Does Kim Jong-un consciously imitate Dr. Evil?

As I contemplate both the competence and the incompetence with which North Korea (probably) executed the murder of Kim Jong-nam, I can’t help reflecting on how it often seems to combine the guile and ruthlessness of SPECTRE with the executive competence of Dr. Evil. On one hand, the plot worked with ruthless efficiency. The target is dead. A potential Pu Yi is removed from the scene, and its terrorist objectives have been successful, at least in part. The South Korean government will have to step up its measures to protect high-profile North Korean defectors, and Thae Yong-ho has canceled his public appearances indefinitely. (Admittedly, things don’t always go so smoothly for the RGB.)

Now, weigh those benefits against the costs. Ten people, including eight North Koreans and two local patsies (or agents) have been exposed. One suspect is a staffer for Air Koryo, North Korea’s flag carrier, which was recently designated by the Treasury Department and has had to cut back its routes under U.S. and South Korean diplomatic pressure. The loss of each route complicates Pyongyang’s arms smuggling, slave trade, money laundering, and bulk cash smuggling. If Air Koryo loses its landing rights in Malaysia, it will be harder to transport North Korean traders and coal miners there, and to bring their earnings and wages back to Chinese banks. At least eight people (and by the time it’s all said and done, probably more) who might have earned or laundered tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars will be uprooted and sent home.

Another suspect was a highly trained chemist and trader. After having studied overseas, including in the United States, he was a fan of American and South Korean culture — in many ways, a poster boy for engagement — and yet, when the order was given, he was probably the one who mixed up the poison used for the assassination. (Put me down as guessing that if it wasn’t neostigmine bromide, it was probably some other kind of nerve agent. The symptoms match: eye pain, blurred vision, headache, seizures, and fainting.)

Worst of all, one of the suspects is a North Korean embassy official. Malaysian police are now asking to question North Korean embassy staff. Someone tried to break into the morgue where Kim Jong-nam’s body was stored (any guesses)? The North Koreans are in a public spat with the Malaysian government up to the Prime Minister level after questioning the fairness of the police investigation in a country that’s obsessed with law and order. Relations with China were also strained. By involving a diplomat in the plot, Pyongyang has further raised the odds that it will go back on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Does it really take ten people, involving as many North Korean interests as possible, to kill one dude? Surely there must have been an easier way?

There may soon be a significant downgrade in relations between Pyongyang and one of its major trading partners. Kim Jong-un will suffer global embarrassment. Word of the assassination is spreading through North Korean markets like a new drama DVD. Fence-sitting South Korean voters and North Korean officials alike will ask, “If he’d kill his own brother, why not us?” As if on cue, Kim Jong-nam’s relatives are reportedly starting to defect. As with Kim Jong-un’s execution of his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, his act of fratricide will shift the global narrative about who he is and how to deal with him (or not).

Why does Pyongyang do these things? Are these the acts of a man who is irrational, impulsive, or merely stupid? Certainly we can perceive the uneven distribution of competence in North Korea, with its very top leaders having the least of it. But another perfectly rational explanation is that in the end, they know they’re almost never held accountable for the things they do.

Continue Reading

The man who wouldn’t be king: the short, happy life of Kim Jong-nam

Kim Jong Nam, the estranged older half-brother of Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, was killed in an attack at Kuala Lumpur airport, Malaysian police confirmed on Tuesday, in an apparent assassination.

The 46-year-old was assaulted by a woman who covered his face with a cloth laced with liquid as he was waiting for a flight to Macau, said Fadzil Ahmat, a Malaysian police official. He was confirmed dead after being taken to hospital. [Financial Times]

The kindest way to remember Kim Jong-nam may be as a man who was never cut out to be a tyrant. This must have been obvious from the circumstances of his fall from primogeniture — he was caught entering Japan on a fake passport on his way to Tokyo Disneyland. Maybe he never wanted the job, and maybe it was his downfall that caused him to reflect on the circumstances of his countrymen. He was neither a hero nor a martyr, although he later wrote a book criticizing the rule of his half-brother (whom he claimed he never met). Although there were rumors of a previous attempt to assassinate him by staging a car accident, Kim Jong-nam never really seemed interested enough in politics to call a dissident, either. He seemed interested in being happy. And any man who abstains from the opportunity to enslave others ought to be remembered fondly for that alone.

Friends who said they’d met Jong-nam and found him to be, against all odds, nice — which is to say he was affable, approachable, and spoke good English. His son, Kim Han-sol certainly seems like a nice kid. After doing an interview in which he criticized the regime’s human rights abuses, he went into hiding. My heart goes out to him, not just for the sadness he must feel at the loss of his father, but for the terror that he must feel for his own safety now. (Kim Jong-nam also had a daughter, who lives in Macau.)

~   ~   ~

The propagation of terror is surely one of the reasons why Kim Jong-un committed this act of fratricide. I don’t know that for a fact, of course, but as Mark Tokola asks, “Cui bono?” Someone in the U.S. government who probably knows things I don’t “strongly believes” Kim Jong-un did it. I can’t think of another logical explanation.

(Update: Malaysian police have arrested a North Korean man, Ri Jong-chol, a chemistry specialist, in connection with the murder. Incredibly, Ri kept a Facebook page that says he graduated from Kim Il-sung University in 2000, a school in Massachusetts in 2010, and had been studying in Kolkata, India. He liked Dave Mraz, Ha Ji-won, and was “interested in men,” unusual things for a North Korean who surely knew he was being monitored closely to admit openly. In other words, an engagement success story! Dagyum Ji of NK News reports that Malaysian police are also seeking four more North Korean suspects: Ri Ji Hyon, 33; Hong Sang Hac, 34; O Jong Gil, 55; Ri Jae Nam, 57, all of whom entered Malaysia in late January or early February, and who appear to have made a clean getaway to Pyongyang. Police are also seeking another North Korean, Ri Ji U, and two other unidentified men “believed to be North Koreans” for questioning.)

I don’t think there’s any question that it was murder, either, although the reports still can’t agree on exactly how Kim Jong-nam was done in. Surveillance video shows two women doing the deed and then fleeing in a taxi. (Update: Watch the video at this link.) In contrast to the Financial Times’s account, other reports say they sprayed poison on his face or that they jabbed him with one or more poison needles. Even the police weren’t sure yesterday afternoon. Both versions would be half-true if one chloroformed him and one jabbed him. (Update: from the grainy CCTV video, it looks like “LOL girl” reached around Kim Jong-nam from behind and put a cloth over his face.)

The news of the investigation is developing quickly, and there are many conflicting or unverified accounts of suspects being pursued, arrested, or dead. Malaysian authorities say they have arrested this woman, who was carrying a (possibly fake) Vietnamese name and passport.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that police have also arrested another woman from Burma (Update: One woman with a Vietnamese passport, one Indonesian woman, her boyfriend, and this North Korean man, a chemist who attended high school in Massachusetts, Kim Il-Sung University, and a grad school in Kolkata, India). NK News says they may be pursuing up to five other suspects. The Joongang Ilbo suggests Kim Jong-nam may have been lured to Malaysia by a romantic relationship with one of the women. This may be one of the killers.

This report, which quotes an unnamed Japanese official, says she and her accomplice are both already dead. (Update: wrong; they’re both alive and under arrest. The best compilation of solid evidence of how the attack unfolded and who the attackers are is actually at this Facebook post. Although the women are apparently claiming that they thought they were only playing a prank on Kim Jong-nam, the video shows “LOL girl” striking quickly and Kim Jong-nam struggling. I don’t buy it.) In the past, RGB agents have been under orders to kill themselves before being taken alive, although not all of them have followed through with those orders in recent years.

Whatever the precise facts turn out to be, this was obviously an elaborate plot that unfolded over the space of months, if not years. Bloomberg quotes Lee Cheol-woo, chairman of the intelligence committee in South Korea’s National Assembly, as saying the murder didn’t have its impetus in recent events, but was simply the successful conclusion of a longstanding fatwa. Still, it’s difficult to believe that the plotters would have gone through with it without a final go-ahead from Pyongyang, from the very top.

~   ~   ~

In recent years, poison — specifically, needles spring-loaded with neostigmine bromide — have been the standard M.O. for the Reconnaissance General Bureau of the Workers’ Party of Korea, or RGB. Starting on page 59 of my report on North Korea’s state sponsorship of terrorism, I describe five such assassinations and foiled attempts since 2008. If you accept that the evidence will likely show that the North Korean government did the hit on Kim Jong-nam, this was a clear-cut case of international terrorism.

There are at least three statutory definitions of terrorism, all of them inconsistent and imperfect for reasons I discussed in my report, starting on page 5. If one makes a lowest common denominator of these definitions and sifts through a few decades of State Department reports for interpretive precedent, it’s possible to write a legal definition of international terrorism that consists of five elements:

  1. It must be unlawful under the laws of the place where it is committed;
  2. It must involve a violent act; an act dangerous to human life, property, or infrastructure; or a threat of such an act;
  3. It must involve the citizens or the territory of more than one country;
  4. It must be perpetrated by a subnational group or clandestine agent against a noncombatant target; and
  5. It must appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government.

Of the first three elements there’s no doubt, and Kim Jong-nam was a noncombatant. If the killers are caught, they were probably agents of the RGB, which employs women as clandestine agents to hunt down refugees in China, and as assassins. The terrorist acts of state actors through their clandestine agents can be a basis for a SSOT listing; in fact, it was two bombings by the RGB that caused the U.S. to put North Korea on the list in 1988. The Secretary of State has the discretion to find that North Korea has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism. He doesn’t need a federal appeals court to tell him that (although one has, and my report also cites several other district court decisions).

As to the regime’s apparent intent, its motives must have been political. Kim Jong-nam had criticized his brother’s regime and predicted that it wouldn’t last. As Dennis Halpin explained, he was the best alternative successor to the family bloodline if China needed a North Korean Pu Yi, a possibility Kim Jong-un couldn’t allow. The most important reason to kill Kim Jong-nam was to warn Thae Yong-ho and others like him, who have been defecting in greater numbers. Pyongyang sees that surge of defections as a threat to its survival. It must want to send a message to Thae Yong-ho and others that they aren’t safe anywhere, even if they’re under government protection (in Kim Jong-nam’s case, China’s).

In one sense, those theories explain the assassination of Kim Jong-nam logically, but in another sense, it all seems illogical. Kim Jong-un must have known that this act of fratricide would shock South Korean voters in an election year, at a time when opinions are still unstable. He must have known that the odds were already high that the Trump administration would put his government back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, triggering additional sanctions. He must have known that the evidence would lead back to him, further discrediting a naive and sympathetic commentariat that tried to sell us the image of Kim Jong-un as a Swiss-educated reformer, while encouraging more subsidies and investments to finance and sustain his rule. He certainly knew that assassinating someone under Chinese protection would irritate (but not alienate) his most important ally. But then, Pyongyang’s business model has long involved a curious combination of obsession with, and disregard for, world opinion.

Thus, if the reports are mostly accurate and the investigation validates a few reasonable inferences, this would be a clear-cut case of international terrorism, not that more evidence is needed to support a re-listing. Returning North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism is both legally justified and good policy. It’s not just out of regard for Kim Jong-nam’s defiantly passive life that we should do it, but to protect more heroic men and women like Park Sang-hak, Thae Yong-ho, Hyeonseo Lee, and potentially dozens more would-be defectors who must be wondering if America will stand by them if they take the risk of crossing the line.

Continue Reading

Is this what a North Korean malaise speech looks like?

Readers know that I’ve been critical of those who cherry-pick words out of North Korean dictators’ rambling New Year speeches to find evidence to support their arguments. Having made the sacrifice of actually reading this one (full text below the jump), I would not characterize it as profoundly different from the same old crap North Korean dictators have told their subjects year after year. No, it was not quite a North Korean “malaise speech,” but it was filled with clear (if tacit) acknowledgments that the byungjin policy (nukes plus economic development) hasn’t delivered the “white rice and meat soup” Kim Jong-un promised North Koreans five years ago. 

So, on guard against overstating the significance of what follows, this language shows more contrition and introspection than I’m accustomed to from North Korean tyrants.

My desires were burning all the time, but I spent the past year feeling anxious and remorseful for the lack of my ability. I am hardening my resolve to seek more tasks for the sake of the people this year and make redoubled, devoted efforts to this end.

Previously, all the people used to sing the song We Are the Happiest in the World, feeling optimistic about the future with confidence in the great Comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. I will work with devotion to ensure that the past era does not remain as a moment in history but is re-presented in the present era. On this first morning of the new year I swear to become a true servant loyal to our people who faithfully supports them with a pure conscience.

Alternative translation here, via NK News. Of course, Kim Jong-un and his father have struck notes of contrition in these speeches before. The theme of a self-sacrificing paternal leader deeply concerned for the welfare of his subjects is an old one in North Korean propaganda. Even so, this seems even more contrite than usual. I haven’t the time or the stomach to do a line-by-line linguistic comparison, but I don’t recall His Porcine Majesty having used — or closed with — such strong language before. Clearly, he knows that things should have been better by now. He knows that his people are unhappy with their standard of living, and perhaps more. Whoever wrote the text saw a need for him to acknowledge the misery of his people, lest he seem detached or callous about it.

Contrast Kim’s aspirational claims about prosperity and economic development with his claims of “consolidating the defence capability of Juche Korea” and that North Korea had “achieved the status of a nuclear power, a military giant, in the East which no enemy, however formidable, would dare to provoke.” There’s nothing aspirational about that. Still, it can’t be lost on his people that he’d traded away their prosperity for his nukes, so he tried to project blame:

Even though the enemy grew more blatant in their obstructive schemes and severe difficulties cropped up one after another, all the service personnel and people drew themselves closer together around the Party and waged a vigorous struggle in the revolutionary spirit of self-reliance and fortitude. This was how they achieved the world-startling, miraculous successes under such trying circumstances. 

Last year the imperialist reactionary forces’ moves for political and military pressure and sanctions against our country reached an extreme. But they failed to break the faith of our service personnel and people in victory, and could not check the vigorous revolutionary advance of Juche Korea.

We should resolutely thwart the enemy’s sinister and pernicious schemes to check the warm and pure-hearted aspiration of our people who follow the Party single-heartedly and to alienate the Party from them.

Other statements in the speech acknowledged social and political problems that belied the many claims of single-hearted unity.

We should thoroughly apply the people-first doctrine, the crystallization of the Juche-oriented view on the people, philosophy of the people, in Party work and all the spheres of state and social life, and wage an intensive struggle to root out abuses of power, bureaucratism and corruption that spoil the flower garden of single-hearted unity.

They should resolutely break with defeatism, self-preservation, formalism and expediency, and devote their heart and soul to the struggle for carrying out the Party’s plans and intentions.

There may be various reasons why Kim Jong-un’s birthday celebrations were relatively muted this year. He may be sensitive about his age, but I suspect that the idolization of Kim would be more advanced by now if the regime believed that he was deeply and genuinely popular.

Reportedly out of concern for adverse publicity, the regime has banned public executions (it’s killing people privately instead). Kim Jong-un has even reportedly told his security forces to stop searching homes without warrants(!) due to “escalating disgruntlement and official complaints to the district office over the the tyrannical behavior of law enforcement officers.” That is the kind of order that seems unlikely to stick in practice, but if it’s true, it would be evidence of discontent with security crackdowns like those that preceded last year’s party Congress. The Daily NK also points to other, more recent acts of protest. See also this post.

More than 1,400 North Koreans defected from North to South in 2016, a rise of 11 percent. This is the first increase since Kim Jong-un’s succession, but that is not necessarily useful evidence for measuring popular morale. More likely, it indicates that an initially successful crackdown on border control is flagging due to low morale and indiscipline within the border guard force (as with the rest of the military) and due to the destruction of border posts and fences, and the border guards themselves, by last year’s floods.

What does seem significant for morale, however, is that higher-ranking North Koreans and those of higher “songbun” (political loyalty classification) are defecting in higher numbers, for reasons that are more political than material. Some reports attribute this to sanctions, which may be partially true — North Korean elites posted overseas have rigid quotas for sending cash back to Pyongyang. In some cases, those who can’t meet those quotas due to sanctions may be tempted to defect rather than return home. That North Korean workers in Russia report an increase in wage theft may mean that they’re being squeezed to make up for revenue lost elsewhere (which in turn leads to more group defections like this one — the “death spiral” I’ve spoken of before). That many of the elites are afraid of being purged is another likely factor. 

Overall, however, the prospect of a long, bleak future under Kim Jong-un and the fading of any hopes that he would be a reformer may well be the greatest cause of North Korea’s malaise. I’ll give Thae Yong-ho the last word:

“As the Kim Jong-un regime took power, I had a slight hope that he would make a rational, reasonable regime because he must be well aware of how the world runs after he studied overseas for a long time,” Thae said. But Kim turned out even more merciless than his father and late leader Kim Jong-il, he said, citing the shocking public execution of the leader’s once-powerful uncle Jang Song-thaek in 2013 as one of the moments of awakening that eventually solidified his decision to defect. [Yonhap]

~   ~   ~

Update: More here.

