Archive for Activism

Congratulations to Kwon Eun Kyoung of Open Radio …

for winning the National Human Rights Commission’s Korea’s Human Rights Award.

LiNK has reached the halfway mark in its campaign to rescue 200 North Koreans


Please donate here.

Help Change North Korean Society From the Ground Up By Breaking the Information Blockade

graphic: Beyond the Border: Moving Information into North Korea

Kang Chol Hwan is best known for the Aquariums in Pyongyang, in which he tells how he was raised in a political prison camp for an unknown “crime” “committed” by his grandfather.

Perhaps less well known is that Kang started the North Korea Strategy Center in Seoul several years ago, and for years they have been sending in DVDs, USBs, etc. loaded with movies, TV shows, and information about the outside world (eg, a copy of Wikipedia).

The ways in which North Korea attempts to block access to news and information about the outside world have been well documented on this blog and elsewhere, as has the gradual erosion of those controls. NKSC and other groups seek to accelerate that trend by sending in media that informs and that gets North Koreans thinking. Some examples of what they send in:

We send over media such as Hollywood movies, dramas, and documentaries – content that shows the outside world to the North Korean people. Recent examples include The Book Thief (to show freedom of information),The Pursuit of Happyness (free markets), Human Planet foreign culture), 50/50 (welfare), Midnight in Paris (foreign culture), and Tyrant (authoritarianism). [NKSC Indiegogo campaign]

That’s right, NKSC is in the middle of its first Indiegogo fundraising campaign, and they need our financial support and our help to spread the word. I am friends with several present and past staff members at NKSC and can attest to their dedication and tireless hard work. And though they perhaps wouldn’t want me to mention it, I can attest to their self-sacrifice in working at a non-profit organization in Korea such as theirs (put it this way: the wages and, to a lesser extent, the social status accrued by those in the NKHR field in South Korea is not something that most of their fellow countrymen, or many others for that matter, aspire to).

Here’s a short video about NKSC’s media dissemination work.

For more on the topic of how exposure to outside information affects North Koreans, be sure to read A Quiet Opening (PDF), the report that Nat Kretchun and Jane Kim wrote for InterMedia in 2012 (which included research by NKnet).

Visit NKSC’s Indiegogo campaign page and learn more by clicking one of the graphics at the top or bottom of this post.

Whether you’re able to donate to the campaign or not at this time, please share it widely with your friends and relations!

-Thanks, Dan Bielefeld

USBs, DVDs, radios sent into NK to date by NKSC

Must read: RFK Center calls for a “rights up front” policy toward N. Korea

The report, by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, along with the Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea,* calls on the U.S. to defer its pursuit of Agreed Framework III, and instead confront the very reason why Pyongyang shouldn’t have nuclear weapons, and why diplomacy with it will continue to fail:

Only when North Korea begins to develop a record of improvement on human rights can it engage with the U.S. on other issues, including security, the economy, a peace treaty, or eventual normalization of diplomatic relations. Indeed, improving North Korea’s human rights record should be the litmus test of North Korea’s credibility to engage on other issues. After all, if a government has no regard for the lives of its own people, what regard does it have for the lives of others? What deters it from provoking a war, or proliferating missile technology and weapons of mass destruction to terrorists? [Robert F. Kennedy Center]

In doing so, the report also challenges an exhausted and paralyzed foreign policy establishment that, at least with respect to North Korea, has become a hospice for dying dogma and hasn’t had an original idea since 1989:

For a quarter of a century, U.S. diplomatic strategy has sought to separate and narrow its disagreements with North Korea, to solve them sequentially. Yet the path to solving all of these disagreements is barred by the same obstacle – North Korea’s isolation and secrecy. The agreed framework of 1994 and 2007 agreement both broke down over verification. Similarly, without transparency, the World Food Program cannot monitor the access to food aid, the International Atomic Energy Agency cannot monitor disarmament, and North Korea will deny that its prison camps even exist – including one that is directly adjacent to its nuclear test site. Without transparency, there can be no verification. Transparency in humanitarian matters such as food aid and the treatment of prisoners cannot be sidelined if there is to be a verifiable denuclearization of North Korea.

The report recites Pyongyang’s lengthy history of ignoring U.N. requests to cooperate with human rights inquiries—a history that illustrates the disingenuousness of its recent, often inartful, efforts to “engage” the EU and other U.N. member states. Read more

Video: LiNK’s fall fund-raising campaign

A simple request from our North Korean friends

If you liked this video, please like this page.

