Archive for Kim Jong Un

With or without flamethrowers, purges continue in North Korea (Updated)

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.

Kim Jong Un calls for more repression and isolation

Kim Jong Un has delivered a long-winded harangue to a conference of ideological workers. This isn’t the sort of thing I tend to dwell on, because almost all foreign analysis of North Korean speeches is useless, for reasons I’ve already explained here. Perhaps I write this mostly in the interest of preempting the acceptance of even more useless analysis, but I also write this because the plain meaning of the words seems clear enough to me, and what those words tell us is important to how we formulate our North Korea policy.

Most of the speech is devoted to a call to crush “factionalism” and “alien” ideology. One inference this invites is obvious — why would Kim Jong Un have to warn against factionalism unless there is factionalism?

As a saying goes that even a rolling stone may gather moss, one is bound to degenerate when treated exceptionally. There may be some special tasks assigned by the Party, but “exceptions” cannot exist within our Party who are allowed to neglect their ideological life and be ignorant of its lines and policies. As for special units, ideological work should be strengthened further and they should be made steel-strong in the furnace of ideological struggle.

This was probably the creepiest line: 

Ideological workers should be able to discern something alien, if any, at a glance at the eyes of others. They must use the ideological “scalpel” in time to root out the causes of such misdemeanors as arguing over the issues decided by the Party, undermining its leadership exploits covertly or overtly and breeding corruption within our ranks in contravention of our Party’s and class principles. 

I’ll admit that I couldn’t force myself to read the whole speech, but I’m confident that somewhere in this haystack, John DeLury, Alexandre Mansourov, James Church, or Rudiger Frank will find a straw to grasp and declare on the pages of 38 North that perestroika is breaking out. But when you read that, remember that you also read this part:

We should build a thriving country at an early date by giving fullest play to the advantages and might of socialism, which capitalism can never imitate nor possess, so as to make socialism as different in all respects from capitalism as heaven is from earth.

And this:

[Ideological workers] should take the initiative in launching operations to make the imperialist moves for ideological and cultural infiltration end in smoke, while putting up “mosquito net” double and treble to prevent the viruses of capitalist ideology which the enemy is persistently attempting to spread from infiltrating across our border.

It’s also increasingly plain what Kim Jong Un fears most. One of them is financial sanctions:

History clearly shows how a powerful country, which is independent, self-sufficient and self-reliant in national defence, has been built on this land where worship of big countries and dogmatism were rooted deep and a socialist fortress created, which remains unperturbed in the face of worldwide political upheaval and the imperialists’ vicious moves for isolation and suffocation. 

The other is losing control over what his subjects see, hear, and read:

Now the imperialists are hell-bent on a smear campaign to turn black into white and persisting in their attempts to infiltrate corrupt reactionary ideology and culture into our country with our service personnel and young people as the target, while clinging to manoeuvres to apply sanctions against our country and stifle it. Whereas the reactionary ideology and culture were their guide to aggression in the past, they are playing a leading part in aggression at present. 

One of the wishful theories we heard after the purge of Jang Song Thaek is that Kim Jong Un had consolidated his rule, was no longer challenged by domestic enemies, and was now free to pursue reforms. If this sounds dumb, that’s because it is. Many things about North Korea’s political situation are unknown, but if Kim Jong Un’s rule really had been consolidated, he would not have spent most of this speech talking about the urgency of consolidating it. And whether it has been consolidated or not, this speech suggests the opposite of an intent to reform North Korea’s economy of society. Its unmistakable message is a call for more isolation, more repression, more “socialism,” more defiance of the world, and more vigilance over any contact with the outside world (this rule, like all the rules, doesn’t apply to Kim Jong Un himself).

Perestroika is not breaking out, no matter how badly we may wish it were. Fantasy is no substitute for policy.

Kim Jong Un purges the army

In North Korea, it’s 1937 all over again:

The North Korean military has refrained from conducting “joint exercises” due partly to poor fuel supplies, but mainly because “an effort to replace those linked to Jang Song Thaek in the military is ongoing,” according to sources from the country’s military officer corps.  “Joint exercises during the winter this year were not even planned,” a military source in northern Yanggang province told RFA’s Korean Service. “The brakes have likely been put on such exercises because of large-scale replacements in the officer corps.” [....]

