Open Sources, Special Purge Edition

Today’s big news from North Korea is that Kim Jong Un didn’t kill his wife after all. Dark rumors had been swirling in the South Korean press — the kind of apocryphal rumor that’s more significant for the very fact of its circulation than anything else — that Kim Jong Un had purged Jang Song-Thaek over an affair with Ri “when she was a singer for the Unhasu Orchestra.” Ri has since appeared at a ceremony marking the second anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death, although we still don’t know whether she was wearing Prada or Gucci.

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Three more Jang associates who show no immediate signs of squealing their lives out at the chopping block are his widow, Kim Kyong Hui (named to a funeral committee, but so far, not seen at the anniversary ceremonies), North Korea’s Ambassador to China (still taking meetings), and Vice-Premier Ro Du-chol (also on the funeral committee).

For years, I’d heard from a well-connected South Korean friend that Kim Kyong Hui and Jang were in a Clintonian marriage, and that their estrangement was a bitter one. I’d even heard that she was the more powerful of the two spouses (she certainly is now). The Joongang Ilbo, citing the Asahi Shimbun, says that Kim divorced Jang shortly before his execution. This report, citing South Korean sources, says that Jang and Kim’s “only daughter committed suicide in 2006 while studying in Paris.” What a sad life she must have lived, and she was one of the “lucky” ones.

Some day, a South Korean “drama” producer is going to make a lot of money on this. It’s like “The Borgias” meets “The Killing Fields.”

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This is a week of many ceremonies in Pyongyang. The other day, the regime held a mass loyalty-swearing ceremony for soldiers in Pyongyang, because nothing earns the loyalty of soldiers quite like making them stand in formation for hours on a freezing December day. (The high was 29 degrees.) There will be huge military formations all over Pyongyang. I wonder what precautions they take to prevent the the issuance of live ammunition. You remember Anwar Sadat, right? Just saying.

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One aspect of this purge, and of Kim Jong Un’s ascendancy, that most western analysts haven’t appreciated fully is cultural (The Weekly Standard‘s Ethan Epstein is an exception). Family relationships and respect for elders are almost incalculably important to Koreans. In the Korean language, there are multiple conjugations of each verb (and often, multiple variations of nouns) depending on whether one is addressing a person of greater or lesser social status. In most cases, age is the shortcut to the hearer’s status. Even a difference of a day is enough to change the way you speak to someone. In the Korean language, a younger man addresses an older man as ajoshhi, which means “uncle.” The people of North Korea are fascinated by how weird and scary it all looks to them that a young man shot his literal uncle, and that Kim Kyong Hui may well have plotted to off her own husband. (You have to think North Koreans have a very high bar for “weird and scary”).

It must also grate on sexagenarian and septuagenarian generals to be addressed as inferiors by a 30 year-old. Judging by Barbara Demick’s take — that the purge is being led by Kim, his siblings, and his half-siblings — plenty of members of the Pyongyang elite are about to feel that grating sensation. Chico Harlan notes that Kim Jong Un “has removed or demoted five of the seven elderly officials who walked alongside the hearse at Kim Jong Il’s state funeral two years ago.” I’m not convinced that Kim’s siblings are players in the regime, and most of the generals recently seen sitting near Kim since the purge appears to be in their 50s and 60s (see also). Either way, there is a certain inherent cultural instability to the ascendancy of a young king in a confucian society.

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I loved this quote as much as anything I’ve read about Kim Jong Un all week:

This author still wants to believe that behind the theatrics that surrounds this event might lie some cold-headed Machiavellian scheme, some cunning, larger-than-life plot of the young Supreme Leader who might be worthy of his manipulative grandfather. If, however, things are just as they appear – the erratic act of a teenager’s riot against an annoying adult – I am forced to admit that we have just witnessed pure, undiluted political stupidity. Such an act could be committed only by a person whose life experiences are limited, nervous system is unstable and survival instincts are dead. [Tatiana Gabroussenko, Asia Times Online]

10 Comments

  1. Joshua, If you know about the Clinton marriage, you should maintain a polite silence about it. If you don’t know about it, you should maintain a polite silence about it.




