Charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.
– Apocalypse Now
Earlier this month, when the purge or demotion of State Security Minister Kim Won-hong was first reported, I seized on one rather bizarre part of the justification for his ouster from that key post for “corruption, abuse of power and human rights abuses.” North Korea has always angrily denied the existence of human rights abuses and called itself a paradise for its citizens. Such a concession would be extraordinary for a regime that prioritizes its own stability above everything and the rights of individuals beneath everything. It would imply that individuals have rights in a real way, as opposed to the theoretical rights guaranteed to them under North Korea’s farcical constitution. It would imply that the regime saw the perception that it denied individuals their rights as a threat to the stability it prizes over everything else, and perhaps, to its access to the global economy.
At the time, I said it would be important to watch for corroboration — first, that Kim Won-hong really had been ousted, and second, that human rights abuses really were part of the regime’s justification for that. As to the first, I’ll refer you to Michael Madden, who reviews the evidence to support the claim. As to the second, we now have a report from inside the MSS (formerly known as the SSD):
In the aftermath of the purge of Kim Won Hong, the former head of North Korea’s State Security Department, Kim Jong Un has reportedly ordered the State Security Department to cease human rights abuses.
A source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK on February 8 that an emergency meeting was held at the Ryanggang Province branch of the State Security Department (SSD) for three days from January 25 to 27. During the meeting, the decision to dismiss Kim Wong Hong (sic) and execute five SSD cadres was announced, as well as orders to eliminate human rights abuses such as beatings and the torture of residents.
“Statements such as ‘You should not abuse your power to make money,’ and ‘These corrupt actions are turning the residents away from the Republic (North Korea)’ were also made during the meeting,” the source said. [Daily NK]
Of course, we are speaking here of North Korea’s Gestapo and SS — the agency that controls the borders, runs the prison camps, carries out the purges, and maintains the regime’s state of terror over the people. That’s why it’s appropriate to treat this report with as much skepticism as the North Korean people themselves are treating it.
However, residents have been responding coldly. The SSD has already established itself as “nothing but evil in the minds of residents,” she said, and no one expects that there will be any improvement in human rights.
“Residents are mostly pessimistic, saying, ‘I am not interested in whether Kim Won Hong was purged or SSD cadres were executed,’ or ‘The vampires sucking our blood and sweat remain,'” she noted.
“Some residents are also saying, ‘The [state-run publication] Rodong Sinmun has been claiming that there are no human rights violations, but now the regime admits that it has been abusing human rights after all.'” [Daily NK]
One interpretation is that this is really an anti-corruption drive to maintain the MSS’s discipline. The report also notes that some MSS agents are leaking news of the MSS’s abuses, which are damaging the regime’s standing. Another possibility is that because the regime knows these reports will leak out, the lectures are meant to disinform us. The North Korean official responsible may be seeking to mitigate his image, or to avoid sanctions or prosecution. And given Kim Won-hong’s seniority, there’s really only one official we could be talking about here. That, in turn, would infer that Kim Jong-un is hedging his own bets about his own future.
Finally, consider the possibility that North Korean officials, including Kim Jong-un himself, really believe their own propaganda, and really do believe (in their own strange way) that they’ve created a paradise for the North Korean people. Kim Jong-un has undoubtedly led a sheltered existence. He does not travel alone or visit any site that has not been carefully prepared and polished. For obvious reasons, he cannot be inconspicuous among his rail-thin subjects. Of course, many of the purges, killings, and other atrocities the regime has carried out could not have happened without his personal approval. Psychopaths always find ways of justifying such crimes. It is almost as certain that most of the rapes, killings, and myriad violations of rights of low-ranking North Koreans were arbitrary acts by lower-ranking guards, soldiers, and officials acting with a sense of omnipotence and impunity. Kim Jong-un could easily believe that all of those crimes are a droit du seigneur.
More likely, however, is that Kim Jong-un sees negative foreign and domestic sentiments about his rule as a growing threat to his own survival. I’ll be the first to admit my astonishment at the regime’s apparent vulnerability to the power of words alone, but of course, those words also have important diplomatic, security, and financial consequences. There is ample evidence to suggest that North Koreans are frequently expressing (and occasionally, acting on) their discontent. There is also evidence that this discontent is affecting the regime’s hold over its elite, including the most trusted of the elites, whom it sends overseas to maintain friendly relations with foreign governments, maintain access to foreign markets, and earn hard currency. There is some evidence that Pyongyang may be feeling someof thefinancialeffects, too.
Calls by South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se for Kim Jong-un to be summoned to a tribunal, and for North Korea’s U.N. privileges to be suspended, will be further reason for Kim Jong-un to worry. By persuading him that the world is closing in on him, and that his regime is fraying from within, we will gain more leverage to force him to negotiate for verifiable reforms. When Kim Jong-un is more afraid of not reforming than he is of reforming, those negotiations will have some prospect of eventual success.
Kim Jong Nam, the estranged older half-brother of Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, was killed in an attack at Kuala Lumpur airport, Malaysian police confirmed on Tuesday, in an apparent assassination.
The 46-year-old was assaulted by a woman who covered his face with a cloth laced with liquid as he was waiting for a flight to Macau, said Fadzil Ahmat, a Malaysian police official. He was confirmed dead after being taken to hospital. [Financial Times]
The kindest way to remember Kim Jong-nam may be as a man who was never cut out to be a tyrant. This must have been obvious from the circumstances of his fall from primogeniture — he was caught entering Japan on a fake passport on his way to Tokyo Disneyland. Maybe he never wanted the job, and maybe it was his downfall that caused him to reflect on the circumstances of his countrymen. He was neither a hero nor a martyr, although he later wrote a book criticizing the rule of his half-brother (whom he claimed he never met). Although there were rumors of a previous attempt to assassinate him by staging a car accident, Kim Jong-nam never really seemed interested enough in politics to call a dissident, either. He seemed interested in being happy. And any man who abstains from the opportunity to enslave others ought to be remembered fondly for that alone.
Friends who said they’d met Jong-nam and found him to be, against all odds, nice — which is to say he was affable, approachable, and spoke good English. His son, Kim Han-sol certainly seems like a nice kid. After doing an interview in which he criticized the regime’s human rights abuses, he went into hiding. My heart goes out to him, not just for the sadness he must feel at the loss of his father, but for the terror that he must feel for his own safety now. (Kim Jong-nam also had a daughter, who lives in Macau.)
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The propagation of terror is surely one of the reasons why Kim Jong-un committed this act of fratricide. I don’t know that for a fact, of course, but as Mark Tokola asks, “Cui bono?” Someone in the U.S. government who probably knows things I don’t “strongly believes” Kim Jong-un did it. I can’t think of another logical explanation.
(Update: Malaysian police have arrested a North Korean man, Ri Jong-chol, a chemistry specialist, in connection with the murder. Incredibly, Ri kept a Facebook page that says he graduated from Kim Il-sung University in 2000, a school in Massachusetts in 2010, and had been studying in Kolkata, India. He liked Dave Mraz, Ha Ji-won, and was “interested in men,” unusual things for a North Korean who surely knew he was being monitored closely to admit openly. In other words, an engagement success story! Dagyum Ji of NK News reports that Malaysian police are also seeking four more North Korean suspects: Ri Ji Hyon, 33; Hong Sang Hac, 34; O Jong Gil, 55; Ri Jae Nam, 57, all of whom entered Malaysia in late January or early February, and who appear to have made a clean getaway to Pyongyang. Police are also seeking another North Korean, Ri Ji U, and two other unidentified men “believed to be North Koreans” for questioning.)
I don’t think there’s any question that it was murder, either, although the reports still can’t agree on exactly how Kim Jong-nam was done in. Surveillance video shows two women doing the deed and then fleeing in a taxi. (Update: Watch the video at this link.) In contrast to the Financial Times’s account, other reports say they sprayed poison on his face or that they jabbed him with one or more poison needles. Even the police weren’t sure yesterday afternoon. Both versions would be half-true if one chloroformed him and one jabbed him. (Update: from the grainy CCTV video, it looks like “LOL girl” reached around Kim Jong-nam from behind and put a cloth over his face.)
The news of the investigation is developing quickly, and there are many conflicting or unverified accounts of suspects being pursued, arrested, or dead. Malaysian authorities say they have arrested this woman, who was carrying a (possibly fake) Vietnamese name and passport.
The Sydney Morning Herald reports that police have also arrested another woman from Burma (Update: One woman with a Vietnamese passport, one Indonesian woman, her boyfriend, and this North Korean man, a chemist who attended high school in Massachusetts, Kim Il-Sung University, and a grad school in Kolkata, India). NK News says they may be pursuing up to five other suspects. The Joongang Ilbo suggests Kim Jong-nam may have been lured to Malaysia by a romantic relationship with one of the women. This may be one of the killers.
This report, which quotes an unnamed Japanese official, says she and her accomplice are both already dead. (Update: wrong; they’re both alive and under arrest. The best compilation of solid evidence of how the attack unfolded and who the attackers are is actually at this Facebook post. Although the women are apparently claiming that they thought they were only playing a prank on Kim Jong-nam, the video shows “LOL girl” striking quickly and Kim Jong-nam struggling. I don’t buy it.) In the past, RGB agents have been under orders to kill themselves before being taken alive, although not all of them have followed through with those orders in recent years.
Whatever the precise facts turn out to be, this was obviously an elaborate plot that unfolded over the space of months, if not years. Bloomberg quotes Lee Cheol-woo, chairman of the intelligence committee in South Korea’s National Assembly, as saying the murder didn’t have its impetus in recent events, but was simply the successful conclusion of a longstanding fatwa. Still, it’s difficult to believe that the plotters would have gone through with it without a final go-ahead from Pyongyang, from the very top.
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In recent years, poison — specifically, needles spring-loaded with neostigmine bromide — have been the standard M.O. for the Reconnaissance General Bureau of the Workers’ Party of Korea, or RGB. Starting on page 59 of my report on North Korea’s state sponsorship of terrorism, I describe five such assassinations and foiled attempts since 2008. If you accept that the evidence will likely show that the North Korean government did the hit on Kim Jong-nam, this was a clear-cut case of international terrorism.
There are at least three statutory definitions of terrorism, all of them inconsistent and imperfect for reasons I discussed in my report, startingon page 5. If one makes a lowest common denominator of these definitions and sifts through a few decades of State Department reports for interpretive precedent, it’s possible to write a legal definition of international terrorism that consists of five elements:
It must be unlawful under the laws of the place where it is committed;
It must involve a violent act; an act dangerous to human life, property, or infrastructure; or a threat of such an act;
It must involve the citizens or the territory of more than one country;
It must be perpetrated by a subnational group or clandestine agent against a noncombatant target; and
It must appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government.
