Nat Kretchun’s latest report on Pyongyang’s efforts to control the spread of outside and subversive information suggests that the state has mostly written off its thirty- and forty-somethings as a lost generation, irrecoverably disillusioned by the collapse of the state’s rationing system, corruption, and the influx of South Korean DVDs. Instead, Kim Jong-Un is focusing his War on Glasnost on the detection of cellular signals and the watermarking of digital files to control the spread of dissent. Demographically, he is concentrating his indoctrination efforts on the younger generations. But judging by a small surge of north-to-south defections this month, the Propaganda and Agitation Department has some work to do.
On June 8th, a fishing boat drifted across the maritime boundary with four men aboard. As noted in this post, two opted to defect to the South.
On June 14th, less than a week later, a soldier walked through the mine fields of the DMZ in Gyeonggi-do, not far Kaesong, generally thought to be the place where Pyongyang puts its most disciplined forces. According to this Korean-language report, South Korean loudspeaker propaganda was a factor motivating his defection. South Korea expanded the use of the loudspeakers in February, to inform the North Korean soldiers of the assassination of Kim Jong-Nam.
On June 18th, a man in his 20s swam across the Han River estuary using styrofoam floats. Contra UPI, which reported that the man was a soldier, NK News’s Hamish Macdonald thinks the man was a civilian (though he does not specify in his report).
On June 23rd, another soldier walked through the minefields of the DMZ to defect, this time in the central sector (so presumably somewhere in the vicinity of Cheorwon).
Thanks to Hamish Macdonald for pointing out that, contra this tweet, the number of defections this month is five, not six (one of the incidents I linked here turns out to have been from 2015 — duh).
For an aggregation of other reports of North Korean military defections or disciplinary problems, click here. Collectively, the reports suggest that Pyongyang is having difficulty maintaining the discipline and cohesion of its forces along both borders, and across the whole length of the DMZ. When discipline erodes sufficiently in an area, there are small surges of defections there (admittedly, two defections may not qualify as a surge). The regime then sends inspection teams in to crack down and rotates new units in to reverse the decay. It usually works … for a year or two. Then, corruption starts to take its toll and the cycle repeats.
Any defection from a front-line until along the DMZ is telling. For at least two to occur in the space of nine days says that even in the North Korean army’s best regular units, discipline is uneven. (The qualifier “regular” distinguishes them from the North Korean Special Forces, who are the most cohesive.)
The June 14th incident suggests that information operations have the potential to catalyze more dissent. So does the fact that Pyongyang made the termination of the loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts a top demand for “resolving” that incident suggests. Pyongyang is deathly afraid of subversive broadcasts. All of which suggests that they may be one of the South’s most effective deterrents. I’ve previously taken a skeptical view of the loudspeaker broadcasts. I may have to reevaluate that skepticism.
Unfortunately, these factors almost guarantee that Moon Jae-In won’t use the information weapon, at least until Pyongyang commits some egregious provocation. Too bad. The message Seoul should deliver to the soldiers is a message of peace. That message would offend Pyongyang, but it would also help to protect the lives of Koreans on both sides of the DMZ by mitigating the threat of war.
First, the broadcasts should urge the soldiers to refuse orders to kill their brothers and sisters in the South. Naturally, their officers will tell them that they’re firing on Yankee Bastards. The soldiers should know that their targets are more likely to be South Korean cities — and the men, women, and children who live in them. Targeting them is a crime against both the law and the nation itself. And by firing on targets in the South, they will also draw counter-battery fire. The best way to prevent both consequences is to quietly disable their weapons or intentionally miss their targets (they can be provided the coordinates of unpopulated areas to target instead).
In recent years, growing numbers of North Korean boats have drifted into the waters of neighboring countries. Most of these incidents probably weren’t attempts to defect, but cases of North Korean fishermen coming under rising pressure to stray further out to sea, to bring home bigger catches (which are often exported for hard currency, including to the U.S. and South Korea) and who are given only a marginalamount of fuel to make the journey home. Dozens of these North Koreans have arrived in Japan, though little remained of them by then but desiccated corpses and bleached bones.
Those who arrive in South Korea, thankfully, usually arrive alive, at least until the ROK authorities question them as to whether they wish to return to the North, and repatriate those who (it says) do. I’ve often privately wondered just how much various South Korean governments have, for political reasons, put their thumbs on the scales in questioning these North Koreans and judging their intentions. It worried me that the Moon Jae-In administration, with its origins in a viewpoint that has been, at best, ambivalent about protecting North Korean refugees and human rights, would repatriate North Koreans with a well-founded fear of persecution, in violation of the U.N. Refugee Convention. Now, we have a least one case in which the Moon Jae-In administration seems inclined to offer asylum to two of four North Koreans who drifted into South Korean waters along its east coast.
South Korea’s navy and coastguard rescued four people from two vessels on Friday and Saturday, and the four were then questioned by South Korean authorities, who offered to send them home, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said.
The two who told authorities they wanted to defect to South Korea were a man in his 50s and his son in his 20s, an official from the ministry, which handles relations with North Korea, said by telephone.
“We will provide education for them to settle in South Korea, for a certain period of time, as is usual for North Korean defectors,” the official said.
The official, who declined to be identified, said he did not know if the two had originally planned to defect or decided to only after being rescued. The Yonhap news agency said the father appeared to have planned to defect.
The other two would be sent home, as they had requested, the ministry official said. [Reuters]
On refugee policy, Moon Jae-In now faces a test. Will he bow to Pyongyang and his own most extreme supporters, and roll up the welcome mat for North Korean refugees, or will he follow international human rights law and the values we hope South Korea still shares with us? Pyongyang is making its expectations clear:
A vigorous struggle for the repatriation of detained Kim Ryon Hui and other twelve DPRK women citizens was launched in south Korea with the people of different strata involved, amid the growing demand for the liquidation of evils done by the Park Geun Hye group of traitors for confrontation with the fellow countrymen. [….]
If the south Korean authorities are truly interested in the issues of “human rights”, “humanitarianism” and “separated families”, they should pay attention to the strong demand of the families of those abductees and settle the issue of their repatriation at an early date before anything else.
It is preposterous to discuss on the “humanitarianism” and reunion of divided families and relatives, in disregard of such hideous unethical crimes as imposing bitter pains and misfortune on the compatriots by artificially making new “divided families”.
Any humanitarian cooperation between the north and the south, including reunion of divided families and relatives, can never be expected before the unconditional repatriation of the detained women citizens of the DPRK.
We will watch the attitude of the south Korean authorities and strive for the repatriation of the detained women citizens to the last. [KCNA]
See also. The pro-Pyongyang extremists at KANCC (profiled here) and Minjok Tongshin (profiled here) are also calling for sending the women back to North Korea, for what it’s worth — probably not much, except as a barometer of pro-Pyongyang opinion in South Korea, where both websites would be illegal. The pro-Pyongyang crowd continues to repeat the transparent lie that the Ningpo 12 were kidnapped, though this assertion has been tested and rejected by a South Korean court, which granted asylum to all 12 of the women. All have since been given their freedom in South Korean society, and most have been admitted into universities. You’d think that if they had been abducted, one of them would have said so by now, although Pyongyang’s agents have previously contacted North Korean refugees in the South and coerced them into “re-defecting” and making propaganda statements before audiences of gullible journalists.
If you think this is just a fringe view in South Korea, think again. More than once, I’ve highlighted the disgraceful and unethical efforts by the hard-left “human rights” lawyers’ group Minbyun to breach the women’s internationally recognized right to confidentiality in asylum proceedings, an effort that could only have been calculated to intimidate the women into re-defecting. Given Moon’s own long history with Minbyun, no one should have taken the rejection of Pyongyang’s demand, no matter how outrageous, for granted. Moon Jae-In’s Chief of Staff, for example, has a history of anti-American and pro-North Korean activism so extensive and troubling that he couldn’t pass a U.S. government background investigation, much less be granted a security clearance here. We should be thankful that Moon was at least pragmatic enough to reject Pyongyang’s demand on its face:
The Unification Ministry in South Korea has rejected Pyongyang’s demand to return a group of North Korean restaurant employees who defected from China last year.
A ministry official told reporters on Thursday that the families divided by the Korean War are a separate and different issue from North Korean defectors.
He added that the North’s move to link the return of the restaurant employees with cross-border family reunions is incomprehensible, stressing that the issue of family reunions cannot be resolved if more time passes. [KBS]
It’s still too early to let out a sigh of relief. As Moon must surely know, sending these women back to North Korea would have caused global outrage, starting with a white-hot apoplexy in large segments of the U.S. Congress. Such a decision would reveal that the alliance itself lacks the foundation of a unity of legal, moral, political, or humanitarian interests. It would militate for sending a clear message to South Korean voters that even if the lives of North Koreans mean nothing to them, such a disunity of interests will raise calls (probably including my own) for U.S. disengagement from South Korea, if only to achieve an overdue restructuring of U.S. Forces, Korea and to damage Moon’s domestic political support. Given the fact that Moon has already managed to piss off both Dick Durbin and Ed Royce over his shifting position on THAAD, he probably concluded that the last thing his voters want to see right now is a crisis in the U.S.-Korea alliance in the middle of a nuclear crisis that even Moon recognizes as existential for South Korea’s survival.
There will be other tests of South Korea’s commitment to its fellow Koreans who had the misfortune to be born north of the DMZ, of course. Moon may not be as helpful as Park Geun-Hye was in helping the next group of expatriated North Koreans who try to defect. He may also find more subtle ways of making refugees unwelcome, such as by breaching their confidentiality. Rather than returning the Ningpo 12 outright, someone within Moon’s administration could leak the locations of the Ningpo 12 to North Korean agents working in South Korea, and then allow one or more of them to “re-defect” through some lapse in security. There would, of course, be another sham news conference. (Will Ripley, take note.) The only real question is how complicit Moon Jae-In’s government is prepared to be in this sham. Evidence of complicity would arguably obligate the United States to accept North Korean refugees who, reasonably enough, would then feel unsafe in South Korea. That would also lead to frictions in the U.S.-South Korean alliance.
Decision points like this remind us why the Trump administration’s failure to appoint a Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights is an important oversight in its North Korea policy. Eventually, the administration will have to realize that the North Korean people themselves could be our most important allies in any effort to disarm, reform, and change North Korea. We will have little influence with these potential allies if they look to us as protectors and allies and we let them down. Pyongyang’s reaction to this particular decision point also reminds us that Seoul’s decision to receive North Korean refugees has the potential to be historically determinative by setting off a preference cascade among key constituencies inside North Korea, maybe even including the military. One could say that a welcoming, prosperous, and free South Korea presents Pyongyang with the most “maximum” pressure of all.
Of course, Thae isn’t the only North Korean diplomat to defect last year, nor is he even the highest-ranking North Korean to defect (Hwang Jang-yop was). He isn’t exactly a public intellectual in the sense that former court poetJang Jin-sung is, and even now, no North Korean emigre exceeds Jang’s polemic talents or charisma in the use of the written word. Yet none of those men had Thae’s charisma in the spoken word, in either English or Korean. In retrospect, the glowing assessments of Thae’s skills were more than the soft bigotry of low expectations. Thae’s charisma is real, and it gives him a heretofore untapped power to persuade the world that North Korea’s political system has become destructive of the lives, liberties, and happiness of its people — and will soon become destructive of ours, too — and that, consequently, it must be altered or abolished.
Americans often overuse the word “revolutionary.” Thae’s words are literally revolutionary. In recent interviews, he has unambiguously called for the North Korean people to rise and overthrow the state and predicted that North Korea won’t last five years. Here’s a preview of Thae’s Arirang interview:
Before Thae, no North Korean emigre spoke of his homeland with this same clarity of principle. Consequently, none of them represented a greater danger to the survival of the regime.
“We should collapse the Kim Jong Un regime by causing an internal revolt… I am 100 percent sure that we can do it,” Thae said. “The South Korean government and people should enlighten North Korean citizens to make them stand against Kim Jong Un’s reign of terror.”
Thae has been publicly repeating the argument since a closed-door news conference with South Korean reporters on December 27.
Thae made his debut on a South Korean local talk show broadcast by TV Chosun called “Moranbong Club,” which features North Korean defectors discussing North Korea-related topics.
The former diplomat argued the South should designate “the capital city of Pyongyang and soldiers at the truce line” as a target for the influx of information.
“Both richest and poorest groups of North Korea stay in Pyongyang and those who has power and don’t [co-exist],” Thae said. “There is the sharpest conflict and confrontation in Pyongyang.” [NK News, Dagyum Ji]
In South Korea, Thae is becoming a celebrity dissident. For the rest of the world, he threatens to emerge as a standard-bearer of resistance — a Dalai Lama, a Solzhenitsyn, an Armando Valladares. He validates what many of us have suspected all along that North Koreans were thinking and couldn’t say.
The diplomat’s decision to defect from a regime he had spent his whole life defending did not happen overnight.
Instead, his misgivings had been simmering for two decades, even as he went around Europe espousing the superiority of the North Korean system. They finally reached a boiling point when Thae Yong-ho realized that this regime, to which he had been so loyal, expected him to lie to his children.
“I’ve known that there was no future for North Korea for a long time,” Thae told The Washington Post in his first interview with the foreign media since his escape from the North Korean Embassy in London, where he served as deputy ambassador.
But last summer, he realized his hopes had been misplaced that supreme leader Kim Jong Un, who was educated in Switzerland and is only 33, would turn out to be a reformer. Thae fled, together with his wife and his two sons, now ages 19 and 26.
“Kim Jong Un is still young,” Thae said. “I was afraid that my even grandsons would have to live under this system. I decided that if I didn’t cut the chains of slavery off [my sons], they would complain, ‘Why didn’t you let us be free?’?” [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]
Thae is also adding value to our national policy conversations, confronting the delusions of Americans, confirming that Kim Jong-un will not disarm, will escalate his provocations, and intends to pursue nuclear weapons that can strike our homeland. He is also confronting the delusions of many South Koreans, warning them that Kim Jong-un means to use that capacity to extinguish the freedom and independence of their homeland.
