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.

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Update:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[….]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Radio Free Asia]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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* Originally said “a decade.”

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Daily NK: Massive brawl in Musan market after traders resist confiscations

This may be the most significant known incident of anti-regime resistance by North Korean civilians since the Ajumma Rebellion that followed the 2009 currency confiscation:

A massive brawl between Ministry of People’s Security [MPS] agents and vendors at a marketplace in Musan County last Friday has led to an urgent dispatch of county security and safety agents along with the complete shuttering of the market. The clash occurred after angry vendors tried to resist the confiscation of their goods by market surveillance authorities, Daily NK has learned.

“When the agents who manage the market took away manufactured goods from the vendors, they got upset and started arguing with the agents. Soon other merchants and officials nearby joined in and it ended up turning into a free-for-all between the two groups,” a source in North Hamkyung Province told Daily NK on Sunday.

This incident was corroborated by an additional source in the same province.

“An altercation that started with cursing and fistfights turned into mayhem as crowds watching got agitated and joined in with weapons, resulting in many casualties,” he said, noting that armed agents with the State Security Department [SSD] and the MPS from the country were dispatched and after shutting down the market they hauled off everyone everyone involved, including the injured and deceased.

The confrontation occurred unexpectedly and the site was immediately sealed off, making it hard to estimate exactly how many were involved. However, the source said dozens are thought to have been injured on either side.

A witness at the scene described the market as being “jam packed” and thick with an atmosphere of intimidation hanging over what really amounted to a “riot,” he said. [Daily NK]

According to the report, the city has been isolated and the local market is closed, causing much hardship for the people. Discontent was already high because of the drought and the failed potato harvest.

The report follows the regime’s recent decision to ban market activities by men under 60. It will be interesting to watch, over the next few weeks, whether this incident suggests that a wider crackdown against the markets is underway, or whether this merely represents theft by uniformed shake-down artists. As I wrote here recently, there is a long-standing pattern in North Korea of the regime relaxing controls on markets for a few months, or years, only to crack down later.

Over the last few months, the regime had relaxed market controls significantly while focusing its attention on sealing the border and purging the military. But as we also learned in late 2009, the market is the only institution in North Korea that isn’t under Pyongyang’s absolute control. As such, it’s the only institution capable of resisting the state with any measure of success.

Notably, residents have not raised questions as to why such an incident would have occurred, with many suggesting something larger needs to happen. Most agree authorities brought the incident upon themselves by cracking down on people during such difficult times, the source reported.

Although few foreign observers have bothered to compile the history of popular resistance to the North Korean regime—reports that are largely impossible to verify—that reported history turns out to be rather extensive. Recently, most of that resistance has actually come from inside the military, from soldiers who fragged officers and fellow soldiers over hazing and abuse. So why has all of that resistance failed to change the system? It’s likely that the state’s fear of resistance has probably stayed its hand in many ways we can’t know, and has gradually pushed back the state’s economic control.

This incident, however, like others that preceded it (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), won’t threaten the state’s control, because North Koreans have such a limited capacity for intra-national communication and organization, and for international information operations to report, photograph, and film incidents like these and attract global media interest. As a result, this protest has probably already been isolated and contained. Like nearly all of the anti-regime incidents linked in this post, it was about personal grievances, mostly economic ones. But as the Arab Spring taught us, isolated, personal, and economic grievances have a way of re-contextualizing into broader movements with broader political objectives.

If the walls within the vast ice cube tray that is North Korean society were to break down, a strong wind could build a ripple on one side of the tray into a great wave on the other. Until those walls break down, that wave will not come.

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Is the North Korean military falling apart?

Last week, a 19 year-old North Korean army private fled “repeated physical abuse at the hands of his superiors” and “the realities of his impoverished country,” walked and rode for a week as a fugitive, crossed the heavily mined DMZ, and fell asleep next to a South Korean guard post.* Surely this young soldier knows that his family will now face terrible retribution for what he has done. We can even speculate that others have tried, and failed, at similar attempts that we’ve never heard about.

What conditions cause such desperation? How prevalent are they within the North Korean military? What can incidents like these tell us about morale and readiness in the North Korean armed forces? Finally, do incidents like this suggest different approaches for policymakers who seek to prevent war, and to make conditions inside North Korea less brutal for its people?

A careful review of open-source reports suggests a steady stream of defections and fratricides within the North Korean military, but that the largest-scale mutiny of which we know (since the 6th Corps mutiny in 1996) was at the brigade level:

  • June 2005: A 20 year-old private deserts his anti-aircraft unit and walks across the DMZ. A South Korean civilian finds him in the back of a truck, eating instant ramyeon noodles and ChocoPies.
  • February 2007: A platoon of approximately 20 border guards deserts, en masse, into China, after coming under suspicion for cross-border smuggling.
  • August 2010: In a possible attempt to defect, a North Korean pilot flies his MiG-21 to China, crashes, and is killed.

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  • April 2011: According to a Daily NK report, sourced to North Korean Intellectuals’ Solidarity, a brigade of starving soldiers, assigned to mine uranium, goes on strike and refuses to work until they are fed.
  • April 2012: Chinese and North Korean authorities launch a manhunt for two border guards, who shot and killed about half a dozen of their colleagues, then fled across the border. The men are later caught and sent back to North Korea.
  • October 2012: A soldier shoots his squad and platoon leaders to death and flees across the DMZ.
  • October 2012: Another solder walks across the DMZ and knocks (twice!) on the door of a ROK Army barracks. The incident causes several high-ranking ROK Army officers to face disciplinary action over the perceived lack of readiness. The report also references a third defection in September 2012.
  • March 2013: A border guard in Musan County, North Hamgyeong province, frags five company commanders (!) and attempts, unsuccessfully, to desert. The soldier is said to have been disgruntled because he was underfed and was caught stealing food.   
  • September-December 2014: Several desperate North Korean border guards, denied the income that they would otherwise have earned by taking bribes from smugglers, desert across the border into China, and rob and murder several civilians. Some Chinese flee the border villages. Chinese authorities respond by forming vigilante patrols and deploying troops to the border. This month, hypervigilant police shoot an unarmed, fleeing refugee.

Next, what conditions cause incidents like these? Many (but not all) of these accounts come from defector-run sources, such as the Daily NK, Open News, and New Focus, which likely share my view that the currents of human nature and history must eventually wash this regime away. It is likely that the reports contain some degree of selection bias. The regime itself has made independent verification of these accounts impossible, which compels us to look for patterns and consistent accounts before we credit them too strongly. But this secrecy also suggests that some adverse inferences about conditions in the North Korean military are justifiable.

First, the soldiers are hungry because the commissary system and their own officers are stealing their rations and reselling them on the markets. (For a more detailed explanation, see this article by Jonathan Corrado in The Daily NK.)

