Purges, Promotions, and Foreign Policy: Lessons from Kim Il-Sung

By | October 01, 2014 | No Comments

Kim Il-song in 1961, doing his best impersonation of Al Capone. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Kim Il-sung in 1961, doing his best impersonation of Al Capone. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Fighting a never-ending, undefined, total war against an enemy which exudes categorical flaws in opposition to your own presumed virtues, is not just an invention of George Orwell’s literary imagination, nor even of Oceania’s imagined institutional structures. Permanent war, and the fact of the permanent enemy, is vital to much of the practical politicking of our age. The existence of permanent conflict is, to be sure, a vital element in the maintenance and propagation of the liberal modern, as much, if not more, as it is to the maintenance of charismatic Kimism–no matter what or which Kim. North Korean politics and its dynastic or institutional manifestations will, thus, always be fighting the “Eurasia” (or was it the “Eastasia”?) of its historical imagination, the clear and present danger of Imperial Japan.

There will always be enemies within and without in this never-ending struggle, the enemy within being particularly important as resisters or “refuseniks” of charismatic possibility. Adam Cathcart, our Editor-in-Chief, encounters the terrain and elements of this refusal and its harsh reverberations in this fascinating exploration of some the deeper recesses of the North Korean charismatic mind. — Robert Winstanley-Chesters, Director of Research

Purges, Promotions, and Foreign Policy: Lessons from Kim Il-Sung

by Adam Cathcart

Let not the ridiculous elements of recent media coverage of Kim Jong-un distract us from a single fact: The past ten months, in terms of their impact on North Korean leadership circles, have been rather turbulent. It was, after all, only in December 2013 that Jang Song-taek was excoriated, purged, and executed. After the uncle to Kim Jong-un and the ostensible regent disappeared from the scene, a number of other North Korean courtiers have been jostling for position next to and under the Supreme Leader. Kim Jong-un may indeed be hobbled today, but he has clearly demonstrated his power to all of his underlings and even his family members–“killing the chicken to frighten the monkeys,” as the old Chinese saying goes, or “boiling the dogs once the hare has been caught.” More discussion about the role of personnel shuffling and purges within this type of regime, whatever type of regime it may be, might do us all well.

Kim Jong-un presently remains invisible, but the state poses him as a hidden hand behind the scenes. In the past month, Kim has published a huge missive to Children’s league officials on the front page of the Party newspaper, sent a note of congratulations to Xi Jinping, and served as the focal point for the patriotic exertions of his personally-selected athletes in Incheon.  The personality cult has not been dialed back one whit, and songs of loyalty continue to be spooled out by the state, tears, trembling faces, and all. The notion of the King’s two bodies has never been more relevant, and the Kimist system continues to stagger and stride its way forward whether or not the monarch appears in the flesh.

While there has been a gluttonous burst of recent media attention to Kim Jong-un’s health condition, the Chinese press was somewhat more circumspect, and far more focused on the action on the podium at the Supreme People’s Assembly meeting in Pyongyang on 23 September.

As has been noted by many observers, General Choe Ryong-hae, long an outstanding presence at Kim’s side and a one-time personal envoy to China after the Jang purge, was demoted from the NDC to focus on his other duties. And taking his place as Vice-Chair of the National Defense Commission, at the explicit wish of Kim Jong-un, was Hwang Pyong-so. Hwang’s position has been rising rather quickly in the past year, now all the way up to the organ which is known publicly (and legally) as the highest organ of state power in the DPRK. From a bureaucratic standpoint, he is indeed Kim Jong-un’s right-hand man.[1]

At such a time, it bears recalling a few lessons from North Korea’s past, the patrimony of Kimism, such as it is. Kim Il-sung left a great deal of wisdom on the record for his successors on the matter of purges and inner-Party factionalism.

Hwang Pyong-so, on the phone, with Kim Jong-un at an artillery exercise in spring 2014. Image via Chosun Central TV.

Hwang Pyong-so acting as the ears and voice of Kim Jong-un at an artillery exercise in spring 2014. | Image: Chosun Central TV.

The Case of Pak Hon-yong | In his newly-translated and indispensably multi-faceted history of the Korean War, scholar Wada Haruki reveals a great deal of detail about Kim Il-sung’s dependence upon Stalin to take basic political and military actions. We see in Wada’s text how Kim began by purging Foreign Minister Pak Hon-yong’s allies in the Korean Workers’ Party, gradually circumscribing Pak’s ability to make public appearances, and finally striking with accusations of a plot to take over the country and pursue a ruinous strategy in the war against the United States.

The stakes at that time were high–between three and four hundred North Koreans were being killed every day on the front lines or in American bombing, and Kim’s urge to end the war which he had began was becoming drastic. As Stalin approached his incapacitation (and, 48 hours later, death) in early March 1953, Kim Il-sung was making overt moves to purge his Foreign Minister and rival Pak Hon-yong (박헌영; 朴憲永). Ultimately Pak, the man who had served as Kim Il-sung’s diplomatic face to the socialist world since the founding of the DPRK in September 1948, was put on a show trial and disposed of.

