I had not anticipated that one of my first columns of the New Year would be reflecting on an event that took place 62 years ago.
The recent execution of Jang Song-Thaek, the uncle and mentor of North Korea's young leader Kim Jong-Un, however, brought back memories of a similar purge that was centered around Rudolf Slansky, the second most powerful leader in the country, the general secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party.
The purge that is taking place in North Korea, a country known as the "hermit kingdom" for its isolation and secretiveness, is of major concern to many nations around the world. Mostly because North Korea is a nuclear-weapons state with a standing army of more than one million, and a trained reserve of almost 10 million personnel.
Experts speculate that the North might attempt a military provocation against South Korea to avert attention from Kim Jong-Un's bloody purge of those who "confessed to plotting to overthrow his government."
Should there be a military confrontation between North and South Korea, it is feared, the United States military may get involved. If it happens, the clash would reverberate across the Hampton Roads, one of the major military staging areas in our country and maybe even at Fort Drum, the training base for 80,000 troops, each year.
"I was going to stage the coup by using army officers who had close ties with me by mobilizing armed forces under the control of my confidants," Jang Song-Thaek was quoted, confessing during his court-martial.
The uncle of the young dictator of North Korea was considered the second most influential man in the country. He was a champion of a Chinese-style economic overhaul in North Korea. This didn't sit well with those who prefer the status quo, guaranteeing their privileges. In the opaque political world of North Korea, it is not clear who is whispering into Kim Jong-Un's ears. But apparently, he became convinced that his uncle, the husband of the sister of his father (not a blood relative) was plotting to unseat him. He was publicly arrested and after a pro-forma court-martial, executed.
All this was a familiar scenario to me. In 1952, I have covered the show trial, officially called, "The trial of anti-state conspiracy centered around Rudolf Slansky." He and 13 other Communist leaders were accused of participating in a Trotskite-Tiotoite-Zionist conspiracy. They were convicted of having adopted the politics of the maverick Yugoslav leader, Tito. To eliminate the threat of "disloyalty" to the Soviet Union, Moscow-orchestrated show trials took place across the satellite countries.
In Prague, 14 Communist leaders were convicted, and 11 of them, including Slansky, hanged. Three were sentenced to life imprisonment. Alas, in 1963, Slansky, and the other "anti-party conspirators" were judicially rehabilitated. Five years later, President Ludvik Svoboda, awarded the Order of the Republic to the victims of the purge, albeit, posthumously.
North Korean officials had already indicated that purges were coming, with the goal to eliminate "undesirable and alien elements in important post of the state and the party." The purge is expected to reach into the military and the secret police because, as Jang Song-Thaek confessed, he worked to "stretch his tentacles into the People's Army."
There is no doubt that there will be bloody purges in North Korea. According to Kim Kwan-Jin, South Korea's defense minister, the "North might attempt a military provocation against the South, to defuse a domestic political crisis."
Thus, some experts believe, China and the United States might find themselves collaborating to defuse an international crisis. If they succeed, there will be no need for the Hampton Roads to serve as a military staging area, or Fort Drum to rivet up its training schedule.
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from the Virginia Gazette.