Luxury Villas Remain Empty in North Korea Nearly One Year After Purge

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.

Dozens of luxury villas in North Korea’s capital remain empty after being vacated by officials removed in an extensive purge of the government and military last year, according to sources inside the country.

The large scale homes in Pyongyang had formerly been inhabited by officials and executives loyal to leader Kim Jong Un’s uncle Jang Song Thaek, who was executed in the December purge, a resident of the capital told RFA’s Korean Service.

“These are dozens of luxury houses over 7,000 square feet (650 square meters) in size and remain vacant, despite their inhabitants having been evicted nearly one year ago,” said the source, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity.

The homes are to be assigned by Kim to reward exemplary citizens who have worked to benefit the regime, he said.

The situation is “unusual” because a severe housing crisis in North Korea has prompted many people to move into homes that are still under construction, the source said, adding that the shortage had even forced wealthy executives to reside in modest homes.

A second source in Pyongyang told RFA that rumors had circulated that the villas may have been reserved for North Korea’s gold medal winners in the recent Asian Games, where the impoverished country put up its best performance since 1990.

“A rumor had spread among area residents that these houses would be assigned to gold medal winners in the [2014] Asian Games in South Korea,” the source said, referring to the multi-sport event held from Sept. 19 to Oct. 4 in Incheon, during which North Korea won 11 gold, 11 silver and 14 bronze medals.

But the source said that the homes were “not suitable” for athletes.

He said the specter of the massive purge that led to Jang’s execution still hovers over the villas and that they were unlikely to be assigned new inhabitants in the immediate future.

“Residents still remember Jang Song Thaek and they—even executives—feel uncomfortable [about living in the homes],” the source said.

Jang was de facto number two under Kim before his execution and was considered instrumental in the leader’s rise to power in December 2011 following Kim’s father Kim Jong Il’s death.

But the junior Kim has defended the execution of his uncle—who was married to his father’s sister—saying it was a "resolute action" and labeling Jang “scum.”

Many officials tied to Jang have since been demoted, according to sources.

Simhwajo purge

A North Korean defector surnamed Kim, who formerly lived in Pyongyang and has since resettled in South Korea, told RFA that the eviction of those tied to Jang was similar to what had occurred during the bloody “Simhwajo” purge of 1997.

During the purge involving Simhwajo, a nationwide network led by the Social Security Ministry, then-leader Kim Jong Il ordered the execution and demotion of some 20,000 officials, but many of those who were sidelined were reinstated at the end of the three-year ordeal.

Defector Kim said that when the officials were reinstated, the regime encountered difficulties in returning their homes to them because many of the residences had since been occupied by new inhabitants.

“It is presumed that the North Korean authorities are leaving the houses vacant because they don’t want to repeat the confusion [of Simhwajo],” he said.

“It is possible that some of the people close to Jang Song Thaek could be reinstated.”

The sources said that residents of Pyongyang have been closely watching the villas for any indication of what the authorities planned to do with them.

In April, sources told RFA that executive officials of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Administrative Department, which was overseen by Jang and disbanded following his execution, had been reassigned to positions that ranked them among “the lowest class of society” and excluded from future political appointments.

Sources have said that prior to Jang’s death, Kim was already purging the country's military officer corps of personnel linked to his uncle in a massive shake-up that had led to a freeze on military exercises and delayed replacement of cadres in the ruling party but raised promotion prospects for younger officers.

Reported by Joon Ho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Hanna Lee. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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