Category Archives: Media Criticism

Was it worth it?

Right now, somewhere in North Korea, agents of the Ministry of People’s Security and State Security Department have just finished reading this article, and are making plans to comb selected areas of His Corpulency’s kingdom for every person who might have had contact with the Christian NGO Humanitarian International Services Group, or HISG, during the years that it operated in North Korea. Yesterday, The Intercept reported that the Pentagon funneled money to HISG, which smuggled Bibles into North Korea in false compartments at the bottom of its aid shipments, for also agreeing to bring in gizmos to help us keep track of Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Apparently, it occurred to someone in the Pentagon that it’s important to have the best possible intelligence about a rogue state’s WMD programs. Especially a state that’s willing to sell them to the highest bidder.

Now, I take it that from a certain nihilistic perspective, if there’s a greater evil than America itself, it’s giving a Bible to some poor wretch who lives in a totalitarian deiocracy that forces him to worship a mummified corpse. Granted, there’s a good ethical question to be asked as to whether putting a Bible in a stranger’s hands is more likely to endanger him than fulfill his spiritual needs, but that’s not the argument The Intercept is riding. I suppose there are ethical arguments to be made about using NGOs as cover for espionage, but it’s not as if North Korea offers a lot of alternatives. (Next time, try “journalist.” Tell ‘em Glenn Greenwald sent you.) Nor is it a practice without widespread precedent by us, by other countries, and by the North Koreans. I don’t remember hearing The Intercept complaining about the revelation by a U.N. Panel of Experts that North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau infiltrated UNESCO and the World Food Program, almost assuredly for the purpose of manipulating its monitoring requirements, so that Pyongyang could continue to divert the aid and let millions of underprivileged North Koreans continue to go hungry.

What’s hardest for me to understand, however, is why The Intercept granted anonymity to its government sources and a former HISG worker, but chose to name North Korea (which was apparently just one of the places where HISG operated). Does Matthew Cole know how obsessively and ruthlessly Pyongyang pursues any hint of dissent, or any association with religious ideas? Does he know how Pyongyang uses collective punishment against three generations of the thought criminal’s family? Or the abhorrent conditions in which dissidents are executed publicly, or sent to prolonged deaths in political prison camps as horrific as anything the world has seen since the U.S. Army reached the gates of Mauthausen in 1945? Or is it that these things simply matter less than the compelling public interest value of his Big Story? 

And what compelling public interest justified the need to endanger the NGOs that are still working in North Korea — along with hundreds, if not thousands, of North Koreans, and their families? A program that the Pentagon itself voluntarily abandoned three years ago. 

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Update: Chad O’Carroll raises a new question — could the whole Intercept story be bullshit anyway?

“I have never heard of HISG or Kay Heramine,” said David Austin, former DPRK Program Director of the Washington, D.C.-based Mercy Corps. “None of my former NGO colleagues had ever heard of this group, nor of Kay Hiramine.”

“I have never heard of this guy, or his organization … and North Korea is a small community. We run into each other, we stay at the same hotels, we (often) go to the same churches.”

The source added that even if Heramine’s three trips had taken place with direct Pentagon involvement, they would have been of limited value.

“Three trips over several years is completely meaningless: You have no relationships, there’s no systems setup, and there’s no transportation network,” the source said.

Well, maybe. I suspect the SSD boys will want to interrogate a few dozen (or a few hundred) people before deciding that. What I still can’t rationalize is what ends justify the risk of getting a few hundred innocent men, women, and children shot, tortured, or sent to a gulag. Is unilaterally exposing and disarming the U.S. intelligence community an end that leads to anything but global anarchy and terror — and a backlash that would ultimately do great harm to our civil liberties?

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North Korea versus the media: Any guesses?

Today, I offer you two journalists’ perspectives on North Korea’s most recent efforts to use journalists as unwitting propagandists and image-makers, and how well the journalists resisted it. First, the fiercely independent Don Kirk reports on how North Korea censored journalists who crossed the border to cover the family reunions supervised hostage visitations at Kumgang.

