South Korea’s defense ministry said Sunday it had detected “unusual” North Korean submarine activity, telling NBC News the submarine movement was a sign that North Korea was using a “dual tactic” of “war and peace strategies” as envoys met in the Panmunjom truce village inside the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the border.
The nations entered a second day of talks on Sunday after the North entered a “quasi state of war” over South Korean propaganda being blasted across the border via loudspeaker.
A South Korean defense official said about 70 percent of the North’s submarines were not in their usual positions. However, it was not clear how many submarines that represented.
“We are detecting unusual movement from North Korean submarines, in that they have left their bases and also North Korea has doubled artillery power along the border,” said an official from Seoul’s Defense Ministry.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered his troops onto a war footing after a Friday afternoon deadline passed. He is demanding Seoul halt anti-North propaganda broadcasts or face military action.
On Thursday, Kim Jong Un had convened an emergency meeting as the two Koreas exchanged fire. Then today North Korea’s state-run television KRT released still photographs of Kim and North Korean high ranking military officials at an emergency meeting of Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK).
During the emergency meeting, Kim put his troops on a “fully armed state of war” starting from 5 p.m. (0830GMT) on Friday and had declared a “quasi-state of war” in frontline areas, KRT added.
Such language is often used by North Korea in times of tension with the South.
In an escalation of the tense situation in the region, North and South Korea exchanged fire over their heavily fortified border Thursday, the South Korean Defense Ministry said.
South Korea detected a projectile, assumed to be a small rocket, that was fired toward the western province of Gyeonggi, a Defense Ministry official told CNN. The South Korean military responded by firing a few dozen shells at the area from which the North Korean projectile was fired, the official said.
The U.S. believes North Korea deliberately placed mines in the path of a South Korean patrol in the demilitarized zone between the two countries, sparking the exchanges, the official said. Tensions spiked on the Korean Peninsula after two South Korean soldiers were seriously wounded by landmines on August 4 in the demilitarized zone.
Seoul vowed a “harsh” response to the landmines and resumed blaring propaganda messages over the border from huge loudspeakers. The move infuriated North Korea, which called the broadcasting “a direct action of declaring a war.” Over the weekend, it warned of “indiscriminate strikes.”
South Korea said Wednesday it is closely monitoring the whereabouts of a ranking North Korean official dealing with inter-Korean affairs amid a local media report that he might have been purged.
Won Tong-yon, the vice head of the United Front Department of the Workers’ Party, is believed to have been purged and forced to undergo “revolutionary education,” a kind of punishment handed down to North Korean officials who commit wrongdoing, under which they must perform hard labor, according to a media report.
Won, a veteran official handling inter-Korean affairs, represented the North’s delegation during high-level talks with South Korea held in February 2014.
If confirmed, the case would be the latest in a series of purges and executions ordered by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who is tightening his grip on power through a so-called reign of terror.
When asked about the persecution of Christians inside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a spokesman for the regime responded “absolutely false”.
Alejandro Cao — the Special Delegate of North Korea’s Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries — publically denied that Christians are being persecuted under Kim Jong Un’s communist regime.
But as many as 100,000 Christians are estimated to be held in North Korean labor camps where they are frequently subjected to torture and are even executed for their faith because the DPRK views Christianity as a threat to “Juche”: the regime’s official ideology that demands dependence on the absolute leadership of the ruling member of the Kim family.
On Monday, South Korea and Washington launched an annual joint military drill that Pyongyang routinely describes as a rehearsal for an invasion. In response, North Korean officials have leveled serious threats against the United States. RT reports that a spokesman for North Korea’s National Defense Commission warned that it had weapons “unknown to the world” that made it an “invincible power,” while the state news agency KCNA warned that “if [the] United States wants their mainland to be safe” they should end the military exercises.
Why don’t we take threats from North Korea seriously? Part of it is a simple boy-who-cried-wolf situation. North Korea has threatened to attack the United States many, many times before. Here’s just a short list:
- In May, Park Yong Chol, director of North Korea’s Institute for Research into National Reunification, told CNN that the North has the capability to strike the United States with a nuclear missile, and would do so if the U.S. “forced their hand.”
- In February, officials warned that North Korea would cause the “final ruin of the US” with its “precision and diversified nuclear striking means.”
- In 2014, following an alleged North Korean cyberattack on Sony Pictures, a North Korean official threatened attacks on “the White House, the Pentagon and the whole U.S. mainland” if the United States retaliated.
- In 2013, North Korea warned it could attack Guam, Hawaii and the U.S. mainland with rockets.
- In 2009, North Korea announced that it had “tremendous military muscle and its own method of strike able to conquer any targets in its vicinity at one stroke or hit the U.S. on the raw, if necessary.”
- In 2005, a North Korean official said that if war broke out, the country would “first of all strike all bases of US imperialist aggressors and turn them into a sea of fire.”
- In 2002, following their inclusion in President George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech, a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman warned that “the option to ‘strike’ impudently advocated by the U.S. is not its monopoly” and that North Korea could “mercilessly wipe out the aggressors.”