The military source also said that officers at each military base with a rank lower than regiment commander and higher than battalion commander had been replaced in an apparent bid to weed out any of Jang’s links. New procedures have also been introduced to boost promotion prospects for younger officers in a move believed aimed at filling up positions as the military copes with the purge of those linked to Jang. [Radio Free Asia

The reports here aren’t completely consistent, but can be harmonized. The Daily NK reports that winter training exercises are ongoing, but they’re mostly long ruck marches in the cold, not mechanized exercises. Interestingly, Yonhap is also reporting that civilian fuel supplies have also been cut. I wouldn’t be too quick to assume that this is the result of shortages. It may well be that the regime is taking steps to prevent large movements of people and equipment.

Separately, the Daily NK is reporting more wide-scale purges and executions in army units across North Korea.

The source revealed in particular the case of “Unit 570,” which has undergone “Urakkai,” a Japanese word used in North Korea to mean complete and absolute change. The unit commander has been executed and all enlisted men either punished or transferred to other units, it is alleged. [Daily NK]

Apparently, the unit leader was associated with Jang. Its mission is “guerrilla warfare,” and its funding comes from cross-border business operations, suggesting that it’s a part of North Korea’s vaunted Special Forces:

“It’s not clear where the unit has gone, but it is now comprised of new soldiers from elsewhere. Not a lot is known about what happened,” he added. “The regime is no longer summoning Jang’s former accomplices to Pyongyang and punishing them there, preferring to quietly carry out its executions in the countryside.” 

“According to news trickling out of the unit, all senior officers were called in separately and harshly questioned during a mass rally that took place in Pyongyang late last year. They were taken into custody after the rally finished,” the source went on.

While the source said that other units are also under close scrutiny and face punishment following the Jang execution, Unit 570, which is based in Maengsan in northeast South Pyongan Province, is special in that it is a special operations force tasked with preparing for guerrilla warfare on the streets of Seoul in the event of a second Korean War.  For this reason, the unit receives more tools and equipment than many others.  

Remember this the next time someone tells you that the regime’s trade with China is necessarily an engine of reform. The whole argument is based on the flawed premise that the regime is Socialist, Communist, or otherwise philosophically opposed to making money.

The report notes that the V and VIII Corps are also being purged. The VIII Corps is responsible for defending a long stretch of the border between North Korea and China, and the V Corps is a front-line unit, posted along the DMZ. All of these are elite units that should have the best equipment, training, and morale. They are not the glorified construction companies whose soldiers so often go hungry.

Executing and “disappearing” officers from these elite sounds awfully dangerous. Stalin managed it, but Kim Jong Un isn’t Stalin, and even Stalin paid the price for his 1937 purge in 1940, when his army proved too inept and poorly led to defeat the Finns, thus encouraging Hitler to invade the U.S.S.R. a year later.

Meanwhile, the purge of civilian cadres also continues.

The official said that even employees from North Korean restaurants in China and other countries run by the administrative division of the Korean Workers’ Party, which Jang headed, were “investigated for at least a week before being released.” These purging efforts are expected to last until June, he said. Key figures around Jang, excluding his wife, are apparently being investigated and categorized across four levels. [Joongang Ilbo]

Some of those who remain in Pyongyang are supposedly so terrified that they’re flocking to fortune tellers. The Joongang Ilbo report also speculates that, contra reports that Jang’s relatives have been executed (Item 2), they may well have been sent to the camps. I don’t know the answer to that specific question, but I’ll have a bit more to say about that point later this week, and about how you can get involved in hunting for the evidence of it.

An unlikely convergence of views

What a difference the last six weeks have made. Since the December purge of Jang Song Thaek, the consensus about North Korea’s ruler has moved from “undecided” to “negative.” Maybe I should have said “strongly negative.” It’s rare that I make this observation, but for once, I believe that this can be said of the prevailing views in all five of the cities where it matters most — in Beijing, Washington, Seoul, Pyongyang, and Chongjin. In each case, this is true for slightly different reasons, but those reasons all spring from a single common cause.

