Category Archives: Propaganda

The rise of North Korea’s dissident culture

Totalitarian states have always understood the power of culture. Historically, they have required culture to serve the state. Also historically, once they lost control of culture, they also eventually lost control of everything else. In the 1930s, during the worst excesses of Stalinism, intellectuals, whether Soviet or western, seldom denounced the system. A decade or two later, however, one could already hear Soviet composers expressing disillusion, alienation, and loss — without words, of course — in the dark, mourning, and menacing notes of Prokofiev’s 6th Symphony and Shostakovich’s 11th.

By the 1970s, some of the Soviet Union’s leading cultural figures went into exile, including the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, and poets Joseph Brodsky and Alexander Galich. From their exile, they advocated for political change in their homeland. Some of them lived to see it. Others dissented as they could from within, such as the writer and playwright Vaclav Havel. Documentaries have been made about Shostakovich’s struggles against the censors; that the authorities had made him a global celebrity during World War II may have saved his life.

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Sun Mu’s parody art: Let us endure hardship with a smile!”

In North Korea, too, culture was made to serve the state, but today, culture is also challenging the state. For years, news reports have described the widespread proliferation of banned South Korean popular culture inside North Korea, even inside the barracks of the Korean Peoples’ Army. The state no longer trusts its own cultural works, either. This year, the state saw a terrifying reflection of itself in the feudal landlords of its revolutionary music and banned it. At most, however, this work represents an indirect challenge to the state.

That is changing, too. The paintings in this post are the works of “Sun Mu” (not his real name), a former propaganda artist in North Korea.

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Among North Koreans in exile, a culture of dissent is forming among artists, poets, and writers. They are challenging the state directly, and on explicitly political terms.

Probably the leading such intellectual is Jang Jin-Sung, a former court poet in North Korea, now an author, activist, and founder of a dissident news site. Jang has become one of the most important political thinkers among North Korean dissidents in exile. Here is his poem, “The Executioner.”

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 8.36.32 AMWherever people are gathered

there are gunshots to be heard.

Today, as the crowd looks on
a man is executed.

‘’You are not to feel any sympathy!
Even when he’s dead, we must kill him again!’’

The loudspeakers’ words are interrupted.
Bang! Bang!
The rest of the message is delivered.

Why is it that today
the crowd is silent?

His crime: to steal a bag of rice.
His sentence: ninety bullets in his heart.

His occupation: farmer.

Separately, the L.A. Times profiles North Korean refugee and author Lee Kay-yeon, who began to question the North Korean system because of the famine, and its failure to provide medical care for her sick mother. Unlike Jang, Lee was not a writer in North Korea.

In South Korea, she has found refuge in poetry. In May, she released her second collection under the title “Waiting for Mom.” The collection is now available only in Korean, but Lee says she is working on finding a publisher for an English version.

After arriving in Seoul at age 24, having never written anything except school assignments, Lee began to spend her evenings in the new and unfamiliar city jotting down her thoughts and experiences. When she showed her journals to friends, they said her writing sounded like poetry.

Like that of many Korean poets, Lee’s work is heavy on metaphors related to the natural world. Flowers are a strong motif, symbolizing untarnished beauty, as well as cycles of life and death. Rice, Korea’s staple food item, represents the difference between survival and starvation, warmth and cold, comfort and destitution.

Her verses contain sparse, vivid language about themes such as the division of families between South and North and longing for faraway loved ones. One poem of hers, titled “Birthday,” has one verse that reads, “Today is mom’s birthday … a morning breeze blows through my open door, but mom is nowhere to be seen.” [L.A. Times]

Any poetry is exceedingly difficult to translate without losing its rhymes, rhythms, allegories, and literary nuances. This strikes me as extraordinarily challenging in the case of Korean poetry. Still, the works of North Korean writers are gaining greater international recognition.

In 2012, a group of defector writers formed North Korean Writers in Exile and gained official recognition from PEN International, a body that promotes literature around the world, with many prominent writers as members.

Some defector-writers are making waves in the mainstream. In November, novelist Kim Jung-ae became the first defector to win the Korean Novelists Assn.’s best new writer award. Also last year, Jang Jin-sung, who was a poet laureate under former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, released a widely read memoir, “Dear Leader: My Escape From North Korea,” about his close encounters with North Korea’s leadership and perilous escape to China.

The new wave of recognition comes a decade after one defector, Kang Chol-hwan, found a broad readership with his memoir, “The Aquariums of Pyongyang.” The book led to Kang’s garnering an invitation to the White House in 2005 to meet President George W. Bush.

The thought of an artist challenging North Korea’s system from within is still unthinkable, of course, but this does not mean that dissident art cannot have an impact on North Korean society. In the Soviet Union, banned works were reproduced by hand and passed around as samizdat. If South Korean culture can slip past North Korean censors and find an audience, the same will eventually be possible for the works of dissident North Korean artists, writers, and poets in exile.

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These songs of freedom

If Kim Jong-Un’s twenty-something year-old little sister really has taken control of the manufacture of North Korea’s production of propaganda and mythology, she has begun her work with a powerful tacit admission: the state her brother leads has much in common with the feudal oligarchs past generations of North Koreans sang about overthrowing.

In an attempt to root out elements that can lead to potential political instabilities in the country, North Korea is stepping up music censorship and scrapping all cassette tapes and CDs that contain state-banned songs even if homegrown. Kim Jong Un is believed to have issued such orders out of concern that certain songs could instill people with criticism or resistance against the leadership, Daily NK has learned.

“Recently, the Central Party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department has drawn up a list of ‘songs of no origin’ and ‘banned songs’ and is circulating it throughout homes,” a source based in South Pyongan Province told Daily NK on Thursday. “Included on the list are songs from the North’s own movie ‘Im Kkeok Jeong (leader of a peasant rebellion in the 16C).”

These songs, she explained, have titles like “Take action blood brothers” “To get revenge” and the list also includes the song “Nation of no tears” from a made-for-TV movie “Echoes of Halla.” Some of these tunes were already banned a few years ago, like “Take action blood brothers”, but this is the first time the state has actively taken forceful measures to wipe out any means of immediate access to them. [Daily NK]

The Daily NK claims to have multiple sources for the story from different regions. It reports that people are angry that the state is coming into their homes and stealing their tunes, and that merchants are angry that the state is confiscating and burning their merchandise.

It’s true, of course, that music can be a powerful galvanizing force for resistance movements. More than two hundred years after the Irish rebellion of 1798, people are still signing “The Rising of the Moon” in bars from Dublin to San Francisco. Here is another promising avenue for those who would flood North Korea with subversive content.

When I lived in Korea, not quite as long ago as it seems, the P.A. system on the saemaul express trains would play this jaunty old tune by Patty Kim every time the trains crossed the old, battle-scarred Han River bridges into Seoul, as they arrived from the southern cities of Taegu and Busan. Some North Koreans find the newer K-pop to be as vacuous and irritating as I do, but there is something agelessly hopeful about Kim’s song, in spite of its seventies ethos. I’ve always thought it would make a good anthem for those on both sides of the DMZ who yearn to be a nation once again.

