Archive for Propaganda

Congratulations to Kwon Eun Kyoung of Open Radio …

for winning the National Human Rights Commission’s Korea’s Human Rights Award.

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.

N. Korea: U.S. invented Ebola

Once again, KCNA’s source is an American crackpot — this time, a conspiracy theorist named Paul Craig Roberts. Even more incredibly, Roberts cites two professors, including one law professor, as his sources. Seriously — WTF is wrong with a higher education system that employs such whooping lunatics and stands them up in front of impressionable students?

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

North Korea perestroika watch

The Daily NK reports that North Korean security forces in the bleak border province of North Hamgyeong are “shaking down” smugglers to make them rat out the identities of those who’ve escaped to South Korea. They’re identifying the smugglers by intercepting the cell phone signals of money-smugglers, who in turn are forced to rat out goods and people smugglers, who rat out the refugees, whose families are then vulnerable to shake-downs and collective punishment.

For many of the stay-behinds, what their relatives in Seoul send is a large share of what keeps them alive. You don’t have to wonder how this crackdown is affecting the food crisis for those families, although I doubt the World Food Program will never tell us much about that.

It’s all in a day’s work in North Korea’s steady progress toward reforming and opening itself to the world–progress that some of the brightest minds in America and South Korea have been predicting for several decades now. And that many bright people couldn’t possibly be wrong.

In other perestroika news, to most North Korea-watchers, it has been old news for a long time that South Korean DVDs have become ubiquitous in the North, despite the occasional public execution for watching them. This, too, is being undone by the His Porcine Majesty:

“Recently, aside from the 109 Group that is in charge of cracking down on CDs containing dramas from the South, officials from the SSD, People’s Safety Ministry, and People’s Committee are also taking part in surveillance,” a Pyongyang-based source reported on Friday. “With this, people are now trying to stay away from South Korean dramas.”

“Especially now, even bribes that could have helped bypass punishment from the SSD are no longer an effective option,” the source explained. “And with word that those involved will face penalization with no mercy, people are now too scared to watch them.” [Daily NK]

The report relays the accounts of local residents that “a woman in her 50s from the Hyongjaesan District in Pyongyang,” and “[t]he merchant who lent her the CD” have both been sent to prison camps—you know, one of those camps that North Korea says don’t exist. The risk is said to be so great that traders are getting out of the DVD business entirely.

The crackdown on so-called Hallyu [Korean Wave] content in North Korea is a more marked trend since the leadership of Kim Jong Eun. On January 14th, 2012, he ordered a crackdown on “impure” recorded content and publications, which led to the creation of an organization dubbed, “Unit 114.” This became the first regular group instituted during the current leadership with the aim of preventing capitalist culture from spreading.

Say, did you hear he went to school in Switzerland and likes to ski? Also, I understand his wife has a lovely handbag collection.

South Korean media reach deeper into North Korean society.

“The notion of what makes you a chon-nom (“country bumpkin”) in North Korea has really changed,” says Lee Han-byul, a refugee from Hoeryong, North Hamgyong province, who left the country in 2010.

“In the past, the term was used to mock young people living in the provinces,” she says. “But now it’s less so much where you live, but more about how familiar you are with culture outside the country that makes you a chon-nom.”

Han-byul suggests that South Korean dramas are so embedded in the consciousness of ordinary people that “while there are those who may never have had the chance to watch one, you will be hard pressed to find those who have watched one once and don’t watch another.”

She also adds that, “I’ve heard from younger people that those who haven’t seen a South Korean drama have trouble fitting in with trend-sensitive peers.” [New Focus]

Even “ the influence of South Korean tones and voices on language” can be heard in North Korean speech today, including in rural areas that were once isolated from such influences.

Park Sang Hak is a very brave man.

Park and the Fighters for a Free North Korea, most of whom are North Korean refugees, ignored a letter from Pyongyang to the office of South Korea’s President that, according to Yonhap, “alluded to retaliation” against their next leaflet balloon launch:

Defying the warning, 10 activists from Fighters for Free North Korea launched 10 big balloons carrying 200,000 anti-North Korea leaflets into the sky in Paju, north of Seoul.

The waterproof leaflets contain messages denouncing the three-generation power transfer in the North as well as the dire economic situation, while praising South Korea’s economic prosperity. [Yonhap]

They also ignored a warning from the South Korean government about the safety risks, and a request from the Unification Ministry not to go through with the launch. Park’s reaction was defiant.

“In spite of any threat or warning from the North, we will continue sending letters of truth until the North Korean people achieve liberalization,” the activist group’s chief, Park Sang-hak, said during the leaflet campaign.

As much as I admire Park’s uncompromising courage, I also worry about him enough to think he should compromise it just slightly, by being more cagey about launch times and places. The North Koreans have already made one attempt on his life, and I wouldn’t put it past them to shell a launch site. Nor would I put it past South Korean “progressives” to blame Park for the attack and its consequences. They want the government to censor Park:

“Sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets constitutes a dangerous act that devastates peace on the peninsula,” said an activist from the Korea Alliance of Progressive Movements.

