Today, on the second anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s death, only two of the seven officials who walked alongside his hearse at the state funeral, and his heir, Kim Jong-un, remain. Five have been stripped of their titles, sent to labor camps, or executed — as in the case of Jang Song-thaek.
Mr. Jang had been seen as the No. 2 wielder of power in North Korea in recent years and as a top henchman of both the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung, his father-in-law, and of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, his brother-in-law, for the past four decades. The news that he was executed on Thursday, for plotting a military coup against his nephew, the new Dear Leader, Kim Jong-un, is exceptional and especially frightening since he was a member (by marriage) of the Kim family.
During that snowy winter two years ago when Kim Jong-il died, I was living in the suburbs of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, for almost six months. I remember vividly the bone-aching chill of the Siberian winds, as well as the abruptness with which the news of the death was told to us. I was teaching English on an official exchange in a locked compound, guarded by armed soldiers. That year, all the universities around the country were shut down in preparation for the regime change, and students had been sent to the fields to build their “prosperous nation,” but the 270 sons of the elite, 19 and 20 years old, had been sent to this fortified campus to wait out an impending political storm.
My students, sons of the elite, worshipped the Dear Leader, but on occasions, they had already begun mentioning their “Daejang-nim,” or “general,” referring to Kim Jong-un. They swore to loyally assist the young man — about whom not much was known — because he would surely continue to build, as his grandfather and father had done, their prosperous nation.
Even setting aside North Korea’s profound isolation as a nuclear rogue state, for Kim Jong-un to have an uncle executed is a grave debasement of Korean culture. Filial piety is at the Confucian core of some 6,000 years of Korean history. The greatest heartbreak of the Korean War of 1950 to 1953, which killed a tenth of the population and resulted in the division of the two Koreas, is its legacy of separating more than one million families.
I was born and raised in Seoul, South Korea. Both my mother and father had relatives go missing during the war, never to be heard from again. For Koreans, family ties are at the root of everything, and granting family reunions has long been used as a tactic in negotiations between the two Koreas. When South Koreans elected their first female president, Park Geun-hye, who took office in February, it was partly because she was the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the military dictator who ruled South Korea for 18 years. They were voting for a family, more than an individual.
On hearing the latest news from North Korea, I spoke to my father, who pointed out that not even Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il had dared to have a member of their own family publicly executed. My father expressed hopelessness about the future of North Korea and used a word that roughly translates as moral travesty or sin against heavenly logic, but is mostly used in the Confucian sense of a crime against one’s parent or elderly relative.
Mr. Jang was married for decades to Kim Jong-il’s only sister, Kim Kyong-hui, who appears to have survived the purge of her husband, to whom she was reportedly estranged. Mr. Jang had been a mentor to his nephew since Kim Jong-il had a stroke in 2008.
The North Korean state media has since published a very long list of accusations against Mr. Jang, peppered with declarations such as “Our Party, nation, military, people know only Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un, and no one else.” One of Mr. Jang’s chief crimes was challenging the “Paekdu bloodline.” Paekdu is the highest mountain range in the Korean peninsula where Kim Il-sung supposedly kept a revolutionary base to fight against Japanese colonizers, and where Kim Jong-il was said to have been born. The Paekdu bloodline may or may not protect Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-un’s elder half-brother, who has reportedly gone into hiding.
The Stalinesque purge, however, has already extended to Mr. Jang’s own bloodline. Some of his relatives who have held diplomatic posts in Cuba and Malaysia have been called back to Pyongyang to face the consequences of being related to the man who had until recently been vice chairman of the National Defense Commission and chief of the central administrative department of the governing Workers’ Party, a man the North Korean media now calls “worse than trash, not even fit to be buried in the Korean soil.”
The news media around the world has been busily guessing who will be the next victim of Kim Jong-un’s purge. But for the past few days, I have been recalling the young men I taught and lived with for half a year, feeling the hopelessness that my father refers to. From my time with them, I know that even the elite live in constant fear.
On the morning following the announcement of Kim Jong-il’s death, I had to leave Pyongyang. Looking at my devastated students one final time, I wondered if perhaps they were about to face a better world. The “prosperous nation” which they had so earnestly sworn to build has turned a dark corner. The bastardization of the Korean spirit under the current Dear Leader seems to know no bounds: If he is capable of murdering family members, what else might he do?
Suki Kim is a journalist and the author of The Interpreter: A Novel. Her nonfiction memoir, Without You, There is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, will be published next fall.