Tom Malinowski talks to the North Korean people

History should remember Tom Malinowski, the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy and Human Rights, as one of the heroes of the Obama Administration’s otherwise deferential and ineffective North Korea policy. Before his confirmation, Malinowski worked for liberal lion Daniel Patrick Moynihan and was Washington Director of Human Rights Watch. Recently, he sat down for an interview with the Unification Media Group, which is staffed in part by North Korean exiles, publishes the Daily NK, and broadcasts into North Korea. This interview was broadcast to North Korea on June 17th. When the interviewer gave Malinowski the chance to speak directly to North Koreans, this is what he said:

First, it makes us very sad that you have to be in hiding just to be able to hear from somebody like me, and I hope one day that we can meet in a situation where nobody has to be afraid. I would love to ask you questions about your life, and I would love to give you a chance to ask me questions about my country. If you have critical questions, if you have tough questions about the United States that you would like to have the answers to, I would love to have the opportunity to talk to you about those things, too.

Second, I can tell you that I have met a lot of North Koreans in the last few years–men and women from your country who have managed to come out and begin a new life in South Korea or in the United States. Many of them have experienced difficult things in their life. Many of them have been denied a good education, but they are some of the most impressive, and courageous people I have ever met. Because they have had to struggle, in some ways, they are more resilient, they are more creative, they are more talented than the many people who have lived all their life in South Korea or the United States. If you have to find a way to make money in North Korea, you probably know more about market economics than most people in America do, because you have had to learn for yourself how to survive by buying and selling things.

Because they have experienced terrible political repression, because they have been denied their freedom, they know the value of freedom more strongly than many people in America and South Korea do. So, although they have some disadvantages, because of how they grew up, they also have some advantages. And I strongly believe that when North Korea is more free, when the Korean Peninsula is more unified, the people of North Korea will be among the most successful peoples in the world, because of what they had to learn in their struggle to get to that point. [Daily NK]

I wonder how North Koreans will react to hearing these empathetic words from a high official of the government they’ve been taught to hate most. It’s worth noting the evidence that broadcasting to North Korea is more effective at moderating negative views of the U.S. and South Korea than it is at depressing support for the North Korean government (which would make perfect sense if North Koreans rely on what they see with their own eyes to form opinions about what’s all around them).

I doubt I could have written a better message than the one Malinowski delivered here.

Not by any stretch of the imagination would I call the Obama Administration’s North Korea legacy a favorable one overall, but Malinowski reminds us of one very valuable aspect of it. It has advanced a consensus that appeasing North Korea by ignoring its crimes against humanity isn’t worth the moral cost we’ve paid for that. It seems unlikely that this view would have won the day without a hard shove from Congress, but the administration’s message today is that its recent designations of North Korean officials for human rights abuses were actually years in the making. I’ll accept that representation as true, if only because it unites our political mainstream on the right side of history.

Or, if you’re the sort who’d prefer a more “realist,” interests-based argument, consider: governments come and go, but the governed have long memories, and those memories affect our interests, too. Appeasement certainly wasn’t disarming or reforming North Korea, but demands from within for change might. In the war between Kim Jong-un and the North Korean people, we’ve finally taken our first steps toward telling the people that we side with them.

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Prisoners of the People: N. Korea’s guerrilla society has political implications (updated)

Over the last year, I’ve become convinced that if technology can break the electronic barriers between North Korea and the Outer Earth, it would be possible to keep the broken promises of the Sunshine Policy by bypassing Pyongyang and engaging directly with the North Korean people. Governments, churches, and NGOs could harness markets, smuggling networks, and private agriculture to help North Koreans feed the hungry, heal the sick, share information and ideas, begin to rebuild their broken civil society, and eventually, negotiate with the state for what is rightly theirs. 

A new civil society independent of the state, and increasingly at odds with the state’s political objectives, would co-opt, corrupt, and supplant the state’s control over the population, particularly if the state is demoralized, corrupt, weakened by sanctions, and unable to pay its security forces. If it all seems impossible, consider two cases in which that trend is well advanced in North Korean society now — financial services and health care. 

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Reuters writes that a guerrilla banking system has sprung up inside North Korea. For the most part, Reuters describes a system in which merchants who profit from state-sanctioned trade lend money to state-owned enterprises, mostly for the state’s benefit. This amounts to crony capitalism; it’s the least interesting of the three types of financial services that emerged in North Korea over the last decade.

The second type of service is loan sharking by the well-connected against the structurally impoverished. In some cases, the desperately poor agree to pay usurious interest rates to borrow food. You can imagine how some of these stories end. A month ago, for example, the Daily NK reported that a well-liked young woman stabbed a loan shark to death for pressuring her to make payments she couldn’t afford, and “will probably be executed via other means as soon as the court proceedings come to a close, perhaps with an instrument such as a rubber baton.”

The third, and least exploitative system is the one North Korean refugees currently use to send remittances to their families back home, although that system is risky for the smugglers and the recipients, who become vulnerable to extortion by the police. It’s also expensive — the refugees pay steep commissions from their hard-earned pay to send these pittances home.

The situation that has developed clearly fills a need in the marketplace, but ethically, it’s obviously far from ideal. If the technology existed to set up secure online banking through messenger apps, it would be possible to send remittances and humanitarian aid from South to North Korea with a minimum of risk and cost, and to extend microcredit to the poor in more regulated and ethical ways.

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But the report that fascinates me the most is one I read over the weekend — Eun Jeong Soh’s paper, “The Emergence of an Informal Health-Care Sector in North Korea,” published in the Asia-Pacific Journal, and based on extensive interviews with refugees, including health care workers, from North Korea. One of the more ambitious things I’ve advocated is supplementing, and largely replacing, North Korea’s broken public health system with a guerrilla health care system for those who can’t afford the bribes and fees that are a de facto cost of North Korea’s “free” health care. Soh’s paper suggests the extent to which something like that has already begun to happen spontaneously. Like most of North Koreans’ adaptations to the failure of the state, this new system was illegal, which meant that it necessarily relied on informal networks and a high degree of mutual trust.

At first, many of these home healers were quacks and unqualified traditional healers. Over time, more retired and off-duty doctors began moonlighting for trusted patients. The services they provide have improved in quality as the state hospitals increasingly do little more than use their equipment to diagnose ailments. Today, those who can afford it prefer to use private doctors, who refer patients to back-alley pharmacists to supply medicines. So well developed are the markets’ smuggling networks today that the quality and authenticity of the medicines sold by back-alley pharmacists is now as great a concern as their availability.

Up to this point, Soh’s paper mostly adds richness of detail, anecdote, evidence, and analysis to trends North Korea watchers already knew of, or might have reasonably extrapolated to the state of affairs she describes.

But the state still hovers over all of this. How do informal networks grow despite a state that wants to stamp them out, isolate citizens from each other, and maintain its monopoly over essential services? One way is for private doctors to form protective relationships with the security forces — “she provides him with free medical assistance and he protects her from any official repercussions that her activities might incur.” But Soh’s subjects also report that the state also holds back, fearing that if it cracks down, there will be discontent and unrest. It’s a long quote, but worth reading.

In describing this informal hoarding system, she conveyed the sense of injustice she feels about what the system has become, even though, in times of personal need, she had herself acquired drugs directly from the hospital.

How is such shared moral outrage expressed and communicated to the bureaucrats charged with enforcing the regulations? Dissatisfaction can be expressed verbally as a way of confronting local officials directly. Interviewees argued that in order to survive in North Korea, one often has to take a firm line and defend one’s position logically in order to persuade officials of the merits of one’s case. While this might seem surprising given the state’s tight control over its citizens, the expression of complaints to local officials is facilitated by preexisting relationships between officials and complainants formed through family networks, neighborhood relations, friendships, a shared history as classmates, and so forth. Social relations in small regional cities in North Korea are close, shaped by cultural traditions, socialism, and communalism, and reinforced by the coping and survival strategies developed to weather times of hardship.

However, given the nature of a regime that does not accommodate dissent, the expression of dissatisfaction generally takes non-verbal forms. One term that cropped up frequently was “disaffection” (panbal). In the narratives recorded in this study, panbal refers to feelings as well as expressions of disaffection against the authorities (normally local officials charged with regulating anti-socialist activities), as well as with life in general. Although the authorities are well aware of such disaffection in the populace, Ms Hahn expressed her opinion that in reality the government lacked the power to impose its own regulations: “If the authorities regulate even those activities, there would be too much disruption” (Interview, S. Hahn, October 26, 2013). According to a former police officer, “a police officer will be unpopular if he takes unnecessary enforcement action” (Interview, M. Park, November 18, 2013). If complaints against local officials accumulate, they will damage their reputation with residents. In E. P. Thompson’s words, referring to the 18th-century English crowd, “the authorities were, in some measure, the prisoners of the people” (Thompson 1971, 88).

From the point of view of local officials, the existence of these informal coping networks and strategies are to be applauded, as alternative ways of providing health care may have the effect of allaying complaints by residents. Local officials also have private incentives to turn a blind eye to such informal activities. Normally, these private practices operate with the help of local police who accept bribes from practitioners. More importantly, police officers also draw on the services and expertise of informal health-care workers for their own families’ survival and wellbeing. As a result, local officials and residents have come to share similar views on these extra-judicial activities. Thus the convergence of preferences among providers, consumers, and regulators has contributed to the emergence of an active and evolving informal health-care sector in North Korea.

So it was that North Koreans who harbored no explicit political motives learned to resist and conspire against the state, and to defeat the prisoners’ dilemma it imposed on them.

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Update:

North Korean parents are catching “private education fever” as more and more of them are risking arrest as they venture outside the secretive state’s educational system in the hope that a private tutor will help their children get into a top university.

“The goal of these parents is to send their children overseas or to the best colleges in Pyongyang,” a North Korean who recently visited China told RFA’s Korea Service. “There have been slogans going around saying: ‘Let’s send them overseas!’ or ‘Let’s send them to Pyongyang!’”

In North Korea, where the state tightly controls education, hiring a private tutor is illegal, but more and more parents are taking the risk and paying the price

“Subjects like mathematics, physics or any other of the core studies cost 100 [Chinese] yuan (U.S. $15.00) per month in Pyongyang, whereas subjects that need specialized skills like computer programming cost between 200-500 yuan (U.S. $30-$75) per month,” said the source, who talked to RFA on condition of anonymity.