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Must read: Jieun Baek on how North Koreans beat the border blockade

Admittedly, Baek’s explanation of the North Korea’s guerrilla banking system isn’t the first I’ve read, it’s only the best:

The next time Kevin talks to his mother, she asks him for $1,000. She gives Kevin a phone number. When he hangs up after about a minute, Kevin then calls that number and tells the stranger on the line that he got a call from someone (he uses a pseudonym to protect his mother’s identity). Every time, the phone number is different.

The stranger on the other line is usually a girl, a Joseonjok girl. The woman gives Kevin a South Korean bank account number, to which Joseph wires $1,000. He then sends the woman a text message using Kakao Talk (a Korean smartphone application that’s similar to Whatsapp), texting that he sent the $1,000. After receiving the message, the Joseonjok lady sends a message to another Joseonjok living in North Korea. This person will then notify Kevin’s family via their legal domestic cell phones that the money has arrived so that Kevin’s mother can go to that individual’s location, or the underground financial house, to pick up her $700 in Chinese RMB. The two middlemen take 30 percent of the requested money and split the commission. The whole transaction, part of the small underground financing system inside the country, can take place in as little as 20 minutes. [Jieun Baek, Politico]

It sounds very much like the hawala systems that initially caused the Treasury Department so much trouble after 9/11, until Congress tightened requirements that they be licensed and regulated. With a few upgrades, this could be the guerrilla financial system I’d advocated for here.

Baek also writes that refugees in the South can send medicine to their sick relatives in the North via smugglers. That has helped to ease the suffering caused by the collapse of North Korea’s state-run health care system, but there are risks that come with this, too. As Rimjin-gang recently informed us, some North Koreans who take smuggled medicines — often, medicines stolen from U.N. aid supplies — without a doctor’s advice are getting sick. If some way could be found to open the lines of communication wider, doctors in South Korea could volunteer to treat North Korean patients remotely, practicing what’s now called telemedicine.

Jieun Baek is writing some of the most thought-provoking work on how to “engage” with the North Korean people I’ve yet read. I’ve added her to my blogroll, and must keep a closer eye on what she writes.

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The courage of Hyeonseo Lee: “I am human also. I am scared.”

Last Wednesday, Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation hosted and moderated an event called “Confronting the Human Rights Challenge in North Korea.” Hyeonseo Lee, author of “The Girl With Seven Names,” was the keynote speaker.

Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 6.39.54 AMLee spoke in accented, but clear English of the indoctrination she received as a child, of the revelations that broke the hold of the state’s propaganda over her, of her flight from North Korea, and of her resettlement in South Korea. (Later, we learn that Lee also speaks fluent Chinese; from this, and from her answers to questions from the audience, it’s clear that she’s a highly intelligent young woman.)

Perhaps because I’d already seen Lee’s powerful TED talk about her flight from North Korea, the part of her Heritage speech that moved me the most concerned more recent events. At 30:19, Korean-American activist Henry Song asked Lee about her fear that the regime will attack her. Those attacks might well be much more than verbal and rhetorical assaults from Kim Jong-Un’s propagandists, or addlebrained harangues from his noisy little chorus of sympathizers abroad. As I’ve documented in detail, Ms. Lee must also worry about physical violence, including assassination attempts like those directed against Park Sang-Hak, Hwang Jang-Yop, and other dissidents in exile.

Lee spoke of the report — still not carried in any English-language media — that the regime ordered its agents to “punish” 24 dissidents who had spoken at the U.N., and that she understood “punish” to mean “assassinate.” She told of learning that her best friend was arrested for spying for the regime, and of her inability to trust even fellow North Korean refugees, with whom she might make common cause. She told of having moved her residence so that fewer people would know where she lives. She still fears retribution against her family inside North Korea itself. And yet, she speaks out anyway:

Klingner was kind enough to invite me to be a panelist, alongside Param-Preet Singh of Human Rights Watch and T. Kumar of Amnesty International USA. At 1 hour and 25 minutes, I speak about the policy paralysis of the administration and within certain academic circles, the weakness of U.S. sanctions against North Korea, recent moves in Congress to address this, and how sanctions fit into a broader, people-focused engagement policy that would aim to shift the balance of power inside North Korea.

On my way home that day, and in the days since, I’ve reflected with shame and sadness on how low we’ve fallen — or perhaps “shrunken” is the word I’m grasping for — from our historical role as the haven for, and champion of, the liberal values of dissent, of heresy, of free thought. You don’t need to see this in strictly moral terms to see what we’re losing. America became a great nation — greater than nations with more land, more people, with far more advanced cultures, and even more resources — because earlier generations of heretics, dissidents, and refugees made America the world’s center of free thought, of innovation of every kind, and of global culture in the modern age. Freedom of expression hasn’t only enriched our lives incalculably, it has enriched our economy and our global power incalculably, too.

Today, the same men who threaten Hyeonseo Lee and her brave compatriots also threaten our own freedom of expression, here in our own country. The Obama Administration has answered with cowardly mendacity, refusing to even acknowledge Pyongyang’s threats against Lee and other dissidents in exile, even lying to the entire world to avoid confronting them. What was so recently the world’s greatest nation cowers. A lucky few of us look to a small woman from North Korea to show us what courage still means.

If you were in Hyeonseo Lee’s place, what message would you derive from the American government’s refusal to acknowledge Pyongyang’s threats against your life, your freedom, and your family? It isn’t so difficult to imagine her sentiments if you begin by asking yourself how you feel, as an American, that your government offers nothing resembling a credible answer to a foreign despot’s threats against your own freedom, in your own town. In doing so, our government ceases to be a champion of the oppressed; it is the oppressed — and by proxy, so are we. It chooses silence over courage and principle, in the false hope that it can trade our liberty for its security, or — to be even more brutally honest — for its own temporary political advantage. But when our government submits to terror, it submits for all of us, and the consequences of this will extend long beyond January 2017. That is the antithesis of statesmanship.

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Guerrilla Engagement: A strategy for regime replacement and reconstruction in N. Korea (Pts. 1-5)

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One day, either this President or the next one will awaken to the realization that the regime in Pyongyang is collapsing, and that he has just inherited the costliest, messiest, and riskiest nation-building project since the Marshall Plan. The collapse of North Korea will present South Korea — and by extension, its principal treaty ally, the United States — with a nation-building challenge unlike any in recent history. After all, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria all had some independent institutions — tribes, sects, mosques, and churches — that predated and outlived the old order. None of these things exists in North Korea. A collapse of the regime will reduce the entire society from the closest thing on Earth to panopticon totalitarianism to complete anarchy.

North Korea’s extraordinary secrecy means this will be harder to predict than the collapses of ostensibly “stable” regimes in Libya and Syria, but Kim Jong Un’s rule so far suggests an ineptitude at two survival skills — the proper cultivation of a personality cult, and the maintenance of good relations with the military. Pyongyang’s ongoing purges may or may not be signs of instability, but they suggest the existence of fear and distrust between Kim Jong Un and the military. Another destabilizing trend is North Korea’s obscene and widening gap between rich and poor.

These things might not have mattered in the 1990s, but today, technology is allowing more of North Korea’s have-nots to see how the elites live. Of course, inequality isn’t new to North Korea, but the new inequality is a more destabilizing kind. Contrary to the misjudgment of generations of American policymakers, North Korea’s hunger is not destabilizing, but an effective tool for weakening, exhausting, and controlling the oppressed. Today, North Korea’s poor are still very poor, but there is no wide-scale famine. Meanwhile, the elites have grown obscenely rich. It is inequality, not poverty, that topples tyrants. And ever since the coronation of Kim Jong Un, a porcine portrait of inequality has glared down on every North Korean citizen in every home, office, and classroom.

