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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.   

Hungry Soldiers, Bloodshed on the Tumen: Sources [Updated]

[Update: An much-expanded version of this post, including a full translation of a Chinese editorial about the matter, was published yesterday at Sino-NK.]

On the morning of 27 December, a North Korean soldier reportedly left his post in North Hamgyong province, walked across the frozen Tumen river into a small village in the PRC’s Helong county, and proceeded to shoot and kill four civilians before being wounded and apprehended by Chinese border guards. If you haven’t been following the case since news broke yesterday, The Guardian‘s report from Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing sums up things thus far.

The PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson included two pregnant sentences about the incident in yesterday’s (5 January) press conference, an event which also included some more extended veiled warnings for the DPRK with respect to hacking.  The MFA press conference is available here in English, and here in the original Chinese.  The English translation of the spokeswoman’s statement that China has ‘lodged representations’ with Pyongyang about the case is to be understood more simply as ‘negotiating,’ as the term used is jiaoshe /交涉.

Mainland Chinese media had not commented at all on the matter, but its mention at the Foreign Ministry briefing clearly broke the dam. The Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times) covered the matter in a short article which did not mention the specific village which was the site of the violent events, but it did describe the soldier’s probable motivation as being that of ‘severe hunger’, and recalled a similar instance that occurred in December 2013 along the similar stretch of border just north of Yanji city.

If you’re wondering why the news took so long to circulate, it probably has very little to do with China trying to protect North Korea from the storms of international public opinion, and everything to do with the tourism business in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. On December 28 (the day after the murders on the Tumen River), Helong city was hosting a major tourism gathering which brought together all manner of officials in that realm. Just to be on the safe side, the Public Security Bureau in Wangqing (which is much further north of the border and Yanji city, but an area of very heavy concentration of ethnic Koreans) was doing full traffic stoppages in the name of road safety. While the press reports in English have noted that the killings took place in ‘Helong city,’ that is true only in the most technical sense: The site of the murders was in Nanping (南坪), the second red dot from the left on the map above.

There will be much to learn from the present tragedy in terms of what it means for Sino-Korean relations, and already sour public opinion in the Yanbian region and northeast China more generally with respect to North Korea, but for the time being, the facts of the case and the parameters of China’s response still need to be clarified. Fortunately China’s Ambassador Liu Hongcai emerged from a two-month hiatus a few days ago to conclude a sports agreement with Pyongyang, and presumably he and his staff are activated and very much working on this case in the North Korean metropole.

Inside North Korea: French Edition

I found this French film, apparently shot in spring 2010, to be better than most treatments of the North Korean tourist experience.  Among other things, a young North Korean “rapper” is encountered in an amusement park (at 12:31), North Korean rallies are accompanied by music by Philip Glass, and the piece benefits from the use of some selected extracts from North Korean film archives.

In Part II, one gets a sense of how French tourists experience the Korean War museum in Pyongyang, a visit which begins with one of the visitors writing an inscription about her father, who left Korea in 1950 for France, never to return, in the museum’s visitor’s book.

Of slightly older vintage (but with the same North Korean Francophone guide, and a far more vigorous and hirsute traveller) is this French documentary from 2008, which concludes, around 2’30”, with the main TV personality sprinting across a field to batter a plywood cutout of a big-nosed American soldier, which prompts some humorous dialogue with the locals.

In the following section, a man gathers edible grasses on Kim Il Sung’s birthday.  Then, in section three (below), the host laughs — he has finally lost his guides, who refuse to enter the church along with him in Pyongyang.

In Part 4, the viewer can enjoy (what else?) spectacle, as the French man goes into an extended discussion with his hosts about the sex habits of ostriches, including the possibility of bisexual ostriches.  This is as far from the dark and paranoiac music of Lisa Ling’s National Geographic DPRK documentary as possible!  As with everything else, it seems that the results of a journey have much to do with the proclivities of the traveler.

On the more geopolitical side of things, there is this in-depth French look at current events through a historical prism, including interviews with (among others) Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation which begins with a look — which I had never seen before — at the immense American flotilla sent to intimidate the North Koreans in summer 2010.

There are, somewhat less helpfully, long discourses by Jerrold Post, head of psychoanalysis [?] for the CIA, about Kim Jong Il’s cognac habits, and Klingner goes on about how the current generation of North Korean children are “mentally stunted.”  But the documentary takes Kim Jong Il’s film history seriously, and, for the cultural historian, part 2 begins with extracts from the 1985 North Korean remake of Godzilla.

Not to be missed (besides the wonderful contrast between the personal stories of the casual and goateed bandana biker-styled Kenji Fujimoto and the statistics of Marcus Noland in his precisely fixed suit and tie) are North Korean television depictions of George W. Bush, seen here at 6’30”.  What I find remarkable is the extent to which the continuity of the North Korean graphic styles manages to make Bush look like John Foster Dulles in 1950.

Finally, the obligatory refugee documentary, “Han, la prix de la liberte [Han, the Price of Liberty]” by Alexandre Dereims in 2009.  Like Mike Kim’s book Escaping North Korea, “Han” traces the path of refugees from Yanji down to the Chinese borders with Laos/Thailand and takes them into Seoul.  This is a well-known arc to anyone who follows news about North Korean defectors, but there is one point of fact which I found particularly interesting, if not happily so.  At about 1’40” of the following segment, a young woman refugee being interviewed in an apartment in Yanji describes the years of famine — 1994, 1995, 1996, she enumerates them off one by one as if to recount each as an entity deserving of individual weight — and matter-of-factly recounts that people resorted to cannibalism.  Then, she says “Things are presently on the path for it to happen again.”  Not good news from inside North Korea.  Incidentally, although in the wake of the Laura Ling/Euna Lee debacle which managed to break up at least one network dedicated to extracting refugees from the North, the defectors’ faces here not pixelated out because they made it to Seoul, where, presumably, they are presently.