  • November 2005: Former army captain Kim Seung Min (who now heads Free North Korea Radio) tells The Daily NK that corrupt officers routinely steal and sell food, fuel, clothing, soap, and toothbrushes from the military commissary system, causing soldiers to go without.
  • July 2005: The Daily NK releases a clandestine video interview of a North Korean soldier who become so emaciated from eating grass that the army discharged him and sent him home to die.
  • June 2011: Footage smuggled out of North Korea shows starving North Korean soldiers.

Second, because the soldiers are hungry, they have turned to smuggling, or stealing from the civilian population, a sign of poor discipline and morale.

  • September 2009: North Korean soldiers are photographed in the act of smuggling across the Tumen River border.
  • May 2010:  Beginning in the famine years of the 1990s, border guards, including company-grade officers, went into the business of smuggling drugs across the Tumen River into China.
  • January 2011: According to a series of reports, North Korean soldiers, including members of elite units, are underfed, poorly clothed, freezing, deserting, and resorting to looting the civilian population to survive.
  • April 2011: The Daily NK reports that soldiers in front-line units are hungry and malnourished because of pilferage of food from multiple layers of the commissary system (see also here and here), and that more soldiers are deserting, stealing from markets, or burglarizing civilian homes because of hunger. The report interviews two separate defectors, who report that their battalion-size units, one in Kangwan-do, on the eastern DMZ front, and one in Pyongyang, had desertion rates of 5% and 10%. The defectors report that by this time, the punishment for a first-time desertion has been reduced to a criticism.
  • May 2015: Soldiers, posted in isolated areas and denied permission to marry or have girlfriends, frequently rape civilian women, some of whom carry DIY pepper spray to protect themselves. Military authorities do not investigate or punish the rapes, creating a culture of impunity.
  • June 2015: Another report tells of increased theft by border guards, directed against the civilian population.

Third, a significant number of soldiers are sick, and the military medical system doesn’t take care of them.

  • November 2005 (via Kim Seung Min): Military hospitals are short of medicines and vaccines, causing disease to spread among soldiers.
  • June 2015: Theft of medicine from military hospitals means that tuberculosis is widespread among soldiers. Because there is no medicine to treat the soldiers, they are put into isolation wards until they are sent home to die.

Fourth, hazing and abuse—even rape—of solders by their superiors are serious problems, leading to fratricides and suicides.

  • November 2005 (via Kim Seung Min): Morale is low; hazing, assaults, and suicides are widespread; and enlisted soldiers do not respect their officers. As of 1999, over 1,000 deserters were hiding out. According to the report, the punishment for desertion is a sentence to a labor camp or a severe, crippling beating.
  • June 2015: “Violence and brutality in North Korea’s armed forces have surged after Kim Jong Un came into power, with severe beatings of lower ranking soldiers becoming more commonplace, Daily NK has learned…. After Kim Jong Un assumed leadership, internal monitoring and surveillance have been ramped up to establish order over officers and lower ranking soldiers. However, this approach has led to young troops frequently escaping or going absent without leave, as they are ordered into submission without being provided with proper food supplies.” The report claims that “a lot of” low-ranking soldiers die from being beaten by their superiors. The report also claims that soldiers frequently fight over food, property, and work and that South Korean culture is a “growing influence” on North Korean soldiers in front-line units.

Fifth, corruption and morale problems are having a significant impact on military readiness.

  • April 2011: Via The Daily NK: “In the military unit supply depot, the depletion of supplies is so severe that explosives, fuses, medicines and medical supplies, wires, and fuel have run out.” It claims that during a 1999 naval skirmish, some patrol boats were unable to join the battle because they had no fuel.
  • October 2013: Two unexplained fires destroy a train carrying military uniforms and an arms factory.
  • November 2013: According to a South Korean think tank, “Corruption is rife in the North Korean army as sanctions eat into official perks for soldiers,” and that “officers have smuggled out sensitive files,” including “orders of the supreme command, wartime plans, and guidelines for electronic warfare,” to sell to “information traders” in China. Low-ranking soldiers pay bribes to their superiors to be assigned to guard the Chinese border, where they can earn money by smuggling, or taking bribes from smugglers. (More)
  • November 2013: A submarine chaser and a patrol boat collide off Wonsan, on the east coast, killing “scores” of sailors.
  • April 2015: The theft of fuel by military drivers and quartermasters is reported to be common. In the navy, sailors siphon fuel out of warships and replace it with (corrosive) sea water to foil inspectors.

Finally, there is some evidence—most of it very recent—that the mutual distrust and low morale reach from the lowest ranks to the very highest.

  • November 2008: The regime rations and controls ammunition strictly, which may explain why there aren’t more fratricide incidents. This means, however, that soldiers get little marksmanship training.
  • April 2015: The regime maintains tight control over every round of ammunition, in part to prevent fratricides.
  • May 2015: Defense Minister Hyon Yong Chol is abruptly purged and executed. Afterward, The Daily NK reports that the regime has tightly restricted the movements of officials, and that “military and Party cadres in Pyongyang affiliated with Hyon are living in fear, not knowing whether they will fall victims as well.”
  • June 2015: The regime disbands an elite anti-aircraft unit, whose mission is to guard statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, after some of its 14.5-millimeter anti-aircraft guns are found deployed along a highway traveled by Kim Jong Un.
  • June 2015: Yonhap reports that the regime is laying more land mines along the DMZ, to prevent its soldiers from fleeing. Reports trickling out of the North, mostly third-hand, seem to confirm that Kim Jong Un purged and replaced his Defense Minister, Hyon Yong-chol.
  • June 2015: Interviewed by The Washington Post, South Korean President Park Geun Hye says:

Since [he] took power 3 1 / 2 years ago, he has executed some 90 officials. Indeed, the reign of terror continues to this day. Although one can say that the reign of terror might work in the short term, in the mid- to long term, it is actually sowing and amplifying the seeds of instability for the regime….

Recently, a senior North Korean defected and confessed to us that because of the ongoing and widespread executions that include even his inner circle, they are afraid for their lives. That is what prompted him to flee.

Some cautions are in order here. First, not all of these reports can be verified independently. Second, conditions from unit to unit are almost certainly as variable as the ethics of the men who lead them. Theft is probably tolerated much less among the Special Forces than in other units. Units that are effectively used as construction brigades are probably the least disciplined and cohesive. Note also that none of these reports originate from North Korea’s ballistic missile forces, which pose the greatest military threat to the South, and to U.S. Forces, Korea. This may be because those units are better led, or because they tend to be located in the interior, away from our prying eyes. It is telling, however, that many of these stories originate in either the border guard units along the northern border, or from the front-line army units posted near the DMZ. This suggests that the decay of the military’s values, culture, cohesion, and readiness are likely advanced and widespread.