“North Korean people consider Barack Obama’s strategic patience a ‘tactical disregard.’ The U.S. sits by and watches the North conducting nuclear and missile test believing the country will collapse,” Thae said. “(Strategic patience) was ‘a quite favorable condition’ for the North.”
The North had assumed Hilary Clinton would win the election until last summer, he said, as the North considered Trump an “abnormal figure” who could “only represent some strata of the U.S. society” but “wouldn’t win an election.”
Despite Trump’s victory being an unexpected result for the North, Thae argued the North’s foreign diplomacy would maintain its hardline against Washington. Thae also predicted Pyongyang would continue to make “a series of provocations” in 2017. [NK News, Dagyum Ji]
One of those provocations, I predict, will be an attempt by Pyongyang’s agents to assassinate Thae. I hope he’ll be careful. I hope the National Intelligence Service will guard him and his family well.
It’s amusing to see how, to a certain species of North Korea watcher, North Koreans are only to be believed when there are minders about, listening for them to say the wrong thing and call them back to Pyongyang (to God-only-knows-what fate). Once a North Korean defects, anti-anti-North Korean and pro-North Korean critics invariably say that he or she has an “agenda.” It’s tempting to say that the truth is some middle position. After all, Thae unquestionably does have an agenda. But was that any less true before Thae defected, when it was his job to lie to us? I imagine that his agenda then would have been to preserve his life, and the lives of his wife and sons, and the small liberties he had won for them. The question isn’t whether Thae has an agenda. The question is which agenda you’re more inclined to accept. The question is whether Thae Yong-ho’s agenda now is his own, and whether you believe he has enough knowledge, independence, and veracity to be believed.
So, we return to the question this blog asked ten years ago: “Can they do it?” Given the current isolation, exhaustion, terror, and lack of organization of the North Korean people, only a military coup has any chance of success today. Could the people nonetheless acquire the means to resist, to tip the balance against the state, or force their rulers to decide that unless the system is altered, it will be abolished? I believe so. I also believe we cancatalyze that possibility. It won’t involve a single strategy, but a combination of strategies tailored to different demographics and systemic vulnerabilities. If they can succeed, they might do more than give life, liberty, and happiness to 23 million imprisoned Koreans. They might just spare 50 million other Koreans from the same fate.
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.”
In yesterday’s post, I wrote about only the second group defection of North Korean overseas workers of which I’m aware — of a group of North Korean construction workers in St. Petersburg, Russia. I also took note of the defection of a young translator from the North Korean embassy in Beijing, who had been detailed to the State Security Department, translating for the minders who do inspections of the North Korean workers elsewhere in China.
It’s one thing when workers defect; that’s why Pyongyang sends out minders. It’s more concerning when the minders start defecting. And when the Obergruppenführers who mind the Pyongyang elites and all the other, lesser minders start to defect, that’s a new stage of the metastasis.
Last week, the South Korean government disclosed that a “director-level” SSD official, who “was in charge of identifying trends in public sentiment among the residents of Pyongyang,” defected last year. (That would be in addition to the colonel who defected from the Reconnaissance General Bureau, also last year.)
According to (yes, you guessed it) unnamed South Korean government sources, this defector brought with him “confidential information on the Kim regime, and the leadership’s surveillance methods critical to maintaining control of the population.” The SSD official also reports that Pyongyang is rife with “negativity about the Kim Jong Un regime.”
The defector reportedly told South Korean government interviewers members of his bureau were uncomfortable with Kim’s rule, and after watching “others bounce,” state agents are “bouncing,” or exiting the regime. Increasing lack of faith in the North Korean leader among the Pyongyang security officials is surprising, given that the state security agency’s chief, Kim Won Hong, is believed to be the unofficial No. 2 in political power in North Korea, according to Yonhap. [UPI]
More on that here. South Korean media are also reporting that two other high-ranking North Koreas defected in Beijing last month, along with their families. One of them is said to be the Health Ministry official “in charge of procurement and acquisition of drugs and medical equipment” for His Porcine Majesty.
Although the Joongang Ilbo initially reported that the two men defected to (gasp!) Japan — I wonder why they’d consider that — “an intelligence source” now says that “the men are known to have come to the South and are in the process of being investigated.” The defections apparently happened several days before Park Geun-hye called on North Koreans to defect to the South. (Subsequent reports that Foreign Ministry official Kung Sok-un was purged as punishment for the defections appear to have been false.)
While others will undoubtedly disagree, I incline to the view that the recent tendency for diplomats, spies, fund managers, and vetted workers to defect is not “normal” for North Korea. Other reports also suggest that morale in Pyongyang is at a new low. The Daily NK even claims that some officials are consulting fortune tellers to choose the best time to flee. The saddest stories are of the North Korean parents who are sending their children overseas, ostensibly to study, knowing full well they’ll never return, and hatching improbable schemes to escape the repercussions they themselves could face for that.
“In North Korea, I came from a fairly affluent household, but I had a dream of learning IT [information technology] in the South,” said the defector, who asked to remain anonymous for the safety of his family, in a phone call with a JoongAng Ilbo reporter Wednesday. “My parents told me to study what I wanted to in the South and sent me here.”
His parents reported to the North Korean government that their child met with an accidental death in China.
Another source in China who conducts business with North Korea recently met with a ranking official of Pyongyang’s ruling Workers’ Party in Beijing.
“The Workers’ Party official made a request to me: ‘North Korea is like a sinking boat. I will send my child, so please take care of that kid,’” the businessman said. “I get such requests from North Korean elites from time to time.” [Joongang Ilbo]
It’s heartbreaking to think about the choices these desperate parents are confronting. A mother who sends one child away to safety and a better future consequently risks condemning her other children, and herself, to die in the gulag.
Of course, when we speak of a place where viewpoints are so absolutely stifled and the idea of scientific opinion polling is laughable, anecdotes may be the best evidence we have, which makes us all blind men feeling different parts of the same elephant. A hipster running a tour business in Pyongyang might come to believe that he really, honestly knows his guides’ and minders’ innermost thoughts, and that they’re broadly representative of elite opinion in Pyongyang. I incline to the view that the reports of abysmal morale in Pyongyang and elsewhere in the country are too numerous and consistent for them all to be wrong. A few of the recent reports of this-or-that purge or defection may turn out to be false, but there is too much evidence of a shift in North Korean elite opinion to dismiss.
The harder question is predicting the implications of this shift. Mass protests are exceedingly unlikely to break out in Pyongyang anytime soon. Viewpoints there probably vary widely between social and professional groups. None of those reports suggest that people in Pyongyang are ready to make the leap that overseas workers have begun to make — to conspire to commit acts of resistance against the state at the risk of their lives, and those of their families. This means that dissent, disillusionment, and discontent may be both widely distributed and completely isolated.
The lack of a coherent program of information operations directed at the North Korean elites probably means that the disgruntled elites lack a political consciousness or focus. But if an information operations campaign were to polarize that discontent, and if some event — most plausibly, a coup — suddenly presented North Koreans with a choice between combining in risky acts of resistance or accepting a lifetime of subjugation, I suspect that the spontaneity of many North Koreans would surprise the experts. What’s more likely for now is that in a thousand small ways, the elites will engage in petty acts of erosive corruption and passive sabotage of the system they’re supposed to sustain.
For the second time this year, a group of North Korean overseas workers has defected to South Korea — this time, from Russia. KBS, citing anonymous South Korean government sources, first reported that “nearly ten” North Korean construction workers in St. Petersburg fled their dormitory in late August, contacted the local South Korean consulate, and expressed their intention to defect. The workers are now in the care of a human rights NGO pending their departure for the Land of Honey Butter Chips, where I can only hope they’ll punch the first person they hear saying “Hell Chosun” in the face. According to the Daily NK, their team leader may “have played a central role in the defection.”
“From what I have learned, the team leader took out 6-10 workers in his group to the worksite and then made a call to the South Korean Consulate right away,” the source said. “The defection happened in an instant under his leadership.” [Daily NK]
KBS says that “[t]he construction workers were reportedly unhappy with the poor working conditions and intense pressure to send back their earnings to provide the North with much-needed foreign currency.” They also felt “anxiety about their own safety,” which is understandable in light of a recent report that 40 North Korean workers around the world — including 13 in Russia — have died of disease, suicide, or accidents this year so far. Their sanitary conditions don’t sound so pleasant, either.
“Our comrades built a toilet in a small house and installed a dining room right there. So, someone is defecating at one side of the dining room.” [KBS]
[Workers of all countries, unite. You have nothing to lose but your teeth.]
Wage theft, however, appears the most-cited reason for the workers’ discontent. Pyongyang, which increasingly relies on overseas workers to sustain it financially, is putting “relentless pressure” on them to “cough up more hard currency.” That pressure spiked again after the Hamgyeong floods.
Another source in China said since the severe flooding of the Duman River last month, the regime has been forcing workers overseas to donate US$100 to 150 each to a flood relief fund. “This kind of extortion is causing more North Korean workers overseas to defect,” the source added. [Chosun Ilbo]
According to KBS, even under “normal” conditions, the workers earn $980 a month, of which $665 is confiscated. Then, on returning to North Korea, the workers have to pay another quota that few of them can afford. The additional taxes would have left the workers with nothing, or even with outstanding debts to some of the officials who shake them down. Some of the workers might well have concluded that they had little to lose by defecting. Still, with all the increased security due to the rash of defections this year, escape couldn’t have been easy. The Daily NKinterviewed another recent defector from the same construction company, Mokran, which employs “more than 150 workers:”
On October 12, Daily NK succeeded in establishing contact with this worker who stated, “It is hardly possible for the workers to communicate with each other, no matter how close they are, due to the strict surveillance and control system. The recent group defection is, therefore, a remarkable achievement.”
“As I recall, almost 40 percent of the company workers secretly owned smartphones. So it is possible that the information they learned through their devices may have influenced their decision,” he continued. [Daily NK]
Think of all the risks these workers took. They had to obtain cell phones, conceal them, share their dissent and discontent with one another, conspire to defect, and make a run for it — all without being overheard, seen, or ratted out in a cramped and controlled environment, and in spite of the dire consequences for their families. (Which is to say nothing of the welcome they can expect from the quislings at Minbyun when they get to South Korea.)
The Chosun Ilbo and KBS suggest that the workers may have learned about the defections of Thae Yong-ho and the Ningpo 13. Pyongyang must be worried that news of these defections could spread and trigger a cascade. This incident may lend support to that concern. After all, one defection is an act of resistance; a group defection is an organized conspiracy to resist. I emphasize — as far as I know, there were no other group defections or mutinies of North Korean overseas workers until this year. As for the catalyzing effect of the cell phones, just imagine the subversive possibilities if they became available throughout North Korea itself.
It can be presumed that the recent chain of successful defections by overseas workers and officials is having an effect on the remaining workers who are being exploited under harsh working conditions. It is also likely that those with smartphones have access to reports on North Korea’s human rights violations published by the international media.
Accordingly, some are predicting further defections by North Korean workers at overseas working sites. A source from an intelligence agency has supported this assumption, adding, “There have been an increasing number of requests from overseas North Korean workers to defect through South Korean consulates. With the increased demand, people are having to be processed in a designated order.” [Daily NK]
The Chosun Ilbo‘s reporter also expects more defections in Russia, and reports that “[a]ltogether some 40 North Koreans including loggers in Siberia have defected and are staying in a shelter” there. The usual caveats about anonymous sources apply. Mind you, these defections preceded Park Geun-hye’s recent call for North Koreans to defect, but came after the North sent out more minders to prevent any further defections.
“The North is sending more officials to China and Russia to keep watch on workers there, but it seems difficult for the regime to prevent expat workers from defecting,” a government official here said. [Chosun Ilbo]
The Mokran president and State Security Department minder have since been summoned to North Korea, where the Daily NK‘s source says “it is highly likely that [they] will be held to account for the incident and possibly executed.”
Pyongyang might also need more minders to mind its minders. According to the Donga Ilbo, a 27-year-old Kim Il-Sung University graduate and staffer at the North Korean embassy in Beijing, who was serving as an interpreter for an SSD inspection team sent to mind North Korean workers in China after the defection of the Ningpo 13 … has also defected. According to the Donga‘s sources, her job would have afforded her “a great deal of knowledge in high-level communication between the North and China.” The same report claims that another interpreter, a man in his 20s assigned to the customs office in Hyesan, defected in August and is now in South Korea. Both incidents are attributed to anonymous sources, probably within South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, so make of them what you will.
Last week and at the time of the Ningpo 13 defections, I wrote of a potential “death spiral” in which the regime would pass its financial pressures down to the workers and squeeze them for more money; minders would drive workers to the breaking point; workers would rebel, defect, or be sent home; the pressure on the remaining workers to make up for the lost earnings would increase further; and the state would increase controls over the workers and drives them even harder, pushing more of them to the breaking point. I could make an argument that this is an example of that death spiral.
And yet the state is desperate enough for money that it even risks sending former Kaesong workers to China and Russia. That might explain why negotiations a new U.N. sanctions resolution are taking so long. The U.S. side, under strong pressure from Congress, is most likely pushing to ban Pyongyang’s labor exports. Beijing must know what a financial catastrophe this would mean for Kim Jong-un.
The defection of North Korean Deputy Ambassador Thae Yong-ho two weeks ago has tolled a ghoulish vigil in which bloggers, op-ed writers, and academics have speculated about the longevity of His Porcine Majesty. Some of them still read a long lifeline on his palm. South Korean President (and master troll) Park Geun-hye, on the other hand, sees “serious cracks” in the regime and says that the cohesion of the oligarchs is “collapsing.”
