I haven’t yet had time to read Nat Kretchun’s new report on the circulation of samizdat inside North Korea, but Reuters, The 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.
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; soldiersguardingthe Yalu River border; high-ranking intelligenceofficers; 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 itsexposure 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.
~ ~ ~
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]
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.”
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.
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.
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.
By now, most sensible people have discarded the faddishillusions of 2012 that Kim Jong-un would be the Swiss-educated reformer they’ve been waiting for. Mainstreamopinion 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.
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.
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.
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’schoiceofconfidentialadvisor: 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 Congress, or 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 Koreahates 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.
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.
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 steadyprogress 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.
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.
Over the last year, I’ve become convinced that if technology can break the electronic barriers between North Korea and the Outer Earth, it would be possible to keep the broken promises of the Sunshine Policy by bypassing Pyongyang and engaging directly with the North Korean people. Governments, churches, and NGOs could harness markets, smuggling networks, and private agriculture to help North Koreans feed the hungry, heal the sick, share information and ideas, begin to rebuild their broken civil society, and eventually, negotiate with the state for what is rightly theirs.
A new civil society independent of the state, and increasingly at odds with the state’s political objectives, would co-opt, corrupt, and supplant the state’s control over the population, particularly if the state is demoralized, corrupt, weakened by sanctions, and unable to pay its security forces. If it all seems impossible, consider two cases in which that trend is well advanced in North Korean society now — financial services and health care.
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Reuters writes that a guerrilla banking system has sprung up inside North Korea. For the most part, Reuters describes a system in which merchants who profit from state-sanctioned trade lend money to state-owned enterprises, mostly for the state’s benefit. This amounts to crony capitalism; it’s the least interesting of the three types of financial services that emerged in North Korea over the last decade.
The second type of service is loan sharking by the well-connected against the structurally impoverished. In some cases, the desperately poor agree to pay usurious interest rates to borrow food. You can imagine how some of these stories end. A month ago, for example, the Daily NK reported that a well-liked young woman stabbed a loan shark to death for pressuring her to make payments she couldn’t afford, and “will probably be executed via other means as soon as the court proceedings come to a close, perhaps with an instrument such as a rubber baton.”
The third, and least exploitative system is the one North Korean refugees currently use to send remittances to their families back home, although that system is risky for the smugglers and the recipients, who become vulnerable to extortion by the police. It’s also expensive — the refugees pay steep commissions from their hard-earned pay to send these pittances home.
The situation that has developed clearly fills a need in the marketplace, but ethically, it’s obviously far from ideal. If the technology existed to set up secure online banking through messenger apps, it would be possible to send remittances and humanitarian aid from South to North Korea with a minimum of risk and cost, and to extend microcredit to the poor in more regulated and ethical ways.
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But the report that fascinates me the most is one I read over the weekend — Eun Jeong Soh’s paper, “The Emergence of an Informal Health-Care Sector in North Korea,” published in the Asia-Pacific Journal, and based on extensive interviews with refugees, including health care workers, from North Korea. One of the more ambitious things I’ve advocated is supplementing, and largely replacing, North Korea’s broken public health system with a guerrilla health care system for those who can’t afford the bribes and fees that are a de facto cost of North Korea’s “free” health care. Soh’s paper suggests the extent to which something like that has already begun to happen spontaneously. Like most of North Koreans’ adaptations to the failure of the state, this new system was illegal, which meant that it necessarily relied on informal networks and a high degree of mutual trust.
At first, many of these home healers were quacks and unqualified traditional healers. Over time, more retired and off-duty doctors began moonlighting for trusted patients. The services they provide have improved in quality as the state hospitals increasingly do little more than use their equipment to diagnose ailments. Today, those who can afford it prefer to use private doctors, who refer patients to back-alley pharmacists to supply medicines. So well developed are the markets’ smuggling networks today that the quality and authenticity of the medicines sold by back-alley pharmacists is now as great a concern as their availability.
Up to this point, Soh’s paper mostly adds richness of detail, anecdote, evidence, and analysis to trends North Korea watchers already knew of, or might have reasonably extrapolated to the state of affairs she describes.
But the state still hovers over all of this. How do informal networks grow despite a state that wants to stamp them out, isolate citizens from each other, and maintain its monopoly over essential services? One way is for private doctors to form protective relationships with the security forces — “she provides him with free medical assistance and he protects her from any official repercussions that her activities might incur.” But Soh’s subjects also report that the state also holds back, fearing that if it cracks down, there will be discontent and unrest. It’s a long quote, but worth reading.
In describing this informal hoarding system, she conveyed the sense of injustice she feels about what the system has become, even though, in times of personal need, she had herself acquired drugs directly from the hospital.
How is such shared moral outrage expressed and communicated to the bureaucrats charged with enforcing the regulations? Dissatisfaction can be expressed verbally as a way of confronting local officials directly. Interviewees argued that in order to survive in North Korea, one often has to take a firm line and defend one’s position logically in order to persuade officials of the merits of one’s case. While this might seem surprising given the state’s tight control over its citizens, the expression of complaints to local officials is facilitated by preexisting relationships between officials and complainants formed through family networks, neighborhood relations, friendships, a shared history as classmates, and so forth. Social relations in small regional cities in North Korea are close, shaped by cultural traditions, socialism, and communalism, and reinforced by the coping and survival strategies developed to weather times of hardship.
