27 October 2021

Caught Between China and Russia

From The Amur River: Between Russia and China, by Colin Thubron (Harper, 2021), Kindle pp. 26-27:

Into Soviet times this ritual of homecoming quietly continued, a lifeline more profound than simple nationhood. Then the 1930s Terror brought a bewildering dislocation in which the Buryat identity became itself a crime, and people burned or hid their genealogies, erasing their own past in a severance that is even now unhealed. ‘We lost our inheritance.’ He is talking in a sombre monotone. For him, his people’s authenticity springs from the steppelands. ‘But our nomad children go to boarding schools now, where they learn Russian or Chinese curricula. Soon they no longer remember how they enjoyed riding a horse or milking a cow. They probably don’t even know what a cow is.’

I stare at him, at his formal suit and tie, and wonder how many urban dwellers feel their true homeland to be a remote campsite where the earth throbs under them. Yet his grandfather was not a herdsman, he says, but a talented journalist. He was the wrong class from the start.

‘One evening, in 1941, he thought he was among friends and said he hoped Hitler would win the war so that the Reds would stop oppressing Mongolia. That night the KGB took him away. He vanished into the Gulag. In those days Germany was closing in on one side, Japan on the other. No one felt safe. My grandfather returned only with the death of Stalin in 1953. He died three months later, peacefully, at home, as if this was what he’d been waiting for.’

‘Does your father remember him?’

‘My father never spoke of it. I grew up in ignorance. Then came the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Gorbachev’s perestroika, but that all seemed far away to us, not like with you. But we had our own revolution and in 1991 our archives were opened. Then I was able to read my grandfather’s interrogation. And suddenly all that had happened struck home. We were very Sovietized, you know, very brainwashed. And when I read, I broke down and wept.’

In this time of resurgent nationalism people’s anger found its target not in Choibalsan – long promoted as a patriot hero – but in the distant abstraction of Stalin.

‘Yes, some of us hate Stalin. But we don’t mind the Russians, you know. We quite like them.’ He suddenly frowns. ‘I don’t quite understand this either, after everything they did. Perhaps it’s because they brought us culture, European culture. They gave us medicine and education. We started from very low down, you see, started from almost nowhere. A century ago we were at the mercy of the Chinese, and they robbed us . . .’

This still astonishes me. The Russians crushed the Mongolians’ native culture, devastated their monasteries and almost liquidated their elite. Yet it is the Chinese, dominant in the country for three centuries until 1921, who are regarded with visceral loathing and distrust. Their instruments of torture are lavishly displayed in the state museum, beside the account books of their avaricious traders. And it is the merciless usury of Chinese merchants that has endured in people’s imagination. Half the country was said to be in their debt. There are Mongolians even now who believe themselves haunted by long-dead Chinese, warning them away from buried treasure. Neither lamas nor shamans had been able to exorcize them.

Soviet propaganda may have prolonged this old antipathy; but it was the avalanche of Chinese immigration early in the last century that turned the country to violence and at last into the arms of Russia.

26 October 2021

Nights in Mongolian Yurts

From The Amur River: Between Russia and China, by Colin Thubron (Harper, 2021), Kindle pp. 24-25:

The Onon flows in an arc of light to our north, and we are crossing a land unfamiliar even to Batmonkh. Overnight we find simple hikers’ camps, but there are no hikers. In the guest gers the walls are of beaten felt, thick and warm, and breakfast, if we are lucky, includes fried dumplings and home-made yoghurt. One night some weathered herdsmen vacate a family ger for us, its walls weighted with logs against the wind. Inside, the nomad furnishings are still in place. Its willow framework radiates down from a circular smoke-hole, and a stove on the floor sends a rusted pipe skyward. The household altar no longer harbours photographs of Party leaders, but has returned to older sanctities. Crude paintings of Tibetan Buddhist deities and protectors – the benign White Tara and the fearsome Black Mahakala – are propped on a tin of Imperial Best Quality Biscuits. Beneath them, beside a miniature prayer wheel, some juniper seeds are burning, while behind hangs a bundle of dried curds for sacrifice to the local mountain spirit. The family gives us a dish of cold mutton bones, then leaves us to sleep: I on the only bed, while Batmonkh and Tochtor lie among blankets on the floor.