In his inaugural address in 2009, President Obama offered an open hand to Kim Jong Il, if he would unclench his fist. Within five months, Kim Jong Il answered with a nuclear test, and Kim Jong Un has repeatedly reaffirmed his insistence on pursuing a nuclear arsenal.

Recently, the Obama Administration has been hinting at both talks with and sanctions against Pyongyang, but the reality is that the North Korea policy debate has already entered the post-Obama era. It’s a very different debate from the one we had seven years ago. In 2008, most Korea watchers still believed that “engagement” with Pyongyang would catalyze political reforms, but Kim Jong Un’s bloody purges, and his harsh crackdowns on refugees and information, have discredited this theory. Korea watchers still hope for a peaceful opening of North Korea, but if you ask them directly, very few of them really believe in one in the foreseeable future. In 2008, most Korea watchers still hoped that diplomacy might end North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. To the extent this hope survived the collapse of President Bush’s Agreed Framework of 2007, it faded away with the collapse of President Obama’s Leap Day Agreement of 2012, a less ambitious freeze agreement. A few Korea watchers still cling to the idea of a freeze agreement, but I can’t name a single Korea-watcher of consequence who still believes in a negotiated disarmament of North Korea today.

Today, many Korea-watchers are resigned to an unreformed, nuclear North Korea. Most are weary, disillusioned, uncertain, and at a loss. More of them know what we shouldn’t do than what we should do. There are important exceptions. Former CIA analyst Sue Mi Terry, writing in Foreign Affairs, advocates the overthrow of the regime by seeking a diplomatic consensus with China and other neighbors to cut off Pyongyang’s financial support. In a war-weary, post-Iraq Washington, this might have been a fringe view, but in the age of ISIS, Terry is joined in it, somewhat conditionally, by Richard Haass and Winston Lord, influential moderates who are usually associated with the “realist” school of foreign policy that places a high premium on stability. Leaving aside whether China would agree to this for the present, there are good counter-arguments to seeking regime collapse. One need only read Bruce Bennett’s description of the cost, chaos, and conflict a sudden collapse of North Korea’s sole social and political institution could bring to understand them. (Terry also acknowledges them.) But as much as Americans hate the cost of nation-building, they must understand that the alternative can be much costlier. Try to calculate the cost of anarchy Afghanistan in 1989, or Syria and Libya in 2011.

In the long term, Terry (and Park Geun Hye) are almost certainly correct that North Korea’s untapped human and material potential would make a unified Korea a wealthy, powerful, and prosperous nation. In the short term, however, a post-collapse North Korea will be a money pit. It will be a source of social unrest, illicit drugs, crime, corruption, disease, and potentially, conflict. Its infrastructure, civil society, and public health would take years, if not decades, to rebuild to first-world standards, and all of them will continue to decay as long as the regime can suppress the coalescence of alternative political, social, and economic institutions. With each year that this decay progresses, the cost of repairing it will continue to rise. Even with the best planning and preparation, it will be one of the greatest security crises of our age. And it will happen regardless of whether we want it to or not.

Even so, this is still a far better outcome than one in which North Korea, Iran, Syria, and other end-users of North Korea’s WMD technology acquire the means to destroy U.S., South Korea, Japanese, and other allied cities. As Korea watchers will tell you, all of the good options vanished long ago.

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In moments of exasperation, proponents of regime-focused engagement sometimes ask their critics how they would beneficially transform North Korean society. It’s a fair question. The critics are fond of pointing out that South Korea spent nearly a decade and billions of dollars trying to transform North Korea through the Sunshine Policy, yet the results speak for themselves. As one of these critics, I’ve long challenged proponents of Sunshine-like policies to point to any significant positive changes their policies have achieved, but no one has ever taken me up on this.

The question isn’t really whether Sunshine failed, but why. The simple answer is that it’s in the regime’s interest to protect the status quo, accepting only so much trade and commerce as are necessary to sustain its military, security, and material priorities. Any positive change for which a foreign or alternative institution can take credit is a threat to the regime’s legitimacy. This goes far to explain the failure of U.N. food aid programs, which Pyongyang has hobbled with obstructionism, corruption, and outright diversion, and (as we’ve recently learned) infiltration by its spies.

Even so, and no matter how demonstrably regime engagement has failed to transform North Korea, its defenders raise a fair point when they say that isolation alone won’t change North Korea for the better.

What policymakers urgently require, then, is some way to weaken the North Korean government while rebuilding North Korean society — a way to begin nation building now by connecting the wider world with those North Koreans with an interest in transforming their society into a peaceful, prosperous, and humane one. What policymakers require is a strategy for guerrilla engagement, to empower the rise of independent, sometimes clandestine, institutions at the farm, village, factory, and town level, to fill the voids in North Korea’s governance, with the ultimate objective of regime replacement rather than mere regime collapse.

This leads us to a short but very important policy paper, by the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea, about “separative engagement.” Separative engagement is premised on the conclusion that regime-focused engagement has not worked, and cannot work:

After over a decade of practice, and in light of the findings of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry, if critical engagement has been measurably effective in improving human rights in North Korea and if it has effectively influenced the DPRK’s decision-makers, can we point to any tangible effects?

The short answer must be: No. Despite European successes in the Track One approach — namely, the UN resolutions on North Korean human rights in 2014 — Track Two engagement has been unable to identify those in the North Korean leadership to influence or target, whilst DPRK officials continue to exterminate, enslave, torture, imprison, rape, starve, and persecute their citizenry on an unimaginable scale.

Put simply: critical engagement has not been, and cannot be, effective.

Engaging the DPRK through approaches proposed, crafted, or condoned by the DPRK regime, or through projects that have minor results relative to the immense scale of human rights violations, should not continue. In order to pursue effective and principled engagement, a bold shift in policy is required. [EAHRNK]

Instead, EAHRNK collaborates with North Korean defector and intellectual Jang Jin Sung to propose a new, people-focused model of engagement:

In its approach, the objective of separative engagement is very clear: For all engagement to be guided on the principle of North Korean people being given space to separate themselves, both psychologically and physically, from the North Korean state.

Separative engagement does not offer quick solutions to the North Korean human crisis. Rather, its framework and principles — which are based upon first-hand knowledge of how the DPRK state functions domestically and how it interacts with the international community — allows states to commit to a policy framework that is premised on respecting and restoring the human rights of the North Korean people.

This principle is fundamental to those who advocate for separative engagement. If engagement is to contribute to ending the unparalleled abuses of the North Korean people, the people must be conceptually and tangibly separated from the ideological and physical institutions that strengthen the regime’s control. 

Specifically:

1. Imposing Separative Conditions within the DPRK — for example, ensuring that all training projects implemented by the international community seek to strengthen institutions that support the people’s economy, as opposed to the compartmentalised military or elite economies.

2. Increasing Separation-inducing Pursuits towards the DPRK — for example, increasing inward flows of information, such as the BBC World Service, which offer alternative information to DPRK state propaganda.

