Category Archives: Media Criticism

Stephens didn’t call for isolation, he called for objectivity and full disclosure (updated).

The Washington Post’s Anna Fifield has written an opinion piece in response to Bret Stephen’s column yesterday, on which I commented in yesterday’s post:

If we can’t report from the gulag without a guide, by Stephens’s logic, then we shouldn’t be reporting from North Korea at all. Or from Iran, or Syria, or Gaddafi’s Libya or probably present-day China, where journalists are closely monitored. Certainly not from the Soviet Union before the Iron Curtain came down.

Whenever we journalists go to these places, though, we invariably come back with some snippet of information that can enhance our understanding about these countries and the lives of the people there. And by passing that on to our readers and viewers, we can share information about countries — and their threatening regimes — with a wide audience that includes the people who make our policy towards these countries (and often can’t go to these places themselves.)

In the case of North Korea, we know so little about what happens there that every piece of information, no matter how small, can add meaningfully to our understanding. [Anna Fifield, Washington Post]

But with due respect to Fifield, whose reporting I’ve generally regarded highly, she missed Stephens’s point.

Stephens didn’t argue that reporters shouldn’t go to North Korea. He argued that when regimes put express or implied limits on their reporting, they should “spell out what those rules are, so that readers can judge for themselves whether reports … are censored, self-censored, or genuinely comprehensive and unfiltered.” He argued that they should avoid (or at the very least, disclose) regime entanglements and conflicts of interest. He argued that they should be skeptical, not obedient. That if they must submit to self-censorship, they have a duty to tell us that. (Fifield obviously agrees, saying, “In going to these highly controlled places, it is incumbent on us as journalists to be transparent about the restrictions placed upon us, which I did during my last trip.”)

Stephens argued that reporter’s duty is to show their readers the subject as it is, not as the regime wants it shown. They should show its reality, not a fraud. That they should not deceive their readers by mislabeling an illusion as “Everyday DPRK.” When other reporters ask them important questions about self-censorship, accuracy, and conflicts of interest, they should answer them, not duck them, or shunt them off to softball interviews.

Above all, journalists shouldn’t lie to us and tell us they aren’t censored when they clearly are. (Because if the AP’s reporting isn’t restricted, why haven’t they gone to Camp 22, interviewed residents of Hoeryong privately, and explained the fate of its prisoners? If AP’s reporters aren’t being censored, it can only mean they simply don’t care.)

Fifield says she has met those standards, and I see no reason to doubt that she has. The AP—the main target of Stephen’s column—has fallen short of all of them, and Fifield offers no defense of how the AP has comported itself. In fact, if you read what Fifield and Stephens are saying about how reporters should behave in North Korea, they’re saying the same things.

If Fifield can follow these basic rules, so can AP. After all, that’s what the AP’s own ethical standards tell it to do. I posit that the AP has made a conscious choice to abandon its standards, obey its minders, and show us the fraudulent illusion the regime wants to show us out of a combination of gullibility and greed. That is how a free press loses the trust of a free people.

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Update: A journalist and reader tells me that Guttenfelder is no longer with the AP, and that it was The New York Times that commissioned this work. It’s worrisome to see the Times’s coverage of North Korea, which was never particularly good, make the same mistakes that have caused so much harm to AP’s reputation for such small rewards.

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WSJ’s Bret Stephens, on the latest rare glimpse of N. Korea: “Whatever that is, it isn’t journalism.”

Stephens isn’t favorably impressed with David Guttenfelder’s latest “rare glimpse” through a soda straw clenched within the fists of Pyongyang’s KCNA propagandists, as published in The New York Times. Most of it is more of the same only-beautiful-please imagery we’ve come to expect from Guttenfelder–a flag factory, tiny children performing like circus animals, well-fed factory workers. Stephens observes: “It’s a potent reminder that nothing is so blinding as the illusion of seeing.”

Because the Times‘s own coverage of North Korea tends toward shallowness and gullibility about Pyongyang’s propaganda, it’s left to observers like Stephens to ask whether Guttenfelder’s work is informing or deceiving its audience.

I don’t mean to disparage Mr. Guttenfelder’s photographic skills or his sincerity. But what are we to make of a photo essay heavy on pictures of modern-looking factories and well-fed children being fussed over in a physical rehabilitation center? Or—from his Instagram account (“Everyday DPRK”)—of theme-park water slides, Christian church interiors, well-stocked clothing stores and rollerblading Pyongyang teens—all suggesting an ordinariness to North Korean life that, as we know from so many sources, is a travesty of the terrifying truth? [Bret Stephens, The Wall Street Journal]

Stephens asks Guttenfelder about CNN’s attempts to cover malnutrition and human rights abuses, comparing AP Pyongyang to the Eason Jordan/CNN scandal. Characteristically for an AP alumnus, Guttenfelder won’t answer.*

I wrote Mr. Guttenfelder to ask him about his work in the country, including whether he had ever encountered evidence of malnutrition or human-rights abuses. He did not answer directly but referred me to previous interviews, which emphasize that his work is “uncensored.” That’s quite a claim, given that he admits that he “travels with a guide,” and “I don’t interview people privately.” [….]

Needless to say, none of this crosses Mr. Guttenfelder’s lens. In making the regime seem almost normal, he invites us to forget what it is. Whatever that is, it isn’t journalism.

James Pearson of Reuters first identified “rare glimpse” as a cliché of editorial self-promotion, and later as a Twitter meme for Korea-watching cynics. What delights the cynics so much about these “rare glimpses” is that usually, the work thus described isn’t rare at all; it’s simply another case of a journalist going to the effort of obtaining a visa and an airline ticket, obeying her minder’s instructions, and depressing the shutter button as her minder leads her to each stage of a well-worn circuit of propaganda backdrops. This happens to describe Guttenfelder’s work in North Korea perfectly. It is as beautifully composed and visually appealing as it is fraudulent, as much a disgrace to journalism as any words ever written by Walter Duranty.

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* A previous version of this post stated that Guttenfelder shot the photographs in this essay for the Associated Press. A reader informs me that Guttenfelder has left AP after having completed multiple assignments as an AP photojournalist in North Korea. It was The New York Times that commissioned Guttenfelder’s photographs.

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Last year’s analysis proves that this year’s analysis of N. Korea’s New Year speech will also be crap

The worst news of the day is that KCNA is working again. That means that as you read this, somewhere in northwest D.C., America’s best-credentialed astrologers are sifting through a desert of despotism for grains of glasnost.

In line with the requirements of the prevailing situation, the officers and men of the Korean People’s Internal Security Forces should sharpen the sword for defending the leader, system and people, and members of the Worker-Peasant Red Guards and the Young Red Guards should conduct combat and political training in a real-war atmosphere, thereby beefing up their combat efficiency and getting fully prepared for an all-people resistance so that they can defend their own provinces, counties and villages by themselves.

By carrying out the Party’s line of promoting the two fronts simultaneously, the defence industry sector should step up the efforts to make the munitions production Juche-oriented, modern and scientific and proactively develop and perfect powerful cutting-edge military hardware of our own style.

I have no analysis to offer of the speech itself. To the extent it means anything at all, it looks like a lot of the same old garbage to me — calls for boosting the military, sciences, and agricultural and coal production. Instead, I offer analysis of the analysis, for which last year’s effort is pretty much evergreen, and even includes some examples of past analyses that haven’t held up especially well.

Here is the part of this year’s speech that the natterers they will seize on:

We think that it is possible to resume the suspended high-level contacts and hold sectoral talks if the south Korean authorities are sincere in their stand towards improving inter-Korean relations through dialogue.

And there is no reason why we should not hold a summit meeting if the atmosphere and environment for it are created. In the future, too, we will make every effort to substantially promote dialogue and negotiations.

Here are Pyongyang’s conditions for that, which most of the natterers (or at least, the ones who will get the most media attention) will assuredly ignore.

The large-scale war games ceaselessly held every year in south Korea are the root cause of the escalating tension on the peninsula and the danger of nuclear war facing our nation. It is needless to say that there can be neither trustworthy dialogue nor improved inter-Korean relations in such a gruesome atmosphere in which war drills are staged against the dialogue partner.

To cling to nuclear war drills against the fellow countrymen in collusion with aggressive outside forces is an extremely dangerous act of inviting calamity.

We will resolutely react against and mete out punishment to any acts of provocation and war moves that infringe upon the sovereignty and dignity of our country.

