Kim Kyong Hui, the godmother of North Korea’s dynasty

9 10 2010

BY KIYOHITO KOKITA ASAHI SHIMBUN WEEKLY AERA (2010/10/09) In the large group photograph taken Sept. 30 in front of the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang, international attention was focused on Kim Jong Un, the youngest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and heir apparent. But another individual in that photograph, sitting five places to the right of Jong Il, may warrant even more attention than Jong Un. The woman is Kim Kyong Hui, 64, Jong Il’s younger sister and the “godmother of the royal family.”

She has been described as cantankerous, obstinate and a drunk. She might also become the true power figure of the impoverished nuclear-power wannabe. The Sept. 28 meeting of representatives of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea served as the debut on the political stage for Jong Un, who was sitting in the front row two places to the left of his father in the photograph run by the party organ Rodong Sinmun. Kyong Hui also marked her debut on the political stage at the meeting. After being named general, she was appointed to the party Politburo.

In late August, Yuriko Koike, chairwoman of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party’s General Council, predicted the emergence of Kyong Hui. “In that nation, the most important factor is blood relations,” Koike said recently. “I do not have a very specific image of Jong Un. I believe she is the only family member who has gained the trust of Kim Jong Il.”

Ha Tae-keung, who heads Open Radio for North Korea based in Seoul, said: “(Kim Jong Il) is probably very worried about the fate of his dynasty should anything happen to him under the present circumstances. He probably wanted to give his younger sister greater authority now, so that when the time comes, she can serve in the roles of ‘executor of the will’ and ‘manager of the dynasty.'”

There is likely no other candidate who could fulfill those roles better than Kyong Hui, who has maintained strong ties with Jong Il. When United Nations troops pushed back the North Korean military during the Korean War, Kyong Hui fled to China with her older brother. After returning to Pyongyang with Jong Il, she apparently was “treated very coldly” by her stepmother, who had married Kim Il Sung, the North Korean founder, according to sources. North Korean insiders say Kyong Hui has a violent temperament and never changes her mind once she has made a decision.

She met her husband, Jang Song Thaek, who came from an ordinary family outside of Pyongyang, when they were students at Kim Il Sung University. Kim Il Sung was opposed to their marriage because he wanted his daughter to marry an outstanding military officer. He pulled strings to have Jang transferred to a university in Wonsan. But Kyong Hui drove herself from Pyongyang for weekend trysts with Jang in Wonsan. Kim Il Sung finally gave in to his stubborn daughter and approved the marriage.

Kyong Hui is a regular member of the alcohol drinking parties hosted by Jong Il and attended by high-ranking party officials. According to sources, she cannot stop drinking once she starts. She has been known to drunkenly bellow: “Hey, Jang Song Thaek, drink up!” But she is said to be the only person who can give advice to Jong Il. And he apparently can do little to control his younger sister. Hwang Jang Yop, a former party secretary who defected to South Korea in 1997, wrote in a book that Kyong Hui once told him, “Although he is surrounded by many flatterers, my older brother is actually very lonely.”

After Jang married Kyong Hui in 1972, he proceeded along an elite promotion course as a close associate of Jong Il. However, he was demoted in around 2004 after being criticized for forming his own faction. Kyong Hui wept to her older brother, explaining the difficult position of her husband. Sources said Kyong Hui’s pleas may have been behind Jang’s resurrection in 2006. Although she was appointed director of the party’s light industry department in the 1980s, she rarely made public appearances. At the same time, she became well known for being a “shadow power broker.” Japanese companies seeking to move into North Korea sought out personal connections that would eventually lead to her.

From 2003, Kyong Hui completely disappeared from the public stage, but made a sudden re-emergence in June 2009, after Jong Il was apparently felled by a stroke. She began accompanying her older brother on visits to outlying regions of North Korea. Photos taken of the two siblings were played up big by the North Korean media. This year, she has been by far the most frequent traveler with Jong Il among any of his close associates. In second place is her husband, Jang. Jang heads the party’s Administration Department, which gives him control over public security and the “thought police.” In June, he was promoted to vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, the highest decision-making organ in North Korea.

