North Korean leader Kim Jong Un commanded pledges of loyalty from his party and military at a televised rally commemorating the death of his father, days after he executed his uncle and de facto deputy for treason.
Sitting below a giant portrait of former ruler Kim Jong Il, who died two years ago, Kim Jong Un looked upon tens of thousands of cadres as top officials took turns to praise the ruling family in speeches for an hour, according to North Korean television footage broadcast live on the Web.
Believed to be about 30, the young leader has purged a series of senior officials, including his uncle Jang Song Thaek and former general chief of staff Ri Yong Ho, since taking over the 24-million nation and its 1.2-million-strong army.
“The purge and subsequent quick execution of North Korea’s number two leader proves once again the dangers associated with being next in line in an authoritarian society,” Ralph Cossa, head of the Hawaii-based Pacific Forum CSIS research institute, said in an e-mail. “Remember the old maxim about ‘killing the chicken to scare the monkeys?’ Kim went straight for the monkey. Can you imagine how scared the chickens must now be?”
The memorial event was being watched for clues to the country’s new power lineup after Jang’s execution. In a sign Choe Ryong Hae, the military’s top political officer, is gaining more influence, he was seen sitting next to Kim at the event in Pyongyang. Jang’s wife, Kim Kyong Hui, wasn’t shown in any television footage.
“Immediate large-scale reshuffles may be unlikely, but we’ll still have to keep an eye on who is trying to fill the vacuum after Jang was purged,” Ahn Chan Il, head of the World Institute for North Korea Studies in South Korea, said by phone. “Changes in the typography of the North Korean ruling class are inevitable.”
The ouster of Jang on Dec. 8 came almost two years after Kim Jong Un inherited power from his father who died of a heart attack. In a separate rally yesterday in front of the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun where the bodies of Kim Jong Il and founder Kim Il Sung lie in state, North Korean troops pledged to “become human bullets and bombs” protecting Kim Jong Un, the official Korean Central News Agency reported.
“Purges never stop in dictatorships because they help rejuvenate the system without elections,” Leonid Petrov, a Korean studies researcher at the Australian National University in Canberra, said in an e-mail. “Kim Jong Un is now in the driver’s seat; the elites are competing to demonstrate to him their loyalty; and the population is convinced of his utmost power and leadership.”
Kim’s execution of Jang raises the risk of “reckless provocations” from the north, South Korean President Park Geun Hye said yesterday. South Korea will retaliate sternly should North Korea attack, Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin told commanders today, according to his spokesman Kim Min Seok at a briefing.
The purge of Jang, the highest-profile ouster since the removal of general staff chief Ri in July last year, has prompted the South to heighten its combat preparedness along the border with the North, where thousands of troops face off across a no-man’s land.
North Korea raised tensions in February by detonating its third nuclear device and has periodically carried out military operations that have fueled the risk of war. In March 2010, a South Korean warship sank in the Yellow Sea, killing 46 sailors in what the South called a North Korean torpedo attack. The North denies the charge. Later that year the North bombarded a front-line South Korean island, killing four people.
Jang was executed immediately after a military court convicted him of plotting a coup against his nephew, KCNA said Dec. 13. The son-in-law of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, Jang was promoted to four-star general and vice chairman of the National Defense Commission months before Kim took over the North.
Jang oversaw joint economic ventures with China, and led an economic delegation to the neighbor in August last year. China remains North Korea’s top political and economic ally.
North Korea will continue to seek cooperation in trade and investment after the execution of Jang, Xinhua news agency reported yesterday, quoting Yun Yong Sok, an official at the country’s State Economic Development Committee.