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Kim Jong And Purges Wealthy Elite and Opponents of Outreach to U.S.



Seoul-North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has exiled, imprisoned and executed suspected opponents of his diplomatic outreach to the U.S. and South Korea, while targeting his country's money-laundering elite with asset seizures, according to a new report that details some 50 to 70 individuals.

The crackdown, portrayed as an anticorruption campaign in state-run media, suggests Mr . Kim is looking to silence critics and shore up his regime's finances in the face of international sanctions, said U.S. security analysts and former South Korean intelligence officials.

Economic sanctions have pinched Pyongyang's traditional sources of foreign currency from exports to its access to the global banking system, and the confiscations represent a way for the regime to replenish the much-needed funds.

The purge takes on the officials who have used their powerful positions to amass wealth illicitly, albeit in a North Korean scale, according to analysts and the report from the North Korean Strategy Center, a Seoul-based think tank established by the North Korean defector. The report's findings are based on interviews with 20 current and former high-ranking members of the Kim regime.

In a widely watched Jan. 1

speech, Mr.

Scorched Earth

The Kim regime has purged many elites over the years in an effort to maintain absolute control. .

Party and government organs "should intensify the struggle to eradicate both serious and trivial instances of abuse of power, bureaucratism and corruption, which would wreak havoc … and undermine the socialist system," Mr. Kim said.

The remarks came after senior officials from the North Korean Guard Command responsible for the personal security of the Kim family were purged last year when the regime accused them of managing a slush fund valued at tens of thousands of According to North Korea Strategy Center reports,

The Wall Street Journal could not independently confirm the specifics of the purge, although South Korean analysts expressed their confidence in the authors' findings about Mr. Kim's new crackdown.

The sweep, which took place late last year, seeks to mainly confiscate foreign-cash pillars amassed by the North Korean establishment, and is thought to have netted the regime as much as several million dollars, the authors of The North Korea Strategy Center report said. The authors said they interviewed 14 former North Korean officials, six current officials and five additional North Koreans who now reside outside the North for their report.

"Kim Jung-bong, a former South Korean intelligence official.

Although the North Korean leader has condoned some degree of corruption to satisfy loyalists for the sake of regime stability, the sanctions seem to have changed his thinking: Pyongyang now views money graffiti as being wealthy from increasingly cash-strapped Government coffers, the former official said.

The crackdown differs from the previous ones directed by Pyongyang because it seems aimed at offenses involving unremarkable, if not widely practiced, types of bribery, said the US and South Korean security analyst.

Mr. Kim is thought to have purged about 400 individuals in the Pyongyang establishment since taking over from his father in late 2011, according to the authors, with a campaign against his influential uncle in 2013 accounting for about half that figure.

The stakes are higher for President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong And analysts say, but no major breakthroughs are expected, the analysts said that they would agree on specifics to move forward to stalled denuclearization talks during their planned summit in Vietnam. Photo: AP
    

Researchers of the Kim regime do not see the latest crackdown as evidence that Pyongyang is in a political disarray, describing Mr. Kim's grip as firm. But in the near term, Mr. Kim needs foreign currency as international sanctions to block much of the country's potential trade. In anticipation of eventual sanctions relief, and having publicly stressed the need to develop his economy, Mr. Kim wants to clean up the rampant graft to ensure that economic projects are not undone by corruption, these people said.

The developments come as Mr. Kim prepares to meet President Trump for denuclearization talks in Hanoi next week, when the North is expected to push for relief from sanctions in return for verifiable steps on disarmament.

Mr. Kim says he wants to refocus his policy toward the economy, which contracted by 3.5% in 2017, according to South Korean Central Bank, the worst performance in two decades.

Ken Gause, director of the adversary analytics program at CNA, a Virginia-based nonprofit think tank, said Mr. Kim might be concerned that widespread bribery is hurting growth, and in turn its political legitimacy, given its desire to boost the economy.

"He is trying to put together, within a country, an economic plan that will actually take root, "He said. "And if you have a climate that is steeped in corruption, whatever you plant in that environment will die."

The events individually reflect Mr. Kim's goal of taming the hawkish military and solidifying his authority while empowering doves in his cabinet as he continues diplomacy with Seoul and Washington.

Among the latest arrests and executions victims, according to North Korea Strategy Center, are senior members of powerful military units that Mr. Kim's father has never touched, so that he would not be the most ardent domestic supporters of the family's rule. According to the authors and other experts in North Korea, the North Korean leader has targeted the 100,000-member Guard Command.

The sweep follows similar actions in 2017 against 10 members of the General Political Bureau-the political commissariat of the North Korean military. According to the NKSC report, they were executed for crimes related to "foreign reserves bribery."

Write to Andrew Jeong at andrew.jeong@wsj.com and Timothy W. Martin at timothy.martin@wsj.com


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