South Korea’s missile problem, and ours

For the last year, the South Korean government has been saying that it considers a North Korean attack a very real risk, and it has also said that if attacked, its retaliation will be swift and severe. Its President, Park Geun-Hye, recently expressed concern about a North Korean “misjudgment,” and touted the U.S.-ROK military alliance as the best deterrent against that. As recently as this week, she has been warning her army of the dangers of “complacency.

I don’t have access to the intelligence that President Park has, so I have no basis to either affirm or question her premise. Part of this is probably deterrent bluster, but I doubt Park would bluster without some basis. I’ve always thought President Park was a smart and shrewd politician. In South Korea, appeasement is popular enough that its name in the political lexicon predates even the Sunshine Policy — it’s known as the “Northern Wind.” Appeasement is not as popular as it was a decade ago, but it’s popular enough that I doubt that a politician as shrewd as Park would fabricate a threat that wouldn’t serve her political interests. (I’m sure others will disagree; so be it).

Today, I fear that the risk of a miscalculation that leads to war is greater than most North Korea watchers appreciate. Last month, Park told her top military commanders to return fire if attacked, without even waiting for her permission. What Park said next was not only slightly terrifying, it was also a perfect response to Secretary Kerry’s ill-advised comments about North Korea being “quiet,” especially because her comments preceded Kerry’s:

“There are also large concerns in the international community about (the North’s) preparations for a fourth nuclear test,” she said during the luncheon at the presidential office. “The gravity of the situation does not allow for the least bit of carelessness in maintaining our defense posture.” [....]

“I have complete faith in the judgment of our military,” Park said. “If there is any provocation, I expect all of you to respond strongly in the initial stages and punish (the North).” [Yonhap]

One cause of the recent rise in tensions is North Korea’s recent surge of tests of SCUDs, FROGs, and Nodongs — which we’ve known about for years — and of volleys of larger multiple-launch artillery rockets, which are a newer (and arguably, greater) threat. Thanks to The Wall Street Journal‘s Alastair Gale and other sources, we can identify some of these as 300-millimeter rockets of a new (to North Korea) type based either on a Russian design that can (in its native form) carry thermobaric weapons, or a Chinese or Pakistani variant that can probably carry chemical warheads. These weapons extend the range of North Korea’s artillery to cover all of Seoul, and most likely, Osan Air Base and the large Army post at Camp Humphreys, too.

[Indian Army 300-millimeter Smerch multiple-launch rockets.]

Over the weekend, during the “so-called” Pope’s visit, North Korea fired five new missiles that, Read more

Another outbreak of the Madonna Syndrome, this time …

at the Wall Street Journal. Despite all the references to “risk,” “tension,” and “testing the … limits,” the slide show shows us the same stations in the same old state-sanctioned tour that hundreds of people have been hyping for a decade and a half. It is all so very dull now.

You could find more arresting images of almost any other city on Earth without attracting the interest of a single newspaper, yet no image of Pyongyang is too trite to be at least a small media spectacle. Watching the foreigners circle around and around this Potemkin slot-car loop, I realize that it is becoming a parade of the talentless – the anti-New York, New York (you can make it there, even if you could never make it anywhere else).

How many camera crews would have followed Dennis Rodman to Minsk? Q.E.D.

Peter Hahn speaks out about China freezing his accounts and investigating him …

for his humanitarian activities. Hahn says, “We feed 22,000 children every day,” including the most pitiful children of all, the kkotjaebi. While I’m generally skeptical of claims that food aid can reach the intended recipients inside North Korea, Hahn tells a sympathetic and compelling story. Read and decide for yourself.

I’m not sure if Hahn is doing as much good as he thinks he is, but I am sure that China and Kim Jong Un are the villains of this story. How ironic (and typical) that China won’t freeze the assets of North Korea proliferators and money launderers, but does freeze the assets of people who are trying to feed North Korean orphans.

Those who believe that China is ready to abandon His Porcine Majesty, and those who still see any glimmer of hope that Kim Jong Un wants to open North Korean society, should read this story carefully.

Australian government finds “abandoned” N. Korean funds.

While most of these were accounts held by people in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Britain and the United States, some can be traced to addresses as far afield as North Korea, Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Some will doubtless never be claimed.” I’ll bet there’s a fascinating story there.