Yeonmi Park appeals to the conscience of Europe

It is her first time in Ireland and, indeed, Europe. But at the age of just 21, this sweetly-confident, intelligent and tiny-framed young woman, who managed to flee the famine-torn country at the age of 13, is already a global spokesperson for her own people – a people terrorised into submission and silence while the wider world ignores what she describes as a “holocaust”. [Irish Independent]

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 6.51.15 AMMiss Park’s life went from latent terror to a living hell when her parents were arrested.  

Yeonmi and her sister, Eunmi were left to fend for themselves, at the age of nine and 11, foraging on the mountainsides for grasses, plants, frogs and even dragonflies to avoid starving to death. “Everything I used to see, I ate them,” she said.   Asked if any adults around knew the children were surviving alone, Yeonmi tries to explain.   “People were dying there. They don’t care… most people are just hungry and that’s why they don’t have the spirit or time to take care of other people.”

Park was reunited with her parents later, but what happened to them next may be worse than death. There’s also video at that link; unfortunately, it didn’t embed.

Let’s hope that Park evokes Ireland’s own historical memories of a famine caused by government indifference and cruelty. If nothing else, maybe the Irish government will do a better job of enforcing U.N. sanctions against selling luxury goods to Pyongyang.  

Commendably, the EU is now leading the U.N.’s effort to hold Kim Jong Un and his regime accountable for crimes against humanity. That is a vast improvement over its role until recently, which was predominantly one of softening and even violating U.N. sanctions designed to pressure North Korea to change.

Park’s visit is not only welcome for its impact on pubic opinion and policy in Europe, but also because another North Korean is leading the world toward how it should respond to the crisis in her homeland.

Silencing Park Sang-Hak won’t end North Korea’s threats (updated)

For the first time since 2010, North Korea has fired across the border into South Korean territory, this time with 14.5-millimeter anti-aircraft guns. The North Koreans were shooting at the second of two launches of balloons carrying a total of 1.5 million leaflets, by North Korean refugee Park Sang-Hak and the Fighters for a Free North Korea.

The North Koreans didn’t respond to the first launch of 10 balloons at noon, but at around 4:00 in the afternoon, they fired on a second group of 23 balloons. Thankfully, no one got hurt, at least on the southern side. It’s not clear whether the North Koreans hit any balloons, although the 14.5 ammunition probably cost more than the balloon and its cargo. A few rounds landed “near military units and public service centers in Yeoncheon County,” near the DMZ, and one of them did this:

14.5mm hole

[via Yonhap]

The Soviet-designed 14.5-millimeter anti-aircraft gun comes in 2- and 4-barrel variants, as this quaintly aged U.S. Army training film shows.

True to their word, the ROKs shot back. They used K-6 machine guns, which are similar to the American M-2 .50 caliber machine gun, a slightly smaller caliber than the 14.5. Despite Park Geun-Hye’s public instructions to return fire without waiting for her permission, the ROKs didn’t shoot back until 5:30, about 90 minutes after the North Koreans fired. This time lag suggests that the front-line soldiers held their fire until they received orders from higher up their chain of command, although it’s not clear how high.

Rather than give the ROK Army the last word, the North Koreans fired again after this.

In launching the balloons, Park Sang-Hak and his compatriots defied threats from North Korea, because if you have the brass to sneak across the border into China and make it to South Korea, and if you’ve already survived one assassination attempt, you’re no ordinary man, you’re a honey badger who learned to shave, dress himself, and speak Korean.

Needless to say, the South Korean government’s “call for restraint,” to avoid harming “burgeoning fence-mending between the Koreas,” has no effect on such beings:

“We, defectors, run toward the frontline of freedom and democratic unification to end Kim Jong-un’s three-generation power transition in order to fulfill Hwang’s lifetime goal of liberating North Koreans and democratizing the country,” read the leaflets, which were launched with one-dollar bills and other pamphlets.

“In the North, Hwang is known to have died tragically. This campaign is meant to let North Koreans know he is buried in the South Korean national cemetery.” Park Sang-hak, the head of the activists group, said. [….]

Continuing its previous statements, Pyongyang warned through its official Korean Central News Agency a day earlier that Seoul should stop the activists from sending the anti-North Korea leaflets or face an “uncontrollable catastrophe” in inter-Korean relations. [Yonhap]

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.” Discuss among yourselves.

