North Korea’s Crumbling Facade & Imploding China Relations

Jang Song Taek formerly, Kim Jong Un's Uncle

Jang Song Taek
formerly, Kim Jong Un’s Uncle

 The execution of the No. 2 leader in North Korea, Kim Jong Un’s Uncle Jang Song Taek, was beyond brutal–savage by any account. At the time that this broadcast was made, it was believed that Jang’s execution was by machine gunning him down while tied to a stake (this was the fate of Kim Jong Un’s former girlfriend). Some hours after the show was taped, we learned of an even more savage execution from the Singapore Straits Times (http://www.straitstimes.com/the-big-story/asia-report/china/story/jangs-execution-bodes-ill-china-20131224 )

“According to the report, unlike previous executions of political prisoners which were carried out by firing squads with machine guns, Jang was stripped naked and thrown into a cage, along with his five closest aides. Then 120 hounds, starved for three days, were allowed to prey on them until they were completely eaten up. This is called “quan jue”, or execution by dogs.

Military_dog_barking

The report said the entire process lasted for an hour, with Mr Kim Jong Un, the supreme leader in North Korea, supervising it along with 300 senior officials.

The horrifying report vividly depicted the brutality of the young North Korean leader. The fact that it appeared in a Beijing- controlled newspaper showed that China no longer cares about its relations with the Kim regime.”

It is hard to imagine such savagery which puts it on a scale rivaled perhaps only by Pol Pot’s genocide, the Holocaust, and others of similar ilk. Whether or not the report is true, we shall have to wait and see but whether Jang was e executed by machine gun or by dogs, the result is the same–the former is less sensational.*

Jang’s execution means what for North Korea? Was there, in reality, a coup d’état or an attemped one?  Was the Jang execution a good or bad? Was it necessary?  

Patrick Border Citizen Diplomat Veteran North Korea Visitor

Patrick Border
Citizen Diplomat
Veteran North Korea Visitor

The North Korea policy wonks and observers are all over the map as to why this has happened and what it means for the future of the Hermit Kingdom. We turned to the fascinating perspective of an American who has recently returned from yet another trip to North Korea to understand what is actually going on on the ground. Patrick Border is an American citizen diplomat and veteran Hawaii North Korea traveler. We had an unusual conversation with Mr. Border as to the real “why” behind recent events in North Korea (Kenneth Bae, Merrill Newman and Dennis Rodman’s NBA exhibition game tryouts) and, in particular, Uncle Jang’s execution and its future implications.  

 

During this interview, Mr. Border discusses the armed conflict within North Korea between the respective factions of economic reformer Jang and the North Korean military, with officers of military being killed. He talks about the instability of the Regime, the “overreaching” that Jang’s execution signals as well as the potential for steps towards a “People’s Power” tipping point in North Korea. Mr. Border emphasizes that Jang was North Korea’s point man for its relations with China and that relationship is now bitterly shattered and he reveals just what he has seen in Pyongyang that proves this. He left us with the ominous perspective that North Korean Regime is now isolated–even more than ever with its old mentor and protector, China, shut out–and that the shabby facade that the Regime holds up to the global community is crumbling, its dirty linen has been aired like never before, and there are now clear factions in North Korea with people forced to choose sides.

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* On this particular point, you might be interested in a related piece on this website called, “Execution by dogs or machine guns: ‘What difference does it make?'” here. 


 

 

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The Cheonan Sinking: Wounded Tiger vs. Crippled Child “

 

North Korea: “The Cheonan Sinking: Wounded Tiger vs. Crippled Child “

 

May 22, 2010.

On the receiving end of any spanking from Seoul and the U.S., North Korea actually has a split personality disorder. On the military side, it is like a wounded tiger. On the economic side, with an economy stumbling at roughly the Zimbawe level, North Korea is akin to a crippled, little child. Depending upon where you decide to spank, the policy types in Washington and Seoul get to choose between slapping the wounded tiger or kicking the already crippled, young child. They must understand clearly, if they choose to hit–the “where” and “how” have very different consequences and, like many North Korea issues, the correct strategy is not always obvious.  

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North Korea: “The Cheonan Was Bait for an Internal Propaganda Frenzy “

The Cheonan sinking is an important internal propaganda victory that Pyongyang  created. With the loss of 46 South Korean sailors, Washington and Seoul had no choice. They took the bait.  In so doing, they have predictably teed up the opportunity now for Kim Jong Il to do a little defense of the homeland frenzy. This internal, “Defense of the DPRK” propaganda barrage that now follows the Washington Seoul “spanking” is  extremely valuable to the regime to enhance its stability at this delicate and difficult time of transition. The Dear Leader and his elite, inner circle know full well that, given Kim Jong Il’s 2008 stoke, his clock is already in overtime.

