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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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.

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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.

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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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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. 

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

Update:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Report: 100 North Korean workers in Kuwait protest unpaid wages

Because North Korea is so uniquely opaque and repressive, it’s often difficult to gauge the level of dissent against, or popular support for, its regime. That repression follows North Koreans when they’re sent abroad to earn money for the regime, usually through the implied threat to punish the workers’ loved ones back in North Korea if they step out of line. 

The recent and unprecedented mass defection of 13 restaurant workers from Ningpo, China, is an example of this. In a transparent attempt to extort the 13, North Korea offered to arrange a meeting between them and their relatives. You’d have to be obtuse to doubt just what message the Pyongyang intended to send; if you aren’t, it should be chillingly obvious. It’s the same message that Pyongyang sent to refugee Pak Jong-suk, with the Associated Press as a willing accomplice in its extortion, before its agents found her in Pyongyang and told her that her son and his family would be banished to starve in the countryside unless she returned.

Never in my adult life have I been quite convinced of the existence of God, but if you are, pray for the families who are at the mercy of this highly enriched isotope of evil. For now, let’s stipulate that whether God exists or not, there’s ample evidence that evil does.

History also tells us that evil governments eventually die. And if this extraordinary new report from the Chosun Ilbo is true, Kim Jong-un’s EKG just skipped another beat. It claims that 100 North Korean workers in Kuwait recently “rose up against the state security agents who keep constant watch on them” over unpaid back wages, after being told to fork over yet more “loyalty” payments for Kim Il-sung’s birthday.

The workers reportedly shouted out at the foreman and demanded their back pay instead, and some tried to assault him. According to sources, the state security agents at the site were able to stop the workers from lynching the foreman, but North Korea’s Ambassador to Kuwait So Chang-sik was apparently furious at the North Korea construction firm for not being able to contain them.

Kim Young-hwan at the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights said, “It is unprecedented in North Korea to protest in front of state security agents.” [Chosun Ilbo]

Well, not quite. Mass incidents in North Korea are rare, but not unprecedented; I’ve compiled a long history of them here. There was a spate of them in 2009 after Pyongyang redenominated the currency and effectively confiscated the savings of millions of its poorest people. Recently, there have even been scattered reports of mass defections, fraggings, and strikes in the North Korean military.

The protest took place after state security agents visited Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE in February and March to weed out potential defectors among workers there. They investigated the movements and mobile phone records of workers.

“The protest occurred a week after the investigations ended,” a source said. “Pyongyang’s pressure has mounted to the degree where workers sent overseas are losing their tempers.” [Chosun Ilbo]

Four days before this, according to the report, two other North Korean workers ran away from their barracks in Qatar, and sought refuge in a local police station because “they could no longer endure Pyongyang’s extortion after working in the scorching heat for more than two years but earning nothing.”

A construction company in Qatar recently laid off around 20 North Korean laborers, and the two escapees were among them. They are in custody but are at risk of being sent back to North Korea because they are unemployed.  [Chosun Ilbo]

If there’s any truth to this, U.S. and South Korean diplomats should intervene at once with the Kuwaiti and Qatari authorities to prevent these workers from being repatriated. But is it true? On the “maybe not” side of the ledger, it’s one report from the Chosun Ilbo citing “sources.” On the “maybe” side, it could be worse — it could be The Hankyoreh. And if, as is customary with the Chosun Ilbo, the sources are in the South Korean National Intelligence Service, the NIS gets a few things right, too.

There are also some tantalizing clues that give credence to the report. Recall that in March, two North Koreans were arrested at the airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka while carrying $150,000 in undeclared cash from Oman to China. The cash consisted of “wages” stolen from workers “at construction sites in Oman.” The Sri Lankan government later confiscated the cash. From there, presumably, the two couriers would have smuggled the cash back to Pyongyang, perhaps by train, wrapped in tin foil and stuffed into pillowcases, because “transfers of U.S. dollars and Chinese yuan were completely blocked by banking systems,” and customs in Dandong isn’t letting bulk cash through the border.

Which is excellent news in its own right — it means enough of the banks in China are complying with sanctions to damage the regime’s internal cohesion.

I’m guessing Yonhap has no way of knowing whether the North Korean workers were based on Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, or the UAE. Either way, if the overseers of North Korean laborers in the Gulf states are one enterprise, the loss of $150,000 and the effect of sanctions could have put them under metamorphic pressure to recoup the lost “loyalty” payments by working their charges even harder.

From any number of recent stories we’ve seen, the regime has imposed steep quotas on trading companies, and isn’t accepting excuses from those who fail to meet them. The 13 restaurant workers who defected cited frustration and fear over rising demands by Pyongyang for “loyalty” payments they couldn’t keep up as a reason for their defection. According to the Daily NK, women fisheries workers in Dandong, China are being forced to work 13-hour days, even when they’re sick, for a diminishing pittance.

“After receiving strong demands from the North, a Chinese fisheries company [name redacted to protect the source] in Dandong, which employs about 200 North Korean workers, wired six months’ worth of their wages to Pyongyang,” a source with knowledge of North Korean affairs in China said, asserting that the move was to help the regime secure more money for the upcoming Party Congress.

The Chinese firm usually sends most of the 500 USD allotted for each worker’s wages to Pyongyang, and the remaining 150 USD is handed over to the North Korean manager to distribute to the employees. However, recently, even the smaller proportion of those wages is not being reliably received. “Because of that I’m hearing more of the female workers say they would prefer to return to the North than stay in China,” the source said.

These female employees not only have long working hours but normally only get two days off per month and are rarely allowed to take leave, even if they are ill.

[….]

The prepaid wages have now added more strain on the workers. Having already been paid for full working hours, the North Korean manager is forcing employees to work even if they are sick. “Some have fallen so ill that they have asked to be sent back home, but they’ve been turned down with no room for consideration,” the source lamented. [Daily NK]

Just keep this in mind when the AP reports that as horrible as conditions for these overseas workers are, they’re better than in North Korea. Conditions from place to place certainly vary, but across the board, they appear to have gotten much worse this year. Eventually, even selected, loyal North Korean workers have a breaking point. That’s an indirect effect of sanctions. The situation stands to get worse soon, following the Treasury Department’s inclusion of North Korean labor exports in Executive Order 13722, and the recent visit to Seoul by the U.S. Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea, signaling a new enforcement effort.

South Korea and the United States are working together to determine the extent to which North Korea uses its workers abroad to raise money for its weapons of mass destruction programs, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues said Tuesday.

[….]

“It’s very clear that North Korea uses a great deal of its resources for nuclear weapons, for missiles, for military equipment,” he said at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. “And to say that this dollar from this worker is going to a bomb, you don’t have that kind of ability to account. It’s a process that’s happening and yes, we need to see what we can do to prevent it from happening.”

[….]

“At this point, we’re beginning a process, and one of the things we’re doing is looking for additional information, trying to make sure we know what’s happening and where the workers are, what companies they are working for,” King said. “We don’t have a lot of information at this point. We’re talking with the South Korean government and sharing information with them. We’ll continue to consult with them.”

Some of the information they need is which companies are hiring the workers, what goods they’re producing and whether these products are being sold in the U.S.  [Yonhap]

Other North Koreans abroad are also being called home. The Telegraph cites a Radio Free Asia report that Pyongyang is calling its students back from China, “apparently out of concern that more of its citizens are planning to defect.” North Korea’s ambassador to Germany is the latest diplomat to be called back to Pyongyang, possibly because he’s being held accountable or Germany’s condemnation of North Korea’s nuclear test.

The signs here suggest that Pyongyang’s overseas ventures may be entering a death spiral: sanctions result in assets being blocked or confiscated, or depress earnings, and make it hard to repatriate “loyalty payments.” In its rising financial desperation, the regime pushes the Bureau 39 bosses to earn more. The Bureau 39 bosses push the workers harder until they break. Then, out of fear of defections, and as I predicted, the regime starts calling home the people it needs to earn cash. That only increases the burdens on those who remain. If the people the regime judges to be among the most loyal aren’t, you really have to wonder about the emotional state of those still locked up inside North Korea.

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NIS: More senior cadres flee purges in North Korea

In recent weeks, our speculation about Choe Ryong-Hae — described by some (but not all) observers as North Korea’s third-highest official — has been resolved, if you believe South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, which says Choe was “sent … to a rural collective farm for reeducation” over “the alleged collapse of a water tunnel at a power station.” To let Choe live would depart from recent precedent for Kim Jong-Un, who made sure that Jang Song-Thaek and Hyon Yong-Chol would be safely out of the way before the Ides of May. It’s also a departure from the classical wisdom on such affairs:

Men ought either to be indulged or utterly destroyed, for if you merely offend them they take vengeance, but if you injure them greatly they are unable to retaliate, so that the injury done to a man ought to be such that vengeance cannot be feared. – Niccolo Macchiavelli

For a while, I was starting to wonder who was still giving His Corpulency his adult supervision, after Yonhap reported that Number Two Hwang Pyong-So had vanished, sought medical treatment in China, and then (never mind!) reappeared. Because in extreme cases, sucking up can fracture your palate:

Top North Korean official Hwang Pyong-so has campaigned to spread a song expressing strong allegiance to the country’s young leader throughout the military, a South Korean think tank said Thursday.

Hwang, the 75-year-old director of the general political department of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), has introduced the song, tentatively named “Yes, Sir,” to his troops, which stresses the need to follow every instruction from leader Kim Jong-un, according to the Institute for National Security Strategy. [….]

“With the song, Hwang is seeking to induce the military into swearing allegiance to the leader,” said an official at the institute. [Yonhap]

A leader who trusts in the loyalty of his army shouldn’t need such infantile affirmations. In fact, there is ample evidence that morale and discipline in the North Korean military are low, and there is also ample evidence — admittedly, much of it from the NIS — of discontent within the ruling party because of purges and surveillance. That evidence continues to accumulate:

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has executed around 100 party and military officials since he took office in late 2011 in a bid to tighten his grip on power, a Seoul think tank said Wednesday.

But a number of North Korean power elites are disenchanted with the leader’s so-called reign of terror, according to the Institute for National Security Strategy, a think tank under South Korea’s spy agency.

“Deep doubts about Kim’s leadership are spreading among working-level officials. Some officials based in foreign nations are trying to seek asylum,” it said. [….]

