Kim Jong-un

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Like most people who order assassins into a Malayasian airport to murder their half-brother with nerve agent, Kim Jong-un makes it difficult to examine his motivations with a sober head.

Historian Bruce Cumings attempts to do just that in an article in The Nation which explains the recent U.S. political bungling that allowed us to arrive at this scary precipice. There was a prime opportunity not even 20 years ago to have a nuke-free North Korea, but, alas, it was bungled by the Bush Administration. In the intervening period both sides of the aisle have ignored the meaning of this failure, exacerbating the situation. 

Now America’s guided by a deeply ignorant, unbalanced President who’s managed after much effort to finally locate one murderous despot he despises. So it’s game on, but it’s the most dangerous game.

An excerpt:

As I wrote for this magazine in January 2016, the North Koreans must be astonished to discover that US leaders never seem to grasp the import of their history-related provocations. Even more infuriating is Washington’s implacable refusal ever to investigate our 72-year history of conflict with the North; all of our media appear to live in an eternal present, with each new crisis treated as sui generis. Visiting Seoul in March, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asserted that North Korea has a history of violating one agreement after another; in fact, President Bill Clinton got it to freeze its plutonium production for eight years (1994–2002) and, in October 2000, had indirectly worked out a deal to buy all of its medium- and long-range missiles. Clinton also signed an agreement with Gen. Jo Myong-rok stating that henceforth, neither country would bear “hostile intent” toward the other.

The Bush administration promptly ignored both agreements and set out to destroy the 1994 freeze. Bush’s invasion of Iraq is rightly seen as a world-historical catastrophe, but next in line would be placing North Korea in his “axis of evil” and, in September 2002, announcing his “preemptive” doctrine directed at Iraq and North Korea, among others. The simple fact is that Pyongyang would have no nuclear weapons if Clinton’s agreements had been sustained.

Now comes Donald Trump, blasting into a Beltway milieu where, in recent months, a bipartisan consensus has emerged based on the false assumption that all previous attempts to rein in the North’s nuclear program have failed, so it may be time to use force—to destroy its missiles or topple the regime. …

A bigger lesson awaits Donald Trump, should he attack North Korea. It has the fourth-largest army in the world, as many as 200,000 highly trained special forces, 10,000 artillery pieces in the mountains north of Seoul, mobile missiles that can hit all American military bases in the region (there are hundreds), and nuclear weapons more than twice as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb (according to a new estimate in a highly detailed Times study by David Sanger and William Broad).•

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Just a whisper bigger in land mass than Pennsylvania, North Korea is a Digital Age Orwellian state that knows only one Big Brother and his name is Kim Jong-un. He does not tolerate sibling rivalry.

In reviewing a raft of titles in the New York Review of Books about the nation ruled by Dear Respected Comrade, political scientist Andrew J. Nathan questions if President Obama’s “strategic patience” will pay off with ungodly wealth inequality and economic sanctions provoking a surrender of nukes or the fall of the tyrannical government. It’s far from assured, with China betting against, not seeing a chance for reforms similar to its own taking root in its neighbor. Nathan agrees with that latter assessment, writing that “North Korea is more like East Germany than it is like China.”

An excerpt:

As the end of his own life approached, Kim Jong-il in turn needed to find a successor among his three male offspring. (He also had four daughters, who today occupy posts of varying responsibility in the regime.) Observers had originally expected the succession to fall upon the eldest, Kim Jong-nam (born in 1971). Jong-nam, however, was the offspring of Jong-il’s first long-term consort (it is not clear whether Jong-il ever formally married any of his companions), whom the patriarch Kim Il-sung disliked. Moreover, in 2001, Jong-nam was caught by Japanese immigration officials entering the country on a forged Dominican passport, accompanied by a wife, child, and nanny. The forged passport was nothing unusual for North Korean elites, but apparently Jong-nam’s reason for using it—to bring his family to visit Tokyo Disneyland—confirmed in his father’s eyes that he lacked the necessary toughness to wield power. Jong-nam was sent into exile, and reportedly spends much of his time in the Chinese gambling city of Macau. He has given several press interviews expressing his disapproval of “hereditary succession.” Chinese guards, I have been told, protect him from potential North Korean assassins. It is not clear who supports him.

