How Kim Jong-un, China & the autumn gales set a death trap for North Korea’s fishermen

By now, you’ve probably seen the ghastly reports of boats from North Korea washing up against the Japanese coastline with the desiccated or skeletal remains of their crews. You’ve probably also read reports speculating about why. This post will sift through dozens of those reports, discard the theories that the evidence refutes, and assemble the more plausible ones into a coherent explanation that the evidence supports. As it turns out, most of what you’ve read about North Korea’s ghost ships is only half right, and much of it is at least half wrong.

[CNN]

In 2015, there was just one survivor among the boats and bodies washing up along Japan’s coast; in 2014, there were four. By comparison, authorities found 27 bodies in 2015 and 11 bodies in 2016. There are more survivors this year. In early December, The Guardian reported that the 64 North Korean boats that drifted to Japan in 2017 contained 42 survivors and 18 bodies. Of those 64 boats, 33 arrived between the beginning of November and December 5th. By December 18th, that number had risen to 95 boats and 27 bodies. Ten days later, it was 103 boats and 35 bodies. Most arrived in the last two months of this year. As horrible as this looks — and be warned, it’s horrible and graphic — it’s probably even worse than that.

Maritime experts speculate that for every North Korean boat that reaches dry land in Japan, there may be many more still lost and drifting at sea and the death toll among North Korean fishermen may in fact be much higher. Something must be terribly wrong in North Korea, to make a fisherman’s catch one worth dying for. [CNN]

North Korea’s government doesn’t even claim the remains. Instead, Japanese authorities keep DNA samples. Then, monks bury the unnamed dead in a common grave overlooking the sea.

Over the weekend, the city of Oga cremated the bodies. The coast guard is keeping fingernails and toenails for DNA identification in case family members come forward. In past cases, the Japanese Red Cross has helped to return remains to North Korea.

For now, the ashes of the eight are stored in unmarked white boxes that sit on a table at the back of the main hall in Tousenji, a Zen temple in Oga.

Ryosen Kojima, 62, Tousenji’s priest, said the temple would keep the ashes indefinitely. If they are not claimed, they will eventually be buried in a grave for unknown souls in the temple’s back garden.

“They are humans just like us,” said Kojima, who said the temple usually takes in two or three sets of anonymous remains of North Korean fishermen a year. “But they have no one to look after their ashes.”

“Since they were born into this world,” he said, “they must have parents and families. I feel so sorry for them.” [Asahi Shimbun]

North Korean ships began washing up along Japan’s coast as early as 2013, when 80 boats drifted ashore. I wasn’t able to determine how long the ships would have been at sea, except that one crew survived “weeks adrift on heavy seas.” The boats whose crews died were probably at sea for months.

The Men

Some Japanese wonder whether these men might be spies, smugglers, or abduction squads. But if this is North Korea’s way of sending trained spies to Japan, the attrition rate seems prohibitively high. I’ve seen no evidence that any of the castaways were identified as spies or behaved as such. None appear to have set sail with the intent to defect. Although there have been defections in the Sea of Japan recently, they’re still relatively rare. In 2011, nine defectors — three men, three women, and three children — sailed all the way to Japan. Last June, a North Korean scientist and his family obtained a boat and enough fuel to carry them to South Korea (source article in Korean). In December, the South Korean Coast Guard rescued two defectors from a small boat off the east coast. Those found aboard the ghost ships are overwhelmingly adult males. Presumably, anyone intending to defect would bring enough provisions to survive a long sea journey.

The fishing waters are also rich, and an obvious draw for fishermen. Japan’s Coast Guard has caught North Korean boats fishing the Yamato Bank within its exclusive economic zone on hundreds of occasions. Japanese fishermen say the waters are increasingly overfished, and their livelihoods are at risk. No matter how good the fishing, only great desperation or state fiat could drive North Korea’s fishermen to risk slow death at sea in their rickety, underpowered little boats with no GPS navigation systems. The fishermen certainly know the risks. Jiro Ishimaru, the journalist who brought us Rimjin-gang, tells the Asahi Shimbun that some fishing villages along North Korea’s east coast are called “widows’ villages” for this reason. This one is near Shinpo, in South Hamgyeong Province.

Another theory advanced is that the crews are not fishermen at all, but inexperienced soldiers sent out to sea. Interviews with survivors may eventually validate that theory, but for now, most of the victims are probably just who they seem to be — fishermen. None were armed, and all behaved just like I’d expect impoverished and isolated people from an anarchic place to behave after being washed arose in a forbidden paradise. For example, three of ten crew members who recently survived an accidental voyage from Chongjin to Hokkaido took shelter in some vacant fishing cabins. Then, they looted them of their solar panels, a generator, and some electrical appliances. When the Japanese police came, they tried to sail away, but were caught and arrested. The men were 45, 32 and 59 years old — too old to be expendable conscripts.

The Boats

Most news articles speculate that the North Korean fishermen fell into distress due to unfavorable winds, lack of fuel, or mechanical trouble. These factors probably contributed to the problem, but they aren’t new developments and didn’t catch the crews off-guard. The men who crew these boats, such as the one that lost its steering, must know the limits of their seaworthiness.

“Only an idiot would fish this way,” says Akira Funatsu, a 76-year-old veteran Japanese fisherman. [CNN]

The boats are obviously much too small to cross a sea. They’re also clearly in terrible shape, even if one discounts the effects of months at sea without maintenance. This also fits with the dilapidated state of North Korea’s infrastructure generally. The crews surely knew this both before and after 2013.

Lack of fuel seems like a logical explanation at first. Fuel prices spiked in the spring due to sanctions, but 2017 fuel sanctions still wouldn’t explain 2013 or 2015 ghost ships. Furthermore, by September — just before the last wave of ghost ships would have sailed — fuel prices had begun to fall back to more normal levels. (Update: But see this by Thomas Byrne of the Korea Society, indicating that fuel prices well above historical levels despite the recent easing of prices.) Fuel prices may be one factor, but they don’t explain why ghost ships drifted onto the Japanese coast before prices spiked, or after they fell. Regardless of the price of fuel, the boats were still going to sea. Their skippers wouldn’t have left port if they knew they couldn’t make it home.

The Tides and Winds

The tides in the Yellow Sea, off Korea’s west coast, are among the world’s highest. By contrast, there are almost no tides in the Sea of Japan.* But as it turns out, the winter tends to bring strong winds in that area. An official from the Japanese Coast Guard interviewed by CNN and a professor interviewed by the Asahi Shimbun confirm that although the Sea of Japan is calm in the summer, around late October or November, as winter sets in, the winds pick up, the sea becomes rough and stormy, and there are more shipwrecks.

I searched online to see if someone kept an online archive of global weather patterns, because of course they do — the internet has everything. My research led me to a wonderful site called earth.net. And sure enough, starting in November, there were two bands of strong wind along North Korea’s east coast, blowing hard out to sea over Wonsan in the south and Chongjin in the north. The winds picked up speed as they descended from the mountains and blew either southeast to sea or northeast toward Hokkaido, sometimes faster than 60 kilometers an hour (our National Weather Service defines any wind more than 63 kilometers an hour as “gale force.”) Here’s a picture of the wind on the night of November 10th. That storm over the La Perouse Strait, at the northern entrance to the Sea of Japan, is blowing at more than 100 kilometers an hour. It’s just gale force off the coast of Chongjin, pulling any nearby boats out to sea.

After slowing down for a few days, the winds picked up again by the 17th, and again on the 23rd. On the morning of the 25th, the winds off Chongjin are doing more than 70. Meanwhile, a quiet vortex formed off the west coast of Japan, pulling in any boats blown away from the Korean coast. Watch this pattern.

By that afternoon, that vortex was gone, and the winds were blowing hard toward the east and sweeping everything on the sea into northern Honshu and Southern Hokkaido.

This pattern — a hard east wind off Korea and mid-sea calm, then a hard east wind over the mid-sea blowing toward Japan, repeated itself several times throughout late November and December.

These fierce wind patterns would explain why so many North Korean boats blew up against the Japanese coast around that time. Pyongyang’s failure to provide essential state services would also have contributed to the disaster. I found no evidence online of any such thing as a North Korean coast guard, although one sees many small patrol boats along North Korea’s east coast on Google maps.

North Korea’s navy is in a poor state of maintenance and repair, except for its submarines, helicopter frigates, and some patrol vessels designed for anti-ship duties. At least one of the ghost ships had a radio transceiver, but with no effective coast guard, who would send a weather alert or dispatch a rescue boat if a fishing boat sent a distress signal?

Blame It on Sanctions?

Why might North Korean boats have begun venturing further out recently, despite the wind patterns that the fishermen must have known about? Unfortunately, one finds speculation in greater supply than explanation:

Many analysts think a recent increase in North Korean “ghost ships” washing ashore in Japan is a reflection of food shortages, which in turn are a result of tougher sanctions imposed to punish the regime for its continued nuclear defiance. [Washington Post]

This theory doesn’t hold up to basic scrutiny. There isn’t any evidence that food was in significantly shorter supply between September and November than it typically is in North Korea. Food prices rose in the spring, but that happens every year after winter stocks run out and before the summer crops come in. Rice prices, which the Daily NK tracks online, stabilized in the summer. By September, before the latest group of ghost ships would have sailed, prices of rice, corn, and pork were actually declining.

A persistent complaint of mine has been that journalists, and the “many analysts” they quote, don’t seem to understand the sanctions they opine on. The period when the first ghost ships left North Korea, between 2013 and 2015, coincides with a period during which U.S. and U.N. sanctions were largely unenforced and had few apparent effects, as I’ve documented again and again and again (page 20). The North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act didn’t pass until February 2016, wasn’t implemented by executive order until March 2016, and wasn’t seriously enforced until mid-2017. The U.S. and U.N. never sanctioned North Korea’s fishing industry until the KIMS Act passed in 2017 — and even then, they only sanctioned North Korea’s seafood exports. The same week that President Trump signed the KIMS Act, the U.N. also banned North Korea’s seafood exports in UNSCR 2371. UNSCR 2397 later clarified that the seafood export ban also includes the North Korean government’s sale of fishing rights, which is a topic we’ll turn to later in this post.

A similar line of speculation is that “Pyongyang is pushing its fishermen to new extremes to try to stave off potential food shortages as the U.S. leads efforts to squeeze the Kim Jong Un regime in a standoff over its nuclear program.” This theory doesn’t hold up, either. If you want to maintain your food supply through a hard spell, decimating your littoral fishing fleet,  exporting your fish stocks, and overfishing — which has become a serious problem for North Korea — aren’t sustainable strategies for that.

Most importantly, there’s more evidence that sanctions have driven seafood prices in North Korean markets down than up, because reducing exports increases domestic supplies. In October, prices of fish in Yanji, China were high because of reduced imports from North Korea due to sanctions — or more likely, a temporary feint at sanctions compliance that no one on either side of the border expected to last long. High prices in China might be tempting to North Korean smugglers — more on that later — except that the Sea of Japan is on the wrong side of Korea to reach any Chinese ports.

If North Korea exported fewer fish to China, one would expect sellers to dump some of their merchandise in North Korea’s markets. That’s not just my speculation, it’s exactly what happened in 2016, when China again temporarily over-enforced sanctions by barring North Korean ships from its ports, including ships carrying North Korean seafood to China in exchange for hard currency for the state. The result actually had North Korean consumers cheering for sanctions:

“These days items that were previously hard to find because they were earmarked for export are suddenly emerging at the markets,” a source from North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on Thursday. “The price haven’t gone down enough yet, so you don’t see too many people actually buying them. But you do see flocks of curious people coming out to the markets to see all the delicacies for sale.”

She added, “High-end marine goods like roe, sea urchin eggs, hairy crab, and jumbo shrimp and produce like pine nuts, bracken, and salted pine mushrooms were once considered to be strictly for export, but now they’re easy to find. The number of such products, referred to as ‘sent back goods,’ at Sunam Market and other markets around Chongjin is growing by the day.”

Additional sources in both North and South Hwanghae Provinces reported the same developments in those regions. [….]

Unlike in the past, when they had to pick out the high-end fisheries goods only to hand over to state foreign-currency earning enterprises, now they can sell the entire load to wholesale merchants.

“People are getting their hopes up, saying they might be able to eat some of the highest quality fish for a cheap price, if the UN sanctions continue to carry weight until the summer,” she explained. “They’re actually welcoming the sanctions now saying that for average people they’re bringing good fortune since the number of goods they can get their hands on are continually on the rise.” [Daily NK]

On a previous occasion, in October 2015, the regime itself briefly banned seafood exports to China for unknown reasons. Again, halting exports increased the domestic supply of seafood in North Korea’s markets, at the cost of removing a major source of “loyalty funds” for the regime while the ban lasted. In November, journalist Jiro Ishimaru heard from a contact in Pyongyang that “high-end seafood such as shrimp, crab and sea cucumbers” had become available since the regime had lost the ability to export it to China.

Clearly, sanctions aren’t causing shortages of fish or seafood in North Korea. If anything, enforcing the ban on North Korea’s seafood exports and sales of fishing rights is more likely to do the exact opposite. Of course, North Korea is still smuggling some of its fish and seafood into China in violation of the sanctions.

Who Controls North Korea’s Seafood Trade?

Which agencies control North Korea’s fisheries industry? As it turns out, the answer is “most of them.” Kim Jong-un parcels out fishing rights like Tony Soprano parcels out sanitation contracts. At least some of the fisheries are affiliated with the North Korean military, but others are controlled by entities that are involved in criminal activity, human rights abuses, terrorism, and proliferation financing.

The basic operation within North Korea’s fisheries industry centers on ‘fisheries business units’. The Party, military, and Cabinet each run their own units. Directly under the Workers’ Party is the ‘fisheries export unit’, which is operated by the Daesung General Bureau (trade company), and in terms of the military, each corps runs a ‘no. 18 fisheries business unit’. There are also ‘regional fisheries units’, which are operated by the people’s economic arm of the Cabinet. [Daily NK, Oct. 2015]

“Daesung General Bureau” turns its proceeds over to Bureau 39, the state money laundering agency that funds North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. In fact, “Daesung General Bureau” is probably an alternate translation or alias of the Korea Daesung General Trading Corporation, which the Treasury Department designated in 2010 for being a subsidiary of Bureau 39. Treasury designated Bureau 39 in 2010 for money laundering, drug dealing, luxury goods smuggling, and proliferation financing. The U.N. Security Council designated it in 2016.

The Reconnaissance General Bureau, the North’s foreign intelligence agency, also controls some of the seafood trade via a front called the Birobong Trading Company. The RGB carries out most of Pyongyang’s terrorist acts. The Treasury Department first designated it for arms smuggling in 2010. The U.N. Security Council designated it in 2016.

North Korea has given vessels like Po Thong Gang and Mu Bong a monopoly on king crabs, shrimp, and conch fishing. Therefore, they’re able to secure some 1,000 tons annually in marine goods and sell them to individual companies in Japan to buy the necessary reconnaissance equipment.

These bureau vessels also conceal their true origins and engage in trade as regular ships. Especially when they are subject to international sanctions and unable to make port entry, they use tactful tricks such as remaining in international waters, where Chongryon (General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, an entity holding strong ties with Pyongyang) companies will come to their aid in trade. [Daily NK]**

From this August 2017 report, we glean more interesting details. First, a North Korean official was recently expelled from China for smuggling antiques, and second, in order to keep his official job title, he had to pay off “Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces, the General Bureau of Reconnaissance, and the People’s Safety Agency,” which is designated by the Treasury Department for human rights abuses. Once again, every North Korean official has to kick up to someone, and the security forces are North Korea’s apex predators. According to the Daily NK, the fisheries business itself is no longer lucrative enough for a fisheries official to meet his quotas. The report attributes that to the plausible explanation that China was enforcing a ban on North Korean seafood shortly after the passage of UNSCR 2371. (China tends to “front-load” its sanctions compliance, only to relax it later. It won’t last unless we sanction the buyers of North Korean seafood.)

Did North Korea Privatize its Seafood Trade?

Recently, Andrei Lankov and his research assistant, Peter Ward, have argued that “at least some of” North Korea’s seafood industry consists of private commercial enterprises. They argue that sanctions on seafood exports set back a budding private industry. I asked Ward — he’s a perfect gentleman, and was very forthcoming about his evidence and findings — about the basis for his conclusion. He conceded that it was based on interviews with refugees who left North Korea in 2014 or earlier. For example, one of the refugees Lankov interviewed left the business in 2000 due to overfishing and lack of fuel.

Unfortunately, around 2014, there was (pardon the expression) a sea change in how Pyongyang managed its fisheries. Lankov contends that “by the mid-1990s … state-owned fishing companies ceased to operate almost entirely, and much of the fishing came to be done by private operators,” but the Daily NK’s more detailed and recent reports are more persuasive to me that central government agencies such as Bureau 39 control the vast majority of the seafood trade. That’s also consistent with Pyongyang general trend of bigger, state-controlled networks muscling out small-time enterprises.

Lankov argues that whether seafood revenues “ultimately pay for missiles is not something we can deduce from interview testimony,” but I’ve cited evidence that they fund North Korean state agencies that are designated by the U.N. Security Council for funding proliferation. The RGB and Bureau 39 have been blacklisted for years. All transactions with them are banned, regardless of what we can prove they’re buying with their money. Those are probably the agencies that control the main sources of fisheries income — big ships like trawlers, and sales of fishing rights.

[Larger commercial ships on North Korea’s east coast]

Lankov and Ward may be partially correct with respect to the smaller fishing boats. If you read the articles in the Asahi Shimbun here and here, and this from CNN, the consensus is that they’re under military control, are expected to kick up some of their earnings to “to the upper echelons of the state … for military activities,” but are under their skippers’ immediate operational control. The crews are paid in proportion to how many fish they catch. They keep a share of the revenue to pay for fuel and a share of the catch to feed themselves, but it’s not clear how much they can skim off. Given reports that Kim Jong-un ordered the fishermen to “[g]ive as much protein to soldiers as possible,” the military probably takes most of the catch. Some have tried to smuggle fish into China to take advantage of higher prices there, but the regime has cracked down on them. This “has been a serious blow to the residents’ livelihoods.”

Thus, Pyongyang has largely monopolized the fisheries trade, and the small-boat fisherman are desperate. Their boats are in poor repair and obviously aren’t a high priority to the state. They don’t have refrigerators or freezers, because they’re only designed to fish close to the shore and bring their catches home.

Lankov and Ward criticize sanctions banning North Korean seafood exports, so it’s worth asking whether North Korea should be allowed to export seafood. According to the World Food Programme, around 70 percent of North Koreans are food insecure. Their diets are especially deficient in proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals — deficiencies that could be made up with fish and seafood. As any foreigner who has lived in South Korea can attest, seafood is large part of the Korean diet. Koreans seemed to eat squid as often as Americans eat chicken. Shredded dried squid is one of Korea’s most popular snack foods (if you’ve ever been to a movie theater in South Korea, you can back me up here). But not to worry, says Hazel Smith: “Fish is, cannot be, and has never been seen as a major form of protein for the majority of people in North Korea.” Of course it can. People have dried, smoked, and salted fish since the middle ages, and dried fish can keep for years. Any country that can figure out how to enrich uranium can master the technology for drying and shrink-wrapping fish and squid.

If North Korea’s fisherman could sell their catches in North Korean markets, it would be far better for shoppers and the fishermen alike. Lankov also points to downstream industries, like the production and repair of fishing nets, that might be affected by sanctions. That’s fine, except that fishermen who catch fish for domestic markets need nets just as much as those who catch fish for export.

How Kim Jong-un Sold North Korea’s Fishing Rights to China

I’ve hypothesized that whatever caused North Korean fishing boats to drift out to sea and ultimately, to Japan, was the result of some change whose effects began to tell between 2013 and 2015. Neither fuel prices, nor the condition of the boats themselves, nor food prices, nor sanctions, nor weather explains that change. Something that happened between 2013 and 2015 forced those boats to sail out too far where they fell victim to the winds.

Consulting the elephantine OFK archives, I found this June 2014 post commenting on North Korea’s sale of fishing rights along the Yellow Sea coast — yes, on the other side of Korea — to China. It turns out that North Korea began selling fishing rights to China as early as 2004, shortly after Lankov’s interviewee quit the business due (in part) to overfishing. (Pyongyang’s sale of Yellow Sea fishing rights also upset South Korea, because some of the waters North Korea sold were actually south of the Northern Limit Line — you know, in the “peace zone.” After that, the South Korean Coast Guard had to chase away Chinese fishing boats.) By July 2016, this was generating $30 million a year in hard currency for Pyongyang, three times what it has previously earned by selling fishing rights, and 1,500 Chinese fishing vessels were fishing in North Korean waters. Alexandra Ma quotes Hazel Smith as saying that these fishing rights deals involve “North Korean companies of all sizes,” are ratified by the state, and are often verbal contracts to help conceal their existence. The arrangement has been very profitable for Pyongyang. For North Korea’s small fishermen, it has been an unmitigated disaster.

But is there any evidence that North Korea also sold off its fishing rights in the Sea of Japan? There is. This August 2016 report, sourced to South Korean intelligence, claims that North Korea also sold fishing rights in what Koreans call “the East Sea” to China through “an intermediary trade agency,” and that “[a]ll earnings have been funneled to prop up Kim Jong-un’s leadership.” If Pyongyang sold fishing rights to Chinese fisheries in blocks, that would explain why North Korea’s small fishermen have been increasingly squeezed by the loss of their fishing grounds and overfishing between 2013 and 2016.

There is also direct evidence of how the sale of fishing rights to Chinese trawlers devastated the fishing communities along North Korea’s east coast. Overfishing is clearly a major problem there. There are now 2,500 Chinese fishing boats off Korea’s coasts. The problem became much worse off the east coast in 2016. Sorry for the long quote here, but this report explains just about everything:

“A fleet of new fishing vessels have emerged in the East Sea waters off of Sinpo, South Hamgyong Province,” a source from the province told Daily NK on July 6. These Chinese ships, outfitted with small refrigerating facilities, state-of-the-art fish-finding equipment, and high-performance GPS and radar systems, are under three-year contracts, which stipulate the entirety of any catch be handed directly over to China in exchange for cash– save the costs of the ship lease.

[….]

The pact has spurred frenetic fishing expeditions by North Korean state companies to amass the highest possible amount of funds. China, on the other hand, “is simply sitting back and collecting on this deal,” the source said.

Therefore, the livelihoods of people living in adjacent fishing villages are on the line, which is of “entirely no concern to the [North Korean] leadership,” the source asserted, adding that while many see the season’s squid catch as their “year’s harvest,” but with their backs against the wall to pay loyalty funds, “state companies couldn’t care less about their troubles.”

These hulking vessels are north of 100 tons, highly mobile, and their operators unsatisfied to confine their expeditions to the deep sea, instead pillaging the shallow, coastal waters as well. Bottom trawling, an environmentally destructive fishing method that drags vast nets across the seabed, is also common.

The North Korean fisherman are furious, and some have reacted violently.

Coupled with the fact that China supplies them with diesel and other fishing instruments, these smaller boats “don’t stand a chance,” the source noted, and “with little in the way of recourse, many [fisherman] are staging armed dissent.”

“Denouncing the vessels as ‘pirate ships,’ people hurl stones at them as soon as they spot them. The anger is so intense, in fact, that many of the [North Korean] fishermen stand guard at the ports armed with clubs to prevent them from docking,” he concluded. [Daily NK]

There’s an interesting historical parallel to this, half a world away. To hear the Somali pirates’ side of it, they were also humble fisherman until foreign ships caught all of their stocks and destroyed their livelihoods. The pirates say they took up arms to drive off foreign trawlers. Somalis living along the coasts cheered them as an ad hoc coast guard until they turned to indiscriminate piracy. The same rage now boils in the widows’ villages of Hamgyeong-do.

Conclusion

The cause of the ghost ships is most likely a change in the behavior of the fishermen due to man-made events occurring between 2013 and 2016. Overall, the evidence suggests that the sale of fishing rights, Chinese overfishing, and pressure by the military to keep up catch quotas drove the fishermen to drive their small, underpowered, ill-equipped, and poorly maintained boats further out to sea, where seasonal winds carried them too far out for them to make it back home. These men knew the risks, but they had no choice but to risk their lives and sail dangerously far from shore. Those risks converged to transform the Sea of Japan into a death trap for them. The current crop of ghost ships was likely blown out to sea by mid-to-late November gales. The winds that followed in the ensuing weeks blew them to Hokkaido saved dozens of them from a slow death.

Admittedly, this isn’t an airtight theory. The first confirmation that North Korea sold fishing rights in the Sea of Japan to Chinese fishing boats came in August 2016, years after the first ghost ships arrived in Japan. But the 2016 report doesn’t say when Pyongyang sold its east coast fishing rights, implying that the NIS may have only recently learned about an earlier sale. Two researchers from the Korea Maritime Institute think North Korea actually sold the rights to fish off its east coast “years ago.” An expert interviewed by the Asahi Shimbun (and archived by — yes, I know — Breitbart) says that at the end of 2015, the Ministry of State Security (then known as the State Security Department) had begun to muscle in on the military’s control of fishing in the East Sea. That fits with an L.A. Times report that a ghost ship found in 2016 was marked as State Security Department property. Around that time, North Korean fishermen began coming closer to South Korean waters than they’d been allowed in the past. That period also coincides with an earlier wave of ghost ships. Thus, it’s plausible that the National Intelligence Service might only have learned in 2016 what Pyongyang did between 2013 and 2016, perhaps because that was when Pyongyang first sold off the rights to waters close to its maritime border with South Korea. It isn’t a perfect match for our evidence of when Pyongyang began selling off its east coast fishing rights, but it aligns with the evidence better than any other explanation.

All of this has some important security implications. First, to the extent journalists are following their biases instead of the evidence, and attributing the ghost ships to sanctions that were unenforced or unenacted when the ghost ships first started to arrive, that misinformation has the potential to influence the policies of governments around the world. Of course, sanctions that affect Kim Jong-un’s cash flow indirectly affect any worker, peasant, or fisherman he decides to squeeze to replace that income, but this chain of moral agency is missing some links. It’s important for us to have a complete understanding of why North Korea’s fishermen are suffering, why North Korean children are denied the protein they need to grow up, where the profits of this theft are really going, and what harm those profits may do in the wrong hands.

Second, there is a real threat that desperate North Korean fishermen may become more violent. They’re already clashing with the Japanese Coast Guard, but their hottest rage is reserved for the Chinese fishing boats. Clashes between South Koreans and Chinese fishermen have already turned deadly. China may not escape conflict if North Korean fisherman eventually react the way Somali fishermen did toward the Chinese vessels that are depleting their stocks.

Third, China’s purchase of fishing rights represents a long-term threat to Korea’s food supply and territorial integrity. A plausible theory asserts that China may plan to assert permanent territorial claims on the waters where it buys fishing rights, under a strategy of “fish, protect, contest, and occupy.” The fact that the boats still sail from the widows’ villages of the east coast suggests that this change in behavior is driven by desperation. That desperation has the potential to take a variety of directions, all of them tragic for the people of North Korea.

~   ~   ~

* The OFK Style Guide’s position on “East Sea” is that we’ll consider it when Korea agrees to rename the Gulf of Mexico the “South Gulf.” The idea that a geographical place name implies territorial rights is legally spurious, silly, and necessarily confusing to persons who live on the other side of that named place. I could more easily accept “Korea Sea” than “East Sea.”

** Update: The last sentence in this blockquote lends some support to Marcus Noland’s theory in this Newsweek story that some of the boats on the east coast might be selling their catch to Chongryon. Maybe the Japanese Coast Guard should investigate whether Chongryon has interests in shipping or fishing boats that operate in the area. That would also fit with evidence that the Ministry of State Security runs some of the east coast fishing. The MSS doesn’t have as many prison camp guards to feed as the army has soldiers to feed, so it can afford to sell more of its catch for hard currency.

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The crocodiles of Pyongyang: A remembrance of Zimbabwe & thoughts on the fall of tyrants

The man who terminated the 37-year misrule of Robert Mugabe last week and then took his job is a general named Emmerson Mnangagwa with a history as ominous as his nickname: “the Crocodile.” Long one of Mugabe’s most ruthless cronies, Mnangagwa’s resume includes leading Zimbabwe’s feared Central Intelligence Organization and dispatching the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade to Matabeleland in the early 1980s to wage a pogrom that killed up to 20,000 members of the minority Ndebele tribe. He draws support from the “war veterans,” a ruling-party goon squad that has beaten members of the opposition, violently seized the farms of white Zimbabweans, and redistributed their land to party loyalists. His cause is not the restoration of democracy or the relaxation of repression, but a succession contest between nepotism and cronyism, against Mugabe’s unpopular wife.

Even as the streets of Harare filled with Chinese Type 85 armored personnel carriers, the army swore that it was not carrying out a coup. Whatever you call it, some reports say that Mugabe’s long-time backers in Beijing green-lighted it. But if Mnangagwa wants to replace Mugabe’s dictatorship with his own, the crowds on the streets may have other expectations. They will demand jobs, food, and free elections. The generals could try to suppress them. The Ndebele still despise Mnangagwa for his crimes; his ascendancy could provoke a tribal schism or even civil war. This could all end very badly. So far, however, the coup and the street demonstrations that followed it have been bloodless.

~   ~   ~

As the coup unfolded, I became absorbed in old documentaries about the creation of Zimbabwe and the decline and fall of its predecessor state, Rhodesia. Contemporary prognostications about events we later call “history” fascinate me. They reveal how often the consensus gets it wrong, how badly, and sometimes why. My interest in Zimbabwe is partially a function of its uses and limitations as an analogy to North Korea, but also because it’s is a beautiful country whose people deserved better. 

I visited Zimbabwe for a few days in 1990, at the chronological midpoint between 1965, the year of Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence, and Mugabe’s recent fall. The UDI was a white minority’s desperate gambit to protect its supremacy from a rising tide of anarchic decolonization. Three years before the UDI, a young Robert Mugabe gave an interview to Morley Safer in Salisbury, now Harare. Two of the three things that struck me about Mugabe were his extraordinary eloquence and the moderation of his rhetoric.

The third striking thing about Mugabe was the unmistakeable effeminacy of his mannerisms, but only because he would later call gay men “worse than dogs and pigs.” In his younger years, however, Mugabe was obviously charismatic. I can see how he fooled so many people into believing that he was really an inclusive moderate. By 1962, however, he was already the mouthpiece of Joshua Nkomo’s Soviet-aligned Zimbabwe African People’s Union. The following year, he joined a breakaway Maoist faction that called itself the Zimbabwe African National Union. The schism between ZANU and ZAPU was also tribal. Mugabe and ZANU’s other leaders were of the majority Shona tribe; Nkomo and most of his ZAPU supporters were of the minority Ndebele tribe, a northern branch of the Zulu people. (I once spoke a corruption of Zulu well enough to impress Africans, and non-Africans who’ve never heard click sounds; sadly, I forgot most of it long ago.)

After Ian Smith’s Rhodesian government refused to negotiate a return to majority rule, Mugabe and Nkomo formed an uneasy alliance and launched a guerrilla war. China armed and trained ZANU, and both ZANU and ZAPU adopted a Maoist strategy of infiltrating into rural areas to sow insurgency. ZANU did not “look east” or turn to China in response to western sanctions after it took power; it has been in China’s orbit since the early 1960s. One could argue that war was justified; people who are denied any peaceful means to claim their fundamental rights have a right to take up arms to reclaim those rights. But ZANU and ZAPU often fought their just war by unjust means. In the brutal Bush War that followed, they attacked farmers, villagers, and even civilian airliners.

The Rhodesians had the upper hand until 1975, when Portugal withdrew from Angola and Mozambique, and Rhodesia found itself nearly surrounded by guerrilla safe havens. By then, Rhodesia was isolated diplomatically and under crippling oil sanctions. An arms embargo prevented it from rearming itself. Guerrilla attacks taxed the morale and resources of a beleaguered white minority. Rising insecurity in the countryside cost the government revenue it needed to pay for the war effort. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher convinced Smith that he couldn’t hold out. Reluctantly, he agreed to one-man-one-vote elections. A black majority radicalized by civil war and polarized by tribe voted Mugabe and the ZANU into power.

Before she was famous, Samantha Power wrote at length about how Mugabe, for all his early promises of inclusion, moderation, and continuity, quickly consolidated power and gradually wrecked the economy. Not long after his inauguration in 1980, “Good Old Bob” (as the vanquished whites optimistically called him) visited Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang and met his totalitarian exemplar. He returned “a different man,” awed by Kim’s “absolute power and the apparent adoration of the North Korean people.” No one has chronicled the dark history of this “engagement” better than Benjamin Young did for NK News. Mugabe never achieved the same degree of totalitarian control as Kim Il-sung, but he certainly gave it a go: on the very eve of his overthrow, the editorials in his government newspapers could have been ghostwritten by KCNA.

