Transparency is hardly the first adjective that comes to mind when one thinks of North Korea. Slowly but surely, however, the Hermit Kingdom is becoming more transparent under Kim Jong-un.
The latest instance of this was the disappearance and resurfacing of Kim Jong-un. As Clint has already noted on the Koreas blog, on Tuesday North Korean state media published photos of Kim giving “field guidance” at two sites (presumably on Monday). These pictures were only remarkable as the North Korean leader had not been seen in public in about 40 days, the longest disappearance since he first appeared in public in 2010. In the photos, Kim is seen walking with a cane. Even before these images were published, in late September North Korea’s state media acknowledged that Kim Jong-un was “suffering discomfort.”
In most countries, neither of these things would be of any significance. In the Hermit Kingdom they most certainly are. Although using the vague term “discomfort,” North Korea’s media conveyed that Kim was suffering some physical ailment. This is significant given that North Korea’s propaganda machine portrays Kim Jong-un and his father and grandfather as infallible in every regard. In the past, this has meant that it hasn’t revealed when the leader was suffering. For example, when Kim Jong-il had a stroke in 2008, North Korea’s state media never acknowledged something was wrong and most handlers of Western journalists refused to even answer questions about Kim Jong-il having a stroke. The official response to foreigners was that the foreign reports about the Dear Leader having a stroke were a Western conspiracy.
For the same reason, Kim Jong-un’s reappearance is also significant. Specifically, that Kim would reappear in public while visibly ill — i.e. using a cane — is another departure from the past. When Kim Jong-il was ill following his stroke in 2008, North Korea’s state media only released images where he appeared at full health. According to Lim Byeong Cheol, a spokesman from South Korea’s Unification Ministry, North Korea’s state media never showed either Kim Jong-il or Kim Il-sung using a cane or crutch.
This is not the first departure of its kind under Kim Jong-un. For example, in April 2012 North Korea’s state media also acknowledged that a satellite — which was launched amid much fanfare as part of the celebrations marking the centennial of Kim Il-sung’s birth — had failed to reach orbit and that scientists would investigate the cause of the failure. It was the first time North Korea had acknowledged a long-range missile launch failure, according to the New York Times.
Another example of North Korea’s new transparency was the very public purge of Jang Song-thaek in December of last year. This began on December 9 when both the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and Rodong Sinmun published a very lengthy list of Jang’s alleged crimes. Later in the day, North Korean television carried dramatic images of Jang being arrested at a Party meeting. A few days later state media carried reports that Jang had been tried by a special military tribunal of the DPRK Ministry of State Security and had admitted all crimes against him. He was therefore found guilty and executed.
As Andrei Lankov noted at the time, the public spectacle surrounding Jang’s arrest was “without precedent in North Korea’s history.” Lankov went on to explain that, “since the late 1950s, all purges in North Korea have been done surreptitiously, with no direct mention being made publicly until long after the event.” Even in the early 1950s, when purges of prominent North Korean officials were acknowledged publicly, this usually consisted of a terse report carried in state newspapers with very few details. The publicity of Jang’s case was indeed without precedent.
Similarly, when a 23-story apartment building collapsed in Pyongyang earlier this year, North Korea’s media acknowledged that “sloppy building” and “irresponsible supervision and control” had contributed to the building’s collapse. It went further with Choe Pu-il, the minister of the people’s security agency, saying he and his agency were responsible for the “unpardonable crime.” Images in state media showed government officials “bowing in apology… before what appeared to be a crowd of district residents gathered at a construction site.” Only in the rarest of cases prior to this had North Korea’s state media even acknowledged that incidents like a building collapsing or a large explosion occurred at all — much less having the government take responsibility for them.
Without question, then, North Korea under Kim Jong-un has been significantly more transparent than was the case under his father or grandfather. His disappearance and reappearance is merely the latest example of this.
Unfortunately, this greater level of transparency almost certainly doesn’t represent a change in the North Korean regime itself. Rather, it is indicative of changes in North Korean society that the regime is only grudgingly coming to accept out of necessity. It is well documented that despite the regime’s best efforts, a greater number of North Koreans have access to news and information from foreign sources in China, South Korea, and elsewhere. Pyongyang recognizes that its citizens will hear about significant events like a missile launch failing or Kim Jong-un being ill. It is therefore trying to get out in front of these events to define the narrative for ordinary North Koreans, instead of allowing foreign media define it for them.
This explains why North Korean media acknowledged that Kim was “suffering discomfort,” and why he appeared in public while using a cane. Both of these things were necessary to prevent North Koreans from believing the wild conspiracy theories about Kim’s disappearance that have been spouted in foreign media outlets.