3. Fostering Separative Leverage over the DPRK — for example, providing support and training for North Korean escapees, or aiding and engaging a North Korean government-in-exile who can offer a more credible and legitimate voice for the North Korean people.

“Guerrilla engagement” begins with these same principles, but extends them in more subversive directions, and combines them with other non-military instruments of national power, as part of a comprehensive strategy to achieve change. The sine qua non of guerrilla engagement is the deployment of technology to allow direct communication and engagement with the North Korean people — not minders or bureaucrats in Pyongyang, or officials working for state trading companies in Dandong — but farmers, teachers, journalists, smugglers, merchants, midwives, doctors, and mechanics in Hoeryong, Sinuiju, Chongjin, and Hamhung, and in a thousand villages and factory towns scattered between them. For their own protection, most of these people will not know the identities of other members of the underground. Initially, few of them even realize that their work has political implications at all. They will simply be skirting the state’s rules to provide valuable goods and services to their fellow citizens, just like many North Koreans are already doing today.

The challenges to this are obvious. Since Kim Jong Un’s dynastic succession in 2011, he has prioritized sealing the cracks in North Korea’s information blockade. That crackdown has cut the flow of refugees in half, and has throttled the flow of contraband information and consumer goods across North Korea’s borders.

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Kim Jong Un’s censorship knows no limits or borders. To submit to it is to forfeit freedom.

If Kim Jong Un is weighing whether to answer leaflets from South Korea with artillery, it won’t discourage him that many on South Korea’s illiberal left have already begun to excuse him for it. Within this confused, transpatriated constituency, there is much “anxiety” lately about “inter-Korean tensions.” Those tensions have risen since North Korea has begun threatening to shell the North Korean defectors who send leaflets critical of Kim’s misrule across the DMZ. But then, any rational mind can see who is at fault when the object of non-violent criticism answers his critic’s threats with violence. Right?

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[The Park Police should check those blankets for wet spots.]

I don’t suppose it occurred to these people to take their grievances and anxieties to the ones who are threatening war over non-violent expression. That would be the logical reaction if these people were really as concerned about “tension” as they were about acting as Kim Jong Un’s proxy censors. Their undisguised demand is that Seoul should censor — and that Washington should abstain from supporting — free expression, for the very reason that Pyongyang is threatening to shell civilian villages in response to it.

Dismiss this as the view of a lunatic fringe if you will, but not all of this lunacy is on the fringe.

For example, today is the fifth anniversary of North Korea’s premeditated and unprovoked sinking of the ROKS Cheonan, an act of war that killed 46 South Korean sailors. An international investigation team found that a torpedo fired from a North Korean submarine sank the Cheonan. Yet only yesterday, the head of the left-opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy finally acknowledged that the North did it. For five years, conspiracy kooks and appeasers had enough influence within the NPAD to prevent it from giving the first small comfort of this acknowledgement to the souls of the dead and the hearts of the bereaved. The NPAD’s long, reprehensible silence speaks more loudly than its words.

And now, here is Jeong Se-Hyun, who headed the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland Reunification Ministry under Kim Jong Il Roh Moo Hyun:

“The (South Korean) government claims the leaflet scattering is a matter of free expression, but such a slander on (North Korean leader) Kim Jong-un is something fatal to the North,” the former point man on the North said in a local symposium.

“If the Park Geun-hye administration wants to hold a meaningful inter-Korean dialogue during its term, it should send a sincere message that (Seoul) will acknowledge and respect (Pyongyang),” he noted. [Yonhap]

I could not answer this better than Shirley Lee did, in a series of three profound and cogent tweets:

With all this and more, it is laughably tragic that we who are free to think continue to think only within frames set by such a system.

Where each of its subjects living beyond its narrative must be despised and scorned, and those submitting to its frame to be praised.

We side with a brutal, inhumane, zero-sum system merely by siding with its frames, by not calling it out, forging and articulating our own.

Also, Jeong reveals too much here. If he really thinks that non-violent expression is “fatal,” he must believe that a few scattered scraps of paper have the potential to inspire the North Korean people to risk their lives to overthrow His Porcine Majesty. That, given half a chance, they’d hang him from a lamppost (and they should be sure it’s a very sturdy one). Jeong is a closet collapsist! Perhaps he could write me a guest post expanding on this.


Park Sang Hak – Hacking North Korea’s… by NORTHKOREATV

This week, Pyongyang’s proxy censors are especially afraid of Park Sang-Hak. Park is obviously under great pressure from both Korean governments, including the one that hasn’t yet tried to assassinate him. Just this week, Park has said that he would abstain from sending leaflets “for now,” and also vowed to send them “next week” despite the North’s threats.

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[This is a syringe, loaded with the poison neostigmine bromide. Agents of North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau use them to assassinate dissidents and activists. One of them tried to kill Park Sang-Hak with this one.]

Incidentally — and please, stop me if you’ve read this somewhere — President George W. Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

South Korea’s National Human Rights Commission has opined that Park’s activities are guaranteed under Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It might also have said that they’re protected under Article 21 of the South Korean Constitution. There is another party whose rights we shouldn’t forget, either. The North Korean people also have a right to receive information from across the no-smile line:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. [Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19]

Writing in The New York Times before the Sony attack and threat, Professor Lee and I took the moderate view that the South Korean government must honor these rights, but could still impose reasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner in which Park sends his leaflets. After all, North Korea clearly has no regard for the lives of South or North Koreans. Perhaps, then, we should concede the prudence of asking the activists to send their leaflets from less populated areas, for the sake of those who live nearby. But then, this recent story caused me to wonder if we had conceded too much:

North Korea on Tuesday threatened to mercilessly punish South Korean activists for allegedly hurting the dignity of its young leader Kim Jong-un during a public demonstration, the latest in a series of harsh rhetoric against rival South Korea.

The latest threat came days after a conservative activist in Seoul trampled a photo of Kim and slashed it with a knife during a rally as others burned printed replicas of North Korean flags. [Yonhap]

In other words, North Korea is now threatening free assembly and expression in downtown Seoul. When you consider that Pyongyang has sent multiple assassins to Seoul and to China to murder dissidents there, no dissident should see this as an idle threat. It has also repeatedly threatened and cyber-attacked South Korean newspapers and broadcasters. It’s not as if Pyongyang has the standing to demand that anyone respect its (unconscionable, soul-crushing) laws when it shows such contempt for the South’s society and laws. No government that submits to such threats can call itself a democracy. The only appropriate response to this is unprintable on a blog with a PG-13 rating, and for most people, would be anatomically impossible.

Aside from the desire to police thought on the streets of Seoul, what other principled grievance might Pyongyang have? Might it have a principled objection to cross-border propaganda leafleting, based on some idea of mutual non-interference? Umm, no:

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 8.16.51 PM Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 8.16.28 PM

In 1998, just after morning formation one day, a soldier friend found this outside the fence around Yongsan Garrison in Seoul and gave it to me. The Army told us to drop these things into special leaflet collection boxes, but who needs one of those cheap gift pens the ROK Defense Ministry hands out every year when you could have a souvenir like this? (Sorry for the wrinkles. Sweaty PT uniforms do that.)

Is it North Korea’s principled position that it’s an act of war to fly physical objects across the DMZ? I doubt that, too.

