164 results found.
164 results found.
A source in North Korea’s North Hamgyeong province bordering China said increased security had forced smugglers to carry goods such as medicinal herbs and wild edible greens, which are easier to conceal than the bulkier metal goods, including scrap products.” [Radio Free Asia]
Rimjingang and the Daily NK have been running a stream of bleak reports on the dramatically worsening situation along the border between China and North Korea. In the six-week period since the purge of Jang Song Thaek, North Korea has virtually sealed that border by ordering border guards to shoot would-be defectors, increasing its use of cell phone detectors, torturing and bribing people into revealing the names of others, and flooding the zone with the most insufferable petty despots the human mind can conjure — university students with authority:
“Ministry of Public Security inspection teams made up of political university students are conducting checks targeting the people; of late four families have been arrested in the Tapseong-dong district of Hyesan alone for the crime of aiding defection,” a source in northerly Yangkang Province reported to Daily NK on the 22nd. “They are in possession of the residents’ ledger from the local MPS office and are using it to conduct checks.” [….]
According to the source, the presence of the teams of political university students on the banks of the Yalu River alongside MPS agents and border guards have made it such that any person deemed dubious in any way, as well as families moving as a unit, are being treated as targets. An imprudent glance across the river into China or walking along the levees above the river is also enough to attract unwanted attention. [….]
“The atmosphere along the border itself is really intense. You can see people being taken in or questioned by the inspection teams all the time,” she concluded. [Daily NK]
Rimjingang calls them “censorship units,” but its report is from the same city, and it’s clearly talking about the same people:
We have received information that large scale crackdowns by the state are taking place in the northern city of Hyesan, which shares a border with Jilin Province of China. These crackdowns are being carried out by the massive “Censorship Unit”(???) dispatched from Pyongyang. [….]
“At the beginning of the year, in Hyesin-dong, there was a case where the border guard fired on two women attempting to cross the river and defect into China. No one died in the event, but one woman was captured while other managed to reach the Chinese side. She escaped after she reached the riverbank, getting into a car which appeared to have been arranged beforehand.” [….]
Guards are known to fire at suspected defectors as long as these people are on the North Korean side. Once they start to cross the river, however, guards refrain from discharging their weapons. [Rimjingang]
The old and reliable patterns of corruption that had prized open the border and ended the Great Famine are breaking down. Border guards have been terrorized into shooting the people they collected bribes from a few months ago. Defectors and smugglers are being terrorized away from their survival strategies of last resort.
“Security has been beefed up and the locals are all on edge. Above all, stricter punishment for guards and brokers who aid defectors has led to an increase in the number of betrayals. People are losing money, and occasionally their lives; they are seeing their hopes and dreams disappear.”
Moreover, “When frequent border-crossers or traders get caught, they’re released as long as they pay the right bribe. But this doesn’t work for border guards who help people defect. There are guards facing punishment after smugglers they previously helped ratted them out.” [….]
“Would-be defectors are being arrested after being betrayed by the guards they sought help from. These people are hauled straight to the State Security Department and are beaten and tortured harshly.” [Daily NK]
As a result, “[i]t is simply a matter of time before those operating along the river are caught. It might be a year; it might be two. But they will eventually get caught,” interrogated, and if contradicted by other suspects, sent to a camp.
North Korea is sending the families of defectors to remote internment camps near the border with China. A source on Wednesday said the State Security Department has set a target of exiling all families of defectors to collective villages before April 15 and has started executing the plan. The measure apparently targets only family members of North Koreans who defected after leader Kim Jong-un came to power in 2012. [….]
The camps are in mountainous areas where temperatures dip to -20 degrees Celsius in winter. [Chosun Ilbo]
Border-crossing often relies on the use of illegal cell phones to arrange meetings and pick-ups of goods and people. That has also become much harder:
A source from North Hamkyung told Daily NK on the 23rd, “Supplementary mobile phone jamming gear recently arrived in Musan, Hoeryeong and Onsung. As a result, people are reluctant to use Chinese mobile phones. The equipment used to be carried around in security service vehicles or just in backpacks carried by agents. Everyone knew that as long as they avoided these it was possible to make calls. Now, however, unfamiliar agents from other areas are using the equipment.” [Daily NK]
Agents are being promised promotions for discovering illegal phones. The only bright spot in this bleak picture is that North Koreans have found a way to evade detection by using Chinese international calling cards. Why a call made with a calling card is undetectable is beyond me. If you know, kindly drop a comment.
As you read this, remember that the Great Famine ended when North Koreans learned to survive by trading, and that much of North Korea’s nascent market economy depends on illegal or quasi-legal cross-border trade. If the regime succeeds in re-sealing the border, many North Koreans will lose their livelihoods, and many more will lose a key source of food they buy in the markets. Vulnerable people across North Korea could starve this spring, after winter stocks are depleted, and we may not find out about that until it’s too late.
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These control measures cost money. It costs money to pay border guards, to build and maintain prison camps, to recruit and transport the petty despots to and from their political colleges, to pay bonuses and promotions to guards and snitches, and most likely, to buy that cell phone detection equipment from Chinese or European suppliers (who ought to be sanctioned into extinction).
We’ve all read a lot of trite, self-serving, or dishonest arguments that trade with the North Korean regime liberalizes its system, while sanctions contribute to North Koreans’ hunger or inhibit the flow of liberalizing foreign influences. We’ve been hearing that argument for well over a decade, and its proponents have very little to show for it. But in a very real way, these new reports suggest that the opposite may be much closer to the truth — the regime uses the money and goods it obtains through trade to enforce the hunger and isolation of its people.
We don’t know where the regime got the money to pay for this crackdown, of course. This is the world’s most financially opaque government, and those who trade with North Korea have to be willing to overlook that. Ultimately, however, all of the hard currency that underpins its economy; pays for finished goods, materials, and spare parts; props up its currency (such as that is); and pays for rations comes from foreign trade. Trade with the regime fills the regime’s pockets, and the regime isn’t trickling that wealth down to feed the hungry. It uses that money to enforce the very hunger and isolation that engagement advocates say trade is breaking down.
North Koreans have never known freedom, but at moments, they’ve known the next best thing: anarchy. Foreign influences are changing North Korea, but change isn’t driven by approved exchange programs involving hand-picked regime loyalists (or spies), or by tightly contained exclaves like Kaesong or Rajin. It’s being driven by the cross-border flow of consumer goods, DVDs, radios, and human beings — trade that the regime doesn’t control. That’s why the regime is desperate to re-seal the border. Somehow, it has found the resources to do just that. The consequence is that those flows have been staunched. Trade with the regime enables this isolation. The aggressive enforcement of sanctions, on the other hand, would deny the regime the means to pay border guards, to buy cell phone trackers, and to enforce the isolation of the North Korean people.
The most superficial things you’ve probably heard about Kim Jong Un are the closely related ideas that he is, or must be, a latent reformer because he (a) appreciates aspects of Western culture, (b) has a fashionable wife, and (c) had a Swiss education. As examples, I’ll cite this report by Jean Lee, this and this from Joohee Cho of ABC, and this exercise in straw-grasping by John DeLury. The problem with this theory is that it isn’t supported by any evidence that the regime has become less brutal, menacing, controlling, or confiscatory in the last year.
Historically, the exposure of dictators’ sons to foreign culture has not moderated them; it was just another place for them to be everything they were at home except above the law and shielded from our sight. Because little tyrants eventually become big tyrants, what they became was self-indulgent, impulsive sociopaths. Nicu Ceausescu, Uday Hussein, and Hannibal Qaddafi never lacked for access to Europe’s fleshpots. Nicu and Uday (both of whom were serial rapists at home) are rumored to have palled around together in Switzerland, and both Uday and Hannibal share the distinction of being expelled from it for violent assaults (so enraging the elder Qaddafi that he demanded that the entire country of Switzerland be abolished; Hannibal later got in trouble in Denmark and the U.K. for other assaults). Like his peers before him, Kim Jong Un was privileged enough to be whisked off to a bacchanalian playground. Unlike his peers, he spent his time there torturing animals and masturbating to bondage porn alone in his room. But he loves Disney characters! Yes, and so did Hitler. It’s at least as plausible to theorize that Jong Un combines the self-restraint of Nicu and Uday with the poisonous inadequacy of Goebbels and Hitler.
I’ve already drawn the comparison between how Lee and Cho covered Ri Sol Ju’s fashions to how Vogue covered Asma Assad’s. This shouldn’t really surprise us. Don’t the first ladies of most impoverished banana republics love high fashion? I’ll say this much for Asma — the long list of her husband’s crimes doesn’t include starving his people while telling the world he can’t afford corn.
We know very little about Kim Jong Un’s personality; in fact, we don’t even know how important it is to know about it. All we can judge is the regime’s performance on matters of substance since his coronation. Maybe one day, the regime will make some pragmatic or humane reforms, although there’s scant evidence for that now. Last fall, for example, there was a lot of excitement outside North Korea when the regime announced agricultural reforms that would have allowed collectives to keep more of their crops. Never mind that the move was accompanied by the seizure of privately cultivated land, which had become a major source of food and income for less-privileged North Koreans. The reforms were quickly forgotten as the harvest came in.
Politically, the regime has cracked down on information flows and defections. The area around Camp 22 is a particular target for warnings to citizens against telling what they’ve witnessed inside North Korea. Judging by new statistics from South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, the crackdown is working.
Although the crackdown began during Kim Jong Il’s rule, it has been redoubled since his death.
Under North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, human rights activists and South Korean officials say, it has become increasingly difficult to smuggle refugees out of the country, contributing to a sharp drop in the number of North Koreans reaching South Korea in the past year. [NYT]
Notwithstanding the explanation by the Times that this decline is the result of a crackdown, it’s appropriate to ask ourselves if there might be other reasons for this decreased flow. Foreign observers are seeing more cars, cell phones, and luxury goods in the elite reservation of Pyongyang, but are most North Koreans better off now than they were in 2009? The answer is probably not. North Korea’s economic recovery from the Great Famine of 1993 to 2000 appears to have peaked around 2005, when it was reversed by a series of confiscatory measures. As recently as last year, there were reports of microfamines in Hwanghae, the rice bowl of North Korea, as a direct consequence of crop seizures. Unfortunately for the people of Hwanghae, it is all but impossible for most of them to make it all the way across North Korea to the Chinese border, to say nothing of crossing the border and evading Chinese police. (I suppose these things are especially hard to do while starving.)
The decline in refugee flows also coincides with the disastrous December 2009 currency revaluation that I like to call The Great Confiscation. This action not only caused tremendous financial hardship for many North Koreans, it did lasting damage to North Korea’s black-market economy and unprecedented public disturbances, even resulting in an apology by North Korea’s third-highest official and, so it is rumored, the execution of at least one scapegoat. I’ve stopped hearing reports that the regime is closing down markets or banning the sale of foreign goods, as it had been in 2009, but the existence of these markets, on which most North Koreans depend for their survival, remains tenuous.
In other words, economic conditions in North Korea probably got worse for most North Koreans during the period between 2008 and 2011 (I don’t have enough information to extend that trend through 2012). North Korea looks like an even more miserable place when compared to South Korea’s rapid GDP growth:
The Wall Street Journal‘s Kwanwoo Jun Evan Ramstad actually asked the question of whether improved economic conditions might explain the drop in defections. He gets an answer, and two more plausible explanations:
Few in Seoul see the latest data as a sign of North Korea turning into a better place to live in under Kim Jong Eun, the new leader who took power after his father Kim Jong Il died in late December 2011.
“That falling number doesn’t mean that economic conditions are getting better in North Korea,” said Kim Yong-hyun, professor at Seoul’s Dongguk University. “A number of people, who could no longer bear the hardship up in the North, have already fled the country, and those who have stayed behind are probably immune to the difficulties or able to find a way to survive the ordeal.” [Korea Real Time]
Ramstad also points to China’s crackdown on the other side of the border, and notes that North Koreans who had intended to defect to South Korea (or perhaps return with money or goods to North Korea) may be stranded in China.
One dynamic that intrigues me is the tendency of defections to ventilate political pressures by allowing the most discontented and ambitious dissenters to escape. Now that only the very rich can hope to escape North Korea, what alternative stands between the discontented and lives lived in misery?
Correction: I mistakenly attributed the Korea Real Time post to Evan Ramstad. I apologize for the error.
Last week, China filed an official protest with North Korea over the December killing of four Chinese civilians by a rogue North Korean border guard who had turned to robbery. A Bloomberg reporter researches this further, in search of a pattern, and finds one:
A spate of murders by North Koreans inside China’s border is prompting some residents to abandon their homes, testing China’s ability to manage both the 1400-kilometre shared frontier and its relationship with the reclusive nation.
The violence reflects a growing desperation among soldiers, including border guards, since Kim Jong-un took over as supreme leader in Pyongyang three years ago. As well as seeking food, they are entering China to steal money.
