State Department issues new reports on N. Korean gulags, religious repression

Last week, State issued two new reports on North Korea. The first of these reports, mandated by section 303 of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016, terms itself a report on North Korea’s prisons. In fact, it only describes the worst tier of them — the dreaded kwan-li-so, or political prison camps, several of which are places where the condemned never leave.

CAMP 16 HWASONG
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There is little information available on the total control zone Camp No. 16 (Hwasong political prison camp). Located in Hwasong County, North Hamgyong Province, 385 kilometers northeast of the capital of Pyongyang, there are no known former prisoners or camp officials available to testify about conditions in the camp. The limited information about the facility has been drawn from testimony by local residents. Camp 16 is reported to be a total control zone divided into three sections for prisoners whose crimes differ in severity. Unconfirmed reports suggest prisoners may be used in the construction of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. This camp site also has hydropower capabilities and light agricultural and mining industrial activities along the waterway.

The National Human Rights Commission of [South] Korea has estimated there are approximately 20,000 prisoners in Camp 16. Some NGOs report that prisoners from Camp 22 may have been transferred to Camp 16 in 2012. Satellite imagery analysis does show some modest construction at Camp 16 around that time, but more information would be necessary to conclude whether the expansion was the result of a growing prisoner population.[2] [U.S. State Dep’t]

Of course, North Korea also has other levels of prisons, including local jails and detention facilities, and larger re-education camps that hold a mixture of actual violent criminals, lower-grade political criminals, and economic criminals who may fall into a gray area between the two. Imagery of Camp 16 was first published at this humble blog, describing a reported mass escape that I’ve never been able to confirm, and on which I’ve never seen any subsequent reporting. Years later, I published a much longer, prisoner’s-eye analysis of imagery of the camp, and of the nuclear test site immediately adjacent to its western boundary, as a public service to anyone who thinks the nuclear and human rights issues can be separated.

The report doesn’t cite its sources, but it appears to rely heavily on the excellent reports and imagery analysis of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, specifically its long-form “Hidden Gulag” reports, and the shorter updates it publishes on observations in the satellite imagery.

This is not to say that State’s report isn’t helpful. I know of at least one prominent NGO that’s already poring over it, and will likely cite it in an upcoming authoritative report that could have global and historical implications. Furthermore, the very publication of this report forces State to confront this issue, and will frustrate those (on the far left, the far right, and aspiring Nobel Peace Prize winners in the State Department) who would rather not upset His Porcine Majesty by speaking of such unpleasantries.

Which is exactly what happened with State’s annual report on religious freedom.

North Korea “categorically rejected the report, branding it as the thing that does not deserve even a passing note,” its state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) quoted a spokesman for the country’s Religious Believers Council as saying.

The spokesman said the U.S. action “is nothing but a last-ditch effort for tarnishing at any cost the international image and strategic position (of North Korea) … and further fanning up the climate of sanctions and pressure against the DPRK.” The DPRK is the abbreviation of North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“The Religious Believers Council of Korea will as ever take a strong counteraction against the U.S. arbitrary practices and hostile policy toward the DPRK in a solidarity with the international religious organizations,” the spokesman said. [Yonhap]

Pyongyang claims that its people are perfectly free to practice any religion they choose and maintains several sham churches for the convenience of gullible journalists and other visitors who accept that illusion at face value. North Korean Christians will tell you otherwise:

The government continued to deal harshly with those who engaged in almost any religious practices through executions, torture, beatings, and arrests. An estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, some imprisoned for religious reasons, were believed to be held in the political prison camp system in remote areas under horrific conditions. CSW said a policy of guilt by association was often applied in cases of detentions of Christians, meaning that the relatives of Christians were also detained regardless of their beliefs.

Religious and human rights groups outside the country provided numerous reports that members of underground churches were arrested, beaten, tortured, or killed because of their religious beliefs. According to the NKDB, there was a report during the year of disappearances of people who were found to be practicing religion within detention facilities. International NGOs reported any religious activities conducted outside of those that are state-sanctioned, including praying, singing hymns, and reading the Bible, could lead to severe punishment including imprisonment in political prison camps. [U.S. Dep’t of State]

To read the rest on your own, go here and mouse over “countries.” For reasons that become clear to the student of political psychology, Pyongyang is absolutely terrified of Christianity. Click here for more posts on North Korea’s persecution of Christians — which is one of two compelling cases for a charge of genocide (the murder of ethnically mixed, half-Chinese babies of refugee women being the other).

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God and Eric Hoffer in North Korea (Pt. 2)

For the reasons I described here, if a resistance movement ever arises in North Korea, it will almost necessarily draw its essential inspiration and cohesion from Christianity. It requires extraordinary inspiration for anyone to sacrifice her individual interests for collective interests, and it is almost inevitably messianic faith — in Christianity, Islam, or Marxism in its various idealistic or pseudo-nationalist variations — that has supplied that inspiration to adherents of revolutionary movements. Pyongyang obviously knows this, which is why its propagandists stole so many elements of Christian dogma, and why it allows no gods before Kim. The comparison was the first thing about this leaflet that struck me.