In any event, if the objection to balloons is that they’re a physical intrusion — notwithstanding their obvious non-violence — then the South Korean and U.S. governments should expand their support for Radio Free North Korea and Open Radio. South Korea should also let them broadcast on medium wave. Pyongyang and Seoul both broadcast to each other now, although on a limited scale.

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The odds are greater than ever that someone who shares Jeong’s world view will be the next President of South Korea. In fact, given the healthy tendency of voters to tire of any extended rule by a single party, I’d assess them slightly higher than that. If Jeong speaks for a majority of South Koreans, South Korea won’t remain a free and open society for long. It was barely a free and open society when Roh Moo-Hyun was in charge. Let’s not forget that last year, the NPAD proposed to regulate (read: ban) cross-border leafleting. Does anyone expect North Korea to be more respectful of free expression in the South now that it’s at the verge of nuclear breakout? It wouldn’t be unprecedented for an appeasement-minded government in Seoul to add the in terrorem effect of arrests and tax audits to this.

The question here is nothing less than whether South Korea has the courage and reason to remain a free society. If it does, we should give South Korea our support. If not, just remember that Pyongyang’s demands have no borders or limits. Accede to one and there will be another. As a wise man said,

“We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States. If somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary they don’t like, or news reports they don’t like.”

Last year, Kim Jong Un effectively extended the reach of his censorship to the United States, not only by preventing theaters from screening a film critical of him, but also by preventing Hollywood studios from making any more of them. By my count, in the last year, Pyongyang has attempted to extent the writ of its censorship — with some success — to Seoul, Tokyo, Berlin, London, Rangoon, Paris, and an academic conference in downtown Washington, D.C. It is also suspected of a cyberattack against The Washington Post. Several years ago, someone hacked this very site.

Of course, South Korea doesn’t have to remain a free society, any more than the United States has to keep 28,500 soldiers and airmen there. Regardless of what kind of society South Korea chooses to be, the United States would still have interests in maintaining friendly relations and trade with it. It’s just that the world is descending into madness at the moment, and we’ve become more particular about who and what we’re willing to die for.

There are two possible lessons here, depending on the path taken in Seoul, Washington, and the world’s other capitals.

The first is that terrorism works when governments are more willing to yield to it than to stand up to it and protect free expression.

The second may not be the one that Pyongyang hoped for: that Pyongyang sounds as afraid of free expression as it is of sanctions. Something here has nipped an especially sensitive nerve in the tender man-bosoms of His Porcine Majesty. Where there is upset, there is also a deterrent. Perhaps Pentagon planners should explore the “soft” power of free expression, not only as a tool to transform North Korean society, but to deter North Korean provocations. An extended deployment of Commando Solo may be just the thing to deter a fourth nuclear test. Perhaps free speech isn’t the problem at all. Perhaps it’s an important part of the solution.

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Good engagement: BBC, in a reversal, decides to broadcast to North Korea (Update: Did the Telegraph get it wrong?)

Congratulations to EAHRNK, Lord Alton, and Youngchan Justin Choi, another of the young Korean-American over-achievers who may already have had an impact beyond his years on the history of his ancestral homeland. Here’s another link to Choi’s pages on Twitter and Facebook, if you wish to add your congratulations to mine. (I’m sure I’ve omitted many names of those who pushed for this, so feel free to add others in the comments.)

It now looks like the Beeb is going to launch a North Korea service after all. So what took the BBC so long?

[I]t is likely to spark fury from Pyongyang’s volatile leadership, and could lead to the British embassy in Pyongyang being targeted for protests or being shut down altogether.

It could also put Britain in the firing line for North Korean-led cyberattacks, such as the one that targeted Sony Pictures last year over its film “The Interview”, which lampooned Kim Jong-un. [The Telegraph]

The Sony attack wasn’t attributed until last December, and the BBC had been considering this issue for far longer. This reason seems more plausible to me:

A number of senior figures within the Foreign Office were understood to have objected to the proposal, fearing that Britain’s ambassador to Pyongyang could be constantly hauled in for dressing downs by his North Korean hosts.

Gee, this bad? The horror! They sound an awful lot like our State Department.

But pressure in Parliament and the Lords, combined with growing international concern at the extent of Pyongyang’s human rights abuses, is understood to have led to a recent change of heart at the BBC.

Having said that, there are also some sound practical reasons, too, although not one of them seems insurmountable to me. For example, if there are short-wave broadcasts available the jangmadang (markets) won’t take long to provide short-wave radios. An even easier change would be for South Korea to allow medium-wave broadcasts to North Korea. That would certainly lessen the need to argue about leaflet balloons.

I look forward to the reaction of everyone who supports engagement with North Korea, right up to the point that the engagement reaches ordinary North Koreans. For some reason.

Now, if we can just get them to bring back Top Gear ….

~   ~   ~

Update: A well-informed source, who asked not to be named, writes in to tell me he had recent communications with the BBC, and that the BBC is still saying no. The BBC needs to clarify its position, and the rest of us — especially those who sincerely believe in engaging the North Korean people — need to keep the pressure on.

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Somehow, I don’t think this will encourage Kim Jong Un to engage with us.

I think Marzuki Darusman is a good man who means well, but it’s difficult to derive a coherent policy from this:

“This is a new thing, spotlighting the leadership and ridiculing the leadership. In any authoritarian, totalitarian system, that is an Achilles’ heel,” Darusman said in an interview in Tokyo, where he held talks with the government on an investigation into North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens.

If this kind of ridicule seeps into North Korea, it could become lethal for the regime, he said. “If they want to preserve their system, the only way to do that is not to close themselves off from the international community but to actively engage,” he said. [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]

OK, so they need “engagement”–presumably, trade–to preserve the system, which we all agree should not be preserved. So should we cut off trade?

But the world also should be actively engaging with the Kim regime to draw it out of its self-imposed isolation, Marzuki Darusman said Friday, calling the United States’ increasingly aggressive approach toward North Korea “unfortunate.”

“In the overall picture, I think much hinges on the way the U.S. acts,” said Darusman, a former attorney general of Indonesia. A harder line against North Korea could “stall or delay the process that needs to be put into place,” he said.

I don’t get it. If ridicule of His Porcine Majesty scares the bejeezus out of the little gray men in Pyongyang, and if we’re supposed to use engagement to mock His Porcine Majesty mercilessly, why does Marzuki suppose that Kim Jong Un would widen engagement rather than stick with the current, controllable kinds of engagement that are serving North Korea’s priorities rather nicely? Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un continues to succeed at smothering the penetration of real capitalism.

Marzuki is a distinguished jurist who has done a great service to humanity by the facts he’s helped to establish. Maybe that’s enough for one man for one lifetime.

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Activists send 600K leaflets into N. Korea

An activist group of North Korean defectors has launched balloons containing anti-North Korea leaflets across the inter-Korean border, police said Tuesday, in an act that could dampen a burgeoning thaw in inter-Korean relations.

The Campaign for Helping North Korean in Direct Way scattered some 600,000 leaflets from Yeoncheon, a county bordering North Korea, on Monday evening, local police said.

Lee Min-bok, the head of the group, and his wife participated in the 30-minute leaflet-scattering event, the police said, adding the balloons are believed to have flown in the northeast direction. [Yonhap]

I had not heard of Lee or his group before today.

~   ~   ~

Update: Here’s an earlier Reuters article on Lee Min-Bok. Thanks to a reader.