You can call the Korean left many things, but “liberal” isn’t one of them.

At times, I’ve wondered what effect Park’s leaflets could possibly have, especially when most of them probably aren’t even found, much less read. One thing that Pyongyang’s reaction to Park tells me is that he must be having some effect. It wouldn’t issue threats like these and send assassins to kill Park if it wasn’t afraid of his message.

N. Korea perestroika watch: Regime bans all wireless internet use by foreigners.

Just lovely. Background here.

If any of my regulars in Pyongyang who aren’t spies — and in a spirit of inclusiveness, also those who are spies — care to risk summary execution and pass along their anonymous observations, I’m listening.

Assuming you have wired internet, that is.

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.

In Pyongyang, men are locking themselves in the bathroom to download …

“Top Gear.” I hear that’s not all they’re downloading (ahem). According to “The Telegraph,” the deeds were done from the Ryugyong-dong district — also the place where all my hits from North Korea come from — a “neighbourhood in the northeast of Pyongyang … which contains … the Pyongyang International Communications Centre” and Koryolink’s main office. So that’s why.

On reflection, I suppose Martyn Williams is probably correct in identifying foreigners as the most likely culprits. You know what this means, of course: Pyongyang may be the only city in Asia where masturbation can be considered high-risk sex.

One of the few examples of potentially effectively engagement by foreign governments …

in North Korea is being shut down by the regime after being outed. The Diplomat reports that the unsecured wireless networks of foreign embassies had allowed North Koreans living nearby to access the internet without restriction, and that the hunger of North Koreans for that information was so great that it caused something of a housing boom in those neighborhoods.

Now that the security forces know about this, they’re cracking down, and forcing embassies to secure and password-protect their signals. I wonder if this means that my regular visits from Pyongyang are going to come to an end. I suppose not, because those visits are almost certainly coming from the North Korean intelligence services, but might be coming from embassies or other foreigners. (Hat tip to a new friend.)

Pyongyang, as Leni Riefenstahl might have seen it*

Last week, a slick new video of Pyongyang by Rob Whitworth and JT Singh infected many writers and readers who don’t know much about North Korea with the Madonna Syndrome, defined as the illusion of entering virgin territory actually while plodding along a tired, well-worn, loveless, and morally ambiguous path in the footsteps of Dennis Rodman. The chirpy reaction of Washington Post blogger Abby Phillip was typical:

A new video aims to show a different side of Pyongyang. It is fascinating because it rather successfully portrays North Korea as a place that is — despite being one of the last truly totalitarian states on the planet — perfectly normal.

I don’t know what ought to fascinate us about the fact that people who live in totalitarian societies also eke out normality and fun where they can find it. All human beings do. It’s the idea that there’s a different side to see in this video that I challenge.

With the exception of a skateboard park — hardly an indication of transformative change by itself — the video reveals nothing new, at least about North Korea (but we’ll come to that). It’s really just a better-produced video of the same old badly produced city.

The city itself looks sterile, and in my own subjective view, some of the scenes look staged (specifically, the shots of the students at their computers). The camera shows us a gleaming Ryugyong Hotel, but doesn’t pan inside to reveal that it’s vacant under the glass. That much is deceptive enough, but it’s not the most deceptive aspect of this kind of propaganda.

By showing us a minders’-eye soda-straw view of Pyongyang — a closed city reserved for the elite — the filmmakers and their minders distort the reality of North Korea. For most North Koreans, life isn’t clean, orderly, or well-fed. You’ll get a far more accurate picture of North Korea, both its attractive and its gritty sides, in Pyongyang and beyond, by visiting the Flickr pages of “Moravius” or Eric Lafforgue, who was recently banned from North Korea for failing to obey his minders’ restrictions on what he could film.

For that matter, Google Earth is probably more revealing than this video.

Has North Korea changed under Kim Jong Un? Yes, but not necessarily for the better. The rich have access to more amenities, but they’ve had some moments of intense terror and heartbreak, too. For poorer North Koreans outside Pyongyang, economic conditions haven’t improved, but political repression has intensified almost immeasurably. I use the term “immeasurably” because our sources of information about most of North Korea are being silenced. Crackdowns on unauthorized information, such as illegal cell phones and DVDs, have been particularly harsh.

Kim Jong Un’s main legacy so far has been to isolate most North Koreans, rather than to reform the system or improve their lives in any meaningful way.

The most significant change the video evidences isn’t a way in which North Korea has changed, but a way we’ve changed. It’s a growing willingness of some foreigners to set aside any ethical considerations and collaborate with Pyongyang, in this case, to produce a slick video to portray it in a favorable light, notwithstanding the horrific crimes against humanity it is committing.

When foreigners “engage” with North Korea, it has always been the foreigners who’ve adapted to North Korea’s standards, not the other way around.

