Friday 25 May 2018

The king of Pyongyang

The world knows his name but does it know the real story of North Korea's Kim Jong-un? Take a visual journey into the Supreme Leader's life story with Rupert Wingfield-Hayes:

The funeral
It was a bitterly cold day in Pyongyang - 28 December 2011.

Snow was falling hard as a long black Lincoln Continental car drove slowly through the streets. On the roof, on a bed of white chrysanthemums, lay the coffin of North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il.

Vast crowds dressed in black lined the streets. They had to be held back by soldiers as they wept uncontrollably, beating their chests and calling out “father, father”.

Beside the car walked the dead dictator’s son and successor Kim Jong-un. Just 27, he looked overwhelmed. He broke down in tears several times during the ceremony.

Directly behind Kim walked his uncle Chang Song-thaek, considered to be the second most powerful man in North Korea. On the other side walked army Chief of Staff Ri Yong-ho and Defence Minister Kim Yong-chun.

These were the old men who would now wield power in Pyongyang. Or so many thought.

In the 1950s Kim Jong-un’s grandfather Kim Il-sung created something unique in the communist world - North Korea’s one-man hereditary leadership.

For nearly two decades Kim groomed his eldest son Kim Jong-il to succeed him. Wherever he went, the crown prince was at his side. In 1994, when the old man died, Kim Jong-il immediately took charge. But when he then died suddenly in 2011 his own son had barely begun his apprenticeship to become North Korea’s third Supreme Leader. Many experts now predicted the collapse of one-man-rule. They were soon to be proved wrong.

Within months Chief of Staff Ri Yong-ho and Defence Minister Kim Yong-chun had both been dismissed. Ri’s whereabouts remain a mystery to this day.

Then in December 2013 Kim Jong-un made his most dramatic move. His own uncle, Chang Song-thaek, was hauled from a party meeting, accused of treason and executed, with some unconfirmed reports even suggesting an anti-aircraft gun had been used.

Between 2012 and 2016 Kim carried out the biggest purge seen in North Korea since the days of his grandfather. South Korea’s Institute for National Security Strategy has reported the execution of 140 senior military officers and government officials. Another 200 have been removed or imprisoned.

Kim has removed anybody who stood in his way, replacing them with a younger cadre loyal to him. They are led by his own sister Kim Yo-jong, who in 2017 was appointed to the Politburo at the age of 30.

Today no-one is in doubt who pulls the levers of power in Pyongyang. Kim Jong-un is the Supreme Leader.

Tea on the bridge
It’s a warm April afternoon in 2018 and Kim Jong-un is sitting on a wooden bridge in a forest glade in the middle of the demilitarised zone (DMZ) that divides North and South Korea.

Six years have passed since that bitterly cold day in Pyongyang.

Kim is sipping tea and listening intently to South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in. The meeting is being broadcast live around the world. No-one watching can hear a word they’re saying.

For half an hour many around the world watch transfixed by this mute conversation, trying to read every gesture.

Just months before Kim had been test-firing missiles over Japan and threatening to rain fire on Seoul and the US.

Now he is sitting, smiling, deep in conversation with his sworn enemy.

How does one reconcile this image with that of a man who was prepared to have his own uncle killed?

There are so many questions. What does Kim want? Is this a bluff, a charm offensive? Or is Kim Jong-un now determined to take a different path from the one set out by his grandfather Kim Il-sung, and handed on to him by his father Kim Jong-il?

The little general
The year is 1992 and at a villa in Pyongyang a very special birthday party is being held for an eight-year-old boy. Among the presents one stands out.

It is a general’s uniform. Not a toy, but the real thing - a miniature but otherwise totally authentic uniform of a general of the Korean People’s Army.

It was impossible for him to grow up as a normal person” - Ko Yong-suk

Other, much older generals arrive at the party and bow before the eight-year-old boy. His name is Kim Jong-un.

The story of how this eight-year-old became “General Kim” was recounted to the Washington Post in an interview with Kim’s aunt in 2016. Nearly two decades earlier Ko Yong-suk and her husband had defected to the West. They now live in quiet seclusion outside New York.

In the interview Ko said that birthday party convinced her Kim Jong-un was being anointed as successor to his father Kim Jong-il.

“It was impossible for him to grow up as a normal person when the people around him were treating him like that,” Ko said.

A few years later Ko Yong-suk was assigned to accompany Kim Jong-un when his father sent him to private school in Switzerland.

She described the teenage Kim as hot-tempered and arrogant.

“He wasn’t a troublemaker, but he was short-tempered and had a lack of tolerance. When his mother tried to tell him off for playing too much and not studying enough, he wouldn’t talk back, but he would protest in other ways like going on hunger strike.”

Tiny snippets like these are virtually all we know of Kim Jong-un’s childhood. It’s not much on which to build a picture of who he is and why he was chosen to succeed his father over his older brother Kim Jong-chol, and half-brother Kim Jong-nam.

The first to predict Kim Jong-un’s rise to power may have been a Japanese sushi chef who goes by the alias of Kenji Fujimoto.

During the 1990s Fujimoto became an unlikely member of the Kims’ inner circle. He made Japanese food for Kim Jong-il, and claims he was the young Kim Jong-un’s “playmate”.

In 2001 Fujimoto returned to Japan and published his inside story. In it he described his first encounter with Kim Jong-un, and his older brother Kim Jong-chol.

“The first time I met the two young princes, they were both wearing military uniforms. They shook hands with each of the staff. But when it came to shaking my hand, Prince Kim Jong-un gave me an icy glare. It was like he wanted to say, ‘We hate Japanese like you’. I will never forget his sharp stare. He was seven years old.”

Kenji Fujimoto's book about his life with Korea's first family
In a second book in 2003 Fujimoto wrote:

“Kim Jong-chol is regarded as the most likely successor. But I doubt that very much. Kim Jong-il used to say, ‘Jong-chol is no good, he is like a girl’. His favorite is his youngest son, the second prince. Jong-un is very much like his father. He is even built like his father. But his existence has not been revealed to the public.”

It was a remarkable prediction. At the time Kim Jong-un had not been introduced to the North Korean people, let alone the outside world. Most of his childhood was still a complete secret.

Battles in a dynasty
When Choi Min-jun was 14, he was selected to join the most elite unit in the North Korean military - the Supreme Guard Command. Today he is a defector living in South Korea under an assumed name.

We recently got a glimpse of the secretive unit that protects North Korea’s royal dynasty. As Kim Jong-un arrived for the summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April a group of tall besuited bodyguards were filmed running alongside his Mercedes limousine. These men were from the inner rank of the Supreme Guard Command, the most elite of the elite.

Choi Min-jun had no chance of entering that inner circle. He was not tall enough. But more importantly he had the wrong family background.

“I was not born into the highest rank of society,” Choi tells me, “so, I could not serve in the Supreme Leader’s personal bodyguard. Instead I was assigned to his combat unit.”

For all its protestations of being a socialist state, North Korea has an elaborate and rigid caste system that classifies every person from birth. It is called Songbun. The website NKNews describes Songbun thus:

“It divides the population into groups, according to the actions and status of their paternal ancestor during the Japanese colonial period and the Korean War. Songbun determines whether one is allowed to live in the capital, the workplace one is allocated and what kind of education one can receive.”

Crucially Songbun status cannot be changed. If your grandfather fought against the Japanese during the occupation of Korea you are considered “loyal”. If he worked for the Japanese colonial rulers you are an “enemy” and always will be.

“For the Kim family, everyone is a potential enemy. The North Korean military, the General Staff Department, the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces as well as the entire North Korean people, they are all potential enemies.”- Choi Min-jun, North Korean defector

Choi’s own family were peasant farmers - they had not served the Japanese, but nor had they opposed them. And so Choi was sent to a combat unit. At the time his “status” did nothing to blunt his loyalty.

“In North Korea, you are brainwashed from a young age,” he says. “I was taught that the Kim family are gods. And I believed it.

“When Kim Il-sung made his new year address and said this year we must mine more coal, I said: ‘I will go to the mines!’ That's how naive and loyal to the Kim family I was.”

Choi rapidly discovered the Supreme Guard Command was not there to protect the Kims from foreign enemies, but from their own people.

