Rimjingang, the guerrilla news service that brought us the footage we’ll see in Frontline: Secret State of North Korea, has published a spate of reports that give credence to Park Geun-Hye’s prediction that a “reign of terror” would follow the purge of Jang Song-Thaek. The reports clearly rely heavily on third-hand rumor, so I wouldn’t necessarily consider them so much for the truth of the matters asserted as for what they say about the mood on the street. But amid the reports, and the reports of other South Korean-based media, there are clues that the regime’s hunt for dissent — including organized dissent — is more than a figment of paranoid minds.
I’ve made my views clear that Jang was a pragmatic opportunist who was often mistaken for a reformer, but Rimjingang’s sources believed (probably because they wanted to believe it) that Jang was a reformer, and that his purge will be felt in the regime’s intolerance of the trade that keeps so many of them alive. People with connections to Jang are being asked to turn themselves in and “confess,” and at least in some areas, everyone is being forced to write denunciations of Jang. People with photographs of Jang are being asked to turn them in.
No word, so far, on whether this directive is being applied to Dennis Rodman.
Rimjingang reports that the atmosphere is especially tense and fearful. The authorities have cracked down on the possession of illegal videos, memory sticks, and other media. In the Northeast, rumors of grisly executions of entertainers are widespread — initially justified by allegations of making of pornographic videos, but later rumored to be for the possession of anti-Kim Jong Un videos. Rumor holds that the videos were produced in South Korea, allegedly as part of an organized campaign of subversion by “groups that have the intention of promoting the flow of political information into North Korea,” and smuggled into North Korea by merchants:
A former member of a defector organization in South Korea explained to us, “In the organization that I used to belong to, until around 2011, the group put several sorts of anti-Kim Jong-ill videos onto USBs and smuggled them into North Korea. We had a project to increase the flow of outside information into North Korea and had been receiving subsidies for this project. Those videos that we originally made by us, those against Kim Jong-il and others such as TV documentaries made by such companies as the Japanese NHK (Japanese Broadcasting Corporation), we made subtitles for.”
Rimjingang speculates that the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) could be behind the campaign. If so, good. Another Rimjingang source also gives an interview about the execution of ten to twenty “police” officers at Kim Il Sung University, which the Daily NK first reported here.
Other media are corroborating reports of a crackdown, and that it is flushing out dissent. The Chosun Ilbo reports that two dissidents from Jangang Province, who “had been listening to” North Korea Reform Radio “for five years with a home-made receiver and launched a pro-democracy group there” were forced to flee to China in November:
He quoted one of the men as saying the broadcasts inspired him to think about how to improve North Korea. He said they printed anti-regime leaflets based on the broadcasts and scattered them in markets and streets. But they decided to flee because one of their members was arrested in early November and state security dragnet was closing in.
They brought their radio with them. “We brought it with us as an evidence that there are young North Koreans who are fighting for freedom and reunification,” Kim quoted them as saying. Kim said he helped them escape through China and they are currently in Thailand and expected to arrive in South Korea next month. [Chosun Ilbo]
Reports of leafleting inside North Korea tend to coincide with decisions by the authorities that are especially upsetting to the population. The last such reports came as North Koreans were suffering from the effects of the regime’s December 2009 currency confiscation.
The Daily NK also reports a crackdown on foreign media, and says that CDs of South Korean dramas have become difficult to find. The Inmin Poam-Bu (Ministry of Peoples’ Security or MPS) has been ordered to be especially watchful of citizens, and to punish certain categories of dissent with particular severity:
The source explained that, under the new guidelines, particularly severe punishment awaits anyone who engages in: * Slander of Kim Jong Eun; * “Superstitious behaviour” [including of a religious nature, such as Christianity]; * Production, sale or consumption of illicit substances; * Viewing or distributing illicit recordings.
“It notes that the crime of slandering the General will be met with punishment so severe that they included the words ‘ruthless extermination.’ Even though some people don’t really know what Christianity is, the guidelines say that it will be treated as a serious crime. It looks like people who have travelled to China will be the target of that one,” he claimed. [Daily NK]
There are also enticing suggestions that North Korea’s production of illegal drugs has become “injurious to the task of diplomacy with China” and “a problem at the state level because of abuse.”
The people are also worried that their rations haven’t been restored despite a good harvest. Meanwhile, the markets are closed while they’ve been mobilized to — you may wish to pause here if you’re eating as you read this – make fertilizer from human and animal excrement, which a person obviously produces in proportion to one’s food consumption.
These reports are consistent with my suspicion that the regime has a deliberate strategy of preempting dissent through terror (executions, checkpoints, searches), hunger (starvation rations, market closures), and exhaustion (mobilizations, and the extra effort required to forage for food).
Reports of organized dissent taking root inside North Korea, if true, would be an important step in Kim Jong Un’s quickening pace toward his Götterdämmerung. That event is most likely to result from some combination of (A) internecine conflict in the Inner Party, (B) outbreaks of popular dissent with which certain factions conveniently tolerate or ally themselves, and (C) a financial crisis within the regime that prevents it from reacting quickly and decisively to (A) and (B).
I recently wrote about topic (C) in this post. I’ll add that the regime’s finances, which seem increasingly dependent on and desperate for foreign investment and income, stand little chance of recovering quickly unless Jang Song-Thaek’s successor as the regime’s salaryman possesses his guile, experience, and connections. If this Chosun Ilbo report is to be believed, however, Kim Jong Un has appointed his little sister, Kim Yeo-Jang, to perform that vital role.
In the short term, the authorities will likely succeed in rooting out or driving out much of this fragile dissent, but it will grow back. The state’s financial resources will be essential to suppressing it when it does. It costs money to pay and feed a large force of incorruptible secret police officers, corruptible informants, and a reasonably disciplined border guard force. If the obedience, cohesion, and discipline of those forces collapses — perhaps as they turn on each other in a cutthroat competition for scarce resources — then so will the regime. That means that in the medium term, the disruption of North Korea’s economic relationships with China could pose a mortal threat to the regime’s survival.