People in Chongjin resent Kim Jong Un for stifling and brutalizing their region with border guards with shoot-to-kill orders, insufferable petty despots from the universities, and the usual brutal secret police thugs. The border is all but closed, and if it stays closed, people will start to go hungry, because cross-border trade — much of it in food — is what keeps them alive.

People in Pyongyang are terrified over purges, mass arrests, and rumors that even children of tainted parents are being killed. They must feel as if their backs are against the wall, and that they have nothing to lose. If you believe Yoshihiro Makino’s strikingly detailed reporting in the Asahi Shimbun, the purge resulted in a wave of suicides, the mood in Pyongyang is “dark and tense,” and people are quietly seething at how Kim Jong Un enriches himself as the people do without. Don Kirk quotes a new Congressional Research Service report that speculates, “The chilling effect on the elite in Pyongyang could lead to internal unrest as those who considered themselves secure look for reassurance from other potential power bases.” My guess, however, is that people will only dare to try that after exhausting less drastic options, and after taking the time to build enough critical mass to have some likelihood of success.

South Koreans lost their faith in Sunshine and reunification more gradually, after watching the North break deal after deal, test bomb after bomb, and start skirmish after skirmish despite their generous aid. History will probably record that the attacks of 2010 — the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong — were the turning points. South Koreans didn’t want to believe that North Korea was capable of sinking the Cheonan. Yeonpyeong convinced them that it was, and 80% of them wanted President Lee to hit back afterward. Compare the polling data from a decade ago to more recent results. Yes, it’s a tangerines-to-oranges comparison, but it’s enough to show you the trend line.

Two years ago, many in Washington had nearly convinced themselves that Kim Jong Un as a jolly reformer-in-waiting, oriented toward the libertine Occident by his rumspringa in Switzerland and a fashionable wife. This was vapid stuff, but for some people, it was enough that they desperately wanted it to be true. It was the purge of Jang Song Thaek, not the starvation of thousands, the deprivation of millions, or the reported liquidation of Camp 22, that changed this. That is the sort of irony that, left untreated, causes aneurisms. Before his purge, Jang oversaw (among other enterprises) the dreaded Kuk-ga Anjeon Bowi-Bu, the so-called Ministry of National Security, which administers most of North Korea’s concentration camps. Jang was thoroughly drenched in the blood of his comrades after years of purges. Jang probably wasn’t devoured by a pack of dogs, but he thoroughly deserved to be. Yet it is because Kim Jong Un killed Jang (of all people), and because Jang was Kim’s uncle, that most Korea-watchers in America now see now see Kim as cruel, impulsive, reckless, and ill-equipped to govern or rule. Ken Gause sums it up brilliantly when he says, “People who want to understand North Korea shouldn’t read think tank reports …. They should watch ‘I, Claudius.’” Myself, I’ve called it a cross between The Killing Fields and The Borgias.

Even the Chinese say that they’ve lost control of events in Pyongyang, and for once, I believe them just a little. China summoned Kim Jong Un immediately after the purge, but Kim didn’t come when called. Then, China launched a series of military exercises near North Korea’s borders and showed other signs that it disapproved of Jang’s purge. Chinese academics, who often reflect government policy, fretted about the purge openly. In December, even The Global Times said that “[t]he majority of the public here holds a negative attitude toward the recent events in Pyongyang,” and threatened: 

“This may impose some restrictions on Sino-North Korean ties. Chinese aid to North Korea may face more questioning, and grass-roots interaction may lose some momentum,” it said. “China needs to help the new North Korean leadership to properly solidify the sense of security it needs most, which is key to their mutual strategic trust. But at the same time, China also needs to make it clear that North Korea should adapt more to China’s situation,” the newspaper said. “China cannot pander to North Korea’s sentiments in every possible aspect.”

China’s protestations are only credible to a certain point. In the end, without Chinese oil, Chinese banks, Chinese aid, and Chinese cooperation in sending North Korean refugees back to North Korean gulags, there won’t be a North Korea for long. North Korea needs China. No other potential sponsor has an interest in propping up North Korea as China does now. It’s just possible that Kim Jong Un hasn’t really thought through the implications of a break with China. After all, what kind of statesman has time for Dennis Rodman but none for Xi Jinping?

