The summer of their discontent: Is Kim Jong Un losing the elite classes?

Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen a spate of reports about defections from North Korea. Broadly, this is nothing new. The defection, for example, of three crew members of a fishing vessel is life-changing for three men, but is no more likely to rend the fabric of Kim Jong-Un’s regime than 27,000 other defections, almost all of them of people the regime had written off as expendable. 

Recently, however, we’ve seen multiple reports suggesting something very different, and vastly more consequential for Kim Jong-Un: a surge of defections from the Inner Party. The defection of the biochemical researcher I wrote about in last Thursday’s post(*) is just one of a series of reports that causes me to wonder whether Kim Jong-Un’s purges—“on a scale not seen since at least the late 1960s,” according to Andrei Lankov—are alienating the ruling class that keeps him in power. I’m not alone in asking this question. No less an authority than Ken Gause opines that, assuming the reports are accurate, “they could reflect … that leaders within North Korea are becoming increasingly anxious about politics around Kim Jong Un.”  I’ve held and added to this post for more than a week as enough evidence emerged to suggest the start of a trend.

Recall that in June, shortly after the purge of North Korean Defense Minister Hyon Yong-Chol, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye sat for an interview with The Washington Post and claimed that a growing number of North Korean officials are discontented enough to risk their lives to escape it:

Since [he] took power 3 1/2 years ago, he has executed some 90 officials. Indeed, the reign of terror continues to this day. Although one can say that the reign of terror might work in the short term, in the mid- to long term, it is actually sowing and amplifying the seeds of instability for the regime …. Recently, a senior North Korean defected and confessed to us that because of the ongoing and widespread executions that include even his inner circle, they are afraid for their lives. That is what prompted him to flee. [WaPo]

Last week, Yonhap reported that “[a] number of North Korea’s working-level officials based in foreign nations have sought asylum” abroad, because “[m]any of them feel agitated” by Kim Jong Un’s rule. Some of them “have already defected to the South.” Yonhap also cited a report in the Chosun Ilbo, that “about a dozen senior North Korean officials” have defected for fear of being purged.

The defectors were working in China and Southeast Asia, some charged with earning hard currency for the regime. Several have already arrived in South Korea while others are staying in a third country.

Early this year, a mid-ranking official who had been dispatched to Hong Kong from Room 39, a Workers Party office that handles Kim’s slush funds, sought asylum in South Korea with his family.He reportedly told investigators here he was terrified of Kim’s draconian purges, which saw senior officials executed by anti-aircraft gun, and that officials left in North Korea find it almost impossible to flee because of tight controls but those working overseas can find some opportunities to defect. Last year, a senior official of Taesong Bank, who had handled Kim’s slush funds in Siberia, fled to South Korea with millions of dollars. Even a senior official of the State Security Department fled the North and arrived here. According to the National Security Service here, the defection particularly upset Kim. [Chosun Ilbo]

I wrote about that defection in this post at the time (see also this L.A. Times report). An especially tantalizing aspect of the Chosun Ilbo‘s report is that some of these defections could represent invaluable windfalls of financial intelligence about Pyongyang’s offshore assets, income streams, and money laundering methods. That intelligence could boost the Obama Administration’s ability to enforce sanctions against North Korea, should it develop the will to do so at a vulnerable moment for Kim Jong-Un.

(The Chosun Ilbo report also claims that “[a]n army general” who “was involved in the two inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007”—so presumably, once a highly trusted cadre—“has been staying in a third country since he fled the North recently.” If the general in question is Park Seung-Won, who was also involved in building the Masikryong Ski Resort, South Korea denies this report.)

Yonhap has since reported that North Koreans laboring abroad are terrified of the purges and “examinations” by security forces cadres posted in China, and that some of them are choosing to defect. The Daily NK reports increased surveillance of well-connected merchants (donju) and officials of state-owned enterprises. Radio Free Asia reports that at Pyongyang’s request, China has forcibly summoned ten of its officials home, as part of its own investigation into the defections:

North Korea’s National Security Agency (NSA) summoned the workers as part of an investigation into a recent flood of high-ranking officials seeking asylum, the source from inside North Korea with knowledge of the country’s affairs in China told RFA’s Korean Service.“Resident employees who work in Shenyang (in northeastern China’s Liaoning province) earning foreign currency were recalled in the last ten days of June by the North Korean government,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.“

It was not their will to go back. They were forcibly returned to their own country.” [RFA]

Invariably, most of these reports cite anonymous sources, but they’re consistent with other reports, and a report that, after the December 2013 purge of Jang Song-Thaek, Jang’s minions in hard currency-earning enterprises in China were called home, but ran the other way. Reports that some North Koreans choose defection over obedience suggests more than simple insubordination. They suggest that Kim Jong-Un is losing his psychological hold over his elites.

