Climate of Fear Sparks Strange Behavior in Pyongyang

      February 01, 2014 08:32

      A climate of fear in North Korea since the bloody execution of leader Kim Jong-un's uncle Jang Song-taek is manifesting some odd behavior, especially in Pyongyang where the nervous elite live.

      Those who are part of the elite already are turning to superstition to ward off ill fortune, while those outside are going to great lengths to avoid being noticed and raising their profile.

      ◆ Long Lines at Fortune Tellers

      Many high-ranking officials in the North are visiting fortune tellers to quell their fears that they might be next. A source in North Hamgyong Province said, "A crackdown on superstitious practices reduced business for fortune tellers last year, but since the execution of Jang Song-taek they're getting a lot of customers again."  

      The source said the main customers are the wives of high-ranking officials who worry about the safety of their husbands.

      "These days officials live in terror of being dragged away without notice and feel safe only when they get home at the end of each day."

      Some senior officials apparently ask fortune tellers to their homes to avoid bumping into other customers. For the fortune tellers at least the trend means a healthy uptake in earnings.

      ◆ Kim Il-sung Worship

      The regime has started yet another campaign to revive the personality cult surrounding nation founder Kim Il-sung. Until last year, the state-run media were more focused on his son Kim Jong-il, and massive rallies marked the anniversary of his death. But recently state television has been airing endless documentaries and movies glorifying the life and times of Kim Il-sung.

      The shift seems to stem from the belated recognition that Kim Jong-il was widely disliked for his brutal and erratic behavior, while many genuinely revere his father.

      Meanwhile, the regime is busy winning hearts and minds through state-sponsored programs helping the young and elderly, with the result that there are fewer children begging in the streets of Pyongyang. The program seems aimed at evoking memories of the early heyday of North Korean communism.

      ◆ Avoiding Entanglement

      So terrified are many women of being recruited for the entertainment troupes that serve senior officials that they have resorted to scarring their faces to avoid passing muster. In the past, it was considered an honor for a woman to be chosen for these troupes, but the brutal execution of a number of them last year brought home that closeness to power is a dangerous place.

      Kim Jong-il, who was short, chose women who were at least 160 cm tall and men who were at least 170 cm for the entertainment troupes. His son Kim Jong-un has upped the requirements by five centimeters, and in a country where poor nutrition often stunts growth, candidates are increasingly hard to find. This has prompted officials to look beyond the traditional recruitment ground of Pyongyang and scour the provinces for likely candidates.

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