Of the first three elements there’s no doubt, and Kim Jong-nam was a noncombatant. If the killers are caught, they were probably agents of the RGB, which employs women as clandestine agents to hunt down refugees in China, and asassassins. The terrorist acts of state actors through their clandestine agents can be a basis for a SSOT listing; in fact, it was two bombings by the RGB that caused the U.S. to put North Korea on the list in 1988. The Secretary of State has the discretion to find that North Korea has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism. He doesn’t need a federal appeals court to tell him that (although one has, and my report also cites several other district court decisions).
As to the regime’s apparent intent, its motives must have been political. Kim Jong-nam hadcriticized his brother’s regime and predicted that it wouldn’t last. As Dennis Halpin explained, he was the best alternative successor to the family bloodline if China needed a North Korean Pu Yi, a possibility Kim Jong-un couldn’t allow. The most important reason to kill Kim Jong-nam was to warn Thae Yong-ho and others like him, who have been defecting in greater numbers. Pyongyang sees that surge of defections as a threat to its survival. It must want to send a message to Thae Yong-ho and others that they aren’t safe anywhere, even if they’re under government protection (in Kim Jong-nam’s case, China’s).
In one sense, those theories explain the assassination of Kim Jong-nam logically, but in another sense, it all seems illogical. Kim Jong-un must have known that this act of fratricide would shock South Korean voters in an election year, at a time when opinions are still unstable. He must have known that the odds were already high that the Trump administration would put his government back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, triggering additional sanctions. He must have known that the evidence would lead back to him, further discrediting a naive and sympathetic commentariat that tried to sell us the image of Kim Jong-un as a Swiss-educated reformer, while encouraging more subsidies and investments to finance and sustain his rule. He certainly knew that assassinating someone under Chinese protection would irritate (but not alienate) his most important ally. But then, Pyongyang’s business model has long involved a curious combination of obsession with, and disregard for, world opinion.
Thus, if the reports are mostly accurate and the investigation validates a few reasonable inferences, this would be a clear-cut case of international terrorism, not that more evidence is needed to support a re-listing. Returning North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism is both legally justified and good policy. It’s not just out of regard for Kim Jong-nam’s defiantly passive life that we should do it, but to protect more heroic men and women like Park Sang-hak, Thae Yong-ho, Hyeonseo Lee, and potentially dozens more would-be defectors who must be wondering if America will stand by them if they take the risk of crossing the line.
Three weeks ago, as mandated by section 304 of the NKSPEA, the Treasury Department designated seven North Korean officials, including Kim Won-hong, head of North Korea’s Ministry of State Security, or MSS. The MSS operates Pyongyang’s horrific political prison camp system, and the basis for his designation was human rights abuses that a U.N. Commission of Inquiry has called “crimes against humanity.” Clearly, Kim Won-hong bears a large share of the responsibility for those crimes. At the same time the Treasury Department announced Kim Won-hong’s designation and froze his dollars, the State Department issued a report on those designated.
Kim Won Hong is the Minister of State Security. In this capacity, he oversees the Ministry of State Security (MSS). He served on the National Defense Commission (NDC) and serves on its successor commission. In the July 6, 2016, report, the Department of State identified the MSS and the NDC as responsible for serious human rights abuses and censorship.  According to the 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in DPRK report (COI), the MSS is implicated in “widespread gross human rights violations.” It administers the country’s network of political prison camps, where, according to defector testimony and satellite imagery, summary executions and torture are commonplace. The COI found that inhumane acts perpetrated in the DPRK’s political prison camps occur on a large scale and follow a regular pattern giving rise to the inference that they form part of an overarching State policy. Given the highly centralized and hierarchical nature of the North Korean government and Kim’s status as Minister of State Security, it appears that Kim plays a role directing the abuses perpetrated by the MSS and managing its day-to-day activities, including in the political prison camp system, where serious human rights abuses are reportedly systematized as a matter of State policy.
Kim Won Hong directs the operations of the interagency task force, which is responsible for censorship in North Korea, including confiscating digital devices and information from foreign sources. NGOs report that, in some instances, individuals caught carrying contraband movies into the country face harsh punishments meted out by this task force, which include sentencing to political prison camps and, in some instances, public execution. As the interagency Director of this task force, Kim Won Hong directly commands its operations. [U.S. Dep’t of State, Jan. 11, 2017]
Now, the New York Times, Reuters, and Yonhap are reporting that Kim Won-hong was purged in January, which must have been almost immediately after his designation. (Update: I should be clear that the reporting is not clear. Some versions have it that he was demoted, and the sources don’t know if he’s dead or alive.) A good friend, who knows more about North Korea’s power structure than anyone I know, has described Kim Won-hong as the most hated man in North Korea. You could compare his powers and functions to those of Heinrich Himmler (except that the lightly armed MSS lacks an equivalent to the heavily armed Waffen SS). Kim Won-hong was also a made member of the Korean Workers’ Party Politburo, Central Committee, and Central Military Committee. This was not a man who was on the outs. If he was in fact purged, the purge was not only unexpected but potentially very significant. I’ll get to why later in this post, after I develop a few historical precedents to give this story some context.
All analogies have flaws, and Himmler kept his position until Hitler’s last days in the bunker. In terms of survivability, the better analogy may be Ernst Röhm, the most fabulous of the Nazi leaders, who led the Sturmabteilung or SA until 1934. The SA’s street thugs spent most of the 1930s beating Jews, burning synagogues and banned books, and generally muscling aside and intimidating everyone who barred Hitler’s path to power. A year after the SA had secured his hold on power, Hitler told Himmler to purge Röhm and his associates.
An even better analogy than this may be Nikolai Yezhov, possibly the most terrible of a series of leaders of what we’ve come to know as the KGB. In 1936, when the KGB was called the NKVD, Stalin told Yezhov to purge his boss, Henryk Yagoda. Having done this, Yezhov sought to ingratiate himself with Stalin by launching what Western historians call “The Great Purge” or “The Great Terror,” and which Russians call “the Yezhovshchina.” The Great Purge killed between 600,000 and 3 million Soviets, most of them for made-up charges of “wrecking,” sabotage or espionage, but in reality for their political, social, ethnic, or family associations. Eventually, word got back to Stalin that the Great Purge was alienating the Soviet people and had hollowed out the bureaucracy (it also hollowed out the Soviet officer corps, making the army easy meat for Finnish snipers in 1940 and Nazi panzer divisions in 1941). Yezhov fell into disfavor and under suspicion and began drinking heavily. Eventually, Stalin had him arrested and shot, and replaced him with the serial rapist (and fellow Georgian) Lavrentiy Beria, who was equally brutal but more cunning.
And now, the weirdest (and potentially, the most significant) part of the Kim Won-hong story: Reuters quotes South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee as citing “corruption, abuse of power and human rights abuses” as the reasons for his purge. (Update: The New York Times report is even more specific: “Mr. Jeong said General Kim was accused of corruption and held responsible for various human rights violations, including torture, committed at his agency.”)
North Korea is thought to be one of the world’s most corrupt states, and North Korea cited corruption as one of the reasons why it purged Jang Song-Thaek. Allegations of corruption are plausible, and could be either made-up or exaggerated, but would be the most ordinary justification for a purge of a senior leader. The same would apply to an alleged abuse of power (abusing certain kinds of power is probably written into your job description when you run the MSS).
But the purge of a top North Korean official for human rights abuses — if Pyongyang indeed cites this as a justification — would be unprecedented, extraordinary, and could have profound policy implications. Until now, Pyongyang has answered every accusation of human rights abuses, including the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report, with shrill denials, homophobic slurs against the Commission’s Chairman, and claims to be an earthly paradise of human rights (feel free to laugh, weep, or both). Any acknowledgment by Pyongyang that one of its top officials was responsible for human rights abuses could be incalculably important. Pyongyang’s unparalleled state surveillance system certainly watches the popular mood carefully for signs of dissent. The last time we saw a widespread outbreak of dissent in North Korea was in 2009, after its disastrous currency confiscation, which it described as a “reform.” Then, Kim Jong-il identified a scapegoat, Pak Nam-ki, and shot him.
If you’re looking for a clear indication that the regime’s power structure is divided and disloyal, the recent defections of diplomats, money launderers, and children of the elites are evidence of that, but the purge of Kim Won-hong may or may not be. I’ve never disguised my hope for the end of this horrible regime — even knowing how much now-hidden chaos that will plaster on our TV screens, and the risk that it would involve us — but the precedents of Rohm and Yezhov certainly don’t suggest that that’s necessarily imminent. For Hitler and Stalin, Rohm and Yezhov were but two more stepping-skulls along their paths to war and genocide. Rather, their precedents suggest something almost indescribably bleak. Hitler and Stalin used Röhm and Yezhov to purge potential sources of dissent and then, with their usefulness outlived, duly disposed of them, too. That helped them consolidate their rule and clear the decks for their plans for war. If those precedents tell us anything about North Korea today, the purge of Kim Won-hong could mean that Kim Jong-un thinks (wrongly or not) that he has consolidated his rule, and is about to take his next step toward his more aggressive plans.
If, on the other hand, Kim Jong-un is reacting to reports that the purge has cost him the loyalty of the elites who are his levers of power, or that popular discontent over the regime’s widespread human rights abuses is spreading among the people, purging Kim Won-hong would mean that international criticism and sanctions over North Korea’s human rights abuses have damaged the stability of the regime. Other recent reports lend some support to this explanation; human rights criticism has unnerved North Korean diplomats and even contributed to Thae Yong-ho’s defection. Kim Won-hong’s recent Treasury Department designation could also have played a role, by injecting his name into the global discourse about North Korea’s crimes against humanity. Pyongyang is obsessed with its international image, perhaps because it depends on international investment and finance. It also knows that media reports from the outside increasingly find their way into North Korea itself. If any of these things are true, Kim Won-hong, the most hated man in North Korea, would be the perfect scapegoat to sacrifice to win them back.
It’s also just possible that with his accounts frozen, Kim Won-hong failed to make his kick-up payments to his boss, although I see no evidence whatsoever to suggest that (1) we found and froze any of his accounts, or (2) that any banks had reacted to his designation. Knowing which of these alternative explanations is more likely depends on (1) whether and (2) why Kim Jong-un purged Kim Won-hong. I’ll eagerly await any announcement from KCNA. It’s a story that bears very careful watching.
