Category Archives: Kim Jong Un

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.

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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.

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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.

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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….


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.

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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


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.

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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.

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[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.

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[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.

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[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.

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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.

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Life imitates The Onion: KCNA says Kim Jong Un appears in public

So says … KCNA, which also reported the discovery of a unicorn lair in 2012, and a series of supernatural events after Kim Jong Il’s death in 2011.

Personally, I’m still skeptical. If Kim Jong Un is really as healthy as they want us to believe he is, why don’t they just do what Kim Jong Il did and release some oil paintings to prove it?

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Update: Well, damn. Now I want to see him holding up the newspaper. Preferably, with both hands.

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Update: At the WaPo, Anna Fifield summarizes:

The reports should put an end to rumors that Kim has been overthrown or is under house arrest, but will do little end speculation about this health.

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Kim Jong Un is a no-show again (updated 11 Oct 2014)

TOKYO – The mystery surrounding the whereabouts and status of Kim Jong Un deepened on Friday, when the North Korean leader missed a celebration for the 69th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party.

It is now more than five weeks since Kim was seen in public, and his absence, coupled with surprisingly frank official reports that he is suffering from “discomfort” have sparked rumors of every malady from obesity to overthrow.

As with most things concerning North Korea, the truth remains far from clear. But the state-run Korean Central News Agency notably left Kim’s name off a list of dignitaries who paid their respects early Friday morning to his father and grandfather, Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, at the mausoleum where both lie. [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]

Reading KCNA’s coverage of the event, I couldn’t help thinking of Brian Myers’s book:

Therefore, the people in the DPRK have confirmed once again the truth that the WPK led by Kim Jong Un is the genuine motherly party, to which they could entrust their life and destiny. [“WPK, Motherly Party,” KCNA, Oct. 9. 2014]

Well, he probably has the man-bosoms for the job. The South Koreans, no doubt with an eye on the KOSPI, say he’s still in charge, presumably at one of his many palaces.

I wonder if it has a lactation room.

Now, I seem to recall that Kim Jong Il also had some fairly long periods of absence that eventually ended with him waddling out onto some reviewing stand, but I do think it’s very different when we’re talking about a new, post-pubescent heir to the throne who has been chewing through minions at an alarming rate, and who is functionally the last of the royal line.

Feel free to offer your own speculation in the comments, but if — like me — you have no unique facts or arguments to help focus our speculation, at least try to be funnier than Daniel Drezner, which shouldn’t be that hard.

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Updates, October 11, 2014:

The Duffel Blog was funnier than Daniel Drezner. HT: Marcus Noland.

* The White House says rumors of a coup are false, although I’m not sure how they can be sure of that. Nor are they denying that Kim Jong Un is ill or incapacitated. I realize that it sounds more cautious and sober to deny dramatic-sounding alternatives, but if there isn’t any hard evidence one way or another, negative speculation is just as baseless as affirmative speculation. Some reports allude, for example, to the absence of unusual troop movements or shifts in the tone of Pyongyang’s propaganda, but if some sort of coup really were underway in a state that has build in so many bureaucratic firewalls against exactly that, the plotters would want to move slowly and deliberately, causing as little shock or reaction as possible until they were firmly in control. On balance, the negative speculators are probably right, but they’re still speculating.

* Nicholas Eberstadt:

Having followed North Korean affairs for over thirty years myself, I have to confess that there is nothing new about the current jumble of conflicting and sometimes outlandish guesses that passes as commentary on North Korean current events. Given the DPRK government’s ruthless control and manipulation of information—two of the few things Pyongyang can actually do well—outsiders are often left more or less divining signs from chicken entrails. Add to the mix the South Korean intelligence community’s unhealthy but longstanding history of attempting to play the local and global press in accordance with its own short term agenda, and one can see how easy it is for unseasoned reporters, or even more inveterate “North Korea hands,” to get caught up in a hologram of lies.

Early on in my own research, I realized that one had to approach the North Korean puzzle as if one were in a Miss Marple murder mystery, that is to say, by proceeding under the assumption that everyone is a liar and has their own reason for misrepresenting the truth. If one starts with that premise, and takes William of Ockham as one’s guiding star, you have a chance of figuring out what is going on—but only a chance.

That sounds about right to me. Sometimes, the three hardest words to say are “I don’t know.”

* The Onion worries that Kim Jong Un’s absence leaves North Koreans with no one to agree with.

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Kim Jong Un misses another big meeting

North Korea held a national meeting Tuesday to mark the 17th anniversary of late leader Kim Jong-il’s election as general secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK).

The communist nation’s leader, Kim Jong-un, however, was absent from the annual event to commemorate his father. [Yonhap]

I don’t know if Kim Jong Un is sick or well, and North Korean emperors have a tendency to go missing for extended periods, but it’s starting to look like September wasn’t his best month.

