Some time ago, the Yonhap News Agency, citing numerous sources inside North Korea, reported that the immediate relatives of the recently executed Jang Song-thaek have also been put to death.
If these reports are to be believed, this sorry fate fell upon his sister and her husband ― the latter being the former North Korean ambassador to Cuba. Jang's nephew, until recently North Korea's ambassador to Malaysia, as well as the nephew's children, were also reported to have been executed.
Other relatives of Jang were also reported to have been removed from their Pyongyang homes and sent to prison camps. Yonhap also stated that some of these relatives did not go quietly and were reportedly shot to death in front of their neighbors.
Such reports, like pretty much all reports from North Korea, should be taken with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, unlike the notoriously stupid reports about Jang Song-thaek being literally thrown to the dogs, these reports look quite reasonable and fit within established patterns. Treating the relatives of political criminals in such a way has been standard operating procedure in North Korea for decades.
From around 1960, the North Korean authorities began to apply to all political criminals what is known as the "family responsibility system." As a result, in the event of a political crime, not only the political criminal, but their entire family was to be sent to a prison camp. Exceptions were made for women who had married into the family, so long as the woman's family in question had sufficient revolutionary credentials.
For some three decades, until around 1994-95, this system was applied uniformly. Every potential dissenter therefore was aware that their own personal political deeds would not just lead to their own imprisonment or worse, but would also bring great suffering to all of their family members too. Hence, dissent was almost unheard of.
An instructive example is the fate of Kang Chol-hwan and his family. Kang came from a family of ethnic Koreans who resided in Japan. His grandfather was a successful and an apolitical Korean businessman, merely unlucky enough to fall in love with and marry a political activist.
Kang's grandmother, a passionate communist-cum-nationalist got embroiled in an ideological dispute with Han Dok-su, the mighty boss of the pro-Pyongyang Association of Ethnic Koreans in Japan.
In the 1960s, she persuaded her family to move north to participate in the country's development. Soon after their arrival, her husband disappeared. With his fate unclear as of now, the rest of the family was sent to a prison camp.
At the time of his imprisonment, Kang was 9 years old. He was lucky enough to survive and eventually reached South Korea and became a prominent journalist and activist here.
When political criminals did something especially serious (or at least were alleged to have done so) ― like a plot against the state, i.e. treason ― the immediate relatives of the culprit were treated with much greater severity.
For example, members of the so-called August conspiracy, who in 1956 attempted to oust Kim Il-sung from power, were executed together with a number of their immediate relatives. More distant relatives were sent to prison camps where many of them were to perish quickly.
Around 1994-95, however, with the ascension of Kim Jong-il, the North Korean police and judiciary were told to apply the family responsibility principle more selectively. As a result, the families of less dangerous political criminals were permitted to remain free. New instructions followed in 2003 when Kim Jong-il decided that this notorious principle should only be applied in truly exceptional cases.
However, few would doubt that the Jang Song-thaek affair is indeed an exceptional case, which might warrant the use of more brutal practices. It is also important to emphasize that Kim Jong-un seemingly is a more ruthless and heartless politician than his father.
Last but not least, Kim Jong-un and his propaganda-writing subordinates always emphasize that the young supreme leader aims to restore the order of Kim Il-sung's (not Kim Jong-il's) era.
All of this should make us take the above-cited Yonhap report seriously. Of course, some parts may have been distorted or exaggerated. For example, it is difficult for this author to believe that some of Jang's relatives openly resisted, nor (unless it was preplanned) is it particularly likely that police shot to kill.
Nonetheless, it seems likely that a small part of the North Korean elite is learning to survive on three tiny bowels of corn gruel a day. Admittedly they have many people to teach them: there are about 100,000 political prisoners in North Korea today.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.