On December 17, 2021, Kim Jong Un celebrated his regime’s 10th anniversary since assuming power upon the death of his father, General Secretary Kim Jong Il, in 2011. Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Kim Jong Un consolidated his rule through a politics of fear, purging political opponents, and even his blood relatives.
While he sells the illusion of denuclearization on the international stage, especially when crossing swords with the Trump administration, back home he portrays himself as a “people-first” leader, sometimes even showing his tears to the public.
Phrases such as “Kim Jong Unism” and “Supreme Leader” have recently appeared in North Korea as the regime steps up its tyranny.
How Kim Jong Un Purged His Way to Power
On a snowy day on December 28, 2011, Kim Jong Un and seven of his closest advisors, including his uncle Jang Song Thaek, vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, accompanied the hearse carrying his father’s body to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, where it was a frigid minus nine degrees Celsius.
Out of the seven advisors, the only two who retired without incident were Kim Ki Nam, then party secretary, and Choe Thae Bok, who was chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly. Kim Yong Chun, former minister of People’s Armed Forces, died of natural causes.
The fate of the other four advisors was a bleak one. Jang Song Thaek was accused of state subversion and executed two years later. Ri Yong Ho, chief of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army, and Woo Dong Cheuk, first vice minister of State Security, were purged. Kim Jong Gak, first vice director of the General Political Bureau, was simply dismissed.
Furthermore, Kim Jong Un’s elder half-brother Kim Jong Nam was assassinated in 2017 with a VX nerve agent at the international airport in Malaysia by a woman hired by the North Korean leader’s agents.
Purges, Prisons, and Terror
Political purges and prison camps are the sources of the Kim family’s power. Terror is its policy, by which it coerces officials into allegiance through arrest, torture, purges, and executions.
The first purge in North Korea was President Kim Il Sung’s great purge of the Workers’ Party of South Korea faction that began in 1953. He executed leaders of the Korean communist movement who were visiting North Korea, including Pak Hon Yong, a leader of the Workers’ Party of South Korea, by accusing them of being “spies for the US imperialists.”
He also built political prison camps modeled on those of the Soviet Union. There, he imprisoned his political enemies, the Yan’an (pro-China) faction and the Soviet faction. The purges, which continued for several years, resulted in Kim Il Sung’s total control of the country.
Kim Jong Il also carried out a massive purge that began in the 1990s known as the Shimhwajo Incident, in which an estimated 25,000 people were executed. It was a way to get rid of the old cadres from his father’s generation who were a persistent thorn in his side.
Taking advantage of the famine that broke out in the 1990s, Kim Jong Il created an investigative unit called the “Shimhwajo” within the police force on the pretense of seeking those responsible for the food shortage. One after another, he arrested and executed those who inconvenienced him, from the top officials to the lowest rank and file.
The person in charge of the investigation was Jang Song Thaek, the husband of Kim Jong Il’s sister. He struck fear in the hearts of the people by setting up hundreds of branches of the Shimhwajo throughout North Korea and sending out 8,000 investigators.
It is the irony of hereditary succession that Kim Jong Il entrusted Jang with the guardianship of Kim Jong Un, the man who would eventually hand him a death sentence.
Jang was dragged before a special military tribunal of the Ministry of State Security, covered in wounds that were obvious signs of torture. According to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, after Jang’s execution, two of his advisors were also arrested and put to death in a particularly brutal public execution, in which they were shot with anti-aircraft guns and their bodies burned with flamethrowers.
In the two years since his rise to power, Kim Jong Un has replaced 44% of his military commanders and ousted the older generation by instituting a policy of not appointing anyone born before 1964 to new positions in the party’s management.
Show of Tears to Agitate the Masses
Kim Jong Un currently touts his “people-first” policy as his political motto. At the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea at the beginning of 2022, he stressed the need to “improve the people’s livelihood” and admitted that the North Korean economy “fell extremely short of the goals set out in almost all sectors.”
During his speech at the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea in October 2020, he appeared to wipe away a tear as he said, “The people have placed their trust in me, but I have failed to always live up to it satisfactorily, and I am sorry for that.”
He repeated the words “grateful” and “sorry” 20 times.
Kim Jong Un has no regard for his country’s economy — his advocacy of populism and excessive staging are nothing but propaganda and incitement. But in North Korea, all of this is part of what is called “sensibility dictatorship.”
According to a defector who was a former senior party member in North Korea, “sensibility dictatorship” and the rule of terror are the two pillars supporting the regime’s control of the people. It is a form of psychological control to incite the masses, aimed at impressing and exciting its people through methods such as the leader’s speeches, publications, films, and music.
Currently, the head of the party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department is Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, Deputy Director Kim Yo Jong. In late September 2021, she was promoted to a member of the State Affairs Commission, the supreme policy leadership body of North Korea. While she is believed to be in charge of overseeing foreign affairs and security, she is also tasked with the important role of driving the regime’s “sensibility dictatorship,” the major idolization project for her brother Kim Jong Un.
Kim Jong Un’s regime has no accomplishments to speak of. In addition to the triple burden of food shortages, economic woes, and the quarantine in response to the pandemic, his major projects such as the construction of the Pyongyang General Hospital have all been abandoned.
It is in this context that North Korea heralds its hypocritical “people-first” sham to forge Kim Jong Un’s new identity as an idol.
Fueling Tyranny and Self-Righteousness
The idolization process began with the party congress at the beginning of 2021, where the Constitution was amended to contain far fewer references to the achievements of the previous two leaders. The portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were removed from the front of the conference hall of the April 25 House of Culture in Pyongyang and replaced with a portrait of Kim Jong Un.
Then, the term “Kim Jong Unism” began to be used in meetings within North Korea. It is believed to be an attempt to establish a governing philosophy consisting of a “Kim Jong Un ideology” that overrides both his grandfather’s Juche (self-reliance) ideology and his father’s military-first politics.
Although Kim Jong Un was crowned the general secretary at the party congress at the beginning of 2021, the North Korean media has used the phrase “outstanding leader of the revolution” as an epithet for him since October 2020.
Despite the regime’s ostentatious attempts to forge an idol out of Kim Jong Un, its rule of terror and hypocrisy has left an air of unease in the country. Distrust has been brewing among North Korean officials, not knowing when they will be cut off and thrown away.
Discontent among the people has been amplified by many hardships, including food shortages. According to a source familiar with North Korean intelligence, “Kim Jong Un frequently strengthens his personal security in response to criticism of the regime and fears for his own safety.”
(Read the column in Japanese at this link.)
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Author: Ruriko Kubota, senior staff writer