Pyongyang also helped Mugabe subdue his potential rivals, the ZAPU. In the early 1980s, he sent the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade into ZAPU’s Matabeleland stronghold in a brutal campaign called the Gukurahundi. The campaign killed up to 20,000 people, drove Nkomo into exile, and forced ZAPU to accept absorption into the ZANU. To this day, many Zimbabweans loathe North Korea for this, but it may be just what Pyongyang had in mind this week when it boasted of its “unsparing material and spiritual assistance to African nations.”

~  ~  ~

In 1990, when Robert Mugabe had been in power for ten years, I took a temporary job in South Africa. To a kid living on a vast, landlocked prairie, this was an irresistible chance to see the world and witness history. I arrived in Johannesburg three months after Nelson Mandela was released, as the repeal of Apartheid laws and the removal of “white only” signs were daily occurrences. (Apologies for the poor quality of my photography.)

[Johannesburg, May 1990. People dancing in the streets.
They were singing, “He’s free.”]

[Randontein, Transvaal, July 1990. A week before, the empty white spaces on
this sign said, “Whites Only” in English and Afrikaans. I came back
this day and saw that it had just been painted over.]

[Durban, Natal, June 1990. A calm, peaceful, low-key anti-Apartheid protest.
By then
, the protesters were pushing against an open door. Moments after
I took this picture, a friendly policeman offered to take a photo of me
in front of the demonstration. I wish I could find that photo.]

In July, some friends and I decided to drive north across Zimbabwe to Victoria Falls, and then back through Botswana. By then, South Africa was already thick with ex-Rhodesian emigres called “whenwes.” If a whenwe heard you were visiting Zimbabwe, he’d give you plenty of travel tips and some dire warnings, and he might ask you to bring him back a bottle of Mazoe Orange.

The Zimbabwe I saw was a place where the roads were still being fixed, the buses still ran, the children still went to school, and food was still available. It was functional but moribund. There was no new construction, and little seemed to have been built since the end of the war. Conditions were far better than in Zambia or Mozambique, but not as good as in Namibia or Botswana (a small, stable, well-governed country thanks to an unsung hero named Seretse Khama who proved that black majority rule works perfectly well under principled and honest leaders who reject statist ideologies and embrace free markets).

Zimbabwe also showed me how dictatorships crush their people between the hammer of tyrannical efficiency and the anvil of economic inefficiency. Hyperinflation was still a few years away, but the government was propping up the currency with confiscatory exchange rates. Many merchants preferred South African Rand, and the black market knew what the money was really worth.

[The Zimbabwe Dollar in better days. These notes were printed
three years after Mugabe came to power. They were almost worthless in 1990.]

I won’t say whether I smuggled a few South African Rand into Zimbabwe to evade the official exchange rate and the functional confiscation of the money I’d need to make it to Victoria Falls, but I will say that in such a severe police state, this would have been an exceedingly stupid thing to do. Perhaps a person foolish enough to this in his youth shouldn’t have judged poor Otto Warmbier so harshly.

Zimbabwe was also the first place I felt physically afraid of a government. Most people were either cheerfully resigned or suspiciously dour. A few seemed ambitiously despotic. Our route took us through Matabeleland, where the Fifth Brigade had so recently done its gruesome work. The whenwes had warned us that the roads were not safe at night, but we drove them anyway. We’d already wasted too many hours at the Beitbridge border post being searched by suspicious border guards for smuggled Rand until, in their exasperation, they waved us through.

The reward of Victoria Falls more than compensated for this. No photograph or video can do it justice; nor can words describe the experience of seeing it, of hearing it from miles away, of feeling its quaking bass through the soles of one’s feet. It is still the most extraordinary place I’ve ever been. If you’re at work, put in some earbuds or close your door. Then, mute the video and start the audio file I’ve embedded below it. Finally, play the video on a full screen. You’ll thank me later.

We headed west for the Kazangula border post and crossed into Botswana. By then, I expected that things would only get worse in Zimbabwe, and they did. A few years later, amid rising inflation and unemployment, a pro-democracy opposition movement arose. Mugabe blamed the few remaining white farmers for supporting the opposition, appealed to racial hatred, and sent his war veterans out on a campaign of intimidation, confiscation, and murder that drove almost all them into exile. Without one of its main sources of foreign exchange — tobacco exports — Zimbabwe’s economy collapsed. A country that had been a major food exporter slipped into famine. As in North Korea, the regime used the famine to consolidate its hold on power.

The government’s most pervasive form of intimidation is also its most effective: the denial of food. While international aid groups try to feed Zimbabweans in rural areas, city folk must buy their maize and wheat from the sole distributor—the Grain Marketing Board. In order to get food they are often forced to produce a ruling-party membership card or to chant such slogans as “Long live Robert Mugabe!,” “Down with whites!,” and “Down with Morgan Tsvangirai!” Last year the former speaker of the parliament, Didymus Mutasa, stated, “We would be better off with only six million people, with our own people who support the liberation struggle. We don’t want these extra people.” [Samantha Power, The Atlantic]

Mugabe finally ran out of other peoples’ money to steal nationalize, with predictable results.

Later, Zimbabwe gave up on its national currency and adopted the U.S. dollar (by which time, Mugabe and his top cronies, including his wife and The Crocodile, were blocked out of the dollar system for political repression and stealing elections). Apparently, no one in Mugabe’s government knew about Gresham’s Law. As soon as the banks had U.S. dollars, Zimbabweans rushed to withdraw and hoard them. When the government rationed withdrawals, people slept in the streets near banks just get to the teller’s window before the cash ran out each morning. Last year, the government printed low-denomination “bond notes” pegged to the dollar. Two months ago, a dollar bond note was worth just 80 U.S. cents, and the government threatened to arrest merchants who charged higher bond note prices.

Zimbabwe lost plenty to Robert Mugabe — three million people, at least half of its economy, and 95 percent of its jobs — but at least it still has North Korea. In recent years, Mugabe sold the Pyongyang Zoo two baby elephants (at $10,000 each) and other animals. He sent his congratulations for North Korea’s missile tests. Other commercial ties to Pyongyang may or may not have been strictly legal (see pages 16 and 24). Mugabe even chose the now-U.N. designated Mansudae Overseas Projects Group to build a statue of Joshua Nkomo for $5 million. Zimbabweans who remembered North Korea’s role in the massacre of Nkomo’s alleged supporters were outraged. In September, the U.N. Panel of Experts asked Harare to come clean on its dealings with Mansudae and threatened to designate the local companies that dealt with it. Shortly before Mugabe’s overthrow, the government promised to “investigate.”

You don’t have to embrace the Crocodile to see his coup as a potential opportunity to influence events for the better. The new regime has an interest in delivering a better standard of living. To deliver that, it needs foreign investors to return, and to induce investors to return, it must first reassure them that it won’t confiscate their investments, and that Zimbabwe will be safe and stable. Investors will want Harare to get sanctions lifted and avoid doing anything to invite more of them. That gives the U.S., Japan, Britain, and Europe leverage. We can send humanitarian aid, offer technical help to get industry back on its feet, and dangle the prospect of improved trade relations. In exchange, we should demand economic, political, and legal reforms. We should also demand the expulsion of the North Koreans and (as UNSCR 1718 requires) the seizure of any property of designated entities like Mansudae.

~   ~   ~

The limits to Zimbabwe’s utility as an analogy to North Korea should be obvious. Mugabe could never build a personality cult like Kim Il-sung did. Zimbabwe’s British parliamentary system and judiciary retain enough self-respect to maintain their procedural roles. The elites can travel abroad or emigrate. Last year, there were large anti-Mugabe protests. The state press gives North Korea’s a run for its money, but state censorship of opposition media has relaxed in recent years, and Zimbabwean newspapers and websites reflect a variety of viewpoints.

Still, most Zimbabweans may be more isolated than this evidence suggests. Although Zimbabwe claims a high literacy rate, many of its poor still have only a primary school education. The economic crisis drove many teachers out of the country. Outside the cities, few people speak English. High unemployment means that few of people have meaningful access to uncensored media or the time to consume it. Mugabe might have concluded that so few people would read the opposition press that relaxing censorship posed little real risk to his rule. And in any event, no vote could ever restrain him.

So, despite the limitations of Zimbabwe as an analogy, does Mugabe’s fall offer any lessons for North Korea watchers? I think it does, despite those limitations.

1. Engagement with Pyongyang only ends well for Pyongyang. It does not end well for foreign investors, for gullible reporters, for South Koreans, or for Africans. It never changes Pyongyang for the better, and sooner or later, it infects the engager with Pyongyang’s repressive and corrupt ways. Africans should remember Zimbabwe’s experience, where Pyongyang’s influence cost thousands of innocent Africans their lives.

2. A change of government will end as well or as badly as the political culture it arises from. The unaccountable, statist, and Maoist ideology of the ZANU-PF made its descent into Big Man totalitarianism, corruption, and famine inevitable, just as Seretse Khama’s commitment to openness, democracy, and free markets helped the desert country of Botswana, Zimbabwe’s neighbor to the west, achieve the highest Human Development Index in sub-Saharan Africa, including highly industrialized South Africa.

[Human Development Index comparison]

Like Botswana, Zimbabwe has large deposits of diamonds and platinum. Unlike Botswana, Zimbabwe’s deposits sit underutilized because of political risk, poor infrastructure, uneven energy supplies, and government meddling. In January, the government foreclosed on a swath of platinum leases. In May, it took control of the diamond mines (Mugabe and his cronies were already stealing the profits). Why does the “resource curse” afflict Zimbabwe and not Botswana? For the same reason it afflicts Angola, which has diamonds and oil, a much lower HDI, and a Marxist government. This does not bode well for Zimbabwe. Its statist kleptocracy won’t change as long as its government and people see confiscation and redistribution as the answer to whatever ails them. It needs a popular constituency for government accountability, individual rights, property rights, and the rule of law. That constituency won’t be built overnight.

For the same reason, a Choe Ryong-hae regime would probably behave like a muted form of the current one until a constituency arises to demand a less confiscatory and more accountable government. The question is whether the downfall of Kim Jong-un would unleash changes that would allow such a constituency to form. My sense is that North Koreans have a far better-developed sense of what they’re against than of what they’re for. Of course, there are things we could do to help change that. It’s all a question of resources, time, will, and vision.

3. To have an enduring influence on events, one must have an enduring influence on a people.

4. Once a tyrant falls, the flow of history seldom confines itself to the channels laid out by those who engineer it. Revolutions become what they unleash. They tend to unleash grievances of sect, race, class, and tribe because tyrannies incubate those grievances. Spain’s coup in 1936 unleashed class grievances; the 2003 invasion of Iraq unleashed sectarian grievances; and the 2011 popular uprising in Syria unleashed grievances of sect, tribe, and ideology. In each case, civil war followed. The ZANU and ZAPU radicalized rural Zimbabweans during a brutal civil war. Mugabe maintained his power (and destroyed Zimbabwe’s economy) by exploiting racial, tribal, and class grievances that Mnangagwa will not easily contain. The people have taken to the streets, and he has much to lose if he turns his guns on them.

5. It takes force to oust a tyrant. Mugabe maintained the appearance of democracy, but this was a sham. By the time his popularity waned, his control over the army was secure and the opposition wasn’t a real threat to him. When the people voted against him, he falsified the results. When they didn’t support his new constitution, he ignored the result. His place was secure as long as the generals’ interests aligned with his own. He would have died in office if he hadn’t tried to pass them over and install his wife as his successor.

6. Tyrants alienate their generals at their own peril. A North Korea watcher might cast an cast an envious glance at how a succession struggle between Grace Mugabe and the Crocodile — and a suspicious case of food poisoning — escalated into a rift and rumors of a purge, and may have forced the hands of the army and the war veterans. I give Kremlinology sourced to Korea’s National Intelligence Service only an even chance of being true, but NIS-sourced reports over the last two weeks claim that Kim Jong-un has either reprimanded, demoted, or purged two of his top minions, Hwang Pyong-so and Kim Won-hong, possibly at the instigation of Choe Ryong-hae. (Two years ago, Choe was also reported to have been purged, only to return stronger than ever, so take the new reports with a grain of salt.) There may also be a wider “inspection” of the military underway. True or not, Hwang and Kim (and Choe) saw what happened to Jang Song-thaek. They face far higher stakes than The Crocodile, whether they take the risk of moving against Kim Jong-un or wait patiently for their turn to face the guns.

7. No single factor brings a tyrant down by itself. Rhodesia might have survived sanctions, but it could not survive the combination of diplomatic isolation, oil sanctions, an arms embargo, declining tourist revenue, Chinese and Soviet support for ZANU and ZAPU, and the collapse of colonial governments all around it. Mugabe’s demise resulted from a combination of self-inflicted economic wounds, capital flight, foreign sanctions, diplomatic isolation, an exodus of the educated, and a failure to plan an orderly succession despite his advanced age. In each case, a small ruling elite acted in its own interests after concluding that the status quo was unsustainable. In each case, the elites sought to engineer a controlled descent to protect their own interests. Historically, more of these plotters crash more than land.

8. A resistance movement that cannot defeat a state militarily can still defeat it diplomatically, economically, and thus politically, by denying it essential external support, and by breaking or dividing the resolve of its oligarchy. Such was the case with the ZANU and ZAPU guerrilla war, and with the Nicaraguan insurgency, which forced a free election that brought a democratic opposition to power.

The best plausible outcome for North Korea may well be a coup d’etat. It is both a paradox and historically natural that liberating change can begin when a cabal of ruthless and undemocratic men seizes power. This happens when they conclude that the tyrant whose bidding they’ve done is leading them to ruin or represents a threat to their survival. As with the Soviet Union in 1991, they may think he’s changing too much, too fast. As some historians now suspect of Stalin’s demise, the plotters may feel that they’re next to be purged. As with Rhodesia, they may see that sanctions are depriving them of the means to feed the soldiers, police, and civil servants; and to maintain control of the countryside. As with South Africa in 1990, they may feel the world is closing in — that the loss of exterior financial and diplomatic support, combined with the spread of subversive information, is costing it the support of both the elites and the downtrodden. And if we can see evidence of a constituency for change outside Pyongyang, surely the crocodiles can see it, too.

In taking the risk of removing Kim Jong-un, the crocodiles could unleash forces that would overflow the confines of their own ambitions. We should hope so. They aren’t any less tyrannical or ruthless than Kim Jong-un, but they might be less impulsive and more pragmatic, and won’t have the awe of dynastic rule behind them. The greater the external pressures and internal demands for change, the more pragmatic they’re likely to be. We should also be ready to be pragmatic, including by offering assurances that in a reunified Korea, they would be given some degree of clemency for their crimes and their children would have promising futures. Elements of this may be difficult to accept, but it may be the only way.

The right policies and the right information strategies can do much to catalyze these sentiments. To argue that any one element of that policy (information operations, sanctions, or diplomatic isolation) will not do it alone is as true — and as irrelevant — as arguing that a case of food poisoning did not bring down Robert Mugabe. Pyongyang’s military strength can no longer mask its political and financial weaknesses. Those are the weaknesses we should seek to exploit.

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North Koreans fight a losing battle for the soil they till & the food they grow

With the greening of the trees each year in North Korea come annual predictions of famine due to weather conditions that, by some meteorological miracle, never cross the Demilitarized Zone and cause hunger in South Korea. This year, as with every year since 1999, the reality was not as bad as the dire predictions, but the situation is still bad: some of the Daily NK’s sources say that they’ve seen the bodies of people who (or so they believe) have starved to death. That wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened since the end of the Great Famine, and it’s also a sign that the causes of hunger in North Korea remain unchanged.

So unsurprisingly, yet again, Pyongyang isn’t feeding its people. But of all the obligations a state undertakes in its social contract with the governed, the one obligation you’d think Pyongyang would be able to deliver on would be security. But as this blog has documented, in North Korea, unfed soldiers roam the roads and rape women with impunity, and are sometimes ordered to pillage homes and farms by officers who aren’t feeding them. This year, Pyongyang will again loose its soldiers on the people.

Sources in North Korea are reporting that the authorities are preparing another push to collect rice for the armed forces this fall. However, in contrast to previous years, this time the order has been issued to the military itself. Ordinary citizens have in the past been assigned the task of gathering these provisions, but the responsibility this year has fallen on military conscripts.

“Military leadership handed down orders last month detailing the quotas required to be collected by the local 12th Corp. These orders include amounts covering every division and brigade in the entire 12th Corp, which must be collected and presented to division leaders in the coming season,” a source in Ryanggang Province informed Daily NK on October 18.

“It is quite absurd that military personnel have to collect these provisions themselves. And such orders were handed down in all provinces, covering all military divisions across the country.”

The source says that soldiers are complaining about the plan, especially given the government’s failure to distribute goods, even to the military in recent times.

