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North Korea executed another one of its high-profile officials recently, exact date unknown, according to South Korean intelligence. Gen. Ri Yong-Gil, a North Korean senior military leader, was reportedly arrested at a Party meeting and later executed under the charges of “factionalism, misuse of authority and corruption.” Gen. Ri is one of the senior-most officials executed thus far in a recent string of high-profile executions in the hermit state.
The news was unveiled right after other sources of tension on the Korean peninsula arose.
Military leaders from South Korea, Japan and the United States held a meeting in Hawaii last week, pledging to toughen up the sharing of intelligence on North Korea – a difficult task in such a secretive nation, as North Korea rarely ever makes public announcements regarding its executions or purges of government officials.
David Kang, a professor of international relations at University of Southern California, calls the latest execution a “show of strength” by rookie dictator Kim Jong-Un. Yonhap, a South Korean news source, stated that the move may be indicative of lingering insecurities regarding grasping power over the military.
But why exactly would the leader of the world’s most authoritarian state feel any inkling of insecurity in his grasp of power? As the world’s current youngest head of state, 33-year-old Kim Jong-Un is likely still establishing himself as a leader and therefore overcompensating for his youth and relative lack of experience.
The youngest Kim has certainly proven himself as a brutal dictator with his ever-increasing number of executions and crackdowns on dissent, but is he the most brutal of the Kim family thus far?
North Korea has had a deep-seated history of top-level executions and crackdowns on dissent, long before the existence of Kim Jong-Un. After the Korean War, Kim Il-Sung removed pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese factions from within the country’s leadership in order to strengthen his power. He established a zero-tolerance policy for dissent, and subsequently the infamous North Korean gulag was born.
Experts on North Korea say that Kim Jong-Il usurped his father’s power in the 1980s, so much so that by the time of Kim Il-Sung’s death in 1994, his role was more that of a figurehead, making for a seamless transition of power between the two Kims.
Kim Jong-Il executed roughly 10 officials in his early years in power, compared with Kim Jong-Un’s 70 executions as of July, South Korean intelligence reported.
The staggering difference in the number of executions between father and son can be attributed to the smoothness of their respective power transitions. As previously indicated, Kim Jong-Il had nearly 15 years to establish himself as a leader while acting for his aging father. He most likely didn’t feel the need to execute as many of his officials, because “any…who threatened him were already dealt with while Kim Il-Sung was still alive.” His grasp on power had clearly already been solidified.
Kim Jong-Un’s transition to power, on the other hand, was much less smooth. He received relatively little training, and was not officially designated as heir until shortly before the death of his father. The young leader’s “most immediate task was to prevent any challenge from members of the top leadership.” For him, success was synonymous with survival, which lead to the purging of anyone who expressed even a glimmer of dissent.
At 29 years old, Kim Jong-Un likely found it difficult to relate to the established, aging officials. In fact, most of the officials would’ve likely been ashamed to be taking orders from someone so many years their junior. As North Korea scholar Andrei Lankov concisely puts it, “he tried to get rid of the grumpy old men. He couldn’t be a boss with subordinates who are twice his age, who don’t understand him and don’t take him seriously.”
As it currently stands, Kim Jong-Un has indeed proven himself as the most brutal member in the Kim lineage thus far. His insecurities have evidently played a sizable role in his consolidation of power over the North Korean people. Will the next heir in the Kim family be an even more ruthless dictator? As the nation faces increasing domestic dissent and international pressure for reform, trend says that the answer to this question will be an enthusiastic “yes.”
Photo courtesy of CNN