“For the Kim family, everyone is a potential enemy,” he tells me. “The North Korean military, the General Staff Department, the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces as well as the entire North Korean people, they are all potential enemies.”

Choi was trained to trust no-one, not even his own parents.

As the Kim family’s paranoia grew so did the size of this personal security force.

“When the Kim family saw the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the fall of the Soviet Union they were shocked,” he says. “They drastically increased the size of the Supreme Guard Command. Now it numbers almost 120,000 soldiers.”

Like a medieval royal house, the Kim regime is jealous of its power and sees enemies all around.

And like many royal families through the ages, it sometimes kills to protect its position.

The brother
On 12 February 2017, a group of friends gathered in a restaurant in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur. They had come to celebrate the 25th birthday of an Indonesian woman, Siti Aisyah. Video from one of her friends' phones shows her smiling and blowing out a candle and singing.

According to Aisyah’s account of the night, she told her friends she had exciting news. She’d landed a job on a TV reality show. Finally, she could escape the sleazy Kuala Lumpur bathhouse where she worked. Her friends toasted her: “You are going to be a star!”

The next morning at Kuala Lumpur airport Siti Aisyah spotted her target, a rotund balding man in blue T-shirt and sports jacket. As he approached the check-in she ran up to him and splashed a liquid in his face.

“What are you doing?” he spluttered in broken English.

“Sorry,” she said as she ran away.

According to Aisyah’s version of what happened - which has not stopped her being charged with murder by the Malaysian authorities - it was all just a prank for the TV show.

Siti Aisyah, pictured after her arrest for the
murder of Kim Jong-nam

Sitting in a café a few meters away were a group of alleged North Korean agents. Apparently satisfied their mission had been completed, CCTV footage shows them walking to the departure gate and boarding a flight to Dubai.

The rotund man was now starting to feel unwell. His face was itchy and he was finding it harder to breathe. Within minutes he was slumped on a chair unconscious. Airport staff called an ambulance. As it sped towards Kuala Lumpur his lungs filled with fluid and he drowned.

The man’s passport said he was a North Korean diplomat called Kim Chul. In fact, the dead man was Kim Jong-nam, the older half-brother of Kim Jong-un.

Kim Jong-nam had been poisoned with a powerful nerve agent - VX. Inhaling a drop the size of a grain of sand is enough to kill.

Kim’s was a brazen killing and - despite North Korea denying any involvement - all the evidence seemed to point towards his younger half-brother in Pyongyang. But what was the motive?

Their father Kim Jong-il had a complicated love life. He had two official wives, and at least three mistresses, with whom he fathered five children. Kim Jong-nam was the child of his first mistress Song Hye-rim. Kim Jong-un was the younger son of his second mistress Ko Yong-hui, a former actress born in Japan. The old dictator kept his mistresses and their children secret. They lived in secluded villas, isolated from each other. Though they shared a father, Kim Jong-nam and Kim Jong-un never met.

As the oldest son, Kim Jong-nam was long considered Kim Jong-il’s most likely successor. But in 2001 he was arrested as he attempted to enter Japan on a fake passport. He had planned to visit Tokyo’s Disneyland.

The crown prince of North Korea was filmed being marched to a plane and expelled. For his father in Pyongyang it was a humiliation he could never forgive. Kim Jong-nam was removed from the succession and sent into exile in China. Or so the story goes.

But that is not the whole story.

Yoji Gomi is a Japanese journalist who got to know Kim Jong-nam better than any other outsider. In repeated meetings in Beijing and Macau, Gomi gleaned something of his life story.

“Kim Jong-nam was excluded from the succession before the Tokyo Disneyland incident,” he tells me.

Gomi says that the breakdown in relations began after Kim Jong-nam returned from boarding school in Switzerland in the late 1980s. The experience of living for nine years in Europe had deeply affected him.

1975: Kim Jong-nam with his maternal grandmother
During the 1990s North Korea was hit by a severe famine, euphemistically called “the arduous march”. The collapse of economic support after the end of the Soviet Union, and a series of devastating floods, left the country extremely short of food. Over four years between one and three million people died from disease and malnutrition.