Something I did not know about about the “comfort women” …

until I read this was that their fellow Koreans had once ostracized them. Today, Koreans venerate them. Does this mean that one day, South Koreans might have more compassion for North Koreans, or is this a case of “hate isn’t the opposite of love; indifference is”?

What the hell? Seoul bar bans black customers over Ebola panic.

Story and photo here. I had to read that twice to believe it, but I can’t say that it completely astonishes me. I wonder how many of those banned from the bar, which is a short walk from a large U.S. Army garrison, will be American soldiers who’ve never set foot in Africa.

Two weeks ago, North Korea’s largest denomination bill was worth 63 cents.

That bill is the 5,000 won note. When North Korea announced last last month that the bills would be replaced, even at a 1:1 exchange, its value fell to 52 cents, and many merchants refused to take the bills for any price.

As of last November, at the official exchange rate, a 5,000-won note was worth $52.

One of the few examples of potentially effectively engagement by foreign governments …

in North Korea is being shut down by the regime after being outed. The Diplomat reports that the unsecured wireless networks of foreign embassies had allowed North Koreans living nearby to access the internet without restriction, and that the hunger of North Koreans for that information was so great that it caused something of a housing boom in those neighborhoods.

Now that the security forces know about this, they’re cracking down, and forcing embassies to secure and password-protect their signals. I wonder if this means that my regular visits from Pyongyang are going to come to an end. I suppose not, because those visits are almost certainly coming from the North Korean intelligence services, but might be coming from embassies or other foreigners. (Hat tip to a new friend.)

How terrorism works: N. Korea uses Japanese hostages to censor “The Interview”

Last week, I wrote that the North Koreans who had unwittingly lavished free publicity on “The Interview” by threatening its makers still had a thing or two to learn from the mobs of angry Muslim extremists who extorted President Obama into asking YouTube to “consider” removing “The Innocence of Muslims.”

My judgment may have been premature. Film industry trade journals are now reporting that Sony Pictures Japan has demanded changes to the script of “The Interview” to minimize the offense against His Porcine Majesty. If true, the report suggests that North Korea has successfully used its kidnapping of Japanese civilians from their own country to demand — and get — the censorship of a mass-marketed film parodying its dictator:

The film, about a pair of TV journalists recruited by the CIA to assassinate the North Korean despot, has become a hot potato for the studio, which is owned by Japan’s Sony Corp. (the country recently has taken steps to ease tensions with its enemy to the West after decades of icy relations). Sources say the studio is considering cutting a scene in which the face of Kim Jong Un (played by Randall Park) is melted off graphically in slow motion. Although studio sources insist that Sony Japan isn’t exerting pressure, the move comes in the wake of provocative comments from Pyongyang that the film’s concept “shows the desperation of the U.S. government and American society.” (Directors Rogen and Evan Goldberg are in fact Canadians.) An unofficial spokesperson for the rogue nation took issue with the satirical depiction of the assassination of a sitting world leader and on July 17 asked President Barack Obama to halt the film’s release.

It is unlikely that North Korea is just now catching wind of the film’s hot-button storyline given that THR first wrote about The Interview and its plot in March 2013 (Dan Sterling wrote the screenplay). What’s more likely irking Kim Jong Un — a noted film buff, like his father — is the use of the military hardware, which can be seen in the film’s first trailer released in June.

A source close to Sony’s decision-making says the move to alter the hardware was precipitated by “clearance issues,” particularly because it involves a living person, Kim Jong Un. [The Hollywood Reporter]

The website is denying that these changes are due to pressure from Sony Japan, but why else would Sony make this change other than because of North Korean objections?

Some of the changes reportedly come at the behest of Sony Japan, in the interest of improving and maintaining relations with its nearby neighbor. The face-melting scene is reportedly being judged for comic value, but who actually believes that it might be cut at this point for any reason other than keeping North Korea happy? [Slashfilm]

The next question is why Sony Pictures Japan even cares what Kim Jong Un thinks. The answer is almost certainly ransom. If not for a recent ransom deal between Pyongyang and Tokyo, in which Tokyo agreed to relax sanctions in exchange for Pyongyang’s agreement to “investigate” the whereabouts of the Japanese abductees, there would be no reason for anyone pay attention to North Korea’s bluster.

In the years preceding October 11, 2008, it had been the U.S. government’s view that North Korea’s kidnapping of Japanese citizens (including a 13 year-old girl) from their own country was terrorism, and that its continuing captivity of these hostages (not all of them Japanese) was one of several reasons to list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. In April of 2006, President Bush met with the mother of that girl, calling it “one of the most moving meetings since I’ve been the President here in the Oval Office.”