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Update:This report suggests another theory: that after Thae Yong-ho’s defection, the ruling Workers’ Party’s Organization and Guidance Department ordered an “inspection” of the MSS. James Pearson of Reuters adds a missing link to this theory by revealing that Thae (by his own admission) was the designated MSS minder for everyone else at the London Embassy. As such, Thae claims he would file watered-down reports on his colleagues to appease the Mother Ship after giving them a heads-up and a secret handshake. The report suggests that Kim Won-hong took the fall for the lapses of his mole in London. The theory is plausible. It would also suggest a wider institutional failure of the snitching system that’s an important part of the regime’s internal control.
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Update, 2/13/2017: More than a week after this report, we’ve seen nothing from KCNA on this story, and Yonhap reports that most North Koreans still hadn’t heard that Kim Won-hong had been dismissed from his post. Whether the report of Kim’s dismissal is true or false, the regime isn’t reporting it, which by itself casts doubt on the Yezhov theory (that Kim Won-hong was a scapegoat for admitted “human rights abuses”), at least until some other evidence emerges. And of course, it’s also possible that the report simply isn’t true at all and Kim Won-hong could show up on North Korean TV tomorrow.
Here at OFK, stories about kremlinology are usually page two material. Too often, we’ll read reports that some official or minor celebrity has been executed, only to read a year later that the target has risen like Lazarus from the KCNA crypt. As a general rule, the closer a story about North Korea is to the center of the power structure, the less I tend to believe it. Which is why I didn’t even tweet the report yesterday that His Porcine Majesty executed the former agriculture minister and a senior education ministry official with an antiaircraft gun.
Still, I’m marginally more likely to believe reports from the semi-official news agency Yonhap about this particular type of story, where it’s marginally less likely than most sources to run with stories that turn out to be false.
So, with those caveats dispensed with, Yonhap quotes an anonymous “Seoul official” as saying that His Porcine Majesty sent Vice-Premier Kim Yong-jin to the firing squad last month for being an “anti-party and anti-revolutionary element,” which, in reality, could mean about anything, but probably means he did something very bad. Kim Yong-jin does not make an appearance in the OFK archives, which may mean nothing more than the fact that he never attracted my attention.
But one person who makes many appearances in the OFK archives is Kim Yong-chol, who according to the same Yonhap story, was sent “to a rural farm for one month of reeducation starting in mid-July” for abuse of power and showing a “’heavy-handed’ attitude.”Far be it for me to defend an a**hole like Kim Yong-chol, but isn’t that written into the job description?
Since January, Yong-chol’s job has been to head the United Front Department. Immediately before that, however, he headed the Reconnaissance General Bureau, North Korea’s external spy agency. As such, Kim Yong-chol was responsible for the 2010 Cheonan and Yeonpyong Island attacks, the 2014 Sony cyberterrorist attack, the 2015 land mine attack, and a whole series of assassination attempts against South Korean human rights activists and North Korean dissidents in exile.
You can read all about it in my report, “Arsenal of Terror,” which is not available in bookstores.
Kim Yong-chol’s d**k moves also come in the more petty variety. A year and a half ago, when DNI Director James Clapper visited Pyongyang on a hostage-fetching mission, Yong-chol invited Clapper to dinner, only to present him with a bill for his meal. For reasons I’m sure are unrelated to this, Kim Yong-chol was designated by the Office of Foreign Assets Control for a second time right about that time (he was first designated in 2010). Not reported is whether Clapper actually paid the bill, or whether the Treasury Department is investigating.
For more rumors about the latest purges in Pyongyang, The Joongang Ilbohas you covered.
All of which leaves me with two questions. First, do you suppose when a pezzonovante like Kim Yong-chol is weeding peas in the hot July sun, he’s thinking about how deeply sorry and humbled he is, and how much he loves and respects his morbidly obese thirtysomething boss who earned his chops in front of a Playstation? Neither do I.
The reasons why North Korea is holding a party congress are still a matter of conjecture to those of us fortunate enough not to live there. The congress is almost certainly related to Kim Jong-un’s consolidation of power in some way. It will probably reinforce the personality cult. The regime’s organization charts and wiring diagrams may be rearranged. Pessimists suspect that there will be more bloody purges or another nuclear test. Optimists still hold hope that His Corpulency will validate their frustrated predictions of reform.
Certainly nothing in the regime’s behavior before or during the congress supports the optimistic view. The preparations for the congress were mostly marked by increased repression and surveillance, exhausting mass mobilizations for forced labor, confiscatory “loyalty” payments, and crackdowns on market trading.
Nor is there any sign of glasnost in how the regime has treated the foreign press. So far, it has paraded them through a circuit of model farms, a model kindergarten,
Others ask the minders and props in this play hard questions. They don’t get answers, but at least they tell us so, which reveals something — about themselves, if not about North Korea, which refuses to change.
So, when The Event itself began, the minders left the reporters standing on a street corner outside, reading foreign websites on their smartphones to learn what they could about events happening 500 meters away.
The odds seem unlikely that the 130 foreign journalists currently in Pyongyang to cover the congress will be allowed to report any useful information, other than the useful fact that Pyongyang is isn’t letting them report any useful information.
Pyongyang has long benefited from cultivating the hope that it would reform, which optimistic policymakers, naive academics, foreign profiteers, and Pyongyang’s small, noisy band of apologists have long cited as an argument against sanctions and other forms of pressure. If there were any truth to the reform theories, you’d think Pyongyang would want to amplify them for a global audience, if only as a tactic for strategic deception. So far, it seems to be making little pretense in that direction.
Then, there is the adage that personnel is policy. The officials who are ascendant among the top ranks Pyongyang today are not reformers but hard-liners. But at the mid-to-low levels, older party cadres are being excluded from the congress, in favor of younger (but less experienced, and often, less ideologically inclined) cadres who have proven their loyalty to Kim Jong-un through successful performance at his pet projects. This doesn’t foreshadow the adoption of reformist policies, but might further widen the gulf between Pyongyang and the provinces, and between the highest officials and the lower ranks of the ruling party.
The short, unhappy reign of His Porcine Majesty has been one running disappointment for wishful thinkers in northwest Washington, but that is much less important than the disappointment of the desperately poor from North Hamgyeong to South Hwanghae.
“Discontent among the people has risen high because of the closed politics of three successive generations,” the RFA quoted a source in Jakang Province. “For North Koreans, reform and openness is no longer just a wish but a must.” [….]
“If all Kim does is repeat the same old revolutionary slogans without clear commitment to reform and open policy, it will be an irreversible disaster for Kim’s stable reign,” another source was quoted as saying. “Citizens are now waiting for the seventh party congress, and regard reform and openness the issues for survival that cannot be delayed any longer.” [Korea Times]
I genuinely wish Pyongyang would finally go through the agricultural reforms it has been promising since 2012, even if in practice, those “reforms” would amount to little more than sharecropping, an arrangement few of us would associate with economic justice. And for all the excitement this has caused among certain North Korea-watching academics, actual North Koreans are much more interested in abandoning the collectives entirely, clearing private plots, and illegally growing food to sell in the markets — a trend that is impossible to measure, but which probably averted a famine despite last year’s drought.
What North Koreans really need isn’t marginal experiments with the collective system or a new New Economic Policy, it’s fundamental land reform thatgives land to the tillers. This would do nothing to solve the nuclear crisis or alleviate North Korea’s other humanitarian crises, but it would effect dramatic improvements in North Korea’s food situation. But the unfortunate conclusion I draw is that this regime prefers a hungry population. It’s more easily cowed. And as for political reform, who seriously speaks of that today?
South Korea’s Foreign Minister, Yun Byung-se, believes that Pyongyang is increasingly isolated. He believes that this is causing it “more distress this year than any other time,” and that Kim Jong-un will redouble his efforts to break that isolation this year.
There are reasons to be skeptical of Yun’s statement. First, South Korea, having nominally signed on to a policy of pressuring Pyongyang to disarm without actually complying with that policy itself, must want to world to think that it’s sufficient for everyone else to isolate Pyongyang (which won’t work when everyone else is also an exceptionalist). Second, Pyongyang has never needed full access to the global economy to sustain itself. Its survival model only requires engagement with a few compliant or gullible partners who can supply it with just enough hard currency to keep its elite afloat without opening North Korea to significant foreign intrusion.
On the other hand, there are signs that for various reasons, all self-inflicted, Pyongyang’s appeal to this limited pool of compliant and gullible partners is becoming increasingly selective.
First, Pyongyang has mismanaged relations with its most important foreign investor. The ongoing Koryolink fiasco has generated a stream of bad press and complicated its efforts to recruit foreign investors. I had not realized the full extent of Orascom’s exposure here:
Orascom’s auditor, however, cited the “futility of negotiation” with North Korea over Koryolink’s assets, which the company said were worth $832 million at the end of June, including cash in North Korean won worth $653 million at the official exchange rate. Koryolink, which now accounts for 85% of Orascom’s revenue and profit, says it hasn’t been able to send any funds out of North Korea in 2015 due to local currency controls and international sanctions targeting Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.
Mr. Sawiris didn’t respond to requests for comment and Orascom declined to make him available for interview. A spokesman for Orascom reiterated the company’s public statements and didn’t respond to further questions. North Korea hasn’t referred to the dispute in its state media and relevant officials couldn’t be reached for comment. [WSJ, Alastair Gale]
Pyongyang knows this, but doesn’t seem to know how to confront it. It recently described “the current U.S. administration’s policy” as “the most hostile and ferocious in the history” of the two countries’ relations. It pushed back hard, if ineffectively, at the U.N., and recently sent envoys to Europe “to lobby against international pressure … over its human rights record.”
The Dec. 9-11 visit to London was part of a European trip that also took Kim Son-gyong, director-general for European affairs at the North’s Foreign Ministry, to Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Poland.
While in London, Kim held meetings with Fiona Bruce, a member of parliament who co-chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, as well as officials at the foreign ministry, according to an official at the South Korean Embassy. [….]
During the visit to London, Kim contended that the country is making efforts to improve its human rights record while reaffirming Pyongyang’s existing position that last year’s landmark U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report on the North’s human rights situation contained unilateral claims from North Korean defectors. [Yonhap]
Pyongyang has also injured its most important international relationship through the Moranbang Band debacle. Aidan Foster-Carter, in an insightful analysis of this episode, says this was to have been the first foreign performance of Kim Jong-un’s house band and “a big deal.” Foster-Carter runs down a list of theories for the performance’s cancellation, and concludes that the most plausible is that Beijing downgraded the seniority of its official representation in response to Pyongyang’s ill-timed claim that it has a hydrogen bomb:
Whatever. This was a dumb thing to say, and a stupid time to say it. Did it not occur to Kim that China would take umbrage? Or worse, was he deliberately testing Beijing? Anyway, as a rap on the knuckles China reacted by downgrading its concert party from ministerial to vice-minister level. That was the last straw for Kim, who ordered his artistes back to Pyongyang.