As a non-religious person who often finds himself in sympathy (and in league) with Christian human rights activists, I often hear pastors, particularly Korean-American pastors, claim to have contact with underground churches or religious organizations inside North Korea. I always hope that it’s true, but it’s in the nature of a cynical lawyer to disbelieve whatever isn’t proven to me. In a place like North Korea, religious beliefs and associations are profoundly courageous and presumably scarce for the same reason: they are inherently subversive. That’s why the North Korean security forces carefully interrogate defectors to try to identify those who have had contact with Christians, and it’s also why the authorities single them out for the harshest punishments, including torture, long sentences in prison camps, and public execution.

One can find claims on the internet that there are tens or hundreds of thousands of secret believers in the North. I can’t help being skeptical of those claims. But recently, the Daily NK ran an interview with a defector who claims he converted to Christianity and returned to the North as a missionary. I’m in no position to verify any of the declarant’s claims, naturally, but their consistency with other facts I’ve read over the years makes it ring true. I won’t even bother to graf it, but there are many reasons to read it, including the story of escape, his emotional path to loss of faith in the state and the transfer of his faith, and his claim that high-ranking officials attended his underground church.

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God and Eric Hoffer in North Korea

Since yesterday’s post, I’ve had a chance to watch the interview with Thae Yong-ho. Thae said many interesting things, but none was so striking as the point when, about 9 minutes into the interview, he talked about the good fortune of getting his family to South Korea and said, “God help[ed] me.” Thae did not strike me as an emotional or spiritual man. He has spent his whole life shielded from religion. We know that his political conversion was a gradual one; therefore, it’s improbable that he has undergone a sudden religious conversion since his recent defection. His religious views will probably evolve, just as his political views evolved.

No doubt, Christians will seize on this statement as validation of their own beliefs.  I’m not religious myself and felt no validation of my own beliefs, but I was deeply moved as a father who felt compassion and solidarity for another father. I’m also very interested in the political implications of Christianity’s appeal to North Koreans, especially in light of Thae’s explicit call for the North Korean people to rise against the state. Of course, to rise against such an oppressive state is to risk death, and worse. To resist such a state is in the collective self-interest, but strongly against the individual self-interest. Only fanatical* belief can motivate people to sacrifice one’s self for the collective interest, as Eric Hoffer put it in “The True Believer,” his classic work on the nature of mass movements:

The vigor of a mass movement stems from the propensity of its followers for united action and self-sacrifice. When we ascribe the success of a movement to its faith, doctrine, propaganda, leadership, ruthlessness and so on, we are but referring to instruments of unification and to means used to inculcate a readiness for self-sacrice. It is perhaps impossible to understand the nature of mass movements unless it is recognized that their chief preoccupation is to foster, perfect and perpetuate a facility for united action and self-sacrice. To know the processes by which such a facility is engendered is to grasp the inner logic of most of the characteristic attitudes and practices of an active mass movement. With few exceptions, any group or organization which tries, for one reason or another, to create and maintain compact unity and a constant readiness for self-sacrifice usually manifests the peculiarities—both noble and base—of a mass movement.

If the validation Christians feel from Thae’s mention of God is that even the most persecuted people feel, and hunger for a connection with, God’s presence, I can acknowledge that they may have a point without necessarily adopting their spiritual views. We know that many North Korean refugees have become committed Christians. Surely there are multiple explanations for this. Initially, North Koreans contact Christianity because it’s usually only Christians who (at great individual risk, but in the collective interest of the church and humanity itself) care enough to help them. Perhaps they continue to attend church out of a sense of gratitude, or because it helps to meet their material needs. They may become believers because the church gives them a sense or community, or fills the spiritual void left by the false god they’ve rejected. Thae, however, didn’t rely on missionaries to feed him or smuggle him through China, and the South Korean government has obviously welcomed him with open arms. He doesn’t need a church to be his support network. His comment suggests that appeal of religion to North Koreans transcends songbun, and that one cannot explain its appeal in solely material terms.

The point I’m arriving at is this one: if North Koreans are to respond to Thae’s call to organize and rise against the state, religion — specifically Christianity — will play an essential role. In the same way that the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas built political movements on a foundation of social services in their dysfunctional societies, churches could use the strategies I described here to build clandestine social services inside North Korea itself. Only a religious belief so fanatical that it overcomes an individual’s self-interest and awakens the collective self-interest can cause people to take the risk that entails.

* I don’t use the term pejoratively, but as Hoffer did, to describe any belief strong enough to overcome the believer’s individual self-interest.

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Now, that wasn’t very smart, was it, Mr. Fowle?

My working assumption about Jeffrey Fowle had been that no believing Christian would have intentionally left a Bible next to a toilet, but evidently, I was mistaken about that. I wonder whether the Bible in question was even translated into Korean, but either way, Fowle’s tactical decision to waste thousands of dollars from his modest municipal salary to nonchalantly place one Bible next to a toilet … in Chongjin puts him firmly in the same category as the South Korean missionaries who chartered a shiny new bus to Outer Talibanistan without a Pashto speaker among them.

