If Yoon Sang-Hyun’s information is correct, North Korea spends six times as much on luxury goods as on food for its hungry (corrected).

South Korean Saenuri Party lawmaker Yoon Sang-Hyun, citing Chinese Customs data and “studies on North Korean trade patterns” compiled by the National Intelligence Service South Korean government,* has leaked a report alleging that in 2013, Pyongyang imported $644 million in luxury goods. Yoon says this is enough to buy “more than 3.66 million tons of corn or 1.52 million tons of rice, far more than the country’s food shortage of 340,000 tons estimated by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Program for the year 2013-2014.”

Now, to be completely fair to the North Koreans here, Pyongyang told the WFP that it was going to import 300,000 tons of that amount commercially. Still, North Korea’s spending on luxury goods again raises the question of why North Korea needs food aid at all, or why anyone there has to go hungry.

According to the World Food Program’s most recent published data, North Korea was expected to have a food deficit of 507,000 metric tons for the year between November 2012 to October 2013. In the year from November 2013 to October 2014, North Korea had a better harvest, and that deficit fell to just 340,000 tons. In each of these years, the North Korean government said it would import the same amount — 300,000 metric tons — leaving international donors to cover the remaining 207,000 metric tons (2013) and 40,000 tons (2014).

In 2012, perhaps projecting from that year’s leaner harvest, the World Food Program asked donor nations for $200 million for a two-year program to feed 2.4 million pregnant women, nursing mothers, infants, and children in North Korea.** The donors, however, have stayed away in droves, and if you put all of these import statistics into one chart, it goes far to explain why***:

Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 9.02.25 AM

As the WFP explains, nearly a third of North Korean children are chronically malnourished or stunted, 20% of breastfeeding women are malnourished, “more than 82 percent of households do not have acceptable household food consumption during the lean season,” and many have “poor dietary diversity,” which means they survive on corn and other cheap carbohydrates, and maybe some vegetables.

The statistics on North Korea’s commercial food imports come from WFP/FAO assessments, here and here. Of course, those figures are what the North Koreans promised the WFP, and I don’t have to explain the value of a North Korean promise to you. The figures are for cereal imports only, and probably also exclude other, higher-end or luxury food imports. They are simply that percentage of North Korea’s unmet cereal needs that Pyongyang itself says it intends to fill.

While one should always be wary of Pyongyang’s manipulation of need assessments, plenty of reporting from inside North Korea confirms that for most people, the food situation is dire. Publicly, the WFP attributes this situation to a number of reasons, including a long series of droughts and floods that never caused anyone to starve in South Korea, and also on Pyongyang’s “scant foreign currency reserves to buy food on the international market.” It is this assertion that I intend to refute as conclusively and embarrassingly as possible, if only to prod the WFP to address it truthfully.

Screen Shot 2014-10-11 at 6.15.36 PM

[Yoon Sang-Hyun, Yonhap photo]

Yoon has made an annual event of releasing these data, as reliably as a [circle one: flood/drought] destroys North Korea’s entire corn crop, but not South Korea’s. In 2011, Yoon gave The Telegraph a year-on-year accounting of North Korea’s increasing luxury goods imports for the years 2008 to 2010, including $216 million for TVs, digital cameras, and other electronics, and $9 million in whiskey and other expensive liquor. In 2012, a report Yoon released, citing (in part) Chinese Customs data, claimed that North Korea imported $446 million in luxury goods in 2010 and $585 million in 2011:

Imports were especially pronounced for high-end cars, TVs, computers, liquor and watches. Inbound shipments of luxury cars and associated components almost doubled to 231.93 million dollars last year from 115.05 million dollars in 2009. [….] Artworks and antique imports reached 580,000 dollars last year, more than 10 times the figure of 50,000 dollars in 2009. Perfume, cosmetics and fur saw their inbound shipments double. Among items that saw sharp drops in imports were leather products and musical instruments. [Dong-A Ilbo]

Later that year, NPR reported on how the other four-fifths were getting by:

But all five North Koreans I met in China say that’s not the whole story. The markets are full of food, they agree, but most ordinary people can’t afford to buy it. State rations aren’t being distributed, and even some soldiers are going hungry. One man who gave his name as Mr. Kim described the drastic action one family he knew took.

“I saw one family, a couple with two kids, who committed suicide. Life was too hard, and they had nothing to sell in their house. They made rice porridge, and added rat poison,” he recalls. “White rice is very precious, so the kids ate a lot. They died after 30 minutes. Then the parents ate. The whole family died.” [….]

The U.N. report found that in Ryanggang province, where the situation is worst, almost half of the children are stunted from malnutrition. Even in the showcase capital, home to the elite, one in five kids is stunted.

“I saw five people who died of starvation right before I left this year,” says another interviewee, Mrs. Kim, who lives on the outskirts of Pyongyang and is not related to Mr. Kim. Talking to reporters is risky for North Koreans, so NPR is using only the surnames of the people interviewed for this story. “There was one father, who worked in the mines, but his job provided no rations. His two children died. Apart from that family, I know of one other woman and two men who starved to death.” [NPR, Louisa Lim]

In 2013, Yoon again provided data “gathered by South Korean agencies” to The Asahi Shimbun, which reported that Pyongyang imported pet dogs from Europe, sauna equipment from Germany, along with plenty of watches ($8.18 million) and expensive booze ($31.11 million). The imports totaled $323 million in 2009, $584 million in 2011, and $646 million in 2012, representing a doubling of known luxury imports in just two years. The Telegraph cited the same source and statistics in this report, noting that the Pyongyang also imported $37 million worth of electronics.

