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The rumor of Kim Jong Un’s purge: Why it matters even if it’s wrong

If true, this seems bad news for nuclear diplomacy.

- June 5, 2019

Social media was ablaze in mid-2019 with reports that a journalist in South Korea, relying on a single source, claimed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has purged a number of high-level officials in the wake of the failed February 2019 Hanoi summit with President Trump. Allegedly among the victims executed at the Pyongyang airport were high-ranking diplomat Kim Yong Chol and his deputy, Kim Hyok Chol, the counterpart to U.S. Special Representative Steve Biegun.

But by the weekend, other reports appeared to show Kim Yong Chol at a performance attended by Kim Jong Un. The accuracy of the initial report of the alleged purges remains unclear, and many experts have encouraged the media to remain skeptical of such thinly sourced information.

Rather than ignore the story until proven true, as some have urged, it’s worth considering what this rumor says about politics on the Korean Peninsula.

If the story’s untrue …

If the story is false, it wouldn’t be the first time that purge rumors spread, only to be proven inaccurate. CNN reported earlier this week that Kim Hyok Chol is alive — but in custody and under investigation for the failed summit.

A false story of this nature would be a reminder that the South Korean government’s current narrative about North Korea is highly contested within South Korea. For more than a year, the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been trying to cultivate positive views about North Korea, in the name of peace and diplomacy.

South Korea’s conservative opposition — which ran the government for a decade before Moon came to office in 2017 — has a far more pessimistic view of North Korea, but limited opportunities to press its case publicly because the country’s ruling governments tend to exercise significant influence over the media landscape.

The conservative opposition has few outlets beyond ranting on YouTube, working within the bureaucracy to shape North Korea policy on the margins and feeding information to the media. It’s quite possible that the source of the Kim Hyok Chol purge story either fed the reporter bad information to undermine the government’s prevailing narrative about North Korea, or translated rumor into personal conviction, telling the reporter what he or she believed to be the reality of life in North Korean court politics.

But even a false purge story doesn’t justify ignoring the larger trend in North Korea’s authoritarian regime. Kim Jong Un has spent his six years in power cleansing the ranks of his regime, eliminating challengers and installing loyalists. Plausibility gave the story traction, and it’s plausible because it would be the continuation of a pattern. Kim has departed from the regime control methods that his father pursued — an authoritarian “team of rivals” approach that positioned Kim Jong Il as the adjudicator among competing factions of elite power centers in the party, the bureaucracy and the military.

But where his father stayed in power by keeping elites fragmented, Kim Jong Un has chosen to rule through centralized and charismatic authority. Accordingly, he surrounds himself with yes men. As political scientist Sheena Greitens has shown, dictators who rely on greater centralized control of security services and the military are less vulnerable to ouster by popular rebellion — but relatively more vulnerable to coups.

And Kim’s current approach relies heavily on cronies whose primary qualifications are often personal ties to the Kim family, which is why his young sister rose so quickly in rank amid last year’s summit diplomacy.

The bottom line for future nuclear negotiations? Two things stand out:

  • What U.S. diplomats hear from North Korean counterparts is likely to more accurately and directly reflect Kim’s wishes in the future.
  • There is now greater risk of Kim receiving bad advice from underqualified people. Nepotism is the antonym of meritocracy.

If the story’s true …

The story remains plausible for several reasons. First, it’s hardly surprising that a young dictator revered as a semi-deity in his regime’s official propaganda might be thin-skinned and in need of a scapegoat when something as big as the Hanoi summit goes badly. Second, if Kim Jong Un can kill an uncle, Jang Song Thaek, and an older half brother, Kim Jong Nam, then he’s not likely to think twice about doing the same to functionaries who misled him about Trump’s willingness to grant sanctions relief without having to denuclearize. Third, weeks before the reporting in question broke, there were already claims by defectors and others that a purge of nuclear diplomacy officials was underway.

And if the story is even partly true, as CNN reporting suggests, the implications for nuclear diplomacy are starkly negative. A credible nuclear deal was always difficult to achieve. But if the lead North Korean negotiator is executed for a single meeting that didn’t go as expected, imagine the reluctance of future North Korean diplomats to bring their boss promises of U.S. concessions.

Kim’s ruthless treatment of his key diplomats sends a terrifying message: Making sure he doesn’t get played is more important than securing a deal for the regime. It further entrenches a dangerous status quo, and incentivizes North Korean negotiators to take a hard line with the United States — and avoid any scenario that might expose their leader to betrayal or misplaced expectations.

As often happens with North Korea, new information is easy to come by, hard to verify and best understood as a Rorschach test that says as much about the Korea watcher as it does about North Korea per se. And yet the story matters on its own, too.

If true, it’s bad news for a diplomatic process that has been dead since the February Trump-Kim summit. And if false, the fact that it became such a big news story owes much to its plausibility, which derives from a pattern of Kim eliminating senior officials and replacing them with blood loyalists.

Kim’s handling of the 2017 nuclear crisis and diplomatic overtures that followed proved he is eminently rational. But that’s little comfort if the advice he gets comes from underqualified sycophants afraid the Trump administration will punk their boss. Whether the story is true or not, it’s a reminder of the deadly stakes of nuclear diplomacy in North Korea.

Van Jackson is a senior lecturer in international relations at Victoria University of Wellington, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies: New Zealand. He is the author of On the Brink: Trump, Kim, and the Threat of Nuclear War (Cambridge University Press, 2018).