However, given the nature of a regime that does not accommodate dissent, the expression of dissatisfaction generally takes non-verbal forms. One term that cropped up frequently was “disaffection” (panbal). In the narratives recorded in this study, panbal refers to feelings as well as expressions of disaffection against the authorities (normally local officials charged with regulating anti-socialist activities), as well as with life in general. Although the authorities are well aware of such disaffection in the populace, Ms Hahn expressed her opinion that in reality the government lacked the power to impose its own regulations: “If the authorities regulate even those activities, there would be too much disruption” (Interview, S. Hahn, October 26, 2013). According to a former police officer, “a police officer will be unpopular if he takes unnecessary enforcement action” (Interview, M. Park, November 18, 2013). If complaints against local officials accumulate, they will damage their reputation with residents. In E. P. Thompson’s words, referring to the 18th-century English crowd, “the authorities were, in some measure, the prisoners of the people” (Thompson 1971, 88).
From the point of view of local officials, the existence of these informal coping networks and strategies are to be applauded, as alternative ways of providing health care may have the effect of allaying complaints by residents. Local officials also have private incentives to turn a blind eye to such informal activities. Normally, these private practices operate with the help of local police who accept bribes from practitioners. More importantly, police officers also draw on the services and expertise of informal health-care workers for their own families’ survival and wellbeing. As a result, local officials and residents have come to share similar views on these extra-judicial activities. Thus the convergence of preferences among providers, consumers, and regulators has contributed to the emergence of an active and evolving informal health-care sector in North Korea.
So it was that North Koreans who harbored no explicit political motives learned to resist and conspire against the state, and to defeat the prisoners’ dilemma it imposed on them.
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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.
Until 2011, the erosion of North Korea’s border control and the infiltration of foreign ideas may have been the only hopeful trends in a country where just about all of the news is bad. When Kim Jong-un came to power, however, he launched an all–outeffortto seal North Korea’s leaky border with China. Most of the evidence tells us that that effort has had considerable success. It cut the flow of refugees from North to South Korea in half, and (with the help of cell phone locators, reportedly imported from Germany) made it extremely risky to make cross-border phone calls. Those calls were one of North Koreans’ few fragile links to the outside world.
Yet despite Kim Jong-un’s best efforts, the border isn’t completely sealed. After years of decline, the number of refugees arriving in the South is inching up again. North Koreans were still able to find out about the recent group defection of 13 restaurant workers from China — news that the state must have been very eager to suppress — using illegal cell phones.
NK News reports that some younger North Koreans are now sharing “multimedia files, with content often influenced distinctly from Japanese and South Korean culture,” over their government-controlled Koryolink phones. This is, of course, a risky proposition over a monitored network, but in time, marginally subversive content has the potential to overwhelm the state’s capacity to monitor and censor it. Here, I find myself agreeing with Andrei Lankov:
“The horizontal connections” provided by the growing cellphone network should be welcomed, Dr. Andrei Lankov, a long-time North Korea watcher told NK News on Monday.
“The massive arrival of cellphones provide North Koreans with many opportunities to interact
with their peers, often living far away.
“It is new, since for generations North Korean society has been compartmentalized, with people having little communications outside their work unit and neighbourhood,” he added.
The greater danger to the regime, however, is that North Koreans have apparently found a way to evade both the regime’s cell phone detectors and the monitored state-run networks, by using hard-to-trace messenger apps like on their Chinese cell phones.
North Korean users of foreign messenger applications such as Kakao Talk, Line, and WeChat will be arrested on the spot on suspicion of espionage, according to a new order handed down from the authorities. Sources inside the country interpret the move as Kim Jong Un’s aggressive reaction to the capability of Chinese cellphones to facilitate the import and export of information into the isolated country.
As recently reported by Daily NK, the North Korean authorities have ramped up efforts to label Chinese cellphone users as traitors and pursuing strict punishments against them. To this end, North Korean authorities doubled down on the use of signal detectors to trace illicit international calls and zero in on the location of foreign phone users.
However, the messenger apps allow users to circumvent detection by this equipment, prompting the regime to respond with new threats specifically targeting users of these communication applications. [Daily NK]
I’m not a technology expert, but I’d guess that’s because text messages transmit only a small amount of data in an instant — too little time for detection equipment to zero in on the location. The regime has responded by ordering the immediate arrest and harsh punishment of anyone caught using a messenger app.
“Offenders who are apprehended will be processed according to the discretion of the arresting agency– i.e. the State Security Department or the Ministry of People’s Security. Those taken in will be charged with espionage associating with the enemy and dispatched to a political prison camp.”[….]
“These days, Line and Kakao Talk are explicitly mentioned in lectures [routinely delivered to residents by the authorities]. That’s how serious the crackdown has become,” a separate source in Ryanggang Province said.
