The summer of their discontent: Is Kim Jong Un losing the elite classes?

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.

~  ~   ~

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 repressionbrutality, and purges; the widening of destabilizing social and class divisions; Kim’s flaunting of his bacchanalian, un-socialist lifestyle; and a disregard 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.

~   ~   ~

Update: And the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Agitprop goes to … this video, via Kent Boydston at Witness to Transformation:

~   ~   ~

(*) Update: Serious doubts have since emerged about the accuracy of this report.

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Daily NK: Fire destroys Kim Jong Il’s fake birthplace (updated)

Update, September 2015: Subsequent reporting by NK News calls the Daily NK‘s report into question.

~   ~   ~

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. I wonder how many real people are going to punished as scapegoats, for the sake of fake history.

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Grafs from the new Kim Jong Nam book

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.

kjn.jpgMy 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.

Even chewing on these small slices, I found myself struggling to separate truth from self-serving pap (Was Jong-Nam really not involved in North Korea’s business activities in Macau, previously the center of its money laundering activities? What an interesting extradition request that would be!). My guess is that like me, you’ll fail at this task because of the short supply of known facts to compare to Jong Nam’s account. I still want to read the book. I even find myself feeling disturbingly sympathetic to someone who grew so fat on the misfortune of others. This account does conform to what I’ve heard third- and fourth-hand about Jong Nam, which is that he just never had the mean streak he needed to fit in in Pyongyang. He probably never had the gravitas to make much of a positive impact there. I’m afraid he’ll soon find himself the target of withering pressure from his homeland. I wouldn’t even rule out a brush with a stranger with a poisoned needle, although the more likely outcome for Jong Nam is that his Chinese minders will soon whisk him away from the bacchanalian fleshpot where he lives now for a more austere, less accessible part of China.

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KIm Jong Il’s Funeral Ride Was in an American Made Car

//nkleadershipwatch.wordpress.comSource: KCNA via NK Leadership Watch

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 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.


Car Buzz also says it was a 1976 Lincoln Continental and has some nice photos and says something that would make Korean car makers smile.

I wonder what cars were used for Kim Il Sung’s funeral?

Update 2:

For the answer to that and more, see this NY Times article.

“The Lincoln Continental in the old Asia was considered to be a solid, robust, powerful car,” said Kongdan Oh, a senior researcher at the Institute for Defense Analyses who has written on daily life in North Korea, where her parents were born. “They are a time capsule. North Koreans are living still the 1970s life.

She said the cars were probably chosen because they were previously used in the funeral of Kim Il-sung, who was Kim Jong-il’s father and the founding president of North Korea and who died in 1994. “Whatever they did in the past, they are very comfortable repeating that, especially this Kim family dynasty,” she said of the North Korean leadership. “They probably didn’t even think twice about using this car. For them, it’s a very natural choice.

Very interesting.  I wonder if the average North Korean would know about this old belief in this American car, and what they think about it being used in the state funeral.

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Kim Jong Il Dead

Good riddance to him. Any bets on who will actually run the place now?

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.


[KCNA, Reuters]


[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.

– A reminder of how little we really know about Kim Jong Eun, who would be a figurehead at most, and who is probably even more despised than his father.

– South Korea’s military is on high alert.

– As of 11:36 p.m. Washington time, KCNA has nothing on this. [Update: But just look at it now.]

Some other quick thoughts:

Who will take over now? Superficially, we’ve seen some recent signs that the regime was accelerating Kim Jong Eun’s deification, suggesting that it knew Kim Jong Il’s health was declining rapidly. Behind the scenes, it will be a collective leadership. Some people to watch are Kim Jong Il’s sister Kim Kyong-Hui, her (possibly estranged) husband, Jang Song Thaek, and master counterfeiter O Kuk Ryol.

