Why Did Kim Jong Un Purge His Uncle?

A commentary by Andrei Lankov
nkorea-kim-jang-april2013.gif North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C-front) applauding at a concert in Pyongyang as his uncle, Jang Song Thaek (front L), looks on, April 15, 2013.

Recently there has been no other topic on North Korea more important than Jang Song Thaek's downfall. The international community is also focusing on North Korea due to Jang Song Thaek's purge. When it comes to 65 years of North Korean history, Jang Song Thaek's execution is unprecedented. What is the reason that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un executed his uncle Jang Song Thaek?

Given the circumstances beforehand, Jang Song Thaek's downfall looked impossible. Kim Jong Un became the supreme leader of North Korea less than one year after being chosen as a successor, whereas his father Kim Jong Il trained as a successor for about 20 years. Because of this, Kim Jong Un couldn't find reliable and young cadres having similar views on the world, and he had no choice but to rule North Korea with elders inherited from his father.  The examination of the North Korean leadership indicates that people close to the supreme commander Kim Jong Un are mostly 70 years old now although their boss is only 30 years old.

It is difficult for young leader Kim to control elder cadres as he likes. Kim Jong Un, the First Chairman of National Defense Commission, may realize keenly the need to have young elites with a similar way of thinking and values to his. To implement his political agenda that he thinks is right, he may think he needs to have those young people close to him. Due to this, Kim Jong Un has no choice but to replace the old generation gradually.

Last year, Kim Jong Un purged several generals, including Vice Marshal Ri Young Ho.  It became time for him to purge those at the Workers' Party and government organizations. Jang Song Thaek was the first person purged among elder cadres since he had wielded power and influence. Besides, Kim Jong Un is known to have hated Jang Song Thaek personally.  The thing that caused Kim Jong Un's hatred was Jang Song Thaek's role as a guardian.

Kim Jong Il appointed elder cadres to help Kim Jong Un as a young leader as well as a successor when his health deteriorated rapidly in 2010. These supporters are Kim Jong Un’s aunt Kim Kyong Hui, his uncle Jang Song Thaek, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Ri Yong Ho, and so on. Kim Jong Il’s hope was that supporters, including Jang Song Thaek, would help inexperienced Kim Jong Un and teach him politics.  

However, from Kim Jong Un’s standpoint, people like Jang Song Thaek and Ri Yong Ho started to interfere in his decision-making process and offered unwanted advice.  Consequently, Kim Jong Un developed a strong dislike for them and purged them right after consolidating power.  

This personal hatred explains Jang Song Thaek’s arrest and execution. There are few executions of high-level officials in North Korean history. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that Kim Jong Un made Jang Song Thaek’s arrest into political theater directed by himself. It is thought that the root cause was personal hatred and irritation.

Meanwhile, this purge is not over. The logic behing Kim Jong Un’s politics shows that his purpose is the wholesale replacement of all high-level cadres.  Due to this, it's possible that much more will be heard about the downfall of high-level officials in North Korea.

Translated by Doeun Han.

Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, is a Russian historian, North Korea expert, and regular RFA contributor.

Add comment

Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.

View Full Site