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Q&A: The Top North Korean Expert Explains What Happened to Kim Jong Un's Uncle


The purge and execution last week of the uncle of North Korea’s ruler, Kim Jong Un, has sparked worried questions from international observers about his grip on the nuclear-armed country. The uncle, Jang Song-thaek, was not only considered a close confidant of Kim, but a key member of the country’s ruling elite. Also noteworthy was the fact that the North Korean government put out a relatively detailed statement shining light on Jang's supposedly treasonous crimes (including being a counter-revolutionary and having grand personal ambitions).

To try and make sense of what is going on in North Korea, I decided to write B.R. Myers, an expert on the country, who has particular knowledge of the current regime’s propaganda. He is also the author of The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters.”

I began by asking him about what he made of last week’s news generally, and the statement about Jang’s crimes in particular.

B.R. Meyers: I was not all that shocked by the purge itself. Kim Il Sung purged his own brother. Kim Jong Il effectively purged his own eldest son. As for Jang’s punishment, it’s not as wild and brutal as all that. The Chinese execute people for corruption too. The shocking thing is the indiscretion with which the regime has gone about everything. Anyone who still thinks some gray eminence is pulling Kim Jong Un’s strings just doesn’t realize how much long-accumulated mythological capital the latest propaganda has destroyed in a matter of days.

North Korea had prided itself on complete unity ever since the establishment of a “unitary ideology” in 1967. When the regime warned against subversive behaviors it resorted to cartoons with animal figures rather than admit to actual internal disunity. Power struggles elsewhere were gloated over as evidence that only North Korea had leaders whose greatness stood above dispute. The benevolent charisma of the leaders was said to be so irresistible that even representatives of enemy states, like Jimmy Carter and Kim Dae Jung, succumbed to it. And now the North Koreans find out that Kim Il Sung’s own son-in-law and Kim Jong Il’s right-hand man was engaging in crimes since the 1980s? Yet they are still expected to believe in the infallibility of Kim Jong Il’s choice of successor?

Keep in mind that this is a state where whole clans are dragged off to prison camps for one relative’s wrong-doing, and you get an idea of how shocking this will be for a North Korean. That’s not all. The propaganda is making clear that Jang’s tentacles reached into various institutions. Not even during the purges of the 1950s did the press claim that subversives had support outside their tiny cliques. The charge that Jang approached the army implies that he felt he had some chance of success. That in itself indicates that generals did not force Kim Jong Un into all this rhetoric. On top of everything you have that gratuitous talk of how Jang was waiting for the economy to get worse.

I admit that North Korea’s party-internal discourse has always been more frank than the propaganda we in the outside world can access. All the same, even the best-informed North Koreans will wonder why all this had to be shown to a hostile outside world, and especially to South Korea. It has even made South Korea’s intelligence service look good.

The Western reaction to it has been predictable enough. Americans cannot shake the mirror-imaging notion that the North Korean elite is divided into reformers and hardliners. It seems any official involved in trade is considered a reformer, while anyone in the army is a hardlinerespecially if he took part in one of the two attacks on South Korea in 2010. It's not even good mirror-imaging. Was Colin Powell the hardliner in the Bush administration? Is a US general in Afghanistan more hardline than a general at Fort Bragg? In fact the North Korean military is involved heavily in trade, and its fighting power is enhanced by the revenues. It arguably has as great a stake in economic change as anyone. Yes, you have bitter institutional rivalry in Pyongyang, but that does not mean ideological disagreement. The South Korean experts seem to get this; they know how Korean organizations work.

But the Western myth of ideological struggle has obvious advantages for our own softliners. Whatever the regime does, Kim Jong Un can be exempted from responsibility, can remain someone we should trust. By trusting him, we defeat the hawks, and so on. The same foreigners who were calling him a Korean Deng Xiaoping last year are now saying hardliners must have forced his chubby little hand. This sort of talk makes the commentariat more important too, you see. Every few months the experts can weigh in with an update on which of the two warring factions is up or down.  

Isaac Chotiner: Has this changed your opinion of young Kim in any way?