“Bribes were one of the key sources of income for these guards to survive, but after Kim Jong-un came to power and tightened controls, it became difficult for them to take bribes, thus the criminal deviations,” said Kang Dong Wan, a professor of international relations at Busan’s Dong-a University in South Korea. [Bloomberg]
The reporter interviews “a senior local official,” who asked not to be identified, and who says that “[a]round 20 villagers have been murdered in Nanping by North Koreans in recent years.” Before the December incident, in September, another North Korean soldier murdered three members of another family over 500 yuan, just under $100. The soldier was later caught.
The crime wave has caused some residents to leave the village. The official says that in the winter, when the Tumen River freezes over, “it is common for soldiers to enter the village to demand food.”
“Barbed wires separating China and North Korea are as good as non-existent, with some parts of the border river being so shallow that you only risk getting yourself wet from the knee down when you wade across it,” Dr Kang said. “The geographic extensiveness of the border also makes it very difficult to maintain a complete watch.” [….]
“Military units in fringe areas or with less influence also get less food,” Mr Kwon said. “This will get worse. It is estimated about 2 million North Koreans are still unable to feed themselves properly even though the days of them starving to death are over.”
Reaching back into the vast OFK archives, there is a long history of known incidents of North Korean border guards and soldiers either getting involved in smuggling, defecting, or even fragging their officers. For example, in 2010, I wrote this:
Border guards were no exception. As cross-border trade became more lucrative, so did the acceptance of bribes to overlook it. The corruption of the border guards became so brazen that they have been photographed while smuggling in broad daylight. Even field-grade officers, and most strikingly, members of North Korea’s intelligence services, went into the smuggling business. [….]
In October 2012, a soldier fragged two officers and fled across the DMZ, to South Korea.
May of 2012, the Daily NK reported that two North Korean border guards shot roughly half a dozen of their colleagues, crossed the border, and went up to the hills to hide. The Chinese caught them and repatriated them back to North Korea.
In February 2007, a group of twenty North Korean border guards defected. Asahi TV later interviewed two of them.
Historically, when disciplinary infractions have embarrassed the regime, it has carried out mass transfers of the force, sometimes swapping border guard for regular army units, or flooding the zone with officers of the Ministry of Public Security or State Security Department.
The regime knows too well that banditry can beget mutiny.
OFK readers likely have offered a diverse spectrum of adjectives to describe the views expressed on this site, but one that most of them would probably affirm is “contrarian.” After Kim Jong Un’s coronation, it was briefly fashionable to perceive him as a reformer. I argued that little substantive evidence supported this theory, and cited evidence that His Porcine Majesty was closing down the border, statistical evidence that refugee flows to the South had fallen dramatically as a result, and that his regime was also cracking down on information flows.
The optimistic view of Kim Jong Un became less fashionable after last December’s purge of Jang Song Thaek, although I suspect that much of the reason for this was due to a misplaced belief that Jang himself was a reformer. A better reason would have been evidence of an intensified border-control crackdown following the purge. A new report co-written by recent defector Seongmin Lee tells us that this crackdown continues to intensify, and that the regime is now clearing a 200-meter wide control strip along the Tumen River.
According to South Korean media reports, North Korean authorities are planning to demolish all structures within 200 meters along a 270-kilometer stretch of the border with China. The initiative specifically targets Ryanggang Province and the provincial capital, Hyesan, which has served as a major defection route in recent years. Ostensibly, buildings will be leveled and homes destroyed to make way for a new road, though many believe the true intention is an intensified border crackdown aimed at preventing defections, smuggling and a growing influx of information from the outside world. [The Diplomat]
No word on where the residents of the destroyed homes will be sent. Rimjin-gang also publishes photographs taken from the Chinese side, showing vacant factories within the control zone and new fencing under construction.
The Reporting Team has confirmed significant changes since our April report, including the installation of border guard watch-houses and a wire fence under way in the area, along the North Korean side of the Amrok-gang. In the center of the border city, Hyesan in particular, sections of the fence have already been completed. [….]
The city of Hyesan, Ryanggang Province, located in the up-stream area of the Amrok-gang, has been subject to the most intensive tightening of security. Adding to the fact that the river is narrow enough to allow relatively easy illegal border crossing, the area has a large ethnic Korean population and has been a central junction of defection and smuggling for nearly 20 years. [Rimjin-gang]
In the April report referred to above, intact houses within the control zone also sit vacant.
From the Chinese side of the river, a number of houses can be seen in villages on the North Korean side. However, the chimneystacks of these houses emit no smoke, even at six o’clock on a bitter winter evening. The silent village covered with snow looked as if it was in the grips of a deep freeze. [Rimjin-gang]
The Daily NK reports that in the interior, authorities continue their efforts to crack down on prohibited information, particularly among the children of the elites:
A male in his 40s from South Hwanghae Province explained, “Kids of 15 and 16 have these things on memory sticks. They watch them, copy them, pass them on, and that is how South Korean media spreads among the young. Of course they are taught not to do it, but kids are inquisitive and so they find a way to do it regardless. Being told not to watch South Chosun films makes some do it all the more.”
The informant went on to claim that the spread of cellular phones is also spurring the greater spread of foreign music. [….]
According to the woman, a USB stick capable of holding a small volume of data (roughly three episodes of a South Korean television drama, each of which is ordinarily one hour in length) currently costs 70,000 North Korean won, while larger ones come in at between 100,000 and 150,000 won. “It costs 10,000 won to get hold of a popular movie, and about 5,000 for ordinary films,” she added.
As Daily NK reported on June 2nd, and as the informants universally agreed, regulation of access to external information such as movies, music and drama has been stepped up under the rule of Kim Jong Eun, and in particular since the conviction and execution of former Vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission Jang Sung Taek in December last year.
Severity of punishment varies both by region and whether the place in question is rural or urban. In some of the worst cases, evidence trickling out of North Korea reveals that executions have taken place, though this is much rarer than labor reeducation.
“The regulation has gotten much worse since Jang Sung Taek was executed,” a 40-something source from Hwanghae agreed. “At times like these, watching South Chosun media means trouble,” a male source from North Pyongan Province concurred. A woman from Sinuiju confirmed that ordinary people there generally do not go near South Korean media now, either. [Daily NK]
As previously noted here, the regime increasingly relies on levies of students to enforce the crackdown. One wonders if this means that the regime lacks for funds to pay enough dedicated security forces officers. On the other hand, the report suggests that the students are harder to bribe than full-time officers.
In addition to “109” and “927” groups, which are tasked with regulating matters concerning South Korean media, sources also revealed that Pyongyang recently saw task forces formed from graduating senior middle school (in effect, high school) students.
“109 Group means a specialist team made up of people from the Ministry of People’s Security (MPS), the Party, and the administration that looks for, in particular, discs of South Korean films, dramas, and music,” a male in his 40s from Hwanghae told Daily NK. “Getting caught by them is no fun.” A so-called “927 Group” keeps a lid on anti-socialist activities including the sale of such materials.
“Last year this ‘task force’ was organized under the district MPS,” a male in his 50s from Pyongyang recalled. “Those guys were 18 or 19-year old graduates from senior middle school. They did it all by the book, which made it even more difficult to deal with.”
The crackdown even extends to North Korea’s extra-governmental food supply, which enters North Korea through smuggling, and through so-called sotoji farms, where perhaps 25% of North Korea’s food is grown quasi-legally in cleared plots of land. In the past, the regime had often confiscated this land and its crops, or limited the size of the plots. Now, it is ordering the destruction of the crops:
The Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party has recently issued an order that all privately grown crops must be destroyed.
North Korea has a cooperative farming system where individuals are, in principle, banned from owning farms or smallholdings. Nevertheless, many individuals cultivate their own crops, and this is done quite openly.
But there have been serious differences in production success this year, according to sources; it has been a good year for privately owned plots, particularly in the regions of Hamgyong, Chagang and Yanggang provinces; but famine conditions have been witnessed on state-run cooperatives.
State security agents are said to have reported to the Central Committee that ‘private agriculture is becoming dangerously widespread.’ In response, the instructions given by the Committee has been to destroy all crops on private fields. Labour and student groups have now been mobilised to cut down privately grown crops, as these have been grown on the ‘private gardens of capitalism.’
Even recently, Kim Jong-un is seen to have expressed worry about the food situation. But with this latest move, which again prioritises the enforcement of the Party’s political control mechanisms over providing duty of care, public sentiments regarding the leadership is said to have taken a hit.
Sources report that even in group situations, North Korean individuals are heard asking questions such as, ‘How can [Kim Jong-un’s] belly be so round when he is reduced to eating potatoes out of concern for his people?’ [New Focus International]
To put this report into context, consider the recent U.N. finding that 84% of North Korean households have poor or borderline food consumption, the World Food Program’s decision to cut feeding programs due to a lack of funding, and other evidence that the regime prioritized food below luxury imports and military expenditures. It certainly doesn’t suggest that this government wants its people to eat well.
Worse, the reports suggest that Kim Jong Un intends to reverse the trends that ended North Korea’s Great Famine — the erosion of border controls and the rise of private agriculture and markets. He can undertake these initiatives and still maintain his own extravagant lifestyle and weapons development programs because he can afford to. Conventional wisdom about North Korea holds that aid and trade will eventually drive reforms in North Korean society, but these reports suggest that the money Kim Jong Un gains from abroad are being used to suppress the trends that are driving reform.
They also suggest that the opposite may be closer to the truth — if we cut off Kim Jong Un’s access to cash, border controls will break down again, and North Korea will see a new influx of free information and a freer distribution of food. It suggests, again, that sanctions can be a tool of reform by helping break down the repression that impedes it.
This blog has closely followed reports of indiscipline within the North Korean military, resistance against the state, strategies for political subversion, and the breakdown of border control. Last week, another report of a mass shooting incident by a North Korean border guard reinforced my belief that morale and discipline within the border guard force are declining.
A young North Korean man conscripted to guard a customs post on his country’s border with China in (sic) under arrest for shooting dead seven platoon members who had angered him with bullying treatment, RFA’s Korean Service has learned.
After the shootings at dawn on Jan. 7 at Hyesan, a city in North Korea’s northern Yanggang province, the young conscript was arrested and taken to Pyongyang, sources familiar with the shooting told RFA. [….]
“The incident at the Hyesan customs office was caused by the frequent beatings suffered by the new conscripts at the hands of their superiors, and the one who committed the crime is a new conscript who graduated from high school last spring,” the source told RFA on Jan. 16. [Radio Free Asia]
In this case, it was hazing that caused the soldier to snap. In other cases, it was the lack of sufficient pay and rations that led soldiers to turn to crime or fratricide. Most of those reports point to endemic corruption as the cause of fratricides and defections. Officers and NCOs skim pay and rations and either keep them or sell them for a profit. I don’t attribute this to sanctions, as I see no direct evidence of that, but if sanctions were to disrupt the regime’s pay and rationing systems, I’d expect to see more incidents like this.
I have seen it suggested that this incident could not have happened because, according to Chinese media reports, North Korean soldiers along the border aren’t issued ammunition. But there are enough similar reports that we can reject that claim and instead categorize this report as plausible but unconfirmed. Let’s start with this incident from last July, in which a group of five armed North Korean soldiers crossed the border to rob Chinese civilians and got into a “gunfight” with Chinese police. Because a gunfight isn’t likely unless both sides have both weapons and ammunition, there is evidence that in at least some cases, North Korean soldiers along the northern border have both, and aren’t always using them as directed. More here.
In March of 2015, two armed North Korean border guards fled to China. At least one of them was captured. In that incident, the Dandong border guard station warned that the soldiers “are thought to be armed with guns and knives,” but the same report also said one of the soldiers was carrying “three blank magazines.”
Between September and December 2014, several desperate North Korean border guards, denied the income that they would otherwise have earned by taking bribes from smugglers, deserted across the border into China to rob and murder several civilians. A January 2015 Bloomberg report reports that in one of these incidents, “a North Korean soldier shot four residents of Nanping, a border village of about 300 in northeastern Jilin province. Around 20 villagers have been murdered in Nanping by North Koreans in recent years, a senior local official said in an interview.” So serious was the concern about the chaos along the border that some Chinese fled their border villages, Chinese authorities formed vigilante patrols and deployed troops to the border, and North Korea fired the general in charge. (See also this and this.)
In March 2013, a border guard in Musan County, North Hamgyeong province, shot and killed five company commanders and attempted (unsuccessfully) to desert. The soldier was reportedly disgruntled because he was underfed and was caught stealing food. In April 2012, Chinese and North Korean authorities launched a manhunt for two border guards who shot and killed about half a dozen of their colleagues, then fled across the border. The men are later caught and sent back to North Korea. Going back to 2010, North Korean border guards shot dead three Chinese citizens after crossing the border.
There’s also substantial evidence that soldiers along the DMZ have weapons and ammunition, and that they also periodically shoot their officers, defect, or both. A case in point would be a 2012 incident in which a soldier on guard duty at the DMZ shot and killed two officers and crossed into South Korea. I’ve cataloged most recent reports of that kind at this post.