Is diplomacy now a real possibility? No, but with Kim out of the way, an internal power struggle could soon commence, the result of which could create the conditions for that. Watch who comes out on the reviewing stand, and watch how the regime behaves. There won’t be a Pyongyang Spring anytime soon. The next weeks will either feature complete governmental paralysis or an unscheduled broadcast, followed by a series of unscheduled military deployments. One piece of good news is that the latest reports of a diplomatic “breakthrough” will come to nothing now, which is a much faster and cheaper way of achieving exactly the same thing.

It is a depressing thing to see a man who caused so much death and misery die untried and unpunished. It makes me want to believe that there is a hell, other than the one thatNorth Korea itself became because of Kim Jong Il’s necrocratic misrule. Here is a man who belongs alongside Pol Pot as one of the most destructive men who ever lived, one who would belong in the same category as Hitler or Stalin if he had ruled a country with a larger population or GDP. The legacy of Kim Jong Il will be of the millions he starved for his own profligacy and megalomania, and of the hundreds of thousands more who perished in the cruelest system of prison camps on this earth since Stalin died in 1953. When men like this die in their beds, the very idea of justice dies a little, too.

Update: The BBC has video of the announcement on North Korean state television.

Update: Here’s what I’d written about Kim Jong Eun for the New Ledger last year:

Not much else seems remarkable about Kim Jong-Eun, the new Porcine Prince of Pyongyang. It’s unlikely that he’ll be as much a successor to Kim Jong-Il as a figurehead for a junta of his septuagenarian minions. If we were speaking of any place but North Korea, it would count as remarkable that we know so little about him. We think that he is somewhere between 26 and 28, and that his mother was the actress Ko Young-Hee, whom Kim Jong Il expropriated from her then-husband but never married, and who later went mad and died in Moscow. Kenji Fujimoto, who spent part of North Korea’s Great Famine making sushi for Kim Jong-Il, says Jong-Eun inherited his father’s appearance and his narcissistic personality traits. Maybe he studied in Switzerland, and then again, maybe that was his younger brother Kim Jong-Chol, the one who possibly likes Eric Clapton, has a hormonal imbalance, and acts “like a girl.” It wasn’t until January of 2009 that Japanese and South Korean media first began to report on the regime’s campaign to deify him.

Our first look at Kim Jong-Eun has answered a few important questions. For one thing, we may have just found where all our food aid went. With all that we don’t know about North Korea, I’m confident in my disbelief that this is a face starving people will accept as a legitimate ruler and benefactor. South Koreans certainly were quick to poke the elephant in the room. As the British scholar Aidan Foster-Carter put it, “He sure looks like he gave up basketball.”

Of course, Kim Jong Il wore his own kleptocratic girth until his stroke in 2008, but even the dictator of a starving nation can survive if he wears his corpulence with confidence. Kim Jong Il had spent the decades before his father’s death cultivating relationships with his father’s generals. Now look at Jong-Eun’s eyes. There is cruelty and arrogance in them, but it’s the fear I see. That’s the sort of face a suburban sex offender wears to the exercise yard at Pelican Bay. No matter how many icons of him are placed in living rooms, classrooms, or lapel pins, he will spend the rest of his life stepping warily within a nest of vipers. The real power will stay with Kim Jong Il’s old comrades and relatives: Kim Young Il; Jang Song-Thaek, whose portfolio includes North Korea’s political prison camps; General Ri Yong-Ho; General O Kuk-Ryol, whose family controls the counterfeiting rackets; and Kim Jong Il’s sister (and Jang’s wife) Kim Kyong-Hui, who is said to have pushed hard for North Korea’s disastrous currency redenomination and confiscation last year. As a partial consequence of that, refugees report finding the night’s toll of the dead lying around the train stations each morning. That is why any hopes that this transition is a harbinger of reforms are probably false. The state isn’t interested in reform, and Kim Jong-Eun’s coronation won’t change that, because it is a sham. But that doesn’t mean that the regime can stop change forever.

