This report has been circulating in Korean-language sources for a few days, and the Donga Ilbo has reported that a large fire was burning (and had been extinguished) in that area, but this is the first time I’ve seen it reported in English.
A raging wildfire that broke out on October 21st in North Korea’s Samjiyon County, Yangkang Province is said to have burned down former leader Kim Jong Il’s home on Mount Baekdu near Milyong, the alleged birthplace of the late leader, the Daily NK has learned.
“The fire in Samjiyon County has spread to Baekam County putting the country in a state of emergency,” a source in Yangkang Province told the Daily NK on Tuesday. “The Baekdu Milyong home and most of the historic revolutionary landmarks have gone up in flames.” [Daily NK]
Here’s a photo of the alleged birthplace. AP reporters Eric Talmadge and David Guttenfelder where there as recently as June. So far, there have been no references to the story in official North Korean media. If the report isn’t true, we should expect to see a denial soon.
Of course, Kim Jong Il was actually born in Khabarovsk, but no matter. According to the Daily NK‘s sources, multiple security agencies are already surging into the area to “investigate” the cause of the fire.
Rather than spoon-feed you the parts that interest me, I’ll just link to this, this, and this and let you read and judge for yourself. You may also find this related article by Scott Snyder interesting.
My reaction on reading these excerpts? Disappointment, mostly. Few of Jong Nam’s broader conclusions about North Korea are surprising or even divergent from the consensus of outside speculators. Most are either obvious, unsupported by any credible new revelations of fact, or both. An exception is his intriguing assertion that North Korea is “extremely unstable internally,” but the grafs offer no details to support this, and Jong Nam doesn’t seem to have spent much time in the more fly-blown parts of North Korea where that instability might be (barely) visible. The personal details were interesting — he never met Kim Jong Eun, had a close emotional relationship with his father, and has a Chinese “protection” detail. Like Jong Nam himself, Jong Eun has traveled to Japan under a fake passport. Oh, and Jong Nam says never really wanted to succeed his father, before or after that whole Disney thing, which might just be true. Jong Nam gives the impression of astounding naivete given his background, in both his personal habits and in some of his political thinking.
Well if this doesn’t take the cake! I suspected it, but then thought twice about it — surely even the North Korean higher-ups wouldn’t go against their own propaganda for an event to be watched into perpetuity by every one of their subjects. Yet commenter Thomas was the first here to come out and say it, and now ABC News Radio says it’s true:
…But a curious detail was that the boxy black hearse that crept through the light snow was a vintage Lincoln Continental.
The choice of a U.S.-made luxury car seems odd for a country that preached a belligerent self reliance, reviled America and was put on President George W. Bush’s Axis of Evil list.
Experts at Edmunds.com put the year of the Lincoln at 1976, making the 35-year-old vehicle older than North Korea’s 28-year-old new leader Kim Jong-Un.
Ford, the parent company of Lincoln, did not respond to telephone and email requests for comment.
The choice of an American luxury car for his final ride is consistent with Kim’s tastes, despite his regime’s propaganda depicting the U.S. as evil, dangerous and violent, and his history of antagonizing numerous American administrations with threats of war and nuclear weapons. [Joshua Cohan, ABC News Radio]
I don’t know about you, but this fact would seem to be ripe to float into North Korea by balloon — say, for the new dictator’s birthday on January 8th.
You can listen to me holding forth on those topics in this podcast. For extra fun, you can also hear me flub the casualty count for the ROKS Cheonan and the name of a mostly forgotten document called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is why I hate podcasting — you can’t research in real time.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone can fill the psychological void he leaves. It doesn’t matter that most North Koreans undoubtedly despised him. He was still a tremendous, terrible presence that no one else can be.
[Reuters, Kim Kyung-Hoon]
Update: Here are some posts that seem freshly relevant:
– Boldly, I had predicted that Kim Jong Il would die. But we could see this coming two years ago, and here, I prognosticated at greater length about the post-Kim Jong Il era.
