The Wall Street Journal’s Evan Ramstad, picking up on reports of the Ajumma Rebellion and fresh reports from Open Radio, writes:
New reports emerged Tuesday of protests and deadly violence in North Korea as the country’s authoritarian regime over the past week seized most of its citizens’ money and savings via a new-currency issue. Open Radio for North Korea, a Seoul-based shortwave radio station that broadcasts news to the North, said police killed two men in Pyongsong, a market center outside of Pyongyang, on Friday after they divided their savings among a large group of people and urged them to exchange the money for them, attempting to get around the government’s limit. [….]
“They’ve tried to wind back the system, but they’re potentially teaching the people that markets can’t be controlled,” says Shaun Cochran, head of Korea research at CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets, who published a report on North Korea’s move. [….] Mr. Cochran said that the regime’s money grab “could be the single most important event in defining North Korea over the next decade.” He called it more significant than the headline-grabbing nuclear-weapons program, which North Korea uses for international influence, because the regime’s power ultimately rests on its ability to make North Koreans believe that it controls their economic well-being. [WSJ, Evan Ramstad]
Ramstad’s report comes with an excellent graphic summarizing the various reports of violence or dissent since the announcement of the Great Confiscation. It’s fragmentary, but it’s also indicative of broad-based discontent that seems to be erupting spontaneously and unpredictably. It’s also reasonable to infer that much more is going on inside North Korea than we have read so far. A year from now, defectors will tell us what is really going on today.
Has anyone else noticed how much the quality of the media coverage of North Korea has improved recently? Ramstad (with colleage Jay Solomon) and the Washington Post’s Blaine Harden are largely responsible for this trend, whereas in the past, we had only the magnificent Barbara Demick and Don Kirk (both great, if not especially prolific), the mixed bag of wire service reporting (led by Paul Eckert, Arshad Mohammed, Bradley Martin and Foster Klug, and trailed by the awful Charles Hanley), the Korean press (always looking over their shoulders during the DJ and Roh administrations), and the upstart defector news services. Today, the friendly competition between Ramstad and Harden seems to be contributing to informing the rest of us, and they both “get” that the real North Korea story is going on inside North Korea itself. I won’t go so far as to say they agree with me that the resolution of the North Korean crisis will depend on what happens inside North Korea, and not on pieces of paper diplomats sign, but their coverage focuses on developments that actually matter. In the case of the Post in particular, that represents a dramatic improvement over the nearly unleavened diet of State Department talking points that Glenn Kessler served us. To Kessler, it was as if North Korea wasn’t a real country with real people, but a mere conceptualization of his contacts at Foggy Bottom.
I wish a similar change would happen at the New York Times, whose North Korea coverage clearly lags far behind every other major newspaper. When is the last time the New York Times reported on a North Korea story that wasn’t about nukes, diplomacy, or some elusive hope for North Korea to engage or reform? Correspondent Choe Sang-Hun, who presumably has the advantage of speaking Korean, throws that advantage away by showing little interest in talking to defectors or cross-border traders to pursue developments inside the North itself. (Choe in particular only bothers to cover human rights stories if they’re about abuses in the South that happened at least 20 years ago. He seems disinterested in far greater abuses that happen in the North today.) You can say that any such reports would be impossible to confirm, but given the degree to which all the major papers now rely on Open Radio, Good Friends, and the Daily NK, would their journalistic standards be harmed so much if they cut out the middleman and cultivated some North Korean sources of their own?
Ultimately, however, it is the North Korean people themselves who have driven this change. Years ago, I called for defectors to be trained as journalists to infiltrate back into North Korea to help break down the isolation of their homeland. I can’t say that defectors are being trained in an organized fashion, but since then, the days of Radio Free NK and Open Radio operating on shoestring budgets have ended. Today, government-funded groups like the National Endowment for Democracy (plus the European Union and Reporteurs San Frontieres) are giving the defector-run media substantial financial support. With the improved funding, these new media have become a primary source for establishment media, and are influencing the way citizens and policy-makers see the North Korea story. We still haven’t reached the age of live video reporting from North Korea, but maybe we’ll see that day come. Meanwhile, the people of North Korea are documenting their own story. That is the most welcome development of all.