In the News – Power Struggles and Purges in Pyongyang

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In the News – Power Struggles and Purges in Pyongyang

By BRUCE KLINGNER

Concerns about possible instability in North Korea were raised this week when Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, head of the General Staff, was abruptly dismissed. The move smelled of a power struggle. The subsequent announcement that Kim Jong Eun was elevated to marshal—a military rank second only to the “Grand Marshal” bestowed on Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il—indicated that he retained the upper hand in the battle for control in Pyongyang.

Last week the news out of Pyongyang provided some amusement and hope for positive change, as Kim Jong Eun was serenaded by Disney characters and other Western cultural icons. That sparked serious speculation that the new leader might be more open to economic and political reform than his late father.

Clearly the North Korean leadership transition is more fraught than previously thought. But what is driving events in Pyongyang remains uncertain. Potential explanations revolve around four Ps—power, parity, people and policy:

• A classic struggle for power between the leader and potential contenders is the most likely explanation for recent events. But was Gen. Ri’s sudden removal due to a more secure Kim Jong Eun able to purge from even the innermost circle to further consolidate his power? Or did it indicate that older leadership elites felt emboldened enough to attack a key Kim loyalist? We don’t know.

• Then there’s also the issue of parity between the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) and the military. Under Kim Jong Il, power shifted from the former to the latter, as the National Defense Commission became the preeminent center of government power. But under Kim Jong Eun, the KWP has attained a stronger status, regaining some power from the military. Some experts speculate that the KWP’s Central Military Commission could eventually eclipse the National Defense Commission as arbiter of North Korean military policies.

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Associated Press Vice Marshal Choe with the new boss.

In that light, Gen. Ri’s dismissal could reflect a struggle for parity between the party and the military, the goal of which is to reduce entrenched military power. The problem is that Gen. Ri ouster had a foot in several competing camps. He was rewarded by both Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Eun, he was one of Kim Jong Il’s pallbearers, and he was—until this week—thought to be the younger Kim’s military mentor.

Thus, he was a “made” member of both the old guard and the new regime. He also held positions of authority in both the military and KWP. He was a member of the KWP Central Committee Presidium, the party’s highest-level body, and co-chairman of the Central Military Commission.

• Rather than a struggle to wrest power from Kim Jong-un, the purge may instead result from people fighting for closer access to Kim. There are widespread rumors that Gen. Ri was defeated in a struggle with personal rival Choe Ryong-hae, a senior party official.

Gen. Choe also recently became vice marshal, a member of the decision-making KWP Politburo Presidium and vice chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission (despite no military experience). He is thought to be close to Jang Song Taek, Kim’s uncle. During the important 100th anniversary celebrations of Kim Il Sung’s birth, Gen. Choe stood at Kim Jong Eun’s side, indicating his status had overtaken that of Gen. Ri.

• The least likely explanation for the purge is a debate over policy. Kim Jong Eun’s Mickey-Mousing resurrects the discredited theory that a despot’s appreciation of Western culture is supposed to presage an embrace of democracy and market principles. Gen. Ri’s removal played into this theory with adherents depicting him as a hardliner striving to obstruct Kim’s desire for bold reforms.

Yet there is no evidence that North Korea has become any less dangerous under its new leader or that Kim will pursue different policies. While the junior Kim has displayed a more dynamic and pragmatic image than his reclusive father, no one should think Pyongyang has embraced reform. Since Kim Jong Eun assumed power, the regime has called for the assassination of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and threatened to reduce South Korean media organizations to “ashes in three or four minutes.”

Most importantly, Kim violated U.N. resolutions by ordering April’s launch of a long-range ballistic missile. Nor should we forget that he oversaw the brutal purges that killed of hundreds during the past two years and has been credited with masterminding Pyongyang’s two acts of war against South Korea in 2010.

There’s one thing we know with relative certainty: That Kim Jong Eun felt it necessary to purge Gen. Ri strongly indicates his transition isn’t proceeding smoothly. Additional purges and organizational shakeups should be expected in coming months. All this is worrisome to the U.S. and its allies, since it increases the potential for provocative acts or, more ominously, the implosion of a regime possessing nuclear weapons.