But North Korea is an accomplished exceptionalist to the rules that the rest of humanity lives by, and just two years after that meeting and Bush’s implied promise to the mother, Sakie Yokota, Kim Jong Il cajoled Bush into removing it from the list and lifting some powerful financial sanctions that may have brought his regime to the brink of extinction, and that might well have forced North Korea to let the abductees go.

Suddenly, and with a brazen mendacity not seen since Moscow in the 1930’s (except, of course, in Pyongyang), it became the official position of the U.S. Department of State that North Korea was “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” (The statement would become more difficult to defend with the passage of time, as North Korea was caught selling arms to Hamas and Hezbollah, and launched a campaign of poison-needle assassinations of human rights activists and North Korean exiles.)

The unintended consequences of Bush’s reversal have continued right up to this year, and include a decision by an impatient Japanese government to unilaterally lift sanctions against North Korea as an initial ransom payment for the return of its people. The Obama Administration, which paid little mind to Japan’s pleas for U.S. support on the abduction issue, has reacted to this with justifiable alarm. Japan’s relaxation of sanctions not only rewards terrorism, it weakens a regional security alliance against Pyongyang, and relaxes the economic pressure that is its last slender hope to disarm Pyongyang of its nuclear arsenal.

Although Pyongyang has delivered little so far in admitting to the whereabouts of the missing Japanese, there have been rumors in the Japanese press that its demands were not all financial. It has demanded, for example, the return of the headquarters of Chongryeon, the North Korean front organization in Japan that had a hand in the kidnappings of Japanese, and which had been seized for non-payment of taxes. It is also rumored to have used its business relationships with Japanese media companies to suppress the views of critics of North Korea’s human rights atrocities.

So it always goes when governments and businesses are tempted into intercourse with Pyongyang. The patron is expected to pay exorbitantly for a brief and unsatisfying rut, and in the end, it is never Pyongyang that is seduced — or infected — by the exchange.

The fact that “The Interview” is likely of dubious artistic merit is beside the point. If North Korean censorship has arrived at a multiplex near you, that’s pernicious, and may be the best reason yet to boycott the film.

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Update: This post was edited after publication.

Faced with a grassroots protest movement, China manufactures mass obedience.

Local media swirled with reports of marchers getting paid or bused in to attend the pro-government march. One video (Cantonese) purportedly showed cash being handed out to marchers.” [link]

Also, Rimjin-gang did it better seven months ago, so there’s that.

Eric Talmadge, the AP’s Pyongyang Bureau Chief, denied the opportunity to do reporting of the apartment collapse story by his North Korean hosts and partners last May, offers an honest assessment of the unknowns as the next best thing, three months after the fact. Despite Talmadge’s obviously earnest effort, he doesn’t quite succeed, but least he’s willing to raise some hard questions about North Korea’s construction boom:

In a country that sorely needs to improve its basic infrastructure, there is no public debate over whether North Korea really needs a new luxury ski resort, or a 105-story pyramid-shaped hotel that has been a Pyongyang landmark for more than 20 years, but has yet to open for business. Questioning the value of megaprojects held up as symbols of progress and national pride in North Korea is taboo. Housing, however, hits closer to home.

Good for Talmadge for having the guts to raise that, and yes, it was the correct decision to report what he could report, despite those handicaps. But in the end, writing about news you didn’t report is known as blogging.

And it is possible to do reporting about North Korea. Look what NK News was able to report about the collapse without a physical presence, and what Rimjin-gang’s guerrilla correspondent reported about the shoddy construction methods clandestinely, at the risk of his life, four months before the building fell.

If Talmadge is walking the tightrope I think he is, Access to Pyongyang has done more to impede the quality of AP’s reporting than to advance it. Talmadge, who clearly wants to tell his readers the truth, has the gross misfortunate of working for the Comcast of news services. So much for the AP opening a window into North Korea.

Between surrender and stupid: Regressing toward the mean in a post-Iraq world

As the world’s attention is focused on the disaster in Iraq, let’s take a moment to mourn the last remnants of Syria’s non-extremist, secular rebels, who are facing their final extermination in Aleppo. To Syrians who risked everything for a future worth living in, it’s academic now that Hillary Clinton privately agreed with what I said back in 2011 (last item), when I called for us to arm moderate rebels there. Clinton now says she warned that if we didn’t, extremists would devour the country and its neighbors. Indeed, it seems that for the next several years, Hezbollah will be the most progressive force in Syria.

