23 October 2021

North Korea's "First Sister"

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 245-247:

As one of the few people who Kim Jong Un trusts, Kim Yo Jong has come to play a crucial role in her brother’s regime, acting as a kind of chief of staff, protocol officer, and executive assistant all in one. She is his right-hand woman and gatekeeper.

In this way, the siblings are following the example set by their father. Kim Jong Il was very close to his younger sister, Kim Kyong Hui, the one who married Uncle Jang. He adored her, one family member would later say. After he sent his half brother into exile, she was really the only family he had. She played a crucial advisory role to her brother and held important positions within the Workers’ Party right up to her disappearance at the time her husband was executed by Kim Jong Un.

The two women were seen together at Kim Jong Un’s equestrian center at the end of 2012, both of them wearing brown jackets and riding white horses. Kim Kyong Hui appeared to be grooming her niece for the role of First Sister, just as Kim Jong Il had groomed his son.

Kim Yo Jong is several years younger than her brother; exactly how many years is anyone’s guess. The South Korean intelligence service says she was born in 1988; the US government thinks it was 1989. When she joined her older siblings in Bern, registered as Pak Mi Hyang, her birthdate was declared as April 28, 1991. That seems too late and may have been changed to get her into a younger class in Switzerland as she learned a new language.

A photo from this time shows a girl of about eight or nine with a bright smile and chubby cheeks that are a stark contrast to her angled face of today. She is wearing a choker necklace, the kind that was fashionable in the late 1990s, and a red dress. Like her mother, she loved to dance.

She led a cloistered life, growing up in the royal palaces of North Korea. Her father called her “sweet, sweet Yo Jong” and “Princess Yo Jong” and thought she was quick-witted and possessed good leadership skills. Kim Jong Il identified both Kim Jong Un and Kim Yo Jong as having an aptitude for political life.

She had joined her brothers in Switzerland and attended the same public school in Bern. She stayed there until late 2000, having completed the American equivalent of sixth grade. She is thought to have finished her schooling with a private tutor and then to have studied at Kim Il Sung University.

We didn’t see her again until it was time for her brother to take the reins. She appears in the grainy family photo taken under the tree in Wonsan in 2009, and she was at the same Workers’ Party conference in 2010 where her brother emerged as their father’s successor. She stood alongside Kim Jong Il’s fifth “wife,” who worked in the leader’s personal secretariat. This suggested that the First Sister was working in the secretariat too.

Then she was seen at her father’s funeral, a gaunt figure in a black dress, her face down as she walked behind her brother toward their father’s body. But so little was known about her that no one was sure who she was, leading to the speculation that she might be Kim Jong Un’s wife. At that stage, no one knew about First Lady Ri Sol Ju.

From the earliest days of her brother’s leadership, Kim Yo Jong has been there, supporting him.

While the glamorous Ri Sol Ju is at Kim Jong Un’s side to make him appear a more modern leader and convey a sense of aspiration, Kim Yo Jong is working. The first lady may swan about in bright outfits and clutch her husband’s arm, but the First Sister is usually seen in the background, making sure everything goes smoothly.

She could be seen popping out from behind a pillar on a balcony overlooking a huge military ceremony in Pyongyang in 2017, bringing documents to her brother that were apparently related to the spectacle taking place in the square and sky in front of them. At the opening of a flagship residential district in the capital, she was there on the stage, making sure that the photographers were in place and everything was ready before her brother arrived. She’s often checking her phone.

21 October 2021

Origins of North Korea's Nuclear Program

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 232-234:

In 1962, the Soviet Union and the United States were locked in a thirteen-day standoff over the installation of nuclear-armed Soviet missiles in Cuba, less than one hundred miles from the US coastline. For those two weeks, the world teetered on the edge of nuclear war. But the conflict was resolved diplomatically when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles as long as President John Kennedy agreed not to invade Cuba. A deal was done.

Kim Il Sung viewed this deal as a capitulation by the Soviet Union to the United States, a sign that Moscow was willing to sell out an ally for the sake of its own security. The Great Leader apparently learned from this that North Korea should never entrust its national security to any other government. This injected new momentum into his drive for nuclear independence. Within a few months, Kim Il Sung’s regime had started to explore the possibility of developing a nuclear deterrent of its own. The leader who had espoused a need for a stronger agricultural policy was soon standing before the cadres in Pyongyang to hammer home the importance of putting equal emphasis on economic growth and national defense. This was the first “simultaneous push” policy. The proportion of the national budget devoted to defense rose from only 4.3 percent in 1956 to almost 30 percent within a decade.