The regime has been worried about Kakao Talk since 2014, which is also when I first read reports of its use to evade regime censorship. Jieun Baek has written about its evolution into a guerrilla banking system for North Koreans. By late 2015, North Korean refugees in the South were already using it to send messages and money to their families back home and set up clandestine hawaladars inside North Korea. Kakao Talk has also won a license from the South Korean authorities to operate as an online bank.
The obvious limitation of these apps is that Chinese cell phones have limited range — just a few miles inside North Korea. But if the signal range problem can be solved, messenger apps could give North Koreans the ability to spread news and make payments from city to city and province to province. I can foresee a dynamic under which these apps could play a significant role in shifting North Korea’s internal balance of power. Apps like these could help North Korea’s poor become richer and better fed, even as a heavily sanctioned regime’s security forces increasingly turn to corruption to feed their own families.
Last week was a tough week for Park Geun-hye, when her party lost its majority in the National Assembly. The simplest explanation for this is that historically, ruling parties usually take beatings in mid-term elections, particularly when their own voters don’t show up to vote. The ruling party may poll well in the abstract, but a party that enters an election divided is likely to underperform expectations.
Republicans, take note. And don’t look so smug, Democrats.
Something like this appears to have happened in South Korea this week, but I suspect that economics and quality-of-life issued mattered, too. For decades, South Korea’s economy has been based on a model in which the working classes toiled, sacrificed, and saved to develop its economy into a vibrant and prosperous one. A little research quickly confirms one’s anecdotal observation that Korea’s public policies are still a relic of that era. Obviously, South Korea’s society and economy have changed dramatically since Park Chung-hee was President. Its human development index is now higher than that of France, Finland, or Belgium, yet its average wages are lower, and its disposable income is significantly lower, due to its high cost of living. This, despite the fact that Koreans work more hours than in almost any other OECD country, and despite Korea having one of the OECD’s highest rates of fatal industrial accidents.
As human development rises, people naturally expect more from life. The “Hell Chosun” narrative can sound pathetic and whiney coming from a country that, after all, shares a peninsula with North Korea, but South Koreans who expect more of that thing we like to call work-life balance still have a point. Why, for example, do South Korean companies still expect people to show up to work on Saturdays, especially after staying out late enabling their boss’s drinking habits?
With the probability that the new National Assembly will frustrate Park’s plans for economic and labor “reforms” — and there is no more dangerously misused manipulation in our political lexicon than the word “reform” — Park isn’t going to be able to bust unions and lower trade barriers for the remainder of her time in office. One can reject the repellent political views of some of South Korea’s unions and still believe that as a general matter, unions play an important role in giving workers a voice for better pay and working conditions, things that are very much on the minds of young South Koreans today.
In time, Park may come to see this loss as a gift. Her economic agenda might have been good for South Korea’s economy in the short term, but politically, it would have been a fast drive into a hard wall. Few South Koreans will miss it. Over the long term, ultra-free-market policies also create classes of losers. In this country, they’re currently voting for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in droves, ironically threatening to overturn the very principles that made America great. Park’s policies, too, might have been exceedingly controversial going into the next election. Even in the minority, the opposition would have stood a good chance of blocking them and riding their obstructionism to victory in the next election.
Saenuri leaders who haven’t resigned have been holding crisis meetings about the future of their party, and Park has to be wondering whether her legacy will be the Sewol Ferry disaster. It doesn’t have to be so. American presidents — most famously, Richard Nixon, and most recently, Barack Obama — have historically turned outward when hostile congresses frustrated their domestic agendas. Park isn’t going to have a strong legislative legacy, but she can claim one really significant accomplishment — the North Korea human rights law that passed, just in the nick of time. Park should implement that new law as liberally as her country’s canons of construction allow.
Only this year, we saw the first signs that Park had shed her cautious exoskeleton and shown us some spine. She finally began to pupate into a leader, and her leadership on North Korea has been the brightest spot in her generally lackluster popularity. Koreans don’t find Park very likable, but they liked the way Park handled Kim Jong-un last August, and they supportedher when she shut down Kaesong, a scam that remained popular years after it had manifestly failed to achieve its stated purposes. It makes good political sense, then, for Park to spend the remainder of her term capitalizing on her strength—her emergence as a national, and global, leader in responding to a rising North Korean threat.
South Korea’s own unilateral sanctions are important to this symbolically and diplomatically, but they will not be the policy that records Park’s destiny in Korean history. Yes, South Korea’s sanctions can help seal the leaks in a global sanctions regime, and enforcing sanctions gives Park the credibility to ask other states to do the same, but South Korea lacks America’s unique financial power. Its unique power is a far greater thing — the power of nationhood and national legitimacy. President Park is the only elected (and therefore, legitimate) leader of the Korean nation, and the South Korean Constitution claims the entire Korean Peninsula as its territory.
Thus, if South Korea marshals its considerable technological talents and finds a way to open communications directly with its citizens north of the Imjin River, North Korea cannot long resist the changes that its downtrodden have steadily advanced, despite the regime’s efforts to stifle them. Forget loudspeakers — Seoul should open south-to-north broadcasting on the medium wave band, and build a string of cell phone towers along the DMZ to open the channels of direct engagement to Koreans north of the DMZ.