What a mess, and what testament to Kim Jong Un’s lack of diplomatic nous. Four years into his reign, we know he can run the show at home – if a bit fiercely. But that’s the easy part: national solipsism, where he controls all the levers and everyone plays their assigned part.
Diplomacy is different. Like poker, you’re up against others – so you better play good. North Korea used to be skilled at that. Kim Jong Il parlayed what in truth was a pretty weak hand (nukes, and what else?) into a surprising degree of influence in the world. Status, of a kind.
His son has not inherited that gene. Not only does Kim Jong Un have no discernible overall strategy, but he messes up like an amateur. Daddy would never have done that. (Or indeed, if Choe Ryong Hae hadn’t been sent to the farm, or wherever – another move that put China’s nose out of joint – his skills would surely have ensured that nothing like this happened.) [Aidan Foster-Carter, NK News]
The views of Don Kirk and Steph Haggard are also worth reading, and introduce other plausible theories. Another is that the performance was to have been accompanied by a video of a missile launch, and that the Chinese objected to this.
Whatever cascade of events led to this outcome, only Kim Jong-un could have made the decision to cancel this performance. It looks impulsive and inept. It’s also consistent with how His Porcine Majesty hasexercisedhisroyalprerogatives for most of his life.
Fine, you may say, but this was still a materially inconsequential event, involving a band that’s “no better than hundreds of Filipino showbands who pay their dues in hotels all over Asia every night.” Indeed, I agree that most “cultural diplomacy” is overrated, especially in the relations between unaccountable dictatorships. I also agree with Andrei Lankov that Machiavellian interests will prevail in Beijing, which isn’t going to cut Pyongyang off over this. But this incident must have the Chinese wondering whether Kim Jong-un is a steady and reliable ruler and partner. It will likely shift Beijing’s calculus of what costs are acceptable to attain the benefits of stabilizing Kim’s rule.
There are also the more interesting reports that five days later, North Korea ordered “a considerable number of trade-affiliated employees sojourning in China to report to Pyongyang.” If that’s true, it’s a very big deal.
Our source expressed concern over the drastic measure, wondering if the issue of the Moranbong Band’s canceled tour might be exploding into a bigger issue. “When you call back scores of workers from abroad, that’s a pretty big deal,” she pointed out.
Naturally, she added, speculation about the order’s motives has quickly reached a fever pitch. Some posit that Kim Jong Un could be experiencing “mood swings” so close to the 4th anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death, perhaps causing him to lose his temper over the Moranbong Band dispute and call back the workers in China.
Some cadres briefly put forth the possibility that maybe the callback was somehow related to mourning-related events for Kim Jong Il, held at foreign embassies and the like over the past three years, but admitted that “that doesn’t really seem to fit.”
Although, the reason will surface in a matter of days, “they can’t help but be nervous,” the source said, adding, “After all, workers abroad are never called upon to return without good reason.”
Families of the workers who have been recalled are reassuring each other, noting, “While it’s bad news if only a few workers are recalled, all of them being told to return simultaneously means that they are probably just going to attend a large meeting or some kind of educational session,” the source explained. [Daily NK]
The Daily NK claims corroboration from two separate sources, although I’ve yet to see this reported by other media. If this is true, I wonder how it will affect relations between Pyongyang and its Chinese business partners, some of whom must still have fresh memories of the Jang Song-thaek purge.
If Kim Jong-un has arguably mismanaged his foreign relations, it’s also true that he can survive several years without recruiting new foreign investors or donors, and months without Chinese support. The relationships he can’t afford to mismanage are those with the top minions whose support he needs every day. But Kim’s management of these relationships also looksincreasinglyunsteady, as the elites show signs of alienationanddiscontent. As Kim Jong Un prepares for his own Ides of May, Stephen Harrison, a professor of Latin literature at Oxford, compares his recent purges of his senior advisors to those of Tiberius (fate uncertain), Nero (overthrown), and Caligula (assassinated).
If there’s any pattern to all of this, it’s one of tactically uncompromising decisions that are beneficial to the regime in the short term, but are strategically self-defeating. This suggests that the flaws in Pyongyang’s strategic judgment go all the way to the top.
Notwithstanding some reports to the contrary yesterday, it looks like Kim Jong-Un’s big party congress will proceed in May, as planned. According to the Korean Institute for National Unification, a South Korean think tank, personnel changes will be on the agenda:
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is expected to reveal his new aides in a major community party convention to be held in May next year, a South Korean government think tank said Tuesday. [….]
Chances are high that it will set the stage for a “political ceremony for the full-scale resignation of the second revolutionary generation led by Choe Ryong-hae and the rise of the third and fourth revolutionary generations to power,” the institute said in a report on the outlook for next year’s security situation involving the North.
Choe, a party secretary, was one of the closest confidants to Kim but he has reportedly been demoted and underwent “re-education” as a punishment for an unconfirmed reason.
As to the scheduled party congress to be attended by more than 3,000 officials, the KINU said it would introduce more new faces in the ruling elite rather than fresh policies.
“A new line-up of power elites in the Kim Jong-un administration will be revealed,” it said, adding Kim is apparently confident of his grip on state affairs. “That would have been a basis for Kim Jong-un’s decision to open the 7th party congress in 2016.” [Yonhap]
Beware the Ides of May, comrades.
You can read the original report of KINU’s soothsayer analyst here. It doesn’t say much about its sources for these predictions, but rather, seems to be based solely on the author’s analysis of historical patterns of succession and power consolidation in other totalitarian states, along with a healthy dose of speculation so unleavened it would be kosher for Passover. It isn’t what you’d call exact science or inside knowledge.
It also predicts that His Corpulency is “unlikely to conduct a nuclear test in 2016,” and may “offer an olive branch toward the South in his New Year speech,” to which I’ll respond by referring you to this evergreen analysis of North Korean New Year speeches. Frankly, the genre of post-New Year speech analysis tends to be so cherry-picked, wishful, and contrived that you almost have to admire KINU for not waiting for the actual speech to (over-)analyze it.
KINU also joins in the widespread speculation that Kim will announce new economic reforms. In the wake of the Orascom fiasco and a series of other financial misadventures in “engagement” (Masikryong, the Kaesong shutdown, the Ebola quarantine, tourist arrests) I don’t doubt that His Porcine Majesty will want to at least talk about reforms, to bait a whole new class of suckers to bring him some money. Hey, talking about reforms is Pyongyang’s equivalent to GoFundMe. But in their practical effect, North Korea’s economic reform plans tend to be a lot like Kim Jong Un’s weight loss plans: more aspirational than empirical.
Take the latest reports that Pyongyang has just arrested scores of Chinese North Koreans, who make up a critical component of the North’s nascent merchant class. The report has since been denied by Chinese media, but if you were a hwagyo considering a new venture beyond the no-smile line, you’d be a fool to discount the possibility that there was at least some truth to the report. And after all, it’s not the first such report we’ve seen this year.
After 20 years of wishful talk about reforms in North Korea, political repression is as severe as ever, inter-Korean tensions are as high as they’ve ever been, the centrifuges at Yongbyon are spinning like a politician’s Twitter feed, and our best evidence is that the economic gap between the Koreas continues to widen. It’s hard to imagine that Kim Jong-Un will allow the necessary interaction between its population and the Outer Earth for reforms to work, if that interaction increases the risk that his subjects will learn the truth, or alternatively, that we will.
Men ought either to be indulged or utterly destroyed, for if you merely offend them they take vengeance, but if you injure them greatly they are unable to retaliate, so that the injury done to a man ought to be such that vengeance cannot be feared. – Niccolo Macchiavelli
For a while, I was starting to wonder who was still giving His Corpulency his adult supervision, after Yonhap reported that Number Two Hwang Pyong-So had vanished, sought medical treatment in China, and then (never mind!) reappeared. Because in extreme cases, sucking up can fracture your palate:
Top North Korean official Hwang Pyong-so has campaigned to spread a song expressing strong allegiance to the country’s young leader throughout the military, a South Korean think tank said Thursday.
Hwang, the 75-year-old director of the general political department of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), has introduced the song, tentatively named “Yes, Sir,” to his troops, which stresses the need to follow every instruction from leader Kim Jong-un, according to the Institute for National Security Strategy. [….]
“With the song, Hwang is seeking to induce the military into swearing allegiance to the leader,” said an official at the institute. [Yonhap]
A leader who trusts in the loyalty of his army shouldn’t need such infantile affirmations. In fact, there is ample evidence that morale and discipline in the North Korean military are low, and there is alsoample evidence — admittedly, much of it from the NIS — of discontent within the ruling party because of purges and surveillance. That evidence continues to accumulate:
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has executed around 100 party and military officials since he took office in late 2011 in a bid to tighten his grip on power, a Seoul think tank said Wednesday.
But a number of North Korean power elites are disenchanted with the leader’s so-called reign of terror, according to the Institute for National Security Strategy, a think tank under South Korea’s spy agency.
“Deep doubts about Kim’s leadership are spreading among working-level officials. Some officials based in foreign nations are trying to seek asylum,” it said. [….]
A source familiar with North Korean affairs said that North Korean officials are increasingly irritated by Kim’s iron-fist rule and some of them have applied for asylum in South Korea. [Yonhap]
Another NIS-sourced report claims that “[a] growing number of North Korean key party and military officials has been fleeing” the North to escape the purges. The recent defectors reportedly include “some officials from the North’s state security department.”
In August, the Daily NK reported the security forces were demoralized by revenge attacks by angry citizens. Last week, it reported that a man disemboweled himself in front of a ruling party office as an act of protest:
“The person had filed a grievance case, claiming to have been wrongfully accused of something, but after that didn’t go well, the resident committed ‘seppuku’ in front of the central Party’s office building in protest.” [….]
“We do not know the details of this grievance letter, but it is said to involve reports about losing everything the person owned because of a Ministry of People’s Security [ MPS, or North Korea’s equivalent of a police force] cadre.” [….]
People who know the individual have criticized MPS personnel, noting that this (injustice) could happen to anyone, she said, adding most people even in Pyongsong are already aware of this incident and that it would hard to control this rumor from spreading. [Daily NK]
It reminds me of how the Arab Spring began. It also shows how fragile North Korea’s nascent merchant class is. If the long term trends favor marketization, it’s less clear that marketization is a function of a state policy, much less reform. Lax enforcement is more likely to be a function of the state’s pervasive corruption, its knowledge that a heavy-handed approach could spark unrest, or some combination of these things.
