Dennis Rodman will travel to North Korea this week to prep for a basketball match billed as the “The Big Bang in Pyongyang.” The game, slated for early January, will pit as-yet-unnamed former NBA players against a North Korean squad trained by the Worm himself. All this according to the Irish online gaming firm Paddy Power, which is sponsoring the event. Strange times, these.
But even the surreal Rodman sideshow can’t compare with the drama unfolding inside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). On Friday, state news agency KCNA announced the execution of Kim Jong Un’s uncle and mentor Jang Song Taek, the highest-level purge in decades. A rambling release described Jang as “human scum” and charged him with crimes ranging from factionalism to fornication. Then, in an Orwellian twist first reported by NKNews.org, the state media pulled tens of thousands of articles from their online archives, erasing all traces of Jang — and, presumably, much else.
What is going on up there? As North Koreans gather to mark the second anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death, they may be asking the same thing. Jang’s public pillorying is very much out of sync with a national narrative that casts the Kim clan as infallible defenders of a nation under siege.
The DPRK was born a Soviet client state, but has since morphed into a totalitarian monarchy where the Kims are, quite literally, revered. In 1997, the regime abandoned the Christian calendar for one that begins in 1912 with the birth of Kim Jong Un’s grandfather Kim Il Sung. Kim family statues and portraits are sacrosanct. “North Korea is run as if it is a cult,” writes Andrei Lankov in North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea, “and portraits of the Kim family are icons of this religion.”
State media build the cult of Kim. Kim Il Sung, the founding father and “Great Sun,” was exalted for his military prowess, economic savvy and fatherly benevolence. The birth of his son Kim Jong Il was heralded by a double rainbow and a star. He walked at 3 weeks, talked at 8, and went on to master many trades, including writing (six operas, thousands of books) and filmmaking. He shot 11 holes in one in his first ever game of golf.
Absurd as it sounds, this deification helps keep the Kims in power. In a nation that sees itself as surrounded by foes, brilliant leadership is a necessity. Kim Jong Un seemed to know this. Since the death of his father in 2011, the young dictator has played up his family ties, solemnly marking each anniversary and — consciously or unconsciously — emulating his late grandfather’s look. Policy-wise, there have been few surprises. He pushed ahead with the nuclear program. He purged rivals, yes, but he did so quietly.
That’s what makes the Jang saga so surprising. For years, palace politics have been a mystery. Now, suddenly, there is an admission of a potentially destabilizing plot at the highest levels of government. And with this admission, an uncomfortable truth: Kim Jong Un is not omnipotent. If the revered leader can be duped by “human scum,” is anybody safe?
The answer from North Korea’s propagandists is yes. In the past few days, Kim Jong Un has been shown touring a military institute, a fish factory and a ski resort — absolutely standard fare. At a ceremony to mark the second anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death, the party brass pledged their allegiance. State-media footage showed crowds gathered to lay wreaths.
Missing from the frame, though, is a detail gleaned from Associated Press photographer David Guttenfelder, one of the few foreign journalists with access to North Korea: before bouquets are placed before Kim Jong Il’s likeness, they are swiped with a metal-detecting wand. Loyalty is not absolute. No amount of showmanship can change this.