Kim Jong Un blasts premier for typhoon lack of preparedness

Harsh criticism generates buzz among the public, and some sympathy.
By Ahn Chang Gyu for RFA Korean
2023.09.12
Kim Jong Un blasts premier for typhoon lack of preparedness orth Korean leader Kim Jong Un and North Korea's Premier Kim Tok Hun [second from left] tour typhoon-affected farms in Anbyon County, North Korea, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Aug. 17, 2023.
KCNA via Reuters

Calling him a “mental under-wit,” Kim Jong Un blasted North Korea’s premier, Kim Tok Hun, last month for flooding caused by the failure of a dike during Typhoon Khanun, sources in the country told Radio Free Asia.

“Pardon can never be allowed for those politically immature persons…  mental under-wits … bureaucrats who ignore the safety of people's lives and property and those who are unfaithful to their duty for the Party and the revolution,” Kim Jong Un unloaded, according to the English-language service of the state-run Korea Central News Agency, or KCNA.

Such harsh public criticism of sitting senior officials is rare in North Korea, and generated some sympathy among people.

“The reaction of the residents is one of sympathy to the premier and the Cabinet,” a resident of Hyesan, near the Chinese border, told RFA Korean on condition of anonymity for security reasons. “They say, ‘What power does the premier actually have?’”

Inundated fields

The comments came after Kim Jong Un toured the South Pyongan Tideland Reclamation General Enterprise on Aug. 21, where he saw how the storm had inundated more than 560 hectares (1,400 acres) of land, including 270 hectares (670 acres) of rice paddies, the report said.

In the report, Kim chastised the premier for negligence and even allowing the embezzlement of fuel supplies. 

ENG_KOR_PremierCriticism_09122023 .2.jpg
This undated photo released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on August 14, 2023 shows a helicopter flying over an area affected by recent Tropical Storm Khanun in Ogye-ri, Kangwon province. Credit: KCNA via KNS/AFP

He said Kim Tok Hun looked over the area “once or twice” and appointed subordinates to take care of the issue, who then delegated it to the army, all while concealing theft of emergency fuel supplies supplied by the state.

“The administrative and economic discipline of the Kim Tok Hun Cabinet has got out of order more seriously and, consequently, the idlers are spoiling all the state economic work with the irresponsible work manner,” KCNA quoted Kim as saying. 

He called for an examination into the premier’s ideological viewpoint and his lack of responsible work ethic.

Kim also ordered that relevant authorities discuss the possibility of expelling the director of the Tideland Reclamation Bureau from the ruling Korean Workers’ Party, a fate that would end his career and severely lower his social standing.

So far, North Korean state media has not reported that Premier Kim Tok Hun received any punishment. 

The premier is the lowest ranking of North Korea’s three executive offices, behind the chairman of the Standing Committee of the Supreme People’s Assembly and the President of the State Affairs Commission, the office currently held by Kim Jong Un. 

Public readings

The incident, which people heard and read about in the main state-run newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, generated quite a buzz among the public, residents said.

“This is becoming a hot topic,” a resident of Hyesan, near the Chinese border, told RFA Korean on condition of anonymity for security reasons. “Many people are puzzled by the detailed disclosure of Kim Jong Un’s criticism in newspapers and broadcasts.”

ENG_KOR_PremierCriticism_09122023 .3.jpg
This undated photo released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on August 14, 2023 shows North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un visiting an area affected by recent Tropical Storm Khanun in Ogye-ri, Kangwon province. Credit: KCNA via KNS/AFP

Every morning in North Korea, organizations across the country, from factories, collective farms and government offices, hold an assembly, where copies of the Rodong Sinmun newspaper are publicly read. The Hyesan resident said that it was jarring to hear Kim’s harsh words for the premier in the assembly.

“Never before has Kim Jong Un’s warning of severe punishment been published verbatim in a newspaper or broadcast,” he said, adding that under normal circumstances citizens would hear about a politician falling out of favor only after the punishment had been carried out.

“The reaction of the residents is one of sympathy to the premier and the cabinet. They say, ‘What power does the premier actually have?’” he said.

A company official in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA that citizens are drawing comparisons to Kim Jong Un’s first high-profile political purge, when he ordered the execution of his uncle Jang Song Thaek, who was believed to have been the de facto leader of the country in the last years before Kim Jong Il’s death.

“After Kim Jong Un appeared, Rodong Sinmun and broadcasting, which used to only carry positive content, are now also publishing negative content pointing out the mistakes of the local government officials,” the North Hamgyong resident said. 

“Kim Jong Un’s criticism of the premier and the Cabinet, which was followed by harsh words, and warning of punishment were very unexpected,” he said.

The official said that he’s hearing hints that a nationwide inspection is underway to prevent damage during the rainy season. 

“Administrative officials, including the People’s Committee and managers of factories and institutions at all levels, are walking on eggshells,” he said.

In the past, officials would complain about lack of materials and other conditions when given instructions from the party, he said. “But now they are unable to say anything but simply, ‘Yes, I understand.’”

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.

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