Full Comment on the North Korean Execution Rumours

Adam Taylor at the Washington Post was kind enough to get in touch with me for a piece he wrote about some recent and rather grisly execution rumors stemming from new satellite imagery as interpreted by Joe Bermudez and the folks at the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK). A lightly modified version of my full response follows:

I think it’s an awful lot to read into what is, at the end of the day, a single image, but Bermudez is a respected voice on such matters and of course it’s tantalizing to imagine we’ve got something resembling ‘proof’ of executions occurring on such a scale.

For me, the data point that is missing is it would fit into a broader pattern, that being Kim Jong-un’s mania for illustrative small arms practice in front of his officers and generals. This is something he’s been seen doing in various videos over the past couple of years, to wit:

I agree with the point made in the HRNK Paper that Kim Jong-un surely is prone to use weapons drills or executions as a means of extending his politics of fear; his own alleged fluency and obsession with small arms-use further makes the point that enemies (both foreign and domestic) can and will be shot, and that he’s not afraid to do so. And there has ever been, for the Kims at least, a real fluidity between enemy and friend lasting back to the days of the Manchurian guerilla struggle.

As put by a New Focus International story , a new North Korean directive supposedly reads: “The sound of gunshot must accompany the destruction of impure and hostile elements, and when necessary, public executions are to be used so that the masses come to their senses.”

Perhaps what we see a simple bit of North Korean “legalism” in the Chinese sense: Harsh punishments, with  a basic principle of ancient Chinese politics coming into play: “kill the chicken, and let the monkeys watch” or “kill the chicken to frighten the monkeys.” In other words, the demonstrative effect of the executions is as important as who was killed and for what reason. The main thing is that fear as well as patriotic loyalty needs to be instilled into the ranks of the soldiers.

Finally, to again attempt to lace this in with verifiable trends and communications from Pyongyang itself, there was a kind of real “fearpolitik” moment shortly before the Jang Song-taek purge where Kim Jong-un guided live gunfire handgun drills before a few thousand officers in the heart of Pyongyang (in the middle of a huge auditorium, in fact). The point seems to be there in the Bermudez analysis as well; it’s about intimidation as much as it is getting rid of potential enemies within. Reading facial expressions and body language in North Korean news media veers into subjectivity, but it is hard to find anything other than surprise on the faces of the officers when viewing video of the event.

I would also recommend Chris Green’s piece “Beware the North Korean Rumor Mill” as a real touchstone on the broader topic. That is, Green asks us to ask: “Can we trust this information, where did it come from, and who benefits from the discourse & questions that it generates?”

And there is probably a much bigger story emerging as well about the degree of control and loyalty within the Korean People’s Army; as we have seen on recent incidents on the border with China, some of these soldiers could give a damn about the leadership and are simply out to find a way to fill their stomachs, execution threats or no.

Citation: Adam Taylor, “Does North Korea execute people with anti-aircraft guns? New satellite images suggest the rumors may be true,” Washington Post (online), May 1, 2015.   

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