The nuclear scientists who returned home from the Soviet Union set about building, about sixty miles northeast of Pyongyang, a similar complex to the one they’d worked at in Dubna. This would eventually become the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Complex.

More impetus came in the early 1970s, when it emerged that North Korea’s other main ally, China, had secretly started to forge relations with the United States, an effort that led to President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing in 1972.

Meanwhile, in South Korea, the strongman Park Chung-hee, a general who’d seized the presidency through a military coup, was secretly pursuing nuclear weapons of his own. When this news emerged, it was an unbearable blow to Kim Il Sung’s personal vanity and sense of national pride.

Another key factor that must have been weighing on Kim Il Sung’s mind was his own mortality. He was in his sixties by this time and was starting to prepare his son to take over. He thought that having nuclear weapons would make it easier for his son to keep a grip on the state. In lieu of charisma, Kim Jong Il should at least have nukes.

In the late 1970s onward, the North Koreans had built more than one hundred nuclear facilities at Yongbyon alone. American intelligence agencies were alarmed. In the space of about six years, a country with no previous experience had built a functioning nuclear reactor. Three years later came unambiguous proof that the reactor’s purpose was military, not civilian; the country had built a major reprocessing facility that would enable it to turn the fuel from the reactor into fissile material.

But its efforts were not going unnoticed among allies either. The Soviet Union pressured Kim Il Sung into signing the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty at the end of 1985. It took seven years for North Korea to allow in the inspectors required under that treaty, and when they got in, they found numerous signs that the regime was secretly working on the very kind of nuclear program it had pledged against. In 1993, Kim Il Sung threatened to withdraw from the treaty, triggering an alarming standoff. North Korea and the United States came the closest to war in forty years.

Talks to resolve the impasse were ongoing when Kim Il Sung suddenly died in the summer of 1994, propelling both sides into unknown territory. They did, however, manage to sign a landmark nuclear disarmament deal called the Agreed Framework, under which North Korea agreed to freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear weapons program and a US-led coalition agreed to build two civilian nuclear reactors that could be used to generate electricity for the energy-starved country.

Pyongyang had no intention of abiding by this agreement either. Signing the deal was all about buying the Kim regime time to work on its program while maintaining the appearance of cooperating.

North Korea had developed a close relationship with Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. In the 1990s, while North Koreans were dying of starvation and while Kim Jong Un was watching Jackie Chan movies in Switzerland, the regime was building a uranium-enrichment program. Uranium enrichment wasn’t technically covered under the Agreed Framework. And North Korea loves technicalities.

14 October 2021

North Korea's Masters of Money

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 147-148:

Private property ownership is still technically illegal in North Korea, but that hasn’t stopped the emergence of a vibrant housing market. Sometimes people lease out the right to live in the apartments assigned to them by the state; at other times, masters of money sell the apartments they’ve been allocated in these new developments for substantial profits.

As a result, real estate prices have soared, with prices in Pyongyang increasing as much as tenfold. A decent two- or three-bedroom apartment in the capital costs up to $80,000, but a luxury three-bedroom apartment in a sought-after complex in central Pyongyang can fetch $180,000. It is an unimaginable sum in a country where the official government salary remains at about $4 a month.

Another reason for the real estate boom is the almost complete lack of a banking system. The masters of money can’t stash their cash in an interest-bearing account or investment fund, so they channel it into bricks and mortar.

Ri Jong Ho’s entrepreneurial good fortune began in the mid-’80s, when he began working for Office 39. By earning money for Kim Jong Il’s slush fund, he was enabling the Dear Leader to buy all that cognac and sushi. That made Ri an important person to the regime, and he lived a good life as a result.

His last job was in the Chinese port city of Dalian, not far from the border with North Korea, where he was the head of a branch of Taehung, a North Korean trading company involved in shipping, coal and seafood exports, and oil imports. He had previously been president of a ship-trading company and chairman of Korea Kumgang Group, a company that formed a venture with Sam Pa, a [notorious] Chinese businessman, to start a taxi company in Pyongyang. Ri showed me a photo of him and Pa onboard a private jet to Pyongyang.

