North Korea: A very Kimist purge

The bureaucratic apparatus in North Korea is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, writes Eddie Ford

In an act of calculated brutality, the North Korean regime on December 13 announced that the uncle of ‘supreme leader’, Kim Jong-un, had been executed for “acts of treachery”. Jang Sung-thaek, a four-star general, had held various senior posts in the so-called Workers’ Party of Korea and was vice-chairman of the powerful National Defence Commission, the top military body - a position generally regarded as second only to that of the ‘supreme leader’. Married to general Kim Kyong-hui, daughter of the ‘eternal president’, Kim Il-sung - grandfather of the current despot - he was frequently pictured alongside his nephew and seen by many observers as the power behind the throne.

Even by North Korean standards, the lengthy statement issued by KNCA was unusual for the sheer level of vitriol and the bizarre nature of some of the accusations. Jang was labelled a “traitor for all ages”, “thrice cursed”, “worse than a dog”, “despicable human scum”, and so on in typical Vyshinsky-style. Alluding to the power struggle behind the purge, we are told that Jang was guilty of “abusing” his positions of responsibility and had “formed a faction” that had “desperately worked for years to destabilize and bring down the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] and grab the supreme power of the party and state by employing all the most cunning and sinister means and methods”. These “anti-party, counterrevolutionary factional elements”, we discover, took control of the “major economic fields of the country” and “schemed to drive the economy of the country and people’s living into an uncontrollable catastrophe”. Not only that, Jang transformed his department into a “little kingdom” and “persistently worked” to “stretch his tentacles” into every area of the bureaucracy - even attempting to “trigger off discontent” within the army in order to stage a coup.

In classic Stalinist fashion, Jang is being airbrushed from history - or so it seems. Thus in a mad ‘damage limitation’ exercise, or 1984 moment, KNCA has erased almost their entire online archives - hence I am unable to provide a link to the agency’s original statement trashing Jang. All articles from before October 2013 appear to have been removed. There were 35,000 articles dated September 2013 or earlier on KCNA in Korean, making a kill ratio of 98- 99%. Translations in English, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese were also deleted. Similarly, another 20,000 articles had vanished from the archives of Rodong Sinmun, the WPK’s official newspaper. This wiping out of history is the largest deletion ever carried out by the official news agencies and seems a prelude to the rewriting of history so as to surgically remove Jang, or - if that proves to be a bit too difficult - then to at least massively diminish his importance. Turn him into as near a non-person as possible. A Stalinist purge in other words, but taken to Kimist proportions.


Obviously, the physical elimination of Jang and the Stalinist theatrics that surrounded it was a carefully orchestrated move to demonstrate Kim Jong-un’s total authority - no rivals will be tolerated. There seems little doubt that Jang’s execution was the most significant since the lethal, high-level purges conducted in the 1950s by Kim Il-Sung, when he ruthlessly eradicated all potential competitors in the ‘domestic’, ‘Yanan’ and ‘Soviet’ factions - leaving his ‘guerilla’ faction supreme. It should not be forgotten that the WPK was the result of a merger in 1949 between the Workers Party of North Korea and the Workers Party of South Korea - which themselves were products of a whole series of mergers and fusions, both parties tracing their origins to the Communist Party of Korea. Once the WPK was created, there was a virtual parity between the four factions, each having four representatives on the politburo with the ‘guerilla’ faction only having three. Kim put an end to all of that. His most well-known victim was probably Pak Hon-yong, leader of the ‘domestic’ faction and one of the founders of the CPK as well as first secretary of the WPSK - sentenced to death in 1955 for being an “American spy”.

Since 1960, however, purged top officials have not usually been killed, and the denunciations of purged figures have not typically been so extreme and public. The fact that Kim Jong-un decided to emulate the violent tactics of his grandfather seems to indicate that there are serious divisions opening up in the upper echelons of the bureaucracy, the ‘supreme leader’ feeling he had no choice but to reassert his … supremacy. The KNCA statement damning Jang for all eternity is effectively an official admission that there is significant disunity amongst the top levels of the state itself, and that he had a substantial number of followers (ie, “stooges” and “confidants”).

The purge and execution of Jang heavily suggests, therefore, that the party-military-state system in North Korea is becoming increasingly dysfunctional. When you take out someone as prominent as Jang, you are also threatening to take out scores, if not hundreds, of other people associated with him. It is bound to have a ripple effect.

