The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) is still closed to the progressive media and remains in the crosshairs of Western propaganda that frequently seeks to amuse the global audience in exaggerated representations of the reality.
Just remember reporting on the shootout in the Yellow Sea between the two Koreas on October 7 that sparked an avalanche of commentary about the "escalating military clashes." In order to understand how far the coverage is from reality, let us turn to the facts.
The Yellow Sea is divided between North Korea and the Republic of Korea by the Northern Limit Line (NLL) unilaterally drawn during the Korean War of 1950-1953 by United Nations forces that took the southerners' side. Pyongyang does not recognize the border, and the two countries’ ships patrolling their portions of the Yellow Sea regularly confront each other. This time, a North Korean patrol boat violated the NLL and went up to 900 meters into ROK waters. The South Korean missile boat demanded that the perpetrator leave the waters and gave several warning shots. The North Korean vessel returned fire, and the South Korean ship followed suit, after which the North Korean boat retreated.
Explaining the incident, the South Korean Navy spokesperson stressed that neither side was shooting to kill and no harm was inflicted. The North Korean vessel fired at a distance they knew was too great to hit the enemy, while the South Korean vessel was not aiming at the ship that violated the waters, although hinted that they may do so. It was the first incident of this sort since November 10, 2009. However, there have been other incidents, especially in 2010 when the probability of a conflict was running high and Russia even gathered the UN Security Council to calm the situation.
In other words, it was a regular "exchange of pleasantries", with both sides unwilling to make things worse. It also seems pertinent to recall another episode of October 10, when the North Koreans opened fire after South Korean activists launched balloons dispersing propaganda leaflets over DPRK territory.
South Korea launched a campaign of psychological warfare against its northern neighbor in 2008 under the presidency of Lee Myung-bak, and this escalated in 2010 when South Korean patrol ship Cheonan was sunk in the Yellow Sea. Normally, this is the prerogative of anticommunist organizations, and Pyongyang repeatedly requested that Seoul put an end to these activities, threatening to fire at the balloon launch sites.
This time, activists with the Fighters for Free North Korea movement directed ten huge balloons carrying a total of 200,000 leaflets towards the DPRK. North Korea responded with small arms fire aiming exclusively at the balloons, and no victims were reported. South Korea responded in kind with similar consequences, after which the ROK Ministry for Reunification recommended the defectors' groups refrain from their leafleting activity.
This advice came against a backdrop of the agreement on resuming high-level bilateral talks during the visit of a North Korean official delegation to Inchhon to participate in the closing ceremony of the Asian Games. The DPRK’s team included Kim Jong-un's two closest advisors – Hwang Pyong-so, Director of the Korean People’s Army General Political Department, and Choe Ryong-hae, Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea – as well as Kim Yang-gon, the party secretary in charge of Pyongyang's policy toward Seoul. South Korea was represented by Prime Minister Chung Hong-won, the president's foreign policy and security advisor Kim Hwan-jin and Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae
Notably, it was the highest-level North Korean delegation to visit the South, as even secret trips during the presidency of Park Chung-hee were held at a lower level. Hence, analysts view the outcomes of the latest visit as being much more important, especially since North Korea seems to have partially or fully shut down the reactor producing weapons-grade plutonium in the Yongbyon research center.
Nevertheless, these self-styled pundits seem reluctant to consider reports maintaining that North Korea is no longer a fanatical terrorist regime and has drastically changed its behavior, because it is much easier to savor gossip about the “disappearance of Kim Jong-un.”
In fact, the role of the leader in a Pyongyang-style regime is huge, and his prolonged absence from the public eye normally fuels rumors. Authoritarianism generates problems regarding the delegation of authority, which inevitably tells on the leaders’ health. As a result, both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il burned themselves out, although it would be imprudent to associate every “disappearance” with a crisis.
As far as Kim Jong-il is concerned, he once supposedly had a stroke or a heart operation, but his other vanishing acts were deliberate retreat and contemplation sessions.
North Korean media also reported that the nation’s leader was unwell, and the South Korean Defense Ministry ‘revealed’ that Kim Jong-un was recuperating after an unidentified illness. According to other sources, he had an operation on his ankles and was rehabilitating in Bongwha hospital in the North Korean capital.
What was actually wrong with Kim Jong-un? Versions vary in line with the commentators’ political allegiance. Some are keen to dwell on his obesity resulting from general gluttony and in particular his “addiction to Swiss cheese”. People said similar things of Kim Jong-il, only with Hennessy cognac as the leitmotif. The line is far from surprising, as it makes sense for propaganda to exploit the image of a dictator gaining weight while the nation is starving.
Meanwhile, specialists are higly aware that Kim Jong-un has long been suffering from diabetes that impacts his mobility but not his leadership.
To this end, it seems important to take a look at the experts who favor sensationalism in this regard. Former journalist Toshimitsu Shigemura, now at Waseda University, was the first to raise the possibility of a coup. In 2003, he found himself in the limelight when he stated that Kim Jong-il had passed away and the country was being ruled by his double. He also ‘exposed’ the “political reasons for execution of singer Hyon Song-wol”, who emerged alive and kicking six months later, as well as the discovery of student protests in North Korea – something he deduced after having read that students were sent to participate in the construction of critical facilities related to the centenary of Kim Il-sung. This time, Mr. Shigemura said that Kim Jong-un has been overthrown and the country is being ruled by a team of top bureaucrats. Although the former journalist laments that the academic community is unwilling to believe his dramatic assumptions, the tabloid press readily accepts them.
In fact, Kim Jong-il had been buried or toppled at least four times, with reports emanating either from anonymous sources or Mr. Shigemura-like experts on each occasion.
Meanwhile, the more clear-headed analysts and newspapers advise perceiving “any scoop on North Korea… with a portion of skepticism.” For example, The New York Times cites U.S. and South Korean officials who believe that Kim Jong-un might be sick, but see no signs of a coup. And The South China Morning Post is confident there is no split in the North Korean establishment, and that the country is under Mr. Kim’s full control.
If Kim Jong-un was unable to rule it would generate a major headache, because there seems to be no successor in the offing and the regime could face a legitimacy crisis, giving the nation’s adversaries yet more ammunition to rock the boat.
One thing is clear, it would be expedient for Russian experts to consider different scenarios for North Korea and devise the appropriate responses.