Two recent events have shed some light on Kim Jong-un’s leadership: first he cancelled a planned trip to Moscow and now he appears to have removed the country’s formidable defense chief. (South Korea is now saying the once-powerful general, Hyon Yong-chol, has been “purged” but “not necessarily killed”.) But both occurrences point to vulnerabilities at the very top of the DPRK.
Ongoing purges suggest that some of the elite have forgotten the volatility of the young Kim, displaying a lack of respect for the institutions that sustain him and unwillingness to indulge his need to be the focal point of all adulation.
After two years of prefatory propaganda and three years of rule, it is revealing that analysts believe his authority is in question. “Internally, there does not seem to be any respect for Kim Jong-un within the core and middle levels of the North Korean leadership,” said Michael Madden, an expert at the 38 North thinktank.
If the reports are true, why should it be necessary for Kim to send such a piercing signal by removing a man who sat not just on the expanded politburo but also the all-powerful National Defense Commission? Surely the events of December 2013, when Kim Jong-un approved the purge and execution of his own uncle, should still be fresh in minds of North Korean elites.
In such a system, it is nearly impossible for figures other than Kim to accumulate public charisma or prestige. Lacking in any actual administrative expertise, Kim has traded fully upon his bloodline as his primary credential. The young leader’s celebrated “climb” to the summit of Mount Paektu this past month is a case in point: this was an occurrence which not just the whole of the armed forces but the entire nation was expected to celebrate.
There may be reasons for Hyon’s removal other than simple disrespect – he may have said or done something to embarrass the regime in Moscow, for instance, or have made inadequate preparations for Kim’s safety on the young leader’s presumptive first foreign trip.
But given what we know about how Kim operates and how he wishes to be perceived, it is more than possible that Hyon’s basic lack of interest in the personality cult is what led to his downfall.