Fowle did catch one lucky break–he has been un-fired from his job, on condition that he stay the f … stay out of North Korea, and presumably Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Syria, for good measure.

I can only hope that during Fowle’s five months in the Pyongyang Hilton, he had enough time to reconsider the merits of his strategy, and perhaps even to dissuade others from following suit. Perhaps this is the beginning of a new career as a de-motivational speaker.

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The main legacy of Fowle’s stunt—along with the “adventures” of two other American hostages—was to help North Korea extort the U.S. government, and to force our Special Envoy for Human Rights, Robert King, to spend the better part of year playing hostage negotiator instead of, say, pushing the U.N. to denounce North Korea’s oppression of Christians. Nice going, guys.

Look, if you really want to help fight religious persecution in North Korea, join The Jubilee Campaign. If you want to help slip a message into North Korea past the censors, for God’s sake, don’t go to North Korea, spend a third as much money on a vacation to Ft. Lauderdale and donate the other two-thirds to Free North Korea Radio, through the North Korean Freedom Coalition.

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Son Jong Nam, R.I.P.

It is a terrible thing to say, but I will say it: it is better that Son Jong Nam is dead than that he still endures torture in North Korean captivity. Truthfully, I had long assumed that Son had died, even by the time I wrote this post in late 2007. Now, Son’s brother has told an AP reporter that his brother is dead.

Like most North Koreans, Son Jong Nam knew next to nothing about Christianity when he fled to neighboring China in 1998.

Eleven years later, he died back in North Korea in prison, reportedly tortured to death for trying to spread the Gospel in his native land, armed with 20 bibles and 10 cassette tapes of hymns. He was 50.

His story, pieced together by his younger brother, a defector who lives in South Korea, sheds light on a little-discussed practice: the sending back of North Korean converts to evangelize in their home country — a risky move, but one of the few ways to penetrate a country that bars most citizens from outside TV or radio and the Internet.

Little is known about the practice, believed to have started in the late 1990s. Missionaries won’t say how many defectors they have sent back, citing their safety and that of the defectors.

“It’s their country, where people speak the same language. They know where to go and where to escape,” says the Rev. Isaac Lee, a Korean-American missionary in Seoul who has dedicated his life to spreading Christianity in the North. “But I agonize a lot whenever I have to send defectors to the North as I know what kind of punishment they would get if arrested.” [AP, Hyung-Jin Kim]

No word in our times is as profaned as “martyr,” but that is what Son Jong Nam embodies to me. His case evokes none of the ambivalence I feel about starry-eyed foreigners prostrating themselves before border guards with petitions in their hands. Son knew that he was confronting a fate worse than death for a small chance at a small role in changing the fate of his homeland. He also knew enough about North Korea and its regime to have a plausible chance at evading capture and accomplishing an important mission, and he knew that Bill Richardson wasn’t coming to fetch him if he got caught. He took that chance, one that others must follow him in taking if North Korea will ever change.

Son was arrested again in January 2006 after police found bibles at his home in the northeastern city of Hoeryong. He was also charged with spying for the United States and South Korea and sentenced to public execution by firing squad.

His brother launched an international campaign to save him. That apparently led his captors to switch to a less public method: torture. “There are many ways to kill people in North Korea,” says his brother.

He died in a prison in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, in December 2008.

“He told me his dream is to build a church at a good Pyongyang location and work as a pastor there,” his brother says. “I thought the religious faith completely changed his fate.”

I do not profess to know whether God exists, but if anyone can transform North Korea, it will be men and women who are at once warm enough to believe He does and cool enough to propagate that belief with discretion and guile. Men like Son Jong Nam make me hope ardently that there is a better afterlife for those who suffered so much on this earth. Lacking that, we can only hope that his suffering will be for the eventual betterment of others.

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Christian Groups Claim to Smuggle Food Into North Korea

Does anyone know anything about these people, and are they legit?

I know some of you think I’ve been tough on Robert Park, but when I compare what he did to what these people are doing, there’s simply no comparing the relative capacity of the two techniques to change lives and minds. Even to plenty of us non-believers, things like this are so admirable that they’ve persuaded me that Christianity will be Kim Jong Il’s undoing and North Korea’s rebirth. People very seldom take risks like this for strangers without the belief in a higher power and the selfless cohesion to a group that those beliefs can inspire. Good for them. I wonder how many lives they’ll save.

I’ve done a great deal of thinking and writing about the topic of smuggling over the last few days, especially food smuggling, but more on that later.

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Ex-N. Korean Special Forces Soldier Alleges Biowar Experiments on Handicapped Kids; North Korea’s Jihad Against Christians

The accuser, Im Chun-Yong, escaped from North Korea with several comrades in his unit a decade ago.  That alone should tell you something about the state of morale in North Korea’s most elite forces even then.  Im claims that he kept this story to himself until now:

“If you are born mentally or physically deficient, says Im, the government says your best contribution to society”¦ is as a guinea pig for biological and chemical weapons testing.”  [….]

