The Kim family has maintained power in North Korea through fearpolitik, referred to as the “reign of terror.” While Kim Jong Il was thought to be a more cunning manipulator of people, Kim Jong Un has shown a penchant for ruthlessly purging senior executives and his own family members. But the concept of fearpolitik is not new to the North Korean population, because Kim Il Sung also secured his dominance through merciless purges of the political elite decades ago. Today, we will revisit the history of fearpolitik in North Korea with Daily NK reporter Choi Song Min.
1. What was the political environment like for Kim Il Sung in the process of regime establishment after the country’s liberation?
When the North Korean regime was first established after liberation, not all senior politicians blindly advocated or supported the Kim family as they do now. Kim Il Sung was the nation’s leader, but various leaders from other groups took important roles in the regime’s establishment as well, including Namrodang (Communist Party of Korea)’s Pak Hon Yong who ran communist activities in South Korea, Yananpa (Yan’an group)’s Kim Du Bong who led an independence movement in Manchuria, and Sorienpa (the Soviet group)’s Ho Ka I (also known as Alexei Ivanovich Hegai) who took the lead in bilateral relations with the Soviet Union.
But after the Korean War, things began to change. Kim Il Sung launched widescale purges to sidestep responsibility for the defeat and maintain his political power. Kim Jong Il mentions the “Suryong’s (Kim Il Sung) history of battling factional elements.” This shows that even his own son admitted that Kim Il Sung purged opposing factions in order to consolidate his power.
In the same way, Kim Il Sung purged people from the capitalist class under the slogan of “anti-imperialism.” And during the 1950s, which he designated as a period for “socialist foundation building,” he purged the central figures who took an important role in the regime’s establishment, describing the process as an “anti-factional struggle.”
2. It is known that there was considerable conflict between the political factions within the Workers’ Party after the regime’s establishment. Who were the political figures that were seen as a threat to Kim Il Sung?
The primary targets during the period extending from the beginning of the Korean War to the late fifties were those affiliated with the Workers’ Party of South Korea (Namrodang) and the Yenan faction, a group of socialists who had fought for the Chinese Communist Party. Also removed from power was the Soviet faction, leaving Kim Il Sung as the only contender for absolute power.
In the same way, Kim Il Sung’s takeover of the army was also bloody. Kim Chang Bong, minister of National Security in the late 1960s was purged under the charge of warlord bureaucratism, and Ho Bong Hak, then director of the KPA’s General Political Department was purged for being an “anti-Party, anti-revolutionary element” who allegedly sabotaged the establishment of the Party’s Single-Ideology System. Through this process, Kim Il Sung succeeded in taking control of the military.
3. It seems that purging was the most frequent measure used by Kim Il Sung as he consolidated his power. Did the practice continue until he established the one-man system of rule?
Yes, Kim Il Sung implemented the Party line and policies and labelled any dissent as “anti-Party and anti-revolutionary” to fortify his political power.
He also proceeded with idolization projects to further entrench his cult of personality throughout the country. Since the late 1960s and early 1970s, he began to promote his family’s multi-generational role in “leading the revolution” and, to that end, built related museums throughout the country.
Objective history was suppressed and all historical materials were rewritten to glorify the leader, hailing him as an anti-Japanese partisan guerrilla and his role in ushering in the revolution.
As an example, the North Korean authorities branded the March 1 Movement as a disorganized uprising fueled by aspirations for independence, claiming that all must learn their lessons from the failure of the movement, in that they were not led by a supreme leader (like Kim Il Sung).
4. How did Kim Il Sung justify the establishment of a one-man ruling system and the need for purges?
He emphasized the infallibility of the Suryong in revolution and state-building to the executives and branded any rejection of the notion as attempted “revisionism.” He also aggressively pushed his unique theory of ideology to brainwash and control the people.
At the Fifth Plenum of the 4th KWP Central Committee held in December 1962, Kim Il Sung announced the Four Military Guidelines: to arm the entire population; to fortify the entire country; to train the entire army as a “cadre army”; and to modernize weaponry, doctrine, and tactics under the principle of self-reliance in national defense.
However, many cadres criticized the self-reliance policy, arguing that it would isolate the domestic economy from broader foreign support. Kim Il Sung, however, sent detractors to political prison camps under the charge of “verbal rebellion.”
Kim Il Sung undertook bloody executions of his political opponents with a plethora of unreasonable charges. Those who mentioned improving foreign relations were regarded as ‘flunkies,’ those who claimed to learn from others were regarded as ‘doctrinarian,’ and those who failed to perform as ordered were labelled as ‘defeatists.’