As head of the Dalian branch of the Taehung export business, Ri would send millions of dollars in profits—denominated in American dollars or Chinese yuan—to Pyongyang. In the first nine months of 2014, until his defection in October that year, Ri said he sent the equivalent of about $10 million to the regime. Despite all the sanctions, the US dollar is still the preferred currency for North Korean businessmen since it is easiest to convert and spend.

It didn’t matter that there were supposedly stringent international sanctions in place. Ri’s underlings simply handed a bag of cash to the captain of a ship leaving from Dalian to the North Korean port of Nampho or gave it to someone to take on the train across the border.

But Uncle Jang’s downfall at the end of 2013 spooked many masters of money, including Ri. He and his family escaped from Dalian to South Korea and then eventually to the United States.

He clearly made a tidy sum of money for himself on the sidelines of his official job. The family lived a comfortable life in the Virginia suburbs. But even in the United States, Ri was cagey about meeting me and careful about what he said. “There are so many other stories, but I can’t tell you all them. Do you understand?”

He gives occasional public speeches about the North Korean regime—and much more private advice to the American government—while his children work on their English and study to go to an American university. They want Ivy League or, failing that, Georgetown.

12 October 2021

North Korea's Caste System

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 120-123:

Why, then, if so many North Koreans know about the outside world, and know that the regime is lying to them, has the system survived? The answer lies in the unparalleled brutality of the regime, which has no compunction in meting out severe punishments for the smallest hint of disaffection.

To enforce the lie that he’s the best man for the job, Kim Jong Un has perpetuated North Korea’s political caste system with zeal, rewarding those deemed most loyal to him and ruthlessly punishing those who dare question him.

This caste system is another legacy of his grandfather. When he was creating his ideal state, Kim Il Sung borrowed some of the feudal practices of the Chosun Dynasty, which had ruled Korea for five centuries until almost 1900. He adopted the Chosun-era system of guilt by association. It is this system that, even now, can lead to three generations of an entire family being imprisoned, sometimes for life, for one person’s wrongdoing.

He also stole the discriminatory class system called songbun from the Chosun era, dividing North Korea into fifty-one different categories that fall into three broad classes: loyal, wavering, and hostile.

To this day, in Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, the loyal are given every advantage. They are the 10 to 15 percent of the population who are considered the most politically committed to the system and have the most interest in it continuing. They get to live in Pyongyang and receive better schooling, including the possibility of attending Kim II Sung University. They are set up for plum jobs and have a head start on Workers’ Party membership. The loyal caste live in better apartments, wear better clothes, eat better and more food, and are more likely to be able to visit a doctor who actually has medicine.

At the bottom are the hostiles: the Japanese collaborators, the Christians, the skeptics. They comprise about 40 percent of the population and are generally banished to the inhospitable mountains of the north, where winters are unbearable and food is scarce even by North Korean standards.

These “undesirables” have no social mobility and no hope of advancement. Their lives revolve around a collective farm or factory—an assignment that, for the last few decades, has meant fending for themselves.

In between the loyal and the hostile is the wavering class, the ordinary people who make up about half the North Korean population. They exist in a kind of limbo. They have no chance of going to college or having a professional job, but if they’re lucky, they might secure a good assignment during their military service that will help them work their way to a slightly better standard of living.

Someone born with bad songbun has no hope of moving up the social hierarchy. The upper levels, however, can plummet all the way to the bottom if they put a foot wrong. Through this system, and the constant threat of being demoted down the classes, Kim Jong Un has been able to maintain power.

If you’re a member of the loyal class—living in Pyongyang and able to earn some money on the side of your ministry job to send your children to university—you would think twice before openly questioning whether the leader could really drive a car at age five or criticizing the decision to spend millions on nuclear weapons instead of on hospitals and schools. There is always someone to keep an eye on you and report if you’re not sufficiently devoted to the regime. At the grassroots level, it starts with the inminban, literally “people’s group,” a kind of neighborhood watch system. Each neighborhood is broken down into groups of thirty or forty households, with a leader who is always an interfering middle-aged woman. It is her job to keep an eye on what people in her assigned households are up to. North Koreans like to say that the leader of their neighborhood group is supposed to know how many chopsticks and how many spoons each house has.