The fever doesn’t end with academics as so-called “extreme” North Korean parents, who want to raise “civilized” children, pay more so their kids can learn to play at least one instrument and take part in athletics, explained the source.

“Children of the privileged class in Pyongyang spend about 1000 yuan (U.S. $150) monthly for private education expenses,” the source said. [RFA]

To do this, the parents have to pay bribes to get their kids excused from regular school or labor mobilizations. The tutors are also at risk of arrest, so many are well-connected people who are relatively untouchable.

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North Koreans find leaks in Kim Jong-un’s information blockade

Until 2011, the erosion of North Korea’s border control and the infiltration of foreign ideas may have been the only hopeful trends in a country where just about all of the news is bad. When Kim Jong-un came to power, however, he launched an allout effort to seal North Korea’s leaky border with China. Most of the evidence tells us that that effort has had considerable success. It cut the flow of refugees from North to South Korea in half, and (with the help of cell phone locators, reportedly imported from Germany) made it extremely risky to make cross-border phone calls. Those calls were one of North Koreans’ few fragile links to the outside world.

Yet despite Kim Jong-un’s best efforts, the border isn’t completely sealed. After years of decline, the number of refugees arriving in the South is inching up again. North Koreans were still able to find out about the recent group defection of 13 restaurant workers from China — news that the state must have been very eager to suppress — using illegal cell phones.

NK News reports that some younger North Koreans are now sharing “multimedia files, with content often influenced distinctly from Japanese and South Korean culture,” over their government-controlled Koryolink phones. This is, of course, a risky proposition over a monitored network, but in time, marginally subversive content has the potential to overwhelm the state’s capacity to monitor and censor it. Here, I find myself agreeing with Andrei Lankov:

“The horizontal connections” provided by the growing cellphone network should be welcomed, Dr. Andrei Lankov, a long-time North Korea watcher told NK News on Monday.

“The massive arrival of cellphones provide North Koreans with many opportunities to interact

with their peers, often living far away.

“It is new, since for generations North Korean society has been compartmentalized, with people having little communications outside their work unit and neighbourhood,” he added.

The greater danger to the regime, however, is that North Koreans have apparently found a way to evade both the regime’s cell phone detectors and the monitored state-run networks, by using hard-to-trace messenger apps like on their Chinese cell phones. 

North Korean users of foreign messenger applications such as Kakao Talk, Line, and WeChat will be arrested on the spot on suspicion of espionage, according to a new order handed down from the authorities. Sources inside the country interpret the move as Kim Jong Un’s aggressive reaction to the capability of Chinese cellphones to facilitate the import and export of information into the isolated country.

As recently reported by Daily NK, the North Korean authorities have ramped up efforts to label Chinese cellphone users as traitors and pursuing strict punishments against them. To this end, North Korean authorities doubled down on the use of signal detectors to trace illicit international calls and zero in on the location of foreign phone users.

However, the messenger apps allow users to circumvent detection by this equipment, prompting the regime to respond with new threats specifically targeting users of these communication applications. [Daily NK]

I’m not a technology expert, but I’d guess that’s because text messages transmit only a small amount of data in an instant — too little time for detection equipment to zero in on the location. The regime has responded by ordering the immediate arrest and harsh punishment of anyone caught using a messenger app.

“Offenders who are apprehended will be processed according to the discretion of the arresting agency– i.e. the State Security Department or the Ministry of People’s Security. Those taken in will be charged with espionage associating with the enemy and dispatched to a political prison camp.”  [….]

“These days, Line and Kakao Talk are explicitly mentioned in lectures [routinely delivered to residents by the authorities]. That’s how serious the crackdown has become,” a separate source in Ryanggang Province said.

The regime has been worried about Kakao Talk since 2014, which is also when I first read reports of its use to evade regime censorship. Jieun Baek has written about its evolution into a guerrilla banking system for North Koreans. By late 2015, North Korean refugees in the South were already using it to send messages and money to their families back home and set up clandestine hawaladars inside North Korea. Kakao Talk has also won a license from the South Korean authorities to operate as an online bank.

The obvious limitation of these apps is that Chinese cell phones have limited range — just a few miles inside North Korea. But if the signal range problem can be solved, messenger apps could give North Koreans the ability to spread news and make payments from city to city and province to province. I can foresee a dynamic under which these apps could play a significant role in shifting North Korea’s internal balance of power. Apps like these could help North Korea’s poor become richer and better fed, even as a heavily sanctioned regime’s security forces increasingly turn to corruption to feed their own families.

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Dear President Park: Make Reunification Your Legacy

Last week was a tough week for Park Geun-hye, when her party lost its majority in the National Assembly. The simplest explanation for this is that historically, ruling parties usually take beatings in mid-term elections, particularly when their own voters don’t show up to vote. The ruling party may poll well in the abstract, but a party that enters an election divided is likely to underperform expectations. 

Republicans, take note. And don’t look so smug, Democrats.

Something like this appears to have happened in South Korea this week, but I suspect that economics and quality-of-life issued mattered, too. For decades, South Korea’s economy has been based on a model in which the working classes toiled, sacrificed, and saved to develop its economy into a vibrant and prosperous one. A little research quickly confirms one’s anecdotal observation that Korea’s public policies are still a relic of that era. Obviously, South Korea’s society and economy have changed dramatically since Park Chung-hee was President. Its human development index is now higher than that of France, Finland, or Belgium, yet its average wages are lower, and its disposable income is significantly lower, due to its high cost of living. This, despite the fact that Koreans work more hours than in almost any other OECD country, and despite Korea having one of the OECD’s highest rates of fatal industrial accidents.

As human development rises, people naturally expect more from life. The “Hell Chosun” narrative can sound pathetic and whiney coming from a country that, after all, shares a peninsula with North Korea, but South Koreans who expect more of that thing we like to call work-life balance still have a point. Why, for example, do South Korean companies still expect people to show up to work on Saturdays, especially after staying out late enabling their boss’s drinking habits?

With the probability that the new National Assembly will frustrate Park’s plans for economic and labor “reforms” — and there is no more dangerously misused manipulation in our political lexicon than the word “reform” — Park isn’t going to be able to bust unions and lower trade barriers for the remainder of her time in office. One can reject the repellent political views of some of South Korea’s unions and still believe that as a general matter, unions play an important role in giving workers a voice for better pay and working conditions, things that are very much on the minds of young South Koreans today.

In time, Park may come to see this loss as a gift. Her economic agenda might have been good for South Korea’s economy in the short term, but politically, it would have been a fast drive into a hard wall. Few South Koreans will miss it. Over the long term, ultra-free-market policies also create classes of losers. In this country, they’re currently voting for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in droves, ironically threatening to overturn the very principles that made America great. Park’s policies, too, might have been exceedingly controversial going into the next election. Even in the minority, the opposition would have stood a good chance of blocking them and riding their obstructionism to victory in the next election.

Saenuri leaders who haven’t resigned have been holding crisis meetings about the future of their party, and Park has to be wondering whether her legacy will be the Sewol Ferry disaster. It doesn’t have to be so. American presidents — most famously, Richard Nixon, and most recently, Barack Obama — have historically turned outward when hostile congresses frustrated their domestic agendas. Park isn’t going to have a strong legislative legacy, but she can claim one really significant accomplishment — the North Korea human rights law that passed, just in the nick of time. Park should implement that new law as liberally as her country’s canons of construction allow.

Only this year, we saw the first signs that Park had shed her cautious exoskeleton and shown us some spine. She finally began to pupate into a leader, and her leadership on North Korea has been the brightest spot in her generally lackluster popularity. Koreans don’t find Park very likable, but they liked the way Park handled Kim Jong-un last August, and they supported her when she shut down Kaesong, a scam that remained popular years after it had manifestly failed to achieve its stated purposes. It makes good political sense, then, for Park to spend the remainder of her term capitalizing on her strength—her emergence as a national, and global, leader in responding to a rising North Korean threat.

South Korea’s own unilateral sanctions are important to this symbolically and diplomatically, but they will not be the policy that records Park’s destiny in Korean history. Yes, South Korea’s sanctions can help seal the leaks in a global sanctions regime, and enforcing sanctions gives Park the credibility to ask other states to do the same, but South Korea lacks America’s unique financial power. Its unique power is a far greater thing — the power of nationhood and national legitimacy. President Park is the only elected (and therefore, legitimate) leader of the Korean nation, and the South Korean Constitution claims the entire Korean Peninsula as its territory.

Thus, if South Korea marshals its considerable technological talents and finds a way to open communications directly with its citizens north of the Imjin River, North Korea cannot long resist the changes that its downtrodden have steadily advanced, despite the regime’s efforts to stifle them. Forget loudspeakers — Seoul should open south-to-north broadcasting on the medium wave band, and build a string of cell phone towers along the DMZ to open the channels of direct engagement to Koreans north of the DMZ.

Then, Park should do something truly historic. This year, on the August anniversary of Korea’s liberation from colonial rule, Park should address the people of North Korea. She should tell them that they are her countrymen, too. She should tell them in unambiguous terms how Kim Jong-un has squandered their food, their money, and their sweat to support a bloated military, a system that terrorizes them, and an opulent lifestyle for which no more evidence is needed than His Corpulency’s omnipresent moonscape. She should tell them that even as she sanctions his regime to slow his capacity to terrorize Koreans on both sides of the DMZ, she will also do everything in her power to ease their suffering.

One way to do this will be to ease restrictions on remittances sent by the refugee diaspora to their families back inside North Korea. She can ask churches and NGOs to use these family bonds to fund informal clandestine networks inside North Korea to get food, medicine, medical care, and news to those who need it most. She can continue to push the United Nations and its member states to hold North Korea’s leaders accountable for crimes against humanity. She can urge other U.N. member states to freeze the assets that are misspent for weapons and luxury goods, and increase pressure on the regime to accede to humanitarian reforms.

In doing so, Park can become a leader to all Koreans, and begin Korea’s long-overlooked preparations for reunification by rebuilding the broken foundations of North Korea’s civil society. She can give Koreans north of the Imjin River what they’ve never had — the knowledge that a legitimate Korean government has not forgotten them when their need is greatest. Park would also be building a legacy for her own party. After all, although most Asian-American and Latino voters tend to vote Democratic, Cuban-Americans and Vietnamese-Americans still vote Republican. Undoubtedly, this reflects the sense that in their hour of greatest need, the Republicans stood in solidarity with them.

