The Nation



Kim Jong-un's purges become a family affair

The apparent removal of Jang Song-thaek and his two lieutenants is the most extensive, but only the latest, purge of top officials as young leader Kim Jong-un tightens his grip on power.

Jang, Kim's uncle and vice chairman of the North's National Defence Commission, was reportedly relieved of all political responsibilities.

Ri Yong-ha and Jang Su-gil, senior officials suspected to be close to Jang, were executed last month according to South Korea's National Intelligence Service.

The two aides were influential individuals in North Korea's powerful Ministry of Labour Administration, a bureau charged with law enforcement and judicial duties.

However, many analysts were far from shocked at Jang and his associates' downfall, pointing to the large number of military officers, intelligence specialists and career bureaucrats kicked out since Kim's rise.

"This shouldn't come as a big surprise," said Daniel Pinkston, the deputy project director at the International Crisis Group's Seoul bureau. Pinkston points out that purges are a natural process in solidifying a dictator's power.

During the last two years under Kim, even the long-cherished and traditionally favoured North Korean military has been undergoing a rather rapid personnel reshuffle.

Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho lost his job as the General Staff Chief in July 2012, and two more senior military officers were fired from the post over the next 15 months.

Even Kim Kyok-sik, the hero of the North's artillery attack on the South Korean border island of Yeonpyeong-do in November 2010, was fired from the military's top post and has not been seen since August - not long after a North Korean ship carrying weapons was seized in the Panama Canal in July.

Becoming the minister of the People's Armed Forces is also no longer a long-term proposition, with the ministry reins switching hands three times in two years. Kim Il-sung, the nation's founding father and grandfather to Kim Jong-un, only had five individuals serve as the minister of the People's Armed Forces during his 46-year rule, while Kim Jong-il had only three do so in 17 years.

The list of purged individuals since the rise of Kim Jong-un goes on. Woo Dong-cheuk, an intelligence specialist and senior domestic security official was purged in March 2012 while Park Nam-gi, the former leader of the North's National Planning Commission and an advocate of economic reforms, was purged in January 2011 for the failed 2009 currency reforms.

A North Korea pundit told the Korea Herald that the purges would eventually slow down.

"The reason all these purges are going on is because Kim [Jong-un]'s grip on political power is imperfect," said Lim Jae-cheon, professor in Korea University's Department of North Korean studies.

"But I'm assuming for now that this should be the beginning of the end, in terms of Kim Jong-un solidifying his power."

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