She is responsible for registering overnight visitors—in North Korea, a person can’t stay at a friend or relative’s house without notifying the authorities—and often, together with the local police, conducts dead-of-night raids to ensure there are no forbidden guests or that residents like Man-bok or Jung-a are not watching South Korean movies. She inspects everyone’s state-issued radio to make sure they haven’t tuned it to anything other than the state station. She checks cell phones to make sure they don’t contain unauthorized music or photos from the outside world.

She also encourages neighbors to report on one another. If a family is thought to be eating white rice and meat suspiciously often, people might wonder how they’re making their money.

...

North Koreans live in a system where every aspect of their lives is monitored, where every infraction is recorded, where the smallest deviation from the system will result in punishment. It is ubiquitous, and it keeps many people from even raising an eyebrow at the regime. The neighborhood leader needs to report transgressions in order to stay in good stead with the higher authorities, especially the two main security agencies.

11 October 2021

North Korea's Market Economy

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 100-101:

Chinese-style reform and opening—allowing information to flow in at the same time as loosening up on the economic controls—was not an option for Kim. Allowing the population to have access to the truth would mean they would also see that the Great Successor was, in fact, not so great. But small economic “improvements”—North Korea doesn’t call them “reforms” because that implies there’s something wrong with the system—pose relatively little risk.

Instead, he allowed the markets, called “jangmadang,” to blossom.

From the smallest of towns to the biggest of cities, there’s at least one bustling marketplace. Across the country, these markets have become the center of daily life. They are overwhelmingly run by women, who, once married, are no longer required to work in state jobs. So while their husbands go off to coal mines without electricity or hospitals without medicine, the women make proper money.

People with permission—or with enough money to buy permission—to travel to China cross the Tumen River and bring back rice cookers, high-heeled shoes, solar panels, deworming tablets, colorful shirts, cell phone cases, and screwdrivers. Sometimes they bring literal kitchen sinks. About 80 percent of the products in North Korea’s markets are made in China.

Those who can’t travel set up shop as hairdressers or bike repairers, open restaurants, or sell homemade sweets. Some entrepreneurial types make money by renting out their cell phones for calls to South Korea or their apartments to couples wanting some privacy.

These markets have become the biggest agent for change that North Korea has ever experienced. People across the country have seen their living standards improve—just as Kim Jong Un promised. Maybe things didn’t improve as much as many citizens, such as Mr. Hong, wanted, but they’re still heading in a positive direction. There is now a middle class in North Korea.

There are now more than four hundred government-approved markets in North Korea, double the number that existed when Kim Jong Un took over the country. The city of Chongjin alone has about twenty. The markets in Sinuiju and the “smugglers’ village” of Hyesan, both close to the border with China, as well as those in the port city of Haeju, have all grown rapidly and visibly in recent years. Satellite images show new markets popping up all over North Korea and old markets moving into bigger, newer buildings.

With an average of fifteen hundred stalls in a market, there is stiff competition to secure a prime spot. A good stall in a prominent place in Hyesan was going for about $700 in 2015—an astronomical sum in North Korea. But there is so much demand for stalls that even these expensive slots are being snapped up as soon as they become available.

At every turn, there is someone seeking to make money from the markets. The security services extract bribes from those seeking to cross the river into China. The supposedly communist authorities have embraced the decidedly capitalist concept of tax. People running stalls in the markets must now pay 10 percent of the value of their sales to the market management office. South Korean researchers estimate that the authorities rake in about $15 million a day in stall rental fees from merchants, while other estimates suggest the state can earn almost a quarter of a million dollars in a single day by levying taxes on stall owners.

Each market is run by a manager, someone who is almost always a man and who is well connected with local bureaucrats. This is a powerful role that comes with the opportunity to make a lot of money—and, of course, an obligation to pay kickbacks to higher-ups who put them in the job.

As the state economy has failed, with industry grinding to a halt thanks to a lack of electricity or raw goods, the markets have become the lifeblood of North Korea.

