Kim Kyong Hui leaves N. Korea for medical treatment, and the deeper meaning of Jang’s scapegoating

The Daily NK, citing “a high-level party cadre,” reports that Kim Kyong Hui (Kim Il Sung’s daughter, Kim Jong Il’s sister, Jang Song Thaek’s widow, and Kim Jong Un’s aunt) has left North Korea for medical treatment after having a seizure caused by the execution of her husband. Ms. Kim was noticeably absent from yesterday’s ceremony marking the second anniversary of her brother’s death, as Don Kirk’s report notes with almost uncanny prescience. Ri Sol Ju was there, however, looking splendid with this boldest of fashion statements — no pin.

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[Rodong Sinmun]

Although Ri has been seen in public without the obligatory pin before, one would think it was especially obligatory at a remembrance ceremony for a man who was made into a god. Her refusal to wear it there is not a “carefree” decision; it must be for some very powerful reason. Brian Myers, in an interview with The New Republic, sees this omission as just the latest example of Kim Jong Un’s ineptitude:

For the past two years I’ve been marveling at how bad the propaganda has been. I would call it ill-advised if I thought anyone was stupid enough to advise it. From the first few months of the national mourning period, when Kim Jong Un was laughing it up on the evening news, to his allowing an American basketball player to slouch next to him in cap and sunglasses, it’s been one odd move after another. It might have enhanced his overseas image as a reformer, but that can be done in much safer ways. His father cut his teeth in propaganda work, he had a brilliant grasp of it. He took his wife around with him too, but he had the sense not to put her on the evening news. This young man seems to have lived overseas too briefly to learn anything, but long enough to lose touch with his own country, with the myths that keep him in power. 

That interview is a must-read. Myers’s comments on the misuse of the word “reform” are spot-on, and his characterization of the regime’s ideology is thought-provoking (there’s even a Gregor Strasser reference), even if I’m not sure I would complicate the taxonomy of fascism as much as he does.

If this report is accurate, Kim Kyong-Hui isn’t going to be North Korea’s empress-dowager anytime soon, if ever. This leaves us with much to reconcile in the various rumors and reports about the nature of their relationship. It probably means that Ms. Kim was edged aside when Jang was purged but spared herself out of respect for her “bloodline.”

I still don’t rule out the possibility that she supported the purge. As the expression goes, hate isn’t the opposite of love, indifference is. Traditional Korean culture does not accommodate the American notion that couples can divorce and remain friends. To Koreans, divorce isn’t “normal,” one does not continue to have a “normal” friendship with one’s ex-spouse. It’s emotionally possible — particularly for someone who is emotionally warped to begin with — to love and despise a person at the same time.

I can’t help but wonder about the exposure of this alleged plot right before a ceremony that would have featured massed military formations. North Korea says there were no immediate plans for a coup, but this would have been a great occasion for one.

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Speaking of the fine line between love and hate, North Korea’s scapegoating of Jang continues. The Daily NK reports Jang is being blamed for “new agricultural management systems” that have farmers upset that, despite this year’s relatively good harvest, most of their crops were seized. The Chosun Ilbo passes on rumors that Jang’s downfall started with an audit that revealed evidence of his corrupt operation of the military supply system. (I can easily believe that Jang and his cronies were corrupt, but linking him to supply problems in the military sounds like disinformation to me.) A more plausible report, by the Joongang Ilbo, holds that Jang was on the losing side of a struggle with military officers for the control of growing coal exports to China.

The common theme of all these reports is a corrupt regime, riven by factions in ferocious competition to squeeze the increasingly scarce resources out of an overtaxed and depleted country (although the trend line does not suggest that the coal supply is depleted, trend lines tell us nothing about extraction costs, which tend to increase as mines go deeper, and require more excavation, hoisting, and pumping out of water).

Even if you quibble with some aspects of these reports, this theme fits with the other evidence we can see. Sanctions are almost certainly responsible for some of this. The latest evidence of their effect, via Marcus Noland, is that banks have stopped lending to North Korea, which could mean that North Korea is “eating the proverbial seed corn” by selling gold, as it did to survive the Banco Delta Asia sanctions. (I agree with Noland that it’s an exaggeration to say that this means North Korea’s “economic collapse” is imminent.) For its part, Treasury is slowly but steadily adding pressure, most recently by blocking North Korea’s Burmese arms clients under Executive Order 13,619.

Which brings us back to Myers’s interview, in which he says that neither sanctions nor inducements will cause North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. It’s hard to see North Korea ever giving up its nukes voluntarily, and inducements, by their nature, require the other party’s voluntary cooperation. Sanctions, however, are a coercive strategy. We’ve used them to coerce both Iran and North Korea to commit, in principle, to denuclearization. They’ve been effective for giving our diplomats clout; unfortunately, our diplomats tend to throw that clout away in the name of building feel-good atmospherics with those determined to cheat them.

People sometimes ask me what the purpose of sanctions is. My hope, of course, is that they can force North Korea to change its behavior, but I can only envision two plausible circumstances in which that happens. The first would be one in which Kim Jong Un faces an imminent choice between disarmament and extinction. That circumstance will not come to pass unless Kim Jong Un is convinced that sanctions will only tighten until we verify disarmament, that any suspension would be brief and contingent on continued progress, and that we’re prepared to induce the collapse of his regime as an alternative. The other involves a negotiation with some new and different-thinking faction that has ousted Kim Jong Un. This latter circumstance is by far the more likely of the two. And a regime riven by conflicts over increasingly scarce resources is exactly the environment in which I would expect that circumstance to become a reality.


  1. Not a good picture of a fashion icon. Her face is white, her eyes are unfocussed and red, and her posture is terrible. Her hair is less than immaculate. Her hands are clenched over her thumbs — and then there is the absence of that fundamentally important lapel pin.

    Now it is always possible to take bad pictures of celebrities, but….Has she been crying? Is she drugged? Was she stripped of the pin as a bad person who is unworthy to wear it and is now off to her very own camp after a compulsory and false public appearance?


  2. Think of her as the Empress in Curse of the Golden Flower, forced to appear in public while her husband is poisoning her in private, kept alive only as the mother of the heir.


  3. Do you know anything about this rumor that Jang and his aides were executed by being stripped naked and fed to 120 starving guard dogs?


  4. Joshua, I was surprised to hear you say that a coup against Kim Jong-Un is plausible. Seems to me like that would be really tough to pull off. So much of the regime’s power and control seems tied to the Kim family mythos, and things that extend from that, like the aura of omnipotence and unanimity you mentioned the other day. And the Jang Song-Thaek purge suggests that the Kim bloodline is still trumps in this game.

    If a coup forcibly removed a Kim descendant from power, could someone not of that bloodline simply run business as usual? I think they’d have a much tougher time commanding the necessary loyalty, if nothing else. And how would they explain the change domestically, to people who’ve heard 60 years of nothing but deification of the Kims? I’d love to hear more on this subject.


  5. Gary, there are multiple Kim family members from which to choose a figurehead.

    There are multiple ways in which someone could have an accident. In fact, the news about Jang Songthaek planning a coup lays the groundwork for assassination of Kim Jong-un to be accepted as part of such a plot, only to be replaced the the able and loyal other son of Kim Jong-il, or whatever.

    In all seriousness, in the last days of his leadership, poring over all these reports of Kim Jong-il traveling to this place or that, I was starting to believe KJI himself might have been nothing more than a figurehead.