Kim Jong-Soprano: North Korea’s Sicilian Government

The traditional western view of North Korea often paints the “Hermit Kingdom” as a farcical jester of a nation, an oddity that confounds onlookers with its many contradictions and bombastic threats.  However, this less than nuanced view of the nation and its intricate and complex governmental hierarchy tends to oversimplify the small Asian state, potentially leading to fatal missteps in policy regarding the progressing nuclear power, whose wild threats and curses could theoretically gain a terrifying bite behind them in the approaching years.  For these reasons, it is crucial that we properly understand the inner workings of Kim Jong-Un’s gang-like government.

The oddest thing about Mr. Kim’s government is the role Kim himself plays.  He runs his government like a fervent religious cult, building an image of himself among the people as a supreme leader who personally oversees every matter of state, with unbeatable records in every sport or competition, and a host of magical powers, such as the ability to read the minds of his citizens to make sure they remain loyal.   However, the truth behind the scenes of Kim’s magic show is much grittier.  As a military dictator, Mr. Kim derives all of his power from his control of the armed forces.  Like a mob-boss or feudal lord, Mr. Kim must manage the desires and demands of his subordinates to remain the supreme leader.  Without the support of his martial underlings, he is effectively naught but a pudgy lunatic.  With the army’s backing, he is a pudgy lunatic with the unilateral control of the nation.

Mr. Kim, of course, understands this well, and thus considers the well-being of the military above all else, affording them great rights, as well as granting them a massive amount of influence within the government of North Korea.  The powers of the North Korean military are best shown through the ideology of Songun, instituted by Kim Jong-Il in 1995.  The policy, translated literally as “military first” puts the military of North Korea before all other matters of state, prioritizing the well being of the military over civic and economic issues.  Unsurprisingly, this policy was instituted in the middle of the Great Famine of North Korea (known within the country as the Arduous March, as famine implies a government failure), when a combination of factors, including the loss of Soviet support, floods and droughts, and a failing of the centrally planned farming system, led to massive food shortages.  As international aid flowed into the country, the newly elevated military intercepted stockpiles of food, using them to keep their soldiers fed and content, while farmers and peasants starved to death.  Even after the humanitarian situation in the country stabilized slightly, Kim Jong-Il and the reigning Kim Jong-Un have since doubled-down on the policy of Songun, steadily increasing the authority of their base of power, the military.

Because of this system, where the army officials hold almost lordly privileges over their jurisdictions, and the rule of the government is determined by the authority of the gun, the government of North Korea often times operates almost as an organized criminal empire would, with laws and rules created and interpreted at the whim of the men holding the weapons, a constant power-struggle emerging between the hierarchy of capos and mob-bosses, and a flow of money that is robbed, embezzled, or appropriated out of the hands of the average citizen and into the pockets of the men in charge.  However, due to the special circumstances surrounding this particular crime-family, they aren’t looking out for the Feds, they are the Feds.

Ganging up on the Public: Thailand’s New Junta Government

Recently Thailand’s military government has doubled-down on efforts to restrict freedom of speech and privacy within their country in an attempt to silence critics. In August of last year, government official Takorn Tantasith announced that all foreigners stepping foot in Thailand would be obligated to carry a government-assigned SIM card with permanently unlocked locational tracking. While he claims that a court order would be required to access this data, the establishment of new cyber-laws have potentially opened the door for full-time civilian surveillance by the military. Tanatasith claims that Thais don’t need the new SIM card due to the ease with which the government can already track them, a concerning prospect.

These new cyber-laws, established under the new Computer-Related Crime Act (CCA), give extensive powers to the government to censor and otherwise persecute individuals with dissenting opinions. The Act, passed unanimously by a junta-appointed assembly last month, will certainly exasperate the prosecution of activists—hundreds of which have already been punished in the past couple years without the aid of these new restrictions. The Act employs ambiguous terms, allowing one to be arrested for sharing “distorted or partially distorted” information online. Service providers under these new laws are required to remove any posts categorized by the government in any of the aforementioned criteria. To ensure that nothing slips by, the CCA also grants the power to the government to delete any non-illegal content if deemed “inappropriate” for any reason by an appointed committee.

