A Fictional North Korean Detective Explains Kim Jong Un's Purge

Wherein your inteprid correspondent speaks with the made-up avatar of an ex-CIA official, for insight. 

On Dec. 8, North Korean President Kim Jong Un's uncle Jang Song Thaek, long viewed as the second most powerful man in North Korea, was stripped of all his titles. Four days later, Korean Central News Agency announced his execution for several crimes, including "thrice-cursed treason."

From the outside, North Korea can seem like an absurdist's paradise, but for the roughly 24 million North Koreans navigating the system, and especially for the elite in Pyongyang closer to the epicenter of the recent reverberations, this is their reality.

North Korea is such a difficult place to understand that sometimes fiction provides more insight than speculation. On Dec. 16, I spoke with the fictional incarnation of one of those elites -- Inspector O, a mid-ranking official at the Ministry of Public Security -- at an innocuous location that I am duty-bound not to disclose.

Inspector O is the creation of a former CIA officer with decades of experience in North Korea, who goes by the pseudonym James Church. Church, who has written several detective novels about his character, spoke with Foreign Policy in the guise of his fictional creation Inspector O, about the situation in the murky city of Pyongyang following Jang's execution.

FP: What was Jang's reputation in North Korea?

IO: Everyone knew Jang was married to Kim Jong Il's sister -- and that their relations weren't good. People had the feeling he had a great deal of self-confidence. And a little bit of a swagger, even if he didn't necessarily walk with one. I remember in 2010 I was at a rally in Pyongyang, and Gen. Kim Jong Il was up on the reviewing stand with a lot of uniformed people. As he walked by, everyone in uniform braced and kicked and saluted. And Jang sort of lounged, looking bored, and I remembered thinking to myself, 'I'm not the only one who saw this.'

FP: Why didn't Jang's family background protect him from execution?

IO: Church says he heard from someone in Seoul that when Kim Jong Il died, Jang lost his top cover. Jang served at the pleasure of General Kim. He wasn't appointed to his position by Kim Jong Un, so it was always more precarious, as far as most of us were concerned. Outsiders always call him No. 2 -- there is no No. 2. You're either No. 1 or you're with everybody else.

FP: Have you ever met Jang?

IO: No. He drove through my sector once, but he didn't stop to wave.

FP: What theories are circulating about what happened?

IO: The time between Jang getting led out and executed was just a day or two. The West thought this was a big surprise -- no appeal process, happened so fast, making it seem like these decisions were willy-nilly. But what if this thing had been underway for some time in North Korea? What if people around Jang and his subordinates suddenly started realizing they weren't getting invitation to lunch anymore? That their phone calls weren't being answered? The shock felt on the outside may not be the same measure of shock that a significant stratum felt in North Korea. It might have been a big surprise to the man on the street, but he's used to surprises. Also, some say that this is all about money. And that Jang had too much of it.

FP:  Can you talk a bit more about Jang's relationship with money?

IO: Tight. Swimming in it. Anytime money moved across the border with China, Jang either controlled it or had a way to get some of it. Money doesn't ennoble human relations, and it didn't used to be important in North Korea.

Jang may have been the direction things would go. And still may go. People wanted us to look like China. There are a hell of a lot of poor people in China, still. Many workers in Beijing are being paid in spit.

Kim Jong Un has promised to concentrate on the people's livelihood. And I guess a lot of people are still waiting to see what that means. The money thing might have been enough to get him knocked down a few pegs, or even moved out to the Big Farms again, but not enough to get him executed. I think he had to do something that Kim Jong Un himself personally perceived as a threat. 

FP: Apologies if I'm getting into dangerous territory here, but would someone actually move against Kim Jong Un?

IO: I was taught never to talk with my mouth full. My mouth is full right now. (Pauses.) Most of the time, the guys in the Ministry of State Security are bumbling and lazy. But on something like this, they know what they're doing.

FP: What was their involvement in something like this?

IO: When Kim Jong Un went to Samjiyon, just before the Politburo meeting where Jang was deposed, who was right beside him but the Minister of State Security? How often does he travel up to Samjiyon? Not very often. How often does he travel with Kim? Not very often. Now, our problem was they wanted us to escort Jang out of the Politburo hall. Lots of people called in sick that day.

FP: In the KCNA statement, Jang was portrayed as a puppet of China. Why was China blamed?