Continue Reading

No Pyongyang Spring this year, either

The reasons why North Korea is holding a party congress are still a matter of conjecture to those of us fortunate enough not to live there. The congress is almost certainly related to Kim Jong-un’s consolidation of power in some way. It will probably reinforce the personality cult. The regime’s organization charts and wiring diagrams may be rearranged. Pessimists suspect that there will be more bloody purges or another nuclear test. Optimists still hold hope that His Corpulency will validate their frustrated predictions of reform.

Certainly nothing in the regime’s behavior before or during the congress supports the optimistic view. The preparations for the congress were mostly marked by increased repression and surveillance, exhausting mass mobilizations for forced labor, confiscatory “loyalty” payments, and crackdowns on market trading.

Nor is there any sign of glasnost in how the regime has treated the foreign press. So far, it has paraded them through a circuit of model farms, a model kindergarten,

a “children’s palace,” where children are militarized and made to perform,

a model factory,

a munitions museum, 

where reporters were shown an example of “indigenous” weapons,

 

and even a model barbershop.

Some of the foreign reporters are naive enough to think this is how North Koreans actually live.

And, inevitably …

Some observers justify compromises with the truth.

Others ask the minders and props in this play hard questions. They don’t get answers, but at least they tell us so, which reveals something — about themselves, if not about North Korea, which refuses to change. 

So, when The Event itself began, the minders left the reporters standing on a street corner outside, reading foreign websites on their smartphones to learn what they could about events happening 500 meters away.

The odds seem unlikely that the 130 foreign journalists currently in Pyongyang to cover the congress will be allowed to report any useful information, other than the useful fact that Pyongyang is isn’t letting them report any useful information.

There are, however, a few useful dramatizations of things we already knew. For example, the money is still worthless.

And the regime, which still can’t feed its people, has finished building a new headquarters for the bank that prints the worthless money.

Pyongyang has long benefited from cultivating the hope that it would reform, which optimistic policymakers, naive academics, foreign profiteers, and Pyongyang’s small, noisy band of apologists have long cited as an argument against sanctions and other forms of pressure. If there were any truth to the reform theories, you’d think Pyongyang would want to amplify them for a global audience, if only as a tactic for strategic deception. So far, it seems to be making little pretense in that direction.

Then, there is the adage that personnel is policy. The officials who are ascendant among the top ranks Pyongyang today are not reformers but hard-liners. But at the mid-to-low levels, older party cadres are being excluded from the congress, in favor of younger (but less experienced, and often, less ideologically inclined) cadres who have proven their loyalty to Kim Jong-un through successful performance at his pet projects. This doesn’t foreshadow the adoption of reformist policies, but might further widen the gulf between Pyongyang and the provinces, and between the highest officials and the lower ranks of the ruling party.

The short, unhappy reign of His Porcine Majesty has been one running disappointment for wishful thinkers in northwest Washington, but that is much less important than the disappointment of the desperately poor from North Hamgyeong to South Hwanghae. 

“Discontent among the people has risen high because of the closed politics of three successive generations,” the RFA quoted a source in Jakang Province. “For North Koreans, reform and openness is no longer just a wish but a must.” [….]

“If all Kim does is repeat the same old revolutionary slogans without clear commitment to reform and open policy, it will be an irreversible disaster for Kim’s stable reign,” another source was quoted as saying. “Citizens are now waiting for the seventh party congress, and regard reform and openness the issues for survival that cannot be delayed any longer.” [Korea Times]

I genuinely wish Pyongyang would finally go through the agricultural reforms it has been promising since 2012, even if in practice, those “reforms” would amount to little more than sharecropping, an arrangement few of us would associate with economic justice. And for all the excitement this has caused among certain North Korea-watching academics, actual North Koreans are much more interested in abandoning the collectives entirely, clearing private plots, and illegally growing food to sell in the markets — a trend that is impossible to measure, but which probably averted a famine despite last year’s drought.

What North Koreans really need isn’t marginal experiments with the collective system or a new New Economic Policy, it’s fundamental land reform that gives land to the tillers. This would do nothing to solve the nuclear crisis or alleviate North Korea’s other humanitarian crises, but it would effect dramatic improvements in North Korea’s food situation. But the unfortunate conclusion I draw is that this regime prefers a hungry population. It’s more easily cowed. And as for political reform, who seriously speaks of that today?

Continue Reading

North Korea’s not-so-great dictator: Kim Jong-un’s impulsive ineptitude

South Korea’s Foreign Minister, Yun Byung-se, believes that Pyongyang is increasingly isolated. He believes that this is causing it “more distress this year than any other time,” and that Kim Jong-un will redouble his efforts to break that isolation this year.

There are reasons to be skeptical of Yun’s statement. First, South Korea, having nominally signed on to a policy of pressuring Pyongyang to disarm without actually complying with that policy itself, must want to world to think that it’s sufficient for everyone else to isolate Pyongyang (which won’t work when everyone else is also an exceptionalist). Second, Pyongyang has never needed full access to the global economy to sustain itself. Its survival model only requires engagement with a few compliant or gullible partners who can supply it with just enough hard currency to keep its elite afloat without opening North Korea to significant foreign intrusion. 

On the other hand, there are signs that for various reasons, all self-inflicted, Pyongyang’s appeal to this limited pool of compliant and gullible partners is becoming increasingly selective.

First, Pyongyang has mismanaged relations with its most important foreign investor. The ongoing Koryolink fiasco has generated a stream of bad press and complicated its efforts to recruit foreign investors. I had not realized the full extent of Orascom’s exposure here:

Orascom’s auditor, however, cited the “futility of negotiation” with North Korea over Koryolink’s assets, which the company said were worth $832 million at the end of June, including cash in North Korean won worth $653 million at the official exchange rate. Koryolink, which now accounts for 85% of Orascom’s revenue and profit, says it hasn’t been able to send any funds out of North Korea in 2015 due to local currency controls and international sanctions targeting Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

Mr. Sawiris didn’t respond to requests for comment and Orascom declined to make him available for interview. A spokesman for Orascom reiterated the company’s public statements and didn’t respond to further questions. North Korea hasn’t referred to the dispute in its state media and relevant officials couldn’t be reached for comment. [WSJ, Alastair Gale]

Pyongyang is also under rising diplomatic pressure over its horrific human rights abuses, which have resulted in a stream of humiliating U.N. General Assembly votes and (admittedly non-binding) Security Council meetings. These will also make North Korea toxic to more potential investors until it undertakes real reforms.

Pyongyang knows this, but doesn’t seem to know how to confront it. It recently described “the current U.S. administration’s policy” as “the most hostile and ferocious in the history” of the two countries’ relations. It pushed back hard, if ineffectively, at the U.N., and recently sent envoys to Europe “to lobby against international pressure … over its human rights record.”

The Dec. 9-11 visit to London was part of a European trip that also took Kim Son-gyong, director-general for European affairs at the North’s Foreign Ministry, to Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Poland.

While in London, Kim held meetings with Fiona Bruce, a member of parliament who co-chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, as well as officials at the foreign ministry, according to an official at the South Korean Embassy. [….]

During the visit to London, Kim contended that the country is making efforts to improve its human rights record while reaffirming Pyongyang’s existing position that last year’s landmark U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report on the North’s human rights situation contained unilateral claims from North Korean defectors. [Yonhap]

Pyongyang has also injured its most important international relationship through the Moranbang Band debacle. Aidan Foster-Carter, in an insightful analysis of this episode, says this was to have been the first foreign performance of Kim Jong-un’s house band and “a big deal.” Foster-Carter runs down a list of theories for the performance’s cancellation, and concludes that the most plausible is that Beijing downgraded the seniority of its official representation in response to Pyongyang’s ill-timed claim that it has a hydrogen bomb:

Whatever. This was a dumb thing to say, and a stupid time to say it. Did it not occur to Kim that China would take umbrage? Or worse, was he deliberately testing Beijing? Anyway, as a rap on the knuckles China reacted by downgrading its concert party from ministerial to vice-minister level. That was the last straw for Kim, who ordered his artistes back to Pyongyang.

What a mess, and what testament to Kim Jong Un’s lack of diplomatic nous. Four years into his reign, we know he can run the show at home – if a bit fiercely. But that’s the easy part: national solipsism, where he controls all the levers and everyone plays their assigned part.

Diplomacy is different. Like poker, you’re up against others – so you better play good. North Korea used to be skilled at that. Kim Jong Il parlayed what in truth was a pretty weak hand (nukes, and what else?) into a surprising degree of influence in the world. Status, of a kind.