The south Korean authorities should discontinue all war moves including the reckless military exercises they conduct with foreign forces and choose to ease the tension on the Korean peninsula and create a peaceful environment.

The United States, the very one that divided our nation into two and has imposed the suffering of national division upon it for 70 years, should desist from pursuing the anachronistic policy hostile towards the DPRK and reckless acts of aggression and boldly make a policy switch.

The north and the south should refrain from seeking confrontation of systems while absolutizing their own ideologies and systems but achieve great national unity true to the principle of By Our Nation Itself to satisfactorily resolve the reunification issue in conformity with the common interests of the nation.

If they try to force their ideologies and systems upon each other, they will never settle the national reunification issue in a peaceful way, only bringing confrontation and war.

And here is Pyongyang’s closing thought. Imagine yourself reading this in Chongjin or Hamhung, and try not to weep:

Last year, in the international arena, hostilities and bloodshed persisted in several countries and regions due to the imperialists’ outrageous arbitrariness and undisguised infringement upon their sovereignty, which posed a serious threat to global peace and security.

Especially, owing to the United States’ extremely hostile policy aimed at isolating and suffocating our Republic, the bulwark of socialism and fortress of independence and justice, the vicious cycle of tension never ceased and the danger of war grew further on the Korean peninsula.

The United States and its vassal forces are resorting to the despicable “human rights” racket as they were foiled in their attempt to destroy our self-defensive nuclear deterrent and stifle our Republic by force.

The present situation, in which high-handedness based on strength is rampant and justice and truth are trampled ruthlessly in the international arena, eloquently demonstrates that we were just in our efforts to firmly consolidate our self-reliant defence capability with the nuclear deterrent as its backbone and safeguard our national sovereignty, the lifeblood of the country, under the unfurled banner of Songun.

As long as the enemy persists in its moves to stifle our socialist system, we will consistently adhere to the Songun politics and the line of promoting the two fronts simultaneously and firmly defend the sovereignty of the country and the dignity of the nation, no matter how the international situation and the structure of relations of our surrounding countries may change. On the basis of the revolutionary principles and independent stand, we will expand and develop foreign relations in a multilateral and positive way, giving top priority to the dignity and interests of the country.

Readers are cordially invited to submit particularly ill-supported analysis in the comments, for dissection next year.

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Podcast interview with me on Kim Jong Un

I hope Brad Jackson wasn’t too disappointed, not only by all the ways I found to say, “I don’t know,” but also by my questioning of much of the nonsense stories that so many “news” and listicle sites have propagated about North Korea lately. If you “know” less by the end of the interview than at the beginning, I’ll feel that I’ve done some good.

The proliferation of so much superficial nonsense must be more than a function of its inexhaustible supply. I suppose it’s also a function of our psychological need for a shield of amusement and condescension to protect us from the dreadful truth. I wonder if the inflexibly wishful thinking of so many scholars is a different expression of the same need.

The latest example of this is The Daily Mail’s exclusive report that Kim Jong Un actually disappeared for 40 days because he was being fitted with a gastric band. It’s almost certainly fiction, but fiction for mere profit still occupies a higher ethical plane than fiction for propaganda.

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North Korea ranks 197th out of 197 countries for press freedom this year,

… according to Freedom House.

Remember 2011, when Pyongyang’s deal with the Associated Press was supposed to usher in a new era of press freedom in North Korea? Wouldn’t it be great if one of the AP’s editors or correspondents would sit for an interview, review how that’s worked out, and answer hard questions about the North Korean regime’s restrictions on the access and coverage? I don’t mean softball interviews like this; I mean the kind of hard questions that make them execute evasive maneuvers, or walk away in a huff.

Come to think of it, we may need a whole new system to rank the press freedom of news agencies. I wonder how engagement with North Korea has affected the AP’s ranking.

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A young Korean-American activist has started a campaign to push the BBC…

to start broadcasting to North Korea. His name is Youngchan Justin Choi, and I hope you’ll join me in supporting his campaign on Facebook and Twitter.

According to Choi, the financial cost of broadcasting to North Korea would be just a few million dollars — a tiny amount. When a publicly funded global media conglomerate refuses to broadcast to a country where the need is as great as it is in North Korea, I start to wonder what other motives are left unsaid. If we see the BBC open a Pyongyang Bureau next year, we’ll have our answer.

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Former Obama Admin. official: Our N. Korea sanctions are weak and our policy is stuck

The Obama Administration’s North Korea team is stuck. Its thirst for fresh blood is so dire that it recently asked Keith Richards whether he still has the number of that secret clinic in Switzerland.* Don’t take my word for it. Last Friday, former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell spoke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as a friend and spy of mine was sitting in the audience (thank you). Campbell’s remarks are worth listening to in full, but the money quote — which went unreported in the press despite its significance, and despite the fact that Campbell emphasized it and closed with it — starts at 20:19:

And I must say — I’ll just conclude with this — when we think about our overall tool kit, there is one element of our strategy that I don’t think people fully appreciate. We often think of North Korea — I certainly did — as one of the most sanctioned countries in the world, with almost impossible objective … obstacles for people wanting to travel, invest, or the like.

It turns out, when I was at the State Department, working on Myanmar, or Burma, comparing Burma to North Korea is night and day. Burma has MUCH more in the way of sanctions and challenges associated with interactions. And I do think if we faced a set of further challenges with respect to North Korea, it would be possible for us to put more financial pressure on North Korea.

And I think we need to let our Chinese friends know and understand that some of the things that have been contemplated by the new regime, if followed through on, would entail and involve a reaction that is much more strenuous than [what] we’ve seen in the past. And I think that element of our diplomacy is likely to be necessary as we go forward. [Kurt Campbell, Speech at CSIS, Sept. 5, 2014]

Hallelujah: someone actually read the sanctions regulations for once. From this day forward, you’ll no longer have to take my word for that, either. Campbell may not know that Treasury recently relaxed Burma sanctions regulations, but his point stands — until quite recently, Burma sanctions were comprehensive, reached all kinds of trade and investment that used the dollar-based system, and included strong financial sanctions. Unlike North Korea, Burma is listed as a primary money laundering concern. Unlike North Korea, Burma’s human rights violators were specifically targeted.

Thus, contrary to a widespread misconception, our North Korea sanctions are not maxed out; in fact, they are relatively weak. Those of you in the news business owe it to your readers to challenge that assumption before you print it. Start by asking the “expert” who repeats it whether he’s actually read the sanctions laws or regulations. Factual ignorance is not entitled to a place of equivalence in any policy debate.

It gets worse. Yonhap did quote another part of Campbell’s speech, in which he described how “many U.S. government officials handling North Korea are suffering from ‘fatigue and a sense of exhaustion’ in terms of strategies, after various tools, including pressure, have failed to make progress.” That’s interesting, but without the other part of his quote for context, it could leave you thinking that sanctions have failed as an instrument of policy. What Campbell really said is that we’ve never fully harnessed their potential.

Campbell also said, “We are in a set of circumstances now where it’s not clear fundamentally the way forward.” He observed that Kim Jong Il’s playbook, and the State Department playbook for responding to it, really aren’t working anymore, and that many of the North Koreans we used to talk to aren’t around any more, for various reasons. Efforts by a generation of policymakers to effect changes, including domestic reforms in North Korea, haven’t worked. As a result, sentiment here and in Northeast Asia has shifted, and people in the U.S. and other countries have migrated to the view that reunification, not continued separation, is in the best strategic interests of most of the major players in Northeast Asia. He called for more subversive information operations, including broadcasting, and for stronger diplomatic efforts with China, and especially with South Korea, to pave the way for reunification.

At which point, a gargantuan white mustache sprang from Campbell’s upper lip.

Yes, I’m aware that other former State Department types, specifically Robert Gallucci and Stephen Bosworth, are out there saying very different things. Yet despite the relative recency of Campbell’s tenure and his relatively higher place in State’s hierarchy, the press largely ignored the key part of Campbell’s remarks, but covered Gallucci and Bosworth’s widely.

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I have to think that if the Obama Administration disagreed with Campbell’s assessment, it wouldn’t have just transfused its North Korea team so thoroughly that the reader benefits from a diagram. Notably, Chief Negotiator Glyn Davies will move along to an ambassadorship elsewhere (possibly Thailand), Syd Seiler has moved from the White House National Security Staff to replace Davies, Allison Hooker will move from State to the NSS to replace Seiler, and Sung Kim will be a “special representative,” whatever that means.