IO: The Chinese businessmen in our country are pretty sharp. And they're not here because they love us. Or for the noodles at Ongyun Restaurant. When we hear them complain about being cheated, we really laugh, since most of them are way ahead of us when it comes to knowing how to cut corners. They're taking a lot of our coal, millions of tons a year! And sometimes I hear people asking, 'Couldn't we use that coal? Do we have to be cold in the winter so those damn Chinese can be warm?' So we'll have to see if these things change. 

Businessmen are like chickens. When there is a loud noise, thy run and hide for a little bit, and then they come back outside. If they went home, they'll be back. We are forced by our geography to keep a relationship. There's nothing we can do about it.

FP: Dennis Rodman visited North Korea in February and September, meeting with Kim both times, and will return in late December for an exhibition game.

IO: Yes. It was widely publicized internally. People were a little curious, let me put it that way.

FP: That sounds euphemistic.

IO: He is a tall striking figure, who has more tattoos on him than we would think necessary. But he seems to have struck up a good relationship quickly, and lots of us love basketball.

FP: After the purge, KCNA photoshopped Jang out of photos, and deleted almost their entire online archive. Some commentators are comparing this to George Orwell's 1984. Have you read it?

IO: No. I haven't read the book. And if I had read it, I wouldn't remember it. I don't remember stories by authors who write about barnyard animals. You know, I do remember a story: when your President Richard Nixon went to China in 1972, there was a very small meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Nixon, and a few other people. Anyway, when the meeting was over and the Chinese wanted to announce it, the Americans said 'You can't say Kissinger was in the meeting! This will be offensive and cause us trouble.' So they left out the names, blotted his face from the picture. Did the Americans object, jumping up and down? No, it was convenient.

My heart doesn't bleed when people poke fun at us. This is how we do our business.

FP: Would a careful foreign observer notice anything different, were they to wander around Pyongyang?

IO: You mean since the unfortunate events? A few more police patrols, perhaps. You know, you normally don't see police in Pyongyang. I went to New York once -- saw lots of police, big burly ugly guys with machine guns. 'You going to have a revolution in New York?' I thought. No matter.

I'm just guessing, but I bet Pyongyang Capital Command troops are being told to stay near their barracks. And in all of the other core commands, everyone is being told to walk carefully and not make any sudden moves. I don't know, but I'm guessing.

FP: What's your plan?

IO: I just do my job. We've been through ups and downs before. I think most people just want to get through this, that's all. You know, winter is always pretty gloomy here. So you always have gloomy thoughts. Let's see what happens when spring comes. If they leave us alone, on the outside, I don't think there will be any trouble.

FP: Why does the rest of the world matter?

IO: Because they have crazy ideas about being able to stick their hands in here and move around the furniture. We keep being told, look at Iraq, look at Libya, look at Serbia, look what happens if the outsiders think they have a chance to move in. That's a lot of tragedy, from where I sit. 

But this is all just what I think -- maybe you should ask Church. He's the one who's supposed to know so much...


Human Rights, Snowden, and How Not to Get Hacked

The U.S. ambassador to China speaks to Foreign Policy.

There was a time when a crackdown following an attack on Tiananmen Square, the symbolic heart of Beijing, would provoke a statement from the United States urging China to respect human rights. But Gary Locke is an ambassador of a different era. Now, increasingly complex economic ties, the fallout from whistleblower Edward Snowden's leaks, and the shift in the balance of power between the two nations means that Locke is increasingly expected to accommodate China, not criticize it.

A former commerce secretary and governor of the state of Washington, Locke's tenure has been a diplomatic juggling act, encompassing the May 2012 diplomatic standoff over the fate of blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, the fall of Chinese politician Bo Xilai (precipitated by an aide's attempted defection to a U.S. consulate), and revelations that both the United States and China engage in widespread hacking.

On Oct. 31, three days after a car driven by a member of China's beleaguered Uighur minority group exploded on an avenue outside of Tiananmen Square, I sat down with the ambassador in the J.W. Marriott in downtown Washington, DC, for an interview. We discussed Edward Snowden's effect on the U.S.-China relationship, how to stay safe from hacking, and the very particular phrase he used to convey U.S. opinions on Chinese human rights violations. (The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.) His responses, below, are telling.

Foreign Policy: With the debt crisis in October, has China ever pushed you to push the United States to get its economic house in order?