A source familiar with North Korean affairs said that North Korean officials are increasingly irritated by Kim’s iron-fist rule and some of them have applied for asylum in South Korea. [Yonhap]

Another NIS-sourced report claims that “[a] growing number of North Korean key party and military officials has been fleeing” the North to escape the purges. The recent defectors reportedly include “some officials from the North’s state security department.”

In August, the Daily NK reported the security forces were demoralized by revenge attacks by angry citizens. Last week, it reported that a man disemboweled himself in front of a ruling party office as an act of protest:

“The person had filed a grievance case, claiming to have been wrongfully accused of something, but after that didn’t go well, the resident committed ‘seppuku’ in front of the central Party’s office building in protest.” [….]

“We do not know the details of this grievance letter, but it is said to involve reports about losing everything the person owned because of a Ministry of People’s Security [ MPS, or North Korea’s equivalent of a police force] cadre.” [….]

People who know the individual have criticized MPS personnel, noting that this (injustice) could happen to anyone, she said, adding most people even in Pyongsong are already aware of this incident and that it would hard to control this rumor from spreading. [Daily NK]

It reminds me of how the Arab Spring began. It also shows how fragile North Korea’s nascent merchant class is. If the long term trends favor marketization, it’s less clear that marketization is a function of a state policy, much less reform. Lax enforcement is more likely to be a function of the state’s pervasive corruption, its knowledge that a heavy-handed approach could spark unrest, or some combination of these things.

[Hat tip: Curtis Melvin]

Even so, the wealth some have eked out can evaporate with one currency confiscation, land seizure, or shake-down. Such small gains do not necessarily lead to popular contentment. They may well cause angst by those fearful of losing what little they have, and envy by the poor, and by those who’ve already lost their savings to a predatory state.

Make of this what you will; three of the Korea analysts I respect the most all disagree. Bruce Klingner views the purges as a sign of Kim Jong-Un’s confidence and control; Ken Gause thinks the regime is stable for now but has a high potential for instability if the economy doesn’t improve soon; and Bruce Bennett thinks the regime could fall tomorrow.

“We have to think that sooner or later someone in that military chain is going to consider that if they don’t do something about Kim Jong-un, they will be next,” Bennett told South Korean journalists in a meeting Friday organized by the Korea Press Foundation and the East-West Center. “Even in Germany during World War II, where security was extreme, there was still an assassination attempt against Adolf Hitler by the military. So it could happen.” [Yonhap]

For those who haven’t yet done so, do read this analysis by Bennett now.

Myself, I incline toward the view that totalitarian systems are inherently unstable. Just as rigid materials can’t deform under physical pressure, rigid systems can’t evolve under political and social pressure. They eventually shatter when the pressure becomes great enough to fracture them along some latent flaw, although it’s seldom possible to predict when. The reports also fit with the limited psychological evidence we have, that Kim Jong-Un, though rational from a certain perspective, is addicted to risk-taking. The safest predictions are usually those that look the most like the status quo — in this case, a system that continues to erode gradually. The problem with the “safe” view is that it looks increasingly like a trend that can’t continue.

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Stage Five Watch

Over the last year, this site has carefully tracked reports about the popularity or (more often) the unpopularity of Kim Jong-Un. Throughout the summer and fall of this year, numerous reports have suggested the existence of discontent — however latent, unfocused, spontaneous, and unorganized —  among North Korea’s youth, within the elites, and even inside the military. Three recent reports have added to this evidence.

A North Korean defector said Pyongyang’s Workers’ Party is “imploding” due to Kim Jong Un’s inconsistent policies, and grievances against the leader have soared since he fully assumed power.

The former party cadre, who spoke to Yonhap on the condition of anonymity, said Kim often finds fault with “old and senile party members,” and his disparaging remarks have often placed him at odds with veteran politicians appointed by former leader Kim Jong Il. Kim has said North Korean politicians with decades of experience are ineffective workers, according to the defector.

Demoralized cadres have said that “there is no future” for North Korea since Kim came to power, and pessimism is pervasive in government, according to the defector identified as “A.” The defector said the execution of Kim’s uncle Jang Song Thaek was shocking for North Korea’s elite, and signs of conflict have emerged since Kim replaced older bureaucrats with new appointees.

The report cites Kim Jong-Un’s purges, and perceptions that his work ethic is inferior to that of his predecessors, as the cause of the loss of trust and confidence. [UPI, Elizabeth Shim]

Next, the Daily NK reports, via sources in North Pyongan and South Pyongan provinces, that young North Koreans feel more apathy than loyalty toward Kim Jong-Un.

“Ever since Kim Jong Un rose to power, North Korean students dramatically reduced their usage of the word ‘loyalty.’ Because the residents receive zero tangible benefits from the regime, their feeling of loyalty or appreciation is virtually nonexistent,” a source in South Pyongan reported to Daily NK on October 2nd.

This trend was cross-checked with an additional source in North Pyongan Province.

She added, “In years past, residents were a bit more susceptible to feelings of fondness resulting from the deification of North Korean leaders, but that effect has disappeared for the present generation. The students don’t blame or resent Kim Jong Un, they simply regard him as a man with high status. They are just not very interested in him.” [….]

