Under the Juniper Tree: The 2012 Assassination Attempt on Kim Jong-un
A year on, the execution of Jang Song-taek in December 2013 continues to amaze casual and professional observers of North Korea alike. In part this is due to the sheer scale of the show. Although a number of astute South Korean scholars of politics had predicted that, based upon the brutal logic of Suryongist absolutism in transition, Kim Jong-un’s uncle would eventually have to be purged, nobody had anticipated it to be so public or wantonly brutal.
The passing of time has only marginally improved our understanding of what happened during the period of Jang’s investigation, purge and eventual death. In justifying the decision to kill him, the North Korean regime published an extensive judgment in Rodong Sinmun. It outlined the charges laid against him, but the list was so long and the charges so varied that it was impossible to parse effectively; it did not get us much further forward than we had previously been. Diligent work from New Focus (for instance here) provided a number of pieces of the puzzle and rendered a logical narrative, but some questions remained unanswered.
Stepping into this breach, on November 4 this year reporter Joo Seong-ha of the Donga Ilbo published an article in which he outlined evidence of a plot to kill Kim Jong-un two years earlier. According to Joo, citing inside source testimony, the plan would have seen Kim shot with a firearm hidden beforehand beneath a juniper tree in central Pyongyang. However, the weapon was discovered, the security services alerted, and the plot foiled. Before long, the finger of blame turned toward none other than Jang Song-taek, and a surveillance operation began.
The rest, as they say, is history.
This Jangmadang owes a debt of gratitude to The Korean, who kindly liaised with Sino-NK to facilitate simultaneous posting with his blog, Ask a Korean. Like Sino-NK, The Korean is a great supporter of reporter Joo Seong-ha’s personal blog Nambuk Story, from which he drew the original article. — Editor
Two years ago, on November 3, 2012, there was an assassination attempt on Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang. That day, Kim was scheduled to visit Munsu Street in Pyongyang. There, he was set to go to Ryugyeongwon, a health club; People’s Outdoor Skating Rink; and a rollerskating rink. These facilities were only several tens of meters away from one another, with a street in between them.
On the morning of that day, a loaded machine gun was discovered cleverly hidden under a low-growing juniper tree near Ryugyeongwon. The gun was immediately reported to the Ministry of State Security. It was clearly an attempt on Kim Jong-un’s life. The assassins were apparently aiming for Kim Jong-un’s visit to the area. Even so, Kim Jong-un summoned enough courage to visit as scheduled.
The North Korean regime never found who was responsible. But the predominant speculation is that a high-ranking person must have been behind it. Kim Jong-un’s line of movement is top secret, with few knowing where he is planned to be. Also, it had to be someone who could smuggle a machine gun in from abroad, as firearms are strictly controlled in North Korea.
Soon, Kim Jong-un’s uncle Jang Song-taek was named the most likely suspect. The Internal Defense Force (IDF) of the Ministry of People’s Security, which [was then] under Jang’s command, had built the facilities that Kim Jong-un was due to visit. It was also the generals of the IDF who greeted Kim Jong-un at those facilities. But Jang could not be arrested based on speculation alone. Therefore, from that time, the regime relentlessly spied on him.
Perhaps because of this, Jang Song-taek disappeared from the public eye thereafter. In South Korea it was rumored that he had already been purged. Jang did reappear, but there were only 13 media appearances up to mid-April 2013. In 2012, Jang had accompanied Kim Jong-un 102 times.
To this day, the assassination attempt on Kim Jong-un is top secret, with only a few people knowing that it ever happened. I received this information some time ago, but did not report on it for the sake of my informant’s safety. This is a significant event, and not simply because it happened—although that alone is shocking enough. It is also significant because it is a major piece of the puzzle that explains North Korea’s irregular behavior following the event.
Immediately after the attempt, there were 100 armored cars placed around 30 facilities that Kim Jong-un uses, i.e. administrative offices and residences. The South Korean government also noticed this unusual activity approximately a month later. In early December, a South Korean official said: “Unlike before, Kim Jong-un’s visits now feature heavily armored bodyguards, and there are armored cars nearby. We presume that there was a large protest in North Korea, or there may be someone who is unhappy with his position in the government.”
This was evident from North Korean media as well. Previously when the North Korean media covered Kim Jong-un’s visits, bodyguards rarely appeared. If they did, they were armed only with handguns. But after the assassination attempt, bodyguards with automatic weapons and helmets appeared blatantly in the photos. There were also photos of bodyguards with a golf bag or guitar case, which presumably carried a machine gun, sniper rifle, or other heavy weaponry.
Apparently rattled, Kim Jong-un visited the Ministry of State Security twice in November, ordering a purge of hostile elements. In the same month, North Korea held a National Police Chief’s Assembly and a National Judicial Worker’s Assembly three days apart. The former was the first in 13 years; the latter in 30 years. At these assemblies, Kim Jong-un ordered: “We must discover all the impure hostile elements who maliciously instigate mutinies and chaos; those who wait for the time with a knife hidden inside.”
A campaign to eliminate impure elements began at the same time. Every North Korean governmental organization was told to submit a report on how many hostile elements it had apprehended. North Korean defectors testify that this was the period in which the reign of terror reached its extreme peak. In January the following year, North Korea declared a quasi-state of war, raising tensions to the maximal level both internally and externally.
After the assassination attempt, the bodyguard radius for Kim Jong-un was doubled. Previously, the intensive security zone—that within which a sniper attack would be possible—was 2km. Afterward, the radius was made 4km. The secondary guard area, in which one could conceivably launch a hand-held missile, went from 20km to 40km.
Clearly, the assassination attempt shocked Kim Jong-un. This was the time when the top brass of the military constantly changed, presumably because Kim’s distrust of the military was at its peak. By July 2013, more than half of North Korea’s commanders had been replaced. The generals’ ranks changed constantly as well.
Recently, Kim Jong-un has been traveling more on his personal jet. While some have seen this as a show of confidence in his safety, the opposite may be the case. Traveling by land covers a lot of ground and takes time. If someone knows the schedule ahead of time and hides an explosive along the way, it is difficult to prevent an attack. In contrast, the personal jet only requires control over the airport and a small number of support staff.
Of course, South Korean radar shows Kim Jong-un’s personal jet. And Kim has been taking a wooden boat right in front of the South Korean navy. It appears that Kim is confident that neither South Korea nor the United States will assassinate him, causing the chaos of a North Korean collapse. In contrast, he seems to fear the interior of North Korea more; during his three years, Kim Jong-un has not visited more than half of North Korea.
As of now, there is no way to know if Jang Song-taek attempted to assassinate Kim Jong-un, or if the purge of Jang has anything to do with this attempt. But after Jang was executed, a picture appeared on the pages of the South Korean media. In the picture, Jang was standing with his hands behind him, while others were busy clapping—the implication was that Jang had lost Kim Jong-un’s favor by being arrogant. That picture was from November 3, 2012. I wonder what Jang Song-taek was thinking that day; but his thoughts are now buried forever.
Source: Joo Seong-ha, “Truth of assassination attempt on Kim Jong-un two years ago public for first time” [2년 전 김정은 암살시도 진실 최초 공개], Donga.com and Nambuk Story, November 4, 2014. Translation by The Korean.