The former military captain says it was in the early 1990s, that he watched his then commander wrestle with giving up his 12-year-old daughter who was mentally ill.  The commander, he says, initially resisted, but after mounting pressure from his military superiors, he gave in.  Im watched as the girl was taken away. She was never seen again.

One of Im’s own men later gave him an eyewitness account of human-testing. Asked to guard a secret facility on an island off North Korea’s west coast, Im says the soldier saw a number of people forced into a glass chamber.

“Poisonous gas was injected in,” Im says. “He watched doctors time how long it took for them to die.”  [Al Jazeera]

Words fail me when I read things like this.  There’s nothing I can add to the horror of it, and yet I have no way of drawing a firm conclusion about its accuracy.  For one thing, this isn’t coming from the most reputable news service.  For another, I’ve caught enough inconsistencies in at least one similar report that I can’t conclude that it’s true without some corroboration.  Yet there have been multiple reports of this kind, and there is evidence and corroboration to support the regime’s commission of equal and greater evils.  It’s within the radius of what the North Korean regime is capable of, but then, what isn’t?

There’s little question that this regime is capable of this sort of depraved cruelty, but I can’t presume that this report is accurate because the regime reaps the advantage of the reasonable doubts it creates through exceptional secrecy.  All I can do is wring my hands and say, “demands further investigation,” even knowing that the complicit Ban Ki Moon and our complicit State Department certainly won’t demand it.

There’s less reason to question reports that North Korea is embarked on an anti-Christian jihad, publicly executing those who would put other gods before His Withering Majesty.  We’ve heard recent reports of hundreds (if not thousands) of public executions in North Korea, we’ve seen smuggled video of at least one such execution, and there is plenty of evidence that North Korea imprisons, tortures, and executes people for believing in or propogating Christianity.  The regime is correct that Christianity represents an existential threat to the system.  Christianity is the only ideology with the potential to spread, inspire loyalty, collect intelligence, and ultimately, to become the essential ideological foundation without which a resistance movement cannot establish itself.

Sadly, the civilized world has lost its sense of this very hard fact — there are some problems that no drum circle can solve.  Can there be any question that if North Korea is to become a less barbaric place, that the regime must be overthrown violently?

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High-Level Defector Describes Regime’s Illicit Income

I’d previously mentioned that I recently had the opportunity to meet Kim Kwang Jin, a high-level North Korean defector with detailed knowledge of North Korea’s illicit financing and money laundering.  Now, Kim adds much to our understanding of how North Korea pays for all those Mercedes-Benzes and missiles.  Having guessed that most of the cash came from flipping houses and the inventing some of the novel kitchen applicances I’d seen Billy Mays selling on my TV, this was a cruel twist:

The former banker said the regime’s largest source of hard currency comes from the clandestine manufacture and sale of weapons of mass destruction. After that comes the regime’s multibillion-dollar insurance fraud business, in which the authorities stage arson and bogus accidents to collect multimillion-dollar payouts from international banks and insurers.

“The state — Kim Jong Il himself — controls all these funds,” said Kim Kwang Jin. “It is funneled to him. And then he’s using all these revenues according to his regime’s priorities, which are now the missile program and nuclear weapons development.”  [Fox News, James Rosen]

Wow.  I would just hate to be the one to have to tell Chris Hill this, after all that hard work of his.  I hope the boys at the Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section are planning to debrief Mr. Kim.  He’d make a fine prosecution witness.  David Asher had previously said that North Korea’s largest source of illicit income might have been from counterfeit tobacco products, so this does change what we though we knew.

Pop some heart pills before you read this part:

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Christian Group Threatened Over Faxes to North Korea

Remember when, several months ago, I published a long list of fax numbers for North Korean entities of various kinds, both inside and outside North Korea?  I wondered if any of those faxes would actually get though.  I guess we have our answer:

North Korea has threatened a Christian ministry to stop sending Gospel messages to the country through fax, saying the consequence will be “very bad,” amid testing of seven missiles on U.S. Independence Day.  Voice of the Martyrs (VOM) confirmed that an anonymous fax apparently from the North Korean embassy for Finland on 5 June promises workers affiliated with VOM that “something very bad will happen to you” if VOM continues a special project to share the Gospel.

VOM said during the past year it had collected many fax numbers from inside North Korea, and have been sending weekly faxes containing Christian messages and Scripture passages on love and forgiveness to each of the fax numbers.

“This fax is good news,” said Todd Nettleton, VOM’s director of Media Development and the author of a book on the history of Christianity in North Korea.  “This means that the faxes are getting through, and they are being read. It is highly unlikely that this type of response would have been made from an embassy without some approval from Pyongyang.   [Christianity Today]

Even if the response appears to have been less than a come-to-Jesus moment, the North Koreans will probably have to consider changing some of those fax numbers, thus creating a modest drag on the efficiency of their revenue-seeking enterprises. Hey, because of you, the Syrians might one day have to buy their sarin precursors from France instead:

Apparently, the project has touched a nerve at the highest levels of North Korea’s repressive government, VOM stated in a public statement made in its Web site.