Kim Jong-il’s second son, Kim Jong-chul, was also found inadequate, according to a gossipy book by the family’s Japanese former sushi chef, because he was too “effeminate.” That left Jong-un, born in 1984, although his official birthday has been adjusted to 1982 to continue the mystical parallelism with his grandfather’s and father’s birth years. Jong-un was not academically talented, and during his secondary education at a private school in Switzerland he is said to have been obsessed with basketball and other sports. But he was short-tempered and domineering, characteristics suitable for inheriting a dictatorship. In 2009, word appeared that a “new genius of leadership had emerged from within the ancient lands of Korea.” Jong-un’s appearance was groomed to resemble his grandfather’s—including his bouffant haircut. Observers speculate that he was encouraged to gain weight for this purpose; according to intelligence reports he may now be suffering from health problems related to obesity.

The most serious threat to Jong-un’s authority was his uncle. The husband of Kim Jong-il’s only sister, Jang Song-taek had accumulated broad influence, serving among other things as vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission, the controller of Pyongyang’s foreign exchange resources, and the regime’s chief contact with China.5Many viewed him as a regent, and he held a potential threat over Jong-un’s head in the form of a close relationship with the exiled older half-brother Jong-nam, who could potentially have replaced the younger sibling at the head of the party and state.

On December 8, 2013, two years after Jong-un came to power, the young ruler arranged for Jang to be seized by uniformed guards in front of hundreds of high-ranking officials who had been summoned to an enlarged meeting of the ruling party’s Political Bureau. Jang was accused of “anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts,” of conducting numerous extramarital affairs, and of other crimes. He was denounced as “an ugly human scum worse than a dog” and executed by firing squad (not, as was rumored at the time, by antiaircraft guns or ravenous dogs). Many of his followers were killed or sent to labor camps, some reports say along with their spouses, children, and grandchildren. Jang’s wife may or may not have approved of her adulterous husband’s execution; she is said to be suffering from dementia and has appeared silently in public a handful of times since the purge.•

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Even in Kim Jong-un’s totalitarian state there are haves and have-nots who experience wildly different lifestyles. In the midst of the politically driven arrests and murders, military parades and nuclear threats, there exists a class of super rich kids familiar with squash courts, high-end shopping and fine dining. “Pyonghattan,” it’s called, this sphere of Western-ish consumerist living, which is, of course, just a drop in the bucket when compared to the irresponsible splurges of the Rodman-wrangling “Outstanding Leader.” Still weird, though. 

From Anna Fifield at the Washington Post:

PYONGYANG, North Korea — They like fast fashion from Zara and H&M. They work out to be seen as much as to exercise. They drink cappuccinos to show how cosmopolitan they are. Some have had their eyelids done to make them look more Western.

North Korea now has a 1 percent. And you’ll find them in“Pyonghattan,” the parallel ­universe inhabited by the rich kids of the Democratic People’s Republic.

“We’re supposed to dress conservatively in North Korea, so people like going to the gym so they can show off their bodies, show some skin,” said Lee Seo-hyeon, a 24-year-old who was, until 18 months ago, part of Pyongyang’s brat pack.

Women like to wear leggings and tight tops — Elle is the most popular brand among women, while men prefer Adidas and Nike — she said. When young people go to China, they travel armed with shopping lists from their friends for workout gear.

At a leisure complex next to the bowling alley in the middle of Pyongyang, they run on the treadmills, which show Disney cartoons on the monitors, or do yoga.•

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When you live in North Korea, even China looks like freedom.

The Asahi Shimbun has an interview with a 31-year-old woman who defected from the late Kim Jong-il’s benighted nation in 2010, which provides a look into the clandestine country normally only visited by outsiders who happen to be Dennis Rodman or professional wrestlers. (Dan Greene of Sports Illustrated recently published an oral history of a 1995 North Korean wrestling tour.) There’s no horrific revelation, just a person awakened to the delusion she’d always lived within, a condition that can happen to a citizen of any country but is pretty much mandatory in North Korea. An excerpt:

Question:

What was ideology education like?

