There is a single report from one of South Korea’s biggest daily papers, Chosun Ilbo, that singer Hyon Song-wol was arrested and executed along with 11 other members of the Unhasu Orchestra and Wangjaesan Light Music Band. Hyon was once Kim Jong-un’s girlfriend, but his father put a stop to that. There have been rumors as of 2011, that the two had rekindled their affair, which doubtless would not have thrilled Kim’s new wife Ri Sol-ju.
The only reason I mention it is because news outlets here in the west seem to be focused on a single issue: the allegation that Hyon and the others were executed because they made and sold a sex tape. For example, Slate reported, Unconfirmed Report of the Day: Kim Jong-Un Had His Ex-Girlfriend Executed For Making a Sex Tape. The Global Post reported, Report Alleges Kim Jong Un’s Ex-Girlfriend, Hyon Song Wol, Executed by Firing Squad Over Porn Charges. And Huffington Post reported, Hyon Song Wol, Kim Jong Un’s Ex-Girlfriend, Reportedly Executed For Making Sex Tape.
I’m not suggesting that any of these reporters actually believe the allegations. But as Adam Martin at New York Magazine reported, also among the charges was “possessing Bibles.” And this all adds up: it sounds like just the kind of trumped up charges that autocrats love. This is right out of 1984. Remember how all of the confessions were exactly the same? And they all included deviant sexual practices and banned books.
None of this means that the story is true. On the one hand, this is a total cliche that goes right along with what we all think of autocrats. On the other hand, autocrats are total cliches that go right along with what we all think of them. So if you were going to make up a story, you would say that Hyon was arrested for sex tapes and Bibles. But if you were an autocrat, you would say that Hyon was arrested for sex tapes and Bibles. It is very hard to distinguish in this case.
Let me provide you with my wild-ass-guess that at least is grounded in a decent understanding character and narrative. Kim was apparently stepping out on his wife with Hyon. This no doubt displeased his wife. After the relationship cooled down, she insisted that Hyon “go away.” That could mean that she be killed. But I think equally likely that she be taken out of the public sphere—maybe on house arrest. Her absence could certainly generate lots of rumors about arrests, sex tapes, and machine gun executions.
Perhaps the most important point in this whole story is that it could all be true and it doesn’t matter to anyone outside of North Korea. It’s a reminder of just how horrible that government is. Of course, it is just an extreme example of where authoritarianism takes a country. There are lots and lots of examples of this same mentality in this country. It just that as of yet, we still have institutions and norms that prevent it from getting out of hand. But remember: North Korea is a theocracy. There are many in the United States who want a theocracy—just not that kind.
So what do we do about North Korea? Nothing. It has a stable government. It has the bomb. And most of all, it is only starving to death and machine gunning its citizens. It’s not like it’s using chemical weapons.
Here is Hyon Song-wol’s catchy hit, “Excellent Horse-Like Lady”:
Update (5 September 2014 7:35 pm)
According to Wikipedia, Hyon Song-wol appeared in public after this story broke. So thankfully she was not murdered.