The first thing Seiler did was to do no harm, by making it clear that the U.S. would not, contrary to rumors, hints, and China’s increasingly noisy demands, lower the bar on North Korea’s denuclearization to resume six-party talks, something that would effectively recognize North Korea as a nuclear state.

“We are not ideologically opposed to dialogue with North Korea, nor have we placed insurmountable obstacles to negotiations in our insisting that North Korea simply demonstrate it will live up to international obligations and abide by international norms and behavior,” he said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The bar has not been set too high by insisting that denuclearization talks be about denuclearization,” he said. [Yonhap]

That’s a lovely sentence for its elegance and clarity, and under the same circumstances, I probably wouldn’t have put it any differently. Seiler then summarized by saying that, “clearly, the ball is in Pyongyang’s court.” See also.

OFK regulars know that I haven’t been fond of Glyn Davies since this episode several years ago, and that the OFK archives have an elephantine memory. Josh Rogin described Davies as “a nuclear technology and Europe expert, having most recently served as the U.S. permanent representative to the IAEA in Vienna.” By contrast, Seiler has a very deep background in Korea. He’s a graduate of Yonsei University, has a Korean wife, and had nearly three decades of Korea experience at CIA and DNI before he went to the National Security staff. You’d expect such a man to know what a mackerel should cost, and how to haggle for a fair price. It helps that Seiler is no fool, either:

Like his predecessor, he agrees with the South Korean government’s North Korea policy and believes that the North should not be allowed to stall for time or be rewarded simply for talking.

A diplomat who has known Seiler for more than 10 years said, “He knows how the North cheated the U.S. and South Korea in the process of nuclear development.”

A Foreign Ministry official said, “If Russell, an expert on Japan, takes charge of Chinese and Japanese affairs as senior advisor at the NSC, Seiler will have enormous influence in Korean affairs.” [Chosun Ilbo]

If personnel is policy, then, the replacement of Davies by Seiler could herald modestly better policy. (If only we could have Kurt Campbell back….) At State, Seiler joins Danny Russel, his former White House colleague, who is now Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian affairs. The White House says that this shake-up doesn’t foreshadow a change in its North Korea policy, but that’s standard White House talk; the consequence of any other response would be a year of briefings, hearings, interviews, listening tours, and op-ed wars.

Seiler said the U.S. policy on North Korea is composed of three key elements — diplomacy, pressure and deterrence, and that Washington will continue to seek robust implementation of U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions and its own sanctions on Pyongyang.

But he also held out the prospect of easing sanctions.

“If DPRK makes the right choice, returns to the negotiating table and embarks on a credible path of irreversible denuclearization and begins to comply with its international obligations and commitments, the appropriateness of sanctions will of course be reviewed,” he said. [Yonhap]

There’s little good that I could say about the robustness of that enforcement so far, or the quality of the diplomacy that’s been trying to hold our regional coalition together, but one can always hope. And not without some basis:

Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also said that the United States is unlikely to lower the bar for restarting the nuclear talks. Reported personnel changes in the U.S. government rather point to the opposite, he said.

“Overall there is nothing that I can see that suggests the U.S. government is even considering softening its stance on the many issues between Washington and Pyongyang. The new U.S. personnel changes suggest, in fact, the opposite,” he said. [….]

“Neither can be viewed as soft toward the North,” the expert said of Seiler and Kim.

Paal also said that the “secret trip” that American officials reportedly made to North Korea, even if it is true, must have focused only on the three American citizens detained in the North. The three men’s appearance before CNN cameras a week later reinforces this suspicion, he said. [Yonhap]

If Russel, Kim, and Seiler have similar views and work well together, they have the potential to make significant policy changes while a politically weakened administration is otherwise distracted by crises in the Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Gaza. That almost mirrors the situation of Chris Hill in 2006, when he ran away with a politically weakened Bush Administration’s North Korea policy while Bush was distracted by Iraq, Iraq, Iraq, and Afghanistan. And as I’ve noted, there are some signs that the administration could be laying the groundwork for a harder line, although I doubt that it will be more than incrementally harder.

There are alternative theories, too. One that seems plausible to me is that Washington’s tactic of strategic patience, the trend of ‘not doing anything,’ has not changed.” That’s likely because doing nothing is what governments usually do when no single view prevails. And I’m far from certain that any single view prevails.

The Hankyoreh‘s analysis isn’t as plausible, but it’s much richer in amusement. It begins with rumors of another secret diplomatic trip to North Korea and runs feral with them. Although the administration would neither confirm nor deny the rumors, they probably have some basis in fact. Even so, they almost certainly do not mean “that the US will make an effort before the mid-term elections to improve relations with North Korea in order to manage the situation on the Korean peninsula” and ransom out Kim Jong Un’s new hostages. According to what insider or authority, you ask? “[S]ome predict,” says the Hanky, after a three-block sprint from the pojangmacha behind the bus station, gochujjang-stained notepad in hand.

Maybe I shouldn’t be too dismissive of something that’s been tried before, but in light of today’s political environment and North Korea’s conduct since 2012, this is so delusional that it’s adorable. The Hanky really seems to believe that a significant number of Americans (a) cares about North Korea at all, (b) wants better relations with North Korea, and (c) would be more likely to vote for the President’s party if its cuts a pre-election deal with North Korea, rather than much, much less likely. That the President’s pollsters have identified Peace Studies grad students as a decisive voting bloc in Arkansas, Louisiana, West Virginia, Alaska, and North Carolina. That, after the Bo Bergdahl ransom, the President basked in the gratitude of a grateful nation.

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Is Yonhap disinforming us about China and crude oil?

If they keep feeding us the same false story after it’s been debunked, perhaps a little paranoia is in order. Again, the report is that China hasn’t export any crude oil to North Korea. The report is based on KOTRA statistics that show no crude oil shipments — which may or may not go unreported as “donations” — but those statistics also show a sharp rise in exports of refined petroleum products like diesel and jet fuel.

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Update: NK News has more information that debunks Yonhap’s story. Apparently, North Korea is also getting fuel from a spiteful Russia now. Why does Yonhap want us to believe this? I suppose the most likely explanation is just a reporters’ careless reading of the KOTRA statistics, but it does cross my mind that someone might want Americans to believe that China is finally putting pressure on North Korea.

If I were to pick a pressure point against North Korea, however, it wouldn’t be fuel, which has dual-use applications, including the growing and transportation of food. A fuel cut-off would hurt too many of the wrong people.

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John Kerry was right about North Korea (and so was John Bolton)

More than six months after a U.N. Commission of Inquiry found Kim Jong Un responsible for crimes against humanity, our State Department has offered no credible or coherent policy response to that report. At least it hadn’t until last week, when our Secretary of State, John Kerry — no doubt, after much agonizing deliberation — finally authorized the deployment of precision-guided tactical ballistic words:

“But make no mistake, we are also speaking out about the horrific human rights situation,” Kerry said. “We strongly supported the extraordinary United Nation’s investigation this year that revealed other grotesque cruelty of North Korea’s system of labor camps and executions.

“Such deprivation of human dignity just has no place in the 21st century. North Korea’s gulags should be shut down, not tomorrow, not next week, but now, and we will continue to speak out on this topic,” he said.

Kerry also said that the U.S. “will continue to promote human rights and democracy in Asia without arrogance but also without apology.” [Yonhap]

North Korea’s reaction to this was predictable and characteristic. It accused John Kerry of being a neocon pursuing a regime change agenda through fabricated accusations.

U.S. Secretary of State Kerry let loose a spate of invectives against the DPRK over its “human rights issue” in a speech on the U.S. “Asia policy” held in Hawaii recently.

Unfit for his position, Kerry pulled up the DPRK, telling sheer lies and citing groundless data. This is the most undisguised expression of the U.S. inveterate repugnancy and hostile policy toward the DPRK. [….]

Lurking behind this is a sinister political aim to tarnish the DPRK’s image at any cost and stir up the international understanding that its social system is the object to be removed by force of arms in a bid to justify the U.S. and south Korean warmongers’ military threat. 

In recent years the U.S. has become noisy in its anti-DPRK “human rights” racket not because of any sincere interest in improving “human rights” but in pursuance of its design to bring down the social system of the DPRK under the pretext of “human rights issue”. [….]

