When North Korean agitprop backfires: A film about a peasant uprising is sowing dangerous ideas

What passes for a feel-good story in one of the world’s bleakest corners? Evidence that the seeds of class warfare are sprouting within a state that has fooled so many gullible leftists into believing that it’s a paradise of socialism. The Daily NK reports that an old agitprop film is inspiring exactly the kind of revolutionary consciousness that Kim Jong-un sees in his cognac-sodden nightmares. The film, “Im Kkoek Jung,” reminds North Koreans that their society has become the very thing the state’s propaganda once told them to rise against, if only they could arm themselves and organize.

North Korean residents are reflecting on inequality in their society for which the regime [is] responsible, thanks to the renewed popularity of a historical movie called Im Kkeok Jung. The movie depicts a 1559 peasant rebellion by a band of thieves who set up camp in an egalitarian mountain village called Chongsokgol.

Although ordinary residents struggle through the annual food shortages associated with the ‘agricultural hardship period,’ North Korea’s political cadres live in luxury apartments packed with South Korean televisions and other expensive items. The situation is in stark contrast to the fictional town of Chongsokgol, where people are shown living in equality regardless of their social status or family history. The comparison between the ideal society presented in Im Kkeok Jung and the very different reality that ordinary North Koreans face is stirring resentment towards North Korea’s ruling elite. [Daily NK]

How could it be otherwise in Kim Jong-un’s North Korea, where 70 percent of the people go hungry and a few | live in | Bacchanalian | luxury, and where class divisions are mostly fixed and hereditary?

“There are many families in the surrounding area that lack food security,” said an inside source from Ryanggang Province, located in the country’s northwest region along the border with China, during a telephone call with Daily NK on March 31. “I think the number is over 60%. The problem is particularly severe in Kimjongsuk County and Samsu County. It’s becoming common for residents to quip to one another, ‘I want to find Chongsokgol and live there.’”

“People are weary and exhausted from the struggle of everyday life,” she added. “They’re saying that it would be better to live together with other poor people in an equal society like the one depicted in Im Kkeok Jung.”

Im Kkeok Jung is a five-part movie created by the Korean Film Studio and directed by Jang Yong Bok. In the film, the character Im Kkeok Jung defies aristocratic bureaucrats and sets out to abolish the oppressive social ranking system. To do so, he sets up camp at Chongsokgol. The mountainside village’s name has become synonymous with egalitarianism and is presented as a utopia. [Daily NK]

You can watch the entire film on YouTube — complete with English subtitles — although production-wise, it’s not exactly “Descendants of the Sun.” Just imagine if South Korea’s film industry did a remake of this. No, forget I said that. South Korea’s right is too binary and paranoid to see the potential of it, and most of South Korea’s film industry would rather lionize Kim Jong-un than dethrone him.

“When people are alone with their family members, it has become a regular occurrence to ridicule Kim Jong Un. People call him immature, citing his lack of personal life experience as the reason for his inability to understand the needs of the common person. Residents ask, ‘How can any political leader succeed when they enter politics at such a young age?’” a source in North Hamgyong Province said.

“These days, residents complain directly to party cadres, saying, ‘Are you trying to starve us all to death?’ All the cadres can do is grin sheepishly in response.”

“Residents are doing everything within their power to simply survive and try to better their lives, but nothing has meaningfully improved,” said an additional Ryanggang-based source. “Looking at the lifestyles of the cadres today, they remark that, ‘Life today is exactly the same as it was during the time of Im Kkeok Jung.’ Quite a few people regularly talk about going to extreme lengths to live in a place like Chongsokgol.” [Daily NK]

Amid this widespread hunger, it isn’t lost among North Korea’s poor that the state has higher priorities than feeding them.

“There are an increasing number of people who are suffering from malnutrition in agricultural regions such as Pochon County, Kapsan County, and Samsoo County. People in these rural areas resent the fact that there aren’t enough potatoes to feed the people, yet the government is obsessed with missiles. What difference in our lives will launching a missile make?” a source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK on March 21.

“Even ordinary people understand that the price of a missile is enough to feed the whole population for several months. So every time the regime conducts a nuclear test or missile launch, many become infuriated at the waste of money, equivalent to hundreds of thousands of tons of food.”

“The residents were especially outraged to see Kim Jong Un beaming while watching the test (on March 18). He seems to be satisfied even though he spent money that could have been used to save starving people,” noted a separate source in Ryanggang Province. [Daily NK]

Even Kim Jong-un himself may have implicitly acknowledged this discontent. But if inequality is the greatest threat to the stability of the regime, corruption may be a close second. Historically, it has always been individual injustices that have inflamed the underprivileged. Here is one such story that is “brewing discontent among locals regarding the pervasive injustice in North Korean society,” but could have inflamed an entire province — or the entire nation — if North Koreans could have texted it to each other:

“At the end of October last year, Song Ju, a third-year student at Kim Jong Suk Senior High School, stabbed his classmate to death following a quarrel over a female. He was sentenced to one year’s detention at a re-education camp,” a source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK on March 27.