His son has not inherited that gene. Not only does Kim Jong Un have no discernible overall strategy, but he messes up like an amateur. Daddy would never have done that. (Or indeed, if Choe Ryong Hae hadn’t been sent to the farm, or wherever – another move that put China’s nose out of joint – his skills would surely have ensured that nothing like this happened.) [Aidan Foster-Carter, NK News]

The views of Don Kirk and Steph Haggard are also worth reading, and introduce other plausible theories. Another is that the performance was to have been accompanied by a video of a missile launch, and that the Chinese objected to this.

the-great-dictator-1940-wallpapers-9

Whatever cascade of events led to this outcome, only Kim Jong-un could have made the decision to cancel this performance. It looks impulsive and inept. It’s also consistent with how His Porcine Majesty has exercised his royal prerogatives for most of his life.

Fine, you may say, but this was still a materially inconsequential event, involving a band that’s “no better than hundreds of Filipino showbands who pay their dues in hotels all over Asia every night.” Indeed, I agree that most “cultural diplomacy” is overrated, especially in the relations between unaccountable dictatorships. I also agree with Andrei Lankov that Machiavellian interests will prevail in Beijing, which isn’t going to cut Pyongyang off over this. But this incident must have the Chinese wondering whether Kim Jong-un is a steady and reliable ruler and partner. It will likely shift Beijing’s calculus of what costs are acceptable to attain the benefits of stabilizing Kim’s rule.

There are also the more interesting reports that five days later, North Korea ordered “a considerable number of trade-affiliated employees sojourning in China to report to Pyongyang.” If that’s true, it’s a very big deal.

Our source expressed concern over the drastic measure, wondering if the issue of the Moranbong Band’s canceled tour might be exploding into a bigger issue. “When you call back scores of workers from abroad, that’s a pretty big deal,” she pointed out.

Naturally, she added, speculation about the order’s motives has quickly reached a fever pitch. Some posit that Kim Jong Un could be experiencing “mood swings” so close to the 4th anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death, perhaps causing him to lose his temper over the Moranbong Band dispute and call back the workers in China.

Some cadres briefly put forth the possibility that maybe the callback was somehow related to mourning-related events for Kim Jong Il, held at foreign embassies and the like over the past three years, but admitted that “that doesn’t really seem to fit.”

Although, the reason will surface in a matter of days, “they can’t help but be nervous,” the source said, adding, “After all, workers abroad are never called upon to return without good reason.”

Families of the workers who have been recalled are reassuring each other, noting, “While it’s bad news if only a few workers are recalled, all of them being told to return simultaneously means that they are probably just going to attend a large meeting or some kind of educational session,” the source explained. [Daily NK]

The Daily NK claims corroboration from two separate sources, although I’ve yet to see this reported by other media. If this is true, I wonder how it will affect relations between Pyongyang and its Chinese business partners, some of whom must still have fresh memories of the Jang Song-thaek purge.

If Kim Jong-un has arguably mismanaged his foreign relations, it’s also true that he can survive several years without recruiting new foreign investors or donors, and months without Chinese support. The relationships he can’t afford to mismanage are those with the top minions whose support he needs every day. But Kim’s management of these relationships also looks increasingly unsteady, as the elites show signs of alienation and discontent. As Kim Jong Un prepares for his own Ides of May, Stephen Harrison, a professor of Latin literature at Oxford, compares his recent purges of his senior advisors to those of Tiberius (fate uncertain), Nero (overthrown), and Caligula (assassinated). 

If there’s any pattern to all of this, it’s one of tactically uncompromising decisions that are beneficial to the regime in the short term, but are strategically self-defeating. This suggests that the flaws in Pyongyang’s strategic judgment go all the way to the top.

Continue Reading

Stage Five Watch

Over the last year, this site has carefully tracked reports about the popularity or (more often) the unpopularity of Kim Jong-Un. Throughout the summer and fall of this year, numerous reports have suggested the existence of discontent — however latent, unfocused, spontaneous, and unorganized —  among North Korea’s youth, within the elites, and even inside the military. Three recent reports have added to this evidence.

A North Korean defector said Pyongyang’s Workers’ Party is “imploding” due to Kim Jong Un’s inconsistent policies, and grievances against the leader have soared since he fully assumed power.

The former party cadre, who spoke to Yonhap on the condition of anonymity, said Kim often finds fault with “old and senile party members,” and his disparaging remarks have often placed him at odds with veteran politicians appointed by former leader Kim Jong Il. Kim has said North Korean politicians with decades of experience are ineffective workers, according to the defector.

Demoralized cadres have said that “there is no future” for North Korea since Kim came to power, and pessimism is pervasive in government, according to the defector identified as “A.” The defector said the execution of Kim’s uncle Jang Song Thaek was shocking for North Korea’s elite, and signs of conflict have emerged since Kim replaced older bureaucrats with new appointees.

The report cites Kim Jong-Un’s purges, and perceptions that his work ethic is inferior to that of his predecessors, as the cause of the loss of trust and confidence. [UPI, Elizabeth Shim]

Next, the Daily NK reports, via sources in North Pyongan and South Pyongan provinces, that young North Koreans feel more apathy than loyalty toward Kim Jong-Un.

“Ever since Kim Jong Un rose to power, North Korean students dramatically reduced their usage of the word ‘loyalty.’ Because the residents receive zero tangible benefits from the regime, their feeling of loyalty or appreciation is virtually nonexistent,” a source in South Pyongan reported to Daily NK on October 2nd.

This trend was cross-checked with an additional source in North Pyongan Province.

She added, “In years past, residents were a bit more susceptible to feelings of fondness resulting from the deification of North Korean leaders, but that effect has disappeared for the present generation. The students don’t blame or resent Kim Jong Un, they simply regard him as a man with high status. They are just not very interested in him.” [….]

“The students giggle and sneer when they watch propaganda documentaries that brag that, at the tender age of three, Kim Jong Un was able to spell difficult words like Kwangmyeongseong Changa (‘hopeful paean’),” she asserted. [….]

“The content of the propaganda material is so unrealistic. Practically no one buys into it these days. In the past, political interactions were secret and mysterious, but these days everyone knows that a bribe is the only thing that makes the authorities do their job. That’s when people began to think that even ’The Marshal’ Kim Jong Un is just a regular guy,’” she explained.

“That’s why residents, and students especially, continue to confidently watch illegal South Korean movies and dramas despite crackdowns by the regime. Small cracks are emerging on the regime’s iron tight grip on society and the younger generation is exhibiting significant differences in their mentality.”  [Daily NK]

As Stephan Haggard notes, His Corpulency has specifically appealed to the young for their support. I wonder if Kim Jong-Un’s sources have told him what the Daily NK‘s sources have told its reporters.

The most sensational of the three reports, from Radio Free Asia, claims that someone in Pyongsong, South Pyongan, has been defacing propaganda posters:

Posters glorifying North Korea’s ruling Korean Workers’ Party are being defaced across the country in a wave of popular resentment against burdens imposed in preparation for celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the party’s founding, North Korean sources say.

Graffiti attacks against the posters were first noticed in South Pyongan province’s Pyongsong city during regional elections in July, a source in neighboring Jagang province told RFA’s Korean Service.

And despite a recently publicized order from national leader Kim Jong Un threatening harsh punishment for the attacks, “These acts of vandalism have continued until the present time,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The number of incidents is now increasing because residents of the reclusive nuclear-armed state are angered at their exploitation by the country’s central government as it prepares for elaborate celebrations, including a massive military parade, in the capital Pyongyang on Oct. 10, he said.

On Sept. 9, a poster was found damaged in Pyongsong, with references on the poster to the country as “the victor” changed to “the defeated,” a source in Yanggang province told RFA.

Two other posters were found later that night to have also been defaced, the source said, speaking on condition he not be named.

“When news of the Pyongsong incidents spread, more cases of the vandalism of posters promoting the 70th anniversary of the [North] Korean Workers’ Party began to take place nationwide,” the source said. [Radio Free Asia]

Well, maybe. I have yet to see any other reports of similar acts of protest at the times and places referred to here. There were reports over the summer that North Koreans had fought back against the confiscation of market wares, and carried out revenge attacks against the security forces. 

Contrary to all of these reports, Andrei Lankov argues that Kim Jong Un is enjoying a popularity boom, particularly among younger North Koreans. His best evidence for this is a survey of North Korean refugees’ speculation about the views of other North Koreans, except that even its authors say the survey, which sampled just 100 people, is statistically useless for the measurement of any trends. Even this is still a lot more persuasive than Andrei’s anecdotal evidence:

Popular attitudes to Kim Jong Un are nicely summed up by a young female refugee who recently said in an interview, “People around my age love him. Girls kind of like him because he is handsome. …”

I suppose attraction is a subjective thing, but it’s very hard to take this seriously.

