Growing Anti-Kim Jong-un Sentiment in the North
“True North,” an animation film on the political prison camp in North Korea, was released on June 4, 2021. As a North Korean defector, I went to see it myself. The director, Eiji Han Shimizu, a fourth-generation North Korean living in Japan, created the film based on interviews with many defectors, including five former prisoners.
I am grateful he introduced North Korea’s little-known political prison camps to the Japanese audience. However, from my experience working on the demolition of a political prison camp when I lived in the North, I would add the reality is even more harrowing. For more details, please refer to my book, “Joys and Sorrows of Life in the North” (in Japanese).
Yet, the reality of the North hardly ever reaches the outside world, and we could say the whole country is like a prison camp. So, with cooperation from my defected friends, I would like to report the recent information from North Korea in this article.
“Heroes” Detained in Political Prison Camps
Many in North Korea’s political prison camps are said to be alleged informants or on other false charges, instead of real political prisoners. Recently, we heard from the North the perpetrator that assassinated Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of Kim Jong-un, was imprisoned.
On February 13, 2017, Kim Jong-nam, the eldest son of Kim Jong-il, was murdered with poison in broad daylight at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia. For Kim Jong-un (third son of Kim Jong-il), the third generation of the Kim dynasty, Kim Jong-nam was his greatest political enemy for whom he had twisted feelings.
Kim Jong-nam belonged to the Mount Paektu bloodline from his grandfather Kim Il-sung, and the Chinese Communist Party recognized Kim Jong-nam as the legitimate heir rather than the greenhorn Kim Jong-un, and the Chinese authorities were guarding Kim Jong-nam after he left the North. In addition, Jang Song-thaek (husband of Kim Jong-il’s sister), who was brutally executed by Kim Jong-un, had secretly provided living expenses to Kim Jong-nam during his exile.
After Jang Song-thaek was executed in December 2013, a five-member group was established at the direction of Kim Jong-un to assassinate Kim Jong-num. The leader of the group was a hit man named Choi Soon-ho, head of the Seventh Department of the Reconnaissance General Bureau that specializes in terrorism, assassination, and subversive activities. For the successful assassination of Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-un awarded Choi the Hero of the Korean People’s Republic title.
Yet, it was said that in April 2021, the five members of the assassin group, including Choi, were detained in the Yodok concentration camp. No one knows what became of them. For Kim Jong-un, assassin groups are like replaceable hounds. There was probably no reason to let live the perpetrator of his half brother’s murder.
However, I believe in the near future, the countless atrocities of the Kim Il-sung Family are sure to be exposed to the world, and like the Nazis and Hitler, their every brutal act will go down in the history books.
Anti-Regime Banners in The Capital Center
In the November 2020 issue of the “Seiron” magazine, I reported on the anti-regime leaflets scattered in the North from South Korea. According to what I learned from within North Korea, with cooperation from fellow defectors, recently, an unprecedented anti-Kim Jong-un movement has been meticulously organized and is developing in North Korea. Frustration towards Kim Jong-un dictatorship is spreading behind the scenes among university students in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, and throughout the country.
The food situation in North Korea has always been tough, but by the late 1990s, the rationing system had completely stopped functioning, and countless people starved to death. During this period, called the “Arduous March,” 3 million people in North Korea are said to have died of starvation.
The only way to get food was through the black market (Jangmadang), which the authorities overlooked. No rationing from the state could be expected when the youths and university students of the “Jangmadang generation” grew up, so naturally at heart, they do not trust the state nor have loyalty towards Kim Jong-un.
It has been confirmed that anti-regime leaflets were scattered in Pyongyang, Pyongsong, Sunchon, and Sariwon near the capital, as well as in South and North Pyongan Provinces along the west coast, and in provincial cities such as Sinuiju, Hyesan, and Hoeryong along the Chinese border, while caricatures and graffiti were also found on the exterior walls of the City Hall, Ministry of State Security (secret police) buildings, and Ministry of Social Security (police) buildings.
Both Ministries are conducting extensive investigations, but hardly any perpetrators have been caught because surveillance cameras are not widely available in North Korea, even in urban areas, due in part to the power shortage.
In early 2021, near Kim Il-sung Square in central Pyongyang, an enormous banner was hung on roadside tree branches during the night. It read, “Remove Kim Jong-un and become the next An Jung-geun (the young assassin of Ito Hirobumi) !“ “South Korea is the world’s tenth largest economy, yet we are the poorest country in the world! What is the cause?” in broad letters.
The flyers scattered around the country read, “Food, not nukes!” “Another Arduous March? No, a slavery march, a starvation march!” “Who is our country for?!” Unlike in the past, these words were straight outcries of people’s resentment.
One graffiti found in the regional area read, “We have to kill and eat the fattest pig in our country!” The plump pig had the face of Kim Jong-un.
Rebellion from Within?
From early 2021, in the suburbs of Pyongyang, construction of 10,000 apartments has been underway on Kim Jong-un’s orders in the Sadong District, rather like Tokyo’s Adachi Ward.