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White House considers sanctions, psyops, and cyber responses to N. Korea

Because I’ve begun to develop a certain sense of when interesting events are about to get much more interesting, yesterday morning, I decided to check the web site of KCNA, North Korea’s official “news” service. The site did not load, but it has always been slow to load. Then, news sites began to report that North Korea’s internet access had gone down, and that the White House wasn’t denying that it had a hand in this.

This morning, kcna.kp loaded with its usual masikryeong speed. Let’s all hope that our government has the will and the means to respond more potently than this. Kicking North Korea out of the Internet is like kicking Alabama out of the World Cup, and North Korea without internet is like North Dakota without surfing, Ireland without sunshine, or a Kardashian without a job. Meanwhile, the Japanese mirror site of KCNA kept right on squawking its threats to attack the White House:

Our target is all the citadels of the U.S. imperialists who earned the bitterest grudge of all Koreans. The army and people of the DPRK are fully ready to stand in confrontation with the U.S. in all war spaces including cyber warfare space to blow up those citadels.

Our toughest counteraction will be boldly taken against the White House, the Pentagon and the whole U.S. mainland, the cesspool of terrorism, by far surpassing the “symmetric counteraction” declared by Obama. This is the invariable toughest stand of the army and people of the DPRK.

Fighters for justice including “guardians of peace” who turned out in the sacred drive for cooperation in the fight against the U.S. to defend human justice and conscience and to dismember the U.S. imperialists, the root cause of all sorts of evils and kingpin of injustice, are sharpening bayonets not only in the U.S. mainland but in all other parts of the world. [KCNA.co.jp]

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

I can only guess, but if this was an attack, I’d guess that the U.S. government wasn’t behind it, and that independent hackers were. That’s also what I’m hoping, because if this is the worst that the world’s most powerful nation can do to a blighted hell-hole like North Korea, it would be wholly inadequate to deter any other despots who would censor and control our discourse through cyberwarfare and cyberterrorism. A nine-hour DDOS attack wouldn’t do much to deter Kim Jong Un, or contribute to solving the greater problem — the fact that he rules a country to begin with. That level of response, together with the President’s description of North Korea’s attacks as “cybervandalism,” would imply a junior-varsity insouciance about the gravity of this threat:

Sen. John McCain rejected Obama’s characterization of the North Korean hack as “an act of cybervandelism,” instead calling it “a new form of warfare” on CNN’s State of the Union.

“The President does not understand that this is a manifestation of a new form of warfare when you destroy economies, when you are able to impose censorship,” McCain, a Republican from Arizona, said. “It’s more than vandalism. It’s a new form of warfare that we’re involved in and we need to react and we need to react vigorously.” [CNN]

McCain, the incoming Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, promised to call hearings on the issue when the new Congress convenes.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called it “an act of terrorism” and favored reimposing sanctions and adding North Korea to the terrorism list. The United States needs to “make is so hard on the North Koreans that they don’t want to do this in the future,” Graham said. [Joongang Ilbo]

Fortunately, a report from The New York Times claims the White House is considering better alternatives, starting with asking the Pentagon’s Cyber Command for a list of options:

“What we are looking for is a blocking action, something that would cripple their efforts to carry out attacks,” one official said. [….]

For now, the White House appears to have declined to consider what one Defense Department official termed “a demonstration strike” in cyberspace, which could have included targets such as North Korean military facilities, computer network servers and communications networks.

United States officials said that American efforts to block North Korea’s access to the Internet, which is available only to the military and the elite, would necessarily impinge on Chinese sovereignty.  N.Y. Times]

Sort of like China and North Korea just impinged on ours, then.

Tom Kellermann, a former member of the presidential commission on cybersecurity, said one option was what security experts refer to as a “hack back,” in which they use the attackers’ own computer footprints and back doors to deploy an attack that destroys North Korea’s attack infrastructure, or compromises the integrity of the machines that did the hacking. For example, the United States could deploy a malicious payload that encrypts the data on North Korea’s machines, or renders them unable to reboot — clearly “proportional,” in the president’s words, because that was what happened to Sony’s computers.

The White House is also considering financial sanctions, “mirroring those recently placed on Russian oligarchs and officials close to President Vladimir V. Putin,” to “cut off their access to cash … that allows the elite surrounding Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, to live lifestyles their starving countrymen can barely imagine.” The Times even invokes the example of Banco Delta Asia, calling it “the one sanction in the past decade that caused the most pain to the North Korean leadership.”

They’re starting to sound like Ed Royce, who is starting to sound like a man ahead of his time.

Finally, they’re considering an offensive of information operations — or if you prefer, psyops, “in which the United States plays on North Korea’s worst fears by using its access to the North Korean domestic computer and radio systems to deploy propaganda inside North Korea’s closed media bubble.”

A combination of those three options could be a serious response, although I’ll reserve judgment until I see the administration actually enforce it.

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Update: Reuters suggest some other alternatives:

U.S. cyber teams could also go after the hackers aligned with Pyongyang and make their lives miserable. It’s an effective tactic. Bullies are notoriously susceptible to bullying.

Since the FBI has declared that the attack came from North Korea, there’s a good chance the bureau’s experts know which computers and even which hackers it came from. Hackers generally have robust online lives. They use social networks, maintain a presence in online forums and chatrooms and transfer money using Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies. Washington could make their lives uncomfortably complicated.

It could break into the hackers’ email accounts and publish them – just as the hackers did to Sony Pictures executives. It could ban their Internet protocol addresses or infect their computers with destructive viruses and malware that could store every keystroke the hackers type. Every password, email, website visited would be recorded and stored in a U.S. database. It might only sideline the hackers, by making them spend time and energy fixing the problem or even force them to buy entirely new hardware — a hacker’s worst case scenario.

U.S. cyber teams could also pose online as commentators and ruin the hackers’ reputations among any communities they belong to. For example, they could upload faulty software to the black markets as the Guardians of Peace.

In the long run, those tactics might damage the North Korean hackers’ capabilities, but wouldn’t do much to deter North Korea or other copycat cyberterrorists.

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This post was edited after publication.

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Update 2: These hackers claim responsibility for taking down North Korea’s internet. HT: Steve Herman.

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Suki Kim will be on The Daily Show tonight

More on that here. In a separate interview, Ms. Kim says that “North Koreans are so oblivious of the outside world that even some children of elite families believe that Korean is spoken in the rest of the world.”

“They, first of all, didn’t know anything about the rest of the world. If any of them did, they were fearful to admit that,” Kim said. “Some of the students really thought people spoke Korean in the rest of the world. So the utter, utter lack of information was astounding.” [….]

She said the students, many of them majoring in computer science, did not know of the existence of the Internet.

Kim said she was shocked to see how isolated the North Korean people are from the outside world, how much their lives are controlled by authorities, and how strong a personality cult surrounded the ruling family of then leader Kim Jong-il.

“It’s religious, really. Absolute belief in the great leader, where, you know, this generation — three generations of these men who, these hugely narcissistic men, basically wiped everything out of their culture except themselves. [Yonhap]

Which, frankly, I found surprising, given the amount and extent of subversive information, foreign DVDs, and samizdat literature said to be circulating there, even among the very same demographic:

A series of books considered “subversive” in North Korea have recently been circulating in black markets, with people renting them out at a fixed price, the Daily NK has learned. The books are only lent to those whose identities can be verified and the main clientele–university students–rent out the books for 3,000 KPW an hour, according to a local source. [….]