Certainly all five of these cities are not in alignment about what kind of government they’d prefer to see replace Kim Jong Un’s. None of them appears ready, for now, to take steps to challenge or undermine his rule. But for the first time I can recall, all five cities see the status quo emerging in Pyongyang as (at the very least) a threat to their interests, or (at most) a threat to their lives.

North Korea’s circular firing squad

The reaper has come for two more key North Korean diplomats:

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said that Pak Kwang-Chol, an associate of the young supremo’s uncle and political regent Jang Song-Thaek, was seen returning home after making a brief stopover in Beijing. The envoy and his wife were reportedly escorted by North Korean officials onto a flight to Pyongyang.

Sweden is an influential diplomatic player in Pyongyang, AFP said. Since the United States and North Korea have no diplomatic ties, the Swedish Embassy represents US interests in the country, acting as a kind of go-between. [link]

And this:

Hong Yong, the North’s deputy permanent delegate to UNESCO, and his wife were spotted at Beijing airport on Monday before taking the flight to Pyongyang, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said. Hong, one of Jang’s associates, took the post only six months ago, it said, quoting a diplomatic source in Beijing. [AFP]

Pyongyang had previously recalled its ambassadors to Malaysia and Cuba, presumably also as part of the purge. North Korea has historically used Malaysian banks for money laundering, and Cuba has recently emerged as a North Korean arms supplier.

In addition, the Joongang Ilbo now reports that “two Workers’ Party executives, two cabinet members, two soldiers and one corporate manager” (a total of seven others) were also executed with Jang. The South Koreans are saying that for now, the purge has only reached Jang’s highest-level supporters:

“We are seeing signs that those who were deeply involved with Jang are being recalled and purged,” Ryoo Kihl-Jae, South Korea’s unification minister in charge of cross-border affairs, told lawmakers. 

The purge however appears to be targeting a relatively small circle of officials, Ryoo said, rejecting speculation of a sweeping clear-out of party and military ranks. “We do not see that it (the purge) is being carried out on a large scale, though it still needs to be seen to what direction it would develop,” he told members of parliament’s foreign affairs committee. [AFP]

I’m not sure I believe that. As early as December 6, The Daily NK reported that “municipal and provincial Chosun Workers’ Party secretaries and cadres from judicial and security organs have been summoned en masse to Pyongyang,” although it’s not clear how many were purged, and how many were simply called in to observe the festivities in which Jang was denounced and purged.

The same appears to be the case with North Korea’s cadres in China, who are more visible to us. In mid-December, it was reported that North Korea had recalled large numbers of China-based cadres who were involved in enterprises earning and laundering foreign currency. The subscription news site East Asia Intel also reports that Pyongyang is recalling “large numbers of North Korean businessmen” who worked in Shenyang and Dandong, “to facilitate trade” with China, and “attract Chinese investment.” Without getting behind the paywall, I can’t tell whether the report is based on new information, or simply regurgitates what South Korean sources had previously reported. Taken together, these reports suggest that the purge won’t be confined to the top echelons.

North Korea’s ongoing crackdown on cross-border movements, in an apparent attempt to prevent defections by potential targets of the purge, is circumstantial evidence of the purge’s potential to affect a significant number of North Koreans. Pyongyang has assigned more guards to patrol the border and asked four Chinese companies to suspend their tours of the North (a Chinese tour bus seems like an unlikely way to escape North Korea; it seems more likely that Pyongyang is afraid of what the tourists might see).

North Korea’s lower and middle castes will feel the most immediate impact of this crackdown. They are the most likely to rely on illicit cross-border trade, or try to cross the border to find work or defect. Reports from inside North Korea tell a mixed story. Although the regime has cracked down on cross-border movements since the purge, Chris Green writes that the regime isn’t cracking down on markets and trade internally. Domestically, the regime is sending a business-as-usual message, while discouraging any unauthorized discussion about Jang’s purge. For once, the regime shows signs of trying to mitigate (perhaps “calibrate” is a better word) the impact of its brutality on lower-caste North Koreans.

In the longer term, however, this will inevitably disrupt the regime’s own finances, possibly severely. North Korea’s ambassadors play an important role in financing the regime, by making both legal and illegal business deals. The diplomatic corps’s mercenary nature is so notorious that the U.N. Security Council’s latest resolution begins by referring to “the illicit activities of diplomatic personnel” and “transfers of bulk cash.”