“We know who you are,” begins a fax, written in Korean but without a signature. “We warn you that if you send this kind of dirty fax again something very bad will happen to you. Don’t do something you will regret.   [….]

It said, the threatening fax came to a VOM-affiliated office just days before two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, were sentenced to 12 years hard labor for allegedly crossing the border into North Korea. It came just one day after the latest round of faxes sent by VOM to North Korean fax numbers.

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008 to reward its regime for promising to give up its nuclear weapons.  Under 18 U.S.C. sec. 2331, “international terrorism” includes acts that “appear to be intended” to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population” or “to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.   Discuss.

If you’d like to receive you own unique, personalized death threat from North Korea — absolutely free of charge while the regime lasts! — here are some sample faxes that ReACH has helpfully translated into Korean.  I’m going to publish another list of fax numbers below the fold, because at OFK, we’re all about bridging what divides us, tearing down walls, and bringing all the children of the world together to dance around one, big happy drum circle.  And how are we doing that today?  Fax “A” helpfully untangles the complex liaisons that produced Kim Jong Il’s various broods of little porcine sucklings.  Fax “B” explains the actual origins of the Korean War and how two countries with the same people, language, culture, and weather patterns managed to diverge into two completely different places — one totalitarian, blighted, starving, and deeply insecure; and one democratic, prosperous, overfed, and deeply insecure.

a.pdf    b.pdf

On a related note, the North Korean Freedom Coalition is still helping to launch balloons into North Korea.  You may think they’re not much, but judging by the North Koreans’ reaction, someone appears to be reading the leaflets they carry.  The NKFC is inviting you to send along your own personalized message (which will also contain small food packets in the near future) to people stuck inside Earth’s very own alternative universe.  Even if you don’t believe the messages will have any effect at all, it must cost the regime in readiness, maintenance, and morale to deploy its military to pick up all the subversive litter that’s being spread.

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Newsweek Reports on Son Jong Nam, North Korea’s Only (Possibly) Living Dissident

son-jong-nam.jpgA new Newsweek piece about North Korea’s underground movement reports on the plight of Son Jong Nam.  If Son still lives, he sits on death row in Pyongyang for spreading his faith.  You will recall that I previously wrote about him here, and told you how you can join in a campaign to save his life.  Newsweek estimates that there are between 20,000 and 100,000 underground Christians in North Korea. You can’t bring Christianity to such a place on a shiny bus. It takes resourcefulness, guile, courage, and determination to pull something like this off. This kind:

Missionaries say Christians often keep their Bibles buried in the backyard, wrapped in vinyl. Preachers based in China sometimes conduct services by mobile phone. In five to 10 minutes the pastor reads Bible passages and prays for the sick and needy. Services are kept short; the regime uses GPS trackers to locate the phones.  [Newsweek, Christian Caryl and B.J. Lee]

Son knew the risks he was facing going into this.  Although he is legally a citizen of South  Korea, don’t expect to hear a single word from the South Korean government to save Son Jong Nam’s life.  South Korea has other priorities

Note that there’s a significant inconsistency in the story:  according to the previous source I quoted, it was Son’s pregnant sister in law who miscarried after being kicked by police.  In Newsweek’s story, the woman was Son’s wife. 

New readers may not have seen this detailed chronology of what appears to be  growing  anti-government dissent and resistance.  The obvious cautions apply:  it’s almost impossible to verify most of the fragmentary reports we hear from the world’s most closed society.  On the other side of the ledger, there’s little question that the North Korean regime has extinguished some extraordinary courage in its death camps and dungeons without the word ever reaching the outside world.  In all probability, that’s going to be the fate of Song Jong Nam, too.  But no chance to save Son, or the next brave men and women who will follow him, should be missed.

Another interesting fact I would never have guessed: “Billy Graham’s late wife, Ruth, attended Christian boarding school in Pyongyang as a teen in the 1920s.” Heh? I’ll file that one right next to the ones about Mohammad Ali and Eldridge Cleaver.

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South Korea: No Worse Friend, No Better Enemy

By now you’ve heard that the Taliban have murdered their first Korean hostage, and so Korea has now wheeled as one  in spontaneous rage at the Taliban, as though they’d  issued postage stamps with images of  Tokdo, right?  Well, not exactly.  There are many things I could say about the reactions of Roh Moo Hyun, his government, and his country’s media, but Robert Kohler has pretty much already said those things, and a few others. 

Two lessons bears repeating:  first, when trying to predict Korea’s reactions to any given event, never underestimate Korea’s instinct for  anti-Americanism; second, when dealing with South Korea — as a few of our generals have learned —  being nice gets you nowhere.  Those two  lessons are extensions of one principle that’s not uniquely applicable to Korea:  people tend to show their “courage” by standing up to people they know won’t hurt them.  Korea just happens to have a special talent for this.