“The North Korean regime is taking no account of the people’s lives, while it oppresses the people with continuous rule by fear,” she said. “Recently, even the elite in the North is collapsing and high-profile figures are increasingly escaping their homeland and defecting to foreign countries. As the signs of serious cracks emerge, the regime’s instability is growing.” [Joongang Ilbo]
Park has several advantages over the rest of us. She probably has a good idea of what the seven North Korean diplomats who’ve defected this year — plus any other senior defectors we don’t know about yet, and those who defected in recent years — have said in their NIS debriefings. She probably has some idea of what the NIS found in their laptops and cell phones. Of course, it’s possible that she and the NIS are sexing up or spinning those reports, so the rest of us do what we do best — we speculate.
Christopher Green insists that Thae’s defection means “nothing” for the regime’s stability because Thae isn’t central to the regime’s power structure, other defections didn’t shake the regime’s stability before, and the psychological impact on the proles will be slight. Andrei Lankov acknowledges that the rise in high-level defections is significant, wisely doesn’t claim to know whether the regime will collapse in months or years, but less wisely, is very certain that the defections have nothing to do with sanctions. In an article that’s worth reading for its opening anecdote alone, Mark Fitzpatrick posits that “[s]uch defections reflect fissures in the regime,” but questions whether they “may also signal an impending regime collapse.” John Lee offers the most bearish interpretation of Kim Jong-un’s future, writing that North Korea “is just a spark away from an uncontrollable conflagration.”
In no particular order: I share Lee’s hope, but not his predictive confidence. Green’s is a dangerously tendentious prediction for uncertain times, and as we’ll see below, it didn’t take long for events to supersede it. I can’t quite reconcile Fitzpatrick’s view with itself; a regime like North Korea’s can’t be both riven by fissures and stable. I’ll meet Andrei halfway and admit that multiple factors are probably contributing to the recent defections, including the fear of political purges, self-interest outweighing a decaying ideology, low pay, lack of confidence in regime leadership, concern for their children, the loss of income from sanctions and South Korean diplomatic pressure, and officials’ fears that Pyongyang will hold them responsible for the loss of that income or for the defections of colleagues. Other analysts and South Korean officials think sanctions are also a factor, and the coincidence of events suggests that they’re right:
Both experts said that the implementation of recent UN Security Council sanctions may have been one determining factor in understanding the recent flurry of diplomatic defections.
Jeong said the salaries of DPRK diplomats are not high, meaning many of them have to make ends meet by sharing apartments, for example. And such personal economic difficulties may have pushed some of them to defect, he said.
“As the international community has strengthened sanctions against the North and surveillance of North Korean diplomats has increased, they can no longer make foreign currency as they did in the past,” Cheong said, citing old tactics such as the selling of counterfeit cigarettes or liquors.
Heightened pressure from the North Korean regime may have also driven them to the brink, the Korea University professor said.
“Kim Jong Un has had trouble in securing government funds after (the latest) sanctions, making the North’s foreign economic activities hard,” said Lim. “So, he has increased the pressure on diplomats abroad in charge of funds management.” [NK News, Dagyum Ji]
But if much of the conventional wisdom still predicts stability, conventional wisdom has a poor predictive history.
[Everything is absolutely fine.]
Most experts thought the regimes in East Germany, Romania, Albania, Libya, and Syria were as stable as Lehman Brothers, right up to the moments when each of those “stable” regimes fell. Most Sovietologists failed to predict the collapse of the East Bloc and the Soviet Union. Status quo bias is a powerful thing. The conventional analyst who predicts that the status quo will go on looks smart every day — until the day when he suddenly doesn’t. The unconventional analyst who predicts doom looks like a lunatic every day until the day when he suddenly looks like a prophet. The only day history remembers is that last one.
But prediction is a fool’s errand. Great events often start with infinitesimal and unpredictable ones — an official’s misunderstanding of an order, or the courage of one forgotten man in a crowd. Wise analysts do not predict such things. At most, they interpret a regime’s political and financial health from whatever vital signs are known. Once, the North Korean regime had a very strong political body. Since Kim Il-sung’s death, that body has decayed steadily. We don’t know enough to diagnose the disease or assess the progression of the atrophy, but defections by diplomats, like the desertion of soldiers, are contrary to the protagonists’ interests in normal times, and are not normal events. They suggest that the regime is unhealthy, but they are only symptoms. In North Korea, most of the vital signs are unknowable. Even then, they can’t predict when some infection kills a vulnerable host.
Sometimes, it is easier to alter the course of history than it is to predict it.
The view that comes closest to my own is that of Stephan Haggard, who thinks that the recent defections could cause a financial crisis, which could lead to regime collapse. Haggard points to reports claiming that some of the defecting diplomats and officials have taken tens of millions of dollars with them — amounts which may seem small by most nations’ standards, but which are indispensable to Pyongyang when it’s under rising pressure from U.N. sanctions, the loss of its Kaesong income, and complaints that its labor exports violate the rights of the workers. The reports, however, are anonymously sourced, and they’ve been inconsistent about what (if any) amounts the diplomats absconded with.
Whatever the amounts, however, I agree that these defections could cause a financial crisis in Pyongyang. I just agree for a different reason.
A North Korean diplomat stationed in Russia defected last month, a local source said Thursday, amid a series of defections from the communist country to seek a new life in South Korea.
The diplomat from Pyongyang’s trade representatives under its consulate general in Vladivostok could have possibly defected with family, according to the source who asked not to be named. [….]
The diplomat is known to have been in charge of covering trade issues while sending necessary goods back to North Korea, according to the source. [Yonhap]
Following Yonhap’s report, New Focus International confirmed what I’d suspected — that North Korea’s former trade representative in Vladivostok was not only a purchasing agent for Pyongyang but a Bureau 39 fund manager. Vladivostok isn’t in Europe, so I’ll assume he isn’t the same person as the Europe-based slush fund manager whose defection was also recently reported (perhaps that person was the Bulgaria-based diplomat referred to here). Another Moscow-based trade rep defectedin July. Then, there’s the recently reported defection in China of the man who controlled North Korea’s slush funds in Southeast Asia. All told, Seoul says at least seven North Korean diplomats have defected this year alone. Separately, “informed sources” have told Yonhap that ten North Korean diplomats defected in 2015, including another Bureau 39 fund manager based in Singapore. This doesn’t include the colonel in the Reconnaissance General Bureau who defected last year, the high-ranking North Korean banker who defectedtwo years ago, or the diplomat based in Ethiopia who defected in 2013.
Pyongyang’s response to the defections — recalling diplomats to punish them for the defection of colleagues, recalling the families of diplomats back to Pyongyang, dispatching more security agents to surveil diplomats, and reshuffling or recalling embassy staff — risks pushing other diplomats to the breaking point.
If most of these reports of defections are roughly accurate, the NIS, CIA, and Treasury probably have a more complete map of Kim Jong-un’s bank accounts, assets, and financial networks around the world than at any time in North Korea’s history. (Ironically, Thae Yong-ho, who was posted in the capital of a U.N. Security Council member and U.S. ally with a strong regulatory and legal system, may be the least likely of these men to contribute much to that map, beyond the financing of his own embassy.)
So far, the Obama administration has abstained from taking any public action to block those funds. Its increasingly apparent failure to do this has already attracted criticism in the media, and the more Kim Jong-unprovokes in the coming months, the louder that criticism will become. It’s certain to come up at a now-overdue briefing to Congress on the implementation and enforcement of the new North Korea sanctions law. The more attention Kim Jong-un attracts, the more likely it is that Congress will demand hearings on what Treasury has done to enforce the law. Knowing this should make some bankers very nervous.
The State Department, which refuses to re-designate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism despite all of the recent and well-documented cases of Pyongyang sending its agents to kidnap and kill refugees, emigres, and activists — and amid reports that it is sending more hit-men now — is calling on governments around the world to protect North Korean refugees. That’s good, I suppose.
“We urge all countries to cooperate in the protection of North Korean refugees and asylum seekers within their territories,” State Department spokeswoman Katina Adams told Yonhap News Agency. “The United States remains deeply concerned about the human rights situation in North Korea and the treatment of North Korean refugees and asylum seekers. She, however, declined comment on specifics of the North Korean diplomat’s defection.
“We continue to work with other countries and international organizations, including the U.N. Human Rights Council and U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to protect North Korean refugees and find durable solutions for them,” Adams said. [Yonhap]
We’ve seen recently that more privileged North Koreans are escaping in greater numbers, and good for them. But along the border between China and North Korea — which since the 1990s has been the last resort of North Korea’s poorest and hungriest people — Chinese authorities have raised the payment of bounties to catch and return North Korean refugees to Kim Jong-un’s gulag.
“More defectors are being repatriated by [Chinese] public security agents after their journey across the Tumen River into Chinese territory,” a source from North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on Monday. “Recently, Chinese border patrol units and public security officials have been carrying out joint patrols, tighter inspections, and searches, drastically reducing the potential for successful defection.”
An increased incidence in reporting by local residents also plays a significant role, he added. Defectors are picked up by law enforcement in the border region before they manage to make it further afield after crossing the river, the source explained, citing a case from early August, when two women in their 30s crossed the Tumen River from Musan County and were picked up by Chinese public security forces on a tip from local residents. The women were immediately handed over to North Korean State Security Department officials.
This would be understandable if we were talking about armed North Korean soldiers, who have been crossing the border to do home-invasion robberies in Chinese border towns recently. Instead, China is rounding up desperately poor women who may be trying to escape starvation or earn enough money to feed their children.
Local Chinese authorities have for some time been relatively wont to let defector-related matters slide, according to the source. “But recently,” she added, “local governments are taking a harsher stance, perhaps because of pressure from the central government on account of perceived warmer ties with Pyongyang.”
According to multiple sources in China close to North Korean affairs, Chinese public announcements on “enhanced border security measures” are ubiquitous in border regions, promising up to 1,000 RMB for those who report illegal border crossings, residence, and employment of North Koreans. Those who personally capture and hand over North Koreans to the Chinese authorities stand to receive 2,000 RMB for their efforts.
They have also outlined stronger punishments for local residents who enter verbal agreements with North Koreans to help them cross the river or smuggle goods, threatening fines of up to 3,000 RMB for transgressors. Moreover, Chinese border guards have been ordered to shoot North Korean defectors caught illegally entering the country if they resist arrest. [Daily NK]
President Obama should raise these bounties in particular, and China’s refugee policy in general, when he meets with Xi Jinping this week. He should also ask Xi to let18-year-old mathematics student Ri Jong-yol leave the South Korean consulate in Hong Kong for a flight to Seoul. The same goes for the reported defection of a North Korean general (and possibly, several diplomats) in China.
In fact, the two men should have plenty to talk about. On several fronts, after promising to cooperate with efforts to disarm North Korea, China has turned back in the direction of enabling Kim Jong-un’s worst behavior.
If, as I expect, direct appeals to Xi’s tender mercies fail, other appropriate responses must include a sustained effort to find and block North Korean assets, starting with those held by small Chinese banks and shadow banks, and moving steadily upward in the financial ecosystem. In doing so, Treasury should prioritize identifying the assets of the North Korean security agencies that are stepping up their censorship and surveillance to seal North Korea’s borders, and to prevent so-called “chain defections.”
When China allowed the Ningpo 12 to escape to South Korea, some activists took an optimistic view that China was finally moderating its cruel policies toward North Korean refugees. It was never clear to me that this represented a change in Beijing’s policy, but it is clear that Beijing’s North Korea policy has recently taken a great step backward.
How cynical, brutal, and flagrantly unlawful it would be if China were, in fact, punishing North Korean men, women, and children — who are guilty of no crime but wanting to live — over its objections to South Korean missile defense.
Pyongyang has finally settled on a story to explain the defection of its number two diplomat in London, Thae Yong-ho. Initially, Pyongyang’s principal puppet in Tokyo, Kim Myong-chol, had suggested that South Korean agents had coerced Thae into defecting. Now, Pyongyang is accusing Thae of embezzlement and child rape, and lashing out at Britain for aiding his escape.
Until very recently, the British Foreign Office had hewed in a strongly pro-engagement direction. I wonder how this rupture will affect Britain’s policy under Theresa May.
Pyongyang’s story raises more questions than answers. It’s a transparent smear, of course, but for it to be true, either the North Korean authorities discovered all of Thae’s misconduct at the same time — immediately before he defected — or else it overlooked one or both of these crimes for some unspecified period of time beforehand. Among the details Pyongyang unwittingly exposed is that even Thae, ostensibly a trusted member of the elite, did not have custody of his own passport. Clearly, Pyongyang is terrified of Thae’s potential power as a counter-propagandist. That’s why it’s desperate to discredit him now.
Yonhap reports that the women have now left the care of the National Intelligence Service and “resettled” in undisclosed locations throughout South Korea.
The Ministry of Unification said that it is true that they have begun to resettle in South Korea, but it cannot reveal further details due to concerns over their safety. [….]
The rare massive defection has garnered attention over whether the sanctions have a major impact on pressuring North Korea, as Pyongyang-run restaurants in foreign countries have served as one of main sources of hard currency for the North.
But the case has also sparked a row in South Korea over whether they defected to Seoul of their own free will following North Korea’s repeated claims that the female workers were abducted by Seoul’s spy agency. [Yonhap]
They’ve escaped one set of hardships, but they’re about to confront another. They’ll need all the support they can find from their new society.
The resettlement of the women comes amid media speculation that North Korea could retaliate against South Korea for recent high-profile defections though terrorist attacks, maybe against South Koreans in third countries, and maybe by sending assassins to kill former Deputy Ambassador Tae Yong-ho. Without knowing more, the reports could be pure speculation, but that speculation has a solid backing in history. In the last several years alone, North Korea has repeatedly dispatched assassins to murder North Korean refugees in the South.
One group that can’t be pleased about the resettlement is the North Korean leadership. Another is South Korea’s far left, specifically the lawyers’ group Minbyun, which tried to abuse the legal process to expose and publicly interrogate the women, as part of what I personally believe was a plan to deter more defections. Minbyun’s failure is further cause for celebration, although it may have succeeded in deterring other defections.