Right after the statement from the North, the unification ministry asked the civic groups to scrap their plan, citing inter-Korean tensions. Despite its call, however, the government largely retained its long-standing hands-off position on the issue, saying it has no legal ground to stop them. “The issue is something that the leaflet-scattering group should decide for themselves,” a unification ministry official said on condition of anonymity.

Which is good, because a lot of South Koreans want their government to block Park Sang-Hak from sending any more of his leaflet balloons.

Now, far be it for me (of all people) to denigrate the critical importance of setting the right ambience for North Korea. But if solving the North Korean nuclear crisis is really all about mood lighting, scented candles, and Marvin Gaye music, Park Geun-Hye might be a bigger problem than Park Sang-Hak, at least if you judge by what the North Koreans themselves are saying:

North Korea resumed its direct criticism of South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Friday, warning that her “nasty” remarks toward Pyongyang may dampen a rare mood of inter-Korean reconciliation.

In a statement, the National Reconciliation Council took issue with Park’s comments earlier this week that the communist neighbor is showing an ambivalent behavior of provocations and peace gestures. [….]

“(Park’s remarks) are an unacceptable provocation against us,” said an unnamed representative for the North’s council, a working-level agency dealing with inter-Korean affairs.

It is an “impolite and reckless” act, which throws cold water on the mood of improved inter-Korean relations created by a high-profile North Korean delegation’s trip to the South last week, read the statement. [Yonhap]

See also, etcetera. Sure, you can always say that the responsible thing is to avoid antagonizing violent people. Some might even say it’s the government’s job to prevent anyone else from offending violent people, even if the offense is caused by completely non-violent expression. Send leaflets over North Korea and it’s just a matter of time before they answer you with artillery, right? In the same spirit, if your newspapers print blasphemous cartoons, if your authors write blasphemous books, or if some guy publishes a crappy blasphemous movie on YouTube, hey, people might riot, other people might get hurt, and really, isn’t the mature thing to do to censor ourselves just this one time? Or maybe just one more time, because the North Koreans are offended by some dumbass American movie, and Japan wants to get its hostages back? Or because North Korea is offended by a British TV series? Or by Kim Seung Min’s radio broadcasts? Or by the election of a defector to the National Assembly, whom Pyongyang threatened to “hunt down?” Or by a policy proposal by the President of South Korea, one that North Korea also answered with artillery?

By now, you can see where this ends. Or, to be more accurate, where this doesn’t end, ever.

~   ~   ~

Update: The ROK Government now says that it is mulling “appropriate” measures to protect its citizens from similar incidents in the future, but that those measures will not include preventing more launches.

“As we said previously, there is no legal ground or relevant regulation to forcibly block the leaflet scattering as it is a matter to be handled by civilian groups on a voluntary basis,” he said at a press briefing. “The government, which is in charge of the safety and security of our people, will instead push for appropriate steps to deal with the matter.”

This is a more promising direction. Under U.S. constitutional law, the government can lawfully place reasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner of speech that’s protected under the First Amendment.

If Korean courts interpret the ROK Constitution similarly, and if the ROK Government were to restrict the FFNK from launching from populated areas or near military installations, that might be constitutional, would allow the launches to continue, would avoid rewarding a violent response to non-violent speech, and might also reduce the risk that North Korean attacks would harm bystanders.

Just remember this: Park and the FFNK are South Korean citizens, too.

Would it be slander if I called Rep. Sim Jae-kwon a fascist masquerading as a liberal?

A South Korean opposition lawmaker filed a resolution Thursday calling for the implementation of past inter-Korean agreements to stop slander between the two sides.

The resolution, submitted by Rep. Sim Jae-kwon of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), calls on the two Koreas to recognize that mutual recognition and respect are the basis for trust-building. It also urges the two sides to honor such agreements as the joint statement of July 1972, which bans cross-border slander. [Yonhap]

Sim went further than this, and called on the South Korean police to take what he darkly called “appropriate action” against the Fighters for a Free North Korea, in the name of “inter-Korean relations” — in other words, censorship to appease Pyongyang.

But once you agree to impose Pyongyang’s definition of slander on a free society to appease it, there’s no end to the reach of Pyongyang’s censorship, because inter-Korean relations will always be subject to however Pyongyang reinterprets “slander.” And when the likes of Sim were in power, the state’s censorship, or content-selective subsidies, extended to the newspapers, theater, movies, political demonstrations, and even the intimidation of refugees from the North to keep silent. That is no more liberal than Kim Jong Un is a Marxist.

