Old soldiers are purged in NorthNorth Korean leader Kim Jong-un appears to be weeding out his father’s generation of loyalists, a South Korean intelligence official said, forcibly retiring military officials aged 65 years old or above.
The move follows the unusually public purging of his uncle and former political protector, Jang Song-thaek, who is married to the sister of former leader Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s father.
“Under Kim Jong-un’s rule, North Korea replaced several high-ranking officials, a signal of a generational shift,” the official exclusively told the JoongAng Ilbo. “North Korea has set up a regulation to send soldiers aged 65 or older home.”
Usually, a military position was considered to be a lifelong job that people could hold on to until they were incapacitated.
“Since the death of Kim Jong-il, several senior military officials such as the minister of the People’s Armed Forces or the chief of the General Staff of the Army, were replaced almost every six months,” the official said. “Ahead of a full-fledge reshuffle, the regime is giving decent positions to officials in their 70s as a sort of gift before they are forcibly retired soon.”
Intelligence sources said the North has replaced more than 44 percent of its generals who have three or more stars.
The official said the regime was already carrying out a shake-up of high-level officials, like corps commanders. People at division-commander level or below will face a reshuffle at the end of this year or early next year.
The apparent military shake-up is very similar to the early 1970s when Kim Jong-il was named the heir-apparent of his father, founding leader Kim Il Sung, the official said. At the time, Kim Jong-il lowered the retirement age of military officials from the 40s to 32 for company commanders, from the 50s to 35 for battalion commanders, and from the 60s to the 40s for regimental commanders.
“Kim Jong-il, notorious for his reign of terror, could have prepared a plan for a reshuffle for his youngest son and successor,” another South Korean government official said. “Taking Jang’s purge as an indicator, the regime would then proceed with a purge on a massive scale and an entire generational shift.”
During the rule of the two former leaders - Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il - it took at least two years to clean out all possible traitors or challengers. In Kim Il Sung’s case it was an August 1956 purge. In his son’s case, it was purges through 1997-2000.
Analysts said loyalists or allies of Jang will be dismissed en masse, just like the 1997-2000 purges by Kim Jong-il. Since he entered the political arena in the 1970s, Jang had held a number of posts, including director of the Administrative Department of the ruling Workers’ Party.
Nam Sung-wook, a North Korean studies professor at Korea University, told the JoongAng Sunday that the Administrative Department is not literally in charge of “administration,” but it oversees a number of administrative organizations such as the Ministry of State Security, Ministry of People’s Security, the prosecution, the judiciary and the police. Reportedly, the department has about 900 officials working at local offices in nine provinces and in Pyongyang.
Most of the 32 members of the newly launched Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission headed by Jang are his loyalists, such as Minister of Peoples’ Security Choi Pu-il.
As to Jang’s fate following his arrest at a senior party meeting on Sunday, which was broadcast by Korean Central Television, a South Korean Ministry of Unification official said he could be sent to one of the regime’s notorious political prisons.
“Those who were previously punished for the same alleged crimes attributed to Jang - anti-party, anti-revolutionary activities - mostly faced punishment that crippled their personal lives, such as being sent to a political prison,” the official said.
There is some speculation that the photo of Jang being arrested was digitally manipulated.
The official said, “Although North Korea sometimes releases manipulated photos, we have not found any evidence this time with the photo of Jang.”
Although Jang has many allies and loyalists, it would be hard for his people to stage a military coup, several analysts said, and the Kim dynasty would appear to have stabilized itself through the purge.
“A military coup would be difficult for Jang’s people,” Nam, the Korea University professor, told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “If he wanted a military coup, he should have had his own soldiers, but he was not in charge of the military.”
“Although Jang’s Administrative Department was in charge of the Ministry of Peoples’ Security, which is equivalent to the police, he was not in charge of directing them, but just supervising them,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute. “He did not have authority to direct the military, and most of his followers worked in party organizations related to foreign currency business.
“So far, Jang’s circle had the most powerful clout against Kim Jong-un’s rule, but they will be disbanded soon,” Cheong said. “From now on, there will be no challengers as strong as Jang’s faction.”
North Korea tried rallying public support for the purge of Jang and his loyalists. A report in the Rodong Sinmun, the ruling Workers’ Party newspaper, yesterday described ordinary citizens emotionally condemning Jang and his group.
A worker at a local thermal power plant identified as Ri Yong-song told the Rodong Sinmun, “I want to grip Jang Song-thaek and his group by their throats immediately and hurl them into the boiling waters of our boiler.”
Concern is growing in South Korea over a fourth nuclear weapons test by Pyongyang to stanch any potential internal unrest caused by the downfall of Jong-un’s powerful uncle.
“In the past, North Korea carried out military provocations to quash internal agitation among its people, such as sinking the South Korean naval ship Cheonan,” Cho Yeong-gi, a North Korean studies professor at Korea University, told the JoongAng Ilbo. “This time, North Korea could use a nuclear test.”
BY JEONG YONG-SOO, KIM HEE-JIN [email@example.com]