“The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad—there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle—the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” Clinton said.

As she writes in her memoir of her State Department years, Hard Choices, she was an inside-the-administration advocate of doing more to help the Syrian rebellion. Now, her supporters argue, her position has been vindicated by recent events. [The Atlantic]

I hope Syria’s sacrifice will not be for nothing, and that it will be a useful lesson one day, when we have to confront the same question in North Korea. (Yes, this post will eventually turn to the question of North Korea.) I’m grateful enough for Clinton’s acknowledgment that for the moment, I’ll avoid the question of whether I really believe her.

What Clinton is saying about the uses of American power — now that the effect of withdrawing it from the world is so manifest — is also a necessary correction of our post-Bush over-correction. In retrospect, most of us would agree that invading Iraq was a terrible, costly error. And as is so often the case, however, many of us took the lessons of Iraq to extremes, and came to view American power as the real problem there, as opposed to the terrorism that found opportunities in the nationalist reaction to our invasion.

I hope that this back-backlash will cause serious reconsideration of the isolationism that has thrown the world into the greatest outbreak of malignant anarchy since 1975, just as it has discredited the idea that the direct application of U.S. force is the default solution to foreign policy problems. Read more

I’m sure the “so-called pope” meant no offense, but if KCNA hadn’t norksplained it for me …

I would not have seen it from this perspective: “We would like to ask the pope why he set about his south Korean trip the day when we are making latest tactical rocket test-fire according to our regular plan though there are a lot of days in the year.”

Of course, given His Porcine Majesty’s crowded launch schedule and the absence of forewarning, it’s not exactly easy for His Holiness to squeeze in a visit to Korea in between. Sounds like the rockets were more of that 300-millimeter type.

Japan sanctions Ocean Maritime Management, following the U.N.’s designation …

of OMM, and amid its own ransom negotiations with North Korea. One of the terms of that ransom was the lifting of Japan’s national shipping sanctions, which obviously predated the U.N. designation. [link]

Maybe I’m not as sophisticated and nuanced as Washington Post blogger …

Adam Taylor (or whomever wrote the headline for his post), but unlike Taylor, I can’t quite see Kim Jong Un’s “vulnerable side” through his mass murder and starvation of so many of his pitiful subjects.

Granted, there is some significance in the fact that His Porcine Majesty has sometimes fallen below the aura of infallibility that this regime has built around him, but would anyone see a dominant theme in Hitler’s vegetarianism revealing a compassionate side, or Saddam Hussein’s authorship of romance novels revealing the romantic within?

So, I see he finally sprang for the liposuction.


Another entry for the gallery of unfortunate North Korean photo ops. (Hat tip to reader L.P. for sending me that photo.)


Pyongyang, as Leni Riefenstahl might have seen it*

Last week, a slick new video of Pyongyang by Rob Whitworth and JT Singh infected many writers and readers who don’t know much about North Korea with the Madonna Syndrome, defined as the illusion of entering virgin territory actually while plodding along a tired, well-worn, loveless, and morally ambiguous path in the footsteps of Dennis Rodman. The chirpy reaction of Washington Post blogger Abby Phillip was typical:

A new video aims to show a different side of Pyongyang. It is fascinating because it rather successfully portrays North Korea as a place that is — despite being one of the last truly totalitarian states on the planet — perfectly normal.

I don’t know what ought to fascinate us about the fact that people who live in totalitarian societies also eke out normality and fun where they can find it. All human beings do. It’s the idea that there’s a different side to see in this video that I challenge.

With the exception of a skateboard park — hardly an indication of transformative change by itself — the video reveals nothing new, at least about North Korea (but we’ll come to that). It’s really just a better-produced video of the same old badly produced city.

The city itself looks sterile, and in my own subjective view, some of the scenes look staged (specifically, the shots of the students at their computers). The camera shows us a gleaming Ryugyong Hotel, but doesn’t pan inside to reveal that it’s vacant under the glass. That much is deceptive enough, but it’s not the most deceptive aspect of this kind of propaganda.