“Is there any other country on Earth that does not feed its own military? I thought the army was supposed to be defending our country, but instead they’re turning us into an army of farmers,” one serviceman told the source. [Daily NK]

In the markets, the best thing that has happened to the North Korean people since the Japanese occupation army left, organized crime (often, in alliance with corrupt officials) is starting to monopolize trade and control prices. Now, with most North Koreans expecting a bad harvest, private sotoji farmers are taking the security of their crops into their own hands, unarmed.

Many farmers take security over their fields seriously even in good harvest seasons, but with this year’s poor yields, people are staying up all night to keep watch, as even a small amount lost to theft can leave a whole family in dire straits. The farmers and locals tend to watch the fields themselves. Although police officers also keep watch in some places, they are widely criticized as being so incompetent that “10 of them could not catch a single thief,” she said.

According to the source, the police are widely distrusted because they often only demand bribes from thieves that are caught in the act, which does little to address the problem. However, because citizens are patrolling the fields and catching thieves themselves, it has also been common for fights and other incidents to break out during confrontations.

Another source in Jagang Province spoke of a specific incident where “a fight broke out after citizens in the village of Wiwon caught a thief in the fields. However, after many locals began angrily condemning the thief for stealing their food, they also found themselves asking whether they would do the same in such circumstances.” [Daily NK]

Citizens, including the farmers who feed everyone else — and who will become increasingly important to the survival of the population as sanctions invariably have unintended impacts on non-sanctioned trade — can’t really look to the security forces for security: the security forces shake them down for bribes and intermittently enforce orders to clear, confiscate, and replant the plots they farm. Indeed, the abusive and corrupt security forces themselves are the single greatest threat to the security of the people. And consequently, the converse is increasingly true, as it justly should be in this unjust world.

The North Korean authorities have yet to identify any leads in the murder of a Preliminary Examination Officer outside his own home in Sunchon, South Pyongan Province. The officer worked for the Ministry of People’s Security’s Inspection Department.

A source in the area notified Daily NK on October 17 that the “authorities believe the state inspector was killed out of revenge, though they have yet to find the killer.”

According to the source, the 32-year-old agent was ambushed after returning home from work outside an apartment block in the Kangpo neighborhood of Sunchon. As the man parked his motorbike, he was struck in the back of the head and later died. The authorities are apparently wary of additional attacks targeting law enforcement officials.

MPS personnel responding to the scene of the crime immediately notified their superiors when they discovered that the victim was an MPS investigator. Attention soon turned to the likelihood that it was a revenge killing, carried out as payback for misconduct by the officer.

“This MPS officer was the most sadistic and brutal of them all. Anyone caught by him was usually beaten half to death, paralyzed, sent to a correctional labor camp, and almost always died within a few years after intense suffering,” the source said. [Daily NK]

Surely events like this must enter into the minds of the security forces’ officers as they go about their brutal work. More events like this would cause more of them to think twice — specifically about actions that impede the supply and distribution of food.

Lately, I’ve taken to citing the argument of Nobel prize-winning economist Angus Deaton, that foreign aid can have the effect of reinforcing the very state behavior that causes the hunger aid is meant to address. Marcus Noland is fond of citing the work of the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, who argues that most modern famines are not the consequence of inadequate supply, but of grossly unequal distribution of that supply as a consequence of unequal entitlements. North Korea turns out to be a good case study for both of these arguments. Look no further than the U.N. aid agenciessilence — even falsehoods — attributing hunger to everything except Pyongyang’s gross waste of resources, and its onagain, offagain suppression of private farming and trade. No wonder hunger still stalks the people of North Korea despite decades of U.N. aid.

This blog has long presented evidence that North Korea’s government has more than adequate resources to feed its people with just a fraction of what it spends on weapons and luxuries for its morbidly obese tyrant. The reasons for hunger in North Korea are not material, they are political. And if the world won’t confront those political causes, the North Korean people must. To shift their country’s grossly unequal balance of entitlements away from the state, they will first have to confront its monopoly on violence. With a futility borne of desperation, they are. But without the means to communicate and arms with which to resist, they will do no more than shift that balance minimally at its margins.

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There is a North Korean resistance

A blog about North Korea never suffers from a shortage of material; rather, it is more likely to suffer from an insufficiency of time to curate such an abundance of material. A post that isn’t ready for publication when my train arrives at my stop may sit unfinished for hours, weeks, or even years. So it was last May, shortly after the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, when an intriguing video first emerged of Jong-nam’s son, Kim Han-sol, claiming that a group calling itself Cheollima Civil Defense had spirited him away to safety from Pyongyang’s agents.

Cheollima Civil Defense’s Korean- and English-language website is here, and has a link for financial contributions. Because this site has been eagerly watching North Korea for years for signs that organized resistance would rise (and instead found plenty of evidence of disorganized resistance) the story sounded almost too good to be true. But now, via the Wall Street Journal, comes a report that convinces me that Cheollima Civil Defense is a thing — and that thing is North Korea’s first organized resistance organization since the 6th Corps mutiny more than two decades ago.

When Kim Jong Nam, the exiled half brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, was killed with nerve gas in a Malaysian airport on Feb. 13, it was evident who might be targeted next.

His 21-year-old son, Kim Han Sol,  had similarly criticized the regime in Pyongyang, which was suspected of carrying out the attack. The son’s bloodline made him a potential threat to the Kim dynasty.

What followed was a secretive scramble by a group of North Korean dissidents to get Kim Han Sol, his mother and sister out of their Macau home and fly them to safety in a secure location.

Details have been largely a mystery since February, but the group that helped the trio get out agreed to discuss the evacuation with a media organization for the first time—and from its account it appears that Kim Han Sol was targeted.

There were “attempts by several parties to interfere” with the evacuation, a representative of the group, Cheollima Civil Defense, told The Wall Street Journal. [Wall Street Journal, Alastair Gale]

Read the rest of the story on your own. Recall that Kim Han-sol first came to the world’s attention in October 2012, when he sat down for an interview with Finnish former U.N. official Elisabeth Rehn (see reports here, via the Wall Street Journal, and here, via the Atlantic Wire). The most striking thing about Han-sol? He seems … nice. Normal. He speaks excellent English. His manner would not stand out as exceptional at a meeting of the Korean Church Coalition, where the young people I meet almost always seem cleaner and better-adjusted than the feral, mulleted, tobacco-spitting waifs I was raised with out on the prairie in South Dakota.

“I’ve always dreamed that one day I will go back and make things better,” Kim Han Sol said in the interview. He spoke fluent English with a British accent, and said he was interested in the revolution the previous year in Libya, as related to him by his Libyan roommate. [WSJ]

If you possess the spiritual certainty that I don’t, pray for the safety of this young man. He may have much to contribute to the future of his ancestral homeland. Among the more disappointing things we learn: how Pyongyang uses terrorism to its advantage. Canada refused to help Cheollima for fear of jeopardizing a hostage it was trying to convince Pyongyang to free.

But of course, there have been underground railroad groups helping North Koreans to escape through China for decades. What makes Cheollima something those groups are not? This:

The defector, who isn’t part of the group, said Cheollima is a small but well-connected organization that had helped North Koreans escape their country through China and into Southeast Asia.

The human-rights worker confirmed the group consisted of North Koreans and had good connections with foreign governments. “They moved very quickly and were verified at the highest level,” he said. Two Western diplomats said Cheollima was trusted to help defectors. [WSJ]

Does Cheollima represent a threat to Pyongyang? Not immediately, but over the long term, it is well-positioned to take advantage of rising disaffection among the elites, including the regime’s diplomats, and guide them to the protection of foreign embassies and intelligence services. For example, I’m convinced that we’ve yet to see the full political potential of the defection of Thae Yong-ho to sow doubt within the elites in Pyongyang. They may eventually help us make contact with key people in the armed forces to prevent war or split the regime’s internal cohesion. And of course, every defection by an official who brings his laptops, ledgers, and bank account numbers with him will have second-order financial impacts. If more defections cause the regime to distrust its diplomats and recall more of them, it could have almost as great an impact on regime finances and cohesion as the U.S. diplomatic campaign to get North Korean diplomats and workers expelled.

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Pompeo, Malinowski, and The Change That Dare Not Speak Its Name

The failure of “engaging” North Korea into reform and peace, the madness of war, and the impossibility of coexisting with a nuclear North Korea are, however belatedly, causing more Americans to do some hard thinking about hastening our progression toward the post-Kim Jong-Un era. Last week, CIA Director Mike Pompeo (who speaks to the President about North Korea frequently) caused a stir in Washington and apoplexy in Pyongyang when he made comments at the Aspen Security Forum that hinted at this.

He continued, “So from the administration’s perspective, the most important thing we can do is separate those two. Right? Separate capacity and someone who might well have intent and break those two apart.”

Pompeo said both the intelligence community and the Department of Defense have been tasked with drafting plans for what “ultimately needs to be achieved” with regard to the North Korean nuclear threat.

When asked if he meant he was advocating regime change, Pompeo denied that was necessarily what he was talking about but seemed to suggest advocating Kim’s ouster. He said he believed the US could tackle “every piece” of the North Korean threat.

“As for the regime, I am hopeful we will find a way to separate that regime from this system,” Pompeo said. “The North Korean people I’m sure are lovely people and would love to see him go.”

During the question and answer portion of the event, Pompeo clarified he did not view Kim’s ouster as an “unadulterated good” for the US, and pointing to the unknown consequences, Pompeo asked, “What’s behind door number three?”

He went on to clarify that this was not an immediate task underway “to make happen tomorrow,” and said the challenge was to convince other nations on the issue. [CNN]

I’ve never made a secret of my desire to see the regime in Pyongyang altered or abolished, but I’ve never been fond of the term “regime change” in the North Korean context, either. When most people hear that term, they think of something I adamantly oppose — an invasion or a military attack. But as I’ve argued before, everyone but the most ardent North Korea apologists supports some plan to change this regime. Advocates of Sunshine and “engagement” policies were really selling a plan for gradual regime change — albeit one whose fatal flaw was its reliance on the cooperation of a regime determined to resist change at all costs, and that consequently took precautions to ensure that it would never happen. On the other extreme is the growing talk of changing the regime by force, which is just that, for now — talk, and talk that scares our friends more than it scares our enemies. 

Pompeo, by contrast, seems to be hinting at enabling internal opposition in North Korea, which is the kind of talk that makes Foreign Ministry officials in Pyongyang lose their shit.

“Should the U.S. dare to show even the slightest sign of attempt to remove our supreme leadership, we will strike a merciless blow at the heart of the U.S. with our powerful nuclear hammer, honed and hardened over time,” the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said, quoting a spokesman of the North Korean foreign ministry.

The report said Pompeo’s remarks “have gone over the line, and it has now become clear that the ultimate aim of the Trump administration … is the regime change.”

Those remarks display Pompeo’s “illiteracy about the DPRK and an explicit illustration of incompetence of the U.S. intelligence community,” the report also said, calling the country by the acronym of its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“If the supreme dignity of the DPRK is threatened, (North Korea) must preemptively annihilate those countries and entities that are directly or indirectly involved in it by mobilizing all kinds of strike means including the nuclear ones,” according to the KCNA.

“The likes of Pompeo will bitterly experience the catastrophic and miserable consequences caused by having dared to shake their little fists at the supreme leadership,” it said, referring to the country’s leader Kim Jong-un. [Yonhap]

Attention, Director Pompeo: this is how Pyongyang reacts when you’ve just said the very thing it fears more than it fears anything else. Just in case that knowledge might be useful to you in some way.

Pompeo’s statement is at variance with previous statements by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the U.S. (in CNN’s phasing) “was against forcing Kim out of power or the collapse of his government.” It also signals U.S. ambivalence about South Korean President Moon Jae-In’s ardent opposition to “regime change,” making this just the latest indication that Moon’s summit with Trump avoided disaster but ultimately bridged few real differences on THAAD, on USFK cost sharing, trade, or North Korea policy.

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In case you wondered if Pompeo was the lone person in our government who was receptive to doing more than wishing for the revolution that North Korea desperately needs, Tom Malinowski, who served as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor during the Obama administration, has offered much more specific thoughts in an interesting op-ed in Politico. Malinowski became the one Obama administration official I liked and admired more than any other, despite my criticism of the broader reticence and incoherence of the administration’s North Korea policy. Behind the scenes, Malinowski fought to keep human rights on the administration’s North Korea policy agenda, and did it skillfully and effectively. Let’s start our discussion of Malinowski’s proposal with this interesting confirmation of one of the best things the Obama administration did:

At the State Department, I oversaw the U.S. government’s efforts to get information into North Korea. We funded defector-run radio stations, which had the added benefit of training North Koreans to be journalists. We saw an increase in North Koreans watching Chinese and South Korean TV, and supported groups producing shows North Koreans would find interesting (like reality shows about the daily experiences—good and bad—of defectors in the South). We helped non-governmental organizations that send in foreign movies and TV shows through the market trade, including one group that made cross-border deliveries by drone of specific films that North Koreans requested (we used to joke that we were running a peculiar version of Netflix for North Korea). A big priority was educating North Koreans on how to protect themselves from surveillance, and staying ahead of regime efforts to turn technology against its people. Last year, for example, we learned that North Korea had updated the operating system for its cellphones so that they could read media only with a government-approved digital signature; there should be a countermeasure for this (and hopefully for whatever the regime does to counter the countermeasure). [Tom Malinowski, Politico]

I certainly hope Rex Tillerson is carrying on with this, if only because the law calls on him to do so. This is the sort of direct, people-to-people engagement we should have started doing decades ago, rather than the people-to-minder engagement that filled Pyongyang’s coffers and validated its propaganda. What’s more, the change that Malinowski contemplates is not merely evolutionary, but revolutionary.

None of this means that effective political resistance is yet possible in North Korea. Its police state remains brutal and effective. But similar totalitarian regimes—Romania under Ceausescu, Libya under Qadhafi—have appeared just as impregnable, until they were not. Unpredictable events—a local riot that police hesitate to put down, a change in the health of the leader, the execution of the wrong person, a split in the security forces—can break open hidden cracks in what seems a solid foundation. Exposure to information is a predicate for this. Without it, North Koreans could not conceive an alternative to the present regime, or any way to attain it. With it, their regime becomes just an ordinary dictatorship, vulnerable to the sudden swings of fortune that all dictatorships eventually suffer.

That day will bring its own challenges. The Kim regime cannot “evolve” in the way communist China has because, again, it presides over an artificial country. If its people gain even a bit of freedom, the first question they will ask is the one East Germans asked in 1989: Why should they stay separated by minefields and machine gun nests from a vastly wealthier and freer version of themselves? So the regime must rule as it has or lose a country to rule. [Tom Malinowski, Politico]

Malinowski acknowledges and discusses the risks this will bring. But with Pyongyang validating on a weekly basis that it isn’t interested in a negotiated disarmament, the competing risks increasingly come down to nuclear war, global WMD proliferation, surrendering South Korea, or this. That’s driving The Change That Dare Not Speak Its Name out of closets on both sides of the hallway. Still, one senses some internal discord in Malinowski’s liberal vision of North Korea’s revolution.

But knowledge—about the prosperity and freedom of their fellow Koreans south of the DMZ, and about the abnormality of their own suffering—is spreading among North Koreans. We are learning more about them, too—they are not brainwashed, “robotic” denizens of an “ant colony,” as they are so often described. They are resilient, increasingly entrepreneurial people with normal aspirations, who will some day want a say in the fate of their country.

No one can predict when and how Kim’s hold will weaken, and it would be foolish to think we can force change from the outside. So if anyone reading this has fantasies about setting up governments in exile or fomenting coups or calling for uprisings, please put them aside—that kind of talk will only get people inside North Korea killed. There are, however, forces in play within North Korea that will probably lead to the end of its regime and its reason to exist as a country. Political change in Pyongyang and the reunification of Korea, as hard as it may be to imagine, is actually much more likely than the denuclearization of the present regime. The central aim of our strategy should be to foster conditions that enable this natural, internal process to move faster, while preparing ourselves, our allies and the North Korean people for the challenges we will face when change comes. [Tom Malinowski, Politico]

It’s hard for me to see how North Koreans can challenge Pyongyang in the way Malinowski describes elsewhere in his essay and survive the experience without eventually resorting to force of arms. I really wish there was another way. Yes, much of the most important work of quietly breaking the North Korean people free of Pyongyang’s control can and should be done peacefully, by sanctioning the regime even as we help the poor build a shadow banking system and government. We should do everything Malinowski proposes and hope that it works just as he suggests it will. 

