Archive for Kim Jong Un

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]

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Blessed are the cheesemakers: His Porcine Majesty Kim Jong Un has eaten himself sick, possibly on Swiss cheese.

Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, is “not feeling well,” a state-run television station reported this week, in a rare revelation about his health.

In a documentary broadcast on Thursday, the North’s Central TV showed Mr. Kim, who has not been seen in public in recent weeks, walking with a limp while visiting a factory in Nampo, a provincial town southwest of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, last month. A narrator intoned about the tireless work of Mr. Kim, “our marshal, who lights the path of leadership for the people like a flame, although he was not feeling well.” [N.Y. Times]

When North Korean state TV says the leader of the country isn’t feeling well, it means he really isn’t feeling well. Wait till you hear why:

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is believed to be suffering from gout due to his poor management of his health as well as family traits, a source familiar with North Korea affairs said Friday. [....]

“Kim Jong-un is suffering from gout, which is why he is limping on both legs,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I understand that he is suffering from gout along with hyperuricemia, hyperlipidemia, obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.”

Kim’s health is believed to have deteriorated due to his habit of frequent drinking and overeating. [Yonhap]

Several days ago, some news sources had reported that His Porcine Majesty’s affinity for Emmental cheese from Switzerland was the cause of his personal Untergang, and sure enough, Leo Byrne has unearthed trade statistics that might corroborate that rumor.*

So let me see if I understand this — 84% of North Koreans are on the brink of starvation, and their dictator may be too obese to walk.

17950Concerned readers may send their care packages of Emmental, Gruyere, Spanish Manchego, and Venezuelan Beaver Cheese to: Permanent Mission of the DPRK to the United Nations, 820 Second Avenue, 13th Floor, New York, NY 10017.

You know, it’s quite an amazing coincidence that Kim Jong Un’s illness coincides so closely in time with Choe Ryong-Hae’s removal from his position. Almost unbelievably coincidental.

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* I suppose I should repeat my skepticism that anyone who knows what Kim Jong Un is actually eating is unlikely to tell that to anyone who would talk to the foreign press. I’ve always been particularly skeptical about palace gossip.

Another purge? Choe Ryong-Hae transferred to a new post (and perhaps soon to be tied to one).

Here’s the relevant text from KCNA’s unlinkable article, “2nd Session of 13th Supreme People’s Assembly of DPRK Held,” dated September 25, 2014. It’s rather terse:

It recalled Deputy Choe Ryong Hae from the post of vice-chairman of the National Defence Commission (NDC) of the DPRK due to his transfer to other post and Deputy Jang Jong Nam from the post of member of the NDC of the DPRK due to his transfer to other post.

It elected Deputy Hwang Pyong So to fill the vacancy as vice-chairman of the NDC of the DPRK and Deputies Hyon Yong Chol and Ri Pyong Chol to fill the vacancy as members of the NDC of the DPRK at the proposal of Marshal Kim Jong Un. [KCNA]

Since Jang’s purge and execution last year, Choe (bio here) had been seen as the second-most powerful man in North Korea. Choe’s removal lacks the zip and pizzazz of Jang’s long and vitriolic denunciation. I suppose that will be worth watching for in the coming days.

Hat tip to Yonhap, but the source I’m really going to have to start reading more regularly is New Focus International, which kinda called this one, at least in the sense that a power struggle was coming and Hwang Pyong-So would be a part of it. Based on my reading of New Focus’s analysis, Hwang’s rise is very, very, very bad news for King Won-Hong, his wife, his children, his extended family, his employees and their extended families, and his parking valet. And his entire extended family, of course.

Jang Jong-Nam is a relatively new arrival on the reviewing stand. In May 2013, he replaced Kim Kyok-Sik, who is widely suspected of directing the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island attacks, as Minister of the People’s Armed Forces. Whether Kim Kyok-Sik is really on the outs is a matter of debate, according to the people I listen to (sorry, no link for that). At the time of Jang’s promotion, the AP quoted “outside analysts” who said Jang Jong-Nam’s elevation was “an attempt to install a younger figure meant to solidify leader Kim Jong Un’s grip on the powerful military.” Not that Jang was a particularly moderate fellow, judging by his words.

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Update: James Pearson of Reuters also notes the absence of Kim Jong Un, “who is considerably overweight,” from the session. As the proverb goes, blessed are the cheesemakers. Similar thoughts at Front Page.

Maybe I’m not as sophisticated and nuanced as Washington Post blogger …

Adam Taylor (or whomever wrote the headline for his post), but unlike Taylor, I can’t quite see Kim Jong Un’s “vulnerable side” through his mass murder and starvation of so many of his pitiful subjects.

Granted, there is some significance in the fact that His Porcine Majesty has sometimes fallen below the aura of infallibility that this regime has built around him, but would anyone see a dominant theme in Hitler’s vegetarianism revealing a compassionate side, or Saddam Hussein’s authorship of romance novels revealing the romantic within?

