Like the Stalinist apparatchiks before them, officials in the North Korean government are hesitant to release estimates for the number of people they have murdered. The Kim Dynasty is responsible for the impressment of hundreds of thousands of South Koreans into their military and it may never be clear how many North and South Koreans have been killed by hard labor, concentration camps, and political purges. In short, North Korea has assured the world that it is possible to maintain a totalitarian regime in the modern day.
No totalitarian regime is complete without a national ideology, which citizens must accept if they value their lives. The North Korean leaders espouse Juche, a philosophy based on the seemingly contradictory beliefs that the “masses of people” shape society and that the individual man is the master of the world around him. To exacerbate the sense of doublethink, believers in Juche must also believe in a hierarchical structure of political classes, with citizens positioned below Party functionaries and the Supreme Leader. The North Korean government also maintains ancestral records on its citizens, and uses these records to enforce a rigid caste system called songbun. Under songbun, citizens can be sentenced to hard labor, displaced from their homes or executed as punishment for crimes against the state committed by their relatives. Though the central tenet of Juche states that it is the people who determine the trajectory of their country’s growth, North Koreans are forced to accept a government-run program of class-based discrimination. The masses of North Korea have almost no power whatsoever and are at the mercy of an autocratic political machine.
There is still disagreement, however, about who operates this machine. Some political analysts believe that the North Korean government is heavily stratified and that the Supreme Leader wields all the nation’s power. Other experts assert that certain departments of the government are robust enough to challenge Kim Jong-Un’s authority. Christopher Green, a journalist who worked in Seoul for a paper specializing in North Korean Affairs, wrote that Kim, like Josef Stalin and Mao Tse-tung, has a coalition of officials who “share a single goal, which is perpetuating their existing political power.”
In pursuit of this goal, Kim Jong-Un and his ring of advisers frequently resort to illicit methods. Kim Jong-Nam, one of the Supreme Leader’s brothers, was murdered at a Malaysian airport by two women who rubbed drops of a deadly nerve agent into his face. While there is no definitive proof that Kim Jong-Un was involved in his brother’s murder, the North Korean government clearly wants to keep details of the assassination from becoming public knowledge. The Kim regime requested that Malaysia give over Jong-Nam’s body without conducting an autopsy. This request was not fulfilled, but North Korea did receive the body after cutting a deal to release nine Malaysian prisoners who they had prevented from leaving the country.
Kim Jong-Un spent his early years as Supreme Leader cleansing the Inner Party of dissident voices. This purge resulted in the murder of several notable DPRK officials, including Jong-Un’s half-brother and his uncle, Jang Song Thaek. Killing relatives, then, would not be a first for the Great Leader. If he did kill his brother, it would be an unintentional refutation of the state-sponsored myth that there is something sacred running through the bloodline of the Kim Dynasty). Belief in the divinity of the Baekdu bloodline is compulsory in North Korea, though the facts demonstrate Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il, and Kim Jong-Un as individuals far less than godly.
It matters very little whether Kim Jong-Un killed his brother and the question of who exactly is in charge of the nation matters even less. The truth about North Korea has been apparent for decades. It is a modern totalitarian state whose citizens are subjected to ceaseless thought policing and economic impoverishment. As long as the DPRK exists in its current permutation, it will continue to be terroristic domestically and belligerent internationally.
Alex Klein is a campus correspondent for the Daily Campus and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.