In the DPRK the popular masses enjoy genuine rights as true masters of the country and human rights are strictly guaranteed by the state law. [Korean Central News Agency (Pyongyang)]

In a separate Korean-language piece, which did not translate into English very well, North Korea called Kerrya wolf with a ‘hideous lantern jaw.’” North Korea’s derogation of the appearance of foreign leaders is odd, given that its propagandists have inadvertently acknowledged their absolute monarch’s resemblance to a post-op Chaz Bono.

Still, let’s at least be objective enough to acknowledge that both Kerry and the North Koreans make valid points. Our Secretary does look a bit like Jay Leno — if Harry Reid had embalmed him — and such a fearsome mandible might just be capable of masticating unshelled Brazil nuts. I could go on, but I’ve done enough work for the North Koreans for one night.

Of course, it is Kerry who speaks the greater part of the truth. Not only were his assertions true, but it was important for him to make them, because by failing to make them, he would have acceded to one of the greatest outrages of our age. I don’t think John Kerry has been a very good Secretary of State — for example, I’m skeptical that he’ll execute a North Korea policy that goes beyond talk — but differences of policy shouldn’t divide us so much that they blind us to what is true and what must be said, no matter who says it, and regardless of one’s party affiliation, preference, or bias.

Mr Bolton said that while Kim Jong-il lived like royalty, for millions of his people, life was a “hellish nightmare”. “While he lives like royalty in Pyongyang, he keeps hundreds of thousands of his people locked in prison camps with millions more mired in abject poverty, scrounging the ground for food,” he said. [BBC]

Naturally, Kerry was statesmanlike enough to join with his colleague across the aisle and associate himself with this necessary denunciation. Right?

At a critical moment with North Korea, in a speech that he gave in Seoul, that he attacked Kim Jung-Il, whom we all attacked, we all dislike, we all recognize is, you know, someone we’d love to see removed or in a different–you know, not leading that country; but, on the other hand, at this critical moment, to almost 50 times in one speech personally vilify him, was to almost guarantee the outcome of the diplomatic effort that he was engaged in. [Sen. Exec. Rept. 109-1, May 18, 2005]

By now, you’ve guessed that the critic was then-Senator John Kerry, in a confirmation hearing on John Bolton’s nomination to be U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Most of the news coverage of Bolton at the time largely mirrored Kerry’s criticism. It was cited as a reason for calling Bolton “controversial” and “an iconoclast” who “shattered diplomatic niceties and stirred anger.” Hardly a word was written about the temperamental immaturity of North Korea’s language.

There is, of course, no such reaction to Kerry’s tiff with the North Koreans in the newspapers today, nor should there be. So what justifies the distinction? If the moment (2003) when Bolton spoke those words was critical, the words themselves don’t seem to have spoiled the diplomatic ambience too badly. After calling Bolton a “scum and human bloodsucker” and refusing further negotiations with him, North Korea negotiated with another diplomat more to its liking instead. At the time, The New York Times said that Bolton’s absence was “to the relief of North Korean officials and not a few State Department colleagues” (colleagues of whom?). But let’s pick that back up again in a moment.

If we are not at an equally critical moment today, it is only because the Obama Administration’s North Korea policy — to the extent there is a policy at all — is so completely stalled, and North Korea has shown no interest in returning to the talks that our Secretary of State is waiting for it to show up for. Other than that, the clearest difference between Kerry’s statement and Bolton’s is that only one of them was made by the Secretary of State.

I don’t deny that the Bush policy on human rights in North Korea was also all talk, and I also recognize the Bush Administration’s responsibility for deepening the difficulty of Obama and Kerry’s position, if only because it eventually adopted a policy very much like the one that Kerry had advocated.

Ironically, the outcome that Kerry hoped for in May 2005 was North Korea’s signature on an agreement to disarm. The Bush Administration would not only achieve that very outcome four months later, it would also achieve it all over again in 2007! If that sounds like an outstanding record, it isn’t. Let’s just hope that Kerry isn’t vilifying Kim Jong Il’s son and heir today as part of his master plan to guarantee an equally successful outcome.

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Update: The State Department declines to respond to North Korea’s comments.

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Also, Rimjin-gang did it better seven months ago, so there’s that.

Eric Talmadge, the AP’s Pyongyang Bureau Chief, denied the opportunity to do reporting of the apartment collapse story by his North Korean hosts and partners last May, offers an honest assessment of the unknowns as the next best thing, three months after the fact. Despite Talmadge’s obviously earnest effort, he doesn’t quite succeed, but least he’s willing to raise some hard questions about North Korea’s construction boom:

In a country that sorely needs to improve its basic infrastructure, there is no public debate over whether North Korea really needs a new luxury ski resort, or a 105-story pyramid-shaped hotel that has been a Pyongyang landmark for more than 20 years, but has yet to open for business. Questioning the value of megaprojects held up as symbols of progress and national pride in North Korea is taboo. Housing, however, hits closer to home.

Good for Talmadge for having the guts to raise that, and yes, it was the correct decision to report what he could report, despite those handicaps. But in the end, writing about news you didn’t report is known as blogging.

And it is possible to do reporting about North Korea. Look what NK News was able to report about the collapse without a physical presence, and what Rimjin-gang’s guerrilla correspondent reported about the shoddy construction methods clandestinely, at the risk of his life, four months before the building fell.

If Talmadge is walking the tightrope I think he is, Access to Pyongyang has done more to impede the quality of AP’s reporting than to advance it. Talmadge, who clearly wants to tell his readers the truth, has the gross misfortunate of working for the Comcast of news services. So much for the AP opening a window into North Korea.

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How can NK News cover Pyongyang better than AP’s Pyongyang bureau?

Chad O’Carroll of NK News has managed to collect enough photographs of that collapsed Pyongyang apartment building — all taken from the Juche Tower over a five-week period — to narrow the time of the collapse down to half a day. O’Carroll’s finding actually confirms KCNA’s official account of the time of the collapse, and as O’Carroll admits, also refutes his initial skepticism of that account. O’Carroll has even created and published a .gif animation of these photographs, in which the ill-fated building vanishes from the skyline like Trotsky from the pages of Pravda.

building-collapse

[NK News]

The images are so useful for O’Carroll’s investigation because they were all taken from one fixed location. Based on the image credits, at least one* of the images came from DPRK360, run by Singaporean Aram Pan, whose work and viewpoints suggest that he’s something of a North Korean crypto-sympathizer. That Pan’s otherwise uninteresting images would actually reveal something newsworthy and catastrophic must come as an even larger surprise to Pan than it did to me (and in Pan’s case, the surprise must be an unpleasant one). The messages Pan wishes to convey are (1) that North Korea is Pyongyang, and (2) that Pyongyang is a perfectly normal, happy place that is cheerfully opening itself to the world.

Personally, I’m not aware of any “normal” or “happy” place where buildings filled with hundreds of people swan-dive into their own foundations. No doubt, the North Korean authorities will now give serious reconsideration to the wisdom of letting foreigners beam out images of their crumbling showpiece capital, and there will be fodder for another edition of North Korea Perestroika Watch.

Another unintended consequence of DPRK360’s imagery is to show us how little this regime values human life, because by confirming the date of the building collapse, O’Carroll’s report raises a more troubling question — how could the authorities have cleared away the wreckage of a 23-story building in just four days without scooping up and hauling away the dead and the living alike, whose mangled limbs would have been tangled among the twists of steel re-bars and wire? O’Carroll interviews experts in building collapse rescues who insist that it couldn’t have been done, even for a smaller building, and even if the crews had worked day and night.

Could the building have been unoccupied? Not likely. First, clandestine reporting from the Daily NK says otherwise. Second, KCNA itself admitted that “[t]he accident claimed casualties.” Third, the regime would not have offered such an embarrassing apology (below the jump) unless there was a significant loss of non-expendable life. Remember, these events happened at the very same time KCNA was castigating Park Geun-Hye daily for botching the Sewol Ferry rescue. (And yet even today, the regime’s haste to finish apartment construction continues.)

One theory O’Carroll offers is that the collapse could have been the result of a controlled demolition. He bases this theory on the lack of evidence of damage to nearby buildings. I don’t put much stock in this theory myself. First, the imagery isn’t sufficient to conclude that the collapse didn’t damage other buildings. Second, the theory doesn’t fit with the regime’s political logic. More often than not, the regime in Pyongyang places little value in human life, but rational, calculating self-interest dictates certain exceptions to this. These were elite, non-expendable families. I can believe this regime is capable of mass-murdering political prisoners in remote camps, or allowing millions of low-songbun factory workers in provincial backwaters to starve. I can even see it botching a rescue in Pyongyang itself, thereby killing dozens of people though malign, callous incompetence. I can’t see it deliberately detonating a new apartment building filled with elite families in downtown Pyongyang — in view of foreign diplomats, tourists, and aid workers, or Pan’s cameras, or those of Xinhua, Kyodo, or the AP, all of which have been allowed to set up permanent bureaus in Pyongyang.