“However, he was released earlier this month, after just four months in the camp. People are saying that someone must have pulled strings behind the scenes.”

The student is said to belong to a well-known and powerful family in Kim Jong Suk County, Ryanggang Province. His father is a director of the county forest management center, while his mother is head of a district office with influence over broad issues in the region. Using their positions, both parents have reportedly bribed law enforcement agencies, including the provincial Ministry of State Security unit, and applied pressure to shorten their son’s prison term. [Daily NK]

Every now and then, discontent over these injustices breaks out into acts of resistance against the state.

A North Korean man in his 40s angered by the human rights violations he was subjected to some weeks ago during an investigation has attacked the officer responsible and evaded capture.

“The incident took place at a Ministry of People’s Security (MPS) unit in Pyongsong, South Pyongan Province on March 16. Soon after, all MPS units in the region were put on a state of emergency,” a source in South Pyongan told Daily NK on March 22.

The MPS official was badly injured and is currently in a hospital in Pyongsong. The authorities are reportedly considering relieving him of duty not only due to the attack but also because he let the suspect escape.

The Ministry of People’s Security has distributed photos of the fugitive to security departments in the border areas under the assumption that he may attempt to defect. Thorough restrictions have also been placed on all residents who are moving around at nighttime, the source added. [Daily NK]

As is usually the case, the grievance that led to the act of resistance was economic — the struggle by the lower classes to survive in a society that refuses to provide for them.

Offering details of the case, he explained that the suspect was accused of economic crimes and had been under investigation for a month by the local MPS unit. During the preliminary trial, the prosecutor reportedly hurled invective like, “You should be grateful you can still eat,” and, “Dishonest people like you deserve to die.”

“Pyongsong residents are siding squarely with the victim and assuming that the abuse must have been severe for an innocent man to attack an officer. Everyone is hoping he escapes,” he said. [Daily NK]

The report lends further support to my speculation that the purge of Minister of State Security Kim Won-hong, and of the internal security agency he once led, is a reaction to the regime’s fears that the MSS’s corruption and brutality are viewed in Pyongyang as a threat to regime stability. It knows the MSS are hated, so it’s making scapegoats of them. But if the state can’t pay the MSS cadres a decent wage or earn their loyalty by other means, a purge risks alienating the very people it relies on to keep everyone else in terror.

For now, however, those acts of resistance remain localized and easily contained. It will remain that way as long as North Koreans believe that challenging the state would be suicidal. That, in turn, will not change until North Koreans can talk, conspire, and organize with one another in confidence, but when they can, revolutionary | things | happen.

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Stage Five Watch

Over the last year, this site has carefully tracked reports about the popularity or (more often) the unpopularity of Kim Jong-Un. Throughout the summer and fall of this year, numerous reports have suggested the existence of discontent — however latent, unfocused, spontaneous, and unorganized —  among North Korea’s youth, within the elites, and even inside the military. Three recent reports have added to this evidence.

A North Korean defector said Pyongyang’s Workers’ Party is “imploding” due to Kim Jong Un’s inconsistent policies, and grievances against the leader have soared since he fully assumed power.

The former party cadre, who spoke to Yonhap on the condition of anonymity, said Kim often finds fault with “old and senile party members,” and his disparaging remarks have often placed him at odds with veteran politicians appointed by former leader Kim Jong Il. Kim has said North Korean politicians with decades of experience are ineffective workers, according to the defector.

Demoralized cadres have said that “there is no future” for North Korea since Kim came to power, and pessimism is pervasive in government, according to the defector identified as “A.” The defector said the execution of Kim’s uncle Jang Song Thaek was shocking for North Korea’s elite, and signs of conflict have emerged since Kim replaced older bureaucrats with new appointees.

The report cites Kim Jong-Un’s purges, and perceptions that his work ethic is inferior to that of his predecessors, as the cause of the loss of trust and confidence. [UPI, Elizabeth Shim]

Next, the Daily NK reports, via sources in North Pyongan and South Pyongan provinces, that young North Koreans feel more apathy than loyalty toward Kim Jong-Un.

“Ever since Kim Jong Un rose to power, North Korean students dramatically reduced their usage of the word ‘loyalty.’ Because the residents receive zero tangible benefits from the regime, their feeling of loyalty or appreciation is virtually nonexistent,” a source in South Pyongan reported to Daily NK on October 2nd.

This trend was cross-checked with an additional source in North Pyongan Province.

She added, “In years past, residents were a bit more susceptible to feelings of fondness resulting from the deification of North Korean leaders, but that effect has disappeared for the present generation. The students don’t blame or resent Kim Jong Un, they simply regard him as a man with high status. They are just not very interested in him.” [….]

“The students giggle and sneer when they watch propaganda documentaries that brag that, at the tender age of three, Kim Jong Un was able to spell difficult words like Kwangmyeongseong Changa (‘hopeful paean’),” she asserted. [….]