– As if preparing for his own death, Kim Jong Il spent his last years purging old comrades. See also.
Everyone knows that North Korea does a lot of things that we can’t explain without resorting to mostly groundless speculation about its internal power politics. This goes beyond cultural differences. I don’t know any South Koreans who can explain things like the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents, which imposed real (if insufficient) financial and diplomatic costs on the regime. In our conversations, not even Kim Kwang Jin claimed to understand for certain why Kim Jong Il does things that appear to harm his own interests.
Most of the speculative explanations about North Korea’s power politics also have flaws. For example, there ought to be ways that are less politically costly to elevate the reputation of Kim Jong-Eun than ways that only increase the hardships and discontent of the very people they’re supposed to be meant to influence. At some point, you have to admit that North Korea’s bigger decisions certainly look irrational. That’s the theory Andrei Lankov has inclined to for at least a year, and according to this report, North Koreans are starting to agree:
Rumors that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is suffering from dementia are spreading quickly across the isolated country. Reports say the leader is increasingly incoherent during his so-called on-the-spot guidance trips.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s eldest son says the North should abandon the “Songun” or military first doctrine and pursue reforms and open up. Kim Jong-nam (39), who was passed over for the succession in favor of his 20-something brother, made the remarks in an interview with the Tokyo Shimbun.
He also commented on the North Korean artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island, referring to the waters surrounding the South Korean island as a “battle zone,” and said there are “forces” in the North Korean regime who are trying to use the attack to justify the Songun doctrine and nuclear weapons.
My first reaction: watch your back. My second reaction: he’s positioning himself to take power in a post-Kim Jong Il era, perhaps as a Chinese-backed Pu Yi figure.
Kim Jong-nam said the currency reform in late 2009 was a “failure.” “I do not believe people’s lives are improving,” he said, adding it is time for North Korea to start reforms and open up.
As much as I admire Open News for its reporting from North Korea’s towns, villages, and markets, these inside-baseball reports from within the royal court in Pyongyang aren’t the sort in which I tend to put much stock, so take this for what it’s worth:
Doctors in North Korea have given the country’s leader Kim Jong-il three years to live, Open Radio for North Korea claimed Friday.
Quoting what it said was a high-level North Korean source, the broadcaster said a comprehensive medical check-up last month by a special medical department under the Guard Command, a military unit assigned to protect Kim, shows that he has “at most three years to live.” His ailments including laryngitis and kidney disorders became chronic after he recovered from a stroke, it said.
We saw a whole series of similarly sources reports right after the stroke. One claimed that South Korean intelligence had intercepted Kim Jong Il’s brain scan, and another giddily reported that Kim Jong Il had recovered the ability to brush his own teeth.
North Korea says an American man being held for illegally crossing its border has tried to kill himself. A statement issued by the regime’s official Korean Central News Agency says Aijalon Mahli Gomes’ suicide attempt was “driven by his strong guilty conscience,” plus disappointment and despair that the U.S. government “has not taken any measure for his freedom.”
This is a transparent demand for ransom, and our government has legal tools for responding to terrorist tactics like this (sadly, it lacks the spine and the sac to use them). Gomes hasn’t been allowed to speak to his mom since April. And while I won’t criticize Robert Park for his still-unretracted confession until I’ve done a little time in a North Korean prison, I’ve noticed that Gomes hasn’t given his captors any such thing.
At last, something interesting has happened at the World Cup after all. The North Korean team was crushed by Portugal in the most lopsided World Cup score in eight years, eliminating North Korea from the competition, and greatly advancing my personal objective of ignoring the rest of the World Cup.
The question on everyone’s lips now is whether the North Korean players or their families will face retribution for this loss. I really don’t know the answer to that, and although the speculation is not completely groundless, it’s too real to be legitimately amusing. To the extent anyone has a basis to ask the question, you also have to question the sporting league’s decision to invite that country to participate in the tournament at all. A case in point would be Uday Hussein’s “management” of the Iraqi Olympic team. Saddam Husein’s Iraq shouldn’t have been invited to the Olympics at all, and the OIC was complicit with the torture of Iraqi athletes for extending the invitation. FIFA and the OIC owe it to the North Korean athletes to pursue any similar such questions that are legitimately raised.