[The same year this video was taken, incidentally.]

In addition to doling out swag to the elite, the regime has recently used some of this to stock the shelves of elite department stores in Pyongyang, which presumably means that the regime expects to make a tidy profit. I’ll say this for state capitalism — it’s a more efficient way to separate the hoarders from their loot than old-fashioned confiscation.

Screen Shot 2014-10-11 at 6.17.52 PM

[They damn well better have my Emmental]

Had donors fully funded the WFP’s program, its one-year food cost would have been half of $137 million, or $68,500,000, just 10.6% of what North Korea spent on luxury goods in 2013. Put another way, what Pyongyang spends on luxury goods, according to the best available statistics, is 9.4 times higher than what the WFP pays to import food to feed pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children in North Korea.

And obviously, Pyongyang is also spending a lot of money on weapons on top of that.

One problem with taking these data too literally is the risk that the South Korean government is inflating them to disinform us. On the other hand, because luxury goods imports violate U.N. Security Council Sanctions, and also the national laws of the United States, the EU, and Japan (among others), many of the sellers have good reasons to conceal some of these imports. This means that there are risks of the data being overstated and understated. It may never be possible to authenticate precisely what North Korea spends on luxury goods, but it is possible to corroborate, based on other sources, that that spending is very substantial, and rising.

This report in The Chosun Ilbo, accompanied by photographs, show shops in Pyongyang selling the wares of “Chanel, Lancome, L’Oreal’s,” “expensive jewelry by Cartier and Swarovski,” and “luxury watches by Rolex and Omega, and clothes by Italian designers.” In 2011, South Korean government officials told The L.A. Times’s John Glionna that while North Korea continued to receive foreign food aid, Pyongyang’s appetite was for all things Gucci, Armani, and Rolex. It also imported $500,000 in high-grade beef, a description that can’t possibly include the Big Macs Kim Jong Un had flown in on Air Koryo. In 2013, Reuters reported that members of the North Korean elite jammed bags of luxury imports onto every flight from Beijing, right under the noses of Chinese Customs.

[Also that year]

Is there evidence to corroborate the dramatic rise in luxury imports that Yoon’s figures suggest? There is, to a degree. In January 2012, Wall Street Journal reporter Jeremy Page examined Chinese customs data and U.N. reports, and found that “Since 2007, North Korea’s imports of cars, laptops and air conditioners have each more than quadrupled, while imports of cellphones have risen by more than 4,200%.” Page’s report was rich in interesting detail:

The U.N. data show that China has replaced Japan as the biggest exporter of cars to North Korea since Tokyo added them to the luxury list in 2006, and that in 2010 China overtook Singapore as the biggest exporter to the North of tobacco products, which many countries consider luxury items under the sanctions. [….]

“The sanctions don’t work because as long as China allows the export of luxury goods, the North Korea elite will be paid with them to support the regime,” said Jiyoung Song, an associate fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House, who has studied North Korea since 1999. [….]

Among the exports of liquor to North Korea from Hong Kong in 2010 were 839 bottles of unidentified spirits, worth an average of $159 each, and 17 bottles of “spirits obtained by distilling grape wine or grape marc” worth $145 each, according to the U.N. figures.

In 2010, North Korea also imported 14 color video screens from the Netherlands—worth an average $8,147 each—and about 50,000 bottles of wine from Chile, France, South Africa and other countries, as well as 3,559 sets of videogames from China, the U.N. data show. [….]

In 2010 alone, North Korea imported 3,191 cars, the vast majority from China—although one, valued at $59,976, placing it in the luxury category, came from Germany.

Page even produced this graphic:

WSJ graphic on NK luxury imports

[Wall Street Journal]

This trend is also both mirrored and amplified by a very visible increase in spending on leisure and sports facilities. The ROK National Intelligence Service, estimates that North Korea spent $300 million on those facilities in recent years. It’s not clear whether Yoon’s figures include those costs, or how much of them.

Much of the luxury goods trade in China is done openly, at shops near the North Korean Embassy in Beijing that cater to an elite clientele. After China, Europe was the second-worst offender. An Austrian man was implicated for selling North Korea luxury sedans, and attempting to sell them Italian yachts. Despite Italy’s success on this occasion, North Korea directly imported jet skis from Italy, and also “imported sauna equipment from Finland and Germany.”

It’s also possible to search the U.N. Comtrade database for some corroboration. I ran a quick search, which revealed multiple exports of alcoholic beverages and electronics by China and various European countries in 2013. Perhaps in the coming months or years, I’ll try to aggregate some of these data myself to look for patterns, and to identify countries whose enforcement of the Security Council resolutions is particularly suspect.

~   ~   ~

* Oops. Forgot the strikethrough when I posted this.

** Of the requested $200 million, just $137 million would be for food costs (page 1). The rest probably consists of salaries of shipping and support costs, some of which will be paid to Pyongyang for the costs of storage, transportation, fuel, and labor — costs whose accounting the WFP Inspector General questioned recently. (See Annex A-I).

