You may not believe that Kim Jong Un learned to drive at age three, but he has managed to perform one miracle — making North Koreans long for the libertine halcyon era of Kim Jong Il:
The ‘Dear Leader’ Kim Jong Il’s sudden death in December of last year brought a tighter grip across the border. Going even further, Kim Jong Un ordered a “guilt by association” system, which is a collective execution system which aims to terminate the entire family of anyone who has attempted defection. Also, 20,000 additional soldiers were dispatched along the border region to tighten security in the area. Immediate execution of anyone caught attempting to defect was ordered as well. On December 31st, 3 men crossing the river in Hyesan, Yanggang province were executed by firing squad and a couple in their 40s attempting defection in Hoiryoung, Hamkyung Buk-do were executed as well. Clearly, there are unspeakable atrocities happening as the noose is tightened around the Chinese/North Korean border. [Open News]
Separately, Open News reports that this may be a case of horse / barn door. The regime is trying to regain control of the movement of people, information, and money by tightening border controls, cracking down on illegal cell phones (with the help of trackers purchased from German suppliers), putting new restrictions on market trading, and sending students to labor in the fields. Yet so much outside information has already entered North Korea that it has fundamentally altered the world view of much of the population, especially the younger generations. It’s almost impossible for poor North Koreans to cross illegally now, but the smugglers, who have the means to pay bribes, can still get their wares through to meet the high demand for outside goods and information.
This video ostensibly depicts North Koreans hysterically mourning a monster who terrorized, starved, and murdered millions of his subjects. This particular clip has accumulated more than seven million YouTube views.
Videos like it have produced reels of bemused speculation in America. The near-universal reaction found this in roughly equal parts disturbing and amusing. I’m certain that I have, at times, found amusement in some aspects of North Korea that were, on closer examination, much more horrid than they were funny. But if I know anything about how North Koreans really think, is that they think. If there is one thing that I believe foreigners fundamentally misunderstand about North Koreans, it is that they are unthinking automatons. I’ve lived in South Korea long enough to know that there are profound cultural differences between Americans and Koreans, but I’ve spoken with and read the accounts of too many North Koreans to believe that what we see in these videos is real grief for Kim Jong Il. There are probably some exceptions, of course, but my guess is that most of the genuine grief was that of children whose parents know how mortally dangerous it disabuse a child of the official mythology.
The regime wants us to believe the North Koreans are automatons who lack the same innate human reason, logic, and emotion as the rest of us. More importantly, it wants North Koreans to believe this about each other, so that everyone who dissents in the privacy of his own mind feels alone, strange, and abnormal. Of course, the real emotions of these people are hidden from us, from each other, and from the state. The most common question I’ve seen asked on the internet about these scenes is whether the people are faking. Look at the faces and judge for yourself, but most of them are pretty obviously faking to me, even more obviously than the professional mourners seen on video here. These are traditional paid mourners in India. They were paid to weep hysterically for trees that were illegally logged.
There was of course widespread speculation, informed by the statements of North Korean defectors, that people were terrorized into these hysterical displays, and now we have additional reports that this is indeed the case:
Daily NK learned from a source from North Hamkyung Province on January 10th, “The authorities are handing down at least six months in a labor-training camp to anybody who didn’t participate in the organized gatherings during the mourning period, or who did participate but didn’t cry and didn’t seem genuine.
Furthermore, the source added that people who are accused of circulating rumors criticizing the country’s 3rd generation dynastic system are also being sent to re-education camps or being banished with their families to remote rural areas.
Daily NK earlier reported news that criticism sessions were being held at all levels of industry, in enterprises and by local people’s units starting on December 29th, the last day of the mourning period. A source said at the time that the central authorities had ordered the sessions to be completed by January 8th.
The North Hamkyung source commented of the sessions that they “created a vicious atmosphere of fear, causing people to accuse “˜that young upstart’ (Kim Jong Eun) of preying on the people now that he has taken power.” [Daily NK]
The Daily NK reports have received wide circulation in the American press and blogs.
The term “reeducation camp” probably refers to the smaller camps known in Korean as kyo-hwa-so, as opposed to the larger kwan-li-so camps, which are (with a few exceptions) life imprisonment zones for political prisoners. Prisoners in both types of camp are routinely tortured, underfed, overworked, and exposed to contagious diseases, and a six-month stint in a kyo-hwa-so is likely to be a death sentence. In fact, the annual mortality rates in some reeducation camps, especially in camps where prisoners must work in mines, can be higher than in the big political prison camps.
