Archive for Propaganda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This post was edited after publication.

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

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

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

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

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

gestapo radio detector

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

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

Suki Kim recalls a “good student” in Pyongyang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

North Korea perestroika watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

South Korean media reach deeper into North Korean society.

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

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

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

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

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

Park Sang Hak is a very brave man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just lovely. Background here.

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

Assuming you have wired internet, that is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pyongyang, as Leni Riefenstahl might have seen it*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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* Attribution to Anna.

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

Me talk pretty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China shuts down exhibition by North Korean satirist

IF THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT WONDERS why its own people find its modern cultural output stultifying, then maybe it shouldn’t stultify quite so much:

A North Korean defector known for his satirical paintings on North Korean society was forbidden from holding a rare exhibition in Beijing on Sunday, with Chinese police officials removing his artwork shortly before the exhibition began.

The painter from North Korea with the pseudonym Sun Mu, who fled the North in 1998 and resettled in South Korea in 2001, has been called a “faceless” artist as he does not allow himself to be photographed out of fears that his family left behind could suffer retribution. [Yonhap]

This man must be brave to go to a country that’s swarming with regime agents, assassins, and abduction squads. The good news story here is that North Koreans are emerging as a cultural force in their own right. That will eventually make them a serious cultural threat to the regime.

North Korea Perestroika Watch: Crackdowns on food, information, borders intensify

OFK readers likely have offered a diverse spectrum of adjectives to describe the views expressed on this site, but one that most of them would probably affirm is “contrarian.” After Kim Jong Un’s coronation, it was briefly fashionable to perceive him as a reformer. I argued that little substantive evidence supported this theory, and cited evidence that His Porcine Majesty was closing down the border, statistical evidence that refugee flows to the South had fallen dramatically as a result, and that his regime was also cracking down on information flows.

The optimistic view of Kim Jong Un became less fashionable after last December’s purge of Jang Song Thaek, although I suspect that much of the reason for this was due to a misplaced belief that Jang himself was a reformer. A better reason would have been evidence of an intensified border-control crackdown following the purge. A new report co-written by recent defector Seongmin Lee tells us that this crackdown continues to intensify, and that the regime is now clearing a 200-meter wide control strip along the Tumen River.

According to South Korean media reports, North Korean authorities are planning to demolish all structures within 200 meters along a 270-kilometer stretch of the border with China. The initiative specifically targets Ryanggang Province and the provincial capital, Hyesan, which has served as a major defection route in recent years. Ostensibly, buildings will be leveled and homes destroyed to make way for a new road, though many believe the true intention is an intensified border crackdown aimed at preventing defections, smuggling and a growing influx of information from the outside world. [The Diplomat]

No word on where the residents of the destroyed homes will be sent. Rimjin-gang also publishes photographs taken from the Chinese side, showing vacant factories within the control zone and new fencing under construction.

The Reporting Team has confirmed significant changes since our April report, including the installation of border guard watch-houses and a wire fence under way in the area, along the North Korean side of the Amrok-gang. In the center of the border city, Hyesan in particular, sections of the fence have already been completed. [….]

The city of Hyesan, Ryanggang Province, located in the up-stream area of the Amrok-gang, has been subject to the most intensive tightening of security. Adding to the fact that the river is narrow enough to allow relatively easy illegal border crossing, the area has a large ethnic Korean population and has been a central junction of defection and smuggling for nearly 20 years. [Rimjin-gang]

In the April report referred to above, intact houses within the control zone also sit vacant.

From the Chinese side of the river, a number of houses can be seen in villages on the North Korean side. However, the chimneystacks of these houses emit no smoke, even at six o’clock on a bitter winter evening. The silent village covered with snow looked as if it was in the grips of a deep freeze. [Rimjin-gang]

The Daily NK reports that in the interior, authorities continue their efforts to crack down on prohibited information, particularly among the children of the elites:

A male in his 40s from South Hwanghae Province explained, “Kids of 15 and 16 have these things on memory sticks. They watch them, copy them, pass them on, and that is how South Korean media spreads among the young. Of course they are taught not to do it, but kids are inquisitive and so they find a way to do it regardless. Being told not to watch South Chosun films makes some do it all the more.”

The informant went on to claim that the spread of cellular phones is also spurring the greater spread of foreign music. [….]

According to the woman, a USB stick capable of holding a small volume of data (roughly three episodes of a South Korean television drama, each of which is ordinarily one hour in length) currently costs 70,000 North Korean won, while larger ones come in at between 100,000 and 150,000 won. “It costs 10,000 won to get hold of a popular movie, and about 5,000 for ordinary films,” she added.

As Daily NK reported on June 2nd, and as the informants universally agreed, regulation of access to external information such as movies, music and drama has been stepped up under the rule of Kim Jong Eun, and in particular since the conviction and execution of former Vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission Jang Sung Taek in December last year.

Severity of punishment varies both by region and whether the place in question is rural or urban. In some of the worst cases, evidence trickling out of North Korea reveals that executions have taken place, though this is much rarer than labor reeducation.

“The regulation has gotten much worse since Jang Sung Taek was executed,” a 40-something source from Hwanghae agreed. “At times like these, watching South Chosun media means trouble,” a male source from North Pyongan Province concurred. A woman from Sinuiju confirmed that ordinary people there generally do not go near South Korean media now, either. [Daily NK]

As previously noted here, the regime increasingly relies on levies of students to enforce the crackdown. One wonders if this means that the regime lacks for funds to pay enough dedicated security forces officers. On the other hand, the report suggests that the students are harder to bribe than full-time officers.

In addition to “109” and “927” groups, which are tasked with regulating matters concerning South Korean media, sources also revealed that Pyongyang recently saw task forces formed from graduating senior middle school (in effect, high school) students.

“109 Group means a specialist team made up of people from the Ministry of People’s Security (MPS), the Party, and the administration that looks for, in particular, discs of South Korean films, dramas, and music,” a male in his 40s from Hwanghae told Daily NK. “Getting caught by them is no fun.” A so-called “927 Group” keeps a lid on anti-socialist activities including the sale of such materials.

“Last year this ‘task force’ was organized under the district MPS,” a male in his 50s from Pyongyang recalled. “Those guys were 18 or 19-year old graduates from senior middle school. They did it all by the book, which made it even more difficult to deal with.”

The crackdown even extends to North Korea’s extra-governmental food supply, which enters North Korea through smuggling, and through so-called sotoji farms, where perhaps 25% of North Korea’s food is grown quasi-legally in cleared plots of land. In the past, the regime had often confiscated this land and its crops, or limited the size of the plots. Now, it is ordering the destruction of the crops:

The Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party has recently issued an order that all privately grown crops must be destroyed.

North Korea has a cooperative farming system where individuals are, in principle, banned from owning farms or smallholdings. Nevertheless, many individuals cultivate their own crops, and this is done quite openly.

But there have been serious differences in production success this year, according to sources; it has been a good year for privately owned plots, particularly in the regions of Hamgyong, Chagang and Yanggang provinces; but famine conditions have been witnessed on state-run cooperatives.

State security agents are said to have reported to the Central Committee that ‘private agriculture is becoming dangerously widespread.’ In response, the instructions given by the Committee has been to destroy all crops on private fields. Labour and student groups have now been mobilised to cut down privately grown crops, as these have been grown on the ‘private gardens of capitalism.’

Even recently, Kim Jong-un is seen to have expressed worry about the food situation. But with this latest move, which again prioritises the enforcement of the Party’s political control mechanisms over providing duty of care, public sentiments regarding the leadership is said to have taken a hit.

Sources report that even in group situations, North Korean individuals are heard asking questions such as, ‘How can [Kim Jong-un’s] belly be so round when he is reduced to eating potatoes out of concern for his people?’ [New Focus International]

To put this report into context, consider the recent U.N. finding that 84% of North Korean households have poor or borderline food consumption, the World Food Program’s decision to cut feeding programs due to a lack of funding, and other evidence that the regime prioritized food below luxury imports and military expenditures. It certainly doesn’t suggest that this government wants its people to eat well.

Worse, the reports suggest that Kim Jong Un intends to reverse the trends that ended North Korea’s Great Famine — the erosion of border controls and the rise of private agriculture and markets. He can undertake these initiatives and still maintain his own extravagant lifestyle and weapons development programs because he can afford to. Conventional wisdom about North Korea holds that aid and trade will eventually drive reforms in North Korean society, but these reports suggest that the money Kim Jong Un gains from abroad are being used to suppress the trends that are driving reform.

They also suggest that the opposite may be closer to the truth — if we cut off Kim Jong Un’s access to cash, border controls will break down again, and North Korea will see a new influx of free information and a freer distribution of food. It suggests, again, that sanctions can be a tool of reform by helping break down the repression that impedes it.

N. Korea doubles down on racism (plus, our latest op-ed at CNN.com)

Evidently, North Koreans are unfamiliar with The First Rule of Holes:

    Pyongyang, May 12 (KCNA) — The spokesman for the DPRK Foreign Ministry gave the following answer to a question put by KCNA on Monday accusing U.S. officials of pulling up the DPRK over its residents’ criticism of Obama reported by its media:

    The resentment expressed by individuals of the DPRK at Obama recently was a proper reaction to him who malignantly insulted and slandered the dignified DPRK during his junket to south Korea.

    Obama termed the DPRK’s inevitable steps for self-defence a “provocation” and “threats” and cried out for tougher “sanctions”, “pressure” and “not ruling out the use of military force.” Not content with this vitriol, he went the lengths of letting loose a spate of such invectives that the DPRK is a “country which makes its people go hungry and takes a lonely path”, “isolated state”, “abnormal state” and “reckless and irresponsible” government.

    This is an unpardonable insult to the people of the DPRK who are leading a happy life under the benevolent socialist system and considering independence dearer than their life and their resentment at the U.S. is running high.

    The U.S. had better stop letting loose rhetoric about the resentment expressed by DPRK residents at Obama and look back on his unspeakable invectives which enraged them so much.

    The U.S. is trying to cover up the thrice-cursed wrongs committed by Obama and divert elsewhere criticism of him while finding fault with the bitter accusations of Koreans against him, but such a move would get it nowhere. -0-  [KCNA]

Hat tip: The Korea Herald. Overall, it’s striking to me how disinterested the South Korean press has been in this story, in contrast to the high level of interest in the U.S. and Europe. It may be that Koreans are still preoccupied with the Sewol Ferry tragedy, but Koreans really don’t seem to be terribly outraged about this — or, for that matter, about the sexist attacks on their own President. It may be that South Koreans have just built a very high tolerance for North Korea’s offenses, which means North Korea is able to get away with just about anything.

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Update: Maybe I spoke too soon. Yonhap has the story now.

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Update: Professor Lee and I have an op-ed published at CNN.com on the more material aspects of North Korea’s racism and sexism.

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Update: Here are some links to other informed comments about this topic. Dennis Halpin of the Center for Strategic & International Studies wonders why activists who’ve protested far less egregious examples of racism, sexism, and homophobia have given North Korea a pass. Halpin has a good point here. Is there any question that North Korea’s treatment of gays, women, and racial minorities are worse than Brunei’s? If there is, it’s only because North Korea is so good at hiding its crimes from the world.

Writing at Forbes, Don Kirk of the Christian Science Monitor puts North Korea’s racism into the context of its broader xenophobia — its hatred of foreign influences and ideas. Finally, Isaac Stone Fish of Foreign Policy (as if in response to commenter Emil Lewis) writes about North Korea’s long-standing history of anti-black racism.

Eagerly awaiting Christine Ahn’s reaction to North Korea’s sexism and homophobia

Now that North Korea’s state media have called South Korea’s female president a “whore,” a “prostitute,” a “crazy bitch,” and a “comfort woman,” no one will ever have to invent sexism again to deflect criticism of North Korea’s crimes against humanity, and whoever does will, from this date forward, have to argue her away around real, vicious, state-sponsored misogyny.

What Park did before Obama this time reminds one of an indiscreet girl who earnestly begs a gangster to beat someone or a capricious whore who asks her fancy man to do harm to other person while providing sex to him. [….]

She fully met the demands of her master for aggression, keeping mum about the nukes of the U.S. and desperately finding fault with fellow countrymen in the north over their nukes. She thus laid bare her despicable true colors as a wicked sycophant and traitor, a dirty comfort woman for the U.S. and despicable prostitute selling off the nation. [KCNA]

Separately, the Rodong Sinmun called Park a “political whore” who had “oil[ed] her tongue on Obama.” In the last month, North Korea has also called Park a “crazy bitch” and “human scum,” and overflown her residence with reconnaissance UAVs. It called her (admittedly implausible) reunification plan “a psychopath’s dream” and told her to “keep[] her disgusting mouth closed.” And as I noted at the time, North Korea called Park “a political prostitute” last November.

Where to begin? I suppose equally statesmanlike ideas can heard at police booking desks anywhere, from men who have been arrested for violating restraining orders, although in every “Cops” episode I’ve seen, the censors left a bit more to the imagination. (Also, those men didn’t learn their English in Pyongyang.) In any event, it’s safe to conclude that the charm offensive and that anti-“slander” deal are both over.

No self-described feminist can ever overlook this language without forfeiting either her claim to feminism or her credibility. In case you wonder, this is not an empty hypothesis. I can name at least one self-described feminist (and maybe one more) who has overlooked this, will almost assuredly continue to do so, and is occasionally invited to appear on broadcasts whose audiences must number in the hundreds (also, Al Jazeera). Something tells me Pyongyang’s latest isn’t a deal-breaker for her. Or, for that matter, for Al Jazeera.

Now, unlike the reporters at AFP, I didn’t find where KCNA allegedly called our African-American President a “pimp,” but “fancy man” suggests as much, and invokes crude racial and sexual stereotypes of pimps in purple leisure suits that even North Korean propaganda writers can’t be ignorant of. Only North Korea could get away with language like this. (I wonder what Dennis Rodman thinks about it. No, on further thought, I suppose I don’t.)

I offer no opinion as to whether these words lower KCNA’s own bar after last week’s homophobic slurs against Justice Kirby. But I do hope Stephen Bosworth and Robert Gallucci read this part:

The outcome of Obama’s south Korean junket clearly proved that the DPRK was entirely just when it judged and determined that it should counter the U.S., the sworn enemy, by force only, not just talking, and should finally settle accounts with it through an all-out nuclear showdown. 

Oh, and North Korea is saying that it’s done with South Korea as long as Park is President.

There is no remedy for Park and there is nothing to expect from her as far as the inter-Korean relations are concerned as long as she remains a boss of Chongwadae. [….]

Genes remain unchanged. Needless to say, her present behavior suggests that her fate will be just the same as that of her father Park Chung Hee who met a miserable death after being forsaken by his master and public while crying out for “unification by prevailing over communism” and “unification by stamping out communism”. 

The DPRK will never pardon anyone who dares challenge its dignity, social system and its line of simultaneously developing the two fronts, the statement warned. 

On a related note, North Korea, which was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008, also threatened a preemptive attack and to obliterate South Korea this week. Discuss among yourselves.

Oh, and North Korea’s Deputy U.N. Ambassador, Ri Tong-il, enlarged the definition of diplomacy recently by saying that “Pyongyang has drawn a ‘red line’ for the U.S.,” accused arch-neocon Barack Obama of being “hell-bent on regime change,” and said that “[t]he U.S. itself may be in danger if it keeps denying our self-defensive military measures.” (Ri also said that there “are no [human rights] abuses” in North Korea, and that North Korea has “best social system in the world.”)

It’s sad to consider that somewhere in this world, the composition of such language is deemed a talent that qualifies a person for high diplomatic office. But these are, after all, just words. The more important feminist grievances against North Korea ought to be against petty despotisms like forbidding women from wearing pants or riding bicycles, or telling them what hairstyles they can wear, or the greater despotisms that deny them their life’s aspirations and force them into sexual slavery instead.

AP outraged about free speech in Cuba

Is the AP a cabal of closet Marxist-Leninists or just the supine courtesan of every tyrant who lets it open a bureau in his kingdom? Either way, I really don’t understand what drives its corporate conscience. On one hand, it recently criticized the Obama Administration for “propaganda” photos. On the other hand, it did this not long after putting on an exhibition of actual propaganda photos of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

Now, the AP has released a breathless expose of a U.S.A.I.D.-backed program, launched by the Obama Administration, to bring just a sliver of free speech to Cuba, in the form of a Twitter clone called “ZunZuneo.” AP even gave the 60 Minutes treatment to the civil servant who ran the program, following him home and sticking a camera in his face.

Let’s sum this up. The program was completely non-violent and appears to have broken no laws except Cuban censorship laws. It never even got far enough to plant any subversive information (unfortunately!). It was also popular and potentially effective. Before the AP exposed it, it was providing a service that Cubans liked and used. What if they liked and used it even more after it became a safe place to complain about food shortages, nosy block committees, corruption, the persecution of dissidents, and censorship? Is it morally wrong for people living under oppressive governments to be able to complain about those things or organize online?

ZunZuneo’s organizers wanted the social network to grow slowly to avoid detection by the Cuban government. Eventually, documents and interviews reveal, they hoped the network would reach critical mass so that dissidents could organize “smart mobs” — mass gatherings called at a moment’s notice — that could trigger political demonstrations, or “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.” [AP]

I want our government to help people do that! There’s no evidence that anyone was hurt by this program, and had it succeeded, no one would have been hurt except the Castro brothers and their censors. At worst, the program might have been housed more appropriately in the CIA or the Broadcasting Board of Governors, although U.S.A.I.D. didn’t deny its involvement after the program’s exposure. The Cubans who used ZunZuneo were unaware of its U.S. government connections and weren’t endangered (one good reason why U.S.A.I.D. initially concealed its links to ZunZuneo). Why is this a scandal — other than the fact of its public exposure? Is it the AP’s position that the Cuban people should spend their whole lives living under poverty and oppression? How else will those conditions ever change?

Also, note how the AP “interviews” Cuban citizens, almost certainly in the presence of government minders, without telling us whether any minders were present. That fact, however relevant to the viewer, would have illustrated the absurdity of the AP’s argument nicely.

Say, do you suppose the AP has a bureau in Havana? Do you suppose it ever covers stories about dissent in Cuba, or is it pretty much like AP’s bureau in Pyongyang — a lucrative partnership with censors and propagandists? This story is a good example of why, as much as I distrust all news media, I distrust the AP more than the rest of them.

Based on everything in the AP’s report, I conclude that this was actually a great idea that served both the interests of the United States and those of the Cuban people. I wonder how hard it would be for the CIA to hack into Koryolink and bring Twitter to North Korea. I wonder how long it would take for the AP to blow the lid on that.