There is a North Korean resistance
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- October 5th, 2017
A blog about North Korea never suffers from a shortage of material; rather, it is more likely to suffer from an insufficiency of time to curate such an abundance of material. A post that isn’t ready for publication when my train arrives at my stop may sit unfinished for hours, weeks, or even years. So it was last May, shortly after the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, when an intriguing video first emerged of Jong-nam’s son, Kim Han-sol, claiming that a group calling itself Cheollima Civil Defense had spirited him away to safety from Pyongyang’s agents.
Cheollima Civil Defense’s Korean- and English-language website is here, and has a link for financial contributions. Because this site has been eagerly watching North Korea for years for signs that organized resistance would rise (and instead found plenty of evidence of disorganized resistance) the story sounded almost too good to be true. But now, via the Wall Street Journal, comes a report that convinces me that Cheollima Civil Defense is a thing — and that thing is North Korea’s first organized resistance organization since the 6th Corps mutiny more than two decades ago.
When Kim Jong Nam, the exiled half brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, was killed with nerve gas in a Malaysian airport on Feb. 13, it was evident who might be targeted next.
His 21-year-old son, Kim Han Sol, had similarly criticized the regime in Pyongyang, which was suspected of carrying out the attack. The son’s bloodline made him a potential threat to the Kim dynasty.
What followed was a secretive scramble by a group of North Korean dissidents to get Kim Han Sol, his mother and sister out of their Macau home and fly them to safety in a secure location.
Details have been largely a mystery since February, but the group that helped the trio get out agreed to discuss the evacuation with a media organization for the first time—and from its account it appears that Kim Han Sol was targeted.
There were “attempts by several parties to interfere” with the evacuation, a representative of the group, Cheollima Civil Defense, told The Wall Street Journal. [Wall Street Journal, Alastair Gale]
Read the rest of the story on your own. Recall that Kim Han-sol first came to the world’s attention in October 2012, when he sat down for an interview with Finnish former U.N. official Elisabeth Rehn (see reports here, via the Wall Street Journal, and here, via the Atlantic Wire). The most striking thing about Han-sol? He seems … nice. Normal. He speaks excellent English. His manner would not stand out as exceptional at a meeting of the Korean Church Coalition, where the young people I meet almost always seem cleaner and better-adjusted than the feral, mulleted, tobacco-spitting waifs I was raised with out on the prairie in South Dakota.
“I’ve always dreamed that one day I will go back and make things better,” Kim Han Sol said in the interview. He spoke fluent English with a British accent, and said he was interested in the revolution the previous year in Libya, as related to him by his Libyan roommate. [WSJ]
If you possess the spiritual certainty that I don’t, pray for the safety of this young man. He may have much to contribute to the future of his ancestral homeland. Among the more disappointing things we learn: how Pyongyang uses terrorism to its advantage. Canada refused to help Cheollima for fear of jeopardizing a hostage it was trying to convince Pyongyang to free.
But of course, there have been underground railroad groups helping North Koreans to escape through China for decades. What makes Cheollima something those groups are not? This:
The defector, who isn’t part of the group, said Cheollima is a small but well-connected organization that had helped North Koreans escape their country through China and into Southeast Asia.
The human-rights worker confirmed the group consisted of North Koreans and had good connections with foreign governments. “They moved very quickly and were verified at the highest level,” he said. Two Western diplomats said Cheollima was trusted to help defectors. [WSJ]
Does Cheollima represent a threat to Pyongyang? Not immediately, but over the long term, it is well-positioned to take advantage of rising disaffection among the elites, including the regime’s diplomats, and guide them to the protection of foreign embassies and intelligence services. For example, I’m convinced that we’ve yet to see the full political potential of the defection of Thae Yong-ho to sow doubt within the elites in Pyongyang. They may eventually help us make contact with key people in the armed forces to prevent war or split the regime’s internal cohesion. And of course, every defection by an official who brings his laptops, ledgers, and bank account numbers with him will have second-order financial impacts. If more defections cause the regime to distrust its diplomats and recall more of them, it could have almost as great an impact on regime finances and cohesion as the U.S. diplomatic campaignto get North Korean diplomats and workers expelled.