A long-time reader emailed me this afternoon (thank you) to point me to this story in the U.S. edition of the Korea Times, which in turn cites a potentially explosive, game-changing report hiding in Yonhap’s business section. According to the report, a North Korean scientist has defected to Finland with some of his government’s most carefully guarded secrets: a storage device, probably a flash drive, filled with 15 gigabytes of “human experiment results.”
The 47-year-old researcher, identified only by his surname Lee, at a microbiology research center in Ganggye, Chagang Province, bordered by China to the north, fled to the European country on June 6 via the Philippines, said the source from a North Korean human rights group.
“His ostensible reason for defection is that he felt skeptical about his research,” the source told Yonhap News Agency.
Lee held a data storage device with 15 gigabytes of information on human experiments in order to bring North Korea’s inhumane tests to light, according to the source.
The North Korean defector will give testimony before the European parliament later this month. [Yonhap]
Depending on what the researcher’s information is and how credible it is, it could be of incalculable value to our understanding of Pyongyang’s asymmetric warfare capabilities—and also, of other, infinitely more important things about this regime. Continue reading »
This may be the most significant known incident of anti-regime resistance by North Korean civilians since the Ajumma Rebellion that followed the 2009 currency confiscation:
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A massive brawl between Ministry of People’s Security [MPS] agents and vendors at a marketplace in Musan County last Friday has led to an urgent dispatch of county security and safety agents along with the complete shuttering of the market. The clash occurred after angry vendors tried to resist the confiscation of their goods by market surveillance authorities, Daily NK has learned.
“When the agents who manage the market took away manufactured goods from the vendors, they got upset and started arguing with the agents. Soon other merchants and officials nearby joined in and it ended up turning into a free-for-all between the two groups,” a source in North Hamkyung Province told Daily NK on Sunday.
This incident was corroborated by an additional source in the same province.
“An altercation that started with cursing and fistfights turned into mayhem as crowds watching got agitated and joined in with weapons, resulting in many casualties,” he said, noting that armed agents with the State Security Department [SSD] and the MPS from the country were dispatched and after shutting down the market they hauled off everyone everyone involved, including the injured and deceased.
South Korea has imposed unilateral financial sanctions “on six Taiwanese individuals and entities for their alleged arms trade with North Korea,” and on the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center. The Taiwanese entities include Global Interface Company, Trans Merits, Trans Multi Mechanics, Tsai Hsein Tai, Su Lu-Chi and Chang Wen-Fu. None of the entities are currently designated by the U.N. Security Council, whose designation process has historically been slow and subject to Chinese and Russian obfuscation.
It is the first time that the government has taken such a punitive step against foreigners and groups who are not from North Korea, in a bid to put pressure on the nuclear-armed communist neighbor.
Officials said there is “evidence of illegal ties” between those blacklisted and the North.
“It’s evident that they are involved in weapons trade with North Korea. They have already faced U.S. sanctions,” a ministry official said, requesting anonymity. “We have shared related information sufficiently with the ally and international organizations.” [Yonhap]
The measure requires South Koreans doing business with the blacklisted companies to request permission from the Bank of Korea. Engaging in any such transactions without BOK permission carries criminal penalties, including fines and prison time. The process sounds roughly similar to the process requiring a license from the U.S. Continue reading »
The Washington Post’s Anna Fifield has written an opinion piece in response to Bret Stephen’s column yesterday, on which I commented in yesterday’s post:
If we can’t report from the gulag without a guide, by Stephens’s logic, then we shouldn’t be reporting from North Korea at all. Or from Iran, or Syria, or Gaddafi’s Libya or probably present-day China, where journalists are closely monitored. Certainly not from the Soviet Union before the Iron Curtain came down.
Whenever we journalists go to these places, though, we invariably come back with some snippet of information that can enhance our understanding about these countries and the lives of the people there. And by passing that on to our readers and viewers, we can share information about countries — and their threatening regimes — with a wide audience that includes the people who make our policy towards these countries (and often can’t go to these places themselves.)
In the case of North Korea, we know so little about what happens there that every piece of information, no matter how small, can add meaningfully to our understanding. [Anna Fifield, Washington Post]
But with due respect to Fifield, whose reporting I’ve generally regarded highly, she missed Stephens’s point. Continue reading »
Stephens isn’t favorably impressed with David Guttenfelder’s latest “rare glimpse” through a soda straw clenched within the fists of Pyongyang’s KCNA propagandists, as published in The New York Times. Most of it is more of the same only-beautiful-please imagery we’ve come to expect from Guttenfelder–a flag factory, tiny children performing like circus animals, well-fed factory workers. Stephens observes: “It’s a potent reminder that nothing is so blinding as the illusion of seeing.”
