As we begin rehashing the time-worn policy arguments about responding to a nuclear North Korea, it’s useful to inform those arguments with further evidence of just how Pyongyang is leveraging its nuclear hegemony, by escalating its control over speech in South Korea. Last week, a few of us noticed that KCNA published a “death sentence” against four journalists (two reviewers and two newspaper presidents) over a review of “North Korea Confidential” by James Pearson and Daniel Tudor, asserting further that “the penalties will be enforced at an arbitrary point in time at an arbitrary point, without any additional procedure.”
President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Discuss among yourselves.
I’ve posted the full text of KCNA’s threat below the fold (click “continue reading.”) The threat drew a mild condemnation from Seoul. What, do you suppose, are the odds that KCNA made this threat without the personal approval of His Porcine Majesty? No doubt, Pyongyang found the cover of the Korean edition to be provocative:
I don’t know if the reviewers would have even seen this cover. Pearson, an affable person who has done some excellent investigative journalism about North Korea’s money laundering in Malaysia and Singapore, also sent me a review copy when the book came out in English. My copy doesn’t have that cover. Other authors who’ve sent me review copies have done so by .pdf, and none of those texts showed a cover image. But then, the North Korean judicial system isn’t known for its evidentiary rigor or protections of due process.
Why else might Pyongyang target “North Korea Confidential?” It’s certainly a useful snapshot of how provincial North Korea in 2015 differed from the circa-1985 impression that most foreigners have of its society, culture, and economy, although a regular (or obsessive) Korea-watcher won’t read much there that she hasn’t read somewhere else. The book is hardly an indictment of North Korea’s political system. Pearson and Tudor don’t ignore the existence of the political prison camps or other human rights abuses, but those things aren’t the main focus of their book. They mainly focus on economic and cultural changes in North Korea since the Great Famine, and on evidence supporting the implication (of which I’m skeptical) that these things will necessarily drive political change. In their conclusion, they are “doubtful about the possibility of regime collapse” and skeptical of the proposition that “sanctions could push the DPRK to the breaking point.” They ultimately conclude that “the most likely scenario for North Korea in the short and medium term is the gradual opening of the country under the current regime.”
Of course, things don’t seem to be working out that way. Indeed, Kim Jong-Un’s greatest domestic achievement may be his success in sealing North Korea’s borders and implementing a moderately effective digital censorship regimen, perhaps with the technical assistance of well-meaning engagers here.
None of which is really my point. My point is that compared to any number of other North Korea books one can read in Korean, “North Korea Confidental” is mild stuff. It’s not half as inflammatory, subversive, or acerbic as most of what you might read at this blog, or at B.R. Myers’s Sthele Press. Having mostly finished this post last week, I decided to hold it for a few days while I emailed some other authors to ask whether their works are published in Korean. Professor B.R. Myers informs me that “The Cleanest Race” is; so is Kang Chol-hwan’s “The Aquariums of Pyongyang;” Yeonmi Park’s, “In Order to Live;” and most of Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard’s books. All of these books are more ideologically dangerous to Pyongyang than “North Korea Confidential.” Why not them?
The key to explaining this, I think, is that the authors themselves were not the targets of this threat; the Korean journalists who reviewed the book’s Korean edition were. And here, we find the makings of a pattern and an escalation, because a reader brings to my attention that KCNA has also published this threat against centrist and right-of-center Korean media — sorry, make that “Puppet Reptile Writers.” Apologies for the long quote, but this is worth reading and archiving in full:
Pyongyang, September 1 (KCNA) — Yonhap News, Chosun Ilbo, Dong-A Ilbo, Maeil Kyongje, Munhwa Ilbo and other vicious conservative media of south Korea professing to represent the south Korean media are speaking ill of the Korean People’s Army’s resolute warning for mounting enveloping fire on Guam and the will of the Korean people to wage death-defying resistance against the U.S. and are unhesitatingly trumpeting about such rhetoric as “enhanced war atmosphere” and “creation of tensions for maintaining social system”.
A spokesman for the Central Committee of the Journalists Union of Korea in a statement Friday says this clearly proves that the puppet conservative media are made up of hack writers, servants of bellicose forces at home and abroad and group of traitors with whom we can not live together.
The Central Committee of the Journalists Union of Korea sternly declares as follows reflecting the towering grudge and hostility of the mediapersons of the DPRK against the puppet conservative media going reckless to hurt the dignity of the DPRK while pointing an accusing finger at the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK:
We will sharpen the just writing brushes to defend our leader, our party and our social system and win a final victory in the confrontation with the U.S.