These mobile dwellings, and the fragile villages that absorb them, seem natural to the Buryat Mongols who inhabit this region. Their recent past is dark with flight and persecution. Early in the last century, with revolution and civil war engulfing their Russian homeland, they fled south into a more tranquil Mongolia. But already the country was sliding under Russia’s shadow, and soon Stalin’s flail fell on them at the hands of Khorloogiin Choibalsan, a Mongolian despot as ruthless as his Soviet mentor. Through the 1930s night-time arrests took away thousands of Buryats for execution or the labour camps. They were charged with pan-Mongol conspiracies or with spying for a newly aggressive Japan. In an age of fear, they were judged fatally different. Between 1937 and ’38, at the height of the bloodbath, half Mongolia’s intelligentsia was purged, along with 17,000 monks.

Yet the Buryats remain settled in a deep band south of the Russian border. At 42,000 people, they number less than 2 per cent of Mongolia’s population; but their talents have won them unequal influence and resentment, and it is they who occupy the watershed of the sacred Onon river from its source in the Khenti mountains to its departure over the Siberian frontier to our east.

25 October 2021

Mongolia's Holy River

From The Amur River: Between Russia and China, by Colin Thubron (Harper, 2021), Kindle pp. 7-10:

The source of great rivers is often obscure. They descend in a confusion of tributaries, or seep from inaccessible swamps and glaciers. The Indus is born from six contested streams. The Danube, it is claimed, issues from a gutter in the Black Forest. As for the origins of the Amur, when a conclave of geographers from Russia and China met to debate it, they found to their chagrin that its farthest source lay in neither country, but in these remote Mongolian mountains. My horsemen know the river only as the Onon, the ‘Holy Mother’; but if the mother herself is born somewhere, few but Ganpurev know quite where this is, and he has been there only once, ten years ago.

...

The horses are not used to this. They are the heirs of nomad cavalry, bred for the steppes. Riding them, you forget anything you’ve been taught. I no longer rein in the White Horse when he nuzzles the buttocks of the packhorse in front. And you spur them forward not with your heels but with a hissing Chu-chuh. You never fondle their heads. As we reach higher ground we start to go faster, with relief. But the preferred gait of the White Horse is not a leisurely canter but a fast trot. For mile after mile he insists on this jarring bustle for which the Western rider’s inured rise-and-fall in the saddle is hopeless – the tempo is too fast – and instead you stand in your stirrups as the Mongol raiders did.

...

Here the shadows of the past are older, deeper. For this is the Mongol heartland. Eight hundred years ago Genghis Khan decreed the upper valleys of the Onon and Kherlen rivers an inviolable sanctuary, permitted only to Mongol royalty, sealed off for their private rites and burial. It became the spiritual powerhouse of his vast empire. Even now, Batmonkh says, travellers to these mountains are resented. This is holy land. Somewhere to our east, a forested massif lifts to the rocky pate of Khan Khenti, revered as Burkhan Khaldun, on whose slopes the young Genghis Khan, destitute and alone, found a haven from his tribal enemies. On these protective heights, runs the Mongol epic, he sheltered as poor as a grasshopper, and later faced the mountain in grateful worship – a mountain already sacred to his people, close to the Eternal Blue Sky of their ancestral veneration. To this mountain, too, he dedicated the worship of his descendants for ever, and himself returned in times of crisis to breathe again its primal power.

The true site of Burkhan Khaldun is unsure, but beyond us, in the watershed of the Onon, its valley fills with the adversities of the future conqueror. Here, in about 1162, he was born into the clan of a minor chief. On its banks, after his people had abandoned her, his mother dug for roots to keep her children alive, while the boys fished its streams; and here, after escaping from imprisonment by enemy raiders, Genghis submerged himself in the Onon waters, keeping his head afloat in the wooden halter by which they had confined him, then slipped away.

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.