Category Archives: Kim Jong Un

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

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

Ryongsong-phallus

Hey, that looks just like ….

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

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Kim Jong-Un, deterrence, and the psychological evidence

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

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

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

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[Yonhap]

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

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

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

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

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

“We went to great pains to interview almost everyone – classmates, others – to try to get a sense of what his character was like,” Campbell said. “The general recounting of those experiences led us to believe that he was dangerous, unpredictable, prone to violence and with delusions of grandeur.” [Washington Post, Max Fisher]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We should be worried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NIS: Kim Jong Un recovering from ankle surgery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The emperor is the elephant in the room

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

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Podcast interview with me on Kim Jong Un

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not to mention, a mobility scooter.

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

That effort was not a complete success, however.

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

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

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

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

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

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It’s too bad Kevorkian is no longer available.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Update: At the WaPo, Anna Fifield summarizes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder if it has a lactation room.

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

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

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Updates, October 11, 2014:

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

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

* Nicholas Eberstadt:

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

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

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

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

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Kim Jong Un misses another big meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Update 2: Here’s NK News’s report.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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?

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