Life will not be easy for these women. Concerns for their safety will prohibit them from becoming going on book tours or joining the cast of “Now on My Way to Meet You.”
They’ll be lonely, isolated from family, and wracked by guilt about the fate of their families. They’ll probably be isolated from their former colleagues, to protect each other from exposure in case the Reconnaissance General Bureau finds and turns one of them, perhaps by using family members as hostages. As long as the regime in Pyongyang survives, they will wonder if they can trust even their closest friends, yet their dialects and manners will be conspicuous in a country where neighbors often know a great deal about one another. Nor would I put it past far-left groups to try to stalk and out them. But for now, at least Minbyun will have the consolation of four new victims to bully — the family of Thae Yong-ho, who recently said this about the Ningpo 12:
I’m no expert, but I don’t see how this could be a coincidence.
A North Korean official managing money for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Europe has disappeared, raising speculation that he might have defected with a large amount of state funds, a local media report said Friday.
Citing anonymous sources, major local daily newspaper the Dong-A Ilbo reported that the official in charge of money management for the so-called No. 39 office of the Workers’ Party vanished in June. The office is known for running money for Kim’s regime.
The North Korean official is currently staying in an unidentified European country. He and his two sons are also under the protection of local authorities, the report claimed.
The media report, which has not been independently verified, said that he disappeared with hundreds of billions of won that had been under his management. He was reported to have worked in the same European country for the past 20 years. [Yonhap]
For those of you keeping track, in the last year, that’s one banker from Russia, one diplomat from Russia, a colonel in the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the number two guy at the embassy in London, and possibly the general who runs Pyongyang’s money laundering operations in Southeast Asia. For reasons I explained here, I also believe we know a great deal about the location of North Korean slush funds in China.
According to informed sources, 10 North Korean diplomats defected to the South last year, but the number had reached almost the same level in the first half of this year. Of these defectors, most came from the North’s overseas missions in Europe, with some coming from Southeast Asian countries. [Yonhap]
As I said about Thae Yong-ho’s defection: trends that can’t continue, don’t. By now, there can be little doubt that if U.S. and South Korean intelligence agencies are cooperating, they must know where a large portion (if not the majority) of North Korean slush funds are. Of course, the North Koreans will be scrambling to move that money today. As they do, nervous bankers around the world will be filing Suspicious Transaction Reports. Gleeful regulators will tent their fingers and cackle watching them make stupid mistakes. This is a rare opportunity — too rare to waste.
When the news broke yesterday that North Korea’s Deputy Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Thae Yong-ho, had defected, many reporters who knew him were astonished. Subject to the confirmation of reports that a North Korean general and several diplomats defected in China recently, Thae would be the highest-ranking diplomat to have defected from the North, and the second-highest official, after Hwang Jang-yop‘s defection in 1997.
This is a new low in a bad year for Kim Jong-un. Defections are not only rising in number — up 15 percent from last year, but still well below pre-Kim Jong-un levels — the songbun levels of the defectors themselves are also rising. It isn’t just the lowly, downtrodden, and expendable who are fleeing now. Defections and protests are breaking out among the elite classes, vetted workers, and senior officials. Defections and small-scale mutinies within the military aren’t new, but those also seem to be rising.
Asked if this means “that North Korea is on the verge of collapse,” Christopher Green says, “Absolutely not.” But the only thing we can say “absolutely” is that no one outside Pyongyang can be absolutely certain of anything, and especially not now. The Pyongyang elite is the world’s most insular group of people. No one — with the possible exception of Thae and a few of his former confederates — should pretend to know, and not even they can predict it. All I can say is that trends that can’t continue won’t.
Thae was not just any North Korean diplomat, but an unusually high-profile one in an important post (Pyongyang’s current Foreign Minister is a former Ambassador to the U.K.). One of Thae’s duties was to monitor (and perhaps, to intimidate, or to turn) the growing population of North Korean refugees in Britain, something North Korea sometimes does by threatening their loved ones. Thae, unlike most of them, was fortunate enough to have the option of getting his own wife and two sons out, and the NIS’s help in carrying out a “scrupulous plan” for doing that. As of this morning, NK News reported that the family had arrived in South Korea.
Another of Thae’s duties was to protest against unflattering portrayals of his country and its leader, including (to the amusement of many) a satirical appropriation of His Porcine Majesty’s image by a hair salon. Thae could also have voiced North Korea’s objections to a proposed British television series in 2014. Other duties included serving as the “sole point-person for visa issues at the embassy” and taking Kim Jong-chol to a Clapton concert.
Thae seems articulate by North Koreandiplomatic standards — yes, that is an oxymoron — although I also perceive some soft bigotry of low expectations in some of these judgments (to be clear, I don’t mean Pearson here). Still, is it any wonder why a guy like that wouldn’t want to go back to North Korea? Of course, certain bookstores in Jeremy Corbin’s England must seem at least a little bit like North Korea at times. Even I sympathize with Thae’s position as Pyongyang’s agent of influence when he must humor this klatsch of insufferable, Chomsky-thumping pseudo-intellectual poseurs.
How could Thae so convincingly project such belief in a system he secretly wanted to flee? The answer is “practice.” Natan Sharanksy’s “The Case for Democracy” is, without much doubt, a book of ideas with more merit for some societies than others, and much first-person wisdom about the psychology of those who live in totalitarian societies. One of the concepts Sharansky explains to his readers is “doublethink” — how a life lived under totalitarianism teaches people to compartmentalize the things they believe from the things they must believe.
It must also be the case that one who lives in a totalitarian society can simultaneously harbor views that seem mutually contradictory to us. North Koreans might feel nationalist pride in nuclear and missile tests while wishing that the state would spend its money on feeding their hungry children instead. They might despise both their government and its enemies. They might loathe America and secretly long to visit or live there. They might take pride in their purity while craving the impure. They might hate Kim Jong-un and revere his grandfather (if reservedly). When your job is to persuade a skeptical world of the things you must believe, self-delusion becomes essential to your livelihood, and to survival itself.
Which is to say that on a certain level, Thae may have believed much of what he said in defense of the regime he served with one part of his mind, while knowing in another, compartmentalized part of it that he was lying to everyone in the room — himself most of all — when he defended North Korea’s record on human rights.
That, or he was just a really good liar.
What caused Thae to flee, and what do his reasons tell us about broader political trends, or vulnerabilities? Our only direct evidence is what the South Korean government said about Thae’s reasons.
“About the motive of defection, it is known that Councillor Thae revealed he got sick and tired of the Kim Jong Un regime and yearned for a liberal and democratic regime, concerned about the future of his children,” MoU spokesperson Jeong added.
The spokesperson added that the defection illustrated the “North’s core layer considers there is no hope for the Kim Jong Un regime anymore… the perception that the North Korean regime already reached breaking point has been spreading and internal unity among the ruling class has been weakened. [NK News]
If you suspect that this is spin, it certainly sounds like it, although that guess makes as much sense as any other. A Yonhap “News Focus” piece goes further, arguing that Thae’s defection comes “amid increasing talk in South Korea about signs of a possible exodus by privileged North Koreans who are feeling the squeeze of international sanctions.” I’d like to believe this, but the piece offers little evidence that sanctions played a role in Thae’s defection.
Yonhap’s report then cites a researcher at the Sejong Institute, who speculates that “[i]n the face of new U.S. sanctions against North Korea’s human rights violations, which specifically targeted leader Kim Jong-un, Thae must have felt ever more inner conflict in his position to promote North Korea.” I’d love to believe that theory, too, but I still don’t see any direct evidence to support it.
The same Sejong researcher also speculates thatThae“may have been exposed to frequent criticism from Western countries … and that might have spawned psychological conflicts.” Similarly, the Joongang Ilbo’s first anonymously sourcedreportclaims thatThae“had been under growing pressure from Pyongyang to combat the diplomatic heat from the international community over North Korean violations of human rights.”
Or, maybe he got in trouble for recommending visas for the BBC correspondent who wasdetained and expelledfor saying unflattering things about the regime in Pyongyang. Or, maybe he couldn’t stand the thought of facing those insufferable bookstore Chomskyites again. Or, maybe Pyongyang wanted to move him before his kids finished school.
Here’s another possible explanation.
Thae’s defection will be an embarrassment to Pyongyang, but Kim Jong-un can surely survive the embarrassment of Thae Yong-ho’s alienation if he can survive the embarrassment of Dennis Rodman’s friendship. Thae’s laptop, cell phone, and bank records could help identify bank accounts, shell companies, and other illicit revenue schemes the London embassy uses to finance its operations. Given his role in Pyongyang’s influence operations, he may be able to identify spies and unregistered agents of influence in Europe, South Korea, or even the U.S. His very defection will cause the regime to redouble restrictions on, and monitoring of, its overseas personnel, and call home those it deems less than fully trustworthy. These precautions will feed the death spiral that undermines the loyalty of the remaining overseas personnel, who must work even harder to meet their earnings quotas.
The greatest potential that Thae may bring to Seoul, however, will be his perspective and talent for persuasion. Here is a man who can lie intelligently and convincingly. Just imagine how persuasive he’d be if he really believed himself. You can already see where I’m going with this, right?
The report cited a North Korean woman from South Pyeongan Province currently in China as saying that television signals transmitted from South Korea can be picked up in areas near Pyongyang such as Pyongsong and Sunchon.
She said that people who are watching South Korean television are mostly the elite class and they are strictly keeping it a secret.
Another source on North Korean affairs noted that South Korean TV programs can be viewed in Pyongyang as well as the Hwanghae and Hamgyeong provinces and coastal cities.
The source said that signals are particularly well received on flat lands and along coastlines, adding that images are more clear on cloudy days. [KBS]
Thae has undoubtedly done some terrible things to gain and keep his position. I doubt he had much choice. But if he wants to redeem himself as a transformational figure in Korean history, he has the potential that the wooden, doctrinaire, and charismatically challenged Hwang Jong-yop never had. I imagine that would work something like this.
[Kinda works for the last New Hampshire primaries, too.]
It has long been my view that governments place too much value on secrecy and too little value on public diplomacy and persuasion. Imagine the profound subversive impact on audiences in Pyongyang to see Thae speak the truth about why he defected. I can think of no better messenger to tell Pyongyang’s elites why they must reform and disarm or perish.
We still have few details and no confirmation regarding the reported defection of that North Korean general in China, other than this Korea Times report that he absconded with $40 million, and that he “was in charge of Section 39 inside the Korean Workers’ Party.” (KBS had reported that he was in charge of regime slush funds in southeast Asia only.) The Korea Times report probably refers to what’s more commonly referred to as Bureau 39, Room 39, or Office 39, the North Korean government’s official money-laundering agency. It also claims that the general has two family members with him. (The KBS report said that he defected with three other officials.)
The South Korean government is confirming nothing, but denying nothing. Having watched the Korean press report anonymously sourced NIS leaks for more than a decade now, the inconsistencies aren’t surprising, but my gut tells me there’s a grain of truth to the reports. They would also fit with the broader trend I’m hearing on the street from knowledgeable people — that the North Korean elites have lost faith in Kim Jong-un, and are feeling their way to the exits. My gut also tells me that this time, China may be deferring to Pyongyang to pressure Seoul over THAAD.
I wish I could say that South Korea’s hard left, most prominently represented these days by the lawyers’ group Minbyun, had also lost its faith in Kim Jong-un. Sadly for South Korean history, Minbyun is no fringe group; it has already produced one South Korean president and one presidential candidate. Once, it defended human rights against right-wing South Korean dictators, but since then, it has lost its way. Today, Minbyun wages lawfare for North Korean dictators. It fraudulently represents itself as a human rights group while abusing the law to deny North Korean refugees their human rights. It has taken to doing this by bullying 12 young North Korean women who had the courage to flee the from a restaurant in China, where their government had effectively impressed them into forced labor.
[These are the people Minbyun is using the courts to terrorize.]
Minbyun has demanded the right to interrogate the women — publicly, before the eyes of the North Korean authorities who hold their loved ones as hostages — about their intentions to defect. This would be in flagrant violation of a refugee’s absolute right to confidentiality, a right the U.N. High Commission for Refugees has long affirmed. When the judge correctly dismissed Minbyun’s petition, Minbyun demanded that the judge be removed from the case. Since then, an appellate court has refused to remove the judge.
The justification for Minbyun’s legally frivolous petition is North Korea’s factually absurd claim that the South Korean intelligence service kidnapped the women. Minbyun’s real goal is to terrorize would-be refugees, to deter a surge of defections that could bring down the regime in Pyongyang. In furtherance of this campaign, the left-wing Hankyoreh Sinmun even reported — falsely — that the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights office in Seoul would send staff to Pyongyang to interview the family members of the 13 refugees to investigate the abduction claims, but the OHCHR later denied this. Whether this was disinformation, or just another case of the Hankyoreh doing sloppy, poorly-sourced reporting without checking with the primary sources, I can’t say.
Even worse, Amnesty International briefly seemed to take Minbyun’s side when it reportedly “called on the South Korean government to disclose more information about the 13.” You’d think that a human rights organization would have a better grasp of the legal and practical reasons why the South Korean government should not disclose more information about them. You’d think it would grasp the obvious reality that the families in Pyongyang are under the control and manipulation of the state. It said that “the North Koreans have been unable to access lawyers,” which is also false — they’re being represented zealously, by a lawyer recommended by the Korean Bar Association. (If you’re an Amnesty donor, ask Amnesty to repudiate this misguided effort, or consider moving your donations elsewhere.)
Which brings us back to the story of the general, and three other North Koreans who allegedly defected with him. While the truth struggles to put its pants on, they’ve provided evidence that Minbyun’s lawfare influenced their plans.