While I don’t doubt that different individuals and demographics in North Korea have highly variable views of their government and its leadership, that discontent and dissent are different things, and that discontent and loyalty might coexist to an extraordinary degree in The Land of Suspended Disbelief, Lankov is arguing against the ponderous and noticeably expanding weight of the preponderant evidence. Unpopularity does not necessarily imply instability, but it does imply fragility. North Koreans might kill out of hatred, boredom, or simple brutality. They might die for their homeland, their country, or their race. What seems increasingly doubtful is that most of them would die for Kim Jong-Un.

Continue Reading

How one wafer-thin mint could reform North Korea

I’ll put it this way: if you were Kim Jong Un’s doctor, would you tell him to cut back on the $300-a-bottle champagne, Kobe beef, and shark’s fin soup? If you were his cook, would you want to tell him he can’t have his midnight snack? Would you want to be the one to notice that he’s gained some weight? I mean, what’s the worst that could happen?

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un gained around 30 kg over the last five years and now weighs apparently close to 130 kg. A government official said Friday, “By analyzing Kim Jong-un’s body shape and gait, we estimated he weighed less than 100 kg when he first appeared in public in September of 2010 but then rapidly put on weight.”

He said the clearest signs are his belly and double chin. “When he’s standing while holding his hands behind his back, you can see his abdomen protruding, and his chin folds when he is spotted giving orders.” [Chosun Ilbo]

Some observers express concern — as if this were a bad thing — that if Kim’s health deteriorates noticeably, it could set off a power struggle and destabilize his rule. And by “deteriorate noticeably,” I suppose I have in mind something like this:

[Go on, Your Majesty. It’s only wafer thin.]

The Chosun quotes one source who speculates that His Porcine Majesty has been overeating and drinking heavily due to stress, following his purge of Jang Song-Thaek in December 2013. Another suggests that Kim gained weight deliberately — for image reasons — because nothing projects noblesse oblige to one’s famished subjects like that portrait of your triple chin that hangs in every classroom in your kingdom, so that the stunted, stick-armed little waifs can stare up at it in mute gratitude that they’ve been shielded from their own life-long struggles with obesity.

The North Korean government has made a request to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) for food aid, an official with that UN agency stated.

A decrease in early season crops prompted North Korea in July to make the request, the Voice of America quoted Cristina Coslet, FAO’s Global Information and Early Warning System officer in charge of Far East Asia as saying in a Sept. 15 report.

“We are currently exploring the possibility to get additional funds to provide agriculture input for the restoration of agriculture production system,” Coslet stated.

Drought has also negatively impacted North Korea’s crop harvests in 2015, reports indicated.

Grains demand in North Korea for the current season (October-November) is likely to be about 5.49 million tonnes, of which 421,000 tonnes is to be an import, Ukrainian consulting agency UkrAgroConsult stated in a Sept. 15 report that cited FAO figures.

The country plans to import only 300,000 tonnes of grain, however, leaving a deficit of 121,000 tonnes, the UkrAgroConsult report warned.

Reports also noted that the current food distribution situation within North Korea has become “dangerous,” having fallen to 250 gramms per day, which less than half the FAO-recommended minimum. [NK News]

I see that Marcus also agrees that Kim has never looked more corpulent.

I am not among the North Korea watchers who is anxious about this, not that it would matter if I was. From a young North Korean’s perspective, the best hope for a life worth living is that His Corpulency is a 285-pound chain smoker whose idea of a snack is a wheel of Emmental cheese. From my perspective, the world might well become a safer place with one less high school dropout with an affinity for bondage porn and torturing small animals, and a small nuclear arsenal.

Forget the Sunshine Policy. Forget six-party talks, engagement strategies, and exchange programs. Forget the overanalyzed New Year speeches, and those agricultural reforms that never quite materialize. The real agents of North Korean reform will be cigarettes, vodka, samgyeopsal, and heavy cream sauces.

Continue Reading

Kim Jong-Un’s party yachts aren’t just a joke. They’re a crime.

Starting at Paragraph 493 of its landmark report, a U.N. Commission of Inquiry extensively documented Pyongyang’s denial of the right of its citizens to food, both during and since the Great Famine killed at least hundreds of thousands of people, and possibly millions, in the 1990s. Although there have been reports of microfamines in North Korea as recently as 2012, for the most part, the story of North Korea’s food crisis for the last decade and a half has been one of gross inequality and widespread hunger, but not mass casualty famine. A small elite lives in luxury in Pyongyang, between 70 and 84 percent of the people barely scrape by, and most people who still starve to death do so out of sight and out of mind.

Surveying the current state of North Korea’s chronic hunger problem, Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland find that although this year’s drought did not plunge North Korea back into famine as some predicted, harvests are sharply down. They conclude that “the food situation may be trending back to the North Korean normal of low-level shortages,” and that “chronic, low-level shortages and unequal distribution generating nutritional deficits among the vulnerable, even as Pyongyang thrives.” Currently, a two-year, $200 million U.N. food aid program targeting 2.4 million vulnerable women and children is nearing its end. Two weeks ago, Pyongyang asked the U.N. for more food aid, but the donors are staying away in droves. The crisis in Syria explains this in part. This may be another partial explanation:

North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un toured a recently completed luxury river cruiser in Pyongyang and named it “Mujigae” (rainbow), state media said on Monday.

The multi-floor vessel, spotted under construction by NK News in September last year, contains restaurants, bars, a coffee shop, roof deck and even sushi-conveyor belt-style dining area, pictures published in Monday’s Rodong Sinmun showed.

Kim Jong Un “appreciated the installation of a peculiar round lift and the construction of round stairs, adding that the revolving restaurant on the third floor looks spectacular and it is fantastic to command a bird’s-eye view of Pyongyang from it,” the KCNA said about his visit.

The vessel, which KCNA said could serve up to 1,230 guests in facilities distributed over four stories, was ordered by Kim Jong Un to start service before October 10.

October 10 is the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers Party of Korea (WPK) and is expected to be a major celebration. [NK News]

Pyongyang also posted this video of His Porcine Majesty touring the new floating restaurant.

And of course, this isn’t his only party yacht. Dennis Rodman offered this remembrance a few years ago:

“It’s like going to Hawaii or Ibiza, but he’s the only one that lives there,” Rodman said. “He likes people to be happy around him.

“He’s got 50 to 60 around him all the time – just normal people, drinking cocktails and laughing the whole time.

“If you drink a bottle of tequila, it’s the best tequila,” he added. “Everything you want, he has the best.”

Kim’s 200-foot yacht is a “cross between a ferry and a Disney boat,” Rodman said. [The Telegraph]

In 2010, the Italian manufacturer Azimut-Benetti reported to the authorities a suspicious attempt to purchase two yachts, which turned out to have been on North Korea’s behalf, and almost certainly for the use of Kim Jong-Il or Kim Jong-Un. Undeterred, Kim Jong-Un successfully purchased two yachts from the British manufacturer Princess, at a reported cost of $7 million each. Earlier this year, a U.N. Panel of Experts monitoring compliance with sanctions on North Korea, which prohibit it from importing luxury items, reported on the purchase as a possible violation of the luxury goods ban (pages 42-43). The panel’s report stated that it could not advance its investigation due to a lack of cooperation from Princess Yachts (and presumably, the U.K. government).

It is typical of online accounts to treat Kim Jong-Un’s extravagances like a big joke, occasionally tinged with racism. On a certain level, satire is an effective way to criticize absurd and inhumane policies — if it goes beyond pointing and tittering. Most of those accounts refer, if obliquely, to the stunting and stultifying poverty and hunger of millions beyond the sight of the lens. Almost none of them also call this what it is — a crime.

Human rights law is agnostic about what kind of economic system a state must adopt, but regardless of the kind of system it chooses, every state has an obligation to give its people basic nutritional security. The Commission of Inquiry cited North Korea’s failures of both omission and commission. By the 1990s, it had become clear to North Korea’s leaders that their food production and distribution system couldn’t provide for the people, yet it has failed to reform the system, institute land reform, or broadly open the economy to trade and investment. It has willfully obstructed the delivery of aid and confiscated food supplies and aid from those who needed it most. In other cases, it has tolerated the theft of food supplies by hungry soldiers. It has punished those to tried to flee to neighboring provinces, or across international borders, to find food. It has inhibited the people from adopting effective coping strategies, such as private agriculture and trade in the markets.

Its most obscene offense against the right of food, however, may be what the Commission calls the “non-utilization of maximum available resources” — that is, squandering the nation’s wealth on luxuries and weapons instead of the food necessary to save millions from a prolonged and agonizing death:

637. Article 2 (1) of the ICESCR states that “each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and cooperation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures” (emphasis added).