Make of this what you will; three of the Korea analysts I respect the most all disagree. Bruce Klingner views the purges as a sign of Kim Jong-Un’s confidence and control; Ken Gause thinks the regime is stable for now but has a high potential for instability if the economy doesn’t improve soon; and Bruce Bennett thinks the regime could fall tomorrow.
“We have to think that sooner or later someone in that military chain is going to consider that if they don’t do something about Kim Jong-un, they will be next,” Bennett told South Korean journalists in a meeting Friday organized by the Korea Press Foundation and the East-West Center. “Even in Germany during World War II, where security was extreme, there was still an assassination attempt against Adolf Hitler by the military. So it could happen.” [Yonhap]
Myself, I incline toward the view that totalitarian systems are inherently unstable. Just as rigid materials can’t deform under physical pressure, rigid systems can’t evolve under political and social pressure. They eventually shatter when the pressure becomes great enough to fracture them along some latent flaw, although it’s seldom possible to predict when. The reports also fit with the limited psychological evidence we have, that Kim Jong-Un, though rational from a certain perspective, is addicted to risk-taking. The safest predictions are usually those that look the most like the status quo — in this case, a system that continues to erode gradually. The problem with the “safe” view is that it looks increasingly like a trend that can’t continue.
Speculation about a possible new high-level purge in North Korea grew on Thursday after a close aide to leader Kim Jong Un appeared to miss a gathering of the Pyongyang leadership.
Since taking the North Korean leadership at the end of 2011, Mr. Kim has executed around 70 officials as part of efforts to solidify his position, according to South Korean authorities who closely monitor their neighbor for signs of instability.
Speculation over the fate of Choe Ryong Hae, who has been an emissary for Mr. Kim to China, Russia and South Korea in recent years, began on Sunday when his name was omitted from the list of around 170 names in the organizing committee for the funeral of a senior military figure. A South Korean government spokesman called the omission unprecedented.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has sent his key confidant to the country’s top school for re-education, South Korea’s intelligence officials said Thursday, in an apparent lenient punishment that could set the stage for his political comeback in the coming months, if not years.
“Choe Ryong-hae is receiving education at Kim Il Sung Higher Party School,” an official said, referring to the top institution named after the country’s founder, Kim’s late grandfather.
Gale notes that Choe “is the son of a former North Korean armed forces minister who fought alongside Mr. Kim’s grandfather against occupying Japanese forces in the 1930s.” Oddly enough, while reading Jang Jin-Sung’s “Dear Leader” last weekend, I read this passage, which explains Choe’s longevity under Kim Jong-Il:
Old loyalties only go so far with the world’s only millennial hereditary despot. There is something awfully erratic, even impulsive, in the way Choe has fallen and risen during Kim Jong-Un’s reign. As noted before, one minute KCNA is announcing his “transfer” out of the National Defense Commission; the next thing, he’s showing up as a high-level emissary in Seoul, or even as a stand-in for His Corpulency in Beijing. I’ll let this quote from Gale’s article take us out.
Michael Madden, editor of the North Korea Leadership Watch website and an expert on top figures in the Pyongyang regime, said Mr. Choe’s apparent absence from the funeral was a strong suggestion that he had at least been sidelined.
“I don’t think we’ll be hearing from him for a long time,” he said.
I’ll bet Pyongyang’s legions of photo editors must be wishing they had some non-permanent ink right now.
If it were only Choe involved here, that would be one thing, but when a high-level official gets purged in North Korea, his family, his associates, and their families can suffer, too. This has the potential to affect a lot of people.
One day, we’ll know whether it’s an indicator of instability, too. I don’t think it profits Kim Jong-Un’s image of stable leadership to keep replacing the very men he sends abroad to negotiate with his adversaries and his frenemies.
My final point would be to note that the occasion for Choe’s vanishing was the funeral of Marshal Ri Ul Sol from cancer, itself an odd thing for a regime that’s now peddling miracle cures for cancer. Actual results may vary, I guess.
Even by North Korean standards, Choe’s status has been difficult to follow. In September 2014, North Korean state media announced that Choe has been “recalled … from the post of vice-chairman of the National Defence Commission (NDC) of the DPRK due to his transfer to other post.” Sounds ominous, right? A month later, Choe and Hwang Pyong-So were dispatched to Seoul for high-level talks, which seemed to confirm Choe’s high status and level of trust within the regime.
Robert Collins, the author of the famous briefing on the seven phases of regime collapse in North Korea, almost certainly does not recall that, years ago, I was among a small group of Army officers who heard him deliver his briefing at Yongsan Garrison, in Seoul. For those who aren’t familiar with the seven phases, Robert Kaplan reproduced them in The Atlantic:
Phase One: resource depletion;
Phase Two: the failure to maintain infrastructure around the country because of resource depletion;
Phase Three: the rise of independent fiefs informally controlled by local party apparatchiks or warlords, along with widespread corruption to circumvent a failing central government;
Phase Four: the attempted suppression of these fiefs by the KFR once it feels that they have become powerful enough;
Phase Five: active resistance against the central government;
Phase Six: the fracture of the regime; and
Phase Seven: the formation of new national leadership.
In 2006, Kaplan wrote that “North Korea probably reached Phase Four in the mid-1990s, but was saved by subsidies from China and South Korea, as well as by famine aid from the United States,” and had since reverted to Phase Three.
Since the coronation of Kim Jong-Un, the regime has re-entered Phase Four (there have also been some isolated outbreaks of Phase Five, including in the military). From the outside, Phase Four looks like the collectivization of capitalism — an erratic effort to pull a spiraling galaxy of corrupt officials and hard currency-earning state enterprises back into Pyongyang’s orbit. For example, the regime had recently relaxed market controls, but has since cracked down again, at least for the time being. A widely-touted joint venture with a foreign firm has shut down. Corruption has even penetrated to North Korea’s supply of gold, requiring the regime to crack down on pilferage and smuggling. The critical leap back to Phase Four, however, was the purge of Jang Song-Thaek, in December 2013.
In a system like North Korea’s, the impact of events like Jang’s purge can remain hidden from us for years, only manifesting themselves years after the fact. These effects are much more manifest now, thanks to a new report by CNN’s Kyung Lah, who reports on the views of a young defector who, until less than a year ago, “worked among the elites in Pyongyang.” Today, he works for the South Korean government as a researcher at a university. Because his family is still in Pyongyang, and because he “fears North Korea could manage to hunt him down in his new life,” CNN took great pains to avoid revealing identifying details about him. Here is what he says about the stability of the regime he fled:
He believes that among North Korea’s dictators, the dynasty of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and now Kim Jong Un, “It is Kim Jong Un’s regime that is the most unstable. And it is going to be the shortest.” [CNN]
It was the execution of Jang Song-Thaek that caused him to flee:
“I can tell you for sure the North Koreans who are in the upper middle class don’t trust Kim Jong Un. I was thinking about leaving North Korea for a long time. After seeing the execution of Jang, I thought, ‘I need to hurry up and leave this hell on earth.’ That’s why I defected.”
At the time of Jang’s purge, the Joongang Ilbo, arguably the best and least-read of the major Korean papers, reported that 70 to 80 North Koreans in Europe, and probably scores of others in China, were called home but refused, and went to ground instead. At the time, I speculated that the loss of these operatives might cause significant short-term financial hardships for the regime, and that if foreign intelligence services could recruit some of them and access their laptops, they might yield a wealth of financial intelligence.
He made a risky, harrowing escape, telling no one he knew that he would attempt to defect. I’ve agreed not to reveal how he escaped, again for his safety. Suffice it to say, the chance of his capture or death was extraordinarily high.
But fear of death trying to escape paled in comparison to remaining under Kim Jong Un’s power, says the defector. After Kim’s purge of his inner circle, the defector says he witnessed a change among Pyongyang’s upper class. “They are terrified. The fear grows more intense every day.” [….]
“I can tell you for sure, the North Korean regime will collapse within 10 years,” he says without hesitation.
“Kim Jong Un is mistaken that he can control his people and maintain his regime by executing his enemies. There’s fear among high officials that at any time, they can be targets. The general public will continue to lose their trust in him as a leader by witnessing him being willing to kill his own uncle.”
Dismiss this as wishful thinking if you will — my own wishfulness is no secret, after all — but this account is consistent with other reports. In January 2014, shortly after Jang’s purge, several reports claimed that people in Pyongyang were terrified. This summer, we saw a spate of reports suggesting rising angst and discontent in the ruling class, and increased internal surveillance to suppress it. I’ve speculated that the point would come when the elites would be more afraid of not challenging Kim Jong-Un than of challenging him. But in a society like North Korea’s, not everyone reaches that state at the same time, and few would dare to express it aloud. No one can act alone, and without some means to communicate and organize with others, a crowd of dissenters is nothing more than a large collection of lonely people.
CNN’s report also addresses this Wall Street Journal report, about an analysis of refugee opinions by Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies. Leave aside, for a moment, whatever biases you might suspect a South Korean university’s Peace Studies department brings to its research. Although the report’s headline claims “solid support” for Kim Jong-Un, the study actually measured what recent defectors speculate that other North Koreans thought about the regime. The most obvious problem with this is the classic problem of “preference cascades,” in which totalitarian regimes successfully alienate and isolate double-thinkers and latent dissenters, who are themselves shocked to learn (after the fact) that others secretly harbored the same views as themselves. If the study can claim to measure anything empirically, it is that perceptions of confidence in Kim Jong-Un have actually declined:
In 2012, just as Kim Jong Un took control of the regime, defectors in the survey perceived support at more than 70%. In 2014, their latest survey of 146 defectors shows that while they perceive support of Kim Jong Un remains high, it has dropped to 58%. [CNN]
Unfortunately, however, the survey doesn’t claim to measure anything empirically. According to the institute’s senior researcher, Chang Yong Seok, “the results should not be read as generalized facts due to the small pool of respondents.” That pool consists of just 100 subjects. The study may or may not control for the subjects’ variable circumstances. At best, the study is a useful caution about selection bias — that at least some refugees reckon that they’re unrepresentative of public opinion in North Korea.
People who were slowly dying under dictatorial oppression gained such a consciousness through a survival enabled by the marketplaces. It is a mindset that cannot be reversed nor switched off. It is not an exaggeration to say that North Koreans have passed the point where they disobey and desert command and control only because of pressing survival needs. They do so because they have reached a point of psychological insurrection in terms of system-loyalty. [Jang Jing Sun, New Focus]
After you read Jang’s essay, read the call by Chairman Ed Royce of the House Foreign Affairs Committee for more “[r]adio broadcast[ing], social media, pushing cheap wave transistor radios and low-cost communications, DVDs,” and other ways for North Koreans to hear, speak, and communicate. When communication is free, the regime cannot last. As long as the regime controls communication, it is unlikely to fall.