All of the prisoners at Kyo-hwa-so No. 4 were men, most of them sentenced to any- where from five to twenty years. The prisoners considered their sentences a cruel hoax, as they did not expect to live long enough to serve their time. Some prisoners mined limestone in the adjacent mountain. Others crushed the rocks. Still others fired the lime in large kilns. Work started at seven in the morning and lasted until five in the evening, except in the crushing and heating units, where work often continued until ten at night. All aspects of the work were hard labor in dangerous conditions with prisoners frequently suffering chest ailments and lung diseases from limestone dust.
Once a week there was an evening criticism session in groups of up to 500 men where the prison officials would criticize the prisoner called to stand in front of the group of prisoners. There were also lectures on Kim Jong Il and his policies.
Infractions were punished with reduced rations, nominally extended sentences, and detainment in miniature punishment cells. During the eight months that Former Prisoner #19 was held at Kyo-hwa-so No. 4, there were eight public executions in the prison. He did not recall the particular offenses of these eight executed persons, though he did cite the four types of persons who would be executed at the prison camp: prisoners caught trying to escape; prisoners caught after they escaped; persons who committed crimes while on “sick leave”; and prisoners who had committed capital crimes elsewhere and were brought to Kyo-hwa-so No. 4 for execution.
Food rations consisted of a mere 50 grams (under 2 ounces) per meal of mixed corn and wheat, plus cabbage-leaf soup. Former Prisoner #19 weighed 76 kilograms (168 pounds) upon his entry into the kyo-hwa-so. After three months, his weight had plummeted to somewhere around 45 kilograms (99 pounds). He was sure that most prisoners weighed less than 50 kilograms (110 pounds).
Prisoners slept head to toe on wooden floors in groups of 50 to 100. The unsanitary living conditions — there was no bathing or changing of clothes, and Former Prisoner #19 says he was able to wash only his face two to three times a month — led to Kyo-hwa-so No. 4′s particular idiosyncrasy: the cement dust in the prisoners clothing, commingled with dirt and sweat, would cause the tattered fabric to harden, resulting in skin abrasions and infections.
The most salient prison characteristic, however, was more common: exorbitantly high death rates. In Former Prisoner #19′s eight months there, of the eighty persons in his work unit, three prisoners died in work accidents, ten died of malnutrition and disease, and twenty were sent home on “sick leave” in order to reduce the high numbers of deaths in detention. [Committee for Human Rights in North Korea]
But then, as I said before, there are always plenty of good reasons to cry real tears in North Korea. For those who can’t find one, the state will provide.
Everyone knows that North Korea does a lot of things that we can’t explain without resorting to mostly groundless speculation about its internal power politics. This goes beyond cultural differences. I don’t know any South Koreans who can explain things like the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents, which imposed real (if insufficient) financial and diplomatic costs on the regime. In our conversations, not even Kim Kwang Jin claimed to understand for certain why Kim Jong Il does things that appear to harm his own interests.
Most of the speculative explanations about North Korea’s power politics also have flaws. For example, there ought to be ways that are less politically costly to elevate the reputation of Kim Jong-Eun than ways that only increase the hardships and discontent of the very people they’re supposed to be meant to influence. At some point, you have to admit that North Korea’s bigger decisions certainly look irrational. That’s the theory Andrei Lankov has inclined to for at least a year, and according to this report, North Koreans are starting to agree:
Rumors that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is suffering from dementia are spreading quickly across the isolated country. Reports say the leader is increasingly incoherent during his so-called on-the-spot guidance trips.
When Kim watched the 1960s propaganda play “Sanwoolim (Echo)” during an inspection of a military base in Kangwon Province recently, he reportedly described it as “a masterpiece that is bound to lead the revolution in the future.” Party cadres were dumbfounded to hear him praise the old show as if he had never seen it before. [Chosun Ilbo]
The report itself sounds apocryphal, but it jibes with recent events.