Sim’s call is also a warning that North Korea’s sympathizers in the South will blame Park Sang-Hak and those who join him if the North attacks them in some way. I do wish Park would try to be a bit more unpredictable in his cat-and-mouse game with those who might be tracking his operations. That might even make their activities more interesting for journalists. And if there is an attack, it would inevitably focus media speculation on someone inside South Korea who revealed Park’s location to the North Koreans.

North Korean Gulag survivors call on Switzerland to freeze Kim Jong Un’s slush funds (Alternate title: Cursed are the Cheesemakers).

Switzerland has always been there for North Korea. When North Koreans were starving to death in heaps, Switzerland was there to receive Kim Jong Il’s personal shopper and sell him millions of dollars’ worth of its finest timepieces. When North Korea needed creative new ways to make money — literally! — Switzerland sold it the very same intaglio presses and optically variable ink our Bureau of Engraving and Printing uses to make money. When Kim Jong Un needed a place to spend his formative rumspringa torturing small animals, masturbating to bondage porn, flunking his classes, and developing the personality profile of a school shooter — a school shooter with nuclear weapons — his daddy picked Switzerland. Thanks to Switzerland’s narrow interpretation of U.N. sanctions on “luxury goods,” His Porcine Majesty is now eating himself into a mobility scooter on Emmental cheese.* And when the Treasury Department sanctioned North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank for its involvement in WMD proliferation, it was the Swiss who yodeled that Uncle Sam was starving North Korean babies.

Above all else, when Kim Jong Il needed a place to stash somewhere between $1 billion and $4 billion in personal slush funds, Switzerland and its bankers received his money launderers with open arms. But for one regrettable violation of North Korea’s human rights last year, when Switzerland refused to sell North Korea $7 million in ski lift equipment,** Switzerland has always been there to provide North Korea the watches and numbered bank accounts that starving people need so desperately (and the finest cheeses, of course). Switzerland’s refusal to sell the ski lifts may have delayed the opening of the Masikryeong Ski Resort by several days, but the Swiss people can still take comfort in knowing that, thanks to their government’s laissez-faire policies, the death certificates of 2.5 million expendable men, women, and children (might, possibly) record the hour and minute of their sacrifice with Swiss precision.

The Swiss government has also done its share. Every year, as a token of appreciation for North Korea’s patronage, it refunds the equivalent of 0.7%*** of North Korea’s slush funds to the North Korean government … as humanitarian aid. It’s all part of a reputation for impeccable financial ethics that dates back to the Holocaust. You could say that Switzerland is to kleptocrats what Cambodia is to pedophiles, if this wasn’t so grossly unfair to Cambodia.

For a while, it was fashionable for North Korea watchers to suggest that Kim Jong Un’s Swiss education might have influenced him toward a more libertine style of governance, but things haven’t quite worked out that way. It may be that these scholars were working from a flawed model of Switzerland as a liberal European utopia — a land of cuckoo clocks, alpine meadows, open-air heroin-shooting galleries, and drive-in brothels. This, of course, is a crude stereotype. The real Switzerland**** is the home of Europe’s answer to Gitmo, except that it holds more people (476 men, women, and children) and kills one of them now and then (sound familiar?). It’s a land that values simple things, like racial purity (sound familiar?), and that tolerates all religions except the ones that it doesn’t (hello!).

Actually, until this moment, I’d never realized just how much Switzerland and North Korea have in common. There may be enough similarities that, with a little imagination, you could view Switzerland and North Korea as moral equals.***** One logical reaction to this would be to reject everything that any Swiss person says about North Korea — ever — regardless of its substantive merit.****** Another possible response would be to call for Switzerland to use its financial power to alter how Kim Jong Un uses North Korea’s wealth and rules over its people.

This latter view is now advanced by U.N. Watch, a Swiss NGO. Despite the fact that they are Swiss, perhaps we should suspend logic briefly and hear them out. After all, U.N. Watch is really just publishing a call “by 20 North Korean defectors,” including several survivors of North Korea’s prison camps, for the Swiss Government to block Kim Jong Un’s slush funds. I’ve reprinted the letter in full below the fold, but here is the gist of it:

In conclusion, based on international law and Swiss domestic law, prior Swiss precedents, and the basic principles of morality and humanity, we respectfully urge Switzerland to immediately freeze all assets of the North Korean leadership, whether held in their names or those of their associates, that are located within its territory.