Oh, right.

This is probably an appropriate time to say that O’Carroll kindly offered me a 30-day trial subscription to NK News so that I could read his report, because I’m about to give him a plug for pursuing this story with a determination that others did not (I’d have given him that plug anyway, but hey, full disclosure).

Compare the amount of information NK News has added to this story with the quality of the information that AP added to it. I’ll go a step further: the AP Pyongyang Bureau’s combined output of newsworthy information in the last year wasn’t the equal of what NK News produces in any given week — without the “advantage” of basing a correspondent inside North Korea.

I know the subscription price for NK News is steep. Sometimes, good reporting costs money, and NK News is producing some of the world’s best reporting on North Korea today. No one else would have revealed the news of the sanctions violations at Masikryong Pass by European, Canadian, and Chinese companies, or by Dennis Rodman and his sponsors during Rodman’s last visit to Pyongyang, or by Air Koryo through its deceptive dual use of its Il-76 aircraft.

As you’d expect from an upstart, they’ve blown it at times, too. When they did, I’ve embarked on punitive expeditions and scorched a few huts in the process. But when you shop in a lively marketplace of information, sometimes you rave one day and rage the next. Is the source telling you things that are worth knowing? Then maybe the seller’s wares are worth the price.

The same can (and should) be said of supporting Rimjin-gang and donating to the Daily NK, both of which also made outstanding contributions to the reporting of this story, at the risk of the correspondents’ very lives. (Conversely, I’d have advocated “unsubscribing” to the AP years ago if that were possible. Being a ubiquitous and unaccountable mega-conglomerate has its advantages, except for the consumer. That’s how AP became the Comcast of wire services. Even among the wire services, Reuters provided more valuable information about this story than AP did, although it was also completely outdone by Rimjin-gang, the Daily NK, and NK News.)

The conclusion we draw from this? That the quality of a news service’s reporting from North Korea is inversely proportional to the closeness of its relationship to the regime in Pyongyang, and proportional to its incentive to inform the reader.

* O’Carroll says just one.

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The Parallelograms of Pyongyang, Sewol, and Accountability

When that apartment building crumbled into the earth in Pyongyang last week—thus becoming the probable tomb of several hundred wives, children, and parents of the elite salarymen who lived in them—I linked to a series of remarkable reports from a guerrilla journalist for Rimjingang, who was willing to risk torture and execution to practice journalism about his homeland. The reports, accompanied by photographs and video, described the shoddy construction methods being used there, and foretold the tragedy to come.

Now, thanks to the Daily NK, we also have our first accounts of the disaster itself. They tell us that the regime was not only unprepared for this disaster, but failed to mobilize an effective rescue after it happened, probably contributing to an even greater loss of life.

The source told Daily NK on the 23rd, “During the day on May 13th, there was a huge bang and then the new apartment block in Pyeongcheon started to collapse. People on the first and second floors were able to get out in time and were rescued, but the remaining 80+ households almost all died.”

“Some people who had managed to escape then used cell phones to let the Ministry of People’s Security and local administrative office know what had happened, but barely a handful of cadres came when they heard the news,” the source said, alleging, “There was no proper rescue mission to speak of; they managed to pull out a few who had been pinned under the debris, that was all.”

Moreover, “They didn’t use any equipment in the rescue work, just mobilized people. That must have served to exacerbate the death toll. It wasn’t until three days later that an excavator was brought in from another construction site, even though that is more or less essential for this kind of thing. Of course, by then not one person was left alive.”

As Rimjingang had suggested, the apartments had been reserved for “senior elites” and their families. Worse:

It is believed that most of the men were at their workplaces at the time of collapse, meaning that the victims tended to be women, children, and the elderly.

In relation to the public apology by Minister of People’s Security Choe Pu Il, the source explained, “They had no choice but to apologize, because news of how poorly the accident had been dealt with was already spreading. People don’t say it out loud, but they are disappointed [in Kim Jong Eun] because of it.”

Upstart NK News adds to this by telling us why this tragedy is likely to be repeated. Its correspondents have collected photographs of other construction projects in Pyongyang and shown them to structural engineers, who point to multiple and serious defects in materials, workmanship, and construction techniques. The article is worth reading for its graphics alone, including .gif-animated time-lapse satellite imagery. Photographs of buildings under construction show a patchwork of parallelograms, obtuse angles, and assorted crimes against trigonometry that can’t possibly be structurally sound.

parallelograms

[Courtesy of NK News]

Those defects have obvious implications for those still living in them, and for those who must decide whether to inspect or evacuate them — or, more importantly, to even suggest it. Ask yourself — if you were an architect or an engineer in Pyongyang, would you have blown the whistle on this? Do you suppose Kim Jong Un, who has staked so much of his standing with the elite on this construction boom, will now go back to these elite residents and confess that instead of blocks of flats, he gave them abbatoirs?

Disaster responses are difficult things for governments to do, including competent ones. During the first critical minutes, when the right reactions can save lives, responders often have incomplete or false information about the nature and scale of the danger. Incompetent, unaccountable governments disincentivize truth-telling, compound the errors that lead to disasters, and often bungle their response when the inevitable happens. In any ordinary country, that would have political consequences. And while some of those consequences will be hidden from us in North Korea’s case, Kim Jong Un will not escape them, either:

[D]aily NK recently sought out the opinions of visa-holding North Korean citizens on family visits in China. What we found was a unified voice of condemnation, one that laments the course chosen by the regime of Kim Jong Eun.

For example, one interviewee who had come to China from her home in Pyongyang said, “It would have been better if they had not built facilities like that water park, and had just helped people to live better. Shouldn’t they be doing that, so that the masses no longer starve?”

“People are having a hard time, what with getting mobilized for this and that construction project,” she went on critically. “In factories the managers keep getting their workers to pay money or give cement, and nobody can push back against it. They just have to do it. If you say you haven’t got any money, they’ll tell you to borrow it.”

However, “If you say anything about [the actions of the authorities] they’ll arrest you, so we just think it instead.” [Daily NK]

There is much grumbling about mass mobilizations to labor on the Masikryeong Ski Resort, and the waste of national resources that ought to have been spent on the poor and hungry. What’s striking about the reactions of these North Koreans, whom the Daily NK’s correspondents interviewed in China, is (1) how similar they are to things I’ve repeatedly said here at this site, (2) their apparent unanimity, and (3) the fact that they represent elite opinion. These aren’t refugees. The names, of course, are pseudonyms.

Park Min Jun from Sinuiju in North Pyongan Province added dejectedly, “People just snort at the construction of amusement facilities. We think it’s all just construction for the sake of the Marshal’s record of achievement. That kind of thing is just going to both make people’s lives and the economy harder.”

Lee Ju Hee from Kaecheon in South Pyongan Province agreed. “People wonder why they didn’t use the money they invested in Masikryeong Ski Resort and Munsu Water Park to help the ordinary people get by,” he said. “It’s true that those amusement facilities will draw foreigners to Chosun, but how much can they really earn that way?”  

However, yet again Lee struck a note indicative of pervasive fear in North Korean society, explaining that a person “may think that the Marshal should be using some of the absurd sum he is spending on nuclear tests and the construction sector for ordinary people, but you have to be careful what you say. People like us have to hold our tongues and just get on with it.”

North Korea’s response to the collapse—in the very center of its capital city—makes the South Korean government’s incompetence after the Sewol Ferry disaster seem mild by comparison. Like others on the far left who are trying to exploit the Sewol Ferry tragedy for their own political ends, Christine Ahn Hong (whatever) doesn’t even seem to have heard about the disaster in Pyongyang. Yet to read her description, you’d think that Park Geun-Hye had personally tied cinderblocks to the feet of those poor kids and thrown them overboard. Much of Ahn’s Hong’s vitriol against Park, and against capitalism in general, would be more valid if directed against North Korea’s political system, and how it contributed to its own disaster.

Right now, South Korea is in a state of hysteria to identify and punish scapegoats. Accountability is certainly an important incentive for safety and the competence of government, if it identifies the right actors and problems, and if it eventually leads to a public conversation about more practical things, like maritime safety regulations and inspections, building codes and inspections, and improving communications and coordination before the next disaster.