08 October 2021

The Great Successor's Titles

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 87-88:

Kim Jong Il had declared a three-year mourning period after the death of his father, during which time he consolidated his grip on the regime and tried to hang on through the famine.

But the Great Successor didn’t have any downtime. The man now known as the “Beloved and Respected” Comrade Kim Jong Un got busy “turning sorrow into strength,” as newsreader Ri put it. From that moment on, he devoted all his time and energy to staying in power. For that, he needed to establish his own power base, one that owed its loyalty directly to him, not to his father.

It was easy to make fun of the new young leader, and he would soon become the butt of many a joke in the outside world. For starters, there was his cartoonish appearance, with his idiosyncratic fade haircut, his rapidly expanding girth, and his penchant for attire that is fashionable only in Communist holdover states.

...

Kim Jong Un gave himself a vast array of elongated titles—he had soon collected hundreds of appellations of varying degrees of obsequiousness. Some were standard Communist fare like First Secretary of the Workers’ Party. (He posthumously made his father General Secretary for eternity.) Others were standard but even more obviously undeserved, like chairman of the party’s central military commission and first chairman of the National Defense Commission.

But some were pure hyperbole, like Invincible and Triumphant General. He was the Guardian of Justice, the Best Incarnation of Love, the Decisive and Magnanimous Leader. And there were many with suns: the Guiding Ray of Sun, the Sun of the Revolution, the Sun of Socialism, the Bright Sun of the Twenty-First Century, and the Sun of Mankind. There was no honorific too superlative for the new leader.

07 October 2021

Revealing the Successor to Kim Jong Il

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 63-64:

BACK HOME, KIM JONG UN PREPARED TO JOIN HIS OLDER brother at Kim Il Sung Military University, North Korea’s equivalent of West Point. It was their mother’s idea to send them to the military academy, a way to bolster her sons’ claims to succession.

His mother’s ambitions were evident. One of the few photos of them together shows her leaning over the boy she called the Morning Star King as he colored. He is about six years old and dressed in a general’s uniform with four stars on his shoulders.

Kim Jong Un had entered the university named after his grandfather in 2002 and began studying juche-oriented military leadership, the idea that North Korea could act alone to defend itself. It was an important ideological lesson even if it had no basis in reality. North Korea was entirely dependent on China for its stability.

That year was pivotal both for the heir apparent and for the regime.

First, it marked a new chapter for relations between North Korea and the United States—for the worse. At the start of 2002, President George W. Bush labeled North Korea part of an “axis of evil.” Bush declared that, together with Iran and Iraq, North Korea was “arming to threaten the peace of the world.… All nations should know: America will do what is necessary to ensure our nation’s security.”

Just a couple of weeks after that speech, Kim Jong Il officially turned sixty. His birthday was always celebrated with great fanfare in North Korea, but this one was even more important than usual. In Korean culture, a man’s sixtieth is a major milestone. It marks the completion of one sixty-year cycle of the Chinese Zodiac observed in many Asian countries.

In the meantime, Kim Jong Il’s one-time consort, and the mother of Kim Jong Nam, died in Moscow that year. Between that and his milestone birthday, Kim Jong Il’s mortality was clearly on his mind. There were signs of nascent preparation for succession.

For starters, there was a new “mother of the nation,” a name previously reserved for Kim Jong Il’s mother, in the propaganda. The Korean People’s Army issued a sixteen-page pamphlet that year called “Our Respected Mother Who Is Loyal to Our Beloved Supreme Commander Is the Most Loyal among Loyalists.” Songs about “Our Respected Mother” soon began to echo across the North Korean airwaves.

These did not explicitly name Ko Yong Hui, but the cadres could read between the lines and see it was her. She elevated to become the next mother of the nation, an early indication that one of her sons was next in line for the leadership.

So efforts to crown one of her sons were well underway even before Kim Jong Nam’s ill-fated trip to Tokyo Disney, although Ko took advantage of his embarrassing gaffe to push her sons’ case.

Ko Yong Hui knew that she did not have long to lobby for her sons. She was losing her fight against breast cancer.

Kim Jong Un, meanwhile, was throwing himself into his studies at the academy, according to official North Korean accounts. The young man was such a natural at military strategy that he was instructing the instructors rather than learning from them, the state media reported.