Category Archives: Inside NK

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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Rinjingang Video Shows the Misery of the Real North Korea

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.

This seems like a good place to promote LiNK’s “9 Lives Campaign,” which is raising money to support North Korean refugees.

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Rimjingang Takes Covert Journalism to the Next Level

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.

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