As for a wave of anti-Americanism that some “experts” in Korea are threatening, I’m hoping they’re right.  The diplomatic classes of both nations have done a fairly expert job of papering over the depth of anti-Americanism there, and I’d be perfectly content to  see  a reaction that  outrageously irrational  get enough press for a few U.S. presidential candidates to start talking about troop withdrawals (remember this?).  First, such talk would almost immediately shut up some of Korea’s  professional demagogues, whose conniving calculations we tend to underestimate.  They know what a precipitous withdrawal could do to their economy.  Second, a major U.S. troop presence in Korea doesn’t serve sufficient  U.S. interests  to be worth its financial cost, or to be worth tying  soldiers down where they’re no longer needed.  Third, our troop presence is doing us more political and diplomatic harm than it does us diplomatic and military good.  Finally, our troop presence puts American hostages  within the range of hostile guns and  thus limits  our options in dealing with North Korea. 

As for the Taliban, they must be thinking that they chose the perfect hostages.  Not only were their captives turned on by their own people, their government tried to engineer ransom payments to the terrorists and throw all of the  blame on their  American enemy (my thanks to Michelle Malkin for linking this humble blog).  Meanwhile, hardly a word of complaint about the Taliban can be heard in Seoul for, you know, kidnapping and/or murdering  Korean civilians.

I’d have preferred to link to  more information about the murdered man, Bae Hyung-Kyu, but oddly enough, no one is really writing much about him,  and I still don’t have a clear idea of just what his group was doing in Afghanistan.  He had a young daughter, and as of this article’s publication, she still didn’t know that her father was dead.  Sometimes, you just have to reconcile yourself to contradiction, and for me, this is one of those times.  I can simultaneously see this murder for the tragedy it is, chide the hostages from my safe  home  for putting themselves and others in danger through their choice of venues and methods,  and still believe that paying ransom and freeing terrorists only  begets more tragedy.  And what I’m left with is the breathtaking intolerance of murdering someone for  proposing to  worship God in a different way than their death cult demands.  No layer of hell is low enough them.  I wish them a swift arrival.

See also:

*   Not wanting to feel even momentarily  upstaged at the game of extorting money from South Korea, the industry leader has stomped away (again) from talks aimed at reducing  its massive military  buildup along the DMZ.  These talks have been going on for years without a perceptible reduction in the military threat, and for good reason.

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Taliban Kidnap 18 South Koreans in Afghanistan

They were members of a church group, and readers may recall other church groups  from South Korea have also ventured into some very dangerous places.

Taliban gunmen abducted at least 18 members of a South Korean church group in southern Afghanistan, and a purported spokesman for the Islamic militia said Friday it will question them about their activities in Afghanistan before deciding their fate.

The Koreans were seized Thursday in Ghazni province as they were traveling by bus from Kabul to the southern city of Kandahar, said Ali Shah Ahmadzai, the provincial police chief.

“We are investigating, who are they, what are they doing in Afghanistan,” Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, a purported Taliban spokesman, told The Associated Press by satellite telephone. “After our investigation, the Taliban higher authorities will make a decision about their fate. Right now they are safe and sound.”

The South Koreans’ bus driver, released late Thursday, said there were 18 women and five men on the bus, Ahmadzai said. The Taliban spokesman said 15 women and three men were seized. The discrepancy could not be immediately clarified.  [AP, Amir Shah]

Let’s all hope these people get home safely, so we can ask them what the hell they were doing there.

See also:  

*   Would the Muslim world be so tense if this fatwa had gained wider acceptance?

Many Muslims believe that unmarried men and women should not work alone together–a stricture that can pose problems in today’s global economy. So one Islamic scholar came up with a novel solution: If a woman were to breast-feed her male colleague five times, the two could safely be alone together. “A woman at work can take off the veil or reveal her hair in front of someone whom she breast-fed,” he wrote in an opinion issued in May 2007.  [Foreign Policy]

I don’t really know if I want to touch that one, beyond imagining the lawsuits if anyone suggested that here.

*    I hate them even more  than Illinois Nazis, but you can’t deny that  they’re the terminus of a logical progression that has considerable cross-DMZ appealOthers have noticed, too.  Leaving aside the superficial question of fashion, these guys  have an  uncomfortable proximity to the mainstream of their society.

*   Rumors of Kim Jong Il’s failing health continue to spread  among North Koreans.  In a society where news is so controlled, the mere propogation of  rumor has a significance detached from their veracity.  That said, I hope the rumors are true that we’ll be rid of Kim Jong Il sooner rather than later.  As unpopular as  I suspect Kim Jong Il to be in most segments of  North Korean society, his  death would be an irrecoverable loss to the regime’s ideological cohesion.

*   Michael Yon has a moving post about former enemies turning their guns on  al  Qaeda  and  experimenting with self-government.  They’re not laying down their arms; better, they’re agreeing to point them at the right people, put on uniforms, and become a part of their country’s still-rickety security structure.  The experiment is clearly fragile, and Iraq’s current leadership may not be up to the task.  A new round of elections may even be in order.  Still, this kind of Sunni participation in Iraqi self-government and its attendant restoration of security is an absolute prerequisite to any non-genocidal resolution of Shiite-Sunni differences. 