But if it doesn’t, how much further should we go? One should never resort to violence to do what can be done without violence. One should never support a greater amount of violence than is necessary to preempt something worse — say, a nuclear war, or crimes against humanity that the oxymoron sometimes called the “international community” has consistently failed to respond to. One must never support those — such as those in power in Pyongyang now — who target noncombatants or violate the laws of armed conflict. One must always leave a way open to a negotiated peace that ends the violence as quickly as possible, provided that the terms are likely to result in a real and lasting peace. And if change must come to North Korea from within, then it will only come when the North Korean people themselves are ready to demand it.

But eventually, change will come. Historically, totalitarian states have either reformed or perished, and Pyongyang is determined to resist reform, and may soon be in desperate need of other people’s money. If you can see past the disinformed reporting from Pyongyang that shows the North Korean people as automatons, there is ample evidence of discontent among the elites (over Kim Jong-Un’s purges) and the poor (over the regime’s corruption and brutality, and economic inequality). It’s fair to infer that if diplomats, elite workers, elite students, border guards, money launderers, senior officials from the security forces, and soldiers are defecting and deserting in growing numbers, many others must also be discontented. A regime that is so despised that a party member and his entire family prefer to take cyanide than be sent back there suggests the existence of profound discontent. We cannot do reliable public opinion polling in North Korea, for obvious reasons, though some have made admirable efforts to do so. Eventually, however, one must acknowledge that the plural of “anecdote” is “data.”

The day the North Korean people are given the technological means to coalesce around their grievances, the regime’s capacity to suppress dissent will be overwhelmed, the myths on which this regime built its foundations will erode, and the regime’s days will be numbered. Then, we will transition from the current crisis to the next one.

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For Beijing, a sharper choice on N. Korea: accord and prosperity, or discord and chaos

Writing in Foreign Affairs this week, Zhu Feng sketched out a vision of the thinking in Beijing from the perspective of a person more reasonable than Xi Jinping has been, so far. Zhu’s piece suggests the outlines of an agreement with Beijing to defang Kim Jong-Un and manage North Korea’s transition to peace. Alas, Zhu Feng is not in charge in Beijing, and Xi Jinping is. Suspend your paranoia that this essay is only an artifice to persuade us that Beijing will be reasonable, if only we stay our hands on secondary sanctions another year or two (years we no longer have). The piece is well worth reading in its entirety, if only for what it tells us about the thoughts of those in Beijing whose influence we should seek to weaken or strengthen, and whose fears we should seek to exploit. 

In this regard, Trump needs to understand the complexity of China’s thinking on North Korean policy. Getting China to take more responsibility on North Korea requires both a gentle and a hard push. The Trump administration has made it clear that it will not tolerate a nuclear North Korea—but Beijing has heard this before. Despite the rhetorical flourish, to the experienced Chinese diplomat, the Trump administration’s policy sounds quite a lot like those of Presidents George W. Bush and Obama: a desire to achieve denuclearization but an unwillingness for this to come at the cost of war on the peninsula. Chinese President Xi Jinping is similarly bound by the strategic logic of China’s long-standing approach to its petulant neighbor—avoiding the dangers and uncertainty of war and instability by looking past the present consequences of North Korea’s actions. Xi’s view of North Korea is still dominated by the fear of a reunified Korea under Seoul, which may want U.S. forces to remain in the country. This is a legitimate concern, but it is possible, given Trump’s isolationist stance, that he might consider not stationing U.S. troops above the 38th parallel or deploying offensive capabilities to a unified Korea. [Zhu Feng, Foreign Affairs]

I can envision how an agreement with Beijing might work: China would enforce the U.N. Security Council resolutions — no more and no less. It would import no more than $400 million worth of coal, and it would not buy coal or anything else from any entities designated by the U.N., that were associated with Pyongyang’s weapons programs, or that were reasonably suspected of contributing to those programs. It would freeze the assets of North Korea’s proliferators and their front companies and put their agents on the first Air Koryo flight home. It would also freeze any accounts of North Korean nationals or trading companies until it ensured, in accordance with UNSCR 1718, paragraph 8(d), that those funds could not be used for WMD programs or other prohibited purposes. For good measure, it would also expel any North Korean workers. It would keep those measures in place until Pyongyang was fully disarmed. That, in turn, would almost certainly require the removal of Kim Jong-Un, but coordinated economic strangulation of the regime — which should carefully avoid impeding the trade in food — would likely cause the elites to lose confidence in him. By many accounts, that confidence is already shaky.

In return, the U.S. would agree not to station forces inside the borders of what is now North Korea (something that we should not do under any circumstances anyway). We might even discuss a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. ground forces, which would no longer be needed in Korea. We would agree to suspend sanctions, year by year, provided Pyongyang was making progress toward the conditions described in our laws, toward a more humane and open society whose disarmament we could actually believe in. This state would be neither a militarized totalitarian cult nor a Jeffersonian democracy, but a state that was evolving from totalitarianism to one that was merely authoritarian, along the lines of what we see in Burma today. Great change takes time. North Korea and its people would need time to evolve into a self-governable society, ready to take its place in the world.

Once North Korea was disarmed and the artillery was removed from the bunkers along the DMZ, Korea could be reunified in all but name. Korean families would be reunited, a new pan-Korean culture would be reborn, and commerce would flow freely across the nature reserve formerly known as the DMZ. An agreement with Beijing and Seoul might preserve a fig leaf of separation for an agreeable transitional period, excluding any foreign forces and ensuring friendly relations with all of Korea’s neighbors, friends, and trading partners, to assuage Beijing’s security and economic concerns. South Korea would assume responsibility for controlling the China-North Korea border and caring for the poor and dispossessed North Koreans who might otherwise cross it. The consequent economic revitalization, including access to refurbished North Korean seaports, would be a boon to China’s northeastern rust belt. The political status of North Korea after this transitional period — say, ten years — would be for the people of both Koreas to decide. Enough of foreign powers drawing lines through a nation that ought to be able to decide its own fate. A unified Korea would be no threat to China.

Of course, if Beijing does not cooperate, things might have to take a darker turn.

The real difference that Beijing and Washington must overcome, however, is China’s fear of chaos in North Korea spilling over its own borders. Such instability could spell an unmanageable situation involving all sorts of crises: civil war, famine, and mass displacement, not to mention the danger of fissile material and biological weapons falling into even more unstable hands. Of course, some Chinese hardliners take this view even further, suggesting that it would be foolish for China to take the North Korean burden off the back of its greatest competitor. They argue that, considering that the United States is in many ways a thorn in the flesh to Chinese interests in areas such as Taiwan and the South China Sea, it would be against China’s national interests to release the United States from this problem.

Today, many within China believe that Beijing must reevaluate its relationship with both Koreas, which essentially means abandoning Pyongyang. It is both the strategic and the moral choice. Choosing South Korea, a democracy with a strong economy, will place China on the right side of history. China’s lack of clear direction on this issue is beginning to negatively affect its reputation, with Beijing seen by the international community as reluctant to cooperate or behave responsibly. These are not traits that behoove a rising power. [Zhu Feng, Foreign Affairs]

I can also envision how things would have to work if China does not cooperate. The alternative would be China’s greatest fear — chaos. It would have to be. Pyongyang insists that its nuclear program is non-negotiable. Even assuming that, under extreme duress, Pyongyang eventually said otherwise, it will never be possible for a prudent person to believe in the denuclearization of a society as closed as North Korea’s, or to trust the words of a regime as mendacious as Pyongyang’s.

Because of all the years wasted by Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, we may, for a while, be stuck with the option of trying to deter a nuclear North Korea. This option is only slightly less terrible than war, and anyone who has watched how Pyongyang has behaved in recent years knows that this isn’t sustainable. We are always laying down red lines we think Pyongyang wouldn’t dare cross. Our calculations are invariably miscalculations, and Pyongyang crosses our red lines like so many cracks in a sidewalk. Can we deter a regime that built a reactor in Syria, used VX in the middle of the crowded Kuala Lumpur Airport terminal, or uses cyber attacks to terrorize us, smother own freedom of expression, and rob banks? Can we deter a regime that has carried out multiple armed attacks, cyber attacks, and assassination attempts in South Korea since 2010, killing at least 50 people? Can we deter a regime that sells chemical weapons technology to Assad and MANPADS to terrorists? How do you deter Pyongyang once it thinks it can nuke Seoul, Tokyo and New York? Will Pyongyang become more restrained when it thinks we think it can, or might?

Eventually, Pyongyang will go too far and we will be at war. Deterrence will fail. That’s why the Trump administration is right to turn down the idea of a freeze — not that Pyongyang is interested in one anyway. Pyongyang can’t be allowed to have nukes, or even nuclear technology to sell to others. But no one believes it is possible to take these things away from Pyongyang without a fundamental change in the regime’s character.

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The cold, hard truth that too few of us are willing to confront is this — there is no peaceful solution to the North Korea crisis as long as Kim Jong-Un remains in power. The syllogism is a simple one: if Kim Jong-Un won’t disarm, and if we can’t live with Kim Jong-Un (or he won’t live with us) if he doesn’t disarm, then Kim Jong-Un must go. The question then becomes a matter of finding the least-risky option to achieve that result.

Once we conclude that Pyongyang won’t disarm under pressure, what it means for sanctions to “work” shifts. Then, the focus of sanctions also shifts, from creating economic pressure on Pyongyang to supporting political subversion of the regime by targeting its immune system — the border guards, the army, Ministry of State Security, the State Security Department, the Reconnaissance General Bureau, and the Propaganda and Agitation Department. In a country whose political and economic models are fragile and possibly unsustainable, change can take many forms. Certainly, it should not take the form of invasion or decapitation unless that’s our only protection against a grave and imminent threat to ourselves and our allies. It could mean sudden collapse if the elites turn on Kim Jong-Un, but our influence over such an event would be indirect at best. Don’t get me wrong — we should do everything within our power to prepare the Pyongyang elites for it, if only to make the right people in Pyongyang and Beijing nervous, and most urgently, to discourage North Korean troops from killing their brother and sister Koreans in the event we can’t prevent war.

The change we can do the most to catalyze, however, is a slow-motion revolution in the countryside. Our strategy should be to use sanctions and information warfare to degrade the regime’s capacity to repress, even as we use economic engagement and information warfare help an informed, enriched, and empowered people rise. This would not be regime change, exactly, but regime decline and regime replacement by dozens of local shadow governments. As the security forces lost their foreign sources of income due to sanctions, their members would desert, turn to corruption, or allow themselves to be coopted by the rising merchants and shadow warlords. Officers patrolling the markets could not shake the people down without fear of resistance or reprisal. Inside the jangmadang, they would become prisoners of the people. Inside their stations, they would be besieged, isolated, and ineffective. As the state’s power melted away and flowed back down the songbun scale, information operations would tell the elites that Kim Jong-Un’s days are numbered, that they should not support him, and that they should disobey any orders to kill their brothers and sisters. Implicit in the slow degradation of a totalitarian state is the historical inevitability that it can decline only so much before it can’t contain an explosion. That is, it must change or perish. Political change tends to happen like bankruptcy: gradually, then suddenly. Who is to say when regime decline might become the people’s revolution that Thae Yong-Ho has predicted? Beijing and Pyongyang should certainly worry about this.

For poor North Koreans, this would mean freedom of trade, freedom from fear, and freedom from the confiscation of their land and their crops. It might also mean chaos along China’s border. China would have to deploy troops to seal that border. Dandong, Dalian, and other cities involved in cross-border trade would face the concentrated effects of secondary sanctions, and even a loss of access to trade with America, that might plunge them into recession and unemployment. If the propaganda circulating in the jangmadang harnessed North Korea’s nationalism in an intensely anti-Chinese direction, it could make North Korea an unsafe place for Chinese investments for years to come. Even after reunification, Chinese goods would face steep fees for the use of North Korean ports. China would be offered no guarantees about the future disposition of U.S. forces (though we’d be smart to leave the pacification of North Korea to the Koreans). Chinese investments — particularly those found to violate U.N. sanctions — might be confiscated, or written off as odious debts. Refugees would flood across the Tumen, and Seoul and Washington would be powerless to stop that flood. To prevent Pyongyang from proliferating, we might have to impose a naval blockade, and an economic air blockade.

All of this is a much more chaotic alternative than an agreement to enforce the sanctions Beijing already voted for at the U.N. Security Council, but for us, it’s far better than the collapse of global nonproliferation or a coerced capitulation of South Korea. If Beijing is blithe about (or applauds, or encourages) our greatest security fears, then our response should be to identify and exploit its greatest fears in return.

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Stop talking about bombing North Korea. Talk about the revolution it desperately needs.

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.  – Sun Tzu

On the Fourth of July, I had a long talk with a Famous Person who would probably prefer that I not mention his name here. He’s famous (or infamous — your mileage may vary) for his association with a foreign policy philosophy described as “neoconservative,” whatever that means. Like many Famous Persons, this person’s public image is an injustice to his actual views, which sounded classically liberal to my ears. He had an easy and unpretentious manner, and great depth in both experience and intellect. He recalled, at length, his support for Kim Dae-Jung’s life and freedom during South Korea’s right-wing dictatorship and other events I watched in rapt attention years ago. Because I’m not naming him, he probably won’t mind me quoting a wise thing he said: “This talk of bombing North Korea is scaring our friends more than it scares our enemies.” I couldn’t agree more. The word I keep returning to is “madness.” Not that it should matter, but there are people in Seoul I love.

It will probably also scare some of our friends that I made the case to this Famous Person that we must match Pyongyang’s escalation and deter the next one by helping the people of North Korea to resist the regime, but at least that suggestion has the advantage of terrifying our enemies and merely dividing our friends. Already, some of you are thinking that I’m scaring the Chinese and the Russians away from cooperating with us, as if all of the State Department’s supplications of the last 20 years have achieved anything. Or, that I’m scaring Pyongyang away from the negotiating table, as if Pyongyang would come back to the negotiating table otherwise, and as if Pyongyang doesn’t already believe we’re trying to overthrow it. Or that I’m ignoring the danger of loose nukes — as if the danger of WMD proliferation isn’t just as great or greater with this regime intact.

If we’re really honest, we’re all praying for some kind of regime change in North Korea. Prayer, of course, is not a strategy. The Sunshine Policy didn’t work, but it was a strategy for regime change by other means. Former South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung, the architect of that policy, was extraordinarily cautious about suggesting an intent to catalyze political change in the North, but a careful reader could see that it necessarily had political objectives: “Through open interaction with the global economy, North Korea will emerge as a responsible member of the international community, contribute to the stability of the peninsula, and develop its economy efficiently.” As Professor Lee, Bruce Klingner and I explained in the pages of Foreign Affairs, that is also why Pyongyang couldn’t let the Sunshine Policy succeed. I also doubt that Kim Dae-Jung was only speaking of South Korea’s former right-wing dictators when he quoted Confucious in his Nobel acceptance speech: “The king is son of heaven. Heaven sent him to serve the people with just rule. If he fails and oppresses the people, the people have the right, on behalf of heaven, to dispose of him.” (This is a point I’ll return to later in this post.)

The same is true of Americans who believe (or believed) in the Sunshine Policy. As the unreconstructed arch-engager David Kang once wrote, “I am totally for regime change, or a regime that modifies its ways and introduces economic and social reforms that improve the lives of its people.” At the height of talks over the 1994 Agreed Framework, Wendy Sherman pined for something more kinetic: “We just thought all that would bring about the collapse of the North Korean government within two or three years.”

We’ve all wished for a change of regime in North Korea, if only on an emotional level, notwithstanding how expensive, chaotic, and dangerous we know Kim Jong-Un’s Götterdämmerung could be. For years, we desperately hoped there might be some path to easy, evolutionary change. The unstated part of this hope was that with sufficient time and engagement, that evolutionary process might terminate as it did in Eastern Europe. But as events have proven beyond a reasonable doubt, there is no path to easy, evolutionary change in North Korea. There is profiteering and outright theft, and Pyongyang’s rich are getting richer. Call that capitalism if you want, but it’s the capitalism of a predatory military-industrial complex that’s no more a harbinger of peace or political reform than Krupp, Messerschmitt, or I.G. Farben were.

Contrary to Wendy Sherman’s expectations, the North Korean government did not collapse, because the North Korean people were too afraid, too hungry, too exhausted, and (above all) too isolated from each other to challenge the state. That is why, though there have been a thousand small and not-small acts of armed and unarmed resistance by the North Korean people against the state in recent years, those acts could not threaten the state’s control or disrupt its oppressive strategy. The people of North Korea had no means to communicate, organize, or resist. For those things, they will need our help. We should give them that help, in ways that would be public knowledge, and in other ways that would necessarily remain covert or clandestine. I don’t see another way. If you do, the comments are open.