The purges are also sowing mutual distrust between Kim Jong-Un and the elites. Some of them now accuse the State Security Department of bugging their homes.

An official in Pyongyang recently told RFA’s Korean Service that “in December 2013, several complaints were lodged by the North Korean Workers’ Party leadership that the State Security Department had even wiretapped departments under the Central Party,” and Kim Jong Un had responded by saying that “if they are clean, why do they fear being wiretapped?”

Soon after, wiretapping and surveillance by the State Security Department became “ubiquitous,” targeting high-ranking officials in their homes and forcing them to rein in conversation with their families, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Several officials had gone so far as to send their children to stay with relatives or to live in areas outside of Pyongyang, he said. [RFA]

According to the Daily NK, there have been so many defections from elite families in Pyongyang that the regime has concluded that exiling their entire families, or sending them to prison camps, is no longer a practical deterrent. Instead, some elite families are merely put under enhanced surveillance.

“The number of various cadres defecting is on the rise, but I think it was determined that indiscriminate penalization of family members could worsen public sentiment and hurt the ‘Republic,’” he said.

Empirically, families of defectors in North Korea appear to lead stable lives in Pyongyang, but bubbling under the surface is the stress of constant surveillance and phone taps by the State Security Department (SSD).“

Families of traitors (defectors) are merely used as propaganda for the state, which claims they are able to lead stable lives thanks to the benevolence of the leader, but they never know when they’re going to be executed,” the source explained.

As of late, more officials at North Korea’s missions overseas or trade workers plan group defections with their families due to the cycle of purges, executions, and ensuing anxiety rife within the upper echelons of power in the North. Others feel threatened while carrying out overseas posts and defect rather than return to their homeland, according to the source.

When those with families in Pyongyang or relatives stationed at overseas missions hear of officials’ returns being delayed or that they’ve gone missing, an increasingly common response is, “another one fled,” according to the source. [Daily NK]

It is also possible that corruption plays a role in the state’s leniency, and that the security forces are taking bribes to spare these families.

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North Korea has survived other high-level defections, of course, most notably that of Hwang Jang-Yop in 1997. Predictions of North Korea’s collapse—and the refutation of them—are necessarily so based on unknowables that they become Rorschach tests of the writer’s broader policy views. For example, Yonhap quotes four scholars, two of whom argue that the recent defections will not cause the collapse of the regime (although the headline attributes that conclusion to “experts”). The article tells us nothing about these academics or their orientations,* and offers little explanation for their conclusions, but strictly speaking, defections will not cause the regime to collapse, any more than hair loss will kill a cancer patient, or any more than a wave of defections in 1989 caused the collapse of East Germany. That wave, however, was a coincident symptom of a metastatic social cancer, of a society so riddled with disillusionment at every level that in the end, even the Stasi feared summary justice, border guards couldn’t wait to cross the wall to buy bananas, and hardened killers like Erich Mielke did not dare to crack down violently.

The more data points there are, the more one can argue that those points represent a trend. There are more of these data points today than at any time during the reign of Kim Jong-Il, a man who couldn’t govern but who could, unquestionably, rule. Kim Jong-Un shows little aptitude for either skill. I’ve never believed that Kim Jong-Un had the temperament, credentials, or gravitas to survive long in power, and nothing I’ve observed since December 2011 disturbs this belief. The short, unhappy history of his rule has mostly been remarkable for its repressionbrutality, and purges; the widening of destabilizing social and class divisions; Kim’s flaunting of his bacchanalian, un-socialist lifestyle; and a disregard for the deiocratic cult of a selfless, enlightened, superhuman protector of the people.