638. The concept of “progressive realization” describes a central aspect of states’ obligations in connection with economic, social and cultural rights under international human rights treaties. At its core is the obligation to take appropriate measures towards the full realization of economic, social and cultural rights to the maximum of a state’s available resources. The reference to “available resources” reflects a recognition that the realization of these rights can be hampered by a lack of resources and can be achieved only over a period of time. Equally, it means that a state’s compliance with its obligation to take appropriate measures is assessed in light of the resources, financial and otherwise, available to it.  However, the concept of progressive realization must not be misinterpreted as discharging the state from any obligations until they have sufficient resources. On the contrary, the treaties impose an immediate obligation to take appropriate steps towards the full realization of economic, social and cultural rights. A lack of resources cannot justify inaction or indefinite postponement of measures to implement these rights. Irrespective of the resources available to it, a state should, as a matter of priority, seek to ensure that everyone has access to, at the very least, a minimum level of rights, and target programmes to protect the poor, the marginalized and the disadvantaged. A state cannot plead resource constraints to justify its failure to ensure minimum essential levels of socio-economic well being, including freedom from hunger, unless it can demonstrate that it has used all the resources at its disposal to give priority to essential economic and social needs.

639. Based on the body of testimony and submissions received, the Commission finds that the allocation of resources by the DPRK has grossly failed to prioritize the objective of freeing people from hunger and chronic malnutrition, in particular in times of mass starvation. The state has neither prioritized the purchase of the food necessary for the survival of many in the DPRK, nor investment in agriculture, infrastructure and other ways of improving the availability and accessibility of food in the country. FAO and WFP note that the continuous inability to achieve the official Government target of 573 grams of cereal equivalent per person per day in any given year points not only to issues of food availability, but also to broader supply chain constraints such as storage, transport and commodity tracking. 

640. Testimony and other information received by the Commission show that the DPRK continues to allocate disproportional amounts of resources on its military, on the personality cult of the Supreme Leader, related glorification events and the purchase of luxury goods for the elites.

Professor Lee and I wrote about Pyongyang’s willful refusal to feed its people and its criminal responsibility for the Great Famine here, in The New York Times. So when Pyongyang’s diplomatsand its apologists here — blame sanctions for hindering North Korea’s development, or claim that they are a cause of hunger in North Korea, understand this for the lie that it is. The U.N.’s sanctions resolutions have broad exclusions for food and humanitarian supplies, and require sanctions to be administered so as to avoid adverse humanitarian impact. As recently as 2015, the U.N. Panel of Experts had “found no incidents where bans imposed by the resolutions directly resulted in shortages of foodstuffs or other humanitarian aid.” Current U.S. sanctions are narrowly targeted at approximately 80 North Korean entities involved in arms trafficking and weapons of mass destruction development. To the extent that they’ve had any ancillary effect on humanitarian operations, that’s only because Pyongyang requires aid agencies to use the same banks it uses for its prohibited arms trade. The apparent intent is to use its hungry as human shields for its weapons programs.

Even so, Pyongyang is free to import all the food — and for that matter, flat-screen TVs and jewelry, and missile carriers — it wishes to, from China. It simply chooses not to:

North Korean food imports from China continued to decrease in July, with figures remaining below their 2014 equivalents, according to the most recent trade figures from Chinese customs.

Imports of nearly all foods, as classified by trade groupings, appeared lower in July 2015 than in the same period last year.

 [….]

The news comes despite a long period of drought in North Korea that likely damaged harvest yields. The long running water shortage caused concern among the DPRK’s neighbors and numerous international aid agencies.

Russia, Iran and the World Food Program all upped their donations to North Korea to help mitigate the drought’s effects. [NK News, Leo Byrne]

I’ve argued that North Korea should not need food aid at all, and that it has more than enough resources to feed its people, but simply hasn’t chosen to do so. In 2013, for example, Chinese customs data showed that North Korea spent $644 million on luxury imports, including “high-end cars, TVs, computers, liquor and watches,” enough money to fund the World Food Program’s operations in North Korea for six years. This probably does not include the $300 million His Porcine Majesty spent on “leisure and sports facilities, including [a] ski resort.” In 2012 alone, it spent $1.3 billion on its ballistic missile program. As the Commission of Inquiry noted, it would cost Pyongyang next to nothing, in relative terms, to close that food gap.

644. Expert analysis presented to the Commission shows that a marginal redistribution of state military expenditure towards the purchase of food could have saved the population from starvation and malnutrition. According to economist Marcus Noland, based on the last FAO/WFP Crop assessment, the DPRK has an uncovered grain deficit of 40,000 metric tons. According to the International Monetary Fund, in September 2013, the price of rice was approximately USD 470 per metric ton and the price of corn was around USD 207 per ton.  Basing his analysis on United Nations data, Mr Noland estimates that the size of the DPRK economy was $12.4 billion in 2011.  He states that the reallocation of resources required to close the grain gap is therefore less than 0.02 per cent of national income. If the estimation that 25 per cent of national income is being used for the military is correct, then the grain shortfall could be addressed by cutting the military budget by less than 1 per cent. 

645. Marcus Noland further estimates that even at the height of mass starvation, the amount of resources needed to close the food gap was only in the order of USD 100 million to USD 200 million. This represented the value of about 5 to 20 per cent of revenue from exported goods and services or 1 to 2 per cent of contemporaneous national income. At the Washington Public Hearing, he stated,

“[W]hile the amount of grain needed to close the gap [during the 1990s famine] was much larger, the price of grain in the 1990s was much lower than it is now. So at the famine’s peak, the resources needed to close that gap were only on the order of a hundred to two hundred million dollars depending on how you analysed data. Even during the famine period, the North Korean government had resources at its disposal if it had chosen to use them, to maintain imports and avoid that calamity.”

This is just one of a whole range of deliberate policy choices that have — for decades — diverted resources away from importing food, inhibited the private growing of and trading in food, and hobbled foreign aid workers, most recently by expelling two of them. The grim conclusion seems inescapable that Pyongyang is willfully enforcing hunger. Kim Jong-Un’s yachts may be the most garish example of this, but they’re an indication of a much broader and more ruthless policy that won’t change until either the world or the North Korean people focus intense political pressure on the regime’s starvation of its people.

Continue Reading

Is that a cabana you’re designing, or are you just happy to see me?

Curtis Melvin has made an unsettling discovery on Google Earth, at one of (probably) Kim Jong-Un’s palaces. Oh, my….

Ryongsong-phallus

Hey, that looks just like ….

As HRNK points out, this story has a less amusing side for the North Koreans who go hungry while His Porcine Majesty spends their lunch money on giant phalluses, and other “improvements” to his palaces.

Continue Reading

Kim Jong-Un, deterrence, and the psychological evidence

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 10.25.55 PM“Dear Leader, you are a great and beloved strange human being who is extremely odd and should fulfill the destiny of your ancestors,” said the cacophonous group of voices reverberating in Kim’s head. “You are the shining sun. You are a lunatic who is going to end the world. You should destroy South Korea. You look ridiculous right now. They must bow to the might of your nuclear arsenal. I love you, my son. You are an insane man whose death would benefit the entire world.” — The Onion, March 13, 2013

On Twitter lately, I’ve been having some fun at the expense of those who, at least until the 2013 nuclear test and the purge of Jang Song-Thaek, had advanced the “Swiss-educated reformer” theory of Kim Jong-Un’s governance. The thin reed supporting this theory was the emergence of a sybaritic lifestyle for a few well-connected merchants and officials; its greater folly was its assumption that the abandonment of socialist principle, the embrace of inequality, or significant economic reform (if ever realized) necessarily implied that political reform, or the easing of tensions, would follow.

In fact, the evidence suggests that the opposite is true. In the last year alone, Kim has carried out a series of brutal purges, continued a crackdown on cross-border flows of people and information, hacked nuclear power plants in South Korea, and made terrorist threats against the U.S. mainland. In the last week, we learned that his army planted anti-personnel mines outside a South Korean border post, that he has expanded his uranium enrichment program, and that he has executed yet another of his top officials.

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 10.09.39 PM

[Yonhap]

Yesterday, I wrote about the coming Korea missile crisis, and the fact that as Kim Jong-Un gains a more effective nuclear arsenal, our options to deter or defend against such provocations will narrow. This analysis presumed that Kim Jong-Un thinks rationally, because historically, when confronted with existential threats to their power, Kim’s father and grandfather chose to defer conflict and deal rather than fight. Nine years ago, we engaged in similar speculation about the psychology of Kim Jong-Il, whom the former CIA psychologist Jerrold Post called a “malignant narcissist” exhibiting “extreme grandiosity and self-absorption,” a lack of “capacity to empathize with others,” and a heightened risk of “major political/military miscalculation.” The Madman Theory served Kim II well.