With that being said, I don’t hesitate to identify one North Korean who should face a firing squad: the imbecile who provided strategy advice to the North Korean coach before the game:
North Korean manager Kim Jong-Hun reportedly gets coaching advice directly from the country’s diminutive dictator via an invisible cell phone.
The Chosun Ilbo, profiling who sat where as the North Koreans (a very few of them) feasted in Beijing, gives us a great who’s who photo.
The caption reads:
Clockwise from top left, Kim Yong-chun, Hyon Chol-Hae and Ri Myong-su (directors of the National Defense Commission), Choe Thae-bok, Kim Ki-nam, Jang Song-taek, Kim Yang-gon, Kim Yong-il, Kang Sok-ju, Tae Jong-soo, Kim Pyong-hae (Workers’ Party secretary for North Pyongan Province), and Ju Kyu-chang /Yonhap
There’s also more evidence that Jang Song-Thaek will be the real successor to Kim Jong Il. In many important ways, he probably already is.
For well over a decade, the South Korean street and government have let China get away with murder — literally — of North Korean refugees, and South Korean POW’s and their families. Koreans quickly forgot their anger after hundreds of Chinese “students” rioted in downtown Seoul and beat and kicked Korean citizens (but, said the Chinese government that bused the mobs in, they really meant well).
But for once, I’m gratified to see South Koreans sharing my sense of outrage about something: China’s decision to roll out the red carpet for Kim Jong Il not even a week after South Korea buried 40 of the 46 sailors who were probably killed by a deliberate North Korean attack on one of their warships. This time, South Korea’s government has informally protested the Kim Jong Il visit and called in the new Chinese Ambassador for a chat. Is the teflon off the wok at last?
China is the world’s second-largest economy. It must think carefully about the damage to its international image if it continues to sponsor the North Korean regime. After all, North Korea is deeply involved in terrorism, drug and counterfeit money production and kidnapping. It operates scores of concentration camps where horrible human rights abuses take place.
The dead of the Cheonan haven’t been in the ground for a week, but the man who probably ordered their deaths is still a welcome and honored guest in Beijing:
“We have confirmed the arrival of a special train at (the Chinese border city) Dandong, and we believe it is highly likely that Chairman Kim is on board,” a South Korean government official told Yonhap. [L.A. Times]
The last such report turned out to be a false alarm. Recall that I recently published photographs of Kim Jong Il’s train here, just in case your hobbies include lurking under railroad bridges in China with packs of C-4. And who among us hasn’t, at some stage of our lives?
His Dessicated Majesty’s agenda includes asking China for more bailout money, which I suppose China will try to fork over before it has to vote for the next sanctions resolution in the U.N. Security Council. Tom Friedman, call your office.
The Chosun Ilbo reports that despite international sanctions, Kim Jong Il still manages to import ample quantities of rice and infant formula add “between $200 and $300 million every year” to his personal slush fund:
With the money, North Korea would be able to import between 400,000 to 600,000 tons of rice, which would be enough to cover half the country’s food shortage of 1 million tons of rice per year.
What? Since when isn’t cognac food anymore? Isn’t it an agricultural product you ingest? Well???
The North is estimated to have imported more than $100 million worth of high-quality liquor, cars and other luxury goods in 2008. And also on the list are pet dogs, which the Kim family are said to adore. Kim buys dozens of German shepherds, Shih Tzus and other breeds from France and Switzerland every year.
You’re on your own with that one.
Key departments within the Workers Party are pressuring agencies under their control to offer “loyalty funds” for the successor, a source familiar with North Korean affairs said. “A separate company has been established under the leadership of Kim Jong-un to secretly amass foreign currency.”
