Interview (Part 1): Kim Jong Un Purges Show 'He Wants A Docile Military'

korea-lankov-07012015.jpg RFA’s Executive Editor Dan Southerland interviews Russian historian and North Korea expert Andrei Lankov, July 1, 2015.

In a July 1 interview with RFA’s Executive Editor Dan Southerland, Russian historian and North Korea expert Andrei Lankov, an RFA commentator, discusses how North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong Un consolidates power, purges top military officers, and deals with tensions with China.

RFA: What has been the extent of Kim’s purges?

Lankov: He’s been purging not only military officers but also security officials on a scale not seen in North Korea since the late 1960s, when his grandfather Kim Il Sung was consolidating power.

RFA: Is this a sign of insecurity? What does it mean?

Lankov:  It means that he wants to be taken seriously. And it means that he wants a docile and obedient military.

RFA: How does this compare with all of the purges carried out in the past by his grandfather and by his father, Kim Jong Il?

Lankov: Since the late 1960s, if you faced a purge you might still escape with your life. You might be sent to work in a coal mine or given a job as clerk in the provinces. You might even get rehabilitated and make a comeback. Now it seems that there’s a good chance that you’ll be executed.

RFA: South Korean intelligence reported a few weeks ago that North Korea’s Defense Minister Hyon Yong Chol had disappeared and was executed.

Lankov: That he was executed seems highly likely, but I’m not 100 percent sure. I am pretty certain that he lost his job and was purged.

RFA: On top of all this, we’ve seen reports of some senior officials defecting to South Korea. Do all of these purges indicate instability at the top of the Kim regime?

Lankov: The common assumption at the moment is that the purges point to instability. I’m not so sure about that….But if the current policy continues, it might increase the chances of a military coup.

RFA: Let’s talk about China. One of the officials executed in 2013 was Jang Song Taek, who was Kim’s own uncle. He was accused of being a traitor. This became a source of tensions with China, since the Chinese considered Jang to be a trusted negotiator and go-between. What are some of the other sources of tension?

Lankov: First, China is seriously unhappy about North Korea’s continuing development of nuclear weapons. China absolutely doesn’t want a nuclear North Korea. And some Chinese officials had pinned their hopes on Jang Song Taek as the man who could introduce Chinese-style economic reforms in North Korea. That hasn’t happened. North Korea’s missile launch and nuclear test in 2012 and 2013 were major causes of tension. Finally, Xi Jinping may be the first Chinese leader to have only a faint memory of the Korean War. He has no sentimental links with North Korea. And there’s a great deal of mutual dislike on both sides.

RFA: You recently visited China. What have Chinese officials told you about this?

Lankov: They want North Korea to do something about the nuclear issue, on which they feel that the North Koreans have broken a number of promises. They note that Chinese businesses almost always have a hard time in North Korea. The North Koreans are constantly trying to squeeze more money out of them. They introduce new restrictions or talk about taxes that never existed before. As a result, many Chinese businesses in North Korea are thinking of pulling out. Finally, many Chinese officials who didn’t grow up with direct experience of the Korean War, such as Xi Jinping himself, consider North Korea to be not a younger brother in arms but a strange, bizarre, irrational, and very stubborn country that creates lots of problems for China.

RFA: What happened to the much-publicized bridge across the Yalu River linking China with North Korea? China promised to finish building the bridge in 2014.  They invested an estimated $350 million in the project, nearly completed it, and then stopped it.

Lankov: The Chinese side expected the North Koreans to do some basic groundwork on the bridge, but they’re not doing it. If the North Koreans themselves invest some money in the bridge, it’ll be completed.

RFA: Some U.S. experts are disappointed that China hasn’t applied many of the sanctions called for by the U.N. against North Korea following its nuclear test and missile launch. Why does China choose to apply sanctions against only a few North Korean banks or companies but not against many of the others?

Lankov: China has a vested interest in keeping North Korea afloat. China needs a relatively stable North Korea. They don’t want to deal with the fallout from a North Korean collapse, which would likely be a messy situation involving thousands of refugees. They don’t want a North Korea under South Korean control. And North Korea serves for China as a buffer zone against the Americans and South Koreans.

RFA: In 2013, China’s four largest state-owned banks were reported to have suspended money transfers to North Korea.  Has China continued those sanctions?

Lankov: China introduced those sanctions after the purge of Jang Song Taek. But the suspension of those money transfers was lifted some time ago. However, plans to establish an office of the Bank of China in the Rason Special Economic Zone have been cancelled.

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