The problem exploded as reporters accompanying nearly 400 South Koreans on the first of two sets of reunions entered North Korea at the eastern end of the demilitarized zone that’s divided the Korean peninsula since the end of the Korean War. North Korean officials spent more than an hour studying the contents of the laptops of the 29 journalists on the visit – and held on to some laptops for two or three hours after discovering material they found objectionable.

Among items they wanted expunged — besides references to human rights abuses — was anything that appeared to cast North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un in an unfavorable light or was critical of the North’s nuclear and missile programs and economic problems.

South Korean journalists, writing about the reunions from Seoul on the basis of the pool reports, including print as well as video and audio feeds, were sharply critical in private of what they saw as the weak-kneed response of the unification ministry and the South Korean Red Cross, which selects family members lucky to go on the basis of a lottery. The journalists called for the ministry to adopt a firm stance on behalf of the media in dealing with the North Koreans – a challenge that the ministry feared would complicate and compromise efforts at holding future reunions.

“The ministry merely suggested that reporters traveling to the second round on Saturday through Monday carry blank laptops.” said the conservative Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s biggest selling newspaper. The newspaper quoted a government official as having agreed it was “ ‘a problem’ that ministry officials bent over backwards to accommodate the North’s whims instead of protesting at what many saw as chicanery.” [Don Kirk, Forbes]

Next, the BBC interviews a correspondent who was in Pyongyang to cover the 70th anniversary of its ruling party, the restrictions Pyongyang imposed on his movements, and whether the image comports with reality. The reporter relates that he was led and escorted everywhere, and couldn’t have dreamed of roaming the streets freely to ask citizens how they really felt about life there. Thankfully, some random citizens made their spontaneous emotions visible to reporters in passing journalismobiles, making all of that reporting unnecessary.

We are happy

[Next stop, the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.]

But then, near the end of the interview, the correspondent raises the trite (and ironic) complaint that reporting on North Korea too often descends into caricature and propaganda. Huh. I wonder who is planting those caricatures, or that propaganda.

Admittedly, torchlight parades and neat rows of armed, goose-stepping automatons have more pornographic appeal than interviews of refugees with pixelized faces. I’m sure it’s easier to cover model kindergartenspropaganda exhibitions, and political shrines than concentration camps. It must be easier to cover a staged press conference or a regime-planted “re-defection” story than it is to investigate the truth behind it. And I’m sure that it’s far more lucrative for a wire service to sell KCNA photographs to its subscribers than it is to partner with the world’s bravest journalists to tell its readers how the vast majority of North Korean people actually live.

There’s something awfully hypocritical about journalists who bitch about the very caricatures they perpetuate — caricatures that invariably portray North Koreans as soulless automatons — while brave North Korean guerrilla journalists risk torture and death to defy the state’s limits. Or of academics and reporters who criticize “Western portrayals” of North Koreans, while largely ignoring the evidence that many North Koreans are, in fact, highly intelligent and creative beings who risk their lives to express beauty, love, humor, and even genius.

I don’t want to hear any complaints about caricatures and propaganda from the very people who, in the name of commercial expediency, personal safety, or political motivations, let themselves be led around by nose rings, or who let their minders point their lenses at the caricatures and the propaganda. If you’re tired of the caricature, stop perpetuating it. At the very least, tell the other side of the story. Research the things they tell you in Pyongyang, and juxtapose them against what the extrinsic evidence says. You might even consider the (shocking, to some) premise that behind their survival masks, the people of North Korea are as just as human as we are.

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Associated Press holds another N. Korean propaganda exhibit, this time in Pyongyang

In 2011, the AP and the North Korean government’s main mouthpiece, the Korean Central News Agency, signed two memoranda of understanding. One of these memoranda allowed the AP to set up a bureau in Pyongyang, staffed in part by North Korean “journalists” from KCNA. The other provided for a joint commemorative photo exhibit by the AP and KCNA in a New York art gallery, “Marking 100 Years Since the Birth of Kim Il Sung.” That exhibit portrayed North Korea as a land of cherubic babies, happy people who dance in the streets, and schoolchildren who adore Kim Il Sung. In 2012, the AP promoted that exhibit heavily, but as we’ll soon see, the AP seems to have had second thoughts about its media strategy since then.