Our next report suggests that Sohn Hak-Kyu might have trouble finding North Koreans to help him plan his Olympic village:
North Korea has reportedly purged 30 officials who participated in inter-Korean talks or supervised bilateral dialogue via execution by firing squad or staged traffic accidents. A South Korean government source said Thursday, “Thirty people have been confirmed to have died or gone missing until recently. About 10 partners of inter-Korean talks with the South were executed by firing and about 20 others were said to have died in traffic accidents.
“As of now, the North has no partners to talk with the South. There will likely be major change in inter-Korean relations.
Seoul said all Pyongyang officials who attended secret inter-Korean contacts are being purged, which clearly demonstrates that the internal organization of the North`s communist regime is extremely unstable and fragile. The power struggle in Pyongyang is intensifying in the course of the power succession of heir apparent Kim Jong Un, and hardliners are accordingly gaining ground while those in support of dialogue are losing ground, analysts say. [Donga Ilbo]
I can believe that the North Korean regime has plenty of closet dissidents, plenty of factions, and plenty of purges, but I’ve never put much credence in any theory that holds that there are factions of hard- and soft-liners plotting against one another within the North Korean regime. Of course, no one outside of Pyongyang knows the real truth, but I’d guess that the factions fight over more practical things, like turf and money. And until recently, South Korea was North Korea’s automatic teller. To a hopeful outside observer, an interest in hauling in South Korean money might be mistaken for an ideological interest in improving inter-Korean relations, even reform. I just don’t see the evidence for it.
It also has the whiff of disinformation. Selig Harrison has been peddling a particularly fantastic variation of this hard-line/soft-line stuff for years to try to persuade American diplomats that we should give North Korea more concessions to help the soft-line faction — concessions that never seem to win us any lasting security benefits or visibly alter the regime’s character. I incline toward the view that Harrison and others are picking up on North Korean disinformation designed to extract concessions from us. But of course, this news doesn’t come from Selig Harrison, so it isn’t necessarily false.
In a worrisome new sign of catastrophic climate change, a record cold winter in North Korea suggests that the mere presence of two Current TV reporters may be enough to invoke The Gore Effect:
Citing data from the North’s meteorological research unit, the KCNA reported that between Dec. 24 and Jan. 19, the average daytime high temperature had been minus 4.9 degrees Celsius while the morning low averaged minus 15.6 degrees. Both figures, it said, were 3.2 degrees lower than usual. “This is the first time since 1945 that the maximum daytime temperature has remained below zero for nearly a month,” the KCNA quoted an official as saying. On Jan. 16, the mercury dropped to 18.2 degrees below zero in Pyongyang and other parts of the country, a mark some 5 to 10 degrees colder than in normal winters, it said.
And at the same time, North Korea is suffering from an acute shortage of coal:
A source in Hyaesan, Yanggang Province reports on January 20th that “The New Year has seen a dramatic worsening in the area’s electricity supplies. Power has been out for twenty days straight. Nationwide the situation is similar, even in Pyongyang, where although there is some supply regular people are getting no more than one or two hours a day.” Because of this North Koreans are not merely undergoing the usual daily hardships but are beginning to wonder if the country is on its last legs.
“Power stations,” the source went on, “have insufficient coal supplies and so electricity production is out of the question. There’s an acute energy crisis.” In a stymying vicious circle, the lack of electric power necessary to drive the motors which rid the mine of stagnant water means the shaft can’t be entered in order to dig the coal necessary to produce the electricity the country needs. And because of the recent cessation in distribution to the miners of their daily 800 grams of rations, workers have downed tools and left the mine. [Open News]
Not only that, but North Korea’s untimely success at reducing greenhouse gas emissions will assuredly make things even worse.
Several weeks ago, a Korean source told me that the electricity shortage had brought industrial facilities to a halt but had at least left plenty for homes. Apparently, the situation has been deteriorating.
The general power supply situation is not as problematic in the summer when the heavy rainfall North Korea receives enables it to produce hydroelectric power. In the winter, a reduction in hydroelectric power has usually led to a worsening of the supply situation. But the situation this winter is considerably worse than usual. Amidst this power crisis, an official declared, “The railways are the arteries of North Korea and when they come to a standstill the country’s heart stops beating.” Factories and economic production has been killed off and all power redirected to the railways, the official added. Most factories and businesses having ceased production, the people have gone to farming villages to help plow and labor in the fields.