It also seems increasingly clear that Jang was purged as part of a struggle over North Korea’s resources, and who gets to use them for everything other than feeding the hungry. North Korea’s mineral industries are most often mentioned as in contention. Fighting over those resources is affecting Pyongyang’s ability to profit from them. According to the Daily NK, as early as October, North Korea took the extreme measure of halting gold mining and exports to reassert control of that income stream. (That is extremely interesting, in light of other reports that the North’s agents in China were selling off gold. The continued sale of gold after the purge could suggest that officials in China were defying orders from Pyongyang and preparing to go to ground, consistent with what we read here.) North Korea’s “special economic zones” and its overseas restaurant operations have also been associated with Jang, and will probably be affected. In the background, the North is hinting at a general tightening of the North’s economic restrictions. That will be another drag on efficiency and investor confidence.

Everything this regime prioritizes relies on the business relationships that are now being questioned, and on the overseas currency-earning operations staffed by the people who are being purged today. If my guess is right, we’ll soon see data showing a drop-off in North Korea’s imports and exports (although those data are certainly questionable). That will inevitably affect Pyongyang’s ability to buy the loyalty of a new Inner Party, to finance its WMD programs, to control the borders, and to feed its army. It might even affect the pace of construction at showpiece projects, like water parks and ski resorts. Anyone but an impulsive psychopath would have to realize that.

Does this mean we can all forget about Dennis Rodman again?

Kim Jong Un has proven to be beneath the corporate image of the Irish online gambling company, Paddy Power, which has withdrawn from sponsoring Dennis Rodman’s basketball invitational, planned for Kim Jong Un’s birthday in January. Rodman’s mouthpiece says that he plans to continue with the game anyway, but The Simon Wiesenthal Center is asking other former NBA players to boycott the game:

“Everyone it seems, except Dennis Rodman, understands that this is not a game to promote peace, but an undeserved birthday gift to murderous tyrant who heads a regime with the worst human rights record on the planet,” charged Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and long-time activist for human rights in North Korea.

“Playing a basketball game in Pyongyang before a handful of cronies of the youthful dictator gives Kim Jong Un an undeserved birthday present that enables Kim to change the narrative for the international media from focusing attention on his execution of his uncle, on North Korea’s brutal gulag, and his nuclear missile threats against his neighbors.”

“There may yet be a time and place for basketball diplomacy in North Korea, but now is neither the time and Kim’s birthday party isn’t the place for such a gesture. We hope ex-NBAers will do the right thing,” Cooper concluded.

More from the Simon Wiesenthal Center here. This open letter by gulag survivor Shin Dong Hyok, published in The Washington Post, must have been equally or more devastating to Rodman’s project:

Mr. Rodman, I cannot presume to tell you to cancel your trip to North Korea. It is your right as an American to travel wherever you wish and to say whatever you want. It is your right to drink fancy wines and enjoy yourself in luxurious parties, as you reportedly did in your previous trips to Pyongyang. But as you have a fun time with the dictator, please try to think about what he and his family have done and continue to do. Just last week, Kim Jong Un ordered the execution of his uncle. Recent satellite pictures show that some of the North’s labor camps, including Camp 14, may be expanding. The U.N. World Food Programme says four out of five North Koreans are hungry. Severe malnutrition has stunted and cognitively impaired hundreds of thousands of children. Young North Korean women fleeing the country in search of food are often sold into human-trafficking rings in China and beyond.

If the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s call prevents Rodman from assembling a quorum for his birthday gift to Kim Jong Un, the ironic outcome of the tournament would be to galvanize public outrage against North Korea’s atrocities and shift public sentiment toward a boycott of its regime.

Ironically, I’ve come to believe that Rodman’s visits to North Korea did serious damage to Kim Jong Un. Domestically, they exploded sixty years of state propaganda that portrayed “pure” North Koreans as morally and culturally superior to corrupting and decadent foreign influences, and portrayed the “Paektu Bloodline” as the fastidious, martial, and devoted paragons of this xenophobic guerrilla state. Internationally, Kim Jong Un’s public receptions of Rodman likely shifted the still-developing consensus of foreign scholars and policy-makers to one that sees Kim Jong Un as a an impetuous bacchanalian who adopted a washed-up ex-athlete and global laughingstock as his court jester, while shunning foreign leaders, diplomats, and business leaders.

