Monday, October 22, 2012

Let the Chopped Branches Speak

A piece I published at Asia Sentinel on October 19th, 2012:

With phrases like “economic improvement measure” swirling around Kim Il-sung Square as short skirts in Pyongyang inspire whispered talk of greater freedom for the masses, 2012 has turned into a year of hope for the DPRK.

In such circumstances, it is no surprise that the talk of the town this week is an unusually frank, open interview given to former Finnish Minister of Defense Elisabeth Rehn by a suave young man named Kim Han-sol.

Any Han-sol interview was always going to be a point of interest for the international community. As Kim Jong-il’s grandson, he’s nominally close to the center of the family and, as the interview reveals, speaks English like a native. The interview content doesn’t disappoint, either; holed up in an international college in the Bosnian city of Mostar, the young man speaks of a Libyan roommate thrilled by the overthrow of Colonel Qaddafi, of interaction with South Korean friends, of his father’s disinterest in politics, and of his sadness at never “being sought out” by his grandfather.

It is intriguing, and it is also certainly enough to earn the young man the label “reformist element” and/or “new diplomatic channel to Pyongyang” in certain quarters. However, such talk is misguided; this was clearly not a political message sent from Pyongyang.

With the Kim Jong-un regime throwing out positive cultural and diplomatic signals left and right, it would of course be easy to cast the Han-sol interview in a such a political light. His eloquently expressed desire for peace and reconciliation with South Korea is pleasant, and fits in nicely with trends emerging from the DPRK itself: the short skirts, high heels, Rocky theme music and Disney characters of the Moranbong Band’s debut concert on July 6th; the appearance in public life of Ri Sol-joo as the charming and homely wife of Kim Jong-un; and the leader’s apparent reconciliation with Fujimoto Kenji, the former sushi chef to Kim Jong-il who left the country a decade ago amidst rumors of espionage.

However, adding Han-sol to this list is just wishful thinking. The Kim dynasty has always worked on very clear principles, and one of them is that anybody who represents a threat to the leader is to be kept as far away from Pyongyang as possible. As a hereditary dynasty, nowhere is this more important than inside the Kim family itself. First it happened to Kim Il-sung’s younger brother Kim Yong-ju, who was cast into exile in Jagang Province in 1975 as Kim Jong-il worked to “pluck out the roots” of his sole competitor’s power base, and later to Kim Pyong-il, Kim Il-sung’s son with former secretary Kim Song-ae and a man who has now been a wandering DPRK ambassador to assorted European countries for 33 years and counting.

Han-sol’s father Kim Jong-nam is just the most recent of these “branches” of the Kim family to be cut off and cast into the ether. Exiled in East Asia, Jong-nam occasionally emerges to give brief interviews to Japanese news crews, ordinarily in airports or on quiet city streets. A portly and jovial fellow, he espouses a reformist agenda and has come out against the very notion of dynastic succession, but never discusses family politics and claims never to have felt in danger despite giving voice to controversial views.

Note that women are not subject to the same rules: Kim Jong Il’s sister, the ailing Kim Kyung Hee, is one member of the elite leading group in Pyongyang, as is his fourth and final wife Kim Ok and his youngest daughter, Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yeo-jung. But this means nothing. North Korea is a male-dominated culture to the very core, and its women are no danger to anyone or anything.

Conversely, it is extremely telling that neither Jong-nam nor Pyong-il appeared at Kim Jong-il’s funeral in Pyongyang last December. Much like the oligarchs of President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the reality is that as long as people like Han-sol don’t get involved in central government politics too deeply or too often, they can do whatever they want, and that includes giving interviews to former Finnish government ministers. All Han-sol needs to remember is that if he fails to play by the rules laid out in Pyongyang then the results are sure to be painful. To put it in terms that the young man can relate to, he could end up like Kim Jong-il’s other nephew Ri Il-nam, who was gunned down on a South Korean city street in 1997.

It is unquestionably the case that an interview for Finnish television in which a member of the Kim clan declares a desire for world peace is to the advantage of the government in Pyongyang, for it gives the DPRK a humane face and lends weight to notions of pragmatism in the Kim bloodline. But that does not mean that Pyongyang was behind the interview itself, or that it was intended to convey a political message to the wider global audience. Kim Han-sol is just what he appears to be; his own man.

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