The Echo Chamber: The Kim Jong-Un Assassination Attempt

November 25, 2013 7:00 AM

We promise a review of Bruce Bennett’s collapsist manifesto from RAND, but we can’t restrain comment on the weird echo chamber that North Korea generates. Follow the bouncing ball.

On November 21, the Chosun Ilbo reported—and we quote--“North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was subject to an assassination attempt last year and security has since been drastically beefed up, the RAND Corporation claims.” The International Business Times also ran a long feature on the assassination story, much of it devoted to Bennett’s speculation about how assassinations have occurred and might occur again.

RAND and Bennett in fact have no information on such an assassination attempt; rather, they cite in a footnote a Joongang Daily from March of this year by Chang Se-jeong and Ser Myo-ja which is a tissue of speculation based on the standard-issue unidentified “Seoul-based intelligence source.”

In sum, a South Korean newspaper cites RAND as an authoritative source, when the “authoritative source” is an unidentified source in a South Korean newspaper story.

That said, the reports are not utterly implausible, but they are vague and hard to follow. They center on two bits of “evidence”: the ups and downs of Kim Yong-chol, director of the Reconnaissance General Bureau; and an award given to a Pyongyang traffic cop.

The Reconnaissance General Bureau was created in 2009 out of a merger of some intelligence departments of the Workers’ Party and the operational units of the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces focused on South Korea. Kim Yong-chol is considered by some the military architect of the Cheonan sinking and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. But the Reconnaissance General Bureau was apparently riven with internal conflicts between its component parts that culminated in a shoot out.

Kim Yong-chol was promoted to four-star general in February 2012 but was demoted to two-star lieutenant general in November, possibly in connection with these internal conflicts. The source claims that the move against Kim Jong Un came prior to and in anticipation of Kim’s demotion. The near-miss apparently led Kim Jong Un to cater to the hardliners in both policy and personnel matters; the source attributes the provocations earlier in the year as an effort to appease the military and notes that it was a resuscitated Kim Yong-chol, who appeared on television in March of this year to say that North Korea could annul the Armistice.

And then there is the mysterious story--covered well by The Wire--of the young female traffic officer named Ri-Kyong Sim who was given a "Hero of the Republic" award in an emotional over-the-top ceremony in Pyongyang. How could a lowly Pyongyang traffic cop win such an accolade? According to the the KCNA coverage, “Ri dedicated herself to ensuring the traffic order in the capital city and displayed the heroic self-sacrificing spirit of safeguarding the security of the headquarters of the revolution in an unexpected circumstance.” The HQ of the revolution is Kim Jong Un, and the secretary general of defector group NK Intellectuals Solidarity Park Kun-Ha, speaking with the AFP, was thus simply connecting the dots: "I suspect it might have been linked to an assassination attempt disguised as a traffic accident."

Its North Korea, so arguably anything is possible; we are certainly sympathetic to a model of North Korea riven at the top by court intrigue. But when reading accounts such as these, caveat emptor; they rest on surprisingly thin reeds and echo chambers.

Thanks to Dave Kang for the tip.


Fred Zimmerman

I am a bit boggled by Bennett's matter of fact assumption that military intervention in the north will likely be required and that Chinese approval is optional.

Adam Cathcart

Musn't forget that the RAND report (page 46) rehashing of spring 2012 rumours -- including its reconsideration of some truly specious ones from Chinese social media -- was not simply picked up on this autumn by South Korean media, it was done so _to underscore the plausibility of the latest "mass execution" rumours_ which were themselves kicked off with very novel (or should one say novelistic?) Wonsan stadium shootings (10,000 kids and blindfolds, wow!) sourced again from JoongAng Ilbo. Call it elaborate self-citation if you like, or an alternate reality, but one builds to the next. Far less interesting is the possibility that Kim Jong-un is diabetic or could suffer a heart attack -- no one else is alarmed by the young man's evident weight fluctuations, in combination with all those cigarettes and heavy alcohol use? Sometimes the mundane things are in fact the most dangerous.


The traffic cop story has been reported by New Focus International (a splendid NK news reporting startup) as having been an award for saving a portrait of one of the Kims from a fire while she was posted to traffic duty. The "Hero of the Republic" awards have previously been given out for people who rescue "No. 1" portraits of the Kims.

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Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff