Category Archives: Kim Jong Un
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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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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“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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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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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 what 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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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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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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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]
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.
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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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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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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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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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.
Concerned 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.
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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.
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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?
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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.
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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.
[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.
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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.
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