“The students giggle and sneer when they watch propaganda documentaries that brag that, at the tender age of three, Kim Jong Un was able to spell difficult words like Kwangmyeongseong Changa (‘hopeful paean’),” she asserted. [….]

“The content of the propaganda material is so unrealistic. Practically no one buys into it these days. In the past, political interactions were secret and mysterious, but these days everyone knows that a bribe is the only thing that makes the authorities do their job. That’s when people began to think that even ’The Marshal’ Kim Jong Un is just a regular guy,’” she explained.

“That’s why residents, and students especially, continue to confidently watch illegal South Korean movies and dramas despite crackdowns by the regime. Small cracks are emerging on the regime’s iron tight grip on society and the younger generation is exhibiting significant differences in their mentality.”  [Daily NK]

As Stephan Haggard notes, His Corpulency has specifically appealed to the young for their support. I wonder if Kim Jong-Un’s sources have told him what the Daily NK‘s sources have told its reporters.

The most sensational of the three reports, from Radio Free Asia, claims that someone in Pyongsong, South Pyongan, has been defacing propaganda posters:

Posters glorifying North Korea’s ruling Korean Workers’ Party are being defaced across the country in a wave of popular resentment against burdens imposed in preparation for celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the party’s founding, North Korean sources say.

Graffiti attacks against the posters were first noticed in South Pyongan province’s Pyongsong city during regional elections in July, a source in neighboring Jagang province told RFA’s Korean Service.

And despite a recently publicized order from national leader Kim Jong Un threatening harsh punishment for the attacks, “These acts of vandalism have continued until the present time,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The number of incidents is now increasing because residents of the reclusive nuclear-armed state are angered at their exploitation by the country’s central government as it prepares for elaborate celebrations, including a massive military parade, in the capital Pyongyang on Oct. 10, he said.

On Sept. 9, a poster was found damaged in Pyongsong, with references on the poster to the country as “the victor” changed to “the defeated,” a source in Yanggang province told RFA.

Two other posters were found later that night to have also been defaced, the source said, speaking on condition he not be named.

“When news of the Pyongsong incidents spread, more cases of the vandalism of posters promoting the 70th anniversary of the [North] Korean Workers’ Party began to take place nationwide,” the source said. [Radio Free Asia]

Well, maybe. I have yet to see any other reports of similar acts of protest at the times and places referred to here. There were reports over the summer that North Koreans had fought back against the confiscation of market wares, and carried out revenge attacks against the security forces. 

Contrary to all of these reports, Andrei Lankov argues that Kim Jong Un is enjoying a popularity boom, particularly among younger North Koreans. His best evidence for this is a survey of North Korean refugees’ speculation about the views of other North Koreans, except that even its authors say the survey, which sampled just 100 people, is statistically useless for the measurement of any trends. Even this is still a lot more persuasive than Andrei’s anecdotal evidence:

Popular attitudes to Kim Jong Un are nicely summed up by a young female refugee who recently said in an interview, “People around my age love him. Girls kind of like him because he is handsome. …”

I suppose attraction is a subjective thing, but it’s very hard to take this seriously.

While I don’t doubt that different individuals and demographics in North Korea have highly variable views of their government and its leadership, that discontent and dissent are different things, and that discontent and loyalty might coexist to an extraordinary degree in The Land of Suspended Disbelief, Lankov is arguing against the ponderous and noticeably expanding weight of the preponderant evidence. Unpopularity does not necessarily imply instability, but it does imply fragility. North Koreans might kill out of hatred, boredom, or simple brutality. They might die for their homeland, their country, or their race. What seems increasingly doubtful is that most of them would die for Kim Jong-Un.

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Pyongyang’s elites wait for Phase Five, and wait ….

Robert Collins, the author of the famous briefing on the seven phases of regime collapse in North Korea, almost certainly does not recall that, years ago, I was among a small group of Army officers who heard him deliver his briefing at Yongsan Garrison, in Seoul. For those who aren’t familiar with the seven phases, Robert Kaplan reproduced them in The Atlantic:

Phase One: resource depletion;

Phase Two: the failure to maintain infrastructure around the country because of resource depletion;

Phase Three: the rise of independent fiefs informally controlled by local party apparatchiks or warlords, along with widespread corruption to circumvent a failing central government;

Phase Four: the attempted suppression of these fiefs by the KFR once it feels that they have become powerful enough;

Phase Five: active resistance against the central government;

Phase Six: the fracture of the regime; and

Phase Seven: the formation of new national leadership.

In 2006, Kaplan wrote that “North Korea probably reached Phase Four in the mid-1990s, but was saved by subsidies from China and South Korea, as well as by famine aid from the United States,” and had since reverted to Phase Three.

Since the coronation of Kim Jong-Un, the regime has re-entered Phase Four (there have also been some isolated outbreaks of Phase Five, including in the military). From the outside, Phase Four looks like the collectivization of capitalism — an erratic effort to pull a spiraling galaxy of corrupt officials and hard currency-earning state enterprises back into Pyongyang’s orbit. For example, the regime had recently relaxed market controls, but has since cracked down again, at least for the time being. A widely-touted joint venture with a foreign firm has shut down. Corruption has even penetrated to North Korea’s supply of gold, requiring the regime to crack down on pilferage and smuggling. The critical leap back to Phase Four, however, was the purge of Jang Song-Thaek, in December 2013.