More than ever, one senses that the current trends in North Korea cannot continue for long. Kim Jong-un has demonstrated ineptitude as a leader, both domestically and internationally. He may be gone in two months or five years, but it’s hard to see how his misrule, with its dependence on hard currency from abroad, survives a growing, self-inflicted international isolation for much longer than this. Reunification could be a moment when South Korea absorbs 23 million traumatized, alienated, and restive people. How much better it would be if instead, reunification begins with the hopeful sense among North Koreans that their new government will lead them toward the things that Pyongyang has so long denied them — rice, peace, and freedom.

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North Korea: Let the (information) war begin (updated).

It’s still much too early to say that the new campaign to cut off the hard currency that sustains His Corpulency’s misrule will result in either behavior modification or the termination of that misrule, but we continue to see signs that are consistent with Pyongyang feeling the pressure from sanctions. One of these is its exceptional belligerency of late — exceptional even by North Korean standards. Not a week goes by without news of North Korea violating U.N. sanctions by firing more missiles. North Korea has also increased its UAV flights over South Korean territory, in one case, prompting ROK soldiers to fire warning shots. Most recently, it has jammed GPS signals near the DMZ.

The Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning said the GPS disruptions that began Thursday have been repeating at intervals ever since, impacting Seoul’s adjacent city of Incheon, and the surrounding Gyeonggi and Gangwon provinces.

The ministry said 746 airplanes and 621 vessels experienced disruptions, but no significant damage has been reported so far. The disruptions can cause mobile phones to malfunction, and affect planes and ships that rely on GPS for navigation.

Seoul’s defense ministry earlier said that the North’s actions are aimed at raising tensions on the divided peninsula amid mounting international pressure on the North to give up its nuclear weapons programs.

The defense ministry added that there has been no reported negative impact on the South Korean military due to the North’s GPS-jamming provocations. It warned that it will make North Korea pay a “due” price if Pyongyang does not cease its actions. [Yonhap]

These things are certainly threatening and disruptive to South Korean commerce — including at Incheon Airport and the vital sea lane nearby — but South Korea could adapt to them if it had to. After all, aircraft and ships operated before GPS was invented. If they had to, aviators and navigators could relearn the lost art of navigation without it.

The unspoken premise of Pyongyang’s strategy is that electronic warfare is inherently more disruptive to the technologically advanced South than the Luddite North. Nonsense. There can be no better illustration of the potentially disruptive power of signals on the North Korean political system than North Korea’s quarantine of outside information. The fact that North Korea expends so much effort to sustain it — jamming foreign broadcasts, conducting house-to-house searches for illegal DVDs, even importing tracking devices to find and seize the illegal cell phones that help fill its markets and feed its people — tells you that the people with the best information, the North Korean security forces themselves, know that outside information is a grave threat to the stability of the system.

In a must-read report, the New York Times explains how, on a people-to-people level, those cell phones have become a vital link between North Koreans and the outside world, including with their relatives who have escaped from the North, and with people inside and outside North Korea who are hungry for information on the other side of the blockade. But the potential of cell phones as an agent of change is so much greater than this that it’s a mystery to me why one cannot call across North Korea’s southern border just as one can (still, barely) call across its northern border.

Since the start of the current financial isolation campaign, the regime has been exceptionally isolationist — again, even by North Korean standards.

North Korea has been intensifying a “sting operation” to arrest people making contact with South Koreans using mobile phones, especially in border areas near China, sources said Tuesday.

Sources familiar with North Korean affairs said that nearly 10 people have been arrested by security forces since the start of the ongoing 70-day campaign to encourage its people to work harder as the ruling Workers’ Party gets ready to host its first congress since 1980. [….]

A source said that the country’s public security authorities have recently carried out a special operation in the border city of Musan in North Hamgyong Province to round up residents having phone conversations with South Koreans or their relatives living south of the border.

The source said that the security authorities’ sting operations are being conducted in the “Rimgang” area near Musan, where phone connections are relatively good.

According to the source, the North Korean authorities turn off their jamming devices intentionally for two to three hours to make it easier for residents to have smooth telephone conversations and then apprehend them for making the phone conversations that are illegal in the North.

“Some 10 residents have been arrested in such operations since the start of the 70-day campaign,” the source said, adding that there are rumors that those detained will be executed before or after the party congress on charges of espionage.

Despite such crackdowns, the number of people contacting the South or making phone calls with citizens are on the rise, as many rely on support from their relatives to survive in the impoverished country. Money sent can be used to buy goods on the open market. [Yonhap]

As it turns out, North Korea’s jamming of South Korean GPS signals may be collateral damage from a redoubled effort by Pyongyang to strengthen the quarantine by jamming foreign broadcasts, and even blocking websites like Twitter, Facebook, and other applications that foreigners in Pyongyang can access, and use to report information to the outside world. North Korea has always jammed foreign broadcasts, although a 2013 study by Intermedia found that the jamming wasn’t all that effective, perhaps due to the North’s endemic power shortages and the difficulty of sustaining the jamming. Today, however, Pyongyang is sparing no expense to maintain the quarantine.

North Korea has been from the beginning of March continually signal jamming radio broadcasts on the shortwave frequency used by the South Korean non-profit broadcaster Unification Media Group (UMG). Given the present situation, in which North Korean residents might be influenced by outside information condemning the regime and explaining the purpose of the sanctions imposed by the United Nations, the regime has showed the will to block sources of outside information that might cause unrest.

The shortwave frequency in question–7515 kHz, in the 41 meter band–has been actively jammed, making it extremely difficult for North Korean listeners to tune in. [….]

“This is the strongest signal jam in the last few years.  As the regime is pushed into further isolation by the strongest round of sanctions yet, they have become concerned that the residents will be awakened by exposure to outside information,” Unification Media Group (UMG) President Lee Gwang Baek said.

“North Korean authorities can not signal jam at high strength across multiple channels, so right now, the most effective thing to do would be to expand our frequencies and signal strength. We need direct [South Korean] government assistance to do that.”

If the government were to grant permission for civil society organizations broadcasting to North Korea to use the former’s powerful and far-reaching medium wavelengths, the broadcasts would be able to reach far more people despite the jamming attempts.

About this, National Intelligence Service First Deputy Director Yeom Don Jae said, “The regime’s efforts to block radio signals from South Korean civic groups is actually confirmation of the potency of these broadcasts. This will cause considerable agitation for the listeners who have become accustomed to tuning in to foreign radio.”

He added, “Therefore, we need to let the North Korean residents know about this situation and use the strength of the regime as a weapon against them. We need to use multi-dimensional methods to pump the North full of information.” [Daily NK]

Exactly right. Regardless of the North’s electronic warfare against the South, the South should be waging an aggressive information war against the North. The campaign should leverage various types of media — broadcasting over short wave, medium wave, and television; and the smuggling of USBs, DVDs, and the devices to read them.

It should focus as much attention on getting information and images out of North Korea as getting them in. Above all else, it should focus on two-way communication, ideally through cell phones, because the information that is most persuasive to North Koreans is what they hear from people they trustIts message must not only inform North Koreans about the corruption and inequality in their own society, it should also spread a message of peace to counteract the state’s anti-American and anti-South Korean war propaganda. The message should be a variation of the one that worked so well for Marxist revolutionaries a century ago — rice, peace, and freedom.

Even as the information campaign pursues diverse tactics, it must also have a single, cohesive strategy. Calls to establish a pro-democracy movement inside North Korea sound wonderful in the abstract, but how many North Koreans will understand what democracy is, much less the complex ways in which democratic institutions would protect them from fear and hunger? How many North Koreans would risk their lives for abstract ideas? Lately, I’ve become convinced that we should learn from Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, which built the foundations of political movements on social service organizations that filled the voids left by uncaring, incompetent, and corrupt governments, while rejecting the terrorist methods they also pursued. In the same sense, clandestine institutions that provide for North Korean’s material needs can establish the organization, resiliency, and credibility to take their messages in more spiritual and political directions later. Again, as the Marxists taught us:

Note that this is not a call to support unconventional warfare, as retired Special Forces Colonel David Maxwell has advocated, or a call for a campaign of nonviolent resistance as the Albert Einstein Institute advocates generally. My view is that both strategies are premature and implausible today, because today, no resistance movement can organize or establish the clandestine political infrastructure that is the prerequisite to all resistance — including nonviolent resistance — to totalitarian regimes.

Seoul is now calling the jamming a violation of the armistice and warning Pyongyang that it will pay a price for it. Certainly information operations can be an effective deterrent, but they can be so much more. They can be the path to Korea achieving its destiny — to be a nation once again.

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Updates: After I published my post, a new Yonhap story tells us that Pyongyang has “strengthened its surveillance of its people in areas bordering China to crack down on those contacting defectors in South Korea ahead of its key party congress.”

“The North is trying to strengthen its control over people in the border areas on the grounds that internal information in North Korea has leaked to the South Korean media,” a source said.

The ministry is carrying out special operations to arrest North Koreans who contact their family members in South Korea via mobile phones, the sources added.

Defectors living in South Korea send money to their kin in the North through brokers in China or the North. They talk over the phone along the border regions where Chinese mobile phones work.

“The authorities have increased the number of agents to monitor North Koreans at public places, such as markets,” the source said. “North Korea has been beefing up its crackdown over its people. Those who are at risk the most are North Koreans who have family members who have defected to the South.” [Yonhap]

My post also drew this response from Colonel Maxwell:

With all due respect to my good friend Joshua Stanton he makes the fatal mistake regarding both unconventional warfare and non-violent resistance (e.g., Gene Sharp) that most non-practitioners, and uninformed policymakers and strategists make regarding unconventional warfare. The resistance in north Korea must be supported and while the conditions may not be ready for the resistance to act (which is why continuous assessment of resistance potential must be made), preparation must occur over time. You cannot just decide to conduct unconventional warfare sometime in the future without any prior preparation. If you want to have that option you have to prepare the environment now and one of the ways to do that is to provide support to the nascent resistance which is what I advocate here. To follow Joshua’s line of reasoning at the end of his article would mean that we never have the option should the Alliance determine that it is one of the ways/means to support Alliance strategy.

