Wherein your inteprid correspondent speaks with the made-up avatar of an ex-CIA official, for insight.
- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is Asia Editor. A Mandarin speaker, he lived in China for seven years before moving to Washington DC. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC, BBC, NPR, Al-Jazeera, and PRI, among others.
On Dec. 8, North Korean President Kim Jong Un’s uncle Jang Song Thaek, long viewed as the second most powerful man in North Korea, was stripped of all his titles. Four days later, Korean Central News Agency announced his execution for several crimes, including "thrice-cursed treason."
From the outside, North Korea can seem like an absurdist’s paradise, but for the roughly 24 million North Koreans navigating the system, and especially for the elite in Pyongyang closer to the epicenter of the recent reverberations, this is their reality.
North Korea is such a difficult place to understand that sometimes fiction provides more insight than speculation. On Dec. 16, I spoke with the fictional incarnation of one of those elites — Inspector O, a mid-ranking official at the Ministry of Public Security — at an innocuous location that I am duty-bound not to disclose.
Inspector O is the creation of a former CIA officer with decades of experience in North Korea, who goes by the pseudonym James Church. Church, who has written several detective novels about his character, spoke with Foreign Policy in the guise of his fictional creation Inspector O, about the situation in the murky city of Pyongyang following Jang’s execution.
FP: What was Jang’s reputation in North Korea?
IO: Everyone knew Jang was married to Kim Jong Il’s sister — and that their relations weren’t good. People had the feeling he had a great deal of self-confidence. And a little bit of a swagger, even if he didn’t necessarily walk with one. I remember in 2010 I was at a rally in Pyongyang, and Gen. Kim Jong Il was up on the reviewing stand with a lot of uniformed people. As he walked by, everyone in uniform braced and kicked and saluted. And Jang sort of lounged, looking bored, and I remembered thinking to myself, ‘I’m not the only one who saw this.’
FP: Why didn’t Jang’s family background protect him from execution?
IO: Church says he heard from someone in Seoul that when Kim Jong Il died, Jang lost his top cover. Jang served at the pleasure of General Kim. He wasn’t appointed to his position by Kim Jong Un, so it was always more precarious, as far as most of us were concerned. Outsiders always call him No. 2 — there is no No. 2. You’re either No. 1 or you’re with everybody else.
FP: Have you ever met Jang?
IO: No. He drove through my sector once, but he didn’t stop to wave.
FP: What theories are circulating about what happened?
IO: The time between Jang getting led out and executed was just a day or two. The West thought this was a big surprise — no appeal process, happened so fast, making it seem like these decisions were willy-nilly. But what if this thing had been underway for some time in North Korea? What if people around Jang and his subordinates suddenly started realizing they weren’t getting invitation to lunch anymore? That their phone calls weren’t being answered? The shock felt on the outside may not be the same measure of shock that a significant stratum felt in North Korea. It might have been a big surprise to the man on the street, but he’s used to surprises. Also, some say that this is all about money. And that Jang had too much of it.
FP: Can you talk a bit more about Jang’s relationship with money?
IO: Tight. Swimming in it. Anytime money moved across the border with China, Jang either controlled it or had a way to get some of it. Money doesn’t ennoble human relations, and it didn’t used to be important in North Korea.
Jang may have been the direction things would go. And still may go. People wanted us to look like China. There are a hell of a lot of poor people in China, still. Many workers in Beijing are being paid in spit.
Kim Jong Un has promised to concentrate on the people’s livelihood. And I guess a lot of people are still waiting to see what that means. The money thing might have been enough to get him knocked down a few pegs, or even moved out to the Big Farms again, but not enough to get him executed. I think he had to do something that Kim Jong Un himself personally perceived as a threat.
FP: Apologies if I’m getting into dangerous territory here, but would someone actually move against Kim Jong Un?
IO: I was taught never to talk with my mouth full. My mouth is full right now. (Pauses.) Most of the time, the guys in the Ministry of State Security are bumbling and lazy. But on something like this, they know what they’re doing.
FP: What was their involvement in something like this?
IO: When Kim Jong Un went to Samjiyon, just before the Politburo meeting where Jang was deposed, who was right beside him but the Minister of State Security? How often does he travel up to Samjiyon? Not very often. How often does he travel with Kim? Not very often. Now, our problem was they wanted us to escort Jang out of the Politburo hall. Lots of people called in sick that day.
FP: In the KCNA statement, Jang was portrayed as a puppet of China. Why was China blamed?
IO: The Chinese businessmen in our country are pretty sharp. And they’re not here because they love us. Or for the noodles at Ongyun Restaurant. When we hear them complain about being cheated, we really laugh, since most of them are way ahead of us when it comes to knowing how to cut corners. They’re taking a lot of our coal, millions of tons a year! And sometimes I hear people asking, ‘Couldn’t we use that coal? Do we have to be cold in the winter so those damn Chinese can be warm?’ So we’ll have to see if these things change.
Businessmen are like chickens. When there is a loud noise, thy run and hide for a little bit, and then they come back outside. If they went home, they’ll be back. We are forced by our geography to keep a relationship. There’s nothing we can do about it.
FP: Dennis Rodman visited North Korea in February and September, meeting with Kim both times, and will return in late December for an exhibition game.
IO: Yes. It was widely publicized internally. People were a little curious, let me put it that way.
FP: That sounds euphemistic.
IO: He is a tall striking figure, who has more tattoos on him than we would think necessary. But he seems to have struck up a good relationship quickly, and lots of us love basketball.
FP: After the purge, KCNA photoshopped Jang out of photos, and deleted almost their entire online archive. Some commentators are comparing this to George Orwell’s 1984. Have you read it?
IO: No. I haven’t read the book. And if I had read it, I wouldn’t remember it. I don’t remember stories by authors who write about barnyard animals. You know, I do remember a story: when your President Richard Nixon went to China in 1972, there was a very small meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Nixon, and a few other people. Anyway, when the meeting was over and the Chinese wanted to announce it, the Americans said ‘You can’t say Kissinger was in the meeting! This will be offensive and cause us trouble.’ So they left out the names, blotted his face from the picture. Did the Americans object, jumping up and down? No, it was convenient.
My heart doesn’t bleed when people poke fun at us. This is how we do our business.
FP: Would a careful foreign observer notice anything different, were they to wander around Pyongyang?
IO: You mean since the unfortunate events? A few more police patrols, perhaps. You know, you normally don’t see police in Pyongyang. I went to New York once — saw lots of police, big burly ugly guys with machine guns. ‘You going to have a revolution in New York?’ I thought. No matter.
I’m just guessing, but I bet Pyongyang Capital Command troops are being told to stay near their barracks. And in all of the other core commands, everyone is being told to walk carefully and not make any sudden moves. I don’t know, but I’m guessing.
FP: What’s your plan?
IO: I just do my job. We’ve been through ups and downs before. I think most people just want to get through this, that’s all. You know, winter is always pretty gloomy here. So you always have gloomy thoughts. Let’s see what happens when spring comes. If they leave us alone, on the outside, I don’t think there will be any trouble.
FP: Why does the rest of the world matter?
IO: Because they have crazy ideas about being able to stick their hands in here and move around the furniture. We keep being told, look at Iraq, look at Libya, look at Serbia, look what happens if the outsiders think they have a chance to move in. That’s a lot of tragedy, from where I sit.
But this is all just what I think — maybe you should ask Church. He’s the one who’s supposed to know so much…