The killing of people near the center of political power as in North Korea this past week sometimes happens when centralized power is not dependent on nationwide elections, and when power is of an indefinite duration. The recent state execution of Jang Song-thaek is being described as a product of a power concern by North Korea's young Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. Such concern makes Mr Jang's execution roughly similar to the state killings in the 1930s in Stalinist Russia when some old Bolsheviks who had been at the center of power (Zinoview, Kamenev, Bukharin and others) were tried, confessed to treasonous activities and were executed. Stalin saw these men as a threat to his power. In functioning democracies, fear of losing power is instead focused on public opinion and so you have a lot of speeches.
Young men who inherit power, as has Kim Jong-un, often want to be free of those who have been above them. This led the young emperor Nero to have his mother killed, and there are examples in the monarchical China centuries ago. Kim Jong-un's uncle, the now dead Mr Jang, had been considered Kim's mentor and perhaps regent. According to some scholars, when Kim inherited power in 2011, men high up in state bureaucracy and military thought of him as immature, spoiled and naive. The Supreme Leader is now around thirty and wants to be respected and secure in his position. He is reported as surrounding himself these days with younger men.
To explain Mr Jang's execution there is comic rhetoric on North Korea's state television describing him as a "despicable human scum," and Jang has been denounced as a "traitor for all ages." One wonders how many in North Korea take such rhetoric seriously. Righteous rhetoric, slogans and an unwillingness to break with conformity are on the side of the Supreme Leader — although the Marxist intellectual tradition holds the Great Man theory of history as bunk. Meanwhile we can wonder how much dissent remains hidden to us behind the mass cheering and show of worship for the youthful leader.
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