But to support Joshua’s call for the (information) war to begin I recently wrote this essay with one recommendation for how to use information to help prepare the Korean people living in the north for unification.

As a non-practitioner, I had not thought that I was proposing anything that would be categorized as “unconventional warfare” by a practitioner, but Colonel Maxwell and I are both saying that the U.S. and South Korea should — immediately — seek to create the technological, social, and political conditions in which resistance (regardless of the form it takes) becomes possible.

Colonel Maxwell also contemplates supporting an armed resistance movement. For today’s purposes, I’ll leave that part of the discussion to the practitioners, although as early as the 1990s, even Wendy Sherman was assuming that this would just happen spontaneously and save us from the nuclear crisis. As the examples of Iran, Syria, and Libya show us, simply letting such things play out on their own seldom ends well.

On the other hand, if widespread popular resistance to the Pyongyang regime becomes a real possibility, it would surely concentrate minds in Beijing and Pyongyang on diplomatic alternatives. Beijing fears chaos in North Korea far more than it fears THAAD — probably even more than secondary sanctions — and the generals in Pyongyang must know that they’re neither equipped, trained, nor financed to wage a nationwide war against their own population.

 

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Beyond sanctions: S. Korea should open direct, people-to-people cell service for N. Koreans

With much of the North Korea policy debate understandably focused on sanctions this week, I hope North Korea watchers won’t miss this new report from Amnesty International on the efforts by “Swiss-educated reformer” Kim Jong-un to seal off all unauthorized contact between his subjects and the outside world. In recent years, the principal medium for such contact has been the use of Chinese cell networks whose signals penetrate a few miles into North Korea. Those calls had become an important lifeline for refugees in China and South Korea to communicate with and support their families, to broker escapes and migrations, and for smugglers to send food, money, medicine, and other needed goods to North Koreans.

Perhaps in response to these developments, after coming to power in 2011 Kim Jong-un tightened border security, resulting in a dramatic reduction in the number of North Koreans arriving in South Korea that had been steadily increasing in previous years. Individuals who spoke to Amnesty International reported a similar tightening of control over communications near the border in order to stop the cross-border movement of people and to exert more control over the grey market trade. North Korean specialists as well as some interviewees reported that the state has increased monitoring and often blocked mobile signals on the Chinese networks, and imported state-ofthe-art surveillance devices. Individuals’ testimonies also confirmed findings of the Commission, which reported that a special department of the State Security Department had sophisticated equipment to pick up the emissions of “Chinese mobile phones”. Individuals who reported having experienced the surveillance and the jamming of signals first hand told Amnesty International that they saw these actions as a tactic to intimidate potential users of “Chinese mobile phones.” [Amnesty International]

Amnesty’s report is also accompanied by this interactive “explainer,” which includes a video and slide show.

Most experts are skeptical that sanctions will pressure Kim Jong-un into giving up his nukes at the bargaining table, and I’ll confess that I also have my doubts. It’s unlikely that anything short of a fundamental shift in the North Korean government’s world view — most likely, through a coup d’etat, or a breakdown of social control — will allow for a conclusive solution to its nuclear or humanitarian crises in the next five years. After that, it may be too late — North Korea will already be an effective and aggressive nuclear power.

Sanctions have multiple purposes, but none of them is more important to a broader North Korea policy than shifting North Korea’s internal balance of power. Sanctions can weaken the regime’s apparatus of control by denying it the means to pay and equip security forces, and convince official and military officers that the good times are over, and that time is against them. But this is only half of the strategy.

The other half of this strategy is to break the fear, hopelessness, dependency, and docility of the North Korean people, and to help them organize and rebuild a civil society from the foundations up. Information is power. Free communication will introduce North Koreans to the truth about life in the outside world. It will help spread a message of rice, peace, and freedom, raise North Koreans’ independent political consciousness, and stimulate a yearning for a better life than one lived under Kim Jong-un’s heavy boot. It will rebuild connections within separated and divided families. It has helped refugees in the South support their families in the North through a primitive hawala-like remittance system (that is inexplicably still illegal in South Korea). It will help South Korean NGOs fund the growing of food and its distribution to the needy, and to provide for North Koreans’ spiritual and medical needs. One North Korean woman has already used it to send cancer drugs to her sister. Eventually, it will help North Koreans organize and establish underground newspapers, unions, and political organizations. It could also help Seoul set up a well-regulated cross-border banking system to finance all of it.

But how? Creative minds are coming up with many brilliant ideas — and I hope they’ll keep working at it — but I think the technology and the infrastructure already exist.

Consortiums led by information technology service giants Kakao Corp. and KT Corp. won a preliminary license to launch South Korea’s first Internet-only bank Sunday, the financial regulator said, opening the new business market in the long-slumping banking industry. [Yonhap]

The online bank will start operation by June, and will team up with KakaoTalk, which is already gaining popularity with North Koreans because of its anonymity and functionality with weak signals. North Koreans already use Kakao to arrange money transfers from South Korean banks to clandestine North Korean hawaladars.

The FSC said Kakao Bank has an innovative business plan with broader customer lists based on KakaoTalk, which has more than 34 million members. Kakao is already running mobile payment tools such as KakaoPay and BankWalletKakao.

K-Bank is initiated by KT, the largest fixed-wire operator. Its partners involve No. 1 bank Woori Bank, leading IT solution provider Nautilus Hyosung Inc., GS Retail Co. and Hyundai Securities Co. [Yonhap]

The free flow of information and money is the sine qua non of an engagement strategy designed to reach the people who want change, rather than a regime that resists it. For the last 20 years, Seoul poured $7 billion in no-questions-asked aid and favorable trade arrangements into Pyongyang’s coffers, blithely unaware of how Pyongyang was spending that money, including just maybe using its money to nuke up. In the name of “engagement” with Kim Jong-Il, we were told, Seoul had to take bold risks to draw North Korea into the global economy and gradually induce it to disarm and reform. By now, the results of this experiment speak for themselves. Pyongyang has taken Seoul’s money, nuked up, and rather than reformed, has invested heavily in sealing its borders. 

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 8.05.12 AM

[Via Amnesty International]

Why is it, then, that China builds cell towers along the North Korea border, but South Korea does not? Why is it that one can call from Yanji to Musan, but not from Busan to Kaesong? Why is the Yalu River the only front in North Korea’s information war? Why does South Korea waste so much effort on small-ball games with leaflets and loudspeakers, when it could inaugurate Tongilnet, the first South-to-North cell phone service, operating on the same frequency as the recently confiscated Koryolink network? In an instant, it would become possible to call from the top of Halla-san to the foothills of Paektu-san. There’s no way Pyongyang could hire enough censors to monitor all the calls.

This is what strikes me as so dull-minded about Korea-watchers who say that with the closure of Kaesong, Seoul has lost its last bit of leverage over Pyongyang. Nonsense. Just imagine if signals from SK Telecom and other South Korean cell providers also leaked into North Korea, with steadily expanding ranges. Imagine the subversive potential of North Koreans chatting with their relatives in the South, reading the Daily NK on smartphones, sending photographs or video of local disturbances to Wall Street Journal reporters, or downloading religious pamphlets from South Korean megachurches. 

Why not do it now? Until now, political paralysis and appeasement have prevented Seoul from a step as modest as opening up the AM band to South-to-North broadcasts (which Seoul should do). Seoul’s own paranoid security services are also paralyzed by the fear that North Korean spies would also use this network, which is odd. After all, the handlers of Pyongyang’s spies, agents of influence, and fifth columnists in the South seem to be the only North Koreans who aren’t having trouble with “inter-Korean engagement.” It’s a silly and short-sighted policy. Times have changed, and so has the technology. It’s time for imagination and policy to catch up with the times and the technology.

~   ~   ~

Update:

Cellphones have the potential to change North Korea by empowering its citizens, Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet Inc., which owns Google, said Wednesday. Schmidt, who was in Seoul to watch a Go match between artificial intelligence and a human player, visited North Korea in 2013.

“Since then I don’t think the situation in North Korea has gotten better; I think it’s probably gotten worse overall,” he told reporters. “I think all of us believe that the mobile phone is a strong, strong empowerer of individuals and that eventually the mobile phone penetration in North Korea will be a material impact in its internal structuring. That has not happened yet.” [Bloomberg, Peter Pae]

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Samantha Power: N. Korea would rather grow its nuke programs than grow its children

I’ll just give you this excerpt from Ambassador Power’s speech before the adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2270.

Ms. Power (United States of America): In looking at North Korea, it can at times feel as though one is seeing two entirely different realities. One is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea that is expending tremendous resources in pursuing advanced technology to build an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying out a nuclear strike a continent away. The other is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in which, according to a joint assessment conducted by the World Food Programme and the North Korean Government, 25 per cent of children under the age of 5 suffer from stunted growth as a result of chronic malnutrition. One is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in which the Government brags about carrying out nuclear tests proscribed by the Security Council, such as the test carried out on 6 January. The other is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in which individuals must endure the searing pain of seeing generations of their loved ones starve to death, such as the North Korean defector who joined us in the Council Chamber just a few months ago, whose grandmother, father and two brothers had all died because they could not find enough food. On the surface, it can seem as though those distinct North Korean realities have nothing to do with one another; yet, as we all know, they have everything to do with one another — part of the perverse reality that has no equal in this world. The chronic suffering of the people of North Korea is the direct result of the choices made by the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a Government that has consistently prioritized its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes over providing for the most basic needs of its own people. As underscored in resolution 2270 (2016), which we have adopted today, virtually all of the resources of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are channelled into its reckless and relentless pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. The North Korean Government would rather grow its nuclear weapons programme than grow its own children. That is the reality that we are facing.

Ambassador Power gets it. I hope President Park does, too. She should now enact and use her country’s new human rights law to deliver this message to the North Korean people: rice, peace, and freedom.

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CSIS: Deter North Korea with subversive information (Update: You had one job!)

Penetrating outside information into North Korea questioning the legitimacy of leader Kim Jong-un should be considered as a key means to retaliate against and curb the communist nation’s cyber attacks, a U.S. think tank said.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) made the suggestion in a report on policy suggestions on how to counter the North’s cyber operations, saying reponding to cyber attacks with cyber attacks won’t be effective because the North isn’t as dependent on networks as South Korea and the U.S. are.