Most importantly, Rodman’s visit drew international attention to North Korea’s atrocities and cemented its reputation as the world’s worst violator of human rights. Every time Rodman visits North Korea, thousands more people visit these pages, and millions more read the dismayed reactions of people like Shin Dong Hyok and Rabbi Abraham Cooper. For Rodman, the consequence will be a reversion to the more obscure sort of infamy he’d enjoyed for the last decade. For North Korea, with its dependency on hard currency from abroad, the consequences could be far greater.

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.

Screen Shot 2013-12-18 at 8.08.55 PM

[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.

~  ~   ~

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.

Kim Jong Un is “reckless,” “dangerous, unpredictable, prone to violence and … delusions of grandeur,” and nuked up. Is that all?

North Korea, which was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008, has showered Baekryeong Island, a disputed South Korean-held Island in the Yellow Sea, and the site of the 2010 ROKS Cheonan attack, with leaflets threatening to turn the island into “a huge tomb.”


[Screen grab from MBC, via the Chosun Ilbo]

The leaflets did not explain why Kim Jong Un is not content to keep killing off his unwanted relatives, but a China-based, quasi-official North Korean-affiliated website, Uriminzokkiri, called South Korea’s response to Jang Song-Thaek’s purge “a political provocation.”

If you’re willing to make that link, it would be the first affirmation of President Park’s warning just yesterday that “Seoul should be fully prepared for possible North Korean hostilities” and “more ‘reckless provocations’” from the North, presumably to reunite Pyongyang’s factions against a common enemy. The Defense Minister was more specific:

“North Korea is likely to make a provocation between late January and March,” South Korea’s Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said in a video conference with high-ranking military officials yesterday. “The execution of Jang Song-thaek could become a significant turning point in the entire 68-year history of North Korea.” 

Consistent with the implications of this, the U.S. and South Korea have agreed to step up their preparations for “all possible scenarios.” Another “possible scenario” they’re no doubt discussing would involve a North Korean strike, with the South Koreans forewarning the U.S., “Don’t even try to stop us.”

There are also fresh rumors, sourced to a member of the National Assembly’s intelligence committee, that North Korea is fixing to test a nuke and launch a missile (the government later clarified that it sees no imminent signs). South Korea’s spies have been on a hot streak lately, but if I may say so, I was just a bit ahead of them. Not that you can ever be far off in predicting that North Korea is about to do something stupid. It’s like predicting Tuesday. It’s less impressive than, say, calling Roh Moo Hyun “a ledge case” five years before he jumped off a ledge (OK, a cliff, but still), or predicting here and now that Kim Jong Un’s cause of death will be a gunshot wound administered by a close associate. You don’t need an intelligence agency at your disposal to know everything.

The question on everyone’s lips these days is, “Can he really be that stupid?” I’m on record describing Kim Jong Un as a high school dropout … who was into torturing small animals and bondage porn,” “a complete doofus,” and “a volatile man-child with … no adult supervision,” so put me down for “yes.” I think this qualifies me as a pioneer in the industry, because I was saying things like this when a lot of people were trying to brand him as the next Gorby (but more on that later). But why just listen to me when you can hear it two years later from someone who did have an intelligence agency at his disposal?

The U.S. government reached alarming conclusions about the personal character of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un based on interviews with people who knew him when he was a student in Switzerland, former U.S. Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell revealed on CNN over the weekend. [....]

“We went to great pains to interview almost everyone – classmates, others – to try to get a sense of what his character was like,” Campbell said. “The general recounting of those experiences led us to believe that he was dangerous, unpredictable, prone to violence and with delusions of grandeur.” [CNN, via Max Fisher, Washington Post]

We live in such interesting times.

South Korean reports tell us that the elites are very afraid, and that ordinary people are terrified of not showing enough enthusiasm when applauding for “The Marshal.” At least outside North Korea, there are some signs that regime cohesion is breaking down. The Joongang Ilbo estimates that Kim has already replaced 44% of his senior cadres, and that Jang had between 20,000 and 30,000 followers, enough to fill a large prison camp.