In this week’s posts, I’ve explained why every other option ends in either a nuclear war, a surrender of South Korea, the collapse of nonproliferation, or grave threats to our own security and freedom. The hard realities are, in no particular order, that we cannot live with a nuclear North Korea, and that neither talks, nor surrender, nor China, nor the Swiss-educated reformer who never was will solve this crisis for us. War would, but it would also be a catastrophe of incalculable proportions. All options that remain — including the option of doing nothing, or seeking an accommodation with the regime — come with a significant or unacceptable risk of ending catastrophically. There is no safe option left to us; there are only less-dangerous ones. Dramatically improved enforcement of sanctions is the only nonviolent one left, and while I continue to believe that vigorously enforced sanctions could bring the regime to an existential crisis that could dethrone His Porcine Majesty, only the removal of Kim Jong-Un from power (and consequently, from this Earth) can disarm Pyongyang now.

It is increasingly hard to avoid the conclusion that Kim Jong-Un must die so that Korea may live, and that the coup de grâce must come from within, and not from us. It may be that the only way to prevent a larger war is to catalyze a smaller one. But that smaller war — or even the credible threat of one — may stand the best chance of ending with a peace agreement worthy of its name, from which Korea would emerge intact, liberated, unoccupied by foreign powers, and on a manageable timetable for reunification.

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Let’s stop tiptoeing around what most of us have quietly wished for, but which we’ve done nothing — at least nothing I can see — to instigate: North Korea needs a revolution. It is in our interest to be rid of Kim Jong-Un, but above all, it’s in the interests of the North Korean people to be rid of him. The merchants who have waged an unarmed war of resistance against the state’s uniformed shake-down artists and press-gangs want to be rid of him. The nameless victims of torture who wanted nothing more than the right to live and move freely want to be rid of him. The people of North Hamgyeong, who are still waiting for an uncaring government to help them more than a year after floods devastated their homes and farms, want to be rid of him. The dirt-poor private farmers whose land is being confiscated, even as food prices rise, want to be rid of him. The collective farmers whose hopes for agricultural reform were dashed into the reality of exploitative sharecropping want to be rid of him. The poor in North Korea’s cities and towns, who scrape through life inside the confines of a state-imposed class system, want to be rid of him. The soldiers who are killing their abusive officers or walking through minefields to freedom want to be rid of him. The desperately hungry border guards who carry their guns into China and desert want to be rid of him. The elites in Pyongyang, who have begun defecting in greater numbers than ever — to include diplomats, money launderers, security officials, and (most recently) one of Kim Jong-Un’s bodyguards — want to be rid of him. The men, women, and children in the gulags must surely pray that they may live long enough to be rid of him. The 30,000 North Koreans who risked everything to flee to South Korea — and the countless others who died along the way, or in prison camps after they were recaptured — wanted to be rid of him.

Our real military option isn’t bombing, but a combination of overt, covert, and clandestine operations to catalyze the formation of a resistance movement by North Korea’s rural poor, historically its most exploited and discontented class, particularly in the northern and eastern provinces. The tried-and-tested argument for that uprising is the timeless appeal of class warfare. North Korea’s is a society of artificial, politically assigned, hereditary classes that mark every citizen for life and decide her access to education, a decent job or place to live, and even food.

As for the organizational foundations of such a movement, I’ve already discussed them at length, but they aren’t so different from the model used by Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood. That model begins with a guerrilla banking system that seeds a multitude of unaffiliated, clandestine social welfare organizations and evolves into a shadow government, providing for the needs of the people that the state does not, and that resists the state’s violation of the fundamental human rights of the people in whatever ways it can. The essential and missing element is a means of communication, but even that isn’t far off. I’ll keep the discussion of logistics to myself or leave that to Dave Maxwell — he’s the retired Special Forces colonel, not me. I’ll only say that North Korea has two long coastlines, one long and partially porous border, robust smuggling networks, and a population that has learned to be extraordinarily resourceful to survive. The markets in North Korea seem to provide anything for which there is a demand.

I think — and there is a basis for my speculation — that Kim Jong-Un’s nightmare scenario is to wake up one day to hear that after an MPS officer beat a merchant who refused him a bribe, that the merchants rioted and killed the officer with a pistol bought from a deserting soldier, that riots spread throughout the province once people began texting the news on smuggled phones, and that people had set up roadblocks all over Hoeryong, within sight of journalists just across the border in China.

There would be no question, of course, of a peasant army marching on Pyongyang. That would be impossible, undesirable, and unnecessary. It would present Pyongyang with the sudden, use-it-or-lose-it choice that we must carefully avoid. The state’s loss of control would instead be gradual. If North Korea’s vast, almost roadless interior dissolved into anarchy as Syria and Libya did so unexpectedly, Pyongyang could lose its land access to the fisheries of the east, the coal mines and power plants in the interior, and all the remote places where it hides his missiles. Broadcasts directed at his elites, who are already defecting in growing numbers, would show them how the countryside was slipping into anarchy. If the security forces were already sanctioned to the verge of bankruptcy, they would be hard-pressed to pay, fuel, and maintain an army to patrol the borders, and the villages and fields near the most critical roads, railroads, and power lines. It is the economic and political blows, not the military one, that would be fatal, and that would force Pyongyang’s elites to demand peace talks on terms that would lead to a genuine peace.

As border control broke down, information would flow in and people would flow out. Trade links to China would become untenable, adding more financial pressure to the effects of sanctions. As Pyongyang functionally became a city-state surrounded by an ungovernable countryside and a patchwork of liberated zones, the elites might decide that the world was closing in on them and hedge their bets about the future. In exchange for our covert support, a thousand unseen eyes in the mountains could report the location of every missile truck, slip messages to unit commanders, or send out videos of gulags or abuses by soldiers. In the towns and villages of Ryanggang and North Hamgyeong, the State Security Department’s officers would become prisoners of the people, too afraid to patrol the markets and reduced to taking bribes from those they no longer dared to extort, in exchange for looking the other way at more open acts of subversion. No foreign power, including China, would dare wade into this mess. As for the generals, all that would be asked of them to save themselves and their families would be to make sure that at the critical hour, their troops don’t move and don’t shoot.

~   ~   ~

What can America give to the people of North Korea? First, a means to communicate and organize among themselves; second, a message to galvanize and focus their discontent; third, a concerted legal attack on the finances of the security forces to give the people breathing space; and perhaps, as a deterrent to further acts of aggression and oppression, a covert supply of arms, or a way to manufacture them in small guerrilla workshops.

We already have specialized aircraft designed for hijacking the airwaves of hostile states. The message we broadcast must be tailored to different audiences — the elites, the military, and the rural poor. For the elites in Pyongyang, the message must be that there is a better future without Kim Jong-Un than with him. That for those who resist the state and refuse to take part in its crimes against humanity, there will be clemency, freedom, and a better life in the future. If the regime persists, they can expect to meet the same fate as Jang Song-Thaek and his family.

For the soldiers, it must be a message of rice, peace, and freedom. In the event of war, they must refrain from killing their brothers and sisters in the South. They must be told that the targets assigned to them are civilian targets, and that their duty as Koreans is to disable their weapons, refuse to fire, or intentionally miss those targets.

For the rural poor, it must be that they are poor and hungry because of the state’s choices — to build weapons and ski resorts, and to import yachts and missile trucks, instead of feeding them. That the state keeps them hungry to control them. That it divides them against each other by making them inform on one another. The message must be rich with actual, credible stories about people like them who have suffered from the regime’s abuse, corruption, and oppression. They must awaken to the fact that they alone can change that, because no one else is coming to save them.

For all North Koreans, we should help them begin a conversation about the difficulties that sudden change will mean to a society that isn’t prepared for them. Should they stay in place or move? Who will own the soil, and who will till it? Will they be allowed to sell the land, and for what price? Will rich South Koreans flood in and make them second-class citizens in their own country? Will they acquire legal ownership of their own homes? Will industries in the hands of the state, the donju, or foreign investors be nationalized and sold off? Will the communes be broken up or consolidated? How can they prevent foreign occupation? What is the right balance between free speech and social stability? Who will be held responsible for crimes against the North Korean people, and who will be forgiven in the name of ending them? They must feel that they will have a say in how those questions are answered.

~   ~   ~

Our sanctions-targeting strategy must also evolve with the recognition of these same hard realities. During this event on Capitol Hill several weeks ago, former Treasury Undersecretary and former CIA Deputy Director David Cohen made a profoundly important statement that would have been easy to miss. Cohen said that the strategy for sanctions enforcement depends on the objective of sanctions. Until now, it has been to pressure Kim Jong-Un to negotiate away his nukes, based on the flawed premise that he cares about the welfare of his people and the development of his country (in fact, those things would pose serious threats to his internal control by breaking the peoples’ material and ideological dependence on the state).

If we agree that Kim Jong-Un will never disarm voluntarily, then our sanctions should instead target the regime’s security forces and their capacity to suppress the population. How? We know, for example, that two sanctioned North Korean coal export companies support the military and that a third supports the Reconnaissance General Bureau. The security forces fund themselves with certain trading companies. If so, our sanctions should preferentially target the regime’s immune system to disrupt its capacity to oppress, to compel its security forces to rely on corruption, and to break down barriers to the smuggling of goods, people, and information across North Korea’s borders.

Part of this strategy could take several years to prepare, unfortunately. The critical communications technology to allow North Koreans to organize still isn’t in place. Once resistance begins, it’s difficult to know whether it would spread or how quickly. If we controlled its funding, we could exercise some control over its conduct, but only to an extent. We can expect Pyongyang to hit back (though in limited, non-suicidal ways) if it knows or assumes that we’re supporting internal resistance. In the meantime, we’ll need an interim containment strategy, including aggressive sanctions enforcement, the accelerated deployment of missile defenses and deterrence, and perhaps a blockade. The President may have to use force to deter the next Yeonpyeong-do incident or slow North Korea’s missile development, and hope that a limited conflict stays limited. At the same time, we must never close the door to an agreement in which Pyongyang would disarm and begin a graduated process of humanitarian reform in exchange for the suspension of sanctions. But in the end, containment alone is not a permanent solution to this problem, and deterrence has been failing since 2010.

For years, the experts who have held the tiller of our policy for so much of the last three decades have offered Pyongyang “security guarantees” for a disarmament deal. Pyongyang either didn’t take them or took them and reneged. It’s time to turn this formula on its head and offer Pyongyang insecurity guarantees as long as it refuses to disarm. Once we pose a credible threat of destabilizing the countryside between Pyongyang and Dandong, our chances of a diplomatic solution rise from zero to something more than zero. How much more depends on the credibility of the threat and how much we have to offer in terms of trading stability for a lasting peace.

~   ~   ~

When Kim Dae Jung quoted Confucious in his Nobel speech, he reminded his audience that Confucious spoke those words 2,000 years before John Locke wrote of his version of the social contract theory, which incorporated a right of revolution. Against Locke, Thomas Hobbes argued, based on his bitter experiences during England’s civil war, that the subject’s duty was to obey the sovereign for better or for worse lest he reduce his kingdom to a state of anarchy where life would be “nasty, brutish, and short.” But North Korea, where the regime has imposed its social contract on the people, is as Hobbesian a place as you will find — it is a living (if one can call it that) exhibit to Locke’s brief for the right to revolution. In another hundred years, Thomas Jefferson would write that when a government becomes destructive of the ends of the life, liberty, and happiness of the people, “it is the right of the people to alter, or to abolish it.” I do not reserve that right to Americans alone. That would make me an American exceptionalist.   

In our long war of skirmishes against the Kim Dynasty, it has always been the people of North Korea who have been our most important — and most overlooked — potential allies. Kim Jong-Il now presents a grave threat to our freedom, our security, our prosperity, and our way of life. We are justified in threatening the integrity of his political system in return. The perpetuation of that system represents a grave threat to us, to our allies, and to the people of North Korea most of all. We also compelled to do this in a way that reduces the risk of catastrophe as much as that is still possible, and that minimizes unnecessary suffering by the North Korean people. Our support for any resistance group must be strictly conditioned on its adherence to the Law of Armed Conflict. It must tolerate no attacks against noncombatants, no banditry, and no theft. The choice to resist, of course, is a choice that belongs to the people of North Korea. But if they are willing to make it, they should find no better friend than us.

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North Korean man stabs, nearly kills Ministry of State Security officer

The Daily NK is reporting another case of a North Korean citizen attacking and nearly killing an officer of the dreaded Ministry of State Security (MSS), the agency that runs most of North Korea’s political prison camps, possibly over official corruption.

It has been reported that an [sic] Ministry of State Security agent working as a surveillance patrol officer at the No. 10 guard post in Hoeryong City, North Hamgyong Province, was stabbed by a knife-wielding assailant while on duty. The Ministry of State Security immediately dispatched a team of investigators to the region, but has yet to identify suspects.

The incident occurred on May 9 and the victim remains in a critical condition. Due to timely aid from his colleagues, he managed to survive and is currently in hospital.

“The Ministry of State Security (MSS) dispatched agents to Hoeryong to track down the suspect immediately after the incident. There are mobile inspection posts set up across Hoeryong to investigate residents who move in and out of the city. The incident is being treated very seriously because it occurred in the border region and it was an MSS official who was attacked,” a source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK.

The North Korean authorities have classified the case as a serious anti-state crime, rather than a mere attempted murder or retaliative action. [Daily NK]

Word of the incident spread quickly among the local population, so the regime immediately blamed it on South Korea (Moon Jae-in, take note). Locals, however, “believe that the case is in retaliation to the corrupt authorities.” Although the Daily NK does not report the specific reason for the attack, it writes that “[s]ome believe that the suspect could have attacked the inspector out of anger as MSS agents frequently demand bribes for leniency on trade or smuggling,” and that local sentiment includes both a degree of sympathy for the officer and a sense that “the agent must have done something to warrant the attack.” Whatever the truth of the matter, these perceptions are also an important reality in a place with the truth is so scarce.

[Hoeryong, on the Chinese border]

The Daily NK also links to another report from Pyongsong in March of a “man in his 40s angered by the human rights violations he was subjected to some weeks ago during an investigation” attacking another MSS officer. In that case, the MSS officer was badly injured and hospitalized in Pyongyang, while the suspect got away. Local sentiment reported after that incident was more hostile to the state, according to one resident interviewed by the Daily NK: “Pyongsong residents are siding squarely with the victim and assuming that the abuse must have been severe for an innocent man to attack an officer. Everyone is hoping he escapes.” 

Because the only real solution to any of the world’s differences with Pyongyang must come from within North Korea itself, this blog has been diligent about documenting acts of anti-state resistance in North Korea. A quick pre-commute search of the OFK archives reveals evidence of other attacks by North Koreans against the security forces in 2015 (here, here, and here) in 2012 (here) and in 2010 (here).

Although these reports tell us something about the popular mood in North Korea and contradict the narrative of North Koreans as loyal, obedient automatons, they do not provide enough data for me to say that resistance in North Korea is above a level I’d call “ordinary.” I can recall two real surges of popular resistance in North Korea — in 2005 (in response to market crackdowns and corruption) and in 2009 (following what I call “The Great Confiscation,” an unannounced currency redenomination that wiped out the savings of millions of desperately poor people).

With the exception of fragging incidents and defections in the military, which are usually reactions to abuse by officers and NCOs, most incidents of resistance by North Koreans are from a combination of economic motivations and rage against official corruption. In other words, their motives are material, and may even resemble expressions of Marxian class warfare. That trend has continued right up to the present year. Mass mobilizations have also angered many North Koreans at the state.

So why don’t these attacks spur a broader public reaction, like the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, which is generally credited as the incident that triggered the Arab Spring? Fear (obviously) and cultural factors are partial explanations, but so are North Koreans’ sense of isolation and helplessness. By the time word of such incidents enters the markets, the authorities have already had time to mobilize and crack down, and the immediacy of the rage has dissipated. Word may never spread from town to town. This is why I’ve long thought that more isolated incidents of resistance could become mass incidents if North Koreans had an anonymous way to text each other.

These reports also help us put recent reports about the strains on the MSS into context. Earlier this year, shortly after MSS head Kim Won-hong was designated by the Treasury Department for human rights abuses, Pyongyang reportedly removed him from his post. At the time, there was widespread speculation about yet another purge. Kim Won-hong has since reappeared, although the exact nature of his status in the regime is unclear. Credible reports suggest, however, that the regime has lectured MSS officers about the importance of refraining from corruption, something it would only have done out of fear for the stability of state control. And for at least a while, MSS officers seemed chastened enough to shake citizens down for bribes somewhat more politely. The state is feeling the limits of its power. It does not really fear our aircraft carriers or our bombers. What His Porcine Majesty sees in his fevered dreams, perhaps after too much cognac, is a crowd of his own people demanding justice for his crimes against them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thae Yong-ho is giving North Korean resistance a voice & a vision it never had

Sometime today, Arirang TV will publish an exclusive, hour-long English-language interview with Thae Yong-ho, who was North Korea’s Deputy Ambassador to the United Kingdom until the day last August when he gathered his two sons and gravely told them that he was cutting off their “slave chains.” NK News has a summary of the interview here. I’ll link it when Arirang posts it. (Update: Here’s the full interview, and a Wall Street Journal story on Thae by Jonathan Cheng.)