This doesn’t mean that the North Korean army wouldn’t fight; after all, the reports suggest that morale and cohesion were already poor before the attacks of 2010. But morale problems in the North Korean military do suggest opportunities to prevent war and free more North Koreans–soldiers and civilians alike–from the grip of fear. When soldiers are ordered into battle, they usually obey orders, at least initially, unless they are mentally and emotionally prepared to disobey. What these reports tell us is that the soldiers have lost faith in their leaders, and that they are ready to be led in different and more peaceful directions. But first, we must prepare them.

First, information operations should target low-ranking North Korean soldiers with a message of peace–that war between the Koreas would be fratricidal and destructive to both Koreas. South Korean culture can play an important role here, in humanizing the potential victims of war. Soldiers should be told that theft, pilferage, and sabotage of military fuel, supplies, and other equipment helps to prevent war, and is an act of national patriotism. The highest ranking leaders, after all, are less likely to provoke a war if they know that their armed forces are neither ready nor willing to fight.

Second, reports of poor morale, discipline, and cohesion should be publicized, both internationally and internally, so that company-grade, field-grade, and flag officers will question their own sense of purpose, their confidence in their soldiers, and their confidence in other units. Top officials in the North Korean government have internet access; reports like these may dissuade them from joining in any attack against the South, particularly if they are told that they will be held accountable for the loss of civilian lives. The objective is to cause officers to waver or hesitate before following orders to use deadly force, until opposition to those orders has a chance to build momentum. If the officers come to believe rumors (whether true or not) that there are supplies of ammunition beyond the state’s control, they will fear for their own safety if they continue to mistreat their soldiers.

Finally, soldiers who fear for their lives, their health, their safety, and their survival shouldn’t have to walk through minefields to find refuge. Eventually, guerrilla engagement advances sufficiently, it can create a network of shelters inside North Korea, where deserters can receive forged identity documents, regular meals, medical treatment, education, religious services (should they choose them) and humane treatment, in exchange for useful labor in guerrilla NGO-run farms and factories. The methods used to recruit these soldiers need not differ substantially from the methods used to recruit them into smuggling networks, and often into close (even intimate) relationships with smugglers, today. Indeed, many North Korean soldiers in border regions already live in civilian homes; the next steps aren’t hard to imagine. Some of these deserters could be re-formed into security services to protect markets, trade, and the local population from the predations of soldiers. If there is a sudden and unexpected descent into anarchy, those units may prove invaluable in the restoration of order.

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* A previous version of this post said, “Given the geography, this soldier must have come from one of North Korea’s front-line units, whose members are usually selected for their reliably loyal family backgrounds.” Commenter Yang (thank you) points to a Korean-language story that the soldier’s unit was in Hamheung, which is at a considerable distance from the DMZ.

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Guerrilla Engagement: A strategy for regime replacement and reconstruction in N. Korea (Pts. 1-5)

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One day, either this President or the next one will awaken to the realization that the regime in Pyongyang is collapsing, and that he has just inherited the costliest, messiest, and riskiest nation-building project since the Marshall Plan. The collapse of North Korea will present South Korea — and by extension, its principal treaty ally, the United States — with a nation-building challenge unlike any in recent history. After all, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria all had some independent institutions — tribes, sects, mosques, and churches — that predated and outlived the old order. None of these things exists in North Korea. A collapse of the regime will reduce the entire society from the closest thing on Earth to panopticon totalitarianism to complete anarchy.

North Korea’s extraordinary secrecy means this will be harder to predict than the collapses of ostensibly “stable” regimes in Libya and Syria, but Kim Jong Un’s rule so far suggests an ineptitude at two survival skills — the proper cultivation of a personality cult, and the maintenance of good relations with the military. Pyongyang’s ongoing purges may or may not be signs of instability, but they suggest the existence of fear and distrust between Kim Jong Un and the military. Another destabilizing trend is North Korea’s obscene and widening gap between rich and poor.

These things might not have mattered in the 1990s, but today, technology is allowing more of North Korea’s have-nots to see how the elites live. Of course, inequality isn’t new to North Korea, but the new inequality is a more destabilizing kind. Contrary to the misjudgment of generations of American policymakers, North Korea’s hunger is not destabilizing, but an effective tool for weakening, exhausting, and controlling the oppressed. Today, North Korea’s poor are still very poor, but there is no wide-scale famine. Meanwhile, the elites have grown obscenely rich. It is inequality, not poverty, that topples tyrants. And ever since the coronation of Kim Jong Un, a porcine portrait of inequality has glared down on every North Korean citizen in every home, office, and classroom.

In his inaugural address in 2009, President Obama offered an open hand to Kim Jong Il, if he would unclench his fist. Within five months, Kim Jong Il answered with a nuclear test, and Kim Jong Un has repeatedly reaffirmed his insistence on pursuing a nuclear arsenal.

Recently, the Obama Administration has been hinting at both talks with and sanctions against Pyongyang, but the reality is that the North Korea policy debate has already entered the post-Obama era. It’s a very different debate from the one we had seven years ago. In 2008, most Korea watchers still believed that “engagement” with Pyongyang would catalyze political reforms, but Kim Jong Un’s bloody purges, and his harsh crackdowns on refugees and information, have discredited this theory. Korea watchers still hope for a peaceful opening of North Korea, but if you ask them directly, very few of them really believe in one in the foreseeable future. In 2008, most Korea watchers still hoped that diplomacy might end North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. To the extent this hope survived the collapse of President Bush’s Agreed Framework of 2007, it faded away with the collapse of President Obama’s Leap Day Agreement of 2012, a less ambitious freeze agreement. A few Korea watchers still cling to the idea of a freeze agreement, but I can’t name a single Korea-watcher of consequence who still believes in a negotiated disarmament of North Korea today.

Today, many Korea-watchers are resigned to an unreformed, nuclear North Korea. Most are weary, disillusioned, uncertain, and at a loss. More of them know what we shouldn’t do than what we should do. There are important exceptions. Former CIA analyst Sue Mi Terry, writing in Foreign Affairs, advocates the overthrow of the regime by seeking a diplomatic consensus with China and other neighbors to cut off Pyongyang’s financial support. In a war-weary, post-Iraq Washington, this might have been a fringe view, but in the age of ISIS, Terry is joined in it, somewhat conditionally, by Richard Haass and Winston Lord, influential moderates who are usually associated with the “realist” school of foreign policy that places a high premium on stability. Leaving aside whether China would agree to this for the present, there are good counter-arguments to seeking regime collapse. One need only read Bruce Bennett’s description of the cost, chaos, and conflict a sudden collapse of North Korea’s sole social and political institution could bring to understand them. (Terry also acknowledges them.) But as much as Americans hate the cost of nation-building, they must understand that the alternative can be much costlier. Try to calculate the cost of anarchy Afghanistan in 1989, or Syria and Libya in 2011.