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It is obvious why these incidents are horrible. It is less obvious why they may be hopeful for those who want to avoid greater horrors — another Korean War, the continuation of North Korea’s status quo, or the loss of South Korea’s freedom and independence. As long-time readers know, I’ve long believed that North Korea’s dictators want nuclear weapons to extort South Korea into submission. They aren’t interested in bargaining their nukes away for any price, with the exception of regime survival itself. Recently, centrists like Richard Armitage, Richard Haass, and Winston Lord have also come to believe that the overthrow of the North Korean system is probably the only way to disarm Kim Jong-un. But even as calls for regime change grow, the debate about how to execute such a policy is headed nowhere good.
The most obvious idea, that of a conventional attack, cautiously pushed in this post, is the worst and most dangerous plan for Götterdämmerung. Any plan for a sudden overthrow of Kim Jong-un will trigger a “use it or lose it” mentality within the North Korean leadership and is likely to get hundreds of thousands of people killed on both sides of the DMZ. Such a plan is likely to consolidate, rather than fracture, the cohesiveness of the North Korean command system and make officers and soldiers more (not less) likely to obey orders to fire on Seoul and Uijongbu. Our current defenses are inadequate to protect against North Korea’s large volume of artillery and rockets. A conventional invasion would not only enmesh us in an occupation of a country deeply indoctrinated with xenophobia and anti-Americanism, it might draw us into a direct conflict with China or result in a de-facto redrawing of the DMZ, turning part of Korea into a Chinese puppet state or “autonomous zone.” The idea of a full-on preemptive strike is a terrible, catastrophically bad idea that should only be considered in response to (or to preempt) an imminent all-out North Korean attack, which is unlikely absent a miscalculation.
Rather, any regime change strategy must take extraordinary care to avoid cornering Kim Jong-un until such time as he distrusts the loyalty and will of his military to obey orders to fire on South Korean cities. At every stage, North Korea’s leaders must believe that there are better and less risky options than this, including negotiations.
Until then, we should redouble our efforts to break down the cohesion of the North Korean command structure by appealing to elites, commanders, and enlisted soldiers alike. We should engage with and empower North Korea’s urban and rural poor to help them build a political underground and a new civil society, independent of their government. We should reassure North Korean elites that they have a future in a reunified Korea. We should offer clemency to commanders, including those who may be guilty of serious crimes, who choose to disobey unlawful orders at the critical moment. We should propagate a simple message of “rice, peace, and freedom” to soldiers and civilians alike. And yes, we should be willing to talk to the North Korean government and explain our position, provided we give no concessions on “engagement” or sanctions until North Korea makes verifiable progress (and also, provided that we never sideline our allies in Seoul and Tokyo). Progress toward what, and how much? Fortunately, people who thought about those questions wrote them into the law, giving the President a degree of flexibility to judge Pyongyang’s sincerity.
Meanwhile, sanctions can help catalyze that process by targeting the accounts and trading companies that pay North Korea’s military and security forces, to hasten the breakdown of its command systems, and to erode those forces’ morale and cohesion.
I’ve previously reported on Kim Jong Un’s efforts to crack down on illegal cell phones, memory sticks, DVDs, and other subversive information flows, even as some wishful observers clung to sketchy evidence to argue that Kim Jong Un was a reformer. The good news is that after an initial period in which smuggled DVDs became hard to find, they are making their way back into circulation.
“People caught for watching South Korean dramas aren’t being punished that harshly anymore,” a source based in Pyongyang told the Daily NK on Wednesday. “Authorities in charge have been turning a blind eye in exchange for bribes, so all we hear about is people being caught and not punished for what they did.”
However, she was quick to note that this situation is not indicative of any lax in regulation. “This doesn’t mean the crackdowns from the 109 group, the SSD, the Ministry of People’s Security, and inminban [people’s unit] have gotten any looser,” she explained. “They frequently search people’s homes and demand bribes if any CDs or flash drives containing South Korean dramas are discovered.”
She went on to explain that the 109 Group, a specialist team comprising people from the Ministry of People’s Security [MPS], the Party, and the administration, looks for, in particular, discs of South Korean films, dramas, and music. Some residents have reportedly paid up to 500 USD in bribes in response to the demands by this group and others conducting clampdowns.
“Some of the personnel carrying out these crackdowns tell people that if they don’t give them bribes, they might be sent to prison camps, never to leave for the rest of their lives,” the source said. “They often tell you that if you don’t have enough, that you should at least make an effort; many times they eventually say they’ll look the other way for 100 USD.” [Daily NK]
According to the article, lower-ranking officials are telling their seniors that the crackdown is working to a greater extent than it really is. Similarly, officials at all levels pay lip service to Kim Jong Un’s threat to punish corruption, which continues as it always has.
Not all of the news is good. Illegal cell phones are still nearly impossible to use, thanks to cell phone trackers the regime recently imported from Germany. That’s important, because those phones provide a critical cross-border link for the escape of refugees, and for cross-border trade in all kinds of smuggled goods.
The obvious caution is that most of these reports invariably depend on a small number of sources. They may reflect local conditions, or individual biases.
One can imagine the existence of a degree of passive official tolerance of this corruption, and even the possession of the offending materials, as a function of those officials’ political apathy or disillusionment. It’s likely that corruption has now embedded itself into the official culture to the point where it will be difficult to extirpate, even after reunification.
THE ELITES ARE DISGRUNTLED at Kim Jong Un’s impulsive temper and insensitivity, according to this Chosun Ilbo report. Separately, this report talks about endemic corruption and economic inequality in North Korea.
Meanwhile, a third Chosun Ilbo survey of 100 North Koreans in China suggests that the marketization of the peoples’ economy has passed the point of no return.
Between 70 and 90 percent of North Koreans make ends meet by buying and selling goods in the grey or black market now that the state rationing system has effectively been wiped out, according to a survey.
The survey was conducted by the Chosun Ilbo and Center for Cultural Unification Studies among 100 North Koreans living in the Chinese border areas of Dandong and Yanji from January until May. [….]
“The state rationing system has collapsed except in Pyongyang and a few other areas, and it’s difficult to survive on your wages alone, so most people make ends meet by selling goods,” one North Korean said.
Another said, “A worker makes around W3,000 a month, but that’s not enough to buy even a kilogram of rice, so you’d starve to death unless you sell goods at markets.” He added, “You get scolded for not showing up for work, so people go to the office in the morning to check in and then head to the market.” [Chosun Ilbo]
The survey also provides a basis for an interesting analysis by Christopher Green, at Sino-NK. Those surveyed support reunification overwhelmingly. Surprisingly for people who live by trading, they support a transition to capitalism in a unified Korea by a less overwhelming margin.
One always wonders about sampling and selection bias in stories like these. Are views like these really predominant in Pyongyang, in particular? I can’t say, but it is significant that in a society that demands unanimous obedience, the Chosun Ilbo was able to find dissenters. And yes, I believe that it really did find them.
Open News reports that North Korea’s latest crackdown on border-crossing has made it difficult to get out of the country for any price:
Around the mid-1990s when North Korean defectors first emerged, the fee for crossing the river was 300-500 Yuan, about 50,000-80,000 Korean Won. The fee for crossing the river continued to rise as more and more North Koreans were escaping. In early 2009, the fee was 5,000-6,000 Yuan (800,000-1 million won), which is a 10-fold increase compared to the mid-1990s. This fee also increased to 10,00 Yuan, which is around 1,660,000 Won after the second nuclear testing and the launch of a rocket on May 5, 2009.
The fee for crossing the river is rising again with the internal control in North Korea rising. With stricter control, some North Koreans have a difficult time finding border guards who are willing to help them even with lots of money.
A North Korean defector, Mr. S (30 years old) stated that even though the average fee for crossing the river is 3-4 million Won, it is at times difficult to find guards to help them for even 10 million Won. He also stated that there was an order to shoot whoever crosses the Tumen River. Guards make a lot of money with helping 3-4 groups who cross rivers, and since some have been working for 10 years, there are guards who have made enough and do not have any incentive to help defectors anymore.
I wish I knew if this was the result of temporary measures timed with Kim Jong Il’s visit or a real shift of the regime’s assets designed to close the border. If the latter, and if I’m correct in guessing that a substantial percentage of the food in the markets is smuggled in, it could have a serious effect on the country’s food supply.
Obtaining a travel document takes a week, and entry into Pyongyang and other special areas is impossible without relatives or friends. For instance, entry into the Rajin-Sunbong area is managed by the National Security Agency, and the procedure is extremely strict.
Restrictions on issuing permits as well as tough security are used in order to exercise control. Every province has a #10 security point (Note 1), which is managed by the military section designated for security. Pyongyang #10 security office is restricted by the highest level of the security section. Security around Rajin-Sunbong area is tight – barbed wire with 3,300 V.
However, citizens have been moving around despite all those restrictions with the help of bribes. Foreign cigarettes or food can be given to safety agents on trains. Some women offer their bodies to get on trains.
Those who manage to get out of North Korea and through China will also face closer scrutiny inside South Korea, to make sure they’re not North Korean spies on, say, assassination missions.
[Updated below with photographs; Digg it here.]
Helping Hands Korea, one of the most intrepid and trustworthy organizations that assists North Korean refugees escape from their repressive, famine-plagued homeland, has written to me with a detailed account of how the North Korean and Chinese militaries have joined forces to prevent North Koreans from escaping their homeland, one where large numbers are people are now starving to death once again because the government won’t feed them and won’t let them fend for themselves.
The most chilling detail: Helping Hands has spotted North Korean snipers stationed in various vantage points along its border with China, ruled by a nominally friendly regime. One Helping Hands member, a U.S. military veteran, has identified the sniper rifles as Soviet-designed Dragunov SVD’s. Helping Hands believes that the North Korean soldiers are under orders to shoot and kill border crossers, most of whom are either refugees or people trying to smuggle goods (increasingly food) into North Korea. Helping Hands has promised to send me photographs of one or more North Korean soldiers carrying Dragunovs. I have also asked him to obtain photographs of the dead bodies of refugees, which he reports can be seen along the banks of the Tumen River.
I am publishing Helping Hands’s complete account here, with no edits, but with a few explanatory notes in brackets:
1. The clear consensus of opinions gathered from field volunteers, as well as my own eyewitness accounts, is that the OG08 [OFK: OG08=”Olympic Games 2008″] has had a clear impact on the daunting challenges currently facing the NKRs [North Korean refugees]. Although I will not be able to develop the topics I’m mentioning here, the information gathered is reliable from trusted veterans.
(a) Border patrols on both sides of the Tumen and Yalu Rivers are being beefed up: more guards and shorter distances between them.
(b) Credible reports of “shoot-on-sight” order given to NK border patrol re: NKRs trying to cross the border illegally. One activist reported that snipers are now being posted at elevated positions above the river, giving them a wider view and a longer time to train their scopes on fleeing NKRs. This same activist reported finding several NKRs floating in the Tumen River with telltale small bullet holes in one side of the body at the entry point, and a much larger hole at the bullet’s exit. Even in the five days I stayed near the river, I saw ample evidence of high-powered searchlights at night on the NK side and was later informed by local CN [Chinese national] residents that the searchlights are used to detect NKRs seeking to approach the river under the cover of darkness.
(c) Another side of the crossing situation–deeply imbedded (& worsening) corruption of NK border guards, who will let certain NK citizens cross to CN upon agreement that when they return, a certain amount of money will be given to the guards (usually Y1,000 or about USD$150). It must be added that there is also evidence that Pyongyang is desperately attempting to root out this corruption, and frequent rotation of border guards may be one of the main instruments to stem this tide of bribe-taking. As usual, the bribe-taking and crackdowns on this behavior follows a cyclical pattern.
(d) Deeply troubling and very recent report of a forced abortion carried out on a repatriated female NKR by a NK government physician in a border patrol facility.
(e) Widespread house-to-house checks by CN police in border areas to ferret out NKRs in CN households as of the past few months.
(f) The work of volunteers has been hindered by an extreme tightening of hotel and guesthouse (H/G) registration requirements. It used to be that if a foreigner was traveling with a local volunteer to a border region, that registration at a H/G could be done just with the name of the local, thereby shielding the foreigner from undue exposure. As of the last few months, rules are strictly enforced that the passport of each traveler must be registered with the H/G, and this data processing is directly accessible by the local police office. In a similar vein, I was startled to be denied use of Internet cafÃ©’s this time in China, as entry could only be gained by showing a Chinese national ID card. I’d never encountered this restriction in the last 12 years!
(g) Police officials in CN/NK border regions are authorized to use substantial bribes to the local ethnic Korean-Chinese population to reveal the whereabouts of NKRs hiding in their neighborhoods. These bribes have reportedly been increased in recent months. These bribes are especially pernicious as they are designed to undermine the very sympathy that the ethnic Korean Chinese population naturally has for their NKR cousins from across the river. Bribes are also offered in larger sums to inform on any local resident or foreigner who might be helping the NKRs in CN.
