The current leadership in North Korea is
anything but stable, due to an unexpected speedy transition in power, according
to a panel of experts who spoke at a recent seminar “Kim Jong Un’s Reign of
Terror and Human Rights in North Korea” held in Seoul.
During the Tuesday meeting, hosted by the
Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights [NKnet], researchers and professors
gathered to shed light on the current political situation in North Korea .
The panel was composed of Jo Han Bum,
senior researcher at Korea Institute for National Unification; Nam Gwang Gyu,
professor at Korea University’s Asiatic Research Institute; Shin Chang Hoon,
researcher at Asan Institute for Policy Studies; Oh Gyung Sub, researcher at
Sejong Institute; and Jo Jung Hyun, professor at Korea National Diplomatic
Cho opened by asserting that Kim Jong Un’s
regime is extremely precarious compared to his predecessors’. His father Kim
Jong Il was appointed heir of Kim Il Sung in 1974 and immediately took over key
posts that year, such as the head of the Organization and Guidance Department
of the Workers’ Party of Korea and Party Commissar. He spent 24 years laying
the groundwork for his leadership before taking office as the General Secretary
of the Workers’ Party of Korea in 1997.
On the other hand, his son, Kim Jong Un,
assumed the post of Supreme Commander of the Korean People’ Army two weeks
after the death of his father. Four months later, the young Kim took on the
highest positions within the Party, government, and military– the three
overarching bodies ruling the country.
This rapid ascension to power, Cho said,
explains Kim Jong Un’s obsession with wielding absolute authority over the
military and diminishing Party cadres’ power. By doing so, he is able to root out
any possibility of a political rival challenging his dominance.
Despite only being North Korea’s supreme
leader for 40 months yet, Kim has changed the head of the Ministry of People’s
Armed Forces (MPAF) five times. Yoon Dong Hyun, the vice-head of MPAF, was
demoted and restored to his original post six times during this period.
Kim has executed an estimated 60 high-level
officials so far — the most prominent of these incidents being his uncle, Jang
Song Thaek. Jang’s arrest was widely publicized on North Korean state media,
which outlined details of his arrest and ensuing execution. Criticism of his
wrongdoings continued well on after his execution, which Cho said is a sign
that “the execution was very meticulously planned out.”
Nam Kwang Gyu, professor at Korea
University’s Asiatic Research Institute, also weighed in, asserting that North
Korea’s absolute leadership is a major factor impeding peaceful reunification
of the Korean Peninsula.
“The ‘leader’ currently reigns over (North)
Korea as if he were a god. Inter-Korean dialogue would be meaningless in this
situation, because the talks would only be used for North Korea’s propaganda to
glorify Kim. It feels like the 25 million North Koreans are forced to exist for
the sake of the ‘leader,” Nam said. The professor added that the current
dictatorship makes it impossible for the North to be a normal state, much less
a partner for reunification with the South.
Panel members all strongly agreed South
Korea and the international community must remain focused on the violations of
human rights ongoing within North Korea.
In terms of the UN’s most recent efforts to
pressure Pyongyang through a Commission of Inquiry and a landmark report, a
participant questioned whether North Korean defector testimonies can truly be
To this query, Shin Chang Hoon, a
researcher at Asan Institute for Policy Studies replied, “The COI cross-checks
defectors’ depositions through multiple other defectors. The case of Shin Dong
Hyuk, a North Korean political prison camp survivor who later admitted to
inaccuracies in his testimony, was an exception to this process because no
other known victims had escaped that camp and were able to attest to these
The panel members concluded that slight
discrepancies in defector testimonies should not deter the international
community from opening their eyes to the harsh realities of North Korea.