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 poet Jang 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 can catalyze 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.

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North Korean market traders are fighting The Man

Via Yonhap:

“It’s not that hard nowadays to see women stand up to despotic wardens and security agents while shaking their fingers at them at jangmadang,” the Radio Free Asia (RFA) said, citing a source in Pyongyang who recently visited China. “In such cases, nearby observers also join in and push the officials, something that was very rare to see just a few years ago.”

Now North Korean people are no longer giving in to officials unconditionally, the source said.

A Chinese businessman, who frequents the North’s Rason Special Economic Zone, also said: “Traffic wardens usually blow whistles to stop motor bikers whenever they see them on the road in order to extort money from them. As of late, more than half of the motorbikers, however, do not follow the order and just drive away.

“It was rare to see people daring to neglect wardens’ crackdowns not too long ago,” he said.

People have even begun to challenge security agents, using the term “human rights violations,” if they act unfairly and high-handedly, another source in the North’s South Hamkyong Province was quoted as saying.

“North Korea used to be a society that did not even know about the very term ‘human rights,'” the source added. [Yonhap]

North Koreans may be learning some of this from South Korean dramas, which often feature politics and protests as subplots. But even without foreign inspiration, nothing in recent years has motivated North Koreans’ political consciousness quite like the interference of petty despots with their hardscrabble livelihoods. For other examples, see this documentarythis incident, this massive brawl, these spontaneous protests, or any number of other incidents.

Indeed, the tendency for the trading classes to eschew politics until some (probably corrupt) thug in a uniform touches their market wares is universal — remember how the Arab Spring began? Slowly, the officials in the markets are becoming prisoners of the people. Now, imagine if after each such incident, North Koreans across the country could read about it on their smart phones the very same day.

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RFA: North Korean border guard under arrest after killing seven comrades

This blog has closely followed reports of indiscipline within the North Korean military, resistance against the state, strategies for political subversion, and the breakdown of border control. Last week, another report of a mass shooting incident by a North Korean border guard reinforced my belief that morale and discipline within the border guard force are declining.

A young North Korean man conscripted to guard a customs post on his country’s border with China in (sic) under arrest for shooting dead seven platoon members who had angered him with bullying treatment, RFA’s Korean Service has learned.

After the shootings at dawn on Jan. 7 at Hyesan, a city in North Korea’s northern Yanggang province, the young conscript was arrested and taken to Pyongyang, sources familiar with the shooting told RFA.  [….]

“The incident at the Hyesan customs office was caused by the frequent beatings suffered by the new conscripts at the hands of their superiors, and the one who committed the crime is a new conscript who graduated from high school last spring,” the source told RFA on Jan. 16. [Radio Free Asia]

In this case, it was hazing that caused the soldier to snap. In other cases, it was the lack of sufficient pay and rations that led soldiers to turn to crime or fratricide. Most of those reports point to endemic corruption as the cause of fratricides and defections. Officers and NCOs skim pay and rations and either keep them or sell them for a profit. I don’t attribute this to sanctions, as I see no direct evidence of that, but if sanctions were to disrupt the regime’s pay and rationing systems, I’d expect to see more incidents like this.

I have seen it suggested that this incident could not have happened because, according to Chinese media reports, North Korean soldiers along the border aren’t issued ammunition. But there are enough similar reports that we can reject that claim and instead categorize this report as plausible but unconfirmed. Let’s start with this incident from last July, in which a group of five armed North Korean soldiers crossed the border to rob Chinese civilians and got into a “gunfight” with Chinese police. Because a gunfight isn’t likely unless both sides have both weapons and ammunition, there is evidence that in at least some cases, North Korean soldiers along the northern border have both, and aren’t always using them as directed. More here.

In March of 2015, two armed North Korean border guards fled to China. At least one of them was captured. In that incident, the Dandong border guard station warned that the soldiers “are thought to be armed with guns and knives,” but the same report also said one of the soldiers was carrying “three blank magazines.”

Between September and December 2014, several desperate North Korean border guards, denied the income that they would otherwise have earned by taking bribes from smugglers, deserted across the border into China to rob and murder several civilians. A January 2015 Bloomberg report reports that in one of these incidents, “a North Korean soldier shot four residents of Nanping, a border village of about 300 in northeastern Jilin province. Around 20 villagers have been murdered in Nanping by North Koreans in recent years, a senior local official said in an interview.” So serious was the concern about the chaos along the border that some Chinese fled their border villages, Chinese authorities formed vigilante patrols and deployed troops to the border, and North Korea fired the general in charge. (See also this and this.)

In March 2013, a border guard in Musan County, North Hamgyeong province, shot and killed five company commanders and attempted (unsuccessfully) to desert. The soldier was reportedly disgruntled because he was underfed and was caught stealing food. In April 2012, Chinese and North Korean authorities launched a manhunt for two border guards who shot and killed about half a dozen of their colleagues, then fled across the border. The men are later caught and sent back to North Korea. Going back to 2010, North Korean border guards shot dead three Chinese citizens after crossing the border.

There’s also substantial evidence that soldiers along the DMZ have weapons and ammunition, and that they also periodically shoot their officers, defect, or both. A case in point would be a 2012 incident in which a soldier on guard duty at the DMZ shot and killed two officers and crossed into South Korea. I’ve cataloged most recent reports of that kind at this post.

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It is obvious why these incidents are horrible. It is less obvious why they may be hopeful for those who want to avoid greater horrors — another Korean War, the continuation of North Korea’s status quo, or the loss of South Korea’s freedom and independence. As long-time readers know, I’ve long believed that North Korea’s dictators want nuclear weapons to extort South Korea into submission. They aren’t interested in bargaining their nukes away for any price, with the exception of regime survival itself. Recently, centrists like Richard Armitage, Richard Haass, and Winston Lord have also come to believe that the overthrow of the North Korean system is probably the only way to disarm Kim Jong-un. But even as calls for regime change grow, the debate about how to execute such a policy is headed nowhere good.

The most obvious idea, that of a conventional attack, cautiously pushed in this post, is the worst and most dangerous plan for Götterdämmerung. Any plan for a sudden overthrow of Kim Jong-un will trigger a “use it or lose it” mentality within the North Korean leadership and is likely to get hundreds of thousands of people killed on both sides of the DMZ. Such a plan is likely to consolidate, rather than fracture, the cohesiveness of the North Korean command system and make officers and soldiers more (not less) likely to obey orders to fire on Seoul and Uijongbu. Our current defenses are inadequate to protect against North Korea’s large volume of artillery and rockets. A conventional invasion would not only enmesh us in an occupation of a country deeply indoctrinated with xenophobia and anti-Americanism, it might draw us into a direct conflict with China or result in a de-facto redrawing of the DMZ, turning part of Korea into a Chinese puppet state or “autonomous zone.” The idea of a full-on preemptive strike is a terrible, catastrophically bad idea that should only be considered in response to (or to preempt) an imminent all-out North Korean attack, which is unlikely absent a miscalculation.

Rather, any regime change strategy must take extraordinary care to avoid cornering Kim Jong-un until such time as he distrusts the loyalty and will of his military to obey orders to fire on South Korean cities. At every stage, North Korea’s leaders must believe that there are better and less risky options than this, including negotiations.

Until then, we should redouble our efforts to break down the cohesion of the North Korean command structure by appealing to elites, commanders, and enlisted soldiers alike. We should engage with and empower North Korea’s urban and rural poor to help them build a political underground and a new civil society, independent of their government. We should reassure North Korean elites that they have a future in a reunified Korea. We should offer clemency to commanders, including those who may be guilty of serious crimes, who choose to disobey unlawful orders at the critical moment. We should propagate a simple message of “rice, peace, and freedom” to soldiers and civilians alike. And yes, we should be willing to talk to the North Korean government and explain our position, provided we give no concessions on “engagement” or sanctions until North Korea makes verifiable progress (and also, provided that we never sideline our allies in Seoul and Tokyo). Progress toward what, and how much? Fortunately, people who thought about those questions wrote them into the law, giving the President a degree of flexibility to judge Pyongyang’s sincerity.

Meanwhile, sanctions can help catalyze that process by targeting the accounts and trading companies that pay North Korea’s military and security forces, to hasten the breakdown of its command systems, and to erode those forces’ morale and cohesion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Only the end of Kim Jong-un will disarm North Korea

In Washington, one still sometimes hears from the diminishing ranks of North Korea “engagers” calls to give the noxious and incorrigible regime in Pyongyang “security guarantees” in exchange for whatever concession they want to buy from His Porcine Majesty this year — denuclearization in 1994, partial denuclearization in 2000, or a freeze today. The idea behind security guarantees, of course, is to incentivize Pyongyang to do what we want it to do, by offering it the stability we think it values most.

Thankfully, our talks with North Korea have never advanced far enough to make such a Faustian bargain, because you can be sure that to Pyongyang, “security guarantees” would mean no sanctions, no U.N. votes criticizing its crimes against humanity, no “slander” of its repressive regime, no defensive military exercises, no missile defense, and no parodies or ridicule of his ridiculous leader abroad. (It’s conceivable in the post-Sony era that North Korea would become a second partial, de facto exception to the First Amendment, along with blasphemy against Islam, as defined by its most extreme mobs.) 

Now that James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, has conceded that “the notion of getting the North Koreans to denuclearize is probably a lost cause,” it’s time for us to think in terms of insecurity guarantees. The idea is precisely a photo negative of security guarantees — incentivizing both Pyongyang and Beijing by instilling the fear of either coup plots in Pyongyang, or a chaotic insurgency in the flood-stricken and angry northeastern provinces. It is often said that China fears instability above everything else in North Korea. Surely China — which, as I’ve amply documented, willfully violates and undermines U.N. sanctions — would prefer to help enforce sanctions than to have another Syria break out along its border.

What Clapper really said was that diplomacy can’t disarm Kim Jong-un, for reasons relating to the latter’s psychology. That’s almost certainly true, and it means that our goals must evolve to conform with this hard reality. Our goal must be to end the regime itself, not only because our treaty allies in Asia can’t live with a nuclear North Korea, but also because a nuclear North Korea nearly gave us a nuclear Syria, and may yet mean a nuclear Iran and a nuclear al-Qaeda.

Before I speak of strategies, let me comment on Clapper’s statement. It was both true and unwise for him to say. Senior administration officials are supposed to know the script and stick to it. This is true of administrations I agree with and administrations I disagree with. Presidents can’t make coherent policies without coherent communications. His statement probably gave aid and comfort to the generals in Pyongyang, and great unease to our allies in Seoul and Tokyo, who will read it as the U.S. concluding that they must learn to live under the continual extortionate threat of a nuclear North Korea, even though Clapper didn’t exactly say this.

Seoul, of course, knows that this isn’t possible. It knows that a nuclear North Korea will seek the slow strangulation of its freedom and prosperity. South Korea would lose its freedom like the character in “The Sun Also Rises” lost his wealth — “Gradually, then suddenly.” North Korea may be the next president’s greatest security challenge, and President Obama wasted two full terms in the White House doing next to nothing to arrest it, except for a lot of wishful secret talks and one abortive freeze deal in 2012. History should judge President Obama’s North Korea legacy harshly, even if many historians are likely to be partial to Obama ideologically.

Now, let’s turn to a discussion of strategies. It should go without saying that we aren’t limited to just one. One of these should be — some of you can already finish this sentence for me — to freeze the accounts in Chinese banks that pay, feed, and equip North Korea’s elites, security forces, and military. It’s conceivable that such a strategy, if pursued aggressively, would trigger a crisis of confidence in Pyongyang within two years.

Sanctions skeptics sometimes say that sanctions alone won’t be enough, and I agree. We should also actively subvert the regime politically. We will need different strategies for different constituencies inside North Korea. I’ve written at length about “guerrilla engagement” with North Korea’s dispossessed rural population, both to provide for their material needs, to soften the burdens of reunification, and to galvanize their discontent behind a cohesive ideology. Unfortunately, it will take a minimum of five years for such a strategy to pose a real challenge to the regime’s control of the countryside.

We also need a separate strategy to destabilize the elite power structure in Pyongyang, by making quiet and not-so-quiet appeals to encourage a coup d’etat against Kim Jong-un. By now, it’s clear that there is significant discontent within the elites. There has been an unprecedented wave of defections from all levels of the elites this year. Recently, even the loyalty of the minders, and of the minder-minders, has come into question.

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

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North Korea needs more minders for its minders, to stop them from defecting

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.

scooter

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.

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Prisoners of the People: N. Korea’s guerrilla society has political implications (updated)

Over the last year, I’ve become convinced that if technology can break the electronic barriers between North Korea and the Outer Earth, it would be possible to keep the broken promises of the Sunshine Policy by bypassing Pyongyang and engaging directly with the North Korean people. Governments, churches, and NGOs could harness markets, smuggling networks, and private agriculture to help North Koreans feed the hungry, heal the sick, share information and ideas, begin to rebuild their broken civil society, and eventually, negotiate with the state for what is rightly theirs. 

A new civil society independent of the state, and increasingly at odds with the state’s political objectives, would co-opt, corrupt, and supplant the state’s control over the population, particularly if the state is demoralized, corrupt, weakened by sanctions, and unable to pay its security forces. If it all seems impossible, consider two cases in which that trend is well advanced in North Korean society now — financial services and health care. 

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Reuters writes that a guerrilla banking system has sprung up inside North Korea. For the most part, Reuters describes a system in which merchants who profit from state-sanctioned trade lend money to state-owned enterprises, mostly for the state’s benefit. This amounts to crony capitalism; it’s the least interesting of the three types of financial services that emerged in North Korea over the last decade.

The second type of service is loan sharking by the well-connected against the structurally impoverished. In some cases, the desperately poor agree to pay usurious interest rates to borrow food. You can imagine how some of these stories end. A month ago, for example, the Daily NK reported that a well-liked young woman stabbed a loan shark to death for pressuring her to make payments she couldn’t afford, and “will probably be executed via other means as soon as the court proceedings come to a close, perhaps with an instrument such as a rubber baton.”

The third, and least exploitative system is the one North Korean refugees currently use to send remittances to their families back home, although that system is risky for the smugglers and the recipients, who become vulnerable to extortion by the police. It’s also expensive — the refugees pay steep commissions from their hard-earned pay to send these pittances home.

The situation that has developed clearly fills a need in the marketplace, but ethically, it’s obviously far from ideal. If the technology existed to set up secure online banking through messenger apps, it would be possible to send remittances and humanitarian aid from South to North Korea with a minimum of risk and cost, and to extend microcredit to the poor in more regulated and ethical ways.

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But the report that fascinates me the most is one I read over the weekend — Eun Jeong Soh’s paper, “The Emergence of an Informal Health-Care Sector in North Korea,” published in the Asia-Pacific Journal, and based on extensive interviews with refugees, including health care workers, from North Korea. One of the more ambitious things I’ve advocated is supplementing, and largely replacing, North Korea’s broken public health system with a guerrilla health care system for those who can’t afford the bribes and fees that are a de facto cost of North Korea’s “free” health care. Soh’s paper suggests the extent to which something like that has already begun to happen spontaneously. Like most of North Koreans’ adaptations to the failure of the state, this new system was illegal, which meant that it necessarily relied on informal networks and a high degree of mutual trust.

At first, many of these home healers were quacks and unqualified traditional healers. Over time, more retired and off-duty doctors began moonlighting for trusted patients. The services they provide have improved in quality as the state hospitals increasingly do little more than use their equipment to diagnose ailments. Today, those who can afford it prefer to use private doctors, who refer patients to back-alley pharmacists to supply medicines. So well developed are the markets’ smuggling networks today that the quality and authenticity of the medicines sold by back-alley pharmacists is now as great a concern as their availability.

Up to this point, Soh’s paper mostly adds richness of detail, anecdote, evidence, and analysis to trends North Korea watchers already knew of, or might have reasonably extrapolated to the state of affairs she describes.

