The consequences of loyalty and disloyalty in North Korea

The image on the left shows Kim Jong-un attending the funeral of Kim Ki-nam, the former propaganda chief and secretary of the Workers’ Party Central Committee, on May 9. The image on the right depicts Jang Song-taek, Kim Jong-un’s uncle, standing in court before his execution on December 12, 2013. Images | DPRK media

Towards the end of his long career, Kim Ki-nam had good reason to worry about his future. 

As North Korea’s longtime propaganda chief, he had the honor in December 2011 of escorting the hearse at the funeral of the leader Kim Jong-il. Walking along the right side of the vehicle, directly in front of him, was his friend Jang Song-thaek, the powerful number two man in the country. In front of Jang was the new number one, Kim Jong-un.

Two years later, Kim Jong-un had Jang arrested and shot by firing squad. A swathe of  family members, friends and aides disappeared. The purge of others among Kim Jong-il’s pallbearers has given rise to the phrase the “curse of the funeral seven.”

But Kim Ki-nam survived. Indeed, we may say he thrived, because when he died earlier this month at age 94, Kim Jong-un accorded him the honor of a state funeral and led the proceedings himself.

North Korean media noted that Kim Jong-un personally chaired Kim Ki-nam’s funeral committee, participating in a memorial event and being the first at the burial at the Patriotic Martyrs’ Cemetery to sprinkle dirt on the coffin

“(Kim Ki-nam) laid the cornerstone for the eternal glory of the Party and the state,” Kim Jong-un was quoted as saying.

Kim Ki-nam was the head of Kim Il-sung University, the chief editor of the Rodong Sinmun newspaper, and then the head of the party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department. Often likened to Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister of Nazi Germany, Kim dedicated himself to securing the legitimacy and idolization of the three-generation rule of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un.

Heo Kwang-il, Chairman of the North Korean Democratic Improvement Committee in South Korea noted that Kim was sufficiently trusted to lead the North Korean delegation to the funeral in Seoul of the South’s Kim Dae-jung in 2009. 

“As he aged, he suffered from health issues, but he would still appear at official events where he would be seen taking notes at Kim Jong-un’s speeches,” he said.

Loyal to the end, Kim apparently “expressed his regret at not being able to respect the leader while enduring difficult times due to illness, and earnestly requested (me) to support Kim Jong-un,” said Politburo member Ri Il-hwan in a eulogy. Ri is a director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department, which is headed by Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong.

Explaining the deathbed loyalty message, a defector who was an official in the department sees it as an attempt to appear to “share the burden of loyalty to Kim Jong-un among the people, thus gaining their support. Additionally, Kim Jong-un’s direct participation in the funeral serves as an implicit indication of the treatment that those loyal to him can expect.” The defector asked that his name not be used.

“Kim Jong-un’s act of personally sprinkling soil at the gravesite may also intend to humanize his image,” he said. “His appearance reminds people of the public purging of Jang Song-thaek. He was paraded in public with his hands tied, serving as a sacrificial lamb to send the message that even a relative can be executed.”

Kim Jong-un’s public announcement of Jang’s execution and his appearance at Kim Ki-nam’s funeral signal the treatment those who support him versus those who oppose him can expect.

Another defector who worked as an official and who similarly requested anonymity, said that, as Kim Ki-nam and his brother, Kim Yong-nam, a former foreign minister and  President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, were prominent loyalists, Kim Jong-un’s direct involvement was “a natural courtesy.”

“While Jang Song-thaek sought to build his own power base, Kim Ki-nam neither sought nor belonged to any faction,” he noted. Kim was close with Kim Jong-il from the time when they were in the Propaganda and Agitation Department. 

“Those who praised Kim Ki-nam highly noted that when he held high positions, he monitored his children and family to ensure they didn’t pursue personal interests excessively,” the defector said.

Some reports say that over 420 people have been publicly executed since Kim Jong-un came to power. Kim Ki-nam illuminated the path that North Koreans need to follow to make sure they don’t suffer the same fate.

Lee Jia

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