Original Article

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In the News – Kim Jong Un stamps his own style on his fantasy kingdom

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In the News – Kim Jong Un stamps his own style on his fantasy kingdom

THESE are unsettling times for watchers of North Korea. Scholars who used to pore over rambling documents on the philosophy of self-reliance are suddenly confronted with strange new questions. Who is the svelte young woman seen accompanying North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong Un? Why were American symbols such as Mickey Mouse, Rocky Balboa and Frank Sinatra featured at a concert that the two attended in Pyongyang this month? And who are the pop stars with miniskirts and electric violins who elicited an elated thumbs-up from the bouncy mini-Kim?

You could almost sense the relief this week when the boffins could get back to Kremlinology and ponder an unexpected overhaul at the top of North Korea’s armed forces. As ever with the Hermit Kingdom, the meaning was mostly guesswork. But the conclusion for the time being is that, superficially at least, Mr Kim is putting a very different stamp on the oppressive regime from that of his secretive and mirthless late father, Kim Jong Il.

The move, though it caused soldiers to dance through the streets of Pyongyang (see photo), suggested to some that Mr Kim may be toning down the “military first” policy that has guided North Korea for years. With the help of his uncle, Jang Song Taek, he may be promoting the primacy of the Korean Workers’ Party instead. So far, the transition seems to have been orderly—previous purges under his father had involved car crashes—but there is enough uncertainty in a nuclear-armed state to leave plenty of concern.

Far clearer is the emerging personal style of the young Mr Kim. Jocular in public, though no great orator, he seems to have no qualms about letting North Koreans gossip about the mystery woman at his side. He is playing on his youth, declaring in a big speech to the party’s gilded children (millions of less favoured youngsters are kept under heel from birth) that they are “treasures more precious than 100m tonnes of gold and silver”. His father barely uttered a sentence in public, let alone released details of his private life.

For now, though, it is purely cosmetic. There are no signs that conditions are improving for North Korea’s repressed citizens. State media still indulges in horrific invective against the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, suggesting that, despite its discovery of American schmaltz, the regime’s attitude remains dangerously paranoid. John Delury, of Yonsei University in Seoul, believes Mr Kim may “shift the priority a bit from security to prosperity”, noting that rapidly increasing trade with China and the illicit import of foreign films are familiarising North Koreans with Western concepts such as higher hemlines. Alternatively, though, they may just be sugar-coated ways of distracting a nation starved of everything else.

Original Article

In the News – S. Korea says it’s too early to judge N. Korean leader’s intention

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In the News – S. Korea says it’s too early to judge N. Korean leader’s intention

(ATTN: UPDATES with PM’s comments on military pact with Japan at last 5 paras)
SEOUL, July 19 (Yonhap) — South Korea’s prime minister said Thursday it is too early to judge whether North Korea will move toward reform and openness, despite Pyongyang’s recent embrace of American cultural icons.

North Korea’s state media showed Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh taking the stage during a concert for new leader Kim Jong-un earlier this month, a rare move by the isolated nation that has tried to keep a tight lid on American culture.

Performers danced while clips of Disney movies such as “Beauty and the Beast,” “Snow White” and “Dumbo” played on a paneled backdrop for the show in Pyongyang.

Kim has also made a spate of inspection tours that are closely related to his people’s livelihoods in recent months, including an amusement park, a zoo and shops.

Yoo Ki-june, a lawmaker of the ruling Saenuri Party, said Kim’s moves could be a message to the United States and China that he is interested in embracing reform and openness.

Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik said the North’s new leader has displayed moves unseen in the North in the past.

“Still, it’s too early to judge whether there will be a substantial change and whether (North Korea) will move toward reform and openness,” Kim said in a parliamentary session.

Kim said South Korea is making efforts to ensure the North abandons its nuclear weapons program and moves toward reform and openness. Kim also said China and the international community could play a role in nudging North Korea toward such openness.

Last year, Kim Jong-il, the late father of the current leader, toured major economic facilities in China, triggering speculation that the senior Kim was interested in following in Chinese footsteps.

China has been trying to coax its impoverished ally to embrace reforms similar to those that lifted millions of Chinese out of poverty and helped Beijing become the world’s second-largest economy.

North Korea ruled out any policy changes following the December death of long-time leader Kim Jong-il.