Most analysts, regardless of their ideology, are now calling the purge a miscalculation and suggesting that it will eventually fracture the regime. Nicholas Eberstadt, writing at The Washington Post, predicts that the purge will likely cull many more of Jang’s associates, thinks it will scare the bejeebers (my word) out of those who were close to Jang, and questions Kim Jong Un’s judgment for making such a risky move so soon.

Prof. Sung-Yoon Lee, appearing on the PBS News Hour the other night, argued that Kim is showing his confidence, but recklessly. (That word again.) Lee also adds cred to the view I expressed here, that by admitting that Jang was secretly plotting against Kim, the regime has forfeited its illusion of omnipotence and unanimity. He predicts more purges, violence, and repression; argues that the purge reaffirms Kim’s impetuous and brash nature; and calls it “inconceivable” that Kim will live a long and healthy life.

Scott Snyder writes that the purge “has exposed deep divisions within the Kim family leadership,” “has shocked North Koreans and outsiders alike with its suddenness and its brutality,” and has “likely bred fear and shock at every level of North Korean society.” He ends with that word again: “reckless.”

The AP’s Foster Klug writes that the purge destroyed “the myth of a serene, all-powerful ruling dynasty that enjoyed universal love and support at home” and “acknowledges dissension and a dangerous instability.” He quotes Brian Myers, who says, “The Kim dynasty legend is the main capital he has, and he’s squandering it like there’s no tomorrow.” The piece’s most astonishing passage isn’t notable for what it says, but for who says it.

Kim Jong Un “has managed to tarnish his own image, look like a modern Caligula and give the lie to 90 percent of the bombast emanating from Pyongyang,” said Bruce Cumings, a Korea specialist and history professor at the University of Chicago, adding that the move indicates high-level and deep divisions. “Whatever one thinks of this regime, from the standpoint of the top leadership this was a politically stupid, self-defeating move,” he said.

To Korea watchers, a Bruce Cumings criticism of a North Korean leader is the equivalent of Jim Nabors’s gay wedding. Even if the affirmation itself is hardly controversial anymore, you’re still entitled to be gobsmacked upon hearing who offered it.

Even John Kerry called the purge “an ominous sign” of instability and danger, called Kim himself “reckless” (that word again) and “insecure,” and compared him to Saddam Hussein. Video here.

We’ve come a long way since 2012, when Ri Sol Ju, who is not dead, symbolized everything we wanted to believe about North Korea. While starvation and cannibalism were reported just a few miles south of Pyongyang, correspondents in the capital saw significant national policy implications in Ri’s fashions, her physical appearance, and court entertainers in mini-dresses and knockoff Mickey Mouse costumes. One, dazzled by the “jumbotrons, the multicolor lights of the newly built residential complex on Changjon Street, and the spectacular 2013 new year fireworks,” saw “hope in the air, and new positive expectations about the future.” To support his case, he even cited the closure of Camp 22, though he didn’t bother to mention the disappearance of its 30,000 prisoners.

No one crawled out further on this slender limb than John DeLury, who argued that Kim Jong Un was bringing glasnost to North Korea. Reread this piece by DeLury in Yale Global, just to see how poorly the analysis has held up:

[A]lready Kim’s leadership style, political inclinations and attitude toward the world are starting to come into focus – and a big surprise is that Kim appears to be heading in what he describes as a “new, creative and enterprising” direction, nudging the national compass away from a fixation on his father’s “military-first politics” toward a Deng-like pragmatic emphasis on economic development.

I’m sure DeLury is a nice enough fellow, but somewhere, he must be wishing he hadn’t written this. It’s easy, of course, to criticize a necessarily speculative view in hindsight, but even then, it was common knowledge that Uday Hussein, Hannibal Khaddafy, and Nicu Ceausescu also enjoyed Europe’s casinos, resorts, and fleshpots. Even then, we could see the evidence that the regime’s brutality was actually intensifying.

I guess it’s like they say. One man’s Gorby is another man’s Caligula.

Open Sources, Special Purge Edition

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.

~  ~  ~

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.”

~  ~  ~

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.

~  ~  ~

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.

