A North Korean information revolution resulting in actual revolution?

How does North Korea get from an information revolution to an actual people-in-the-streets-and-toppled-statues revolution?

I pose that question to North Korean defector Kang Chol-hwan. He admits there’s not a simple answer, but he offers a few scenarios he considers plausible: The government, for instance, could sense the disconnect between its propaganda and the people’s foreign-media education and launch its own reforms, the kind of gradual opening that took place in Russia and China. Or a disillusioned populace could begin defecting en masse, forcing a border control crisis. Or some spark, like the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi, could coalesce disillusioned North Koreans into their own Arab Spring, a full-scale grassroots uprising.

But then Kang surprises me by admitting that all those scenarios are unlikely: The Kim regime is too blind and stubborn to initiate its own reforms, he says, and its totalitarian grip may be too tight for a bottom-up revolution. [Nevertheless] he predicts … North Korea’s dictatorship will end within a decade. “They’re already cracking,” he says. “In less than 10 years, I’ll be able to freely go in and out.”

That nakedly idealistic statement, beyond its tinge of wishful thinking, seems to reveal something new about how Kang sees his goal. In spite of all his childhood horrors, he wants to transform North Korea not simply into a nation that will let his countrymen go free, but one that will let him back in: He wants to go home again.

Kang spent his childhood in North Korean prison camps, where his sister may still be today. “This is the best way—the only way for me—to open North Korea,” Kang finally says. “Every day until then is a delay to seeing my family again.”

[Wired]

North Korea’s stay-at-home leader Kim Jong Un

When China celebrates its World War II “victory day” in a spectacular parade of military might Thursday, President Xi Jinping’s “true friends” will be there.

That includes Xi’s closest Korean friend. Not Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea, a country once described as being “as close as lips and teeth” with China.

No, it’s South Korean President Park Geun-hye who will be in attendance as 10,000 Chinese troops march through Tiananmen Square and fighter jets roar overhead, celebrating the Allies’ victory on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Kim Jong Un also didn’t attend the equivalent celebrations in May in Russia, North Korea’s other main ally, prompting speculation that the scion of a personality cult didn’t want to share the spotlight with other world leaders for his first overseas foray.

That same logic could apply in the case of China’s commemorations. Or, it could be the latest sign of the political chill between the neighbors.

The bonds between the countries weakened over the decades as China opened up and North Korea resolutely did not. But the cracks turned into chasms at the last change of leadership, with Kim succeeding his father at the end of 2011 and Xi becoming the leader of China about a year later.

“In the past, North Korea was like a dog that we raised. China could just feed it some meat and it would behave and listen to us,” said a taxi driver here in Yanji who gave only his family name, Cui. “But now the dog has turned into a wolf and it bites. It doesn’t listen to China anymore. Meat won’t keep it under control.”

[Washington Post]

Kim Jong Un’s hypersensitivity to criticism

Luckily for Pyongyang, all now seems quiet on its southern front. The biggest takeaway from this crisis is the vulnerability of the regime, under the 32- or 33-year-old Kim Jong Un, to attacks on its legitimacy. The fiery rhetoric, belligerence, and unpredictability of Kim, who took power after the death of his father in Dec. 2011, belies an apparent hypersensitivity to criticism about his qualifications to run the country. North Korea wanted only one thing–to stop the loudspeaker broadcasts criticizing the regime. And it was willing to give something it has not given since 1976 – a (near) apology.

The broadcasts are the key reason that Pyongyang made a deal. Before the crisis abated, the North issued an unusual ultimatum directly to South Korean national security advisor Kim Kwan-jin, threatening to attack not in response to U.S.-ROK military exercises, but if the speakers were not silenced. Propaganda broadcasting had been a staple of the two Koreas’ psychological warfare during the Cold War. But the new broadcasts, which Seoul restarted after an 11-year hiatus in response to the landmine blasts against its soldiers, were different from the knee-jerk anti-North Korean government propaganda of the Cold War. The recent broadcasts featured young females, who identified themselves as defectors, criticizing the Kim regime for its poor governance, human rights abuses, and isolation.

A recent broadcast segment featured a well-known North Korean journalist-turned-defector, Ju Seong-ha, who mocked photos of the rotund Kim’s getting off planes like an exalted state guest. Sweet voices carrying powerful messages from eleven locations along the DMZ penetrated the minds of young, undernourished and overworked North Korean soldiers. With better technology than the Cold War days, these broadcasts went deeper than before, blasting messages–and sometimes K-Pop–more than a dozen miles into the country. This certainly rattled Pyongyang.

This is not the first time North Korea has demonstrated such sensitivities. The U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s Feb. 2014 recommendation to refer North Korea’s leadership to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity freaked out North Korea, forcing them to do things they don’t normally do. The regime sent its foreign minister Ri Su Yong to Russia for the first time in four years, and dispatched seasoned diplomat Kang Sok Ju to a tour of European capitals to lobby against the resolution. And finally, there was Pyongyang’s apoplectic late 2014 rage in response to the movie The Interview which ridiculed the leadership, and led to the North’s cyber attack on Sony Pictures.