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Update: A lot of people will be watching whether His Porcine Majesty shows up on Friday, at a ceremony to commemorate the 69th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. But as commenter Greg Jones pointed out, you’d have half expected him to make some kind of appearance to welcome the North Korean athletes home from Incheon.

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Update 2: A useful caution from Chris Green, to tamp down your irrational exuberance.

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New Focus: No one in or out of Pyongyang (updated)

The report is now a few days old, and I’m curious to know whether this can be confirmed by anyone else, and whether this has changed since it was published.

North Korea restricted entry and exit permissions to Pyongyang three days ago, a New Focus correspondent reports. The source could not confirm whether this move was related to Kim Jong-un’s disappearance from the public eye for the past 26 days.

On the ground, the measure is informally being suggested to be a part of the Party’s preparations for the upcoming October 10 celebrations regrding the founding of the Korean Worker’s Party.

But the difference of this occasion from past restrictions is that even Pyongyang residents, who had been out of the capital for business in Sinuiju or Najin-Sonbong, are not being issued with permissions to re-enter the capital. [New Focus]

There certainly have been a lot of strange happenings in Pyongyang over the last two weeks. I’m not ready to believe rumors that Kim Jong Un has been quietly overthrown — less so that his little sister is the new de facto dictator — but the actual truth of the matter may well be more interesting than any of the rumors (except, perhaps, for the Apocryphal Emmental Hypothesis).

If only some inquisitive and capable journalist were on the scene to explain it all. And yet it seems that the ones who aren’t on the scene often do it so much better.

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Update: Well, that didn’t take long. Hamish Macdonald of NK News directs me to this tweet by Chosun Exchange, saying that people are moving in and out of Pyongyang. My sincere thanks to Mr. Macdonald for calling that to my attention. Any wagers on whether NK News posts a story clarifying the situation before the AP does?

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Update 2: Here’s NK News’s report.

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Global Times denounces N. Korea coup rumors; State Dep’t says “no confirmation”

China’s Global Times, which must be on edge over the burgeoning protest movement on Hong Kong’s streets, angrily denounces internet rumors of a coup in North Korea.

The rumors that Jo Myong-rok, a late North Korean vice marshal who died four years ago, arrested Kim in a coup and sent his lieutenants to South Korea for negotiations, were quickly denied by South Korean diplomats in Beijing.

In the commentary titled “For those who make up rumors of coup in North Korea, is it so funny?” the Global Times accused the rumormongers of spreading groundless stories.

“Netizens who have a radical opinion can’t represent the opinion of China and China’s attitude toward North Korea was not changed,” the commentary said. [Yonhap]

Even the State Department is being asked about coup rumors now, and responds that it has “no confirmation” of them. Which is an interesting way of putting it.

An alternative theory comes via a rather poorly sourced report in the Chosun Ilbo, that Kim Jong Un broke his ankles while walking on his “Cuban heels,” whatever those are. This theory has the disadvantage of being just as apocryphal as the Emmental Hypothesis, but less delectably ironic.


Although the likelihood of a successful zombie-led coup seems remote, it still strikes me as extraordinary that a meeting of the Supreme Peoples’ Assembly would proceed without Kim, especially if its agenda included the removal of Choe Ryong-Hae.

Could Kim have directed Choe’s removal and felt secure enough to let his minions do it for him? Did Choe just get old and sick (which would be another strange coincidence)? When the Asian games end, will Choe will be there to welcome the athletes home, in his capacity as Vice-Chairman of the State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission? Will KCNA tell us that Choe is still Secretary of the Central Committee of the ruling party? Or, might we have just seen a quiet coup of sorts, in which Kim Jong Un’s absence from the SPA was somehow arranged by hidden hands that plotted to oust Choe? The correct answer to all of these questions is, “Who the hell knows?” At least until the AP sets its foot fetish aside long enough to live up to the hype and report some news.

Whatever the reason for Choe’s removal, North Korea has never had such a high rate of turnover in its senior ranks, and that has to be a source of insecurity for the elite. I could be wrong, but at least I won’t be alone:

North Korea’s political instability took a turn for the worse in 2013 from a year earlier, the World Bank said Tuesday, apparently due to the execution of its leader’s uncle.

The bank’s annual World Governance Indicators (WGI) data showed the aggregate indicator of “political stability and absence of violence (PV)” for the communist nation dropped to minus 0.53 in 2013 from minus 0.11 a year earlier.

It marks the lowest PV figure for North Korea since the bank launched the WGI program in 1996. The WGI is a set of composite governance indicators based on 32 underlying data sources, with scores ranging from minus 2.5 to plus 2.5, according to the bank. [Yonhap]

I don’t know how a mathematical formula could account for the weird mix of deiocracy, culture, nationalism, hunger, terror, and exhaustion that has kept this system glued together, but it’s hard to keep people invested in preserving a system that has, of late, been one long conveyer belt to an interrogation cell.

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