The Salt Lake blogger who watches North Korea


SALT LAKE CITY — North Korea’s management might be the toughest intelligence nut to crack. Kim Jong Un hasn’t traveled out of doors us of a given that becoming its chief in the quiet of 2011. In those six years, he’s met most effective a handful of outsiders. They encompass the same old solid of communist-related characters — Chinese, Cubans, Syrians — and the less expected delegations led by American former basketball superstar Dennis Rodman.

Otherwise, there’s no human intelligence on Kim and his cronies. Just country propaganda and satellite tv for pc images and rumors. Lots of rumors. But Michael Madden has become, as he puts it, an “accidental professional” on the menu. The occasional woman runs the arena’s most remoted u. S. From his couch in a dark basement right here, Madden operates the internet site North Korea Leadership Watch, documenting the appearances — and the telling absences — of Kim and the humans around him. “This regime is the longest-lasting totalitarian machine for a reason,” said Madden, an idiosyncratic 37-yr-antique who has an encyclopedic understanding of the North Korean elite.


He’s at risk of damn off their family bushes or trivia approximately their educations or jobs — such as the preceding positions held via the current director of the rural affairs branch of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea.

Sure, there is an effective strongman round which the system vests its attention and affection. However, the strongman nonetheless desires subordinates who make sure that the trains launch on time,” he said. “So it’s far crucial we recognize a few things about these subordinates, however expendable they are probably.”

Through his internet site, that’s now hosted with the aid of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, and through his work for government businesses and contractors, Madden has been retaining tabs on the people at the pinnacle of the Kim regime for almost a decade.

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“It’s just a depend of keeping the song of 300 people at a time,” he said. Madden has come to be influential in this small area — and a few North Koreans have observed. He becomes in contact with Kim Jong Nam until he has killed early this yr, reputedly at the orders of Kim Jong Un, his 1/2 brother.

Unusually, he also talks to North Koreans inside the regime. In reality, at the same time as a Washington Post reporter changed into in Pyongyang for the Workers’ Party congress closing 12 months, it was Madden, sitting 6,000 miles away in Salt Lake City, who became telling her what schedule item the delegates within the hall throughout metropolis had come to.

“He does an excellent task pulling the collectively available open-source fabric, and he’s one of the human beings that I observe on nitty-gritty North Korea management issues,” said Jung H. Pak, who until recently became a Korea analyst at the CIA and is now at the Brookings Institution.

Although he spends the maximum of his time in a darkened room consuming venti cups of coffee with a further shot, Madden isn’t always your stereotypical intel nerd.


He has tattoos of the Star Wars person Boba Fett and a Japanese lucky cat on his arms, and he barely goes a sentence without swearing. In forging analogies approximately North Korea, he’s vulnerable to allude to anyone from Bette Midler to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Madden happened upon North Korea with the aid of an unusual direction.

When he turned into a student at Suffolk University in Boston, he had a component-time job inside the administration section, which led to him traveling to Prague, wherein the college had a satellite program. The Czech Republic became a base additionally for many North Koreans, as diplomats or students.

He was given inquisitive about North Korea, and in 2006, when the collaborative mapping site Wikimapia become launched, he started out figuring out sites in North Korea for it. Then he moved into words, writing a chunk for an educational magazine approximately the Ryugyong Hotel, an ill-fated skyscraper that stands as a pyramid-shaped blight at the Pyongyang skyline but has never opened due to faulty construction and a lack of investment.

He started his website in September 2009 — thankfully, simply at the time, a younger man called Kim Jong Un become rising as his father’s successor.

Madden commenced documenting Kim’s public appearances with his father and pulling together media reviews approximately the third-technology leader and the people around him, from outside and inside North Korea. Madden does no longer speaks Korean, so he is predicated on translations.

He memorizes details about many of these humans — and types out reviews from the country-run Korean Central News Agency phrase by phrase, in preference to copying and pasting, to help the records stick in his head.

“I’m inquisitive about all of the mundane information,” he stated. “I’m a completely elderly millennial.” But his paintings have come to be an increasing number of important as the North Korean management has modified underneath Kim. Madden’s spouse, Sierra, has commenced writing for the website, too.


“North Korea doesn’t have an order of succession or seniority system like the U.S. Government. There’s no parliamentary machine with prime ministers, whips, and secretaries of a country,” he said. Instead, North Korea has a Politburo containing the united states of America’s top 25 officials. “It became ceremonial below Kim Jong Il, but it has become much more crucial in the Kim Jong Un device. The Politburo may be very a good deal the center of strength.”

The higher echelons were closely watched for signs of Kim’s strength — or in any other case — as he has consolidated his leadership after most effective a -12 months apprenticeship beneath his father, Kim Jong Il.

Just as humans have entered the inner circle, they have additionally dropped out of it. Kim Jong Un has purged and sometimes finished a number of his closest aides, including men who helped him transition into electricity. Kim had his uncle completed (using an antiaircraft gun) for apparently gathering an excessive amount of-of his own strength.

The modern rumor revolves around Hwang Pyong So, who was accelerated to be head of the military’s General Political Bureau, which mobilizes the army for Kim. Last month, South Korea’s intelligence service said that Hwang, who turned into frequently seen at Kim’s side for the duration of missile launches, had fallen from grace. Now it’s announcing he’s been dispatched to a re-education camp.

But a vast wide variety of human beings said purged or performed have shown up just first-rate some months later, so Madden likes to sit down on those reviews and await proof. If the officers reappear after six months, it means they’ve been “re-educated.” But if they may be edited out of motion pictures, they’re usually no longer of this international. “I’ve simply got to place all of it collectively,” Madden stated of his work assembling small portions of statistics. “It’s like Mr. Potato Head.”