In North Korea’s case, an honest discussion of accountability won’t be possible. There will have to be scapegoats and sacrifices, however. Regardless of their politics, one must feel profound sympathy for any man who has lost a wife, his children, or his parents — or all of them. It’s difficult to imagine the depth of sorrow and rage that some of them must be feeling now. Worse, these are elites, who are used to riding in the front carriages of trains, eating rice, and riding in automobiles. Many others, who were not directly affected by this collapse, have lost their confidence in the safety of the buildings where they live.

In fact, corruption and the pilferage of building materials by the military units that built the apartments were probably contributing causes, and rumors of scapegoating and retribution are already circulating. But the fact that the scapegoats are technically a military unit will complicate that. So will the fact that the haste they were driven to and the dysfunction of North Korean society made this disaster — and the next one — inevitable.

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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.

Screen Shot 2014-05-18 at 11.27.40 AM

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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Emily Litella of N. Korea journalists meets David Irving of N. Korea scholars

Last week, NK News correspondents Hamish MacDonald and Ole Jakob Skåtun wrote some of the most biased, error-riddled reporting I’ve ever seen published in a major newspaper. Their target was a grant program, administered by the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) to support human rights and freedom of information in North Korea, and to support the recommendations of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry. MacDonald and Skåtun argued that the program could endanger lives, lead to more Kenneth Bae crises, set back bilateral diplomacy, edge aside humanitarian and “engagement” programs, and conflict with the recommendations of the COI report.

For me, this story began when I received a message from MacDonald in April with a series of questions, requesting my comment. (I’ve often responded to similar requests from NK News correspondents, and admire the work that many of them have done. I still marvel at the quality of the investigation that went into this one in particular.)

It wouldn’t be fair to print Mr. MacDonald’s email without his permission, so I won’t. But his questions were so loaded that they made my spidey sense tingle like the loins of a sailor after a rum-sodden shore leave in Marseille. My assigned role, so it seemed, would be to supply a token counterpoint to clothe an opinion piece in the pretense of balance. Only I already knew that my counterpoint would be circumcised and swaddled in its unread depths. I missed this briss, and I’m glad I did.

Now that Mr. MacDonald’s work has validated my worst fears about it, and now that the rheumy-eyed, snaggletoothed old Trotskyites at The Guardian have sown his agitprop around the world without bothering to check its numerous misstatements of fact, misquotations, and mischaracterizations, I feel a sense of duty to help the truth get its pants on and zipped. If that image isn’t already awkward enough, I even find myself in the unfamiliar position of defending the U.S. State Department for doing something that’s legal, moral, and potentially good policy.

What the solicitation says.

Let’s review the wording of the solicitation, which Mr. MacDonald claims to have given “a close reading.” Its objectives include:

  • Strengthening international campaigns that increase awareness and advocacy for North Korea human rights.
  • Strengthening the capacity of non-Western organizations that mobilize action for human rights in North Korea in their countries;
  • Amplifying efforts to document abuses within, and focus attention and action on North Korea’s political prison camp system, including the fate of disappeared persons in North Korea;
  • Raising awareness of democratic principles, including addressing workers’ rights, disability rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, and other rights;
  • Strengthening the capacity of organizations documenting human rights and labor rights abuses in the DPRK.

So far, not one of these objectives necessarily involves people, things, or information crossing North Korea’s borders, with the possible exception of refugees (whose exodus presumably isn’t driven by the lure of grant funding). The specific language that gives Mr. MacDonald his case of the vapors, however, is this:

  • Promoting access to information into, out of, and within North Korea. Projects can include the production of media, including visual/video content, for DVDs, USBs, and other methods to send information into North Korea. Content should include informative and engaging ways to educate and shape North Korean understanding and attitudes toward human rights and democratic principles.

State’s proposal includes “the production of media” and “methods to send information into North Korea,” but doesn’t specify how it would be sent. To the extent the solicitation contemplates the physical (as opposed to the virtual) movement of information across the border, it could just as well harness the markets and smuggling networks that have been moving DVDs into North Korea for years.

What the solicitation doesn’t say.

Where the solicitation doesn’t support MacDonald’s argument, he misquotes it and mutilates its meaning so that it does. He claims, for example, that it “strongly discourages health, technology, or science related projects” — period, no ellipsis. In fact, the full sentence actually reads, “DRL strongly discourages health, technology, or science related projects unless they have an explicit component related to the requested program objectives listed above.”

It’s hard to see how one could inadvertently lose half a sentence, thereby making it mean very nearly the opposite of the original language. McDonald uses this misquote to provoke one Matthew Riechel, who runs an NGO based in Pyongyang, into calling the grant program “propaganda” that “will lead to increased tension.” (I’m sure Riechel’s minders gave him a nice little pat on the head for that one.)

This has nothing to do with Ken Bae, much less Lisa Ling.

McDonald’s main objection to State’s grant program is that it “could encourage activities that risk criminal punishment.” He raises the case of Kenneth Bae and frets about “the arrest of American citizens attempting to share information that Pyongyang views with suspicion,” as if the State Department intends to throw money at the first missionary who offers to fly to North Korea on a tourist visa with a suitcase full of Bibles. This argument, however, is a creation of McDonald’s own imagination. It finds little support — and substantial refutation — in the solicitation and its evaluation criteria.

(Incidentally, it was Laura Ling who was arrested in North Korea. Not Lisa, Laura. Also, neither of them had a grant from DRL. For that matter, neither did Ken Bae, Merrill Newman, Robert Park, Aijalon Gomes, or Matthew Todd Miller. If we imposed a travel ban on North Korea, most of those incidents would never have occurred.)

It’s hard to see how one inadvertently loses half a sentence, thereby making it mean very nearly the opposite of the original. MacDonald uses this misquote to provoke one Matthew Reichel, who runs an NGO based in Pyongyang, into calling the grant program “propaganda” that “will lead to increased tension.” (I’m sure Reichel’s minders gave him a nice little pat on the head for that one.)

This has nothing to do with Ken Bae, much less Lisa Ling.

MacDonald’s main objection to State’s grant program is that it “could encourage activities that risk criminal punishment.” He raises the case of Kenneth Bae and frets about “the arrest of American citizens attempting to share information that Pyongyang views with suspicion,” as if the State Department intends to throw money at the first missionary who offers to fly to North Korea on a tourist visa with a suitcase full of Bibles. This argument is largely a creation of MacDonald’s own imagination. It finds little support — and substantial refutation — in the solicitation and its evaluation criteria.

(Incidentally, it was Laura Ling who was arrested in North Korea. Not Lisa, Laura. Also, neither of them had a grant from DRL. For that matter, neither did Ken Bae, Merrill Newman, Robert Park, Aijalon Gomes, or Matthew Todd Miller. If we had imposed a travel ban on North Korea, most of those incidents would never have occurred.)

The first 800 words of MacDonald’s article quote two experts, both sympathetic to his own view.

“[The call] is encouraging people to break their country’s laws, with no consideration of the possible consequences,” said James Hoare, a former British Charge D’affaires to Pyongyang. “I doubt whether those who devised these policies have given much thought to the likely consequences.”

But the thinking through of likely consequences is supposed to happen after the proposals are submitted — after State knows what they are and who is making them. Furthermore, DRL has published detailed grant evaluation criteria that explicitly require consideration of the possible consequences:

In particularly challenging operating environments, proposals should include contingency plans for overcoming potential difficulties in executing the original work plan and address any operational or programmatic security concerns and how they will be addressed.

If you really do give the solicitation a careful read, you’ll see the link to those evaluation criteria, but in his haste to accuse the State Department of recklessness, MacDonald overlooked it. Hoare must also have thought that the argument was too good to check. He eagerly accused the State of giving “no consideration” to the risks. It’s easy enough to see why. Hoare makes no secret of his view that what he calls “the confrontational approach and the lack of contact (engagement, if you like), was not producing any benefits for anybody.”

Evidently, promoting freedom of information inside North Korea — or as you might also describe it, engagement with the North Korean people — is too confrontational for Hoare’s taste. (Never mind the perfectly awful record of “reforming” North Korea by propping up its regime, complete with its steadily advancing nuclear programs and its crimes against humanity, with hard currency.)

