GONE TOO FAR

North Korea’s Generals Could Turn Against Kim Jong Un

Kim Jong Un is making a habit of killing off his most senior military leaders. He thinks that will keep them in line, but it could be making some very powerful enemies.

02.11.16 1:39 PM ET

Heavy are the burdens of the men wearing four stars in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Ri Yong Gil, the chief of the General Staff of the North Korean military, has been executed, according to Yonhap News Agency and Reuters. CNN reports that a South Korean government source confirms the top general was put to death.

The general, according to CNN, was killed for “factionalism, misuse of authority, and corruption.”

Kim’s increasing willingness to execute some of the most senior figures in his military would suggest the young leader is struggling to impose control. Analysts are beginning to wonder how much more the military will put up with.

Ri was last seen in public on Jan. 5, at about the same time as the North’s claimed “hydrogen” bomb test, when he participated in an “inspection of coastal artillery” with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The apparently abrupt termination of his stellar military career was hardly a surprise. General Pyon In Son was put to death, probably in January of last year, for insubordination, specifically for refusing to replace certain junior officers.

Then, General Hyon Yong Chol, the DPRK’s defense minister, was executed for napping at a public event—disrespecting Kim who was present at the time—and for disobedience. The specific charge was advocating “militarism-oriented bureaucracy.”

Many Korea watchers consider these killings and others to be proof that Kim Jong Un is in command, that he is powerful enough to get rid of anyone. In reality, it is proof that the situation at the top of the regime is fluid. After all, if Kim were truly in control, there would be no need for the continual bloodletting.

Hyon’s execution was particularly revealing. It was reportedly carried out by anti-aircraft fire at close range, in front of an audience of hundreds at a military academy near Pyongyang. The spectacle, at the end of last April, was meant to send a message, and the fact that Kim had to do so is a clear indication he was not in firm command of the Korean People’s Army.

Young Kim has by now killed about a hundred senior figures in the regime in what is described as a “reign of extreme terror.” The military has borne the brunt of the punishments.

Why has Kim targeted the top brass? He has been called the “Young General,” but he has had little contact with the military. Not so his two predecessors. His grandfather, Kim Il Sung, came to power on his reputation as a leader of a guerilla band fighting the Japanese during World War II, so he naturally had the devotion of his comrades-in-arms. His son, Kim Jong Il, bought the loyalty of the generals and admirals with his version of songun—“military first”—policy.

Kim Jong Un, the third Kim to rule the DPRK, has reversed his predecessors’ work, reducing the power of the top officers by stripping them of their control of exports—in other words, taking cash flows away from them—and by de-emphasizing the dominant role they exercised during his father’s 18-year rule.

In short, Kim Jong Un has been struggling to find a general willing to preside over the continual erosion of the military’s position. Perhaps significantly, unnamed sources think General Ri died shortly after a Feb. 2-3 joint meeting of the army and the Korean Workers’ Party, which during Kim Jong Un’s rule has benefitted more than the other constituent elements of the regime. As Yonhap reports, its source “raised the possibility that Ri may have raised objections to Kim’s recent appointment of party leaders to key military posts.”

In any event, Ri’s name was conspicuously not included in the report of the meeting in Rodong Sinmun, the official North Korean party newspaper, and that suggests the general tangled with party officials at the gathering.

So far, Kim Jong Un has been able to demote, discipline, and kill officers without the military as an institution rebelling. Senior officers know the regime derives most of its legitimacy from the Kim lineage, the so-called Paektu bloodline. Therefore, generals realize they need Kim Jong Un to continue to breathe.

But young Kim—he is thought to be about 33—can push too far, as many think he is at the point of doing. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service had noted that senior leaders in Pyongyang have questioned Kim’s “governing style” because of his frequent resort to the ultimate punishment. Koh Yu-hwan of Dongguk University in Seoul believes the regime could “reach its limit” if the killings continue.

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The limit line may not be too far away. Radio Free Asia has reported that explosives were found in a ceiling at the Wonsan International Airport late last year, just a day before Kim was scheduled to visit. The plot, if the report is accurate, was probably the work of only a small group.

And the conspiracy, whatever its size, failed. There have been in DPRK history attempted coups and assassinations, but none of them has succeeded because the bulk of the military has supported the Kim family.

The top officers, however, may switch sides if Kim Jong Un continues his relentless campaign to target them, like he has killed Generals Pyon and Hyon and has now disappeared General Ri.