The AP has denied repeated requests by journalists to disclose those memoranda, but last year, the intrepid freelance journalist Nate Thayer obtained and published a draft, according to which AP agreed to “serve the purpose of the coverage and worldwide distribution of policies of the Worker’s Party of Korea and the DPRK government.” Although this does raise concerns about AP’s commitment to its own ethical standards — “[t]he newspaper … should vigorously expose wrongdoing, duplicity or misuse of power;” “report the news without regard for its own interests, mindful of the need to disclose potential conflicts;” “be free of obligations to news sources and newsmakers” and avoid “[e]ven the appearance of obligation or conflict of interest” — let no one question the AP’s fidelity to its agreements with Pyongyang.

Last week, the AP again joined in a North Korean propaganda exhibit to commemorate another anniversary of political importance to the regime. This time, the event was the 70th anniversary of the founding of North Korea’s ruling party. In contrast to 2012, however, I searched in vain for any sign that AP had covered, mentioned, given interviews about, or promoted this event. So as a public service, I’ll be the second news source (after KCNA) to tell you about it. KCNA doesn’t have permlinks, so I give you screenshots. (Hat tip to a reader for this, by the way.)

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As the AP itself recently reminded us, governments use imagery of their leaders as propaganda, and when they do, journalists have an obligation to maintain their independence and demand the right to look behind the stage management, without fear or favor. The occasion for this was when the Obama White House passed out photos of the President taken by its own photographer, expecting news services to simply publish them.

The AP has a policy against using White House handout photos unless they are of significant news value and were shot in places to which the press does not expect access, such as private residence areas of the White House. The presidents of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Associated Press Media Editors have urged their members to stop using White House handout photos and video, saying they amount to propaganda. [AP]

At the time, the AP’s Vice President and Director of Photography, Santiago Lyon, even wrote a New York Times op-ed under the provocative title, “Obama’s Orwellian Image Control,” expanding on the importance of journalists challenging government control of the imagery readers are allowed to see:

The official photographs the White House hands out are but visual news releases. Taken by government employees (mostly former photojournalists), they are well composed, compelling and even intimate glimpses of presidential life. They also show the president in the best possible light, as you’d expect from an administration highly conscious of the power of the image at a time of instant sharing of photos and videos.

By no stretch of the imagination are these images journalism. Rather, they propagate an idealized portrayal of events on Pennsylvania Avenue. [….]

If you take this practice to its logical conclusion, why have news conferences? Why give reporters any access to the White House? It would be easier to just have a daily statement from the president (like his recorded weekly video address) and call it a day. Repressive governments do this all the time. [NYT]

Indeed they do. While I have no information to suggest that the AP has republished these particular photographs — rather, it seems to prefer that we didn’t notice at all — it has repeatedly published photographs from KCNA photographer Kim Kwang Hyon, who is detailed to the AP. The AP’s corporate leadership has, more than once, allowed the North Korean government to publicly associate it with propaganda photographs of its leader. I’ll give a few last quotes from the Associated Press Media Editors standards:

Work by staff members for the people or institutions they cover also should be avoided.

The newspaper should uphold the right of free speech and freedom of the press and should respect the individual’s right to privacy.

It should report matters regarding itself or its personnel with the same vigor and candor as it would other institutions or individuals. Concern for community, business or personal interests should not cause the newspaper to distort or misrepresent the facts.

Yet again, foreigners come to Pyongyang certain that their presence will be a liberalizing influence. Yet again, it is not Pyongyang’s standards that change; instead, the foreigners subordinate their own standards to Pyongyang’s, and we’re left asking, “Who changed who?”

More posts on the Associated Press’s troubling compromises with North Korea, here.

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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.

I don’t have any special insider knowledge here, but I’ll go out on a limb and express my doubt that the White House would want that experience again between now and November 4th, especially for the likes of a doofus like Matthew Todd Miller, or anyone else who’d be dumb enough to visit North Korea of his own diminished volition. I’d be surprised if there’s a deal at all, and I’d be astonished if its terms are made public before the election, including the Louisiana runoff, is safely in the rear-view mirror.

*  Or so I’ve heard somewhere. It may have been Alex Jones. I lost the link.

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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.

~   ~   ~

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.

~   ~   ~

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.


[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.


[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.

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[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.

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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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