But the state still hovers over all of this. How do informal networks grow despite a state that wants to stamp them out, isolate citizens from each other, and maintain its monopoly over essential services? One way is for private doctors to form protective relationships with the security forces — “she provides him with free medical assistance and he protects her from any official repercussions that her activities might incur.” But Soh’s subjects also report that the state also holds back, fearing that if it cracks down, there will be discontent and unrest. It’s a long quote, but worth reading.

In describing this informal hoarding system, she conveyed the sense of injustice she feels about what the system has become, even though, in times of personal need, she had herself acquired drugs directly from the hospital.

How is such shared moral outrage expressed and communicated to the bureaucrats charged with enforcing the regulations? Dissatisfaction can be expressed verbally as a way of confronting local officials directly. Interviewees argued that in order to survive in North Korea, one often has to take a firm line and defend one’s position logically in order to persuade officials of the merits of one’s case. While this might seem surprising given the state’s tight control over its citizens, the expression of complaints to local officials is facilitated by preexisting relationships between officials and complainants formed through family networks, neighborhood relations, friendships, a shared history as classmates, and so forth. Social relations in small regional cities in North Korea are close, shaped by cultural traditions, socialism, and communalism, and reinforced by the coping and survival strategies developed to weather times of hardship.

However, given the nature of a regime that does not accommodate dissent, the expression of dissatisfaction generally takes non-verbal forms. One term that cropped up frequently was “disaffection” (panbal). In the narratives recorded in this study, panbal refers to feelings as well as expressions of disaffection against the authorities (normally local officials charged with regulating anti-socialist activities), as well as with life in general. Although the authorities are well aware of such disaffection in the populace, Ms Hahn expressed her opinion that in reality the government lacked the power to impose its own regulations: “If the authorities regulate even those activities, there would be too much disruption” (Interview, S. Hahn, October 26, 2013). According to a former police officer, “a police officer will be unpopular if he takes unnecessary enforcement action” (Interview, M. Park, November 18, 2013). If complaints against local officials accumulate, they will damage their reputation with residents. In E. P. Thompson’s words, referring to the 18th-century English crowd, “the authorities were, in some measure, the prisoners of the people” (Thompson 1971, 88).

From the point of view of local officials, the existence of these informal coping networks and strategies are to be applauded, as alternative ways of providing health care may have the effect of allaying complaints by residents. Local officials also have private incentives to turn a blind eye to such informal activities. Normally, these private practices operate with the help of local police who accept bribes from practitioners. More importantly, police officers also draw on the services and expertise of informal health-care workers for their own families’ survival and wellbeing. As a result, local officials and residents have come to share similar views on these extra-judicial activities. Thus the convergence of preferences among providers, consumers, and regulators has contributed to the emergence of an active and evolving informal health-care sector in North Korea.

So it was that North Koreans who harbored no explicit political motives learned to resist and conspire against the state, and to defeat the prisoners’ dilemma it imposed on them.

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Update:

North Korean parents are catching “private education fever” as more and more of them are risking arrest as they venture outside the secretive state’s educational system in the hope that a private tutor will help their children get into a top university.

“The goal of these parents is to send their children overseas or to the best colleges in Pyongyang,” a North Korean who recently visited China told RFA’s Korea Service. “There have been slogans going around saying: ‘Let’s send them overseas!’ or ‘Let’s send them to Pyongyang!’”

In North Korea, where the state tightly controls education, hiring a private tutor is illegal, but more and more parents are taking the risk and paying the price

“Subjects like mathematics, physics or any other of the core studies cost 100 [Chinese] yuan (U.S. $15.00) per month in Pyongyang, whereas subjects that need specialized skills like computer programming cost between 200-500 yuan (U.S. $30-$75) per month,” said the source, who talked to RFA on condition of anonymity.

The fever doesn’t end with academics as so-called “extreme” North Korean parents, who want to raise “civilized” children, pay more so their kids can learn to play at least one instrument and take part in athletics, explained the source.

“Children of the privileged class in Pyongyang spend about 1000 yuan (U.S. $150) monthly for private education expenses,” the source said. [RFA]

To do this, the parents have to pay bribes to get their kids excused from regular school or labor mobilizations. The tutors are also at risk of arrest, so many are well-connected people who are relatively untouchable.

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A strike by North Korean workers in Kuwait portends a dark fate for them, and for Kim Jong-un.

I first learned that North Korea had exported laborers to Kuwait when I heard that those workers were providing thirsty locals with a valuable public service by brewing black-market moonshine for them. Then, in April, a report emerged that seemed almost too remarkable to be true — 100 North Korean workers in Kuwait had mutinied against their minders to protest the extra work and unpaid wages coincident to the “70-day battle” leading up to North Korea’s party congress in May. (In nearby Qatar, two more workers also fled from their worksite to a local police station.)

At the time, I speculated that the workers in Kuwait may have been driven to perform extra labor because of the seizure, by Sri Lankan authorities, of $150,000 in “wages” being carried from nearby Oman to China, cash that presumably would have been deposited in a Bureau 39-controlled account there. I also took note of reports that the North Koreans were having difficulties accessing the banking system and smuggling bulk cash across the border from China to North Korea. I hoped that U.S. and South Korean diplomats in Kuwait would intervene to help rescue as many of the workers as possible from repatriation to an uncertain fate. And regardless of whether the workers escaped repatriation, I worried (and still do) about the welfare of the workers’ families back in North Korea.

Obviously, not all defection stories about North Korea hold up under closer scrutiny, and hearing nothing about this one for so long, I’d begun to harbor doubts about it. Now, however, an independent source is corroborating the initial report and adding new facts:

“As people began to disobey orders and desert their workplaces, North Korean authorities belatedly took steps to tackle the issue,” RFA said. “On May 17, they quickly summoned dozens of North Korean workers who had caused problems by resuming Air Koryo flights between Pyongyang and Kuwait, which had been halted on Feb. 23.”

In March, some North Korean laborers demanded they be paid properly when their employer urged them to earn more money to send to the Pyongyang regime ahead of a large congress of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party in May, RFA added.

[….]

Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said North Korea appears to be checking on the situation of its overseas workers.

“We think the strikes and various actions of North Korean workers abroad could be the result of sanctions on the country,” ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee said during a regular press briefing. [Yonhap]

Via KBS, we also learn that Air Koryo flights between Pyongyang and Kuwait were suspended shortly after the President signed H.R. 757 and shortly before the U.N. Security Council approved Resolution 2270, but that North Korea has resumed those flights for the purpose of repatriating its rebellious workers to God-only-knows-what fate.

I’d be most grateful to anyone who can provide me a copy of the original RFA report. The report has three important implications, which I’ll take in ascending order of importance. 

First, this is another sign that the regime’s overseas cash-earning operations may be entering the “death spiral” I first spoke of here. As sanctions and diplomatic pressure cut the flow of hard currency to Pyongyang, enterprises that had once been profitable will terminate or become unprofitable, and Pyongyang will squeeze its remaining overseas workers harder to keep up “loyalty” payments. There is recent evidence that the restaurant business isn’t bringing in as much cash as it did previously. Other examples of this pressure include the termination of profitable labor exports to the Ugandan police and Polish shipyards. You can expect Pyongyang’s overseas income to diminish further in the wake of the Treasury Department’s 311 designation, as even profitable enterprises face increased difficulty repatriating their profits. 

As the profits fall or become harder to repatriate, the benefits to Pyongyang of maintaining those overseas enterprises will fall, and the risks will also rise. As workers are pushed to their emotional breaking points, the risk of defections and mass protests will increase. To preempt that risk, the regime will withdraw workers from high-risk locations, which will further depress its revenues and raise pressure on the earners that remain. Examples include the withdrawal of North Korean students from China and a report that the regime is keeping its fishing boats in port to prevent defections, or perhaps more of those embarrassing “ghost ship” incidents. (Seafood exports had been a key source of revenue for Pyongyang, but evidently, if the state can’t export seafood for cash, the nutritional needs of the North Korean people don’t justify sending the fishing fleet out.)

As Pyongyang withdraws its overseas industries, the trading companies and workers in the remaining cash-earning industries will then come under increased stress. The “200-day battle” Pyongyang just announced to a people who are already exhausted and demoralized by the last “70-day battle” will further exacerbate this. It could instigate more dissent and defections, or cause North Korean operatives to make mistakes that will get them arrested or expelled. The remaining industries then become attractive targets for the South Korean NIS or NGOs offering to help them escape, or for legal attack, such as through the use of Executive Order 13722. And so on.

Second, to an even greater extent than the defection of 13 restaurant workers from Ningpo, China, the Kuwait incident illustrates the very real potential for North Koreans to organize mass political action despite close surveillance by the world’s most totalitarian state. As with the restaurant workers, presumably, these workers would have been hand-picked and vetted by the state for loyalty and obedience, yet desperation not only drove them to dissent, but to share their dissent and organize a mass act of resistance against the state. This report contradicts every expert who says, “It can’t happen.” On the contrary, it has already happened plenty of times, and will continue to happen. The real question is whether the regime can continue to contain, localize, and suppress incidents like these (and as long as North Koreans can’t communicate with each other, it will).

Third, even if Pyongyang can contain each of these mass incidents and survive the coming financial siege in the short term, these workers have shown us the potential for a long-term strategy to subvert the regime’s political control within North Korea itself. In this manifesto, I proposed such a long-term strategy for building clandestine, yet initially apolitical, civil organizations at the town, village, and factory level throughout North Korea as a foundation for (1) a post-reunification civil society and (2) a non-violent resistance movement. That movement would start by building clandestine farms, humanitarian NGOs, churches, newspapers, factories, and unions, taking on an increasingly political character with time. Once new, hard-to-censor methods of communication become available, these could overwhelm the state’s apparatus of censorship, facilitate regional and nationwide organization, and even apply some of the resistance methods the Albert Einstein Institute advocates. The ultimate objective of that strategy would be a nationwide general strike. While those tactics are still unthinkable today, Kuwait has provided a laboratory that has performed a limited, but successful, experiment with this theory.

Or, Pyongyang could bow to the inevitable and negotiate its peaceful, gradual transition to normalcy.

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Preparations for North Korea’s party congress spur anger, resistance, and dissent

Over the last year, this site has closely tracked growing signs that North Korea’s elites are discontented with Kim Jong-un’s leadership and fearful of being purged, and of falling morale and discipline in the North Korean military. More recently, we’ve seen extraordinary outbreaks of dissent among North Korea’s overseas workers, including the group defection of 13 restaurant workers and a reported mutiny by 100 workers in Kuwait.

Whether these incidents reflect popular sentiment inside North Korea itself is a harder question to answer. Some remarkable reports of dissent and resistance have emerged from North Korea recently, but Kim Jong-un’s crackdown on the borders means that the reports take longer to emerge, and they’re more difficult to verify. But for those who are watching for them, the signs are there.

[Radio Free Asia]

The confrontation is so reminiscent of one shown in the 2014 PBS Frontline documentary, “The Secret State of North Korea,”  that I had to compare the two clips to be sure they weren’t the same. Of course, there was nothing overtly political about this incident. Similarly, a reported bank robbery in the city of Chongjin may not have been politically motivated, either, but it would represent an extraordinary act of lawlessness for North Korea. It suggests that beyond the limits of Pyongyang, North Korea could become what John Lee recently described as “a failed state.”

Other incidents have been expressly political. Radio Free Asia reports that in the northeastern city of Chongjin, some brave soul stole the North Korean flag from the flagpole in front of city hall overnight. On the night of Kim Il-sung’s birthday.

In late March, the authorities found anti-regime leaflets and graffiti in public places in Pyongsong, Hamhung, Chongjin, and even Pyongyang.

But the case that has received the most attention occurred at a train station in the town of Posong in Samsu county, Yanggang province, through which express trains to Pyongyang pass. [….]

“The authorities are trying to hunt down suspects whose handwriting matches that of the writing,” he told RFA’s Korean Service. “The leaflet was reportedly plastered right below the portrait of [former leader] Kim Il Sung on a wall.” [….]

“The leaflet found last New Year’s Day said, ‘Kim Jong Un is a son of b**** in Chinese ink,” the source said. “There were so many people from across the country mobilized at Posong station on Jan. 1st for the New Year’s Day celebrations that the news may have spread nationwide.” [Radio Free Asia]

News of the incident “spread like wildfire” at a political rally whose purpose (ironically, if predictably) was to idolize His Porcine Majesty. The Daily NK also publishes a similar report of anti-regime graffiti at Hyesan, in Ryanggang Province, criticizing the party congress. The Daily NK claims to have corroboration from multiple sources for the report. 

The locations of these incidents are too far apart to be the work of one individual, and the consistency of the reports provides a degree of mutual corroboration. Although the possibility exists that this was the coordinated work of an organization, it’s more likely that these are uncoordinated and spontaneous outbreaks of dissent across North Korea. Not for the first time, apparently:

“Last October, people across the country defaced posters glorifying North Korea’s ruling Korean Workers’ Party to show their resentment against the burdens the government imposed upon them in preparation for celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the party’s founding, RFA reported. [Radio Free Asia]

This party congress was supposed to be an occasion for deifying His Corpulency, reinforcing loyalty to the state, and consolidating power by shifting it to a younger generation of officials who are ostensibly loyal to Kim Jong-un. Instead, something closer to the opposite appears to have happened. The younger generation tends to be more loyal to its financial interests than to the old ideology. The people have been exhausted by mass mobilizationsharangued with dull lectures, and stultified by slogans they don’t believe anymore. They’re tired of being told that everything will be fine if they just work harder and trust in Kim Jong-un. The causes of their hardships are all too clear — confiscatory “loyaltypayments, restrictions on market activities, and crackdowns on smuggling from China and remittances from South Korea. Most of North Korea’s poor depend on one or more of these things for their survival.

“We haven’t been able to sell things properly because of the mandate forcing every resident to take part in mobilization and ‘uphold the Party with loyal beads of sweat to build a strong nation’ in relation to the 70 day battle,” a source from Ryanggang Province told Daily NK on March 6. “These days, MPS [Ministry of People’s Security, or North Korea’s police force] agents are on patrol all the time to crack down on street vendors.” [Daily NK]

“[W]orkers at all state-run enterprises must now attend daily ‘loyalty meetings’ starting at 5a.m.,” which is apparently unprecedented, even for (this part of) North Korea.

“It’s really just all about the regime getting people to start working sooner,” the source asserted. “They’re using the ‘loyalty meetings’ as an excuse to get them to the factories earlier in the day. Although the ’70-day struggle’ is undoubtedly a big part of it, it is also plausible that the authorities are trying to distract everyone from the looming specter of sanctions, keeping them so busy that they don’t have time to think about it.”

While the exact rationale behind the early hour is open to question, the collective reaction it has elicited from workers is anything but. “At first you’ve got to go in [at that time] because there’s no avoiding it,” he said, conveying sentiments shared with him by factory workers.

“Show me someone who would maintain that level of devotion otherwise! Fear of punishment is the only thing keeping anyone in line–not bona fide loyalty [to the regime].” [Daily NK]

This may increase production temporarily, but soon enough, people become exhausted, and production will drop off again. Some of the work is simply make-work: “People … have been mobilized to work around the clock in construction and clean-up of the areas around twin statues and monuments to Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung in preparation for the Workers’ Party Congress.” Workers and students have been ordered to collect scrap iron, and some are meeting their quotas by stealing, or by looting and stripping factories. The factories, in turn, have hired ex-soldiers as private security guards, who brutally beat any looters they catch.

Those who can afford to buy their way out of the extra labor; those who can’t must work longer hours. Wage payments are unreliable, and “the people are coerced to deposit 1,000 won to banks every month during the period of the 70 days battle.” State banks reportedly charge 50% commissions for withdrawals, which means that “deposits” are effectively confiscations.

For a regime that talks so much about the loyalty of its people, Pyongyang is watching them as if it’s mortally terrified of them. It has required “all North Korean citizens near the North Korea-Chinese border to carry ID on them at all times,” and stopped citizens for random checks. It is reinvestigating the backgrounds of its citizens for signs of disloyalty and keeping a close watch on those who fall under suspicion. It is destroying homes near the border with China as a countermeasure against defections. It has restricted movement in and out of Pyongyang and stepped up surveillance in residential neighborhoods, hotels, and public places.

These mobilizations, confiscations, and restrictions are partially about money, of course, but they’re also about control. This regime knows that if it can’t keep its subjects happy, the next-best way to control them is to keep them tired and busy. North Korea’s government lacks the competence to provide such essential services as sanitation, medicine, education, irrigation, public health, roads, a fresh water system, public order, and baths; and it certainly can’t bring peace. Now, even its vaunted propaganda is failing. Its last remaining competency — the one on which its survival may depend — is ensuring that those who seethe at it are kept too tired, too busy, too afraid, and too isolated to communicate, combine, or organize against it.

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