Even better, the Swiss government could make every centime of those deposits available to buy food—provided the distribution of those purchases was better monitored than, say, the Oil-for-Food program, or the World Food Program’s current North Korea operations. There is a catch, of course. Funds that are blocked, as opposed to confiscated, still belong to the North Korean government. But surely Kim Jong Un wouldn’t deny starving people their fair share of his vast wealth out of spite alone.

~   ~   ~

* Or so say the unverified rumors. I guess you could verify the exports from trade statistics, but I hesitate to believe that anyone who knows what’s on Kim Jong Un’s table is telling.

** I wish this was a tasteless joke, but the North Koreans really did call this a “serious human rights abuse.” The value of the ski lifts, at $7 million, is almost exactly the same amount as what Switzerland donated to North Korea as humanitarian aid the same year.

*** Actually, it’s impossible to estimate that percentage without knowing how big the slush funds are or where they’re deposited, but if you divide $7 million by $1 billion, you get 0.007, or 0.7%.

**** Disclaimer: Author may not have actually been to Switzerland.

***** Especially if you’re really, really high.

****** Some might say that’s especially so of one who called the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report on North Korea’s crimes against humanity “a massive exaggeration.” The best thing that can be said of most Holocaust deniers is that they’re merely vicarious, post-hoc deniers. This cannot be said of Felix Abt.

Read more

Park Sang Hak is a very brave man.

Park and the Fighters for a Free North Korea, most of whom are North Korean refugees, ignored a letter from Pyongyang to the office of South Korea’s President that, according to Yonhap, “alluded to retaliation” against their next leaflet balloon launch:

Defying the warning, 10 activists from Fighters for Free North Korea launched 10 big balloons carrying 200,000 anti-North Korea leaflets into the sky in Paju, north of Seoul.

The waterproof leaflets contain messages denouncing the three-generation power transfer in the North as well as the dire economic situation, while praising South Korea’s economic prosperity. [Yonhap]

They also ignored a warning from the South Korean government about the safety risks, and a request from the Unification Ministry not to go through with the launch. Park’s reaction was defiant.

“In spite of any threat or warning from the North, we will continue sending letters of truth until the North Korean people achieve liberalization,” the activist group’s chief, Park Sang-hak, said during the leaflet campaign.

As much as I admire Park’s uncompromising courage, I also worry about him enough to think he should compromise it just slightly, by being more cagey about launch times and places. The North Koreans have already made one attempt on his life, and I wouldn’t put it past them to shell a launch site. Nor would I put it past South Korean “progressives” to blame Park for the attack and its consequences. They want the government to censor Park:

“Sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets constitutes a dangerous act that devastates peace on the peninsula,” said an activist from the Korea Alliance of Progressive Movements.

You can call the Korean left many things, but “liberal” isn’t one of them.

At times, I’ve wondered what effect Park’s leaflets could possibly have, especially when most of them probably aren’t even found, much less read. One thing that Pyongyang’s reaction to Park tells me is that he must be having some effect. It wouldn’t issue threats like these and send assassins to kill Park if it wasn’t afraid of his message.

LiNK Fundraiser in Long Beach on Oct. 25: 5K for Freedom

From LiNK’s site:

5K for FREEDOM is an all ages event raising funds for Liberty in North Korea.

You are welcome to walk, run, bike, rollerblade, jog, push a stroller, or whatever you’d like! This is a non-competitive 5K designed to encourage fun while raising money for a good cause.

Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) is a non-profit working with North Korean refugees in hiding in China. These are families, grandmothers, children, daughters, etc. They risked their lives escaping North Korea and now live in fear of being sent back by the Chinese police.

LiNK helps these brave souls down to Southeast Asia and then on to safety.  This process is long, hard, costly, and dangerous.  It takes $3,000 per person to complete this journey.  Our goal is to raise enough at this event to rescue one person.  We can do it together!

Congratulations to Shin Dong Hyok

Mr. Shin is the winner of Human Rights Watch’s Alison Des Forges Award. The award is a triumph for Shin, and a redemption for Human Rights Watch.

Australian MP calls for divestment from mining venture in N. Korea

To maintain its iron-fisted hold over the North Korean population, the Pyongyang regime needs hard currency, and it is clear that these projects could provide billions of dollars to the North Korean leadership.” [Michael Danby, MP]

It won’t surprise you that I oppose any investment in an unreformed North Korea that continues to slaughter its own people and menace its neighbors. I believe that those who justify investment as a driver of reform have it completely backwards, that investing in the status quo only perpetuates and reenforces it, and that denying the regime the hard currency that sustains it is the only way to force change. As the North Korea human rights movement gains strength, I hope it will catalyze a divestment movement like the one that helped destroy apartheid.