Won was said to have been a relative soft-liner, and Jang Song-Thaek was at the cutting edge of North Korea’s economic engagement with China, although Defense Minister Kim Yong-Chol was arguably a hard-liner. To the extent the purges show any ideological pattern, they do not suggest a softening of Kim Jong-Un’s style of governance.
Washington’s best North Korea scholars don’t agree on what the purges mean. Some say His Porcine Majesty has consolidated power and has confidence that he can purge whoever displeases him. Others say it indicates a lack of complete control. To others, it may yet convince the top cadres that serving Kim Jong-Un is a greater risk than plotting his Untergang. Judging by our next report, there is also growing doubt within the North Korean security forces. The Daily NK reports that more “safety agents, who act as police officers … are leaving their posts” to find safer and more lucrative work in the markets.
This comes as more agents are facing retaliation from angry residents who have fallen victim to their abuse of power during crackdowns and surveillance, Daily NK has learned.
“A lot of safety agents feel unsettled about the future, having been at the forefront of wielding abusive power against the public. So we’re seeing people quit their jobs,” a source in North Hamkyung Province told Daily NK on Thursday. “They say they’re worried about retaliation from residents who have fallen victim and are unable to conduct crackdowns as they would. More agents are looking for other jobs so they can make money,” she said.
Compared to the previous leadership, surveillance and control over residents has become more severe, leading to growing discontent and anger from the public, according to the source. This has challenged bad behavior from safety agents and contributed to their ‘early retirements’, she explained.
Over the past few years, the country has seen a spike in attacks that were carried out by people seeking revenge against safety agents, the source said. “Just in the city of Chongjin, a few years ago, the head of a district safety office was clobbered in the back of the head, leading to immediate death,” she explained.
Security agents are no exception. A few years ago in the cities of Kimchaek and Hoeryong, security agents were stabbed to death, throwing the areas into turmoil. “According to investigations, the incidents were all based on personal grudges and revenge for other family members,” said the source. [Daily NK]
The Daily NK cites several specific examples of revenge attacks by angry North Korean citizens, including the stabbing deaths of security agents in Kimchaek and Hoeryong several years ago, and the recent beating death of a customs agent in Rajin.
In July, the Daily NK reported that a large brawl broke out between merchants and security agents in a market in Musan, and that a female rice trader, pushed to desperation by the extortionate demands of a Ministry of People’s Security agent, jumped off a building in protest. In 2012, it reported the revenge killings of “one official from the provincial NSA, one from the prosecutor’s office and two from the People’s Safety Agency” in Chongjin, during Kim Jong-Il’s mourning period. In 2010, it reported a wave of revenge attacks against the security forces following the Great Confiscation.
In recent years, some in the security forces have become thugs and shake-down artists, targeting the families of refugees for a share of the remittances they receive from South Korea, or blackmailing “economic criminals” with threats of terms in labor camps.
As I’ve argued before, there’s probably much more resistance against the regime than most of us realize. This resistance remains fragmented, and is unlikely to threaten the regime’s survival until it coalesces around a political organization and a unifying, galvanizing ideology (most likely, cells of Christian believers operating underground churches, unions, news services, and humanitarian NGOs, who advocate unification with the South). A movement of this kind cannot form until North Koreans develop the means to communicate with each other, with some degree of security.
Still, last week’s report is the first I’ve read that these attacks had affected morale and retention in the security forces.
“Some safety agents say they can’t do this any longer. More of them are worried that although they might be up on a high horse now that situation may change at any point in the future,” the source reported. This is why, although it may be late in the game, some are choosing ‘safer’ options and seeking employment at trade companies, which are also more lucrative as well, she added.
Another source in the same North Hamkyung Province reported of similar sentiments shared among central and provincial administrative Party officials. Following the execution of key officials such as Jang Song Thaek and other high-ranking cadre members, officials are less ambitious about climbing up the ranks and more content with the status quo, he said. Being in higher ranking posts not only exposes them more to the leadership but also to the public.
“Safety agents these days talk about how in the mid ‘80s, when China first announced it would open up to reforms, people took revenge against malicious cadre,” he said. “They talk of some even being beaten to death,” the source added.
In my essay on “guerrilla engagement,” I posited that by sanctioning the regime and enabling the rise of the market economy, we could help effect a shift in North Korea’s economic and political balance of power, which would lure security agents out of the power structure and into accommodation with forces that were not necessarily loyal to the regime. I posited that as the people organized and gained strength from numbers, money, and organization, more security officials would refrain from repressive acts out of fear of retaliation or prosecution. This report suggests that such a dynamic may already be emerging.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen a spate of reports about defections from North Korea. Broadly, this is nothing new. The defection, for example, of three crew members of a fishing vessel is life-changing for three men, but is no more likely to rend the fabric of Kim Jong-Un’s regime than 27,000 other defections, almost all of them of people the regime had written off as expendable.
Recently, however, we’ve seen multiple reports suggesting something very different, and vastly more consequential for Kim Jong-Un: a surge of defections from the Inner Party. The defection of the biochemical researcher I wrote about in last Thursday’s post(*) is just one of a series of reports that causes me to wonder whether Kim Jong-Un’s purges—“on a scale not seen since at least the late 1960s,” according to Andrei Lankov—are alienating the ruling class that keeps him in power. I’m not alone in asking this question. No less an authority than Ken Gause opines that, assuming the reports are accurate, “they could reflect … that leaders within North Korea are becoming increasingly anxious about politics around Kim Jong Un.”I’ve held and added to this post for more than a week as enough evidence emerged to suggest the start of a trend.
Recall that in June, shortly after the purge of North Korean Defense Minister Hyon Yong-Chol, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye sat for an interview with The Washington Post and claimed that a growing number of North Korean officials are discontented enough to risk their lives to escape it:
Since [he] took power 3 1/2 years ago, he has executed some 90 officials. Indeed, the reign of terror continues to this day. Although one can say that the reign of terror might work in the short term, in the mid- to long term, it is actually sowing and amplifying the seeds of instability for the regime …. Recently, a senior North Korean defected and confessed to us that because of the ongoing and widespread executions that include even his inner circle, they are afraid for their lives. That is what prompted him to flee. [WaPo]
Last week, Yonhap reported that “[a] number of North Korea’s working-level officials based in foreign nations have sought asylum” abroad, because “[m]any of them feel agitated” by Kim Jong Un’s rule. Some of them “have already defected to the South.” Yonhap also cited a report in the Chosun Ilbo, that “about a dozen senior North Korean officials” have defected for fear of being purged.
The defectors were working in China and Southeast Asia, some charged with earning hard currency for the regime. Several have already arrived in South Korea while others are staying in a third country.
Early this year, a mid-ranking official who had been dispatched to Hong Kong from Room 39, a Workers Party office that handles Kim’s slush funds, sought asylum in South Korea with his family.He reportedly told investigators here he was terrified of Kim’s draconian purges, which saw senior officials executed by anti-aircraft gun, and that officials left in North Korea find it almost impossible to flee because of tight controls but those working overseas can find some opportunities to defect. Last year, a senior official of Taesong Bank, who had handled Kim’s slush funds in Siberia, fled to South Korea with millions of dollars. Even a senior official of the State Security Department fled the North and arrived here. According to the National Security Service here, the defection particularly upset Kim. [Chosun Ilbo]
I wrote about that defection in this post at the time (see also this L.A. Times report). An especially tantalizing aspect of the Chosun Ilbo‘s report is that some of these defections could represent invaluable windfalls of financial intelligence about Pyongyang’s offshore assets, income streams, and money laundering methods. That intelligence could boost the Obama Administration’s ability to enforce sanctions against North Korea, should it develop the will to do so at a vulnerable moment for Kim Jong-Un.
(The Chosun Ilbo report also claims that “[a]n army general” who “was involved in the two inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007”—so presumably, once a highly trusted cadre—“has been staying in a third country since he fled the North recently.” If the general in question is Park Seung-Won, who was also involved in building the Masikryong Ski Resort, South Korea denies this report.)
Yonhap has since reported that North Koreans laboring abroad are terrified of the purges and “examinations” by security forces cadres posted in China, and that some of them are choosing to defect. The Daily NK reports increased surveillance of well-connected merchants (donju) and officials of state-owned enterprises. Radio Free Asia reports that at Pyongyang’s request, China has forcibly summoned ten of its officials home, as part of its own investigation into the defections:
North Korea’s National Security Agency (NSA) summoned the workers as part of an investigation into a recent flood of high-ranking officials seeking asylum, the source from inside North Korea with knowledge of the country’s affairs in China told RFA’s Korean Service.“Resident employees who work in Shenyang (in northeastern China’s Liaoning province) earning foreign currency were recalled in the last ten days of June by the North Korean government,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.“
It was not their will to go back. They were forcibly returned to their own country.” [RFA]
Invariably, most of these reports cite anonymous sources, but they’re consistent with other reports, and a report that, after the December 2013 purge of Jang Song-Thaek, Jang’s minions in hard currency-earning enterprises in China were called home, but ran the other way. Reports that some North Koreans choose defection over obedience suggests more than simple insubordination. They suggest that Kim Jong-Un is losing his psychological hold over his elites.
The purges are also sowing mutual distrust between Kim Jong-Un and the elites. Some of them now accuse the State Security Department of bugging their homes.
An official in Pyongyang recently told RFA’s Korean Service that “in December 2013, several complaints were lodged by the North Korean Workers’ Party leadership that the State Security Department had even wiretapped departments under the Central Party,” and Kim Jong Un had responded by saying that “if they are clean, why do they fear being wiretapped?”
Soon after, wiretapping and surveillance by the State Security Department became “ubiquitous,” targeting high-ranking officials in their homes and forcing them to rein in conversation with their families, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Several officials had gone so far as to send their children to stay with relatives or to live in areas outside of Pyongyang, he said. [RFA]
According to the Daily NK, there have been so many defections from elite families in Pyongyang that the regime has concluded that exiling their entire families, or sending them to prison camps, is no longer a practical deterrent. Instead, some elite families are merely put under enhanced surveillance.
“The number of various cadres defecting is on the rise, but I think it was determined that indiscriminate penalization of family members could worsen public sentiment and hurt the ‘Republic,’” he said.
Empirically, families of defectors in North Korea appear to lead stable lives in Pyongyang, but bubbling under the surface is the stress of constant surveillance and phone taps by the State Security Department (SSD).“
Families of traitors (defectors) are merely used as propaganda for the state, which claims they are able to lead stable lives thanks to the benevolence of the leader, but they never know when they’re going to be executed,” the source explained.