*** Correction 17 Oct 2014: I took a second look at my math and realize that I either used the wrong figure for 2012 and 2013 or made an error in calculating cereal prices. Although I can’t find where the WFP reports a dollar cost of the cereals Pyongyang said it imported, one can arrive at a reasonable estimate by calculating the commercial price from the data in Annex A-1 (42 million divided by 115,000) and multiplying that price by 300,000. The WFP data tell us that food prices and Pyongyang’s commercial cereal imports were both relatively constant for both years (page 8). That works out to a higher figure of $110 million, about a sixth of what Yoon’s ROK government figures say Pyongyang imported in luxury goods. Note that this is consistent with the 2010 figure (the 2011 figure is probably a partial-year figure, so don’t put too much stock in it). I regret the error and have corrected the chart accordingly.

The Guardian also wonders why North Korea is exporting rice.

Their story cites this post, and gives me the last word.

It’s too bad Kevorkian is no longer available.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who has made his first public appearance in five weeks, has been treated by “foreign doctors” because of an apparent leg injury, the South Korean ambassador to China said Tuesday. [Yonhap]

Sure, you say, someone else would just replace him, but I agree with Scott Snyder on this — without an obvious successor, his incapacitation would trigger a fight for succession. More than that, it would represent the death of the last viable symbol of the deiocracy.

Life imitates The Onion: KCNA says Kim Jong Un appears in public

So says … KCNA, which also reported the discovery of a unicorn lair in 2012, and a series of supernatural events after Kim Jong Il’s death in 2011.

Personally, I’m still skeptical. If Kim Jong Un is really as healthy as they want us to believe he is, why don’t they just do what Kim Jong Il did and release some oil paintings to prove it?

~   ~   ~

Update: Well, damn. Now I want to see him holding up the newspaper. Preferably, with both hands.

~   ~   ~

Update: At the WaPo, Anna Fifield summarizes:

The reports should put an end to rumors that Kim has been overthrown or is under house arrest, but will do little end speculation about this health.

Chinese behave badly in South Korea, and it doesn’t end well for them (updated).

It looks like the South Koreans may have learned something from their northern cousins about how you deal with illegal fishing by the Chinese. For years, Chinese fishermen have entered South Korean waters illegally and violently resisted arrest by the South Korean Coast Guard. In 2011, a Chinese fishermen stabbed and killed a ROK coastie who was trying to board his vessel.

This week, ten the Coast Guardsmen boarded a Chinese boat fishing illegally in Korean waters, and this happened:

“At 8:07 a.m., the officers gained control of the ship and began moving into a safer zone. At 8:11 a.m., the ship had to stop due to an internal malfunction. Taking advantage of the stop, four Chinese vessels nearby flanked the ship on the left and right, with two ships on each side. Chinese fishermen from the four vessels then began exercising violence against the officers,” said Choi Chang-sam, head of the Mokpo Coast Guard during a press briefing yesterday.

In explaining as to what led to the use of deadly force, Choi said the Chinese threatened the officers with knives and beer bottles and tried to choke the officers. The officers fired three warning blanks before they shot eight times to subdue the attackers. The Coast Guard said the deceased fisherman was the captain of one of the three vessels that came to rescue the seized fishing ship from the Koreans. [Joongang Ilbo]

The captain was hit in the abdomen, so the Coast Guard called a helicopter and flew him to a hospital in Mokpo, but unfortunately for the captain and his family, he didn’t make it. Five South Korean coasties were also injured in the brawl and were treated in the same hospital.

chinese boats, via AFP getty images and The Guardian

[AFP/Getty Images, via The Guardian]

A Chinese government mouthpiece called for an investigation, denounced the coasties’ “violent execution of laws,” and “demanded stern punishment for those responsible,” which is the natural reaction of a government so justly esteemed for the tender mercy of its own law enforcement. Anyway, here’s the ChiCom side of the story, via China Central Television:

No word on what plans the Chinese government has to keep its fisherman out of Korean waters or warn them about the perils of resisting arrest in the savage police state known as South Korea, but maybe this incident will help get the point across — never get between a Korean and his haemul-ttang.

According to The Joongang Ilbo, the incident happened somewhere 89 nautical miles west of the tiny islet of Wangdeung, the home of a radio mast and no human habitation, but just a few miles east of the populated island of Anma-do. The vertical yellow line on this map is 89 nautical miles west of there, and as you can see, it’s closer to Korea than China.

Screen Shot 2014-10-11 at 10.13.51 AM

Ordinarily, a country’s exclusive economic zone — which includes fishing rights — extends for 200 nautical miles from its coast line, but the Yellow Sea isn’t wide enough for that, and the two countries’ EEZ claims overlap, most notably around the reef known as Ieodo. Unfortunately for Korea, China has an expansive unilateral interpretation of its own EEZ.

Even so, one thing you don’t hear the Chinese saying is that the waters were theirs, or disputed. Nor do they deny that the Chinese boat was fishing illegally, other than to call the incident the result of “an alleged crackdown on illegal fishing.” (Note to CCTV: I think we can stipulate to the existence of a crackdown.)

The Chinese also called for “harsh punishment” of the coasties, despite their acknowledgement of the need for an investigation, and despite the fact that all of the available evidence tells us that the coasties were defending themselves against violent and orchestrated resistance to a lawful arrest.