The government recently displayed the extent of power granted by these new laws by arresting a student for posting to Facebook portions of a BBC article that mentions the king’s personal life. Under Thailand’s lèse-majesté policy, these individuals can be charged for insulting the king—a policy that is easily taken advantage of to silence would-be objectors. After being met with considerable opposition, the government has stated that citizens posting or sharing criticisms of the CCA could be persecuted under the CCA for “public disturbances [due to]…false information.”

These internet crack-downs are part of a larger movement by the junta government to suppress their people’s role in government. Last year Thailand’s government established their 20th constitution in 84 years, quietly seizing power from the people and vesting it in the military.[5] The military can now appoint all 250 senators, issue unchecked emergency decrees, and veto all political bodies. The referendum passed with 61 percent of the vote, but the Thai government arrested activists and banned the spread of “false information” in the media leading up to the voting. Political rallies, independent campaigns, and open discussion or criticisms of the draft were also banned. Voters were also asked if the prime minister should be selected by an appointed Senate; due to the widespread fear of instability following the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, this proposal was passed by a margin of 16 percent.

By promising limitations of the power of appointed politicians, the junta government was able to facilitate its own power by tapping into the ‘bad taste’ in the mouths of Thais after the corrupt dealings of previous Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Recently sentenced to two years of imprisonment for corruption, Shinawatra fled to England where he is now facing extradition requests by the new military government. While the major players of the Thai ‘gang-government’ have changed, the game has not; Thai citizens still continue to fall victim to a government clinging to power at the expense of the country.

According to Time Magazine, coups cost the Thai economy 3.4 percent GDP in the two following years and cut national incomes by 7 percent. When one considers the fact that Thailand is statistically likely to have a coup every 4.5 years, it is easier to understand why the new government has been so successful at rallying support for what was touted as uncorrupt political stability. With an estimated $53 billion in assets at stake in the royal trust, it has been speculated that the military has been forced to take strong action to stabilize the country following the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, yet the new laws seem to specifically favor the military over the general sentiments of the country, which will likely lead to disorder in the near future.

The Yakuza and The Yamaguchi-gumi: Japan’s Organized Crime

“Yakuza” is the blanket name for the organized crime groups in Japan. They developed during the Edo period of Japan, between 1603 and 1868, as a bunch of misfit gamblers and pedalers turned criminals. The term “yakuza” derived from the Japanese words for eight, nine, and three, which is the worst hand in the Japanese card game Oicho-Kabu. This is reflective of their gambling past, and gambling (which is illegal in Japan), along with loan sharking, drug trafficking and prostitution, are still the main ways that the yakuza groups make money. It is said that the oldest continuous yakuza gang, according to author Kazuhiko Murakami, is probably the Aizukotetsu-kai in Kyoto, which was founded around the 1870s.

 

After WWII, the Yakuza groups got themselves into the black market and started dominating it. Before then, they were “loosely run gambling associations,” until they started doubling down on their business, providing gambling and entertainment, and even managing singers and stars. They then started engaging in extortion, blackmail, and fraud, moving into construction and running real estate, and eventually got into politics. At the current moment, these yakuza groups are not banned, but heavily monitored by Japan due to their presence and the idea that banning them would cause them to go underground, making it harder for them to be monitored.

 

Yakuza groups, while mostly crime oriented, also run many legitimate businesses, which is one of the reasons the groups themselves aren’t illegal. For instance, they have some control over the entertainment industry and “rule over their empires ruthlessly.” Their influence also is very heavy within “the construction, real estate, currency exchange, labor dispatch, and the IT and financial industries.” Despite their influence in these fields, they also have some political influence, dating back to post-WWII times when “the notorious Yakuza Yoshio Kodama financed the Liberal Democratic Party in its early years.” They are also the last resort in the business world for “crushing labor unions, scandals and finding labor for jobs that no one wants to do.”