While we may never know for sure, the sinking of the Cheonan appears to be part of a deliberate teasing to coax a limited military response out of Seoul and Washington. Given the sophisticated, Kasparov-like chessmaster moves made by Pyongyang (typically outgunning U.S. negotiators concentrating on their checkers board), the Cheonan incident is just one of several moves coming up. Brinksmanship?  Hardly.  Pyongyang knows full well that at worst it faces a limited spanking response like perhaps joint military exercises (for show) or perhaps beefed up security between U.S and ROK forces on the peninsula combined with some rhetoric. Nothing more. Should Seoul engage in even the most benign cross-border military skirmish, Kim Jong Il can  then get away with his slash back and propagandize that as blocking the aggressor from the South, no matter how minimal the “deterrent” response is from Washington and Seoul.

There is another piece to this already complicated puzzle. Kim Jong Il needs a leadership-anointing opportunity to assist his youngest son, the Swiss-educated  Jong-Eun, to obtain some kind of military leadership, albeit limited, in defense of the fatherland. He also needs to cinch down the military power base for Jong-Eun. So how would this work? Whip the country and the KPA into a war frenzy, organize rallies in Pyongyang, put the KPA on alert, cut off trade and communications with the South. Perhaps even give “Brilliant Comrade ” (Jong-Eun) a military leadership role in the slash back exercise which can then be internally propagandized and then jerk him back to safety once the slash back has been undertaken. Military anointment completed and the internal film and propaganda machinery can then be unleashed. But before “Brilliant Comrade” is placed in the limited line of fire, the Dear Leader needed to test the waters and set up the U.S. an South Korean response. Hence, the Cheonan incident. The timing of this Cheonan chess move is not coincidental—the DPRK Party Congress is set to meet in a few weeks and it is likely that Kim Jong il will confirm then that the baton will pass to Jong-Eun.

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A Different Focus on North Korea – Business Reunification Out Over the Horizon

 

A Different Focus on North Korea – Business Reunification Out Over the Horizon

May 31, 2009 by davidfday

Negotiating table for the 6 Party talks.

Negotiating table for the 6 Party talks.

 

This is what the real Six Party Talks looked like.

The recent nuclear and missile tests combined with threats bandied about by Pyongyang present an ominous, threatening view of attention-grabbing brinksmanship. It is worrisome, to be sure. Negotiations to handle North Korea, or get them back to the table at least, will be a new and different challenge for Special Envoy, Stephen Bosworth, who is no stranger to difficult negotiations—after all, as the America Ambassador in Manila in 1986, he was one of the principal players in successfully negotiating the Marcoses out of Malacanang Palace and eventually out of the country. Remember, the Philippine situation in the mid-1980’s was still a very touchy matter. There were a million people exposed in the streets sandwiched between the armed forces of Juan Ponce Enrile and General Ver. North Korea will be an entirely different ballgame for many reasons.

To be sure, there will be plenty of commentary about North Korea, its threats, and the destabilizing prospect it exhibits for Northeast Asia.

One thing is for sure. Beyond the nuclear tests, bellicose threats and serious potential for a regime implosion with its humanitarian crisis to follow, there are prospects for a stabilized and developing future for the country out over the horizon. We never hear much about this possibility. It is just that very few people focus on the opportunities that are coming as the country eventually stabilizes and begins to open up.

DHL is.

DHL Vans in service in Pyongyang

DHL Vans in Pyongyang

Given the current deteriorating health of the Dear Leader, we are now entering the transition period for the regime.

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The Asia-Pacific Region’s Flashpoints: An Update

Brad Glosserman Executive Director Pacific Forum, CSIS

Brad Glosserman
Executive Director
Pacific Forum, CSIS

Pacific Forum CSIS’s Executive Director, Brad Glosserman, reviews with David Day the key tense and potentially dangerous security Flashpoints that the Asia-Pacific Region now faces.