Speaking of things Chinese people wouldn’t dare do in China, Korea has just deported a Chinese student for violating the National Security law:

According to South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo, the student came to South Korea from Guangdong Province in late 2012 to learn Korean. During his stay he posted messages on Facebook that slammed South Korea and lauded North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, according to the report.

Praising the North is a crime in the South under the National Security Law, which bars “anti-government” activities.

The student’s postings, written in Korean and Chinese, continued until his deportation, and mostly contained messages that solely represented Pyongyang’s position on issues, the Chosun report said, citing an unnamed ministry official. [Jeyup Kwaak, Korea Real Time]

Oddly enough, the Chinese captain and the Chinese student both had the same surname — “Song.”

As much as I dislike the idea of using any kind of legal sanction against non-violent speech, I’m ambivalent about this, because governments should have the right, within reason, to exclude or deport non-citizens who advocate for ideologies that necessarily involve the overthrow of the host nation’s government. Lest you ask, “What’s the harm?,” just look at the consequence of Europe not doing that, or recall the 2008 Olympic Torch Riots in Seoul, which may or may not have been organized by the Chinese government. For that matter, the ChiComs aren’t known for their tolerance of actual journalists who propagate “incorrect” views in China.

Unlike Korean citizens, Chinese don’t have a right to free speech under the ROK Constitution — much less their own. If you don’t see China protesting this incident, it may be because (a) China would rather not admit that Song was doing their bidding, or (b) if Song wasn’t doing their bidding, China would rather not let Korea become for politically repressed Chinese youth what Tijuana is for sexually repressed American youth. If Mr. Song wants the right to speak freely, then by all means, let him gather some friends, take to the streets of Beijing, and demand it.

~   ~   ~

Update: China demands the release of three arrested fishermen. How about in five to ten, with good behavior, plus regular conjugal visits?

More criticism of North Korea appears in the Chinese press

It will take more than this and this to convince me that China has tipped away from its support for North Korea, but a growing movement to take on North Korea’s crimes against humanity in the U.N., and a growing threat of secondary sanctions in our own Congress, have made North Korea a greater liability for China than ever before.

In the same sense that North Korea has been forced to shift its tone on human rights and feign willingness to engage in sincere dialogue about the subject, China is probably calculating that it has to convince influential foreigners that it’s finally ready — no, this time, we really mean it! — to pressure North Korea to behave.

I’ll believe it when I see it.

Kim Kyong-Hui: not quite dead

Kim Jong Il’s sister and Kim Jong Un’s aunt, and Jang Song-Thaek’s widow has re-emerged after a long absence, after many rumors about her illness, incapacitation, or demise.

Silencing Park Sang-Hak won’t end North Korea’s threats (updated)

For the first time since 2010, North Korea has fired across the border into South Korean territory, this time with 14.5-millimeter anti-aircraft guns. The North Koreans were shooting at the second of two launches of balloons carrying a total of 1.5 million leaflets, by North Korean refugee Park Sang-Hak and the Fighters for a Free North Korea.

The North Koreans didn’t respond to the first launch of 10 balloons at noon, but at around 4:00 in the afternoon, they fired on a second group of 23 balloons. Thankfully, no one got hurt, at least on the southern side. It’s not clear whether the North Koreans hit any balloons, although the 14.5 ammunition probably cost more than the balloon and its cargo. A few rounds landed “near military units and public service centers in Yeoncheon County,” near the DMZ, and one of them did this:

14.5mm hole

[via Yonhap]

The Soviet-designed 14.5-millimeter anti-aircraft gun comes in 2- and 4-barrel variants, as this quaintly aged U.S. Army training film shows.

True to their word, the ROKs shot back. They used K-6 machine guns, which are similar to the American M-2 .50 caliber machine gun, a slightly smaller caliber than the 14.5. Despite Park Geun-Hye’s public instructions to return fire without waiting for her permission, the ROKs didn’t shoot back until 5:30, about 90 minutes after the North Koreans fired. This time lag suggests that the front-line soldiers held their fire until they received orders from higher up their chain of command, although it’s not clear how high.

Rather than give the ROK Army the last word, the North Koreans fired again after this.

In launching the balloons, Park Sang-Hak and his compatriots defied threats from North Korea, because if you have the brass to sneak across the border into China and make it to South Korea, and if you’ve already survived one assassination attempt, you’re no ordinary man, you’re a honey badger who learned to shave, dress himself, and speak Korean.

Needless to say, the South Korean government’s “call for restraint,” to avoid harming “burgeoning fence-mending between the Koreas,” has no effect on such beings:

“We, defectors, run toward the frontline of freedom and democratic unification to end Kim Jong-un’s three-generation power transition in order to fulfill Hwang’s lifetime goal of liberating North Koreans and democratizing the country,” read the leaflets, which were launched with one-dollar bills and other pamphlets.

“In the North, Hwang is known to have died tragically. This campaign is meant to let North Koreans know he is buried in the South Korean national cemetery.” Park Sang-hak, the head of the activists group, said. [….]