From a coldly rational perspective, Kim Jong-Un must also believe that time is on his side, and that the longer he delays a confrontation with us, the more likely he is to prevail in one. But does the available evidence suggest that he is rational, and by whose definition? Certainly, North Korea’s recent behavior did not always seem rational. Not since 1968 has Pyongyang seemed so unafraid to attack South Korea and the United States directly. In 2010, whoever was in charge after Kim Jong-Il’s stroke attacked South Korea twice, killing 50 of its citizens. Those were dangerous acts of war that warranted a military response, but their scale seemed calculated to provoke something less than full-scale war. Kim may well calculate that a limited war would kill a few hundred people of no consequence to himself, but would not dethrone him. Such an outcome could be His Porcine Majesty’s best opportunity to claim credit for a bold victory — and the martial credentials he so desperately wants. Kim may see the prospect of a limited war as more inducement than deterrent.

From this perspective, Kim Jong-Un’s violent provocations are rational, because any action that contributes to his hold on power is rational to him. As the psychologist Ian H. Robertson, Ph.D., puts it, “The principle (sic) motivation for Kim will be to carry on the family business.” So far, Pyongyang has a flawless record for calculating the risk that its provocations would draw a serious, regime-destabilizing response (history suggests that “never” is a perfectly safe answer). Similarly, Kim’s purges of his own ruling class, which appear to be alienating it, might be irrational acts of violent impulse, or a rational response to real internal threats to his hold on power.

So what do psychologists say about Kim Jong-Un’s mental state, notwithstanding the difficulty of assessing a subject without examining him in person? Let’s begin with the CIA’s assessment, as conveyed by former CIA official and diplomat Joseph DiTrani.

Screen Shot 2015-08-12 at 8.09.14 AM

Former Assistant Secretary of State (and OFK favorite) Kurt Campbell reports similar conclusions.

“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.” [Washington Post, Max Fisher]

So that’s one thing The Daily Mail seems to have gotten right.

Robertson believes that Kim “is behaving rationally,” but that his survival depends on “maintaining a sense of threat from the outside world, and empowering his impoverished people with images of military power.” The bad news is that Kim can’t be appeased. The good news is that this implies an interest in stability. What follows is much less reassuring.

Kim Jong-Un almost certainly feels god-like because of the drug-like effects — the chemical messenger dopamine is a key player — that power has on his brain. Power is an aphrodisiac which casts a spell of charisma around the holder and bewitches those he has power over, and if that be millions of people, so be it.

A former North Korean soldier interviewed on BBC’s Newsnight last night said that he and everyone else he knew completely believed the world view of the country’s leadership. This held that North Korea was poor because of the unfair persecution by South Korea, USA and Japan, and that it was in constant threat of being destroyed by these enemies, which is why it had to have its nuclear weapons.

And that is the second difference between Kim Jong-Un and other world gang leaders — his power is supercharged by nuclear weaponry. This not only affects his brain but also empowers millions of his soldiers and citizens whose otherwise drab and miserable lives are given this drug-like fix which is re-ignited every time they hear the national anthem played on television to images of ballistic missiles blasting off to destroy their enemies.

Animals low in a pecking order –— powerless, in other words — are more likely to take and become addicted to cocaine if offered it than are those at the top of the dominance hierarchy. Cocaine acts on the brain in the same way as power does and to the powerless, impoverished North Koreans, these repeated images of mushroom clouds and military aggression are — almost literally — equivalent to repeated intoxicatingly-rewarding cocaine fixes which bind them emotionally to their leader and make everything else seem unimportant in comparison.

So, while Kim Jong-Un was a sane adolescent, power is such a strong drug that it will have changed him fundamentally. Excessive, unconstrained power makes people feel over-confident, blind to risk, inclined to treat other people as objects, tunnel-visioned, narcissistic and protected from anxiety. These are all real effects, as biologically driven as those caused by any powerful drug. [Psychology Today]

Although I doubt that the world view Robertson attributes to North Koreans holds true of most of those living outside Pyongyang, it’s probably an accurate reflection of those Kim interacts with daily, and on whose loyalty his control depends. Robertson thinks this dopamine addiction may distort Kim’s judgment, just as it caused Hitler to misjudge the risks that eventually destroyed Germany. (It’s also reminiscent of the reactor of irrational groupthink that encased Emperor Hirohito in the 1930s.)

Robertson sees Pyongyang’s provocations as “a rational strategy,” but only for feeding the dopamine addiction of its loyal subjects. Viewed this way, extorting concessions and aid from us is not as important an end as the extortion itself. Our concessions are merely the post-coital validation of the dopamine high. (There is evidence in North Korean propaganda to support this theory.) As with any addiction, as the addict’s tolerance rises, he needs a higher dose to get his fix.

But the most worrying symptom of power in the current crisis is its god effects. Gods are invulnerable. Gods are not constrained by the laws of nature. Gods are immortal.

We should be worried.

Separately, Robertson offers the slightly less alarming assessment that Kim “is unlikely to be as ruthless as a guerrilla fighter, like his grandfather,” because of his privileged upbringing, but that his propensity for violence “depends on how far he feels he must go to consolidate his position.” Somehow, Robertson defines this behavior as “rational.”

And as much as I’d prefer not to believe this, I have to concede that it makes sense. Kim’s behavior so far validates it; so do more historical examples than I can count. If that’s so, each year that passes will give Kim Jong-Un more bombs, longer range, and the power to harm more people. Meanwhile, our ability to deter him will diminish. There will be no appeasing him, because only risk, conflict, and provocation can satiate his addiction.

Of course, the same was probably also true of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il to varying degrees, too. As I pointed out in yesterday’s post, at critical moments, they were rational enough to defer confrontation for another day. Perhaps Kim can still be conditioned to learn that dopamine-seeking behavior will draw consequences that weaken, not strengthen, his hold on power. The risks of this are obvious; none of the options are good. Our options today are worse than they were ten years ago, much worse than they were twenty years ago, and much better than they’ll be five years from now. Confronting Kim now seems less risky than alternatives we know won’t work, and which seem to be leading us toward a historic catastrophe.

That’s almost as grim an assessment as that of B.R. Myers, who has written that war is likely inevitable. It warns us that nothing is so urgent as terminating Kim’s cycle of thrill-seeking — even if that means terminating Kim Jong-Un’s misrule — before he gains the means to destroy South Korea and Japan, to threaten us directly, and to share his weapons with other madmen. As Kim’s addiction advances, anything will be enough to set him off — a satirical film, that piece in The Onion I tweeted the other daya conference in downtown Washington D.C.a shower of harmless leaflets, or a symbolic vote in the U.N. General Assembly. Even submitting to Pyongyang’s censors could not prevent war if Kim Jong-Un is simply driven toward conflict. This may be our last chance to break that cycle, and to prevent the next Korean War. That is probably true whether Kim Jong-Un is rational or not.

Continue Reading

Mr. President, You’re no Jack Kennedy: The Coming Korean Missile Crisis

In October 1962, the United States almost went to war with the Soviet Union over Khrushchev’s deployment of nuclear capable missiles to Cuba. The Cuban crisis has been in my thoughts recently because of how it compares to the Korean nuclear crisis as it is today, and how it will be in January 2017. While most attention is on Iran, the consensus is quietly shifting to the view that North Korea is at the verge of nuclear breakout. Furthermore, President Obama seems fully prepared to leave office without a serious response to this. That means that, barring some miraculous intervention, the North Korean missile crisis will soon look much more like 1962 than 1994.

The urgent question for us is whether we can afford to simply tolerate this.

Screen Shot 2015-08-12 at 7.41.29 AM

[Missile silo, Hwadae County, via Google Earth, July 2015]

Let’s review some of those similarities and differences. Like the Cuba crisis, the short-range missiles of a former Soviet client state are one potential means to deliver a nuclear weapon, although the former client state’s Il-28 bombers are a secondary means. Like the Cuba crisis, a perception currently exists — fairly or unfairly — that the American President is “too young, intellectual, not prepared well for decision making in crisis situations … too intelligent and too weak.” (Yet the Kennedy Library is probably correct in its implicit assessment that history approves of Kennedy’s conduct during the crisis.)

Unlike the North Korean missile crisis, there was no hotline between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in 1962. Unlike the North Korean crisis, the United States had recently directly threatened Cuba’s regime by backing the Bay of Pigs invasion. The opposite is true of North Korea, which recently carried out a series of deadly attacks against our South Korean allies.