But that’s not the only question I have about this particular investment. The Australian concern peddling this project is a British Virgin Islands-registered company called “SRE Minerals Limited,” which is doing so as part of a joint venture with a North Korean entity known as the “Natural Resources Trading Company of the DPRK,” or alternatively, as “Korea Natural Resources Trading Corporation.” North Korea watchers know that as a general matter, “North Korea’s mining resources are a major source of revenue for its nuclear and missile programs.” But what about this specific entity?

As the U.N. Panel of Experts recently reminded us, North Korean entities are notorious for their use of multiple similar aliases. Recalling something familiar about the name of that North Korean entity, I checked the SDN list and found several entities designated under executive orders 13382 or 13551 that have suspiciously similar names:

KU’MHAERYONG COMPANY LTD (a.k.a. CHO’NGSONG UNITED TRADING COMPANY; a.k.a. CHONGSONG YONHAP; a.k.a. CH’O’NGSONG YO’NHAP; a.k.a. CHOSUN CHAWO’N KAEBAL T’UJA HOESA; a.k.a. GREEN PINE ASSOCIATED CORPORATION; a.k.a. JINDALLAE; a.k.a. NATURAL RESOURCES DEVELOPMENT AND INVESTMENT CORPORATION; a.k.a. SAENGP’IL COMPANY), c/o Reconnaissance General Bureau Headquarters, Hyongjesan-Guyok, Pyongyang, Korea, North; Nungrado, Pyongyang, Korea, North [DPRK].

NATURAL RESOURCES DEVELOPMENT AND INVESTMENT CORPORATION (a.k.a. CHO’NGSONG UNITED TRADING COMPANY; a.k.a. CHONGSONG YONHAP; a.k.a. CH’O’NGSONG YO’NHAP; a.k.a. CHOSUN CHAWO’N KAEBAL T’UJA HOESA; a.k.a. GREEN PINE ASSOCIATED CORPORATION; a.k.a. JINDALLAE; a.k.a. KU’MHAERYONG COMPANY LTD; a.k.a. SAENGP’IL COMPANY), c/o Reconnaissance General Bureau Headquarters, Hyongjesan-Guyok, Pyongyang, Korea, North; Nungrado, Pyongyang, Korea, North [DPRK].

CHANGGWANG SINYONG CORPORATION (a.k.a. EXTERNAL TECHNOLOGY GENERAL CORPORATION; a.k.a. KOREA KUMRYONG TRADING COMPANY; a.k.a. KOREA MINING DEVELOPMENT TRADING CORPORATION; a.k.a. NORTH KOREAN MINING DEVELOPMENT TRADING CORPORATION; a.k.a. “KOMID”), Central District, Pyongyang, Korea, North [NPWMD].

To be clear, neither the “Korea Natural Resources Trading Corporation” nor the “Natural Resources Trading Company of the DPRK” is on the SDN list, but can anyone establish whether it is or isn’t an alias or subsidiary of one of the listed, blocked entities? I’ve put the question to Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control; in the end, it’s their job to clarify that.

Perhaps one of my journalist friends can pursue this further.

First as tragedy, then as farce

The story I linked Monday about Michael Kirby’s comments spurring the U.N. to action in North Korea eventually grew into two posts, because in the same story, Kirby also warned against trivializing what’s happening in North Korea.

The Commission of Inquiry, which reported to the UN in March, detailed horrific abuses of human rights in North Korea, including starving political prisoners reduced to eating grass and rodents in secret gulags, schoolchildren made to watch firing squad executions, and women forced to drown their own babies to uphold racial purity laws.

Justice Kirby compared the actions of the North Korean regime to a modern-day Holocaust, and he warned against treating North Korea as a quirky, oddball regime.

“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.”

I suppose Justice Kirby was talking about films like “The Interview” and the Dennis Rodman parody “Diplomats,” neither of which I’ve seen. Based on the description of the plot premise, it’s clear to me that “Diplomats” is too stupid to have much redeeming artistic merit, and will almost certainly trivialize a terrible tragedy. It deserves, frankly, to be the object of a boycott, but as North Korea has learned, protests like these often backfire — just like Dennis Rodman’s birthday serenade did. The learner’s-permit demographic that films like “Diplomats” target are unmoved by moral and philosophical arguments, and by standards of taste.