As of late, more officials at North Korea’s missions overseas or trade workers plan group defections with their families due to the cycle of purges, executions, and ensuing anxiety rife within the upper echelons of power in the North. Others feel threatened while carrying out overseas posts and defect rather than return to their homeland, according to the source.
When those with families in Pyongyang or relatives stationed at overseas missions hear of officials’ returns being delayed or that they’ve gone missing, an increasingly common response is, “another one fled,” according to the source. [Daily NK]
It is also possible that corruption plays a role in the state’s leniency, and that the security forces are taking bribes to spare these families.
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North Korea has survived other high-level defections, of course, most notably that of Hwang Jang-Yop in 1997. Predictions of North Korea’s collapse—and the refutation of them—are necessarily so based on unknowables that they become Rorschach tests of the writer’s broader policy views. For example, Yonhap quotes four scholars, two of whom argue that the recent defections will not cause the collapse of the regime (although the headline attributes that conclusion to “experts”). The article tells us nothing about these academics or their orientations,* and offers little explanation for their conclusions, but strictly speaking, defections will not cause the regime to collapse, any more than hair loss will kill a cancer patient, or any more than a wave of defections in 1989 caused the collapse of East Germany. That wave, however, was a coincident symptom of a metastatic social cancer, of a society so riddled with disillusionment at every level that in the end, even the Stasi feared summary justice, border guards couldn’t wait to cross the wall to buy bananas, and hardened killers like Erich Mielke did not dare to crack down violently.
The more data points there are, the more one can argue that those points represent a trend. There are more of these data points today than at any time during the reign of Kim Jong-Il, a man who couldn’t govern but who could, unquestionably, rule. Kim Jong-Un shows little aptitude for either skill. I’ve never believed that Kim Jong-Un had the temperament, credentials, or gravitas to survive long in power, and nothing I’ve observed since December 2011 disturbs this belief. The short, unhappy history of his rule has mostly been remarkable for its repression, brutality, and purges; the widening of destabilizing social and class divisions; Kim’s flaunting of his bacchanalian, un-socialist lifestyle; and adisregard for the deiocratic cult of a selfless, enlightened, superhuman protector of the people.
If Kim is no master of statecraft, which members of the inner junta does Kim Jong-Un still trust enough to guide him as he shifts the levers of power, or to restrain him from grinding the gears? Which of them trusts him? Kim Yong Nam, an 87 year-old best known for leading delegations to Africa in his autumn years? Chae Ryong-Hae, who is rumored to have “barely escaped” his own one-way trip to the ZPU-4 range—a rumor that finds some support in official North Korean media—just before he suddenly appeared in Seoul, leading an official delegation? Chae was promoted as a contemporary of Hyon Yong-Chol, Ri Pyong-Chol, and Ri Yong-Ho; he’s now the lone survivor of the four. In such a place, not even Hwang Pyong-So can feel confident that he’ll survive long enough to serve on Kim Yong-Nam’s funeral committee.
If it’s true that Pyongyang survived the last two decades without a sudden collapse, it’s equally true that Pyongyang’s control over food, information, and consumer goods has undergone a gradual collapse. The regime is riddled with corruption and inequality; and (as I argue here) falling morale within the party and the security forces. You’d be right to scoff at the empirical pretensions of a Foreign Policy survey that recently ranked North Korea as the world’s 29th most unstable state—up from 26th last year—but the broader conclusion finds support in the historical trends.
Historically, totalitarian regimes either bend under the weight of popular disillusionment or break under it. Despite the mostly unsupported hopes of scholars in Washington and Seoul, Kim Jong-Un has not implemented significant economic reforms, and no one speaks of political reforms. Instead, he has tried to re-impose North Korea’s information blockade and win over the elites with material amenities, even as he terrorizes them. I doubt this will be a winning strategy. If I were to offer a guess as to how the gears of this charnel house will eventually coagulate and clog, it would start with a local disturbance and a bloody crackdown that splits the security forces, then a fatal delay as critical units wait in their barracks to see which will be the winning side.
This illustrates, in a mild way, the reason why totalitarian regimes collapse so suddenly…. Such regimes have little legitimacy, but they spend a lot of effort making sure that citizens don’t realize the extent to which their fellow-citizens dislike the regime. If the secret police and the censors are doing their job, 99% of the populace can hate the regime and be ready to revolt against it – but no revolt will occur because no one realizes that everyone else feels the same way.
This works until something breaks the spell, and the discontented realize that their feelings are widely shared, at which point the collapse of the regime may seem very sudden to outside observers – or even to the citizens themselves. Claims after the fact that many people who seemed like loyal apparatchiks really loathed the regime are often self-serving, of course. But they’re also often true: Even if one loathes the regime, few people have the force of will to stage one-man revolutions, and when preferences are sufficiently falsified, each dissident may feel that he or she is the only one, or at least part of a minority too small to make any difference. [Glenn Reynolds]
What we can’t know is when the trickle of defections might also become a preference cascade. Whether these events are followed by some tense days of tanks on street corners and Korean Central Television playing martial music depends on whether the elites believe they and their families are safer with Kim in power, or without him.
~ ~ ~
* But I was curious enough to Google them.
– Chang Yong-seok, a researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, told Yonhap that “[f]or the time being, North Korean officials are likely to continue to flee … or seek asylum,” and that this would weaken Kim Jong-Un’s regime. Chang has previously advocated “curbing” leaflet balloon launches to appease Pyongyang, while opining that Seoul “could not” lift bilateral sanctions.
– Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University, told Yonhap that “intermittent” defections were part of “the process of solidifying the Kim Jong-un regime and securing the regime’s stability.” In 2013, after North Korea’s third nuclear test, Kim wrote an op-ed for the Asahi Shimbun arguing that Washington should have responded to the test with (sit down for this) direct talks with Pyongyang.
– When interviewed by Yonhap, Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies “dismissed the view” that the defections were indications of instability. Yang also told NK News that “[d]uring the previous mood of reconciliation,” as he calls it, “information could be checked,” presumably by asking the North Korean government. Yang questions the reports as the products of anonymous sources, and speculates that they “might have been spread by brokers in the border areas.”
– Jung Sang-don, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (KIDA), hypothesized to Yonhap that Kim Jong-un’s “governing style could bring about an instability” in the North and cause it to “make provocations in a bid to tide over its internal problems.” I found no other published information about Jung’s views.
“Military and Party cadres in Pyongyang affiliated with Hyon are living in fear, not knowing whether they will fall victims as well,” a source from Pyongyang currently residing in the Sino-North Korean border area told Daily NK. “They are keeping low profiles to make sure the leadership doesn’t make an example out of them.”
He described Pyongyang as being “awash in tension” in the aftermath of Hyon’s execution. “In the month of May, there have been greater limitations on travel permits to other areas not only for residents but Party cadres as well. State Security Department [SSD] restrictions on mobility have also really been ramped up,” he explained. [Daily NK]
The increased controls include new requirements for cadres to report their routes before traveling anywhere, even in Pyongyang, and new “high-tech mobile phone wiretapping devices” with voice identification technology. Even wealthy merchants’ travel is affected. Permits to travel to the Chinese border have become more difficult to come by, and more expensive, which will affect the price of food and consumer goods. It may further strain relationships with the merchants’ Chinese business partners.
Jang’s purge may not have caused enough distrust between Kim Jong Un and the military to destabilize the regime, but then, we still don’t know why Hyon Yong Chol was purged. For that matter, the regime has not announced Hyon’s* purge, at least externally. It’s hard to believe that a poorly timed power nap would have been the main reason for such an unsettling move, and it’s extraordinarily coincidental that Hyon’s purge came just before South Korea’s National Intelligence Service thought Kim was leaving for a state visit to Moscow, and just after Hyon made a series of visits to Russia. I’ve seen zero direct evidence that a coup plot was afoot, but I’ve yet to see a plausible alternative explanation for last month’s events. Certainly the new reign of terror won’t improve the sense of cohesion in Pyongyang, the city where The Killing Fields meets The Borgias.
~ ~ ~
* An earlier version of this post said Jang’s. Thanks to an alert reader for catching the error.
South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) is reporting that North Korean Army General Hyon Yong Chol, whose title was Minister of the People’s Armed Forces, has been executed for treason:
Hyon Yong-chol, the chief of North Korea’s People’s Armed Forces, was executed by firing squad using an anti-aircraft gun at a military school in Pyongyang around April 30, the National Intelligence Service said. [Yonhap]
An anti-aircraft gun? Hold that thought. (Update: CNN adds that the execution was carried out at a Pyongyang military school “in front of hundreds of people.”)
Hyon was named as the armed forces chief in June 2014, the No. 2 man within the North’s military after Hwang pyong-so, director of the general political department of the Korean People’s Army (KPA). North Korea has not announced its purge of Hyon yet.
The NIS said that given available information, Hyon seemed to be purged not because he sought a rebellion but because he was “disrespectful” to the young leader.
Specifically, Hyon is said to have been “seen dozing off during a military event” and failed to “carry out Kim’s instructions.” Which could be true, but it certainly would be an extraordinary coincidence that this news emerges just after Kim Jong Un cancelled his visit to Moscow unexpectedly — so unexpectedly that the cancellation was announced hours after the NIS said that Kim was “highly likely” to go through with the trip. The Russians said Kim cancelled because of “internal matters.” So now we know what those were.
Over the past six months, Kim punished other key senior officials including Ma Won-chun, director of the Designing Department at the North’s powerful National Defense Commission.
“As key officials have voiced more complaints, Kim has deepened a reign of terror by purging them in negligence of proper procedure,” the official said. “We believe that there are growing doubts about Kim’s leadership among North Korean ranking officials.”
You can read Madden’s detailed bio of Hyon Yong-Chol here, but the shorter version is that Hyon had risen steadily through the ranks of the military and the Reconnaissance Bureau through the latter years of Kim Jong Il’s reign, and rose to the very top ranks after Kim Jong Un’s succession. Hyon was one of the main beneficiaries of the 2012 purge of Ri Yong Ho. As recently as last September, when Choe Ryong Hae was reported “recalled” from the post of Vice-Chairman of the National Defense Commission, Hyon was made a member of the National Defense Commission “at the proposal of Marshal Kim Jong Un.”
In other words, this isn’t a case of Kim Jong Un cleaning out his dad’s dead wood. Kim Jong Un gave Hyon his seat at the card table in the back room of the pork store, between Paulie and Sal. And it was Kim Jong Un who whacked him.