The source said the four didn’t choose to defect to South Korea partly because of a petition by the Lawyers for a Democratic Society filed last month for habeas corpus relief of 12 North Korean restaurant workers in China who defected to Seoul in April. [KBS Radio]
I suppose it’s possible that the lawyers at Minbyun aren’t willful servants of puppet masters in Pyongyang; they could just be exceptionally and selectively gullible. What’s clear is that they’re abusing the legal process to make a patently frivolous case that flies in the face of the absolute right of confidentiality that all refugees are guaranteed under the 1951 U.N. convention. There is also fresh evidence that lives are at stake here.
North Korea publicly executed six officials in charge of supervision of its workers overseas in May following the defection of 13 workers at a North Korean-run restaurant in China a month earlier, a local Pyongyang watcher said Friday.
“North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered six officials, including intelligence officials, to be executed publicly on May 5 due to their lack of control over overseas (North Korean) workers,” Choi Seong-yong, chairman of the Abductees’ Family Union, claimed, citing people familiar with the matter.
Eighty public officials and 100 people who have their family members working overseas were forced to watch the execution, he said.
In early April, a group of 12 women and one man fled from a North Korea-run restaurant in China’s eastern port city of Ningbo and defected to South Korea. In the following month, three female workers at a North Korean restaurant in the midwest city of Shanxi reportedly defected to the South.
“North Korea locked the families of the defectors up and forced them to take ideological education at a training facility in Myohyang Mountain, in the northern part of the communist country,” Choi said. [Yonhap]
Meanwhile, in the South Korean consulate in Hong Kong, an 18-year-old North Korean student who defected from a mathematics tournament waits for the word that will determine whether he lives in freedom or dies in terror.
Obviously, there would be no reason for North Korea to shoot six people in front of 180 other people if the South Korean NIS really had kidnapped the 13 restaurant workers. Only an imbecile or a shill could believe Pyongyang’s claim, but South Korea is a society afflicted by a vocal minority of people who, though often technologically advanced, highly educated, and academically intelligent, are also logically retarded. In other cases, there is a simpler explanation for these people.
Some obvious cautions apply to this report, of course. I can easily believe that Pyongyang would murder hostages, or even plant false stories that it’s murdering hostages in the hope of coercing would-be defectors, but this is, after all, an anonymously sourced story from inside the world’s most secretive regime. The principle stands that the public interrogations of refugees from a place like North Korea can endanger lives. The principle also stands that Minbyun doesn’t care.
As I said before, the proper answer to Minbyun’s demands is for the South Korean government to give representatives of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees access to all 13 workers — the 12 who are the subject of Minbyun’s petition, and the one who isn’t. The 13 could then express their actual intentions to the UNHCR. Those expressions, and the very fact of the UNHCR interview, must remain absolutely confidential. In fact, if that interview had already taken place, we wouldn’t know, and shouldn’t know.
In any other civilized country, lawyers who abuse the process to terrorize the innocent and vulnerable would be disbarred, but not in South Korea. The many reasons I look forward to the North Korean revolution include my anticipation of reading the names of all the South Korean — and American? — agents in the Reconnaissance General Bureau’s personnel files. Also, its hit list.
But in the end, will Minyun’s efforts be enough? Not if the recent surge in defections represents the beginnings of a preference cascade against the regime. Not if Pyongyang is losing control of the borders Kim Jong-un has struggled so much to seal. The Unification Ministry is reporting that after declining each year since Kim Jong-un came to power, the number of defectors reaching South Korea rose more than 15% in the first half of this year. The regime is stepping up searches, including strip searches, of people leaving the country, apparently in an effort to catch those who might be carrying out their life’s savings in gold. Human smuggling is also on the rise again. Border guards, armed and unarmed, are crossing the border, or robbing North Korean civilians, out of apparent desperation, embittering the civilian population. In the end, however, China can do much to contain these outbreaks, as it has for years.
Meanwhile, Seoul has figured out that one effective response to fake abduction claims is to assert real ones. It has begun to raise demands that the U.N. investigate North Korea’s abduction of its own citizens, and those demands have gained traction at Turtle Bay. The U.N. may not be taking Pyongyang’s abduction claims seriously, but it is calling on North Korea to provide information about 14 South Koreans believed to be held captive in North Korea, including crew members from a South Korean plane that was hijacked to Pyongyang 47 years ago by a North Korean spy named Cho Chang-hee. One South Korean politician claims that North Korea is holding 500 South Koreans, but that figure excludes tens of thousands of others kidnapped during the Korean War, and prisoners of war held back in violation of the 1953 Korean War Armistice.
It’s about time. Governments that value the lives and liberties of their citizens should consistently demand the return of those who are kidnapped or unjustly imprisoned. The only regrettable aspect of Seoul’s demands is that it’s only now making them publicly, giving them the taint of tit-for-tat. But then, one could hardly expect Seoul to have made those demands while it labored under the illusion that appeasing North Korea would ever bring peace.
It has been three months since 12 young women and a man defected from that North Korean restaurant in Ningpo, China, and since 100 North Korean workers in Kuwait staged a mass protest against their minders. I’d begun to wonder if the regime had cauterized the wounded cohesion of the very people it needs most desperately to pay its bills and seal its borders, but the drops of fresh blood on the floor tell another story. Let’s begin with the most painful — and potentially, lethal — loss.
Anchor: A general who was in charge of managing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s overseas slush funds is said to be in China after escaping from his country, and is seeking political asylum with two other North Koreans in a country other than South Korea. A source said that the three were separated from a diplomat from Pyongyang, who is seeking his own defection to another country. [….]
Report: It has been made known that a general escaped from North Korea and is seeking political asylum in a country other than South Korea. A source in China, who works in collaboration with Seoul government officials, on Thursday revealed the recent defection of the general, a diplomat and two others.The source said that the North Korean military officer was in charge of managing Kim Jong-un’s slush funds in Southeast Asia. [KBS Radio]
The general was on a business trip in China meeting with three other North Koreans when he and two others parted ways with the third, a diplomat, and slipped away and sought asylum in “a country other than South Korea.” The diplomat is reportedly still in China, making his own plans to defect. Why not South Korea? In a word, “Minbyun,” but that topic deserves its own post.
Also, ineradicable historical ignominy.
KBS notes that this is the first known defection of a North Korean general. Indeed, by my reckoning, it would be the highest-ranking defection from North Korea since Hwang Jang-yop defected in 1997. KBS had no further information about the two North Koreans who defected with the general, or about the position held by the diplomat.
The source said that the four North Koreans decided to leave their country due to their dissatisfaction with the Kim Jong-un regime and pessimistic views about the future of the country. [KBS Radio]
So. One of the men who knows the most about Kim Jong-un’s finances — and presumably, its sanctions evasion strategy — secretly despised His Porcine Majesty and is convinced that his regime has no future. As we speak, the CIA or another friendly intelligence agency may be debriefing him, filling Excel spreadsheets and databases with bank names and account numbers, copying all the numbers in his cell phone, and imaging his laptop. All of that information will be cross-checked against the intelligence windfalls we presumably collected from the Reconnaissance General Bureau colonel who defected last year; from Yun Tae-hyong of Daesong Bank, who defected in Russia in 2014; and from North Korean diplomat Kim Chol-song, who was last seen earlier this month at Pulkovo Airport in St. Petersburg with his family, as they boarded a flight to Minsk and points west.
When asked why they don’t block all of His Supreme Corpulency’s slush funds, Treasury officials have answered that since the great training exercise for North Korean money launderers known as Banco Delta Asia (thank you, Chris Hill) the North Koreans have diversified and hidden their funds, and there are no equally vulnerable “nodes” that can be blocked anymore. These defections may well remove that excuse, and because of new compliance rules imposed by Treasury and the EU, banks may hesitate to move those North Korean funds again. If properly exploited, that intelligence would send His Corpulency schussing down a steep slope to bankruptcy.
[As all the peace studies grad students know, sanctions never work.]
And in other North Korea defection news, three North Korean workers in Malta reportedly defected to South Korea last summer.
In response to the Yonhap report, the Ministry of Unification said it is true that there were North Koreans who defected from Malta to South Korea last year but there were no North Korean defectors from the island in 2016. “We cannot provide any further details on North Korean defectors as we are responsible for their security here,” a unification ministry official said asking not to be named. [Yonhap]
God forbid Minbyun’s “human rights” lawyers should demand the right to interrogate them in open court, too.
Also defecting this week was one of North Korea’s top math students, who slipped away from his minders in Hong Kong and into the local South Korean consulate.
An article from the Ming Pao newspaper claimed the defector is 18, and was participating in a recent International Mathematics Olympiad held in Hong Kong from July 6 – 16.
“We can’t verify that. Please understand the South Korean government can’t release information regarding defectors for their own safety and possible diplomatic disputes that might occur with the concerned party,” the South Korean Foreign Ministry said during a Thursday briefing.
According to the report the student is still inside the South Korean compound, and is heavily guarded with armed anti-terrorist units from Hong Kong’s police forces. [NK News, JH Ahn]
Interestingly enough, the North Korean team placed sixth out of over 100 teams from around the world. Despite that impressive performance, KCNA hasn’t said a word about the team’s performance this year — for some reason — although it reported last year’s results the very next day. I’ve often said that one of the saddest things about the grand tragedy of North Korea is the loss of so much human potential there.
Also joining the flight from the Workers’ Paradise are five armed North Korean soldiers who had abandoned their posts for the more lucrative business of robbing Chinese civilians, when they got into a lips-versus-teeth gunfight with Chinese police, seriously wounding several of them. The Chinese captured two of the soldiers, but three others are still at large.
The source who lives near the Sino-China (sic) border region told Yonhap News Agency that the two were part of a group of five who illegally crossed the border near the North Korean city of Hyesan last Saturday and robbed people living in two rural villages at gunpoint.
They were holed up at a house in the Changbai Korean Autonomous County when Chinese border guard and police tried to apprehend them early Thursday. In the ensuing gun fight the culprits were arrested, although three others got away.
The Chinese national police then said that several Chinese security forces were injured in the process with two detectives receiving serious wounds requiring them to be evacuated to a hospital in Changchun.
“Chinese authorities are chasing the three runaways and telling people to be extra careful,” the source said.
He said Chinese authorities confirmed the robbers were armed with guns and had ammunition, and were North Korean military deserters. The provincial government and security forces imposed a curfew at night to protect citizens. [Yonhap]
This incident appears to be unrelated to another defection by a border guard, reported by the Daily NK last week, in a different sector of the border.
“The border patrol soldier, based in Onsong County, North Hamgyong Province, escaped across the Tumen River on Wednesday (July 20) at approximately 4 p.m.,” a source close to North Korean affairs in China told Daily NK on July 22.
“The soldier is an unarmed male believed to be around 20 years old. He was spotted in Kaishantun, China–a town across the Tumen River from Onsong County, North Korea. China’s border patrol units were dispatched to the area after receiving a tip from a resident, but the soldier slipped away and his whereabouts are unknown.” [Daily NK]
If you’re wondering why a North Korean soldier would be desperate enough to do something so suicidal, read Rimjin-gang’s new report on the history of the North Korean military’s hunger problem, complete with clandestine photos of skeletal young soldiers begging passersby for food, or on their way to hospitals.
These reports are only the latest in a series of desertions, fraggings, and mutinies in the North Korean military that suggest that its discipline has come unglued, and is held together by nothing more than fear and food. Like the Ningpo and Kuwait incidents, group defections and mutinies tell us that disgruntled North Koreans are angry and desperate enough to share their views of the state and conspire against it.
In normal times, none of these things would be “in other news.” The times do not seem normal for North Korea anymore. What I’d give anything to know is whether these events mean that the regime can’t pay its bills and feed its soldiers anymore, and why. It wouldn’t be the first evidence of that kind we’ve seen in recent weeks. Surely this is the time when broadcasts to North Korea must send its soldiers the urgent message not to kill civilians, or each other. On this decision rests the future of all Koreans.
The western association of “left” with “liberal” does not hold up well in South Korea, whose political spectrum is dominated by warring factions of nationalists. These factions wield the law as an authoritarian sword against their rivals, and as a (sometimes flimsy) shield against their rivals’ authoritarian assaults. Historically, the worst authoritarianism was on the political right before the transition to democracy in 1987. The left still fuels its moral propulsion from the nostalgia of dissent dating back to this time, but the authoritarian imperative survives, throughout Korea’s political spectrum.
In 2003, a left-wing human rights lawyer named Roh Moo-hyun fell, moist and unsteady, from the womb of a leftist lawyers’ group called Minbyun (Lawyers for a Democratic Society) into the presidency of the Republic. But Roh’s government was no paragon of liberal democratic virtues. It threatened opposition newspapers with tax audits, and the union goons and radicals it subsidized intimidated their enemies with iron pipes and bamboo poles.
Time and again, Roh’s allies wereexposed as North Korean agents of influence, or worse. For the sake of Kim Jong-il’s tender sensitivities, his government overlooked the greatest crimes against humanity in the long history of the Korean nation. There were the disgraceful U.N. abstentions when the U.N. General Assembly voted to condemn human rights abuses in the North, and a callous die-in-place policy toward North Korean refugees. Those policies are consistent with Minbyun’s views, too, but you won’t read anything about them, or about human rights in North Korea, on Minbyun’s blog. That topic has been trotskied out of the approved history.
In 2012, Minbyun very nearly gave the Republic a second president in Moon Jae-in. Another Minbyun alumnus, Mayor Park Won-soon of Seoul, may run for the presidency in 2017. No organization is as identifiable with the elite of South Korea’s political left as Minbyun.
In light of Minbyun’s history of agnosticism about the atrocities in the North, its sudden interest in the welfare of 12 young North Korean women who risked their lives and their families to defect from a regime-run restaurant in China earlier this year seems uncharacteristic, even suspicious. (For reasons that aren’t clear to me, the proceedings of only 12 of the 13 are in contention.)