Until public opinion polling becomes possible in North Korea, we will have to rely on anecdotal reports, clandestine cell phones, and defectors to gauge the reaction of the people to a medieval succession in a nominally socialist state. What reports we do have are overwhelmingly unfavorable for Jong-Eun, whose function is, after all, to be a genetic vessel for the legitimacy of a deiocracy once their god finally dies. If so, Jong-Eun may have outlived his usefulness. One defector claims that North Koreans openly call Kim Jong-Eun “an immature little bastard” who is “more savage than his father” and “a scoundrel who relies on his father’s power to do whatever he wants.” Students in Pyongyang and other cities criticize the feudal dynastic succession from father to son and call it “a betrayal of socialism.” Some North Koreans blame him for exhausting mass labor mobilizations and last year’s disastrous currency confiscation. Kim Eun Ho, a former North Korean policeman and now a correspondent for a Seoul-based radio station that broadcasts to North Korea, says, “For general citizens, Kim Jong Eun is vastly unpopular …. People cannot take him seriously, in reality. He just suddenly appeared, and he’s too young.” This discontent, by itself, is less consequential than the fact that North Koreans express it openly to fellow citizens, at least to the ones they trust.

It will have occurred to you by now that North Korea’s next mid-term election has yet to be scheduled, and that there is no effective opposition to its system. That is all true, and North Korea’s only hope is that these things should change. We can only hope — they can only hope — that somewhere in the outer provinces, a Madame Defarge works patiently at her knitting. At the confluence of desperation and hope, an organized opposition will eventually coalesce. The thought of trying to survive until the end of Kim Jong-Eun’s natural life should supply ample desperation.

It suddenly strikes me that the gathering of crowds for choreographed mourning ceremonies will be a volatile moment. If the clandestine reporting is accurate, Kim Jong Eun inspires loathing, but the regime has had little opportunity to deify him. I doubt that he inspires anything like confidence or respect (maybe “awe” is the word I’ve been searching for) in the minds of most North Koreans. To them, the idea of being ruled by this third-generation tyrant for the rest of their lives must be almost unimaginably dreary.

More updates, 19 Dec 2011:

First Bin Laden, then Khaddafy, and now Kim Jong Il. Overall, 2011 had more joyous obituaries than any year I can remember. It’s plausible to hope that Bashar Asad, Ayman Zawahiri, and Kim Jong Eun will be the most likely joyous obituaries of 2012.

Psychologically, so much has changed in North Korea. The regime was not really ready for this day. Its deification of Kim Jong-Eun has been uncharacteristically halting, even timid. The regime understands how volatile a moment this is. The Daily NK reports that it has closed its border with China, closed all markets, imposed a near-curfew, and filled the streets of at least one city with armed soldiers. This is not the reaction of a state that expects its subjects to erupt in spontaneous grief.

North Korea isn’t sending a conciliatory message to the outside world, either. Shortly after it announced Kim Jong-Il’s death, it tested a short-range missile off its east coast. South Korea is halting all visits to North Korea by its citizens, except at the Kaesong Industrial Park.


Say what? It’s Lee Myung Bak’s birthday? That’s just too much.

Also, video from Pyongyang. Faking or not? In such a place as North Korea, it can’t be hard to find reasons to cry real tears.

Some reactions:

Bruce Klingner: “Kim Jong-un is a pale reflection of his father and grandfather. He has not had the decades of grooming and securing of a power base that Jong-il enjoyed before assuming control from his father. [He] may feel it necessary in the future to precipitate a crisis to prove his mettle to other senior leaders or deflect attention from the regime’s failings.”

Joshua Trevino: “I’d like to think God let Havel and Hitchens pick the third.” It’s a nice thought, but I suspect Hitchens would still be (is?) insisting to God that He doesn’t exist.

Robert Kaplan’s 2006 discussion of regime collapse in North Korea is worth rereading.

It seems appropriate to reprise two pieces by Christopher Hitchens. The first one is also the source of my masthead image; the second is a review of Brian Myers’s “The Cleanest Race.”