In the long term, Terry (and Park Geun Hye) are almost certainly correct that North Korea’s untapped human and material potential would make a unified Korea a wealthy, powerful, and prosperous nation. In the short term, however, a post-collapse North Korea will be a money pit. It will be a source of social unrest, illicit drugs, crime, corruption, disease, and potentially, conflict. Its infrastructure, civil society, and public health would take years, if not decades, to rebuild to first-world standards, and all of them will continue to decay as long as the regime can suppress the coalescence of alternative political, social, and economic institutions. With each year that this decay progresses, the cost of repairing it will continue to rise. Even with the best planning and preparation, it will be one of the greatest security crises of our age. And it will happen regardless of whether we want it to or not.

Even so, this is still a far better outcome than one in which North Korea, Iran, Syria, and other end-users of North Korea’s WMD technology acquire the means to destroy U.S., South Korea, Japanese, and other allied cities. As Korea watchers will tell you, all of the good options vanished long ago.

~   2   ~

In moments of exasperation, proponents of regime-focused engagement sometimes ask their critics how they would beneficially transform North Korean society. It’s a fair question. The critics are fond of pointing out that South Korea spent nearly a decade and billions of dollars trying to transform North Korea through the Sunshine Policy, yet the results speak for themselves. As one of these critics, I’ve long challenged proponents of Sunshine-like policies to point to any significant positive changes their policies have achieved, but no one has ever taken me up on this.

The question isn’t really whether Sunshine failed, but why. The simple answer is that it’s in the regime’s interest to protect the status quo, accepting only so much trade and commerce as are necessary to sustain its military, security, and material priorities. Any positive change for which a foreign or alternative institution can take credit is a threat to the regime’s legitimacy. This goes far to explain the failure of U.N. food aid programs, which Pyongyang has hobbled with obstructionism, corruption, and outright diversion, and (as we’ve recently learned) infiltration by its spies.

Even so, and no matter how demonstrably regime engagement has failed to transform North Korea, its defenders raise a fair point when they say that isolation alone won’t change North Korea for the better.

What policymakers urgently require, then, is some way to weaken the North Korean government while rebuilding North Korean society — a way to begin nation building now by connecting the wider world with those North Koreans with an interest in transforming their society into a peaceful, prosperous, and humane one. What policymakers require is a strategy for guerrilla engagement, to empower the rise of independent, sometimes clandestine, institutions at the farm, village, factory, and town level, to fill the voids in North Korea’s governance, with the ultimate objective of regime replacement rather than mere regime collapse.

This leads us to a short but very important policy paper, by the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea, about “separative engagement.” Separative engagement is premised on the conclusion that regime-focused engagement has not worked, and cannot work:

After over a decade of practice, and in light of the findings of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry, if critical engagement has been measurably effective in improving human rights in North Korea and if it has effectively influenced the DPRK’s decision-makers, can we point to any tangible effects?

The short answer must be: No. Despite European successes in the Track One approach — namely, the UN resolutions on North Korean human rights in 2014 — Track Two engagement has been unable to identify those in the North Korean leadership to influence or target, whilst DPRK officials continue to exterminate, enslave, torture, imprison, rape, starve, and persecute their citizenry on an unimaginable scale.

Put simply: critical engagement has not been, and cannot be, effective.

Engaging the DPRK through approaches proposed, crafted, or condoned by the DPRK regime, or through projects that have minor results relative to the immense scale of human rights violations, should not continue. In order to pursue effective and principled engagement, a bold shift in policy is required. [EAHRNK]

Instead, EAHRNK collaborates with North Korean defector and intellectual Jang Jin Sung to propose a new, people-focused model of engagement:

In its approach, the objective of separative engagement is very clear: For all engagement to be guided on the principle of North Korean people being given space to separate themselves, both psychologically and physically, from the North Korean state.

Separative engagement does not offer quick solutions to the North Korean human crisis. Rather, its framework and principles — which are based upon first-hand knowledge of how the DPRK state functions domestically and how it interacts with the international community — allows states to commit to a policy framework that is premised on respecting and restoring the human rights of the North Korean people.

This principle is fundamental to those who advocate for separative engagement. If engagement is to contribute to ending the unparalleled abuses of the North Korean people, the people must be conceptually and tangibly separated from the ideological and physical institutions that strengthen the regime’s control. 

Specifically:

1. Imposing Separative Conditions within the DPRK — for example, ensuring that all training projects implemented by the international community seek to strengthen institutions that support the people’s economy, as opposed to the compartmentalised military or elite economies.

2. Increasing Separation-inducing Pursuits towards the DPRK — for example, increasing inward flows of information, such as the BBC World Service, which offer alternative information to DPRK state propaganda.

3. Fostering Separative Leverage over the DPRK — for example, providing support and training for North Korean escapees, or aiding and engaging a North Korean government-in-exile who can offer a more credible and legitimate voice for the North Korean people.

“Guerrilla engagement” begins with these same principles, but extends them in more subversive directions, and combines them with other non-military instruments of national power, as part of a comprehensive strategy to achieve change. The sine qua non of guerrilla engagement is the deployment of technology to allow direct communication and engagement with the North Korean people — not minders or bureaucrats in Pyongyang, or officials working for state trading companies in Dandong — but farmers, teachers, journalists, smugglers, merchants, midwives, doctors, and mechanics in Hoeryong, Sinuiju, Chongjin, and Hamhung, and in a thousand villages and factory towns scattered between them. For their own protection, most of these people will not know the identities of other members of the underground. Initially, few of them even realize that their work has political implications at all. They will simply be skirting the state’s rules to provide valuable goods and services to their fellow citizens, just like many North Koreans are already doing today.

The challenges to this are obvious. Since Kim Jong Un’s dynastic succession in 2011, he has prioritized sealing the cracks in North Korea’s information blockade. That crackdown has cut the flow of refugees in half, and has throttled the flow of contraband information and consumer goods across North Korea’s borders. Once-hopeful trends in information penetration — trends that had given many of us long-term hope for North Korea — are slowing, and may yet come to a full stop. Writing at NK News, Chad O’Carroll has proposed one possible way to break the blockade again. I can think of others, but people in Pyongyang read this site, so I’ll keep them to myself. [Update:]

Pyongyan visit 9 jun 2015

For now, consider the possibilities once the U.S. and its allies give the North Korean people the gift of free speech. Shatter this blockade and the possibilities are limitless.

~   3   ~

Once the North Korean people have access to communications, guerrilla engagement can take its first important step: shifting the balance of economic power away from the regime and toward the people. This will require two parallel initiatives: first, using financial sanctions to de-fund the palace economy; and second, establishing an independent financial system to unleash the peoples’ economy, and with it, the production and transportation of food, consumer goods, and information.