According to Gomi, Kim Jong-nam wanted his father to change North Korea’s economic system. He wanted Chinese-style reforms, allowing some private property and market reforms.

“Kim Jong-il got very angry at him,” Gomi says. “He told Kim Jong-nam he must change his mind or he must go outside of Pyongyang.”

1981: Kim Jong Nam (seated, right) with his family
Journalist Bradley K Martin agrees. He wrote the definitive biography of the Kim dynasty, a huge tome called Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader.

“Kim Jong-nam wasn’t rejected because he went to Disneyland,” he says. “The whole family goes around under false pretences. I don’t think his father was embarrassed. I think Kim Jong-nam said things about policy and the need to change policy and his father didn’t like it.”

Kim Jong-nam was sent into exile in Beijing.

"[Kim Jong-un] was chosen by his father because he was the meanest and nastiest of the sons” -
Bradley K Martin

The next in line should have been Kim Jong-il’s middle son Kim Jong-chol. But it appears he was never seriously considered. Instead he chose his youngest son Kim-Jong-un.

According to Martin: “He was chosen by his father because he was the meanest and nastiest of the sons.”

In other words, he had the best chance of surviving a brutal succession struggle and keeping the family business alive.

He has certainly shown his ruthlessness. According to Gomi, once Kim Jong-il was dead, and Kim Jong-un took over, his half-brother began to get nervous.

“After Kim Jong-il died Kim Jong-nam suddenly felt unsafe. The last time we communicated was in January 2012. At that time, Kim Jong-nam said to me, ‘My brother and the Kim dynasty will do something dangerous to me’.”

Martin believes Kim Jong-un had his own brother killed. He has his own theory why.

“It fits with the killing of [his uncle] Chang Song-thaek,” he says. “Chang was charged with planning a coup d’état. We [the Western media] ignored that. Then Kim Jong-un went after the brother. We have these reports that Chang went to China and said, ‘Let’s get rid of Kim Jong-un and put Kim Jong-nam in’. Kim thinks: ‘My uncle and my older brother are plotting against me and are in cahoots with the Chinese.’ It makes a certain amount of sense.”

That is just a theory, but his further conclusion seems irrefutable.

“There are now no further threats to his rule. His internal challengers are gone.”

Kim Jong-un now rules supreme. But what does he want for his small impoverished country?

In the summer of 1998, Kim Jong-un was back in North Korea, on holiday from school in Switzerland. He’d been out to the family’s huge summer compound beside the sea near Wonsan.

Now he was on a train heading back to the capital, Pyongyang. Sitting with him looking out at the villages and rice paddies was Japanese chef Kenji Fujimoto.

In his 2003 book Fujimoto says Kim Jong-un told him: “Fujimoto, our country is behind in industrial technologies even compared with other Asian countries. We still have power cuts.”

He says Kim then compared North Korea’s situation to China.

“I heard that China has been successful in many ways. We have a population of 23 million people. China has a population of over a billion. How do they manage to supply power? It must be difficult to produce enough food for a billion people. We need to follow the example set by them.”

If Fujimoto’s story is true then the young Kim Jong-un was expressing sacrilegious thoughts.

Since 1955 the guiding ideology of North Korea has been Juche. The word is often translated as “self-reliance”. It is Kim Il-sung’s “great contribution” to Marxist-Leninist thought. There is a vast memorial dedicated to Juche on the south bank of the Daedong River in Pyongyang. Making fun of it is not advised.

But Juche is a myth. North Korea is not self-reliant and never has been. For its first 40 years the country was almost entirely dependent on Moscow for economic support. When the Soviet Union collapsed, North Korea’s state-run economy fell apart and its people starved.

In the midst of the famine North Korea’s people began to trade. Out of the chaos and collapse of the 1990s a new economy emerged. Unregulated and officially unrecognised, it nevertheless keeps North Korea’s people alive.

The extent of this “black” economy became clear to me while interviewing a young defector in Seoul in 2012.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye had just ordered the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Zone - just across the DMZ in North Korea.

“When I heard the news, I called my father and told him to go to China and buy Choco Pies,” the young defector told me.

This left me confused.

“Sorry,” I said, “where is your father?”