Separately, Prime Minister Kim also said that a controversial military pact with Japan should not be repealed despite public criticism for cooperating with the former colonial ruler.

The South Korean Cabinet approved the pact behind closed doors, drawing public anger and harsh bipartisan opposition from the National Assembly. The resistance eventually forced the government to delay the signing of the deal with Tokyo at the last minute.

“If we inform people of the precise content of the military pact, they will think it is helpful and necessary for the national interest,” Kim said, while saying “No” to a demand by an opposition lawmaker that the government scrap the accord.

Earlier Kim and Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan offered an apology for not informing the National Assembly of the agreement, but the main opposition Democratic United Party called for the dismissal of the prime minister over the government’s mishandling of the agreement.

“I’m not clinging to my post but I think it’s not appropriate for a prime minister or foreign minister to step down at this moment,” Prime Minister Kim said.

Original Article

In the News – Who is North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s ‘mystery woman’

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In the News – Who is North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s ‘mystery woman’

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) applauds during a demonstration performance by the newly formed Moranbong band in Pyongyang in this undated picture released by the North"s KCNA July 9, 2012
The mystery woman seen next to Kim Jong-un could be a former pop singer, Hyon Song-wol, reports say

It started with Mickey Mouse.

When North Korea’s state news agency published photos of the country’s leader Kim Jong-un at a concert recently, the first face to catch the attention was on stage.

Amid the dancers and North Korean pop starlets, were a selection of Disney characters – among them Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

And no, the news agencies here in Seoul reported, the North Korean regime had NOT cleared copyright with the Disney Corporation.

It was only hours later that attention switched to another face from that set of photographs – the grainy image of a dark-haired woman sitting next to the young North Korean leader.

The question of who she was, and what she was doing sitting next to the Stalinist regime’s young heir, buzzed through South Korea’s news media.

North Korean media gave no details, but showed her accompanying Kim Jong-un to various state occasions: bowing with him in front of his grandfather’s portrait to mark the 18th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s death, walking with him in a fitted black skirt suit and heels, and sitting next to him during the concert performances.

Screen grab taken from North Korean TV on July 9, 2012 shows an unidentified woman accompanying Kim Jong-Un (C) during his visit to Kumsusan Palace in Pyongyang on July 8, 2012
There was also speculation that she could be his sister Yo-jong, of whom little is known

‘Wife or sister?’

The Hankyoreh newspaper here in the South said one picture taken during the performances showed the mystery woman with her hand on the armrest of Kim Jong-un’s chair.

The normal posture for those in Kim Jong-un’s entourage is to keep their elbows tucked respectfully in.

This, said the paper, indicated that she was either his wife, or his younger sister.

A similar discussion erupted six months ago, when an unnamed woman appeared beside Kim Jong-un during his father’s funeral commemorations.

It is not known whether Kim Jong-un – believed to be less than 30 years old – has married.

But North Korea’s two previous rulers did not routinely include their partners in public events, leading many to conclude that the new mystery woman is a family member.

‘Excellent Horse-Like Lady’

Not South Korea’s Joongang Ilbo newspaper, though. Its headline this week asked “Is Hyon the new first lady of NK?”

The paper identified Kim Jong-un’s companion as Hyon Song-wol, a former singer with North Korea’s Bochonbo Electronic Music Band, whose popularity, it says, peaked in 1995 with her hit song “Excellent Horse-Like Lady”.

Disney characters at North Korean concert
There are also unanswered questions about Kim Jong-un – Disney characters made an appearance at a recent North Korean concert

She reappeared to perform for the new North Korean leader in March this year, says the paper, after six years away from the limelight, during which time she reportedly married and had a child.

An unnamed South Korean intelligence official was quoted as saying that “the two have known each other since they were in their teens, and… rumours about the two having an affair have been circulating among Pyongyang’s top elite”.

If true, Seoul’s rumour mill goes, what does that say about the workings of North Korea’s new leadership – and more particularly, about the mind of its young leader?

Has Kim Jong-un chosen this smart young woman in western dress as his partner? Is he bucking hoary old tradition by appearing with her – perhaps still married – in public?

As usual, windows into North Korea throw up more questions than answers.

For now, ”mystery woman” she may remain.