No matter how loudly the hostile forces may cry out, they can never check the advance of the DPRK dashing toward the bright future of humankind along the straight road of independence, Songun and socialism.
We will track down the puppet conservative reptile writers fostering discord within the nation under the auspices and at the instigation of the anti-reunification forces at home and abroad, and throw overboard all of them.
The puppet ultra-right conservative hack writers without elementary conscience as writers have to be completely stamped out. This is the unanimous will of the mediapersons of the DPRK, and this will be put into practice.
Our grime and merciless pen will sight the bases which commit hideous crimes against the DPRK by spreading misinformation about it, and beat them to pieces.
The puppet conservative media escalating confrontation with the DPRK while dare challenge the annihilating spirit of the army and people of the DPRK will never be able to evade the shower of retaliatory blows. -0- [link]
Let’s call all of this precisely what it is: terrorism. See also Pyongyang’s extraterritorial censorship of “The Interview” in the United States, Europe, and Asia. See also (in no particular order) its series of attempts between 2008 and 2014 to murder North Korean dissidents in exile, its 2012 threat to shell the offices of conservative South Korean newspapers, its 2014 threats against defector-activists who launch leaflet balloons over the DMZ, its approval of the 2015 slashing attack on the U.S. Ambassador, its 2016 threat to murder the President of South Korea, its 2017 threat to murder the ex-President of South Korea and just about anyone who angers it, and its 2017 murder of Kim Jong-Nam in Kuala Lumpur.
I offer that evidence for the benefit of anyone who is tempted to believe the palliative that we can just “learn to live with” a nuclear North Korea, to view our own acknowledgement of Pyongyang’s nuclear status as the end of this crisis, or to find reassurance in the belief that Pyongyang, having achieved nuclear hegemony at such cost, will rest contentedly within its own borders. On the contrary, from now until the end of Kim Jong-Un’s life, every book review, editorial, film, conference, and U.N. vote will be cast as a choice between the offending thoughts, on one hand, and assassination or war on the other. How much of your freedom of thought will you give up for the sake of “peace?” The problem with that question is that no one ever asks it just once.
I have written before about how the generals in Pyongyang believe they can gradually subjugate South Korea into submission and remote control by confederation, rather than attempt to occupy a country with twice its population and many times its wealth. I have written about how Pyongyang’s attempts to censor opinion in South Korea and elsewhere, including the United States and Europe, are at the vanguard of those plans, because Pyongyang knows that to control people, you must first control their thoughts. Pyongyang’s thought control takes many forms, from death threats, to hacking the email of scholars here, to threatening the organizers of conferences. So does the thought control of its simpaticos in South Korea, who use the courts to intimidate refugees, use South Korea’s oppressive libel laws to suppress parliamentary and political speech, send thugs from state-subsidized labor unions to attack their critics, and (as Roh Moo-hyun did) use selective and ideologically motivate tax audits against unfriendly newspapers. And these are just the things we know about.
It may be a complete coincidence that at this moment, Moon Jae-in and the hard-left labor unions are now using threats of criminal prosecution to assert ideological control over Yonhap and other state-owned media. Then again, it may not be a complete coincidence. Whatever this is, it is not “liberal.”
North Korea and the anti-anti-North Korean left in South Korea have many instruments for controlling the thoughts of South Koreans. Recently, I argued how various forms of censorship have gravely damaged South Korea’s liberal democracy and the quality of its political debate. Meanwhile, the fawning coverage that foreign and Korean journalists have given Moon Jae-in is enough to make Kim Jong-un envious of his treatment by KCNA. These are the journalists who are supposed to be the guardians of a free press. But at the critical moment, they are almost as derelict as (though less corrupt than) the Associated Press was when it made its Faustian bargain with the North Korean government. You won’t hear a critical word from the AP about the fact that its business partner just published a threat to murder four fellow journalists. Remember that the next time anyone from the AP makes a self-serving soapbox argument about its important role as a guardian of your freedom (which is exactly what the AP and journalists should be).
As for most foreign and Korean journalists, they’re so personally and ideologically enamored of Moon Jae-in, and so invested in the narrative of Pyongyang as David besieged by Goliath, that they’ve blinded themselves to this partial eclipse of South Korea’s freedoms. Pray that Kim Jong-Un’s Moonshadow Policy is no more successful than Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy was. You can try to reassure yourself that this is South Korea’s problem, but recent history suggests that while the path of totality will eventually cover all of Korea, the path of the partial eclipse will be global. And so far, Pyongyang’s campaign seems to be working. By the way, when was the last time you saw a movie about North Korea? I’ll bet it wasn’t made after 2014.