Continuing its previous statements, Pyongyang warned through its official Korean Central News Agency a day earlier that Seoul should stop the activists from sending the anti-North Korea leaflets or face an “uncontrollable catastrophe” in inter-Korean relations. [Yonhap]

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

Right after the statement from the North, the unification ministry asked the civic groups to scrap their plan, citing inter-Korean tensions. Despite its call, however, the government largely retained its long-standing hands-off position on the issue, saying it has no legal ground to stop them. “The issue is something that the leaflet-scattering group should decide for themselves,” a unification ministry official said on condition of anonymity.

Which is good, because a lot of South Koreans want their government to block Park Sang-Hak from sending any more of his leaflet balloons.

Now, far be it for me (of all people) to denigrate the critical importance of setting the right ambience for North Korea. But if solving the North Korean nuclear crisis is really all about mood lighting, scented candles, and Marvin Gaye music, Park Geun-Hye might be a bigger problem than Park Sang-Hak, at least if you judge by what the North Koreans themselves are saying:

North Korea resumed its direct criticism of South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Friday, warning that her “nasty” remarks toward Pyongyang may dampen a rare mood of inter-Korean reconciliation.

In a statement, the National Reconciliation Council took issue with Park’s comments earlier this week that the communist neighbor is showing an ambivalent behavior of provocations and peace gestures. [....]

“(Park’s remarks) are an unacceptable provocation against us,” said an unnamed representative for the North’s council, a working-level agency dealing with inter-Korean affairs.

It is an “impolite and reckless” act, which throws cold water on the mood of improved inter-Korean relations created by a high-profile North Korean delegation’s trip to the South last week, read the statement. [Yonhap]

See also, etcetera. Sure, you can always say that the responsible thing is to avoid antagonizing violent people. Some might even say it’s the government’s job to prevent anyone else from offending violent people, even if the offense is caused by completely non-violent expression. Send leaflets over North Korea and it’s just a matter of time before they answer you with artillery, right? In the same spirit, if your newspapers print blasphemous cartoons, if your authors write blasphemous books, or if some guy publishes a crappy blasphemous movie on YouTube, hey, people might riot, other people might get hurt, and really, isn’t the mature thing to do to censor ourselves just this one time? Or maybe just one more time, because the North Koreans are offended by some dumbass American movie, and Japan wants to get its hostages back? Or because North Korea is offended by a British TV series? Or by Kim Seung Min’s radio broadcasts? Or by the election of a defector to the National Assembly, whom Pyongyang threatened to “hunt down?” Or by a policy proposal by the President of South Korea, one that North Korea also answered with artillery?

By now, you can see where this ends. Or, to be more accurate, where this doesn’t end, ever.

~   ~   ~

Update: The ROK Government now says that it is mulling “appropriate” measures to protect its citizens from similar incidents in the future, but that those measures will not include preventing more launches.

“As we said previously, there is no legal ground or relevant regulation to forcibly block the leaflet scattering as it is a matter to be handled by civilian groups on a voluntary basis,” he said at a press briefing. “The government, which is in charge of the safety and security of our people, will instead push for appropriate steps to deal with the matter.”

This is a more promising direction. Under U.S. constitutional law, the government can lawfully place reasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner of speech that’s protected under the First Amendment.

If Korean courts interpret the ROK Constitution similarly, and if the ROK Government were to restrict the FFNK from launching from populated areas or near military installations, that might be constitutional, would allow the launches to continue, would avoid rewarding a violent response to non-violent speech, and might also reduce the risk that North Korean attacks would harm bystanders.

Just remember this: Park and the FFNK are South Korean citizens, too.

Seoul finally decides it needs a missile defense plan

South Korea and the United States are drawing up a joint contingency plan to employ Washington’s missile defense (MD) system against growing threats from North Korea’s ballistic missiles, a government source here said Tuesday.

The joint contingency plan would employ not only missiles and surveillance equipment the U.S. Forces Korea and South Korea have been developing under their Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) project, but also key assets of the U.S. MD system, according to the source.

The U.S. air defense includes the X-band radar system, the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system and the high-altitude, unmanned aerial vehicle, Global Hawk. [Yonhap]

Better late than never. Despite the objections of China, North Korea’s number one supplier of missile technology and a major exporter of chutzpah, the arrangement under discussion would have the U.S. sharing intelligence, technology, and backup, and the South supplying its flat refusal to join in an integrated air defense system with the U.S. and Japan. Seoul also seems to be leaning toward the deployment of THAAD.

Great. So now tell me who’s going to pay for it.

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.

Kim Jong Un is a no-show again (updated 11 Oct 2014)

TOKYO – The mystery surrounding the whereabouts and status of Kim Jong Un deepened on Friday, when the North Korean leader missed a celebration for the 69th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party.

It is now more than five weeks since Kim was seen in public, and his absence, coupled with surprisingly frank official reports that he is suffering from “discomfort” have sparked rumors of every malady from obesity to overthrow.

As with most things concerning North Korea, the truth remains far from clear. But the state-run Korean Central News Agency notably left Kim’s name off a list of dignitaries who paid their respects early Friday morning to his father and grandfather, Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, at the mausoleum where both lie. [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]

Reading KCNA’s coverage of the event, I couldn’t help thinking of Brian Myers’s book:

Therefore, the people in the DPRK have confirmed once again the truth that the WPK led by Kim Jong Un is the genuine motherly party, to which they could entrust their life and destiny. [“WPK, Motherly Party,” KCNA, Oct. 9. 2014]

Well, he probably has the man-bosoms for the job. The South Koreans, no doubt with an eye on the KOSPI, say he’s still in charge, presumably at one of his many palaces.