North Koreans know better than anyone that their country has been on its last legs for years, and why the system still persists. From within, it’s in an advanced state of decay (on the other hand, no coal means no cell phones, and no reading at night, and even less time and energy to think about politics). But just as fresh paint can conceal rotten wood for years, the state’s system of control maintains the appearance of stability. The people still lack the political consciousness, cohesion, organization, and firepower to challenge the state, but they’ve now reached the point where a well-funded and resourceful underground could take root and spread quickly, thanks in part to the extent of official corruption and disillusionment. This would still take years to shake the rotten structure. Of course, a military mutiny is always a possibility, but one has to wonder what kind of system it would install.
Several of you have written in or commented on the reports of a train carrying tribute for Kim Jong Eun derailing between Sinuiju and Pyongyang, North Korea, along with speculation that sabotage caused the derailment. Several newspapers in the U.S. and South Korea pick up the story, but they all attribute it to this one, from Open News:
A source in the defense department in North Pyongan province reported on the 23rd that, “The defense department was notified of an incident in which a freight train which left Sinuiju on the 11th was derailed somewhere between Yoemju and Dongrim.”
Eight of the more than forty carriages of the train which was packed with gifts for the successor Kim Jong-eun’s birthday on January 8th were derailed, said the source. For this reason the authorities have launched a full investigation into whether the cause of the incident could be related to forces opposed to the succession.
The source reported that “North Korean rail tracks and sleepers are so old that it’s possible the sleepers were rotting or that nails securing the tracks were dislodged. But in this case the extent of the damage to the tracks and the incident’s timing suggest that the damage was deliberate. The possibility that it was undertaken by someone opposed to the succession is high.” [....]
“I’m not sure exactly,” said the source when asked what the train’s likely contents were, “but probably a large amount of luxury goods like watches and TVs.”
The Korea Times adds a layer of embellishment with a headline that says the train was “derailed by protesters.” The speculation of Open News’s source also loses all of its qualifiers, like “I’m not sure,” and “probably.” Ditto the Joongang Ilbo.
If this was in fact an act of sabotage, it’s likely that it was an inside job. More consequentially, it would suggest that internal opposition is suddenly capable of bold and effective action. This is the sort of stuff that makes for great rumor-mongering within closed societies. As disinformation, it would be sheer genius. And now, let me suggest any number of reasons why it probably wasn’t sabotage at all.
First, we don’t know if any of this is even true.
Second, we’ve seen little other evidence that an internal opposition is capable of anything more than taking clandestine footage or leafleting. This would represent a great leap in sophistication and brazenness.
Third, even if the tracks were deliberately damaged, the “saboteur” may have been doing nothing more subversive than hunting for scrap metal, or wrecking a train to loot it. It seems very “lucky” that the derailment affected a tribute train as opposed to an ordinary passenger or freight train, until you consider that these special trains typically run faster than regular trains, and are thus more likely to topple off the tracks.
Finally, North Korea’s tracks are in such a decrepit state that the simplest explanation is probably the correct one — that most likely, this was an accidental derailment due to bad track maintenance and excessive speed, an especially telling thing for the main line between Pyongyang and Sinuiju. In a society where the security forces are taught to be paranoid, I can understand why sabotage would be considered and discussed. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the regime dislocate the local population for the barest suspicion of sabotage. I just don’t have enough solid reporting here to conclude what happened here. That’s not an uncommon occurrence with reporting from North Korea, which means that we must then ask ourselves if the report in question is consistent with others or is an outlier. This one is clearly an outlier, and would be so consequential if true that it invokes the rule that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
When you see all of those missiles paraded down the square in Pyongyang, do you ever ask yourself who paid for those missiles? Here are the people who paid for them. As you watch this, remember that Rimjingang‘s brave guerrilla cameramen risked their lives to show you the truth.
These are the expendable people of North Korea, the ones who don’t have a place in the propaganda parades, the ones who don’t get to eat the food aid that the regime either refuses or steals from them. I’d be surprised if that woman were still alive today.
One day, these people are going to hold their oppressors accountable. The more I see, the more convinced I become that we should teach them how, and then arm them. North Korea needs a revolution, and no peaceful revolution can possibly succeed in such a place. When governments become destroyers of humanity, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish them. I see no other way.
A big hat tip to reader Theresa for this one, and she found the video here.