“The content of the propaganda material is so unrealistic. Practically no one buys into it these days. In the past, political interactions were secret and mysterious, but these days everyone knows that a bribe is the only thing that makes the authorities do their job. That’s when people began to think that even ’The Marshal’ Kim Jong Un is just a regular guy,’” she explained.

“That’s why residents, and students especially, continue to confidently watch illegal South Korean movies and dramas despite crackdowns by the regime. Small cracks are emerging on the regime’s iron tight grip on society and the younger generation is exhibiting significant differences in their mentality.”  [Daily NK]

As Stephan Haggard notes, His Corpulency has specifically appealed to the young for their support. I wonder if Kim Jong-Un’s sources have told him what the Daily NK‘s sources have told its reporters.

The most sensational of the three reports, from Radio Free Asia, claims that someone in Pyongsong, South Pyongan, has been defacing propaganda posters:

Posters glorifying North Korea’s ruling Korean Workers’ Party are being defaced across the country in a wave of popular resentment against burdens imposed in preparation for celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the party’s founding, North Korean sources say.

Graffiti attacks against the posters were first noticed in South Pyongan province’s Pyongsong city during regional elections in July, a source in neighboring Jagang province told RFA’s Korean Service.

And despite a recently publicized order from national leader Kim Jong Un threatening harsh punishment for the attacks, “These acts of vandalism have continued until the present time,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The number of incidents is now increasing because residents of the reclusive nuclear-armed state are angered at their exploitation by the country’s central government as it prepares for elaborate celebrations, including a massive military parade, in the capital Pyongyang on Oct. 10, he said.

On Sept. 9, a poster was found damaged in Pyongsong, with references on the poster to the country as “the victor” changed to “the defeated,” a source in Yanggang province told RFA.

Two other posters were found later that night to have also been defaced, the source said, speaking on condition he not be named.

“When news of the Pyongsong incidents spread, more cases of the vandalism of posters promoting the 70th anniversary of the [North] Korean Workers’ Party began to take place nationwide,” the source said. [Radio Free Asia]

Well, maybe. I have yet to see any other reports of similar acts of protest at the times and places referred to here. There were reports over the summer that North Koreans had fought back against the confiscation of market wares, and carried out revenge attacks against the security forces. 

Contrary to all of these reports, Andrei Lankov argues that Kim Jong Un is enjoying a popularity boom, particularly among younger North Koreans. His best evidence for this is a survey of North Korean refugees’ speculation about the views of other North Koreans, except that even its authors say the survey, which sampled just 100 people, is statistically useless for the measurement of any trends. Even this is still a lot more persuasive than Andrei’s anecdotal evidence:

Popular attitudes to Kim Jong Un are nicely summed up by a young female refugee who recently said in an interview, “People around my age love him. Girls kind of like him because he is handsome. …”

I suppose attraction is a subjective thing, but it’s very hard to take this seriously.

While I don’t doubt that different individuals and demographics in North Korea have highly variable views of their government and its leadership, that discontent and dissent are different things, and that discontent and loyalty might coexist to an extraordinary degree in The Land of Suspended Disbelief, Lankov is arguing against the ponderous and noticeably expanding weight of the preponderant evidence. Unpopularity does not necessarily imply instability, but it does imply fragility. North Koreans might kill out of hatred, boredom, or simple brutality. They might die for their homeland, their country, or their race. What seems increasingly doubtful is that most of them would die for Kim Jong-Un.

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Tokyo Shimbun: Another deadly collapse in Pyongyang

Oh, and wait till you hear where:

Last October, a collapse accident at a construction site for a new National Defense Commission Building, saw 80 people lose their lives, according to a Tokyo Shimbun report from today.

The paper, citing information obtained by a South Korean government official through a source in North Korea, reported the victims were mostly laborers and soldiers affiliated with the military.

It added that in order to prevent the accident scene from appearing in satellite imagery, military authorities were tasked with clearing the wreckage within 48 hours. [Daily NK]

Such a pity that this had to happen before the NDC members moved in and kill construction workers instead.

I even reserve some pity for poor Eric Talmadge, the AP’s Pyongyang Bureau Chief, who must now tolerate another week of being scooped by upstart NK News and various guerrilla news sites, blog posts by Curtis with before-and-after imagery of the site, and my own insufferable taunts glibly suggesting that Talmadge drive to the site to debunk this unverified rumor with on-the-scene shoe-leather reporting.

Maybe the report is true and maybe it isn’t, but it’s certainly worth knowing if it is. A second fatal collapse in one year–especially at a site this critical to the regime–would be big and bad news for any leader who associated himself so closely with this crash (pun intended) construction program.

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North Koreans buying solar panels to generate electricity.

This trends is being driven by the falling price of Chinese solar panels, and no doubt, by growing demand as well.

Solar panels have become among the assets considered essential for life in North Korea by allowing households to connect them to rechargeable batteries which can power lights and household appliances, according to a local source.

