As soon as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un became vice chairman of the Workers Party's powerful Central Military Commission there emerged signs of a sweeping purge. Around a dozen high-ranking officers, including an assistant chief of the Ministry of the People's Armed Forces, an assistant chief of the General Staff Department as well as frontline commanders were brutally executed, ostensibly for being drunk or for sexual harassment during the mourning period for dead leader Kim Jong-il.
But what does the purge mean, and what is exactly is going on in the North Korean Army, which has sometimes been described as a state within the state?
◆ Attempt to Win Loyalty of Troops
Kim got busy touring military bases across North Korea as soon as he took power. Beginning with a visit to a tank unit on Jan. 1, Kim has toured 17 military bases so far, or on average one every four or five days. That was far more than even Kim Jong-il's one every nine or 10 days.
Kim Jong-un tried very hard to win the loyalty of troops, even hugging them in propaganda footage, which would have been unimaginable for his father. The younger Kim was spotted smiling broadly even before the symbolic 49-day mourning period for his father was over. A South Korean government source said, "Kim Jong-un's frequent visits to military bases and bold actions are proof that he urgently needed to win the loyalty of the military."
The military on the one hand forms the bedrock of the leader's power but on the other is a law unto itself. Kim Jong-il's eldest son Jong-nam told a Japanese journalist many times that even his father, the author of the military-first doctrine, was unable to control the military.
◆ Short, Sharp Shock
Over the last 10 years, the military has deeply involved in various state projects in line with the military-first doctrine. The military gained control of a majority of North Korean businesses that earn foreign currency and became the richest group in the North. A South Korean government source said, "Once it got control of the flow of foreign currency, the military became a virtual state within a state, and Kim Jong-un has had to accept that to a certain extent."
Ordinary soldiers did tend to become emotional when Kim Jong-il visited, often sobbing out loud, but the late leader doubted their sincerity, and his son probably felt the same way as he toured military bases after coming to power. A South Korean government source said, "It appears that the loyalty pledged by the military did not satisfy the young leader, who worries that his young age could give rise to challenges to his authority." Kim junior is 28 or 29. "It looks like he opted to use a short, sharp shock to gain their loyalty."
◆ Rule of Fear
There is a chance that the purges created an atmosphere of fear within the military. The government source said, "The saber-rattling of the North Korean Army has been the worst since the Korean War, probably as a result of competition among senior officers to show their zealous loyalty to Kim Jong-un."
This led to five generals, including Chief of the General Staff Kim Kyok-sik who is believed to have orchestrated for the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, fell over each other to publish "oaths of allegiance" to Kim Jong-un in the state press from March 4 to 9. This was unprecedented.
"On the surface, most of the pieces denounce South Korea, but they are ultimately about how loyal these officers are to Kim Jong-un," the source said. "This is a sign of the struggle for survival among top brass amid the bloody purge."