The latest Twitter barrage by President Donald Trump against North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has set the world abuzz with fear of nuclear holocaust. It is latest of a series of sharp word tussles between the two leaders since Trump’s inauguration one year ago.
But the aggressive war of words and frantic missile tests may cover intrigue deep within North Korean power.
Little reliable information escapes from the so-called “hermit kingdom”. Defector testimony has a poor record due to government counter-intelligence, disinformation, and personal animosity toward the regime. Yet experts can interpret official state proclamations in relation to known facts and make educated guesses.
Michael Madden, visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University and founder of North Korea Leadership Watch, is one such expert. He remarked that the recent coup in Zimbabwe, which saw the overthrow of revered leader Robert Mugabe by top generals, was a reminder to Kim to reinforce his grip on power.
The case of two recent purged army chiefs is evident enough. Kim Won-hong was chief of North Korea’s army intelligence, influential politburo member, and State Security chief. They arrested him in February. Hwang Pyong-so was Vice-Marshal of the Korean People’s Army, a top politburo member, and personal representative of Kim Jong-un to foreign events such as the 2014 Asian Games. They arrested Hwang just after news of the Zimbabwe coup circulated around the globe. They accused both of them of impure behavior and punished them in an unspecified manner.
Kim Jong-un has undertaken numerous personnel shuffles, purges, arrests, executions, and overseas assassinations since assuming power in 2011. He was young, inexperienced, and unacquainted with influential army officers and party officials. This caused speculation that he would either be a puppet of his father’s ministers or face overthrow in a power struggle.
One of his first victims was State Security Chief U Tong-chuk, who led the first purges of army and party chiefs of questionable loyalty. The state purged him in 2012. In 2013, Kim’s uncle Jang Song-thaek was executed for plotting a coup. In 2016, Deputy Premier Kim Yong-jin was executed for being disrespectful.
Most infamously, they executed Defense Minister Hyon Yong-chol reputedly by cannon in 2015. They accused him of dozing off during military events.
The executions of Jang Song-thaek, Kim Yong-jin, and Hyon Yong-chol were probably connected with their influence upon the government. This has less to do with any personal affronts to the Young Leader.
Last February, assassins killed eldest brother Kim Jong-nam at Kuala Lumpur airport in Malaysia. Long out of touch with North Korea’s halls of power, Kim Jong-nam lived as a playboy, but lately had made statements critical of his brother’s rule. His death removed the possibility of disaffected army officers placing him in power as their puppet.
The current crisis may be Kim’s test for his army’s loyalty. With such a strong threat, highly placed officers will have neither time nor credibility to challenge Kim’s power. Frantic missile tests may hold a two-fold purpose: defend the nation through mutually-assured destruction, and test the army’s ability to meet its goals.
The outcome is unknown, but experts believe Kim Jong-un will end up a stronger and more secure ruler than ever before.
Sidney Petron is a historian and political analyst currently situated in New Haven, Connecticut.
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