Three Ways to Tell if Someone Is Plotting a Coup Against You

Creative ways for paranoid dictators can sniff out—and snuff out—their enemies

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2010 Korean News Service via Getty Images

Clap til you drop! Delegates to a 2010 Korean Workers' Party convention in Pyongyang

North Korea‘s cherub tyrant Kim Jong Un startled the outside world this week by having a top regime official, who also happens to be his uncle, dragged from a public meeting and later executed. A creepy statement from North Korea’s official news agency accuses Jang Song Thaek of numerous crimes, including plotting against the regime and leading “a dissolute and depraved life” that included womanizing and gambling.

One of the giveaways, according to the statement, was that at an ecstatic Workers Party of Korea meeting, Jang “behaved so arrogantly and insolently as unwillingly standing up from his seat and half-heartedly clapping” while the crowd around him cheered.

Rookie error! Applause enthusiasm is a critical and time-honored means of survival in a dictatorship, as you’ll see from this review of ways totalitarian regimes seek to smoke out traitors, real or imagined:

The Clap-a-thon

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s famous account of Soviet tyranny, The Gulag Archipelago, unforgettably described the stakes involved when a functionary-filled hall applauds a paranoid dictator. Here he describes the scene at a 1937 party conference in Moscow honoring a new party secretary. The conference ends with a tribute to Comrade Stalin, for which the audience leaps to its feet, roaring with applause.

For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the “stormy applause rising to an ovation” continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin.

However, who would dare be the first to stop? The secretary of the District Party Committee could have done it. He was standing on the platform and it was he who had called for the ovation. But he was a newcomer. He had taken the place of a man who’d been arrested. He was afraid! After all, NKVD [secret police] men were standing in the hall applauding and watching to see who quit first.

By Solzhenitsyn’s account, the applause carries on for eight, nine, ten minutes. Finally, at the eleventh minute, the director of the local paper factory stopped clapping and sat back down.

“That same night,” Solzhenitsyn writes, “the factory director was arrested.”

They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed the Form 206, the final document of the interrogation, his interrogator reminded him:

“Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding!”

Friends and Family Plans

As the leader of Iraq, Saddam Hussein was as merciless as he was suspicious towards his lieutenants. Saddam worried constantly about the prospect of a coup against him. His close allies, in turn, feared they might be baited into joining a phony conspiracy in a test of their loyalty to the regime.

According to the Iraqi author Georges Hormuz Sada, that was the reaction of Iraqi vice president Hardan al-Tikriti in the early days of Saddam’s regime, around 1968, when he was approached by other Iraqi officials planning a coup against their new leader. According to Sada, Hardan likely supported the plot. But fearing that he might be the target of a loyalty test, Hardan instead reported the conspiracy to Saddam. As it happened, the coup plot was real. But approaching Saddam, writes Sada, was “the biggest mistake of his life,” apparently leading Saddam to view Hardan with new suspicion. (Why would a rock-solid loyalist be approached to join a coup attempt, after all?) Saddam soon sent Hardan into exile and eventually had him assassinated.

In a kind of variation on this theme, Joseph Stalin jailed the wives of several of his top lieutenants to determine whether they would unquestioningly support his every order. They did. During a 1949 Politburo meeting, one of them, Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, even voted for the arrest of his wife, Paulina.

The Crying Game

Even relative to Stalinist Russia and Saddam’s Iraq, it’s hard to beat the fanatical suspicion that permeates communist North Korea. That’s why the demise of a leader can become a life-or-death test for ordinary North Koreans, whose very grieving may be scrutinized for its depth of sincerity. “It is deeply in North Koreans’ consciousness that they have to express their sorrow in the bitterest degree when the top leader dies, to avoid raising suspicions about their loyalty,” “Professor Kim Young-Soo of Seoul’s Sogang University told AFP after the 2011 death of Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il. The New York Times reported at the time on “scenes of mass hysteria and grief among citizens and soldiers across the capital,” but noted a pair of teenage boys in a public square who showed no emotion until they noticed a camera pointed at them—whereupon they fall to their knees and weep.

It seems safe to say that no sane North Korean will show a hint of remorse over the execution of Jang Song Thaek.