I don’t need to tell you that the U.S. government is capable of screwing anything up, of course, but that’s beside the point. Nothing in this solicitation suggests that it calls on foreigners to engage in the sort of risky smuggling that MacDonald is talking about. The only contraband these putative grantees would be carrying is the straw from which MacDonald built them.

This kind of engagement could save lives.

On the other hand, thousands of North Koreans are already risking their lives to cross North Korea’s borders now — as traders, refugees, smugglers, migrant workers, and guerrilla journalists. Information flows in and out of North Korea with this commerce, all of which already involves the risk of imprisonment and death. The guerrilla journalists face the greatest risk, because they’re willing to risk their lives to tell us the truth about their country.

This is dangerous, and if I get caught, I know I’d immediately be executed as a traitor to the Korean people. But I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to do this no matter what. I’m just one person. Even if I have to sacrifice my life, someday, something is going to change.

                                                             – a North Korean guerrilla journalist

Frontline

[PBS Frontline: The Secret State of North Korea]

Since Kim Jong Un came to power, North Korea has been cracking down on cross-border trade, information flows, and refugees — successfully. North Korea and China have built hundreds of miles of fencing along their shared border. North Korea recently set up checkpoints in (among other places) a hospital and a hotel across the Chinese border to try to stop illegal border-crossers. It has chilled cross-border travel. It has brought in a small army of junior petty despots from Pyongyang to rat on the locals in the border regions. Armed with signal trackers, it is hunting down users of illegal Chinese cell phones — users who include traders, smugglers, conductors on North Korea’s underground railroad, and the guerrilla correspondents of the Daily NK, Free North Korea Radio, and Rimjingang. By most accounts, this crackdown is working. Gradually, our independent sources of information about North Korea, and North Koreans’ independent sources of information about us, are being snuffed out.

Kim Jong Un isn’t doing those things because he wants to open North Korea to the world and reform it. He’s doing them because he wants to wall out outside information and commerce that he doesn’t control. He knows that these cracks in North Korea’s information blockade have changed North Korea more in five years than a century of leash-and-collar exchange programs could.

More than anything, independent markets have had a profound impact on North Korea’s food crisis. Some scholars have argued that food supplied by markets did more to end the Great Famine than international aid. Today, about 80% of North Koreans now depend on these markets for their livelihoods. But markets will never reach their potential as agents of change and food security until they can tap into a free flow of information.

Technology could also provide safer, less detectable, and perhaps completely virtual paths across North Korea’s borders. Some of these have the potential to obliterate North Korea’s information blockade. That would save, not endanger, the lives of guerrilla journalists — and their comrades, and their families. It could help us understand of the true state of humanitarian conditions in North Korea, and focus our response at a time of rising donor fatigue. It could help markets and growers respond to shortages and feed the hungry, and even lead to the formation of clandestine humanitarian NGOs, labor unions, clinics, and churches.

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Five ways to spot a bullsh*t story about North Korea

Some people, including at least one TV station in Arizona, are reprinting reports circulating on the internet that North Korea claims to have landed a man on the sun. Those reprinting this report are giving it the too-good-to-check treatment — they imply that they don’t quite believe North Korea said it, but they’re also too lazy and sloppy to check. Follow the trail of links to the source, however, and you come to a blog post that’s an apparent parody, and not even a very funny one (unfunny parodies can seem more credible than funny ones). The post cites KCNA as its source, but there is no such report on KCNA. As with the recent Jang-fed-to-pack-of-dogs story, it doesn’t pass the test that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

This can be a hard rule to apply to North Korea, whose regime has put most of the evidence out of reach, and has set a very high bar for “extraordinary” claims. Its official media really did claim recently that “[a]rchaeologists of the History Institute of the DPRK Academy of Social Sciences … reconfirmed a lair of the unicorn rode by King Tongmyong.” (In other, unrelated reports, KCNA refers to “unicorn-lions,” and acknowledges that they’re mythical.) KCNA’s recitation of “natural wonders” coinciding with Kim Jong Il’s death is something to behold. Finally, this is, after all, a nuclear-armed state of 23 million miserable, hungry people whose 31 year-old leader has never met a foreign leader or diplomat, but has met Dennis Rodman three times.

If North Korea really had launched a large rocket, however, that would have violated multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions and drawn condemnations from governments around the world. Satellites would have detected the preparations for the launch and the launch itself. Governments would have confirmed it, and actual diplomats would be holding crisis meetings about the next U.N. resolution that they’d agree to pass (and tacitly, not to enforce).

The story, in other words, is obvious bullsh*t. Here, for the novice North Korea watcher, is a simple guide to calling bullsh*t on outlandish things you hear about North Korea:

(1) If the story sounds like bullsh*t and doesn’t cite a credible source, it’s probably bullsh*t. Because true things about North Korea can sound like bullsh*it, it helps to know something about North Korea’s behavioral history here. I’ve been doing this for ten years now, so I have that going for me, but it’s seldom possible to confirm reports from inside North Korea, and there will usually be room for argument about whether the outlandish things we hear are consistent with more credible reports. Example: The sun-landing story, or the unicorn story (Oh, sorry, North Korea really said that).

(2) If the story is sourced to someone who’s still inside Kim Jong Un’s court, then it’s probably bullsh*t. People working inside the royal court, unlike the vast majority of North Koreans, eat regularly, live comfortably, and even have access to entertainment. They have a lot to lose. They obtained their privileged positions after being vetted for any disloyal relatives or ancestors. They know that one false move will land them — and their spouses, and their parents, and their kids — in one of the worst places on the face of the Earth. People in those positions are extremely unlikely to have contact with foreign informants, and if they do, they’re even less likely to risk their necks to tell stories about what they see there, at least until they’re safely out of North Korea. Examples: A report alleging that Ri Sol Ju had an affair with the subsequently executed Jang Song Thaek, or the 2008 report that, following his stroke, Kim Jong Il was healthy enough to brush his own teeth.

(3) If the story alleges a fact that’s susceptible to verification, yet can’t be verified, then it’s probably bullsh*it. Examples: Once again, the “sun-landing” story, or a story that pornographic videos featuring Ri Sol Ju were circulating inside North Korea and China. If those reports were true, rest assured that those videos would be all over the internet by now. In addition, that story has a suspicious odor of disinformation to it. Which is a good segue to our next rule.

(4) If the story sounds like bullsh*t and reeks of disinformation, it’s probably bullsh*t. Recently, I’ve often suspected the South Koreans of spreading disinformation about the North, but any “press conference” held by the North Korean government qualifies. The most egregious example of this is the 2012 “press conference” put on by the North Koreans in Pyongyang, where a woman named Pak Jong Suk was paraded before the cameras to claim that South Korean spies had hoodwinked her into defecting to the South, and that she decided to return to North Korea after finding a miserable life in the South and missing the warm love of the Great General. The Associated Press reported the story with barely a hint of skepticism, and millions of readers around the world probably believed it. (By sheer coincidence, the AP had recently obtained the North Korean government’s permission to open a bureau in Pyongyang.) Reporters from a South Korean newspaper and The Washington Post report later did some digging in the Seoul neighborhood where Ms. Pak had lived, and found out that when the North Koreans learned that she was not dead (as reported) but alive and well in Seoul, they exiled her son, a musician, and his family to some bleak and hungry mountain village in the outer provinces. After Ms. Pak learned this, she returned to North Korea to turn herself in and plead for clemency for her son. The AP has never retracted the story. Nothing has been heard of Ms. Pak or her family since.

(5) If the story forecasts some major liberalizing policy change, is sourced exclusively to North Korean government sources, doesn’t fit with other known facts, and is related by a reporter/commentator who desperately wants to believe it, it’s probably bullsh*t. Actually, you’d never go wrong if you just put a period where I put the first comma in that last sentence. Examples: just about every cherry-picking and ultimately useless analysis you’ve read of a North Korean dictator’s New Year’s speech, or the 2012 story on agricultural reform that the North Koreans hand-fed to (you guessed it) the Associated Press, which generated much excitement in Washington and Seoul until nothing came of it.

Update: OK, I have to admit that the part where the astronaut “traveled at night to avoid being engulfed by the suns rays” was funny. This would not be even the second time that someone believed a parody story about North Korea. Last year, Xinhua was taken in by a report from The Onion, pronouncing Kim Jong Un the “sexiest man alive.” Apparently, all of Xinhua’s reporters and editors are straight men. Fat ones.