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  2. Why did China let Jang die? This is a longer version of what has been bugging me about Jang’s relationship with China.

    Assume there are two factions in the Chinese foreign office concerning North Korea: one wishes to maintain the country as a destitute satellite entirely dependent upon China for supplies, a world renegade with nuclear weapons and the ability to annoy and alarm other local countries, all to China’s benefit as occasional peacemaker and Big Brother. After all, five of the Group of Six regularly go cap in hand to China to ask it to moderate the DPRK.

    The other faction is tired of paying for the dependency of the DPRK, and would willingly sustain a more developed nation, particularly if, in the process, the Chinese military-industrial establishment benefitted from mining profits and the foreign exchange potential of Rason and the other Special Economic Zones. There’s a lot of money to be made out of mining development in North Korea, and money is now very important in China.

    This second faction was temporarily in charge following the death of Kim Jong Il and the ascendancy of Jang Song Thaek. They saw and sponsored national growth, even if it meant greater risks of localized civil unrest because of the profits that could be returned to China. Gold mining in the DPRK is subject to national pride issues (and the sale of gold reserves was an accusation of misconduct in Jang’s trial and execution.) Gold is always a problematic mineral, even in the West.

    But there are lots of other valuable and boring minerals for Chinese use. Jang was willing to re-open zinc, copper, iron ore, magnesite, graphite and coal mines, and to export these materials to China: because of the DPRK’s low wage structure, these would always be profitable to China, and they are relatively bulky so that China was the logical local buyer by ship and rail (especially since it could flaunt UN sanctions while South Korea would be constrained by them.)

    Then, in October 2013, a report was circulated within the DPRK and China, and was leaked in early December, that the DPRK, in the region between Pyongyang and Sinuiju, possessed the world’s largest deposits of recoverable rare earth minerals (both heavy and light), and the scenario changed. Rare earths are highly useful minerals for modern electronics, all modern weaponry and batteries for hybrid vehicles and laptops. China presently has an essential monopoly on both heavy (extremely desirable) and light (very useful) rare earths through its control of Inner Mongolia’s mines at Baotou: recently it has used its monopoly power to humiliate and limit Japan, to increase world prices ten-fold, and to change from a third world exporter of ore to a modern processor. Each year it is lessening the export quota, which now is 14,500 tons. That is a small quantity; in bulk terms, less than a small ship load. These aggressive Chinese practices are a very serious problem for the West, and a Chinese stranglehold.

    Were supplies to be available from the DPRK, the entire Asian power balance would change: the financial returns to a poor country are so high that the DPRK would cease to be dependent on China; the minerals are so desirable that South Korea and Japan would buy them, come what may, and the benefits to them and to the rest of the world of a second (or even new, primary) source would greatly diminish Chinese power. Chinese restrictions recently raised prices sky high, and they maintain them now at a high but acceptable range: competition would reduce them greatly. Chinese power, return on capital and actual income would diminish… and of these, its tactical control of a group of strategic minerals would be the most serious loss.

    A rumor (which I believe) exists that Jang recently approached Kim Yong Nam in Macau to see if, once in power, he would relinquish nuclear weapons for open mining: the rumor doesn’t say “rare earth mining” but it fits because it is a new and incredibly sensitive world resource, it would be a most sensible bargain to relinquish nukes for rare earth exploitation, and it would take the DPRK from the shadow of China permanently and could even eventually produce a unified peninsula.

    The overthrow of a Stalinist kid who thinks that gold in the Treasury is more valuable than gold in circulation would not be inconceivable for Jang, where Jang could show to his military magnates the possibility of billions of real, clean dollars in three or five years, and a return of a pariah nation to the world stage.

