TOKYO — The way the South Korean government tells it, North Korea is on the brink of collapse. A collapse, in no small part, being brought about by the tough actions of the South Korean government.
Barely a week goes by without a report of cracks in Kim Jong Un’s regime. This week’s report concerns the alleged execution of a vice premier and the banishment of two other senior officials.
A spokesman for South Korea’s Unification Ministry said Wednesday that Kim Yong Jin, who served as North Korea’s education minister and then as a deputy prime minister, had been executed. Why and when? “Inappropriate to say” on both counts, he said.
But Seoul confirmed his execution “through various channels,” said the spokesman, Jeong Joon-hee. South Korean reports suggested that the vice premier was branded an “anti-party and anti-revolutionary” element and killed by firing squad in July after not standing upright at a meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly.
At the same time, Jeong said that Kim Yong Chul, a hard-liner in charge of inter-Korean relations, and Choi Hui, vice chief of the propaganda and agitation department, were sent to the countryside for “reeducation.”
This was the latest installment in Seoul’s narrative that Kim Jong Un’s grip is weakening.
Previous chapters include the recent defection of the deputy North Korean ambassador in London because he was “sick and tired” of the system, and reports that a North Korean official based in Southeast Asia and tasked with making money for the leadership had defected with bags of cash. Add to that the mass defection of 13 workers from a North Korean restaurant in China.
This all conveniently comes after President Park Geun-hye’s administration in Seoul took surprisingly harsh steps to punish Pyongyang for its January nuclear test — in particular closing an inter-Korean industrial park, then supporting tough international sanctions.
The South Korean president has been quick to draw a line linking all these events, saying last week that “serious cracks” were appearing in North Korea and that elite defections could be a sign that “the system is shaking.”
But South Korean intelligence has a record of being right as often as it is wrong — a general reported to have been executed early this year showed up at a party congress in May — and of being used for political purposes.
Some analysts wonder whether that’s what is happening now.
“I think it’s clear that when it suits the South Korean government’s purposes, information is shared with the media,” said Scott A. Snyder, a Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “So how reflective are these reports of what’s happening in North Korea? We don’t always know.”
Almost since the establishment of North Korea as a Soviet client state 70 years ago, government officials and analysts have been predicting its imminent demise.
While most analysts agree that sudden changes such as the latest ones probably reflect stresses within North Korea’s senior ranks, there is wide variation in interpretation. Some say executions and purges are a sign of instability, but others say they are a sign of strength because Kim Jong Un is consolidating his leadership.
“The regime probably does face some pressures, but the overall internal trajectory over the past three or four years has been one of consolidation and efforts to impose even higher tests of loyalty,” Snyder said. “I’d say it was a sign of instability if disloyalty went unpunished.”
Totalitarian states like the one that Kim Jong Un inherited retain control through a reign of terror, using executions and purges to keep the elite in line, and more general repression and limits on information to keep the wider society under control.
The current leader’s father, Kim Jong Il, executed more than 2,000 officials between 1994 and 2000, said Cheong Seong-chang, a respected North Korea-watcher at the Sejong Institute outside Seoul.
Kim Jong Un has had about 130 officials put to death since he took over the helm of the country from his father almost five years ago, according to a tally by South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.
Notable among those executed are Kim’s own uncle, Jang Sung Thaek, put to death in 2013 for apparently amassing too much power and wealth, and the defense minister last year.
Kim Yong-hyun, professor in North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, said that some shake-up was to be expected after Kim Jong Un held a Workers’ Party Congress in May, the first since 1980.
“A wide reshuffling of the North Korean elite has taken place as part of the process of building Kim Jong Un’s system,” he said, adding that the execution could have served as a warning to others in North Korea’s top tier.
While high-level defections are embarrassing for Pyongyang, and officials running off with money meant for the leadership will inflict some pain, neither presents an existential threat for North Korea, said Christopher Green, a North Korea researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
As with so many things about North Korea, the present picture will be clear only with hindsight. “There could be cracks in the regime, and it could be about to collapse, but the thing is, no one actually knows,” Green said.
Yoonjung Seo in Seoul contributed to this report.