“Therefore, responses should be tailored to leverage North Korea’s specific weaknesses and sensitivities,” said the report released this week. “North Korea has unique asymmetric vulnerabilities as well, especially to outside information that attacks the legitimacy of the regime.” [….]

“The deliberate introduction of additional media and information into North Korea’s networks and population may serve as a potent means of responding to cyber attacks without resorting to use of force, armed attacks or countermeasures,” it said. [Yonhap]

Well, isn’t that what I’ve been saying since 2010? The times have finally caught up with me. By the way, if you can lay your hands on a copy of the original report, I’d be most grateful.

~   ~   ~

Update: Thanks to two readers to provided me with the report. Imagine my dismay when I reached page 78 and saw this:

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 2.56.23 PM

Hardly a word of this is true, and it’s not hard to see why. The authority the authors cite for their conclusion that North Korea is “heavily sanctioned”?

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 2.53.36 PM

Seriously? That was 16 years ago! In 2000, there were no Chapter VII U.N. Security Council resolutions against North Korea, and no history of China flagrantly violating those resolutions. There was no Patriot Act. North Korea was still listed as a state sponsor of terrorism. None of the executive orders that form the legal basis for U.S. sanctions against North Korea existed yet. No one in America had heard of Banco Delta Asia. We had not seen financial sanctions nearly crush the economy of Iran. Kaesong didn’t exist, Kumgang still did, and the Sunshine Policy was just starting.

Some of those sanctions are legally (but not practically) stronger today, others are far weaker, and the most effective ones were not even invented yet. But any way you look at it, a 16-year-old study on North Korea sanctions is as useless as a 16-year-old study on social media.

CSIS, you had one job. For a respected think tank to offer senior policymakers such a poorly researched (and consequently, wrong) conclusion about such an important policy option is just unforgivably sloppy. Is it too much to ask a think tank with an operating revenue of more than $30 million to research the law and the facts, or find and cite someone who has done it for you? For God’s sake, this isn’t even my day job. It’s YOUR day job!

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The Myth of North Korean Socialism: How Pyongyang’s Profiteers Fooled the World

Over this long weekend, I’ve been reading Brian R. Myers’s new book, “North Korea’s Juche Myth,” a copy of which Prof. Myers was kind enough to send. Myers argues that juche, that cryptic ideology reporters often mention but never explain, is a sham ideology that is both overblown and seldom understood, by foreigners as well as North Koreans. Very roughly translated, juche means that man must be the master of his own destiny (in contrast to North Korea’s reality, in which individuality is uniquely suppressed). Myers argues that juche is a loanword from the Japanese zhuti, first seen in an 1887 Japanese discussion of Kant, and became a term of common usage in both Koreas. Pyongyang built the Juche Myth to give Kim Il-Sung ideological gravitas, and to decoy naive foreigners away from its real — and more implacable — ideology of racism, nationalism, and xenophobia, which Myers described in “The Cleanest Race.” (You can hear Myers explain his argument here, in an interview with Chad O’Carroll.) Myers argues that Pyongyang maintains this duality (triality?) by code-switching between its foreign propaganda, its propaganda for its elites, and its propaganda for its underprivileged classes. (As we have seen.)

I’m not prepared to declare myself convinced of the entire argument before I finish the book, but I’m already mulling my own companion volume: “North Korea’s Socialist Myth.” The thesis of this book (or rather, this post) will be that Pyongyang’s claims of socialism are a sham, meant to lure naive or self-serving foreigners with more money than good sense, with a mirage that its profiteering represents progress toward ever-receding reforms. In recent years, that mirage has gained Pyongyang $7 billion dollars in South Korean aid, perhaps billions more from other gullible investors, and probably billions in sanctions relief from those who did not want to interfere with these phantom reforms.

By feigning socialism, Pyongyang also gains a small, fanatical, and almost influential following of apologists on the far left — apologists who are themselves willing to overlook not only its gross inequality, but also its racism (Barack Obama: “a wicked black monkey … an ugly sub-human … suitable to live among a troop of monkeys in the world’s largest African animal park, licking at the crumbs tossed by onlookers“), its homophobia (Michael Kirby: “a disgusting old lecher with 40-odd-year-long career of homosexuality”), its misogyny (Park Geun-Hye: “a whore [who] lifts her skirt to lure strangers“), its acts of war, its crimes against humanity, and the violence of their own allies.

Socialist ideology also justifies the economic totalitarianism by which Pyongyang prevents its subjects from achieving economic independence, and the other forms of independence (of thought, of movement, from want, from fear) that would inevitably follow. Socialism is not something that Pyongyang practices, it’s something that Pyongyang imposes on the weak and vulnerable. Its real economic policy is — and has long been — unrestrained state capitalism,* shielded by deceptive financial practices, and revealed only when its agents are caught carrying it out. Which is often, for those who are paying attention. (* See comments.)

Pyongyang has long been a profiteer from the un-socialist vices of gambling (both online and in pachinko parlors), narcotics smuggling, slaverymoney laundering, cigarette smuggling, currency counterfeiting, gold smuggling, pharmaceutical counterfeiting, the trade in endangered species, and even prostitution. For decades, it has permitted as much capitalism as necessary to maintain its elites, its security forces, and its weapons programs, but never enough to allow meaningful interaction between foreign ideas and non-elite North Koreans. The long-predicted penetration of capitalism into North Korean society did happen — not because the regime accepted reforms, but despite Pyongyang’s best efforts to suppress it. (Since the succession of Kim Jong-Un, once touted as a Swiss-educated reformer, the regime has made significant progress toward stanching the flow of goods and information into the peoples’ economy.)

Pyongyang’s controlled isolation was not a difficult thing to foresee, for those who read Nicholas Eberstadt’s quotations of past North Korean policy pronouncements. A sample:

It is the imperialist’s old trick to carry out ideological and cultural infiltration prior to their launching of an aggression openly. Their bourgeois ideology and culture are reactionary toxins to paralyze people’s ideological consciousness. Through such infiltration, they try to paralyze the independent consciousness of other nations and make them spineless. At the same time, they work to create illusions about capitalism and promote lifestyles among them based on the law of the jungle, in an attempt to induce the collapse of socialist and progressive nations. The ideological and cultural infiltration is their silent, crafty and villainous method of aggression, intervention and domination….

As a reflection of Pyongyang’s doctrine, this statement is as true of North Korea’s peoples’ economy as it is irrelevant to Pyongyang’s palace economy. In North Korea, socialism is for little people. For decades, Pyongyang sustained itself on state capitalism while enforcing socialism on the expendable underclasses, wallowing in bacchanalian luxury while a million or two people starved to death. North Korea remains one of the world’s least equal societies.

KJU ski kju airport

This week’s reporting on North Korea’s big parade reenforces the evidence of widening inequality, showing us both the relative prosperity of Pyongyang (James Pearson, Reuters), but also the unabated poverty of the rural provinces (AP, Eric Talmadge), and the hardships of those who must still evade tightened border controls to work in China illegally, to support their families at home (Anna Fifield, Washington Post).

Pyongyang, by contrast, has now had decades of exposure to capitalism, but capitalism has not pacified North Korea, any more than it pacified Hitler’s Germany, Imperial Japan, Baathist Iraq, or Xi Jinping’s China. Rather, in all of these cases, state capitalism fueled each state’s military-industrial complex. The experience of the last two decades provides no basis to believe that capitalism on Pyongyang’s terms will transform North Korea into anything but a more stable, more repressive, and better-armed version of itself.

Of course, to accept what should be obvious by now, one must abandon the hope which sustained a fading generation of American and South Korean policymakers — that Pyongyang will eventually allow more than minimal economic reforms, and that trade (beyond enriching the state and perpetuating its policies of repression at home and extortion abroad) will eventually lead to broad economic, social, and political reforms. Pyongyang’s construction boom, cell phones, traffic jams, and Mickey Mouse merchandise have become the slender reed on which the Sunshine school sustains itself. But so what?

For years, I’ve challenged advocates of “engagement” with Pyongyang — as opposed to engagement with the North Korean people — to name a significant and positive change their policies have brought about. I have yet to hear an answer. The comments are open.

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BBC “plans” daily broadcasts to N. Korea, but plans cost money

Having been fooled once before, I wasn’t about to accept that BBC was going to begin broadcasting to North Korea simply because Time, The Guardian, AFP, and The Financial Times say so. Digging further, these reports all cite this BBC.com report on a speech by Director General Tony Hall on the beeb’s plans for next year. Buried deep within that report is a plan for “significant investment” in the BBC World Service, “including a daily news programme for North Korea.” But plans are one thing; operations are another:

“The BBC is trying to justify its public funding by showing that it can do something political that the private sector wouldn’t do,” said Aidan Foster-Carter, a senior research fellow specializing in both Koreas at Leeds University. “It’s a clever move and will earn political brownie points, but it won’t happen without government money. The North Korean government would be furious.”

Michael Glendinning, who has campaigned for the launch of a BBC service in the so-callled hermit kingdom, is just as skeptical.

He points out that a BBC report, titled The Future of News, from earlier this year mentioned that there would be such a proposal, but it would require between £900,000 ($1.4 million) and £1.2 million in funding from the government per year according to the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRNK). [Bloomberg]

What I cannot understand for the life of me is why the government of the United Kingdom gives a wet sack of guano what the government of North Korea thinks. The two states have almost no trade relations — indeed, no mutual interests that I can think of.

No doubt, the likes of Glyn Ford and Hazel Smith would gladly exercise their rights to free expression to demand that the North Korean people be denied theirs, but is the Foreign Office really so afraid of getting angry letters from them? There is a certain academic constituency that loves to talk about engagement with North Korea, right up to the point that transformational and subversive ideas make contact with the wavering and hostile classes — the very people who are the most likely to respond to those ideas.

For the time being, broadcasting is the closest we’re likely to get to “engagement” and “people-to-people” contact with those North Koreans who might hope for a life without 6 a.m. criticism sessions, paying MPS agents not to confiscate their stall merchandise, and dusting the portraits of obese men before seeing their stunted children off to school. Governments come and go. It is the people of nations who endure, and who remember who stood with them when things were worst. So long as nations fail to engage the people of North Korea, engagement will continue to fall on deaf ears, and to fail.