 

Asia Pacific Region

Asia Pacific Region

The conversation places these Flashpoints in the context of the rising economic dynamism of the Region, the re-focus of the “whole of government and business” into the Region and its need for stability and security. Potential border spillover Flashpoints are considered with (1)  the ethnic violence in Myanmar,(2) the latest developments in the South China Sea disputes (including the possibility of China now dragging Malaysia into the fray, in addition to the Philippines and Vietnam), (3) China’s dispute with Japan over the Senkakus, and (4) the current situation with the enhanced bellicose rhetoric coming out of North Korea.

 

Hosted by David Day

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The Terrifying Connection Between the Boston Marathon Massacre and North Korea

Pressure cooker bomb

Pressure cooker bomb construction

It is not that the pressure cooker bombs used in Boston have North Korean fingerprints on them (although, at this writing, it is unclear whose fingerprints were on those devices).  There is another ominous linkage between the massacre in Boston and the current level of rhetoric and predicament that North Korea now finds itself in.

Over the past several weeks, Pyongyang had again captured the attention of the global media as the poster child for upcoming nuclear holocaust.  Effectively, this media coverage has been a 24/7 infomercial for North Korean arms sales, nuclear technology, as well as the techniques for bullet-proofing a rogue regime or organization against the developed powers. The “on” switch for the Yongbyon reactor was flipped to set up its re-sale (aid) shutdown in the future. Likewise, the “off” switch for the Kaesong Industrial Complex was hit to set-up its eventual re-sale (more aid) upon a future re-start.  Both switch flips added immeasurably to the rhetoric, tension, and propaganda value as Pyongyang successfully played the global media at a level that would make a New York public relations firm envious.  The entire scenario looks just like a spoiled kid doing the backstroke on the floor of a grocery store right in front of the cashier—having lost the heated argument with his mother over a check-out candy purchase.

Then along comes these horrific pressure cooker bombs in Boston and Pyongyang’s infomercial is preempted from its prime time status. If it is media and global attention that Pyongyang wants or needs, mere rhetoric on its part is not going to be enough anymore.  

North Korea is now forced to actually “do” something if it wants its prime time status restored. Saber-rattling rhetoric is no longer going to cut it. Now, without a “do” (meaning, taking some kind of overt action) Kim Jong Un relegates his country’s entire rhetoric campaign way down on the list of global attention and priorities. The “cry wolf” risk is raising its ugly head.

Therein lies the very dangerous link between the Boston massacre and the current situation in North Korea.  

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Chalk Up Yet Another Successful Round for North Korea

Kim Kyong Hui - The Auntie

Kim Kyong Hui – The Auntie

North Korea has done it again, but this time at the helm of its new, young leader, Kim Jong Un. Meaning what? The current round of enflamed bellicosity has served North Korea well. It has been a 24/7 infomercial for the country’s arms sales client states, including Iran and Syria, as well as other potential rogue countries and terrorist organizations. The infomercial continues to underscore the respect that the most developed nations in the world accord North Korean arms technology and weaponry. It also sends a strong message of encouragement for other would-be nuclear regimes to get into the nuclear club as quickly as possible (i.e. Syria and Iran) as a means of status, and more importantly, regime preservation.

            The nuclear option, North Korea teaches, makes even the most outrageous conduct acceptable and immunizes a regime from attack. It is a powerful message and demonstration by Pyongyang that does not serve the interests of peace and stability well. Secretary Kerry’s entreaty to North Korea that the U.S. is willing now to sit down and talk, provided Pyongyang will agree to give up the nuclear card is somewhere between silly and naive. Perhaps it is a good policy statement for the folks in Foggy Bottom, but it is just not going to happen.

            Despite another successful dictator encouragement/arms sales PR round, Pyongyang still needs the final offramp to get off the current bellicosity highway. The threatened missile test is one option—but a dangerous one. The rhetoric is been cranked up so high that a missile test will have to be executed in a direction certain not to arouse confusion or mistake and a possible retaliatory strike. Even a short range missile test is a risky move for Pyongyang under the current atmosphere that it has created. What then is the offramp option? Prepare for a second nuclear test. This will allow Pyongyang to pull off a move not likely to generate a retaliatory strike– plus it has the added propaganda and PR advantage of North Korea thumbing its nose to the United Nations, China and the U.S. in the face of the recent sanctions imposed on it for the country’s last nuclear test earlier this year.

            So when is such a test likely to occur? The best propaganda move for Pyongyang would be to execute the test on or around April 15, when a large celebration is planned for the country. April 15th is a significant date for North Korea. It is the birthdate of the current leader’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung. The deceased grandfather is known as North Korea’s “Eternal President” or “President for life.”