Minbyun has filed a habeas corpus petition “to check whether the defectors moved to South Korea on a voluntary basis.” It is a question with no evidentiary basis but the North Korean government’s unsupported allegation that South Korea kidnapped them; it’s also what Anna Freudwould have called “projection.” Under Korean law, “people housed in state-run facilities” can petition to the courts for their own protection. In this case, however, the refugees aren’t behind that petition. In fact, they’re begging the court to deny it.
What Minbyun demands is nothing less than the right to interrogate 12 terrified refugees whom it doesn’t represent, in open court, in a city where multiple North Korean spies have been arrested for collecting information about refugees, and even for attempting to assassinate the most politically active ones. Pyongyang has also used threats against refugees’ family members to coerce them into going back.
Of course, the notion that Seoul would send abduction squads to China to kidnap North Korean waitresses is so asinine that only the sort of people who still cling to Cheonan conspiracy theories would entertain it. Surely the Chinese authorities would have said something, either at the time or now, if there were anything to it. As Choi Song-min, himself a North Korean refugee, asks in an opinion piece for the Daily NK, just what legitimate purpose could Minbyun’s interrogation possibly have? How long could such a secret be kept in South Korea’s open society after the 13 enter South Korean society to start their new lives? On what basis does it believe the North Korean government’s accusation and disbelieve the South Korean government’s denial? Has it thought through the consequences of forcing the refugees to go on the record publicly?
We’ll get to all of those questions.
The problems with Minbyun’s argument go beyond its illogic and the lack of credible evidence to support it. The claim is legally frivolous. Neither Minbyun, nor the family members of the 12, nor their ventriloquists in the Reconnaissance General Bureau have any standing to intervene in an asylum proceeding. Granting Minbyun’s petition would not only violate the refugees’ internationally recognized right to confidentiality, it would endanger lives. Not only would it endanger the lives of the 12 and their families, it would have a chilling effect on any other future asylum claims by North Koreans in South Korea.
The 12 already have a lawyer, Park Young-sik, from by the law firm of Bae, Kim, and Lee. Park was recommended by the Korean Bar Association, an organization that has long shown a deep concern for the human rights of North Koreans by compiling and publishing book-length scholarly reports on North Korea’s prison camps (I’ve cited them for these pages on North Korea’s prison camps). Parkinsiststhat his clients have all told him that they want to stay in South Korea, have no interest in meeting with Minbyun, and want Minbyun to go away and leave them alone. Park has made those representations to the court, and so far, the court has been satisfied with them.
So what business does Minbyun have in intervening? It claims to represent the families of the 13, back in North Korea, using a power of attorney obtained either through an unnamed U.S. citizen in China or a Chinese journalism professor. (The details are vague, although Minbyun certainly didn’t have much trouble finding someone in Pyongyang to authorize its intervention.)
And yes, Park was retained by the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS), which helped get the Ningpo 13 out of China, but which undoubtedly has a sordid history. Minbyun’s skepticism would be a virtue if it weren’t so selective.
While Minbyun chases Pyongyang’s unsupported abduction claims through the courts in Seoul, it shows its more credulous side to Pyongyang, which recently “allowed an Associated Press Television crew to interview some of the colleagues and parents of the waitresses.” Yet even the AP, which has hardly distinguished itself for questioning Pyongyang’s narratives — it has even used North Korean regime-supplied “journalists” to “interview” subjects — concedes that “it is common for authorities to coach interviewees beforehand to make sure they stay on message.” Even the AP acknowledges that Pyongyang, in making the parents available for an interview, appeared to be “trying to capitalize” on “concerns for family left behind.” Lest there be any doubt about Pyongyang’s game: “[O]ur leader Kim Jong Un is waiting for you, parents and siblings are waiting for you, please come back.”
Later, after the twelve young women exercised their legal right not to be hauled into court for committing no crime, citing the fear of “possible reprisals against their relatives in North Korea,” Minbyun demanded that the judge be replaced because he’s a Mexican because he denied their frivolous attempt to abuse the legal process to terrorize twelve brave, frightened young women.
All in the name of human rights, of course.
I should explain why I call Minbyun’s case “frivolous.” When countries ratify treaties, they give those treaties preemptive effect over national law. The relevant treaty here is the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention which, along with its 1967 protocol, provides certain legal protections to refugees. South Korea has ratified both documents, and international law has recognized that the absolute confidentiality of asylum applications is one of those legal protections. Here’s how our own government applies it, and here’s how the U.N. High Commission for Refugees explains it:
2.1 Confidentiality in UNHCR RSD Procedures
2.1.1 The Applicant’s Right to Confidentiality
• The confidentiality of UNHCR RSD procedures is essential to creating an environment of security and trust for asylum seekers who approach UNHCR. All UNHCR staff, including interpreters and security staff, as well as any implementing partners, counsellors or medical practitioners who provide services to asylum seekers and refugees under agreement with UNHCR, are under a duty to ensure the confidentiality of information received from or about asylum seekers and refugees, including the fact that an individual has registered or is in contact with UNHCR.
• UNHCR standards regarding the confidentiality of information about asylum seekers and refugees should be incorporated into RSD procedures in every UNHCR Office, and should be understood by all UNHCR staff and any other individuals who are responsible for implementing the RSD procedures. Specific recommendations for ensuring confidentiality in each stage of the RSD procedures are proposed in the relevant sections of this document.
• Applicants for RSD should be informed of their right to confidentiality in UNHCR procedures. Any limits on the right to confidentiality, including information sharing arrangements with host country authorities or resettlement countries where applicable, should be explained to the Applicant (see § 2.1.3 – Disclosure to Host Country Authorities). Applicants should also be advised that the UNHCR Offices may share information with UNHCR Headquarters or other UNHCR Offices.
• Applicants should be assured that UNHCR will not contact or share any information regarding the Applicant with the country of origin, unless expressly authorized to do so by the Applicant. [UNHCR]
Given that Minbyun claims to represent the family members in North Korea, presumably, it intends to tell those family members what its questioning reveals. Whatever Minbyun tells the family members, they’ll certainly tell their own interrogators in Pyongyang. What Minbyun knows, Pyongyang also knows, in clear violation of the refugees’ internationally recognized right to confidentiality. Surely Minbyun is well aware of this right, although I’ve yet to find a journalist who has reported it. Not a single reporter who covered this story — not the New York Times’s consistently biased Choe Sang-hun, not one of the three NK News reporters who covered it, and none of the conservative papers that defended the NIS’s position — has cited or referred to this inviolable right.
Minbyun points out that Pyongyang already knows who the 12 are, so what’s the harm? Park Young-sik answers that question with a question of his own: “What’s going to happen for a defector’s family if the defector’s motivation and process of defection is revealed?”
“They believe that their families’ lives will be threatened if they openly testify that they fled the North of their own free will,” Park said. “They don’t want to be exposed openly in the media and draw attention, and they don’t want to appear in court,” Park added. “In this situation, forcing them to appear and testify in open court might seriously infringe their human rights.” [Chosun Ilbo]
The moment Minbyun gains the right to interrogate the 12, lives will be in danger. If they’re forced to reaffirm their asylum claims in public, Minbyun will have succeeded in winning its “clients” a slow death in the gulag. If, knowing and fearing this, the 12 publicly renounce their asylum claims, they’ll be sent back to North Korea and a dark, uncertain fate. And if Minbyun establishes a precedent that it has a right to interrogate refugees every time Pyongyang trots out a terrified family member as a cat’s-paw plaintiff, no North Korean refugee would ever dare to enter South Korea again.
“The North’s claim is absurd in that it could dismantle the system of North Korean defectors’ entry into the South and their protection.” Unification Ministry spokesman Chung Joon-hui said, “The North Korean waitresses are undergoing the due course for legal protection, which is designed to support their settlement in South Korean society.”
“If this is how it works, whenever North Korean defectors come to South Korea, and if someone who claims that he or she has been commissioned by the defectors’ families in the North file a lawsuit, the court should determine whether those defectors voluntary defected or not. It is like conducting collective interrogation of the defectors in public before North Korea,” a South Korean government source said. “If so, we doubt whether any North Koreans will dare to defect to the South.” [Joongang Ilbo]
The practical effect of this? South Korea would have effectively renounced the Refugee Convention, at least with respect to refugees from North Korea.
To the extent anyone entertains Pyongyang’s spurious claims, as Minbyun does, there is a safe and easy way to resolve them. South Korea could (and should) let a UNHCR representative interview the 12. The representative could submit an affidavit attesting to their decision in a closed proceeding. The court should then deny Minbyun’s motion, seal the record, and reiterate that courts will continue to honor the confidentiality of asylum proceedings. If Minbyun were sincere, that’s exactly what it would have asked the court to do. Of course, it would have no right to know who the refugees met with. The very fact that a refugee has contacted a UNHCR representative is confidential.
In fact, for all we know, that meeting has already happened.
The latest word is that the 12 have filed a complaint with local prosecutors that Minbyun is violating the National Security Law. That’s not the strategy I’d have chosen, because it plays right into Minbyun’s nostalgia of victimhood, but then, I’m not a terrified young refugee from North Korea, either. Just try to imagine the terror, heartache, and confusion these young women must be feeling right now. It does cause me to wonder whether South Korea has an attorney licensing authority to discipline lawyers who file unethical motions to abuse the process, and who are waging a cynical campaign of lawfare against 12 vulnerable and terrified young refugees. Minbyun’s lawyers probably shouldn’t be jailed, but they should be disbarred.
The best thing you can say about Minbyun is that it doesn’t give two shits who it gets killed or sent to a prison camp. But then, Minbyun never gave Shit One about the prison camps anyway. Its lawyers can’t be complete idiots, especially lawyers clever enough to create such a terrifying paradox. They must know exactly the danger they’re putting these people in. Everyone from government officials to editorial writers to refugees to Park Young-sik has explained it for them. But of course, if Minbyun is deliberately trying to terrorize refugees, no amount of explanation will discourage them. That’s clearly Pyongyang’s aim, and that’s who’s controlling Minbyun’s “clients.”
Viewing Minbyun’s motives this way has the advantage of making more sense than any other explanation. The defection of the Ningpo 13 wasn’t just a tremendous embarrassment to Pyongyang, it’s a threat to the very stability of the regime. A group defection of a dozen vetted daughters of the Pyongyang elite is so unprecedented — so unthinkable — that it threatens to become a preference cascade by other members of the elite. The defection of the Ningpo 13 was followed by a smaller group defection from another restaurant, an astonishing mass protest by 100 North Korean workers in Kuwait, the defection of two other workers in Qatar, and most recently, rumors of yet another group defection from China. This, despite Pyongyang’s redoubling of the indoctrination of its overseas slaves and extra precautions to keep them under control.
In its desperation to make examples and prevent further outbreaks of dissent, Pyongyang fulminated, threatened, and transparently tried to use the refugees’ loved ones as hostages. What Pyongyang needs now, as if its survival depends on it, is stooges with briefcases who would discard all notions of legal ethics, abuse the legal process to pervert international law, and perhaps, terrorize other North Korean refugees away from South Korea. It looks like Pyongyang has found its stooges. So give yourself a big fucking hand, Minbyun.
The revelation last weekend that a colonel in North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau, or RGB, defected to South Korea last year represents a huge potential windfall in uncovering North Korea’s operations in the South. Reuters quotes Yonhap as reporting that the colonel “specialized in anti-South espionage operations before defecting and had divulged the nature of his work to South Korean authorities.” The Korea Herald, also citing Yonhap, reports that he gave “detailed testimony” on RGB operations in the South. Or so says the National Intelligence Service “an unnamed source with knowledge on the inner workings of the communist state.”
Historically, the RGB’s operations have included not only intelligence collection, but also extensive influence operations and assassinations of dissidents in exile. The RGB is believed to be behind the sinking of the naval ship Cheonan, the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, and North Korea’s cyberattacks against the United States and South Korea. It is designated by the U.N. Security Council for arms dealing, and by the U.S. Treasury Department under Executive Order 13687. This defector’s information may help the NIS foil assassination plots, terrorist attacks, or cyberattacks. It could potentially support criminal prosecutions of North Korean leaders, including General Kim Yong-chol or His Porcine Majesty himself.
This man assuredly knows where many bodies are buried, and that is more than a metaphor.
The South Koreans also revealed two other defections, both by diplomats. One “oversaw economic affairs at the North Korean embassy in an African nation” and was fortunate enough to escape with his wife and two sons last May, over “life-threatening” concerns. The other was posted in an unnamed Asian country, and defected in February, when “Pyongyang was moving to cut and call in the staff at overseas diplomatic missions.”
~ ~ ~
This being South Korea during an election week, the revelations have South Korea’s opposition party and some left-of-center commenters in a tizzy, accusing President Park’s government of deliberately timing the announcement to influence the upcoming National Assembly elections. Deutsche Welle swallows this narrative hook, line, and sinker, investing more faith in the conspiracy theory than in the veracity of the reports of the defections. Indeed, DW’s report yields the most breathtakingly oblivous delusion of skepticism I’ve ever seen:
“The media in South Korea has very low standards of quality,” says Jean Lee, who in 2012 opened the first bureau of The Associated Press in Pyongyang. Many reports are based only on anonymous sources, without any cross-checking. “I rarely allowed my colleagues to pick up South Korean media reports about North Korea,” Lee told DW. [Deutsche Welle]
Seven billion people on this planet, and DW manages to find the one person who may be the least qualified to offer a sweeping generalization of the media in South Korea, after having made and lost a career by picking up obviously staged, highly politicized North Korean reports about South Korea. In this case, it was left to other reporters to investigate and question whether the narrative Lee’s bureau echoed globally was a fiction built on North Korean threats against this woman’s family — threats that probably would have been delivered by the RGB. And as long as we’re engaging in sweeping generalizations of entire nationalities, do German reporters ever do their homework on the sources they quote?