2. It’s really quite impossible to ascertain how many are crossing secretly along a two-river border that stretches many hundreds of miles between CN & NK. However, due to the rapidly worsening food situation inside NK (much exacerbated by a recent embargo by the CN government of grain exports due to the global food crisis, the more strict regulation of food aid by the new South .Korean government, declining distribution worldwide by the WFP, etc.), the so-called “push factors” on NK citizens to take these chances to cross are growing. Widespread reports at the border area confirm that food shortages are now critical in the central part of the country and that news of death from malnutrition is becoming more widespread, always with comparisons to the severity of food shortages in the mid-1990’s. A kilo of rice in 2006 was roughly NKWon 1,000, in 2007 it rose to 1,400, now in 2008 the price has skyrocketed to about NKWon 2,600 (more than one month’s salary of a normal worker!) It is also reported that a growing number black marketers inside NK are deliberately withholding the rice to further escalate the price, a particularly pernicious practice in time of famine. A very credible report from someone who travels frequently inside NK and is able to talk with some residents, revealed that from early 2008, Kim Jong Il decreed that for every man, woman and child, .2 hectares of land are to be cultivated in either soybeans or potatoes, both of which are uniquely suited for transport. The decree goes on to say that 90% of the harvests from these hectares are to be sent to Pyongyang for the good of the Revolution and the Party. Some sources inside NK claim that food being sent to the capital is being stockpiled in order to be traded for oil.
This said, however, and despite these growing push factors, the combined tightening on both side of the Tumen & Yalu rivers has resulted in some reduction in the successful crossings of the NKRs into CN. It is very clear that Beijing has put a high priority on keeping the NKRs out of its country while it’s on the world stage. Again, it’s very difficult to put a numeric characterization of this reduction. The bottom line is this: it’s currently harder to cross the Tumen and Yalu Rivers, and it’s harder to survive on the Chinese side. It’s too early to tell if this is a temporary condition, whether the border regime will relax after the OG08.
The best estimate I’ve heard from experts right on the border is that roughly 30% of the NKRs are caught by the CN and sent back at present. One recent and reliable report indicated that the gruesome practice of forced abortions on some pregnant NKR females who are repatriated is still in use. How widespread I do not know. A testimony heard on 5/12/08 regarding a NKR mother of two small children (ages 6 & 7) was repatriated to NK the previous day without her children, i.e. the authorities paid no heed to the mother-children relationship and callously repatriated the mother only. The activist said that this indicated a new level of hardening of the CN position in such cases. As we passed the Tumen Detention Center, one knowledgeable resident who was driving the vehicle stated that the there are currently 600 NKRs being held by Chinese authorities in that one detention center alone. They are repatriated systematically once a month, according to this well-placed source.
As for punishment inside NK, one very reliable source stated that there are a number of indications that punishments on repatriated NKRs for leaving NK without permission are getting heavier these days. One could easily speculate that CN may be providing incentives to the NK government for doing so, to assist Beijing in its quest for a ‘harmonious’ ) G08, but I do not have proof of this.
Moreover, the previous and relatively widespread practice of bribing prison officials and using ‘inside connections’ to get some NKRs out (usually by their family members) of severe punishment is being systematically eliminated. This would seem an obvious attempt to deter people from leaving NK when it becomes clear that any loopholes used to escape punishment are being systematically removed. I don’t have details on systematic changes within the prison camp system, etc. But I was told that some repatriated NKRs in the NK town of Hoeryong are being forced to walk up to 40 km. to a worksite and the same distance back in a work camp, as part of their punishment for fleeing their homeland. How widespread such a practice is would be hard to ascertain.
[E-mail message from Helping Hands Korea to OFK, 23 May 08]
The United Nations and its cowardly South Korean General Secretary have done nothing for the people of North Korea. The Human Rights Industry says next to nothing for them. The Bush Administration has betrayed them. By default of inaction, non-violence has been eliminated as an option. We cannot even give them food without the regime stealing it from them. The North Korean people cannot survive unless the regime is destroyed. To survive, they need guns and the courage to use them. Is there any humanitarian assistance but guns and ammunition that we can give to the North Korean people?
Update: Helping Hands sends these three photographs of North Korean troops patrolling the border area with dogs. The rifles, however, are not Dragunovs; they appear to be standard wooden-stock AK’s. The pictures appear to have been taken several months ago, before the famine really hit. The border is easier to cross when the rivers are frozen over.
Click the thumbnails to see the full-size images.
Helping Hands has told me that it has better photos, and I hope I’ll get a chance to publish them.
Update 2: The Korea Times picks up the story.
Afterthought: I wonder if Charles J. Hanley would consider this newsworthy. Place your bets….
Update 3: UPI, on the other hand, isn’t so big on attribution; instead, they attributed the story to the Korea Times reporter, who actually did have enough class to attribute OFK (and from what I’m told, made Page One, so congrats to Michael Ha of the Korea Times). It’s probably petty of me to really care about this; after all, it’s the brave people in Helping Hands who are actually gathering the information and taking the risks to do it. Still, after the Voice of America horked my story through a remarkably unlikely coincidence, reported on North Korea’s undergound airfield just one day after I put up this post, this sort of crap is starting to wear thin. I do this stuff on my own time and at my own expense, and I’ll never see dime one of it again. I don’t have a personal or financial interest here other than to be able to bring more attention to this and other newsworthy things that the media pay insufficient attention to. Is a little attribution and a link too much to ask? Evidently. @#$%^! UPI thieves ….
If any of this causes you to feel any sympathy — for the poor refugees, that is, not me — then please help bring some attention to their predicament by digging this post.
Update 4: The Joongang Ilbo is also reporting it.
Chosun Ilbo correspondent Kang Chol-Hwan has a disturbing new report on a North Korean crackdown on dissent and efforts to destroy evidence of the regime’s atrocities. Kang himself is a survivor of North Korea’s Yodok labor camp district, a complex of camps that covers a vast, remote area of northeaster North Korea. Kang was sent to Yodok while still in elementary school because of a political transgression by his grandfather. You can read the full story in his autobiography.
The world recently saw its first evidence of dissent inside North Korea, a video taken in secret from inside North Korea. Although the video appeared to have been edited, North Korean defectors who study English with a regular reader of this blog confirmed that parts of the tape were indeed made in Hoeryong, North Korea. The tape shows defaced posters of Kim Il Sung and the recitation of an anti-government speech. Had the makers of any part of that tape been caught, it would undoubtedly have ended with them standing before a firing squad.
Perhaps it has.
North Korea has conducted a brutal crackdown including public executions of human traffickers and cellphone owners in the Sino-Korean border town of Hoeryeong, North Hamgyeong Province, witnesses said. There are rumors that clandestine footage of the executions has been smuggled out of the country. Hoeryeong is one of the major defection routes out of North Korea and the site of a recently dismantled concentration camp.
The report implies the existence of anti-government resistance in the area:
A North Korean administrative official who recently defected to the South said there were three rounds of arrests aimed at “anti-socialist groups” in the Hoeryeong area between January and February this year by squads made up of agents of the State Safety and Security Agency, the Ministry of Public Security and police. The defector said the roundup targeting anti-socialist elements linked to China happened at the direct orders of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Three individuals were executed for human trafficking and trying to sell U.S. military dog tags on Feb. 28 and March 1.
Two intriguing points there–first, the suggestion that Kim Jong Il remains in power; and second, the sale of U.S. military dog tags, which suggests more intriguing questions. In Viet Nam, fake U.S. dog tags and engraved Zippo lighters were on sale seemingly everywhere. Why would old dog tags be so valuable to the regime? We know that North Korea held onto some ROK POWs long after it agreed to repatriate all of them; could the same be true of some of the American prisoners?
Once again, a grim reminder that in North Korea, punishment is ruthless, and is often imposed on entire families:
The defector said a judge on Feb. 28 read the sentence aloud. “In times made difficult by the vile anti-DPRK schemes of the U.S. and their South Korean puppets, anti-party counterrevolutionaries who damaged the authority of the party and Fatherland will be executed,” he quoted the judge as saying. Nine women implicated in human trafficking were given prison sentences.
Other defectors said 63 households — about 300 people — were sent into forced exile in remote mountainous regions in South Hamgyeong Province such as Jangjin and Bujeon counties. One said that secretly filmed footage of the Feb. 28 executions was smuggled abroad.
If the tape emerges, of course, you can expect a link at this blog. North Korea is apparently trying to cover up the evidence of its worst human rights violations:
Meanwhile, a North Korean official who visited China earlier this year said work on dismantling the notorious Political Prison Camp No. 22 was completed late last year. Work on dismantling the camp began in 2003. The official said the camp was taken down because a large-scale riot broke out there in October 2003 and because satellite photos of the camp had drawn the interest of the international community.
Lee Myeong-cheol (not his real name), a defector from Hoeryeong, said it seemed the political prisoners kept at the Heoryeong camp were moved to a prison in Yodeok. The Hoeryeong camp was North Korea’s largest, with about 50,000 inmates. About rumors that the camp had been dismantled, a South Korean National Intelligence Service official said Thursday there was information along those lines, but it needed to be confirmed.
Camp 22 is also the location where North Korea reportedly killed entire families in gas chambers to test the effects of different chemical weapons. The Simon Wiesenthal Center had called for an international tribunal to investigate these reports. This report, if true, certainly suggests that North Korea has something to hide.
A more chilling question–what happened to the people who lived in the camp? Did North Korea “dispose of” them, too?
When the U.S. Army wants to breach a minefield, it deploys a Mine-Clearing Line Charge to blast a path through it with 1,750 pounds of C-4. The procedure looks like this:
Obviously, the North Koreans know this, so they can’t possibly think that planting a few more anti-personnel mines along the DMZ — right where U.S. and ROK forces will be watching and marking them — will do anything to stop an invasion that isn’t coming. I’m mildly surprised, by the way, to learn that this is the “first time North Korea was seen planting mines in Panmunjom since the inter-Korean armistice agreement in July 1953.” The mining even drew condemnation from the U.N. Command because “thousands of visitors — often school-aged children — take part in tours to the DMZ.”
Which brings us to the accelerating dissolution of the North Korean army‘s morale and discipline. If national defense doesn’t explain why North Korea is planting these mines, the speculation that North Korea is planting the mines “to block potential defection by its own soldiers” makes sense, especially given what’s been happening along North Korea’s border with China lately.
Starting in 2014, and with escalating frequency, North Korean border guards have been crossing over into China. In some cases, they’ve dropped their weapons and fled. In others, they’ve carried their weapons across the border to rob or murder Chinese civilians. Last month, five of them got into a shoot-out with Chinese police, and at least one other soldier dropped his weapon and slipped away.
This week, New Focus reported that “on the early morning of the 17th of August, two officers stationed in Hyesan, Yanggang Province, left their guard posts, carrying weapons, and crossed the Amnok river.” After a brief exchange of fire with Chinese soldiers, the two were captured and sent back. If they’re still alive, they won’t be for long.
In the 12-year history of this blog, I’ve never seen so many reports of fratricide and desertion as I’ve seen over the last year. That isn’t because information is flowing out of North Korea more freely than it has in years past. Nor am I the only one to have noticed this new trend.
Border guards have fled North Korea before, of course, yet the regime survived. The largest such incident I’m aware of actually took place in February 2007, when a platoon of about 20 border guards deserted into China en masse, after coming under suspicion for smuggling. On rarer occasions, soldiers have also defected over the DMZ into South Korea. (This week, three North Koreans defected in a fishing boat off the coast of Incheon, and the ROK Navy rescued a 27-year-old North Korean man floating on a piece of styrofoam, off Yeonpyeong Island. Whether any of them were deserters or draft-dodgers remains to be seen.)
These reports aren’t just an embarrassment; they’re a threat to Pyongyang’s control over the movement of people, goods, and information across its borders. With the recent surge in high-level defections, Pyongyang has tried to further increase border security. Obviously, it can’t keep the prisoners in if the wardens keep running away. It’s bad enough that this is happening along the northern border. Were this to start happening along the DMZ, the scale of the embarrassment to the regime would increase at least ten-fold — hence, the mines.
The other interesting point I take from these reports is that the North Korean military’s control over its weapons and ammunition is not as effective as I’d been led to believe. I can foresee the rise of a domestic black market in stolen weapons and ammunition.
So what has changed? Although it’s possible that sanctions have disrupted the regime’s finances, pay, and rations, I’m more inclined to suspect corruption, mismanagement, and the broader breakdown of loyalty and cohesion in North Korean society. Hwang Pyong-so isn’t dealing with corruption in the military’s commissary system effectively, which means that malnutrition has worsened in the ranks.
I wonder if reports that China has shipped more food aid to North Korea are related to this. Historically, Chinese aid has come without monitoring conditions, which made it more susceptible to diversion to the military. Indeed, North Korea’s markets have become efficient and resilient enough that soldiers probably have even less to eat than most civilians (other people in state institutions, including orphanages, are probably suffering, too). The military’s poor food situation may also explain why the regime is confiscating so much food in South Hwanghae that farmers there are afraid they’ll starve.
North Korean soldiers have been malnourished for years, of course, but in the past, they could at least survive and even save up some money for civilian life by taking bribes from smugglers. But now, Kim Jong-un’s border crackdown has eliminated even that option for most of them. Even NCOs are finding it harder to get away with smuggling. Of course, rank still has its privileges for a few.
