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Beret lieutenant colonel, Gordon Cucullu is now an editorialist,
author and a popular speaker. Born into a military
family, he lived and served for more than thirteen years in East
Asia, including eight years in Korea. For his Special Forces
service in Vietnam he was awarded a Bronze Star, Vietnamese Cross
of Gallantry, and the Presidential Unit Commendation. After separation
from the Army, he worked on Korea and East Asian affairs at both
the Pentagon and Department of State as well as an executive
for General Electric in Korea. His first major non-fiction work,
at Birth: How North Korea became the Evil Twin, is
based in large part on his extensive experience in
Korea and East Asia as a governmental insider and businessman.
[go to Cucullu index]
Jong Il - Gone Missing?
[Gordon Cucullu] 12/3/04
in North Korea pictures of Kim Jong Il, the peoples’ Dear
Leader by unchallengeable fiat, have gone missing. Comparative
photos taken in a Peoples Cultural Center auditorium in May and
August of this year have piqued outside interest in the future
of Kim Jong Il. The earlier photo portrays what we have come
to think of as the usual adulatory presentation: a portrait of
Kim Jong Il side-by-side with one of his father Kim Il Sung,
the modestly self-proclaimed Great Leader, dominates the head
of the auditorium,. The late summer shot shows the KJI portrait
missing so that the late elder Kim’s portrait stands alone.
All very mysterious.
It gives some perspective to the secrecy of the North Korean
regime that all of this quasi-analysis must rely primarily on
inference, innuendo and rumor. And analysis is done in past time.
Portraits discovered missing in August are discussed eagerly
in December as if they are breaking news. But that is part of
the challenge in dealing with North Korea. It reminds of the
bad old days when Kreminologists watched the removal and addition
of portraits with the same scrutiny gamblers focus on the spinning
wheels of the slot machines. Will Brezhnev hit the jackpot this
time? Not to be outdone, Old China Hands strove to interpret
posters that appeared like poisonous mushrooms overnight on Peijing
walls. Which Gang of Four member or emerging figure would dominate
the Cultural Revolution? These information-starved analysts sought
guidance in the arcane and tried to discover what was going on
behind those tall walls from vapors and tea leaves. Not much
different today for those watching Pyongyang.
change routine became fairly common in the post-Stalin Soviet
For awhile dictators were changing so frequently
that then President Ronald Reagan quipped to a reporter when
asked why he had not yet met with the Soviet leader that ‘they
keep dying off on me.’ There was no question that announcements
of deaths were delayed while the scramble when on among the ambitious,
like roaches swarming over a crumb, deciding which would be king
of the mountain. However, in the USSR and even in post-Mao China
such machinations were usual, even expected.
contrary situation exists – or, it may soon
be said existed – in North Korea for many years. A unique
communist monarchy where King Kim the First passed rule to his
anointed son King Kim the Second, was quite a departure for the
typical communist state. Not that nepotism was unknown, indeed
it was a quite useful practice since everyone was to be distrusted
even family, but relatives a tad less so perhaps. What surprised
many Korea-watchers was the relative ease of the transfer of
power, at least so it appeared to the outside world trying to
peer through the opacity of first-of-its-kind North Korean regime
change. In my recently-released book, Separated at Birth:
How North Korea became the Evil Twin, I deal at some length with
my own admittedly unverified (and at this time unverifiable)
theory on how that odd transfer was carried out.
The key to a hereditary succession is that it must be recognized
and accepted by the willing, or imposed upon the unwilling for
the transition to be successful. It was well and good while the
strong man Kim Il Sung lived for him to designate his son as
successor. But what mechanism did he put in place for the continuation
of that fiat after his death? After all, the dictator alone cannot
rule; he requires a support group that is willing to carry out
his demands in return for a share of power, wealth and position.
Without that support group the dictator falls, often like Humpty
Dumpty, shattering into pieces. It was necessary therefore for
the elder Kim to put a system in place that guaranteed loyalty
for his subordinates toward his son.
None of this was accomplished overnight. The younger Kim was
groomed for years, making his bones in the intelligence service
accomplishing such feats as the Rangoon Bombing, the Korean Air
Lines sabotage, kidnapping of Japanese and South Korean citizens
and other acts of terror. He was referred to obliquely in that
period as The Party Center. His status was fuzzy but clearly
rising. The issue for outside observers became one of respect.
How, it was often asked, could someone who was a toddler while
the old Party stalwarts fought the Korean War be acceptable to
them as ultimate leader? Particularly an individual who lacked
what most thought to be even minimally acceptable qualifications
for the task at hand. Kim indisputably is physically unimposing,
even dumpy. He is highly eccentric and seemingly more interested
in making propaganda films than in running a country. Born in
America he could have been Michael Moore.
One way in
which the younger Kim could have been secured in his place
was a modern twist to an old theme: family
hostages. While entirely speculative, it is highly possible that
some carrot and stick arrangement would have to have been made
with the old Party guys in order to persuade them to support
Kim Jong Il’s succession and prevent them from overthrowing
him and substituting a Politburo arrangement similar to China
and the Soviet Union. The carrot of course is for them to remain
in power, enjoy the privileges and prestige of being part of
the Party elite, and accumulate enormous wealth.
would have to be big enough to influence and one that could
not be easily
removed. One trick that could have been employed
is a twist on the medieval Japanese system of holding family
of principals hostage to the loyalty of the principals. The Shogun,
based in Edo, or modern Tokyo, required residence by his feudal
lords for a time in his palace. After a year or two they were
permitted to return to their outlying fiefdoms but their families
remained at the Shogun’s palace, their lives hostage to
the loyalty of the lord. At the first sign of betrayal the hostages
were abruptly killed. It is easy to imagine some version of this
being put in place by Kim Il Sung. It may have acted as the glue
to hold the regime together for a time. Perhaps the checks have
been circumvented, or the hostages may have been deliberately
Regardless, there are rumblings internally and externally that
are coming from the innards of North Korea. Until we learn more
we can only watch the portraits of Kim Jong Il, speculate and
about the volatile Korean situation in Gordon’s
at Birth: How North Korea became the Evil Twin.
A great gift for the veteran, military and international affairs
buff on your Christmas list.
Gordon Cucullu 2004