I wonder if it has a lactation room.

Now, I seem to recall that Kim Jong Il also had some fairly long periods of absence that eventually ended with him waddling out onto some reviewing stand, but I do think it’s very different when we’re talking about a new, post-pubescent heir to the throne who has been chewing through minions at an alarming rate, and who is functionally the last of the royal line.

Feel free to offer your own speculation in the comments, but if — like me — you have no unique facts or arguments to help focus our speculation, at least try to be funnier than Daniel Drezner, which shouldn’t be that hard.

~   ~   ~

Updates, October 11, 2014:

The Duffel Blog was funnier than Daniel Drezner. HT: Marcus Noland.

* The White House says rumors of a coup are false, although I’m not sure how they can be sure of that. Nor are they denying that Kim Jong Un is ill or incapacitated. I realize that it sounds more cautious and sober to deny dramatic-sounding alternatives, but if there isn’t any hard evidence one way or another, negative speculation is just as baseless as affirmative speculation. Some reports allude, for example, to the absence of unusual troop movements or shifts in the tone of Pyongyang’s propaganda, but if some sort of coup really were underway in a state that has build in so many bureaucratic firewalls against exactly that, the plotters would want to move slowly and deliberately, causing as little shock or reaction as possible until they were firmly in control. On balance, the negative speculators are probably right, but they’re still speculating.

* Nicholas Eberstadt:

Having followed North Korean affairs for over thirty years myself, I have to confess that there is nothing new about the current jumble of conflicting and sometimes outlandish guesses that passes as commentary on North Korean current events. Given the DPRK government’s ruthless control and manipulation of information—two of the few things Pyongyang can actually do well—outsiders are often left more or less divining signs from chicken entrails. Add to the mix the South Korean intelligence community’s unhealthy but longstanding history of attempting to play the local and global press in accordance with its own short term agenda, and one can see how easy it is for unseasoned reporters, or even more inveterate “North Korea hands,” to get caught up in a hologram of lies.

Early on in my own research, I realized that one had to approach the North Korean puzzle as if one were in a Miss Marple murder mystery, that is to say, by proceeding under the assumption that everyone is a liar and has their own reason for misrepresenting the truth. If one starts with that premise, and takes William of Ockham as one’s guiding star, you have a chance of figuring out what is going on—but only a chance.

That sounds about right to me. Sometimes, the three hardest words to say are “I don’t know.”

* The Onion worries that Kim Jong Un’s absence leaves North Koreans with no one to agree with.

The Nobel Committee finally gets one right.

The ferocious intellect and powerful soul of Malala Yousafzai may inhabit the body of a little girl, but she’s a remarkable young woman who is wise beyond her years.

Malala represents what I wish I saw so much more of in the Muslim world — the courage to stand up to the thugs and psychopaths who are taking over its streets and villages. This is where Malala is informative of our own arguments about Islam. Would conservatives who argue that Islam itself is the problem have us fight 23% of the world’s population? Could the isolationists who argue that we should ignore it really close down commerce, travel, and immigration, and at what cost to our economy? Would liberals who argue (contrary to the evidence) that Malala represents Islam’s silent majority, yet call for the abandonment of Afghanistan to the Taliban and the cessation of drone strikes, refuse to give that silent “majority” the support it needs to survive and prevail, including military support when necessary? Why do those who hate sexism and homophobia the most often oppose it the least where it causes the greatest harm?

The paradox this raises is this: Sometimes, it takes conservative methods for liberal ideas to prevail. In today’s polarized America, it’s hard to build a constituency around that.

In the Muslim world, “culture war” isn’t a just a reporter’s hyperbole; it’s a war. It’s dreadful, messy, and complicated, and right now, it’s not going our way. Often, the forces that represent the best realistic alternative to ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and the Taliban come with their own distasteful histories and hatreds. Winning this culture war will require many different strategies — most of which don’t involve any use of military force at all — to suit the human and physical terrain where it’s being fought. But by now, it should be clear that the war for Islam can’t be ignored away, and if Malala loses her war, humanity will lose, too.

I wish I’d seen it when it first came out, but I thought Anna Fifield’s …

description of reporting from Pyongyang was a very interesting, very funny read.

North Korean official, asked about human rights problems, cites … lack of public baths.

And even this is really the fault of imperialist sanctions, which prohibit the import of “luxury goods” to North Korea:

When the North Korean officials at the U.N. briefing were asked Tuesday to identify human rights problems in their country, Choe Myong Nam, a North Korean responded, “We need some facilities where people go and enjoy a bath… Right now, due to problems in the economic field — that is due to the external forces hindrance — we are running short of some of the facilities.”

He cited lack of facilities and did not mention executions, torture allegations or food shortages. [CNN, Madison Park]

Choe’s statement raises some very grave questions — I hope you’ll pardon the use of that word — such as: What kind of a monster prioritizes ski resorts over bath houses? (You can sweat a lot under those ski clothes.) And, how much of the U.N. aid that’s currently squandered on the “third of children under five” who “show signs of stunting” ought, in the interests of decency, be diverted to building bath houses instead? Failing that, would Jimmy Carter accuse us of a human rights violation?

