Lady Vengeance

When I watch Korean films like Sympathy for Lady Vengeance I often walk out of the theatre thinking; “My God those Koreans sure have strong feelings.”  But real life isn’t like that.  Or is it?

Here’s The Telegraph:

But another tantalising suggestion is crystallising. Was Jang’s death by firing squad a sign that the real power behind the throne lies with the two women in Mr Kim’s life?

“The final decision on Jang Song-thaek was made by Kim Jong-un and Jang’s wife, Kim Kyung-hui,” said Lee Yun-keol, the head of the North Korea Strategic Information Service Centre, based in Seoul. “Jang was chosen as a prey by his wife and nephew to maintain the Kim dynasty regime.”

The 67-year-old Kim Kyung-hui is a force to be reckoned with – daughter of the country’s first leader, sister of its second and aunt of its third.

A Rosa Klebb-like figure, she went into communist politics early and defied her father, the Eternal President of the Republic, Kim Il-sung, to marry Jang.

.  .  .

Two years later, she and her husband were all-powerful, supporting their nephew as he took the reins of power.

“Jang is clearly someone whose major task on behalf of the Kim family is to guide and shepherd Kim Jong-un, and to insulate and protect him,” said Stephen Bosworth, the former US special envoy to North Korea, at the time. “His role is to help him ward off assaults on the authority of the family.”

But he was also a known womaniser, fond of a drink and indeed purged once before, in 2004, as a result of his hard-living.

On his execution, state media accused Jang of leading a “dissolute, depraved life” and running up £6.4″…million in gambling debts.

“He let the decadent capitalist lifestyle find its way to our society by distributing all sorts of pornographic pictures among his confidants,” the charge sheet said.

Did Kim Kyung-hui simply get fed up with his wild ways? She has been dogged by rumours of ill health – some suggested she was an alcoholic – but her influence was undeniable. The execution of Jang, some analysts say, would only have been possible with the blessing of his wife – described in The Atlantic magazine as “just as hard-edged and vindictive as her older brother ever was”.

Mr Kim’s pretty young wife, Ri Sol-ju, despite her dainty appearance, is thought to be exerting equally as strong – even ruthless – an influence on the Dear Leader. She was apparently introduced to him by his aunt, and the couple married about three years ago.

But in August, members of a musical troupe of which she was once a member, the Unhasu Orchestra, were wiretapped and heard saying: “In the past, Ri Sol-ju used to play around in the same manner as we did.”

The regime – and by extension, Miss Ri – was not amused.

“This is an unpardonable, hideous provocation hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership,” said the North Korean state news agency. “Those who commit such a hideous crime will have to pay a very high price.”

Miss Ri had to have her reputation intact – and so the nine members of the orchestra were arrested, and executed by machinegun three days later, with their families forced to watch.

One of the executed singers was Hyon Song-wol, reportedly a former girlfriend of Mr Kim. She had met the then-future leader a decade ago, but was forced by his father to end the relationship and instead went on to marry an officer in the military.

.  .  .

One theory is that Miss Ri objected to the continuing high profile of her husband’s former girlfriend.

Of course, Mr Kim has no qualms about organising purges of his own.

In October last year Kim Chol, a deputy defence minister, was killed by mortar round for “carousing” during the official period of mourning after Kim Jong-il’s death.

On the orders of Kim Jong-un to leave “no trace of him behind, down to his hair”, according to South Korean media, Kim Chol was forced to stand on a target and was then “obliterated”.

The country’s infamous prison camps, where an estimated 200,000 people are held in conditions of medieval barbarity, are thought to be expanding,

Of course the soap opera is fascinating, but the final sentence of the quotation is the real issue.

Imagine Suetonius had written 1984.  That’s North Korea.



22 Responses to “Lady Vengeance”

  1. Gravatar of Dustin Dustin
    15. December 2013 at 09:53

    So much for people behaving rationally…

    I was a Korean linguist once upon a time in the Army, as one would expect we studied a good bit of the culture. That exposure to the strictures of such a high-power society was my first real experience in an environment that left me with no uncertainty that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Never have come to fully understand it.

  2. Gravatar of benjamin cole benjamin cole
    15. December 2013 at 11:03

    My guess is that the gene pool of S. Korea is the same as that of N. Korea…and our ancestors have committed every atrocity imaginable…What makes people civil and decent? It is more than genetics or culture….

  3. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    15. December 2013 at 11:20

    Ben, Exactly.