Although it’s never safe to eliminate political shenanigans as a motive for the actions of governments, this particular theory is strained and illogical. After all, a defection in 2015 — when the Blue House had no coherent North Korea policy at all — hardly bolsters an argument that its much more coherent 2016 policy is working. Surely the Blue House would have anticipated the ease with which the opposition could refute an argument that its policies had worked retroactively. Unfortunately, South Korea’s political culture is so conspiratorial that many news readers begin and end their analysis with conspiratorial explanations. But this isn’t a safe assumption, either.
~ ~ ~
There is a more logical explanation, and it might even satisfy those of you who also demand a conspiratorial one. I also suspect that Seoul is working a political mindf**k here, but the more likely target isn’t South Korean voters, it’s His Corpulency. A logical chain of chronological events supports my speculation. The first link is the recent defection of the entire staff of a North Korean restaurant. The fact that Seoul announced that mass defection publicly is “unusual,” in that it departs from what Yonhap calls Seoul’s previous “low-key stance on the issue of North Korean defectors.” Seoul appears to be using the issue to pressure Pyongyang politically, by showing that the restaurant defection was not a one-off, and that the core class is increasingly a wavering class.
The revelation of this group defection also coincides with other reports of unexplained closures of North Korean restaurants. Adam Cathcart photographed the aftermath of one in Dandong. An intrepid AP correspondent called dozens of North Korean restaurants all over Asia and found that one in Da Nang, Vietnam had also recently and suddenly closed without explanation. There were also some early reports that a restaurant in Yanji was the source of the defections (could it be another unexplained closure?). Eventually, Yonhap went with a version in which the 13 came from Ningpo, in northeastern China, via Thailand and Laos.
Given reports that sanctions are preventing the restaurants from repatriating currency or paying staff, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn of more defections from North Korean restaurants over the next several months. Indeed, The Korea Herald cites “a top Unification Ministry official” as stating “that some other left-behind colleagues may be seeking to follow suit, or on their way here now.” For its part, the regime has tightened its surveillance of the restaurant workers, assigned guards to watch them while they sleep, and banned them from going outside.
China has also acknowledged that the 13 came from a restaurant on its soil. Not even China could cover up a story this big. And while China’s allowance of passage for the 13 is encouraging, it’s not unprecedented. In the past, China has sometimes allowed groups of North Koreans to travel to South Korea if their cases became publicized, or if South Korea was forceful in demanding that they be granted safe passage. Presumably, one or both of those things happened in this case. China also seems to have lost some of its will to shield Pyongyang from embarrassment.
Fine, you say, so might Seoul have timed the restaurant incident for political gain? Not if the theory is that the Blue House is trying to show that its policies are working. Before North Korea’s January 6th nuclear test, the Blue House had no coherent North Korea policy at all. It didn’t shut down Kaesong until February 10th. The U.S. Congress didn’t pass sanctions until February 12th, and the President didn’t start to implement them until March. The U.N. Security Council only approved new sanctions against North Korea in early March. Given that member states have only just begun to implement those sanctions, we’re only starting to see their effects. Even in China, implementation is encouraging but uneven. In that light, it’s slightly surprising (but not implausible) that sanctions are already contributing to the defection of North Korean loyalists.
~ ~ ~
In other words, the announcement of the defection of the RGB colonel now is more likely to coincide with the Ningpo restaurant incident, and a desire to influence the views of North Koreans, than with a desire to influence South Koreans before the election. Six months ago, a Unification Ministry spokesman would not have said that the defection of the RGB colonel “could be read as a sign of fissure at the top levels of North Korea’s regime,” or that it “could be seen as a sign that some of the North Korean elites were not happy under the supreme leader, Kim Jong-un.” Seoul appears, at last, to be returning some heavy fire in the psychological war Pyongyang has been waging against it.
Still, one colonel’s defection does not represent an identifiable upward trend in the number of recent defections from the security forces, although it’s arguably an upward movement in terms of rank. Last December, for example, two defectors from North Korea’s cyber warfare command, which would be subordinate to the RGB, accused the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology of training hackers. For years, reports have suggested that morale in the North Korean military is low, discipline is poor, and abuse and corruption are rife. Those reports have included multiple fraggings and defections. In 2010, a fighter pilot died in an apparent defection attempt, when his MiG-21 crashed in a Chinese cornfield.
Nor is this the only recent sign of flagging loyalty within the RGB’s officer corps. In 2010, the South Koreans arrested two RGB officers, Major Kim Yong-ho and Major Dong Myong-gwan, who were in South Korea on a mission to assassinate senior defector Hwang Jang-yop, an 87-year-old man who died of natural causes several months later. Those two field-grade officers not only let themselves be taken alive, but they pled guilty in open court and implicated their boss, North Korean terror master General Kim Yong-chol — now in charge of relations with South Korea — as having ordered the hit. This is not what we might have expected from a crack hit squad.
Even Pyongyang seems to have lost faith in the RGB, given its subsequent outsourcing of its next hit on Hwang to a bumbling team of South Korean drug dealers.
Once again, this is not the behavior we’d expect from some of the most trusted members of the North Korean elite, unless the loyalties of the elite are wavering. In multiple recent cases, all that has stopped members of the “core” class from breaking with the regime has been the opportunity to do so. One wonders how many other members of the core class may be wavering. So must His Corpulency’s Secret Services, whose paranoia will beget more surveillance, more purges, and more discontent.
~ ~ ~
This statement from Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se supports my theory: “This appears to be an example indicating that such incidents may continue if the North Korean regime continues to make the wrong choices, such as its development of nuclear weapons.” Yun warned that other group defections may follow if His Porcine Majesty continues with his current policies.
South Korean “sources” say that “[a]bout five to seven other North Koreans who used to work at a restaurant in the Chinese eastern port city of Ningbo are known to be hiding in other areas of China, biding their time before they make it to the South, according the sources.”
South Korea says it is putting some diplomats on the job of persuading other Asian countries to allow North Korean refugees safe passage. “There has been no trouble so far in our talks and cooperation with relevant nations,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho June-hyuck. “We are in close talks with relevant nations to help defectors come to South Korea if they so wish under humanitarian principles.”
The Unification Ministry says that North-to-South defections rose 17.5% during the first quarter of 2016, over the same period last year. The report doesn’t parse whether this represents an increase in actual flights from North Korea, or just an increase in arrivals in South Korea, of people who may have been hiding in China for years. That matters, because of what it tells us about the continued effectiveness of Kim Jong-un’s border crackdown, and whether corruption is starting to reverse it.
Robert Collins, the author of the famous briefing on the seven phases of regime collapse in North Korea, almost certainly does not recall that, years ago, I was among a small group of Army officers who heard him deliver his briefing at Yongsan Garrison, in Seoul. For those who aren’t familiar with the seven phases, Robert Kaplan reproduced them in The Atlantic:
Phase One: resource depletion;
Phase Two: the failure to maintain infrastructure around the country because of resource depletion;
Phase Three: the rise of independent fiefs informally controlled by local party apparatchiks or warlords, along with widespread corruption to circumvent a failing central government;
Phase Four: the attempted suppression of these fiefs by the KFR once it feels that they have become powerful enough;
Phase Five: active resistance against the central government;
Phase Six: the fracture of the regime; and
Phase Seven: the formation of new national leadership.
In 2006, Kaplan wrote that “North Korea probably reached Phase Four in the mid-1990s, but was saved by subsidies from China and South Korea, as well as by famine aid from the United States,” and had since reverted to Phase Three.
Since the coronation of Kim Jong-Un, the regime has re-entered Phase Four (there have also been some isolated outbreaks of Phase Five, including in the military). From the outside, Phase Four looks like the collectivization of capitalism — an erratic effort to pull a spiraling galaxy of corrupt officials and hard currency-earning state enterprises back into Pyongyang’s orbit. For example, the regime had recently relaxed market controls, but has since cracked down again, at least for the time being. A widely-touted joint venture with a foreign firm has shut down. Corruption has even penetrated to North Korea’s supply of gold, requiring the regime to crack down on pilferage and smuggling. The critical leap back to Phase Four, however, was the purge of Jang Song-Thaek, in December 2013.
In a system like North Korea’s, the impact of events like Jang’s purge can remain hidden from us for years, only manifesting themselves years after the fact. These effects are much more manifest now, thanks to a new report by CNN’s Kyung Lah, who reports on the views of a young defector who, until less than a year ago, “worked among the elites in Pyongyang.” Today, he works for the South Korean government as a researcher at a university. Because his family is still in Pyongyang, and because he “fears North Korea could manage to hunt him down in his new life,” CNN took great pains to avoid revealing identifying details about him. Here is what he says about the stability of the regime he fled:
He believes that among North Korea’s dictators, the dynasty of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and now Kim Jong Un, “It is Kim Jong Un’s regime that is the most unstable. And it is going to be the shortest.” [CNN]
It was the execution of Jang Song-Thaek that caused him to flee:
“I can tell you for sure the North Koreans who are in the upper middle class don’t trust Kim Jong Un. I was thinking about leaving North Korea for a long time. After seeing the execution of Jang, I thought, ‘I need to hurry up and leave this hell on earth.’ That’s why I defected.”
At the time of Jang’s purge, the Joongang Ilbo, arguably the best and least-read of the major Korean papers, reported that 70 to 80 North Koreans in Europe, and probably scores of others in China, were called home but refused, and went to ground instead. At the time, I speculated that the loss of these operatives might cause significant short-term financial hardships for the regime, and that if foreign intelligence services could recruit some of them and access their laptops, they might yield a wealth of financial intelligence.
He made a risky, harrowing escape, telling no one he knew that he would attempt to defect. I’ve agreed not to reveal how he escaped, again for his safety. Suffice it to say, the chance of his capture or death was extraordinarily high.
But fear of death trying to escape paled in comparison to remaining under Kim Jong Un’s power, says the defector. After Kim’s purge of his inner circle, the defector says he witnessed a change among Pyongyang’s upper class. “They are terrified. The fear grows more intense every day.” [….]
“I can tell you for sure, the North Korean regime will collapse within 10 years,” he says without hesitation.
“Kim Jong Un is mistaken that he can control his people and maintain his regime by executing his enemies. There’s fear among high officials that at any time, they can be targets. The general public will continue to lose their trust in him as a leader by witnessing him being willing to kill his own uncle.”
Dismiss this as wishful thinking if you will — my own wishfulness is no secret, after all — but this account is consistent with other reports. In January 2014, shortly after Jang’s purge, several reports claimed that people in Pyongyang were terrified. This summer, we saw a spate of reports suggesting rising angst and discontent in the ruling class, and increased internal surveillance to suppress it. I’ve speculated that the point would come when the elites would be more afraid of not challenging Kim Jong-Un than of challenging him. But in a society like North Korea’s, not everyone reaches that state at the same time, and few would dare to express it aloud. No one can act alone, and without some means to communicate and organize with others, a crowd of dissenters is nothing more than a large collection of lonely people.
CNN’s report also addresses this Wall Street Journal report, about an analysis of refugee opinions by Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies. Leave aside, for a moment, whatever biases you might suspect a South Korean university’s Peace Studies department brings to its research. Although the report’s headline claims “solid support” for Kim Jong-Un, the study actually measured what recent defectors speculate that other North Koreans thought about the regime. The most obvious problem with this is the classic problem of “preference cascades,” in which totalitarian regimes successfully alienate and isolate double-thinkers and latent dissenters, who are themselves shocked to learn (after the fact) that others secretly harbored the same views as themselves. If the study can claim to measure anything empirically, it is that perceptions of confidence in Kim Jong-Un have actually declined:
In 2012, just as Kim Jong Un took control of the regime, defectors in the survey perceived support at more than 70%. In 2014, their latest survey of 146 defectors shows that while they perceive support of Kim Jong Un remains high, it has dropped to 58%. [CNN]
Unfortunately, however, the survey doesn’t claim to measure anything empirically. According to the institute’s senior researcher, Chang Yong Seok, “the results should not be read as generalized facts due to the small pool of respondents.” That pool consists of just 100 subjects. The study may or may not control for the subjects’ variable circumstances. At best, the study is a useful caution about selection bias — that at least some refugees reckon that they’re unrepresentative of public opinion in North Korea.
People who were slowly dying under dictatorial oppression gained such a consciousness through a survival enabled by the marketplaces. It is a mindset that cannot be reversed nor switched off. It is not an exaggeration to say that North Koreans have passed the point where they disobey and desert command and control only because of pressing survival needs. They do so because they have reached a point of psychological insurrection in terms of system-loyalty. [Jang Jing Sun, New Focus]
After you read Jang’s essay, read the call by Chairman Ed Royce of the House Foreign Affairs Committee for more “[r]adio broadcast[ing], social media, pushing cheap wave transistor radios and low-cost communications, DVDs,” and other ways for North Koreans to hear, speak, and communicate. When communication is free, the regime cannot last. As long as the regime controls communication, it is unlikely to fall.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen a spate of reports about defections from North Korea. Broadly, this is nothing new. The defection, for example, of three crew members of a fishing vessel is life-changing for three men, but is no more likely to rend the fabric of Kim Jong-Un’s regime than 27,000 other defections, almost all of them of people the regime had written off as expendable.
Recently, however, we’ve seen multiple reports suggesting something very different, and vastly more consequential for Kim Jong-Un: a surge of defections from the Inner Party. The defection of the biochemical researcher I wrote about in last Thursday’s post(*) is just one of a series of reports that causes me to wonder whether Kim Jong-Un’s purges—“on a scale not seen since at least the late 1960s,” according to Andrei Lankov—are alienating the ruling class that keeps him in power. I’m not alone in asking this question. No less an authority than Ken Gause opines that, assuming the reports are accurate, “they could reflect … that leaders within North Korea are becoming increasingly anxious about politics around Kim Jong Un.”I’ve held and added to this post for more than a week as enough evidence emerged to suggest the start of a trend.