While most construction machinery cannot be used for lack of fuel, the Youth Shock Brigades (semi-mandatory volunteers) from various regions, military personnel, and even university students are working day and night to build over a dozen stories by human labor. Naturally, there has been a string of fatal accidents from falls and other causes, but Kim Jong-un is unconcerned about such things.
Since central Pyongyang is a showcase city where foreigners also visit, it is bristling with over-40-story condominiums. Elevator factories exist in North Korea, and these skyscrapers have elevators, but they hardly operate due to chronic power shortages. So, residents have no choice but to take the stairs carrying heavy baggage, and the higher the floor, then less popularity.
In North Korea, you often see people with high social status trying to switch rooms with those on the lower floors. Similarly, with the apartments under construction in the capital’s suburbs, even if elevators are installed, they will not operate, so the upper floors are likely to be more unpopular.
In early May 2021, leaflets amounting to at least 60 kilograms (the amount collected by the military) were scattered at night from atop an apartment building under construction. The leaflets were released in the air as the wind blew toward central Pyongyang.
Surprisingly, it is said that instead of poor-quality domestic paper, the A4-size anti-regime leaflets were made from high-quality imported printing paper. Such paper is out of reach for the general public, and only obtainable by those in a high position. It appears even high-ranking members of the Workers’ Party of Korea are involved in anti-Kim Jong-un activities, such as the spreading of anti-regime leaflets.
Since there are no surveillance cameras like those in Japan or South Korea, the perpetrators of the anti-regime leafleting have not been caught. Of course, at the center of the regime, wiretaps and security cameras are installed in Kim Jong-un’s office and in large conference rooms. But obviously, there are no security cameras at outdoor construction sites far from central Pyongyang.
In late April 2021, Chairman Park Sang-hak of Fighters for a Free North Korea, a defector-run activist group in South Korea, launched balloons carrying a half million leaflets, 5,000 one-dollar bills, 5,000 USB memory sticks containing Korean drama videos, and 500 booklets. Some of them landed in North Korea‘s rural villages and military barracks in Wonsan, Kangwon Province. (Since a law banning the spread of propaganda leaflets in North Korea came into effect in late March 2021, Park was indicted and is now on trial).
Wonsan is home to Kim Jong-un’s villa and said to be his birthplace. That April, Kim Jong-un attended various meetings and events in Pyongyang and came to the Wonsan villa to refresh his mind and body. But on the day of his arrival, leaflets from South Korea were scattered all over Wonsan.
Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, immediately issued a statement on May 2, threatening South Korea by saying that the Moon Jae-in administration will face “consequences” for tolerating “the dirty human scum” defectors who betrayed their motherland to scatter leaflets by balloons. President Moon remained silent to this, and only a representative of the National Intelligence Service responded that South Korea strictly controls the spreading of leaflets against the North by law, and does not tolerate it. Is South Korea so terrified of Kim Yo Jong?
Unreliable Chinese Vaccines
At a press conference on June 30, 2021, when China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Wang Wenbin was asked by a reporter whether China would send COVID vaccines to North Korea, he said, “We respect the anti-epidemic measures North Korea has put in place based on its national realities and wish it smooth progress in all its endeavors. ……China stands ready to positively consider providing help to North Korea should there be such a need,” and avoided a clear statement.
To begin with, North Korea insists it has zero COVID cases. So how is the vaccine situation?
On July 4, 2021, Kyodo News reported that although unconfirmed, there are talks of North Korea receiving vaccine supply from China and trade workers have received shots. According to what I have heard from sources at Workers’ Party of Korea, since late 2020, Chinese vaccines have been sent to North Korea for free from Beijing.
Residents in Sinuiju and other regional cities along the Chinese border are receiving shots of Chinese vaccine before the rest of the nation because of the serious COVID (Wuhan) virus outbreak caused by smuggling. However, the vaccine’s efficacy has been questioned by the North Korean authorities. Since the amount supplied by China is not so large, it is believed Chinese vaccines are not yet available in the capital of Pyongyang.
The serious adverse reactions and the high number of post-shot deaths also seem to be the reason Chinese vaccines are not available in Pyongyang. The North Korean authorities have signed a contract to import Russian vaccines after deciding that Chinese vaccines are unreliable. However, unlike the ones from China, Russia’s vaccines are not free, and as of early July 2021, the payment had not yet been made, so the actual imports have not begun.
By the way, when we see photos of recent meetings Kim Jong-un has attended in North Korea (for example, the General Assembly of the Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee in mid-June 2021), you notice that neither he, his aides, nor any other attendees are wearing masks. Kim Jong-un, believed to be suffering from an underlying disease, would not so easily allow his aides to be maskless. This is evidence that Kim Jong-un is relieved there is no longer any concern about COVID around him. But why could he be so reassured?
According to what we have heard from North Korea, Kim Jong-un and his aides have received jabs of the Pfizer vaccine, instead of the Sinovax for the general public. Where on earth does this come from? North Korea has arranged with the World Health Organization (WHO) to purchase Pfizer vaccines for 2,500 people via a certain country (not China) between late 2020 and early 2021. As is well known, the WHO is lenient towards dictatorships, including China.
