WASHINGTON — Editor’s note: It’s not every day that we get to hear a character from fiction discuss a topical international incident. In this case Inspector O, a North Korean detective we’ve followed through the political murk of Pyongyang in a series of detective novels written by a former CIA official, gives us new insight into the hermit kingdom.
By ISAAC STONE FISH
The novels in the series are “A Corpse in the Koryo,” “ Hidden Moon,” “ Bamboo and Blood,” “ The Man with the Baltic Stare,” and “ A Drop of Chinese Blood.”
The author, who has decades of experience in North Korea, goes by the pseudonym James Church. He spoke with Foreign Policy’s associate editor Isaac Stone Fish in the guise of his creation, after the sudden downfall of a once-powerful uncle of death of North Korean President Kim Jong Un.
On Dec. 8, North Korean President Kim Jong Un’s uncle Jang Song Thaek, long viewed as the second-most powerful man in North Korea, was stripped of all his titles.
Four days later, Korean Central News Agency announced his execution for several crimes, including “thrice-cursed treason.”
From the outside, North Korea can seem like an absurdist’s paradise, but for the roughly 24 million North Koreans navigating the system, and especially for the elite in Pyongyang closer to the epicenter of the recent reverberations, this is their reality.
North Korea is such a difficult place to understand that sometimes fiction provides more insight than speculation. On Monday, I spoke with the fictional incarnation of one of those elites — Inspector O, a midlevel official at the Ministry of Public Security — at an innocuous location that I am duty-bound not to disclose.
What was Jang’s reputation in North Korea?
Everyone knew Jang was married to Kim Jong Il’s sister — and that their relations weren’t good. People had the feeling he had a great deal of self-confidence. And a little bit of a swagger, even if he didn’t necessarily walk with one. I remember in 2010 I was at a rally in Pyongyang, and Gen. Kim Jong Il was up on the reviewing stand with a lot of uniformed people.
As he walked by, everyone in uniform braced and kicked and saluted. And Jang sort of lounged, looking bored, and I remembered thinking to myself, “I’m not the only one who saw this.”
Why didn’t Jang’s family background protect him from execution?
Church says he heard from someone in Seoul that when Kim Jong Il died, Jang lost his top cover. Jang served at the pleasure of General Kim. He wasn’t appointed to his position by Kim Jong Un, so it was always more precarious, as far as most of us were concerned. Outsiders always call him No. 2 — there is no No. 2. You’re either No. 1 or you’re with everybody else.
Had you met Jang?
No. He drove through my sector once, but he didn’t stop to wave.
What theories are circulating about what happened?
The time between Jang getting led out and executed was just a day or two. The West thought this was a big surprise — no appeal process, happened so fast, making it seem like these decisions were willy-nilly. But what if this thing had been underway for some time in North Korea? What if people around Jang and his subordinates suddenly started realizing they weren’t getting invitations to lunch anymore? That their phone calls weren’t being answered?
The shock felt on the outside may not be the same measure of shock that a significant stratum felt in North Korea. It might have been a big surprise to the man on the street, but he’s used to surprises. Also, some say that this is all about money. And that Jang had too much of it.
Can you talk a bit more about Jang’s relationship with money?
Tight. Swimming in it. Anytime money moved across the border with China, Jang either controlled it or had a way to get some of it. Money doesn’t ennoble human relations, and it didn’t used to be important in North Korea.
Jang may have been the direction things would go. And still may go. People wanted us to look like China. There are a hell of a lot of poor people in China, still. Many workers in Beijing are being paid in spit.
Kim Jong Un has promised to concentrate on the people’s livelihood. And I guess a lot of people are still waiting to see what that means. The money thing might have been enough to get him knocked down a few pegs, or even moved out to the Big Farms again, but not enough to get him executed. I think he had to do something that Kim Jong Un himself personally perceived as a threat.
Apologies if I’m getting into dangerous territory here, but would someone actually move against Kim Jong Un?
I was taught never to talk with my mouth full. My mouth is full right now. (Pauses.) Most of the time, the guys in the Ministry of State Security are bumbling and lazy. But on something like this, they know what they’re doing.
In the KCNA statement, Jang was portrayed as a puppet of China. Why was China blamed?
The Chinese businessmen in our country are pretty sharp. And they’re not here because they love us. Or for the noodles at Ongyun Restaurant. When we hear them complain about being cheated, we really laugh, since most of them are way ahead of us when it comes to knowing how to cut corners. They’re taking a lot of our coal, millions of tons a year! And sometimes I hear people asking, “Couldn’t we use that coal? Do we have to be cold in the winter so those damn Chinese can be warm?” So we’ll have to see if these things change.
Would a careful foreign observer notice anything different, were they to wonder around Pyongyang?
You mean since the unfortunate events? A few more police patrols, perhaps. You know, you normally don’t see police in Pyongyang. I went to New York once — saw lots of police, big burly ugly guys with machine guns. “You going to have a revolution in New York?” I thought. No matter.
I’m just guessing, but I bet Pyongyang Capital Command troops are being told to stay near their barracks. And in all of the other core commands, everyone is being told to walk carefully and not make any sudden moves. I don’t know, but I’m guessing.
What’s your plan?
I just do my job. We’ve been through ups and downs before. I think most people just want to get through this, that’s all. You know, winter is always pretty gloomy here. So you always have gloomy thoughts. Let’s see what happens when spring comes. If they leave us alone, on the outside, I don’t think there will be any trouble.
Why does the rest of the world matter?
Because they have crazy ideas about being able to stick their hands in here and move around the furniture. We keep being told, look at Iraq, look at Libya, look at Serbia, look what happens if the outsiders think they have a chance to move in. That’s a lot of tragedy, from where I sit.
But this is all just what I think — maybe you should ask Church. He’s the one who’s supposed to know so much …