In The Last Days of Kim Jong-il, Bruce Bechtol outlines the progress North Korea has made in weaponizing uranium … At the heart of Bechtol’s analysis is an explanation of why these weapons, whether filled with plutonium or uranium cores, are so dangerous in the hands of the Kim family regime.
As he tells us, the ruling group is unstable, headed by a young leader constantly struggling with willful individuals, some of whom are scheming relatives and all of whom are rivals. And in the never-ending contest for power in Pyongyang, Bechtol explains, losers often come to a bad end. Beginning in 2010, senior North Korean officials started dying “under mysterious circumstances.” Some were killed in suspicious traffic accidents; others were simply executed. The deaths appear to have been arranged by Kim Jong-il, then the North’s leader, to assure the eventual succession of his youngest son, Jong-un, to ultimate power. As Bechtol points out, these “forcible removals” looked as if they were staged to open up vacancies in the regime; in fact, the number of executions tripled in 2010 over 2009, with at least 60 performed in public.
To be sure, peace did not come with the ascension of Kim Jong-un in December 2011, after his father’s fatal heart attack. And the new dictator—perhaps 27 at the time—was ruthless, even ordering the assistant chief of staff of the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces to be obliterated with a mortar round, “to leave no trace of him behind down to his hair.” The purges continued in less dramatic fashion into the fall of 2012.
Kim Jong-il spent about two years preparing his son [beginning] the process after he recovered from his 2008 stroke. Bechtol pegs the beginning of Kim Jong-un’s succession training to sometime early in the following year. The ailing Kim Jong-il speeded up the transition by eliminating officials who stood in his way, and the resulting turbulence eroded support for Jong-un in North Korea’s “cadre society.” Bechtol writes: “Sections of the elite have felt increasingly betrayed because of the large number of purges and executions that have occurred, presumably because of succession issues.” Young Kim may not be able to count on the support of the various factions that make up the regime. Continued