While Kim Il-sung himself was tethered to alternating levels of assistance from the USSR and the People’s Republic of China well into the late 1980s, he nevertheless was eager to tar his opponents as having become the cat’s paw of foreign forces. Part of this impetus, Wada argues, draws directly from Stalinist paranoia in 1952 about traitors infiltrating the Chinese and North Korean ranks. Otherwise ideologically pure men like Sidney Rittenberg were subsequently rounded up in Beijing and accused of spying for imperialism. Rittenberg spent the next three years in a dungeon, steeling himself for his ultimate release, ascent during the Cultural Revolution, and ultimate victory as a consultant in Washington State, but Pak Hon-yong and Kim Il-sung’s foes were never so lucky. They tended to disappear for good.[2]

A rare juxtaposition of Kim Il-song during the Korean War, and his mentor Stalin. Image via Moranbong Band/Chosun Central TV.

A rare contemporary juxtaposition of Kim Il-sung during the Korean War, and his mentor Stalin. | Image: Moranbong Band/Chosun Central TV.

Colonial Roots of Institutional Paranoia | Even in his earliest (probably fabricated) writings, Kim Il-song was preoccupied with the question of infiltrators into the ranks of the revolution. Again, the paranoia was implanted from without; the stimulus toward purging in early 1930s Manchuria was decidedly communist Chinese, resulting in the bloodshed of the Minsaengdan Incident, whose victims were almost entirely Korean, and which Kim Il-sung himself only narrowly escaped.

After the Soviet liberation, Kim used the argument about foreign dependence on Japanese imperialism (of his domestic foes) to shield his own dependence on the Soviet Union. The notion that imperialism will continue to gnaw at the north Korean body politic was enunciated early and often by Kim Il-sung. In October 1945, he stated:

At present, pro-Japanese elements and traitors to the nation are making desperate efforts to recover their old position. Alleging that our country should be placed under mandate’ they are engaged in acts of treachery that run counter to the fundamental interests of the whole nation. In the past these fellows actively supported the colonial policy of Japanese imperialism and, taking advantage of the aggressive “Greater East Asian War,” freely robbed our people of their lives and property, working hand in glove with the Japanese imperialists. As long as we leave them alone, we cannot build a new Korea.[3]

That the North Korean state media continues to riff so abundantly upon these themes might indicate that its retrospective tendency has become purely reflexive and solipsistic, or it might indicate that North Korean leaders since Kim Il-sung genuinely think he was right, and that such warnings – and such internal vigilance – bears repetition. As I’ve argued with respect to human rights discourse, the Manichean world view put forth in North Korean state documents inevitably gives itself credit for not having allowed a single inch of backsliding toward colonial perfidy; the anti-colonial baseline is a core component of state legitimacy, and purges have a way of tapping into the discourse even when we miss it.

Kim Il-sung was ruthless when it came to extirpating foes within the Party, but he was not entirely beyond allowing for rehabilitation of those who admitted their guilt. In October 1945, he was alleged to have said that some “traitors to the nation must be done away with through the struggle of the masses by arousing them,” making northern Korea rather like the communist-occupied parts of Northeast China by opening the possibility of ferocious retribution. But at the same time, he left open the possibility that lesser victims of Japanese “should be educated and remolded and the way should be open to them for regeneration.”[4]

Wife-husband team of Kim Kyong Hui, extreme left, and Jang Song Taek, extreme right, both with sunglasses, flanking the Respected General and nephew Kim Jong Un at Unhasu Orchestra May 1 concert, 2012 | Image via Rodong Sinmun

Wife-husband team of Kim Kyong-huiui, extreme left, and Jang Song-taek, extreme right, both with sunglasses, flanking Kim Jong-un and Choe Ryong-hae at Unhasu Orchestra May 1 concert, 2012 | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Purges and Foreign Policy | Inner-Party purges are rarely undertaken without some interaction with the external situation. This is not to say that purges are caused only by external shocks, far from it. Rather, internal purges inevitably occur at times when the state is either under great stress, or sufficiently unencumbered when it is able to put them forward, and in every case the function and effect of the purge within the external environment is clearly part of the calculation.

Jang Song-taek’s purge (and accusations of his excess ideological proximity to Chinese comrades) was telegraphed by North Korea announcing major changes to its Special Economic Zone strategy, particularly around Sinuiju. The Jang purge itself had major repercussions in North Korea’s relations with the PRC, something that North Korean leaders who approved the publication of Jang Song-taek’s extravagantly vitriolic purge document in December 2013 surely could have anticipated.

Perhaps the Chinese comrades this past year should have felt grateful that Jang’s fall did not bring with it the DPRK Ambassador to China, as was the case with the 1953 purge. No wonder the Chinese Communist Party leaders assured that the Ambassador was so well taken care of in the spring of 2014; purges have a way of cleaning out interlocutors, and the North Koreans have been particularly adept at shuffling personnel such that few personal ties are allowed to pierce through the hard carapace of Party procedure.

Note: An earlier version of this essay was published with minor formatting inconsistencies. They have since been corrected.


[1] Lee Kwang-ho, “Final Stage of Kim Jong-un’s Power Structure,” Vantage Point, Yonhap, 37  no. 6 (2014): 2-7.

[2] Wada Haruki, The Korean War: An International History (Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), 237-242, 247-251.

[3] Kim Il Sung, “On the Building of New Korea and the National United Front: Speech to the Responsible Functionaries of the Provincial Party Committees,” October 13, 1945, Works, Vol. 1, June 1930 – December 1945, (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1980), 298.

[4] Kim Il Sung, “On Progressive Democracy: A Lecture Given to the Students of the Pyongyang Worker-Peasant Political School,” October 3, 1945, Works, Vol. 1, June 1930 – December 1945, (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1980), 267.

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