I would add: the story of Kim Jong Il’s misrule was best told by Barbara Demick, but the story that hasn’t been told is the story of how the free world lost its conscience in the face of Kim Jong Il’s crimes against humanity. For various reasons — nationalism, partisanship, Chinese malevolence, political expediency — the consciences of the Human Rights Industry, South Korea, America, and the U.N. were all paralyzed as U.S. and South Korean taxpayers were conscripted into the vile work of prolonging Kim Jong Il’s misrule through aid that was too easily diverted. Kim Jong Il’s misrule was terminated by more-or-less natural causes because of the banality of diplomacy.

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Some Fascinating-if-True Reports from North Korea

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.

When Kim watched the 1960s propaganda play “Sanwoolim (Echo)” during an inspection of a military base in Kangwon Province recently, he reportedly described it as “a masterpiece that is bound to lead the revolution in the future.” Party cadres were dumbfounded to hear him praise the old show as if he had never seen it before. [Chosun Ilbo]

The report itself sounds apocryphal, but it jibes with recent events.

Our next report suggests that Sohn Hak-Kyu might have trouble finding North Koreans to help him plan his Olympic village:

North Korea has reportedly purged 30 officials who participated in inter-Korean talks or supervised bilateral dialogue via execution by firing squad or staged traffic accidents. A South Korean government source said Thursday, “Thirty people have been confirmed to have died or gone missing until recently. About 10 partners of inter-Korean talks with the South were executed by firing and about 20 others were said to have died in traffic accidents.

“As of now, the North has no partners to talk with the South. There will likely be major change in inter-Korean relations.

Seoul said all Pyongyang officials who attended secret inter-Korean contacts are being purged, which clearly demonstrates that the internal organization of the North`s communist regime is extremely unstable and fragile. The power struggle in Pyongyang is intensifying in the course of the power succession of heir apparent Kim Jong Un, and hardliners are accordingly gaining ground while those in support of dialogue are losing ground, analysts say. [Donga Ilbo]

I can believe that the North Korean regime has plenty of closet dissidents, plenty of factions, and plenty of purges, but I’ve never put much credence in any theory that holds that there are factions of hard- and soft-liners plotting against one another within the North Korean regime. Of course, no one outside of Pyongyang knows the real truth, but I’d guess that the factions fight over more practical things, like turf and money. And until recently, South Korea was North Korea’s automatic teller. To a hopeful outside observer, an interest in hauling in South Korean money might be mistaken for an ideological interest in improving inter-Korean relations, even reform. I just don’t see the evidence for it.

It also has the whiff of disinformation. Selig Harrison has been peddling a particularly fantastic variation of this hard-line/soft-line stuff for years to try to persuade American diplomats that we should give North Korea more concessions to help the soft-line faction — concessions that never seem to win us any lasting security benefits or visibly alter the regime’s character. I incline toward the view that Harrison and others are picking up on North Korean disinformation designed to extract concessions from us. But of course, this news doesn’t come from Selig Harrison, so it isn’t necessarily false.

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Kim Jong Nam denounces his family’s rule

There is one North Korean who enjoys a measure of freedom of speech:

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.

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Rumor: Kim Jong Il Just Three Years from Becoming “Eternal” Chairman

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.

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If there was ever any cognizable justice in holding Gomes in a prison cell for peacefully presenting a petition to North Korean border guards, it ended months ago.

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.


Speaking of hostages, the Daily NK reports that more than ten North Korean refugees have been living in the Japanese Embassy in Beijing for the last two years, held hostage to Chinese demands that Japan could not legally accede to without violating the same Refugee Convention that China itself flagrantly violates:

Several North Korean defectors who are under the protection of Japanese consular offices in China have not been able to leave China. The Chinese government has been asking Japan to sign an agreement to no longer accept North Korean defectors in exchange for letting them leave the country. [Wall Street Journal, via the Asahi Shimbun]


In most countries, the civil service is known for its generous health benefits for family members. That may be true in North Korea, too, but benefits like that must surely be outweighed by risks like these:

North Korea’s Ministry of State Security last month sent 34 relatives of former economic official Pak Nam Gi and others to a prison camp on the outskirts of the northern city of Hoeryong, Seoul-based Good Friends said on its website. [….]