Update:

Those South Koreans who ventured into Taliban territory have inadvertently hastened the apocalypse by creating rare agreement between me and Joseph Steinberg, though his  use of  the word “traitor” is  a predictable  excess.   My sympathy for these folks just declined by at least half.  It’s one thing to push against  the boundaries of medieval intolerance, but it’s another thing entirely to throw yourself at its mercy and then  expect to be ransomed out or exchanged for Taliban thugs who would go free to murder again.   If the actions of these people were as courageous as I was willing to assume, then they assumed that risk.  Not surprisingly for Roh Moo Hyun, he speaks  and acts as though he’d gladly pay ransom or meet the terrorists’ demands if could.  Roh thus helps to assure that there will be more hostages and beheadings in the future. 

Still,  I can’t understand why some people seem so gleeful about this.   Over at the  Marmot’s Hole, the venom of some of the comments is just hard to understand without engaging in amateur psychology.  The hostages have quickly become surrogates for  some pretty powerful anti-Christian sentiment.  What’s striking about the discussion is that the Taliban’s murder, kidnapping, intolerance, and ignorance never even became a subject.  It  was lost among the venom directed at the victims.  I grant that these Koreans  don’t seem to be  adherents  of an especially open-minded or intellectual  strain of Christianity, and Christianity in Korea can seem  annoyingly messianic  to a non-believer (worst example:  an obnoxious attempt to convert my wife at her mother’s funeral).  In the comments below, I’ve conceded the possibility that the missionaries’  motives were more psychological than altruistic, depending on what they were actually doing there. 

But let’s  keep some perspective here.  At worst, the missionaries practiced a far more benign form of fanaticism than their captors.  So why are the Taliban getting off without a scratch in this discussion?  One commenter actually compares them to bad weather.  What a neat trick the Taliban have managed here:  they are scoring propaganda points against the South Korean and Afghan governments without even being judged responsible  for their terrorist actions.  Are these evil human beings, or  were these missionaries kidnapped by wild  bears that  were hanging around their garbage cans?  And if the distinction doesn’t matter, then can we start  euthanizing the ones we capture without a lot of fuss from the Human Rights Industry? 

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Reminder: ‘Let My People Go’ Rally, Noon Tomorrow on the West Lawn of the Capitol

The Korean Church Coalition picks up an impressive and somewhat  surprising endorsement in advance of tomorrow’s rally

As always, you need not be present to win.   If you have an  Internet connection or a phone, you can pester your Senators, your Representatives, and your pals at the Korean and  ChiCom Embassies:

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Korean Church Coalition Joins N. Korean Human Rights Movement, and an Appeal for a Condemned Man

[Update:   Barack Obama endorses  the rally and its cause with a nicely written letter.  Read it here.  Of course, it would be great to think that Obama will be as persistent and passionate on this issue  as Sam Brownback, who introduced this resolution  in the Senate.  That’s two presidential candidates, one from each party.  In a particularly  bipartisan gesture, one prominent  Republican staffer even  sent me a copy of Obama’s letter(!).  If the KCC turns out a good crowd tomorrow, their debut will have  been an unqualified success.  Finally, at the bottom of this post, I’m appending  the text of a speech by Rep. Frank Wolf (thanks to his staff for sending).  Though not directly on point to this rally in all of  its many particulars, it’s a long series of reasons not to buy Chinese,  the majority  of which I agree with.  The point here is that for these and other reasons, one gets the clear  sense that  the mood in Congress is turning against China.]

This move could — I repeat, could — infuse significant new momentum into this movement, which  I don’t mind saying it sorely needs at a time when we don’t have the rapt attention of either political party.  The KCC claims to represent 3,000 pastors and their churches, which is a lot of people.   

The KCC’s contribution will face its first test on July 17th in Washington.  At 9:45 a.m., it will hold a press conference at the National Press Club, followed by a noon rally on the Capitol’s West Lawn.  They’ll conclude the day’s events with a prayer vigil at Pilgrim Church, Burke, Virginia at 7:00 p.m.  There will be  other rallies in Tokyo on August 13th, and in Seoul on August 15th.  Here are some excepts from two press releases that were sent to me:

KCC announces formation of Jericho Institute, which will launch the “LET MY PEOPLE GO” Banner and 50 States Resolution project.   

Irvine, CA ““Korean Church Coalition (KCC) for North Korea Freedom announces formation of Jericho Institute, which will launch the “LET MY PEOPLE GO Before 2008 Beijing Olympics” Banner and 50 States Resolution campaigns.    These campaigns are intended to bring awareness to all 50 states and the world, the inhumane treatment of the North Korean refugees within China’s borders by the Government of China, and demand that China adopt a policy to allow the North Koreans within its borders be granted Refugee Status and be allowed to leave to a third country before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. [….]

The Noon rally will be attended by KCC representative from every state in the United States.  The Korean American Community will not stop praying nor rest until freedom for all North Koreans is finally won.     