“Now, it doesn’t matter whether we get power from the state. With these solar panels, we can use electricity,” The South Pyongan Province-based source reported to the Daily NK on Thursday, “To try to solve the power shortage issues, people have been saving up to somehow buy these solar panels.” [Daily NK]

Surprisingly, the panels are big enough to charge motorcycle and car batteries. As far as I’m concerned, the more solar panels there are, the more independence people have from the state’s grid, the more they can travel, and the more they can charge radios, cell phones, and computers.

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The Asahi Shimbun looks at corruption in North Korea …

from the perspective of a former truck driver and chauffeur, tarnished by bad songbun. Along the way, the man relates a story of an act of symbolic resistance:

Q: Is it true that you witnessed the defamation of a bronze statue of Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea?

A: At Taeochon (near Hyesan in Ryanggang province), someone had thrown rabbit feces at the bronze statue of Kim Il Sung. I believe it occurred on Feb. 11, five days before Kim Jong Il’s birthday. The statue was erected in the central part of the village. It was where villagers held major events and community leaders gathered residents to notify them of important matters.

When I got up that morning, I heard people whispering rumors. When I went to where everybody had gathered, I saw that filth had been thrown on the Kim Il Sung bronze statue. It was likely thrown at night because it had frozen onto the statue. The community leader and other villagers were in an uproar.

People like me thought “Something terrible has happened.” That was because the secret police were bound to mount a major investigation of local villagers. Shortly thereafter, dozens of secret police arrived. As soon as they got there, they covered the statue with black cloth to prevent villagers from seeing the frozen filth on the statue. [Asahi Shimbun]

The Asahi has done a whole series of reports on life inside North Korea, with particular emphasis on human rights.

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Kim Jong Un has abandoned that plan to build 100,000 homes in Pyongyang …

according to The Daily NK’s sources, one of whom expressed the same reaction I had: “Perhaps he’s worried there will be another collapse and has pulled out of it.” In a few cases, “people with money,” presumably people who got rich through their state connections or positions, have taken over to complete the projects. I wonder how that will affect the safety of the construction methods.

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N. Korea Perestroika Watch: Man executed for calling China

The Daily NK provides us some updates on Kim Jong Un’s ongoing crackdown on unauthorized contact with the outside world, via sources in North Hamgyeong Province, in the far northeast:

The North Korean authorities recently added five extra clauses to Article 60 of the country’s criminal code, which pertains to attempts to overthrow the state. The additional clauses codify harsh punishments for acts including illicit communication with the outside world, which could in principle now incur the death penalty. [….]

The newly re-codified offenses include: ? Illegal phone contact with foreigners, including South Koreans; ? Viewing South Korean dramas or DVDs and listening to [foreign] radio broadcasts; ? Using or dealing in drugs; ? Transnational human and sex trafficking; and ? Aiding and abetting defectors and leaking state secrets.

In criminal code revisions made in mid-May of last year, harsh punishments were decreed for a loose basket of acts deemed to be seditious, including political agitation, rioting, and public demonstration. Sedition was one of a litany of charges thrown at Kim Jong Eun’s uncle Jang Song Taek before his execution in December last year.

If North Korea is as stable as some “experts” suggest it is, then why is it necessary for its government to raise the penalties for such unthinkable acts as “political agitation, rioting, and public demonstration?” In fact, we’ve seen fragmentary reports of demonstrations in North Korea in the past, mostly by female traders protesting market restrictions.

The nature of the revised punishments provides a stark reflection of the regime’s anxiety at the nature and scale of cross-border activities, the source explained. A minimum of five years “reeducation” or the death penalty can be decreed for those caught communicating with the outside world, a minimum of ten years reeducation is the maximum punishment for simply watching South Korean media or listening to foreign radio, and a minimum of five years reeducation is possible for drug smuggling. [Daily NK]

Separately, the Daily NK reports that the regime is using its traditional methods for showing its subjects that it’s more serious about enforcing these rules that it had been in the past, when it was possible to bribe one’s way out of enforcement.

The victim, a 49-year old stage lighting engineer called Ri Kyung Ho, was executed in March. His execution, though not public, was used as an example to others, and his family has been incarcerated in a State Security Department (SSD) facility.

The latest report is that North Korea is making examples of those caught, but isn’t executing them in public, perhaps because it fears that video may leak out again. So were there posters, or other announcements of the execution? The report doesn’t say.

“Ri Kyung Ho was caught out of town by an SSD agent with a signal detector. He’d been calling his family in South Chosun” the source said, explaining the background to the man’s arrest. “He probably didn’t have time to take the phone apart and hide it before SSD agents got to his house.”

Ri was reportedly involved in North Korea’s emerging black-market banking system, a system that got a big push from North Korea’s 2009 currency “reform,” which wiped out the savings of millions of members of the country’s rising non-elite middle class. That system has not only stocked North Korea’s markets with food to fill the void left by a non-functional state distribution system, it has also helped many poor North Koreans pay for that food with money sent home by relatives in China and South Korea.

In the course of Ri’s subsequent interrogation, it reportedly emerged that not only had he been making regular phone calls, but had also been involved in remittance transfers from South Korea and aiding and abetting defections.

