NA'ALEHU, Hawaii — Months ago, trying to visualize how events might eventually play out in North Korea, I wrote a fictional scene: A North Korean crowd witnesses a tantrum by the supreme leader, videotaped earlier in the day by security cameras and now, because it relates to a huge news story, shown on national television.
Pacing like a caged animal around a luxurious office fitted with maps, screens and other command apparatus, his face mottled, Kim Jong Un shrieked abuse at underlings. “The People’s Army must shoot all the protestors,” Kim ordered a military man — a general, judging from his uniform and decorations. The general saluted, wheeled and left the room.
An older man in civilian garb entered the office, accompanied by aides.
“I’m going to be blunt, nephew,” Jang Song Taek said as the two men stood facing each other. “You have failed so miserably that if the protests cannot be put down, and if money cannot be found to replace what you have squandered, the Kim family will be lucky to get out alive with the clothes on our backs.”
“How dare you talk to the Leader this way?” Kim demanded. Then he shouted at an aide, “Take him to prison camp!”
“Your orders mean nothing now,” Jang replied. “I, as vice chairman, called a meeting of the National Defense Commission. Your elders decided that henceforth you will be purely a figurehead, making ceremonial appearances but no substantive decisions. A group of us with more experience will rule.”
That’s how I imagined things. Interestingly, either the knowledge or the imaginations of others — certainly Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un and other highly placed officials, and allegedly Jang himself — have been running in the same direction, as we can see from reading the full English text of last Friday’s official North Korean media announcement that First Uncle Jang had been executed the previous day for subversion.
Disseminated publicly in Korean, the announcement puts the regime’s slant on the story. It paints Jang as a traitor who schemed to topple the 30-year-old Kim and take over leadership of the country. It seeks to blame Jang for the country’s enormous economic problems — which he allegedly caused deliberately, so that his nephew would stumble and fail.
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Let’s resort to another exercise in fiction. Imagine we’re North Korean citizens — indoctrinated, of course, but possessing reasonable intelligence and common sense — and we’re reading over the announcement, pondering its meaning.
We’ll have plenty of official help from authorities who lead propaganda sessions in which they interpret the document for us and direct popular hatred at Jang. But will some of us North Koreans — perhaps many of us — receive the Jang announcement as the wake-up call that finally makes clear the emperor has no clothes?
Consider Jang’s alleged confession as quoted in the announcement by the official North Korean news service that he had planned to take over as prime minister “when the economy goes totally bankrupt and the state is on the verge of collapse in a certain period.” He wanted to stage a coup by arousing “discontent among service personnel and people when the present regime does not take any measure despite the fact that the economy of the country and people’s living are driven into catastrophe.”
Wait a minute! Did Jang know something we don’t know? Did he see bankruptcy as inevitable? (Maybe so, even if our typical North Korean is out of the loop on the evidence. One report says North Korea is selling off its gold to China. Economist Ruediger Frank suspects he sees a familiar doomed pattern playing out in which Kim Jong Un, just as the communist rulers of Frank’s native East Germany did, is trying to buy popular favor by using up limited and irreplaceable financial reserves to boost living standards.)
And look at this charge, that Jang built a “little kingdom” within the regime where he had the audacity to deny funding for the construction of monuments to the Kims. “He was so imprudent as to prevent the Taedonggang Tile Factory from erecting a mosaic depicting Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.” Moreover, “Jang turned down the unanimous request of the service personnel of a unit of the Korean People’s Internal Security Forces to have the autograph letter sent by Kim Jong Un to the unit carved on a natural granite and erected with good care in front of the building of its command.”
Um, considering our economic circumstances, haven’t we North Koreans spent enough on monuments? And what has Kim Jong Un done for us that makes him deserve monuments already?
If it had been up to me, I wouldn’t have picked that unproven youngster for such a big job anyhow. Of course it’s not my affair, and in reality I won't breathe a word of what I think about the confession, except to my best friend, since I don’t want to get sent off to a prison camp.
We all know that the young Kim's grandfather was great, of course. Kim Il Sung fought against the Japanese colonialists from his base on Mount Paektu, then built a pretty decent economy in the 1950s and ‘60s.
But the middle Kim didn’t do anything good for people like me. The economy really did fall into catastrophe in the ‘90s while Kim Jong Il was in charge. And now we have the third generation. Sheesh.
Good grief. According to this announcement, third is by no means the end of it. Despite any sinister takeover dreaming by human scum such as Jang, “no matter how frequently a generation is replaced by a new one, the lineage of Paektu will remain unchanged and irreplaceable.”
Whew. If it’s really going to be Kim after Kim after Kim after Kim, will one of them — the current one, this ordinary citizen devoutly hopes — finally fix the economy the way the Chinese did so we can live well, as they do?
No such luck, apparently. “Reform” remains a term describing schemes by evildoers that would play into the hands of the US and South Korea. “Jang dreamed such a foolish dream that once he seizes power by a base method, his despicable true colors as ‘reformist’ known to the outside world would help his ‘new government’ get ‘recognized’ by foreign countries.”
Thus, the special military tribunal of the Ministry of State Security found that Jang attempted “to overthrow the people’s power of the DPRK by ideologically aligning himself with enemies.” It “ruled that he would be sentenced to death according to it. The sentence was immediately executed.”
Hey, I wonder if we’re not going to miss this guy. It’s something to think about.
Veteran Asia correspondent Bradley K. Martin is the author of “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.”