    So, in my view, the first faction of the Chinese foreign office approved the overthrow of Jang in order to maintain Imperial Chinese control of its subject satellite. They leaked to Baby Kim all the dubious things his uncle was doing, and he was doing them because, in the local balance of power, Jang was set to declare independence of China. China set him up to die. They took away his protection. That is why China promptly announced that was an “internal affair.”

    China wants the DPRK to be uneducated, pregnant and barefoot, living in the holler cut off from the world…and Baby Kim and his odious family are too naïve to see that he’s a captive.




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  3. Three more Jang associates who show no immediate signs of squealing their lives out at the chopping block are his widow, Kim Kyong Hui (named to a funeral committee, but so far, not seen at the anniversary ceremonies), North Korea’s Ambassador to China (still taking meetings), and Vice-Premier Ro Du-chol (also on the funeral committee).

    Stalin used to let some of his victims roam free in a semblance of normality, too. This trio may not be out of danger.




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  4. David, nice speculation, gotta love palace intrigues.

    I don’t think China could “protect” anyone in NK, though, as long as men with guns listen to Young Leader. Jang probably had it coming anyway, Chinese meddling or no.




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  5. I hate it when North Korean leaders die during finals. It really curbs my ability to let loose on analysis, speculation, and blatant sh¡t-stirring.

    Note that Jang was removed and executed a few days before Kim Jong-il’s chesa marking the two-year anniversary of his death. Kim Jong-un did not want his uncle there specifically, which he likely would have been had he held the same posts as before the purge.

    KJI did not die of the ills he was widely publicized to have had (e.g., pancreatic cancer). He was traveling and performing his duties when it happened. His death came as a surprise and it took the authorities two days to announce it. My belief is that it is plausible he was in fact killed. The connection to this is that if he was killed, it likely came at the hands of Jang Songthaek or someone acting with his knowledge.

    KJU finds this out eventually and is furious. He literally wants his uncle dead. Just look at the kid during the funeral: He was visibly shaken and distraught. His father may have been a murderous tyrant, but he was his dad.

    The last thing a KJU now armed with this knowledge wants is for this hypocritical fiend to appear at the chesa pretending to be distraught himself. That would make KJU explode: No, JST must be gone before the chesa. And so it was.




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  6. david, I also am intrigued by your intrigue. I recall reading about North Korea’s $6 trillion potential for rare earth metals last year. I completely agree with you that China would want to control North Korea’s REMs in order to maintain their virtual monopoly.

    Alternatively, they would want to control it so they could capitalize on it. Using the $6 trillion figure, that is about 2/3 of China’s output for a year at their current economic size ($9 trillion). On the other hand, that is 150 years of output for North Korea at their current economic size (a mere $40 billion, less that one half of one percent of China’s).

    To China, NK’s REMs are a neat thing to have in their back pocket, whereas for North Korea those same REMs are an absolute game changer. And what has been happening with North Korea’s natural resources? The Chinese have been buying them up, to the chagrin of almost everyone except China and a few people in North Korea who benefit personally from the sale of rights.

    I think a more logical explanation is not that China allowed Jang to die so that a potential competitor could be eliminated, but that China lost its economic partner who was willing to sell them more resources (and allow them to control the resources).




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  7. kushibo, thank you for that very early 2012 reference: in my paranoid view of schizophrenic China, it gives the barefoot and pregnant group time to set up the conspiracy. But as is obvious, I’m just speculating.

    Like you, I feel Little Kim was assassinated, but I always thought the kid did it: the idea that the uncle did, and the kid has only just learned about it, is fascinating …but plays again into my theory that one Chinese faction ratted Jang out so as to keep the North in subjugation. Who knew? China knew. Who told? China did.

    Now it certainly appears likely that Jang was plotting a coup: his statements under torture give plausible explanations of his purpose. What does that say about the current deplorable conditions in the North? Jang could live under Little Kim, even with the Great Confiscation and his own years under reconstruction, but not under Baby Kim. That suggests Baby Kim exercised real power even before Jang’s death, that he is so intellectually limited that Jang felt he could never be expected to improve living conditions, and is indeed a true Stalinist.




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