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North Korean state news normally includes a heavy focus on Kim Jong Un’s daily activities, so when the supreme leader abruptly ceased public duties in September it sparked immediate speculation about the reason.
Even China’s People’s Daily tweeted a remark about a major North Korean meeting with “no mention of [Mr Kim’s] whereabouts”, while the internet thronged with rumours about a possible coup.
Mr Kim’s return to the spotlight after five weeks, limping and using a cane, appeared to vindicate more sober suggestions that he had simply been receiving medical treatment, perhaps for an ankle injury. But the vivid rumours around his absence reflect the continuing opacity of North Korea’s governing system, and the signs of tension at its highest level.
It is less than a year since the execution of Mr Kim’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who was generally seen as the leader’s top adviser. Jang’s death last December was accompanied by a graphic denunciation that accused him of crimes ranging from plotting a coup to “selling off the precious resources of the nation at cheap prices” – widely seen as a reference to Jang’s dealings with Chinese investors in North Korea.
His execution duly caused ripples among officials in Beijing, who had seen Jang as a relatively reliable interlocutor. But he was just one of dozens of top officials to lose their posts under Mr Kim, in what appears to have been the country’s biggest purge since the 1950s. Even before Jang’s ouster, South Korean intelligence estimated that 100 of North Korea’s top 218 officials had been replaced under Mr Kim.
The rapid churn of senior figures has stopped in recent months, notes Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert, who believes Mr Kim may now have surrounded himself with a team that he trusts more than the one he inherited from his father.
Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that there is growing pressure on Mr Kim to show economic progress, Mr Lankov adds. “People who can be described as members of the elite . . . don’t believe any more that their country is doing well or is going to do well,” he says. “They increasingly realise that they are living in an impoverished third world-state, whose gap with its neighbours is getting wider and wider.”
Even as Mr Kim works to shore up his position at home, he is threatened with unprecedented embarrassment on the world stage over North Korea’s well documented human rights abuses.
Number of top officials replaced by Kim Jong Un before his uncle, Jan Song Thaek, was executed
In February, a UN commission of inquiry published a report that warned of “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations” in North Korea’s network of prison camps and the country as a whole. The commission proposed an indictment of top North Korean officials – including Mr Kim – by the International Criminal Court, a suggestion that is now being pursued by some member states.
The prospect of such humiliation has spurred action by North Korea, which has typically brushed aside condemnation of its human rights record. Pyongyang has published a human rights report of its own, disagreeing with the UN commission’s conclusion, while its ambassador to the UN engaged in a heated public debate with the commission’s chairman in New York.
The debate over the UN report comes as North Korea seeks to pave the way for talks with the US and ease its diplomatic isolation. Washington has been reluctant to engage with North Korea since a February 2012 bilateral agreement, in which North Korea promised to suspend nuclear weapon and long-range missile development in exchange for food aid, and which broke down two months later following an abortive long-range rocket launch by Pyongyang.
This month James Clapper, head of the Central Intelligence Agency, flew to Pyongyang with a letter from President Barack Obama to secure the release of two US detainees, complying with North Korea’s request that a high-level figure be sent. But Washington officials have been keen to stress that the visit did not represent a reopening of dialogue, and that North Korea must take concrete steps towards abandoning its nuclear programme before progress can be made. Pyongyang, in contrast, insists that any talks must be “without preconditions”.
“Since the US is not interested in the resumption of dialogue process and continues to cling to tougher sanctions as a way out, [North Korea] will not beg for the dialogue,” Hyon Hak Bong, Pyongyang’s ambassador to London, told the FT in a recent email. “So, the US goes its own way and the DPRK goes its own way.”