figure as the regime’s number two. She is the only one who enjoys her brother’s favor and is not being held accountable for anything. If anyone in the regime criticizes Kim Yo Jong, that person will be the target of a purge.

Kim Yo Jong’s title has changed from time to time, such as “Deputy Director of the Party” or “First Deputy Director of the Party,” and his ostensible role has also changed, such as accompanying Kim Yo Jong to the U.S.-North Korea summit or issuing condemnatory statements against South Korea. However, his role as number two in the Kim Jong-un regime remains unchanged. Kim Yo Jong’s position in the regime does not rise or fall according to his title or role at any given time.

In fact, Kim Yo Jong was ranked below about 30 members of the party’s Politburo at the time of the party congress in January 2021, but the North Korean media reporting on the memorial event for the 10th anniversary of the death of Kim Jong Il on December 17 introduced him as the 14th member of the Politburo, which seems to have raised his current rank in the party from outside the top 30 at the beginning of the year to 14th. However, this is not the case with her.

Thus, by controlling the country with a complete reign of terror, the extreme personal dictatorship that can be called a dynasty has survived for a decade. So, will this system survive in the future?

This is extremely difficult to predict. The Kim Jong-un regime will continue its ruthless reign of terror without loosening any control. However, there is still a possibility that someone will be cornered and start a revolt in the future.

Looking back, when Kim Il Sung, the first dictator of North Korea, died in 1994, the majority of agencies that track North Korean intelligence, including the U.S. CIA, as well as media and researchers who cover North Korean issues, predicted the early collapse of the regime. This was because North Korea, which had built a system of ultra-personal worship through a terrible purge, was thought to be unable to maintain its repressive regime after the death of its charismatic leader.

However, the second Kim Jong-il regime survived, and despite the terrible economic crisis in the late 1990s, which led to the deaths of many of its citizens from starvation, the reign of terror established by the late Kim Il-sung remained unchallenged, and the reign of terror in North Korea was much stronger than the CIA and experts thought.

There are two important lessons to be learned in predicting the future of North Korea: first, the reign of terror is strong.

But going forward, “anything can happen.”

Both Kim Jong-il, who succeeded Kim Il-sung, and Kim Jong-un, who succeeded Kim Jong-il, followed and strengthened the reign of terror established by their predecessors and maintained a system of personal worship at a level unparalleled in the modern world. It follows, then, that the Kim Jong-un regime is likely to continue with no sign of loosening its reign of terror.

But let’s not forget another lesson. No one knows what the future holds. In other words, we do not know if the Kim Jong-un regime will survive.

In 1994, most experts’ predictions were wrong. On the other hand, when Kim Jong-un ascended to power in December 2011, few predicted the collapse of his regime, as it was already under a strong dictatorship with no signs of revolt. And, as predicted, Kim Jong-un’s regime was maintained.

However, you never know how things will turn out. At present, there are no signs of rebellion in North Korea, and there is no element of regime collapse at all. Therefore, the various analyses and discourses on the North Korean issue in the media are mostly based on the assumption that the Kim Jong-un regime will continue as it is. However, if Kim Jong-un were to become seriously ill, it is not clear whether the regime will be able to continue.

It is important to keep in mind that the dictatorship is a fragile system that can only be maintained by constantly suppressing the seeds of rebellion, and that it may collapse at some point in the next 10, 20, or 30 years.

  • Reporting and writing by Fumitaro Kuroi Photo AFP/Afro

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