North Korea, which was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008, has showered Baekryeong Island, a disputed South Korean-held Island in the Yellow Sea, and the site of the 2010 ROKS Cheonan attack, with leaflets threatening to turn the island into “a huge tomb.”
[Screen grab from MBC, via the Chosun Ilbo]
The leaflets did not explain why Kim Jong Un is not content to keep killing off his unwanted relatives, but a China-based, quasi-official North Korean-affiliated website, Uriminzokkiri, called South Korea’s response to Jang Song-Thaek’s purge “a political provocation.”
If you’re willing to make that link, it would be the first affirmation of President Park’s warning just yesterday that “Seoul should be fully prepared for possible North Korean hostilities” and “more ‘reckless provocations’” from the North, presumably to reunite Pyongyang’s factions against a common enemy. The Defense Minister was more specific:
“North Korea is likely to make a provocation between late January and March,” South Korea’s Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said in a video conference with high-ranking military officials yesterday. “The execution of Jang Song-thaek could become a significant turning point in the entire 68-year history of North Korea.”
Consistent with the implications of this, the U.S. and South Korea have agreed to step up their preparations for “all possible scenarios.” Another “possible scenario” they’re no doubt discussing would involve a North Korean strike, with the South Koreans forewarning the U.S., “Don’t even try to stop us.”
There are also fresh rumors, sourced to a member of the National Assembly’s intelligence committee, that North Korea is fixing to test a nuke and launch a missile (the government later clarified that it sees no imminent signs). South Korea’s spies have been on a hot streak lately, but if I may say so, I was just a bit ahead of them. Not that you can ever be far off in predicting that North Korea is about to do something stupid. It’s like predicting Tuesday. It’s less impressive than, say, calling Roh Moo Hyun “a ledge case” five years before he jumped off a ledge (OK, a cliff, but still), or predicting here and now that Kim Jong Un’s cause of death will be a gunshot wound administered by a close associate. You don’t need an intelligence agency at your disposal to know everything.
The question on everyone’s lips these days is, “Can he really be that stupid?” I’m on record describing Kim Jong Un as “a high school dropout … who was into torturing small animals and bondage porn,” “a complete doofus,” and “a volatile man-child with … no adult supervision,” so put me down for “yes.” I think this qualifies me as a pioneer in the industry, because I was saying things like this when a lot of people were trying to brand him as the next Gorby (but more on that later). But why just listen to me when you can hear it two years later from someone who did have an intelligence agency at his disposal?
The U.S. government reached alarming conclusions about the personal character of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un based on interviews with people who knew him when he was a student in Switzerland, former U.S. Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell revealed on CNN over the weekend. [....]
“We went to great pains to interview almost everyone – classmates, others – to try to get a sense of what his character was like,” Campbell said. “The general recounting of those experiences led us to believe that he was dangerous, unpredictable, prone to violence and with delusions of grandeur.” [CNN, via Max Fisher, Washington Post]
We live in such interesting times.
South Korean reports tell us that the elites are very afraid, and that ordinary people are terrified of not showing enough enthusiasm when applauding for “The Marshal.” At least outside North Korea, there are some signs that regime cohesion is breaking down. The Joongang Ilbo estimates that Kim has already replaced 44% of his senior cadres, and that Jang had between 20,000 and 30,000 followers, enough to fill a large prison camp.
Most analysts, regardless of their ideology, are now calling the purge a miscalculation and suggesting that it will eventually fracture the regime. Nicholas Eberstadt, writing at The Washington Post, predicts that the purge will likely cull many more of Jang’s associates, thinks it will scare the bejeebers (my word) out of those who were close to Jang, and questions Kim Jong Un’s judgment for making such a risky move so soon.
Prof. Sung-Yoon Lee, appearing on the PBS News Hour the other night, argued that Kim is showing his confidence, but recklessly. (That word again.) Lee also adds cred to the view I expressed here, that by admitting that Jang was secretly plotting against Kim, the regime has forfeited its illusion of omnipotence and unanimity. He predicts more purges, violence, and repression; argues that the purge reaffirms Kim’s impetuous and brash nature; and calls it “inconceivable” that Kim will live a long and healthy life.
Scott Snyder writes that the purge “has exposed deep divisions within the Kim family leadership,” “has shocked North Koreans and outsiders alike with its suddenness and its brutality,” and has “likely bred fear and shock at every level of North Korean society.” He ends with that word again: “reckless.”
The AP’s Foster Klug writes that the purge destroyed “the myth of a serene, all-powerful ruling dynasty that enjoyed universal love and support at home” and “acknowledges dissension and a dangerous instability.” He quotes Brian Myers, who says, “The Kim dynasty legend is the main capital he has, and he’s squandering it like there’s no tomorrow.” The piece’s most astonishing passage isn’t notable for what it says, but for who says it.
Kim Jong Un “has managed to tarnish his own image, look like a modern Caligula and give the lie to 90 percent of the bombast emanating from Pyongyang,” said Bruce Cumings, a Korea specialist and history professor at the University of Chicago, adding that the move indicates high-level and deep divisions. “Whatever one thinks of this regime, from the standpoint of the top leadership this was a politically stupid, self-defeating move,” he said.
To Korea watchers, a Bruce Cumings criticism of a North Korean leader is the equivalent of Jim Nabors’s gay wedding. Even if the affirmation itself is hardly controversial anymore, you’re still entitled to be gobsmacked upon hearing who offered it.
Even John Kerry called the purge “an ominous sign” of instability and danger, called Kim himself “reckless” (that word again) and “insecure,” and compared him to Saddam Hussein. Video here.
We’ve come a long way since 2012, when Ri Sol Ju, who is not dead, symbolized everything we wanted to believe about North Korea. While starvation and cannibalism were reported just a few miles south of Pyongyang, correspondents in the capital saw significant national policy implications in Ri’s fashions, her physical appearance, and court entertainers in mini-dresses and knockoff Mickey Mouse costumes. One, dazzled by the “jumbotrons, the multicolor lights of the newly built residential complex on Changjon Street, and the spectacular 2013 new year fireworks,” saw “hope in the air, and new positive expectations about the future.” To support his case, he even cited the closure of Camp 22, though he didn’t bother to mention the disappearance of its 30,000 prisoners.
No one crawled out further on this slender limb than John DeLury, who argued that Kim Jong Un was bringing glasnost to North Korea. Reread this piece by DeLury in Yale Global, just to see how poorly the analysis has held up:
[A]lready Kim’s leadership style, political inclinations and attitude toward the world are starting to come into focus – and a big surprise is that Kim appears to be heading in what he describes as a “new, creative and enterprising” direction, nudging the national compass away from a fixation on his father’s “military-first politics” toward a Deng-like pragmatic emphasis on economic development.
I’m sure DeLury is a nice enough fellow, but somewhere, he must be wishing he hadn’t written this. It’s easy, of course, to criticize a necessarily speculative view in hindsight, but even then, it was common knowledge that Uday Hussein, Hannibal Khaddafy, and Nicu Ceausescu also enjoyed Europe’s casinos, resorts, and fleshpots. Even then, we could see the evidence that the regime’s brutality was actually intensifying.
I guess it’s like they say. One man’s Gorby is another man’s Caligula.