Off To the Races

“Oops, there goes another rubber tree plant,” Frank Sinatra used to sing. The day after the memorial rally—at which Kim Jong Un stepped out smartly onto the dais ahead of the rest of the leadership, and stood looking very stern out over Kim Il sung square—things began to happen. The sound you have been hearing over the past week was not a scramble for influence, but pieces falling into place. For those of you who still think this is all ad hoc, then you might at least admit that what you’ve been witnessing is a world-class improvisation troupe. But, again, I don’t think this is improvisation. I think they have a script.

There is always the danger of emulating Inspector Clouseau, of course. Things can fit if you want them to fit. Anyone remember Kumchang-ri? OK, let’s grant the danger and move on. For the moment, let’s don’t reach too far with analysis—just look at the building blocks as they have been put in front of us.

Thursday December 29: Memorial service for Kim Jong Il; Kim Jong Un appears front and center on the dais.

Friday December 30: Right out of the box, the new regime’s first authoritative statement in the name of the National Defense Commission (of which Kim Jong Un is not yet identified as being a member), slamming Seoul.

Later that day, Pyongyang reports that based on Kim Jong Il’s “bequest” dated October 8, 2011, Kim Jong Un becomes KPA Supreme Commander. A Politburo (a member of which Kim Jong Un is not) meeting welcomes him. Slogans are released in the name of the Central Committee of the WPK and the party’s Central Military Commission (of which Kim Jong Un IS a member—vice chairman previously, now perhaps or soon to be the chairman, though we are not let in on such a development, yet).

Saturday December 31: Quiet.

Sunday January 1: Supreme Commander Kim Jong Un goes out on his maiden on-site guidance visit, to a KPA unit—the much favored Seoul Ryu Kyong Su 105 Guards Tank Division. The group with him is in line with that which accompanied Kim Jong Il on his unusual flurry of visits to KPA units from mid-October until his death in December. Anything worth noting in Kim Jong Un’s first visit being to a military unit? Not hardly. Kim Jong Il often went to KPA units for his first visit of the year. This will not raise any eyebrows in North Korea; if anything, it is familiar, business as usual, the machinery humming along.

Also on the 1st, Kim Jong Un went to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace to pay homage to both his grandfather and his father. Appearing along with him is the Politburo, full and alternate members. His aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, is ranked near the top, whether still being given pride of place in the mourning period or because she has been elevated remains to be seen. Jang Song Taek remains at the top of the Politburo alternates, where he has been for some time. Curiously, although Jang was at the on-site visit to the KPA unit, he barely makes it into any of the pictures of the event.

A few people are missing from the January 1 Kumsusan turnout—Jon Pyong Ho, Kim Kuk Tae, Pyon Yong Rip, and Ri Yong Mu from the full Politburo members, Kim Rak Hui and Ri Tae Nam from the alternates—but most of them pop up again the next day for a performance of the Unhasu Orchestra. Notably (or possibly not) Kim Kyong Hui did not attend the concert, possibly because she couldn’t find her ticket. Either that or she gave it to O Kuk Ryol, who is listed as being at the event among the Politburo members, where he does not seem to belong.

This game of “who’s on the merry-go-round today” is liable to get dizzying, not because they keep switching from horsie to giraffe and then back again, but because we will be watching a little too closely. Rankings of one or two people within a particular category (i.e. full and alternate Politburo) can shift on any given day. Moving between the categories is much more telling. In olden days of Central Committee plenary meetings, new appointments at the top levels were often formally announced. We should be so lucky to go back to such regular WPK proceedings again.

Anything that sticks out so far? Well, yes, one thing perhaps. In the nasty, but not overly threatening, NDC statement on Friday, there is a formulation that begs for clarification. “Upon the joint authorization of our party, state, army, and people.” These are not normal times, and that is decidedly not the normal formulation. Normally, No. 1 is cited (or implied) as doing the authorizing. Now, suddenly, it is “joint?” If we see it again, there will be grist for many mills.

And the New Year’s Joint Editorial, the first to appear under the new leader? Can we let that pass? We can. Some people in North Korea are no doubt still poring over the page, trying to wring meaning from its wording. (Actually, I recently read that a few newspapers are now available on North Korean cell phones. Dense prose on a small screen—what hell is this?) Others may have by now concluded that the January 1st editorial is nothing to ignore, but nothing to get their shorts in a knot over, either. What this year’s piece doesn’t say may reverberate as loudly as what it does, and this maze of the “significant omission” is as complex as any you ever want to enter.

I must admit I called Inspector O to get his take on things over the past few days. His cell phone wasn’t answering. It might have been a cause for alarm, except that it was New Year’s Day, and O has a strict rule against talking shop on a holiday. He knew I would call, of course, and so he had a message on his machine, directing me to a website that had a numerical code for something in the Cloud that unlocked a short description of events, something he had apparently composed on the New Year. It might seem he was pulling my leg, but as usual, it was written carefully, with serious points cheek by jowl with things he just threw in for the hell of it.

*  *  *  *

Fom the Cloud:

There was a Politburo meeting on the afternoon of December 30. Everyone was assembled, smiling faces all around the table, some smiles broader than others. The big table was polished, the carpet newly shampooed, and the bulbs in the chandelier overhead burning fiercely. One or two members of the Presidium looked furtively at their watches.

Out in the antechamber, an atmosphere of minor confusion reigned.