You may be tempted, especially if you’re not religious, to dimiss the significance of this.  That would be a mistake.  On the opening night of Yoduk Story,  the Korean churches played a large part in filling Strathmore Hall.  In retrospect, that event was one of the movement’s  greatest moments — the others being North Korea Freedom Day 2004 and the 2005 Freedom House conference.  On each of those occasions, the politically powerful attended mostly to lend token support to the cause, but along the way, they  saw its power, too.  Although that power proved insufficient to keep the Bush Adminstration from selling the North Korean people down the river, the KCC enters the fight just in time to help set the agenda for the 2008 election.  With its strong old-country connections, it might also wedge some of the South Korean churches into the fight, too.

‘For Years, the Korean Americans have sat in the sidelines and watched as the Government of China sat and watched the many Chinese criminals kidnap and sell the North Korean girls as sex slaves and others as slave laborers and treat the North Koreans in China as Criminals.’    

‘On behalf of the millions of Korean Americans who reside in this great country, let me clearly and firmly state that We Will Stand By and Watch no More.’    

‘Since the formation of KCC, one message came through with a consistent and moral clarity, from the prayers of millions of Koreans in the United States and around the world:  “Let the North Koreans go Free”’.    Statement by Peter I. Sohn, President, KCC

The KCC will be highlighting the role of states with early presidential contests:  Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.  Let’s hope they’re judicious enough to know which politicians mean what they say.

Another Christian organization that has been an important part of the movement is the Voice of the Martyrs.  With a  large, motivated  network that’s mainly dispersed in The Real  America (like, say, where I come from),  VOM’s main impact has been to organize such grassroots activism as letter-writing campaigns.  Today, they’re asking for letters and prayers on behalf of a condemned man:

Son Jong Nam, an underground Christian in North Korea, has spent more than a year in prison, awaiting public execution. He risked his life returning to North Korea to preach the gospel and VOM contacts believe he is still alive, although contact is limited.   [Voice of the Martyrs]  

More here.  Other organizations are also appealing to North Korea to save Son Jong Nam, including this religious broadcasting site, which has much more biographical information and information about Son’s activities.  NK Missions and  Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the latter having impressive diplomatic connections (including some access to Ban Ki Moon), are also appealing for Son to be spared.  CSW tells us that it was one of those regular rations of brutality that turned Son against the regime:

Mr Son Jong Nam was born in Sadong, Soryongdong, Pyongyang and served his full military term as a non-commissioned officer at the Security Protection Headquarters from October 1975 – May 1983. On 20th January 1998 Mr Son’s sister-in-law was investigated by the secret police while pregnant. During the interrogation she was kicked in the stomach and she miscarried. Mr Son brought the matter before the Central People’s Committee, but he was put under pressure for his actions and told to leave. This led to his disillusionment with the regime and his decision to leave North Korea followed shortly afterwards.  [NK Missions]

Men like these are dissidents whose courage vastly exceeds those with far more coffee-house appeal.  Let’s be very clear:  Son is as good as dead, and the best we can probably do for him is to  honor his courage  with our remembrance.  The life we still  might save is two or three arrests away, and only if enough of us show our rage this time and the next.  The underground Christian network is the only resistance movement North Korea has, and by all accounts, it’s spreading its revolutionary roots  faster than the regime can dig them out.  You  can’t resist a system as brutal at that one unless you believe in life after a very miserable death.

I wonder how much irreparable harm it would do to our great breakthrough in relations with Kim Jong Il if one of our diplomats — or maybe even that great Korean humanitarian, Ban Ki Moon — would politely ask  him to spare this man’s life.  The odds of that are lower than Son Jong Nam’s odds of  attending his son’s wedding.

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Another MUST-READ: NYT on the Erosion of the Information Blockade

Many thanks to a reader for forwarding. The Times is on an absolute roll with its recent Korea reporting. Here, we learn more of the underground network that can sow dissent, and that could eventually form the foundation of a resistance movement.

The increasing ease with which people are able to buy their way out of North Korea suggests that, beneath the images of goose-stepping soldiers in Pyongyang, the capital, the government’s still considerable ability to control its citizens is diminishing, according to North Korean defectors, brokers, South Korean Christian missionaries and other experts on the subject. Defectors with relatives outside the country are tapping into a sophisticated, underground network of human smugglers operating inside North and South Korea, China and Southeast Asia.

….[S]napshots of life inside the North, and a picture of this smuggling network, emerged from interviews with 20 North Koreans in Bangkok, as well as with brokers, Christian missionaries, government officials and people working in private organizations, in both Thailand and South Korea. The North Koreans in Bangkok were interviewed independently and had all recently arrived in Thailand.

Pieced together, the accounts provide glimpses of a government that, while still a repressive police state, is progressively losing the paramount role it used to enjoy in society, before it found itself incapable of feeding its own people in the famine of the 1990’s. The power of ideology appears to be waning in this nation of about 22.7 million as people have been left to scrounge for themselves, and as information has begun to seep in from the outside world.

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