Because the Times‘s own coverage of North Korea tends toward shallowness and gullibility about Pyongyang’s propaganda, it’s left to observers like Stephens to ask whether Guttenfelder’s work is informing or deceiving its audience.
I don’t mean to disparage Mr. Guttenfelder’s photographic skills or his sincerity. But what are we to make of a photo essay heavy on pictures of modern-looking factories and well-fed children being fussed over in a physical rehabilitation center? Or—from his Instagram account (“Everyday DPRK”)—of theme-park water slides, Christian church interiors, well-stocked clothing stores and rollerblading Pyongyang teens—all suggesting an ordinariness to North Korean life that, as we know from so many sources, is a travesty of the terrifying truth? [Bret Stephens, The Wall Street Journal]
Stephens asks Guttenfelder about CNN’s attempts to cover malnutrition and human rights abuses, comparing AP Pyongyang to the Eason Jordan/CNN scandal. Continue reading »
The threats against “The Interview,” the sundry assassination and kidnapping plots against defectors and activists, the weapons shipments to Hezbollah, the U.S. and South Korean court decisions finding North Korea responsible for acts of terrorism, all go unmentioned once again. There’s not even a suggestion that North Korea is being considered for re-listing.
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Overview: The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987. In October 2008, the United States rescinded the designation of the DPRK as a state sponsor of terrorism in accordance with criteria set forth in U.S. law, including a certification that the DPRK had not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding six-month period and the provision by the DPRK of assurances that it would not support acts of international terrorism in the future.
Four Japanese Red Army members who participated in a 1970 jet hijacking continued to live in the DPRK. The Japanese government continued to seek a full accounting of the fate of 12 Japanese nationals believed to have been abducted by DPRK state entities in the 1970s and 1980s. In May 2014, the DPRK agreed to re-open its investigation into the abductions, but as of the end of 2014 had not yet provided the results of this investigation to Japan.
Last week, a 19 year-old North Korean army private fled “repeated physical abuse at the hands of his superiors” and “the realities of his impoverished country,” walked and rode for a week as a fugitive, crossed the heavily mined DMZ, and fell asleep next to a South Korean guard post.* Surely this young soldier knows that his family will now face terrible retribution for what he has done. We can even speculate that others have tried, and failed, at similar attempts that we’ve never heard about.
What conditions cause such desperation? How prevalent are they within the North Korean military? What can incidents like these tell us about morale and readiness in the North Korean armed forces? Finally, do incidents like this suggest different approaches for policymakers who seek to prevent war, and to make conditions inside North Korea less brutal for its people?
A careful review of open-source reports suggests a steady stream of defections and fratricides within the North Korean military, but that the largest-scale mutiny of which we know (since the 6th Corps mutiny in 1996) was at the brigade level:
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- June 2005: A 20 year-old private deserts his anti-aircraft unit and walks across the DMZ. A South Korean civilian finds him in the back of a truck, eating instant ramyeon noodles and ChocoPies.
If one place in North Korea is the vortex of “engagement” with Kim Jong Un’s regime, and of every tendentious argument that this engagement will coax him into glasnost and perestroika, Pyongyang’s Koryo Hotel is that place. By North Korean standards, it’s luxurious, with a casino, a revolving restaurant, a hard-currency gift shop, and a lovely selection of listening devices. For years, it had been the favored venue for diplomats, tourists, investors, aid workers, and the occasional imbecile with more debts than morals, who could not attract the world’s attention in any city but Pyongyang.
And then, last week, this happened:
There is no question that the Koryo Hotel fire was a story of global interest. It was covered by Reuters, The Washington Post, the BBC, The New York Times, and many other news outlets. NGOs must have worried about the safety of their workers. Relatives must have worried about tourists who were unwise enough to be in Pyongyang in the first place. Governments and foreign ministries must have worried about the safety of their diplomats, and their nationals. The British Foreign Office warned tourists of “a culture of low safety awareness,” and suggested that they “check hotel fire procedures or consult tour operators,” which makes about as much sense as asking the White Star Line about the risk of icebergs. Continue reading »
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One day, either this President or the next one will awaken to the realization that the regime in Pyongyang is collapsing, and that he has just inherited the costliest, messiest, and riskiest nation-building project since the Marshall Plan. The collapse of North Korea will present South Korea — and by extension, its principal treaty ally, the United States — with a nation-building challenge unlike any in recent history. After all, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria all had some independent institutions — tribes, sects, mosques, and churches — that predated and outlived the old order. None of these things exists in North Korea. A collapse of the regime will reduce the entire society from the closest thing on Earth to panopticon totalitarianism to complete anarchy.