Kim Jong Un’s limp

OK, I’m convinced. The rheumy-eyed, snaggletoothed old Trotskyites at The Guardian didn’t enable the embed feature — hypocrites! — but you can watch Reuters’s video here. No official word yet on whether Kim acquired the limp by stumbling over a starving orphan on the doorstep of one of his palaces. Hat tip to a valued reader.

You could also characterize this slight limp as a waddle, the kind that would be cute if a penguin walked with it; less so when a mass-murdering psychopath of a man-child with nuclear weapons does it.

As I said yesterday: suspensors.

The Parallelograms of Pyongyang, Sewol, and Accountability

When that apartment building crumbled into the earth in Pyongyang last week—thus becoming the probable tomb of several hundred wives, children, and parents of the elite salarymen who lived in them—I linked to a series of remarkable reports from a guerrilla journalist for Rimjingang, who was willing to risk torture and execution to practice journalism about his homeland. The reports, accompanied by photographs and video, described the shoddy construction methods being used there, and foretold the tragedy to come.

Now, thanks to the Daily NK, we also have our first accounts of the disaster itself. They tell us that the regime was not only unprepared for this disaster, but failed to mobilize an effective rescue after it happened, probably contributing to an even greater loss of life.

The source told Daily NK on the 23rd, “During the day on May 13th, there was a huge bang and then the new apartment block in Pyeongcheon started to collapse. People on the first and second floors were able to get out in time and were rescued, but the remaining 80+ households almost all died.”

“Some people who had managed to escape then used cell phones to let the Ministry of People’s Security and local administrative office know what had happened, but barely a handful of cadres came when they heard the news,” the source said, alleging, “There was no proper rescue mission to speak of; they managed to pull out a few who had been pinned under the debris, that was all.”

Moreover, “They didn’t use any equipment in the rescue work, just mobilized people. That must have served to exacerbate the death toll. It wasn’t until three days later that an excavator was brought in from another construction site, even though that is more or less essential for this kind of thing. Of course, by then not one person was left alive.”

As Rimjingang had suggested, the apartments had been reserved for “senior elites” and their families. Worse:

It is believed that most of the men were at their workplaces at the time of collapse, meaning that the victims tended to be women, children, and the elderly.

In relation to the public apology by Minister of People’s Security Choe Pu Il, the source explained, “They had no choice but to apologize, because news of how poorly the accident had been dealt with was already spreading. People don’t say it out loud, but they are disappointed [in Kim Jong Eun] because of it.”

Upstart NK News adds to this by telling us why this tragedy is likely to be repeated. Its correspondents have collected photographs of other construction projects in Pyongyang and shown them to structural engineers, who point to multiple and serious defects in materials, workmanship, and construction techniques. The article is worth reading for its graphics alone, including .gif-animated time-lapse satellite imagery. Photographs of buildings under construction show a patchwork of parallelograms, obtuse angles, and assorted crimes against trigonometry that can’t possibly be structurally sound.

parallelograms

[Courtesy of NK News]

Those defects have obvious implications for those still living in them, and for those who must decide whether to inspect or evacuate them — or, more importantly, to even suggest it. Ask yourself — if you were an architect or an engineer in Pyongyang, would you have blown the whistle on this? Do you suppose Kim Jong Un, who has staked so much of his standing with the elite on this construction boom, will now go back to these elite residents and confess that instead of blocks of flats, he gave them abbatoirs?

Disaster responses are difficult things for governments to do, including competent ones. During the first critical minutes, when the right reactions can save lives, responders often have incomplete or false information about the nature and scale of the danger. Incompetent, unaccountable governments disincentivize truth-telling, compound the errors that lead to disasters, and often bungle their response when the inevitable happens. In any ordinary country, that would have political consequences. And while some of those consequences will be hidden from us in North Korea’s case, Kim Jong Un will not escape them, either:

[D]aily NK recently sought out the opinions of visa-holding North Korean citizens on family visits in China. What we found was a unified voice of condemnation, one that laments the course chosen by the regime of Kim Jong Eun.

For example, one interviewee who had come to China from her home in Pyongyang said, “It would have been better if they had not built facilities like that water park, and had just helped people to live better. Shouldn’t they be doing that, so that the masses no longer starve?”

“People are having a hard time, what with getting mobilized for this and that construction project,” she went on critically. “In factories the managers keep getting their workers to pay money or give cement, and nobody can push back against it. They just have to do it. If you say you haven’t got any money, they’ll tell you to borrow it.”