Then, Park should do something truly historic. This year, on the August anniversary of Korea’s liberation from colonial rule, Park should address the people of North Korea. She should tell them that they are her countrymen, too. She should tell them in unambiguous terms how Kim Jong-un has squandered their food, their money, and their sweat to support a bloated military, a system that terrorizes them, and an opulent lifestyle for which no more evidence is needed than His Corpulency’s omnipresent moonscape. She should tell them that even as she sanctions his regime to slow his capacity to terrorize Koreans on both sides of the DMZ, she will also do everything in her power to ease their suffering.
One way to do this will be to ease restrictions on remittances sent by the refugee diaspora to their families back inside North Korea. She can ask churches and NGOs to use these family bonds to fund informal clandestine networks inside North Korea to get food, medicine, medical care, and news to those who need it most. She can continue to push the United Nations and its member states to hold North Korea’s leaders accountable for crimes against humanity. She can urge other U.N. member states to freeze the assets that are misspent for weapons and luxury goods, and increase pressure on the regime to accede to humanitarian reforms.
In doing so, Park can become a leader to all Koreans, and begin Korea’s long-overlooked preparations for reunification by rebuilding the broken foundations of North Korea’s civil society. She can give Koreans north of the Imjin River what they’ve never had — the knowledge that a legitimate Korean government has not forgotten them when their need is greatest. Park would also be building a legacy for her own party. After all, although most Asian-American and Latino voters tend to vote Democratic, Cuban-Americans and Vietnamese-Americans still vote Republican. Undoubtedly, this reflects the sense that in their hour of greatest need, the Republicans stood in solidarity with them.
More than ever, one senses that the current trends in North Korea cannot continue for long. Kim Jong-un has demonstrated ineptitude as a leader, both domestically and internationally. He may be gone in two months or five years, but it’s hard to see how his misrule, with its dependence on hard currency from abroad, survives a growing, self-inflicted international isolation for much longer than this. Reunification could be a moment when South Korea absorbs 23 million traumatized, alienated, and restive people. How much better it would be if instead, reunification begins with the hopeful sense among North Koreans that their new government will lead them toward the things that Pyongyang has so long denied them — rice, peace, and freedom.
It’s still much too early to say that the new campaign to cut off the hard currency that sustains His Corpulency’s misrule will result in either behavior modification or the termination of that misrule, but we continue to see signs that are consistent with Pyongyang feeling the pressure from sanctions. One of these is its exceptional belligerency of late — exceptional even by North Korean standards. Not a week goes by without news of North Korea violating U.N. sanctions by firing more missiles. North Korea has also increased its UAV flights over South Korean territory, in one case, prompting ROK soldiers to fire warning shots. Most recently, it has jammed GPS signals near the DMZ.
The Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning said the GPS disruptions that began Thursday have been repeating at intervals ever since, impacting Seoul’s adjacent city of Incheon, and the surrounding Gyeonggi and Gangwon provinces.
The ministry said 746 airplanes and 621 vessels experienced disruptions, but no significant damage has been reported so far. The disruptions can cause mobile phones to malfunction, and affect planes and ships that rely on GPS for navigation.
Seoul’s defense ministry earlier said that the North’s actions are aimed at raising tensions on the divided peninsula amid mounting international pressure on the North to give up its nuclear weapons programs.
The defense ministry added that there has been no reported negative impact on the South Korean military due to the North’s GPS-jamming provocations. It warned that it will make North Korea pay a “due” price if Pyongyang does not cease its actions. [Yonhap]
These things are certainly threatening and disruptive to South Korean commerce — including at Incheon Airport and the vital sea lane nearby — but South Korea could adapt to them if it had to. After all, aircraft and ships operated before GPS was invented. If they had to, aviators and navigators could relearn the lost art of navigation without it.
The unspoken premise of Pyongyang’s strategy is that electronic warfare is inherently more disruptive to the technologically advanced South than the Luddite North. Nonsense. There can be no better illustration of the potentially disruptive power of signals on the North Korean political system than North Korea’s quarantine of outside information. The fact that North Korea expends so much effort to sustain it — jamming foreign broadcasts, conducting house-to-house searches for illegal DVDs, even importing tracking devices to find and seize the illegal cell phones that help fill its markets and feed its people — tells you that the people with the best information, the North Korean security forces themselves, know that outside information is a grave threat to the stability of the system.
In a must-read report, the New York Times explains how, on a people-to-people level, those cell phones have become a vital link between North Koreans and the outside world, including with their relatives who have escaped from the North, and with people inside and outside North Korea who are hungry for information on the other side of the blockade. But the potential of cell phones as an agent of change is so much greater than this that it’s a mystery to me why one cannot call across North Korea’s southern border just as one can (still, barely) call across its northern border.
Since the start of the current financial isolation campaign, the regime has been exceptionally isolationist — again, even by North Korean standards.
North Korea has been intensifying a “sting operation” to arrest people making contact with South Koreans using mobile phones, especially in border areas near China, sources said Tuesday.
Sources familiar with North Korean affairs said that nearly 10 people have been arrested by security forces since the start of the ongoing 70-day campaign to encourage its people to work harder as the ruling Workers’ Party gets ready to host its first congress since 1980. [….]