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N. Korea Glasnost Watch: Video shows men sent to camps for copying American movies

The Telegraph has obtained guerrilla footage of two men, one 27 and one 30, being tried and sentenced to nine months in a labor camp for copying and selling American movies.

The North Korean judge, or official, says that one of the defendants is “a person immersed in the corrupt ideology of capitalism” and tells the crowd that the criminal acts were “revealed by agents in South Korea operated by our party.”
During the full 12 minutes of footage, filmed secretly by an onlooker and seen exclusively by the Telegraph, neither man is given the chance to speak, and both are sentenced to time in an unnamed correctional labour camp. The exact length of the sentence appears to be around nine months – experts say around one to two years is common.

Not stated in the article is that the men aggravated their crime by failing to pay a sufficient bribe to avoid trial entirely.

The footage is from September 2013, and the cameraman who took it obviously did so at great risk. With the recent crackdown on border control, it has become much harder to get information in or out of North Korea. The European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRNK) and New Focus International teamed up to smuggle the video out and get it into the hands of the media. Michael Glendenning, EAHRNK’s Director, comments:

“This video is in itself very rare – very few bits of footage are able to get out of North Korea. But also, public trials are extremely rarely reported outside North Korea,” he said.

“This video corroborates the vast evidence from witnesses’ testimony that there is no judicial system to speak of. People are denied access to lawyers, or any right to defend themselves, and are sentenced without any knowledge of what their sentence will be, in terms of length, or where they will end up. It demonstrates the brutality of the North Korean system.”

Footage like this is incalculably important for corroborating the testimonies of defectors, for increasing international pressure on the regime and those who help finance and perpetuate it, and as a deterrent against repressive actions like these. If cameras become ubiquitous enough that Pyongyang reasonably fears that its repressive acts will be filmed and shown abroad, it will face pressure to reconsider its actions for fear of greater international isolation.

In related news, the Daily NK reports that Pyongyang granted a Liberation Day amnesty to “thousands” of prisoners in its labor-reeducation camps. It arrives at this estimate by extrapolating from the number of releases observed in local areas. These are the smaller kyo-hwa-seo, not the larger kwan-li-so political prison camps. Those watching for signs of political change will be disappointed:

The first batch of released prisoners mainly consisted of petty economic criminals, robbers, violent offenders, and those who injured others while driving due to carelessness, he explained. Notably, the first cohort did not include a single prisoner arrested by the State Security Department [SSD] for what are considered “political crimes.” The second amnesty wave, set to take place at 5 prisons, is slated to follow the same pattern as the first: that is, political prison camp [kwanliso] detainees will remain exempt from amnesty. [Daily NK]

In other words, the regime is releasing people sentenced for acts that would be crimes in normal societies, even as it continues to arrest and hold people for thoughtcrimes, and other offenses against the state’s totalitarian control.

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North Korean Men Cross DMZ (and plant land mines)

By now, you’ve read that South Korea’s government has accused the North Korean military of sending soldiers across the DMZ to plant mines near South Korean guard posts, an act that blew the legs off two South Korean soldiers last week.

The two South Koreans, both staff sergeants, triggered the mines last Tuesday just outside their post, within the South Korean half of the 2.5-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone, a buffer separating the two Korean armies.

One lost both legs in the first blast, involving two mines. The other soldier lost one leg in a second explosion as he tried to help his wounded colleague to safety, the ministry said. [N.Y. Times]

The mines in question were box mines like this one, a copy of a Russian TMD antipersonnel mine.

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 8.47.20 AM

[via AFP]

South Korea says it has ruled out “the possibility they were old mines displaced over the border by shifting soil patterns,” but I admit that when I first read the report, I wondered about this. After all, in June, Yonhap reported that North Korea was planting more mines along the DMZ, not to maim or kill South Korean troops, but to maim or kill its own troops, who might want to imitate the embarrassing cross-border defection of a young North Korean soldier in June, the latest in a string of incidents suggesting that morale in the North Korean Peoples’ Army is flagging. This is also the rainy season in Korea — albeit an exceptionally dry one. Still, if the mines were triggered in low-lying areas, it might be possible that summer rains washed them downhill to where the ROK soldiers triggered them.

On further examination, however, an accidental explanation seems unlikely. South Korea claims that the mines were placed on “a known South Korean border patrol path,” and “just outside the South Korean guard post, which is 1,440 feet south of the military demarcation line.” That’s a long way for three mines to travel together, completely by accident, to a place right along a trail and next to a ROKA border post. Worse, the mines “exploded as the soldiers opened the gate of a barbed-wire fence to begin a routine morning patrol,” and were planted “on both sides of a barbed-wire fence protecting the post.” Most of the DMZ is double fenced, and a large mine wouldn’t wash through a fence line.

 

 

Finally, the incident happened near Paju. Along most of the DMZ in that area, the South Korean side is uphill from the North Korean side. Water doesn’t usually wash mines uphill. Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 6.43.36 PM

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[Google Earth]

These facts strongly suggest that the placement was deliberate. The U.N. Command seems to agree, and “condemns these violations” of the 1953 Armistice. It’s only the latest illustration of the folly of any call for peace talks with a government that won’t abide by an Armistice, or for that matter, any other agreement. There is, of course, a calculated strategic objective behind North Korea’s support for advocates of a peace treaty. Both Pyongyang and its apologists want sanctions lifted before North Korea disarms, and probably whether it disarms or not. (Pyongyang demands that we lift sanctions immediately because sanctions don’t work, of course.) By preemptively giving up their leverage before Kim Jong-Un disarms, the U.S., the U.N., and South Korea would effectively recognize Pyongyang as a nuclear-armed state.

But if calls for a peace treaty are mostly confined to the likes of Code Pink and a few extremists, undermining the effect of sanctions with financial aid for Pyongyang remains politically popular in South Korea, and amounts to almost the same thing for North Korea’s nuclear program. Just as North Korean troops were planting the mines that maimed the ROK soldiers, a coalition of far-left types and business profiteers called on the South Korean government to lift bilateral sanctions against North Korea, known as the “May 24th Measures.” South Korea imposed those measures in 2010 after Pyongyang, with premeditation and malice aforethought, torpedoed and sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 of its sailors. Of course, the May 24th measures still exempted the largest South-to-North money pipe, the Kaesong Industrial Park, which blunted the sanctions’ deterrent effect. If North Korea had complied with South Korea’s demand for an apology, we’d have known that the deterrent was sufficient, and some limited, financially transparent, and ethical re-engagement might have been appropriate. 

It gets worse. Yonhap is now speculating that the man behind this latest incident is none other than Kim Yong-Chol, head of the Reconnaissance General Bureau. In that capacity, General Kim was featured prominently in “Arsenal of Terror” for directing a campaign of assassinations (most of them unsuccessful) of refugee-dissidents in South Korea and human rights activists in China, and for being behind the Sony cyberattacks and threats. Yonhap also says that Gen. Kim was behind the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong-do attacks of 2010, although I’ve also heard Kim Kyok-Shik’s name mentioned. 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.

Clearly, then, there is still a need to deter Kim Jong-Un and his minions, to show them that they will pay a price for their acts of war. August 15th will be the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation, and there has been much speculation, not discouraged by Pyongyang, that Pyongyang will celebrate it with some major provocation. At this point, the least-informed reporters covering Korea will seek comment from the least-informed North Korea “experts,” who will say there’s nothing we can do about this, short of (the false choice of) war. By now, of course, all of them should know that this is just plain wrong

Today, South Korea’s military is speaking through clenched teeth, using words that sound like threats of war. Major General Koo Hong-mo, head of operations for the Joint Chiefs, says, “As previously warned on many occasions, our military will make North Korea pay the equally pitiless penalty for their provocations.” The Joint Chiefs themselves have said the North will “pay a harsh price proportionate for the provocation it made.” (Can a price or penalty be both proportionate and pitiless? But I digress.) A spokesman for the South Korean military said, “We swear a severe retaliation.” Tensions are already high in the Yellow Sea, the site of North Korea’s deadly attacks of 2010.

Asked what kinds of retaliation will be taken, Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok declined to elaborate, only saying that “The substance cannot be disclosed now, but we will wait and see.” Kim highlighted that the military will ensure the punitive action is taken against North Korea because the country’s responsibility for the mine detonation has been clearly proven. [Yonhap]

I certainly hope South Korea doesn’t launch a military response when the U.S. government is such an unsteady guarantor, and when the deaths of a few dozen (or a few hundred) conscripts and civilians on both sides will hardly give Kim Jong-Un any pause and do little to deter him (but much more about that later this week). In fact, I suspect this is more empty talk. I would like to think, however, that South Korea has a more serious response than this in mind:

loudspeakers

[South China Morning Post]

South Korea Monday resumed a propaganda loudspeaker campaign along the tensely guarded border in retaliation for the detonation of a North Korean mine in the demilitarized zone last week, the Defense Ministry said.

The loudspeaker broadcasting, a kind of psychological warfare against the communist North, started during the evening on that day and continued on and off down the road in two spots along the border, the ministry said.

“As part of retaliation for North Korea’s illegal provocation, our military will partly carry out loudspeaker broadcasting along the military demarcation line as the first step,” according to the ministry. [Yonhap]

As a defense doctrine, the notion of shouting to a few hundred conscripts within earshot is very nearly the opposite of “speak softly, and carry a big stick.” As a deterrent, it’s ludicrous. And as an American taxpayer, I can only ask myself: if South Korea isn’t serious about its own defense, why should we be serious about its defense?

Any fool can see that the profiteers and appeasers who’ve dictated the terms of South Korea’s security policy and relations with North Korea have not only made their country less safe, but brought it to the brink of war. A military response would be ill-advised and disproportionate, and would only kill a lot of people who are utterly expendable to those responsible for this attack. If the South Korean government is serious about deterring the next provocation, it should not limit its voice to a few unfortunate conscripts along the border; it should open the medium-wave spectrum to subversive broadcasts to all of the North Korean people, and fund services like Radio Free North Korea and Open News that produce those broadcasts. And yes, it should suspend operations at Kaesong for a few months — or better yet, permanently — to impose a financial price on those responsible for this attack.