There are numerous mentions of Hyon in the KCNA archives, including some curious recent ones. As recently as April, Hyon was in Moscow, meeting with a group of Russian officials at a celebration of Kim Il Sung’s birthday.* Hyon left on April 13th and returned on April 20th, leaving plenty of time for plenty of interesting and substantive discussions that we may all speculate about now. If there were plans for Kim to visit Moscow, Hyon was almost certainly there to make the security arrangements.
Hyon had a meeting with Putin himself last November. That meeting and its coverage by KCNA confirm that Hyon was a man of very high stature. The shooting of the very man Putin met so recently would not seem to be a good omen for North Korea’s budding friendship with Russia.
Also interesting: Hyon’s most recent mention on KCNA is an April 29th appearance with the unfortunately transliterated Moranbong Band, the subject of previous (and as it turns out, at least partially unfounded) speculation about a purge and execution. Which reminds us that this could all be bullshit. Could the NIS be wrong? Hey, they were saying that Kim Jong Un was on his way to Moscow, right before he wasn’t. Sure, Kim could have changed his plans at the last minute, and he might have been head-faking his own people.
Yet another coincidence is the death last weekend of Kim Kyok-Sik, said to be a vicious hatchet-man Kim Jong Il* would call up whenever he needed something particularly nasty done, like shelling Yeonpyeong or sinking the Cheonan.
The use of an anti-aircraft gun to execute Hyon would be consistent with this report by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, publishing imagery that Joe Bermudez believes shows an execution using ZPU-4 14.5-millimeter anti-aircraft guns last October. I couldn’t make out much from that imagery myself, but Joe Bermudez isn’t just some crank with a blog and induced astigmatism; he’s a highly respected imagery analyst. This report could help validate his conclusion. Which just goes to show you that in North Korea, some of the ghastly rumors are true.
Thankfully, rumor has it that the AP’s Pyongyang Bureau Chief, Eric Talmadge, is in Pyongyang now. So we can all look forward to a full, detailed report debunking of all this groundless speculation by midday tomorrow.
~ ~ ~
* A previous version of this post said “Kim Jong Un.” Since corrected. Thanks to Chris for catching the error. The previous version also said, incorrectly, that Putin was among the Russian officials present at the North Korean Embassy in April.
~ ~ ~
Update: Since April 30th, we’ve seen a flurry of missile and rocket tests, and firing drills. I wonder if this activity is a way to keep the officers busy, distracted, tired, and away from their social networks at home. I wonder if it means we’ll soon see a cycle of long-range missile and nuke tests — we’re about due for that anyway — although that didn’t happen after Jang Song-Thaek’s purge.
Wondering why one story contradicts what all the other sources are still reporting, I reached out to a reporter friend who is, in my book, one of the very best and most careful reporters covering North Korea, and one who has a healthy suspicion of the NIS. He doesn’t believe the UPI story is accurate. He says the NIS still says it has multiple sources telling it that Hyon was executed with an anti-aircraft gun. To be sure, the NIS could be wrong, but the majority view doesn’t seem to support the claim that the NIS is backing down.
Now, that being said, South Korean lawmaker Shin Kyoung-Min makes the point that Hyon was seen on North Korean TV after the date of his alleged execution. In the case of Jang Song-Thaek, he was Trotskied out of a TV program before his execution was announced. Make of that what you will.
Within a few days, I suspect the North Koreans will do one of two things — either they’ll print a lengthy denunciation of Hyon, like they did with Jang, or they’ll put him on TV and savor this opportunity to make the NIS look like fools in front of the entire world.
As of the writing of this update, KCNA still hadn’t commented on Hyon, but did threaten to “mercilessly punish those hell-bent on the anti-DPRK ‘human rights’ racket, whether they are the puppet forces or their masters or those going under the mask of any international body.”
North Korea was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Discuss among yourselves.
You won’t find a more authoritative open-source study of North Korea’s police state than the one Ken Gause did for the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. When it comes to North Korea’s internal security, kremlinology, and command systems, Gause earns a great deal of respect among North Korea watchers. So when Ken Gause tells Yonhap that Kim Jong Un “has not fully consolidated his power,” and is at risk of failing to do so “in a couple of years” because of a lack of hard currency, I pay attention to that. Gause explains:
“The royal economy, which is part of the economy surrounding the Kim family, is losing money. They can’t bring in as much money. He’s having to spend about twice as much money than his father did to buy support within the regime,” Gause said. “He doesn’t have the resources to be able to consolidate his power and buy relationships.”
Power struggles, which have been frozen in place since Kim’s execution of his uncle Jang Song-thaek, could thaw out in one to two years, and if those power struggles happen, Kim no longer has the regent structure around to protect him, the expert said.
“He is now directly exposed to those power struggles and he can be undermined by that. Not toppled, not coup, but marginalized and turned into a puppet. I think that would happen within the next two to five years. I really think he needs to do this within the next couple of years,” Gause said.
The economic problem is one of three things Kim must address to consolidate the power he inherited from his father, Kim Jong-il, who died in late 2011, the expert said. The two other tasks are to purge potential adversaries and bring in people and to make progress in defense systems, such as the missile and nuclear programs. [Yonhap]
Gause, who is generally supportive of the regime-“engagement” view of which I’m a skeptic, thinks this financial desperation explains why Pyongyang is “largely maintaining its charm offensive toward South Korea” and refraining from greater provocations. I could cite some counterexamples: the 2012 missile test, the 2013 nuke test, the 2013 closure of Kaesong, the 2014 cyberattacks on Sony and the South Korean nuclear power plants, and the escalating threats against the leaflet balloons. Still, this doesn’t necessarily refute Gause’s theory, if you believe that the point of those provocations was to extort money and sanctions relief from South Korea and the United States.
I would love to believe that Gause is right about this, and that Kim Jong Un is a softer target for financial sanctions than even I had believed. That is why I feel such a sense of duty to question it. The main problem I have with Gause’s theory is that the regime isn’t spending like it’s desperate. North Korea’s known spending on imported luxury goods has tripled since Kim Jong Un came to power. Foreign observers have noted the recent building boom in Pyongyang, including new bank towers, leisure facilities that are far out of reach for most North Koreans, and a crash program to build new housing (pun not intended). Pyongyang has increased its defense spending by 16% in the last five years, to more than $10 billion. As we used to say in South Dakota, you can’t eat like a sparrow and shit like a goose. (Not for long, anyway.)
Of course, governments have been known to spend beyond their means. In America, we can sustain that by printing bonds. Mindful of the rather slow market for North Korean government securities lately, I can only suppose that if Kim Jong Un is spending beyond his means, he’s sustaining that by selling gold, or (more likely) by drawing on his offshorecash reserves, which could be enough to sustain him for years. That would make this a particularly opportune time to trap those reserves abroad by blocking them out of the financial system.
Wondering about the basis for Gause’s conclusion, I emailed him, and he kindly agreed to let me print his comments.
While it is true that the KJU regime has opened up the taps to provide goods to the elites, the amount of funding the regime is bringing in through Kim family channels (Office 39, etc…) is shrinking. Events that used to be punctuated with gifts, for example, have given way to expressions of appreciation. The average elite (director level or above) in the past could expect on average around $20K in luxury goods from the SL each year. No more, the largess gravy train has come to an end.
At some point, KJU’s ability to keep up with the rising expectations and the requirements for largess in the regime could hamper his ability to consolidate his power. This is in part, I believe, driving the regime’s prolonged charm campaign. Reinvigorating the people’s economy would free up resources and give Kim more flexibility in running the regime.
Gause adds the enticing news that he has written a book about this topic, which is currently with the editors, and should be published in time to put it on your summer reading list. The book will have a chapter devoted to Pyongyang’s royal-court economy, “[b]ased on extensive interviews over the last [two] years in the region,” including with North Koreans with inside knowledge of the system. Still, Gause concedes that one cannot achieve 100% clarity in studying such an opaque system.
I look forward to reading Gause’s book and will reserve judgment until I do. For now, however, the signs suggest to me that the North Korean regime has more revenue than it did a few years ago. That means that Kim Jong Un has more freedom to make decisions that threaten us and his people. That wouldn’t be happening if the Obama Administration had showed some leadership among its allies, and made a serious effort to enforce financial sanctions on North Korea. Gause is probably right about the fact that Kim Jong Un’s consolidation of power is still very unfinished. We continue to read reports of officials being purged, replaced, and promoted. That means that the window of opportunity has not yet closed.
In October, I posted about rumors that several senior North Korean officials had lost their jobs, including Ma Won-Chun, who showed up shortly thereafter. But another subject of the rumors, Gen. Ri Pyong-Chol, the Commanding Officer of North Korean People’s Air Force, has lost his job.
~ ~ ~
Update: A reader wonders whether Ri has necessarily lost his job, or might have been promoted. Technically, I suppose it’s possible that both of those things could be true. The story of Choe Ryong-Hae, who also lost one of his job titles, shortly before being sent to South Korea in a position of obvious rank and influence, counsels us not to assume too much about where Ri landed.
It wouldn’t be completely accurate to say that North Korea was ever out of the international kidnapping business, but last week Yonhap and The Daily NK reported that North Korean agents in Paris had attempted, unsuccessfully, to kidnap the son of an aide to royal uncle Jang Song Thaek, who was purged last December, and to bundle him onto a flight to Pyongyang. The AP later corroborated the report through unnamed French sources and published it.
A North Korean student with family ties to the regime in his country escaped a kidnapping bid in Paris, where he was studying, and is now in hiding, a French source with knowledge of the case said Saturday.
The architecture student, identified only as Han, avoided the kidnapping attempt at a Paris airport where he was to be put on a plane for Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak publicly on the sensitive matter.
The failed bid to capture Han occurred in the first week of November, and he has been in hiding since then, the source said. It wasn’t immediately clear if French authorities had played a role in the escape, how many kidnappers were involved, or where they are now. [AP]
The Independent provides an even more detailed account here, which says that the student, identified only as Han, escaped at Charles De Gaulle airport.
The report comes just in time for the U.N. Security Council to consider a General Assembly recommendation to sanction and indict North Korean officials for crimes against humanity, including international kidnapping. The incident is expected to create diplomatic tension between North Korea and France, which has does not have full diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. France is a member of the P-5 on the U.N. Security Council, which is further proof, if any is needed, that North Korea isn’t very good at this whole “diplomacy” thing. It’s just less bad at it than we are.
The report is a strong indication that Kim Jong Un’s purge of those associated with Jang is casting a wide net, and it isn’t over.
Whether you use the definition of international terrorism in the Foreign Assistance Act or the better written one in the Criminal Code, this attempt would clearly fit the definition. President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.