“In North Korea,” he said.

“How do you call him?” I asked.

His father, it turns out, has a Chinese sim card for his mobile phone. This is illegal and dangerous, but also common. Once a week he travels to the Chinese border, connects to a Chinese mobile network, and his son can call him.

“And what about the Choco Pies?” I asked.

South Korean companies operating in the Kaesong Industrial zone had been paying their North Korean workers, in part, with South Korean products. One of the most popular was Choco Pies.

They were so popular they had become a kind of black-market currency in the North. Now that the Kaesong zone had shut, the black-market price for Choco Pies would sky rocket. So, he told his father to go to China and bring back as many boxes as he could carry, the profits would be good.

At a church on the outskirts of Seoul I met a very different defector. He was short with wide muscular shoulders, missing teeth, and a heavy accent my South Korean translator struggled to understand.

“I was a smuggler,” he said.

He described how his gang bribed North Korea border guards to leave a section of the border unguarded at night. They would then cross in to China carrying scrap metal and valuable minerals.

“What did you smuggle back?" I asked

“All sort of things, food, clothes, DVDs, drugs, pornography,” he said. “Drugs and pornography are dangerous.”

“What’s the most dangerous thing to smuggle out of North Korea?” I asked

“If you take scrap metal from a Kim statue, that can get you shot,” he said.

The goods imported and smuggled from China are traded at large markets that have sprouted up in every city and town.

This informal economy is working. A new class of monied entrepreneurs is reported to be buying property in Pyongyang. North Korea’s economy is growing. But there has been no ideological shift, nothing to indicate a fundamental change from the top.

Then on 20 April this year, at a plenary session of the Worker’s Party of Korea, Kim Jong-un made a speech entitled:

“The further acceleration of socialist construction as required by a fresh high stage of the developing revolution.”

In it Kim declared a freeze on all further testing of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles and a “new strategic line” that would focus on building North Korea’s economy. This speech has been taken by some observers as a signal that Kim Jong-un is ready to fulfil that promise he made on the train - to follow China’s example.

One is John Delury from Yonsei University in Seoul.

“The new strategy is economics first - 100% on the economy,” he says. “Kim is saying, ‘I'm really going to improve the economy. You're not going to have to tighten your belts again.’

“For the last five or six years it has been modest improvement but nothing breakthrough. Instead he's obviously been focused on the nuclear programme. And so we're now seeing a pivot.”

Others, like Bradley K Martin, are far less certain.

“Is he seriously thinking he can transform this country? I don’t know. It doesn’t fit with what we know about him. He’s had years to do so if he wanted to. He has done showmanship like his father and his grandfather. ‘Let’s build monuments.’ Each has done the same thing.

“I have seen no evidence the economy has really been reformed except for tacitly admitting that there is another economy – which it had to. Everyone would have died if it hadn’t been for the ‘other economy’.”

If Kim Jong-un is now intent on developing his country he needs sanctions lifted. He needs trade and massive investment. To get that, the US and its allies will demand he give up his “treasured sword”, his nuclear weapons. Is that what he now intends?

Chain-smoking rocket man
Early on the morning of 4 July 2017 a US spy satellite flying high above North Korea spotted activity at an airfield in North Pyongan Province. A huge 16-wheel “transporter erector launcher” (TEL) drove on to the airfield. It had a large missile on its back.

Over the next hour US intelligence officers watched as the missile was erected and fuelled for launch. During the operation they could clearly see a man strolling around the missile, smoking a cigarette.

This story was told by Ankit Panda, the editor of The Diplomat magazine, who says it was leaked to him by an intelligence source. The man with the cigarette, so close to a rocket full of inflammable fuel, could only have been Kim Jong-un.

Shortly after dawn the missile’s main engine fired and it roared skywards, flying nearly 3000km into space before splashing down in the Sea of Japan. Kim Jong-un was jubilant. Photos released later showed him smiling and hugging senior military officers. And there in his hand was the tell-tale cigarette.

Pyongyang claimed the rocket was a new intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the US and that the launch was a 4 July gift to President Donald Trump.

North Korea has pursued its nuclear weapons programme doggedly, at great economic cost and in the face of intense international pressure to desist.

