Addressing North Korean clichés and half-truths: The Omniscient Criminal State

Excerpts from “North Korea: Markets and Military Rule” by Hazel Smith, as printed in The Guardian:

North Korea is, allegedly, a criminal state for three reasons: firstly, because state representatives are alleged to systematically abuse diplomatic immunity to smuggle counterfeit currency, narcotics, counterfeit cigarettes, endangered species and other illicit goods across borders. Secondly, because state-owned companies manufacture counterfeit currency, cigarettes and narcotics for sale abroad.

Thirdly, this activity is apparently directed by the North Korean leadership for personal gain. These criminal acts, it is argued, should be understood as state-sponsored, and are managed by a shadowy party organization called Bureau 39. But the caricature of an omniscient state guided by a leader sitting in central Pyongyang planning day-to-day how to maneuver 24 million people to commit criminal activity for his sole benefit misses the point.

The US government and international media reports derive from a small number of US government publications that are in turn largely founded on allegations from defectors and unnamed US officials.

Such reports acknowledge the tentative nature of the evidence: “Data should be considered a ‘far cry’ from anything that might be remotely considered as evidence in a US court of law”, an official US report said on the DPRK’s alleged drug trafficking.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the vehemence in the west’s belief of North Korean state criminality, there have been only a few international court cases where North Korean nationals have been charged and found guilty of producing counterfeit goods or smuggling.

The cartoon picture of the country obscures important changes in North Korean society, and handicaps our understanding of their political consequences.

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