Purges Keep Regime Alive

North Korea relies on a tradition of purging senior officials to maintain its dictatorship, an expert says.
By Kim Hyun A
2012-11-08
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Kim Jong Un (R) with army chief Ri Yong Ho (L) attending a mourning service for late North Korea leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, Dec. 29, 2011.
KCNA/AFP

Unconfirmed reports in North Korea suggest that Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho, the former North Korean army chief, was a spy. They claim that he was purged after being caught trying to overthrow the state by gathering military forces. What’s more, it is said that Ri’s aides have also disappeared.

Ri’s dismissal is the latest example of quite a few conflicts and spy incidents in North Korean history.

The first person purged as a high-ranking official was probably Pak Hon Yong. In 1953, North Korea announced that the leaders of the Workers Party of South Korea (Namrodang), including Pak and another figure Yi Sung Yop, were spies working on behalf of the United States and blamed them for North Korea’s defeat in the war.

Between 1956 and 1958, officials who had participated in the anti-Japanese revolution in the coastal area of China, and those in the Soviet faction who were working abroad to build the party and the state right after liberation from Japan’s colonial rule, were purged. Their crime was that they were revisionist elements following Khrushchev, who opposed Stalin’s cult of personality.

From May of 1967 to 1969, anti-Japanese Korean resistance fighters who fought in Kim Il Sung’s army were also ousted on charges of following revisionism, feudalism, and warlordism.

In the 1970s, officials who had maintained contacts with Kim Pyong Il instead of Kim Jong Il were all eliminated. Even Kim Jong Il’s brothers had to leave the country simply because they were related to Kim.

In the early 1990s, students who were studying in Eastern European countries, especially in Russia, became the target of liquidation.

In addition, in the late 1990s, officials who had been supporting Kim Il Sung were accused of being South Korean spies and died during the interrogation. In 2010, Park Nam Gi, who was North Korea’s finance chief, was removed after being held responsible for the failure of the attempt at currency reform.

And now, while the impact of this Park incident is still lingering, the purge of Ri, who had been considered the second in the line to power, has come up.

North Korea is governed by a system of one-man rule, something unparalleled in the world. People the world over are amazed at how such a system could exist.

There are of course many reasons for how the system manages to survive but I think one of the most important reasons has to be the merciless political purges.

Park Hon Yong, who led the Workers Party of South Korea after liberation from Japan, could have become a top leader had the communist regime been established in Seoul. He also helped lead the Korean War with Kim Il Sung but in the end disappeared after becoming an enemy of Kim’s.

Other anti-Japan fighters who shed blood together with Kim Il Sung on the road to liberation were also purged when they were no longer helpful to Kim’s one-man regime.

Mun Song Sul, who was loyal to Kim Il Sung for many years, serving at the party’s central committee, also disappeared after incurring Kim Jong Il’s wrath.

Also, when a scapegoat was needed, Park Nam Gi was offered as a sacrifice.

Now this time, Ri who has greatly contributed to creating Kim Jong Un’s regime, has been labeled a spy. These men were purged not because they were spies, but because they were obstacles to maintaining the dictatorship.

In a democratic system, people with different ideas can participate in politics.

They may differ greatly or slightly in ideology. Different politicians voice different opinions and get involved in debates, and people can watch those debates and pick and choose what they like.

This system certainly costs time and money, but it is the only way to minimize human error.

North Korea has sustained its current system of leadership by victimizing many of its comrades.

But the result has been the absence of human rights and extreme poverty.

These purges will undoubtedly be re-evaluated over the course of history.

North Korean defector Kim Hyun A is the vice president of North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity in Seoul and a regular contributor to RFA.