Recall that in June, shortly after the purge of North Korean Defense Minister Hyon Yong-Chol, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye sat for an interview with The Washington Post and claimed that a growing number of North Korean officials are discontented enough to risk their lives to escape it:
Since [he] took power 3 1/2 years ago, he has executed some 90 officials. Indeed, the reign of terror continues to this day. Although one can say that the reign of terror might work in the short term, in the mid- to long term, it is actually sowing and amplifying the seeds of instability for the regime …. Recently, a senior North Korean defected and confessed to us that because of the ongoing and widespread executions that include even his inner circle, they are afraid for their lives. That is what prompted him to flee. [WaPo]
Last week, Yonhap reported that “[a] number of North Korea’s working-level officials based in foreign nations have sought asylum” abroad, because “[m]any of them feel agitated” by Kim Jong Un’s rule. Some of them “have already defected to the South.” Yonhap also cited a report in the Chosun Ilbo, that “about a dozen senior North Korean officials” have defected for fear of being purged.
The defectors were working in China and Southeast Asia, some charged with earning hard currency for the regime. Several have already arrived in South Korea while others are staying in a third country.
Early this year, a mid-ranking official who had been dispatched to Hong Kong from Room 39, a Workers Party office that handles Kim’s slush funds, sought asylum in South Korea with his family.He reportedly told investigators here he was terrified of Kim’s draconian purges, which saw senior officials executed by anti-aircraft gun, and that officials left in North Korea find it almost impossible to flee because of tight controls but those working overseas can find some opportunities to defect. Last year, a senior official of Taesong Bank, who had handled Kim’s slush funds in Siberia, fled to South Korea with millions of dollars. Even a senior official of the State Security Department fled the North and arrived here. According to the National Security Service here, the defection particularly upset Kim. [Chosun Ilbo]
I wrote about that defection in this post at the time (see also this L.A. Times report). An especially tantalizing aspect of the Chosun Ilbo‘s report is that some of these defections could represent invaluable windfalls of financial intelligence about Pyongyang’s offshore assets, income streams, and money laundering methods. That intelligence could boost the Obama Administration’s ability to enforce sanctions against North Korea, should it develop the will to do so at a vulnerable moment for Kim Jong-Un.
(The Chosun Ilbo report also claims that “[a]n army general” who “was involved in the two inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007”—so presumably, once a highly trusted cadre—“has been staying in a third country since he fled the North recently.” If the general in question is Park Seung-Won, who was also involved in building the Masikryong Ski Resort, South Korea denies this report.)
Yonhap has since reported that North Koreans laboring abroad are terrified of the purges and “examinations” by security forces cadres posted in China, and that some of them are choosing to defect. The Daily NK reports increased surveillance of well-connected merchants (donju) and officials of state-owned enterprises. Radio Free Asia reports that at Pyongyang’s request, China has forcibly summoned ten of its officials home, as part of its own investigation into the defections:
North Korea’s National Security Agency (NSA) summoned the workers as part of an investigation into a recent flood of high-ranking officials seeking asylum, the source from inside North Korea with knowledge of the country’s affairs in China told RFA’s Korean Service.“Resident employees who work in Shenyang (in northeastern China’s Liaoning province) earning foreign currency were recalled in the last ten days of June by the North Korean government,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.“
It was not their will to go back. They were forcibly returned to their own country.” [RFA]
Invariably, most of these reports cite anonymous sources, but they’re consistent with other reports, and a report that, after the December 2013 purge of Jang Song-Thaek, Jang’s minions in hard currency-earning enterprises in China were called home, but ran the other way. Reports that some North Koreans choose defection over obedience suggests more than simple insubordination. They suggest that Kim Jong-Un is losing his psychological hold over his elites.
The purges are also sowing mutual distrust between Kim Jong-Un and the elites. Some of them now accuse the State Security Department of bugging their homes.
An official in Pyongyang recently told RFA’s Korean Service that “in December 2013, several complaints were lodged by the North Korean Workers’ Party leadership that the State Security Department had even wiretapped departments under the Central Party,” and Kim Jong Un had responded by saying that “if they are clean, why do they fear being wiretapped?”
Soon after, wiretapping and surveillance by the State Security Department became “ubiquitous,” targeting high-ranking officials in their homes and forcing them to rein in conversation with their families, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Several officials had gone so far as to send their children to stay with relatives or to live in areas outside of Pyongyang, he said. [RFA]
According to the Daily NK, there have been so many defections from elite families in Pyongyang that the regime has concluded that exiling their entire families, or sending them to prison camps, is no longer a practical deterrent. Instead, some elite families are merely put under enhanced surveillance.
“The number of various cadres defecting is on the rise, but I think it was determined that indiscriminate penalization of family members could worsen public sentiment and hurt the ‘Republic,’” he said.
Empirically, families of defectors in North Korea appear to lead stable lives in Pyongyang, but bubbling under the surface is the stress of constant surveillance and phone taps by the State Security Department (SSD).“
Families of traitors (defectors) are merely used as propaganda for the state, which claims they are able to lead stable lives thanks to the benevolence of the leader, but they never know when they’re going to be executed,” the source explained.
As of late, more officials at North Korea’s missions overseas or trade workers plan group defections with their families due to the cycle of purges, executions, and ensuing anxiety rife within the upper echelons of power in the North. Others feel threatened while carrying out overseas posts and defect rather than return to their homeland, according to the source.
When those with families in Pyongyang or relatives stationed at overseas missions hear of officials’ returns being delayed or that they’ve gone missing, an increasingly common response is, “another one fled,” according to the source. [Daily NK]
It is also possible that corruption plays a role in the state’s leniency, and that the security forces are taking bribes to spare these families.
~ ~ ~
North Korea has survived other high-level defections, of course, most notably that of Hwang Jang-Yop in 1997. Predictions of North Korea’s collapse—and the refutation of them—are necessarily so based on unknowables that they become Rorschach tests of the writer’s broader policy views. For example, Yonhap quotes four scholars, two of whom argue that the recent defections will not cause the collapse of the regime (although the headline attributes that conclusion to “experts”). The article tells us nothing about these academics or their orientations,* and offers little explanation for their conclusions, but strictly speaking, defections will not cause the regime to collapse, any more than hair loss will kill a cancer patient, or any more than a wave of defections in 1989 caused the collapse of East Germany. That wave, however, was a coincident symptom of a metastatic social cancer, of a society so riddled with disillusionment at every level that in the end, even the Stasi feared summary justice, border guards couldn’t wait to cross the wall to buy bananas, and hardened killers like Erich Mielke did not dare to crack down violently.
The more data points there are, the more one can argue that those points represent a trend. There are more of these data points today than at any time during the reign of Kim Jong-Il, a man who couldn’t govern but who could, unquestionably, rule. Kim Jong-Un shows little aptitude for either skill. I’ve never believed that Kim Jong-Un had the temperament, credentials, or gravitas to survive long in power, and nothing I’ve observed since December 2011 disturbs this belief. The short, unhappy history of his rule has mostly been remarkable for its repression, brutality, and purges; the widening of destabilizing social and class divisions; Kim’s flaunting of his bacchanalian, un-socialist lifestyle; and adisregard for the deiocratic cult of a selfless, enlightened, superhuman protector of the people.
If Kim is no master of statecraft, which members of the inner junta does Kim Jong-Un still trust enough to guide him as he shifts the levers of power, or to restrain him from grinding the gears? Which of them trusts him? Kim Yong Nam, an 87 year-old best known for leading delegations to Africa in his autumn years? Chae Ryong-Hae, who is rumored to have “barely escaped” his own one-way trip to the ZPU-4 range—a rumor that finds some support in official North Korean media—just before he suddenly appeared in Seoul, leading an official delegation? Chae was promoted as a contemporary of Hyon Yong-Chol, Ri Pyong-Chol, and Ri Yong-Ho; he’s now the lone survivor of the four. In such a place, not even Hwang Pyong-So can feel confident that he’ll survive long enough to serve on Kim Yong-Nam’s funeral committee.
If it’s true that Pyongyang survived the last two decades without a sudden collapse, it’s equally true that Pyongyang’s control over food, information, and consumer goods has undergone a gradual collapse. The regime is riddled with corruption and inequality; and (as I argue here) falling morale within the party and the security forces. You’d be right to scoff at the empirical pretensions of a Foreign Policy survey that recently ranked North Korea as the world’s 29th most unstable state—up from 26th last year—but the broader conclusion finds support in the historical trends.
Historically, totalitarian regimes either bend under the weight of popular disillusionment or break under it. Despite the mostly unsupported hopes of scholars in Washington and Seoul, Kim Jong-Un has not implemented significant economic reforms, and no one speaks of political reforms. Instead, he has tried to re-impose North Korea’s information blockade and win over the elites with material amenities, even as he terrorizes them. I doubt this will be a winning strategy. If I were to offer a guess as to how the gears of this charnel house will eventually coagulate and clog, it would start with a local disturbance and a bloody crackdown that splits the security forces, then a fatal delay as critical units wait in their barracks to see which will be the winning side.
This illustrates, in a mild way, the reason why totalitarian regimes collapse so suddenly…. Such regimes have little legitimacy, but they spend a lot of effort making sure that citizens don’t realize the extent to which their fellow-citizens dislike the regime. If the secret police and the censors are doing their job, 99% of the populace can hate the regime and be ready to revolt against it – but no revolt will occur because no one realizes that everyone else feels the same way.
This works until something breaks the spell, and the discontented realize that their feelings are widely shared, at which point the collapse of the regime may seem very sudden to outside observers – or even to the citizens themselves. Claims after the fact that many people who seemed like loyal apparatchiks really loathed the regime are often self-serving, of course. But they’re also often true: Even if one loathes the regime, few people have the force of will to stage one-man revolutions, and when preferences are sufficiently falsified, each dissident may feel that he or she is the only one, or at least part of a minority too small to make any difference. [Glenn Reynolds]
What we can’t know is when the trickle of defections might also become a preference cascade. Whether these events are followed by some tense days of tanks on street corners and Korean Central Television playing martial music depends on whether the elites believe they and their families are safer with Kim in power, or without him.
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* But I was curious enough to Google them.
– Chang Yong-seok, a researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, told Yonhap that “[f]or the time being, North Korean officials are likely to continue to flee … or seek asylum,” and that this would weaken Kim Jong-Un’s regime. Chang has previously advocated “curbing” leaflet balloon launches to appease Pyongyang, while opining that Seoul “could not” lift bilateral sanctions.
– Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University, told Yonhap that “intermittent” defections were part of “the process of solidifying the Kim Jong-un regime and securing the regime’s stability.” In 2013, after North Korea’s third nuclear test, Kim wrote an op-ed for the Asahi Shimbun arguing that Washington should have responded to the test with (sit down for this) direct talks with Pyongyang.
– When interviewed by Yonhap, Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies “dismissed the view” that the defections were indications of instability. Yang also told NK News that “[d]uring the previous mood of reconciliation,” as he calls it, “information could be checked,” presumably by asking the North Korean government. Yang questions the reports as the products of anonymous sources, and speculates that they “might have been spread by brokers in the border areas.”
– Jung Sang-don, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (KIDA), hypothesized to Yonhap that Kim Jong-un’s “governing style could bring about an instability” in the North and cause it to “make provocations in a bid to tide over its internal problems.” I found no other published information about Jung’s views.
NKnet is hosting its 4th annual North Korean Human Rights International Film Festival this coming Friday and Saturday, September 26-27, in Gwanghwamun, Seoul.
This year there are 14 films from Korea, the US, and Saudi Arabia, and two of the films received financial support from the festival:
100 min. – Korea – documentary – no English subtitles
Directed by: Kim Gyu-Min (the director of Winter Butterfly, which played at the first NHIFF in 2011)
Category: Reunification of the Korean Peninsula
*Following the film, there will be a conversation with the director, who is originally from North Korea (interpretation not available).
10 hours from now, the ceasefire line will collapse and the Korean peninsula will be reunified.
On Thursday, November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall – symbolizing the division of Germany – fell. It wasn’t through an agreement of the East and West German governments that it happened on that day. Nor were East or West German academics or anyone else from around the world for that matter able to foresee the wall would come down on November 9, 1989. A year later Germany was reunified for the first time in 41 years through the votes of the East and West German citizenry in free elections.
– What might transpire if November 9 were to come to the Korean peninsula?
– How much have we prepared for a Korean 11/9?
– In preparing for a Korean 11/9, what are the things we must do first?
– Is there any way to know what will happen on 11/10 and beyond?
The Threshold of Death
115 min. – Korea – English subtitles
Directed by: Lee Eun Sang
Category: Refugees & Resettlement
* will be featured at the opening ceremony
Dong-jin works at the immigration office uncovering illegal immigrants. His relationship with his father, who has Alzheimer’s disease, is one of obligation, and things are awkward between his younger brother, Dong-seok, and the family.
Coworker Nam-il regularly uses his position to commit corruption, while Dong-jin’s youngest sibling Eun-sung is led by compassion and unable to be cold-hearted. Unable to build relationships with those around him in his lonely daily life, Dong-jin finds himself favorably inclined toward Yeon-hwa, a Chinese-Korean singer he met at noraebang (a singing room).
When she suddenly receives a call from a broker who is guiding her niece, Soon-bok (who has escaped from North Korea), things fall into disarray. Seeing Yeon-hwa’s difficult situation and Soon-bok’s purity and will to live, Dong-jin starts to change little by little from his cold ways. [SPOILER ALERT – stop reading here if you plan to see the film] In the wake of his weak father’s death and then Yeon-hwa’s suicide, Dong-jin works hard to find Soon-bok.
All of this amounts to nothing as his coworker Nam-il tries to shift the blame for his corrupt dealings to Dong-jin and his sister Eun-sung betrays him in order to protect the family. Having lost everything, Dong-jin is left alone only with his sad reality and desire to see Soon-bok.
For more complete information about the festival, please visit NKnet’s website, where I’ve put up lots of trailers, photos, film schedule and descriptions, how to RSVP, directions, reviews, subtitle info, the program for the opening ceremony, etc.