 

Like many gangs, the yakuza groups are mostly composed of marginalized groups of people, such as “the Korean-Japanese whose parents and grandparents were brought into Japan as slave laborers and members from the former outcast class of Japan.” Unlike typical gangs, however, these groups are not so territorial based. They are mostly social based, with a social hierarchy. These gangs do not shy away from publicity and tend to be very public, with “comic books and movies glamoris[ing] them” and “major gang bosses [being] quasi-celebrities.” They have magazines, headquarters, business cards, and even sponsor entertainers. Ironically, these gangs aren’t illegal. They are allowed to exist by law, but their actions aren’t.

 

Of these Yakuza groups, the largest of them is the Yamaguchi-gumi. This group was founded in Kobe “as a labor dispatch service” in 1915. This quickly changed when Taoka Kazuo joined as a member in the 1930s. During WWII, this organisation quickly fell apart before being brought back to life during the post-war years by Kazuo himself, and then made into a giant cartel that eventually became the powerful group it is known as today. It currently is headed by Kenichi Shinoda.
This group in particular, however, will probably be one of the main players in a possible war of all gangs. During August 2015, the Yamaguchi-gumi split into two groups, with one calling themselves the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi. Other Yakuza groups will have to pledge their loyalties to the new or old group, further dividing gangs and causing conflict. Despite this division, there is hope that the gang warfare won’t spread to the streets, as the yakuza groups value money over bloodshed, thus leading to the possibility of matters being sorted out financially. It isn’t just looking grim for the groups and everyone else there, for Yakuza member numbers are dropping, causing them to hire freelance strongarms. The Yamaguchi-gumi, along with the rest of the Yakuza gangs, have permeated Japanese life to help their membership numbers, but they do not appear to have more than that, never mind acting as institutionally as the Sicilian mafia.

East Turkestan Independence Movement, Standing Shakily Against China

The Xinjiang Province of China has been populated for hundreds of years by a Muslim, Turkic people known as the Uighurs. Of the 10 million Uighurs alive today, all but 300,000 live in Xinjiang; however, China has had control of the governance of the region for most of the past 300 years, often using the province for military bases guarding against China’s Northwestern neighbors. Bordering six Muslim countries, the Uyghur people are culturally very similar to their Central Asian neighbors – but economic development and government-encouraged migration has brought scores of Han Chinese newcomers to the area, who bring their own language, culture, and ideas.

Today, the region is over 40% Han Chinese, and the Chinese government has large numbers of troops stationed there. Ethnic Chinese are widely seen, with much reason, as being given the best jobs and economic opportunity, and the Chinese government has repeatedly shut down protests and silenced Uighur dissidents. In contrast, many of Xinjian’s neighboring peoples had gained independence following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and set up their own governments with ethnically local, Muslim leadership, while the Chinese government continued to heavily regulate mosques, religious schools, and even banned Muslim civil servants from fasting during Ramadan. As a result of these historical developments, a growing number of the native Uighurs began fighting for independence from China, and the East Turkestan Independence Movement emerged.

One of the branches of this group, the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), has received support from the leaders of al-Qaeda, and have begun perpetrating terrorist attacks in China, most notably on August 30, 2016, when the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, was attacked in a suicide bombing by a member of the TIP. These guerilla tactics are being employed with the goal of establishing an independent, ethnically representative government in Xinjiang, and have been done exclusively against the Chinese government, unlike groups like the Islamic State whose goal is to establish a worldwide caliphate.

This desired state of “East Turkestan,” however, is nothing more than an idea; the people of the region have not governed themselves since their brief Soviet-backed period of independence in the 1940’s. There is no vacuum of power to fill, and the Chinese perform all expected government functions. Wherever their loyalties lie, the people of Xinjiang by and large recognize the Chinese government and have no dependence on any Turkestani group.

While many Muslims in Xinjiang, which is literally translated as “new territory” in Chinese, believe that China’s borders should not extend beyond the Great Wall of China into what they refer to in private as “Turkestan” or “Sharqi Turkestan,” the powerful Chinese government has so far prevented this resentment from growing into a larger political movement that could unite ethnic Uighurs in the region.  A small group of Uyghur asylees in the United States led by Anwar Yusuf Turani has set up what they call the “East Turkistan Government in Exile;” however they are not currently recognized by any government, and their only action of “governing” is the production of extremely long English-language Youtube videos with little more than 100 views each. Thus, these Muslim, separatist guerilla groups of Xinjiang appear fated to remain small and disorganized, as China puts more and more energy into securing its borders.

