Connect to share and comment

Korean crisis: the view from defectors

Defectors say the North's recent hostilities betray regime's desperation.

The succession plans are unfolding as a new front opens in the propaganda wars between the neighbors, estranged since their last war ended in a truce — but no peace agreement — in 1953.

South Korean ruling party officials said today that a giant Christmas tree near the border with the North would stay illuminated until Jan. 8, the birthday of Jong Un, who is believed to be in his late 20s.

The nearly 8-foot-tall tree, easily visible from the North, was switched on this week for the first time in seven years. Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, reported plans to float over 100,000 anti-Kim leaflets in helium “truth balloons" on the leader-in-waiting’s birthday.

Seoul has also activated loudspeakers that the North has threatened to bomb if they begin broadcasting propaganda across the 2.5-mile-wide demilitarized zone separating the two countries. The South had threatened to restart the broadcasts after the March sinking of the Cheonan, breaking a 2004 agreement to cease the cross-border propaganda wars.

Kim agrees that the North’s recent provocations were designed not only to squeeze concessions from Seoul and Washington, but also to secure the Kim dynasty’s power base for another generation.

“The important thing to remember about Kim Jong Un continuing the succession process from his father, and his grandfather before him, is that three generations of North Koreans will have been enslaved by the Kim family,” he said.

North Korea watchers believe that the North’s provocations of recent months are a sign that the transfer of power may not have met with universal approval among military and party elites.

“It is hard to know what the other party elites have in mind,” said Ha Tae Keung, president of Seoul-based Open Radio for North Korea.

“Officially they have to support Jong Un, or risk being executed,” said Ha, who draws on a secret network of informers on the North and testimony from new defectors. “But some are worried, particularly older members who have been loyal to Kim Jong Il, and wonder how his son will treat them.”

But for Kim Chul Woong, a former pianist with North Korea’s prestigious state symphony orchestra, the Yeonpyeong shelling was a crass attempt to grab the attention of its neighbor, and the wider world.

“It is just a performance,” said Kim, who fled the North in 2002 to pursue his dream of becoming a jazz musician. “And the South Korean government and people have allowed themselves to be fooled into paying attention. It’s ridiculous.”