In a system like North Korea’s, the impact of events like Jang’s purge can remain hidden from us for years, only manifesting themselves years after the fact. These effects are much more manifest now, thanks to a new report by CNN’s Kyung Lah, who reports on the views of a young defector who, until less than a year ago, “worked among the elites in Pyongyang.” Today, he works for the South Korean government as a researcher at a university. Because his family is still in Pyongyang, and because he “fears North Korea could manage to hunt him down in his new life,” CNN took great pains to avoid revealing identifying details about him. Here is what he says about the stability of the regime he fled:

He believes that among North Korea’s dictators, the dynasty of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and now Kim Jong Un, “It is Kim Jong Un’s regime that is the most unstable. And it is going to be the shortest.” [CNN]

It was the execution of Jang Song-Thaek that caused him to flee:

“I can tell you for sure the North Koreans who are in the upper middle class don’t trust Kim Jong Un. I was thinking about leaving North Korea for a long time. After seeing the execution of Jang, I thought, ‘I need to hurry up and leave this hell on earth.’ That’s why I defected.”

At the time of Jang’s purge, the Joongang Ilbo, arguably the best and least-read of the major Korean papers, reported that 70 to 80 North Koreans in Europe, and probably scores of others in China, were called home but refused, and went to ground instead. At the time, I speculated that the loss of these operatives might cause significant short-term financial hardships for the regime, and that if foreign intelligence services could recruit some of them and access their laptops, they might yield a wealth of financial intelligence.

He made a risky, harrowing escape, telling no one he knew that he would attempt to defect. I’ve agreed not to reveal how he escaped, again for his safety. Suffice it to say, the chance of his capture or death was extraordinarily high.

But fear of death trying to escape paled in comparison to remaining under Kim Jong Un’s power, says the defector. After Kim’s purge of his inner circle, the defector says he witnessed a change among Pyongyang’s upper class. “They are terrified. The fear grows more intense every day.” [….]

 

“I can tell you for sure, the North Korean regime will collapse within 10 years,” he says without hesitation.

“Kim Jong Un is mistaken that he can control his people and maintain his regime by executing his enemies. There’s fear among high officials that at any time, they can be targets. The general public will continue to lose their trust in him as a leader by witnessing him being willing to kill his own uncle.”

Dismiss this as wishful thinking if you will — my own wishfulness is no secret, after all — but this account is consistent with other reports. In January 2014, shortly after Jang’s purge, several reports claimed that people in Pyongyang were terrified. This summer, we saw a spate of reports suggesting rising angst and discontent in the ruling class, and increased internal surveillance to suppress it. I’ve speculated that the point would come when the elites would be more afraid of not challenging Kim Jong-Un than of challenging him. But in a society like North Korea’s, not everyone reaches that state at the same time, and few would dare to express it aloud. No one can act alone, and without some means to communicate and organize with others, a crowd of dissenters is nothing more than a large collection of lonely people.

CNN’s report also addresses this Wall Street Journal report, about an analysis of refugee opinions by Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies. Leave aside, for a moment, whatever biases you might suspect a South Korean university’s Peace Studies department brings to its research. Although the report’s headline claims “solid support” for Kim Jong-Un, the study actually measured what recent defectors speculate that other North Koreans thought about the regime. The most obvious problem with this is the classic problem of “preference cascades,” in which totalitarian regimes successfully alienate and isolate double-thinkers and latent dissenters, who are themselves shocked to learn (after the fact) that others secretly harbored the same views as themselves. If the study can claim to measure anything empirically, it is that perceptions of confidence in Kim Jong-Un have actually declined:

In 2012, just as Kim Jong Un took control of the regime, defectors in the survey perceived support at more than 70%. In 2014, their latest survey of 146 defectors shows that while they perceive support of Kim Jong Un remains high, it has dropped to 58%. [CNN]

Unfortunately, however, the survey doesn’t claim to measure anything empirically. According to the institute’s senior researcher, Chang Yong Seok, “the results should not be read as generalized facts due to the small pool of respondents.” That pool consists of just 100 subjects. The study may or may not control for the subjects’ variable circumstances. At best, the study is a useful caution about selection bias — that at least some refugees reckon that they’re unrepresentative of public opinion in North Korea.

But not all North Korean defectors necessarily concede this, including the North Korean diaspora’s foremost public intellectual:

People who were slowly dying under dictatorial oppression gained such a consciousness through a survival enabled by the marketplaces. It is a mindset that cannot be reversed nor switched off. It is not an exaggeration to say that North Koreans have passed the point where they disobey and desert command and control only because of pressing survival needs. They do so because they have reached a point of psychological insurrection in terms of system-loyalty. [Jang Jing Sun, New Focus]

After you read Jang’s essay, read the call by Chairman Ed Royce of the House Foreign Affairs Committee for more “[r]adio broadcast[ing], social media, pushing cheap wave transistor radios and low-cost communications, DVDs,” and other ways for North Koreans to hear, speak, and communicate. When communication is free, the regime cannot last. As long as the regime controls communication, it is unlikely to fall.