Screen Shot 2015-08-12 at 7.46.19 AM

[West Sea long-range missile site, Cholsan County, via Google Earth, March 2015]

Unlike the North Korean crisis, a nuclear superpower was directly involved and on the opposite side in the Cuban crisis. Unlike the North Korea crisis, in 1962, the United States was within range of an opposing party’s nuclear weapons (so were the cities of Western Europe). There is still substantial debate about how many nuclear weapons North Korea has, or whether it can fit any of them on its medium or short-range missiles, but some experts believe it can already nuke Seoul or Tokyo. In 1962, there was no such thing as missile defense; today, a relatively small North Korean arsenal faces an imperfect missile defense system, although North Korea’s chemical and biological weapons have probably represented a greater threat since at least the 1980s, and probably still do.

The critical difference, however, is that in 2017, we will know much less about how rational our adversary is.

For Pyongyang, the consequence of a less-than-fully-successful attack is the execution of OPLAN 5027 and ends in the destruction of His Porcine Majesty and his stockpiles of fine wines and Emmental cheese. Thus, as matters stand today, a rational North Korean leader would not launch a first nuclear strike against South Korea, Japan, or the United States. But as North Korea expands its arsenal, our ability to deter a first strike, or to defend South Korea and Japan against one, will continue to decline. For now, North Korea’s short and medium-range missile are the greater threat. As far as we know, North Korean missiles can’t reach the United States — yet — although its container ships and cargo planes can.

Screen Shot 2015-08-12 at 7.42.24 AM

[Short-range missile site, Yontan County, via Google Earth, September 2014]

If one views Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea as driven by rational judgments — I’ll also review the evidence for the other alternative, later this week — his most rational choice is to delay a wider confrontation while he builds his arsenal. Once he possesses an effective nuclear arsenal, he will have the freedom of action to engage in a series of escalating provocations that gradually achieve his objectives — the lifting of sanctions, de facto recognition as a nuclear state, economic and political independence from China, the removal of U.S. forces from the region, and the finlandization of South Korea. Time is on his side. The longer he delays this confrontation, the more likely he will prevail.

That is how Kim’s predecessors have calculated matters historically. Although the U.S. and South Korea legitimately worried that their North Korean counterparts were dangerous, unpredictable, or even irrational, both Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il deferred conflict when they believed their positions to be inferior.

Kim would also have a motive to portray himself as irrational, to gain a negotiating advantage over his adversaries. American presidents have done this, too.

I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, “for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button” and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace. – Richard Nixon, to H.R. Haldeman

Yet when Kim Il-Sung believed he faced a real danger of a U.S.-South Korean attack, he met with Jimmy Carter, and the eventual result was Agreed Framework 1. When Kim Jong-Il believed that financial sanctions would deprive him of the means to feed and pay the people who kept him in power, he acceded to Agreed Framework 2. In both cases, at each critical moment, the North Korean leaders at that time calculated that their best available option was a deal. In both cases, North Korean leaders subsequently calculated that they could get away with cheating on the deal, thus progressing toward a nuclear status without the consequences of that.

When Kim Jong-Un concludes that he has an effective nuclear arsenal, this calculus will shift. Thus, there is no more urgent task for us than preventing Kim from building an effective nuclear arsenal before his deterrent overmatches our own. If we fail, the strategic interests of the United States will also shift, and may favor at least a partial disengagement from the region, with U.S. ground forces and as many civilians as possible leaving South Korea and Japan, and the forces that remain (mostly air and naval forces, and missile defense units) moving into more hardened facilities. That assumes, of course, that South Korea does not accede to North Korean demands to withdraw them.

Continue Reading

So I guess naming your dog “Kim Jong Un” is a definite no-no.

North Korea has ordered its people not to use the name “Kim Jong-un” in a bid to protect the supreme authority of the current leader, according to Pyongyang’s official document confirmed Wednesday.

In January 2011, then leader Kim Jong-il issued a decree urging people with the same name to change it “voluntarily.” As North Korea is regarded as a totalitarian state, it is unclear whether the decree was actually voluntary. [Yonhap]

Oh, it seems clear enough to me. When I first read the headline, I thought it meant that they’d banned people from saying Kim Jong Un’s name at all, which is disappointing, because now I can’t use this.

Presumably, it’s still legal to name your kid “Adolf” or “Pol Pot” there.

Continue Reading

NIS: Kim Jong Un recovering from ankle surgery

I don’t know if this is true, but it makes more sense than any other theory I’ve heard in the last month:

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is recovering following an operation to remove a cyst from his right ankle, though there is a chance that the condition could recur, lawmakers said Tuesday, citing South Korea’s spy agency.

Kim received the operation between September and October by inviting a foreign doctor into the communist country, according to Lee Cheol-woo of the ruling Saenuri Party and Shin Kyong-min of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy.

The two lawmakers made the comments to reporters after a closed-door parliamentary audit of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) in southern Seoul.

The NIS said that there is a chance that the condition could recur due to Kim’s obesity and frequent inspection tours, according to the lawmakers. [Yonhap]

So much for “closed-door.” Anyway, it tells you all you need to know about the greatness of North Korea’s vaunted “free” and “universal” medical care that when the patient really matters, they fly in a foreign doctor. The involvement of a foreign doctor also suggests the possibility of independent verification.

Continue Reading

The emperor is the elephant in the room

“Our Marshal must be at least 100 kilograms,” people have said about Kim Jong Eun’s physique, according to the source. “It’s very rare to see anyone who has body type like the leader in this country [North Korea],” the source said. This has caused people to say in public that “our leader has a fine presence,” but in private they say, “what is it that he eats alone to make his body like that.” [Daily NK]

Continue Reading

Podcast interview with me on Kim Jong Un

I hope Brad Jackson wasn’t too disappointed, not only by all the ways I found to say, “I don’t know,” but also by my questioning of much of the nonsense stories that so many “news” and listicle sites have propagated about North Korea lately. If you “know” less by the end of the interview than at the beginning, I’ll feel that I’ve done some good.

The proliferation of so much superficial nonsense must be more than a function of its inexhaustible supply. I suppose it’s also a function of our psychological need for a shield of amusement and condescension to protect us from the dreadful truth. I wonder if the inflexibly wishful thinking of so many scholars is a different expression of the same need.

The latest example of this is The Daily Mail’s exclusive report that Kim Jong Un actually disappeared for 40 days because he was being fitted with a gastric band. It’s almost certainly fiction, but fiction for mere profit still occupies a higher ethical plane than fiction for propaganda.

Continue Reading

Kim Jong Un: Morbidly obese and infirm at 30, or merely puttin’ on the Ritz?

I realize John DeLury has a history of unrealistically sanguine interpretations of Kim Jong Un, but this is a bit surreal:

And while the cane appears to be a frank acknowledgement of Mr. Kim’s vulnerability, it’s also a savvy way of turning any physical weaknesses into a source of strength, says John Delury, an expert on Korean issues at Yonsei University in Seoul.

The choice of a cane has connotations of age and wisdom — in contrast to, say, a wheelchair or crutches, notes Mr. Delury. [Jonathan Cheng, Korea Real Time]

Not to mention, a mobility scooter.

When Mr. Kim first appeared at the helm nearly three years ago, in his late 20s, the North tried to use his youth as a sign of vigor and strength.“

That effort was not a complete success, however.

Now, they have a practical problem that a 30-year-old shouldn’t be limping, and they’re going to have to spin it,” Mr. Delury said. “So they’re spinning it to show how he’s suffering for the nation, and also maturing in a way — a cane is a prop of a gentleman.”

You how wcapitalist-fat-cathat else it’s a prop of? The engagement is finally working, people!

That puts Kim Jong Un in the same rarefied company as his father and grandfather, who each died while working hard for the country, as the official story has it. It also appears to give the young leader, who likes to hang out with Dennis Rodman, a little more gravitas. 

So, if I understand this, a morbidly obese high school dropout and heir to a small nuclear arsenal who has never met a foreign leader — but who has met Dennis three times — is supposed to build an image of gravitas by walking with a cane … in his early 30s?

A man with such a capacity to see the vigor that others cannot ought to be in England, selling parrots.

Continue Reading

It’s too bad Kevorkian is no longer available.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who has made his first public appearance in five weeks, has been treated by “foreign doctors” because of an apparent leg injury, the South Korean ambassador to China said Tuesday. [Yonhap]

Sure, you say, someone else would just replace him, but I agree with Scott Snyder on this — without an obvious successor, his incapacitation would trigger a fight for succession. More than that, it would represent the death of the last viable symbol of the deiocracy.

Continue Reading