Maximum Accountability

by Justin

The post title is misleading – what I’m talking about is misdirected cruelty masquerading as extreme accountability.

In the thick of the financial crisis many people demanded the sacking of Goldman Sachs executives that oversaw the exploitation of its investors. Again, throughout the Gulf spill disaster concerned citizens called for the firings of BP and Transocean leaders as a show that things would change. In giant corporations this may very well have amounted to just that: a show. But sometimes that’s all anyone wants – a little drama in place of substantial reform. Well, North Korea went to the extreme of misguided theatrics, hoping that an execution would overshadow the endemic flaws in its system.

This ran in the Guardian yesterday, a brief account of the execution by firing squad of former North Korean cabinet official Kwon Ho Ung. He had been the chief ministerial delegate to South Korea from 2004-2007, and evidently left a less than sterling legacy in the eyes of the NoKo powers that be.

The story amazed me at first because a government official, having committed no outright crimes of treason or dissent, was executed by the administration he attempted to serve. Before my marvel gets out of hand, its worth pointing out that the story was first carried in South Korea as related by an unidentified source in Beijing – Pyongyang denied requests for comment. So it’s a little murky. But its bolstered by the real revelation in the Guardian story:

In March, North Korea executed two senior economic officials over a botched currency revamp that forced markets to close temporarily and fuelled social tensions, according to Daily NK, a Seoul-based media outlet that specialises in the neighbouring country. . .

It is not unprecedented for the communist regime to execute officials for policy failures. In the 1990s, North Korea publicly executed a top agricultural official following widespread famine.

The currency revaluation of last winter remains one of the more cruel and flagrantly incompetent stories I’ve read about Kim Jong-il’s disastrous regime, rivaled only by the outbreaks of famine. But these executions didn’t yield a replacement that came in with radical reforms, the currency value was never corrected nor was the agricultural system corrected to combat famine. So the government admitted no need for corrective measures and did nothing to lead its people or the rest of the world that the policies themselves were in discord with Kim Jong-il. Instead, the administration trumped corporate sackings or cabinet shufflings and executed the senior officials that helmed the initiatives. Kind of.

It looks like diplomat Kwon Ho Ung met with no wild success during his three years working to improve relations with South Korea – nuclear testing may have stacked the cards against him a bit. But it’s been three years since he sat in the hot seat, so what gives? In 2008 a more conservative and pro-United States government took office in South Korea, further straining the edge-of-a-knife relationship. And then you have the sinking of a South Korean warship this March by its northern neighbor (evidence seems conclusive, though NoKo denies culpability). Things are going badly. Someone needs to take the fall, be the sacrificial figurehead to appease the masses and give the semblance of all-important control.

A couple questions emerge. One, is the NoKo government so fractious that individuals operate with complete autonomy? Such that the currency revaluation (more on that travesty in this earlier post) could really rest on the shoulders of two officials? Can one delegate be representative of an entire nation such that his possible underperformance warrants death? I don’t know much about the way Pyongyang operates. I do know that a piss-drunk Kim Jong-il has been known to send drivers to pick up his cabinet members in the middle of the night and deliver them to the now hammered despot for a terrifying evening of governing

The other great question is regarding the effects of executing a high-ranking official upon the general population. Does it seem like the government is owning its mistake? Is it absurd and tragic? Does word even circulate effectively among the impoverished majority? Regardless, those are some high-stakes politics over there. Imagine if our representatives failed the people and then met a firing squad. Of course it would never happen – who other than Kim Jong-il could ever make such absolute and unassailable judgments?

Also, why don’t more people call North Korea by the much cuter and tongue-rolling NoKo? I only get jeans and Japanese toys when I run the search.