There is greater significance beyond just the office held between the former North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung, and their current leader Kim Jong Un. The link between the two comes by a rarely spoken of yet incredibly important female by name of Kim Kyong-hui.

Kim Kyong-hui is one of the last living “old guard” within North Korea’s communist dynasty. She is Kim Jong Un’s aunt and just so happens to be the daughter of North Korea’s “Eternal President.” Many intelligence analysts who focus on Asian affairs believe Kim Kyong-hui is the true leader in North Korea today as she is the one who specifically instructs Kim Jong Un on each decision he makes.

So how does all of this fit together? April 15, and the days around it, is the opportunity for Kim Jong Un to please his most important Aunt and mentor. He can do this with a major display of the country’s military might. A show of strength works wonders to show her that her father’s country is in strong, capable hands.

It all comes together in the coming hours and days. This round has been won and the offramps of a nuclear test and the more risky, missile test are in sight.

 

 

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The “Vietnam Model” for North Korean Reform

Immediately following the death of Kim Jong Il, the U.S. and South Korean military forces went on alert simultaneously. This is the natural reflex on the tactical side to the perceived new instability on the Korean peninsula occasioned by the leadership transition in Pyongyang. This is a good, careful approach. There is, however, a strategic side to the Korean situation that also needs attention as well.

Setting aside the dark, doomsday potential for a collapse of the Regime in Pyongyang for a different discussion, what about the strategy for a hopeful future for North Korea? When the timing has been right, have we not seen former Communist regimes reinvent themselves and emerge with a hybrid of economic reforms that have worked reasonably well? Both China and Vietnam have moved successfully in direction economic liberalization and reform. Is there any hope for North Korea at all?

Jong Un with DPRK military leadership

In the past, it was often thought that North Korea’s Stalinist family dynasty and autocratic rule differed too much from the Communist Party oligarchies like that in Hanoi to allow a “Doi Moi”-like economic liberalization, such as we have seen in Vietnam, to take place. The current reality on the ground in North Korea is that Kim Jong Un is a young, likely more- impressionable leader with an unconsolidated power base. We need to remember that his Father had two decades to consolidate his own position and young Jong Un has barely had 2 years, if that. This all means that, notwithstanding his promotion this past September to a 4-star General (begrudgingly accepted in the Confucian military hierarchy by his fellow octogenarian 4-stars), Jong Un has a fragmented power base. His ability to lead and rule will require much more consensus-building and therein is the strategic opportunity for change.

Moving beyond the stumbling blocks of denuclearization on the peninsula, this change could necessarily include economic reforms which could be reinforced and encouraged by humanitarian assistance, sanction modification (following the Myanmar approach), and, in due course, economic assistance. This is the “Vietnam Model.” The key piece of this puzzle requires both technocrats and reform-minded leadership within the DPRK.

In Vietnam’s case, Hanoi, in the mid-1980’s had the benefit of a few brilliant economists who had a hand in the construction of the Party’s 1986 “Doi Moi” economic platform. The key architect was Dr. Nguyen Xuan Oanh, who came out of retirement as a former capitalist central banker under the defeated South Vietnamese regime and managed to turned himself into the Communist party’s favorite economist. I knew Dr. Oanh, a Harvard-educated economist. He was even South Vietnam’s Prime Minister for a few turbulent months in the coup-ridden 1960s. Somehow, after the fall of Saigon and eight months of house arrest, Oanh managed to persuade the communists that he was a technocrat and a patriot who had stayed on to serve his country. Rehabilitation allowed Oanh to become the architect of Vietnam’s “Doi Moi” economic reform platform in 1986. However, it was the combination of his education and prior government leadership that gave Dr. Oanh the political firepower with the Communist Party in Hanoi to listen and follow his direction for the future of the country.

So where is North Korea’s Dr. Oanh? This is the interesting piece of the puzzle that is difficult to see at this juncture. While it is early for North Korea’s own “Dr. Oanh” to emerge, the seeds for a Oanh-type economic reform leadership or expertise in North Korea already exist in the form of 2 groups: (1) during the 1990’s and prior, a number of North Korean elites were educated in economics in Australian universities before Australia shut down its North Korean visa program; and (2) there are a number of young, North Korean refugees that are currently studying economics in Seoul, the U.S. and the U.K., who are preparing themselves to assist in the North Korean “Doi Moi” in the future.

This “Vietnam Model” is a strategy that both Washington and Seoul need to encourage. It may well be North Korea’s only hope.

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