North Korea’s extraordinary secrecy means this will be harder to predict than the collapses of ostensibly “stable” regimes in Libya and Syria, but Kim Jong Un’s rule so far suggests an ineptitude at two survival skills — the proper cultivation of a personality cult, and the maintenance of good relations with the military. Pyongyang’s ongoing purges may or may not be signs of instability, but they suggest the existence of fear and distrust between Kim Jong Un and the military. Continue reading »
Jason Unruhe, who looks like an overripe ripe kiwi fruit decorated with a Mister Potato Head set, goes by the Twitter handle “Maoist Rebel News” and calls himself the “No. 1 Marxist on YouTube,” and yes, that is like being the “No. 1” sommelier under the 395 overpass. It’s my privilege to report that Mr. Unruhe is upset with me, after he provoked a Twitter fracas by raging against “imperialist” sanctions against North Korea. At this point, I explained to Mr. Unruhe that he had no idea what the sanctions actually say, so he turned on his satan-worshipper under-lighting, put on his limo driver uniform, and made this 18-minute YouTube video about me.
Feel free to comment, should you choose to do so.
I learned three things from this video: first, that Jason Unruhe doesn’t know much about North Korea; second, that his reading comprehension skills aren’t much good, either; and third, that some people will believe just about anything if they want to badly enough. Unruhe calls me a proponent of “keeping” North Korea on the list of state sponsors of terrorism (it was taken off the list by George W. Bush on October 11, 2008). He claims that I cited the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan (which he mispronounces chee-yo-nan) as an example of North Korea’s international terrorism; I actually concluded that this act, as outrageous as it was, probably didn’t meet the standard. Unruhe appears to have skimmed the table of contents without reading the report itself. Continue reading »
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Do you still remember March, when the “May 30 measures” were the next wave of “drastic” perestroika that would change North Korea? Those measures were supposed to “give autonomy management of all institutions, companies, and stores,” including “control over production distribution and trade from the state to factories and businesses,” and thus awaken “the inner potential of the country.” But today, Andrei Lankov, who has been one of the most forward-leaning predictors of economic reform in recent years, tells us that the regime is backing away from the reform proposal:
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The ‘May 30th Measures’ envisioned that the new system would be expanded to include all North Korean enterprises, but this is not what has happened. Reports emanating from North Korea in the last two months leave little doubt that the expected transformation has at best been postponed, at worst, cancelled entirely. Right now, only a minority of North Korean industrial enterprises have been allowed to implement the new model.
What happened? Frankly, it is unlikely we will receive a definite answer to this question any time soon. Of course, it is quite possible that Kim Jong Un suddenly changed his mind and decided to stop reformist activities that he found to be politically dangerous and ideologically suspicious.
Last year, following the purge of Jang Song Thaek, The Daily NK reported that mass arrests and increased surveillance had terrorized the elites in Pyongyang. Now, The Daily NK reports that Pyongyang residents, and especially those with family or organizational links to purged Defense Minister Hyon Yong Chol, have been under “a tighter net of surveillance” following the latest purge:
“Military and Party cadres in Pyongyang affiliated with Hyon are living in fear, not knowing whether they will fall victims as well,” a source from Pyongyang currently residing in the Sino-North Korean border area told Daily NK. “They are keeping low profiles to make sure the leadership doesn’t make an example out of them.”
He described Pyongyang as being “awash in tension” in the aftermath of Hyon’s execution. “In the month of May, there have been greater limitations on travel permits to other areas not only for residents but Party cadres as well. State Security Department [SSD] restrictions on mobility have also really been ramped up,” he explained. [Daily NK]
The increased controls include new requirements for cadres to report their routes before traveling anywhere, even in Pyongyang, and new “high-tech mobile phone wiretapping devices” with voice identification technology. Continue reading »
We’d hardly had time to digest all those rumors of “exploratory talks” with North Korea just two weeks ago, before John Kerry was in Seoul, sounding like his speechwriters had slipped him some cut-and-pasted OFK text. There, Kerry denounced Pyongyang’s “recent provocations,” said it wasn’t “even close to” ready for serious about talks, and accused it of “flagrant disregard for international law while denying its people fundamental freedom and rights.”