Answer:

Among newspapers, there was the Rodong Sinmun for party members, another one read by the officers of labor federations and another one for young people. All newspapers had a regular section and a supplement.

The regular section ran stories about Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il visiting a local area to give instructions. The supplement contained information about daily life, such as the extent to which a spinning factory approached its production quota. The supplement also carried comics that said, “This is how crafty and bad the United States, South Korea and Japan are.” But the comics always ended up with North Korea winning.

Question:

Was there any change after Kim Jong Un took over as national leader?

Answer:

I have heard that two to three layers of barbed wire were laid along the border with China. There were also moves to force people to appear at their workplace as well as an examination of family registers by the party. Moreover, instead of money, the party began collecting beans, sesame seeds, peanuts and sunflower seeds. An organized attempt was also made to stamp out reactionary elements in society with the creation of an “anti-socialism group.”

Question:

What kind of group was that?

Answer:

The group consisted of members of the State Security Ministry (in charge of the secret police), the People’s Security Ministry (in charge of the regular police) and prosecutors.

Group members would walk around with neighborhood group leaders, and if a member said, “I want to enter that home,” they were able to conduct a search without a warrant. If the search turned up U.S. dollars, Chinese yuan or CDs, it was confiscated unconditionally.

Such crackdowns occurred even while we were doing business. But no problems arose as long as we gave them bribes, such as a few cartons of cigarettes.

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David Pilling of the Financial Times visited North Korea’s showcase city, Pyongyang, and had a “stage-managed” experience that elicited very little about the true nature of Kim Jong-un’s country-wide cult. An excerpt:

“One needs to be wary of impressions gleaned from Pyongyang. This is a showcase city, the home of the connected and presumably loyal elite. You have to remind yourself constantly that you are being shown the ‘good parts.’ The rest of North Korea is, to quote resident diplomats, ‘another country.’

The second thing to note is the pervasive sense of victimhood. Paul French’s book North Korea: State of Paranoia is aptly named. Any conversation on a serious topic starts and ends with Pyongyang’s struggle for survival in the face of unrelenting pressure from ‘the imperialist US’ and its ‘puppet’ South Korean servant. The US wants to control all of northeast Asia. China wants to use North Korea as a buffer. Everyone wants to topple the Kim regime. (Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.) Singled out for opprobrium are the regular US-South Korean military manoeuvres, which are deemed ample justification for Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.

Even economic policy is framed in terms of external threat. That is why North Korea must be self-reliant – something it has patently failed to achieve given its dependence on outside aid. Paranoia assumes an almost surreal quality. Asked about the rate of economic growth, the head of one institute replies: “It is the policy of our party not to reveal statistics about our economy.”

A third observation, hardly surprising, is the sheer intensity of the cult of Kim. The interests of state and dynasty have merged. One senior researcher quoted a poem suggesting the Kims would rule forever. No mention of the nation’s founder is complete without the epithet ‘Great Leader’ and no reference to his 31-year-old grandson and current ruler without a nod to ‘the wise leadership of the Great Marshall Kim Jong Un.’ Kim badges, worn over the heart, are obligatory. So is bowing at the foot of the dynasty’s ubiquitous monuments.

Yet in the end, [Barbara] Demick is right. A visit to North Korea reveals little. Our trip resembled The Truman Show, in which the protagonist is trapped in a televised soap opera.”

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Kim Jong-un, a dipshit throwback to last-century tyrants, is probably most interesting for his propaganda and media control. In time, he will get his, but until then his every word is recorded by a cadre of men with antiquated tools (pens and notepads), who are assigned the task of recording his every word. They’re not journalists but players upon a world stage. Like umbrella holders for a movie star, these minions are as much form as function, meant to establish the despot’s importance. From Kathryn Westcott’s BBC explanation of this spectacle:

“In the photographs – from the country’s official Central News Agency (KCNA) – Kim Jong-un observes a unit of women conducting a multiple-rocket launching drill. He strides around a fishery station. He gives a pilot on flight training a pep talk. He enjoys the facilities at a renovated youth camp.