Gary Locke: No, they know that we are getting our economic house in order. The Chinese government wants a strong and quick economic recovery in the United States because they know they benefit from more Americans working, having more money in their pockets and spending it in department stores -- because a large percentage of what Americans buy everyday is made in China.

FP: In October 2012, U.S. lawmakers said Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei poses a national security threat to the United States. Since the Snowden leaks, how have the Chinese reacted differently in discussions about Huawei?

GL: It really hasn't changed the tenor of our discussions about Huawei.

FP: This is one of the most polluted years in China in recent memory. Are there any plans to cut back on monitoring the pollution in Beijing?

GL: No, not at all. If there is one thing we are very, very proud of, which shows the power of American values and American environmentalism, it's the monitors for PM 2.5 [airborne particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers] on top of not just the U.S. embassy in Beijing, but now on all of our consulates throughout China.

I've been to so many parts of China, talking and meeting with Chinese people who don't know a single word of English other than "hello," "goodbye," and "PM 2.5." More people in China know the concept and phrase PM 2.5 than Americans.

FP: Do you presume that the information NSA leaker Edward J. Snowden carried with him in his laptops to Hong Kong has been compromised by the Chinese?

GL: I have no information. I wouldn't be able to comment on that at all.

FP: Is that the impression among the people you've spoken with?

GL: That issue has not come up in my discussions with Chinese government officials.

FP: In a recent New York Times interview, Snowden said his familiarity with China's intelligence abilities means there was a "zero percent" chance the Chinese have received any of his documents.

GL: I'm not aware of that interview, and I'm not in a position to comment on anything Mr. Snowden has said.

FP: Has he made your job more difficult?

GL: China is always a challenging environment, but I'm really proud of the great accomplishments we as an embassy and mission have been able to make.

FP: Has your phone or computer ever been hacked?

GL: Not that I know of. But I wouldn't know!

FP: Your predecessor as U.S. commerce secretary, Carlos M. Gutierrez, was reportedly hacked in 2008. What precautions do you and your staff take in China, or in other parts of the world, to protect your devices?

GL: When we were in the Commerce Department, anywhere we went, we had our phones, Blackberries, and equipment checked before we left the United States and had it checked as soon as we got back. As ambassador, we follow State Department procedures.

FP: You don't have stricter procedures in China, than, say France or South Korea?

GL: I think State Department procedures are tailored to different parts of the world. But I think most of the procedures are standard and good practices, wherever you go.

FP: Can you have a phone with you in a meeting with high-ranking Chinese officials? Is that allowed?

GL: Yes.

FP: A phone that's on? Do State Department procedures allow you to have a phone that's on during a meeting with, say, China's foreign minister or a vice foreign minister?

GL: Well, let me just say that I exercise a lot of caution wherever I go when I have a cellphone, even in the United States.

FP: What's the U.S. position on the Oct. 28 attack just outside of Beijing's Tiananmen Square, which killed five people and wounded at least 42?

GL: We deplore any and all acts of terrorism. Our condolences go out to all the victims of that car crash, in which bystanders, tourists from other countries and from within China, and police officers were seriously injured.

FP: Was it an act of terrorism?

GL: Well, that's what the Chinese are saying. We have no independent information, but again the United States deplores any and all types of terrorism.

FP: How do you think this will affect tensions among the Han Chinese and Uighurs throughout the country? [Ed note: On Oct. 30, Beijing stated a man with a Uighur name drove the car, and arrested five other Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority who live mostly in the northwestern Chinese territory of Xinjiang, for planning "holy war." They have since identified the driver as a Uighur from Xinjiang.]

GL: I don't know what Chinese authorities plan to do, so I can't really speculate on that. We've long believed that the Chinese government should try to preserve the culture, the language, and the customs of different ethnic minority groups throughout China.

FP: Are the Chinese committing human rights violations in Xinjiang?

GL: Well, we've said all along that we believe that the Chinese government should try to be more respectful of the different cultures, religions, and languages within Xinjiang and elsewhere in China. China does have many other different ethnic minorities and...

FP: So you have no position on whether the Chinese are committing human rights violations in Xinjiang?

GL: We have said repeatedly that we believe the Chinese government should try to preserve the culture, the language, and the customs of the Uighur people in Xinjiang.

FP: But the question of human rights is not something you're willing to comment on? It's seems like there are two different things here. You can preserve the culture, the language, and the customs of the Uighur people and commit human rights violations, or not preserve them and not commit human rights violations. I'm wondering, what is the U.S. position on human rights issues in Xinjiang?