  4. Gravatar of Brett Brett
    15. December 2013 at 11:30

    The whole “expanding prison camps” might be tied in the way that they’ve also loosened up a bit on allowing informal markets in farm goods and other stuff. It’s Kim Jong Un (or whoever is controlling him if true) making sure that everyone there knows that this doesn’t mean political controls are loosening up.

  5. Gravatar of Dustin Dustin
    15. December 2013 at 13:05

    As far as committing atrocities, you are spot on, it is certainly more than culture. Evil is as evil does and often results from a cocktail of irrational fear, lust of power, and a healthy dose of psychopathy all to varying degrees depending on the time and place. Though the interesting (and challenging) question to me is – why are some societies more tolerant of these behaviors?

  6. Gravatar of Chris H Chris H
    15. December 2013 at 13:37


    I think what the Koreas show is that one of the most powerful answers, indeed perhaps the most powerful answer, is the institutional structure of a country. And that’s not something which simply devolves into a cultural or genetic explanation. The division of the Koreas and the governments they formed had nothing to do with either culture or genetics, but the desires of the Soviet Union and United States to expand their preferred institutional structures and the accident of history that left Korea partly under each side’s control at the end of the Second World War.

    I think this is Ben’s point. A society’s preference for allowing decent or murderous regimes comes from the institutions it finds itself with, and that this cannot be reduced to genetic or cultural explanations.

  7. Gravatar of Dustin Dustin
    15. December 2013 at 13:56

    I think it is a fair point, and I agree that the phenomenon is not grounded strictly in a culture, my contention was that a high-power culture is more prone to accepting authoritarian regimes than its low-power counterpart. More broadly, I also believe that barring significant external influence, institutions are a reflection of a people, not vice versa. Though as you point out, the Soviet Union proved a mighty external influence, unfortunately…

  8. Gravatar of Geoff Geoff
    15. December 2013 at 13:58

    “but the final sentence of the quotation is the real issue.”

    Sure, abolishing the deathcamps would be better. But you have to deal with the cards you’re dealt. Quit being an ideologue. GIVEN the deathcamps exist, it is better to improve those death camps, than to be an extremist and call for their abolition. Thus, you should get on board with me in my new and improved death camp murder targeting regime. It’s called NGDPLT, or National Gross Deathcamp Personnel Level Targeting.

    If the guards murder say 4.5% of the prison inmates per year, then every inmate will be able to better plan their day to day lives. It’s much better than having to live in an environment where some years 10% are murdered, while in another 0% are murdered, given that people tend to have sticky life expectancy expectations.

    This is “rational.”

  9. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    15. December 2013 at 14:10

    This is eminently rational given the systemic logic of North Korea’s political structure. It’s exactly what happened in Stalin’s Russia. Well documented recently in Paul R. Gregory’s book;

    Each of the five stories would make a great movie, if Hollywood could ever bother to notice that there were other tyrannies than the Nazi’s.

  10. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    15. December 2013 at 14:31

    Patrick, Interestingly, I don’t even see much evidence that the Koreans make movies on this topic, at least the Korean films over here don’t cover the topic. I wonder why. You’d think Korean filmmakers would be obsessed with this topic.

  11. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    15. December 2013 at 18:56

    Scott, would you back US military intervention to liberate North Korea? What if it were backed by a UN Resolution?

  12. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    15. December 2013 at 18:59

    Geoff, I don’t see how you think this is joking matter.

  13. Gravatar of Chris H Chris H
    15. December 2013 at 19:24


    I think you may be right that barring external influence institutional structure largely (though not completely as I think accidents of history like having particular leaders at particular times can make a big difference) comes down to cultural concerns, but I also think that very few countries actually get that opportunity (for example, nobody is going to get the chance to significantly mess with American institutions but Americans and nobody wants to seriously bother screwing with Bhutan’s institutions). Essentially only very powerful countries, or countries which everyone with power finds essentially worthless actually get that chance. There may also be cases where all the powerful countries lose their capabilities of power projection for a time that also weakens external influence.

    I would note however that I’m not saying powerful countries always get their way. Far from it (though the Koreas are an example where the major powers pretty much got what they wanted). However, in opposing external influence, countries can take institutional courses drastically different than you might expect from their previous culture (Japan for instance abandon their old class system and deep culture mistrust of merchant classes to become an industrialized power in order to prevent being controlled by foreign powers). External powers didn’t produce what they had expected or wanted from their forays into Japan, but Japanese domestic culture is similarly an insufficient explanation (had foreigners never forced Japan to open to trade they probably would have continued with the Shogunate).