“Do you know who I am?” asked the youngest man in the antechamber. He was impatient, there was no mistaking that.

“Yes, sir, I’ve seen the pictures on the TV. But my orders are to examine an ID. I don’t see one.” The PSA (Politburo Security Administration) man in front of the door to the large conference room looked unfazed. The Guard Command officer leaning against the wall seemed slightly uncomfortable.

“Look,” said the PSA man, making a quick decision to smooth things over. “I don’t make the orders. I just follow them. Everyone’s jumpy in there,” he nodded toward the room behind the door. “You sure you got no ID? A tattoo maybe? I can work with you on this, but you have to meet me half way.”

“No, I don’t have a tattoo.” Eyes narrowed. “My ID must be in my other pair of trousers. It’s been hectic.”

“Tell me about it. People are very pushy these days, on edge. So, OK, no problem. We have a work around. Sign here, put down whom you’re going to see and the purpose of your business. Then empty your pockets and step into the scanning machine. The belt and watch, jewelry, whatever, all out into the nice little basket. Then step into the machine and put your hands on your head. Hold still. Ah, shoes, take off the shoes. Now, take a breath and hold it.”

Laughter from a booth at the other end of the room. All eyes go to the ceiling, except those of the Guard Command officer, who adjusts his Sam Brown belt and frowns.

“What is he laughing at?” The young man sticks his head out of the scanning machine. “What the hell is he laughing at?”

“Couldn’t say, sir.” The PSA man points at the booth. “Not for me to say. It’s part of the privacy arrangements. No one gets to see the image. Hold on,” he listened to his earpiece.  “OK, step out and hold your arms out. I’m going to pat you down. Real simple.”

The young man steps out of the machine and reaches for his belt. “I am about to be the Supreme Commander, you idiot.”

“And a member of the Politburo, are you?”

“No, not exactly.”

“Not exactly. Well, that’s fine. We have a list here,” he flourished a paper, “Presidium Members, Full members, Alternate members. They’re all authorized to go in. But I don’t see a listing for ‘Not Exactly.’” He turned to the Guard Command officer. “You see a listing here for Not Exactly? No, I don’t either. And ‘about to be?’ That’s fine. We’ll see about adding that. You’d be surprised the number of people that have shoved their way in here the past couple of days, saying they’re ‘about to be.’ My father used to say that all of us are about to be, but that our margins fade forever and forever when we move.”

The young man fastened his belt and reached for his watch. “Your margins are about to fade, comrade, you can bet on it. That’s Tennyson. You think I didn’t study Western lit in that dreary Swiss school? Listen, I’ll give you one more chance. I’m supposed to be in that room.  My uncle is in there. He won’t be happy.”

“Very good, sir. Plenty of unhappy uncles in there I should think.”

The Guard Command officer moved away from the wall and loosened the flap on his holster. “Don’t pat him down. Do us all a favor.”

The PSA man considered this, then moved behind his desk and listened in his earpiece again. “OK, no pat down. You,” he indicated the young man, “can sit over there and put on your shoes.”

The Guard Command officer stepped over to the desk. “He’s got a lot of titles,” he said in a low voice.

“Like what, for instance?”

The officer pulled out a pocket notebook and flipped through several pages.  “Great successor, respected and beloved, supreme leader, outstanding leader, sagacious leaders, great comrade. You want more?”

“Enough. I’ll look in my computer to see where those fall.” A few quick keystrokes. “Let’s see: accolade, applause, compliment, encomium, extolment, flattery, glorification, homage, kudos, laudation, obeisance, ovation, panegyric, pat on the back, plaudit, puff, rave, recognition, sycophancy.” The PSA man paused and glanced up at the Guard Command officer, “anything you like so far?”

The officer licked his lips. “As soon as he ties his shoes, we’re going in. Hasta la vista, baby. And that’s not Tennyson.”  

Back in the Politburo room, an uneasy ripple ran through the group around the table when the door opened and an aide came through it, sweating slightly. He walked up to the Chief of Staff and whispered in his ear. “A little delay, I’m afraid.”

“A little delay? A little delay?” The Chief of Staff stood up and cleared his throat. “Can I have some order in here? Do you mind terribly if we have a little order? Most of you will want to know why we have assembled in this unusual configuration. You’ll no doubt have noted on the agenda that has been passed around that one of the items is labeled ‘Personnel matters.’ What does that mean? It means, in fact, that you have just solemnly proclaimed that the respected and beloved Comrade, who is vice chairman of the WPK Central Military Commission, has highly assumed the supreme commandership of the Korean People’s Army, according to the great leader’s behest of 8 October, chuch’e 100, which is 2011 for those of you who still haven’t caught on. He will be here any moment. Meanwhile, you might want to read the slogans we’ve distributed.”

The chief sat down and glanced over at the prime minister, who was scribbling notes. “Busy are we, comrade?”

“Just studying the slogans.” The prime minister put down his pencil. “I see your defense industry is to make an ‘active contribution to improving the people’s standard of living.’ In that case, I have a few phone calls to make when we adjourn.”

“Don’t get your hopes up, comrade.”

The prime minister looked up and blinked. The woman across the table smiled faintly.

*  *  *  *

One final thought: For those of you who think the situation is actually unstable, we would recall that in 1979, South Korean dictator Park Chung Hee was assassinated by his own KCIA chief over dessert. As yet, we haven’t heard that dessert has been banned in the WPK Politburo cafeteria.

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