Update: This seems like a good place to promote LiNK’s “9 Lives Campaign,” which is raising money to support North Korean refugees.
The first English language edition of Rimjingang is about to come out. It will be a dead-tree quarterly, and thus far, Rimjingang has very little presence on YouTube. These are strange things to observe in a publication whose survival depends — literally — on its technological sophistication at hiding memory cards and playing cat-and-mouse with the regime’s cell phone trackers:
The quarterly Rimjingang has been available in Korean and Japanese since 2008. The English edition will be published about twice a year from now on, chief editor Jiro Ishimaru said at a recent meeting in New York University, adding that digital editions in various formats will be available from 2011, including one from Apple Inc.’s iBook store. [Mainichi Shimbun]
Rimjingang is nonetheless a revolutionary publication in a way that transcends the common and cliche use of that word, for Rimjingang may well be the first confirmed case of an expressly dissident organization with a centralized command structure that has operated in North Korea since 1953. The correspondents are motivated by what Ishimaru calls “a strong will to let the outside world know the reality in North Korea and inspire a desire to improve the situation there,” though they disclaim a desire of overthrow the regime. Similar motives probably also dwell in the North Korean sources of such invaluable web sites as the Daily NK, Open News, and Good Friends; however, none of those organizations relies primarily on correspondents who infiltrate in and out of North Korea with the specific objective of acquiring information for a foreign audience.
They’re given instruction in operating cameras, using PCs and how to use cell phones so they don’t attract the attention of authorities. Then, every few months, they meet with AsiaPress representatives just over the border in China to hand over their images.
One of the most remarkable things we’re already learning from Rimjingang is how much the market can provide, and how fast its logistical potential is growing.
“When we started training journalists in 2003 or 2004, getting cameras into North Korea was a real problem,” said Jiro Ishimaru, chief editor of the news agency, at a Tokyo news conference on Monday. “Nowadays, within North Korea you are able to have your pick of Sony, Panasonic or Samsung cameras.” [Martyn Williams, IT World]
Williams reports that there are six covert correspondents; the Mainichi reports that there are eight, and that they live double lives as drivers, factory workers, or mothers. They could fairly be described as nonviolent insurgents. All fled North Korea, received training as journalists outside the country, and returned home. If caught, death is the least of the punishments they face, so none of the correspondents knows the identity of the others.
It will not surprise regular North Korea watchers that the imagery shows North Korea beyond Pyongyang as an angry, corrupt, anarchic place, rather than the rigid, robotic utopia that most journalists are shown by their minders in and around Pyongyang.
In another clip also captured by Kim, a North Korean woman argues with a police man. Asked for a bribe, she screams at him and pushes him. “This cop is an idiot,” she shouts.
Sue Lloyd-Roberts continues her look at North Korea by interviewing refugees in Seoul and asking them about the images her minders allowed her to film. At 13:00, Lloyd-Roberts interviews Young Howard, a/k/a Ha Tae Kyung, the founder of Open Radio. She even sits in as he interviews a source by telephone. She seems to presume (incorrectly) that Ha is North Korean, but in fact, he’s a South Korean and a former leftist political prisoner. It’s both unsurprising and striking how clearly North Koreans see things in their homeland, in contrast to most South Koreans.
Lloyd-Roberts’s effort to pierce the regime’s facade this way is the mirror image of the controversy between Amnesty International, which tried to do the same, and the W.H.O., which expects us to join it in believing that the regime showed it the true picture of medical care in North Korea. But then, you don’t get the backing of the Chinese government for a high-profile U.N. job by speaking the truths hidden behind the disinformation put out by repressive regimes, and Chan’s background suggests that her acquired talent for willful blindness has been career-enhancing for her.
Open News reports that North Korea is increasing its use of public executions for relatively minor crimes as an instrument of domestic state terrorism, adopting the old Khmer Rouge method of using schoolyards as killing fields, and forcing kids to stand in the front row of the audience:
Children suffer from psychological trauma and experience intense fear, because they see and realize what happened to those who resist the government and the Leader.
Notwithstanding Open News’s optimistic belief that the “international community” is concerned about this, I question both the oxymoron and the conclusion, and I’ll believe that Ban Ki Moon gives a damn when he proves otherwise at some point before this regime finally collapses. This link has more information that you may want to know about how North Korea carries out its public executions.