This WTF moment bought to you by an observant CNN correspondent with a taste for irony, who interviewed me Tuesday night to collect guesses about why North Korea has undertaken another one of its periodic charm offensives. My guess at that first link, for whatever it’s worth.

The thing about these charm offensives is that too many analysts are dazzled by the charm and overlook the offensive. A few weeks ago, Pyongyang was calling Park Geun Hye a “political prostitute” again and calling for her excommunication from the Korean race. To Madison Park’s credit, she noticed all of it, and leaves the interpretation to the reader:

From “capricious whore” to “disgusting political prostitute,” the South Korean president is routinely insulted by the North. So when KCNA, its state-run news mouthpiece called South Korean president, Park Geun-hye a “wretched pro-U.S. stooge and traitor to the nation,” it was nowhere near its worst invective.

No, that would be this invective. Or maybe this.

But just two days after this latest round of insults, three high-ranking North Korean officials arrived in a surprise visit to South Korea. They received a red carpet treatment on Saturday and shook hands with South Korean officials with a message: Let’s talk.

Google around, and it’s not hard to find recognized experts talking about what a big deal this visit was, despite the fact that we still know almost nothing about what Choe Ryong-Hae and Hwang Pyong-So even said. For all we know, they just repeated the same demand KCNA has been making for years — that Seoul lift sanctions without preconditions.

Which gesture was more probative of Pyongyang’s intent? The correct answer is probably “neither.” The most reliable indications of North Korea’s intent don’t come from its words, but from satellite imagery.

Chris Hill’s North Korea legacy in three concise paragraphs

Here, via Yonhap, where Hill takes credit for the idea of blowing up the cooling tower at Yongbyon.

The North’s destruction of the cooling tower briefly raised hopes for real progress in the six-party talks aimed at ending the North’s nuclear program, but the negotiating process later reached a deadlock over how to verify the North’s declaration of nuclear materials, facilities and activities.

In exchange for blowing up the tower, the North was removed from the U.S. list of states sponsoring terrorism. Six-party talks were convened one more time later in 2008, but the negotiations have since been stalled. That has reinforced criticism that Pyongyang abuses the negotiations only to win concessions.

Since then, the North has conducted two more nuclear tests, in 2009 and 2012,* as well as a series of long-range rocket launches in an effort to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland with nuclear warheads.

If only he could have snuck in a reference to those scantily clad women enriching uranium.

I guess when you have as much in your career to defend as Hill does, you’re eventually going to have a write a book, but judging by this sample, Hill’s diplomatic legacy will still exceed his literary talents.

The high-level calls had another unhelpful impact on our efforts. They became part of the toolbox, meaning that whenever there was an impasse on the ground, the idea of ginning up a telephone call quickly emerged on the to-do list. Senior phone calls also had still another negative impact on our efforts: Washington bureaucrats went operational. Thus we began to receive missives offering such nuggets of advice as “Never ignore Hashimi!” Of course, we had been in regular contact with him, but he wasn’t the great hope that some of these veterans of the early years had thought. Some of the Washington micromanagement extended to offering me advice as to who from the embassy I should bring along for meetings with Maliki and others. It all added up to an impression that Washington wanted out of Iraq. [Politico]

That Hill’s paragraphs are dangling, forced-together assemblies of mismatched bits of plastic and surface-printed particle board isn’t a bad metaphor for his Ikea diplomacy with North Korea. Like Ikea, Hill’s products look just fine until you scratch them, and hold up well enough as long as no one tries to climb or stand on them.

By the way, has anyone noticed that the same administration that couldn’t convince Nuri Maliki to sign a SOFA agreement a few years ago was able to push him completely out of office and choose his successor this year? (It deserves some credit for the latter achievements, amid the larger disaster it helped create.) Also, am I the only one who wonders whether our soldiers in Iraq are covered by a SOFA today?

~   ~   ~

* This is an error. It’s actually 2013. I notified the reporter, who posted a correction.

North Korea denies having prison camps, admits “reform through labor camps”

Choe Myong Nam, a North Korean foreign ministry official in charge of U.N. affairs and human rights issues, said at a briefing with reporters that his country has no prison camps and, in practice, “no prison, things like that.”

But he briefly discussed the labor camps. “Both in law and practice, we do have reform through labor detention camps — no, detention centers — where people are improved through their mentality and look on their wrongdoings,” he said. [AP]

The admission itself could be a reference to the labor-rehabilitation camps called kyo-hwa-so, local detention facilities called jip-kyul-so (collection facilities) or no-dong-dan-ryeon-dae (labor training centers), as described in The Hidden Gulag, Second Edition and recounted by survivors:

Screen Shot 2014-10-07 at 10.23.15 PM

And here’s how the North Korean guards would “improve” the people sent there:

Screen Shot 2014-10-07 at 10.25.20 PM

The North Korean official, Choe, does not appear to have admitted to the existence of the largest and most notorious camps, the kwan-li-so, the camps that are most clearly visible in the satellite imagery. Choe’s statement could even be read as an assertion that instead of the prisons that all other countries have, North Korea has a more humane substitute. Unfortunately, the reporters present forfeited the chance to ask questions that would have clarified the statement, so we’re unable to extract its full meaning.