A source said that the country’s public security authorities have recently carried out a special operation in the border city of Musan in North Hamgyong Province to round up residents having phone conversations with South Koreans or their relatives living south of the border.
The source said that the security authorities’ sting operations are being conducted in the “Rimgang” area near Musan, where phone connections are relatively good.
According to the source, the North Korean authorities turn off their jamming devices intentionally for two to three hours to make it easier for residents to have smooth telephone conversations and then apprehend them for making the phone conversations that are illegal in the North.
“Some 10 residents have been arrested in such operations since the start of the 70-day campaign,” the source said, adding that there are rumors that those detained will be executed before or after the party congress on charges of espionage.
Despite such crackdowns, the number of people contacting the South or making phone calls with citizens are on the rise, as many rely on support from their relatives to survive in the impoverished country. Money sent can be used to buy goods on the open market. [Yonhap]
As it turns out, North Korea’s jamming of South Korean GPS signals may be collateral damage from a redoubled effort by Pyongyang to strengthen the quarantine by jamming foreign broadcasts, and even blocking websites like Twitter, Facebook, and other applications that foreigners in Pyongyang can access, and use to report information to the outside world. North Korea has always jammed foreign broadcasts, although a 2013 study by Intermedia found that the jamming wasn’t all that effective, perhaps due to the North’s endemic power shortages and the difficulty of sustaining the jamming. Today, however, Pyongyang is sparing no expense to maintain the quarantine.
North Korea has been from the beginning of March continually signal jamming radio broadcasts on the shortwave frequency used by the South Korean non-profit broadcaster Unification Media Group (UMG). Given the present situation, in which North Korean residents might be influenced by outside information condemning the regime and explaining the purpose of the sanctions imposed by the United Nations, the regime has showed the will to block sources of outside information that might cause unrest.
The shortwave frequency in question–7515 kHz, in the 41 meter band–has been actively jammed, making it extremely difficult for North Korean listeners to tune in. [….]
“This is the strongest signal jam in the last few years.As the regime is pushed into further isolation by the strongest round of sanctions yet, they have become concerned that the residents will be awakened by exposure to outside information,” Unification Media Group (UMG) President Lee Gwang Baek said.
“North Korean authorities can not signal jam at high strength across multiple channels, so right now, the most effective thing to do would be to expand our frequencies and signal strength. We need direct [South Korean] government assistance to do that.”
If the government were to grant permission for civil society organizations broadcasting to North Korea to use the former’s powerful and far-reaching medium wavelengths, the broadcasts would be able to reach far more people despite the jamming attempts.
About this, National Intelligence Service First Deputy Director Yeom Don Jae said, “The regime’s efforts to block radio signals from South Korean civic groups is actually confirmation of the potency of these broadcasts. This will cause considerable agitation for the listeners who have become accustomed to tuning in to foreign radio.”
He added, “Therefore, we need to let the North Korean residents know about this situation and use the strength of the regime as a weapon against them. We need to use multi-dimensional methods to pump the North full of information.” [Daily NK]
Exactly right. Regardless of the North’s electronic warfare against the South, the South should be waging an aggressive information war against the North. The campaign should leverage various types of media — broadcasting over short wave, medium wave, and television; and the smuggling of USBs, DVDs, and the devices to read them.
It should focus as much attention on getting information and images out of North Korea as getting them in. Above all else, it should focus on two-way communication, ideally through cell phones, because the information that is most persuasive to North Koreans is what they hear from people they trust. Its message must not only inform North Koreans about the corruption and inequality in their own society, it should also spread a message of peace to counteract the state’s anti-American and anti-South Korean war propaganda. The message should be a variation of the one that worked so well for Marxist revolutionaries a century ago — rice, peace, and freedom.
Even as the information campaign pursues diverse tactics, it must also have a single, cohesive strategy. Calls to establish a pro-democracy movement inside North Korea sound wonderful in the abstract, but how many North Koreans will understand what democracy is, much less the complex ways in which democratic institutions would protect them from fear and hunger? How many North Koreans would risk their lives for abstract ideas? Lately, I’ve become convinced that we should learn from Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, which built the foundations of political movements on social service organizations that filled the voids left by uncaring, incompetent, and corrupt governments, while rejecting the terrorist methods they also pursued. In the same sense, clandestine institutions that provide for North Korean’s material needs can establish the organization, resiliency, and credibility to take their messages in more spiritual and political directions later. Again, as the Marxists taught us:
Note that this is not a call to support unconventional warfare, as retired Special Forces Colonel David Maxwell has advocated, or a call for a campaign of nonviolent resistance as the Albert Einstein Institute advocates generally. My view is that both strategies are premature and implausible today, because today, no resistance movement can organize or establish the clandestine political infrastructure that is the prerequisite to all resistance — including nonviolent resistance — to totalitarian regimes.
Seoul is now calling the jamming a violation of the armistice and warning Pyongyang that it will pay a price for it. Certainly information operations can be an effective deterrent, but they can be so much more. They can be the path to Korea achieving its destiny — to be a nation once again.
~ ~ ~
Updates: After I published my post, a new Yonhap story tells us that Pyongyang has “strengthened its surveillance of its people in areas bordering China to crack down on those contacting defectors in South Korea ahead of its key party congress.”
“The North is trying to strengthen its control over people in the border areas on the grounds that internal information in North Korea has leaked to the South Korean media,” a source said.
The ministry is carrying out special operations to arrest North Koreans who contact their family members in South Korea via mobile phones, the sources added.
Defectors living in South Korea send money to their kin in the North through brokers in China or the North. They talk over the phone along the border regions where Chinese mobile phones work.
“The authorities have increased the number of agents to monitor North Koreans at public places, such as markets,” the source said. “North Korea has been beefing up its crackdown over its people. Those who are at risk the most are North Koreans who have family members who have defected to the South.” [Yonhap]
My post also drew this response from Colonel Maxwell:
With all due respect to my good friend Joshua Stanton he makes the fatal mistake regarding both unconventional warfare and non-violent resistance (e.g., Gene Sharp) that most non-practitioners, and uninformed policymakers and strategists make regarding unconventional warfare. The resistance in north Korea must be supported and while the conditions may not be ready for the resistance to act (which is why continuous assessment of resistance potential must be made), preparation must occur over time. You cannot just decide to conduct unconventional warfare sometime in the future without any prior preparation. If you want to have that option you have to prepare the environment now and one of the ways to do that is to provide support to the nascent resistance which is what I advocate here. To follow Joshua’s line of reasoning at the end of his article would mean that we never have the option should the Alliance determine that it is one of the ways/means to support Alliance strategy.
But to support Joshua’s call for the (information) war to begin I recently wrote this essay with one recommendation for how to use information to help prepare the Korean people living in the north for unification.
As a non-practitioner, I had not thought that I was proposing anything that would be categorized as “unconventional warfare” by a practitioner, but Colonel Maxwell and I are both saying that the U.S. and South Korea should — immediately — seek to create the technological, social, and political conditions in which resistance (regardless of the form it takes) becomes possible.
Colonel Maxwell also contemplates supporting an armed resistance movement. For today’s purposes, I’ll leave that part of the discussion to the practitioners, although as early as the 1990s, even Wendy Sherman was assuming that this would just happen spontaneously and save us from the nuclear crisis. As the examples of Iran, Syria, and Libya show us, simply letting such things play out on their own seldom ends well.
On the other hand, if widespread popular resistance to the Pyongyang regime becomes a real possibility, it would surely concentrate minds in Beijing and Pyongyang on diplomatic alternatives. Beijing fears chaos in North Korea far more than it fears THAAD — probably even more than secondary sanctions — and the generals in Pyongyang must know that they’re neither equipped, trained, nor financed to wage a nationwide war against their own population.
With much of the North Korea policy debate understandably focused on sanctions this week, I hope North Korea watchers won’t miss this new report from Amnesty International on the efforts by “Swiss-educated reformer” Kim Jong-un to seal off all unauthorized contact between his subjects and the outside world. In recent years, the principal medium for such contact has been the use of Chinese cell networks whose signals penetrate a few miles into North Korea. Those calls had become an important lifeline for refugees in China and South Korea to communicate with and support their families, to broker escapes and migrations, and for smugglers to send food, money, medicine, and other needed goods to North Koreans.
Perhaps in response to these developments, after coming to power in 2011 Kim Jong-un tightened border security, resulting in a dramatic reduction in the number of North Koreans arriving in South Korea that had been steadily increasing in previous years. Individuals who spoke to Amnesty International reported a similar tightening of control over communications near the border in order to stop the cross-border movement of people and to exert more control over the grey market trade. North Korean specialists as well as some interviewees reported that the state has increased monitoring and often blocked mobile signals on the Chinese networks, and imported state-ofthe-art surveillance devices. Individuals’ testimonies also confirmed findings of the Commission, which reported that a special department of the State Security Department had sophisticated equipment to pick up the emissions of “Chinese mobile phones”. Individuals who reported having experienced the surveillance and the jamming of signals first hand told Amnesty International that they saw these actions as a tactic to intimidate potential users of “Chinese mobile phones.” [Amnesty International]
Most experts are skeptical that sanctions will pressure Kim Jong-un into giving up his nukes at the bargaining table, and I’ll confess that I also have my doubts. It’s unlikely that anything short of a fundamental shift in the North Korean government’s world view — most likely, through a coup d’etat, or a breakdown of social control — will allow for a conclusive solution to its nuclear or humanitarian crises in the next five years. After that, it may be too late — North Korea will already be an effective and aggressive nuclear power.
Sanctions have multiple purposes, but none of them is more important to a broader North Korea policy than shifting North Korea’s internal balance of power. Sanctions can weaken the regime’s apparatus of control by denying it the means to pay and equip security forces, and convince official and military officers that the good times are over, and that time is against them. But this is only half of the strategy.