“He seems to have started by conveying money from defectors to their families, but then began to help people who asked him to send their families to China,” the source said. “Some people are asking why he was killed just because of the money thing, but there are a few who were close to him and his wife, and they say it was because he had been helping defections.”

“In times gone by you could bribe your way out of this, but right now they’re sure to punish you. Nobody knows when or why they might get caught up in it, so everyone is nervous,” she said. “Anyone who uses a cellphone to call ‘that way’ or ‘the other way’ [meaning South Korea or China] is scared.” [Daily NK]

The report only cites a single unnamed source. If it’s is true, expect to see more sources corroborate it, or tell us about more executions from more cities, particularly along the border.

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If a building falls in Pyongyang and AP doesn’t hear it, why the fuck is it even there?

This weekend, we hear news of a terrible tragedy in Pyongyang, the collapse of a 23-story apartment building in the central Phyongchon District. The building was still under construction, but apparently, North Koreans move into apartment buildings before the construction is completed.

Sources in South Korea’s Unification Ministry told Reuters that hundreds may have died, and KCNA’s expression of “profound consolation and apology … to bereaved families” seems to corroborate that there were many dead. KCNA says the accident “claimed casualties,” but doesn’t say how many. It reports that the accident happened on May 13th, but didn’t report it until May 18th. By then, rescue operations had already ended a day ago.

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To be clear, these are images of an apartment building under construction in the same district, not necessarily the building. They’re very recent images, and when the next ones come out, we’ll be able to identify exactly which building fell down.

(Update: Curtis Melvin identifies a different, similar-looking building and guesses that it is the building that collapsed. I’m not completely convinced, but Curtis is almost never wrong about these things.)

Screen Shot 2014-05-18 at 11.25.50 AM

Ominously for those responsible for the project, KCNA said that “officials supervised and controlled [the construction] in an irresponsible manner.” KCNA then prints a series of harshly self-critical apologies from officials, including from the dreaded Ministry of Peoples’ Security (pdf), who had some degree of responsibility for overseeing the construction. The officials also promise future corrective measures, suggesting that for now, there has been no decision to purge them.

Although we’ve seen North Korea publish harsh criticism of Jang Song-Thaek after his purge, and name one or two scapegoats after its disastrous 2009 currency confiscation, I can’t recall having seen so many high-ranking North Korean officials engage in public self-criticism.

Screen Shot 2014-05-18 at 11.15.02 AM

[Apartment building under construction, Phyongchon District,
Pyongyang, April 2014, via Google Earth]

Because the AP’s partner news agency, KCNA, first reported this story, correspondents for various news services in Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo could report this news as soon as AP’s Pyongyang Bureau could. The AP did publish a story with a Pyongyang byline, including quotes from KCNA about Kim Jong Un staying up all night over the disaster, but Reuters published a much more detailed one from Seoul, including speculation by a Unification Ministry official about the number of casualties.

(The AP later filed an updated report from Seoul, quoting totally random residents of Pyongyang it just happened to encounter and interview on the streets of Pyongyang, who spoke freely with the foreign reporters with absolutely no security officials present. Or not.)

The AP’s only photographs of the disaster as of the time of this post show well-dressed North Koreans crying and mourning, but don’t show the actual collapse scene. All of the photographs are credited to photographers Kim Kwang Hyon and Jon Chol Jin, both of whom are North Korean KCNA photographers seconded to the AP. AP photographer David Guttenfelder tweeted one of Jon’s pictures; his Instagram page has nothing on the collapse. From this, I infer that the North Koreans didn’t allow him to visit the scene.

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The news service that scooped the rest of them, including KNCA, was the guerrilla news service Rimjingang, whose correspondents risk their lives to file clandestine news reports from North Korea.

In January of this year, Rimjingang did a series of clandestine investigative reports on a campaign of shoddy, quota-driven, human-wave apartment construction in Pyongyang. Rimjingang’s reporting, done in the Taedonggang District, just across the river from the scene of the collapse, found poor planning, awful working conditions, faulty plumbing, and serious structural defects:

The root of the problem plaguing these modern yet defective apartments is evidenced in several issues: A lack of materials results in low quality and fragile structures. Further, the rush to construct the buildings, led by the engineering battalion and compulsory-mobilized teams from local workplaces, means that basic building requirements are compromised. Implementation of an unreasonable work schedule, in the name of a “the construction battle”, spurs the work on but at a heavy price. [Rimjingang]

The rush to build the new apartments was driven by political considerations — a promise on the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth to build 100,000 new apartments. It was to be done with almost no modern construction equipment, although we know that the regime could have obtained it had it chosen to do so.

Screen Shot 2014-05-18 at 9.44.05 AM

Rimjingang’s guerrilla journalist even risked his life to take and smuggle out video, showing buildings under construction with misaligned floor joints and windows whose sizes don’t even match.

Although some of the workers had been withheld from currency-earning work overseas, many others were simply mobilized students, half-starved “shock troops,” and youth league members who knew nothing about construction. According to Rimjingang, the apartments were to have been reserved for “relatives of senior party officials.”