“The people who first established a black market for books used to be mainly writers, journalists, and teachers, but now, they’re university students,” the source explained. “Most books are translated and printed by students studying foreign languages.”

These students are largely the children of Party cadres, who use their parents’ influence to get traders to bring in foreign literature. After procuring the titles, students make copies of these translations to sell on the black market using copying facilities located in public institutions. [….]

“College students are used to the culture of watching over each other, so they enjoy detective stories to try to understand the social fabric of the North– where you can’t even trust your own friends,” she elaborated. “A lot of the ‘Japanese novels’ are crime stories investigating cases involving serial killers.”

Elements of the works resonate with most who enjoy reading them, “Looking at the rocky relationship between individuals and power, and having to live through complicated times with wisdom and hidden solutions feels so real,” the source said, citing opinions of many students. “It’s like it shows how you have to struggle to survive in a capitalist society, so it’s interesting,” others have said. [Daily NK]

The actual truth of what North Koreans know must vary dramatically between individuals. Not all people are equally curious or inquisitive. In many cases, as Ms. Kim suggests, the students probably know much more than they’ll admit.

Asked about the prospects for North Koreans to overthrow their government, Ms. Kim gets it exactly right, at least as I see it:

“I don’t know how they’re going to rise up. They can’t even get to the next town without a permission. They don’t have the Internet. They have no way of going there, transportation system. There’s just nothing that connects people,” she said. “So I think it is up to us in the rest of the world to do something where the system is not going to be maintained the same way.”

Update: To contribute to gulag survivor/journalist Kang Cheol Hwan’s campaign to do that, see Dan Bielefeld’s post here.

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Help Change North Korean Society From the Ground Up By Breaking the Information Blockade

graphic: Beyond the Border: Moving Information into North Korea

Kang Chol Hwan is best known for the Aquariums in Pyongyang, in which he tells how he was raised in a political prison camp for an unknown “crime” “committed” by his grandfather.

Perhaps less well known is that Kang started the North Korea Strategy Center in Seoul several years ago, and for years they have been sending in DVDs, USBs, etc. loaded with movies, TV shows, and information about the outside world (eg, a copy of Wikipedia).

The ways in which North Korea attempts to block access to news and information about the outside world have been well documented on this blog and elsewhere, as has the gradual erosion of those controls. NKSC and other groups seek to accelerate that trend by sending in media that informs and that gets North Koreans thinking. Some examples of what they send in:

We send over media such as Hollywood movies, dramas, and documentaries – content that shows the outside world to the North Korean people. Recent examples include The Book Thief (to show freedom of information),The Pursuit of Happyness (free markets), Human Planet foreign culture), 50/50 (welfare), Midnight in Paris (foreign culture), and Tyrant (authoritarianism). [NKSC Indiegogo campaign]

That’s right, NKSC is in the middle of its first Indiegogo fundraising campaign, and they need our financial support and our help to spread the word. I am friends with several present and past staff members at NKSC and can attest to their dedication and tireless hard work. And though they perhaps wouldn’t want me to mention it, I can attest to their self-sacrifice in working at a non-profit organization in Korea such as theirs (put it this way: the wages and, to a lesser extent, the social status accrued by those in the NKHR field in South Korea is not something that most of their fellow countrymen, or many others for that matter, aspire to).

Here’s a short video about NKSC’s media dissemination work.

For more on the topic of how exposure to outside information affects North Koreans, be sure to read A Quiet Opening (PDF), the report that Nat Kretchun and Jane Kim wrote for InterMedia in 2012 (which included research by NKnet).

Visit NKSC’s Indiegogo campaign page and learn more by clicking one of the graphics at the top or bottom of this post.

Whether you’re able to donate to the campaign or not at this time, please share it widely with your friends and relations!

-Thanks, Dan Bielefeld

USBs, DVDs, radios sent into NK to date by NKSC

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KCNA cites debunked accusations to deny human rights violations

It all started with a piece of web journalism that printed the demonstrably untrue accusations of two men whose views were never newsworthy, and which would never have been published had they been researched. One is a notorious denier of North Korea’s crimes against humanity who claims to have traveled widely within North Korea, meaning he’s either too blind to read a cuckoo clock at high noon or prevaricating, probably to protect his business interests there. The other is a combustible man (as in, warning: contents under pressure) without any basis for his mean-spirited accusation — an accusation he now both repeats and regrets in one incoherent post that also concedes the broader truth of Pyongyang’s crimes (but only as asserted by numerous other witnesses). Yet last week, their accusations graduated into official KCNA propaganda talking points in Pyongyang’s smear campaign against its accusers:

A journalist of Ireland on Oct. 29, 2014 in an article dedicated to the internet magazine The Diplomat said that Pak Yon Mi, 21-year old girl who defected from north Korea, spoke about “the serious human rights situation” in north Korea in tears at the World Youth Summit held in Dublin early in October and BBC, Al Jazeera, Daily Mail and other media gave wide publicity to it, but not a few critics claimed what she said was contrary to the truth, expressing skepticism about her speech.

Swiss businessman Felix Abt who had worked in north Korea for seven years till 2009 asserted that most of the stories told by those defectors from the north were not confirmed and clearly hyped or they were sheer lies.

Denying the claim mader by Pak Yon Mi, comparing Dublin Canal with a river in the area where she had lived, that she saw dead bodies afloat over the river every morning, Abt refuted her story by saying he had been to north Korea many times but had never seen dead bodies, showing a picture of children in north Korea wading in rivers with joy.

Challenging the assertion of Ri Kwang Chol, defector from the north, who said there is no physically disabled person in north Korea due to infanticide, Abt recalled that Pyongyang dispatched disabled players to the Paralymic Games held in Inchon, south Korea.

Michael Bassett, who served the U.S. forces as an expert for north Korea in the Demilitarized Zone on the Korean Peninsula for years, said that the story made by Pak Yon Mi, defector from the north, was a shee lie, that Pak described the human rights situation in north Korea as a “massacre”, prompted by her intention to create a great sensation and that such anti-DPRK organizations in south Korea as “Freedom Factory” were behind her. Bassett, referring to the fact that Pak Yon Mi sent him an article refuting his story, ridiculed that her English was too perfect though she was a foreigner. [KCNA]

Congratulations, guys. Your reputations are now secure.

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South Korea’s illiberal left: authoritarians in the service of totalitarians

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. [Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19]

In America, we have grown accustomed to a political polarity in which we associate “left” with “liberal.” Whatever the merits of that correlation here, it’s useless to any understanding of politics in South Korea, where very few people on either side of the political spectrum can be described as liberal, and the only real candidate for that description — at the least the only candidate I can offer — is a member of the “right” Saenuri Party. For the most part, the Korean right has never overcome the authoritarian reputation Park Chung-Hee and Chun Doo-Hwan gave it, and the arrival of democracy did not mean the end of the old right’s use of an overbroad National Security Law to censor nonviolent speech that wiser men would have held up to ridicule and criticism instead.

Meanwhile, the Korean left seems to have dedicated itself to justifying the continued need for the National Security Law, and to making its own criticism of the NSL, however legitimate in isolation, seem hypocritical in the broader context.

