Apparent purge victim: the Unhasu orchestra.
Credit: Pierre Verdy

SEOUL, South Korea — The news today that North Korea removed Jang Sung Taek, the powerful uncle of Kim Jong Un and vice chair of the body that heads the military, could amount to the boy dictator’s greatest leadership shake-up yet.

At least, that’s if you believe a briefing on Tuesday by the South Korean spy agency, the National Intelligence Service (NIS), for the country’s lawmakers. The body cited the (supposed) earlier execution of two close aides, and the fact that Chang has not appeared in North Korean state media in a month, Yonhap news agency reported.

“In essence, the evidence available boils down to, ‘These two guys were shot, and then Jang disappeared, so he must have been removed,” said Chris Green, international affairs manager at DailyNK, a website that tracks events in North Korea. “The logic is sound, isn’t it? And it fits the playbook of an autocratic dictatorship, where power cannot be shared so something has to give.”

Jang, seen by some as an economic reformer, is Kim Jong Un’s uncle by marriage and could wield enormous influence over the 30-year-old dictator, experts say. Analysts have called him the “man behind the throne,” holding onto power alongside the boy leader’s aunt, Gen. Kim Kyong-hui.

But North Korea, of course, is home to unforgiving politics.

If the reports are true, this would hardly be the first episode of a purge at the highest ranks, even if the excommunication of a key confidante is unusual.

Here are three of the most significant North Korean purges over the past decade — including one strange demotion that might have come down to the dictator’s musical taste.

Clearing out the reformer

When the technocrat Pak Pong Ju assumed the North Korean premiership in 2003, onlookers breathed a sigh of relief for this impoverished and isolated nation.

The hermit kingdom had recently emerged from a famine that perhaps left 1 million people dead — though the real number may never be known. Some optimists hoped that North Korea, which was already in the midst of a diplomatic thaw with the South, would feel compelled to open up its markets and gradually move toward a post-Cold War reunification of the peninsula.

Pak was thought to be an architect of a package of economic reforms. These efforts included raising foreign currency for the lifeless economy and reorganizing the government’s broken food distribution system.

But in 2007, a fearful old guard demoted Pak, sending him to the countryside to the uneventful duties of, well, chemical factory manager.

Considering some of his peers have faced public firing squads, that wasn’t a bad outcome. And his funk was not permanent. Pak re-emerged in March 2013 as a member of the Politburo, and may be connected to new economic laws publicized in August.

Botched currency wipe

Pak’s measures may have saved a nation at the brink, but other projects have been disastrous — leading the regime to ferret out and execute scapegoats in the upper echelons of power.

In 2009, North Korea embarked on a disastrous currency reform that effectively destroyed the population’s savings, stirred up bouts of civil unrest, and ended with an unprecedented apology from one of the world’s most authoritarian governments.

At a party meeting in January 2010, a group of elite delegates reportedly denounced one top finance crony, Pak Nam Gi, for the fiasco. He was arrested on the spot. Two months later, he was found guilty and sentenced to death by firing squad for the crime of being “a son of a bourgeois conspiring to infiltrate the ranks of revolutionaries to destroy the national economy,” Yonhap reported.

Interesting way of summing up this economic “crime.”

Military shake-up

Since rising to power in late 2011, Kim Jong Un has carried out an extensive purge of elite military leaders, possibly in a bid to keep the colossal and all-powerful army under his thumb. Many of these officials had risen to power when Kim was a child, swearing loyalty to his father rather than the young Generalissimo.

Since July 2012, the nation has named four separate army chiefs. Last May, the top commander was Kim Kyok Sik, but five months later, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), announced he had been replaced.

Nobody knows for sure what goes on in the regime’s inner circle, but some of these shifts came after a round of bluster in early 2013 — including a nuclear test and a line-up menacing military exercises probably intended to make South Korea jittery.

Kim Jong Un may have been trying to demonstrate his battlefield prowess and superiority over a bevy of elderly, veteran commanders, analysts said. For a nation in an unending state of military emergency, that’s the kind of leader who stays in power.

Goodbye, Unhasu Orchestra

You’d think a troupe of youthful singers and dancers, touring the nation and singing pop anthems to the Supreme Leader, wouldn’t threaten his overarching presence.

Yet, when a band with symbolic national value loses its luster for the autocrat, the musicians may end up out of work — or worse.

Earlier this year, North Korea apparently disbanded its long-beloved Unhansu orchestra.

The wife of Kim Jong Un, Ri Sol Ju, was once a singer in the group, but rumors suddenly floated last summer that some orchestra members were executed by firing squad for making homemade sex videos.

The steamy rumor is probably false, but a strange development kicked up the curiosity of regime watchers: the Unhasu Orchestra didn’t appear, as it always had, at celebrations on Sept. 9 for the North Korean National Independence Day. Nobody knows for sure what happened, but a newer, charming all-female group called the Moranbong Band has mysteriously gained prominence in its place.

“It is more than possible that certain members of the Unhasu Orchestra — a group which was sufficiently trusted and symbolically powerful to be sent to Paris in March 2012 — did something wrong that was sufficiently bad to shut down the whole orchestra,” said Adam Cathcart, a North Korea expert at the University of Leeds.

“However, the Unhasu Orchestra was a Kim Jong Il symbol, and the Moranbong is Kim Jong Un's. It could simply be that he thought it was time to mothball it,” he said.

In other words, in a nation known for its opaqueness, much depends on the whims and paranoia of the powerful, who aren’t afraid to exploit ruthless tactics to reach the inner circle in the first place.

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