“Recently, high-ranking cadres from the State Security Department have been secretly trading narcotics with Chinese mafia,” a source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK in a telephone conversation. “This is not to secure ‘loyalty funds’[for the leadership]; it’s purely about accumulating personal wealth.”
For example, the source added, cadres recently purchased 8 kg worth of crystal methamphetamine, otherwise known as crystal meth, in an inland region of North Korea before moving it over the border. “They bought the drugs for 9,000 RMB per kilogram and sold it to contacts in China for 14,000 RMB per kilogram,” the source said, describing how a single transaction yielded approximately 40,000 RMB (48 million KPW) in profits. [Daily NK]
Instead, more soldiers are turning to violent crime. We probably don’t hear about most of those cases, because the victims are North Koreans. They’re farmers and villagers whose homes and crops are pillaged, and women who are raped with impunity (the soldiers themselves are often raped with impunity, too). More recently, soldiers have turned to straight-up highway robbery.
Beset by malnutrition and impoverishment, a growing number of North Korean soldiers are resorting to violence and other criminal acts against civilians to obtain money and other valuables.
“The soldiers are attacking trucks on the Pyongyang-Wonsan and Pyongyang-Kaesong expressways. Groups of soldiers jump in front of the vehicles while brandishing rocks to get the driver to stop,” a source in South Pyongan Province told Daily NK August 17.
“Then they rob the passengers.”
When vehicles fail to slow down and attempt to pass through the threatening roadblock, factions of soldiers pummel them with rocks, shattering the glass and severely injuring everyone inside. In extreme cases, the source said, such attacks have been fatal. Some trucks have even veered off the road and tipped over as the drivers try to get away from the mobs.
Naturally, drivers are increasingly wary about braving the open road, not least because the state has done little to clamp down on the violence, opting to take the same approach it has to soldiers abandoning their posts, despite strict surveillance from defense security command officials, by choosing to ignore the crumbling order and discipline within the barracks.
This emboldens the soldiers to increase the frequency and severity of crimes against civilians. [Daily NK]
Not so long ago, the North Korean military was a highly professional force. Despite its hard conditions, the soldiers were well-fed, and military service was a highly desirable career. This month, RFA reported that the military is closing loopholes in the conscription rules to keep its numbers up.
As long as I’ve written about North Korea, I’ve followed reports about the state of the North Korean military’s morale and discipline closely. This interest is a natural outgrowth of my own service on the other side of the Korean DMZ, as an officer in the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps. The JAG Corps’s function is to help commanders maintain the “good order and discipline of the service.” (Iin my own case, I spent most of my service defending soldiers accused of serious crimes.)
My interest is also a function of the deep impression on me from Bob Collins’s now-famous briefing about the phases of North Korean collapse, which I heard as a young officer shortly after I arrived in South Korea. Collins’s briefing is often read as a Hegelian dialectic, but over the years, I’ve watched North Korea progress and regress through those stages in both directions, with substantial variations between regions.
What I’ve observed over the years is that within certain commands, the quality of the soldiers’ food, medical care, and leadership will decline; morale will fall; and soldiers who can will turn to corruption to survive. When the rot comes to the attention of the general staff in Pyongyang, they’ll rotate the failing units out and replace them with fresh ones. Presumably, units that are rotated out of front-line service are retrained or assigned to construction duties. But given the long enlistments (ten years and more) that North Korean soldiers serve, there will be a point at which most North Korean soldiers will be exposed to this abysmal morale.
It’s anyone’s guess what the end-state of this erosive process will be, but I doubt it will alter history until an officer gives the order to fire without result. For now, it mostly means that much of the North Korean military, including many of its front-line units, would be useless in a real war. Of course, the enemy the North Korean army is most likely to fight is the North Korean army, or crowds of protestors. The outcome of that war — and whether a second Korean War follows it — would hinge almost entirely on psychological factors. That, in turn, will not happen until isolated grievances and incidents are magnetized by political consciousness.
~ ~ ~
Update: Look what I found in my Twitter feed after work today. Two armed North Korean soldiers slipped over the Chinese border, killed and butchered a donkey in some poor guy’s yard, “and fled into the night with the hunks of meat.” The Chinese border patrol, which ordinarily earns its pay hunting down defenseless women and kids — whom it sends back to die in the gulag — wasn’t amused:
The soldiers were chased off by a Chinese border patrol who opened fire. It is not known if any of the thieves were shot or killed during the incursion at the east end of the Great Wall of China in Liaoning province.
The raid took place in early August after the North Koreans crossed the Yalu river, which borders China, from Sinuiju city in North Phyongan province to steal food from Chinese homes near the Hushan Great Wall area, a popular tourist destination, according to sources close to the border patrol.
“(The incident) may mean the food shortage is severe even for soldiers, who supposedly have priority over supplies,” said another source.
In recent years, the food shortage crisis in North Korea is believed to have lessened. However, the source pointed out that some rural areas of North Korea are experiencing temporary food shortages, as they are forced to send eggs and meat to Pyongyang after a national campaign called “200-Day Battle” was initiated by the government from June this year. [Asahi Shimbun]
It’s unfortunate that Chinese civilians are now experiencing a small sample of the fear and pain their government has sown in North Korea for so long. For years, Beijing thought of North Korea as a problem for its enemies, so it enabled North Korea’s worst behavior. Now that its internal instability is spilling out of its borders, the Chinese general staff must be wondering whether another Syria is breaking out on their border.
The other dynamic that may be emerging is that middle-songbun North Koreans who rely on the state seem worse off than low-songbun North Koreans who rely on the markets, and who still have a stable food supply. Food confiscations seem to be intended to make sure the “wrong” people don’t starve. Judging by the results, it’s not going well.
The revelation last weekend that a colonel in North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau, or RGB, defected to South Korea last year represents a huge potential windfall in uncovering North Korea’s operations in the South. Reuters quotes Yonhap as reporting that the colonel “specialized in anti-South espionage operations before defecting and had divulged the nature of his work to South Korean authorities.” The Korea Herald, also citing Yonhap, reports that he gave “detailed testimony” on RGB operations in the South. Or so says
the National Intelligence Service “an unnamed source with knowledge on the inner workings of the communist state.”
Historically, the RGB’s operations have included not only intelligence collection, but also extensive influence operations and assassinations of dissidents in exile. The RGB is believed to be behind the sinking of the naval ship Cheonan, the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, and North Korea’s cyberattacks against the United States and South Korea. It is designated by the U.N. Security Council for arms dealing, and by the U.S. Treasury Department under Executive Order 13687. This defector’s information may help the NIS foil assassination plots, terrorist attacks, or cyberattacks. It could potentially support criminal prosecutions of North Korean leaders, including General Kim Yong-chol or His Porcine Majesty himself.
This man assuredly knows where many bodies are buried, and that is more than a metaphor.
The South Koreans also revealed two other defections, both by diplomats. One “oversaw economic affairs at the North Korean embassy in an African nation” and was fortunate enough to escape with his wife and two sons last May, over “life-threatening” concerns. The other was posted in an unnamed Asian country, and defected in February, when “Pyongyang was moving to cut and call in the staff at overseas diplomatic missions.”
~ ~ ~
This being South Korea during an election week, the revelations have South Korea’s opposition party and some left-of-center commenters in a tizzy, accusing President Park’s government of deliberately timing the announcement to influence the upcoming National Assembly elections. Deutsche Welle swallows this narrative hook, line, and sinker, investing more faith in the conspiracy theory than in the veracity of the reports of the defections. Indeed, DW’s report yields the most breathtakingly oblivous delusion of skepticism I’ve ever seen:
“The media in South Korea has very low standards of quality,” says Jean Lee, who in 2012 opened the first bureau of The Associated Press in Pyongyang. Many reports are based only on anonymous sources, without any cross-checking. “I rarely allowed my colleagues to pick up South Korean media reports about North Korea,” Lee told DW. [Deutsche Welle]
Really, Jean? Even lower standards of quality than this?
Seven billion people on this planet, and DW manages to find the one person who may be the least qualified to offer a sweeping generalization of the media in South Korea, after having made and lost a career by picking up obviously staged, highly politicized North Korean reports about South Korea. In this case, it was left to other reporters to investigate and question whether the narrative Lee’s bureau echoed globally was a fiction built on North Korean threats against this woman’s family — threats that probably would have been delivered by the RGB. And as long as we’re engaging in sweeping generalizations of entire nationalities, do German reporters ever do their homework on the sources they quote?
Although it’s never safe to eliminate political shenanigans as a motive for the actions of governments, this particular theory is strained and illogical. After all, a defection in 2015 — when the Blue House had no coherent North Korea policy at all — hardly bolsters an argument that its much more coherent 2016 policy is working. Surely the Blue House would have anticipated the ease with which the opposition could refute an argument that its policies had worked retroactively. Unfortunately, South Korea’s political culture is so conspiratorial that many news readers begin and end their analysis with conspiratorial explanations. But this isn’t a safe assumption, either.
~ ~ ~
There is a more logical explanation, and it might even satisfy those of you who also demand a conspiratorial one. I also suspect that Seoul is working a political mindf**k here, but the more likely target isn’t South Korean voters, it’s His Corpulency. A logical chain of chronological events supports my speculation. The first link is the recent defection of the entire staff of a North Korean restaurant. The fact that Seoul announced that mass defection publicly is “unusual,” in that it departs from what Yonhap calls Seoul’s previous “low-key stance on the issue of North Korean defectors.” Seoul appears to be using the issue to pressure Pyongyang politically, by showing that the restaurant defection was not a one-off, and that the core class is increasingly a wavering class.
The revelation of this group defection also coincides with other reports of unexplained closures of North Korean restaurants. Adam Cathcart photographed the aftermath of one in Dandong. An intrepid AP correspondent called dozens of North Korean restaurants all over Asia and found that one in Da Nang, Vietnam had also recently and suddenly closed without explanation. There were also some early reports that a restaurant in Yanji was the source of the defections (could it be another unexplained closure?). Eventually, Yonhap went with a version in which the 13 came from Ningpo, in northeastern China, via Thailand and Laos.
Given reports that sanctions are preventing the restaurants from repatriating currency or paying staff, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn of more defections from North Korean restaurants over the next several months. Indeed, The Korea Herald cites “a top Unification Ministry official” as stating “that some other left-behind colleagues may be seeking to follow suit, or on their way here now.” For its part, the regime has tightened its surveillance of the restaurant workers, assigned guards to watch them while they sleep, and banned them from going outside.
China has also acknowledged that the 13 came from a restaurant on its soil. Not even China could cover up a story this big. And while China’s allowance of passage for the 13 is encouraging, it’s not unprecedented. In the past, China has sometimes allowed groups of North Koreans to travel to South Korea if their cases became publicized, or if South Korea was forceful in demanding that they be granted safe passage. Presumably, one or both of those things happened in this case. China also seems to have lost some of its will to shield Pyongyang from embarrassment.
Fine, you say, so might Seoul have timed the restaurant incident for political gain? Not if the theory is that the Blue House is trying to show that its policies are working. Before North Korea’s January 6th nuclear test, the Blue House had no coherent North Korea policy at all. It didn’t shut down Kaesong until February 10th. The U.S. Congress didn’t pass sanctions until February 12th, and the President didn’t start to implement them until March. The U.N. Security Council only approved new sanctions against North Korea in early March. Given that member states have only just begun to implement those sanctions, we’re only starting to see their effects. Even in China, implementation is encouraging but uneven. In that light, it’s slightly surprising (but not implausible) that sanctions are already contributing to the defection of North Korean loyalists.
~ ~ ~
In other words, the announcement of the defection of the RGB colonel now is more likely to coincide with the Ningpo restaurant incident, and a desire to influence the views of North Koreans, than with a desire to influence South Koreans before the election. Six months ago, a Unification Ministry spokesman would not have said that the defection of the RGB colonel “could be read as a sign of fissure at the top levels of North Korea’s regime,” or that it “could be seen as a sign that some of the North Korean elites were not happy under the supreme leader, Kim Jong-un.” Seoul appears, at last, to be returning some heavy fire in the psychological war Pyongyang has been waging against it.
Still, one colonel’s defection does not represent an identifiable upward trend in the number of recent defections from the security forces, although it’s arguably an upward movement in terms of rank. Last December, for example, two defectors from North Korea’s cyber warfare command, which would be subordinate to the RGB, accused the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology of training hackers. For years, reports have suggested that morale in the North Korean military is low, discipline is poor, and abuse and corruption are rife. Those reports have included multiple fraggings and defections. In 2010, a fighter pilot died in an apparent defection attempt, when his MiG-21 crashed in a Chinese cornfield.
Nor is this the only recent sign of flagging loyalty within the RGB’s officer corps. In 2010, the South Koreans arrested two RGB officers, Major Kim Yong-ho and Major Dong Myong-gwan, who were in South Korea on a mission to assassinate senior defector Hwang Jang-yop, an 87-year-old man who died of natural causes several months later. Those two field-grade officers not only let themselves be taken alive, but they pled guilty in open court and implicated their boss, North Korean terror master General Kim Yong-chol — now in charge of relations with South Korea — as having ordered the hit. This is not what we might have expected from a crack hit squad.
