PYONGYANG WATCH Great eggspectations: Dear dupe?
By Aidan Foster-Carter
Is Kim Jong-il really in charge of North Korea? Does he even know what's going
Not according to the JoongAng Ilbo, one of South Korea's top dailies. The lead
story in its English online edition for June 21 shows the Dear Leader in
on-the-spot guidance mode. He's pictured in a white coat, fingering some eggs
on what looks quite like a modern production line. The caption identifies this
as a poultry farm in north Pyongan province - last October.
Not exactly hot news, then. Nor is it clear how this particular picture relates
to the text. But the story itself is intriguing, indeed incendiary. The
headline reads: "Kim being duped by
subordinates," with the sub-head: "Power may be shifting to son, or aides are
too fearful to tell the truth." 
According to "sources in Seoul", these leaderly guidance visits, endlessly
touted in the Pyongyang press, aren't all they're cracked up to be. Kim's great
eggspectations turn out to be eggsaggerated. This is a shell game, and it's no
yolk. (That's enough egg puns - Ed.)
Seriously, and switching to animal metaphors, the claim is that wool is being
pulled over the leader's supposedly all-seeing eyes. On these road trips and
more generally, someone - his aides, rising son Kim Jong-un, or both in cahoots
- is stage-managing things, to conceal the grim reality of just how bad the
economy is from the man supposedly running the show.
For example, according to the JoongAng, in January Kim visited a
flour-processing plant in Pyongyang. Small problem: They had no wheat. Someone
managed to get hold of a batch so the production line could run. But the leader
lingered longer than expected, and the wheat ran out - so they put it through
the mill a second time. (Didn't he notice? We are not told.)
A nice tale, but what to make of it? First of all, who says? As so often, this
story emanates from Seoul: in this case, an anonymous informant in government.
That is hardly an unbiased source, especially given the current dire
inter-Korean relations since the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan
One of the South's responses to that attack was to say it will resume
psychological warfare. Most attention focused on propaganda loudspeakers along
the demilitarized zone (DMZ), which in fact - in an interesting tacit retreat -
have not yet been switched back on.
But psy-ops take many forms. A story like this is calculated to rattle the
North. Hints of ill-health and power plays insinuate that it's all a mess, and
that the Dear Leader isn't really in charge.
Should we then discount so biased a source as unreliable? By no means. There's
no way to check, but precedent suggests this may well be true. We already know
quite a lot about how these on-the-spot guidance trips are staged, and how they
mask reality. It's an old story.
Ko Yong-hwan was one of the first to tell it. A former Democratic People's
Republic of Korea (DPRK) diplomat, Ko now works at Seoul's Institute for
National Security Strategy. Soon after he defected in 1991, Ko gave a
fascinating vignette of a 1988 tour of the Taean Heavy Machinery Complex (HMC)
with then-vice president Ri Jong-ok. Ko was interpreting for the visiting
president of Burkina Faso.
Chicken-feed this was not. The Taean HMC, which makes power generators, is
central to the DPRK economy both practically and symbolically. In 1961, Kim
Il-sung told all factories to follow the Taean work system: a kind of
collectivist management. So this was a showpiece - and the show must go on,
even then. Ko Yong-hwan's account deserves retelling in full:
entered the complex. Thousands of machines in that huge plant were running well
with a whirring sound. So I was sort of proud of it all. When I told the plant
director - an official at the level of vice minister - that I was very proud of
the well-running plant, he said: "Comrade Ko, I would like you to keep for
yourself what I am going to tell you. We have been out of raw materials for
about 10 days. We have been saving raw materials for this occasion, and we
started the machines just about five minutes before the president's arrival.
The moment the president steps out of the plant, these machines will stop - and
then resume running two hours later, when the Malagasy president arrives." I
asked what percentage of the plant equipment was in operation. He replied:
"About 30%. There are many instances similar to this."
the implications. Already 22 years ago, when Moscow was still pouring aid into
its wayward neighbor, one of North Korea's core industrial bases was limping at
under a third of capacity. The rot set in early, and so did the theater: in
this case, fooling African guests into believing their host was still the
industrial power-house it had been in the 1960s-1970s.
Speaking of Moscow, the phenomenon is much older. In 1787, a Russian minister,
Grigory Potemkin, supposedly had facades of villages built along the desolate
banks of the Dnieper River to impress Catherine the Great. This may be a myth,
but the phrase "Potemkin village" has passed into the language. There's a lot
of it about, and North Korea is a past-master.
But back to the present, and that phony flour story. It has some loose ends. Is
Kim Jong-il really that easy to fool? This after all is the man who at a
march-past in his honor whispered, "It's all a lie," to Shin Sang-ok, the South
Korean film director he kidnapped in 1978.
Kim must know things are stage-managed, for he is stage manager in chief. His
father Kim Il-sung was well aware of efforts to hoodwink him. Kim senior's
remarkably frank Collected Works include many such complaints. In 1980,
he accused officials in agriculture of sending "doctored reports": "I find it
hard to believe that 67% of rice transplanting has been mechanized." (Pages
240-41 of Volume 35 in the 1989 edition.)
Even the scenario of keeping the truth from daddy is very familiar to Kim
Jong-il, from his own long decades of apprenticeship. As Kim Il-sung aged his
son increasingly took the day-to-day reins of power, including deciding what
papa should or should not be bothered with.
So he can hardly be surprised if his own son is now doing the same to him. But
well may he worry. Kim Jong-un has no experience, and is reputedly a hothead.
That mix spells trouble.
A key unknown is how far the excuse they are using for not keeping Kim Jong-il
fully in the picture - that he is still ill after his stroke in August 2008 -
is actually true. The JoongAng report suggests not. Having been tipped the wink
that his son was manipulating information, Kim is said to have ordered that all
reports be sent via his secretaries rather than Jong-un.
The Dear Leader is visibly slighter than before, yet visitors like former
United States president Bill Clinton last August found him in command of his
faculties and his country. On June 21, the same day as the JoongAng story, the
Korea Times, another Seoul daily, carried a piece in very different vein.
Citing the North's Korean Central News Agency on June 20, this said Kim Jong-il
visited a mine, an electronics factory, a cooperative farm, a machinery plant
and an army officers' training center - all apparently on the same day. The
paper called this "one of his most energetic public outings this year", under
the headline "NK leader makes robust outings".
Yet without commenting on the contradiction, the Korea Times also reported the
JoongAng story, with the headline "Kim Jong-il's aides dupe the frail leader."
But at least they solve the egg mystery. On this account the facility he
visited didn't have enough chickens or eggs of its own. Officials scrambled to
poach both from nearby farms, so as to put on a good show for the leader.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? In North Korea, neither - but we can
send out for some, just for show. A poultry excuse indeed. No wonder Kim
Jong-il isn't cock-a-hoop.