If you filled a thimble with everything Dennis Rodman knew about North Korea last year, there would still be room for everything Dennis Rodman remembers about North Korea this year. Rodman has suggested, probably seriously, that he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for his addlebrained adventures in North Korea. Most people dismissed this as farce, but to be fair, Rodman may (however inadvertently) have done as much to bring Pyongyang’s crimes against humanity into the global consciousness as Kirby’s carefully documented report.

That is both good and a sad comment on the state of our media and human rights watchdogs today. The sadder comment is that no watchdog, no global law-giver, no son of Korea in any position of global leadership, and no Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader of any nation, indispensable or otherwise, has lifted more than a token finger to press for action on the findings of the COI’s report, so far. The people of North Korea have been forgotten for decades. All indications are that in September, the General Assembly will send Justice Kirby’s report to the Security Council. All indications also suggest that after 48 hours of page four news, the U.N. will have forgotten it by the end of October.

My expectations for “The Interview” are almost as low. “The Interview,” however, benefits from much promotional assistance from the North Korean government. With its impeccable talent for irony, North Korea’s official “news” service, KCNA, printed a statement by the Foreign Ministry that called the film “terrorism,” accused the United States of “bribing a rogue movie maker to dare hurt the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK,” and threatened “to mercilessly destroy anyone who dares hurt or attack the supreme leadership of the country even a bit.” It concluded, “Those who defamed our supreme leadership and committed the hostile acts against the DPRK can never escape the stern punishment to be meted out according to a law wherever they might be in the world.”

North Korea was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. KCNA and the Associated Press signed two still-undisclosed memoranda of agreement in 2011, under which they agreed to cooperate in their reporting of “news” from North Korea.

Thankfully, Pyongyang still hasn’t learned that the best way to censor speech in America is violence — say, summoning mobs into the streets, sacking our embassies, and killing our diplomats. Do that, and our President will go on TV to apologize to the mobs for the very existence of free speech, we’ll jail the heretics who offend you, and our own government will be your vicarious censor. (This is the real Benghazi scandal — and the Republicans can’t see that.)

As with the U.N.’s greater interest in objectively lesser crises, parodies of North Korea also raise the question of double standards. Can you imagine someone making a spoof film about Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or even Gaza? (Not that anyone should.) How many decades passed before a film like “Inglorious Basterds” could be made?

This isn’t to say that North Korea shouldn’t be parodied (it should be), or even that the parodies must be tasteful (the good ones seldom are). What I suppose I am saying is that artistic judgments are balancing tests that weigh what makes a work distasteful against what makes it important. I struggled with that balance in my judgments of films like “Borat” (very funny and thought-provoking, but even more distasteful) and “Team America” (distasteful, but funny and profanely profound). The moral risks of failing that test are greater if the work’s effect is to blunt our sense of outrage.

The truth, of course, is that Justice Kirby deserves the Nobel Prize, and deserves to be the subject of a serious nomination campaign for both himself and his fellow Commissioners. Perhaps that campaign would give one of our world’s great institutions, or their so-called leaders, a small twinge of responsibility to act.

If, in the end, the world is only capable of answering tragedy with farce, it least it should be good farce. It ought to be better a better farce than “Diplomats,” and diplomats.

Must hear: Kurt Achin’s podcast from Hack North Korea

I think Thor Halvorssen is my new idol.

Most people believe that the North Korean government — and emphasis on government — is an issue that should be addressed by governments, or by a collection of governments. Well, we believe in helping people. We believe in peer-to-peer networks.

We are not interested in, you know, running to the U.N., which has been oh-so-extraordinary at stopping genocides from occurring — that’s dripping in sarcasm. We don’t believe the United Nations is going to be the place that’s going to bring about change. Neither do we believe that the U.S. State Department, by sending billions of dollars in cash to buy, you know, more Johnny Walker Blue or to hire more Swedish hookers is going to make Kim Jong Un change.

You’re dealing with a psychopath, and a family of psychopaths. They only respond to punishment. Psychopaths do not respond to incentives; they respond to disincentives. And the North Korean government, ultimately, is going to have to be overthrown by its own people, or by a collection of folks in the military.