If you want more brave, independent, and informative reporting from North Korea, forget the AP; support Rimjinang. As for the AP, once again, North Korea has prevented it from reporting any actual news from North Korea.

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Ironically, North Korea has recently spat bile at Park Geun-Hye, in an attempt to pin the Sewol Ferry sinking on her. KCNA even features a May 17 story in which the “Central Committee of the Journalists Union of Korea … denounc[ed] the Park Geun Hye group for resorting to press censorship and red herring in a bid to get rid of the worst crisis caused by the ferry Sewol sinking disaster.” Let no one accuse North Korea of allowing the media to stray from its iron message discipline. KCNA is also calling for the “punishment of murderous enterprisers” behind the Sewol Ferry disaster.

As we saw from the domestic political reactions to Sewol, Katrina, Fukushima, and the 2008 Szechuan earthquake, people expect governments to prevent man-made disasters, and to respond competently to both man-made and natural disasters. Almost nothing can destroy a government’s domestic political standing faster than botching a disaster response. The North Koreans seem worried about that, too.

[T]he recent unexpected accident caused damage but there is loving care of our mother party which takes care of all people of the country and relieves their pain, adding that Marshal Kim Jong Un sat up all night, feeling painful after being told about the accident, instructed leading officials of the party, state and the army to rush to the scene, putting aside all other affairs, and command the rescue operation to recover from the damage as early as possible. [KCNA; full text below the jump]

Ordinarily, I’d say North Korea is an exception to all of the rules of political accountability, but unlike the 2004 Ryongchon disaster, this one affected non-expendable, elite citizens of the capital right after the regime reportedly carried out a major purge there. KCNA’s expressions of regret and apology are uncharacteristically (even remarkably) frank, which suggests that the loss of life was indeed serious. I’ve pasted the complete KCNA article below the jump.

The disaster raises other questions about the broader consequences of the disaster. For example, how many other buildings in Pyongyang are structurally unsound? Will the authorities now embark on a program to inspect the new buildings, and reinforce or rebuild the unsafe ones? Will members of the elite complain, panic, or even try to move away out of fear for their safety? If inspectors find widespread defects and evacuate families, will there be a purge of scapegoats? Panic tends to proliferate fastest in places where the authorities withhold information and public suppress criticism.

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Correction: A previous version of this post said that Curtis Melvin had identified the same building as the one pictured in this post. On closer examination, it’s a similar building, but not the same one.

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Update: Yonhap has a photograph of a North Korean official bowing in apology to a crowd of citizens, via the Rodong Sinmun (in Korean only). There is a cleared area and an excavator behind him that might be the collapse site. See also Curtis’s comments.

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Update, May 20, 2014: Welcome, Washington Post readers.

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N. Korea’s new “reign of terror” stirs fear, flushes out dissent

Rimjingang, the guerrilla news service that brought us the footage we’ll see in Frontline: Secret State of North Korea, has published a spate of reports that give credence to Park Geun-Hye’s prediction that a “reign of terror” would follow the purge of Jang Song-Thaek. The reports clearly rely heavily on third-hand rumor, so I wouldn’t necessarily consider them so much for the truth of the matters asserted as for what they say about the mood on the street. But amid the reports, and the reports of other South Korean-based media, there are clues that the regime’s hunt for dissent — including organized dissent — is more than a figment of paranoid minds.

I’ve made my views clear that Jang was a pragmatic opportunist who was often mistaken for a reformer, but Rimjingang’s sources believed (probably because they wanted to believe it) that Jang was a reformer, and that his purge will be felt in the regime’s intolerance of the trade that keeps so many of them alive. People with connections to Jang are being asked to turn themselves in and “confess,” and at least in some areas, everyone is being forced to write denunciations of Jang. People with photographs of Jang are being asked to turn them in.

No word, so far, on whether this directive is being applied to Dennis Rodman.

Rimjingang reports that the atmosphere is especially tense and fearful. The authorities have cracked down on the possession of illegal videos, memory sticks, and other media. In the Northeast, rumors of grisly executions of entertainers are widespread — initially justified by allegations of making of pornographic videos, but later rumored to be for the possession of anti-Kim Jong Un videos. Rumor holds that the videos were produced in South Korea, allegedly as part of an organized campaign of subversion by “groups that have the intention of promoting the flow of political information into North Korea,” and smuggled into North Korea by merchants:

A former member of a defector organization in South Korea explained to us, “In the organization that I used to belong to, until around 2011, the group put several sorts of anti-Kim Jong-ill videos onto USBs and smuggled them into North Korea. We had a project to increase the flow of outside information into North Korea and had been receiving subsidies for this project. Those videos that we originally made by us, those against Kim Jong-il and others such as TV documentaries made by such companies as the Japanese NHK (Japanese Broadcasting Corporation), we made subtitles for.”

Rimjingang speculates that the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) could be behind the campaign. If so, good. Another Rimjingang source also gives an interview about the execution of ten to twenty “police” officers at Kim Il Sung University, which the Daily NK first reported here.