However, “If you say anything about [the actions of the authorities] they’ll arrest you, so we just think it instead.” [Daily NK]

There is much grumbling about mass mobilizations to labor on the Masikryeong Ski Resort, and the waste of national resources that ought to have been spent on the poor and hungry. What’s striking about the reactions of these North Koreans, whom the Daily NK’s correspondents interviewed in China, is (1) how similar they are to things I’ve repeatedly said here at this site, (2) their apparent unanimity, and (3) the fact that they represent elite opinion. These aren’t refugees. The names, of course, are pseudonyms.

Park Min Jun from Sinuiju in North Pyongan Province added dejectedly, “People just snort at the construction of amusement facilities. We think it’s all just construction for the sake of the Marshal’s record of achievement. That kind of thing is just going to both make people’s lives and the economy harder.”

Lee Ju Hee from Kaecheon in South Pyongan Province agreed. “People wonder why they didn’t use the money they invested in Masikryeong Ski Resort and Munsu Water Park to help the ordinary people get by,” he said. “It’s true that those amusement facilities will draw foreigners to Chosun, but how much can they really earn that way?”  

However, yet again Lee struck a note indicative of pervasive fear in North Korean society, explaining that a person “may think that the Marshal should be using some of the absurd sum he is spending on nuclear tests and the construction sector for ordinary people, but you have to be careful what you say. People like us have to hold our tongues and just get on with it.”

North Korea’s response to the collapse—in the very center of its capital city—makes the South Korean government’s incompetence after the Sewol Ferry disaster seem mild by comparison. Like others on the far left who are trying to exploit the Sewol Ferry tragedy for their own political ends, Christine Ahn Hong (whatever) doesn’t even seem to have heard about the disaster in Pyongyang. Yet to read her description, you’d think that Park Geun-Hye had personally tied cinderblocks to the feet of those poor kids and thrown them overboard. Much of Ahn’s Hong’s vitriol against Park, and against capitalism in general, would be more valid if directed against North Korea’s political system, and how it contributed to its own disaster.

Right now, South Korea is in a state of hysteria to identify and punish scapegoats. Accountability is certainly an important incentive for safety and the competence of government, if it identifies the right actors and problems, and if it eventually leads to a public conversation about more practical things, like maritime safety regulations and inspections, building codes and inspections, and improving communications and coordination before the next disaster.

In North Korea’s case, an honest discussion of accountability won’t be possible. There will have to be scapegoats and sacrifices, however. Regardless of their politics, one must feel profound sympathy for any man who has lost a wife, his children, or his parents — or all of them. It’s difficult to imagine the depth of sorrow and rage that some of them must be feeling now. Worse, these are elites, who are used to riding in the front carriages of trains, eating rice, and riding in automobiles. Many others, who were not directly affected by this collapse, have lost their confidence in the safety of the buildings where they live.

In fact, corruption and the pilferage of building materials by the military units that built the apartments were probably contributing causes, and rumors of scapegoating and retribution are already circulating. But the fact that the scapegoats are technically a military unit will complicate that. So will the fact that the haste they were driven to and the dysfunction of North Korean society made this disaster — and the next one — inevitable.

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

What are the odds that Jang Song Thaek was eaten by a pack of dogs, or that Ri Sol Ju made a sex tape with Jang? Probably not greater than 10%, and I’d put the odds that the South Korean NIS planted both stories at roughly twice that. Lurid stories like these have never held much appeal to me, because I’ve never believed that anyone in a position to know them first-hand would ever tell them to a South Korean reporter, and in any event, I can’t add anything useful to the speculation about their veracity. Their epidemiology interests me much more. It’s inevitable that stories like these would emerge, spread, and mutate in a society that’s a vacuum of reliable information, but stifling and irriguous with terror. That, by itself, is notable. (So is the fact that they also spread to our own society nowadays, but that’s a subject I’ll leave to others.)

The most recent of these stories holds that one O Sang-Hon, the Deputy Minister of Public Security, was executed by flamethrower. The story, in the Telegraph, is attributed to “South Korean media.” Further investigation traces it to this report, from the Chosun Ilbo, which claims that O was given this gruesome end because “he had turned the ministry into Jang’s personal protection squad.” On the bright side, at least O’s job description gives us little cause to mourn for him. I probably have enough fingers to count the people who will miss him.

Interestingly, the death-by-flamethrower story is not completely novel. Last month, an informant for the guerrilla news service Rimjin-gang reported a similar claim:

According to our reporting partner, in the North Korea’s third largest city, Chongjin, North Hamkyung Province, several officers belonging to the fisheries enterprise run by the military unit affiliated to Jang Song-thaek have also been executed by firing squad.

It is difficult to verify the information at this point, but it is said that a rocket grenade was used for their execution instead of a rifle, and the remains of their bodies were incinerated by a flamethrower. This rumor is spreading among the people, adding to the already tense atmosphere. [Rimjin-gang]

If two independent sources are reporting similar rumors, it’s reasonable to believe that mutations of this rumor are circulating inside North Korea. Most of Rimjin-gang’s accounts of officials being purged are less vivid. They tell of well-connected officials who simply disappeared without explanation.