    One question though Dustin, could you explain what you mean by “high-powered” vs “low-powered” culture?

  14. Gravatar of Geoff Geoff
    15. December 2013 at 21:39


    I was not trying to be funny. I was trying to show the absurd basis that Sumner uses to justify NGDPLT. I took his logic, and used it in another context, in order to show you just how absurd it really is. It’s hard to swallow, I know. But that feeling you have of being disgusted is not unlike the feeling I have when I see that same justification used for NGDPLT.

    This is how we check each other’s premises Saturos. We test those premises by using them in various contexts, so that we can better understand those premises.

    If the conclusion I made is ridiculous, then it is because the premises I used are flawed, correct? Well, if those premises are flawed, then you can see how Sumner’s justification for NGDPLT is equally flawed, since it uses those same premises.

  15. Gravatar of ChargerCarl ChargerCarl
    16. December 2013 at 01:15

    Saturos, I wouldn’t only because it would likely result in the destruction of Seoul. The North Koreans don’t even need nukes to do it It’s within artillery range.

  16. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. December 2013 at 05:39

    The South Koreans don’t have anti-artillery that can protect them while America rescues millions of their neighbours from slavery? There isn’t some kind of secret special operations team that can deactivate Kim Jong-Un’s nuclear capacity before the ground assault?

  17. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    16. December 2013 at 06:22

    Saturos, No. The law of unintended consequences (Iraq, etc.)

  18. Gravatar of Daniel Daniel
    16. December 2013 at 09:10

    South Koreans don’t have anti-artillery […]

    I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but an artillery shell is a small object travelling along a parabolic curve at supersonic speed.

    You’d think it would be pretty much impossible to intercept such an object.

  19. Gravatar of Daniel Daniel
    16. December 2013 at 09:11


    Also, in the future, could you please refrain from feeding the moron ?

    It’s not like he has anything intelligent to say.

  20. Gravatar of Dustin Dustin
    16. December 2013 at 18:02

    Chris H,

    “One question though Dustin, could you explain what you mean by “high-powered” vs “low-powered” culture?”

    Sure – and BTW I meant that sans the ‘ed as in high power, which is short for high power distance. It refers to the Cultural Dimension theory (Geert Hofstede). This is a succinct summary I’ve lifted from Wikipedia:'s_cultural_dimensions_theory#Overview

    “”Power distance is the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.” Cultures that endorse low power distance expect and accept power relations that are more consultative or democratic.”

    ^ And the opposite for high-power-distance cultures.

    Is as good a summary I could manage. All-in-all it is very interesting stuff with some solid evidentiary basis.

  21. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    17. December 2013 at 04:46

    Come on Daniel, I’m no military expert but there’s got to be some kind of sufficiently high-tech solution to being within artillery range, if America starts diverting its cash from Israel to Seoul. And Scott, it’s not clear that such interventions must fail; it’s not even clear that Afghanistan failed: Though I suppose you could call this unintended consequences as well.
    Of course the Taliban were arguably America’s fault in the first place, but they weren’t trying to help Afghanistan then. It seems like you have a strangely Conservative attitude to foreign policy, with the same fallacious adherence to the precautionary principle. You are ignoring the costs and risks associated with *not* acting by assuming that inaction is intrinsically safer. It’s not clear that the living standards of the North Koreans and the geopolitical stability of the region have anywhere to go right now except upwards.

  22. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    17. December 2013 at 06:41

    Saturos, No, there is no high tech solution for artillery shells. The war in Afghanistan was justified because Afghanistan attacked the US. North Korea did not. We succeeded in killing Bin Laden and ousting the government that supported his activities. That’s a win. But we foolishly tried to do too much–nation-building. And we are failing in that endeavor. If we had attacked Afghanistan purely to make the place a better place to live it is not at all clear that our policy would have been a success. Not saying it’s impossible, the Serbian venture seems to have worked, for instance. But these things fail more often than they succeed.

    And what about N. Korea’s ally China? Last time we attacked N. Korea they intervened on the other side. Do you want to take that chance?
    Also note that the South Koreans would be expected to support an invasion much more strongly than the US, because it’s their own culture that would be helped. And yet they would be very strongly opposed. This area is full of unintended consequences.

    Never assume that things cannot get worse—they can get much worse.

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