After months of public relations flirtation that led the world to believe that Kim Jong-un would be taking his first foreign trip as head of state to Moscow this month, North Korea has abruptly cancelled the voyage, according to a Russian diplomatic source.
The news comes on the heels of South Korean intelligence reports of yet more purges in the upper echelons of the north, where the spring has been punctuated by executions. The victims are alleged to have included a forestry official, a would-be architecture critic and several espionage-prone members of a state orchestra that travelled to Paris in 2012. (While North Korea’s “first lady” Ri Sol-ju is frequently connected to that musical ensemble, known as the Unhasu Orchestra, she ceased performing with it in 2011 – and the group has already been through a previous round of grisly execution rumours which turned out to be at least partially false.)
North Korea’s cancellation of the Kim Jong-un visit does not mean that the state has stopped its diplomacy altogether. One elder statesman recently returned from a conference in Bandung, Indonesia, where he reconnected with North Korea’s good friends – in this case Robert Mugabe and envoys from Syria and Iran – and there have been vigorous and ongoing discussions with Mongolia and Russia about railroads, coal and off-shore oil exploration.
Compared with this spring’s total quarantine of the country and the closing of the long northern border, due supposedly to fears over an Ebola outbreak, North Korea is indeed still open for business – and tourism.
But Kim Jong-un’s inability to leave his own country even for a few days ought to raise questions about what precisely he is afraid of.
Kim Jong-un and his handlers are clearly rather nervous about his fragile domestic political legitimacy. The execution of Jang Song-taek (Kim Jong-un’s uncle) in December 2013 was never meant to, and could not, permanently anchor a culture of fearful obedience to the Kim family; ongoing coercive and persuasive pressure is needed. Moreover, the personality cult does not axiomatically replenish itself. Repeating the family myths and portraying the young leader as a seasoned hand is not sufficient to prevent resentment or alternative factions from developing.
Kim Jong-un is also obviously not secure with travelling around his own country, let alone going beyond its borders. Shortly after April 15, the anniversary of Kim Il-sun’s birth – a key day on the North Korean calendar – Kim Jong-un turned up on Mount Paektu, the peak associated in state propaganda with his family bloodline.
While most media commentary about the visit focused on the now-predictable cluster of “North Korea memes” – photoshopping, and the dictator’s hair, heft, shoes, and demeanour – what was more remarkable was his rapid retreat from the region around the Chinese border.
In more than three years of ostensibly governing North Korea, Kim Jong-un has yet to set foot in any number of major cities and production points in the state. Cities such as Sinuiju, Hyesan, Musan, Namyang, Onsung, Chongjin, or Rason may be obscure to us, but they are all important in their own ways, not least due to their proximity to China, the potent and relatively wealthy leviathan which shares an occasionally dangerous 1,400km boundary with North Korea.
This is certainly not the behaviour of a confident dictator, let alone an effective politician. The irony is that Kim Jong-un’s grandfather used to turn up in these northern cities, spending hours in epic rants about corruption and inefficiency, going on tangents about the need for more rabbit breeding in elementary schools across the country. (Yes, this was the solution to the age-old “food problem” given by Kim Il-sung in a speech in Chongjin in 1980; for some reason it never seems to have worked.)
In addition, North Korean security services appear to be spooked about the possibility that Kim Jong-un could be assassinated while he is on the road. The same young leader – who has taken to inspecting buildings in downtown Pyongyang on his personal jet – may be keen to travel abroad, but is being held back from doing so by his advisers and protectors. He has also never met with a counterpart head of state, and rarely greets foreign visitors.
A recent hour-long press conference in Pyongyang featured two captured South Korean “spies” accused by the Ministry of State Security of being “heinous terrorists who worked hard to do harm to the supreme leadership of the DPRK”. One detainee, Kim Guk-gi, then “admitted” that South Korean spies had been manoeuvring in Manchuria to kill Kim Jong-il on one of his several train trips into China in 2010-2011.
A colleague of mine once told me that on Kim Jong-il’s train trips around the north-east of China in 2010-11, the Dear Leader’s faeces were hoarded by the North Koreans as a kind of state secret, since they didn’t want Chinese intelligence to be able to do any type of test relating to the man’s failing health.
Anecdotes like this are powerful because they seem to confirm our image of the North Korean leadership as being extremely insular and paranoid. Kim Jong-un has made a few efforts since he came to power to project an image of North Korea that is more open and globally updated than ever before, but he has also amplified the daily practice of his own personality cult, threatened nuclear strikes on the continental US, and disappeared for long stretches of time.
The groundwork had been clearly laid for Kim Jong-un’s trip to Moscow, but his seeming confinement to several plush pockets and military installations around Pyongyang and Wonsan does not inspire confidence that the young man will take any foreign trips in the years ahead, irrespective of rumours to the contrary.