The other half of this strategy is to break the fear, hopelessness, dependency, and docility of the North Korean people, and to help them organize and rebuild a civil society from the foundations up. Information is power. Free communication will introduce North Koreans to the truth about life in the outside world. It will help spread a message of rice, peace, and freedom, raise North Koreans’ independent political consciousness, and stimulate a yearning for a better life than one lived under Kim Jong-un’s heavy boot. It will rebuild connections within separated and divided families. It has helped refugees in the South support their families in the North through a primitive hawala-like remittance system (that is inexplicably still illegal in South Korea). It will help South Korean NGOs fund the growing of food and its distribution to the needy, and to provide for North Koreans’ spiritual and medical needs. One North Korean woman has already used it to send cancer drugs to her sister. Eventually, it will help North Koreans organize and establish underground newspapers, unions, and political organizations. It could also help Seoul set up a well-regulated cross-border banking system to finance all of it.
But how? Creative minds are coming up with many brilliant ideas — and I hope they’ll keep working at it — but I think the technology and the infrastructure already exist.
Consortiums led by information technology service giants Kakao Corp. and KT Corp. won a preliminary license to launch South Korea’s first Internet-only bank Sunday, the financial regulator said, opening the new business market in the long-slumping banking industry. [Yonhap]
The online bank will start operation by June, and will team up with KakaoTalk, which is already gaining popularity with North Koreans because of its anonymity and functionality with weak signals. North Koreans already use Kakao to arrange money transfers from South Korean banks to clandestine North Korean hawaladars.
The FSC said Kakao Bank has an innovative business plan with broader customer lists based on KakaoTalk, which has more than 34 million members. Kakao is already running mobile payment tools such as KakaoPay and BankWalletKakao.
K-Bank is initiated by KT, the largest fixed-wire operator. Its partners involve No. 1 bank Woori Bank, leading IT solution provider Nautilus Hyosung Inc., GS Retail Co. and Hyundai Securities Co. [Yonhap]
The free flow of information and money is the sine qua non of an engagement strategy designed to reach the people who want change, rather than a regime that resists it. For the last 20 years, Seoul poured $7 billion in no-questions-asked aid and favorable trade arrangements into Pyongyang’s coffers, blithely unaware of how Pyongyang was spending that money, including just maybe using its money to nuke up. In the name of “engagement” with Kim Jong-Il, we were told, Seoul had to take bold risks to draw North Korea into the global economy and gradually induce it to disarm and reform. By now, the results of this experiment speak for themselves. Pyongyang has taken Seoul’s money, nuked up, and rather than reformed, has invested heavily in sealing its borders.
[Via Amnesty International]
Why is it, then, that China builds cell towers along the North Korea border, but South Korea does not? Why is it that one can call from Yanji to Musan, but not from Busan to Kaesong? Why is the Yalu River the only front in North Korea’s information war? Why does South Korea waste so much effort on small-ball games with leaflets and loudspeakers, when it could inaugurate Tongilnet, the first South-to-North cell phone service, operating on the same frequency as the recently confiscated Koryolink network? In an instant, it would become possible to call from the top of Halla-san to the foothills of Paektu-san. There’s no way Pyongyang could hire enough censors to monitor all the calls.
This is what strikes me as so dull-minded about Korea-watchers who say that with the closure of Kaesong, Seoul has lost its last bit of leverage over Pyongyang. Nonsense. Just imagine if signals from SK Telecom and other South Korean cell providers also leaked into North Korea, with steadily expanding ranges. Imagine the subversive potential of North Koreans chatting with their relatives in the South, reading the Daily NK on smartphones, sending photographs or video of local disturbances to Wall Street Journal reporters, or downloading religious pamphlets from South Korean megachurches.
Why not do it now? Until now, political paralysis and appeasement have prevented Seoul from a step as modest as opening up the AM band to South-to-North broadcasts (which Seoul should do). Seoul’s own paranoid security services are also paralyzed by the fear that North Korean spies would also use this network, which is odd. After all, the handlers of Pyongyang’s spies, agents of influence, and fifth columnists in the South seem to be the only North Koreans who aren’t having trouble with “inter-Korean engagement.” It’s a silly and short-sighted policy. Times have changed, and so has the technology. It’s time for imagination and policy to catch up with the times and the technology.
~ ~ ~
Cellphones have the potential to change North Korea by empowering its citizens, Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet Inc., which owns Google, said Wednesday. Schmidt, who was in Seoul to watch a Go match between artificial intelligence and a human player, visited North Korea in 2013.
“Since then I don’t think the situation in North Korea has gotten better; I think it’s probably gotten worse overall,” he told reporters. “I think all of us believe that the mobile phone is a strong, strong empowerer of individuals and that eventually the mobile phone penetration in North Korea will be a material impact in its internal structuring. That has not happened yet.” [Bloomberg, Peter Pae]
Ms. Power (United States of America): In looking at North Korea, it can at times feel as though one is seeing two entirely different realities. One is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea that is expending tremendous resources in pursuing advanced technology to build an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying out a nuclear strike a continent away. The other is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in which, according to a joint assessment conducted by the World Food Programme and the North Korean Government, 25 per cent of children under the age of 5 suffer from stunted growth as a result of chronic malnutrition. One is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in which the Government brags about carrying out nuclear tests proscribed by the Security Council, such as the test carried out on 6 January. The other is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in which individuals must endure the searing pain of seeing generations of their loved ones starve to death, such as the North Korean defector who joined us in the Council Chamber just a few months ago, whose grandmother, father and two brothers had all died because they could not find enough food. On the surface, it can seem as though those distinct North Korean realities have nothing to do with one another; yet, as we all know, they have everything to do with one another — part of the perverse reality that has no equal in this world. The chronic suffering of the people of North Korea is the direct result of the choices made by the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a Government that has consistently prioritized its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes over providing for the most basic needs of its own people. As underscored in resolution 2270 (2016), which we have adopted today, virtually all of the resources of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are channelled into its reckless and relentless pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. The North Korean Government would rather grow its nuclear weapons programme than grow its own children. That is the reality that we are facing.