The source said Kim senior uses his slush fund to finance his expensive tastes, build monuments in his own honor and buy gifts for his loyal aides.
The full report is here. I won’t have time to read it until this weekend, but here’s a teaser:
The North “is facing several domestic problems that in isolation would each be manageable but together could threaten regime survival,” said Daniel Pinkston, the group’s northeast Asia deputy project director.
“The North Korean government has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to survive, but the regime is under extreme pressure when it must also deal with looming succession issues.”
The 68-year-old Kim, who suffered a stroke in August 2008, has apparently chosen his third son Jong-Un as eventual successor. But it is unclear whether the son has the personal qualities or support to tackle “unprecedented” challenges, the report said.
In the short term, a smooth transition was likely. But if the successor could not improve the economy or tackle other crises, there could be a violent power struggle resulting in an army takeover or regime collapse, the Brussels-based ICG said.
The report said foreign exchange sources are drying up as UN sanctions crimp lucrative weapons exports and as joint business projects with South Korea founder amid worsening relations.
Humanitarian aid which feeds millions has declined due to political factors and donor fatigue, despite “chronic” food shortages and other economic deprivation.
Yonhap is reporting that North Korea is busily printing portraits of the new emperor-in-waiting. If this is true, it would be the story I’ve been waiting for to convince me that Kim Jong-Eun is indeed being groomed as the spiritual successor to Kim Jong-Il, and it would also strongly suggest that Kim Jong-Il’s health is terrible. Jong-Eun is clearly unready to take real power, and probably is a net negative even as a spiritual figurehead. To elevate him is a rushed and desperate act. The regime wouldn’t do it this quickly if it expected to have Kim Jong Il around for more than five years.
Update: Meanwhile, R. Elgin at The Marmot’s Hole links to a series of KCNA pictures of Kim Jong Il giving on-the-spot guidance. I suppose if you’re reading this site, you may be one of the few people who finds this sort of thing interesting. I was actually looking for those spots on his face, which weren’t evident, although plenty of makeup was (#20, #27). It’s also curious to me why he’s wearing sunglasses in every one of these pictures, even indoors in dank factory floors, or when the lighting suggests that the weather is overcast.
Starting yesterday, several news outlets had reported that North Korea had released recent video of Kim Jong Il appearing in Hamhung to mark the re-opening of a textile factory in Hamhung, but to my intense aggravation, none provided a link to the actual video. YouTube, however, does not disappoint:
The video shows Kim waving to an assembled crowd with his right arm, and moving his left arm slightly to applaud … himself, presumably. Heil me. There are no shots showing both Kim Jong Il and the crowd. Note that Kim is wearing a parka, and the septuagenarians with him (Kim Yong Nam is on the right) are wearing heavy overcoats, while those in the crowd below wear business suits and hamboks. Mike Madden identifies the rest of the rogues’ gallery. Decide for yourself whether he really was appearing before this crowd. The crowd is assembled in front of what Curtis identifies as the Hamhung Grand Theater:
The two large objects in the foreground starting at :50 don’t show up in the satellite imagery. At first, I guessed that they were monuments, but if they are, they’re new. Otherwise, the scenery in the video matches the imagery.
Kim Jong Ryul, who spent 16 years under cover in Austria, also described how the “great leader” and his son and successor Kim Jong Il spent millions pampering and protecting themselves with Western goods — everything from luxury cars, carpets and exotic foods, to monitors that can detect heartbeats of people hiding behind walls and gold-plated handguns.
The colonel’s account — told in a new book by Austrian journalists Ingrid Steiner-Gashi and Dardan Gashi — shows the deep divide between the lifestyles of the North Korean leadership and their citizens, who sometimes must subsist eating tree bark, knowing they will be sent to labor camps if they criticize the government. [AP]
Remember this story the next time you see Goebbelsian apologists like Christine Ahn or John Feffer try to blame starvation in North Korea on American anti-proliferation sanctions.