In the history of “democratic” South Korea, it is the left that has been responsible for the most pervasive and pernicious censorship. During the Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun years, the Korean left censored human rights activists, refugees, newspapers, and playwrights, acting as Pyongyang’s thought police in the South. To the extent Minju-dang and Uri governments didn’t directly censor criticism of Kim Jong Il, they effectively practiced vicarious censorship, standing by while left-wing unions and “civic” groups used violence to suppress it. They even subsidized the unions and civic groups that were responsible for the worst of the street violence.

In many cases, the Korean left’s political leanings have been exposed as illiberal or totalitarian. On more occasions than I could ever describe here, members of “left” parties, and the civic groups and labor unions that support them, have been caught propagating Pyongyang’s ideology or acting as its agents for espionage — even violent attacks in support of a putative North Korean invasion.

Thus, what American and European liberals almost always get wrong about the Korean left is how illiberal it is, and how little it has in common with them. The Korean left lacks the liberal passion for protecting the vulnerable. American liberals want to lift restrictions on immigration and spare illegal immigrants from deportation; the South Korean left despises North Korean refugees and heaps abuse on them. It would rather let them die in place than offend Pyongyang by letting them in. Euro-American liberals loathe racism and nationalism; the Korean left propagates and exploits them. Euro-American labor unions fight for decent pay and working conditions globally; the Korean left supports the slavery and exploitation of its fellow Koreans at Kaesong. Traditionally, Euro-American liberals stood for freedom of expression. The Korean left would sacrifice the right of South Koreans to speak nonviolently, and of North Koreans to freedom of information, to appease the totalitarians in Pyongyang:

The main opposition party on Wednesday proposed a bill requiring government approval to send propaganda leaflets to North Korea as part of efforts to help ease simmering inter-Korean tensions.

The move by the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) comes as South Korean activists’ sending of balloons with anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border has been a source of inter-Korean rows and tensions.

Pyongyang has urged Seoul to block such activities, while Seoul insists it has no legal ground to regulate their “freedom of speech.”

According to the revision bill to the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act proposed by Rep. Yoon Hu-duk of the NPAD, currencies, leaflets and any printed materials shall be added to the category of goods that need to be approved by the unification ministry before they can be sent across the inter-Korean border.

It also stipulates that the minister must give the go-ahead “to unspecified individuals with mobile equipment, including balloons,” before they can be launched.

The revision bill would also ban the unification minister from giving the green light to sending items into North Korea that “could cause legitimate concerns of hurting inter-Korean exchange and cooperation.”

“The leaflet campaign has hampered the recent thawing inter-Korean mood and posed threats to the safety of the people residing near the border regions,” Rep. Yoon said.

Criticizing the Seoul government for “sitting idle and doing nothing to regulate the activities,” the lawmaker said the revision bill would give the government a legal ground for regulating such activities to help protect residents and improve inter-Korean ties. [Yonhap]

Now take a moment and read about one of the people the NPAD wants to censor. Read about his life’s history, as described by the European liberalism’s newspaper of record:

The food shortage hit my family in 1997. My mother, my wife, and my son died of hunger that winter. The boy was always frail, he died because he could not eat properly.

All my family had died apart from my eldest child. I decided to escape North Korea so that he could live.

I had always lived in obedience to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, but the death of my family changed that. Once I had dreamt of communism being achieved, listening to the lectures of the Kim family every day – but it was only a delusion.

Rebelling against the country would only lead to death. I decided to leave. [The Guardian]

The man fled to survive, but once outside North Korea, freedom of information showed him that it was also possible to live:

Despite the hardships, I tried to listen to South Korean broadcasts every night and sometimes people who had worked there would tell me stories. There was a programme called “To the People of the Workers’ Party” – the presenters were knowledgeable about the reality of North Korea. This is when I realised South Korea was not what I thought it would be. I decided to try to get there.

Today, he is one of the activists who sends leaflets into North Korea. Freedom of information transformed his life, and today, he wants to exercise his new right to speak freely, to give freedom of information to those he left behind. These are the rights — the universally guaranteed rights — that the NPAD wants to deny its fellow Koreans.

Can you imagine The Hankyoreh printing this story? Its editors wouldn’t tolerate it, and its readers would seethe at it.

I don’t think most people would call me a liberal, but I suppose it was around the time the angry left started to call itself “progressive” that I stopped using the word “liberal” pejoratively and attached a certain reverence to it. If liberalism still stands for things like tolerance and equality and nonviolence and free expression and free love, then Korea’s left does not deserve to be called liberal. Instead, it has degenerated to little more than authoritarianism in the service of totalitarianism.

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This post was edited after publication.

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N. Korea perestroika watch: regime installs German-made cell phone trackers

If and when the Security Council takes up North Korea human rights sanctions, I hope they’ll start by ordering the public flogging of whomever sold these to Pyongyang:

The North Korean authorities have installed a series of German-produced radio wave detectors along the border areas to monitor and block residents from making phone calls with people in other countries. The Daily NK has learned that by using the new devices near borders areas where phone reception can be detected, the authorities have been tapping phones and tracking down the call locations. 

“It has become very difficult to make mobile phone calls from the North Korea-China border area,” a source in North Hamkyung Province told the Daily NK on Tuesday. [Daily NK]

Now, I suppose it’s possible that the German manufacturer wasn’t aware that its products would end up being used by the North Korean security forces. I suppose it’s also possible that this is another example of a philosophy — one that’s too prevalent in Europe — that all trade drives North Korea inexorably toward perestroika.

gestapo radio detector

[Berlin, 1941: Gestapo officers demonstrate “a mobile radio detector to pick up resistance signals” to a visiting Spanish delegation]

The saddest thing about this shameful trade is that as near as I can tell, it doesn’t even violate EU sanctions. Not that that matters much, given what a lousy job the EU is doing of enforcing sanctions anyway.

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Suki Kim recalls a “good student” in Pyongyang

Writing in The New York Times, Kim recalls a young North Korean student who made her uncomfortable with his risky questions about government in America:

What I had just described was, more or less, democracy. I could not read his expression, but he thanked me and excused himself.

That evening, I discussed my growing fears about the student’s motives with my teaching assistant. There was nowhere we would not be overheard, so we took a walk around campus, hoping it would look as though we were discussing the day’s lesson, stopping occasionally to take pictures of each other. Maybe, I said, he was on a mission to earn some sort of reward by trading information about us.

“But what if that’s not the case?” my assistant asked. “What if he’s genuinely curious?”

The second possibility made us both grim. What if we were the instigators of his doubt? What if he was starting to think that everything he had known thus far was a lie? [N.Y. Times]

If the student wasn’t a counterintelligence plant, Kim would make one of the more credible cases I’ve yet seen for permissive engagement. Still, there must be other ways of reaching young North Koreans–both inside Pyongyang and beyond–that are less risky for both the teachers and the students.

To know whether the benefits of PUST are worth the risks, I’d have to know how much money PUST is pouring into the regime’s bank accounts, how many other teachers are propagating equally subversive views, how many students get to hear those views, and just how open the students really are to different forms of government. All of those things are unknowable to us.

It’s hard to imagine that PUST has a more favorable cost-benefit ratio than leaflet balloons, much less radio broadcasting.

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