With the regime’s worst enemy out of the picture, North Koreans are getting a peek at new images intended to project stability and continuity.
North Koreans and foreigners alike looking for clues about the power line-up in North Korea since the purging of Kim Jong-un’s powerful uncle last week could hardly have found a better occasion than the second anniversary Tuesday of the death of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
The sight of “tens of thousands” of North Korean soldiers staging a “rally” on the square surrounding the mausoleum containing the embalmed bodies of Kim Jong-il and his father, Kim Il-sung, long-ruling founder of the Kim dynasty, was intended to convey the impression of the strength of the regime. Across the Daedong River, on Mansu Hill, thousands more ordinary citizens bowed before huge statues of the two Kims, revered for passing on their “blood line” to their current “supreme leader.”
In the aftermath of the execution of Jang Song-thaek, once viewed as Kim Jong-un’s mentor, regent, and right-hand man, the message was that of normalcy, unity, and solidarity. Clearly assurances were deemed necessary following reports of more executions amid questions about how much real support Kim Jong-un really commands.
A puzzling clue that all was not well, however, was the absence of one familiar face from the traditional line-up photo of notables after Tuesday’s ceremony. There was no sign of Kim Jong-il’s younger sister, Kim Kyong-hui, the woman who was long married to Mr. Jang, but believed to have separated from him years ago.
Was she also in trouble – despite her appearance earlier this week on a list of key people appointed to an ad-hoc committee? Or was she ill, as widely believed?
“It could be that she’s stressed,” says David Straub, a former senior diplomat with the US embassy in Seoul. “She may not be up to it.”
The absence of Kim Kyong-hui, who reportedly divorced Jang the day before his execution, suggests that she too is disappearing – probably under medical care and not likely to show up again. As for Jang, North Koreans are not going to see his image again. He’s been systematically deleted from all photographs and videos on which he once appeared – often near and sometimes beside Kim Jong-un.
All of which, says Mr. Straub, now associate director of Korean studies at Stanford, “can’t be good for [Kim Jong-un] over the long run or even the short term.”
Although no North Korean is going to speak out against Kim Jong-un for fear of arrest, torture, and execution, Straub sees Kim as “immature” and living “in a fantasy” in which he can behave with extraordinary cruelty while indulging his whims.
One of the latter is a passion for basketball – the reason Kim is hosting former Chicago Bulls star Dennis Rodman later this week. On his third visit to Pyongyang, Rodman has said he’s bringing with him a documentary film crew to catch him coaching a North Korean basketball team in anticipation of a game with some former NBA players.
If the Rodman visit suggests all is well in Pyongyang, however, the pictures of the line-up of leaders are if anything more revealing. Kim stands beside his wife, the only woman in the photo, appearing in public for the first time in six weeks – the exact time frame during which Jang also vanished from view while awaiting his fate.
On Kim’s left is Choe Ryong-hye, the political chief of the armed forces, a vice chairman of the national defense commission and the man believed most responsible for destroying Jang, who had once been his ally. On the right is Kim Yong-nam, long-time chairman of the presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, a figurehead in his 80s who has [somehow] managed to survive throughout the Kim dynasty.
Analysts, studying the power line-up, doubt that North Korea will be in a mood to escalate tensions with surprise incidents right away. Instead, they see the regime as settling into a period of relative calm before the next crisis.
“Then the charm offensive will expire,” predicts Bruce Klinger at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “They will go back to provocations. They’re not changing policy."
Bruce Bechtol, author of books and papers on North Korea’s armed forces, cautions against viewing Mr. Choe as North Korea’s second highest leader. “North Korea is controlled by one guy,” says Mr. Bechtol, a former U.S. marine intelligence analyst.