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In case this isn’t self-evident, all analysis of North Korean New Year’s speeches is crap.*

In this year’s annual New Year’s Day message, Kim Jong Un boasted about his squalid little kingdom’s “brilliant successes in building a thriving socialist country and defending socialism,” its “upsurge … in production in several sectors and units of the national economy,” its “brilliant victory in the acute showdown with the imperialists,” and its “policies of respecting the people and loving them.” It’s crap like this that makes me proud of how little I’ve contributed to the torrent of junk analysis foisted on you after every one of these speeches.

To analyze a North Korean New Year’s speech is to embark on an intellectual misadventure. It can’t be otherwise when you start with an input that must be discounted by the mendacity of political promises in general, the mendacity of this regime in particular, and Kim Jong Un’s personal unsteadiness and detachment from declared principle. The meaning of the words degrades further under analysis that invariably veers toward wishful thinking, baseless speculation, or the ridiculous over-analysis of information that is almost entirely useless. Rudiger Frank provides an example of the latter by expending 4,039 words of sonorous, pedantic linguistic parsing on a 4,416-word speech, and even attempts to find year-on-year empirical trends in the frequency of usage of specific words. He might as well have counted the sand grains on a beach at low tide. If the Rain Man earned a Ph.D. in Asia studies, this is what I imagine he’d write.

The most typical error, however, is to turn each speech into a Rorschach test of that splotch on Gorbachev’s head. If, as is usually the case, the analyst’s bias is to believe that North Korea really wants glasnost, perestroika, and peace in our time, he can always find some confirmation for it among 4,000 words of vague and mutually conflicting language (though this year may be especially challenging in this regard).

This Rorshach fallacy has a good pedigree. A year ago, AP reporters Foster Klug and Sam Kim seized on the purge of Ri Yong Ho and the elevation of “moderates” close to Jang Song Thaek (enough said about that). Alexandre Mansourov, overlooking evidence of increased domestic repression and the disappearance of 30,000 prisoners in Camp 22, cited the New Year’s message as bringing “an end to the era of faceless joint party editorials” and ushering in a hopeful new era. (Since then, we’ve all gained a clearer view of what Kim Jong Un’s personal touch looks like.) The January 1, 2012 speech, Kim Jong Un’s first, promised a drive for prosperity (not so much). In the 2011 New Year’s message, the Wall Street Journal’s Evan Ramstad saw the threats (thankfully, unrealized), and the AP quoted South Korea’s Unification Minister and a South Korean academic, who saw an interest in talks (ditto). My favorite example, however, is this one, via CNN, circa January 2010:

North Korea stated its commitment to lasting peace and a nuclear-free Korean peninsula in an editorial published on New Year’s Day, state-run media reported.

“The Workers’ Party of Korea and the government … will strive to develop relations of good-neighborliness and friendship with other countries and achieve global independence under the unfurled banner of independence, peace and friendship,” KCNA reported. The editorial may be a hopeful sign as the international community tries to coax Pyongyang back to six-party negotiations aimed at ending its nuclear program.

Two months after this was published, North Korea sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors. Eight months after that, it shelled a South Korean fishing village, killing two Marines and two civilians. North Korea hasn’t shown up for six-party talks since 2008, and even then, only showed up to lie its way out of sanctions. A great philosopher — I believe it was Rutger Hauer — characterized it best: their words are like tears … in rain.

~  ~  ~

Because a lot of people are slow learners, this year, Yonhap is grasping at Kim Jong Un’s call for “an atmosphere for improving North-South relations,” and declaring it an “olive branch.” Within a day, it promoted this clause to a full-fledged “peace offensive.” To do this, however, it had to ignore Kim Jong Un’s inconvenient salute to his “compatriots in the south, who are fighting for independence, democracy and national reunification,” presumably including those currently on trial for “conspir[ing] to storm firearms depots to secure weapons, destroy oil-storage and communication facilities and assassinate unspecified figures” in support of a North Korean invasion. Had it swapped the words it quoted for those it ignored, its headline might have read, “Kim Jong Un calls for terrorist attacks in South Korea.” Sure, that would be a stretch, but it wouldn’t be any less silly than calling the speech an “olive branch.” And in South Korea, where it’s illegal to read the original speech on KCNA — which is ridiculous — this half-truth could deceive plenty of people. (I’ve pasted the full text below the jump in case you’re in South Korea and care to read it. Not that you should, if you’ve read this far.)

Another example comes from Bob Carlin, who finds hopeful signs in what he sees as North Korean media’s “surprisingly restrained … treatment of ROK President Park Geun-hye.” (Indeed, it’s been all of six weeks since North Korea called her a “political prostitute.”) Carlin finds that thin reed, but doesn’t find this thick paragraph:

The US and south Korean war maniacs have deployed legions of equipment for a nuclear war in and around the Korean peninsula and are going frantic in their military exercises for a nuclear war against the north; this precipitates a critical situation where any accidental military skirmish may lead to an all-out war. Should another war break out on this land, it will result in a deadly nuclear catastrophe and the United States will never be safe. All the Korean people must not tolerate the manoeuvres for war and confrontation by the bellicose forces at home and abroad but stoutly resist and frustrate them.

Carlin thinks that we can set the stage for talks by “agreeing to stop slander of the other.” But of course, North Korea’s definition of “slander” includes speech protected under Chapter II, Article 21 of the South Korean Constitution, and maybe even speech that’s protected by the First Amendment of our own. Carlin also overlooks North Korea’s implicit rejection of returning to six-party talks:

To resolve the reunification issue in keeping with the aspirations and desires of our fellow countrymen, we should reject foreign forces and hold fast to the standpoint of By Our Nation Itself.

The driving force for national reunification is all the members of the Korean nation in the north, in the south and abroad; only when we remain steadfast in this standpoint can we reunify the country independently in line with our nation’s interests and demands. To go on a tour around foreign countries touting for “international cooperation” in resolving the inter-Korean relations issue, the one related with our nation, is a humiliating treachery of leaving its destiny in the hands of outside forces. The north and the south should uphold the principle of independence which is one of the three principles for national reunification and has been confirmed in the north-south joint declarations, hold fast to the standpoint of By Our Nation Itself, and respect and implement the declarations with sincerity.

Does that mean North Korea isn’t coming back to the six-party talks? Hell if I know. My point is that vagueness times mendacity divided by selection bias times preconception plus confirmation bias equals garbage with the predictive utility of an asthmatic nonagenarian’s horoscope, if a lunatic wrote it. Not since the drafting of the United Nations Charter have so many keystrokes been wasted on anything so meaningless. Unless Kim Jong Un uses his next New Year’s address to announce his abdication, I look forward to watching the news media treat the next of these addresses as the non-event it will be.

You know what would be real news? If the next New Year’s address North Korea sees is delivered by Park Geun Hye.

This isn’t to say that the address was completely devoid of anything interesting. Kim conceded that “the circumstances were harsh and complicated last year,” which would still be mildly remarkable even if it wasn’t juxtaposed with Kim being callous enough to tell 23 million half-starved people that he’d just built them a ski resort, a war museum, and a water park.

Personally, I read these speeches for their humor, not their predictive value. In my favorite part of this year’s address, Kim Jong Un seemed to be promising a reign of terror to crush any hint of reform or dissent — the kind of promise North Korea usually keeps — before he revealed the entire speech to be a practical joke:

It is imperative to establish the monolithic leadership system in the Party, definitely ensure the purity of Party ranks and improve the militant functions and role of Party organizations. We should intensify ideological education among officials, Party members and other working people to ensure that they think and act at all times and in all places in line with the Party’s ideas and intentions with the steadfast faith that they know only the great Comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and our Party. We should ensure that they approach with political awareness even the slightest phenomenon and element that infringe on the unity of the Party and revolutionary ranks and undermine their single-hearted unity, and eliminate them in a thoroughgoing way. They should wage a vigorous struggle to stamp out any sort of alien ideology and decadent lifestyle which may undermine our system and thus resolutely smash the enemy’s schemes for ideological and cultural infiltration.

Get it? Kim Jong Un had just flown in from his new ski resort.

Kim Jong Un ski

[We begin this year with a new entry for the gallery of unfortunate North Korean photo ops]

I’d like to think that when he got home after the speech, he emailed Dennis Rodman, surfed for some bondage porn, and then had a good laugh about the fact that people all over the world were actually going to devote hours of analysis to every meaningless word of that wretched crap he’d just read.

* Unless, maybe, the analyst is Jang Jin-Sung, “the man who used to orchestrate the nexus between internal policy planning and external presentation” before he defected. See comments.

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