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]