Slogans, Portraits, and Patterns in Kimist Purges

By | December 11, 2013 | No Comments


The meeting during which Jang Sung-taek was hauled away. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

At the large formal meeting on December 8 in Pyongyang, participants must have been inwardly shocked at the spectacle of Jang Sung-taek sitting patiently in the second row before he was hauled away for the cameras that evidently rushed on stage to record the debacle. But even before Jang was seized, there was drama, too, in the stage itself, a space framed by two huge slogans to three different Kims—and one slogan to the Republic they have guided, and occasionally terrorized, since its founding.

The main horizontal slogan reflected the need for North Korean society to continue the “melding of Kimilsongism and Kimjongilism,” while the vertical slogan on the left appeared to dwell upon the need to follow Kim Jong-un’s orders. All three of the Kims were thus represented on and around the stage. However, there was only one Kim whose icon dominated brightly over the proceedings—it was that of Kim Jong-il.

The Korean Workers’ Party has indeed frequently paired the image of Kim Jong-il with that of the state founder Kim Il-song in the past, a pairing which Rudiger Frank considers to be politically potent. Approaching the second anniversary of his death, Kim Jong-il as a solo figure has various uses. On December 8, the choice of this single icon of Kim Jong-il was clearly intentional, and most fitting for the purge of the man had, after all, been Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law.

It was as if the dead leader was bestowing vengeance for his sister, Kim Kyong-hui (who was not, by all accounts, present at this meeting and perhaps required to seek a divorce justly grounded in Jang’s bouts of womanizing). Perhaps more importantly, the privileging of Kim Jong-il iconography at the purge meeting was also intended at a more subconscious level to absolve Kim Jong-il of any number of errors—primarily economic—since Jang Sung-taek had returned to the scene in 2004.

As a Rodong Sinmun editorial stated on December 10, the acknowledgement of Jang’s alleged crimes marked yet another “important turn in our efforts to build a thriving nation.” As if Jang’s corruption and unwillingness to extract yet higher profits from state resources were the only thing restraining North Korean economic growth! The state has, however, thus given itself a new if plausibly short lease on life: It has provided itself with yet another excuse for not lifting living standards more widely.

In evaluating Kim Jong-un’s most high-profile purge, it is vital that viewers recognize to what extent he is operating from his predecessors’ playbook. As Daniel Pinkston pithily noted: “Jang had things he could do for the Kim family, but if he’s worn out his welcome, why keep him around? This is the political economy of dictatorship.”And to understand that political economy and the pattern of purges in North Korea, we must return to the grandfather, Kim Il-sung.

In perusing the forty dark-blue volumes of Kim Il-sung’s Works, it is rather striking how quickly the idea of factionalism emerges in the texts. In one of the first documents in Volume 1, the 19-year old Kim Il-sung complains about a poorly-prepared uprising in eastern Manchuria:

The sectarian-flunkeys rose in reckless revolt on May 30, in east Manchuria to serve only their factional ends. They had neither a detailed plan nor organizational preparation for the revolt: they only set up the ‘Uprising Headquarters’, rousing peasants in every village to attack towns.  As a result, a violent struggle began on May 30, 1930.

We too often lump in Kim Il-sung’s anti-Japanese experience as purely some sort of propaganda phenomenon, disparaging the myth. The fact that this particular document—a nicely-shaped speech allegedly delivered by Kim Il-sung at age 19—is quite probably specious origin. But just as asserting that North Korea’s ideology is meaningless absolves us from the burden of trying to understand it, we ignore the lessons from Kim’s guerrilla experience at our peril. Certainly Wada Haruki and Adrian Buzo would agree; Bruce Cumings also falls very much into the “significance of the guerilla experience as formative to North Korean political and policy psychology” camp.

Kim continues with his complaints against “the factionalists” in his revolutionary zone:

In the important towns of east Manchuria such as Longjiang, Toudaogou, Erdaogou, Nanyangping, Jiemandong, Yanji, and Tongfosi they destroyed or set fire to the Japanese consulate, the office of the Korean Residents Association, the Financial Agency of the ‘Oriental Development Company’, public schools, power stations and railway bridges, and liquidated the Japanese fellow-travelers, landlords and capitalists.

This is a virtual laundry list of things Kim Il-sung himself would ostensibly have wanted very much to do himself. But because they are done by another faction independent of his personal direction and control, they must be opposed. This is not a recipe for building a coalition; it is a recipe for building up an impenetrable sense of self, of unquestioning loyalty of those who are bound up into the movement already—and a warning to anyone who desires to act beyond the parameters set up by the Kims—even when they are 19 years old, making the post-facto generation of this document for absorption by generations of DPRK students themselves, meaningful.

Source: Kim Il Sung, “Let Us Repudiate the ‘Left’ Adventurist Line and Follow the Revolutionary Organizational Line: Speech Delivered at the Meeting of Party and Young Communist League Cadres Held at Mingyuegou, Yanji County,” May 20, 1931, Works, Vol. 1, June 1930–December 1945 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1980), 12-13.

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  1. He who rules by the sword shall also die by the sword. The Kim’s dynasty is on its last legs…

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