No occupation army is going to succeed there. No war is going to be able to do this in a way that is more efficient, less problematic for the country in the long term, than an internal situation. And that internal situation will only come — a true revolution for liberty — will only come with information, and when people are inspired to do so. And we will, of course, do as much as our resources permits to hack North Korea and assist people inside North Korea who wish to be free.

How refreshingly relevant this is to the actual advancement of human rights, after years of watching the stuffy, politicized impotence of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. (It should not escape your notice that neither group has done anything of significance to support a credible response to the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report. Maybe they’ve been too focused on shilling for Hamas, or hosting Kim Il Sung propaganda exhibitions.)

If you have some money to give, consider a donation to HRF.

Me talk pretty

A reader forwarded me this link of a speech I gave to members of the Korean Church Coalition at the National Press Club last month, and I thought I’d post it here.

Since that day, I’ve wanted to say just how impressed I was by the young, mostly Korean-American members of the KCC. If you watch this on YouTube, videos of their speeches are linked at the sidebar, or at the end of this video. Do yourself a favor and watch a few of them. There wasn’t a pierced eyebrow or tattoo in sight that day — just the sort of clean, poised, articulate, and confident young people the very sight and sound of whom can restore your faith in the future of your country.

It’s not just appearances, either. A few young Korean-American over-achievers — two of them from northern Virginia — have found a technological exploit around Pyongyang’s information firewall (second item).

Consider: we live in the kind of country that collects and incubates the best talent of Korea’s diaspora. No combination is as powerful as the combination of character and intellect. Put that combination into the ideal incubator and it exerts an irresistible liberating force on that diaspora’s ancestral homeland.

Refugees, geeks to join forces at “Hack North Korea”

The Human Rights Foundation, “a New York-based group that focuses on closed societies,” will host a two-day “hackathon” this coming weekend to “harness the technical prowess of Silicon Valley to come up with new ways to get information safely into North Korea.” The event’s title is “Hack North Korea.”

Several prominent North Korean defectors will attend the event including pro-democracy activist Park Sang-hak, former North Korean child prisoner Kang Chol-hwan, media personality Park Yeon-mi and Kim Heung-Kwang, a former professor in computer studies in North Korea. They are expected to speak on the methods currently used to get information into the country, which include CDs and DVDs, USB sticks, shortwave radio, and leaflets dropped from balloons.

Organisers said they are not encouraging hacking in the sense of gaining unauthorised access to data, but is instead hoping to “spark better ideas for getting information into the world’s most closed and isolated society”. 

“Participants will become familiar with the various ways that information and truth are smuggled into North Korea today, and gain an understanding of the technology landscape inside the country. Then, guided by our North Korean guests, attendees will break into teams to come up with new ways to help end the Kim dictatorship’s monopoly of information on the 25 million people living under its rule,” HRF said. [The Guardian]

You can read about some of the specific questions the hackathon will explore here.

My friend, Kurt Achin, who has been interested in subversive technology for years, will be attending Hack North Korea, and I’m hoping he’ll bring back a good report of the ideas under discussion. (Incidentally, Kurt podcasts for NK News, and you can subscribe on iTunes or Soundcloud. The interview with Justice Michael Kirby alone is worth the visit, and all the podcasts are free.)

Some of the materials HRF has launched into North Korea so far have been explicitly political and subversive, including “pro-democracy materials,” “DVDs with South Korean dramas,” and English-language versions of Wikipedia.

Unfortunately, the methods, including balloons, have been primitive. And while those things do teach North Koreans about how we earth people live, I think we overestimate their ignorance of us, and underestimate their ignorance of each other.

Look — I’m the last one to oppose against the idea of subverting North Korea, and I’ve long supported Park Sang-Hak’s balloon launches for their global propaganda value alone. But I don’t think our propaganda will be the thing that really destabilizes North Korea. The end will come because of a combination of North Koreans’ own sui generis grievances, and their acquisition of the means to express them collectively.

North Korea won’t fall because of what we tell them, but because of what they tell each other. The spark will be a popular backlash against prices, corruption, labor mobilizations, unsafe living and working conditions, a botched disaster response, ration cuts, land and crop seizures, wage stagnation, fiscal policy, or market restrictions. Or, all of those things. If we give them the means to talk about them, the rest is all inevitable and imminent.

When North Koreans can buy cheap smart phones in markets, and use them for texting, electronic banking, checking market prices, and emailing friends and co-conspirators, both domestically and internationally, and without fear of being monitored, that will cause a rapid shift in North Korea’s internal balance of power. That’s what I hope to see come out of Hack North Korea.