Stephen Baker

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Pyongyang Chronicle: The demise of a trickster

December 14, 2013News

Word that Jang Song-thaek was a trickster emerged the day he was executed, or perhaps the following day. Chronology is always hard to nail down in North Korea. In any case, a 2,000+-word government news release disclosed that in addition to being a gambler, thief, capitalist, careerist and a lesser form of life than dog, Jang was also a trickster. It would seem that the government was unaware until very recently of this fact. You might expect as much. After all, don't tricksters keep secrets? They do. Perhaps better than anybody.

But signs that Jang was a trickster had been evident for years, perhaps decades. Insiders in Pyongyang were aware that Jang was--not necessarily in this order--the dictator's uncle, confidente, coach, and that he was a trickster. At least one person must have seen him lift $4 million from one account or another. They don't have automatic withdrawals in North Korea. People do such work. But such people also know to keep quiet when a trickster who happens to be the second most powerful person in the realm tells them mum's the word. Several others knew that he blew millions in international casinos. People who lose that kind of money get seen. Many of those who saw him at crap tables in Macao later told government inspectors that Jang, surprisingly for such a notorious trickster, lost his millions with good cheer and forbearance. They wished him the best and looked forward to his return. 

So it was known. Jang was a trickster, but largely a discreet one. When his nephew, Kim Jong-um, showed interest in executing criminals and traitors, Jang pointed toward other people, professors and army officers, certainly not to himself. He was not stupid.

It's hard to say, in retrospect, what led to the clapping incident. I should say the non-clapping incident, or perhaps half-hearted clapping one. The leader had spoken. Everyone was clapping. Clapping is what is done. It is loud and enthusiastic, probably more loud than enthusiastic, in truth, but it is carried out whole-heartedly, with solid impact, maximum noise, and preferably a smile. And there was Jang, his expression grim, like that of someone who had lost millions in casinos. He may have been suffering the ravages of a hangover. He was barely touching his palms to each other. People noticed. Among a circle of people surrounding him, morale collapsed. Yes, Jang was a trickster. That much they knew. He was hardly clapping. That was new. 

He was arrested tried and executed the next day, or maybe the following one. Why do tricksters meet such untimely ends? 

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