It is hard to know what goes on inside North Korea, the world’s last Stalinist autocracy, but given the regime’s undoubted unpleasantness, the reports that Kim Jong-un has had his former mistress executed seem credible.
It seems that the unfortunate lady, Hyon Song-wol, was machine gunned to death with eleven other members of her musical band, while their families watched. In North Korea, the relations of those who fall from grace are punished too, so having been forced to watch the execution, the relatives would all have been sent to labour camps.
There are a few accounts from people who have escaped from North Korea about daily life under the Kim regime, all of which are worth reading. One such is The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot. This contains a graphic account of the North Korean gulag, where dead rats are considered a delicacy.
Why the offending lady was machine gunned rather than just sent to the gulag remains mysterious – but everything about North Korea is mysterious. It is possible that her death sentence was the work of Mr. Kim’s wife, who was also a popular singer, and who may have wanted to dispose of a rival. Perhaps the executed lady was a better singer than Mrs. Kim: who knows? Let’s remember that Madame Mao, when she came to power, rounded up all the film critics who had ever given her a bad review back in the 1930’s and had them sent to labour camps.
The court of Mr. Kim might well be riven by deadly infighting. Indeed, it would be surprising were it not. If Mrs. Kim has persuaded her husband to get rid of Ms Hyon, this was no more than what went on in another court. Anne Boleyn constantly nagged Henry VIII to have Katharine of Aragon and her daughter the Lady Mary executed; she was also keen to see Cardinal Wolsey go to the block; as it turned out, he resisted her nagging at least with regard to the Queen and the Princess, and in the end had Anne executed, about which she could hardly complain.
There are other parallels with the Tudors. Mr. Kim seems to favour novel methods of execution. Ms Hyon was machine gunned; Anne Boleyn was executed with a sword rather than the axe, even though, as the historian Alison Weir has pointed out in her excellent The Lady in the Tower, a sword may in fact be much more painful. But Mr. Kim goes further than Henry VII ever did. He had one general, according to the Telegraph, executed by mortar round, which is highly original.
The idea of guilt by association is also reminiscent of Tudor times. When Anne Boleyn fell, her uncle the Duke of Norfolk was keen to show his disapproval of his niece, and presided at her trial and voted for her death. When he second niece to marry the King, Katharine Howard, fell, his protestations were even more voluble, especially as several members of the Howard family spent some time in the Tower, thanks to guilt by association. Katharine Howard’s brothers rode through the City of London in their best clothes in a bid to disassociate themselves from the wretched girl’s misfortune; it was a move that worked.
Just as both of Henry’s wives, and indeed his other victims, may have been condemned on trumped up charges, so it seems that Ms Hyon and her colleagues were condemned to death for incoherent indeed contradictory offences: for making pornographic videos of themselves and for the possession of Bibles. The pornography charge sounds as convincing as Anne Boleyn’s alleged witchcraft.
We may well condemn what happens in North Korea, but this sort of thing is to be expected in places where there is no rule of law beyond the will of the presiding autocrat, who is anything but benign. The world’s surviving Stalinists and their hangers on may find this embarrassing, but it is really no more than one should expect. May Ms Hyon, and those who died with her, rest in peace.