Penetrating outside information into North Korea questioning the legitimacy of leader Kim Jong-un should be considered as a key means to retaliate against and curb the communist nation’s cyber attacks, a U.S. think tank said.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) made the suggestion in a report on policy suggestions on how to counter the North’s cyber operations, saying reponding to cyber attacks with cyber attacks won’t be effective because the North isn’t as dependent on networks as South Korea and the U.S. are.
“Therefore, responses should be tailored to leverage North Korea’s specific weaknesses and sensitivities,” said the report released this week. “North Korea has unique asymmetric vulnerabilities as well, especially to outside information that attacks the legitimacy of the regime.” [….]
“The deliberate introduction of additional media and information into North Korea’s networks and population may serve as a potent means of responding to cyber attacks without resorting to use of force, armed attacks or countermeasures,” it said. [Yonhap]
Well, isn’t that whatI’vebeen saying since 2010? The times have finally caught up with me. By the way, if you can lay your hands on a copy of the original report, I’d be most grateful.
~ ~ ~
Update: Thanks to two readers to provided me with the report. Imagine my dismay when I reached page 78 and saw this:
Hardly a word of this is true, and it’s not hard to see why. The authority the authors cite for their conclusion that North Korea is “heavily sanctioned”?
Seriously? That was 16 years ago! In 2000, there were no Chapter VII U.N. Security Council resolutions against North Korea, and no history of China flagrantly violating those resolutions. There was no Patriot Act. North Korea was still listed as a state sponsor of terrorism. None of the executive orders that form the legal basis for U.S. sanctions against North Korea existed yet. No one in America had heard of Banco Delta Asia. We had not seen financial sanctions nearly crush the economy of Iran. Kaesong didn’t exist, Kumgang still did, and the Sunshine Policy was just starting.
Some of those sanctions are legally (but not practically) stronger today, others are far weaker, and the most effective ones were not even invented yet. But any way you look at it, a 16-year-old study on North Korea sanctions is as useless as a 16-year-old study on social media.
CSIS, you had one job. For a respected think tank to offer senior policymakers such a poorly researched (and consequently, wrong) conclusion about such an important policy option is just unforgivably sloppy. Is it too much to ask a think tank with an operating revenue of more than $30 million to research the law and the facts, or find and cite someone who has done it for you? For God’s sake, this isn’t even my day job. It’s YOUR day job!
Having been fooled once before, I wasn’t about to accept that BBC was going to begin broadcasting to North Korea simply because Time, The Guardian, AFP, and The Financial Times say so. Digging further, these reports all cite this BBC.com report on a speech by Director General Tony Hall on the beeb’s plans for next year. Buried deep within that report is a plan for “significant investment” in the BBC World Service, “including a daily news programme for North Korea.” But plans are one thing; operations are another:
“The BBC is trying to justify its public funding by showing that it can do something political that the private sector wouldn’t do,” said Aidan Foster-Carter, a senior research fellow specializing in both Koreas at Leeds University. “It’s a clever move and will earn political brownie points, but it won’t happen without government money. The North Korean government would be furious.”
Michael Glendinning, who has campaigned for the launch of a BBC service in the so-callled hermit kingdom, is just as skeptical.
He points out that a BBC report, titled The Future of News, from earlier this year mentioned that there would be such a proposal, but it would require between £900,000 ($1.4 million) and £1.2 million in funding from the government per year according to the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRNK). [Bloomberg]
What I cannot understand for the life of me is why the government of the United Kingdom gives a wet sack of guano what the government of North Korea thinks. The two states have almost no trade relations — indeed, no mutual interests that I can think of.
No doubt, the likes of Glyn Ford and Hazel Smith would gladly exercise their rights to free expression to demand that the North Korean people be denied theirs, but is the Foreign Office really so afraid of getting angry letters from them? There is a certain academic constituency that loves to talk about engagement with North Korea, right up to the point that transformational and subversive ideas make contact with the wavering and hostile classes — the very people who are the most likely to respond to those ideas.
For the time being, broadcasting is the closest we’re likely to get to “engagement” and “people-to-people” contact with those North Koreans who might hope for a life without 6 a.m. criticism sessions, paying MPS agents not to confiscate their stall merchandise, and dusting the portraits of obese men before seeing their stunted children off to school. Governments come and go. It is the people of nations who endure, and who remember who stood with them when things were worst. So long as nations fail to engage the people of North Korea, engagement will continue to fall on deaf ears, and to fail.