To do this, South Korea (or Japan, which is seeking ways to influence events inside North Korea) should leverage electronic communications to build a virtual electronic banking network for North Korea’s underprivileged classes. This network would allow North Korean merchants to make electronic payments and transactions using dollar accounts in banks based in New York, Tokyo, or Seoul. The use of dollar accounts would not only protect this underground economy from reactions by the North Korean and Chinese central banks, it would also allow the U.S. Treasury Department a greater measure of control over regime-connected figures who would invariably tap into it. It would also give the U.S. and South Korean governments (and the local networks they empower) a credible threat to wield against officials that cracked down on the people. For the regime, it would be tantamount to financial receivership.

The establishment of a virtual dollar economy would open North Korea’s borders, not only to remittances by refugees to their relatives, but to charitable donations by church groups to local agents operating humanitarian organizations inside North Korea itself. These groups would feed North Korea’s dispossessed — the starving orphans that haunt North Korea’s markets, those languishing in state institutions, those at the bottom of the songbun scale, and perhaps even prisoners, if guards could be bribed into permitting it.

With money and information flowing through the people’s economy and frozen in the palace economy, many officials, soldiers, and border guards would have nowhere to turn for their paychecks but the merchants, traders, and NGOs that harnessed this new financial system. Corruption would take its toll, smuggling would rebound, and more fertilizer, high-yield seed, medicine, and dollars could enter the country. Humanitarian NGOs could then purchase food smuggled in from China, pilfered from state stocks, and grown on private-plot farms called sotoji, one of the least talked-about and most important new sources of food for many North Koreans. NGOs could focus on promoting sotoji farms as a humanitarian strategy, supplying them with better seed, fertilizer, agricultural advice, and bribe money to secure the tolerance of officials. At the same time, those who continue to rely on meager state rations or salaries paid in North Korean won would be priced out of the market. In time, they, too, would come to depend on the virtual dollar economy, and might seek to join clandestine unions that would supplement their wages and rations. In the dollar markets, prices for food and consumer goods would fall, as more and higher-quality food were drawn into the markets from sotoji farms, and from across the borders.

In time, independent small-scale manufacturing would also become possible. Smuggled materials could supply underground or gray-market workshops and factories, using local labor earning steady wages, to make goods that the people want.

A virtual dollar economy would have to contend with official resistance, of course, but today, corruption is so endemic that North Koreans with money consider greasing the palms of regime officials to be just another cost of doing business. Here, sanctions would play an important complementary role. Those officials would have to look the other way if the Treasury Department unleashed a parallel crackdown on the regime’s funds and accounts based in China and elsewhere. If merchants suddenly had a greater capacity to pay regime officials than the regime itself did, Pyongyang’s control would begin to break down. Gradually, the balance of power would shift. Regime officials would be coopted, unwittingly, by an alliance of external and internal forces. In time, the influence of clandestine NGOs would spread to military units, whose soldiers are often sick or underfed. And in a society where force is law, it can be a useful thing to have friends within the security forces. Soldiers might even be paid and fed to provide security to markets, freight, goods, and people during their off-hours, including North Korea’s vulnerable women. This could be a first step in fracturing the cohesion of the security forces.

A free communications network could have other transformative effects. It could augment and replace North Korea’s broken public health system with tele-medicine, staffed by volunteer foreign doctors and local nurses, to treat the sick with smuggled medicines. Volunteer teachers in South Korea could teach virtual classes to orphans, to low-songbun students seeking valuable life skills like auto mechanics, engineering, or medicine. As the people’s economy developed, communities could gain independence in other important ways. Imported solar panels, which are increasingly available inside North Korea, would give the people independent sources of electricity. With independent sources of food, electricity, and other items the market could supply, rural areas, and eventually, entire regions, could gain economic and ideological independence from Pyongyang. But even this is only a beginning.

In time, as the security forces became overwhelmed by the volume of unregulated expression and commerce, guerrilla engagement would allow for more subversive activities to take place. The South Korean Unification Ministry could create a national clearinghouse for virtual family reunions. South Korean churches could live-cast services across North Korea, and no North Korean parishioner would know the name of any other parishioner. International activists could teach North Korean factory workers to organize clandestinely to demand better working conditions and better pay, and how to conduct work stoppages and slowdowns.

A network of guerrilla journalists could tell the world about these acts of resistance from inside North Korea, and publish news reports from around the world for North Koreans to read on their devices. In time, clandestine NGOs and churches (led by ministers based in South Korea) could begin feeding starving low-ranking soldiers, treating their medical conditions, and quietly introducing them to subversive ideas about spirituality and governance. In theory, it might even be possible for North Koreans to register remotely as voters, vote in referenda on policies that affect them, and elect a government in exile. If labor organizations become established, they could eventually coordinate a nationwide general strike, with the knowledge that any overreaction would be reported, photographed, filmed, and covered worldwide.

Even this regime knows that it can’t kill and imprison everyone.

~   4   ~

Sir Robert Thompson, the great theorist of insurgency and counter-insurgency, is generally credited with the strategy that defeated the Malayan insurgency in the 1950s. What impressed me so deeply about Thompson’s memoir of the Malayan insurgency was how little it said about military tactics, and how much it said about law, journalism, governance, policing, and intelligence. In a society ruled by violence and terror, like today’s North Korea, these things all support the reestablishment of a functioning civil society, or an objective that could be restated in a single word: legitimacy. The allegiance of a people will inevitably migrate toward the side that establishes legitimate governance, and the side that establishes legitimate governance is the one that provides for the needs of the people. The side that provides for the needs of the people — and in North Korea, there is no question that the people have many unmet needs — is the side that is responsive and accountable to them.

I am speaking of domestic legitimacy here, but international legitimacy is the focus of Grace Kang, a lawyer and former Foreign Service Officer. In a paper published here, in the Georgetown Security Studies Review, Kang calls for our North Korea policy to shift its focus toward “legitimate governance,” which she defines as “governance for the well-being of all Koreans,” to address “the root cause of the security threat.” After reviewing the history of how regime-focused engagement has failed to alter Pyongyang’s conduct for the better, Kang comes to the heart of her proposal:

The well-being of the Korean people is the correct measure for what constitutes legitimate governance by both Eastern and Western standards. The Chinese concept known as the Mandate of Heaven requires a leader to be just and can be withdrawn from a ruler when his people deem his actions excessively abusive.[4] Western notions of the social contract also espouse the people as the source of a government’s legitimacy; extreme abuse by a government renders it illegitimate.[5] The UN Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and other UN treaties are grounded in the rights of each human being. So also is the Responsibility To Protect (R2P) doctrine, which assumes that the government has a responsibility to protect its own people from atrocities and if it fails to do so, other states should intervene to provide that protection.

The 2014 landmark report by the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) makes clear the DPRK regime has failed to meet such obligations. Instead, the DPRK is committing crimes against humanity and other systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations that have produced hundreds of thousands of deaths and are fundamental to the DPRK political system. The report describes the DPRK as totalitarian in seeking to dominate every aspect of its citizens’ lives and terrorize them through constant surveillance. In addition, the COI recommended the UN Security Council refer the DPRK situation to the ICC and adopt targeted sanctions against those most responsible for crimes against humanity.