~  ~  ~

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]

North Korea’s overseas money men, called home, go to ground instead

After the news broke that Jang Song Thaek has been purged, The Daily NK reported that the regime was summoning party cadres from other parts of North Korea to Pyongyang. Now, new reports tell us that North Koreans in China are also being called back, possibly to be purged themselves. The Joongang Ilbo carries a fascinating interview with Lee Keum-Ryong, a defector and Free North Korea Radio correspondent, and obviously a very brave man. Lee defied the risk of abduction, or perhaps a curbside injection of neostigmine bromide, to get close to many of these North Koreans in Beijing. He reports that many of them have since vanished, but not all of them went home.

“I went to an office building where North Korean officials in the business of trade, whom I have personally known for some years, used to work. Stuff had been removed from all three rooms and [North Korean] strangers were standing guard. I waited for hours for North Korean officials to show up, but they didn’t. A source in China told me ‘a whole group of team members seemed to have disappeared’ and those who were standing guard at the office were an arrest squad [sent from Pyongyang].

“I [finally] reached a North Korean official in hiding through a go-between. The man, who worked for a trading company under the North Korean administrative department previously led by Jang Song-thaek, said, ‘I was able to flee [from arrest]. And I expect others [with ties to Jang] have done the same. I don’t know what to do next.’” 

The official told Lee he was mulling fleeing to another country, possible the United States or a European country. When asked how many North Koreans fled from arrest, the North Korean said he did not know. 

The Joongang Ilbo adds that about 70 to 80 North Koreans in Europe, who also had ties to Jang, may also have to decide whether to defect or return.

Pyongyang usually keeps the wives and children of its overseas agents at home, as hostages. The fact that any significant number of them refuse to return home suggests that cohesion and discipline are breaking down. It may also reflect the sentiments of officials in Pyongyang, although the choices there are more stark.

One of Lee’s Chinese sources told him a majority of North Korean workers [in Beijing] “are frightened and desperate.” “In Beijing alone, there are about 30 North Korean workers, and they are now nowhere to be seen … We don’t know whether they went back [to Pyongyang] voluntarily,” said the source. 

Most of those who disappeared are senior ranking members of North Korea’s trading companies who have worked with Jang over many years and have transferred foreign currency to Pyongyang. Lee quoted his Chinese source as saying there was an arrest squad dispatched from the North, fueling speculation that those who returned to their country did it involuntarily. 

“I bet their [North Koreans in China] position is that there is nothing to hope for after the execution of Jang Song-thaek,” said a Chinese businessman. “[Those who have disappeared] are North Koreans stationed in Beijing, Shenyang and Guangzhou. Those who were in Guangzhou are the people who looked after Kim Jong-nam, the eldest son of Kim Jong-il,” he said. 

Many of these North Koreans were “in China to enhance bilateral trade and investment.” Some analysts interpret the order as a sign that the regime disapproves of Chinese-style reforms.

NK office

[via Yonhap]

At a minimum, removing these deal-makers will necessarily have some adverse effects on the deals they were making, or made. That will undo a great deal of connection-building and negotiation, and will damage economic relations between China and North Korea. The regime’s denunciation of Jang for “instruct[ing] his stooges to sell coal and other precious underground resources at random” and “selling off the land of the Rason economic and trade zone” will certainly chill new investment deals, and scare cadres into reinterpreting existing ones, causing more conflicts with investors. Regime banks accounts could even be lost if the only people who know where it is die without telling where they are.

Not that any of these things would be bad, mind you.

It’s hard to imagine that this purge could fail to cause a significant disruption in Pyongyang’s money flows. Could they really be dumb enough to do that to themselves? If they were dumb enough to destroy their own currency, then I suppose they are.

For what it’s worth, a North Korean official interviewed by the AP says that Pyongyang’s economic policies won’t change, that North Korea welcomes foreign investment, and that Pyongyang will proceed with its special economic zones. Not that I suppose this is really about me, but the interview answers my swipe that the AP hasn’t interviewed any North Korean officials or adding any useful information to our speculation about the purge. Whether these assertions are useful information is a question I’ll leave to you, to time, and to the boys at the Inmin Poan-Bu to tell, but they are exclusive and newsworthy. Good for the AP reporters for making the effort.