North Korean Forestry Purge Rumors, and the China Angle

John Power, writing at The Diplomat, asks how credible the latest rumour is from South Korea. Was Choe Yong-gun killed for disagreeing with the Supreme Leader on forestry policy? He (the journalist, not the apparatchik) appears to be on to something: The absolutely explosive rumour about a North Korean scientist who defected with a USB chock full of biological weapons research secrets from Pyongyang has not been confirmed by, well, anyone apparently. Here are my views about the forestry thing, expanded with a tweet or two.

In an overall environment of poor inter-Korean relations, it may be that South Korea has little to lose from openly speculating about another relatively high-level purge. It’s not as if there is an upcoming summit or set of talks that needs to be delicately offset by toning down criticism of the North, and the recent mine incident on the DMZ, and the return of the loudspeakers on the southern side very much emphasize that. 

We can certainly see a kind of developmental churn in the forestry sector, which is one of several areas where the young Supreme Leader is trying to leave his mark, but has also openly expressed exasperation at the pliancy and responsiveness of the bureaucracy.

One thing about forestry that hasn’t been adequately pointed out is the fact that it is very much associated with revenue streams from exports to China. If you go to the upper Yalu River in particular you can see the timber from Ryanggang province which is floated over in somewhat age-old fashion over to the Chinese side; this is hard currency, and any official who resisted its reallocation from Pyongyang would of course be engaging in risky behaviour. But I haven’t seen anything at all that would conclusively prove a purge at the vice-ministerial level of this ministry.  



I suppose we will have to wait for the purgee to show up, or wait for the next round of yet more improbable rumors of how he has ostensibly been executed. Part of the problem with the rumor mill is how high the bar has been set with the Jang Song-taek execution: The state only very rarely provides its foreign news/propaganda operations with something tangible (let alone thundering) about purges, and we are unlikely to see any repeat of the rather elaborate events that accompanied Jang’s execution — a sprawling bombshell of an indictment, loyalty meetings at every work unit (some of which were covered by state media), and even new loyalty songs praising the steadfastness of the fatherly leader, etc. The problem with the lack of transparency in the DPRK state is that personnel reshuffling can be depicted as a brutal purge — this happens in part because our imaginations are active and receptive to news and rumors of purges which may echo the Jang Song-taek events, but rarely do.

This note, originally an e-mail communication, is quoted in: John Power, ‘Did Kim Jong-un Execute another Minister?‘, The Diplomat, 17 August 2015.

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