Given the centuries-old norm that legitimate governance is contingent upon the treatment of citizens, the international community must question the legitimacy of the DPRK.

Kang then describes a series of ways to challenge North Korea’s legitimacy in the U.N., ultimately aimed at “wide international agreement that DPRK is not legitimate.” In doing so, Kang makes a comparison of which I’ve become fond, to Apartheid-era South Africa, whose global isolation was an important factor in changing its system of government. Kang contemplates a campaign of diplomatic action to be waged in New York, Geneva, and perhaps Seoul, which slowly challenges the Pyongyang regime’s legitimacy based on its failure to provide for the needs of its people. It builds on the “responsibility to protect” theory pioneered by Jared Genser in “Failure to Protect,” his ground-breaking report years ago.

These ideas are meritorious and important — too important to limit to New York, Geneva, and Seoul. If providing for the people is the prerequisite of a government’s legitimacy, then there is no better way for the South Korean government to be a legitimate government for its citizens in Chongjin, Wonsan, and Hamhung than by providing for their needs, too, if indirectly and clandestinely at first. For now, from the standpoint of domestic South Korean politics, this is unlikely. But once guerrilla engagement established local shadow governments, amenable to influence from Seoul, the South Korean government could play an important role in funding and organizing them as instruments of information operations, humanitarian aid, reconstruction, and the extension of Seoul’s legitimacy to North Korea itself. The work of underground schools, journalists, and unions could become more subversive, eventually challenging the state through strikes, demonstrations, barricades, and acts of non-violent sabotage to disrupt the oppressive work of the state’s security forces.

Guerrilla journalists could also broadcast an increasingly subversive message to the North Korean people, vividly portraying the state’s corruption, class divisions, culpable waste of national resources, and failure to provide for the needs of the people. Reporting on Chinese influence over Kim Jong Un’s regime would undercut the regime’s message of nationalist independence. Reporting on Chinese abuses of North Korean refugees, particularly women, would mobilize anti-Chinese sentiment, and deter any temptation by China to intervene militarily. Guerrilla journalism could also criticize Kim Jong Un’s lifestyle, legitimacy, and competence to rule.

Eventually, trade networks and labor organizations could organize clandestine security guards and police to protect the population from violence by soldiers and members of the security forces. Initially, paid, masked security guards and guerrilla policing organizations could patrol high-crime areas, where marauding bands of soldiers rape vulnerable women, bully traders, and rob farmers. Some of the police might be recruited from deserting soldiers, who might otherwise die from lack of food and medical care.

Because the North Korean military tightly restricts the distribution of ammunition, soldiers who commit crimes against the civilian population often wander unarmed; thus, in many cases, armed police could be effective without the use of lethal force. To prevent wanton violence and revenge killings, and to protect the people against arbitrary arrest, torture, and extrajudicial execution by the security forces, communities could organize local courts, perhaps with remote electronic training, support, and appellate review from outside North Korea. Guerrilla courts would have the exclusive authority to permit or order the use of deadly force against military officers or members of the security forces responsible for criminal acts. Any violent act not sanctioned by the courts, regardless of the affiliation of the person responsible, should be treated like a crime. Like all legal systems, a court empowered to punish violent crime would help to deter future violent crime, including by a regime that does not necessarily explicitly authorize crimes committed by corrupt officers or undisciplined soldiers. To the extent deadly force was necessary to protect journalists, trade unionists, and NGO workers, guerrilla police forces could obtain arms and ammunition from soldiers motivated by hunger, disease, drug addiction, or grievances against their officers. Guerrilla organizations that engaged in extrajudicial violence should be denied financial support, and when appropriate, punished criminally.

Of course, the regime would react violently to this, to the extent it could identify those responsible, to the extent this dispersed network of dissent did not overwhelm the state’s capacity to suppress it, and to the extent its local officials had not been coopted by the resistance. But the longer these groups could delay a broader, violent confrontation with the regime, the more widely this clandestine organization could penetrate North Korea’s society, government, and security forces, and the more likely it would be to survive and prevail once that confrontation comes. In that confrontation, citizen journalists with hidden cameras would be critical to deterring a violent reaction by the state, and to publicizing any such reaction both inside North Korea and globally. This, in turn, would spur diplomatic and political action to deprive North Korea of foreign investment, finance, diplomatic support, and international legitimacy. It might eventually spur South Korea toward accepting its responsibilities for the welfare of the North Korean people, as their legitimate government.

~   5   ~

In February of 2014, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry released a report finding the North Korean government responsible for “crimes against humanity, arising from ‘policies established at the highest level of State,’” including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.” This status quo is not peace. It is not quite the absence of war. It is a lurid kaleidoscope of violent crime, waged by a few armed men against a defenseless majority. With its political competence in decline, it can’t last. Last week, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye sat for an interview with The Washington Post, and said this:

Since [Kim Jong Un] took power 3 1/2 years ago, he has executed some 90 officials. Indeed, the reign of terror continues to this day. Although one can say that the reign of terror might work in the short term, in the mid- to long term, it is actually sowing and amplifying the seeds of instability for the regime….

Recently, a senior North Korean defected and confessed to us that because of the ongoing and widespread executions that include even his inner circle, they are afraid for their lives. That is what prompted him to flee. 

Over the weekend, a North Korean soldier defected to the South across the DMZ. The North Korean army is now said to be laying mines along the DMZ to prevent more defections. Last week, a North Korean, who may or may not have been the latest in a series of armed soldiers to desert his post, was shot and killed by Chinese police. (Update: he was a civilian.)

But this essay is not about predicting the direction of history; it is about finding ways to influence it. In such desperate, violent circumstances, completely non-violent change may be an unrealistic ideal. But it is always realistic, and compelled by both morality and our national interests, to seek a strategy to deter and prevent as much suffering and loss of life as is still possible. With Kim Jong Un’s rejecting political reforms and pursuing policies of war and violence, a controlled demolition of the regime may be the only way to save the Korean people from an anarchic collapse (on one hand) and the horrific status quo (on the other).

When totalitarian states collapse, they tend to collapse suddenly, violently, and chaotically, in the way that Romania, Syria, and Libya all did. There have been exceptions, like the fall of Enver Hoxha’s rule in Albania, but if the violence of any Götterdämmerung is proportional to a system’s totalitarianism, then North Korea’s collapse is likely to be more violent than any of these examples. If Götterdämmerung isn’t already imminent, the North Korean people will need whatever time they have to begin weaving the fabric of a civil society, while unraveling the discipline and unity of command the state will need to wage a civil war against them.