On June 14, the relatives of Pak and other officials were collected and forcibly loaded into a wagon before being sent to the prison camp, the organization reported, citing an unidentified official at the North’s security ministry. The authorities transported the relatives in the middle of night in part to keep it a secret from the rest of the world to avoid international criticism, the official was quoted as saying.


Grimly, Kang Chol Hwan looks forward to a less horrible future for Korea.

Kang Cheol-Hwan, North Korean defector and activist, thinks Kim Jong Il’s brutal North Korean regime will collapse within three years, five years at the most. But the prospect doesn’t make him giddy. On the contrary, the imminent fall of the one of the world’s most repressive states just means more work. However much he wants North and South Korea to be reunified, he knows that how it happens is as important as reunification itself.

“If it’s done wrong, it will fail,” Kang told me last week when he was in town to attend a conference on the fate of the North Korean regime. As founding director of the North Korea Strategy Center, a nonprofit in Seoul, Kang works to prepare North Korean defectors for leadership roles after reunification. But in many ways, he works just as hard to prepare South Koreans — and even Korean Americans — for the inevitability of a unified Korea. And its discontents.


The Chosun Ilbo wonders if Kim Jong Il’s stroke has had more of an effect than some of us had thought:

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has ordered the demolition and rebuilding of a theater that was in perfect condition, adding to suspicions that his judgment is becoming severely impaired as a result of a stroke in 2008. Citing North Korean sources, Radio Free Asia reported on Monday that a national theater in Pyongyang was demolished in May and is being reconstructed. People there “seem to wonder why a building that was just renovated in 2003 is being rebuilt.”

The theater was torn down on May 9 just after Kim watched a play there, making his first public appearance since his visit to China early that month. Kim had apparently watched another performance of the same play there on April 27 and after his second visit had enough and ordered it rebuilt.

“It’s strange enough to watch the same play twice in less than two weeks, but it’s even more absurd to order the reconstruction of a building that was renovated just seven years ago,” said a South Korean intelligence official. “It appears that the aftereffects of Kim Jong-il’s stroke are more serious than we thought.”

It just pains me to think of all the yachts, centrifuges, Mayback sedans, and razor wire the children of North Korea have been denied because of the wasteful spending of its politicians on make-work patronage projects.


Open News talks about the impact of foreign broadcasting on North Korean soldiers.

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Kim Jong Il’s on-the-spot guidance does for North Korean soccer what it did for North Korean agriculture and industry

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.

According to the coach has claimed he gets “regular tactical advice during matches” from Jong Il “using mobile phones that are not visible to the naked eye.”

“Jong Il is said to have developed the technology himself,” coach told

And to think that some people wonder why I blog about North Korea.

And not for the first time, the results of on-the-spot guidance speak for themselves. It certainly suggests some first-rate content for the next load of DVD’s those defectors and activists float into North Korea. Each would begin with Coach Kim’s statement about this unique medium of on-the-spot guidance, and then would cut straight to a montage of all seven Portuguese goals, and finally, the glum faces on North Korea’s rented ChiCom cheering section.

Updates: Let’s begin on a lighter note. A reader forwarded this link, which I thought was pretty damn funny, even if I can’t vouch for its authenticity.

And in retrospect, this may not have been the best occasion for North Korea to experiment with live broadcasting:

North Korea picked the wrong moment to allow its people to see a bit more of the outside world. The authoritarian regime was so proud of its soccer team in the World Cup that it allowed an unprecedented live broadcast back home of the match against Portugal — a rarity for the communist nation that normally exerts strict control over the media.

What ensued was a different sort of history: North Koreans, used to seeing only positive news about their reclusive country, watched as their soccer team received the worst drubbing so far in this year’s tournament and was prevented from advancing to the next round.