But then, let us not forget, after six months in power, the man next to her – the heir to North Korea’s closed “Communist Monarchy” – is only slightly less of a mystery than she.

 

Original Article 

In the News – N.Korea Showcases Its Own ‘Girl Band’

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In the News – N.Korea Showcases Its Own ‘Girl Band’

North Korean Central TV on Monday aired more performances by the newly-created Moranbong troupe attended by leader Kim Jong-un.

The show featured various groups of female singers and instrumentalists in their early to mid-20s dressed in mini-skirts, high-heeled shoes or off-the-shoulder tops.

The troupe enjoyed a brief moment in the international spotlight by dressing up as Disney characters in one performance, another first for the staunchly anti-imperialist nation.

 

Original Article

In the News – Who Is Kim Jong Un’s Mystery Woman?

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In the News – Who Is Kim Jong Un’s Mystery Woman?

Sister? Lover? Girlfriend? Wife? Speculation is mounting over the identity of a mystery woman and the nature of her relationship with Kim Jong Un, Supreme Leader of North Korea, with whom she has been spotted on a number of public engagements. The short-haired woman, dressed smartly in a black suit, is thought to be in her 20s.

The South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo speculates that the woman may be his sister, Kim Yeo Jong. “Born in 1987, Yeo Jong is now in her mid-20s,” an article posted on its website read. “She apparently went to a school in Switzerland along with Jong Un in the 1990s.”

However, South Korean intelligence experts have identified the woman as Hyon Song Wol, the former front woman of the Bochonbo Electronic Music Band and a married mother whom they believe is having an affair with the North Korean leader.

According to the Daily Telegraph, the Bochonbo Electronic Music Band produced several hit singles that were “hugely popular among the North Korean masses,” but Hyon “disappeared from public view at the time that Mr. Kim emerged as the heir-apparent to his father Kim Jong Il.” Hyon reappeared in public to perform at a concert in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, in early March to mark International Women’s Day.

Rumors of the affair have reportedly been circulating for some time. Kim Jong Un is believed to have begun a romance with the singer a decade ago, but was forced to end the relationship by his father. She is then said to have married a North Korean army officer and given birth to his child. Nothing is known of the current whereabouts of Hyon’s husband and child, or whether she even remains married.

However, others speculate that the woman is in fact Kim Jong Un’s wife, a view shared by Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University in South Korea, an expert on North Korea, who thinks it highly implausible that the Supreme Leader would so publicly reveal his girlfriend. He told CNN that her presence is likely a part of a carefully constructed campaign to appear “much more approachable, humanlike and soft on people” in order to distance Kim Jong Un from his father and predecessor.

Lankov added that Kim Jong Un “travels much more than his father and even [more] than his grandfather. He likes to hug everybody, physically hug. In this regard it’s probable he decided that it might be a good idea to hint that he does have a wife.” If the woman is his wife, then it would mark a significant departure to the secrecy with which his father and grandfather, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, cloaked their personal lives. Lankov noted, “When his grandfather’s first wife, if you like, the founding mother of the dynasty, was alive, her name was never, never mentioned in media. Her existence was never even hinted at.”

Likewise, Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Waseda University in Tokyo and author of a number of publications on North Korean leadership, told the Daily Telegraph, “It is highly possible that this is his wife and that Kim is trying to show a new style of leadership, of a husband and wife, in North Korea.” Shigemura also observed that Kim Jong Un had been uncharacteristically quiet in the weeks leading up to the woman’s sudden appearance.

Earlier this year he engaged in a large number of high-profile appearances, in an attempt to shore up his position as North Korea’s new leader, following the death of his father in December. It is possible, Shigemura said, that his recent silence could be the result of behind-the-scenes preparations concerning how to publicly introduce his spouse.

The mystery woman was first seen with Kim Jong Un watching a performance of North Korea’s Moranbong band at a theater in Pyongyang on Friday. (The performance included the appearance of various Disney characters, which the Walt Disney Co. confirms were used without its permission.) On Sunday, North Korean state TV showed the woman standing beside the Supreme Leader during a ceremony to commemorate the 18th anniversary of the death of his grandfather.