Still, I do think the statement means something — if external pressure becomes more than Pyongyang can ignore, it can compel Pyongyang to lighten its load of lies just a bit. Perhaps with sufficient pressure, it could force Pyongyang to change its behavior in more material ways. It’s no cause for self-congratulation, but it is encouragement to keep the pressure on.

~  ~   ~

Update: Similar thoughts from Alastair Gale of The Wall Street Journal, who quotes Sokheel Park of LiNK:

“Whereas before they dismissed the issue out of hand as a political attack, now they realize they actually have to engage on it in some way. This is progress,” said Mr. Park.

Ultimately, the move appears to be tactical. North Korea appears to be trying take some of the heat out of the issue ahead of a U.N. General Assembly resolution on North Korean human rights, which will be voted on in the next few weeks, human rights workers say.

~  ~   ~

Update: More here, from the Christian Science Monitor.

Kim Jong Un misses another big meeting

North Korea held a national meeting Tuesday to mark the 17th anniversary of late leader Kim Jong-il’s election as general secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK).

The communist nation’s leader, Kim Jong-un, however, was absent from the annual event to commemorate his father. [Yonhap]

I don’t know if Kim Jong Un is sick or well, and North Korean emperors have a tendency to go missing for extended periods, but it’s starting to look like September wasn’t his best month.

~   ~   ~

Update: A lot of people will be watching whether His Porcine Majesty shows up on Friday, at a ceremony to commemorate the 69th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. But as commenter Greg Jones pointed out, you’d have half expected him to make some kind of appearance to welcome the North Korean athletes home from Incheon.

~   ~   ~

Update 2: A useful caution from Chris Green, to tamp down your irrational exuberance.

Why is North Korea exporting food while its people go hungry?

North Korean food exports to China have increased by more than 35 percent compared to the same period last year, and are at their highest levels in at least four years, according to Chinese customs data. [....]

[I]n the first eight months of the year, North Korea exported more food than it received in food aid in the whole of 2011 according to a recent World Food Program (WFP) report. [NK News, Leo Byrne]

And this, shortly after the regime just cut rations to their lowest level in three years in at least one region, citing the effects of a drought. The obvious question this raises is whether North Korea has food to spare when aid workers are pleading with other governments to contribute aid for North Korea’s hungry. The best available evidence tells us that it does not.

First, aid workers continue to speak of numerous stunted children with impaired mental functioning, and U.N. surveys tell us that the vast majority of North Koreans were barely getting enough to eat last year, after one of North Korea’s best harvests in years.

Second, The Daily NK’s tracking of rice prices shows that they rose alarmingly over the summer and have reached an unseasonably high level, even as North Korea enters the harvest season:

Screen Shot 2014-10-06 at 8.21.37 AM

Note that prices are always highest in remote Hyesan, where people are poorest, and lowest in Pyongyang, where people are richest. A careful reader will note that these data are at variance from Byrne’s statement that the price of rice has been relatively constant all year. Byrne is a first-rate reporter has done some exceptional reporting on sanctions violations, but in this case, the data contradict one of his assertions.

You could still excuse Pyongyang for exporting high-value foods, like ginseng and shiitake mushrooms, to earn revenue to buy larger quantities of cheaper foods rice, corn, and soy. Yet last spring, trade statistics told us that North Korea had reduced its food imports from China, despite the fact that this is ordinarily the hungriest season of the year, when winter stocks have run low. Byne notes that North Korea’s recent exports “even included a small rice export in July,” as market prices began to rise, and that North Korea exported seafood, traditionally an important source of needed protein in the Korean diet, including squid. No one who has ever entered a movie theater in South Korea could fail to notice the ubiquity of squid as a cheap snack food there.

In search of explanations, Byrne cites Andrei Lankov, who speculates that North Korea is actually having a good harvest and that North Koreans are eating well. I’ve often cited and been influenced by Lankov’s research in the past, but there are several problems with this argument.

First, even if you disregard the earlier reports of a drought, a good harvest wouldn’t necessarily mean that everyone is eating well if the regime is seizing the crops, as it was also reported to be doing in South Hwanghae in 2012, and then exporting whatever the favored classes and the military don’t consume.

Second, the U.N. and its aid workers, who have much more evidence on their side, continue to tell us that the people are barely surviving.

Third, Lankov’s argument finds little support from evidence of a better nutritional situation or lower food prices, and only unsourced anecdotes to support his claims of agricultural reform. The latter claim conflicts with reports of seizures of collective crops, the confiscation and destruction of private crops, the seizure of private plotscrackdowns on remittances, and intensified efforts to seal the border — evidence that Kim Jong Un’s agricultural policies are actually more statist than his father’s. Lankov’s previous claim, of a 30% rise in food production last year, also conflicts with stronger evidence of a production increase of just 5%, although all of these estimates should be treated with suspicion.

So which is it? Either (a) the U.N. data and aid workers’ anecdotes are the product Pyongyang’s manipulations, (b) the trade statistics are incomplete or manipulated, or (c) Pyongyang is willfully starving its own people. Option (c) is the only theory that doesn’t require me to ignore evidence. Each of these explanations is its own argument that aid isn’t helping North Korea’s hungry, and won’t unless aid agencies are willing to speak hard truths about hunger, access, and monitoring. So is the fact that we still aren’t sure which lie Pyongyang is telling us.