Even Pyongyang seems to have lost faith in the RGB, given its subsequent outsourcing of its next hit on Hwang to a bumbling team of South Korean drug dealers.
President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.
Once again, this is not the behavior we’d expect from some of the most trusted members of the North Korean elite, unless the loyalties of the elite are wavering. In multiple recent cases, all that has stopped members of the “core” class from breaking with the regime has been the opportunity to do so. One wonders how many other members of the core class may be wavering. So must His Corpulency’s Secret Services, whose paranoia will beget more surveillance, more purges, and more discontent.
~ ~ ~
Another announcement, last week, from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control:
Barracuda Networks, Inc. (“Barracuda U.S.”), of Campbell, California, has agreed to pay $38,930 on behalf of itself and its United Kingdom subsidiary, Barracuda Networks Ltd. (“Barracuda U.K.”), (collectively “Barracuda”) to settle potential civil liability for alleged violations of the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations, 31 C.F.R. part 560;1 the Sudanese Sanctions Regulations, 31 C.F.R. part 538, and the Syrian Sanctions Regulations, 31 C.F.R. part 542. From August 2009 to April 2012, Barracuda U.K. sold Web filtering products including products that could be used to block or censor Internet activity; internet security products; and related software subscriptions to individuals and entities in Iran and Sudan, and to Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (“SDNs”) under the Syrian Regulations. In addition, from August 2009 to May 2012, Barracuda U.S. provided the firmware and software updates for these and other software subscriptions.
Or the trading companies, controlled by the North Korean internal security services, that are financing Kim Jong-Un’s border crackdown?
The Treasury Department has not sanctioned North Korea’s Ministry of People’s Security or its State Security Department, their leaders, or the Chinese and other third-country entities that trade with them.
It has sanctioned the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting service and its director of news services for “censorship or other activities that limit the freedom of expression,” but it hasn’t sanctioned the Korean Central News Agency, the Rodong Sinmun, or Korea Central Television.
Why not North Korea? Has our government recognized Pyongyang as a dead zone for freedom of information? What honest and conscientious believer in engagement with North Korea can say that its government should have the right to close off our best avenues for engagement with the North Korean people?
~ Part 1 ~
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:
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. It is also possible that the reforms faced determined opposition from conservative members of the bureaucracy and military. Last, but not least, it is also possible that North Korean leaders have come to understand the problems that such reforms would face without prior and proper changes to the financial system.
Whatever the reasons, it is clear that the North Korean government has decided to slow down the reform process. At the same time, there has as yet been no reversal. [Andrei Lankov]
I’m still not convinced that either the reforms or the retreat are real, but I won’t let that stop me from suggesting two more alternative theories. For example, Lankov cites the example of the Musan Iron Mine, which was paying its workers 300,000 to 400,000 won per month, “exorbitant wages by North Korean standards.” But in the case of Musan, power shortages and the squeeze on exports to China have led to reports of mass layoffs. The regime may have decided that it couldn’t afford either the higher wages or the risk of creating a pool of angry, unemployed workers. Or, the entire program may have been disinformation all along, meant to mollify workers at a time when state-run industry is demoralized, and when workers seeking steady pay vastly prefer scarce jobs at foreign currency-earning enterprises.
Either way, reform rumors often seem to cause more excitement on Massachusetts Avenue and the Yonsei campus than in Chongjin or Hamheung:
“A lot of top officials in North Korea are not sure which direction Kim Jong Un is taking them in,” says Park. “He doesn’t know how to be a leader. He doesn’t know politics, economy, culture or diplomacy.”
Initial plans for a more open market economy modeled on China was soon dumped, says Park, once it became clear opening up could jeopardize Kim’s iron grip on power.
“People are struggling to survive and are trading on the black market so the official economy is barely functioning.” Park adds “a lot of people are trading foreign currency and running small businesses but the power of the state to control that money is weakening.” [CNN]
One can observe this same gap in expectations with the so-called “6.28 measures,” which would let farmers keep a greater share of what they grow. The 6.28 measures also generated much optimism here, in Lankov especially, but failed to materialize in 2012, 2013, and 2014. North Koreans have heard these promises enough to stop believing them. From their perspective, “nothing has changed.” In Ryanggang Province last year, their shares of the harvest were actually about half of what the state promised. They’ve lost faith in the state, its collectives, and its excuses:
“As the state fails year after year to distribute a fare share to the workers, motivation among collective farmers continues to decline,” he explained, adding that the high hopes the bunjo system once instilled in people have largely fizzled out, only to be replaced with more misgivings.
He went on to say that the state’s failures have given way to a population that “no longer believes in state policies,” and is fully aware that the state “simply hides behind excuses of ‘aid to the military, shortfalls of production targets, and purchasing seeds for the next harvest'” to explain away its broken promises. “We’re not going to be fooled again this year,” the source noted. [Daily NK]
As Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard have argued, what foreigners are tempted to describe as “reform” in North Korea often amounts to state policies catching up to what citizens have already established as a fact of life, legally or otherwise. Even if the 6.28 measures are real, unanswered questions about how they will be implemented will determine how much of a difference they will really make in the availability and production of food. Perhaps 2015 will be the year when the regime finally implements the 6.28 measures, but the reform North Korean farmers really want — and the change they’re making a fact of life now — is private, individual, for-profit agriculture, sometimes called sotoji farming.
~ Part 2 ~
For obvious reasons, no one knows for certain how much of North Korea’s food is grown on sotoji plots, but Lankov has estimated “as much as 60 percent of all food sold on the local market” in some areas. U.N. food and crop estimates say little about private agriculture, but it’s probably one important part of the reason why the state’s border crackdowns haven’t caused a return of famine. The practice is common enough that “[p]eople in farming areas are busy cultivating small individual plots during this season, constantly moving around hilly areas and the banks of the river from dawn to dusk,” and complicating efforts to catch border-crossers. Because the state has monopolized the best land for the collectives, sotoji farmers have cleared plots in the mountains. This, along with the clearing of trees for firewood, has contributed to the North’s deforestation problem.
The regime’s response to sotoji farming has been similar to its treatment of the markets a decade ago — tolerate but squeeze. In previous years, it has confiscated plots, or limited their size to 30, and later, 100 square meters in the immediate vicinity of the grower’s home. This year, the regime is trying to tax the plots to death, raising land use fees by 50% and requiring farmers to pay in produce. Many farmers can’t afford this higher rate and call the decision “absurd” when the regime still can’t provide survival rations. The regime has responded with threats of outright confiscation. In some areas, officials have prohibited the clearing of trees, or ordered residents to plant trees on existing farm plots:
Another source reported that people have expressed frustration about the fact that food security is seen as less of a priority than reforestation. “If trees are planted on hillside plots or strips of land near the roads, there will be less for people to eat. If the state doesn’t guarantee food, people will just move elsewhere and keep cultivating whatever land they can, decimating other forest areas,” he concluded. [Daily NK]
So far, squeezing the sotoji has not caused hardship for most of the people. Food prices were largely stable and well below their usual seasonal levels during the lean season in March and April. The reports credited various reasons for the improved food supply, including aid from Russia, trade with China, and paradoxically, “a program of encouraging people to cultivate smaller plots of land” within the collectives. (Note well: when I argue that the regime itself could and should ease the food crisis through land reform and imports rather than asking foreign donors to fill the void, this is what I mean.)
Meanwhile, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that most North Korean still suffer from food shortages, and one in six North Korean kids still suffers from chronic malnutrition. Worse, North Korea is facing a serious drought that could worsen the food crisis next year. Pyongyang could close its food gap easily with a small reallocation and redistribution of the resources it squanders on its military and its oligarchy.
But not all of the news is bad. One area where there is clear evidence of improvement is the jangmadang, or markets. The Daily NK reports that the regime has eased up on market trading, including by dispensing with a widely disobeyed prohibition on women under 50 selling in the markets. This has created significant opportunities for those who make their living by selling on the people’s economy. As a result, the number of market stalls in North Korean cities has increased rapidly in the last three years. One incentive for this is that the “stall fees” officials collect from merchants are increasingly lucrative, which enlists local officials in the growth of the market system. For now, business is good, and vendors pay high prices (RMB 4,500) to officials for market stalls. In addition to this, there has been a proliferation of small fast-food restaurants and coffee shops in the provincial towns.
There are still limits, of course: vendors caught selling South Korean goods risk losing their stalls. But there is evidence that this is a nationwide trend, suggesting a top-down decision to relax the rules. Can it last? A review of the history tells us that markets have waxed and waned as the regime vacillated between cracking down and easing up. North Korean women share this concern:
[M]ost women are perplexed, if cautiously elated, by the leniency shown by a system that has wielded such stringent power and regulation over them for so long. “The shift in sanctions feels like hell has frozen over,” many have remarked, adding that they “finally have the opportunity to make ends meet.” Still, many are wary, noting that “you never know when the authorities will abruptly declare a new policy or revert to stringent clampdowns.” [Daily NK]
~ Part 3 ~
There is also good news on the transportation front. Well-connected merchants called donju have gone into the business of moving goods and people, pressing government-owned trains, trams, and boats into commercial service by renting them from the Ministry of Railways and Fisheries, or by importing old trucks and buses from China and kicking up a cut to officials in exchange for permission to operate. (The donju were also buying electricity from corrupt state officials, paying illegal “electricity taxes” in exchange for a more reliable power supply — up to 10 hours a day for 20 days.) Donju are also starting taxi services in the cities.
The establishment of an alternative transport system would be good news. It would help break down the regime’s internal controls on the movements of people and information. More efficient transportation of goods would also erode the inequalities between regions (particularly between Pyongyang and other places).
But as North Korea watchers have learned, for every few small steps forward, there is eventually a Great Leap Backward. So can it last? To answer that question, we have to know whether the positive changes are happening because of Pyongyang, or in spite of it. If the latter is more true than the former, it may be that the regime is concentrating on enforcing border and information control at the expense of other internal controls. It certainly isn’t talking about reform and opening, and if there’s general agreement among Korea watchers about anything, it’s that the regime regime remains firmly opposed political reform or change. Pyongyang is clearly determined to seal up the cracks in the information blockade by restricting cross-border travel and snuffing out cross-border communications. That crackdown is backed by the full power and resources of the state, and almost certainly comes from the very top. In April, the regime deployed even more inspection teams to the border, to catch both border-crossers and users of illegal cell phones.
This crackdown is stifling consumer trade. It is making it difficult for traders to cross the border with China, and to obtain merchandise from China. These restrictions have significantly reduced the volume of consumer imports. Traders are also worried about politicized prosecutions of cross-border traders as spies, and inspections designed to root out ”impure members hidden in society;” “narcotics, human trafficking, illegal phone calls, and defections;” and “vibes from capitalist delinquents and punks” entering from China. Throughout much of 2014, Rimjingang received reports of “a series of purges and firing squad executions of Party cadres” in Pyongyang. One official was executed for leaking word of the arrival of a South Korean aid shipment in Nampo. Another, a Chinese resident, was said to be executed for “spying, narcotic trafficking, selling of impure recordings.” According to one Rimjingang source in Pyongyang, the authorities announced the sentence by posting a notice at the Chinese resident association office, possibly “to set an example and to intimidate and warn Chinese residents who often travel to China.” Chinese traders report that they are only allowed to use their mobiles in designated areas — probably so that the state can monitor their conversations — and levies heavy fines on those caught using their phones anywhere else. It’s clear, then, that whatever the economic trends, the political trends are regressive and reactionary.
Can we make any sense at all of this contradictory information? It’s possible that there’s no real pattern here at all, just scattered pixels of uncoordinated and arbitrary decisions and indecisions by officials at every level and in every province. Indeed, some of the information is simply contradictory; some reports say fuel prices have eased, while other say they’re skyrocketed. Most of the positive developments in the preceding paragraphs may well have resulted from local or low-level official abstaining from enforcing the rules, possibly due to corruption or a profit motive. To some extent, a rebound in markets probably represents their recovery from The Great Confiscation five years ago. One must also wonder how long a revival the markets can last when the regime is making it harder to import food and consumer goods from China, and when it’s making it harder for people to grow much of the food that’s sold there. What use is an empty market? One of the best times for North Korea’s jangmadang was 2009, right before The Great Confiscation wiped out the savings of a nascent middle class who had gained a degree of wealth — and critically, financial independence — from the markets. If the state sees that the people are gaining financial independence, it may feel threatened.
I do see two constants in all of this. First, there is the desperation and inexhaustible resourcefulness of the North Korean people. Second, there is the Inner Party’s determination to contain them. There is also a third, dynamic trend — the Outer Party’s growing corruption, which allows the people’s economy to survive, and to fill new voids left behind by the state’s failure.
Every commentary about the economic transition of North Korea can only be a snapshot, or a most a few frames, of a moving picture. Whether you perceive that the small steps forward are outpacing the great leaps backward, or how, depends on when you take the snapshot, and which part of the frame you focus on. It also depends on whether you’re willing to accept reform rumors as true, and to assume they’ll ever come to anything. More often than not, however, behind each of the regime’s reform measures is a much more consequential, latent, market-driven trend that the regime is simply trying to catch up to.
