Executing your uncle is not a great move in any culture. When Kim Jung-Un accused his uncle and former second in command of being ‘anti party’ and ‘political scum’, most of our global family – regardless of culture, would likely have considered sacking his uncle (and perhaps imprisonment) as an appropriate outcome.
Having him killed by firing squad though, made even the hardiest of us wince.
Being a member of the Kim Jung-Un family is clearly a liability as he’s now accused of having arranged the murder of his own brother, Kim Jung-Nam.
If guilty as charged, then not only has Kim Jung-Un killed his brother, but he has done so in the most sensational way using one of the busiest airports in the globe to stage the execution.
He has also used the deadliest nerve agent known to man – VX. This transparent, tasteless substance is so dangerous that it is classified as a weapon of mass destruction by the UN and is typically only used in acts of chemical warfare.
Surprisingly Kim Jung-Un seems quite happy for the world to know about his antics. He hasn’t tried to dress the occasions up by, for example, staging car accidents or overdoses which is a tactic most used by regimes engaged in the acts of purging their family members.
Killing your family members is a cultural no-no regardless of where you are in the world. But, why is it a particular surprise that Kim Jung-Un would to this?
The reason stems from the absolute love and respect given to family and elders within the Korean culture.
It is shameful to treat your family members badly and people make every effort to protect the honour of their family members. Upsets and conflict are usually contained and value is placed on solving disagreements. Family ‘rifts’ are certainly not common in Korea.
Culturally, showing respect to senior family members – and seniors full stop is crucial in Korea. This stems from Korea’s history of Confucianist traditions whereby respect for the elderly and family is key.
Let’s look at a few cultural examples as to how respect might play out with elders:
• When shaking the hands of someone more senior, two hands are used rather than once
• During greetings, Koreans also bow while shaking hands. The depth of the bow relates to the seniority of the individual to whom the bow is being made
• Younger people wait for older people to eat before they do, they don’t ‘lounge around’ in the presence of someone older and they certainly don’t joke around in front of them. They also don’t ‘challenge’ their seniors
• Language also changes during exchanges between someone who is younger and older as the younger person modifies the nature of their speech
• The respectful mode is also used when communicating with your older brother or sister – it is important to note that Kim Jong-Un’s brother and uncle were both older than him
A Taboo Too Far?
Kim Jong-Un’s behaviour is therefore beyond surprising.
Although he’s denying involvement in his older brother’s murder, he openly authorised the murder of his uncle and the North Koreans are aware of this. The execution was broadcast broadly and openly and foul language was used to denounce the uncle’s behaviour.
Since treating your senior family members with any form of disrespect is so frowned upon in Korea then many now question the impact of the uncle’s execution has had on North Korean locals.
A number of North Korean political commentators have suggested that these behaviours demonstrate that Kim Jong-Un is losing control on both a political and emotional level. Still others have cited this behaviour as so incredibly extreme on a cultural level, that it is the beginning of the end of the regime.
Although most accept that regime change is unlikely in the near future, this behaviour has certainly been a game change and we can only hold our breathe and watch as the saga unrolls …..