The Asian reporter. (Portland, Or.) 1991-current, October 20, 2014, Page Page 4, Image 4

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October 20, 2014
Lessons on North Korean
stagecraft in Kim’s absence
By Foster Klug
The Associated Press
LAYERS OF MEANING. In this combination of nine photos taken in
August and September 2014 in Yangon and Naypidaw, from left to right,
top row: Myat Ko, an ethnic Naga, wears a traditional Naga hat; Ye Tun, an
ethnic Burman, wears a Shan hat; In Phong San, an ethnic Kachin, wears
a cane hat with wild bore horns. Middle row, left to right: Army Maj. Soe
Moe has five different hats, but doesn’t wear any in parliament; democ-
racy icon Aung San Suu Kyi wears flowers; Shwe Maung, an ethnic
Rohingya, keeps a soft, brown, tasselled fez-like cap modelled after one
worn by Abdul Gaffar, a Rohingya legislator of Myanmar’s first prime min-
ister. Bottom row, left to right: Je Yaw Wu, an ethnic Lisu, wears a cush-
ioned white hat; Aye Maung, an ethnic Rakhine, wears a traditional hat
known as Rakhine gaun baung; Saw Thein Aung, an ethnic Karen,
wears a scarf in Naypyidaw, Myanmar. Civilians elected to Myanmar’s
bicameral legislature are required to wear hats when taking the floor.
The Burman majority don a silk turban known as a gaun baun, which has
come to symbolize the nascent civilian government. Ethnic minorities
wear everything from feathers and claws to tea towels on their heads.
(AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
In Myanmar parliament,
colorful hats cap divisions
Continued from page 2
states. Previously mar-
ginalized, they now find
themselves with a little
bargaining power and are
seeking greater autonomy.
President Thein Sein, a
promised a ceasefire ahead
of the 2015 election. Ethnic
armed groups have proven
tough negotiators despite
clashes between them and
government forces, which
have continued throughout
the stalling peace talks.
Win Htein typifies par-
liament’s web of paradoxes.
A close friend of Suu Kyi
and a member of her party,
he, too, was a soldier, under
socialist dictator Gen. Ne
Win Htein was errone-
ously accused of being an
assassination plot against
Ne Win and forced to retire
in 1976. In 1988, when a
student uprising shook the
military crackdown that
left thousands dead, Win
Htein joined Suu Kyi’s
party and was soon
imprisoned. His transition
is not dissimilar to Thein
uniform to gaun baung.
The jovial politician says
he tries to avoid meetings
with the top leadership,
relationship is complicated
“I was senior to them
when I was in the army,” he
says with a mischievous
smile, referring to the
president and other major
players in government.
“They call me ako gyi (big
brother) when we meet.”
If history had gone only
slightly differently, Win
Htein might himself be a
powerful general. Or at
least in parliament, he
would not have to wear his
dreaded hat.
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EOUL, South Korea — Even
when Kim Jong Un was
nowhere to be seen, he was
From “Saturday Night Live” spoofs
to the wild theories of journalists
across the globe trying to parse his
five-week absence from the public
eye, the 30-ish leader of North Korea
captured nearly as many headlines as
he did when he threatened to nuke
his enemies last year.
The mystery ended October 14
when Kim appeared in state media,
smiling broadly and supporting
himself with a cane. While touring
the newly built Wisong Scientists
Residential District and another new
institute in Pyongyang, Kim “took
necessary steps with loving care,” a
dispatch from the official Korean
Central News Agency said in typical
fawning style. The North didn’t say
when the visit happened, nor did it
address the leader’s health.
command attention by doing nothing
says a lot about the North’s mastery
of a propaganda apparatus that puts
Kim at the center of everything.
Remove for 40 days the sun around
which that propaganda spins and the
international media, both traditional
and social, explode with speculation
and rumors.
It also speaks to the fundamental
difficulties everyone outside North
Korea — academics, government offi-
cials, reporters — faces in under-
standing what’s really happening
inside a small, poor, autocratic
country that jealously guards its
internal workings as it ignores
demands by the U.S. and its powerful
allies to give up its nuclear bombs.
It is no mistake that the world
obsesses about Kim’s extended time
off from his usual, seemingly
constant series of inspection tours of
factories and frontline military bases.