In the three years that he has been in power, His Porcine Majesty has found plenty of time for Dennis Rodman, but none for meetings with foreign leaders. Suddenly, in the last two months, he has flirted with (1) a summit with South Korean leader Park Geun-Hye, (2) inviting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Pyongyang, (3) and a visit to Vladimir Putin in Moscow in May. His central bank even “committed itself to implementing the action plan of ‘international standard’ for anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism.” (I’m sure Pyongyang will find some way to reconcile this with its arms sales to Hezbollah and Hamas.)
If you believe that talks with North Korea are immediately capable of solving anything, or that they are an end in themselves, you may be pleased that Kim Jong Un has developed this urgent interest in diplomacy. What accounts for this belated quinceañera, assuming that any of these meetings comes to pass? Only Kim Jong Un knows, but I doubt it has anything to do with a yearning for more intelligent companionship. There’s almost certainly a financial motive, if not more than one.
One motive may be a growing threat of sanctions. Kim’s charm offensive began just after December 19th, when FBI and President Obama announced that North Korea had hacked Sony Pictures and threatened audiences for “The Interview.” Almost immediately, Congress called for stronger sanctions, and centrist figures in the foreign policy establishment, including Richard Haass and Winston Lord, began calling for regime change. President Obama himself suggested that the collapse of North Korea’s system was inevitable, although he didn’t declare an intent to catalyze that result.
On January 2nd, President Obama signed Executive Order 13687, authorizing sanctions against all entities and officials of North Korea’s government and ruling party, and (more importantly) authorizing secondary sanctions against the Chinese, and other entities that provide Pyongyang its regime-sustaining hard currency. The order was potentially sweeping and devastating, but in its actual impact, it reached only three entities that were already sanctioned, and ten mid- to low-level arms dealers. But the President also said that this was only a first step, which left Pyongyang scurrying to secure its financial lifelines.
Pyongyang’s charm offensives always seem to come just as the political will waxes to enforce sanctions against it. The charm offensives play on the individual interest of each interlocutor — Park Geun Hye’s domestic unpopularity, Shinzo Abe’s desire to bring abductees home, Putin’s search for ways to f**k with Obama — to disrupt any coordination among them. It works because we’re dumb enough to let it. And once sanctions enforcement wanes, so will Kim Jong Un’s interest in diplomacy.
One thing is clear enough: a credible threat of sanctions certainly hasn’t done any harm to prospects for diplomacy with North Korea. I could also say, with equal conviction, that they haven’t harmed John Hinckley’s odds of marrying Jodie Foster.
Overall figures for North Korean residents entering China annually totaled between 100,000-120,000 until 2010 before jumping to 150,000 in 2011. A steady period of continual increase in visitors followed until 2013, when the number of North Koreans traveling to China reached an all-time high of 200,000, roughly half of whom noted their reason for making the trip as “looking for work.” Aside from finding employment, 34,000 went to conduct business or attend a conference, and 1,500 went purely to travel. This represents a 60% and 50% respective reduction when compared to last year’s figures. Visits to friends and relatives dropped to 1,100–one-third of those making the trip for the same reason in 2013.
Male visitors [150,000] composed five times total amount of females [30,000] visiting China from North Korea. Most North Koreans [77,000] traveled by boat for the trip. [Daily NK]
North Korean agents who do travel to China are also having more difficulty doing business there. There’s no evidence this has anything to do with sanctions. It appears to be because of a combination of a sagging Chinese economy and the lingering effects of the Jang Song-Thaek purge. After that purge, I posted here that the regime had called home large numbers of its China-based money men, presumably men who were loyal to Jang or thought to be, and that the money men had stayed away in droves. Subsequently, I posted about another reported defection of a senior financier in Russia. That trend continues:
A source in a northeastern Chinese city, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said only about 30 percent of the North Korean businessmen have returned to China after being summoned.The summonses are also believed to be part of efforts by North Korea to redistribute the “rights of doing businesses with China,” a key source of earning hard currency, to its ruling elite, the source said.”The replacement of businessmen loyal to Jang Song-thaek has been gradually carried out and a lot of North Korean businessmen were summoned until late last year,” the source said. “Of those being summoned, only about 30 percent returned to China.”There are no official data on how many North Korean businessmen are working in the Chinese border cities.A second source in another Chinese border city with North Korea said that about 170 North Korean businessmen in the city were replaced over the past year.With Chinese investor confidence eroding over the North’s unpredictable behavior, the new North Korean businessmen come under further pressure in building business connections with their Chinese counterparts, the second source said. [Yonhap, via the Korea Herald]
Not only is the sagging Chinese economy hurting Bureau 39, but according to the report, “Chinese investor confidence” is also “eroding.” One reason may be the arbitrary behavior of North Korean officials, including their inclination toward unilateral price increases and demands for bribes and prostitutes. I can’t speak to the latter concern, but the former concern can’t have improved since Kim Jong Un had Jang shot for “selling off precious resources of the country at cheap prices.” This is consistent with evidence of a sudden onset of distress in North Korea’s mining industry, although I can’t say whether poor investor relations are a cause of the problems or a consequence of them.
The report cites Korea Trade and Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) figures, according to which, “North Korea’s annual trade with China fell 2.4 percent from a year ago in 2014,” from $6.54 to $6.39 billion, “marking the first decline since 2009.” These figures are sourced to Chinese government statistics, which is one reason to distrust them. For example, we read a lot of reporting last year that China had cut off North Korea’s crude oil supply, only to find that China had merely reclassified its trade as aid, or supplied Pyongyang with refined petroleum products (such as jet fuel) instead.
The report also claims that “North Korea’s exports of coal to China slipped 17.6 percent from a year ago to $1.13 billion, marking the first drop in 8 years.” I see more extrinsic evidence that that report is accurate.
And there are other signs of trouble: it would be a snub for Kim Jong Un to visit Russia before he visits China, and it was a snub for the leaders of China and South Korea to meet before the leaders of China and North Korea met. China didn’t send a representative to Kim Jong Il’s latest birthday party, either. This doesn’t yet mean that China has broken with North Korea. It certainly doesn’t mean that China wants to destabilize North Korea. It bears watching, however.
Why would Pyongyang shut down this lucrative, low-risk traffic in people with more money than sense or soul? No one knows but Pyongyang. Maybe it really is terrified of Ebola, yet confident that Gloria Steinem isn’t a carrier. Then again, maybe it’s terrified of a contagion of another kind.
For years, the pro-“engagement” argument for tourism in North Korea has been that there is something transformational, even dangerously subversive, about it that minders, deceptions, and other controls can’t contain. (Somehow, I doubt that Koryo Tours and Young Pioneers make the same argument to their contacts in Pyongyang.) I’ve usually been dismissive of this argument, although I’d be genuinely interested in hearing any evidence that Pyongyang thinks it has anything to fear from this kind of tourism. Even if that argument had any merit, Pyongyang knows how to deal with foreign subversive influences. Maybe it just did.
“A family of four from North Hamkyung Province attempted to escape with the help from a border guard and a smuggler near the end of last month; however, someone tipped off the proper officials, resulting in their arrest,” a source in Yangkang Province reported to Daily NK on February 4th. “To expedite the family’s escape, the smuggler got a number of soldiers, all of whom he deemed trustworthy, involved. But too many caught wind of the family’s plot to defect, which led to the family’s eventual capture.”
The family’s eldest son purportedly fled while being held in custody, leaving behind the parents and their younger son to endure relentless interrogation at a SSD-run detention center, where they are “as good as dead,” according to the source, because not only were they themselves planning to defect, but now their son presumably succeeded in doing so despite being held in custody. [Daily NK]
Human Rights Watch has documented the border crackdown in a new report, which you can read here.
“North Korean authorities are using brutal punishments to shut the door on people fleeing the country, and cracking down on those who share information with the outside world,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia Director. “Kim Jong-Un is trying to silence news of his systemic and pervasive rights crimes by going after the messengers, such as people with connections in South Korea or those who can help North Koreans flee there.”
The North Korean leadership has made clear the country must redouble its efforts to remain shut to the outside world.
“We must set up two or three layers of mosquito nets to prevent the poison of capitalism from being persistently spread by our enemies across the border into our territory,” said Kim Jong-Un, North Korea’s supreme leader, during a speech at the 8th Conference of Ideological Workers of the Korean Worker’s Party on February 25, 2014. “We also have to be active to block the imperialists’ plots for ideological and cultural invasion.” The “mosquito net” system Kim referred to was developed in the North to attract the inflow of foreign investment while blocking the infiltrations of foreign ideas, news, and culture. [….]
According to the escapees, the North Korean government has also been actively tracking down unauthorized phone calls from cell-phones operating on Chinese service provider networks being used by people in the North Korean border areas to call to China or South Korea. “The phones have no signal in the cities anymore and I have heard they even have mobile technology to find the exact location of the caller even after you hang up,” said Kim. “I used to call from my living room, but later I had to go high up in the mountains in the middle of the night and I was scared to talk for more than a minute or two.” Park said she used to get calls from North Korea at all times of the day and talk for long periods, but now the number of calls she receives has shrunk by approximately 60 percent since 2012.
“North Korea feels threatened by news and images of the outside world seeping into the country and now is trying to reassert its control by going after people bringing in the information,” said Robertson. “Talking on an overseas phone call, or watching a foreign television show should not be considered crimes, but the government is tightening control through repression and fear.”
More here and here. One backlash of this increased border control is a rise in cross-border violence, and more tension with China. North Korea’s border guards had come to rely on the bribes and extortion they taxed from this localized, illicit cross-border trade. With the loss of that income, the underpaid guards have turned to violent crime, and like all criminals, they go where the money is. China has since raised militias to patrol the border regions, and North Korea has purged an official of the Supreme Guard Command as punishment for the violence. There were also purges at the local level.
There is a very important point here, one that makes Kim Jong Un’s diplomatic outreach completely consistent with his isolationism: it costs money to pay border guards, buy cell phone trackers, and isolate the people you consider “wavering” or “hostile.” North Korea earns that money by extracting aid from foreign sources, and through its officially sanctioned trade relationships. Here is another way that sanctioning the regime can actually open North Korea to outside trade and influence.
The first part of this strategy is the more difficult one. Some of it can be done through broadcasting, some requires creative technological thinking, and some will require clandestine operations.
The second part is about sanctions enforcement, which requires financial intelligence, legal tools, effective diplomacy, and political will.
The reports of defections by North Korean financiers suggest a potential windfall of financial intelligence. Each of these men, and each of their laptops, represents a potential Rosetta Stone. I certainly hope some of them have found safety in the care of U.S. and South Korean intelligence agents. I’ll also express my hope that The Guardian and Al-Jazeera will refrain from getting them — and their entire families — killed, by printing their names.
The Obama Administration will also have to find the political will to dissuade South Korea and Japan from subsidizing Pyongyang and loosening their own sanctions. It will have to find the political will to threaten secondary sanctions against the Chinese and Russian interests that prop Pyongyang up. Lacking this, the administration’s policy will continue to fail. My guesses are (respectively) that it won’t, it won’t, and so it will. North Korea’s hostage-taking, threats, and inducements will recoup more modest financial benefits for the regime. That’s about all Pyongyang needs to undermine the effect of U.N. sanctions, and to sustain its provocative and repressive ways.
Rimjin-gang updates us on the meth trade in North Hamgyeong, in the extreme northeast of North Korea:
I would say that the buying and selling of these substances are far more active than ever before. The price for these products is increasing. A year ago it was 100 Chinese RMB (around 16 US dollars) for 1 gram. Since the beginning of this year it has increased to 100 RMB for 0.8 gram. A small sack of product, made for only 1 to 2 uses, is sold at 30,000 NK won (around 4 US dollars). [Rimjin-gang]
I wonder if this is tied to a shortage of precursor chemicals as a result of the border crackdown. Otherwise, I’d have suspected that the loss of access to Chinese markets would have driven the price down, not up.
The source also reports that “many” cops and soldiers use meth, too:
Partner: Yes. There are many. Sometimes they go and buy eoleum by themselves. If they don’t have money with them, they’ve been known to pawn something like a bicycle. Since those who carry out the crackdowns are involved in eoleum trafficking and some of them are also users, the authorities are not able to enforce controls.
Odd. I used to prosecute guys for using meth in the American Army, and I know how quickly this stuff can spread through a unit and wreck its efficiency. For the first few months, it actually makes people better at their jobs. Later, it causes them to miss formation, sleep on the job, and finally, it turns them psychotic.
It has occurred to me that a soldier with a meth problem and no more pay to spend would trade just about anything–including an RPG-7–for an eight ball.
Look for a Part 2 to Rimjin-gang’s report in the coming days.
In all the stages of North Korea’s reaction to U.N. action on the Commission of Inquiry report, none was quite so surreal as an event held on Monday, October 20th, at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. There, former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea and Cheonan conspiracy theorist Donald Gregg moderated a “conversation” about human rights with North Korean diplomat (I use the term advisedly) Jang Il Hun.