5. How effective were these purges in consolidating Kim Il Sung’s political power?
Kim Il Sung’s tyranny shaped his political base as a supreme authority of the state and the party. He continued to purge those in opposition in order to further strengthen his position, and Kim Jong Il supported this process.
Kim Jong Il was officially tapped as Kim Il Sung’s successor in the early 1970s, and on February 19, 1972, he began the process of rejecting the Party’s ideology projects and replacing it with Juche ideology through his work entitled, “On some immediate tasks of the Party ideological work to model all of society on Kimilsungism.”
In particular, Kim Jong Il announced the “Ten Principles for the Establishment of a Monolithic Ideological System” in 1974, to solidify the Kimilsungsim single leader system. This was the foundation of the weekly and quarterly “criticism and self-criticism sessions” that continue to this day.
6. Kim Il Sung is remembered as a paternal figure to many North Koreans. How did he succeed in promoting his image as a people-loving leader while purging so many officials?
Kim Il Sung invested huge resources into emphasizing his “greatness” to the people while conducting ruthless purges of his opponents, and largely succeeded in establishing his position as a “Suryong for the people.”
As a proponent of Juche ideology, and a self-proclaimed master of revolution and construction, he ordered people to follow and even worship him. His time also coincided with the residents enjoying relatively more prosperous lives.
But there were hidden facts behind this policy. First of all, the political theory of Juche ideology was actually first written by the late Hwang Jang Yop, the former international secretary of the Workers’ Party, and the country’s prosperity was only a temporary phenomenon enabled through material and financial support from the Soviet Union and China. Most North Korean people are still unaware of these facts, and the regime has been quite successful in concealing them.
Kim Il Sung once visited the Kangsun Steel Mill and appealed to the workers in front of the broken furnace, saying, “Our nation could rebuild itself if only ten thousand tons of steel could be produced,” illustrating how devastated the state economy was at the time.
Then in the early 1960s, the Soviet Union abruptly loaned 300,000 tons of steel to North Korea, and the Chinese government donated tens of million of dollars, which was completely unexpected. Kim Il Sung should be considered as fortunate rather than a good politician.
7. Looking at the political history of Kim Il Sung reminds us of Kim Jong Un’s reign of terror today. What are the similarities between the two?
In a nutshell, Kim Jong Un’s ruling method is a brutal modern version of Kim Il Sung’s fearpolitik.
In Kim Il Sung’s time, the one-man dictatorship system was maintained by the pivotal roles of his North Korean partisan allies, including Choe Yong Gon, Kim Il, Choe Hyun, and O Baek Ryong. But Kim Jong Un is still too young and lacks experience, which is reflected in his more desperate and violent measures.
Kim Jong Un’s execution of his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, and his likely role behind the assassination of his half-brother (Kim Jong Nam) can be seen in this context.
8. Can you provide more details about the difference between Kim Jong Un and Kim Il Sung’s fearpolitik?
Kim Il Sung skillfully blended the concepts of fear and worship, but Kim Jong Un has ordered executions without prudence. Kim Jong Un’s ruling method is also very improvisational and temperamental.
In addition, Kim Jong Un has more political weaknesses. He is young and has no significant political achievements to his name. The reticence on his birth mother is an obvious issue as well, as she was Kim Jong Il’s consort and born in Japan. His mercurial and ruthless decisions are an overcompensation for these facts in a bid to shore up power.
9. As the regime becomes unstable due to fearpolitik, Kim Jong Un is also attempting to promote his affection for the people, imitating his grandfather’s methods. Do you think his strategy to blend fearpolitik while promoting his image as a people-loving leader will be achieved?
Most dictators have sought to promote themselves as kind leaders to the people while ruthlessly purging their opposition.
In short, Kim Jong Un is following Kim Jong Il’s guidance to assume that loyalist and traitors surround the leader in equal measure and warrant extreme measures, while simultaneously pushing forth Kim Il Sung’s giftpolitik with a special focus on children as treasures of the nation.
However, many North Korean people have been under the rule of the Kim family for decades feel that “like father, like son” applies in spades, and still others regard Kim Jong Un as the even more vicious than his father.
10. Some say that Kim Jong Un’s fearpolitik is due to his aggressive tendencies or the regime’s instability. But according to today’s discussion, it seems that the reign of terror actually started in the days of Kim Il Sung. How would Kim Il Sung evaluate his grandson now, 23 years after his death?
No one can say for sure. He might be pleased to see the strength of the dictatorship. But it’s also possible that he would be infuriated. Kim Jong Un executed Kim Il Sung’s only son-in-law, Jang Song Thaek, and brutally executed other high-ranking officials with anti-aircraft guns to send a message. He may not approve of the grisly manifestation of his own legacy.