First, guerrilla engagement would overwhelm the state’s machinery of censorship with millions of isolated words and acts of micro-subversion, as described in Part 3. It would equip North Koreans to secede from and resist the state with money and information. In this phase, underground organizations would avoid, or delay for as long as possible, a direct confrontation that would provoke a violent reaction by the regime, to allow peaceful infiltration and evolution to advance as far as possible. The principal objective of this phase would be to establish the roots of a legitimate shadow government — a broad coalition of commercial and humanitarian networks to provide the population with food, medical care, education, electricity, consumer goods, information, and in some areas, a small measure of security from lawlessness and crimes against humanity.

Second, guerrilla engagement would coalesce a critical mass of these isolated shadow networks into a broad-based, loosely-connected political organization with a common vision of reunification under a liberal, humane, free-market, and representative system of government. No resistance movement has ever challenged a determined government successfully without such a galvanizing vision, and without a broad-based political infrastructure to supply it with intelligence, food, shelter, money, recruits, and the incalculable psychological empowerment of knowing that others share their aspirations. Very few states have survived while opposed by such a political infrastructure. As Mao Tse-Tung said,“The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” Guerrilla engagement would seek to build this political base, while delaying (and later, deterring) a violent reaction by the state. At this stage, the shadow government would begin to wage aggressive information operations against the regime and its foreign backers. Information operations should have a strongly nationalist orientation, to help deter a Chinese intervention.

Third, guerrilla engagement would attempt to demoralize, coopt, and recruit as many members of the military and the security forces as possible, to divide them and disrupt their readiness, discipline, and unity of command. Sanctions would be essential in this process, to disrupt the military’s pay, supply, and commissary systems, and to draw soldiers into economic dependence on the shadow government.

starving nk soldiers

[Starving North Korean soldiers. Image from Rimjin-gang.]

On an individual and small unit level, resistance networks would recruit hungry and disgruntled soldiers, such as those who have increasingly turned to violence against their own commanders, the civilian population, or Chinese civilians. Once recruited, these soldiers could pilfer fuel and critical supplies, sabotage and steal weapons, spread subversive information, and encourage the disobedience of orders harmful to the population. A contemporary example is the practice of regime soldiers stealing fuel from trucks and ships, and replacing it with corrosive salt water. Eventually, corrupt officers could also be coopted into resisting orders to suppress dissent. The objective would be to dilute the security forces’ readiness, discipline, and unity of command, and render as many units as possible unwilling or unable to execute a violent crackdown, or to actively oppose one.

At the same time, local leaders of the shadow government could secretly connect South Korean military officers with key regional commanders in the North Korean military. The objective of these contacts would be to persuade key North Korean officers that the consequence of a violent crackdown against an organized (and potentially, armed) population would be civil war — a war that would be unwinnable in the face of crippling financial sanctions, widespread internal dissent, and diplomatic isolation. If vast areas of North Korea’s mountainous interior slipped out of the regime’s control, they would be difficult and costly for a mechanized, road-bound army with few helicopters to regain. The regime could not hope to seal two land borders and two long coastlines. On the other hand, officers who refuse orders that violate the laws of armed conflict should be offered immunity from prosecution. Those who oppose them should also be offered foreign backing, and a meaningful role in the reconstruction of a united Korea.

Fourth, and only after the decay of the security forces reaches a critical stage, the resistance could challenge the state openly through a coordinated, nationwide wave of work stoppages, acts of non-violent sabotage, strikes, and protests. This critical stage would arrive when the resistance coopts enough soldiers and units that, if ordered to carry out a violent crackdown, enough units would disobey or resist to render the order ineffective. Where the orders are carried out, guerrilla journalists must have a sufficient presence to ensure that any violent reaction is filmed, photographed, and reported both at home and abroad, catalyzing more internal resistance and foreign disinvestment and sanctions. In this way, guerrilla journalism could attach a prohibitive diplomatic and financial cost to a violent crackdown. By documenting any crimes against the population, guerrilla organizations could also credibly threaten regime commanders with accountability before local (or eventually, international) courts. Even by demonstrating a broad presence throughout North Korea, guerrilla journalism could help deter and restrain the regime’s excesses.

northkorearahmap

It is at this point, after the resistance demonstrates its capacity to disrupt the regime’s control, but before a violent reaction, that a diplomatic approach to Beijing may receive a more open-minded reception. Under these circumstances, Pyongyang may see agreement to reforms and disarmament as its best available option. If Pyongyang credibly agrees to halt its suppression of the resistance and implement reforms, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan could compel the resistance to temporarily halt its campaign of defiance. Failing this, China may see an agreement to force a transition of power by cutting off support to the regime as a better option than an outbreak of chaos along its northeastern border. In exchange, the allies could offer the eventual removal of U.S. ground forces from the Korean Peninsula, to keep foreign forces south of the 38th Parallel in a reunified Korea, and to recognize the validity of Chinese investment contracts with the former regime. Deprived of external and internal support, the regime would have to choose between accepting reforms and fighting a war it could neither afford nor win.

If Kim Jong Un could not see this for himself, then surely his military commanders would.

With each passing year since 1994, a peaceful transition of North Korea has seemed less likely. None of our highest hopes for the evolution of North Korea into a humane and peaceful society has been plausible for a decade or more. There is a long history of North Koreans resisting the state spontaneously, although all of this resistance has been isolated and easily contained. If collapse does come unexpectedly, the South Korean government could partner with a clandestine political infrastructure to restore order and security, coordinate humanitarian relief, feed the hungry, heal the sick, address questions of transitional justice through the rule of law, and reestablish legitimacy. Today’s purges and indiscipline in the military may mean that North Korea is descending into chaos, and that we’ve run out of time for guerrilla engagement to restrain or mitigate the violence and anarchy it will entail. But it is urgent that the allies begin now, to restrain as much of this violence as we still can.

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The Asahi Shimbun looks at corruption in North Korea …

from the perspective of a former truck driver and chauffeur, tarnished by bad songbun. Along the way, the man relates a story of an act of symbolic resistance:

Q: Is it true that you witnessed the defamation of a bronze statue of Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea?

A: At Taeochon (near Hyesan in Ryanggang province), someone had thrown rabbit feces at the bronze statue of Kim Il Sung. I believe it occurred on Feb. 11, five days before Kim Jong Il’s birthday. The statue was erected in the central part of the village. It was where villagers held major events and community leaders gathered residents to notify them of important matters.

When I got up that morning, I heard people whispering rumors. When I went to where everybody had gathered, I saw that filth had been thrown on the Kim Il Sung bronze statue. It was likely thrown at night because it had frozen onto the statue. The community leader and other villagers were in an uproar.

People like me thought “Something terrible has happened.” That was because the secret police were bound to mount a major investigation of local villagers. Shortly thereafter, dozens of secret police arrived. As soon as they got there, they covered the statue with black cloth to prevent villagers from seeing the frozen filth on the statue. [Asahi Shimbun]

The Asahi has done a whole series of reports on life inside North Korea, with particular emphasis on human rights.