If that seems about as wise as inviting Larry Flynt into a papal conclave, the video and transcript of the event must be seen to be believed. There is probably more vibrant debate in most sessions of the Supreme Peoples’ Assembly than there was between Gregg and Jang, who at one point even thanked Gregg for his “complimentary remarks” about North Korea. Gregg’s role that day was to suborn mendacity, prompting Jang to tell lie after flagrant lie.
Thankfully, at around the 35 minutes mark, a few audience members were allowed to question Jang, whose answers said little but revealed plenty. Also thankfully, the New York Times lede couldn’t have been the sort of publicity Gregg must hoped to create:
One of North Korea’s most senior diplomats warned on Monday that if any effort was made to charge the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, with crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court, the North would take unspecified “countermeasures.” [N.Y. Times, David E. Sanger]
Jang’s threat of “all countermeasures” was directed at the United States, for what he described as the Obama Administration’s pursuit of “regime change.”
As you know, my people (inaudible) our supreme leadership are very dear to their hearts. And we hold him in highest esteem, hold our respected Martial Kim Jong-un in highest esteem. And by saying about the leadership of, we thought that it was directed our leadership at the highest level, and we could not stand — we could no longer sit idle, just watching and responding back, and we have to — we think we have to take action on our own in response to such a political plot. [Jang Il Hun, Council on Foreign Relations, Oct. 20, 2014]
Isn’t it wonderful when diplomats can bring civilized people together to resolve their differences rationally? Incidentally—and stop me if you’ve heard this somewhere—President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.”
Although Gregg sold the event as a discussion about human rights, that turned out to be a bait-and-switch for Gregg to advocate for sidelining human rights in any diplomacy with North Korea. For example, Gregg invited Jang to agree with the statement of a former TASS bureau chief about U.S.-Soviet talks in the 1980s, saying, “If human rights had entered into that discussion, no progress would ever have been made.” (Incredibly, an embarrassed-looking Jang corrected Gregg—they were discussed!) Gregg also took pains to get Jang to say that China and Russia (good role models, to be sure) have never raised human rights in their discussions with the North Koreans. Later, Gregg’s co-discussant, Jerome Cohen, added, “I don’t think discussion of human rights is the best way to start our bilateral discussion on a positive note.”
In any event, Jang made it clear enough that the discussion would be a waste of time when he called the U.N. debate about human rights in North Korea a “very great fuss about human rights violations, as they call it,” and adding this in reference to a potential ICC referral:
[W]e cannot — we can no longer stand at this kind of maneuvers pursued by the United States and the European allies. Our position has been very consistent and well-known. We totally rejected the resolution on human rights against my country offered by — sponsored by the European Union and Japan at the U.N. Human Rights Council and the United Nations General Assembly every year. We totally reject. We totally and categorically reject the contents of the report. None of such violations exist in my country, and in no way can they exist, also. [Jang, CFR event, Oct. 20, 2014]
Jang even appears to have retracted North Korea’s alleged admission that it has labor camps, although his statement is so confusing and contradictory that it’s hard to be sure.
She just mentioned about the labor camp. We totally rejected the existence of the — whatever form it takes, the camps. The terminology — I don’t like it. And some press carries the story about the briefing done by colleagues at the United Nations a few days ago. And they report as if they found a new labor camp. But it doesn’t simply exist in my country.
We call it reformatory, right? And (inaudible) at the time that we mentioned about (inaudible) through labor, detentions (inaudible) but the Western media says that he admitted to the existence of labor camp. That’s not true. I was there. I listened to him. So any camp of any kind does not exist in my country.
We have the same system, I think, like the United States and other countries that they — what we call reformatory is a prison. It’s a normal prison, as in other countries that the prisoners are detained, like American citizen (inaudible)
Worse, Gregg may have contributed a falsehood of his own, although I suspect it was more likely a bias-assisted misunderstanding than a deliberate lie. In his very first question of Jang, referring to the head of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry, Gregg asked, “How would you respond to Mr. Kirby’s statement that under Kim Jong Un there has been an improvement in the human rights situation in North Korea?” Gregg repeated this assertion several times.
Really? And did Kirby even say that? As to the first, Human Rights Watch has said, “There has been no discernible improvement in human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea … since Kim Jong-Un assumed power after his father’s death in 2011.” These people will also tell you that things haven’t gotten better, and may have gotten worse. The Commission of Inquiry certainly didn’t point to any improvements when it said this:
“The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” the Commission — established by the Human Rights Council in March 2013 — says in a report that is unprecedented in scope.
“These crimes against humanity entail extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation,” the report says, adding that “Crimes against humanity are ongoing in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea because the policies, institutions and patterns of impunity that lie at their heart remain in place.” [….]
“There is an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as of the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association,” the report says, adding that propaganda is used by the State to manufacture absolute obedience to the Supreme Leader and to incite nationalistic hatred towards some other States and their nationals. [U.N. Commission of Inquiry, Feb. 17, 2014]
I searched far and wide for evidence that Kirby had said that human rights had improved in under Kim Jong Un. I didn’t find it, but I found where Kirby said that they hadn’t:
Please do not think North Korea is a cuddly, cute sort of a case, with a leader with a bad haircut who is nonetheless loveable and is going to go in the right direction because he’s a young man. This is not a situation where a young person is going to bring a new broom, if his is a new broom it is a violent new broom. Things have not improved. [Sydney Morning Herald, Aug. 3, 2014]
Since the CFR event, commenting on North Korea’s so-called “charm offensive,” Kirby said,
“This is the moment of truth and it is extremely important that it should not be traded away for a little bit of charm…. A few honeyed words expressed in the last few weeks by the representative of North Korea facing the reality of the outrage of the international community hasn’t improved one iota the position of human rights on the ground.” [Kyodo News, Oct. 23, 2014]
He expanded further on conditions in the North at this event, on October 27th. Start at 5:40:
Listen carefully, and I think you’ll see exactly what Kirby said that Gregg misunderstood. In that clip, Kirby doesn’t quite deny saying what Gregg claims he said, but what Kirby does say isn’t compatible with Gregg’s alleged quotation of him.
Questioning both the accuracy of Gregg’s quotation and the truth of the assertion, I e-mailed Ambassador Gregg to ask for the source of his quote. I’ll give him credit for this much—he sent a prompt and courteous reply, and gave me permission to print it. Here is his response:
I was the commentator at the meeting of 16 April 2014, when Michael Kirby presented his report to the Council on Foreign Relations.
I commented that the report was a “call to action,” not to try to overthrow North Korea, but to get them to change their draconian internal policies. I8 then asked Kirby whether his report indicated any changes in the severity of North Korean policies during the very long period that the report covered.
According to my notes, Kirby replied that “there is a reduction in the number of prisoners and things seem easier under Kim Jong Un.” [E-mail message from Amb. Donald Gregg, Oct. 24, 2014]
I found no evidence of such a statement on CFR’s site; indeed, I found no record of the event. Maybe it was off the record. Gregg also referred me to a third person he said could corroborate the Kirby quote. He didn’t, and I’m not going to bring his name into this. Kirby didn’t respond to my request for comment.
The last sentence in Gregg’s quote contains three claims—two assertions, and the claim that Justice Kirby made them. I’ll take them one at a time. First, the best available evidence does suggest that the number of prisoners in the camps has fallen. More recent scholarship reduced estimates of the number of prisoners in the camps by about half—from 200,000 to about 100,000.
Now, let me tell you why: (1) newer information suggests that the 200,000 estimate may have been too high; (2) the population of one camp, Camp 18—always the country club of North Korean gulags—appears to have been “released in place,” with the fence lines removed (see update); (3) conditions in the remaining camps have worsened, causing a rise in death rates and a consequent reduction in prisoner populations; and (4) most ominously, perhaps tens of thousands of men, women, and children simply vanished from Camp 22, without a trace, when that camp was closed down in 2011, before Kim Jong Un came to power. Three years later, not one witness or survivor has come forward to explain their fate.
Thus, (1) doesn’t suggest an improvement, (2) does, and (3) and (4) both suggest that with respect to this important part of North Korea’s human rights picture, things are far worse than they were four years ago. Recent satellite imagery also tells us that several camps, including Camp 12 at Cheongo-Ri, Camp 14 at Kaechon, Camp 16 at Hwaseong, and Camp 25 at Chongjin have been expanded.
But aside from the deaths and disappearances of thousands of people, how else might “things seem easier under Kim Jong Un?” Border crackdowns mean fewer refugees are getting out, less information is getting in, and it’s more dangerous for hungry people to receive money from their relatives in the South. The vast majority of North Koreans continue to live at the edge of starvation despite improved harvests. Kim Jong Un’s spending on luxury goods has tripled since his coronation even as the World Food Program may is considering pulling out of North Korea for lack of funding. Today, Kim Jong Un is exporting food his hungry subjects should be eating.
In his email response to me about his statement that human rights in North Korea has improved under Kim Jong Un, Gregg also volunteered this curious statement:
As you note, I used this quote when presiding at the 20 October meeting with Jang Il Hun. Jang did not reply to it one way or the other.
In fact, Jang seized on Gregg’s claim (see video at 12:15), no doubt describing Kim Jong Un’s heroic efforts to feed the “more than 82 percent of households [that] do not have acceptable household food consumption during the lean season:”
So it’s no surprise that the many changes are taking place in my country that will contribute to the improved enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms by our people. Maybe one can (inaudible) recently visited my country and they have witnessed that every day we witnessed changes that are very inductive to the further development of my society, thus leading the promotion and protection (inaudible) ski resort, horse track, pleasure parks all over the country are springing up every day, and all for the enjoyment of the pleasant lives of our people. [Jang Il Hun, Council on Foreign Relations, Oct. 20, 2014]
Yes, $300 million worth, in a year when the World Food Program was asking foreign governments to donate $200 million to feed 2.4 million hungry North Korean women and children for two years.
And what about the North’s stultifying repression? Jang argued that juche is a substitute for human rights, thus nationalizing and expropriating the very idea of individual rights into a collective holding of the state—an argument strikingly similar to Christine Hong’s, incidentally. Jang boasted, “We also guarantee the sovereignty of the country which crystallized interests of the people with our strong military force,” because what are human rights without the right to be starved so that your overlords can build more missiles?
Still, the most surreal moment must have been when Gregg, in his best James Dresnok impersonation, actually read an excerpt from North Korea’s own human rights report. Start at the 14 minute mark:
Granted, I’ve seen Americans do similar things before, but those Americans were in Pyongyang wearing prison uniforms, and the bravest of them were flashing the Hawaiian good luck sign.
Inadvertently, Gregg highlighted the greatest obstacle to the very dialogue he promotes, setting Jang up to “clarify” the “difficult issue” of Pyongyang reneging on the Leap Day Agreement, and prompting Jang to say that the deal-breaking “satellite” launch had been planned months before, “in celebration of Kim Il-sung’s birthday.” (But of course!) Jang added that because North Korea was “under serious threat, including the imposing of tougher sanctions … in response, we had no other choice but to take countermeasures.” In any event, Jang said that Pyongyang is waiting Obama out—as if it expects the next POTUS to be friendlier.
So, if I understand Gregg’s position, the U.N. shouldn’t raise the issue of North Korea’s crimes against humanity (despite the deaths of millions, and testimony of dozens of witnesses confirming horrific atrocities) because the inquiry (which Pyongyang boycotted) was one-sided and the evidence (the testimony of dozens of witnesses, corroborated by satellite imagery and other extrinsic evidence) contradicts Pyongyang’s official positions (which aren’t subject to verification, so take their word for it) and things are getting better anyway (a misstatement based on a likely misquote) and member states should relegate the issue to a bilateral dialogue instead (where Pyongyang will say that there’s nothing to discuss, because it’s all lies), but only after other states first engage in dialogue with Pyongyang about nuclear weapons (which Kim Jong Un says he’ll never relinquish, despite four separate U.N. resolutions prohibiting them) and a freeze of missile tests (except for April 15th, February 16th, and other important holidays) which North Korea says it needs because Barack Obama wants to overthrow the regime (by talking about human rights).
One brilliant exchange at the end of the event, at the 52-minute mark, almost redeemed it. Gary Bass, whom Sanger describes as “a Princeton University professor who has written extensively on human rights and national security,” was allowed to question Jang on the camps and satellite imagery at some length. Start at 52 minutes:
Someone buy that man a beer, if only for the priceless expressions on Gregg’s face during that exchange. As Gregg wrote in his email to me, “I was disappointed that Jang did not have better answers to the barrage of questions that came at him. I told him in advance of the meeting that he would be under heavy disapproval from those focused entirely on human rights issues.” Gregg finally saved Jang by circling back to his apocryphal quote of Kirby, leaving Bass unable to extract a straight answer from Jang, but having made his point.
I’m sure Gregg is a nice enough person, and he’s had an extraordinary career, but it’s hard to reconcile how a man with Gregg’s background could become … this. If diplomats of Gregg’s present caliber had represented us in 1945, they’d have landed in Berlin on the way to Yalta to fetch Ribbentrop, because engagement.
~ ~ ~
Update: I see someone else came to a similar conclusion.