In February 2016, the list of repressed DPRK officials included the Chief of North Korea’s General Staff, Lee Yong-Guillem, who, as was reported by South Korean media with reference to sources in the South Korean government, had been accused of corruption and factionalism and executed.To explain a reason behind his execution, a story was made up of the General’s conflict with the party officials in connection with his discontent about the attempts to put the army under the party’s control or his denunciation by Kim Jong-un on the allegation that Lee was critical of the leader.
Indeed, Lee initially “disappeared from the TV screens”, followed by the North Korean government newspaper “Rodong Sinmun” reporting that the chief of staff was in fact not him, but Lee Myung-soo, who was present at the military exercises together with Kim Jong-un.
However, on March 10, giving reference to its own sources, the South Korean television channel, MBN, reported that, although he had been interrogated for a month in the DPRK Ministry of State Security, Lee managed to walk away unscathed. He lost his post of army chief of staff, and was demoted from army general to colonel-general. He remained an influential figure in the military elite. However, since Lee ceased from reappearing in the official chronicle, the debate went on.
The final resurrection of Lee Yong-Gil took place in the course of the Seventh Congress of the WPK in May, where Lee was appointed to a high position in the Party’s Central Committee, becoming one of the deputies of the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un. More precisely, he became a candidate to the political leadership of the Central Committee – a new top leadership of the Party, created after the secretariat of the Central Committee was dispersed at the Party Congress in DPRK.
Li Yong Gil is not the only person that has been risen from the dead during the ‘reign’ of Kim Jong-un. Over this period, the South Korean propaganda “repressed” a whole group of people, beginning with Hyun Song Wol. For quite some time, a sentimental story about how Kim Jong-un shot his ex-lover would not come off the front pages, and the lack of rapid response from the DPRK only reaffirmed the supporters of this version of the story that this was “exactly what happened”. Nevertheless, after a while, Hyun reappeared, and then even took part in the failed tour of Ensemble Moranbon in China.
Then there was a story about Ma Won Chung, the General Architect, who was, according to the “official” version, executed for refusing to build a chocolate fountain in the center of Pyongyang Airport. According to an unofficial version, it was corruption, and this was the version that even the author of these lines at some point believed in, as it has been disseminated at a large amount of questionable resources. However, after some time, Ma once again appeared in the company of the great leader.
The list includes a former Foreign Minister, Lee Soo-young, whose execution was reported in the media in December 2013. However, after the congress, he even went up the career ladder. In general, should a high official stop appearing for some time in the presence of the leader, everyone is eager to consider them executed. At some point even the current Prime Minister, Pak Pong-juin, who allegedly was executed in 2007, after the resignation from the post of prime minister, the secretary of the Central Committee, Choe Ryong Hae, and half-brother of Kim Jong-il, Kim Il-Phen made it onto the list of the “victims of terror”.
So what is behind the disappearances, really? Firstly, in the DPRK penal system there is a concept of “rehabilitation through labour”. In this paradigm, an ostracized official need not necessarily be destroyed. Demoted to the ranks of combiner operator or sawmill director in a remote region (in the case of a former VIP), they have a theoretical chance to restart their career and after some time, may reemerge in the secondary, but nonetheless important, position.
In Kim Jong-un’s times, it seemed that this was supplemented by temporary disgrace, when an official is shown disfavor and for a while, ceases to appear at the court. The reasons may be different. For example, the popular rumor about a momentary disgrace ofChoe Ryong Hae was based on an allegation that someone from his family was caught watching South Korean TV series, which (like the North Korean film products in the South) are officially banned. Choe, having admitted responsibility, worked as an ordinary builder for a while, and afterwards reassumed his initial leadership position.
Incidentally, there have been more notable “tales about the Land of Darkness” of late. For instance, the story of the 66-year-old defector, Kim Song Do, about the fact that before the previous Congress, all soldiers suffering from fungus “for sanitary purposes” had their nails pulled out, so that they could not pass it on to anyone from the elite, especially the leader, through a handshake. (). It is not a trivial task to verify tales of so long ago, and it would be unethical to go asking “why did you bring it up so late”, so the Stone Fish law could work in this situation. However, this canard has not received much attention from the liberal media.
Another canard that is yet to take flight is the story about mass rapes in the North Korean army, which was published by the “Women’s alliance of New Korea” — one of the defectors’ organisations. As the chairman of the Alliance Choi Soo Hyang stated, female soldiers of the Korean People’s Army are constantly subjected to sexual violence and gross violations of their rights. As an example, she told about how, when she worked as a nurse, she was “almost every day sexually abused by the military personnel”, and when she complained about the issue to the party committee, they ignominiously expelled her from the military service, while the rapists walked away scot-free.
Up until now, this harrowing story has not made it into the mainstream. Perhaps this is due to the fact that rape as a means of control and punishment is traditionally associated with other regions, but it still has the chance to contribute to the basic set of myths and there are several reasons for that.
Firstly, sexual abuse stories sell well. It is no coincidence that the topic of rape in the concentration camps occupiess a fair place in pornographic stories of sadomasochistic inclination.
Secondly, public sexual violence is an appropriate feature for the “Land of Darkness”, especially against the background of how the civilized world that confronts it is embracing the women’s rights movement. It is no coincidence that the honored “calumniators” like Lee Sun Ok or Kim Kyong Ok, who are famous for stories about soup made of babies, have already tried to hype up the topic of the mass rape of women prisoners.
Thirdly, sexual assault may emerge as a somewhat forced topic. The fact is that the majority of defectors are actually women, and usually women from border areas that are not particularly knowledgeable about the secrets of the Pyongyang Court, the insight into which would turn an ordinary defector into a bogeyman for Seoul propaganda, enlightening the world about the ‘horrors of the North’. Nevertheless, if one cannot tell anything important, then they use the opportunity to tell something horrible. Something that you can talk about without any proof, but with enough fear in the eyes, and without concerns that your testimony will not be eagerly checked by doctors and psychologists.
However, most Korean women do not wish to go this route out of pride. It is worth remembering that the widely known issue of “comfort women” did not become topical immediately after the war, but some time later, and was hyped not only by the victims of violence, but also by women’s organizations who persuaded the already elderly people to tell their story.
As for the rest, we will continue to keep our audience up to date with the new myths about North Korea, because many of the techniques for constructing the “Land of Darkness” have been applied, and not without success, in relation to other countries, and that is why it is important that everyone, and not just those interested in Korea, is aware of them.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D., Senior fellow at the Center for Korean studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.