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Revenge attacks demoralize North Korea’s security forces

Yesterday, Yonhap reported the possible purge of Won Tong-Yon, head of the United Front Department,* which handles North Korea’s propaganda. The report remains unconfirmed, but it would be consistent with reports that Kim Jong Un has put his 25 year-old sister, Kim Yo-Jong — known for her “eccentricity to the point of weirdness” — in charge of North Korea’s Propaganda and Agitation Department. If so, Miss Kim may have a reason to consolidate control over her own fiefdom.

Won was said to have been a relative soft-liner, and Jang Song-Thaek was at the cutting edge of North Korea’s economic engagement with China, although Defense Minister Kim Yong-Chol was arguably a hard-liner. To the extent the purges show any ideological pattern, they do not suggest a softening of Kim Jong-Un’s style of governance.

Washington’s best North Korea scholars don’t agree on what the purges mean. Some say His Porcine Majesty has consolidated power and has confidence that he can purge whoever displeases him. Others say it indicates a lack of complete control. To others, it may yet convince the top cadres that serving Kim Jong-Un is a greater risk than plotting his Untergang. Judging by our next report, there is also growing doubt within the North Korean security forces. The Daily NK reports that more “safety agents, who act as police officers … are leaving their posts” to find safer and more lucrative work in the markets.

This comes as more agents are facing retaliation from angry residents who have fallen victim to their abuse of power during crackdowns and surveillance, Daily NK has learned.

“A lot of safety agents feel unsettled about the future, having been at the forefront of wielding abusive power against the public. So we’re seeing people quit their jobs,” a source in North Hamkyung Province told Daily NK on Thursday. “They say they’re worried about retaliation from residents who have fallen victim and are unable to conduct crackdowns as they would. More agents are looking for other jobs so they can make money,” she said.

Compared to the previous leadership, surveillance and control over residents has become more severe, leading to growing discontent and anger from the public, according to the source. This has challenged bad behavior from safety agents and contributed to their ‘early retirements’, she explained. 

Over the past few years, the country has seen a spike in attacks that were carried out by people seeking revenge against safety agents, the source said. “Just in the city of Chongjin, a few years ago, the head of a district safety office was clobbered in the back of the head, leading to immediate death,” she explained.

Security agents are no exception. A few years ago in the cities of Kimchaek and Hoeryong, security agents were stabbed to death, throwing the areas into turmoil. “According to investigations, the incidents were all based on personal grudges and revenge for other family members,” said the source. [Daily NK]

The Daily NK cites several specific examples of revenge attacks by angry North Korean citizens, including the stabbing deaths of security agents in Kimchaek and Hoeryong several years ago, and the recent beating death of a customs agent in Rajin.

In July, the Daily NK reported that a large brawl broke out between merchants and security agents in a market in Musan, and that a female rice trader, pushed to desperation by the extortionate demands of a Ministry of People’s Security agent, jumped off a building in protest. In 2012, it reported the revenge killings of “one official from the provincial NSA, one from the prosecutor’s office and two from the People’s Safety Agency” in Chongjin, during Kim Jong-Il’s mourning period. In 2010, it reported a wave of revenge attacks against the security forces following the Great Confiscation. 

In recent years, some in the security forces have become thugs and shake-down artists, targeting the families of refugees for a share of the remittances they receive from South Korea, or blackmailing “economic criminals” with threats of terms in labor camps.

As I’ve argued before, there’s probably much more resistance against the regime than most of us realize. This resistance remains fragmented, and is unlikely to threaten the regime’s survival until it coalesces around a political organization and a unifying, galvanizing ideology (most likely, cells of Christian believers operating underground churches, unions, news services, and humanitarian NGOs, who advocate unification with the South). A movement of this kind cannot form until North Koreans develop the means to communicate with each other, with some degree of security.

Still, last week’s report is the first I’ve read that these attacks had affected morale and retention in the security forces.

“Some safety agents say they can’t do this any longer. More of them are worried that although they might be up on a high horse now that situation may change at any point in the future,” the source reported. This is why, although it may be late in the game, some are choosing ‘safer’ options and seeking employment at trade companies, which are also more lucrative as well, she added.

Another source in the same North Hamkyung Province reported of similar sentiments shared among central and provincial administrative Party officials. Following the execution of key officials such as Jang Song Thaek and other high-ranking cadre members, officials are less ambitious about climbing up the ranks and more content with the status quo, he said. Being in higher ranking posts not only exposes them more to the leadership but also to the public.

“Safety agents these days talk about how in the mid ‘80s, when China first announced it would open up to reforms, people took revenge against malicious cadre,” he said. “They talk of some even being beaten to death,” the source added.

In my essay on “guerrilla engagement,” I posited that by sanctioning the regime and enabling the rise of the market economy, we could help effect a shift in North Korea’s economic and political balance of power, which would lure security agents out of the power structure and into accommodation with forces that were not necessarily loyal to the regime. I posited that as the people organized and gained strength from numbers, money, and organization, more security officials would refrain from repressive acts out of fear of retaliation or prosecution. This report suggests that such a dynamic may already be emerging.

~   ~   ~

* For an insider’s view of how the UFD operates, read Jang Jin-Sung’s Dear Leader.