As the 7-0 loss to Portugal concluded, the North Koreans quickly halted Monday’s coverage. “The Portuguese won the game and now have four points,” the Korean Central Broadcasting commentator said. “We are ending our live broadcast now.” [AP, Jean H. Lee]

The only thing needed to make this conform perfectly to stereotype would be if state TV immediately switched to stock footage of happy workers praising you-know-who:

It then cut to factory workers and engineers praising North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

I wonder what stereotype will be validated next. From the report, it sounds like the North Korean players and coach left the field genuinely dejected. One can certainly image multiple reasons for that. To those of us who watch North Korea closely, the assurances of the North Korean coach that no one will be punished for playing badly aren’t really all that reassuring.

In a rather apt illustration of how the good intentions behind “engagement” often tend to do more harm than good for North Koreans, we’re reminded of a side of North Korean sports that sportswriters prefer not to write about. Incidentally, stop me if you’ve heard this reporter’s name somewhere before:

The 23 men training in Tembisa are their country’s most visible ambassadors, among the few North Koreans allowed to travel overseas. At home, they’re already heroes, bestowed with medals and merit citations and honored on postage stamps unveiled last week to commemorate the team’s success in qualifying for the World Cup.

With that honor comes pressure. Moon Ki-nam, a former national-level North Korea coach who defected to South Korea in 2004, said players are handsomely rewarded with coveted apartments if they win internationally but are punished, some sent to coal mines, if they lose.

Even some of the feted players from the 1966 team were said to have been sent to one of North Korea’s infamous labor camps for squandering a promising 3-0 lead to lose to a Eusebio-led Portugal in the quarterfinals. [AP, Laura Ling]

Hat tip to Theresa D for this one.

Leave aside the obvious comparison to the World Cup’s current host which, in the not-so-distant past, was isolated and ostracized globally for human rights abuses that never approached the severity of those in North Korea today.

Perhaps because I’m just not that into soccer, I can view it with some detached perspective and say that basic sportsmanship shouldn’t be negotiable, nor should the health and welfare of the players. That’s why any country caught doping its players or feeding them steroids would face a variety of sanctions, including team suspension, under FIFA’s rather intricate disciplinary code. And you mean to tell me that a country suspected of intimidating and possibly imprisoning its players wouldn’t? Well, let me know if you can see where that’s specifically prohibited.

Our speculation about our darkest fears for the North Korean players isn’t exactly groundless, but why speculate? FIFA can always ask for the right to do what the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Food Program can’t: inspect and monitor. If FIFA has the right to take blood samples from players for countries all over the world, what would really be so intrusive about it demanding the right to check in on the members of the team every few months? Doesn’t this concern actually dwarf those that justify FIFA’s aggressive and expensive anti-doping program?

Viewed in this context, you have to ask yourself just how responsible FIFA was to allow a low-ranked team representing a despotic regime with a history of sending losing players to the gulag into the World Cup.

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A Field Guide to the Septuagenarian Apparatchiks of North Korea

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.

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Has the Teflon Finally Worn Off the Wok?

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. Before they meet Kim Jong-il face to face, China’s leaders must think hard whether it is better to prop up his benighted regime or change it. [Chosun Ilbo]

Conventional analysis, via the Korea Times, agrees that for China, it’s still business as usual. China doesn’t really give a damn about the deaths of the Cheonan crew and certainly didn’t give a damn about all those North Korean refugees it sent back to gulag. But aside from more moral pressure that China probably doesn’t care about anyway, no one seems able to imagine how to impose tangible security consequences on China for its behavior. More to follow on that another day.

It isn’t just the timing of this visit. It’s how obscenely ostentatious it all is, beginning with The Little One’s crossing of the border in his personal train, which is described as one rolling episode of Cribs: North Korea. Reporters photographed it as it crossed the border:


[L.A. Times, via A.P.]

