Kim Jong-un: North Korea’s ‘Terminator’

James Zumwalt Author, 'Bare Feet, Iron Will'
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An embarrassing moment for the author occurred almost a half-century ago yet is remembered as if it were yesterday.

During Marine Corps basic training, your correspondent was leaning back in his chair listening to a class on mine warfare. Coming right after lunch, there was an overpowering urge to sleep. The next thing the author knew, he was flat on his back on the floor. Although not hurt, the ensuing laughter of fellow Marines left him with a bit of a bruised ego.

There was a flashback to the incident this week after reading the latest news from North Korea — making the author realize just how fortunate he was.

With less than a year in office, North Korea’s defense chief, General Hyon Yong Chol, it was initially reported by South Korean intelligence, was executed in late April. Supposedly, his crime was falling asleep during a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — or “Kim III” as the third generation of the self-coronated Kim family dynasty to so rule the country is called. By falling asleep, Hyon had disrespected Pyongyang’s Pillsbury Doughboyish Kim III.

Almost as quickly as South Korean intelligence reported Hyon’s death, it backtracked reporting, while his removal as defense minister was correct, he may still be alive.

Seoul’s uncertainty is justifiable. It is very difficult to know what is happening inside the Hermit Kingdom. The details, however, of the initial report as to how Hyon had been executed seemed credible based on Kim III’s history.

Brutality has always been a hallmark of the Kim dynasty. The country’s founder, Kim Il Sung (Kim I), and his son, Kim Jong Il (Kim II) had always ruled with an iron fist, executing people for the most minor of offenses.

In the report by South Korea, Kim III had purportedly executed Hyon as hundreds of officials watched. The defense minister’s demise came not at the end of a firing squad’s rifles but at the end of an anti-aircraft battery’s machine guns.

Whether Hyon was executed or not is uncertain at this time. However, it is known Kim III executed fifteen other senior military officers last month, giving new meaning to leadership either moving “up or out.”

To Kim III’s credit, when it comes to executions, he shows no favorites. Various purges since he came to power in 2011 have targeted his own family members. One, in 2013, resulted in an unusually public arrest and trial of his uncle, declared “human scum,” who had helped Kim III transition into power after his father passed.

It has also been reported, more recently, tiring of his widowed aunt’s constant complaining about the loss of her husband, Kim III has ordered her termination as well—allegedly by poisoning.

It would be unsurprising if the initial report of Hyon’s execution is later revived. Kim III has demonstrated a lot of imagination in how he chooses to execute victims of his wrath. He seems to favor techniques that allow very little of a victim’s remains to be collected afterward.

A Chinese newspaper reported Kim III’s rage towards his uncle was so intense, he had dozens of savage dogs starved for a week before letting them loose on his uncle and several of his aides.

South Korea believes Kim III has conducted several reigns of terror to instill loyalty, through fear, among the ranks of the only real threat to his power — the military. Between 2012-2014, it is estimated he ordered 68 executions — most for raising a question about some senseless idea of his. He apparently thrives on creating job insecurity for his generals.

It would be interesting to know whether the thought has crossed the North Korean leader’s mind such fear can come back to haunt him, providing the motivation for his generals to undermine Kim III’s own job security.

A book written by North Korean defector Shin Dong-hyuk describes Kim as “cold, cunning, calculating, but not crazy.” This description might offer some sort of rationale — the fear factor — for Kim’s selection of unique execution techniques.

Shin notes it is the persona of Kim I and not of Kim II that Kim III emulates. He does this to the point of even copying his grandfather’s gate. And, as did Kim I, Kim III seeks to appear in public, acting very congenial, but able quickly to switch over to the dark side to purge those not totally onboard with the Kim-worshipping program.

Shin observes North Korea has succeeded where other totalitarian regimes have failed — maintaining control for generations by making it a family affair.

The dynasty succeeds by offering no hope for change, while convincing the people — who are isolated from the truth — North Korea is Shangri-La. The end result is 67 years of Kim dynasty control — twice as long as any other totalitarian system in modern history.

Part of the power ploy for the dynasty has been to give the Kims superhuman images. Propagandists, in doing so, make them into comic book heroes.

They made Kim I out to be a hero who bravely fought and defeated the Japanese during World War II. In reality, Kim I hid out in Russia during Japan’s occupation of Korea — only to be brought to power after the war as a Soviet puppet.

While Kim II was born in Russia, propagandists portrayed him as being born atop the 9,002 foot high Mount Paektu — a volcano on the border with China having spiritual significance. They tell how at age four he was turning in enemy spies. A golf fanatic, Kim II was said to have achieved the impossible, scoring eleven holes-in-one during a single game.

Propagandists for the current Kim III are hard at work on his image as well. They claim he mastered military strategy as a child. More recently, they wrote how the overweight would-be over-achiever (this author’s words—not theirs) climbed Mount Paektu to honor his father and motivate the troops there. With bad knees and ankles aggravated by his obesity, the only climb Kim III realistically made was into a helicopter to fly up there.

As leader of a country that, under his family’s tutelage, has witnessed numerous famines resulting in a steady height/weight decline of the average North Korean’s frame, Kim feels no shame about the shadow his towering bulk casts over his subjects. Meanwhile, the only physical exercise he undertakes is what takes place within the fantasy world of his propagandist writers.

While propagandists try to paint Kim III as superman, the Pyongyang’s leader penchant for feasting and desire for creative executions suggest he is “The Incredible Bulk” playing to a hilt the role of the “Terminator.”

As Kim III was educated in the West, it was hoped he would prove to be a “kinder, gentler” Kim. However, as the world observes the fear factor card at play in North Korea, we need to realize that trait is non-existent within the Kim family’s DNA.