What are the odds that Jang Song Thaek was eaten by a pack of dogs, or that Ri Sol Ju made a sex tape with Jang? Probably not greater than 10%, and I’d put the odds that the South Korean NIS planted both stories at roughly twice that. Lurid stories like these have never held much appeal to me, because I’ve never believed that anyone in a position to know them first-hand would ever tell them to a South Korean reporter, and in any event, I can’t add anything useful to the speculation about their veracity. Their epidemiology interests me much more. It’s inevitable that stories like these would emerge, spread, and mutate in a society that’s a vacuum of reliable information, but stifling and irriguous with terror. That, by itself, is notable. (So is the fact that they also spread to our own society nowadays, but that’s a subject I’ll leave to others.)
The most recent of these stories holds that one O Sang-Hon, the Deputy Minister of Public Security, was executed by flamethrower. The story, in the Telegraph, is attributed to “South Korean media.” Further investigation traces it to this report, from the Chosun Ilbo, which claims that O was given this gruesome end because “he had turned the ministry into Jang’s personal protection squad.” On the bright side, at least O’s job description gives us little cause to mourn for him. I probably have enough fingers to count the people who will miss him.
Interestingly, the death-by-flamethrower story is not completely novel. Last month, an informant for the guerrilla news service Rimjin-gang reported a similar claim:
According to our reporting partner, in the North Korea’s third largest city, Chongjin, North Hamkyung Province, several officers belonging to the fisheries enterprise run by the military unit affiliated to Jang Song-thaek have also been executed by firing squad.
It is difficult to verify the information at this point, but it is said that a rocket grenade was used for their execution instead of a rifle, and the remains of their bodies were incinerated by a flamethrower. This rumor is spreading among the people, adding to the already tense atmosphere. [Rimjin-gang]
If two independent sources are reporting similar rumors, it’s reasonable to believe that mutations of this rumor are circulating inside North Korea. Most of Rimjin-gang’s accounts of officials being purged are less vivid. They tell of well-connected officials who simply disappeared without explanation.
The Chosun Ilbo‘s report also claims that “nine other high-ranking party officials” and “around 100 lower-ranking party officials” have been purged so far, that a second purge is underway now, and that a third purge of security forces officials is planned, to “target [Jang’s] supporters in provincial chapters of the Workers Party.” With respect to the previously reported purges of the ambassadors to Cuba and Malaysia, the former was executed, while the latter was “fortunate” enough (my word) to be sent to a prison camp, then returned to Pyongyang, jobless.
At best, this report is the product of an inexact science. Just a week ago, the same newspaper reported that the regime was “poised to execute 200 high-ranking officials loyal to” Jang, and to send 1,000 of their family members to prison camps. Yonhap, by contrast, reports that a large number of officials close to Jang were recently elected as deputies in the Supreme Peoples’ Assembly, suggesting that the purge was slowing. It notes, however, that some officials who had appeared at public events a month after Jang’s purge have, themselves, been purged since those appearances. If half of this is true, we can deduce that there’s no such thing as job security in North Korea today.
In the aggregate, multiple sources tell us that North Korea’s Great Purge isn’t over. In the last several weeks, we’ve heard that (via Yonhap) that the Ambassador to Syria and (via Singapore’s Straits Times) the Commerce Minister have been sacked. The latest rumor, which comes to the Joongang Ilbo from a South Korean government source, holds that “North Korean Prime Minister Pak Pong-ju will be dismissed ahead of the upcoming Supreme People’s Assembly session,” and will be made a scapegoat for North Korea’s economic woes. The Global Times, via The Daily NK, even reports that elite North Korean military units are training to respond to a potential attempt to assassinate Kim Jong Un.
You don’t have to believe any of the more lurid details of these reports to believe that North Korea’s power structure still hasn’t stabilized under Kim Jong Un’s firm control. RAND’s Bruce Bennett links the ongoing purge to North Korea’s recent military provocations:
While North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un perceives these exercises as a show of strength for both internal and external consumption, they actually demonstrate that his regime is weak and that he fears instability. Kim has been purging many in the North Korean leadership and executing some. He has certainly been able to do so, but sooner or later one or more of his leaders will seek to avoid personal and family doom by targeting Kim with assassination or a coup. Kim is trying to avert such a prospect by demonstrating his support of the military and his military empowerment—with both heavily targeted at the internal political audience. [Bruce Bennett, RAND]
Bennett concludes from this that “the North Korean regime is less stable than many experts believe.” Bennett is talking about internal cohesion within the regime, but another implication of these reports is found in the wilder stories that circulate at the bottom of the songbun ladder.
No doubt, some people will rise to say that these stories must be false — even disinformation — but this would be groundless and speculative. Reports we’ve heard from too many sources to dismiss tell us that North Korea is capable of some awful things when it comes to the taking of human life. A better answer is that the claims are extraordinary, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence before we should be prepared to accept them, and that this report is not supported by extraordinary evidence. Who knows if any of them are true? Not me, and probably not you. See also.
The very fact that stories like these circulate widely in North Korea is still significant. I don’t think the North Korean regime would plant them, despite their useful in terrorem effect, given that they’re spreading along with expressions of disapproval at Kim Jong Un’s cruelty, and even of sympathy for Jang.* In December, the Daily NK reported that the regime was suppressing any idle talk of the purge. If that’s still true, then the circulation of these rumors and conspiracy theories inside North Korea itself has some significance — that the regime is losing control over what people think, and what they think they can get away with telling each other.
* This sympathy is misplaced. Among his other responsibilities, Jang oversaw the dreaded State Security Department (Kuk-ga An-jeon Bo-wi-bu), which operates all of North Korea’s remaining political prison camps.
Update: Contrary to the Joongang Ilbo‘s report, Pak Pong Ju was not fired. It doesn’t mean he won’t be, but it does mean that you should be especially distrustful of “insider” reporting on North Korean kremlinology.
More interesting to me is the fact that former Ambassador to Switzerland Ri Su Yong is the new Foreign Minister. Not surprisingly, Ri is reported to be an expert money launderer. I suppose he also knows a few things about where to buy
Nestle infant formula ski lift equipment.
Oh, and someone named Kim Kyong Hui was also “elected” to the Rubber Stamp Gallery, who may or may not be the same person as Kim Jong Il’s sister and Jang Song Thaek’s widow, whom we haven’t seen in public for many months. South Korean government sources aren’t sure if it’s the same person.