After coming to power in 2011 Kim Jong-un dramatically accelerated the North’s nuclear and missile programme, conducting many more ballistic missile tests over a shorter period of time than his father had.

On 29 November last year it culminated with the launch of an enormous new missile, the Hwasong 15. North Korea’s state news agency KCNA said the new missile was capable of carrying a “superheavyweight warhead” and striking the whole of the mainland US.

The KCNA report said Kim Jong-un “declared with pride that now we have finally realised the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force, the cause of building a rocket power”.

Many outside experts agreed - Kim could now hit the US.

It was just over a month between that declaration and Kim Jong-un’s 2018 New Year message in which he offered to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics in South Korea.

That message was read by many in the outside world as a dramatic switch by Kim to engagement.

But as a Trump-Kim summit now approaches, some very important questions remain: Why was Kim so determined to develop long range weapons capable of hitting the US? What is his nuclear missile arsenal for?

How you answer these questions will determine whether you believe Kim wants “peaceful coexistence” with South Korea, and is prepared to negotiate an end to his nuclear programme, or not.

At his recent summit with President Moon, Kim Jong-un called for the “complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”, and promised to halt all further tests and dismantle his nuclear testing facilities. But according to nuclear weapons expert Duyeon Kim, of the Korean Peninsula Future Forum, that does not mean Kim Jong-un is ready to unilaterally disarm - far from it.

“He actually declared that it [North Korea] is a nuclear power,” she says. “That's what advanced responsible nuclear powers say. They don't have to test any more after about six nuclear tests. So Kim Jong-un is gearing up his persona, walking into these summits to be perceived as the leader of a normal powerful country on equal footing with the US.”

There is a widely held view that North Korea’s nuclear weapons are defensive - that the Kim dynasty watched the fall of Saddam Hussein and then Colonel Gaddafi and decided that nukes are the only sure way of preventing US-led “regime change”.

Critics of that view say neither Kim Jong-un, nor his father, ever needed ICBMs to protect themselves. One is Prof Brian Myers of Dongseo University in Busan. In a recent speech to the Royal Asiatic Society, he said: “Our inability to stop this regime from acquiring nuclear weapons shows they were never vital to its security. If a North Korea without them were as vulnerable as Libya without them, it would have been bombed by 1998 at the latest.”

The reason that didn’t happen is South Korea’s extreme vulnerability to counter-attack. The capital, Seoul, lies only 50km from the DMZ, well within North Korean artillery range.

So if you were to accept Kim’s nuclear missile aren’t needed for defence, what are they for? The answer according to Duyeon Kim is to achieve so-called decoupling - stopping the US from coming to South Korea’s aid if and when Pyongyang decides it’s time to “reunify”.

“Based on the North's public statements and their actions and their private comments, it appears that the nuclear weapons are for both deterrence and for potential use in forceful unification. That's something that they've talked about openly and in private.”

Myers agrees Kim’s nuclear weapons are about unification, but not necessarily by force.

“North Korea needs the capability to strike the US with nuclear weapons in order to pressure both adversaries into signing peace treaties. This is the only grand bargain it has ever wanted.

“The treaty with Washington would require the withdrawal of US troops from the peninsula. The next step, as Pyongyang has often explained, would be some form of the North–South confederation it has advocated since 1960. One would have to be very naive not to know what would happen next.”

The idea that poor, backward North Korea could impose unification on a modern, wealthy and militarily more advanced South appears preposterous, and maybe it is. But Bradley K Martin says, however unlikely, it remains Pyongyang’s objective.

“I have always believed reunification is their number one goal,” he says. “Many people say they gave up on it long ago - they know they can’t do it. Those people underestimate the confidence you can build if you have the attention of a whole people. If you are running the propaganda system in a one-man dictatorship you can convince people they can do anything.”

Insulting the marshal
I should be halfway to Beijing. Instead I am sitting in a drab room at a Pyongyang hotel. On the far wall portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il stare down. Right now, their expressions appear particularly malevolent.

I feel dazed, shell-shocked. Across the table a slender man with a face lined by years of smoking is looking at me with an expression of calm menace.