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That time in 2013 when 100 N. Korean women staged a walkout at a prison uniform factory

Fittingly, our story begins with a Chinese textile company that made prison uniforms. We don’t ordinarily think of Chinese prison-garment workers as overpaid, but then, some North Korean officials paid them a visit. The officials knew of a derelict factory in the extreme northeast of the workers’ paradise, where women would work 12 hours a day for 30 kilograms of rice a month.

For the women, this was still a good wage, especially compared to any wage that might be paid in North Korea’s inflated currency, and at a time when rice had a high market value. There was no shortage of applicants, and by September 2013, the factory had hired 125 women and 10 men, and started up. Then, a month later, payday rolled around:

However, just one month after start of operations a major problem arose. The payment of white rice was not made as promised. Most of the angry female workers refused to come to work.

The white rice for the “monthly wage payments” was to be brought in by the Chinese company, then handed over to the workers via the county officials. That was the agreement. However, the officials first withheld about half of the rice as “army rice” before paying the workers. That’s what made the workers so angry.

The officers, in a panic, visited the homes of the workers to encourage them to come to work.

“The female workers sent the officers packing, saying, ‘How can you expect us to come to work when you will not pay us properly? We will starve!’ In North Korea today, if promises are not kept, any one will leave the workplace at the factory in the same way” says Mr P. [Rimjin-gang]

The incident happened nearly two years ago, but Rimjin-gang held the story until recently “to ensure the safety of the reporter,” known as “Mr. P.” Shortly after the work stoppage, the Chinese investors withdrew from the project, and North Korea’s opening to the world slipped from our grasp once again.

Jiro Ishimaru, the founder of Rimjin-gang, who has been reporting on North Korea for over 20 years, says “this is the first time he has ever heard of something like this that might be called a group labour dispute.” In 2011, however, the Daily NK reported a work stoppage by a brigade of underfed soldiers at a uranium mine.

In my recent essay on “guerrilla engagement,” I wrote of using clandestine communications to empower and organize North Korean workers with clandestine labor unions. If labor organizations proliferated throughout North Korea, they could eventually organize nationwide work stoppages and strikes. Here is an incident where a clandestine labor organization formed locally and spontaneously. It isn’t hard to believe that with a little support, more North Koreans at other factories and mines would organize, too.

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U.N. must confront the political causes of North Korea’s food crisis

In North Korea, the land of suspended disbelief, an almost unbroken twenty-year series of meteorological miracles has bounded droughts and floods within the blighted land between the DMZ and the Yalu River each year, without having once caused a famine or food crisis in South Korea. For a few months this year, a serious drought threatened to be the worst-ever again, until rains came and eased conditions in most parts of the country.

North Koreans can still look forward to a hard year (see here and here), but not a disastrous one. For this, many North Koreans may owe their lives to the sotoji farmers, who spent the drought tending their crops and covering them with plastic sheeting to hold the soil’s moisture. Although sotoji farmers grow their crops in backyards, cleared plots in the hills, and marginal land the state did not bother to collectivize, they provide “as much as 60 percent of all food sold on the local market” in some areas. The state has fought them every step of the way, by confiscating plots, limiting their size, hiking land use fees, or planting trees on them.

Clearly, then, the causes of North Korea’s food crisis are not primarily meteorological. The same must be said of the solutions.

If anything good came of the drought, it is that it briefly revived the debate about aid policy, to which Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein makes an important contribution at The Diplomat. Silberstein takes aid agencies to task for enabling the regime’s avoidance of fundamental reforms that are essential to address the root causes of North Korea’s long-term nutritional crisis.

Sadly, in trying to counter North Korea’s suffering, the international community may ironically be contributing to its prolonging. The United Nations and other donors are enabling the North Korean regime to continue its disastrous policies when they act as cushions whenever the country runs out of food.

Foreign aid has been an integral part of North Korea’s food supply planning since the mid-1990s. This year is no exception, and the international community may have to allocate additional funds to North Korean food aid in order to prevent widespread malnutrition. But aid won’t change anything in the long run. North Korea will continue to be highly vulnerable to simple weather changes, unless its most basic economic policies are completely overhauled. [Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, The Diplomat]

He also raises an obvious question that aid agencies consistently avoid — that North Korea could import enough food to close its food gap, yet chooses not to.

The North Korean regime often emphasizes that the country consists mostly of mountainous regions not suitable for farming. That is clearly true, but the logical response to such a challenge would be to seek to import agricultural goods and export those that the country can produce in greater abundance to a cheaper price than others. Instead, the regime continues to uphold economic and political self-reliance as its overarching goal.

The first duty of a government is to either provide for its people or let them provide for themselves. States that fail this most basic obligation forfeit their sovereign right to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on flat screen TVs, jewelry, and expensive liquor; to spend hundreds of millions of dollars building ski resorts and water parks; and to spend a billion-and-change on missiles each year. All of these expenditures ($644M, $300M, $1.3B, respectively) dwarf what aid agencies are asking foreign donors to give to food aid programs ($111M). Even without subtracting out the aid agencies’ substantial overhead costs, this means that North Korea has more than enough cash on hand to feed its own people.

Silberstein concludes:

Like most disasters often termed as “natural,” the consequences of North Korea’s drought are first and foremost failures of policy, not of nature. By agreeing to supply North Korea’s shortfall in food production, year after year, even as the regime refuses to make any fundamental changes to the system that keeps on failing, the international community acts as an enabler for the regime’s continuing mismanagement. Humanitarian aid is given with the best of intentions, but in the long run, by helping the North Korean regime avoid necessary policy choices, it may be harming rather than helping the North Korean population.