North Korea is often considered as a country isolated from the rest of the world, but while it does not have diplomatic relations with Japan or the U.S., it does with over 150 countries in the world. As is apparent from the fact that Kim Jong-un had studied in Switzerland, North Korea has deep ties with European countries, and the Pfizer vaccine is likely to have been purchased via a European country. This information came from sources close to a senior official of the Workers’ Party of Korea who actually received vaccination.
Although the central government seems relieved from the fear of COVID, the general public continues to suffer, as the tight closure of the Sino-North Korean border from 2020 shows. Since North Korea claims zero COVID cases, it cannot ask for help from other countries. Even if the Russian vaccine becomes available for the people, it will be some time in the future, and North Korea’s COVID crisis is likely to drag on for a while.
Military Attacked by Civilians
Under these circumstances, a major development occurred at the expanded meeting of the Politburo of the Workers’ Party of Korea, held in late June 2021. The Kyodo News reported that Kim Jong-un reprimanded officers for causing great crisis through negligence in dealing with the prolonged COVID outbreak, saying, “a crucial case of creating a great crisis in ensuring the security of the state and safety of the people” had occurred, and decided to dismiss some officers.
Based on video analysis of the incident, it is believed Politburo Standing Committee member Secretary of the Central Committee Ri Pyong-chol (Korean People’s Army Marshal) and Politburo member Pak Jong-chon (Chief of General Staff of the Korean People’s Army) were dismissed from their posts.
Dismissing two of the highest military commanders second to the Marshal of the Republic (Kim Jong-un) at the same time is extraordinary. The reasons for their dismissal appear to be the COVID outbreak and malnutrition among the military units.
Some speculate it was because the military was reluctant to follow the order to provide reserved rice to the people. In addition to the COVID pandemic, the previous year’s typhoon, and the closure of the Chinese border have resulted in a severe food shortage that year, and North Korea is finally being forced to release its military rice reserve.
Because North Korea’s low-ranked military personnel never received enough food in the first place, since the time I was living there over 20 years ago, it was common for soldiers to rob food supplies from civilians. Recently, however, we heard from within North Korea of many cases of desperate civilians attacking military personnel.
In April 2021, three automatic rifles and five handguns were robbed from a border guard post near Sinuiju. Three young men, believed to be civilians, attacked and strangled an infantryman with a rope, took the key from his pocket, stole weapons from the arsenal, and fatally shot three sleeping guards. The three men crossed the bordering Yalu River to the Chinese side by a rubber boat and escaped into the forest.
In June 2021, on the outskirts of Sariwon, not far from Pyongyang, a young man robbed a rifle and a handgun from a sleeping soldier in an army barrack and remains unarrested. The suspect, on a nationwide wanted list, is a twenty-two-year-old student at Sariwon University of Agriculture.
What are the intentions of these youths? Some leaflets scattered around the country read, “Young men and soldiers, let’s work together to overthrow Kim Jong-un!” “The day Kim Jong-un is assassinated is the emancipation day!” Others read, “Why aren’t the U.S. troops coming to attack? U.S. military should be the emancipator, not the aggressor.” The North Korean people regard Kim Jong-un as a complete nuisance and have no trust in him.
Although hated by the people, Kim Jong-un still has total control of power, as is evidenced by the fact he has a free hand on top military personnel.
In North Korea, Kim Jong-un’s concentration of power and authority is so strong, it is said even the lowest-rank soldier cannot fire a single bullet without his permission. With such a heavy workload, Kim Jong-un often suffers from health problems.
Recently, video images of considerably thinner Kim Jong-un were aired. While the details are unknown since his health condition is a top secret, rumors circulating in Pyongyang say he may be suffering from diabetes complications, or he had one-third of his stomach removed in a gastric sleeve surgery to lose weight.
Partly for such health concerns, North Korea created the First Secretary post (said to be still vacant) under Party General Secretary Kim Jong-un. It is said that Kim Jong-un will eventually appoint his close aide Jo Yong-won, a member of the Presidium of the Politburo, or his sister Kim Yo Jong. In any case, Kim Jong-un will only delegate a part of his authority, and in no way will he give up any part of his power.
In the June 2021 issue of the “Seiron” magazine, Kinichi Nishimura wrote, “Kim Jong-un’s power base is solid.” That is true. However, despite his grip on power, Kim Jong-un has not won the hearts of the people. As mentioned earlier, the military is suffering from COVID-19 and malnutrition, and the fit soldiers are being sent to apartment construction sites instead of military tasks. Therefore, North Korea does not have enough strength left for a military invasion of South Korea.
Representative of Japan Living in Kanto District North Korea Refugee Cooperation Meeting. Born in the Hokuriku region of Japan in 1945. A second-generation North Korean resident in Japan. Moved to North Korea with his parents during second grade in high school. Later defected from North Korea via China. Gathers information on North Korea through remaining family members. Director of the Society to Help Returnees to North Korea. Author of “Joys and Sorrows of Life in the North: 45 Years of Living in North Korea” (in Japanese, from Takagi Shobo).