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N. Korea’s new “reign of terror” stirs fear, flushes out dissent

Rimjingang, the guerrilla news service that brought us the footage we’ll see in Frontline: Secret State of North Korea, has published a spate of reports that give credence to Park Geun-Hye’s prediction that a “reign of terror” would follow the purge of Jang Song-Thaek. The reports clearly rely heavily on third-hand rumor, so I wouldn’t necessarily consider them so much for the truth of the matters asserted as for what they say about the mood on the street. But amid the reports, and the reports of other South Korean-based media, there are clues that the regime’s hunt for dissent — including organized dissent — is more than a figment of paranoid minds.

I’ve made my views clear that Jang was a pragmatic opportunist who was often mistaken for a reformer, but Rimjingang’s sources believed (probably because they wanted to believe it) that Jang was a reformer, and that his purge will be felt in the regime’s intolerance of the trade that keeps so many of them alive. People with connections to Jang are being asked to turn themselves in and “confess,” and at least in some areas, everyone is being forced to write denunciations of Jang. People with photographs of Jang are being asked to turn them in.

No word, so far, on whether this directive is being applied to Dennis Rodman.

Rimjingang reports that the atmosphere is especially tense and fearful. The authorities have cracked down on the possession of illegal videos, memory sticks, and other media. In the Northeast, rumors of grisly executions of entertainers are widespread — initially justified by allegations of making of pornographic videos, but later rumored to be for the possession of anti-Kim Jong Un videos. Rumor holds that the videos were produced in South Korea, allegedly as part of an organized campaign of subversion by “groups that have the intention of promoting the flow of political information into North Korea,” and smuggled into North Korea by merchants:

A former member of a defector organization in South Korea explained to us, “In the organization that I used to belong to, until around 2011, the group put several sorts of anti-Kim Jong-ill videos onto USBs and smuggled them into North Korea. We had a project to increase the flow of outside information into North Korea and had been receiving subsidies for this project. Those videos that we originally made by us, those against Kim Jong-il and others such as TV documentaries made by such companies as the Japanese NHK (Japanese Broadcasting Corporation), we made subtitles for.”

Rimjingang speculates that the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) could be behind the campaign. If so, good. Another Rimjingang source also gives an interview about the execution of ten to twenty “police” officers at Kim Il Sung University, which the Daily NK first reported here.

Other media are corroborating reports of a crackdown, and that it is flushing out dissent. The Chosun Ilbo reports that two dissidents from Jangang Province, who “had been listening to” North Korea Reform Radio “for five years with a home-made receiver and launched a pro-democracy group there” were forced to flee to China in November:

He quoted one of the men as saying the broadcasts inspired him to think about how to improve North Korea. He said they printed anti-regime leaflets based on the broadcasts and scattered them in markets and streets. But they decided to flee because one of their members was arrested in early November and state security dragnet was closing in.

They brought their radio with them. “We brought it with us as an evidence that there are young North Koreans who are fighting for freedom and reunification,” Kim quoted them as saying. Kim said he helped them escape through China and they are currently in Thailand and expected to arrive in South Korea next month.  [Chosun Ilbo]

Reports of leafleting inside North Korea tend to coincide with decisions by the authorities that are especially upsetting to the population. The last such reports came as North Koreans were suffering from the effects of the regime’s December 2009 currency confiscation.

The Daily NK also reports a crackdown on foreign media, and says that CDs of South Korean dramas have become difficult to find. The Inmin Poam-Bu (Ministry of Peoples’ Security or MPS) has been ordered to be especially watchful of citizens, and to punish certain categories of dissent with particular severity:

The source explained that, under the new guidelines, particularly severe punishment awaits anyone who engages in: * Slander of Kim Jong Eun; * “Superstitious behaviour” [including of a religious nature, such as Christianity]; * Production, sale or consumption of illicit substances; * Viewing or distributing illicit recordings.

“It notes that the crime of slandering the General will be met with punishment so severe that they included the words ‘ruthless extermination.’ Even though some people don’t really know what Christianity is, the guidelines say that it will be treated as a serious crime. It looks like people who have travelled to China will be the target of that one,” he claimed. [Daily NK]

There are also enticing suggestions that North Korea’s production of illegal drugs has become “injurious to the task of diplomacy with China” and “a problem at the state level because of abuse.”

The people are also worried that their rations haven’t been restored despite a good harvest. Meanwhile, the markets are closed while they’ve been mobilized to — you may wish to pause here if you’re eating as you read this — make fertilizer from human and animal excrement, which a person obviously produces in proportion to one’s food consumption.

These reports are consistent with my suspicion that the regime has a deliberate strategy of preempting dissent through terror (executions, checkpoints, searches), hunger (starvation rations, market closures), and exhaustion (mobilizations, and the extra effort required to forage for food).

Reports of organized dissent taking root inside North Korea, if true, would be an important step in Kim Jong Un’s quickening pace toward his Götterdämmerung. That event is most likely to result from some combination of (A) internecine conflict in the Inner Party, (B) outbreaks of popular dissent with which certain factions conveniently tolerate or ally themselves, and (C) a financial crisis within the regime that prevents it from reacting quickly and decisively to (A) and (B).

Speculation about topic (A) has been boosted by last year’s purge, and these South Korean experts are already predicting that challenges to the influence of Choe Ryong-Hoe could catalyze that.

I recently wrote about topic (C) in this post. I’ll add that the regime’s finances, which seem increasingly dependent on and desperate for foreign investment and income, stand little chance of recovering quickly unless Jang Song-Thaek’s successor as the regime’s salaryman possesses his guile, experience, and connections. If this Chosun Ilbo report is to be believed, however, Kim Jong Un has appointed his little sister, Kim Yeo-Jang, to perform that vital role.

In the short term, the authorities will likely succeed in rooting out or driving out much of this fragile dissent, but it will grow back. The state’s financial resources will be essential to suppressing it when it does. It costs money to pay and feed a large force of incorruptible secret police officers, corruptible informants, and a reasonably disciplined border guard force. If the obedience, cohesion, and discipline of those forces collapses — perhaps as they turn on each other in a cutthroat competition for scarce resources — then so will the regime. That means that in the medium term, the disruption of North Korea’s economic relationships with China could pose a mortal threat to the regime’s survival.

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Border Guard Fragging Incident

I’m not sure how I missed this one, but the Daily NK reports that two North Korean border guards shot roughly half a dozen of their colleagues, crossed the border, and went up to the hills to hide. The Chinese caught them and repatriated them back to North Korea, where they’re enduring the sort of treatment I wouldn’t even want to imagine, if they’re still alive. (Hat tip.)

This isn’t the first example of defections we’ve seen at the North’s northern or southern borders, and I have to wonder how many more incidents like this we don’t hear about because they happen in North Korea’s interior, where the news can’t get out.

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