A soldier’s defection and survival inspire two peoples … and perhaps, a third

New reports on that North Korean soldier’s defection at the Joint Security Area last month have added even more dramatic detail to his story. First, we learned of the heroism of the ROK soldiers who crawled out to drag him to safety. Then, we saw the video of his escape, with his comrades just a few feet behind him, shooting at him (and thankfully, missing in most cases). 

Now we know his name: Oh Chong-song. We know his aspiration: to be … a lawyer. We also know that he owes his life to a quick-thinking U.S. Army noncommissioned officer.

When the injured soldier was loaded into the Black Hawk helicopter, Sgt. 1st Class Gopal Singh, on his last mission as a flight medic, said a prayer. He did not think the man, who had been shot five times, was going to survive.

“I could tell immediately that this guy was probably going to die in the next 15 minutes if we didn’t start working on him and get the aircraft off the ground,” said Singh, a medic in the Eighth Army’s 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade, stationed at Camp Humphreys in South Korea. [WaPo, Anna Fifield]

Crews in the area often do medevac missions for South Korean civilians, such as those who get hurt in farm accidents. Only later did the crew learn that their patient was a North Korean soldier.

It was when the soldier was loaded into the Black Hawk that Singh, who was starting his final month in South Korea and the Army, realized how serious his patient’s injuries were.

“I actually said a prayer because I saw the condition he was in,” said Singh, who is 39 and from San Antonio. “The pilots could probably tell by my voice that he was in real danger of dying.”

The personnel at the JSA had stopped a lot of the bleeding from the gunshot wounds to the shoulder, chest and abdomen, but Oh was having difficulty breathing. He was trying to sit up on one side — a sign that he might be taking air inside his chest from a wound.

Singh performed a needle chest decompression, puncturing the soldier’s chest cavity to allow the air building up inside to escape. “I knew if I didn’t do that he would probably die because once his chest cavity filled up with air, it would push his heart and lung and everything over, and he wouldn’t make it,” he said. [WaPo]

I’ve pushed the limits of the Fair Use Doctrine far enough for one day, so read the rest of Fifield’s story on your own. From there, CNN picks up the story with video from the operating room in those first critical minutes — and more grody pictures of poor Mr. Oh’s tapeworms, which I really didn’t need at breakfast. It also interviews celebrity trauma surgeon Lee Cook-jong, who credits the American medics for saving Sergeant Oh.

“His vital signs were so unstable, he was dying of low blood pressure, he was dying of shock,” Lee said. [….]

Lee describes Oh’s vital signs as so unstable that a few times during the grueling operation, he thought the defector would die on the surgical table. “It’s a miracle that he survived,” Lee said. [CNN]

It’s hard not to find this story inspiring.

“I’m very proud of him. He fled from North Korea seeking for liberty, much more freedom. It’s quite easy to say, but it’s really, really difficult to make it happen, so I admire him,” Lee said. [CNN]

Oh is recovering well enough that he can already walk on his own, despite having to fight off parasitic infestations, tuberculosis, hepatitis B, and (understandably) post-traumatic stress disorder.

He’s been plagued by nightmares, sometimes fearing he was still in North Korea, prompting Lee to hang the South Korean flag in his recovery room to remind him he was safe. “He actually asked me, ‘is it really South Korea?’ And I said, ‘have a look at that flag. Have you ever seen that flag in North Korea?’  [CNN]

The story of Oh’s defection and recovery is still big news in South Korea. How could it fail to be, with a plot that could have been an episode of “Descendants of the Sun”? B.R. Myers worries about the tendency of certain Koreans to have an excess of nationalism (minjokjuŭi) rather than patriotism (kukkajuŭi). There is some evidence that this trend has shifted toward the latter in recent years. Here is a story that cleaves that difference perfectly by contrasting a ruthless and uninhabitable society against a liberal and compassionate one. This isn’t just a story of two men. It’s a story of how governments can suppress, but not quite extinguish, what is best about us as human beings.

“People tend to say that I’m proud of my country or something, so that’s why I was trying to save Mr. Oh’s life, but it’s totally wrong, as you can see here. We are doing this job every single day.” [CNN]

Meanwhile, Sergeant First Class Singh, who is preparing to finish his tour in Korea and his Army service, has said that he “thought about going to congratulate” Oh for his defection and recovery. What a grave error it would be if U.S. Forces Korea Public Relations fails to give him that chance.

“It’s truly a miracle. From the time that I saw him on the aircraft, I thought he was going to die,” Singh said. “So to be able to see him make it, it’s been a good feeling for all of us as a crew.” [WaPo]

As a good doctor should, Dr. Lee continues to keep the boys from the National Intelligence Service away from Oh to give his patient a chance to recover, but I’ll confess that I have an intense interest in knowing why Oh did something so desperate. His diet was clearly terrible. His comrades’ reaction to his defection shows them stumbling (possibly over each other), acting confused and ill-prepared, repeatedly missing their target, and later milling around, perhaps wondering whether to cross the DMZ in a group to drag him back (which would have gotten very ugly, very fast).

All of this suggests that these soldiers’ standard of training fell well below what we’d expect in this unit. What can Oh tell us about the state of training, morale, and discipline in front-line units? Does his diet indicate that conditions for even the elite of the elite of the NKPA have deteriorated recently? Does this, in turn, say something about the targeting of our sanctions? Is it possible that, like most parts of the North Korean government, this unit is funded by a particular trading company that has been affected by them? Was Oh fearful of a purge or punishment for some disciplinary infraction, or abuse by a superior?

Then, there are questions about the obvious influence of South Korean culture on Oh. Did the loudspeaker propaganda I’ve intermittently ridiculed, or the ability to watch South Korean television along the DMZ, help inspire his defection? If so, what messages have the greatest potential to impact a North Korean soldier’s willingness to obey or refuse orders to kill his fellow Koreans? The general public may never know those answers, but these are all important things for our governments to know.

Meanwhile, and to its credit, the South Korean government is broadcasting the story of Oh’s defection and survival back to his comrades north of the DMZ. One can only hope that this story says as much to them about the nature of their society and culture as it clearly has to many South Koreans.

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Some N. Koreans grow weary of a war that is forever imminent, as others yearn for it.

For the last 60 years, the people of North Korea have been told that they must sacrifice all their wants — and too many of their needs — for the sake of a holy war with Oceania that has always been imminent. Pyongyang’s media manipulation strategy shows the world’s most gullible journalists (and I mean you, Will Ripley) images of subjects who are (or who appear to be) united in fanatical, robotic devotion to the state’s war propaganda. Yet out in the provinces, the people have stopped believing it.
People have also been overheard complaining among themselves about how the government has to take such actions to create an artificially tense atmosphere, as without them, the people would show no real concern. “North Korea would suffer unspeakable destruction if war breaks out, so are they really going to attack the US?” one resident said to the source.
Evidence suggests that the regime does not have any such intentions, and is merely focusing on creating an atmosphere of war without undertaking any significant military maneuvers. Years of false claims of a coming “total war” and threats of annihilation have damaged the government’s credibility among the people. [Daily NK]
Or, in the original German, “Wollt ihr den totalen Krieg?” And the people said “nein.”*
“These latest measures do not represent any change in the regime’s strategy, and their failure to even respond to this week’s joint US-South Korea military drills with exercises of their own is further proof. They will just continue with their saber-rattling, forcing the people to the streets for daily demonstrations, taking pictures and putting on a show, but nobody at this point believes they will really start a war,” the source said. [Daily NK]
But whether this confidence is an expression of weariness or reassurance (or some combination of both) may depend on the individual. Some North Koreans say “when the war comes” as code talk for “after the regime ends.” A former member of the Pyongyang elite told me this in a conversation more than a decade ago. Here is more evidence of that.

“An increasing number of residents are pointing out that, for them [the North Korean people], provoking the US is a losing battle. We are the ones who suffer from the regime’s belligerent behavior with no consideration for reconciliation and cooperation,” he added.

Some residents are said to be welcoming the regime’s propaganda that a war is imminent, a source in North Hamgyong Province said. We want the suffering to finally end even if it means losing a war,” he said.

“Kim Jong Un is using the same old strategy of his grandfather (Kim Il Sung) and father (Kim Jong Il) to consolidate the population with threats of war, but it is not really effective anymore.” [Daily NK]

Often, I think we underestimate how intelligent, and how perceptive some North Koreans are in seeing through the state’s propaganda, yet at the same time, they may not be nearly perceptive enough about the cost of the war Kim Jong-Un is leading them into. Are their circumstances so desperate that they would gamble everything to reset the future? I suspect we’d find different answers to that question in Pyongyang, in the provinces, and in the barracks. We should help all of them understand that cost in vivid terms, along with who will bear it, and who profits from this regime’s endless war hysteria and all of the hard labor it is used to justify. History is often written by people who see only their desperation, who yearn to erase the future, and who damn all consequences. But if the North Korean people are waiting for us, they are waiting in vain. No matter the circumstance or the scenario, the cost of rebooting their future will be great. It will be far greater for them if it involves war with us. If they want a future, they must take history into their own hands.

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* The rhetorical similarities between Goebbels’s words and Pyongyang’s rhetoric today are uncanny. Said Goebbels in 1943: “Do you believe with the Führer and us in the final total victory of the German people? Are you and the German people willing to work, if the Führer orders, 10, 12 and if necessary 14 hours a day and to give everything for victory? Do you want total war? If necessary, do you want a war more total and radical than anything that we can even imagine today?” You see what I mean? But war fever and Stakhanovite exhortations have short shelf lives — historically, no longer than ten years. A state can only sustain the ideological fervor for this level of self-sacrifice for so long before the people tire of it.

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How censorship is leading Korea to ruin

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]

Last year, I wrote a post, which I fear is already becoming prescient, about how North Korea could plausibly win the Korean War. In condensed form, the strategy involves Pyongyang leveraging its nuclear, cyber, and chemical weapons supremacy and the South’s political divisions to provoke a series of crises, force Seoul into “peace” talks, and extort it, crisis-by-crisis and negotiation-by-negotiation, into unilateral disarmament, de facto editorial control over its media, the silencing of Pyongyang’s critics, the withdrawal of U.S. forces, and effective domination through a one-country, two-systems confederation. Given the strength of the nationalist faction now vying for control of U.S. foreign policy and the calls from other quarters for peace at any price, all of this could be a fait accompli before most Koreans even knew what had happened, especially if most journalists and editorial writers celebrated a de facto capitulation (as they certainly would) as the end of tensions and a new beginning for peace.

If it all sounds alarmist or even paranoid, consider that humans are accomplished at rationalizing their fears away, especially when the other surroundings of life still seem just as “normal” as they did the day, month, or year before. Although a sympathetic foreign press corps hardly noticed, former President Roh Moo-Hyun (whose Chief of Staff is the current President) had already gone far down the road of subsidizing friendly media and suppressing hostile media. There is also a published road map for this paranoid delusion of mine. The June 15, 2000 Inter-Korean Declaration called for, among other things, a confederation as a predecessor to “to resolve the question of reunification independently and through the joint efforts of the Korean people, who are the masters of the country.” (Update: which sounds much like how B.R. Myers translates the word “juche.”)

Pyongyang already has plenty of ways to enforce its censorship in the South now, including libel suits in which the truth is no defense, attacks by state-subsidized hard-left goon squads, the occasional assassination or threat of assassination, military provocations, and preemptive censorship by South Korean authorities who would (as Park Geun-Hye did) ban “slander” of the North Korean political system to avoid provoking it. To these instruments, Pyongyang recently added nuclear blackmail. 

“President Moon has expressed concerns regarding propaganda leaflets to North Korea as a matter that could prompt accidental clashes,” the official at the presidential office told Yonhap News Agency over the phone. “(The president) ordered aides to find ways for clashes to not occur,” the official added.

The remarks were reportedly made during a meeting with senior aides last month after Pyongyang announced it test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile, in an apparent effort to minimize the risks of an inter-Korean conflict amid heightened tensions.