GL: We think there should be greater tolerance and respect for the religious practices and the cultural practices and the language of the Uighur people in Xinjiang.

FP: Beyond what you've said before, there's no additional position the U.S. government takes on, say, rounding up young Uighur men and holding them in extralegal detention?

GL: We have great concerns about many of the police practices throughout China, whether targeted towards minorities or Han Chinese.

FP: But no extra concerns about Uighurs?

GL: We have very deep concerns about the Uighur community in terms of less accommodation and less acceptance of the very distinct cultural aspects of the Uighur community. We believe there should be greater tolerance and embracing of different cultures, languages, and customs.

FP: Since February 2009, at least 122 Tibetans have reportedly self-immolated, many in protest of repressive policies in the western Chinese region of Tibet. How do you see the situation unfolding in Lhasa, the region's capital city?

GL: I was able to visit last June, and again we believe the Chinese government should embrace more the customs, the religions, and the culture of the Tibetan people. We believe they should have greater interaction with the Tibetan leaders in Tibet.

FP: Not the Dalai Lama?

GL: Our position is very clear on that. We don't support independence of Tibet, and we urge the Chinese government to meet with the representatives of the Dalai Lama. That's a long-standing position.

We believe that many tensions both in Xinjiang and in Tibet could be alleviated if the Chinese people engaged with the leaders of those communities and really try to address the issues that the Uighurs have with respect to the practicing of their religion, and promotion of language and culture.

FP: Would it be fair to say that your position is that, while there are tensions in Xinjiang and Tibet, and while you believe the Chinese government should embrace the culture, religion, and customs of Uighurs and Tibetans,  human rights violations do not play a part of that calculus?

GL: No, no, not at all. We're very concerned about the human rights conditions in China.

FP: In China, or in Xinjiang and Tibet?

GL: In all places in China, including Xinjiang and Tibet.

FP: Sure but human rights issues, in say, the [wealthy eastern province] Hebei are not...

GL: We've noticed a greater crackdown on people who are speaking out about political issues, environmental issues.

FP: For an outside observer who has never been to China and is not familiar with the situation, from reading this interview, they would get the impression that the U.S. government view is that the human rights situation in China is the same in Beijing, as it is in [the northeastern province of] Jilin, as it is in Tibet and Xinjiang.

GL: Being able to practice your religion and maintain your culture is part of human rights, and to the extent that there is less tolerance for that in Xinjiang and Tibet, is part of human rights.

FP: Ok. I'll stop harping on that point. Let's go to a slightly easier topic: How confident do Chinese leaders appear to be in Kim Jong Un's leadership and the stability of North Korea?

GL: Our interactions with the Chinese government have indicated a common interest in preventing the North Koreans from developing a nuclear weapon.

FP: Since Japan's Sept. 2012 nationalization of the Senkakus, an island chain administered by Japan but claimed by China, tensions between the two nations have been high. How worried are you about war breaking out between China and Japan?

GL: The thing we are most concerned about is unintended incidences that can suddenly flare up and cause even greater instability, and unintended conflict. As Vice President Biden is fond of saying, his father told him that what's worse than an intended conflict is an unintended conflict.

FP: Do the Chinese believe the United States will honor its security arrangement with Japan if they attack the Senkakus?

GL: You'd have to ask them. I can't get into their minds. But our position has been made very clear by a host of U.S. government officials.

FP: What was your take on the trial of fallen Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, which saw him sentenced to life in prison in Sept. 2013 for the charges of bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power?

GL: Not at all unexpected. The courts are still controlled by the government. We were all expecting a firm and strong sentence. At the same time, we expected him to be able to mount a defense.

FP: There is a rumor floating around that former Premier Wen Jiabao is under suspicion, after an Oct. 2012 New York Times story that reported his family has controlled at least $2.7 billion in assets.

GL: I have no information about that.

FP: There have been reports in Western newspapers that the controversial former Chinese security czar Zhou Yongkang is under investigation. This would make him the highest-ranking official to fall in China in decades. Is he being investigated?

GL: I have really no idea. We have no information to that. We've seen reports that various people in [China National Petroleum Corporation], the oil and gas company that he used to be affiliated with, are under investigation. But that's all we know.

FP: It seems that the fate of Zhou is one of the most important stories potentially happening in China right now. I'm wondering if you could offer any insight on that?

GL: We have no information on that issue at all.