Speculation before the Sept. 28 meeting was that Jang would be named to the party Politburo. However, the only appointments he received were as an alternate member of the Politburo and member of the Central Military Commission. There is a wide gap between a Politburo member and an alternate member. Alternate members can offer their opinions during meetings–but they cannot vote on important decisions. In an unusual move, North Korean authorities released the backgrounds of Politburo Presidium members, Politburo members as well as alternate members. The only two individuals whose backgrounds were not mentioned were Jong Il, a Politburo Presidium member, and Kyong Hui, a Politburo member.

Jang’s background was released along with other top party executives. Analysts said that difference was meant to show that Jang is not a major member of the dynasty, but only a man who has married into the family. The situation in North Korea could become very fluid if Jong Il dies in a few years. Sources said Kyong Hui herself has heart problems, is an alcoholic and has also suffered from depression.

Koike said, “There is the possibility that Kyong Hui herself would grab power.” The Kim dynasty is increasingly showing signs of direct control by the family even as it fails to adequately feed its own people. Park Too Jin, who heads the Korea International Institute in Tokyo, described the recent events in North Korea as “the final fruitless struggle to maintain the power structure.” The fate of that structure and the future of the Kim family are closely intertwined…

Leonid Petrov’s commentary: One important detail remained ommited in this biographical report. In 2006, Kim Kyong-hee and Jang Song-taek’s daughter, who had studied in Paris and apparently refused to return to North Korea, suicided or was murdered. This familty drama might have softened Kim Jong-il’s anger toward his sister and promted to pardon her husband the same year. 

Also, the growing involvement in domestic politics and her strong family credentials might backfire on Mrs. Jang (Kim Kyong-hee) soon after the death of Kim Jong-il, as it happened with Jiang Qing in China immediately after the death of Mao Zedong.   

Foreign Films Show in North Korea

3 10 2010

by Ian Timberlake (AFP, Pyongyang, 01 Oct. 2010)

One of the world’s most tightly-controlled societies got a rare glimpse of the outside world at the Pyongyang International Film Festival last week, where even Western films were screened. Communist North Korea strictly controls access to information, including via mobile phones and the Internet, leaving most North Koreans in ignorance of the wider world. A tour guide had never heard of the late pop star Michael Jackson. Yet participants in the 12th Pyongyang International Film Festival, which ended on September 24, say it helped open a window for the impoverished country.

Only a minority of the population was able to attend the event, but it gave them access to documentaries, feature films and shorts from several European countries and Canada. Productions from Asia, Russia, the Middle East and elsewhere were also on the programme. Henrik Nydqvist, a freelance film producer who was Sweden’s official delegate to the eight-day event, said anything which breaks North Korea’s isolation is positive. “We think we’re doing something good here,” he said. “We feel we can make some positive impact… and that outweighs the other things.”

The festival has its own venue, the Pyongyang International Cinema House, which includes a 2,000-seat theatre as well as other smaller halls. Red, blue and green neon signs hanging in the atrium beam the country’s foreign policy slogan: “Peace, independence, friendship”. A 300-seat hall was almost completely filled with Koreans for an afternoon screening of the comedy “Pieces d’Identites” from Congo. They sat quietly behind padlocked doors in a hot, airless room for the story of an African king who travels to Belgium in search of his daughter, who has been forced to work as a nude dancer.

The film’s images include bordellos and a heaving African nightclub, depicting a world alien to North Koreans who are bombarded with propaganda from childhood and whose showpiece capital Pyongyang appears to be stuck in a time decades past. Such images can only help to bring about change, said a source connected with the film festival. “They have in mind: Why is North Korea, my country, different?” Connections are required to gain admission and authorities do not want the rural masses outside of the capital to see foreign movies, he said. “I watched some poor people who wanted to see the movie, and the guard stopped them.”

At the event’s closing ceremony attended by more than 1,500 people, including foreign diplomats, Nydqvist read a letter of thanks to Kim Jong-Il, ruler of the country which has twice tested nuclear weapons and is under various United States and United Nations sanctions. “The Pyongyang International Film Festival is unique,” the letter said, thanking Kim for his “care and interest.” Such messages are common practice in the country, Nydqvist said.

Kim, 68, is said to have a collection of 20,000 Hollywood movies, and engineered the kidnap in 1978 of a South Korean director to help him make films. He has also written books about movie-making, including one slim volume which says cinema “has the task of contributing to the development of people to be true communists and to the revolutionisation and working-classisation of the whole of society.” At Pyongyang’s Korean Film Studio, the country’s centre of film production, a director said Kim had visited “on more than 500 occasions”. Kim has also provided “guidance” to the film festival, Nydqvist said, citing organisers of the event. But the ailing Kim’s time on the political stage appears to be nearing an end.