“The president explained past situations in which the North fired anti-aircraft guns towards balloons from the South carrying leaflets and then our military fired return shots,” the official explained, adding that Moon expressed a “considerable amount of concern” towards accidental conflicts.

For years, North Korean defectors in the South and conservative activists have flown the leaflets to the North via balloons to help encourage North Koreans to rise up against the Pyongyang regime. South Korea has said there are no legal grounds to prevent the activists from sending the leaflets, citing freedom of expression. [Yonhap]

This is how free people are tempted to trade liberty for security: Kim Jong-Un’s censorship knows no limits or borders. To submit to it is to forfeit one’s freedom. And if Kim Jong-Un will not disarm peacefully, and if we cannot live with a nuclear North Korea, and if we can neither talk nor bomb nor wait our way out of this crisis, then only spreading the truth to North Korea will set us free from the fear of war.

If Moon moves forward with this, he’ll probably do what authoritarians usually do when they want to censor inconvenient speech — disguise it as the enforcement of some politically neutral regulation, such as against littering, or as some kind of safety regulation. In the U.S., and probably in other legal systems, our courts are alert to this tactic and do not allow state regulations to burden “fundamental” constitutional rights unless they show that the regulation is narrowly tailored to advance a “compelling governmental interest.” And as Professor Lee and I conceded in an op-ed in the New York Times three years ago, moving the launch sites away from populated areas may meet that test and would certainly be prudent. But to ban the launches entirely would be yielding to a particularly flagrant and implicitly violent use of the “heckler’s veto.” It would, in effect, sacrifice a right to nonviolent free speech, which some states recognize as customary international law, in the face of a state’s threats of politically motivated violence against noncombatants (read: terrorism). One need not even ask if Moon would at least demand a reciprocal cessation of North Korea’s leafleting in South Korea.

[A friend of mine found this one on the way home from morning PT formation.]

It is not difficult to see how a series of accommodations like this one could evolve into a dual political system like that in Hong Kong, supervised by a Control Commission of strident North Koreans and pliable South Koreans, steadily rolling back the limits of what speech is permitted, what speech is subsidized, and what speech is verboten. Once Seoul is disarmed (in both a political and a martial sense), events would progress quickly. Of course, the last thing Pyongyang wants right now is to send its impoverished soldiers to occupy a prosperous (or recently prosperous) South. But with sanctions lifted at “peace talks,” the Commission would quickly implement “balanced development of the national economy through economic cooperation,” a South-to-North subsidy of the Pyongyang elites and the North’s “wavering” classes, and the relative impoverishment of the South, to achieve material parity across the DMZ. The two systems would be on a path to become One Slave Korea.

One reason why South Korea is relatively defenseless against this threat is that both the “left” and the “right” censor each other, at the expense of debate, discourse, and the pursuit of objective truth. I’ve tried to be just as strident in criticizing the right when it censored a professor for expressing pro-North Korean views, when soldiers shot and killed a man for trying to swim to North Korea, and when Park Geun-Hye’s government both justifiably prosecuted Lee Seok-Ki and unjustifiably dissolved his entire political party. Politicians on both sides have used libel suits to censor and even jail their political critics — Park Geun-Hye did it, Moon Jae-In did it, and both were illiberal and undemocratic when they did it.

But when “libel” amounts to “you hurt my feelings,” the practice of competent journalism risks professional and financial ruin, and it is safer to wage politics by planting rumors on Naver and MissyUSA comment threads than by making and defending charges against your political opponents openly. Thus, most of the news that’s fit to print is unverified, unverifiable, or simply fake. No wonder foreign journalists complain about standards of Korean journalism (though they seldom identify the causes of this). No wonder political discourse is dominated by rumor and innuendo. No wonder the courts are effectively rubber stamps for trial-by-protest, where crowd counts mean more than rules of evidence or forensic analysis. A society that is unable and unwilling to adjudicate truth is defenseless against the manipulations of its enemies. And when the prevailing view in Korean society is, as Nat Hentoff summarized it, “Free speech for me, but not for thee,” why does Pyongyang’s censorship sit on a lower plane than anyone else’s? 

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I concede that what I’m presenting as plausible seems facially fantastic and conspiratorial. Moon certainly doesn’t seem to fit the part of a Manchurian Candidate; he doesn’t radiate the angry delusions of grandeur of a Jeremy Corbyn and displays none of the boisterous, power-drunk inanity our own president does at times. His very niceness clashes with what his record suggests, and with the evidence of what some of his closest advisors certainly are. Admittedly, Moon is still in his “honeymoon” phase, but press coverage of him gives KCNA’s adulation of Kim Jong-Un a run for its money. Even so, Moon knows that his voters are wary of the North. As Moon supporter Duyeon Kim argues, he is waiting for the right moment to reveal and implement his actual North Korea policy, which is both probably true and profoundly terrifying. Certainly few of the academics and journalists who cover Korea want to believe that what I’m suggesting here is plausible. Nor do I suggest that any of the small limits Moon would put on free speech necessarily means that Korea is careening to the bottom of the slippery slope. All I am saying is that if my worst fears come true, it would all look a lot like this in the beginning.

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Propaganda in the age of Kim Jong-Un: A discussion with Professor B.R. Myers

What follows is an email discussion between myself and Professor B.R. Myers of Dongsoo University, author of “The Cleanest Race” and “North Korea’s Juche Myth,” and keeper of the Sthele Press blog. At the end of the discussion, I thought readers might enjoy reading it, and Professor Myers graciously agreed to let me print it here.

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Stanton: A few weeks ago, a commenter at my blog cited your work as evidence that North Koreans probably still believe in their political system. That raises several questions: first, do North Koreans believe in their political ideology; second, do they believe in Kim Jong Un; and third, can they distinguish between the two in a place like North Korea where the personality cult is so critical?

In “The Cleanest Race,” you argued that North Korea’s propaganda was effective. I see plenty of evidence that it works on a significant number of South Koreans. Although the sentiments of North Koreans are harder to measure, I agree that nationalism and xenophobia probably still play well with South and North Koreans — even better than they play in most other places. The tribal instinct predates humanity itself, after all.

I doubt, however, that most North Koreans hold Kim Jong-Un in high regard. I see no evidence that they do and plenty of evidence that they don’t. He hasn’t cultivated the same monastic, martial, self-sacrificing persona that Kim Il-Sung could and that even Kim Jong-Il tried to. Just look at him. Look at his appearances with a laughingstock like Dennis Rodman — who is, in KCNA’s racist vernacular, a monkey with impure blood.

I think the true sentiments of North Koreans are probably complex. I suspect they probably believe in some elements of the system and not others. I suspect they are proud of their weapons programs and also see them as a waste of resources. Most of them can tell that the system is not providing for them, and I suspect that their views of Kim Jong-Un vary from apathy to antipathy, and are far less favorable than their views of Kim Il-Sung or even Kim Jong-Il.

Myers: I tend to agree with you in regard to Kim Jong Un himself. When I was there in 2011 even my minders could not work up much enthusiasm about him. No state can keep its people at the same pitch of fervency forever, especially not after losing the monopoly on providing culture and information to the masses. Kim Jong Un has made many blunders on the propaganda front. The Dennis Rodman stuff was indeed a fiasco. Kim Il Sung met African leaders in public, but like all foreigners they showed the proper deference. Rodman slouched next to Kim Jong Un in dark shades and a baseball cap. I knew then that Chang Song-thaek wasn’t pulling the strings, because if he had been, that would never have happened. 

But Kim has obviously been getting better advice lately. He is speaking much better too. He rushes his speeches a bit, but he has a good, rich voice, the voice of a more mature man. I’m sure the nuclear and ballistic triumphs he’s racking up at the moment are helping his “poll numbers”. By the regime’s military-first standards of performance he is doing better even than Kim Jong Il.  

In any case, his relative lack of popularity is not as important as the lack of popularity of a president in South Korea, where there is no bedrock state support to keep people patriotic even when they dislike a leader. 

But we Americans are more like the North Koreans in that regard. Does our patriotism rise and fall depending on who is in the White House? If we don’t like a president, do we start finding America’s enemies more likeable? No. We should therefore not assume that Kim Jong Un’s relative lack of stature means that support for the state is weakening.

And if we’re going to jeer at North Korea for being a de facto monarchy, we must also acknowledge the main advantage of such a system: no divisive squabbling over who has the right to rule. On my book tour for “The Cleanest Race” I used the example of my British mother: a firm supporter of the monarchy with different estimations of the various royals. She doesn’t like the idea of Charles becoming king, but accepts that it will and must happen. 

I’ve also often spoken of a defector (an artist) who told me how, when crossing the Tumen River into China, he was seized with a horrible guilt at betraying the nara, the country. This although his hatred of Kim Jong Il had been a big factor in inducing him to leave. For most North Koreans the state equals the race, equals the country. This is where the North has been so much more successful than what I call the “Unloved Republic” of South Korea. There, as in Weimar Germany, the state is seen as having betrayed the race. When Moon Jae-in looks back on the history of the ROK he holds up only the anti-state riots and protests as high points.  

It’s time we all acknowledged the genius of the North’s propaganda apparatus, however much distaste we feel about it. It works with the grain of human nature. Kim Il Sung’s first speech in Pyongyang in October 1945 went down terribly, because he lacked the natural charisma to make plausible the biographical legend the Soviets had chosen for him. But the propaganda apparatus quickly made clear that by swallowing his legend, the whole nation could regard its own colonial past in a nobler light. In celebrating the leader as the embodiment of ethnic virtues, 25 million people celebrate themselves. Which is not to say the cult hasn’t cooled a lot. 

Western observers focus more on the regime’s economic failures than the North Koreans themselves do. Remember that it was only in recent modern times that Western societies began expecting the state to secure constant economic growth and rising prosperity. Well into the 20th century people expected little more from the state than that it protect them from foreign powers, and expand the influence or territory of the nation. Prussia was remarkably like North Korea in many ways, yet we remember it as a very successful state. If we judge North Korea by its own standards — instead of by the communist standards we hope its people judge it by — we must admit it has performed very well. 

The whole point of the military-first policy was not so much to whip up support for the military as to de-ideologize the economic sector, to make it possible to dismantle the command economy without dismantling the authority of the whole system. 

This is why (as I never tire of repeating) North Koreans can frequent black markets and still consider themselves good citizens, as was impossible in the communist East Bloc. So the situation now is more like Japan or Germany in 1944, say, than like East Germany in the 1980s. Widespread government corruption? Check. An entire population of economic criminals? Check. Constant griping about the state, the party, even some joking about the leader? Check. (Even good Nazis had their Hitler jokes.) A general readiness to fight for the state? Well, there’s certainly more readiness in the North than in the South. 

It all comes down to what neither the softliners nor the hardliners want to acknowledge: this is a successful right-wing state, not a failed communist one.

Stanton: Your sentence about patriotism not changing with one’s view of the leader is insightful, although I wonder how well the comparison holds up in a place like North Korea where propaganda ties the state so closely to the leader himself. Our own propaganda, such as it is, is one of loyalty to principle and nation, but discourages loyalty to parties and personalities. We preserve a duality in which one can be patriotic to the system even if one loathes the president. That duality doesn’t exist in North Korea.

Myers: I see what you mean. If Kim Jong Un is Chosun, as the slogan goes, then his decline in popularity must be the state’s too? But it doesn’t work that way. We all need to give our lives a sense of significance, of a meaning that lives on after our deaths. The North Koreans get that from their nationalism, which is one with their patriotism. If they lose that, what do they have? 

Don’t get me wrong, we can always hope for an uprising. But it is more likely to be sparked inadvertently, as it were, by traders protesting against their provincial or municipal government’s highhandedness and corruption, in the naive hope that the state will step in on their side.

Whether such an uprising becomes a revolution is another matter. Remember what Hannah Arendt said: Revolutions are usually a matter of people picking up the power of a state in disintegration, a government that has lost the will to enforce its laws. Of the two states on the peninsula, I see the South as closer to fitting that bill. There were recent reports of demonstrators around the THAAD site stopping and checking police cars.

Stanton: I agree that the two Koreas seem to be in a sprint to the bottom. I also think we underestimate the amount of anarchy in North Korea’s eastern and northeastern provinces because (1) reporters seldom see those parts of North Korea, and (2) instead, they are led through a circuit of soda-straw views of elite, regimented Pyongyang. It’s lazy journalism that justifies the propagation of a distorted image of North Korea with the argument that some news is better than no news at all. I don’t agree that an unrepresentative sample informs us about how most North Koreans live.

I agree that North Korea’s greatest political vulnerabilities are matters of retail economics and market policies. A propaganda campaign that linked songbun (class), corruption, and the state’s economic policies to the economic grievances of the people might resonate among North Korea’s poor and merchant class. Isn’t it always the case that revolutions are sparked by economic grievances that polarize around political grievances and class envy? Wasn’t that fundamentally true of 1989 and the Arab Spring?

So far, our broadcasts to North Korea have been bland, straight-news programs that have been afraid to take a more subversive approach that reports on local corruption and protests, for fear of upsetting China & South Korea. I believe that, a more subversive tone in our broadcasting might be a way to pressure Beijing,  Seoul, and Pyongyang. Pyongyang has shown a surprising amount of concern about even those silly loudspeakers along the DMZ.

My point is that regardless of North Korea’s nationalism, the regime is still vulnerable to class-warfare propaganda. This is not to say that we could not also harness Korean nationalism — particularly if the message did more to highlight China’s ambitions to divide, dominate, and exploit Korea.

Myers: The Arab Spring was at its heart an Islamist uprising whipped up by a Muslim clergy for which in North Korea there is no equivalent. The only non-secular force of note is shamanism, which merely encourages the family-centricity that keeps people from joining forces against the state. As for 1989, the USSR made no secret of loosening its grip over its sphere of influence. Gorbachev dropped Honecker in spectacularly obvious fashion. From that point on, the East Germans knew the regime was going down. And in Romania, there was a multi-ethnic dynamic you don’t have in North Korea either, the few ethnic Chinese hwagyo being focused on cross-border trade, and very happy with the status quo.

And at the risk of sounding like a broken record: this is a far-right, militarist state. Such states tend to experience uprisings only when they have failed by militarist or nationalist standards, as the Argentinian junta did in 1982.

Such states are not the sort of smoothly functioning machines that Orwell describes in 1984. They are much more ramshackle things, with plenty of loopholes and little freedoms that a communist state would try harder to eliminate. John Everard, the former British ambassador to North Korea — who believes that North Korea is closer to Nazi Germany than to the USSR — has recorded his surprise at the freedom of movement, the freedom to shape their own leisure time, which average citizens enjoy even in Pyongyang.

You use the word anarchy; I think that’s going too far. Again, let’s recall Japan in the war. There too people were bribing or making deals with owners of the stalled factories in which they were “frozen,” so they could go off and catch fish for someone else. 

It was a kind of lawlessness to which a blind eye was turned, but I wouldn’t call it anarchy. It covers only areas that are ideologically uncharged. In any part of North Korea, someone who publicly insults the leader is going to be punished as immediately and brutally as such a person would have been 50 years ago.

I agree generally with you about what our propaganda approach should be. I have been saying for at least 10 years now that the balloon leaflets are too amateurish. I am not happy with the extent to which their composition is left to defectors, who are overwhelmingly from the least propagandized, most rural part of the country. For decades the basic message has been, “Dump the leadership, because it lives high on the hog while you toil and starve.” That’s the sort of sloganeering that might help undermine a communist state. 

It won’t work in a far-right, ultra-nationalist state. The pomp that surrounds Kim Jong Un is the whole nation’s pomp, as it were. I have urged American officials who ask me about propaganda to encourage a nationalist approach to it, stressing the North’s disgraceful dependence on China, contrasting the North with an internationally respected South that has really put Korea on the map.

I’m not sure this will be enough though. The crucial issue, from a nationalist North Korean’s perspective, is likely to be: Which of the two states is more intent on righting the wrongs foreigners have done to us? Which state wants to unify the peninsula, the nation? And the South all too obviously allows the North to play the heroic role of the sole unifying force. Park Geun-hye made efforts to rectify that neglect but it was too little, too late. And now a very different president is in power.

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Our grand plans to engage North Korea must learn from their failures and evolve with the evidence

One of my cruel habits lately has been to ask the holdouts who still advocate the economic, cultural, and scientific “engagement” of Pyongyang to name a single significant, positive outcome their policies have purchased at the cost of $8 billion or more, over 20-odd years, as thousands of North Koreans died beyond our view and our earshot. I’ve yet to receive a non-sarcastic answer to that question. Yesterday, I salted this wound by pointing out that the largest remaining engagement experiment, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, has become a pool for hostages for Kim Jong-un, exactly as the Malaysian Embassy in Pyongyang recently was, and exactly as the Kaesong Industrial Complex will be if Moon Jae-in is foolish enough to reopen it — and if we’re foolish enough to let him draw us into this potential flashpoint for conflict (think Desert One with nukes).

It is now beyond serious debate that the Sunshine Policy (and every rebranded variation of it) has failed, and that it will never succeed as long as Kim Jong-un weighs down a throne in Pyongyang. Engagers will answer that it is essential to keep open lines of communication to prevent war. Fine, but such communications are best left to diplomats who can meet their North Korean counterparts in safe, neutral locations, not to anyone addlebrained enough to visit or take up residence in North Korea in times like these.

Engagers will also argue that North Korea will never change if North Koreans aren’t exposed to better ideas and ways of life. But if you were to interrogate the engagers and me, you’d find that I believe this point more strongly than the engagers themselves do. We differ in their belief, and my skepticism, that Pyongyang-approved engagement programs have the potential to catalyze positive change from the top down. Rather, it’s the smuggling and broadcasting of media that Pyongyang is waging an unrelenting war to suppress that have the proven potential to change North Korea from the bottom up, and for the better. Remember 2012, when the engagers figured Kim Jong-un for a Swiss-educated reformer? Instead, his signature domestic policy has been a counterinsurgency campaign — a violent war by his regime against an unorganized popular uprising. Except that in this war, only one side is organized and armed, and consequently, the other side has done all of the dying.

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The evidence that has accumulated over 20 years yields no basis — none — to believe that we will see a kinder, gentler Kim Jong-un if we just throw enough money at him. Indeed, the legacy of the Sunshine Policy is far worse than its mere failure to succeed. It has also set back the cause of reform, opening, and change by financing the machinery of oppression and terror (of both the domestic and foreign varieties) that guards the status quo.

Several years ago, for example, I linked to reports that the dreaded State Security Department finances its salaries and expenses through a China-based trading company. Since then, the Treasury Department has designated three North Korean trading companies that sell coal and iron ore — Daewon Industries, which supports the Munitions Industry Department; the Kangbong Trading Corporation, which supports North Korea’s military; and Paeksol Trading Corporation, which supports the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the spy agency that carries out most of North Korea’s terrorist and cyber attacks. To these, the Wall Street Journal‘s Jay Solomon adds another example, involved in financing North Korea’s nuclear programs.

From this evidence, it follows that we would do more to disarm and transform North Korea by targeting those companies with sanctions and bankrupting them, and by forcing the soldiers and cadres that rely on their revenue to turn to corruption, than by financing them. If we’re serious about bringing change to North Korea, our sanctions policy should preferentially target North Korea’s security forces and border guards as much as it targets its proliferation network. That’s the part of “maximum pressure” the Trump administration gets.

The even greater potential source of pressure, which the Trump administration may or may not understand, is to employ an engagement strategy that seeks to reach the North Korea people directly, using technology to bypass Pyongyang’s minders and censors. The people of North Korea are looking for that bypass from within:

Amid heightened levels of surveillance and border control, an increasing number of North Koreans in the border areas are purchasing South Korean smartphone, which they perceive as more secure from detection by the authorities.
“Most smugglers own mobile phones that enable them to communicate across the border, but recently an increasing number of residents are looking for South Korean touch-phones (smartphones). There are rumors that the South Korean phones are not as easily detectable by the devices used by the security agencies,” a source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on May 1.
“Some say that residents with South Korean smartphones are able to send texts and pictures more quickly and evade detection. For this reason, individuals are paying large sums of money to smugglers for South Korean phones.” [Daily NK]

An engagement strategy that goes directly to the North Korean people has far more potential to achieve cultural, social, and political change than another rebranded variation of Sunshine. It would follow the plan I’ve written about at length and described as “guerrilla engagement” — one that directly engages North Korea’s discontented by harnessing the jangmadang economy and North Koreans’ hunger for information about the outside world. It would use entertainment and practical information (weather and market reports) as gateway drugs for those who might later opt to listen to overtly religious and political content. An essential reagent for the second phase of that strategy will be deploying the technology that not only allows North Koreans to hear our messages, but also to communicate and organize with each other. In time, it would organize and coalesce their grievances into a broad-based popular resistance movement with the capacity to broadcast photographs and video of the regime’s human rights abuses, stage strikes, deny the regime control of the market economy, and further strain the regime’s finances.

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True, the election of Moon Jae-in threatens to reanimate the old, failed approach to engagement, though without much of a popular mandate. In due course, a revival of Sunshine will collapse under the weight of Kim Jong-un’s predatory and impulsive nature, just as Kim Jong-Il’s conduct eventually discredited Roh Moo-hyun’s policy. Until then, neutralizing South Korean opposition to “maximum pressure” will require us to bargain harder with Seoul that George W. Bush or Barack Obama ever did. Moon’s election may require us to find information strategies that circumvent his obstructionism by relying on our own technological innovation, and perhaps by shifting toward a closer operational partnership with Japan.

We tend to forget that until just over a year ago, engagement and sanctions worked at cross purposes — effectively, sanctions and subsidies were mutually canceling. But consider the potential of those two strategies if we ever coordinated them. It is one thing to bankrupt the border guards, but entirely another to do so while helping smugglers bribe or evade them. It is one thing to bankrupt the security forces, but entirely another to do so while helping clandestine journalists show their abuses to the world. It is one thing to bankrupt the military’s commissary system, but entirely another to do so while empowering clandestine humanitarian NGOs to minister to, and provide for the material needs of, demoralized, hungry, and mistreated soldiers. If the Sunshine experiment was allowed so many years to double and triple down on failure, might we at least experiment with an engagement strategy designed to shift North Korea’s internal balance of power, gradually enough so that Kim Jong-un never faces the dangerous use-it-or-lose-it proposition that our loose talk of “decapitation” raises?

Engagers will say this means regime change, and it’s certainly some kind of change, but a kind that looks less like Iraq than the unkept promises of glasnost and perestroika we heard from the engagers themselves 20 years ago. As Professor Lee, Bruce Klingner and I pointed out in the pages of Foreign Affairs recently:

The failure of engagement was just as inevitable as the failure of the Agreed Framework. Its premise—that capitalism would spur liberalism in a despotic state—was flawed. After all, over the past two decades, both China and Russia have cracked down on domestic dissent and threatened the United States and its allies abroad, even as they have cautiously welcomed in capitalism. In 2003, even as it cashed Seoul’s checks, Pyongyang warned party officials in the state newspaper that “it is the imperialist’s old trick to carry out ideological and cultural infiltration prior to their launching of an aggression openly.” For the regime, engagement was a “silent, crafty and villainous method of aggression, intervention and domination.” Given this attitude, it’s no surprise that Kim Jong Il never opened up North Korea. The political change that engagement advocates promised was exactly what he feared the most.

That is to say, the Sunshine Policy could never work because it was a strategy for regime change that depended on the very people with the most to lose if it succeeded — the ruling class in Pyongyang. (Either that, or Sunshine was really a marketing strategy for overcoming U.S. objections to subsidizing Pyongyang and canceling out the effect of sanctions by clothing it as regime change. In which case, it succeeded brilliantly.)

Taking the aims of Sunshine at face value, however, its manifest failure calls for a complete rethinking. Engagement must appeal, first, to the people who seek change, rather than those who resist it. The information component of this strategy must be tailored to different constituencies — soldiers, the elites, and of course, the poor who are trapped at the bottom of the songbun scale. By engaging the North Korean people directly, we can help expand the private farming and trading that fill the markets. We can broaden the cracks in Kim Jong-un’s blockade to expand the freedom of information that really can bring social and political change. We can slow the pace of proliferation and relax the grip of the state’s oppression on the people. We can hasten the erosion of belief in Kim Jong-un’s personality cult, promote peace, and help prevent (or shorten) a war.

We will also need a separate strategy to engage the elites in Pyongyang, to persuade them not to resist change, to abstain from crimes against humanity, and to refuse (as much as they are able) to attack civilian targets in South Korea. This must be an appeal to the interests of the men with the guns. We should seek to undermine their confidence in Kim Jong-un and convince them that they have a better and safer future in a reunified Korea. That may require the difficult choice to offer some form of clemency to those who have taken innocent life, but only if they save innocent North or South Korean lives at critical moments. We must speak to them with candor about the recent purges in Pyongyang — how the status quo eventually means physical obliteration for them and a slow death in the prison camps for their families. If we employ these strategies in tandem, the elites will realize that time is not on their side, and that their reward for preserving Kim Jong-un’s reign will be physical extinction for themselves, a bleak future for their families, and a legacy on the ash-heap of history.

No pressure can ever be “maximum” if it excludes this reinvented, disruptive new approach to engagement.

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When North Korean agitprop backfires: A film about a peasant uprising is sowing dangerous ideas

What passes for a feel-good story in one of the world’s bleakest corners? Evidence that the seeds of class warfare are sprouting within a state that has fooled so many gullible leftists into believing that it’s a paradise of socialism. The Daily NK reports that an old agitprop film is inspiring exactly the kind of revolutionary consciousness that Kim Jong-un sees in his cognac-sodden nightmares. The film, “Im Kkoek Jung,” reminds North Koreans that their society has become the very thing the state’s propaganda once told them to rise against, if only they could arm themselves and organize.

North Korean residents are reflecting on inequality in their society for which the regime [is] responsible, thanks to the renewed popularity of a historical movie called Im Kkeok Jung. The movie depicts a 1559 peasant rebellion by a band of thieves who set up camp in an egalitarian mountain village called Chongsokgol.

Although ordinary residents struggle through the annual food shortages associated with the ‘agricultural hardship period,’ North Korea’s political cadres live in luxury apartments packed with South Korean televisions and other expensive items. The situation is in stark contrast to the fictional town of Chongsokgol, where people are shown living in equality regardless of their social status or family history. The comparison between the ideal society presented in Im Kkeok Jung and the very different reality that ordinary North Koreans face is stirring resentment towards North Korea’s ruling elite. [Daily NK]

How could it be otherwise in Kim Jong-un’s North Korea, where 70 percent of the people go hungry and a few | live in | Bacchanalian | luxury, and where class divisions are mostly fixed and hereditary?

“There are many families in the surrounding area that lack food security,” said an inside source from Ryanggang Province, located in the country’s northwest region along the border with China, during a telephone call with Daily NK on March 31. “I think the number is over 60%. The problem is particularly severe in Kimjongsuk County and Samsu County. It’s becoming common for residents to quip to one another, ‘I want to find Chongsokgol and live there.’”

“People are weary and exhausted from the struggle of everyday life,” she added. “They’re saying that it would be better to live together with other poor people in an equal society like the one depicted in Im Kkeok Jung.”

Im Kkeok Jung is a five-part movie created by the Korean Film Studio and directed by Jang Yong Bok. In the film, the character Im Kkeok Jung defies aristocratic bureaucrats and sets out to abolish the oppressive social ranking system. To do so, he sets up camp at Chongsokgol. The mountainside village’s name has become synonymous with egalitarianism and is presented as a utopia. [Daily NK]

You can watch the entire film on YouTube — complete with English subtitles — although production-wise, it’s not exactly “Descendants of the Sun.” Just imagine if South Korea’s film industry did a remake of this. No, forget I said that. South Korea’s right is too binary and paranoid to see the potential of it, and most of South Korea’s film industry would rather lionize Kim Jong-un than dethrone him.

“When people are alone with their family members, it has become a regular occurrence to ridicule Kim Jong Un. People call him immature, citing his lack of personal life experience as the reason for his inability to understand the needs of the common person. Residents ask, ‘How can any political leader succeed when they enter politics at such a young age?’” a source in North Hamgyong Province said.

“These days, residents complain directly to party cadres, saying, ‘Are you trying to starve us all to death?’ All the cadres can do is grin sheepishly in response.”

“Residents are doing everything within their power to simply survive and try to better their lives, but nothing has meaningfully improved,” said an additional Ryanggang-based source. “Looking at the lifestyles of the cadres today, they remark that, ‘Life today is exactly the same as it was during the time of Im Kkeok Jung.’ Quite a few people regularly talk about going to extreme lengths to live in a place like Chongsokgol.” [Daily NK]

Amid this widespread hunger, it isn’t lost among North Korea’s poor that the state has higher priorities than feeding them.

“There are an increasing number of people who are suffering from malnutrition in agricultural regions such as Pochon County, Kapsan County, and Samsoo County. People in these rural areas resent the fact that there aren’t enough potatoes to feed the people, yet the government is obsessed with missiles. What difference in our lives will launching a missile make?” a source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK on March 21.

“Even ordinary people understand that the price of a missile is enough to feed the whole population for several months. So every time the regime conducts a nuclear test or missile launch, many become infuriated at the waste of money, equivalent to hundreds of thousands of tons of food.”

“The residents were especially outraged to see Kim Jong Un beaming while watching the test (on March 18). He seems to be satisfied even though he spent money that could have been used to save starving people,” noted a separate source in Ryanggang Province. [Daily NK]

Even Kim Jong-un himself may have implicitly acknowledged this discontent. But if inequality is the greatest threat to the stability of the regime, corruption may be a close second. Historically, it has always been individual injustices that have inflamed the underprivileged. Here is one such story that is “brewing discontent among locals regarding the pervasive injustice in North Korean society,” but could have inflamed an entire province — or the entire nation — if North Koreans could have texted it to each other:

“At the end of October last year, Song Ju, a third-year student at Kim Jong Suk Senior High School, stabbed his classmate to death following a quarrel over a female. He was sentenced to one year’s detention at a re-education camp,” a source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK on March 27.

“However, he was released earlier this month, after just four months in the camp. People are saying that someone must have pulled strings behind the scenes.”

The student is said to belong to a well-known and powerful family in Kim Jong Suk County, Ryanggang Province. His father is a director of the county forest management center, while his mother is head of a district office with influence over broad issues in the region. Using their positions, both parents have reportedly bribed law enforcement agencies, including the provincial Ministry of State Security unit, and applied pressure to shorten their son’s prison term. [Daily NK]

Every now and then, discontent over these injustices breaks out into acts of resistance against the state.

A North Korean man in his 40s angered by the human rights violations he was subjected to some weeks ago during an investigation has attacked the officer responsible and evaded capture.

“The incident took place at a Ministry of People’s Security (MPS) unit in Pyongsong, South Pyongan Province on March 16. Soon after, all MPS units in the region were put on a state of emergency,” a source in South Pyongan told Daily NK on March 22.

The MPS official was badly injured and is currently in a hospital in Pyongsong. The authorities are reportedly considering relieving him of duty not only due to the attack but also because he let the suspect escape.

The Ministry of People’s Security has distributed photos of the fugitive to security departments in the border areas under the assumption that he may attempt to defect. Thorough restrictions have also been placed on all residents who are moving around at nighttime, the source added. [Daily NK]

As is usually the case, the grievance that led to the act of resistance was economic — the struggle by the lower classes to survive in a society that refuses to provide for them.

Offering details of the case, he explained that the suspect was accused of economic crimes and had been under investigation for a month by the local MPS unit. During the preliminary trial, the prosecutor reportedly hurled invective like, “You should be grateful you can still eat,” and, “Dishonest people like you deserve to die.”

“Pyongsong residents are siding squarely with the victim and assuming that the abuse must have been severe for an innocent man to attack an officer. Everyone is hoping he escapes,” he said. [Daily NK]

The report lends further support to my speculation that the purge of Minister of State Security Kim Won-hong, and of the internal security agency he once led, is a reaction to the regime’s fears that the MSS’s corruption and brutality are viewed in Pyongyang as a threat to regime stability. It knows the MSS are hated, so it’s making scapegoats of them. But if the state can’t pay the MSS cadres a decent wage or earn their loyalty by other means, a purge risks alienating the very people it relies on to keep everyone else in terror.

For now, however, those acts of resistance remain localized and easily contained. It will remain that way as long as North Koreans believe that challenging the state would be suicidal. That, in turn, will not change until North Koreans can talk, conspire, and organize with one another in confidence, but when they can, revolutionary | things | happen.

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Dear Korea: Let’s talk about China’s plans for you in its new co-prosperity sphere

Ever since China embarked on its retaliatory campaign against South Korea, of state-orchestrated protests, business closures, and boycotts, I’ve often tweeted that China is opposed to unilateral sanctions, except when it isn’t. Recently, the Asan Institute released the results of a survey showing that this campaign has done the unthinkable — it has made China even more unpopular than Japan in the eyes of South Koreans.

For anyone who has lived in South Korea, it’s hard to overstate the significance of this. And if China’s goal was to depress South Korean support for THAAD, its strategy has been a failure.

With the caveat that coincidence isn’t the same as causation, the South China Morning Post reasonably concludes that China’s sanctions against South Korea have backfired and increased public support for THAAD:

“Even more surprising is that Koreans are now more favourable toward Japan (3.33) than China (3.21),” it said, noting Japan had consistently been Koreans’ least favoured country after the North.

The survey also showed the ratings of US President Donald Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe all declining, but Xi’s falling the most, plunging from 4.25 in January to 3.01 in March.

“The only good news for President Xi was that his rating remained higher than Prime Minister Abe’s,” Asan said.

The survey, of 1000 adults carried out from March 6-8, also showed increasing support for THAAD, with 50.6 per cent in favour, up from 46.3 per cent in November, with opposition falling from 45.7 per cent to 37.9 per cent. [SCMP]

Despite a small and temporary drop in pro-American sentiment after Donald Trump’s election, reports of a Trump Shock (such as this one, from Putinprop outfit Sputnik) turn out to have been greatly exaggerated. All of this is bad news for the Chinese foreign policy and security establishments, which (as I argued here) see themselves as in a zero-sum competition with the U.S. for influence in Asia. The fact that they believe this makes it mostly true, no matter how much pro-China scholars may wish it were not. It’s increasingly undeniable that the little gray men pulling the levers in the Forbidden City are profoundly anti-American, and are waging a propaganda war against us. I’m old enough to remember the Tienanmen Massacre, when all the smart people said that the correct response was to increase trade with China, because capitalism would make China friendly and free (sound familiar?). It’s not working out that way.

Behind this propaganda are both offensive and defensive aspects. One clearly senses that Beijing is on the defensive and sees itself as besieged by our ideas — mostly, as expressed in private speech by journalists and NGOs. (China, like North Korea, makes no distinction between speech by the state, the press, movie studios, and private individuals; it sees censorship as a “responsible” state’s right and duty.) But there is also a more offensive agenda behind what China is sowing here.

It’s worth recalling that Xi Jinping’s ham-handed reaction is to the stationing of a purely defensive missile system in South Korea, to protect South Korean cities from a nuclear threat that China | has | done | so | much | to | create in the first place. If you actually click those links and read those posts, what’s now undeniable is that China’s support for North Korea isn’t just economic support that incidentally aids its nuclear and missile programs. Rather, China is willfully hosting Pyongyang’s proliferation networks, laundering money for entities that are designated by both the U.S. and the U.N. for proliferation, and selling Pyongyang the materiel it uses in its missile programs, including the trucks its missiles ride on.

In other words, China is using North Korea to menace and intimidate South Korea, and when South Korea tries to protect itself, China is using its economic power to bully South Korea into submission and unilateral disarmament. As South Korea’s ally, we must not stand for this. I expect that when President Trump meets with “President” Xi (as China calls its unelected tyrants), he will tell Xi to knock it off. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson previously told the Chinese that its bullying of South Korea was “uncalled-for.” But it was Defense Secretary James Mattis who really nailed it when he said this:

“In the South China Sea, we see China shredding trust as they adopt a tribute-nation kind of approach where all other nations have to pay tribute or acquiescence to the more powerful nation, the larger nation,” Mattis said during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing.

Mattis also accused China of “seeking veto power over the economic, diplomatic, and security decisions of nations on their periphery.” He did not elaborate, but one such case is Beijing’s retaliatory measures against South Korea for hosting the U.S. THAAD missile defense system. [Yonhap]

Also spot-on was Congressman Ted Yoho, who accused China of “sanctioning the wrong Korea.” Then, yesterday, 26 senators from both parties released this letter:


All of this is exactly right, for now. The U.S. is sending a clear and united message against China’s ham-handed imperial overreach, and that message is being heard in Seoul. It’s a message we can sharpen further: I’m convinced that China means nothing less than to disarm South Korea, suppress its sovereignty, decide what its newspapers can print, and control its resources. Its ambitions for Korea aren’t materially different than Japan’s ambitions for Korea in 1905. For now, Seoul is defiant. But in the long term, China means to impose its own Eulsa Treaty on Korea, and it probably thinks it has found just the man to sign it.

I’ve argued that Xi Jinping’s economic warfare against a close U.S. ally calls for economic deterrence against China in concert with China’s two other largest trading partners, Japan and South Korea. I say this despite acknowledging that finishing the trade war that China started will have costs for everyone. My hope is that a strong and focused response that targets banks, businesses, and the port in, say, Dandong, would cause enough political trouble for Xi to end the war quickly and prevent a recurrence. If Trump is feeling protectionist anyway, why not use a protectionist counter-attack to damage North Korea’s finances and Xi Jinping’s domestic political support, and increase the confidence of our allies that we’ll stand behind them?

But of course, our response doesn’t have to be symmetrical. Other tools at our disposal will do us less harm. One of those is to strike harder in the political war that China is already waging against us. It’s time to speak clearly to the peoples of Asia about Xi Jinping’s plans for a grand new Co-Prosperity Sphere in which they will be China’s tributaries. As in the past, the tributaries’ share of that prosperity will be highly unequal. China’s conduct is both a threat and an opportunity to drive home what is now manifest. Xi Jinping means to bully his way into economic, naval, and (ultimately) political hegemony over all of East Asia. He isn’t building those islands in the South China Sea just to protect Chinese trade routes. He isn’t even building them because he wants the fish and the oil in those waters. As the THAAD episode clearly illustrates, he wants to be in a position to dominate his neighbors. If we mean to prevent that outcome, we will all have to unite against it.

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N. Korea, dissent & desertions: as internal control tightens, border control degrades

I haven’t yet had time to read Nat Kretchun’s new report on the circulation of samizdat inside North Korea, but ReutersThe Washington Post, and Sokeel Park helpfully summarize its bleak findings: Kim Jong-un is not a Swiss-educated reformer, is not bringing Glasnost to North Korea, has turned Koryolink into a tool for hunting down dissent and dissenters, and is slowly winning the war to restore thought control. (Still unanswered is whether Syracuse University’s “engagement” program that taught Pyongyang how to do digital watermarking also helped it perfect its digital censorship.) North Koreans believe it has become more dangerous to watch foreign dramas under His Porcine Majesty’s rule. The only small bright spot is that DVDs and USBs with forbidden content continue to circulate. It will be difficult (if not impossible) to re-indoctrinate generations of disillusioned North Koreans, but highly possible for the state to isolate and repress them.

Still, it’s a profound testament to the power of hope that people would risk a slow death in a prison camp for a rare glimpse at a life worth living, and unfortunate that our own efforts to leverage that power are still in their infancy. South Korea, which knows the power of hallyu, is mulling ways to help spread information into North Korea, but again finds its efforts hobbled by the left-wing, anti-anti-North Korean politicians. One simple and powerful first step would be to extend the range of existing South Korean cell networks. A seemingly unrelated report suggests a second strategy, by highlighting the greatest vulnerability in Kim Jong-un’s control over his own population — low morale and indiscipline among the border guard force. Yes, it happened again:

The North Korean soldiers deserted their posts along the border area with China and illegally entered Changbai County in the country’s northeastern province of Jilin on Tuesday, according to the source.

“Chinese authorities notified residents to be on alert and immediately report their location if they are observed,” the source added. [Yonhap]

Although the Yonhap report doesn’t specifically say that the soldiers deserted, the fact that Chinese police are still looking for them strongly suggests that. Incidents like his have risen sharply since 2014. I’ve compiled reports about other defections, fraggings, desertions, and cross-border crimes by border guards here, and reports of similar disciplinary breakdowns within the North Korean military as a whole here (there’s plenty to read at those links if you’re interested in researching that topic further). This isn’t even the first such incident this year. In January, a border guard shot and killed seven of his comrades. Yonhap mentions just a few of those incidents in its report.

In July 2016, five runaway North Korean soldiers broke into residents’ houses in the county and committed robbery. Chinese police arrested two although two policemen suffered gunshot wounds in the process.

In December 2014, a North Korean army deserter killed four Chinese citizens in a robbery attempt in the Chinese border city of Helong, while an year earlier, a North Korean defector in his 20s killed an elderly Chinese couple in the Chinese border city of Yanji and stole 20,000 yuan (US$2,900). The North Korean defector was caught by Chinese authorities after fleeing to Beijing.

“Since the 2000s, worsening food shortages seems to be pushing North Korean soldiers into deserting their posts,” another source said. “North Korea seems to be suffering from more food shortages since massive flooding hit the country’s northeastern region in late August.” [Yonhap]

The immediate cause of all of these incidents is the fact that the soldiers aren’t being fed or paid properly. Look further behind that, and you find that the soldiers and non-commissioned officers had come to rely on bribes from smugglers to supplement their pay. Kim Jong-un’s crackdown on refugee flows, cell phones, and smuggling has forced the soldiers to rely on a commissary system that’s corrupt, inefficient, and incapable of providing for them.

So how, exactly, does this suggest a strategy? Because North Korea’s domestic economy is so barren, the Ministry of State Security and Reconnaissance General Bureau fund themselves with foreign trading companies and businesses. The same is almost certainly true of other internal security forces, including the border guard force. Targeting those funding sources with sanctions, money laundering prosecutions, forfeitures, and asset freezes would further strain the commissary system, morale, and discipline, and deny those forces the funds to buy materials, parts, and equipment like cell phone trackers. That, in turn, would widen the cracks in Pyongyang’s control over the borders and help smugglers get more DVDs, USBs, radios, cell phones, and human beings across the border.

As I’ve often argued, samizdat will not seriously threaten Kim Jong-un’s control over North Korea until North Koreans have some means of organizing with each other digitally. As I’ve also argued, those means are probably no more than a few years away if we leverage the experiments of Google, Facebook, or other innovative technologies. These strategies aren’t mutually exclusive; indeed, they can be mutually complementary. It isn’t a question of sanctions or information operations or diplomacy. It takes more than a tuba to perform a symphony. It’s all of those instruments playing at once, as long as they play the same music.

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Why talk of human rights unnerves North Korean diplomats so much, and why that matters

The Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Cheng has taken note of the rise in defections by members of the North Korean elite. Over the last year, this blog closely followed that trend, including the unprecedented group defections of workers in Malta, China, and Russia; soldiers guarding the Yalu River border; high-ranking intelligence officers; and even diplomats. Last week, a Chinese media report also claimed that “approximately 10 North Korean IT technicians and hackers went missing around 9 p.m. Wednesday in Changchun in the northeastern Chinese province of Jilin.” It is not just the rank and status of these defectors that matters so much, but also what group defections tell us about the potential for conspiratorial and collective action against the world’s most repressive state.

So far, Thae Yong-ho is the only North Korean diplomat to have come out publicly, but Thae now says there are others.

“A significant number of diplomats came to South Korea,” Thae Yong-ho told a conference hosted by the conservative Bareun Party which will be formally launched this month. “Even now, there are a number of (North Koreans) waiting to head to the South.”

“There will be an increase in the number of elite-class defectors seeking a better life,” he added. “I am the only high-ranking official whose identity has been revealed to the public. South Korean media do not know but North Korean diplomats are all aware of it.” [Yonhap]

That aligns with this NK News report, citing South Korean press reports (which, in turn, cite “unnamed local officials”) that at least seven North Korean diplomats posted in Bulgaria, Russia, and East Asia defected last year. If true, that would be remarkable; it could also be profoundly consequential. For obvious reasons, Thae can’t confirm who those other defectors are, but some tantalizing, still-unverified reports last year claimed that top-level Bureau 39 slush fund managers defected from China, Europe, and Russia. Again, if those reports are true, these men could expose the funding network that pays the soldiers, guards, civil servants, and security forces that sustain Kim Jong-un’s misrule. They could also cause nervous bankers across China, Russia, and Europe to flip and report suspicious North Korean transactions to the Treasury Department, for fear of being outed by defectors and penalized for sanctions violations or money laundering.

Thae hasn’t said as much about his own knowledge of regime finances, but he does say that North Korea’s insurance fraud scam continued until the EU’s recent blocking of the Korea National Insurance Corporation, despite its exposure years ago by Kim Kwang-jin. The greater impact of Thae’s defection, however, will be the damage it does to North Korea’s political cohesion. We will not know its full extent until his calls for revolution reach his homeland. Nor will we know its full effect on the new Trump administration until Thae speaks directly to American policymakers in his excellent English. 

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What causes the disgruntlement of a scion of one of North Korea’s most privileged bloodlines and a trusted member of His Porcine Majesty’s foreign service? Thae Yong-ho’s path toward dissent and defection sounds like another case of Marxist criticism being particularly (and ironically) applicable to what I’ll call North Korean crisis theory; that is, his faith was undone by the system’s internal contradictions. He wanted a better life for himself and his children than the system could offer. He wanted Kim Jong-un to be a reformer. And for all the propaganda that North Koreans have nothing to envy, Thae knew better. He could not defend the system against the evidence of its inhumanity.

Thae also emphasized the importance of international pressure on North Korea’s human rights issue based on his experience as a former diplomat. According to him, North Korean diplomats can remain defiant and proud on the issue of nuclear development, but when it comes to the issue of human rights, they often lose their nerve.

“North Korean diplomats can talk proudly about nuclear development wherever they go, because although it seems that the world is united against North Korea, many countries are actually keeping their eye on how the North will develop itself as a nuclear power. Some countries are interested in following North Korea’s path to becoming a nuclear power themselves. Therefore, North Korean diplomats retain their dignity despite the criticisms of international society,” Thae explained.

“However, there is not a single country that approves of North Korea’s human rights violations. The most frequent question I received was, ‘Do you think North Korea is an egalitarian society?’ North Korea will inevitably be put on the defensive in a debate over the human rights issue,” Thae added.

Thae particularly emphasized the importance of taking Kim Jong Un to the ICC (International Criminal Court), adding that North Korean diplomats are doing everything in their power to prevent it.

“It is not easy for North Koreans to understand the concepts of the ICC or human rights. But they will be greatly interested if they hear that Kim Jong Un will be tried at the international court. It will be a direct sign that Kim Jong Un is a criminal and his regime has no future,” Thae added. [Daily NK]

Look at some of the videos of Thae defending the North Korean system, knowing now that he probably didn’t believe half of it. He did it better than Jang Il-hun did it at the Council on Foreign Relations a little more than two years ago. (In one particularly absurd moment, Jang cited North Korea’s new ski resort as evidence that human rights conditions had improved. Human Rights Watch, not surprisingly, has a different view). Having to defend the indefensible to foreign audiences eventually takes a toll.

Exposed to the outside world and information, North Korean diplomats often face a dilemma of knowing the fabrication of Pyongyang and having to still speak for the regime’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and human rights records.

“North Korea’s elite class is living an opportunistic life and believes that they can continue to live like that (with the privileges they enjoy). During the day, they extol the virtues of Kim Jong-un, but at night they hide themselves under a blanket to watch (South Korean) dramas,” the 55-year-old career diplomat said.

“I, myself, had to cry hooray for Kim Jong-un … but I had a very difficult time defending the North Korean state during meetings with people in Britain in which most people denounced the North’s system and challenged my vindication of it,” according to him.

The North Korean government is well aware of such a dilemma and strains to keep outside news from its people, even from the country’s top echelons, he noted.

“Even a vice head of the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) of the Workers’ Party of Korea cannot enter a (foreign ministry) room where CNN is being played although a common member of the foreign ministry is given access to it,” Thae said. “The OGD vice head may have complete sway over me, but he is only allowed government-filtered information, and nothing else.”

Diplomats also keep their mouth shut primarily out of desperation to protect themselves and their families who can fall victim to the regime’s merciless dealings with those who let out banned information.

“North Korean society is sustainable only on the condition that the inflow of outside information is shut out. The day such information makes inroads, North Korea would fall apart,” he said. [Yonhap]

Other North Korean diplomats are finding their hosts increasingly critical of Kim Jong-un by name. 

North Korean embassies are in a pinch as their attempts to defend Pyongyang’s human rights record overseas is backfiring and the international community is now criticizing their leader, Kim Jong-un, by name.

Fed up with North Korea human rights issues, European countries are making especially critical remarks of Kim Jong-un, according to a government source Wednesday.

As North Korea continues to defend its human rights situation, which is condemned by the United Nations, Kim Jong-un has subsequently been called “a kid who knows nothing” and worse.

Thus, Pyongyang, in the midst of harsh economic sanctions, faces further isolation.

“These remarks are coming in foreign ministers’ meeting, so high-level officials and North Korean embassies are all actively trying to respond to this,” the official continued. “While this hasn’t been reported in media, as such news is being spread in diplomatic circles, North Korean overseas embassies are actively working to respond to this.”

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto referred to the North Korean leader as a “lunatic communist dictator,” which prompted Pyongyang’s embassy in Austria to demand an explanation, VOA reported last week. But this backfired, and Hungary reportedly sent an official letter stating that the foreign minister’s words are his views and beliefs.

Szijjarto last month visited Seoul and met with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se on Dec. 16. The Hungarian foreign minister was said to have recounted his childhood under the brutalities of a communist dictatorship. [Joongang Ilbo]

Fear also takes a toll on the diplomats. The regime, concerned that diplomatic isolation will deny it access to foreign markets, finance, and legitimacy, has ordered them to “contain the situation” and has threatened to punish those who fail to do so. 

The diplomatic source here said, “They are ordered to take all measures and invest whatever resources needed to block such critical talk of Kim Jong-un from becoming public opinion. If they do not take care of this issue properly, it is said the diplomats of the respective embassies will be summoned home and punished.”

Pyongyang has especially been sensitive on the issue since Washington for the first time imposed sanctions on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un over human rights abuses in July. [Joongang Ilbo]

As I said at the time, symbols are powerful things, especially to North Korea.

It is often said that North Koreans are more interested in foreign media that entertains than openly subverts (which is my excuse to plug Baek Jieun’s book, “North Korea’s Hidden Revolution”). To be sure, this is true of most human beings anywhere. Neither Barack Obama nor Donald Trump has as many Twitter followers as Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, or Taylor Swift. But once Thae Yong-ho became receptive to political criticism, openness became active interest, and active interest became a compulsion. 

But he also said that North Korean diplomats overseas are, nevertheless, eager to hear news on North Korea as reported by foreign media.

“I was checking reports by South Korean media on North Korea and Yonhap News agency’s section for ‘North Korea’ every day on my smartphone. I read every news story related to defectors who settled in South Korea. I shed tears reading their stories, and [somehow] garnered the courage to defect as a result of them,” Thae said.

“All North Korean officials and their family members overseas are checking South Korean news every day. By tomorrow, every North Korean diplomat abroad will be aware of what I have said right now.” [Daily NK]

Which is my excuse to (again) plug Commander Skip Vincenzo’s report on information strategies to sway the North Korean elites away from war, and toward peace and reunification.

It is always a minority that takes an active (rather than a passive) interest in political criticism. That tendency must be especially pronounced in a place where thoughtcrime means a quick and painful death for you, and a slow and painful death for the people you love. But this minority produces a nation’s civil servants, its generals, its corrupt officials, and eventually, its dissidents and rebels. When it arrives at such a political consciousness, this minority exerts a disproportionate influence.

“As the Kim Jong-un regime took power, I had a slight hope that he would make a rational, reasonable regime because he must be well aware of how the world runs after he studied overseas for a long time,” Thae said. But Kim turned out even more merciless than his father and late leader Kim Jong-il, he said, citing the shocking public execution of the leader’s once-powerful uncle Jang Song-thaek in 2013 as one of the moments of awakening that eventually solidified his decision to defect. [Yonhap; see also]

Thae is uniquely positioned to help other doublethinkers in Pyongyang — and in its embassies abroad — make the same journey he made. No wonder the regime is making him its Emmanuel Goldstein; its survival may depend on that. For Thae, the end of his journey from oligarch to dissident came when he gathered his sons and said, “I will cut off your slave chains as your father from this moment.” 

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Citizens of Pyongyang, My Name is Thae Yong-ho (Part 2)

Either someone in Seoul is reading this site, or great minds think alike. Thae Yong-ho, North Korea’s former Deputy Ambassador to the U.K., who defected to Seoul earlier this year with his wife and two sons, is leaving the protection of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service and entering South Korean society, where he will not remain silent.

The report claims that Thae brought “images of documents related to financial activities at the North Korean embassy in the UK” that prove he did not embezzle embassy funds, but which may also shed light on North Korea’s overseas slush funds and money laundering. That is bad enough for Kim Jong-un, but not nearly as bad as this:

“He had decided to defect to South Korea long ago because of the growing disappointment towards Kim Jong Un’s oppression, and the North Koreans who are living as slaves,” Lee was quoted as saying in the Choson Ilbo report. [….]

According to local press, Thae also vowed to become involved in public activities related to inter-Korean affairs and reunification. [NK News, Hamish Macdonald]

By the accounts of most journalists who knew him, Thae is an articulate and compelling speaker. He certainly isn’t going to make crowds of people pour into the streets of Pyongyang with candles in their hands, but he can do very serious damage to Pyongyang’s propaganda narratives both in and about the South.

In a way that Hwang Jang-yop never could, Thae can become a leader among the divided North Korean diaspora in the South and help build their influence inside South Korea and (with his excellent command of English) internationally. He can explain to young or deluded South Koreans who are sympathetic to, or ambivalent about, the regime in the North that it is not a legitimate keeper of their nationhood or any kind of paradise. He can give us all insights into what North Koreans in Pyongyang really think, even as they profess loyalty to the regime.

Thae’s broadcasts to the North can begin an underground conversation about what kind of society the North Korean people want. He can plant in their minds a vision of how a functioning democracy works. He can explain how tolerant, pluralistic, and representative governments work, and how quickly North Korea can evolve into a democratic society while holding back the disruptive and chaotic effects of rapid political and social change.

His words can have an even greater impact inside Pyongyang, if Thae broadcasts to his countrymen there. He can spread a message of peace, convincing key officials and military officers to quietly disable their weapons, or to disobey orders to fire on civilian targets. He can encourage other diplomats and officials to defect, and to bring key financial and intelligence information with them. He can convince key officials that in the event of a coup, or another historically determinative event, they should make themselves unreachable, or actively join the opposition. He can tell those responsible for the ongoing crimes in North Korea’s prison camps that, depending on the decisions they make at critical moments, they will face either accountability or clemency. 

If Thae’s plans are as ambitious as my suggestions here, recent reports from inside North Korea — admittedly from sources with an anti-regime slant — suggest that there may be an audience for his words. According to Radio Free Asia, Kim Jong-un is unpopular even in Pyongyang, where residents whisper that his is a “pig” and “an incompetent child.” The Daily NK reports that disillusionment with, and anxiety about, His Porcine Majesty’s rule exists across all demographics of North Korea’s population. Ironically, crackdowns and purges following Thae’s defection may have played a significant role in driving Kim Jong-un’s popularity even lower. Defector surveys, which raise obvious concerns about selection bias, offer the only supporting empirical evidence that’s available to us.

Anecdotal reports lend further support to this trend. The Daily NK reports that someone wrote “Overthrow Kim Jong Un” and “Punish Kim Jong Un,” on 5,000-won notes, and scattered them on the streets of Hoeryong. Separate reports claim that anti-government leaflets were found in neighboring Ryanggang Province. Reports such as these are impossible to confirm, but a photograph taken inside North Korea demands that citizens report a series of subversive acts, including “raising or attempting to evoke social problems by disturbing public order,” “watching, listening, copying and disseminating exotic and decadent sound recordings, video, picture, and publications which are inconsistent with our people’s thought and emotion,” and, most intriguingly, “[t]he act of possessing, selling and buying guns, bullet (sic), gunpowder, explosives, deadly weapons.” The implication is that these things occur inside North Korea, and that the regime is worried about them.

For now, opposition to the regime remains muted and isolated, because it lacks a galvanizing voice and an organizational foundation. But according to the Daily NK, North Korean state propaganda that dwelled heavily on the popular uprising against Park Geun-hye may have backfired by planting similar ideas in the minds of North Koreans. More than Hwang Jang-yop, and more than any other person, Thae Yong-ho could be that voice, to Koreans on both sides of the DMZ, and to the wider world.

According to NK News, Thae “will likely remain under tight security while in the South.” He’d better. By speaking out publicly, Thae Yong-ho will become North Korea’s Emmanuel Goldstein. As the Reconnaissance General Bureau attempted on multiple occasions to assassinate Hwang Jang-yop, it will stop at nothing to assassinate Thae Yong-ho. He and his family members will need courage, and they will also need protection. Thae’s decision to speak out could be the most dangerously subversive development of Kim Jong-un’s reign.

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Update: This is also a good excuse to remind readers of a recent report by a group of North Korea experts on information strategies that could be directed at the elites in Pyongyang.

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Update 2: More (third-hand) accounts of Thae Yong-ho’s motives and insights, here and here.

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If the CIA isn’t funding this covert communications network for North Korea, it should be

Many years ago, when I was a young engineering student at my small college in South Dakota, a grizzled CIA operations officer came to my school to recruit technical experts. To an aspiring man of the world living in a small, isolated island in a vast ocean of grass and sagebrush, before the arrival of the internet, the idea of meeting a real CIA man stoked an irresistible curiosity in me. You might as well have laid a trail of deer jerky from my dorm room to the student center.

I did not end up working for the CIA — readers in Pyongyang and Beijing and assorted tin-foil hatters, take note — but the grizzled operations officer did teach me some important nomenclature that I’ll share with the aspiring spies among you. One is that a CIA agent is an agency non-employee who provides information or assistance to the agency. An agency employee who works in intelligence collection or analysis is known as a CIA officer.

He also taught me the difference between the often confused words “covert” and “clandestine” with a crude-yet-effective example that went something like this: If you break into your professor’s office, open his desk, write down the answers to the test questions, and sneak away without him knowing, that’s a clandestine operation. If you break into your professor’s office and take a dump on his desk, that’s a covert operation. He knows someone did it. He just doesn’t know who. As God is my witness, yes, he really said that. But enough of this. You’re here to read about North Korea:

A group of North Korean defectors are seeking to change the Kim Jong Un regime with “raspberry pies,” but they’re not pastries for consumption. Instead the “pies” the activists are planning to smuggle into North Korea are portable personal computers. [UPI]

I’m no technical expert, but I think the correspondent means “Raspberry Pi.”

The “pies” are about the size of the palm of one’s hand, are cheap, and can be carried easily, according to the report. The computers can pick up wireless signals within a 1-mile radius. The defectors plan to retain a communications command center in an area of China close to the North Korea border. 

When thousands of the devices are smuggled into the country, they can automatically share information across a network that can extend all the way to Pyongyang and other areas more inland, the defector said.

“If in the past a North Korean would sing to himself as he listened to a South Korean pop song, now through the ‘raspberry pies’ he can learn about North Korea’s human rights violations and be moved to action and social change,” the defector said. 

The first step is to send in dozens of the “pies” as soon as funding becomes available, then seek the support of the international community to expand operations, according to Yonhap. [UPI]

Could it work? Yes, I think it could. The idea described here sounds very much like something called Mesh Networking, a concept that allows every wireless-enabled device to become a signal repeater for another device within range, which can be up to 5 or 10 miles, depending on various factors. Mesh networks are simple, cheap, and redundant. They’ve been studied for post-disaster communications, and as a way to frustrate state censorship of the internet. I’m not going to share all of the research I’ve done on them, but I will say that some of the ideas I’ve seen could be adaptable to North Korea’s conditions. They would allow Chinese (or South Korean) cell networks to enable communications across the length and breadth of North Korea. There would be so many nodes that the security forces could never find all of them. 

If the reports are accurate and Congressman Mike Pompeo of Kansas will be the nominee for CIA Director, he should take careful note of a few points.

First, anyone who hasn’t figured out by now that there is no appeasing Kim Jong-un is probably a lost cause. No matter how much we pay him, Kim is nuking up. Now matter how much we pay him, he’s pursuing a graduated, methodical plan to assert hegemony over South Korea, and what’s more, I’m convinced that a majority of South Korean voters may soon elect a man who would surrender their freedom to him in the name of a moment’s security from terror. (If that really is the will of the South Korean people, I would respect that. But I’m convinced that it’s not the will of the North Korean people, who know far better than they do how that would work out in practice.)

Second, much is made of the importance of getting outside information into North Korea to shift popular perceptions of their own government. I agree that this is important. At the moment, it is Jieun Baek who is emerging as the most powerful advocate of this idea. But outside information alone will not be enough to change North Korea. No amount of discontent or envy means anything if the discontented are too isolated and afraid to act on their aspirations.

Which brings us to a point I’ve flogged more than once — that North Koreans will not be able to challenge the state until they have the ability to communicate and organize with other North Koreans, and until information can spread among North Koreans from village to village, valley to valley, province to province, and country to country. I explained here, in detail, how these communications would evolve from the non-political to the political to the subversive to the revolutionary.

I’m convinced that nothing short of an overthrow of Kim Jong-un, or a slow capitulation toward One Slave Korea, can prevent another Korean War. Not only can a covert communications network bring us closer to the first of these objectives, it can also provide for the humanitarian needs of the people who need it most, provide invaluable intelligence and public-interest information about conditions inside North Korea, and pave the way for a less chaotic reunification between North and South.

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China’s real-name cell phone registration rules could further isolate North Koreans

North Koreans’ most important link to the outside world, signals from Chinese cell phone networks that reach over the border inside North Korea, may soon be cut off. China is starting to enforce real-name registration requirements designed to crack down on scams and harassment, and North Koreans could be hardest hit.

North Koreans with relatives outside the country depend on Chinese mobile phone networks to communicate internationally, as the state’s networks are limited to calls made within the country.

China’s three main cell phone carriers already require subscribers to undergo name verification. While some North Koreans can have a relative in China register the phone on their behalf before the device is used in North Korea, a second source told RFA the process is “not that simple.”

The China-based registrant could still be charged with smuggling the phone into North Korea or engaging in other illegal activity if caught, the source said. In North Korea, the regime has continued to crack down on Chinese mobile phone use and has at times blocked wireless signals along the China border. [UPI]

It’s all the more reason for the U.S. and South Korean governments to redouble their own efforts to break down the digital DMZ. Unfortunately, the ongoing implosion of Park Geun-hye’s government makes it unlikely that South Korea would do anything as brave as building cell towers along the southern border or increasing the range or effectiveness of its broadcasts to the North. That means North Koreans may have to rely on corruption to circumvent the new Chinese rules until new initiatives like Project Loon or Facebook’s Aquila drones are ready.

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The new North Korea engagement is about life after Kim Jong-un

By now, most sensible people have discarded the faddish illusions of 2012 that Kim Jong-un would be the Swiss-educated reformer they’ve been waiting for. Mainstream opinion is migrating to the view that the world would be a safer and happier place without Kim Jong-un, although one seldom hears these sentiments developed as concrete ideas. The practical obstacles to achieving them are obvious. How can we influence change in the world’s most isolated and terrorized society? How would our ally (and therefore, how would we) deal with the chaos that could follow certain overthrow scenarios?

But whether we wish it so or not, the evidence shows increasingly clear signs that the elites in Pyongyang have lost confidence in their new dictator. When His Porcine Majesty took power, about 25,000 North Koreans — mostly poor and downtrodden people from the country’s outer provinces — had escaped to South Korea. Countless others died along the way, or in prison camps after being repatriated by China. After Kim Jong-un took power in 2011, a security crackdown along the northern border halved the number of escapees.

Today, the number of North Korean refugees is the South approaches 30,000, but this year, the number of escapees is rising, and their backgrounds are changing. More of them come from the vetted elites in Pyongyang: overseas workers, officials, and even diplomats. According to the head of the Korea Hana Foundation, defections by members of the privileged classes rose more than 87 percent in the last two years. The reasons why they’re defecting are changing, too. More of the new arrivals report fleeing for political reasons, such as the fear of being purged, a desire for greater personal freedom, or a sense that Kim Jong-un’s regime holds no future for their children. There is no evidence that the elites have plotted or attempted to overthrow Kim, but for obvious reasons, newspaper readers would be the last to know that.

Are there ways to influence the thinking of the elites in Pyongyang? A few weeks ago, a U.S. Navy officer, Commander Skip Vincenzo, brought some of the world’s foremost North Korea experts together — including several intelligence officers and military officers — and also, me. The result of a day’s discussion and much editing is this very short, readable report: “An Information-Based Strategy to Reduce North Korea’s Increasing Threat: Recommendations for ROK & U.S. Policy Makers.” While I’ve done most of my thinking about directing information operations to the poor, this report focuses on the elites in Pyongyang. It calls for the U.S. and South Korea to adopt an information strategy to target the elites in Pyongyang, exploit their accelerating discontent, and ease their fears of the unknown consequences of a sudden regime collapse.

A strategy of calibrated communication to the many actors in the North Korean state will allow the United States to drive an unacceptable situation towards a conclusion with acceptable costs. It does not advocate for regime change outright, but if this strategy is having a visible effect, the likely outcome would be the end of the Kim regime.

Agnosticism aside, it reads like a strategy for encouraging a coup d’etat against Kim Jong-un. For obvious reasons, the authors left the specific methods and strategies out of their report. In September, the State Department submitted a classified report required by section 301 of the NKSPEA presenting “a detailed plan for making unrestricted, unmonitored, and inexpensive electronic mass communications available to the people of North Korea.” (Yonhap’s reporter thinks that means “such devices as small radios, USB drives and DVDs,” but USBs and DVDs are not “mass communication” devices; cell phones and smartphones are.) 

The information strategy the report advocates is meant to achieve a variety of objectives.

• Enhance our ability to de-escalate a crisis by ensuring that the regime’s elites fully understand the consequences of a war by continually demonstrating the U.S.-ROK Alliance’s advanced military capabilities.

• Reduce the potential for violence by formulating policies that provide credible assurances of amnesty to regime elites and, if they act in ways which support alliance efforts, a beneficial role after the Kim regime collapses or a conflict is resolved on Alliance terms.

• Reduce the humanitarian costs by formulating policies that inform ordinary North Koreans what to expect in a contingency and how to act.

• Reduce civil and military resistance by formulating policies that guarantee North Koreans full rights as citizens of South Korea.

• Mitigate collapse of the civil infrastructure by incentivizing bureaucrats, technicians, and local commanders to protect and maintain critical facilities. 

Can it work? No one really knows, but there are signs that North Koreans are ready to listen. Completely aside from recent high-level defections, Jieun Baek explains that South Korean culture has undermined the state’s political mythology. Children of the elites like to watch English lessons on South Korean educational broadcasts. Overseas workers are obtaining radios and smartphones to read the news about North Korea, and those smartphones apparently played a role in a recent group defection of construction workers in Russia.Recently, even the loyalty of the minder-minders has come into question. The Daily NK reports that foreign radio consumption is rising. In Pyongyang, it’s sometimes possible to watch South Korean television. Imagine the effect if the people of Pyongyang saw the face and heard the manifesto of Thae Yong-ho, or perhaps even the Ningpo 13

Obviously, an internal challenge to Kim Jong-un would have to overcome many interlocking layers of minders. Bob Collins recently described how that system works. But this was no less true of the regimes in Romania and East Germany, which also fell. It’s probably true that a diplomatic solution is unrealistic now, and the result of recent talks with North Korea should reinforce this. We must also accept the bitter truth that a nuclear North Korea will not just coexist with us, or with our allies. If that is so, then the only solution that does not involve war is to destroy the regime from within. 

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Why China and North Korea want Park Geun-hye gone

Nearly all of the news from Korea this week is about the scandal that has paralyzed President Park Geun-hye’s presidency, and may even end it. Going by Alastair Gale’s report in The Wall Street Journal, the scandal has three main elements, along with some other (mostly) unspoken elements.

First, Park has said that her “friend, Choi Soon-sil, had helped her prepare speeches early in her presidential term.” She has since apologized for this, although I can’t see why. Most American presidents have had confidants outside of government from whom they sought advice. Some presidents still call on members of think tanks to advise on specialized issues, and call on people outside of government to break through the insulation of presidential bureaucracy and security. It seems like just a week ago when everyone was talking about left-wing politician and former presidential candidate Moon Jae-in’s choice of confidential advisor: Kim Jong-il. So far, that seems like the greater scandal to me, but what do I know?

Second, “[a] South Korean broadcaster has alleged Ms. Choi was also given access to confidential government documents.” Ms. Choi has denied this. That’s obviously wrong no matter who does it — whether it’s Park Geun-hye, David Petraeus, or Hillary Clinton. Whether the evidence actually supports that charge, what the documents were, at what level they were classified, and whether “lock her up” is an appropriate response to whatever disclosure occurred remains to be seen. In the current third-world state of U.S. politics, most voters here no longer consider that disqualifying. (Given the alternative, I can’t say I do, either.)

Third, “Ms. Choi, 60 … is also the subject of an investigation by prosecutors into possible corruption at two charitable foundations.” Ask a Korean adds that news stories accused Choi of “running a massive slush fund [that] extorted more than $70 million from Korea’s largest corporations” and used her influence to get her daughter admitted to Ewha Womens’ University. I’ve yet to see any evidence that Park knew about this or used her influence to impede an investigation, or to profit from or support Ms. Choi’s effort. That would be serious if proven, but it would hardly be unprecedented in South Korea. Recall that when former President Roh Moo-hyun committed suicide, he was also embroiled in a bribery scandal involving his brother. As I said then, “For seasoned Korea watchers, presidential corruption scandals have all the zing and novelty of Kennedys driving drunk.” This is not to excuse anything, but to put it into context.

Then, there is also the weirdness of the allegation that Ms. Choi’s father was the founder of a religious cult. I’ve seen no proof that Park was an adherent of this cult, but religious beliefs ought to be a personal matter, absent evidence that they exerted an irrational or subversive influence on a leader’s policies. (See, e.g., Obama Muslim rumors.)

Lastly, there’s been some innuendo in circulation about whether Ms. Park may have been romantically involved with either Ms. Choi or her father. South Korea’s culture is very conservative on such matters; I’m not. I don’t give a damn whether President Park is attached or unattached, gay or straight, or neither. Here in the U.S., there are similarly nasty whispering campaigns about Hillary Clinton and Huma Abedin (if you care, google it; I won’t link it). If I saw evidence that those rumors were true, I’d wish them happiness, especially if they each divorced their no-good husbands and normalized their relationship through marriage. (Alas, Mrs. Clinton’s nature is to connive in grand conspiracies to conceal petty crimes, or matters that merely create negative perceptions.) Otherwise, I wouldn’t care until someone linked the relationship to the disclosure of classified information, corruption, or vulnerability to blackmail.

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The greatest weirdness of South Korean politics, however, is how quickly these political firestorms seem to emerge from nowhere, and sometimes, from thin air. Also, without a single exception that comes to mind, they always target those hostile to Chinese and North Korean interests. A recent list includes the Sewol Ferry tragedy, the rumor that U.S. beef would cause Mad Cow disease, the Dok-do obsession, and the anti-American rage over the accidental death of two young girls in 2002. Of these, the slowness of the government’s response to the ferry disaster seems to be a legitimate scandal. The Mad Cow rumor was a myth spread by sloppy and biased journalists; Dok-do is already in South Korean possession; and the 2002 accident, while tragic, was an accident caused by defective equipment and involving a few individuals.

The fact that those who are opposed to Park’s North Korea policies have seized on the scandal, sometimes conflating rumor, innuendo, and fact, further fuels my skepticism. Some of the same observers who are quick to allege anonymously sourced NIS whispering campaigns about palace intrigues in Pyongyang now cite mysteriously sourced reports from The Hankyoreh, the adolescent bastard child of the Rodong Sinmun and The Daily Mail.

Although there is extensive evidence of North Korean influence operations inside South Korea, I’ve seen no evidence linking them to this specific case. I don’t know the precise origin of the reports that led to this scandal. Recently, however, Park’s North Korea policy has become a threat to the survival of Kim Jong-un’s regime. That’s why I hope Park survives. She’s doing what her predecessors should have done for years — she’s acting like a president for all Koreans, including those trapped behind the DMZ.

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For more than a decade before her election, Park Geun-hye was the candidate of Sunshine Lite — calculating, triangulating, scripted, and cautious. She was a Korean Hillary Clinton — both inspiring and uninspired toward anything but the will to power. She seemed so numbed to righteous outrage that not even the murder of her own mother on national television made an apparent impression on her politically convenient appeasement of Pyongyang. She was calm to such a fault that she seemed detached and aloof during the Sewol disaster, the worst moment of her presidency.

There were moments that gave me hope — the glimpses of vision and principle when she addressed Congressor during the first Kaesong shutdown, and even after the admittedly flawed talks after last year’s mine incident. But until January of this year, Park always regressed to her politically cautious mean. Ideology aside, I can’t think of a Korean president who was less temperamentally predisposed to emerge as a bold, visionary leader of a Korean nation. Against all of the odds, Park Geun-hye enters the autumn of her presidency of South Korea by campaigning for the presidency of Korea, by inviting her brother and sister Koreans, who were unfortunate enough to have been born north of the DMZ, to “come and find a new home.” 

In recent months, Park has also concern-trolled Kim Jong-un about the instability of his regime, accused that regime of “driving the lives of its citizens into a hell through the brutal reign of terror,” and promised the North Korean people better lives and equal treatment after reunification. She has vowed to support more efforts to get outside information into North Korea. She acknowledges that her government must do more to support the 30,000 refugees who’ve already arrived. She has even openly called for North Korean soldiers and civilians to defect:

“We know the brutal reality that you are facing now. The international community is also seriously concerned about the North Korean regime’s human rights abuses.”

Promising that the South will do its best to end the North’s provocations and inhumane rule, Park said, “We will leave the path open for the North Korean people to find hope and life. Come to the free land of the Republic of Korea at any time.” [Joongang Ilbo]

Who is this person, and what has she done with Park Geun-hye? If this is the voice of Choi Soon-il, President Park’s alleged svengali, then I nominate her for Unification Minister. More of this, please! It should go without saying that the usual suspects hate such talk. For obvious reasons, North Korea hates it. It also hates Park’s closure of Kaesong, her diplomatic campaign to cut off Pyongyang’s overseas arms trade and labor exports, and her implementation of a new North Korea human rights law. It has reacted with an intensity of nasty, sexist invective it reserves for strategies that threaten the regime’s very survival.

“It’s ridiculous and foolish that Park Geun-hye flutters her feet to smear our dignified leader’s reputation with infamy by persisting hallucinations in her head as an established fact and mentioning a reign of terror as well as starvation and repression,” Rodong reported on Monday.

“Park Geun-hye has the gall to ignore the reality within her grasp and to doggishly and overtly utter ravings as saying the land of freedom and encouraging defection,” the article continued. “There is no such a barefaced and impudent bitch elsewhere.” [NK News]

(Christine Ahn and Gloria Steinem were not available for comment.)

China hates this talk because it prefers North Korea just the way it is, and because many of the North Koreans who answer Park’s call to defect might try to transit through China’s territory. Park (joined by the President of the Council on Foreign Relations) has responded by trying to assuage China’s fears about a reunified Korea. China also resents Park for agreeing to deploy the THAAD missile defense system to South Korea.

South Korea’s anti-anti-North Korean left also hates such talk, because North Korea hates it. Its key members ask how Park would deal with the consequent mass refugee exodus they accuse her of inviting. Park acknowledges that South Korea must be ready for this. But a mass exodus would only happen coincidentally with regime collapse, and if South Korea isn’t prepared for that by now, much responsibility must lie with the left itself. Under Roh Moo-hyun, the Blue House refused to contemplate or plan for a collapse. Then, there are the reactions like that of People’s Party leader Park Jie-won, who in his best KCNA imitation, accused Park of making “a proclamation of war,” and the Minjoo Party says she’s walking the “warpath.”

Well! Perhaps reporters should make a habit of asking Mr. Park to characterize the things North Korean state media say about South Korea, or about President Park, on any given day. (See, e.g., “barefaced and impudent bitch,” or this, or this, or this.)

Whether Park survives or not, if she continues to speak calmly and cogently of universal humanitarian principles and Korea’s dream of nationhood, she may yet win the national argument for which Koreans, north and south, are so long overdue. That makes her a threat to powerful interests, both within Korea and beyond its borders. That conversation doesn’t have to end when Park’s troubled presidency does. Polled in isolation, Park’s North Korea policies have been popular. To keep up the argument for a “tough love” policy toward North Korea may be the best way for her to recast her legacy. After all, who would have predicted Richard Nixon’s rehabilitation as an elder statesman in 1974? There may be nothing better Park can do to build that legacy than to keep talking about the lives and rights of North Koreans, and about North Korea policy, for years to come. 

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Please share: New State Dep’t grants for “access to information” in N. Korea

Sanctions legislation lends itself to lengthy legislative texts, but mandates to break the digital DMZ between the two Koreas don’t. So while most of the text of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act concerned itself with what North Korea-related conduct and entities should be sanctioned and what consequences they should face, that’s not an accurate reflection of Congress’s relative priorities. Those of us who wrote and negotiated the bill were equally concerned with direct engagement of the North Korean people. In some of the staff meetings we held in the Foreign Affairs Committee, I described section 301 as the most important provision in the entire bill. No one — Republicans or Democrats — argued with that.

SEC. 301. INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY.
Section 104 of the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 (22 U.S.C. 7814) is amended by adding at the end the following:

“(d) Information Technology Study.—Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2015, the President shall submit to the appropriate congressional committees a classified report that sets forth a detailed plan for making unrestricted, unmonitored, and inexpensive electronic mass communications available to the people of North Korea.”.

Even more directly on point is a bill sponsored by Rep. Matt Salmon (R, Ariz.), the Chairman of the Asia-Pacific Subcommittee. Salmon’s bill, the DPRK Act, “authorize[s] further actions to promote freedom of information and democracy in North Korea.” According to Congress.gov, the bill has yet to clear committee, but it has solid support from full committee Chairman Ed Royce (R, Cal.), from Democrats Brad Sherman (D, Cal.) and Gerry Connolly (D, Va.), among others. The State Department, having gotten the message, has since announced a new grant program to implement section 301 and fulfill the purposes of the DPRK Act.

Fostering the Free Flow of Information into, out of, and within the DPRK (approximately $1,600,000, pending availability of funding, with potentially more than two (2) projects awarded)

DRL’s goal is for the people of North Korea to have increased access to independent information that provides a range of viewpoints and increases exposure to and understanding of environments where individuals are able to communicate information and express their opinions freely. Illustrative program activities include:

• Producing and transmitting radio broadcasts into North Korea;

• Producing content and/or acquiring existing content of interest to North Korean audiences;

• Exploring new mechanisms or expanding existing mechanisms for sharing or consuming information and content;

• Raising awareness of legal rights under existing DPRK domestic laws and its international human rights obligations;

• Raising awareness of international best-practices and norms; and,

• Promoting fundamental freedoms, including expression, movement, association, and peaceful assembly.

 

If you have the technical knowledge to make this a reality, or know a place online where people with those talents congregate, please share and repost this solicitation and help spread the word.

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Facebook should test its internet drones over North Korea

Just over a week ago in the Arizona Desert, Facebook’s solar powered Aquila drone lifted off for the first time and stayed aloft for more than 90 minutes. Facebook posted video of the launch here and told of its great ambitions for Aquila.

“When complete, Aquila will be able to circle a region up to 60 miles in diameter, beaming connectivity down from an altitude of more than 60,000 feet using laser communications and millimeter wave systems. Aquila is designed to be hyper efficient, so it can fly for up to three months at a time. The aircraft has the wingspan of an airliner, but at cruising speed it will consume only 5,000 watts — the same amount as three hair dryers, or a high-end microwave.” [Facebook press release]

That Mark Zuckerberg was personally present for the launch says everything about Facebook’s plans to build a fleet of drones that will “use lasers to beam down internet access to remote areas without online capacity.”

The aircraft will use free-space laser communication as a mechanism to communicate between aircraft in the fleet, and e-band technology to beam connectivity from the airplane to receivers on the ground. In essence, the plan is to create a drone system that acts as floating wifi routers to bridge the internet gaps on the ground, from the air. To do this, Aquila’s team designed and lab-tested a laser that can deliver data at 10 Gbps–approximately ten times faster the previous versions–to a target the size of a dime from more than 10 miles away. [Real Clear Life]

According to Facebook, this fleet of drones “will provide the internet to 4 billion people in sub-Saharan Africa and other remote regions that do not have access currently.”

The plane is one of a handful of new Facebook initiatives to provide Internet access to places and people who don’t have it. Just this week, the company’s Connectivity Lab published a paper describing a light-based communication technique for sending information without wires, and last year the company announced it is working on delivering Internet by satellite. [NPR]

Among these is Facebook’s Internet.org, a partnership with an international group of technology companies. Google has also made steady progress in its own deployment of Project Loon, which will use a fleet of balloons navigating through atmospheric currents. In an article published last year, the MIT Technology review estimated that Project Loon would be available in one or two years. (Note to South Korea’s NIS: balloons tethered to mountaintops south of the DMZ would conceivably be just as effective at reaching North Koreans as balloons floating through the stratosphere.)

Unfortunately, none of the articles covering the Aquila story tells us when Facebook expects to deploy its drones, or precisely where. Personally, I can’t think of a better place to deploy them than North Korea, the world’s most isolated, brutal, and militarized society.

What is apparent is that the days of North Korea’s information blockade are numbered. If Google and Facebook continue their current rate of progress, it’s reasonable to predict that information will flow more-or-less freely between North Korea and the rest of the world. Although breaking this blockade will most likely employ a variety of strategies to overwhelm the regime’s capacity to monitor, detect, censor, and jam signals, in the near future, radio broadcasts may be the least of Pyongyang’s concerns.

Years ago, North Korean society probably reached saturation point for knowing that there is more freedom and prosperity beyond the borders of their country. Simply watching South Korean DVDs and listening to American broadcasts will dispose many North Koreans to living in a society more like South Korea’s, but it will not elucidate all that their own government has done to deny them rice, peace, and freedom. It won’t break the fear, hopelessness, and isolation that prevents them from fighting for those things.

If we have more subversive, transformational, and even revolutionary goals, then our communications strategy must help North Koreans communicate and organize with one another — initially in ways that are not expressly political — until the state’s security forces become prisoners of the people.

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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. 

~   ~   ~

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.

~   ~   ~

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.

~   ~   ~

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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