Fittingly enough, Kim Jong Il’s ride is a Maybach, a brand whose name hadn’t been heard much in the 50-year interlude after it was best known for making panzerkampfwagen engines:


[photo link]

The Chinese authoritarians went so far as to clean out an entire downtown luxury hotel for Kim Jong Il’s exclusive use. Then there was the arrival of the pleasure squad dance troupe as it changed trains in China:


[Chosun Ilbo]

Presumably, they’re on their way to perform for a banquet to honor the assembled ChiCom and North Korean thugs:

When North Korean leader Kim Jong-il arrives in Beijing on Tuesday or Wednesday, he will be treated to a state banquet commemorating the 60th anniversary of China’s participation in the Korean War attended by the host country’s most illustrious officials.

Members of the Communist Party’s politburo line up to greet the visiting leader of North Korea in a tradition that dates back to the days of former North Korean leader Kim Il-sung. If a summit is difficult to schedule, top Chinese officials at least attend an official banquet in honor of the North Korean leader. [Chosun Ilbo]

One unintended consequence of Kim Jong Il’s high profile — I use the term figuratively, of course — is that video taken of him indicates that his left arm and left leg remain partially paralyzed from his 2008 stroke, as well as a degree of hair loss that fuels rumors that he’s on kidney dialysis … or off his Rogaine.

North Korea’s purpose for this obnoxious display may have been to show that Kim Jong Il is firmly in charge, but the effect is a Chinese-sponsored slap in the face to grieving South Koreans and starving North Koreans. Indeed, it may well be that a secondary purpose of the North Koreans is to create tension between China and South Korea. Here’s hoping that the balloon people will put every one of these pictures on a leaflet and shower them all over the monstrous veal pen The Little One rules.

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Kim Jong Il in China, Says Yonhap

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 Daily NK says,

Sneaking around Unbecoming of a Leader

C’mon, guys, relax. He hasn’t even been president since January 2001. Oh, wait ….

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“Collective Spirit” Update

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. Faced with increasing difficulties bolstering his slush funds under international sanctions, the Kim is said to have issued an ultimatum to his top officials in February, saying from now on he would judge their loyalty based on the amount they contribute to the fund.

I can scarcely believe that Barack Obama, Nobel Laureate, Eurotrash cult figure, and healer of all that is nasty in our world could be such a peace-hating crypto-neocon who persists in imposing his imperialist, hegemonic sanctions and interfering with the sovereign right of the Sun of the Nation to be a river unto his people:

Before nation founder Kim Il-sung’s birthday on April 15 this year, Kim imported around 200 high-end cars from China at a cost of some $5 million. A North Korean source said secret funds are also used to finance nuclear missile development and other state projects Kim Jong-il orders personally.

The Chosun estimates that the Emperor’s Slush Fund is worth about $4 billion — on a similar scale to that of Saddam, Marcos, or Mobutu — but I’d be skeptical of any particular estimates. I’ve seen others, and they vary widely. The Chosun also also reports that most of the cash comes from Bureau 39’s various criminal enterprises and (sit down for this) “the joint tourism business with South Korea,” and possibly North Korea’s state development bank.

As regular readers know by now, there are some whose alternative reality would be difficult to reconcile with reports like these, who insist that “[t]he persistence of famine [in North Korea] is due to economic sanctions led by the U.S. and its refusal to end the 50-year Korean War,” not any cause that can be attributed to an “evil dictator.” After all, “North Korea lacked the foreign currency to buy food on the global market,” right?


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Must Read: Sanctions Could Cause N. Korean Regime to Collapse

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.

Digression: maybe that explains why the North Korean regime is actually spending its foreign exchange on food for once, reportedly tripling its grain imports from China. For one thing, it’s gotten harder to spend it on other things; for another, food shortages become the regime’s problem when they threaten its control.

The North is also trying to cope with pressures arising from its disastrous currency revaluation last November 30 and a collapsed public health system, the ICG said.

In spite of the pressures on the regime, the state security apparatus makes a popular revolution impossible, the ICG said.

“But despite the loyalty of elites in the party and the military, a sudden split in the leadership, although unlikely, is not out of the question.”

Robert Templer, the ICG Asia programme director, said instability, a coup or even regime collapse would not be observable from the outside until well under way.