Yet for at least a decade now, everything foreigners have done in North Korea — no matter now carefully monitored and controlled — has been hyped as a bold and transformative. For more than a decade, people have been selling us the same bold views of the same transformative statues, idols, monuments, and museums. And yet the system does not transform.

I’d like to offer that this hype is wearing thin. China was bold and transformative for a few years starting in 1980. The U.S.S.R. was transformative for six years, starting around 1985. Maybe Pyongyang might have been transformative in 2000, but there must be some statute of limitations on describing the entry of foreigners into carefully select parts of a closed society — hopefully, without being arrested — as “pioneering,” when the velvet rope does not move and the political system resists material change.

Virginity isn’t a very persistent thing. Sell it promiscuously enough and other, less complimentary terms become more appropriate. After that, we are only negotiating the price.

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* Attribution to Anna.

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Update: Jeff Stone has written a thoughtful piece on this topic in the International Business Times. I’m quoted near the end of the piece.

Me talk pretty

A reader forwarded me this link of a speech I gave to members of the Korean Church Coalition at the National Press Club last month, and I thought I’d post it here.

Since that day, I’ve wanted to say just how impressed I was by the young, mostly Korean-American members of the KCC. If you watch this on YouTube, videos of their speeches are linked at the sidebar, or at the end of this video. Do yourself a favor and watch a few of them. There wasn’t a pierced eyebrow or tattoo in sight that day — just the sort of clean, poised, articulate, and confident young people the very sight and sound of whom can restore your faith in the future of your country.

It’s not just appearances, either. A few young Korean-American over-achievers — two of them from northern Virginia — have found a technological exploit around Pyongyang’s information firewall (second item).

Consider: we live in the kind of country that collects and incubates the best talent of Korea’s diaspora. No combination is as powerful as the combination of character and intellect. Put that combination into the ideal incubator and it exerts an irresistible liberating force on that diaspora’s ancestral homeland.

Refugees, geeks to join forces at “Hack North Korea”

The Human Rights Foundation, “a New York-based group that focuses on closed societies,” will host a two-day “hackathon” this coming weekend to “harness the technical prowess of Silicon Valley to come up with new ways to get information safely into North Korea.” The event’s title is “Hack North Korea.”

Several prominent North Korean defectors will attend the event including pro-democracy activist Park Sang-hak, former North Korean child prisoner Kang Chol-hwan, media personality Park Yeon-mi and Kim Heung-Kwang, a former professor in computer studies in North Korea. They are expected to speak on the methods currently used to get information into the country, which include CDs and DVDs, USB sticks, shortwave radio, and leaflets dropped from balloons.

Organisers said they are not encouraging hacking in the sense of gaining unauthorised access to data, but is instead hoping to “spark better ideas for getting information into the world’s most closed and isolated society”. 

“Participants will become familiar with the various ways that information and truth are smuggled into North Korea today, and gain an understanding of the technology landscape inside the country. Then, guided by our North Korean guests, attendees will break into teams to come up with new ways to help end the Kim dictatorship’s monopoly of information on the 25 million people living under its rule,” HRF said. [The Guardian]

You can read about some of the specific questions the hackathon will explore here.

My friend, Kurt Achin, who has been interested in subversive technology for years, will be attending Hack North Korea, and I’m hoping he’ll bring back a good report of the ideas under discussion. (Incidentally, Kurt podcasts for NK News, and you can subscribe on iTunes or Soundcloud. The interview with Justice Michael Kirby alone is worth the visit, and all the podcasts are free.)

Some of the materials HRF has launched into North Korea so far have been explicitly political and subversive, including “pro-democracy materials,” “DVDs with South Korean dramas,” and English-language versions of Wikipedia.

Unfortunately, the methods, including balloons, have been primitive. And while those things do teach North Koreans about how we earth people live, I think we overestimate their ignorance of us, and underestimate their ignorance of each other.

Look — I’m the last one to oppose against the idea of subverting North Korea, and I’ve long supported Park Sang-Hak’s balloon launches for their global propaganda value alone. But I don’t think our propaganda will be the thing that really destabilizes North Korea. The end will come because of a combination of North Koreans’ own sui generis grievances, and their acquisition of the means to express them collectively.

North Korea won’t fall because of what we tell them, but because of what they tell each other. The spark will be a popular backlash against prices, corruption, labor mobilizations, unsafe living and working conditions, a botched disaster response, ration cuts, land and crop seizures, wage stagnation, fiscal policy, or market restrictions. Or, all of those things. If we give them the means to talk about them, the rest is all inevitable and imminent.

When North Koreans can buy cheap smart phones in markets, and use them for texting, electronic banking, checking market prices, and emailing friends and co-conspirators, both domestically and internationally, and without fear of being monitored, that will cause a rapid shift in North Korea’s internal balance of power. That’s what I hope to see come out of Hack North Korea.