BM: Not fundamentally. For the past two years I’ve been marveling at how bad the propaganda has been. I would call it ill-advised if I thought anyone was stupid enough to advise it. From the first few months of the national mourning period, when Kim Jong Un was laughing it up on the evening news, to his allowing an American basketball player to slouch next to him in cap and sunglasses, it’s been one odd move after another. It might have enhanced his overseas image as a reformer, but that can be done in much safer ways. His father cut his teeth in propaganda work, he had a brilliant grasp of it. He took his wife around with him too, but he had the sense not to put her on the evening news. This young man seems to have lived overseas too briefly to learn anything, but long enough to lose touch with his own country, with the myths that keep him in power.

IC: Can you explain a little more why you think going around with the wife is a mistake? In Western countries, that is considered smart. What is the cultural difference?

BM: Even in South Korea, which is a much less conservative environment, politicians do not take their wives around with them as much as their American counterparts do. Showing pride in your wife is thought of as juvenile bad form. There's a special pejorative, palbulch'ul, for people who do it. In North Korea, where most men in their late 20s are still doing their military service, going around with a beautiful wife is anything but a crowd-pleasing gesture. Especially when you don't even make sure that your wife is wearing her Kim Il Sung badge. The image of the two preceding leaders was of men who were too busy for happy family life, and this was a very effective image indeed. I understand that the regime wanted to project a "happy days are here again" message, but that was not the way to do it, certainly not so soon after Kim Jong Il's death. 

IC: Is this worrying to the Chinese, and do you expect this to lead to Chinese pressure? If so, what would that pressure entail?

BM: I think the Chinese understand that Jang’s purge will not affect cross-border trade all that much. The purge will disrupt things for a while, but I don’t think this is the end of the gradual opening of the North Korean economy. The word reform should be used carefully, of course. Economic change does not automatically mean cultural and social change like it did in the old East Bloc. If Jang really was taking a big cut of every deal, the Chinese may well be happy to see him gone. It’s not as if the North Koreans can suddenly start demanding much higher prices than he did. My guess is that the Chinese are worried by the amateurishness of what has been going on, but they are in no position to pressure Pyongyang unless they cut fuel shipments again. And an internal purge is the last reason they would take such a serious measure.

IC: Is your sense that Jang had a lot of supporters within the military? 

BM: The latest propaganda has certainly conveyed the impression that Jang had reason to hope for some degree of support. The news might just be very clumsily worded, but I don’t think so. Jang could hardly have engaged in massive cross-border corruption without giving the military some piece of the action, and no doubt he called in some favors now and then. But I would caution against concluding that any generals’ personal ties to Jang reflected ideological disagreement with the regime. Ultra-nationalist states can accommodate massive corruption and inter-institutional rivalry, even public hostility to the party, and still maintain social and ideological unity. The Third Reich is the classic example. But a state can keep going only so long as its mission continues to inspire and unite people. This means that propaganda must always be handled with a view to the long-term. I am not sure Kim Jong Un understands that.

IC: You mention the Third Reich and the need to inspire people. The old line about fascism was that in some essential way fascism required aggression because that is what fascism lives on. Is that true here, and would you call this regime fascist in some essential way? It is usually thought of as Stalinist.

BM: The word fascist is both too vague and a little unfair. North Korea is very much sui generis. It is best seen as being on the cusp between far right and far left. In European political terms I would call it a Strasserite state, after the leader of the Nazis' left wing. Which is to say it is a race-oriented, militaristic state with socialization of assets. But the militarization of a peace-time society cannot be sustained without the perception of an ongoing national emergency. North Korea has shown that this perception can be maintained through limited conflicts and crises, without engaging in all-out war. 

IC: You mention our own soft-liners. Do you consider yourself one? I assume not, but if not, why not?

BM: I am not a softliner, but I don't engage in moralistic condemnation of North Korea either. It's not as horrible as our hardliners make it out to be. There are plenty of worse countries for women to live in. As I see it, North Korea cannot cease being a military-first state without losing all reason to exist. To ask the regime to disarm is to ask it to commit political suicide. Once you've grasped that, you realize that neither sticks nor carrots are going to keep the regime from continuing to arm itself, and continuing to look for the tension that is its lifeblood. And that's when you start to get really worried.

Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. B.R. Myers is a North Korea analyst at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea.