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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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If there was ever any cognizable justice in holding Gomes in a prison cell for peacefully presenting a petition to North Korean border guards, it ended months ago.

North Korea says an American man being held for illegally crossing its border has tried to kill himself. A statement issued by the regime’s official Korean Central News Agency says Aijalon Mahli Gomes’ suicide attempt was “driven by his strong guilty conscience,” plus disappointment and despair that the U.S. government “has not taken any measure for his freedom.”

This is a transparent demand for ransom, and our government has legal tools for responding to terrorist tactics like this (sadly, it lacks the spine and the sac to use them). Gomes hasn’t been allowed to speak to his mom since April. And while I won’t criticize Robert Park for his still-unretracted confession until I’ve done a little time in a North Korean prison, I’ve noticed that Gomes hasn’t given his captors any such thing.


Speaking of hostages, the Daily NK reports that more than ten North Korean refugees have been living in the Japanese Embassy in Beijing for the last two years, held hostage to Chinese demands that Japan could not legally accede to without violating the same Refugee Convention that China itself flagrantly violates:

Several North Korean defectors who are under the protection of Japanese consular offices in China have not been able to leave China. The Chinese government has been asking Japan to sign an agreement to no longer accept North Korean defectors in exchange for letting them leave the country. [Wall Street Journal, via the Asahi Shimbun]


In most countries, the civil service is known for its generous health benefits for family members. That may be true in North Korea, too, but benefits like that must surely be outweighed by risks like these:

North Korea’s Ministry of State Security last month sent 34 relatives of former economic official Pak Nam Gi and others to a prison camp on the outskirts of the northern city of Hoeryong, Seoul-based Good Friends said on its website. [….]

On June 14, the relatives of Pak and other officials were collected and forcibly loaded into a wagon before being sent to the prison camp, the organization reported, citing an unidentified official at the North’s security ministry. The authorities transported the relatives in the middle of night in part to keep it a secret from the rest of the world to avoid international criticism, the official was quoted as saying.


Grimly, Kang Chol Hwan looks forward to a less horrible future for Korea.

Kang Cheol-Hwan, North Korean defector and activist, thinks Kim Jong Il’s brutal North Korean regime will collapse within three years, five years at the most. But the prospect doesn’t make him giddy. On the contrary, the imminent fall of the one of the world’s most repressive states just means more work. However much he wants North and South Korea to be reunified, he knows that how it happens is as important as reunification itself.

“If it’s done wrong, it will fail,” Kang told me last week when he was in town to attend a conference on the fate of the North Korean regime. As founding director of the North Korea Strategy Center, a nonprofit in Seoul, Kang works to prepare North Korean defectors for leadership roles after reunification. But in many ways, he works just as hard to prepare South Koreans — and even Korean Americans — for the inevitability of a unified Korea. And its discontents.


The Chosun Ilbo wonders if Kim Jong Il’s stroke has had more of an effect than some of us had thought:

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has ordered the demolition and rebuilding of a theater that was in perfect condition, adding to suspicions that his judgment is becoming severely impaired as a result of a stroke in 2008. Citing North Korean sources, Radio Free Asia reported on Monday that a national theater in Pyongyang was demolished in May and is being reconstructed. People there “seem to wonder why a building that was just renovated in 2003 is being rebuilt.”

The theater was torn down on May 9 just after Kim watched a play there, making his first public appearance since his visit to China early that month. Kim had apparently watched another performance of the same play there on April 27 and after his second visit had enough and ordered it rebuilt.

“It’s strange enough to watch the same play twice in less than two weeks, but it’s even more absurd to order the reconstruction of a building that was renovated just seven years ago,” said a South Korean intelligence official. “It appears that the aftereffects of Kim Jong-il’s stroke are more serious than we thought.”

It just pains me to think of all the yachts, centrifuges, Mayback sedans, and razor wire the children of North Korea have been denied because of the wasteful spending of its politicians on make-work patronage projects.


Open News talks about the impact of foreign broadcasting on North Korean soldiers.

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Son Jong Nam, R.I.P.

It is a terrible thing to say, but I will say it: it is better that Son Jong Nam is dead than that he still endures torture in North Korean captivity. Truthfully, I had long assumed that Son had died, even by the time I wrote this post in late 2007. Now, Son’s brother has told an AP reporter that his brother is dead.

Like most North Koreans, Son Jong Nam knew next to nothing about Christianity when he fled to neighboring China in 1998.

Eleven years later, he died back in North Korea in prison, reportedly tortured to death for trying to spread the Gospel in his native land, armed with 20 bibles and 10 cassette tapes of hymns. He was 50.

His story, pieced together by his younger brother, a defector who lives in South Korea, sheds light on a little-discussed practice: the sending back of North Korean converts to evangelize in their home country — a risky move, but one of the few ways to penetrate a country that bars most citizens from outside TV or radio and the Internet.

Little is known about the practice, believed to have started in the late 1990s. Missionaries won’t say how many defectors they have sent back, citing their safety and that of the defectors.

“It’s their country, where people speak the same language. They know where to go and where to escape,” says the Rev. Isaac Lee, a Korean-American missionary in Seoul who has dedicated his life to spreading Christianity in the North. “But I agonize a lot whenever I have to send defectors to the North as I know what kind of punishment they would get if arrested.” [AP, Hyung-Jin Kim]

No word in our times is as profaned as “martyr,” but that is what Son Jong Nam embodies to me. His case evokes none of the ambivalence I feel about starry-eyed foreigners prostrating themselves before border guards with petitions in their hands. Son knew that he was confronting a fate worse than death for a small chance at a small role in changing the fate of his homeland. He also knew enough about North Korea and its regime to have a plausible chance at evading capture and accomplishing an important mission, and he knew that Bill Richardson wasn’t coming to fetch him if he got caught. He took that chance, one that others must follow him in taking if North Korea will ever change.

Son was arrested again in January 2006 after police found bibles at his home in the northeastern city of Hoeryong. He was also charged with spying for the United States and South Korea and sentenced to public execution by firing squad.

His brother launched an international campaign to save him. That apparently led his captors to switch to a less public method: torture. “There are many ways to kill people in North Korea,” says his brother.

He died in a prison in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, in December 2008.

“He told me his dream is to build a church at a good Pyongyang location and work as a pastor there,” his brother says. “I thought the religious faith completely changed his fate.”

I do not profess to know whether God exists, but if anyone can transform North Korea, it will be men and women who are at once warm enough to believe He does and cool enough to propagate that belief with discretion and guile. Men like Son Jong Nam make me hope ardently that there is a better afterlife for those who suffered so much on this earth. Lacking that, we can only hope that his suffering will be for the eventual betterment of others.

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New Survey Suggests More New Defectors Listened to Foreign Broadcasts

I tend to wonder how anyone can put much stock in statistics that claim to reflect public opinion in North Korea, but I report, you decide:

According to the poll conducted by InterMedia the majority of the 250 defectors who agreed to be surveyed ““ 57 individuals ““ responded that they listened to private radio broadcasts when they were in North Korea. This makes up over 20% of the respondents and shows that 1 out of 5 people listen to external radio broadcasts in North Korea. (see note 1)

According to the poll conducted by the Korea Media Foundation in November 2005, 34 out of 304 individuals, or 11.2%, responded that they listened to external radio broadcast in North Korea. In other words, the audience for private radio broadcasts in North Korea has nearly doubled in the past four years. (see note 2) [Open News]

Of course, this is only a selection of those North Koreans possessed of both the will and the means to escape, and even within that potentially unrepresentative sample, it may well be that fewer North Koreans are fleeing out of hunger or fear, and more are fleeing out of curiosity or hope. Tighter border controls between China and North Korea may also mean that fewer people are crossing to trade or work, or other reasons that would likely motivate them to cross back into North Korea again.

Yet for all of the reasons to doubt this survey, I tend to agree with the pollsters’ conclusion that foreign broadcasting is reaching more North Koreans. First, there is other evidence to support that conclusion, albeit other evidence that ought to be received with caution for some of the same reasons. Second, economic conditions in North Korea have gotten much worse in the last year, because radios and radio signals are more available than in the past, and because “unauthorized” broadcasts are the only source of news about the regime’s various schemes to destroy the livelihoods of the people.

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Could North Koreans get wireless internet through the power grid?

Until I saw this linked at Instapundit, I had no idea that it was possible to plug a router into an electrical socket, tap into the electrical grid, and get wireless internet service in areas where the signal is usually weak. Exploring a bit more, I found this customer review, which gives some idea of the performance capabilities:

I loved my network-able Blue-ray player I purchased, but I hated the wireless adapter which left me always praying my Netflix or U-tube content would actually play. Same with my networkable TV, I’d always lose the radio or the news. My PS3 online gaming was a joke wirelessly. I dreaded running a network cable from my livingroom into my bedroom. Such a downer for such great products.

However, I found this little device and AMAZINGLY everything works flawlessly! It’s literally plug and play. High-speed networking that’s virtually wireless!!! You need one on your router end to plug “wire” a Cat5/ethernet cable into and one for wherever you want to have a “wired” connection for your equipment. You use a Cat5/ethernet cable to “wire” your components into the Monster PowerNet which is plugged into the wall. No cables between rooms, only between your router to PowerNet which plugs into the outlet and one from your components to the PowerNet 200 or 300.

You may have to reset your components from wireless to wired, but after that, it just works! NO more jagged netflix, waiting for info to load, missed songs or slow online gaming. It actually downloads the best quality off netflix. I’m really happy with this. I’m used to wiring and setting up computers, home theatre, and complicated set-ups. I was really amazed at how easy it was. [link]

Some obvious questions come to mind:

* Would this still work if the power grid isn’t actually carrying juice (see masthead image!), provided the wires aren’t cut?

* Would this system be able to carry a signal that was broadcast from South Korea, or would it be necessary to surreptitiously link into the North Korean power grid?

* Could this same concept could work by tapping into North Korea’s “cable radio” network, by which I refer to the ubiquitous telescreen-style propaganda speakers?

The customer reviews seem favorable. If anyone out there has the technical expertise to explain the potential of this idea, please e-mail me or drop a comment.

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Psyops Updates

Kim Jung-Wook, the Joongang Ilbo’s Washington Correspondent, thinks that the Cheonan Incident has revived the U.S.-Korea alliance, but frankly, the end result may well be the exact opposite. No, the incident didn’t raise tensions in a way that makes obvious the many conflicts in the two states’ interests, and yes, President Obama has shown more backbone than the North Koreans probably expected. The problem with this theory is that so far, there has been no significant response to the attack from either South Korea or the United States, which means that the military deterrence of North Korea has reached a critical point of failure. If the two governments fail to implement an effective response to the attack that deters the next one, you’ll begin to see a lot of Koreans ask exactly what security benefit the alliance confers on South Korea anyway.

But then, the alliance is about creating the illusion that we might use conventional military force, and the best that the threat of conventional military force can hope to accomplish is to preserve a degrading stasis. It is political and psychological warfare that are the keys to the initiative in Korea, and which will determine the outcome of the Korean War. South Korea is flunking its opportunity to win through psychological warfare because it doesn’t get this, and because it has already lost the loyalty of so much of its own population. North Korea has the ability to mobilize millions of South Korean voters, activists, and union members — directly and otherwise, with their knowledge and otherwise — because it does get this.

And yet South Korea seems lacking in the will to do anything that would reach ordinary North Koreans:

“We completed the first round of loudspeaker installment June 9, but haven’t decided on when to resume the propaganda broadcasts,” said a South Korean military official who asked for anonymity. “We’ll make that decision after seeing what progress is made at the UN Security Council.

The official said that setting up the loudspeakers is just the first step toward putting pressure on the North’s military, which has threatened to shoot down the loudspeakers if the broadcasts are resumed. [Joongang Ilbo]

Let’s hope the South Koreans give more thought to message and media alike, because I suspect that because of North Koreans’ puritanical programming about sex, messages like this, however much appeal they have for sweaty middle-aged white guys, will backfire on the small North Korean audiences they actually reach.

Frankly, if you want to know what messages will persuade North Koreans, I suggest asking a North Korean. Michael Gerson, writing in the Washington Post, talks about Radio Free North Korea, the potential of psyops, and the opposition it has attracted from “unification activists”:

It is a risky, lonely task. Defectors are living reminders of heroic, dangerous struggles that prosperous, comfortable South Koreans would sometimes prefer to ignore. “Korean socialist groups,” says Kim, “held demonstrations, forcing us to move from location to location. In the mail, we got axes covered in blood. North Korea sent spies. Hackers attacked our Web site. At some point, all of us started carrying Tasers for self-protection. Even now there are two policemen waiting downstairs who protect me.”

One day, the files of the Reconnaissance Bureau of the Chosun Workers’ Party will make for very interesting reading for some, and very embarrassing reading for plenty of South Koreans.

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Freedom Rising

The video shows North Korean defector Pak Sang Hak and a group of energetic supporters sending birthday greetings to Kim Jong Il on his birthday (the 16th). They send one dollar bills wrapped in thin, light plastic leaflets. In the past, pro-North Korean fifth columnists have tried to stop these balloon launches. This time, they were not in evidence.

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Once Again, More Slowly: Isolating the North Korean People Only Helps Kim Jong Il

Now it’s a Japanese government minister suggesting that Japan shouldn’t grant visas to North Korean athletes.

I fear an important distinction is being lost here. On the one hand, I strongly agree with the need to isolate the North Korean regime financially — to do no harm, to refuse to sustain or legitimize an evil system of government. On the other hand, I recognize that maintaining the isolation of the North Korean people actually helps sustain that system. Because the North Korean regime usually demands financial and propaganda concessions as precondition to engagement, and because the harmful effects of those preconditions tends to outweigh the modest benefits of any engagement, I oppose most of those engagement projects in practice (see any of my arguments with my friend Andrei Lankov on this point). But this is not to deny Andrei’s major premise — that isolation supports the North Korean system, and that breaking that isolation corrodes it.

Kim Jong Il allows very limited contact between ostensibly loyal citizens and the outside world for propaganda purposes. He believes that he is creating a positive image for his regime, and that the citizens he exposes to the outside world have no lasting and subversive impressions based on what they see. He is wrong on both counts. This sort of engagement cannot fail to have a subversive effect on people who have never seen traffic jams, or forests of gleaming skyscrapers, some with massive TV screens mounted on them. Unfortunately, it’s often outweighed by some financial benefit the regime recoups, and in some cases, by the stupidity and ignorance of the morally retarded.

The North Korean government ought to pay its own expenses and should not be allowed to profit financially from the visit. But we should not believe that we hurt Kim Jong Il — as opposed to helping him keep his people isolated — by excluding North Koreans from contact with the outside world.

If the goal is to damage Kim Jong Il’s regime, I can think of any number of more constructive approaches, including giving the team members and coaches assurances that they’d be received if they defect. And given the history of North Korean athletes failing drug tests recently, I’d get plenty of urine samples. Finally, there is no reason why North Korean visitors need to be shielded from demonstrators protesting against the regime’s abuses of its own people, or its abductions of Japanese citizens. Let them experience how people in free societies really view His Withering Majesty. And make sure the tour bus passes through Shibuya both to and from the airport — at night.

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Lankov in the NYT, on Changing North Korea

My friend Andrei begins by advocating “cultural exchanges” as a means to change North Korea, a topic we’ve often debated in the past. If only such exchanges had the potential he suggests they do. North Korea only permits them on an infinitesimal scale, with people whose loyalty is thoroughly vetted, and when it calculates that the regime-stabilizing financial benefits outweigh the risk that the participants will be corrupted. Look no further than the Kaesong experience, or that of the North Korean cheerleaders who ended up in the gulag.

In that sense, I’m surprised that Andrei doesn’t see how financial pressure supports the goal of opening North Korea by weakening the regime’s capacities to repress and isolate, forcing more of the regime’s minions to trade and smuggle to sustain their standard of living, and by shifting the regime’s profit-risk calculations to support more exchanges. Furthermore, with the Obama Administration now pressing the financial constriction of the regime through UNSCR 1874, wouldn’t supporting “exchanges” from which the regime profits financially undermine that policy? Frankly, if I were driving Treasury’s sanctions, I’d sic the dogs on the assets of Koryo Tours and the Korean Friendship Association, both of which funnel money to the regime and enable its profiteering from mass child abuse which contributes nothing to our understanding of North Korea, or to North Korea’s understanding of us.

Because of the regime’s success at controlling them, cultural exchanges are responsible for a tiny percentage of what North Koreans see about the outside world. On the other hand, Andrei makes a great deal of sense when he begins to speak of non-permissive engagement, the kind that appears to be responsible for the vast majority of subversive information that passes before the eyes of North Koreans today:

As during the Cold War, radio broadcasts remain a reliable method of disseminating information, and an increasing number of tunable radios are being smuggled into North Korea. Videos and DVDs smuggled from South Korea are watched widely. It makes sense, then, to support the production of documentaries that inform North Koreans about daily social and economic life in South Korea, contemporary history and political matters such as reunification. And instead of continuing its current harmful ban in the sale of Pentium-class personal computers, the United States should encourage their spread inside North Korea.

Broadly, the U.S. government can take part in cultivating a political opposition and alternative elite that could one day replace the current regime. Due to many factors, those few North Koreans who are politically aware hardly constitute a community of dissenting intellectuals. An increasing number of North Koreans have doubts about the system, but they remain isolated and terrified. Washington should focus, therefore, on aiding the dissident community in South Korea, where some 16,000 North Korean defectors live.

Combining engagement, information dissemination and support for émigrés is the only way to promote change. This approach, however, might be a hard sell to most Americans. It is likely to bring about only incremental change — at least until the situation reaches a breaking point, which could be years away.

He is also right that it will take years for this strategy to work. Fortunately, the process of infiltrating North Korea with South Korean DVD’s and other media is fairly advanced. But DVD’s alone won’t present North Koreans with a well-formed idea of what a better government would look like, nor will any challenge to the regime be effective as long as North Korea is a political ice cube tray, with each mind, village, and town isolated from the others.

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High-Level Defector Describes Regime’s Illicit Income

I’d previously mentioned that I recently had the opportunity to meet Kim Kwang Jin, a high-level North Korean defector with detailed knowledge of North Korea’s illicit financing and money laundering.  Now, Kim adds much to our understanding of how North Korea pays for all those Mercedes-Benzes and missiles.  Having guessed that most of the cash came from flipping houses and the inventing some of the novel kitchen applicances I’d seen Billy Mays selling on my TV, this was a cruel twist:

The former banker said the regime’s largest source of hard currency comes from the clandestine manufacture and sale of weapons of mass destruction. After that comes the regime’s multibillion-dollar insurance fraud business, in which the authorities stage arson and bogus accidents to collect multimillion-dollar payouts from international banks and insurers.

“The state — Kim Jong Il himself — controls all these funds,” said Kim Kwang Jin. “It is funneled to him. And then he’s using all these revenues according to his regime’s priorities, which are now the missile program and nuclear weapons development.”  [Fox News, James Rosen]

Wow.  I would just hate to be the one to have to tell Chris Hill this, after all that hard work of his.  I hope the boys at the Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section are planning to debrief Mr. Kim.  He’d make a fine prosecution witness.  David Asher had previously said that North Korea’s largest source of illicit income might have been from counterfeit tobacco products, so this does change what we though we knew.

Pop some heart pills before you read this part:

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Open Radio Comes Into Its Own

Open Radio for North Korea is getting plenty of publicity recently, and it’s also cranking out plenty of interesting reporting about (and often from) North Korea. First, I’ll link to a CNN interview with Open Radio’s founder, Young Howard, a/k/a Ha Tae-Keung a story on Open Radio at the L.A. Times.

By far the most popular program for Howard’s station is “Unsent Letters,” which broadcasts messages from outsiders seeking to get word to friends and family in North Korea.

It’s an electronic bulletin board of sorts. Often the missives are sentimental reminiscences, bits and pieces of memory, raw emotion.

One recent installment told of two South Korean fishermen who family members say were kidnapped by the North Koreans in the 1970s, never to be heard from again. The announcer asked for details of the men, then played a popular song called “Memory of a Drink” in remembrance.

Another message came from a woman looking for word of her father, who she says was kidnapped 37 years ago. She says she grew up thinking he died in a shipping accident. But in 2005 she got word that he was alive in North Korea.

She says she hopes to meet him one day.

“If it is true that he is alive, he would be in old age,” she says. “Poor Daddy! Seventy-two years old!” [L.A. Times]

Open Radio also e-mailed several interesting dispatches:

* This one talks about Kim Jong Il succession rumors in the North Korean military.

* A report on North Korea’s exploding meth problem, how the underground drug market works, and the proliferation of home meth labs in North Korea.

* A report on the rumored restoration of long-distance phone service in North Korea, but with improved surveillance capabilities.

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Collapse of N. Korea’s Planned Economy, Rise of Markets Improve Food Supply

North Korea’s government, for reasons that are not clear, has begun allowing cash transactions for food imports, and the result is a significant increase in food flowing into North Korea’s ports:

As a result, Shinuiju harbor is witnessing a mass importation of rice and flour from China for the first time. The amount of food imports, which started to increase in early February, has reached its peak in late February and early March, importing 800 to 1,000 tons of rice and flour everyday. Prior to the changes, an average of 500 tons of food was imported daily.

The sources also say that three to four cargo ships enter into Shinuiju’s military-appointed harbors, such as the Dong Yang harbor (exclusive warship for the Escort Command) and the Kang Sung harbor (exclusively for the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces), transporting daily imports. The amount of food these ships carry everyday reaches from 800 to 1,000 tons. As the rations are disembarked, they are immediately purchased by the awaiting wholesale traders and distributed throughout the country. [Open Radio]

One’s immediate suspicion is that the food imports would be allocated to only a select few; however, Open Radio also reports that as North Korea’s underground economy continues to develop, the imported food is flowing across district and provincial boundaries, and into North Korea’s hungriest regions. The decline of North Korea’s planned socialist economy means more abundance and more equality.

Repeat after me, kids: capitalism saves.

Separately, Open Radio also reports that South Korean food products coming in from Kaesong, including ChocoPies, chestnut bread, and coffee mix are hot sellers on the black market. It’s probably obvious enough to North Korean consumers that these products are from South Korea, which may have something to do with why the North Korean regime is moving steadily toward shutting Kaesong down. Kaesong proponents have claimed that their project would change the North by exposing its people to the lifestyle of the South. And since pretty much day one, I’ve predicted that as soon as such an effect was discernable, the North Korean regime would shut the project down.

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Succession Rumors Spread Inside North Korea

There may or may not be any truth to rumors that third son Kim Jong Un will the figurehead successor to His Porcine Majesty, but word seems to have spread inside the kingdom:

The source said, “People who have secretly been listening to South Korean radio seem to be circulating these stories but the Party in Pyongyang has not issued a special decree about it. Many people have an interest in the successor issue, so the rumors have been spreading even more rapidly.

According to the source, the rumor began to circulate in mid-January. This coincides with the issuance of a related report from South Korea. [Daily NK]

The Daily NK sees significance in the regime’s lackluster efforts to tamp the rumors down:

The source said, “A majority of the people heard then for the first time the fact that the General (Kim Jong Il) even has a third son! After hearing the rumor, most people were unmoved, questioning whether a third-generation of Kims would continue to rule.

The North Korean authorities have shown awareness of the circulation of these rumors, but have not implemented anything as a consequence. This is quite a different situation than the strict prohibition of the spread of rumors regarding Kim Jong Il’s sickness, as given in “People’s Unit” lectures at the time.

It’s interesting that the regime isn’t more aggressive about this in light of Jong Un’s illegitimacy and how that contradicts the state’s Confucian morality, and its attribution of that morality to Kim Jong Il. The most interesting point, of course, is that the regime lacks the ability to keep rumors like this out of North Korea today. It’s doubtful that Sunshine-era engagement allowed rumors like these to reach the provinces. Instead, it was most likely illegal border crossers, smugglers, and banned cell phones. As with economic change, political change will come from the bottom up, not from the top down.

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Unifiction Ministry Reverts to Form

It’s official: the Unifiction Ministry should have been abolished after all:

The Ministry of Unification announced Wednesday that it would ask police to investigate anti-Pyongyang activist leaders if they press ahead with their plan to launch propaganda leaflets and North Korean banknotes across the border to the North.

A ministry official, along with a representative from police, met with organizers planning to launch the anti-North Korean leaflets, activists said. The two organizers who met the ministry official were Choi Sung-yong, of the Family Assembly Abducted to North Korea, and Park Sang-han, from the Fighters for Free North Korea, a group of North Korean defectors in Seoul.

During the meeting, the police official had reportedly said, “It looks like we will have to investigate this matter.” [Korea Times]


Some of the leaflets, which denounce North Korea’s totalitarian regime and predict its eventual fall, will include 5,000 North Korean-won banknotes the activists smuggled in. Organizers are hoping the currency will provide additional incentive for the regime’s citizens to pick them up. Each 5,000-won banknote will be enough to buy a couple of kilograms of rice in the regime, according to activists. [….]

But the ministry said this week it is unlawful to bring in and hold North Korean banknotes without explicit permission from the Seoul government.

According to South Korea’s “Law Regarding the Exchange and Cooperation of Inter-Korean Relations,” those who illegally bring in North Korean banknotes to the South may face a jail term of up to three years or fines of up of 10 million won.

No one is suggesting that the North Korean currency — unlike the stuff that the North itself is so fond of disseminating — is counterfeit. If you’ve lived in South Korea for any length of time, you’ve probably seen North Korean currency and postage stamps sold or displayed as souvenirs, so clearly, this prohibition hasn’t been enforced for years. It hasn’t been enforced because there is zero danger that North Korean currency could undermine the South Korean economy or political system. That’s especially so if it’s floated back into North Korea to help feed people who are being starved by a government that squanders their grocery money on missiles, nukes, and the bacchanalian lifestyles of a select few. But we already know that Lee’s government was already looking for dumb reasons to prosecute people for floating in South Korean or U.S. currency to the starving people in the North, so let’s just call it what it is: Lee acting as executor of Kim Jong Il’s censorship in the South.

I wonder what Lee really thinks he’s going to gain from this, besides creating a lot of free publicity for the activists. He’s not going to bully people who’ve stood up to a regime as totalitarian as North Korea’s, but he might alienate conservative South Koreans who agree with them. Lee isn’t going to placate the North Korea this way, either, unless he’s willing to resume the kind of massive, unconditional, regime-sustaining aid that he cut off after his inauguration.

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Happy Birthday, Fat Boy

Activists who send leaflets to North Korea by balloon to denounce its totalitarian government said Monday they plan to include local currency as an incentive to pick up new propaganda to mark the birthday of leader Kim Jong Il. [….]

Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Ho-nyeon renewed a warning Monday that the activists could face jail or fines if they send North Korea money without government permission. But the activists said they were ready for any punishment, adding leaflets and currency would be dispatched near the birthday of Kim Jong Il, which is Feb. 16. [AP, via IHT]

.. which is ironic if you stop to think that North Korea is the producer of the world’s best quality counterfeit bank notes, and I’ve seen no suggestion that these North Korean notes are fakes. I wonder where they got all of the North Korean money. North Korea prints three different kinds of currency, two of which are for the exclusive use for foreigners and very senior officials.

The activists, mostly North Korean defectors and family members of abductees, sound ready to go through with a campaign of civil disobedience.

They displayed a stack of North Korean 5,000-won bills before reporters, saying each note ($1.30) could buy about 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) of rice in the North. “We are sending money to our family members,” said Choi Sung-yong, an activist whose father was abducted from his fishing boat in the 1960s and taken to North Korea. “We don’t believe we’re violating the law … If the government tries to punish us, we will take the punishment.”

Bear in mind that the South Korean government’s nominal excuse for this prohibition is contained in a stack of agreements that North Korea may well have just ripped up (it’s not entirely clear which agreements the North Koreans have repudiated). If not, we’re talking about just another agreement signed with North Korea.

More background here, and don’t miss GI Korea’s post. You can contribute to the balloon launch effort here.

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