“The world is hearing increasingly more and more stories of grotesque, grisly, horrendous public displays of executions on a whim and a fancy by the leader against people who were close to him and sometimes for the most flimsy of excuses,” he said, referring to a report from South Korea’s spy agency that the North Korean defense minister was publicly executed with an antiaircraft gun after he fell asleep during a meeting led by Kim.
Kerry vowed to speak out against “North Korea’s atrocities against its own people” and warned that Kim’s mercurial behavior is likely to lead other nations to push for charges against him and North Korea at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. [Washington Post, Carol Morello]
This is all good, although if there’s one execution in North Korea that I care less about than any of the rest of them, it’s Hyon Yong-Chol’s. Continue reading »
Gloria Steinem can look back on a life of activism that has built deep reserves of good will among many people. Steinem must have spent heavily from those reserves last week, when Women Cross DMZ attracted largely critical media coverage (and I suspect, an even more critical public reaction). As NK News informs us, its events were stamped from the same propaganda assembly line as those put on for the clown-shod Quisling Alejandro Cao de Benos.
To what end would Steinem jeopardize that good will by entangling herself with a regime that treats women the way Pyongyang does, and whose state media ejaculate this level of misogyny? Steinem’s answer is interesting and telling: “The example of the isolation of the Soviet Union or other examples of isolation haven’t worked very well in my experience.” A prepared (but not as well edited) statement by Women Cross DMZ was on-message: “If history has taught us anything, it is that isolating people only alienates them.”
But Gloria Steinem clearly didn’t believe this on December 19, 1984, when she was arrested outside the South African Embassy while protesting against Ronald Reagan’s “policy of seeking change in South Africa through quiet diplomacy.” The demonstrations were coordinated by the lobby TransAfrica, which led America’s (and ultimately, the world’s) movement to isolate South Africa, and to force it to repeal its apartheid laws. Continue reading »
In the end, nothing illustrated the absurdity of Women Cross DMZ, the march to end the Korean War, better than the fact that it began with homages to Kim Il-Sung, the man who started the Korean War. Its emotional apex was reduced to a bus ride and a wait in an immigration line. It ended with organizer Christine Ahn ducking reporters to avoid questions about her reported comments praising Kim Il Sung (here’s the original Korean article from Pyongyang’s Rodong Sinmun). It was left to Gloria Steinem and unnamed march organizers to deny the statements and protest against the Rodong Sinmun‘s reporting on Ahn’s behalf, pitting Ahn and Women Cross DMZ against Pyongyang’s propagandists. I’ve yet to see Ahn herself deny the various statements attributed to her. We’re left wondering which of two sources is less credible — Ahn or the Rodong Sinmun.*
What a pity that both sides can’t lose.
Judging by how Pyongyang orchestrated and covered Women Cross DMZ (skip to 28:00), my suspicions about how Pyongyang would exploit it were validated. Judging by how The L.A. Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and even The Independent covered it, many reporters agree. The Washington Post wrote that in the end, the march had “many more detractors” than supporters. Continue reading »
South Korean prosecutors have indicted three South Korean nationals, identified only by the surnames “Bang,” “Kim,” and “Hwang,” for “bringing in methamphetamine from North Korea and attempting to assassinate” Hwang Jang-Yop, North Korea’s highest-ranking defector until his death in 2010. Let’s unpack these two criminal conspiracies one at a time, starting with the meth:
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The 69-year-old, identified only by his family name Bang, and two others have been detained for producing 70 kilograms of methamphetamine at a North Korean factory in Sariwon, North Hwanghae Province, in June and July of 2000, a prosecutor at the Seoul Central Prosecutors’ Office said.
They were suspected of being contacted through another South Korean, identified by his surname Lee who died in 2004, in 1996 by a North Korean agent in China who proposed Bang and the two colleagues bring the raw materials and equipment to North Korea to produce meth.
They allegedly traveled to North Korea several times with the aid of North Korean agents and made 70 kilograms of meth there.
“It is the first time North Korean agents were found to have been involved in the production of methamphetamine, although there have been rumors North Korea tried to get foreign currency by selling meth,” the prosecutor said, asking for anonymity.