The South Korean security service, the NIS, had a bit of a brainfart yesterday. It initially announced that North Korean Defence Minister, Hyon Yong-chol, had been executed by anti-aircraft gun in front of a gawping crowd. And then they said that he probably hadn’t.
Obviously the first report was picked up by the world’s media. The second, unsurprisingly, was not (autocratic purges not involving gruesome executions are much less newsworthy). As far as I can see, the only people reporting it were ABC, UPI and the Guardian. In fact, within this subset, the Guardian deserves special applause for not merely reporting the revised story, but even writing an editorial on it.
Other news outlets, by contrast, fell back on what has become a 70-year tradition: predicting that North Korea is about to collapse*.
This is not particularly noteworthy. What is fun to remark upon, however, is the fact that a lot of this sententious commentariat-spiel was produced after the NIS revised its opinion on the Hyon affair.
The usually very acute Aidan Foster-Carter feels that ‘Durable though the DPRK has proved against all predictions of collapse so far (this writer’s included), the latest Kim’s arbitrary cruelty looks likelier to weaken than strengthen his rule and realm. Perhaps we should be glad of that.’
The Chosun Ilbo concurs: ‘Suzanne Scholte of the North Korea Freedom Coalition always says North Korea will soon collapse. This never seemed very plausible, but it is beginning to now. Seoul must prepare for this possibility.’
Even Andrei Lankov says: ‘In the days of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, top officials knew that while they faced a chance of purge, their physical chances of survival and of making a comeback were relatively high. As a result, high officials under threat could remain calm, accept their fate and all accusations while delivering as much self-criticism as they could. Such a strategy significantly increased their chances of survival and eventual comeback. Under Kim Jong Un, this old strategy seemingly no longer always works. Disgrace may mean death. So for an official in the firing line, resistance may make more sense than waiting for a short trip to the execution grounds. Fleeing the country with bags of state secrets or staging a coup now make a lot more sense than they once did.’
Christian Whiton of CNN, on the other hand, has done an excellent job of running with the hare and the hounds, concluding that Kim Jong-Un is both a ‘panicky, unsure, inexperienced boy dictator’ and ‘perfectly in his element as an effective tyrant’, which is one way to avoid ever being proved wrong.
Interestingly, one of the rare places that pounced on the rebuttal was Reddit:
South Korea – ‘LOL. Our bad’
*Wondering why the Agreed Framework agreement between the Clinton administration and the North Korean government was such a crappy text? The State Department was convinced that North Korea was about to collapse, and so there was no need to come up with particularly stringent terms.