But who are those men meticulously taking notes? They’re not journalists, but soldiers, party members or government officials, says Prof James Grayson, Korea expert at the University of Sheffield. What is happening is a demonstration of the leader’s supposed power, knowledge, wisdom and concern, says Grayson. It’s ‘on-the-spot guidance,’ something instigated by his grandfather Kim Il-sung in the 1950s. ‘It’s part of the image of the great leader offering benevolent guidance,’ says Grayson.”

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Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent Barbara Demick just did an Ask Me Anything ay Reddit about life inside Dennis Rodman’s go-to spring break retreat, North Korea. A few exchanges follow.

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Question:

What’s with the sensationalism by the media when reporting on the country?

Barbara Demick:

People are inclined to believe anything about North Korea, the more bizarre the better. Executions using packs of hungry dogs, Christians run over by steamrollers, etc. There was a story going around once that when somebody was caught stealing food, they were burned to death and their family required to light the fire. I told a North Korean that story once, and he laughed- pointing out correctly that firewood was way to scarce to kill anybody that way. Unfortunately, the outlandish stories take away from the real tragedy– which is that millions of North Koreans perish slowly, painfully as a result of chronic malnutrition.

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Question:

Do you believe the dog story?

Barbara Demick:

That Jang Sung Taek was eaten alive by a pack of hungry dogs? No, I don’t believe the story. But probably many North Koreans will and that will only enhance their fear of the regime. I think the North Korean government sometimes deliberately spreads urban legend to keep people in line.

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Question:

Do the people of North Korea ever think about revolting, or do they think the country is relatively “normal” compared to the rest of the world.

Barbara Demick:

One of the ways the North Korea regime has kept power is by keeping its people ignorant of the living standards in the outside world. That’s the underlying lie that supports the regime– not that their country is “normal” but that they are better off. The title of my book, Nothing to Envy, is taken from a popular children’s song “We have nothing to envy in the world” about how wonderful life is inside North Korea. Here’s a Youtube link, sorry no English subtitles.

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Question:

What do you believe are Kim Jong Un’s top three international relations priorities today (overt or covert)?

Barbara Demick:

Kim Jong Un wants North Korea to be accepted as a nuclear power. Like his father, he has no intention of giving up nuclear weapons, which he believes are the only thing that prevent him from being unceremoniously ousted like Saddam Hussein or Gaddafi. I think he also wants foreign investment and the lifting of international sanctions in order to build the economy, but not if it means giving up nuclear weapons. North Korea introduced a new slogan last year called “Byungjin,” meaning simultaneous, the idea being that they develop the economy and the nuclear program at the same time.

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Question:

Do you think Dennis Rodman’s “basketball diplomacy” will have any significance in US-NK relationship?

Barbara Demick:

I always think it’s good when Americans visit North Korea– the more engagement the better as far as I’m concerned. Rodman should have been more thoughtful about how he behaved and what he said. He squandered a great opportunity. But I hope he goes again and takes his mission more seriously.•

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If you put your uncle to death as Kim Jong-un just did, you’re going to make your nation seem like the most barbaric on Earth. And North Korea is among the dimmest corners of the planet no matter the criteria we’re using for measurement. But is that country, even with its penchant for murderous purges, the worst wielder of the death penalty? It’s not easy to measure its deployment since some countries don’t officially murder people but still make enemies disappear. Anyhow, here are the Amnesty International numbers via the Guardian of executions performed from 2007-2012 in the nations most given to such practices:

  1. China: Thousands
  2. Iran: 1,663
  3. Saudi Arabia: 423
  4. Iraq: 256
  5. United States: 220
  6. Pakistan: 171
  7. Yemen: 152
  8. Korea (North): 105
  9. Vietnam: 58
  10. Libya 39

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