Other media are corroborating reports of a crackdown, and that it is flushing out dissent. The Chosun Ilbo reports that two dissidents from Jangang Province, who “had been listening to” North Korea Reform Radio “for five years with a home-made receiver and launched a pro-democracy group there” were forced to flee to China in November:

He quoted one of the men as saying the broadcasts inspired him to think about how to improve North Korea. He said they printed anti-regime leaflets based on the broadcasts and scattered them in markets and streets. But they decided to flee because one of their members was arrested in early November and state security dragnet was closing in.

They brought their radio with them. “We brought it with us as an evidence that there are young North Koreans who are fighting for freedom and reunification,” Kim quoted them as saying. Kim said he helped them escape through China and they are currently in Thailand and expected to arrive in South Korea next month.  [Chosun Ilbo]

Reports of leafleting inside North Korea tend to coincide with decisions by the authorities that are especially upsetting to the population. The last such reports came as North Koreans were suffering from the effects of the regime’s December 2009 currency confiscation.

The Daily NK also reports a crackdown on foreign media, and says that CDs of South Korean dramas have become difficult to find. The Inmin Poam-Bu (Ministry of Peoples’ Security or MPS) has been ordered to be especially watchful of citizens, and to punish certain categories of dissent with particular severity:

The source explained that, under the new guidelines, particularly severe punishment awaits anyone who engages in: * Slander of Kim Jong Eun; * “Superstitious behaviour” [including of a religious nature, such as Christianity]; * Production, sale or consumption of illicit substances; * Viewing or distributing illicit recordings.

“It notes that the crime of slandering the General will be met with punishment so severe that they included the words ‘ruthless extermination.’ Even though some people don’t really know what Christianity is, the guidelines say that it will be treated as a serious crime. It looks like people who have travelled to China will be the target of that one,” he claimed. [Daily NK]

There are also enticing suggestions that North Korea’s production of illegal drugs has become “injurious to the task of diplomacy with China” and “a problem at the state level because of abuse.”

The people are also worried that their rations haven’t been restored despite a good harvest. Meanwhile, the markets are closed while they’ve been mobilized to — you may wish to pause here if you’re eating as you read this — make fertilizer from human and animal excrement, which a person obviously produces in proportion to one’s food consumption.

These reports are consistent with my suspicion that the regime has a deliberate strategy of preempting dissent through terror (executions, checkpoints, searches), hunger (starvation rations, market closures), and exhaustion (mobilizations, and the extra effort required to forage for food).

Reports of organized dissent taking root inside North Korea, if true, would be an important step in Kim Jong Un’s quickening pace toward his Götterdämmerung. That event is most likely to result from some combination of (A) internecine conflict in the Inner Party, (B) outbreaks of popular dissent with which certain factions conveniently tolerate or ally themselves, and (C) a financial crisis within the regime that prevents it from reacting quickly and decisively to (A) and (B).

Speculation about topic (A) has been boosted by last year’s purge, and these South Korean experts are already predicting that challenges to the influence of Choe Ryong-Hoe could catalyze that.

I recently wrote about topic (C) in this post. I’ll add that the regime’s finances, which seem increasingly dependent on and desperate for foreign investment and income, stand little chance of recovering quickly unless Jang Song-Thaek’s successor as the regime’s salaryman possesses his guile, experience, and connections. If this Chosun Ilbo report is to be believed, however, Kim Jong Un has appointed his little sister, Kim Yeo-Jang, to perform that vital role.

In the short term, the authorities will likely succeed in rooting out or driving out much of this fragile dissent, but it will grow back. The state’s financial resources will be essential to suppressing it when it does. It costs money to pay and feed a large force of incorruptible secret police officers, corruptible informants, and a reasonably disciplined border guard force. If the obedience, cohesion, and discipline of those forces collapses — perhaps as they turn on each other in a cutthroat competition for scarce resources — then so will the regime. That means that in the medium term, the disruption of North Korea’s economic relationships with China could pose a mortal threat to the regime’s survival.

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N. Korean security forces shooting each others’ officers, and Jang Song Thaek reportedly removed

Three weeks ago, the Joongang Ilbo reported that North Korea had publicly executed 80 people in seven provincial cities for such “crimes” as Bible possession and watching porn. Norkromancers took note at the time that the Daily NK, with its formidable network of informants inside North Korea, had abstained from corroborating the reports. A new Daily NK report, however, belatedly (sort of) corroborates them now, and the venue for the reported executions has a significance unto itself:

A number of elite officials have been executed for watching South Korean and obscene materials, an inside source from the North Korean capital has reported to Daily NK.

The source from Pyongyang reported on November 28th, “In late October a total of eight people were executed by firing squad at Kim Il Sung Political University.” The eight individuals reportedly include Ministry of Public Security branch heads from both Nampo and Suncheon. According to the source, “I hear they were caught watching South Korean TV programs and videos featuring nude women.”