Abu Sayyaf: The Filipino Guerrilla Group Gone Gang

The origins of the Filipino terrorist group known as Abu Sayyaf date back to the 1990’s. The group split from the Moro National Liberation Front, a movement in the Philippines seeking Muslim independence in western Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago. When the Moro National Liberation Front signed a peace treaty with the Filipino government in 1996, some who still sought independence joined Abu Sayyaf. Abu Sayyaf became an extremist, Muslim terrorist group, forming under the leadership of Abdurajak Akubakar Janjalani, who fought alongside Osama Bin Laden in the Soviet-Afghan war. Inspired, funded, and trained by Al-Qaeda, Abu Sayyaf(“bearer of the sword”) gained traction in the thick jungles of the underpopulated southern Philippines, territory it controls to this day. Its exact membership has never truly been known, but Abu Sayyaf is currently estimated to have only about 400 members.

Over the years, Abu Sayyaf has degenerated from a notorious guerrilla group seeking a caliphate, to a fragmented gang whose goals seem to be mostly related to profit. The main factor behind Abu Sayyaf’s transformation is its decreased centralization. Under its first leader, Abdurajak Akubakar Janjalani, Abu Sayyaf had a clear chain of command and the political goal of a caliphate. His death by security forces in 1998 passed power on to his brother, Khadaffy Janjalani. The group was still strongly centralized, and it really began making its way into the limelight in 2000, when it kidnapped 10 western tourists, and 11 Asians. Abu Sayyaf acquired its first ransom for these hostages in August of 2001, as Muammar Gaddafi, then leader of Libya, is said to have paid millions of dollars for their return. Under Janjalini’s leadership the group continued many successful kidnappings for more ransoms, often beheading victims if their demands were not met. Seeking to assert its power and possibly scare the Filipino government into officially giving up some territory for a caliphate, the group firebombed a ferry in Manila Bay on February 27, 2004 , killing 116 people in the largest terror attack in the Philippines’ history. Khadaffy Janjalani was killed over two years later by the Filipino military in September of 2006fracturing the group’s centralization, and causing Abu Sayyaf  to begin its transformation into a gang.

Factions of Abu Sayyaf still claim to seek a caliphate, and a few have dedicated themselves to ISIS, but the reasons for this declaration are likely for monetary aid. No evidence of aid has come. This could very well be because of Abu Sayyaf’s fragmentation into what essentially is a group of gangs. Abu Sayyaf’s unifying goal may no longer be a caliphate, but the one common motivation amongst its factions remains the extortion through kidnappings. The group’s lack of unity proved to be a detriment in 2015, when one faction wanted a larger ransom than another. This disagreement led to the beheading of a Malaysian hostage.  Abu Sayyaf’s transformation into a gang has indeed not made it any less brutal. In April and June of 2016, two Canadian men abducted from a resort were beheaded when the Canadian government refused to pay the ransom. Clearly, even a decentralized Abu Sayyaf is not a group to be trifled with, even if their power is dwindling.

This dwindling power comes in large part from an order of eradication by President Rodrigo Duterte. When Abu Sayyaf formed it had a decent amount of support locally, but Duterte has mobilized the largest amount of Filipino troops in the country’s history to accomplish their defeat, and support from the villages of the Southern Philippines is, according to Filipino General De La Vega, now “considerable”. Working in familiar territory, constantly finding new hiding places, Abu Sayyaf, despite its minimal support will be difficult to destroy completely. The problem is quite vaguely reminiscent to the difficulties the U.S. military experienced in Vietnam, as well as the difficulties the British faced fighting the colonists in the American Revolution. Knowledge of the local terrain is undoubtedly an advantage in battle. However, compared to both the Vietnamese and the American colonists, Abu Sayyaf is a far less organized group. Abu Sayyaf by no means looks to be a threat to the broader international community, but its total destruction will prove challenging. However, all in all, being as fragmented as it is, the Filipino army’s growing presence, and its decreasing support among locals makes the likelihood of a resurgence by Abu Sayyaf nearly impossible.