On Thursday, 30 Sep., the regime released the first-ever official photograph of Kim Jong-Il’s youngest son Kim Jong-Un, which analysts said confirms the young man’s status as leader-in-waiting. Jong-Un, believed aged about 27, has assumed powerful posts in North Korea’s ruling party, state media said after the Workers’ Party of Korea held its highest-level meeting in 30 years on Tuesday. Whether he shares his father’s cinematic obsession is unknown but Jong-Un did have an interest in Hollywood tough-guy Jean-Claude Van Damme, say staff and friends at Swiss international schools where he studied, according to newspaper reports.

Several North Korean films were screened at the festival, including “Hong Kil Dong,” a 1986 production about a type of Robin Hood martial arts fighter in ancient times, whose flute-playing induces terror in the villains. The festival programme listed Germany’s “Four Minutes”, the Serbian documentary “Let There Be Light”, and Swedish feature “As It Is In Heaven” among the many international offerings.

An organising committee chooses delegates from among those who apply, Nydqvist said, adding their expenses in Pyongyang are paid for but airfare is not. A Briton and a Vietnamese were among the members of the film jury which chose a Chinese film, “Walking to School,” as the grand prize winner. China won at the previous festival, too, but Nydqvist said: “I’ve never heard anything suggesting that the jury was encouraged to favour a specific country…”

See the full text of the article here…

Spiritual Tradition, Presentation and Power in the DPRK

3 10 2010

by Konrad Mathesius (Renlai Magazine, 30 Sep. 2010)

Snooping around for information on the DPRK isn’t really rocket science, but you have to read between the lines. With the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, in bad shape, both international and domestic media have been quick to cover recent shifts in power and the promotions of his son, Kim Jong-un. Taking into consideration the amount of energy that was invested in building up Kim Jong-il’s reputation as a gifted, nurturing and obvious choice for his father’s successor, it’s unnerving to think that the state has neglected to strike up an equivalent propaganda campaign for his son in DPRK media, nor has his inherent genius been lauded to the point of conviction. Considering the high levels of ideological indoctrination in the DPRK, the state seems to be neglecting necessary prerequisites for a legitimate leadership.

The state ideology, Juche, is often simplistically translated by one-time analysts as ‘self-reliance’. Others have mislabeled it a state religion. Based on these perceptions, the fear of instability is warranted. But despite the lack of fanfare surrounding Kim Jong-un, the true mechanism of power is likely to remain unchanged.

The state claims that Juche is based upon concepts developed by Kim Il-sung during his time spent as a guerilla in Manchuria. However, Juche wasn’t standard vocabulary until the early-to-mid 1960s when Soviet relations with their North Korean brethren cooled and Kim Il-sung was obliged to seek friends in the Third World. These ideas were then later refined by Kim Jong-il who published his contribution, ‘On the Juche Idea’, in 1982. There is a significant amount of debate surrounding whether or not the works of the Kims are original; nevertheless, these ideas touch on a number of socio-political subjects, with arguments based in ad hoc interpretations of history. The dichotomy that analysts often neglect to observe is between what was originally written as a guide to Juche, and how media coverage of the leadership and publications of their ideas have since conveyed the purpose of the State. On the books, Juche is political and devoid of overtly religious statements, but its presentation and the tone of the media support claims that North Koreans are living in a politically religious state.

[…] Since 1994, Juche has become less and less commonplace in the media, even though the state’s style and presentation has remained consistent. In need of military support following the death of his father and waves of natural disasters that wreaked havoc upon the population, Kim Jong-il was obliged to introduce Seongun Cheongchi, or military-first politics. It has come to dominate the slogan banners around Pyongyang although the occasional reference to Juche still manages to makes its way into the limelight. Slogans and policies reflect the shift from the old guard of the Korean Workers Party to the military. In addition to this, the rift between the party and the military seems to be growing.

[…] Kim Jong-un might be the face for the new regime, but the real decisions will be made by the two men pinned to the gills with medals standing on either side of him. If they outlive the Dear Leader, from what little information we will be able to gather on them, Hyon Chol Hae and Ri Myong Su are two potential regents to watch.