If Kim is no master of statecraft, which members of the inner junta does Kim Jong-Un still trust enough to guide him as he shifts the levers of power, or to restrain him from grinding the gears? Which of them trusts him? Kim Yong Nam, an 87 year-old best known for leading delegations to Africa in his autumn years? Chae Ryong-Hae, who is rumored to have “barely escaped” his own one-way trip to the ZPU-4 range—a rumor that finds some support in official North Korean media—just before he suddenly appeared in Seoul, leading an official delegation? Chae was promoted as a contemporary of Hyon Yong-Chol, Ri Pyong-Chol, and Ri Yong-Ho; he’s now the lone survivor of the four. In such a place, not even Hwang Pyong-So can feel confident that he’ll survive long enough to serve on Kim Yong-Nam’s funeral committee.

If it’s true that Pyongyang survived the last two decades without a sudden collapse, it’s equally true that Pyongyang’s control over food, information, and consumer goods has undergone a gradual collapse. The regime is riddled with corruption and inequality; and (as I argue here) falling morale within the party and the security forces. You’d be right to scoff at the empirical pretensions of a Foreign Policy survey that recently ranked North Korea as the world’s 29th most unstable state—up from 26th last year—but the broader conclusion finds support in the historical trends.

Historically, totalitarian regimes either bend under the weight of popular disillusionment or break under it. Despite the mostly unsupported hopes of scholars in Washington and Seoul, Kim Jong-Un has not implemented significant economic reforms, and no one speaks of political reforms. Instead, he has tried to re-impose North Korea’s information blockade and win over the elites with material amenities, even as he terrorizes them. I doubt this will be a winning strategy. If I were to offer a guess as to how the gears of this charnel house will eventually coagulate and clog, it would start with a local disturbance and a bloody crackdown that splits the security forces, then a fatal delay as critical units wait in their barracks to see which will be the winning side.

This illustrates, in a mild way, the reason why totalitarian regimes collapse so suddenly…. Such regimes have little legitimacy, but they spend a lot of effort making sure that citizens don’t realize the extent to which their fellow-citizens dislike the regime. If the secret police and the censors are doing their job, 99% of the populace can hate the regime and be ready to revolt against it – but no revolt will occur because no one realizes that everyone else feels the same way.

This works until something breaks the spell, and the discontented realize that their feelings are widely shared, at which point the collapse of the regime may seem very sudden to outside observers – or even to the citizens themselves. Claims after the fact that many people who seemed like loyal apparatchiks really loathed the regime are often self-serving, of course. But they’re also often true: Even if one loathes the regime, few people have the force of will to stage one-man revolutions, and when preferences are sufficiently falsified, each dissident may feel that he or she is the only one, or at least part of a minority too small to make any difference. [Glenn Reynolds]

What we can’t know is when the trickle of defections might also become a preference cascade. Whether these events are followed by some tense days of tanks on street corners and Korean Central Television playing martial music depends on whether the elites believe they and their families are safer with Kim in power, or without him. 

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* But I was curious enough to Google them.

– Chang Yong-seok, a researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, told Yonhap that “[f]or the time being, North Korean officials are likely to continue to flee … or seek asylum,” and that this would weaken Kim Jong-Un’s regime. Chang has previously advocated “curbing” leaflet balloon launches to appease Pyongyang, while opining that Seoul “could not” lift bilateral sanctions.

– Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University, told Yonhap that “intermittent” defections were part of “the process of solidifying the Kim Jong-un regime and securing the regime’s stability.” In 2013, after North Korea’s third nuclear test, Kim wrote an op-ed for the Asahi Shimbun arguing that Washington should have responded to the test with (sit down for this) direct talks with Pyongyang.

– When interviewed by Yonhap, Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies “dismissed the view” that the defections were indications of instability. Yang also told NK News that “[d]uring the previous mood of reconciliation,” as he calls it, “information could be checked,” presumably by asking the North Korean government. Yang questions the reports as the products of anonymous sources, and speculates that they “might have been spread by brokers in the border areas.”

– Jung Sang-don, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (KIDA), hypothesized to Yonhap that Kim Jong-un’s “governing style could bring about an instability” in the North and cause it to “make provocations in a bid to tide over its internal problems.” I found no other published information about Jung’s views.

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Update: And the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Agitprop goes to … this video, via Kent Boydston at Witness to Transformation:

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(*) Update: Serious doubts have since emerged about the accuracy of this report.

1 Comment

  1. These newest defectors may be helpful in learning more about the inner workings of North Korea’s current political system and slush funds.




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