Kim Jong-un and his ‘hardline’ supporters in the elite seem hostile to any notion of economic reform or change - something strongly associated with the “despicable” Jang. In August 2012 he made a high profile trip to China, where he met the then president, Hu Jintao. The two sides later signed a raft of economic deals, including the development of two special economic zones: Rason, on North Korea’s east coast, and Hwanggumphyong, on the border with China. According to many accounts, Jang developed an admiration for some aspects of Beijing’s pro-market reforms and hoped to import Deng-style polices to North Korea in some shape or form - apparently falling foul of those who advocate a ‘military-first’ policy, like Kim Jong-un.

Quite clearly, uncle Jang has become the official scapegoat for everything that is wrong with North Korean society. Public enemy number one. The way he was cynically done away with by the regime he had served all his life was an example of hideous cruelty, no matter what appalling treatment he may have meted out to ‘anti-party elements’ in the past. As for the idea that Chang was actively plotting to overthrow Kim, whether in a military coup or by some others means, this seems quite fanciful (though you could hardly blame him if he was). His real crime was wanting to steer the country in a different direction.

Another feature of the purge is that the ‘divine right’ of Kims to rule appears, if anything, to have been further consolidated. On December 12, the Hong Kong newspaper, Wen Wei Po, reported that Lee Yun-keol - chairman of the Seoul-based North Korea Strategy Information Service Centre - said that the seizure of Jang’s had been personally led by Kim Jong-un’s elder half-brother, Kim Jong-chul, who ordered his own ‘Praetorian’ guards to make the arrest. Lee also stated that not even vice marshal Choe Ryong-hae, politburo member and vice-chairman of the party’s central military commission, would have dared to carry out such an act.

Of course, the bourgeois press delights in North Korea - feeding us near endless stories about its bizarre control freakery and quite literal deification of its leaders. The odious Kim Jong-un is regularly described as a “great person born of heaven”, the “eternally immovable mental mainstay of the Korean people”, the “people’s spiritual pillar and the lighthouse of hope”, etc. All totally revolting, it goes without saying.

But then again, Marxists do not buy into the idea assiduously promulgated by the western media that North Korea is the weirdest place ever to have existed - or, conversely, that the UK is the most normal society on the planet. For the most part, generations of schoolchildren have been told that Britain has a glorious and uninterrupted history going back to at least 1066 and that from medieval times onwards dynastic succession was believed to be divinely sanctioned - all perfectly normal. You might get ‘good’ monarchs and ‘bad’ monarchs, but that is just part of the divine deal. Ours is not to wonder why. Think about our present unelected ruler, Elizabeth II. She is the “defender of faith” and has two birthdays. Why is this any less weird than North Korea’s “eternal president”? Face it. The UK is a bizarre, fucked-up, place - as we communists constantly emphasise. When it comes to absurd ritual and mindless dynastic pomp you can never beat the UK. Sorry, Kim.

Rather, as this paper has pointed out a number of times, if you really want to understand North Korea then you need to look more at what is going on around it than discover some unique internal dynamic. The foul regime in Pyongyang is not kept in power primarily by its own armed forces or secret police. In reality, it continues to exist mainly thanks to the complicity of its neighbours - especially China - but also the USA itself. Yes, in an ideal world, the US would love to see the fall of this particular ‘rogue state’ and its replacement by a friendly, united Korean client state - thus substantially increasing imperialist influence in the region and beyond. But the US and the ‘international community’ as a whole are fearful of what would happen if the North Korean regime underwent a sudden collapse. A tidal wave of refugees from the north? That would be massively destabilising for the region, if not the world - and rebuilding a shattered North Korean economy would cost an absolute fortune. Meaning that the US is perpetually torn between wanting to maintain the status quo and getting rid of the Pyongyang regime once and for all. Similarly, China has no affection for the troublesome Kim dynasty, which rocks the boat far too much - and probably dreams about absolving itself of all responsibilities and obligations towards Pyongyang. Yet Beijing too continues to prop up the North Korean regime out of fear of the alternative. Meanwhile the masses in that benighted country live an utterly wretched life, crushed by desperate poverty and bureaucratic tyranny.

The idea that a system so antithetical to human freedom could be described as any form of a workers’ state is to betray everything that Marx and Engels stood for - you can guarantee that they would have regarded the Pyongyang regime with the deepest disgust. Yet some of our Trotskyist friends still insist on doing precisely that, merely because you have a nationalised economy (‘proletarian property forms’) and extreme statisation of social life. By this criteria both Pharaonic Egypt and Inca Peru were also workers’ states - an obvious anti-Marxist nonsense. None of these societies, past or present, represent working class socialism or a positive supersession of capitalism and the beginning of the transition to global communism.