Korean dictator targets uncle in public purge

Fall from grace: Jang Song-thaek is dramatically removed from a meeting of North Korean elites.

A North Korean politician who has stood at the side of the country’s tyrants for forty years has been denounced for ‘dreaming different dreams’. What does this reveal about the hermit state?

This weekend, North Korea’s state-controlled television network aired a documentary celebrating the dictator Kim Jong-un and his all-powerful People’s Army. The footage was typical propaganda: Kim watched his immaculately-drilled troops go about their rigid routines, exchanged salutes and consulted confidently with generals. But something was missing – or more precisely, someone.

When the documentary was last aired in October, it showed Kim in the constant company of his uncle Jang Song-thaek. To North Koreans this was a familiar sight. The veteran politician, who has been appearing at the side of dictators since the 1970s, was widely seen as Kim Jong-un’s second in command.

This time, however, Jang had disappeared, edited out of every frame. It was further confirmation of what South Korean spies had already revealed to the world: Kim had purged his own uncle and mentor.

Now the news has been revealed to the North Korean people in theatrical style. At a meeting of the political and military elite, in full view of Kim himself, Jang was dragged from his chair by guards and forcibly removed from the hall.

The list of charges levelled at Jang by state media ranged from gambling, drugs and decadence to building factions and taking control of important industries. But most sinister, and perhaps most revealing, was the accusation that he had dared to ‘dream different dreams’.

Purges like this are a signature feature of one-party states, and North Korea is no exception. But for such high-ranking figures to be eliminated so publicly is rare. Experts are fiercely debating what this means for the country: is it a sign of Kim’s instability or his tightening hold on power?

One conclusion, however, is beyond question: North Korea remains a terrifyingly repressive, secretive state in which any slight deviance from slavish conformity is met with merciless suppression.

A stable state?

It’s a chilling insight into the workings of an authoritarian police state. But some historians argue that governments like this cannot last: a ruler who tyrannises his people, neglects his economy and distrusts even his closest confidants will never have a firm grip on the reins of power. Nobody can rule by fear alone.

That is the perspective of an intellect made complacent by privilege, respond more pessimistic observers. There is nothing inherently unstable about a totalitarian dictatorship, and no guarantee that it will fall. A people can be ruled by force and fear, and we who live in democracies governed by the rule of law only have fate to thank.

You Decide

  1. Can you imagine your own country ever being ruled by a government as repressive as North Korea’s? Why / why not?
  2. Is it possible for leaders to rule using only fear and physical force?


  1. As a class, come up with five ways in which your lives would be different if you lived in a totalitarian state like North Korea.
  2. ‘What methods have dictators used to maintain their hold on power?’ Plan an essay which answers this question by referring to one or more dictatorships you have studied.

Some People Say...

“It is better for a leader to be feared than loved.’Niccolo Machiavelli”

What do you think?

Q & A

This kind of thing could only happen in North Korea, right?
Not at all: dramatic depositions like this have been a feature of tyrannical regimes forever. Roman Emperor Nero was said to have killed his own mother; Henry VIII executed everybody from his chancellors to his wives; and Renaissance Italy was infamous for intrigues between noble families which often ended in grisly assassination.
Why is it so common?
Every political leader relies on the support of powerful individuals and institutions to maintain their rule. That’s true in democracies as well as dictatorships. But in countries where one person attempts to concentrate power in their own hands, these powerful supporters are also threatening rivals. So these purges are born of insecurity.

Word Watch

North Korea
The so-called ‘hermit state’ has been under deeply repressive military rule ever since the Korean War of 1950-53, when Korea was divided into a capitalist south and a communist north. All industries including the media are tightly controlled by the state and dissent is brutally crushed. Most Koreans live in poverty and up to 200,000 languish in terrifying prison camps.
Kim Jong-un
The country’s third communist leader, after his father Kim Jong-il and grandfather Kim Il-sung. Kim Jong-un is just 30 years old and has been the country’s Supreme Leader for exactly two years. Like his predecessors, he has developed a powerful cult of personality.
People’s Army
North Korea is extremely militaristic, with more soldiers per civilian than any other country in the world. The army is the most important national institution, and the upper ranks of government are dominated by military leaders.
Purges are mostly associated with 20th century communist regimes like those of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. But in fact dictators have always favoured the tactic of removing powerful allies from government to discourage dissent and strengthen their own power – from Roman emperors to Henry VIII.


PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.