The Chosun Ilbo‘s report also claims that “nine other high-ranking party officials” and “around 100 lower-ranking party officials” have been purged so far, that a second purge is underway now, and that a third purge of security forces officials is planned, to “target [Jang’s] supporters in provincial chapters of the Workers Party.” With respect to the previously reported purges of the ambassadors to Cuba and Malaysia, the former was executed, while the latter was “fortunate” enough (my word) to be sent to a prison camp, then returned to Pyongyang, jobless.

At best, this report is the product of an inexact science. Just a week ago, the same newspaper reported that the regime was “poised to execute 200 high-ranking officials loyal to” Jang, and to send 1,000 of their family members to prison camps. Yonhap, by contrast, reports that a large number of officials close to Jang were recently elected as deputies in the Supreme Peoples’ Assembly, suggesting that the purge was slowing. It notes, however, that some officials who had appeared at public events a month after Jang’s purge have, themselves, been purged since those appearances. If half of this is true, we can deduce that there’s no such thing as job security in North Korea today.

In the aggregate, multiple sources tell us that North Korea’s Great Purge isn’t over. In the last several weeks, we’ve heard that (via Yonhap) that the Ambassador to Syria and (via Singapore’s Straits Times) the Commerce Minister have been sacked. The latest rumor, which comes to the Joongang Ilbo from a South Korean government source, holds that “North Korean Prime Minister Pak Pong-ju will be dismissed ahead of the upcoming Supreme People’s Assembly session,” and will be made a scapegoat for North Korea’s economic woes. The Global Times, via The Daily NK, even reports that elite North Korean military units are training to respond to a potential attempt to assassinate Kim Jong Un.

You don’t have to believe any of the more lurid details of these reports to believe that North Korea’s power structure still hasn’t stabilized under Kim Jong Un’s firm control. RAND’s Bruce Bennett links the ongoing purge to North Korea’s recent military provocations:

While North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un perceives these exercises as a show of strength for both internal and external consumption, they actually demonstrate that his regime is weak and that he fears instability. Kim has been purging many in the North Korean leadership and executing some. He has certainly been able to do so, but sooner or later one or more of his leaders will seek to avoid personal and family doom by targeting Kim with assassination or a coup. Kim is trying to avert such a prospect by demonstrating his support of the military and his military empowerment—with both heavily targeted at the internal political audience. [Bruce Bennett, RAND]

Bennett concludes from this that “the North Korean regime is less stable than many experts believe.” Bennett is talking about internal cohesion within the regime, but another implication of these reports is found in the wilder stories that circulate at the bottom of the songbun ladder.

No doubt, some people will rise to say that these stories must be false — even disinformation — but this would be groundless and speculative. Reports we’ve heard from too many sources to dismiss tell us that North Korea is capable of some awful things when it comes to the taking of human life. A better answer is that the claims are extraordinary, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence before we should be prepared to accept them, and that this report is not supported by extraordinary evidence. Who knows if any of them are true? Not me, and probably not you. See also.

The very fact that stories like these circulate widely in North Korea is still significant. I don’t think the North Korean regime would plant them, despite their useful in terrorem effect, given that they’re spreading along with expressions of disapproval at Kim Jong Un’s cruelty, and even of sympathy for Jang.* In December, the Daily NK reported that the regime was suppressing any idle talk of the purge. If that’s still true, then the circulation of these rumors and conspiracy theories inside North Korea itself has some significance — that the regime is losing control over what people think, and what they think they can get away with telling each other.

* This sympathy is misplaced. Among his other responsibilities, Jang oversaw the dreaded State Security Department (Kuk-ga An-jeon Bo-wi-bu), which operates all of North Korea’s remaining political prison camps.

 

Update: Contrary to the Joongang Ilbo‘s report, Pak Pong Ju was not fired. It doesn’t mean he won’t be, but it does mean that you should be especially distrustful of “insider” reporting on North Korean kremlinology.

More interesting to me is the fact that former Ambassador to Switzerland Ri Su Yong is the new Foreign Minister. Not surprisingly, Ri is reported to be an expert money launderer. I suppose he also knows a few things about where to buy Nestle infant formula ski lift equipment.

Oh, and someone named Kim Kyong Hui was also “elected” to the Rubber Stamp Gallery, who may or may not be the same person as Kim Jong Il’s sister and Jang Song Thaek’s widow, whom we haven’t seen in public for many months. South Korean government sources aren’t sure if it’s the same person.

Kim Jong Un calls for more repression and isolation

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

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

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

This was probably the creepiest line: 

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

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

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

And this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kim Jong Un purges the army

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, the purge of civilian cadres also continues.

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

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

An unlikely convergence of views

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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