The State will continue to utilize spiritual concepts to prop up the leadership. Although somewhat uncreative and excessively repetitive, propaganda in the DPRK works as a well-oiled machine. Its word choice and methodology stem back to pre-DPRK times and will employ the same strategy to prop up the leadership in the future. To the disappointment of both China and pundits predicting the imminent collapse of the DPRK following the death of Kim Jong-il, the state will putter along as it always has. Although the people will still be reading about the New Leader’s ability to instruct farmers how to grow more crops or, say, his gifted talent in foreign literature, Seongun Chongchi will continue to dominate the ideological arena and the military will continue to enjoy an internal position of strength in relation to the Party and the Kim Family.

Konrad Methesius visitited North Korea as a member of the Internatiuonal Association for Contemporary Korea Studies delegation in 2007, and graduated from the Australian National University in 2008.

See the full text of this OpEd here…

Kim Jong-un’s Rise Marks the Beginning of Hereditary Transfer of Power

1 10 2010

SEOUL (Yonhap, 30 Sep.) — As widely anticipated, North Korea officially started a hereditary power succession this week when its leader Kim Jong-il named his youngest son a military general and its ruling party gave him key political posts during the biggest party convention in decades.

In the party conference held on Sept. 28, North Korea appointed its leader’s youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), the (North) Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said in reports monitored in Seoul.

The North Korean leader named his third son, believed to be 28 years old, as a four-star general a day before the party conference, confirming speculation that the heir apparent has now started the process of succeeding his ailing father. It was the first time the son’s name has been mentioned by Pyongyang’s state media.

Analysts said Kim Jong-un’s rise marked Pyongyang’s first step to officially put the prince in line to take over the family dynasty in what would be the second-ever hereditary transfer of power in communism. […] Little is known about Kim Jong-un, who was also named at the conference as a member of the party’s central committee, which the North has repeatedly stressed this year must be “protected with life.”

“As a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, Kim Jong-un will strengthen his grip on the military” that operates 1.2 million troops and forms the basis of the Kim dynasty’s power, said Yang Moo-jin, an expert at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. But Kim Jong-un was not included among the newly elected standing members of the Political Bureau of the party, suggesting he had some work ahead of him to complete the succession plan.

In a reshuffle apparently aimed at assisting the power transfer, Kim Kyong-hui, the 64-year-old sister of Kim Jong-il, also became a member of the WPK Central Committee, the KCNA said, adding that her power-holding husband, Jang Song-thaek, became a member of the Central Military Commission. Jang is already a vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, whose decisions have overridden most of those of any other organ in the country since Kim Jong-il seized power.

Jang is also the Workers’ Party’s director of administration with responsibility for the police, judiciary and other areas of internal security – the second most powerful post in the ruling party. Jang did not receive a general’s post because he already holds the powerful title of vice chairman of the National Defense Commission.

Kim Jong-il made his sister, who oversees the North’s light industries, a four-star general on Sept. 27 along with his third son, whose two older brothers have apparently fallen out of favor over the years. The North Korean leader’s appointment of his sister to such a post backed speculation over those who will serve as the young Jong-un’s guardians until he builds up enough experience and power.

The promotion of Jong-un’s aunt as general also demonstrates Kim Jong-il’s wish to protect his son within the military and the party. The aunt and her husband, Jang Song-thaek, are known to be supportive of Jong-un as heir to the throne, and Kim seems to be relying more on family as his health wanes.

Notable among the profiles released by the official KCNA was that of Ri Yong-ho, chief of the general staff of the North’s Korean People’s Army. Ri, who was promoted to the rank of vice marshal, rose as a standing member of the Political Bureau along with three others, including Jo Myong-rok, a vice marshal who visited the United States as a special envoy in 2000.

Little is known about the man other than his service as commander of the capital defense forces before his promotion last year to his current post, which is equivalent to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in South Korea. Ri was born in the same year as the 68-year-old leader Kim Jong-il, according to the KCNA. The oldest among the four new members are Kim Yong-nam and Jo Myong-rok, both 82, thus making Ri one of the two youngest along with Kim Jong-il on the panel, according to the release.

“The Conference marked a significant occasion that demonstrated the revolutionary faith and will of all the party members, servicepersons and people,” the KCNA said, calling on them to continue to uphold the military-first policy chartered by Kim…

See the full text of this article here…