“This can all be over very quickly and you can go home,” he says, rotating an unlit cigarette in his right hand. “If you confess your crimes and apologise this will all be over. If you refuse, things will get much worse.”

An hour before, I had been at Pyongyang airport preparing to board a flight to Beijing. Now I am facing hours, possibly days, of interrogation.

My crime, according to my crinkle-faced interrogator, is “insulting Marshal Kim Jong-un”. The pit of my stomach turns cold.

This is a serious offence. I’m not sure how I’ve done this. Nor, it becomes clear, is my interrogator. It doesn’t matter. My guilt has been decided elsewhere. Now he must get my confession.

Rupert Wingfield-Hayes detained in Pyongyang
As the night wears on the team changes and the threats become more frightening. A new interrogator stares at me with cold, malevolent eyes.

“I am the one who investigated Kenneth Bae,” he says. “I think you know what that means.”

I do. Kenneth Bae is a Korean-American pastor who was sentenced to 15 years hard labour by North Korea. He served 735 days before a deal was done for his release.

“Kim’s identity is that of a king... Any person or country that challenges or opposes him, faces retaliation without fail” - Paik Hak-soon

My interrogation was terrifying, but also surreal. I had been invited to Pyongyang to cover a visit by three Nobel laureates. Then I was detained and threatened with prison because the regime didn’t like what I’d written.

To me this seemed counter-productive. But I had fundamentally failed to undertand my assigned role - to uncritically present North Korea’s version of the truth to the outside world. I had transgressed, I had become an enemy.

Weeks later in Seoul a senior North Korean defector explains.

“Your crime was not just to criticise Kim Jong-un, but where you did it,” he says. “In his own capital.”

He is certain the only person who could have approved my detention, and release, was Kim Jong-un.

“You were very lucky to get out,” he says.

Prof Paik Hak-soon is the director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute in South Korea. He also thinks I was lucky to get away with “only” being expelled.

“Kim’s identity is that of a king,” he says. “His sense of self-esteem does not allow any criticism or opposition from others. Any person or country that challenges or opposes him, faces retaliation without fail.”

North Korea has a long history of detaining foreigners for minor transgressions. Kim Jong-un has a particular penchant for it. Since 2011, 12 foreign nationals and four South Koreans have been held by Pyongyang.

Three months before my detention in 2016, a young American tourist, Otto Warmbier, was sentenced to 15 years hard labour for stealing a propaganda poster from a hotel wall. His punishment seemed out of all proportion to his alleged crime.

US citizen Otto Warmbier, pictured under arrest in North Korea
Warmbier was eventually returned to the US with severe brain damage, and died a few days later. Most observers think his case is unusual. American captives are rarely physically abused - they are too valuable.

For Pyongyang, US detainees are pawns in a cynical diplomatic game. They force the US government to enter into long negotiations, and finally to send a high-profile envoy to seal the release in person. Former US President Jimmy Carter was one. In 2009 former President Bill Clinton went to Pyongyang to bring back two detained US journalists.

David Straub is a retired US diplomat who accompanied Bill Clinton on that trip.

"The North Koreans basically demanded Bill Clinton come and that was the only way that they would return the two journalists," he says. “It was clear that North Korea just wanted to have a photograph of Kim Jong-il with Bill Clinton, so they could show their people and the world and feel good about having forced the US to bend to their will."

But what Kim Jong-un really wants isn’t an ex-US president. He wants the real thing - face-to-face negotiations with a sitting US president.

On 9 May, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Pyongyang, his second trip in a little over a month. He met with Kim Jong-un, and was handed three US citizens held in North Korean custody.

The longest held was Kim Dong-chul, a 65-year-old Korean-American businessman who’d been in North Korean custody for 952 days. President Trump had asked for the three to be freed as a condition for holding a summit with Kim Jong-un.

As he greeted the freed detainees at Andrews Airforce Base the US president declared: “We want to thank Kim Jong-un, who really was excellent to these three incredible people.”

Such hyperbole denotes how eager President Trump now is for a first ever summit with the North Korean leader. Kim Jong-un is very close to achieving his goal.

(Source: BBC)

No comments:

Post a Comment