Saturday, February 12, 2011

The one where kushibo almost ate his words. Almost.

So the other day I'm going through my list of must-read blogs, and I encounter this piece of news at One Free Korea and at Korea Beat, both referring to this post in NK Daily The Daily NK, about people in North Korea burning official portraits of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jongsuk.

Well, I will admit kushibo did a double-take. I have been highly critical of how easily the South Korean, Japanese, and Western media have accepted the notion that "the succession of Kim Jong Eun... is moving at breakneck speed," and I have pointed out repeatedly that the KCNA is providing the North Korean people with virtually no mention of Kim Jong-un even though the Chosun Ilbo and The Daily NK would have us believe that his stature is being raised so high and so quickly that the besieged North Korean people are reacting adversely to his ascension.

So when I saw the above photo in Korea Beat, I thought I'd finally seen evidence that my working hypothesis is wrong, or at least no longer accurate. Maybe I was still a bit bleary-eyed, but at the time I could have sworn that Korea Beat said the two portraits being burned were Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un.

You see, if official portraits and/or badges of Kim Jong-un were distributed for the public to see and wear, that would be a clear, necessary, and even irrefutable sign that the Pyongyang regime has gone ahead with selling the North Korean public on the idea that KJI's son will be their next leader. If that were an official, stylized portrait of Kim Jong-un, then that would mean his rise has been accepted — perhaps irreversibly — by the ruling apparatus and they now are pushing the North Korean people to follow.

But it turned out that the portrait at left in the photo was Kim Jongsuk, the mother of Kim Jong-il and already an established member of the Great Chosŏn pantheon. In other words, not Kim Jong-un. Still no signs of the public deification of Kim Jong-un, despite what the media would have us believe.

[Frankly, I blame a combination of things for my brief oversight: (a) the North Korean portrait makers depicting Kim Jong-il's mom as a bit manly, (b) the portrait defacers giving Kim Jongsuk facial hair, (c) talk of the political significance of Kim Jong-un's otter pelt hat leading me to subconsciously think that Kim Jongsuk's long flowing hair in the back was actually some frilly fur thing worn by Kim Jong-un to keep warm, and (d) the unisex V-neck of the traditional chosŏnbok, which provides no clue of its wearer's gender.]

But wait a minute, kushibo, if the North Korean people aren't being force-fed grandiose claims about Kim Jong-un, what about all that writing? Some of the accompanying handwritten remarks are clearly about Kim Jong-un, so that must mean something, right?

Well, I'm glad you asked that question, curious reader. Apparently, someone in North Korea is aware of Kim Jong-un and all the talk of his rise to power, and that someone has decided it would be appropriate to write notes about this. The question is, who is that person? North Koreans along the border with China may have enough exposure to Chinese news media that they would be clued into non-Chinese media's obsession with Kim Jong-un's ascension, but would that be enough to precipitate the spattering of Kim Jong-un-related stories coming from defectors?

My working hypothesis is that The Daily NK and other organizations that rely on clandestine reporting methods deliberately or (more likely) inadvertently distort defectors' reports of KJU sightings by asking leading or loaded questions whose answers lead to foregone conclusions: "Have you seen any evidence of Kim Jong-un's rise?" might easily yield an affirmative answer to a new defector who may feel obliged to please this new aid-giver. The result would easily be an apparent picture of Kim Jong-un having a higher profile than he actually does (as evidenced by the dearth of Kim Jong-un mentions in North Korea's official news media).

Now don't get me wrong: I'm not bashing The Daily NK and I think they do incredible work, with many on their team risking their lives to get word out of and into North Korea. But that halo doesn't magically preclude what social scientists call experimenter bias, and that makes me somewhat skeptical. After all, the Kim Jong-un drama has attracted a lot of attention to the North Korean issue — and how pathetic is it that it takes palace intrigue and not the ongoing deaths of hundreds of thousands for the foreign media to pay serious attention! — and it might be forgivable for The Daily NK to milk that new focus for what it's worth. As long as they're not lying or knowingly reporting distortions, I don't have too much of a problem with what they're doing, given the big picture.

Now back to the portrait burning. According to The Daily NK, this was done by some peasant, but by a party official:
The North Korean defector who provided the video clip explained, "A Party official from North Hamkyung Province burned the pictures and wrote 'bastard Kim Jong Il’ and ‘Kim Jong Eun is the child of a concubine' on a piece of paper at his house on January 1st this year. The video clip was produced and leaked to display the person’s hostility towards Kim Jong Il and worsening public opinion within North Korea."

The person also wrote a message on the reverse side of the paper, "Kim Jong Il is a bastard, Kim Jong Eun is the son of concubine. Not once did he talk about being married, and now he is facing death he is suddenly looking for his son? We cannot accept this.”
Bear in mind that this is all according to the defector who brought the tape, a tape which The Daily NK has chosen not to show. Now, if it's legitimate, protecting the identity of the official who burned the portraits is sound, but there's always something inherently risky in taking someone else's word for something without evidence. The Daily NK suggests that the official portraits could only be in the hands of a party official, though I'm skeptical of that claim as well (is there no theft in North Korea?).

So at this point I see two major possibilities of who is behind the portrait burning. One is that it really is a North Korean party official way up in North Hamgyŏng Province, and he or she somehow got this tape of this brazen act to a defector who got it to The Daily NK. Getting the word out that there are disgruntled party officials could be useful information. And it certainly would be something I predicted could come out of the Great Currency Obliteration of 2009:
Unless there have been behind-the-scenes provisions for connected people to exchange considerably more than the $40 or $60 limit, then those middle-level party cadres who run the show outside of Pyongyang suddenly have a lot less stake in keeping the regime going.
The other major possibility is that this is all the work of defectors, who have gotten wise that South Korean, Western, and Japanese media are eager for "news" of Kim Jong-un's prominence in North Korea, to the point that such defectors are staging such things for their benefit. Now this does not mean the whole story is pointless or useless. Nowadays these things have a way of filtering back to North Koreans themselves, and even if this was staged by a ballsy defector (in or near North Korea), it might have a psychological effect on those North Koreans who later hear about it or see the pictures.