Most experts still argue that a North Korean nuclear strike remains extremely unlikely. “There is a near zero chance of a premeditated North Korean nuclear attack,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, told NK News earlier this year, though Kimball added that a miscalculation by either side could pose a serious risk.
Yeonmi Park’s family paid around 3,000 North Korean won for a pack of DVDs that contained a bootleg of Titanic. In the early 2000s, she remembers, that was the cost of several pounds of rice in her home city of Hyesan—a significant sacrifice in a starving country.
But of all the tween girls who became obsessed with the star-crossed romance of Jack and Rose, Park was one of the very few who saw it as downright revolutionary. “In North Korea they had taught us that you die for the regime. In this movie it was like, whoa, he’s dying for a girl he loves,” she says. “I thought, how can anyone make this and not be killed?”
Titanic was hardly Park’s only foreign-video experience. Her mother sold DVDs. Her family would put its tapes and discs in a plastic bag and bury it beneath a potted plant to hide it from the police.
But of all those illegal encounters with foreign culture, Titanic was somehow the film that made Park ask herself questions about freedom and the outside world. “It made me feel like something was off with our system,” she says in fluent English, which she perfected by watching the entire run of Friends dozens of times.
Park escaped from North Korea in 2007. Now a 21-year-old activist based in Seoul, she’s part of what’s known in Korea as the jangmadang sedae: the black-market generation.
During a famine in the North in the mid-1990s, the Kim regime began to tolerate illegal trade because it was the only option to feed a starving population. Since then, black-market commerce has been nearly impossible to stamp out. And some of the hottest commodities—particularly for young people who don’t even remember a North Korea before that underground trade existed—have been foreign music and movies, along with the Chinese-made gadgets to play them.
A 2010 study by the US Broadcasting Board of Governors found that 74 percent of North Koreans have access to a TV and 46 percent can access a DVD player. Thanks to the flourishing black market, the jangmadang generation’s technology has advanced well beyond radios and DVDs. Despite North Korea’s near-complete lack of Internet access, there are close to 3.5 million PCs in the country and 5 million tablets, according to North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity.
North Korean defector Kang Chol hwan, holding a notel.
Perhaps the most important piece of hardware in North Korea today is what’s known as a notel—a small, portable video player sold for $60 to $100 and capable of handling multiple formats. It has a screen, a rechargeable battery to deal with frequent blackouts, and crucially, USB and SD card ports. In a surprise move in December, the North Korean government legalized the devices, perhaps as part of a bid to modernize its propaganda machine, according to Seoul-based news outlet Daily NK. The result is millions of ready customers for the USB sticks smuggled across the Chinese border.
In one of North Korea’s bustling markets, a buyer might quietly ask for something “fun,” meaning foreign, or “from the village below,” referring to South Korea. The seller may lead him or her to a private place, often someone’s home, before turning over the goods. The foreign data is then consumed on a notel among small, discreet groups of mostly young people, friends who enter into an unspoken pact of breaking the law together so that no one can rat out anyone else. Read more
The Kim Jong-un regime has attempted to crack down on the smuggling of foreign media into North Korea. In late 2013 the government reportedly executed 80 people across seven cities in a single day, many for trafficking in illegal media.
In February 2014, the Worker’s Party of Korea held its largest-ever conference of propagandists. Kim Jong-un himself delivered an address calling for the party to “take the initiative in launching operations to make the imperialist moves for ideological and cultural infiltration end in smoke” and to set up “mosquito nets with two or three layers to prevent capitalist ideology, which the enemy is persistently attempting to spread, from infiltrating across our border.”
But stamping out illegal media in North Korea has become an intractable problem for the government, according to Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy for Liberty in North Korea. He compares it to the stubborn demand for illegal drugs in the US. “You could call it Kim Jong-un’s War on Information,” he says. “But just like a war on drugs—you can try to slow it down, increase the risks, increase the punishments, put more people in prison. The bribe costs will go up, but it’s still going to happen.”
One young defector says that nearly all of her friends had seen a foreign film or TV show. As a result, her generation is the first to have to square the Kim regime’s propaganda with a keyhole view of the outside world. A group called Liberty in North Korea, which works with young defector refugees, finds that many no longer believe in central tenets of North Korea’s political ideology, such as the country’s superior standard of living or the godlike powers of the Kim family. Even the regime is letting that second illusion slide, admitting that Kim Jong-un has health issues—hardly the norm for heavenly beings.
South Korea’s government says it is monitoring reports that North Korea’s vice-premier Choe Yong-gon was killed in May on orders of Kim Jong-un. Mr Choe was executed after he “expressed discomfort against the young leader’s forestation policy”, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reports.
The BBC has not been able to verify the claims. North Korea rarely confirms the South’s reports of executions.
In April, South Korea’s intelligence agency said Kim Jong-un had ordered the execution of 15 officials in the first four months of the year. Among them was a forestry official who complained about the leader’s forestation plan, the agency said at the time, but it is not clear if this man was Choe Yong-gon.
Choe Yong-gon was formerly deputy minister of construction and building material industries, and had represented North Korea in trade talks in Seoul in the mid-2000s. He was appointed as one of seven vice-premiers in June last year, and his promotion was seen by one analyst as a sign Pyongyang was keen to maintain close ties with the South.