Original Article

In the News – North Korea TV shows ‘Rocky’ clips, plays ‘My Way’

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In the News – North Korea TV shows ‘Rocky’ clips, plays ‘My Way’

PYONGYANG, North Korea — North Korea is tapping into some American-style movie inspiration by showing the film icon Rocky Balboa [trailer] pounding his Soviet rival.

State TV on Wednesday ran taped footage of young leader Kim Jong Un at a concert that played a rendition of the famous “Rocky” theme song and showed clips of the pumped-up American film character boxing against his Cold War rival Ivan Drago.

Appearing to glorify a popular American entertainment icon is an unusual move for Pyongyang, which regularly unleashes invective at its former wartime enemy.

The band also played “My Way” popularized by Frank Sinatra.

The concert last week also featured Disney characters in a performance not authorized by the Walt Disney Co.

Kim was accompanied at the concert by a woman who has not been identified.

Original Article 

In the News – Disney Characters Perform in North Korea

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In the News – Disney Characters Perform in North Korea

(PYONGYANG, North Korea) — Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh took the stage in North Korea during a concert for new leader Kim Jong Un, in an unusual — and unauthorized — performance featuring Disney characters.

Performers dressed as Minnie Mouse, Tigger and others danced and pranced as footage from “Snow White,” ”Dumbo,” ”Beauty and the Beast” and other Disney movies played on a massive backdrop, according to still photos shown on state TV.

The inclusion of characters popular in the West — particularly from the United States, North Korea’s wartime enemy — is a notable change in direction for performances in Pyongyang. Actors and actresses also showed off new wardrobes, including strapless gowns and little black dresses.

Kim himself established the group that performed, and the changes may be a sign that he is seeking to carve out a different image from his father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il, by easing restrictions on Western culture, said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korean studies professor based in Seoul, South Korea.

The state-run Korean Central News Agency said Kim has a “grandiose plan to bring about a dramatic turn in the field of literature and arts this year.”

Under Kim Jong Il, who died in December, North Korea became well known for its massive Arirang shows, synchronized dance and gymnastics shows involving up to 100,000 people.

This appears to be the first time Disney characters have been included in a major performance in Pyongyang, though Winnie and Mickey have been popular among children for several years. Backpacks, pencil cases and pajamas imported from China often feature Disney characters, and stories such as “Dumbo” have been translated into Korean for North Korean schoolchildren. However, it is unusual to make such images a central part of a North Korean performance and publicize them on state TV.

(PHOTOSDavid Guttenfelder: A New Look at North Korea)

Zenia Mucha, chief spokesperson for The Walt Disney Co., said the use of Disney characters in the North Korean performance was not authorized by the U.S. entertainment company.

“This was not licensed or authorized by The Walt Disney Company,” Mucha told the AP by telephone on Sunday.

U.S. sanctions prohibit the import of North Korean goods to the United States, but do not ban the sales of American consumer products in North Korea unless they involve officials or companies on the U.S. Treasury Department’s sanctions blacklist.

The performance was staged Friday by the Moranbong band, which was making its debut after being assembled by Kim himself, KCNA said.

The dispatch made no mention of Disney characters, but said the concert included the traditional folk tune “Arirang” as well as a number of upbeat foreign songs.

Kim, who is in his late 20s, has sought to project an image of youth, vitality and modernity.

Early Sunday, he led top officials in paying their respects to his grandfather, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, at the mausoleum where he lies in state. Kim died 18 years ago Sunday.

Earlier in the year, a quintet of accordionists became a YouTube sensation for their arrangement of “Take on Me,” a pop song by the Norwegian band a-ha.

North Korea and the United States remain in a technical state of war because they signed a truce, not a peace treaty, after three years of fighting in 1953. The foes do not have diplomatic relations.

Original Article 

Photoshop in North Korea (and other surprises)

I never thought that they would have Photoshop in North Korea. Even setting aside the name brand Adobe software, it never occurred to me that there might be digital image manipulation in a country stuck a few decades in the past.

But a great photo analysis from The New York Times Lens blog finds evidence that it’s there.

You may not have seen photos from Kim Jong-Il’s nation-blanketing funeral proceedings, though if you haven’t you should seek them out—they are often of a cinematic quality, citizens in the highest stages of grief, perfectly orchestrated snow falling everywhere all the time.

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