Kimism’s Great Christmas Power Grab

By | February 07, 2014 | No Comments

Artist: Martin Roy | Image: Groove Korea

Artist: Martin Roy | Image: Groove Korea

Last December’s purge of Jang Sung-taek seemed as if it could represent, as Robert Winstanley-Chesters put it right here on Sino-NK, a moment of “narrative rupture” for North Korea. The impact of the televised arrest and show trial of such a regime heavyweight (and a Kim family insider, no less!) was surely complicated for analysts, much less the general public, to assimilate. The full impact, of course, may also take months if not years to emerge, though some assert evidence of far-reaching change already.

However, though the impact of the purge may be distant and rather unpredictable, the purge itself was quite the opposite. With its theater state and sweeping ideological narratives, North Korea is a grand master at portraying itself as sui generis both at home and abroad. Indeed, some of us may secretly wish it were so, the better to legitimize our personal endeavors. But it is not. Beneath it all lies an increasingly tired, and tiring, autocracy. In this, the second of Christopher Green’s monthly Groove Korea columns (reproduced with the permission of the publisher), he strips away the veneer. — Steven Denney, Managing Editor

Christopher Green, Kim Jong Un’s Christmas Power Grab, Groove Korea, February 2013*

Revolution Is No Dinner Party | Do not be fooled by the stunned silence that followed in its wake; the purging, trial and execution of Jang Sung-taek that took place in early December 2013 should not have come as a surprise to anyone. Ignore the sensationalism of the headlines, too: The act made perfect sense within the brutal logic of the political structure in which it took place.

North Korea is governed under an autocratic system. Although it is extreme even by the grim standards of the genre, it is not sui generis. Power dominates everything in all types of autocratic polity; the allocation of power is what decides successes and failures, rises and falls. Wealth is a secondary benefit of the successful co-option of political power, and on those occasions when it is allowed to become the goal in a way that cannot be ignored or finessed into political insignificance, danger may follow close behind.

When former Workers’ Party International Secretary Hwang Jang-yop told one of his intimate, well-guarded Tuesday afternoon “Democracy Lectures” that the ruling creed in North Korea is “not to have more power than the leader, and not to earn more than their salaries,” he was not speaking in riddles. Indeed, Hwang never spoke about the North Korean regime in riddles. Rather, he was telling the world about the nature of power in North Korea in one-syllable words. Shame on the world for not listening.

Ancien Regime in Transition | Jang Sung-taek’s downfall was predictable, then, because of the nature of a dictatorial regime in transition, which North Korea has been since Kim Jong-il passed away in December 2011. Because Kim Jong-un does not yet hold all the available power within that system, a coalition is necessary to sustain his rule[1]. This coalition remains viable so long as it can present a credible threat of overthrow in the event that Kim behaves counter to the interests of the coalition as a whole.

For the time being, this framework puts Kim at risk. In a position of unconsolidated leadership, it is (or was) broadly in his interest to cooperate with the ruling coalition that his father built around him.

Bearing this in mind, however, it is also in the interest of the leader and his closest aides to seek unassailable power, thus eliminating any credible threat of displacement. The only way to achieve this goal is to secure as much of the available power as possible to defend against attack from below. Therefore, from the beginning of his rule, Kim could be expected to make a series of power grabs against the others in the coalition[2]. Each one would promote the power of the grabber[s] by bringing political and economic resources previously held by others under his or his allies control, and also by sending a message describing his power in all-too tangible terms to the remainder of the contemporary political elite.

The likelihood of such power grabs taking place is primarily dependent upon the relative likelihood of them succeeding. Their success depends on the power of the leader, as well as the power of the target. The closer the two are in power terms, the riskier the grab, and the more overt and demonstrative the show of force by which it must be undertaken.

Politics and Television | For this reason, the KCNA/Rodong Sinmun article on Jang’s military tribunal judgement, while fascinatingly detailed and highly revelatory in some senses, does not explain the root cause of his removal. To those who read it and mused, “Ah, so Jang was too close to China,” a plausible response might be, “Perhaps so, but China’s influence in North Korea will not diminish; rather, the resources Jang Sung-taek once controlled will surely be reallocated, falling under the remit of another.” The rationale outlined by the KCNA article cannot have been the root cause of the purge, then; power cannot be created or destroyed, only reallocated. The “China thesis” is just one example of mistaking a symptom of a political malaise for its root cause.

Kim Jong-un’s Christmas power grab against Jang does not prove he is young or impetuous or inexperienced or his father’s son or anything else, although he may be all or some of those things. Rather, it shows that he and his clique are responding to the market in which they find themselves. Or, to paraphrase Mao Zedong, the swamp in which they swim. It is a market governed by political power; socialism may be a dead letter in North Korea, but despite the presence of a market economy, this most vital of commodities still cannot be bought. It must be taken.

* This essay has been modified to meet the style and formatting standards outlined in the Sino-NK Style Guide. No substantive changes have been made.

[1] It is not necessary in this instance to distinguish between Kim Jong-un as an individual and Kim Jong-un as the symbolic manifestation of the absolutist Kim dynasty that reigns over the DPRK. There is evidence, provided by the digital periodical New Focus International, that the power of the Korean Workers’ Party Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) is pre-eminent in the post-Jang Sung-taek era. This is a fascinating element of the story, but one that does not override the fact that OGD (or any other variety of) dominance is predicated upon the continuation of the Kim regime. This is the moral economy of Kimism writ large.

[2] A significant number of observers, predominantly in Seoul, predicted the downfall of Jang as soon as he emerged publicly as a de facto regent, long before the death of Kim Jong-il.

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  1. Dear Mr Green,
    If indeed it was Kim Jong Un who removed Jang Sung-thaek, then he alienated every power base in the DPRK — The army (military coup plotting), the Party (all the Party elders must have been intimate with Jang), the NK people (So the Party Center is not rock-solid after all, and why are we the only ones who have to suffer from guilt by association?) and the very Kim family itself (There are other Kim-family candidates for Kim Jong Un’s job, including his own brothers). A suicidal move one would think?

  2. Mr. Green, you seem rather sure that Kim presided over the purge, but this article – – suggests something completely different. How do you square your opinions with that?

  3. Hi, John,

    Thanks for writing. As one of my endnotes attempted to explain, I don’t disagree with New Focus, and think their work is fascinating. I disagree that there was a “coup,” but that is primarily a semantic issue not an information failure. You have perhaps taken the name “Kim Jong-un” too literally, as in “the 30-something, corpulent male leader of North Korea with an appalling haircut.” I take it also as shorthand meaning those around Kim; all the more so given that one implicit intent of the purge was to sustain the Kim regime. I daresay the headline writers at Groove didn’t really ponder that when writing their headline.

  4. Hi, Paul,

    Not suicidal, but incredibly dangerous! Power grabs such as these are moments of great danger for an autocrat, but they simply have to be done in order to sustain power. The fact that so many autocratic dictators don’t last very long (and I love the great work of Milan Svolik for more on precisely how long most of them (don’t) tend to last) is proof of how dangerous purging is! But the alternative is loss of power, and not many autocrats like doing that, either!

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