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Kim Jong Un's 'use and discard' system untenable

Ahn Jong Sik, Deputy Head, SBS Political Department  |  2017-01-10 17:49
Without mechanisms for accountability or the existence of opposition parties, the North Korean dictator wields absolute power. 

Until recently, Kim Won Hong was considered to have considerable influence in North Korea as head of the State Security Department (SSD), a state organ that monitors the movement of its citizens, detects spies, and punishes any individuals perceived as a threat to the regime. 

However, in the early days of Kim Jong Un's reign, the former chief of staff of the Korean Peoples Army Ri Yong Ho was a central figure in the power axis. Ri Yong Ho stood in the front line at Kim Jong Il's funeral march, alongside Kim Jong Un in December, 2011. In July 2012, Ri Yong Ho was purged (and thought to be executed, although his true status remains unknown), an event thought to be precipitated by the ambitions of Jang Song Thaek and Choe Ryong Hae. But the subsequent purge and execution of Jang Song Thaek in December 2013 and Choe Ryong Haes relegation to 'revolutionary education' at a collective farm in North Hamgyong Province in November 2015 abruptly changed the power landscape.

Kim Won Hong emerged as a major figure following these events. He is thought to have influenced the execution of high-ranking officials including Jang Song Thaek, as well as former Defense Minister Hyon Yong Chol and former Vice-Premier Choe Yong Gon. His rise to power has been marked by his alleged encouragement of the ruthless executions of those supposedly showing the slightest resistance to Supreme Leaders omnipotence.

Kim Won Hong's State Security Department under censorship

But it has been recently reported that Kim Won Hong is now facing a crisis of his own. North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity (NKIS) announced at a press meeting on December 29 that Kim Won Hong is being closely watched by the Korean Workers Party Organization and Guidance Department (OGD), and is facing accusations of corruption and abusing power to earn Kim Jong Un's trust, while committing a number of crimes. It has also been reported that a number of SSD officials have been executed following disagreements with the OGD in clarifying who was responsible for defections of high-ranking officials including Thae Yong Ho, North Korea's former deputy ambassador in London.

South Korean intelligence is responding cautiously to the reports of executions and censorship of the SSD, stating that they are proceeding with the verification process. 

Kim Won Hong's power under scrutiny

Regardless of the state of the SSD, it is apparent that the Kim Jong Un regime has begun to scrutinize the power of Kim Won Hong and the SSD. The regime seems to have recognized that Kim Won Hong and the SSD have become excessively powerful and need to be regulated.

As Jang Song Thaek influenced the purge and (assumed) execution of Ri Yong Ho, so too did Kim Won Hong influence the execution of Jang Song Thaek. Now, Kim Won Hong faces a similar fate as the regime flexes its strategy of using and purging rival factions in order to maintain political control. If Kim Won Hong were to be executed, his successor will likely enjoy a position of considerable influence for a limited period of time, before facing the music himself. Offering a metaphor to describe politics in North Korea, Thae Yong Ho recently noted, If you get too close to the sun, youre bound to get burned. 

Inherent regime instability due to frequent purges

This method of maintaining power, however, is inherently flawed. As the pattern of promotions and executions continues, some elite cadres could inevitably consider an alternative path to avoid a similar fate. In this sense, Kim Jong Un's strategy to maintain absolute power may eventually encourage others to coordinate against him. 

*Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.

*Translated by Yejie Kim
*Edited by Lee Farrand

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