When two decades* of international aid fail to pull an industrialized society in a temperate zone out of a state of widespread, multi-generational, chronic malnutrition, aid agencies incur an obligation to identify and confront the real causes of hunger in North Korea. In North Korea, that begins with talking about an undeniable and criminally culpable misallocation of resources, but does not end there. The fact that North Korean spies have infiltrated the World Food Program (and UNESCO, for good measure) may not be the only reason why aid agencies haven’t met this duty, but until they do, donors will continue to stay away in droves.

Silberstein devotes much of his article to the state of agricultural reform in North Korea, which he views as “nothing more than tweaking the edges of a failed system.” Even this may give Pyongyang too much credit, as the regime’s unsteady policies make every gain uncertain. Last month, for example, I wrote that the regime’s tolerance of markets was one clear bright spot in the economic picture. Since then, it has banned men under 60 from trading. To angry North Korean traders who are protesting to security forces, brawling with them, or jumping off buildings in angry desperation, the state’s liberalization hasn’t gone far enough. To them, when the state fails to provide, it is their right to provide for themselves:

Not only that, on the same day, an additional source in the same province reported a recent riot targeting MPS agents at Chongjin’s Sunam Market. The skirmish ignited when an agent arbitrarily targeted a male merchant in his 60s for the old middle-school textbooks mixed in with the secondhand books he was hawking at his stall.

When the books were confiscated he shouted, “What does the state give us? We don’t get rations or wages. If I got even one of those two things I wouldn’t be here doing this!” according to the source.

Moreover, “Passersby and merchants alike near the scene quickly stepped up to take the old man’s side, wasting no time in berating the MPS officials by shouting, ‘What’s wrong with what he said? Of course we’ve taken to market life–we’re hungry! We have to make ends meet! Why would be put ourselves through arduous work like this if we could be full and rich like you. Those who are full can’t grasp the hunger of others,” he explained.

Others at the scene chimed in, shouting, “Not even being able sell things without worrying–that’s too suffocating a reality,” according to the source, who added that this micro incident is directly reflective of a macro issue of citizens’ frustration regarding the authorities.

The agent, visibly overwhelmed by the outcries, tried to defend himself, shouting, “It’s not my fault that the state is not giving you rations. Go take your complaints to the district office,” according to the source, who said that he fled directly thereafter, during which citizens yelled after him, “ You’re all the same–living off the money of those struggling to get by!”

He added, “The MPS agent took off in a flash before the altercation could escalate further. Still, the tension hung heavy in the air long after his departure and a lot of the residents on the scene said that it helped them get [suppressed feelings] off their chests.” [Daily NK]

Today, street stalls are springing up everywhere, but what about tomorrow? Further complicating this picture is the fact that it can be difficult to determine, based on unconfirmed and isolated reports, whether reported incidents suggest a top-down policy change or bottom-up corruption. What matters in the end is what’s inflicted on the traders in the markets, and on the consumers who rely on them.

On the contrary, North Korea is not only refusing to change its economic structures to make them more resilient to events like the current drought. The state also continues to suppress those economic mechanisms that could help counter the effects of natural disasters. Even though private legal markets are now part of the formal economy to a large extent, imports and exports are still heavily restricted and largely rely on the willingness of border guards to accept bribes.

While Kim Jong-un has implemented measures that carry the shape of economic liberalization with one hand, his other hand has been used to tighten controls on border trade and smuggling. The government would only need to cease some of its control of the markets to alleviate the food shortages that will likely follow the current drought, a virtually costless measure. So far, it has done nothing of this sort. [Silberstein]

The regime now confronts a political paradox — small relaxations of control only beget demands for greater relaxations of control. As more people enter the market system and deepen their investments in it, their demands also become more aggressive. For North Korea’s poor, the market system is the new normal, even a new right. Year by year, that right becomes more unalienable. Unlike the generation that preceded them, most of North Korea’s untermenschen do not sit listlessly at the verge of starvation; they are merely poor, on the wrong side of a widening gap between rich and poor, and increasingly angry about it. Far better for the regime, then, to simply accept the inevitable change that it seems less able to resist each year.

North Korea needs fundamental, structural policy reforms at every stage of its nutritional cycle. First, it must prioritize providing food and medical care for its people, instead of luxury items and weapons. Second, it must fundamentally liberalize its markets and let its people provide for themselves. Third, North Korea needs real land reform — not sharecropping, or any other marginal reforms that people in Washington love to predict, and people in Chongjin never see and no longer believe in. To end North Korea’s food crisis, Pyongyang must give the land back to the tillers, let the market provide food to those who can provide for themselves, and build a functioning social welfare system for those who cannot.

Donor nations must recognize that the change North Korea needs is a fundamental transition to a market-based system, including land redistribution, and make clear that the world is ready to help the North Korean government implement that change by providing seed, fertilizer, environmentally safe pesticides, and training to farmers. Until then, they should unite to block the offshore funds that Pyongyang is wasting, and make those funds available for humanitarian purposes only.

~   ~   ~

* Originally said “a decade.”

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