But “any of these scenarios could create a humanitarian emergency that might require international intervention”.

Most of which sounds about right to me. By the way, we might as well start our own Kim Jong Il death pool, since everyone else has. I mentioned the report that Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Kurt Campbell reportedly said 2013, while the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification says 2012. Open Radio’s Young Howard says 2012; see also this interview for more rumors of Kim Jong Il’s ill health, plus some interesting updates on the food situation, rising discontent, and cell phone crackdowns.

Place your bets.

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Succession Watch

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. There isn’t one other person wearing sunglasses in any of the other pictures. I wonder what that means.

In an apparent gesture of mourning toward Michael Jackson, in #6, #13, and #24 Kim is wearing a glove on his left hand but not his right. His left hand is stuffed stiffly into his pocket in #20, but it’s partially visible in #16, #23, and #27.

The man in #11 wears an expression like he’s waiting for the announcement of his death sentence.

A few of the pictures look vaguely suspicious. Not being expert on such things, I suppose it’s possible that North Korea’s cotton crop is harvested in November (#7). Something is not quite right about #8, but I can’t put my finger on what it is. In #26 and #30, the lighting in the background doesn’t seem to match that in the foreground. Also, Kim is of suspiciously average height in #26, which might just mean that the photographers posed him with other short men.

Also, the girl in #23 might possibly be hot without that surgical mask.

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Purported Video of Kim Jong Il Commemorating Reopening of Suspected Chemical Weapons Plant

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.

There is no audio with this video. In fact, I haven’t heard any audio of Kim Jong Il speaking since his stroke, which leads me to suspect that his speech may still be slurred, or that the pitch of his voice may be unnaturally high in a way characteristic of stroke victims. If anyone knows more about that, I’d appreciate an e-mail or a comment.

Mike Madden’s post identifies the reopened factory as the February 8th Vinalon Complex, which, according to the Nuclear Threat Institute, is one of North Korea’s largest chemical plants. It’s also suspected of producing chemical weapons, “including blister, choking, nerve, and tear agents.”

The February 8th Vinalon Complex occupies the grounds of a former Japanese-owned factory that processed acetylene carbide to produce iso-octane for aviation fuel during World War II. Dr. Lee SÅ­ng Ki, a famous chemical engineer and the inventor of vinalon, supervised the construction of the February 8th Vinalon Complex, which began in 1959 and was completed in 1961. The facility was the first dedicated vinalon production plant in North Korea, and it was organized as a “complex” (聯合企業所) in 1974. According to the Segye Ilbo, the 13th Nuclear Chemical Defense Battalion is posted here. There are no firm details about the types of CW agents that may be produced at this facility. [NTI]

The NTI has more information on the links between vinalon and chemical weapons here. Here’s a photograph of the plant from 2000:


More on the plant’s closing:

The factory, established in 1961, reportedly shut amid worsening economic difficulties in the mid-1990s. The North’s state media have said it recently resumed producing vinalon, and that would help the country become an economically prosperous nation. [AP]

Vinalon is a synthetic fiber the North Koreans claim to have been invented in secret by a Korean scientist working under the oppressive heel of the Japanese. Despite their concession that vinalon was invented in 1939, the North Koreans have appropriated vinalon as a symbol of their scientific and economic self-reliance. The North Koreans say now that the February 8th complex just “resumed mass-producing quality vinalon cotton and various chemical goods after being streamlined,” but this account seems to contradict a report of a 2008 Kim Jong Il visit:

[H]e learned about the technological updating and production at the complex, walking round the rebuilt and newly constructed workshops. After making the rounds of the exterior and interior of the rebuilt and newly established processes, he expressed great satisfaction over the fact that builders and their helpers successfully completed the large project equivalent to the construction of a big factory by their own efforts and with their technology in a brief span of time. He highly appreciated their feats and extended warm greetings to them. [KCNA, May 28, 2008]

If the plant was operating so efficiently then, why throw this big grand-reopening / streamlining bash?

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