Ever since 1948, when Kim’s
grandfather, Kim Il Sung, founded
the country as a socialist rival to the
U.S.-backed South, the Kim family
has successfully sold the notion, at
home and abroad, that they are North
The last time Kim had been seen in
state media was at a September 3
concert. In the weeks between, he
missed several high-profile events
that he normally attends. An official
documentary released late last
month made a single reference to
Kim’s “discomfort” and showed video
footage from August of him
overweight and limping.
Many analysts believe that while
Kim may have some health issues,
he’s probably not in serious trouble.
But many other people wondered
while Kim was out of the spotlight.
“Is Kim Jong Un brain dead?” a
South Korean lawmaker asked Adm.
Choi Yoon-hee, head of the Joint
VANISHING ACT. A man watches a TV news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul,
South Korea, showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (center) using a cane, reportedly during
his first public appearance in five weeks in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Tuesday, October 14, 2014.
Kim was said to have toured the newly built Wisong Scientists Residential District and another new
institute in Pyongyang, according to state media. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
parliamentary hearing. Choi said no,
and, without elaborating, said Kim’s
health problems “are not severe
enough to disrupt his status as the
ruler of the country.”
There were many reasons to be-
lieve that even before he reappeared.
No unusual troop movements or
other signs of a possible coup have
emerged. Diplomacy at the highest
level continues: Three members of his
inner circle made a surprise visit to
the South, something analysts say
would be impossible without the
leader’s blessing. Foreign tourists
and aid workers still travel to the
North, and there have been no
reports of new restrictions or
warnings for diplomats.
There’s also nothing particularly
unusual about North Korean leaders
laying low for extended periods.
Kim’s late father, Kim Jong Il, no fan
of the limelight in his later years,
would disappear at times; Kim Jong
Un, who seems to genuinely like
being at the center of things, took off
without a word for three weeks in
But the apparent vanishing act of a
man long seen in foreign media as a
cartoonish, all-powerful overlord
sitting on a nuclear arsenal while his
people starve has proven endlessly
fascinating. And while there is plenty
of informed analysis from experts and
frequent visitors to Pyongyang, there
seems to be even more thinly sourced
Kim is, by turns, reported to be
suffering from gout, from diabetes,
from a brain hemorrhage, from a
heart ailment, from a leg injury that
required surgery from a French
doctor, from mental illness, or,
according to a head-turning British
report, from a cheese addiction.
North Korea’s completely con-
trolled state media, meanwhile,
chugged right along.
Kim is always seen in dispatches as
the benevolent wellspring of all that
is good and powerful. Archived
footage of him plays regularly on
state TV.
“Within North Korea, the people
feel Kim’s presence even when he is
absent,” Scott Snyder, a Korea expert
with the Council on Foreign Rela-
tions, wrote in a recent blog post.
“Externally, North Korean propagan-
da has made Kim’s presence so
critical that international media
regard his absence as disquieting,
even ... without supporting indicators
of instability or upset in Pyongyang.”
Maybe the speculation comes from
South Korean officials eager to
legitimacy, Adam Cathcart, a
University of Leeds history lecturer,
suggested in a recent online post he
titled “North Korea Misinformation
Bingo” that listed various “theories.”
Maybe it’s North Korea’s attempt to
change the subject from its human-
rights abuse? Maybe it’s “driven by
cutthroat competition in the online
journalism sector?”
The source is anyone’s guess,
Cathcart wrote, but two things are
certain: There are lots of rumors
floating around, and “most of them
are probably wrong.”
Part of the interest in Kim’s
absence stems from worries about
what would happen to the country if
the leader died without securing a
Kim Jong Un emerged as the
anointed successor after Kim Jong Il
disappeared from public view in 2008
— by most accounts because of a
stroke. The elder Kim died in late
Kim Jong Un’s two older brothers,
for whatever reasons, were deemed
unfit to rule by Kim Jong Il, and little
is known about his sister.
Kim’s disappearance from the
public eye “does not appear likely to
shake the regime, but it reveals the
vulnerabilities the regime faces,”
Snyder said.
Kim reportedly does have a direct
heir who may one day extend the Kim
dynasty into a fourth generation.
Probably not soon, though. She’s
believed to be a toddler.
Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung
in Seoul contributed to this report.
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