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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.

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 8.25.46 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 8.26.01 AM

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)

~   1   ~

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.

~   2   ~

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. Once-hopeful trends in information penetration — trends that had given many of us long-term hope for North Korea — are slowing, and may yet come to a full stop. Writing at NK News, Chad O’Carroll has proposed one possible way to break the blockade again. I can think of others, but people in Pyongyang read this site, so I’ll keep them to myself. [Update:]

Pyongyan visit 9 jun 2015

For now, consider the possibilities once the U.S. and its allies give the North Korean people the gift of free speech. Shatter this blockade and the possibilities are limitless.

~   3   ~

Once the North Korean people have access to communications, guerrilla engagement can take its first important step: shifting the balance of economic power away from the regime and toward the people. This will require two parallel initiatives: first, using financial sanctions to de-fund the palace economy; and second, establishing an independent financial system to unleash the peoples’ economy, and with it, the production and transportation of food, consumer goods, and information.

To do this, South Korea (or Japan, which is seeking ways to influence events inside North Korea) should leverage electronic communications to build a virtual electronic banking network for North Korea’s underprivileged classes. This network would allow North Korean merchants to make electronic payments and transactions using dollar accounts in banks based in New York, Tokyo, or Seoul. The use of dollar accounts would not only protect this underground economy from reactions by the North Korean and Chinese central banks, it would also allow the U.S. Treasury Department a greater measure of control over regime-connected figures who would invariably tap into it. It would also give the U.S. and South Korean governments (and the local networks they empower) a credible threat to wield against officials that cracked down on the people. For the regime, it would be tantamount to financial receivership.

The establishment of a virtual dollar economy would open North Korea’s borders, not only to remittances by refugees to their relatives, but to charitable donations by church groups to local agents operating humanitarian organizations inside North Korea itself. These groups would feed North Korea’s dispossessed — the starving orphans that haunt North Korea’s markets, those languishing in state institutions, those at the bottom of the songbun scale, and perhaps even prisoners, if guards could be bribed into permitting it.

With money and information flowing through the people’s economy and frozen in the palace economy, many officials, soldiers, and border guards would have nowhere to turn for their paychecks but the merchants, traders, and NGOs that harnessed this new financial system. Corruption would take its toll, smuggling would rebound, and more fertilizer, high-yield seed, medicine, and dollars could enter the country. Humanitarian NGOs could then purchase food smuggled in from China, pilfered from state stocks, and grown on private-plot farms called sotoji, one of the least talked-about and most important new sources of food for many North Koreans. NGOs could focus on promoting sotoji farms as a humanitarian strategy, supplying them with better seed, fertilizer, agricultural advice, and bribe money to secure the tolerance of officials. At the same time, those who continue to rely on meager state rations or salaries paid in North Korean won would be priced out of the market. In time, they, too, would come to depend on the virtual dollar economy, and might seek to join clandestine unions that would supplement their wages and rations. In the dollar markets, prices for food and consumer goods would fall, as more and higher-quality food were drawn into the markets from sotoji farms, and from across the borders.

In time, independent small-scale manufacturing would also become possible. Smuggled materials could supply underground or gray-market workshops and factories, using local labor earning steady wages, to make goods that the people want.

A virtual dollar economy would have to contend with official resistance, of course, but today, corruption is so endemic that North Koreans with money consider greasing the palms of regime officials to be just another cost of doing business. Here, sanctions would play an important complementary role. Those officials would have to look the other way if the Treasury Department unleashed a parallel crackdown on the regime’s funds and accounts based in China and elsewhere. If merchants suddenly had a greater capacity to pay regime officials than the regime itself did, Pyongyang’s control would begin to break down. Gradually, the balance of power would shift. Regime officials would be coopted, unwittingly, by an alliance of external and internal forces. In time, the influence of clandestine NGOs would spread to military units, whose soldiers are often sick or underfed. And in a society where force is law, it can be a useful thing to have friends within the security forces. Soldiers might even be paid and fed to provide security to markets, freight, goods, and people during their off-hours, including North Korea’s vulnerable women. This could be a first step in fracturing the cohesion of the security forces.

A free communications network could have other transformative effects. It could augment and replace North Korea’s broken public health system with tele-medicine, staffed by volunteer foreign doctors and local nurses, to treat the sick with smuggled medicines. Volunteer teachers in South Korea could teach virtual classes to orphans, to low-songbun students seeking valuable life skills like auto mechanics, engineering, or medicine. As the people’s economy developed, communities could gain independence in other important ways. Imported solar panels, which are increasingly available inside North Korea, would give the people independent sources of electricity. With independent sources of food, electricity, and other items the market could supply, rural areas, and eventually, entire regions, could gain economic and ideological independence from Pyongyang. But even this is only a beginning.

In time, as the security forces became overwhelmed by the volume of unregulated expression and commerce, guerrilla engagement would allow for more subversive activities to take place. The South Korean Unification Ministry could create a national clearinghouse for virtual family reunions. South Korean churches could live-cast services across North Korea, and no North Korean parishioner would know the name of any other parishioner. International activists could teach North Korean factory workers to organize clandestinely to demand better working conditions and better pay, and how to conduct work stoppages and slowdowns.

A network of guerrilla journalists could tell the world about these acts of resistance from inside North Korea, and publish news reports from around the world for North Koreans to read on their devices. In time, clandestine NGOs and churches (led by ministers based in South Korea) could begin feeding starving low-ranking soldiers, treating their medical conditions, and quietly introducing them to subversive ideas about spirituality and governance. In theory, it might even be possible for North Koreans to register remotely as voters, vote in referenda on policies that affect them, and elect a government in exile. If labor organizations become established, they could eventually coordinate a nationwide general strike, with the knowledge that any overreaction would be reported, photographed, filmed, and covered worldwide.

Even this regime knows that it can’t kill and imprison everyone.

~   4   ~

Sir Robert Thompson, the great theorist of insurgency and counter-insurgency, is generally credited with the strategy that defeated the Malayan insurgency in the 1950s. What impressed me so deeply about Thompson’s memoir of the Malayan insurgency was how little it said about military tactics, and how much it said about law, journalism, governance, policing, and intelligence. In a society ruled by violence and terror, like today’s North Korea, these things all support the reestablishment of a functioning civil society, or an objective that could be restated in a single word: legitimacy. The allegiance of a people will inevitably migrate toward the side that establishes legitimate governance, and the side that establishes legitimate governance is the one that provides for the needs of the people. The side that provides for the needs of the people — and in North Korea, there is no question that the people have many unmet needs — is the side that is responsive and accountable to them.

I am speaking of domestic legitimacy here, but international legitimacy is the focus of Grace Kang, a lawyer and former Foreign Service Officer. In a paper published here, in the Georgetown Security Studies Review, Kang calls for our North Korea policy to shift its focus toward “legitimate governance,” which she defines as “governance for the well-being of all Koreans,” to address “the root cause of the security threat.” After reviewing the history of how regime-focused engagement has failed to alter Pyongyang’s conduct for the better, Kang comes to the heart of her proposal:

The well-being of the Korean people is the correct measure for what constitutes legitimate governance by both Eastern and Western standards. The Chinese concept known as the Mandate of Heaven requires a leader to be just and can be withdrawn from a ruler when his people deem his actions excessively abusive.[4] Western notions of the social contract also espouse the people as the source of a government’s legitimacy; extreme abuse by a government renders it illegitimate.[5] The UN Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and other UN treaties are grounded in the rights of each human being. So also is the Responsibility To Protect (R2P) doctrine, which assumes that the government has a responsibility to protect its own people from atrocities and if it fails to do so, other states should intervene to provide that protection.

The 2014 landmark report by the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) makes clear the DPRK regime has failed to meet such obligations. Instead, the DPRK is committing crimes against humanity and other systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations that have produced hundreds of thousands of deaths and are fundamental to the DPRK political system. The report describes the DPRK as totalitarian in seeking to dominate every aspect of its citizens’ lives and terrorize them through constant surveillance. In addition, the COI recommended the UN Security Council refer the DPRK situation to the ICC and adopt targeted sanctions against those most responsible for crimes against humanity.

Given the centuries-old norm that legitimate governance is contingent upon the treatment of citizens, the international community must question the legitimacy of the DPRK.

Kang then describes a series of ways to challenge North Korea’s legitimacy in the U.N., ultimately aimed at “wide international agreement that DPRK is not legitimate.” In doing so, Kang makes a comparison of which I’ve become fond, to Apartheid-era South Africa, whose global isolation was an important factor in changing its system of government. Kang contemplates a campaign of diplomatic action to be waged in New York, Geneva, and perhaps Seoul, which slowly challenges the Pyongyang regime’s legitimacy based on its failure to provide for the needs of its people. It builds on the “responsibility to protect” theory pioneered by Jared Genser in “Failure to Protect,” his ground-breaking report years ago.

These ideas are meritorious and important — too important to limit to New York, Geneva, and Seoul. If providing for the people is the prerequisite of a government’s legitimacy, then there is no better way for the South Korean government to be a legitimate government for its citizens in Chongjin, Wonsan, and Hamhung than by providing for their needs, too, if indirectly and clandestinely at first. For now, from the standpoint of domestic South Korean politics, this is unlikely. But once guerrilla engagement established local shadow governments, amenable to influence from Seoul, the South Korean government could play an important role in funding and organizing them as instruments of information operations, humanitarian aid, reconstruction, and the extension of Seoul’s legitimacy to North Korea itself. The work of underground schools, journalists, and unions could become more subversive, eventually challenging the state through strikes, demonstrations, barricades, and acts of non-violent sabotage to disrupt the oppressive work of the state’s security forces.

Guerrilla journalists could also broadcast an increasingly subversive message to the North Korean people, vividly portraying the state’s corruption, class divisions, culpable waste of national resources, and failure to provide for the needs of the people. Reporting on Chinese influence over Kim Jong Un’s regime would undercut the regime’s message of nationalist independence. Reporting on Chinese abuses of North Korean refugees, particularly women, would mobilize anti-Chinese sentiment, and deter any temptation by China to intervene militarily. Guerrilla journalism could also criticize Kim Jong Un’s lifestyle, legitimacy, and competence to rule.