By showing us a minders’-eye soda-straw view of Pyongyang — a closed city reserved for the elite — the filmmakers and their minders distort the reality of North Korea. For most North Koreans, life isn’t clean, orderly, or well-fed. You’ll get a far more accurate picture of North Korea, both its attractive and its gritty sides, in Pyongyang and beyond, by visiting the Flickr pages of “Moravius” or Eric Lafforgue, who was recently banned from North Korea for failing to obey his minders’ restrictions on what he could film.

For that matter, Google Earth is probably more revealing than this video.

Has North Korea changed under Kim Jong Un? Yes, but not necessarily for the better. The rich have access to more amenities, but they’ve had some moments of intense terror and heartbreak, too. For poorer North Koreans outside Pyongyang, economic conditions haven’t improved, but political repression has intensified almost immeasurably. I use the term “immeasurably” because our sources of information about most of North Korea are being silenced. Crackdowns on unauthorized information, such as illegal cell phones and DVDs, have been particularly harsh.

Kim Jong Un’s main legacy so far has been to isolate most North Koreans, rather than to reform the system or improve their lives in any meaningful way.

The most significant change the video evidences isn’t a way in which North Korea has changed, but a way we’ve changed. It’s a growing willingness of some foreigners to set aside any ethical considerations and collaborate with Pyongyang, in this case, to produce a slick video to portray it in a favorable light, notwithstanding the horrific crimes against humanity it is committing.

When foreigners “engage” with North Korea, it has always been the foreigners who’ve adapted to North Korea’s standards, not the other way around.

Yet for at least a decade now, everything foreigners have done in North Korea – no matter now carefully monitored and controlled – has been hyped as a bold and transformative. For more than a decade, people have been selling us the same bold views of the same transformative statues, idols, monuments, and museums. And yet the system does not transform.

I’d like to offer that this hype is wearing thin. China was bold and transformative for a few years starting in 1980. The U.S.S.R. was transformative for six years, starting around 1985. Maybe Pyongyang might have been transformative in 2000, but there must be some statute of limitations on describing the entry of foreigners into carefully select parts of a closed society — hopefully, without being arrested – as “pioneering,” when the velvet rope does not move and the political system resists material change.

Virginity isn’t a very persistent thing. Sell it promiscuously enough and other, less complimentary terms become more appropriate. After that, we are only negotiating the price.

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* Attribution to Anna.

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Update: Jeff Stone has written a thoughtful piece on this topic in the International Business Times. I’m quoted near the end of the piece.

11 down, 31 to go: Mixed news on China and N. Korean refugees

I NEVER THOUGHT I’D SAY THIS, but God bless Park Geun Hye, because China would never have allowed those ten young North Korean adults and one child to go to South Korea after their capture by the police near the Laotian border if she hadn’t pushed the issue with her new pal, Xi Jinping.

No, China’s leaders have not grown a soul, but they aren’t completely impervious to Park’s sensitivities, and after all, they can’t fight everyone in Asia at once. This is a rare occasion when we can at least say that China did something that happens to be humane, even if the reasons were strictly interest-based.

Does this signal a shift in China’s refugee policy? Almost certainly not. There has been no recent news — none that I’ve heard, anyway — about a larger group of 31 North Koreans sitting in a detention center in China, waiting to know whether they’ll get to go to South Korea, or be sent back to die in the North.

I cannot imagine what even a day of that waiting must be like.

There is also the news of the arrest of a Canadian couple and the investigation of a Korean-American by the Chinese. The three were all Christians who assisted North Koreans in China, and who also brought food aid into North Korea. It’s hard to see anything objectionable in that — even by ChiCom standards — but if China suspected that they were also involved in underground railroad work, that might explain it:

China is cracking down on Christian charity groups near its border with North Korea, missionaries and aid groups say, with hundreds of members of the community forced to leave the country and some who remain describing an atmosphere of fear.

The sweep along the frontier is believed to be aimed at closing off support to North Koreans who flee persecution and poverty in their homeland and illegally enter China before going on to other nations, usually ending up in South Korea.

The South says the number of such defections is showing signs of a slight slowdown this year. [Reuters]

That slight slowdown would follow a much larger slowdown from previous years.

As far as I can see, the two most significant changes in Kim Jong Un’s style of governance are providing more amenities for the rich in Pyongyang, and cracking down harder on everyone else.

In related news, a group of 16 North Koreans from three families has managed to escape despite Kim Jong Un’s crackdown. The detention of local security forces in a corruption investigation may have played a role in their ability to slip the net.