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The Pyongyang Purge

TOKYO – During the Cold War, the term “Kremlinology” referred to efforts to understand what was taking place at the commanding heights of the Soviet Union – indeed, behind the entire Iron Curtain. Kremlinologists monitored (in whatever way possible) who was up and who was down among the core Soviet leadership. Great significance was read into who signed an official document, or who stood where atop Lenin’s Tomb in Red Square when reviewing military parades.

All of that was grammar-school stuff compared to efforts to decipher the regime in North Korea, where the truth is far more opaque.

Consider what happened on December 17. Choe Ryong-hae, Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Korean Workers’ Party, was conspicuously present on stage at the commemoration of the second anniversary of “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il’s death – the first major ceremony following the purge and execution of Jang Song-thaek, the former vice chairman of the National Defense Commission. Choe’s speech, with its threats against the United States and South Korea, seemed to set the stage for his political elevation.

Jang Song-thaek had been seen as a kind of regent to Kim Jong-un, the young successor to the Kim family dynasty, and was thought to be number two in the regime. But he owed his position to his wife, Kim Kyong-hui, the only sister of Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s deceased father.