Hard core pornography is strictly prohibited in South Korea (but not punishable by death, thankfully). If these are “South Korean videos featuring nude women,” they can only be those soft porn videos called yadong they rent out in third-rate love hotels near bus stations. It’s horrible enough to shoot people for watching porn, but it compounds the outrage to shoot people for watching soft porn. But then, if you read that last quote and the next one carefully, you will soon question whether this had anything to do with porn at all.

“Recent surveillance got more serious after the release of a public notice stating that any person caught viewing materials not officially broadcast on TV would face the severest punishment,” the source went on. “Since the investigation is being carried out at the level of the National Security Agency, there’s no mercy, even for cadres.”

The initial Joongang Ilbo report said that the first reported wave of executions occurred in cities “excluding Pyongyang” in early November, but the Daily NK’s report only describes events in Pyongyang itself, a week earlier, for the same alleged “crimes,” and by the same method. The main difference between the reports is that the executions at Kim Il Sung U were apparently carried out more discreetly.

Now that there are some dots to connect, what image do they form? One possibility is that the regime is trying to put a counter-cultural genie back into its bottle. That would lead us to the unsurprising conclusion that a Pyongyang Spring is not upon us quite yet.

A detail in the Daily NK report suggests a more intriguing possibility. Those shot in Pyongyang are said to have included “Ministry of Public Security branch heads from both Nampo and Suncheon.” Yet the investigation was conducted by the competing National Security Agency. It’s traditional in North Korea for these agencies to watch and oversee one another. Does that mean that this is really an internecine purge between two of North Korea’s most feared security forces? Or a reaction to a coup plot? The potential for speculation is boundless, and it only amplifies my curiosity about unconfirmed reports of Jang Song Thaek’s removal (and judging by reporter Chico Harlan’s tweets, even he is skeptical about this one).

If the shootings were politically motived, the same is probably true of the shootings reported by the Joongang Ilbo in November. In that case, the porn allegations could be sheer inventions — simply a conveniently disgraceful charge to pin on someone who isn’t in a position to deny it.

Thanks to the Daily NK for coming through. We eagerly await the investigative report by the AP’s Pyongyang bureau.

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#NIGHTOUT with Daily NK: Support Free Media in North Korea

Joshua’s still away, but this is a first attempt at getting back to posting at least occasionally here. — Dan Bielefeld

Daily NK Nightout poster

Even infrequent readers of One Free Korea will recognize the important role the Daily NK plays in deepening and broadening our understanding of North Korea. For those of you in Seoul, I hope you can come out Friday night in Itaewon for their first “Nightout.” For everyone else, why not send them a few bucks with an online donation. I can’t think of an organization that stretches 1000 won further than the Daily NK. And yet it’s the New York Times, the Economist, and other much bigger-budgeted operations that regularly quote them.

Here are the details for Friday night:

Dear Friends: Daily NK is hosting a community outreach event, #NIGHTOUT with Daily NK, next Friday, July 5 @ 8pm in Itaewon. The purpose: to connect the Seoul-based staff — including democracy activists, North Korean defectors, and international researchers — with Seoul’s dynamic international community. We look forward to meeting you!

#NIGHTOUT with Daily NK: Support Free Media in North Korea
//Turn the lights on in the North by empowering media democracy in the South//

Daily NK, an acclaimed news periodical reporting on all aspects of modern North Korea and cited by major international media — such as the New York Times, The New Yorker, Al Jazeera, and the BBC — will host a casual community outreach event on Friday, July 5, @ Scrooge Pub in Itaewon.


Organized in concert with the media company’s first-ever crowd funding campaign on Indiegogo, the event seeks to connect the Seoul-based staff — including democracy activists, North Korean defectors, and international researchers — with the city’s dynamic international community. #NIGHTOUT will include noted guest speaker Kay Seok from Human Rights Watch and the National Democratic Institute.

FROM MUFFLED VOICE TO INFLUENTIAL SPOKESPERSON — DAILY NK’S PRESIDENT PARK INHO TO SPEAK: A former student activist who campaigned against South Korean authoritarianism but was ultimately betrayed by the untruths the Kim Il Sung regime propagated, President Park speaks about his civil society-based organization’s mission to promote the free flow of information on the Korean Peninsula.

The entrance fee is a 10,000 won donation that includes one free drink.

RSVP at the Facebook event page.

Where: Scrooge Pub in Itaewon, Seoul
When: Friday, July 5, 8pm

Directions to Scrooge Pub: From Itaewon Station, take Exit 1 and walk straight and make a right up the second street to the foreigner food alley. Located on the street behind the Hamilton Hotel and across from 3 Alley Pub/Sam Ryans. 02-797-8201

Address: 119-28 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul

More info: dailynk at dailynk com
Press contact: development at dailynk com

FWIW/Disclosure – I work for the organization that started the Daily NK way back when.

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No Pyongyang Spring

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.

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Why they weep

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.

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Some Fascinating-if-True Reports from North Korea

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.

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North Korea Suffers Record Cold Amid Coal Shortage

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.

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The Wreck of the Tribute Train

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.

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