Eventually, trade networks and labor organizations could organize clandestine security guards and police to protect the population from violence by soldiers and members of the security forces. Initially, paid, masked security guards and guerrilla policing organizations could patrol high-crime areas, where marauding bands of soldiers rape vulnerable women, bully traders, and rob farmers. Some of the police might be recruited from deserting soldiers, who might otherwise die from lack of food and medical care.

Because the North Korean military tightly restricts the distribution of ammunition, soldiers who commit crimes against the civilian population often wander unarmed; thus, in many cases, armed police could be effective without the use of lethal force. To prevent wanton violence and revenge killings, and to protect the people against arbitrary arrest, torture, and extrajudicial execution by the security forces, communities could organize local courts, perhaps with remote electronic training, support, and appellate review from outside North Korea. Guerrilla courts would have the exclusive authority to permit or order the use of deadly force against military officers or members of the security forces responsible for criminal acts. Any violent act not sanctioned by the courts, regardless of the affiliation of the person responsible, should be treated like a crime. Like all legal systems, a court empowered to punish violent crime would help to deter future violent crime, including by a regime that does not necessarily explicitly authorize crimes committed by corrupt officers or undisciplined soldiers. To the extent deadly force was necessary to protect journalists, trade unionists, and NGO workers, guerrilla police forces could obtain arms and ammunition from soldiers motivated by hunger, disease, drug addiction, or grievances against their officers. Guerrilla organizations that engaged in extrajudicial violence should be denied financial support, and when appropriate, punished criminally.

Of course, the regime would react violently to this, to the extent it could identify those responsible, to the extent this dispersed network of dissent did not overwhelm the state’s capacity to suppress it, and to the extent its local officials had not been coopted by the resistance. But the longer these groups could delay a broader, violent confrontation with the regime, the more widely this clandestine organization could penetrate North Korea’s society, government, and security forces, and the more likely it would be to survive and prevail once that confrontation comes. In that confrontation, citizen journalists with hidden cameras would be critical to deterring a violent reaction by the state, and to publicizing any such reaction both inside North Korea and globally. This, in turn, would spur diplomatic and political action to deprive North Korea of foreign investment, finance, diplomatic support, and international legitimacy. It might eventually spur South Korea toward accepting its responsibilities for the welfare of the North Korean people, as their legitimate government.

~   5   ~

In February of 2014, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry released a report finding the North Korean government responsible for “crimes against humanity, arising from ‘policies established at the highest level of State,’” including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.” This status quo is not peace. It is not quite the absence of war. It is a lurid kaleidoscope of violent crime, waged by a few armed men against a defenseless majority. With its political competence in decline, it can’t last. Last week, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye sat for an interview with The Washington Post, and said this:

Since [Kim Jong Un] took power 3 1/2 years ago, he has executed some 90 officials. Indeed, the reign of terror continues to this day. Although one can say that the reign of terror might work in the short term, in the mid- to long term, it is actually sowing and amplifying the seeds of instability for the regime….

Recently, a senior North Korean defected and confessed to us that because of the ongoing and widespread executions that include even his inner circle, they are afraid for their lives. That is what prompted him to flee. 

Over the weekend, a North Korean soldier defected to the South across the DMZ. The North Korean army is now said to be laying mines along the DMZ to prevent more defections. Last week, a North Korean, who may or may not have been the latest in a series of armed soldiers to desert his post, was shot and killed by Chinese police. (Update: he was a civilian.)

But this essay is not about predicting the direction of history; it is about finding ways to influence it. In such desperate, violent circumstances, completely non-violent change may be an unrealistic ideal. But it is always realistic, and compelled by both morality and our national interests, to seek a strategy to deter and prevent as much suffering and loss of life as is still possible. With Kim Jong Un’s rejecting political reforms and pursuing policies of war and violence, a controlled demolition of the regime may be the only way to save the Korean people from an anarchic collapse (on one hand) and the horrific status quo (on the other).

When totalitarian states collapse, they tend to collapse suddenly, violently, and chaotically, in the way that Romania, Syria, and Libya all did. There have been exceptions, like the fall of Enver Hoxha’s rule in Albania, but if the violence of any Götterdämmerung is proportional to a system’s totalitarianism, then North Korea’s collapse is likely to be more violent than any of these examples. If Götterdämmerung isn’t already imminent, the North Korean people will need whatever time they have to begin weaving the fabric of a civil society, while unraveling the discipline and unity of command the state will need to wage a civil war against them.

First, guerrilla engagement would overwhelm the state’s machinery of censorship with millions of isolated words and acts of micro-subversion, as described in Part 3. It would equip North Koreans to secede from and resist the state with money and information. In this phase, underground organizations would avoid, or delay for as long as possible, a direct confrontation that would provoke a violent reaction by the regime, to allow peaceful infiltration and evolution to advance as far as possible. The principal objective of this phase would be to establish the roots of a legitimate shadow government — a broad coalition of commercial and humanitarian networks to provide the population with food, medical care, education, electricity, consumer goods, information, and in some areas, a small measure of security from lawlessness and crimes against humanity.

Second, guerrilla engagement would coalesce a critical mass of these isolated shadow networks into a broad-based, loosely-connected political organization with a common vision of reunification under a liberal, humane, free-market, and representative system of government. No resistance movement has ever challenged a determined government successfully without such a galvanizing vision, and without a broad-based political infrastructure to supply it with intelligence, food, shelter, money, recruits, and the incalculable psychological empowerment of knowing that others share their aspirations. Very few states have survived while opposed by such a political infrastructure. As Mao Tse-Tung said,“The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” Guerrilla engagement would seek to build this political base, while delaying (and later, deterring) a violent reaction by the state. At this stage, the shadow government would begin to wage aggressive information operations against the regime and its foreign backers. Information operations should have a strongly nationalist orientation, to help deter a Chinese intervention.

Third, guerrilla engagement would attempt to demoralize, coopt, and recruit as many members of the military and the security forces as possible, to divide them and disrupt their readiness, discipline, and unity of command. Sanctions would be essential in this process, to disrupt the military’s pay, supply, and commissary systems, and to draw soldiers into economic dependence on the shadow government.

starving nk soldiers

[Starving North Korean soldiers. Image from Rimjin-gang.]

On an individual and small unit level, resistance networks would recruit hungry and disgruntled soldiers, such as those who have increasingly turned to violence against their own commanders, the civilian population, or Chinese civilians. Once recruited, these soldiers could pilfer fuel and critical supplies, sabotage and steal weapons, spread subversive information, and encourage the disobedience of orders harmful to the population. A contemporary example is the practice of regime soldiers stealing fuel from trucks and ships, and replacing it with corrosive salt water. Eventually, corrupt officers could also be coopted into resisting orders to suppress dissent. The objective would be to dilute the security forces’ readiness, discipline, and unity of command, and render as many units as possible unwilling or unable to execute a violent crackdown, or to actively oppose one.

At the same time, local leaders of the shadow government could secretly connect South Korean military officers with key regional commanders in the North Korean military. The objective of these contacts would be to persuade key North Korean officers that the consequence of a violent crackdown against an organized (and potentially, armed) population would be civil war — a war that would be unwinnable in the face of crippling financial sanctions, widespread internal dissent, and diplomatic isolation. If vast areas of North Korea’s mountainous interior slipped out of the regime’s control, they would be difficult and costly for a mechanized, road-bound army with few helicopters to regain. The regime could not hope to seal two land borders and two long coastlines. On the other hand, officers who refuse orders that violate the laws of armed conflict should be offered immunity from prosecution. Those who oppose them should also be offered foreign backing, and a meaningful role in the reconstruction of a united Korea.

Fourth, and only after the decay of the security forces reaches a critical stage, the resistance could challenge the state openly through a coordinated, nationwide wave of work stoppages, acts of non-violent sabotage, strikes, and protests. This critical stage would arrive when the resistance coopts enough soldiers and units that, if ordered to carry out a violent crackdown, enough units would disobey or resist to render the order ineffective. Where the orders are carried out, guerrilla journalists must have a sufficient presence to ensure that any violent reaction is filmed, photographed, and reported both at home and abroad, catalyzing more internal resistance and foreign disinvestment and sanctions. In this way, guerrilla journalism could attach a prohibitive diplomatic and financial cost to a violent crackdown. By documenting any crimes against the population, guerrilla organizations could also credibly threaten regime commanders with accountability before local (or eventually, international) courts. Even by demonstrating a broad presence throughout North Korea, guerrilla journalism could help deter and restrain the regime’s excesses.

northkorearahmap

It is at this point, after the resistance demonstrates its capacity to disrupt the regime’s control, but before a violent reaction, that a diplomatic approach to Beijing may receive a more open-minded reception. Under these circumstances, Pyongyang may see agreement to reforms and disarmament as its best available option. If Pyongyang credibly agrees to halt its suppression of the resistance and implement reforms, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan could compel the resistance to temporarily halt its campaign of defiance. Failing this, China may see an agreement to force a transition of power by cutting off support to the regime as a better option than an outbreak of chaos along its northeastern border. In exchange, the allies could offer the eventual removal of U.S. ground forces from the Korean Peninsula, to keep foreign forces south of the 38th Parallel in a reunified Korea, and to recognize the validity of Chinese investment contracts with the former regime. Deprived of external and internal support, the regime would have to choose between accepting reforms and fighting a war it could neither afford nor win.

If Kim Jong Un could not see this for himself, then surely his military commanders would.

With each passing year since 1994, a peaceful transition of North Korea has seemed less likely. None of our highest hopes for the evolution of North Korea into a humane and peaceful society has been plausible for a decade or more. There is a long history of North Koreans resisting the state spontaneously, although all of this resistance has been isolated and easily contained. If collapse does come unexpectedly, the South Korean government could partner with a clandestine political infrastructure to restore order and security, coordinate humanitarian relief, feed the hungry, heal the sick, address questions of transitional justice through the rule of law, and reestablish legitimacy. Today’s purges and indiscipline in the military may mean that North Korea is descending into chaos, and that we’ve run out of time for guerrilla engagement to restrain or mitigate the violence and anarchy it will entail. But it is urgent that the allies begin now, to restrain as much of this violence as we still can.

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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?

10329169_908328475873426_6301317851756141996_n

[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.

Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 6.46.48 AM

[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.

~   ~   ~

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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