Interesting times, though I still believe Kim Jong-un is The Kim Who Wasn't There™. Maybe this week I should redo the KCNA experiment to see how much the Brilliant Comrade is actually mentioned, since I haven't done that in over a month. Who knows, maybe things have changed... and I would be the first to admit it.


  1. So, lies that further my agenda are fine, but lies that don't serve it or are so transparent as to be unhelpful aren't?

  2. For me to reply here requires that we distinguish what I know from what I think.

    Here is what I am reasonably sure I know; that tape is real.

    Here is what I think; that it stands as much chance of having been done for outside consumption as out of sincerely held grievances.

    BTW thievery of pictures: viable. Purchase of copied pictures in China: more viable.

    Meanwhile, I also wonder whether your admittedly very catchy "the Kim who wasn't there" tag isn't more a reflection of a failure on your (or my, as one of many editors with whom you come into contact) part to factor in the bias towards scaling up from a micro scale event to a national trend that inevitably happens in a nation with no free press (and where many people receiving the news already know what they want to believe).

    Or, more to the point that we are discussing here, is it down to you scaling up from a "Party hack eyes only" decree, just for example, into a nationwide campaign with media resonance that just isn't there?

    Of course, many sources are Party hacks, since they have money and freedom, relatively, but what they tell us should not be scaled up outside the Party structure. That is just a dead end.

  3. This is an editor of the English Daily NK.

    I have a few things to point out about some logics of this article and to explain further that the Daily NK article didn’t cover.

    It is a tiny one, but “The Daily NK” is the official name, not NK Daily. :-) I know many people call it NK Daily, but I want to correct it.

    First and foremost the reason why the Daily NK released these oddly suspicious images is to let readers know that there are those who are opposite to the regime and want to express their feeling against and antagonism to the Kim regime towards the outside world in NK, even though their way is so childish and inarticulate. It may be a sign that the world should be prepared to help such voiceless and shapeless power inside NK because there is no one for them to rely on within its society due to that completely controlled system.

    In Egypt, they have had over 60 years of struggle history, but NK people have had almost zero history while having been suppressed and monitored completely for last 60 years. They don’t have any cell phones, let alone smart phones, through which they can share veiled unimaginable stories with the world. The only channel they can communicate with outside world is illegal Chinese cell phone and users have to hide from the authorities’ eyes. Smugglers, who can visit China back and forth only being indebted to bribery, are also a good but risky channel. These images were able to be created through these two channels.

    One thing I want to point out is about KCNA: The main target audience of KCNA is not only the N.Korean people, but basically the international community, especially including South Korean media and administration. Therefore, whenever the authorities want to publicize some policies to the South, they always use it, so the Daily NK is also watching it closely only because concepts aired on KCNA can be NK public stance and attitude towards SK.

    There are several channels aiming at the NK people, which cannot approach from the outside world. The representative one is the “third broadcasting,” which is a cable radio (louder speaker) installed in every house and the lecture in every workplace is also a direct powerful channel to deliver propaganda.

    The propaganda about the succession has been carried out through these internal channels, especially through lectures since when Kim got a stroke. Since then, lectures for cadres and military officials have started first and been carried out gradually down to the general people, even though at first they didn’t inform the successor’s name for over one year. But everybody knew that there was someone who was going to inherit his father’s power, called the Moring Star or Youth Captain. It was spread also by the song, “Footstep.”

    It is the fact that people’s distrust in or hatred toward Jong Eun is so common and public opinion on Jong Eun has also been negatively formed.

    Additionally, these portraits are images in scrolls, which are given to cadres and high officials after official meetings, such as a political study among cadres, meetings of provincial committee of the Party and so on. Therefore, some cadres have the same several portraits.

    There are a few kinds of forms in portraits, one for general households distributed by the authorities through neighborhood offices, or Images of three Generals, in which three Kims wearing military uniforms, and others for official buildings. But, this burnt one is for scrolls, gifts for cadres. Therefore, that assumption can be possible. Of course, it can be stolen by somebody anyhow.

    In terms of scribbles on the Kim Jong Suk’s and Jong Il’s faces, it is so childish from our view, but for them, drawing something on their faces is a greatly brave behavior, as you may know. They even cannot imagine that because it is a political crime. They have been learning, since they were born, how to take care of these portraits. They have to rescue portraits first, when a fire breaks out.

  4. Eun Kyoung, thanks for dropping by. Yours is a long and thoughtful response and it deserves an equally thoughtful reply. Unfortunately, I probably won't be able to deliver that for a day or so (being the busy worker and grad student that I am).

    But I would like to state that my comments are meant in no way to impugn the integrity of The Daily NK. I deeply admire what your organization is doing, including all the risks to safety some of its members undergo, and I have no reason to believe it is knowingly or willingly engaged in any subterfuge.

    And my apologies about getting the name wrong. I remember The Korea Daily from the early 1990s, and that name still sticks in my head. It was not meant to be disrespectful.

  5. Dear Kushibo,
    Thank you for your message.
    There is no offense in my comment. Please, don't feel sorry or any frustration of my note.
    I like discussing NK related issues and sharing stories that i learned from defectors with others, so I left that. That is all.
    I didn't feel at all that you impugned the integrity of the Daily NK.
    If you read something aggressive in my comment, it was only due to lack of ability in my English expression. Thanks again.
    Eun Kyoung


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