These responses reflect weakness, not strength. The regime has proven hypersensitive to questions about Kim’s legitimacy, suggesting difficulties in the leadership transition. Four years into his rule, Kim has purged and executed around 70 of his top lieutenants, including his influential uncle Jang Song Thaek, and his defense minister Hyon Yong Chol–reportedly for sleeping during military events. And these are Kim’s people–not those of his father and predecessor Kim Jong Il.

[Foreign Policy]

Watch for feature film “Escaping North Korea”

3AD, the CBS-based production company founded by actor/producer/director Daniel Dae Kim (LOST, Hawaii Five-0), is working on a feature film adaptation of Escaping North Korea and Hope in the World’s Most Repressive Country from author and speaker Mike Kim.

3AD will partner with producer Sriram Das’ Das Films to develop Escaping North Korea. The 2008 memoir chronicles Mike Kim’s first-hand account of a high-risk mission to lead a group of refugees over the North Korean border through Southeast Asia using a modern day “Underground Railroad.” Over the course of his four years in Asia, he would end up aiding thousands of people of all ages find safe haven through his heroic humanitarian missions.

[Broadwayworld.com]

North Korean students desperate to connect with outside world

Four years ago journalist Suki Kim travelled to North Korea where she would spend months teaching English to university students from the families of the elite. She documented her time there and was unsettled by just how pervasive the influence of the North Korean government is. She found students cut off from the outside world and fearful when they accidently let on that they knew anything about life beyond their home country.

Excerpts from an interview with Mark Colvin of Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

SUKI KIM: I ate every meal with my students, three times a day. And their knowledge is incredibly limited only about the ‘Great Leader’ and also everybody’s watching everyone, so even if they did know some things that they’re not supposed to know, they can’t ever show it.

MARK COLVIN: There’s a moment when one of them tells you he loves to sing rock and roll songs, and then what happens?

SK: He just stopped, you know. He just lowered his face and he looked around instantly to see who might have heard him because there, everybody’s watching everyone. And the pure fear that I saw on his face. … normally they’re supposed to say they only sing songs about the ‘Great Leader’ or about friendship.

MC: And they had access to computers but no access the outside world, only a sort of intranet rather than an internet.

SK: Right, they thought the internet was intranet. By the end of my stay, not all of them realized, but some of them realized there was some difference. … And these were the students of science and technology.

MC: And there was an extraordinary moment where you actually showed them a couple of Western movies. First of all, how were you allowed to do that?

SK: Well, we were allowed one movie a semester, which was meant to be Narnia, and Narnia was actually rejected by the North Korean side because they thought that Narnia was chosen for a religious connotation.

MC: A Christian allegory.

SK: Right, well the school was set up by evangelical Christians. So they had presented that movie as an option, but the school rejected that. Amazingly my students knew what Harry Potter was  [as] it was mentioned in the text book as something incredibly popular in the rest of the world. So … I was allowed to show that to one group of my students and … I thought they would be amazed by the special effects actually. I’d been teaching essay writing to my students which ended up being really impossible because essays are about actually coming up with your own argument and proving it with evidence, which is critical thinking, and they really couldn’t do it. So essay became this headache classroom lesson. And in that movie Harry Potter there’s a scene where Hermione says, I have to write an essay for Professor Snape’s class, and she rolls her eyes, and they realized that she also didn’t like writing essays. And my students really connected with that moment and they couldn’t believe there was a girl outside in the outside world who also were writing essays. So I think that moment was really special and also heartbreaking for me, realizing that’s what they really want, as 19 year old kids, to connect with the outside world, which their country will never let them.

Meet Kim Heung kwang, former member of North Korean thought police

By his third year working for Kim Jong-il’s thought police, Kim Heung-kwang says he could almost sense the presence of illegal data. Going door-to-door with the task force assigned to search out digital contraband in citizens’ homes, he remembers finding forbidden DVDs and players hidden under beds and in books with pages cut away to create hidden compartments.

Early on he found that when he knocked on doors, the guilty watchers would hurriedly hide their DVDs. So he learned to turn off the power to the entire building before making his house calls, trapping discs in their players. “I felt they were watching rotten, capitalist material and ruining the juche mentality,” Kim says, referring to the North Korean communist ideology. The short, bespectacled man, sitting in his austere Seoul office, smiles wearily and crosses his legs with a professorial air. “I felt justified to send these criminals away.”

The DVD owners would cry and plead. They’d beg on their knees and pull on the sleeves of his uniform, claiming they had just found the offending media lying in the street. Sometimes he accepted bribes and turned a blind eye. (“You could feel the outside of the envelope between your fingers and tell whether it was a lot of money,” he remembers.)

But most of the data criminals he caught, he reported. Many were sentenced to months or years in prison camps. Read more

How Kim Heung kwang got involved with the North Korean thought police

Kim Heung-kwang had earned membership in the all-powerful Communist Party through years of work helping to create North Korea’s own computers, including the Paektusan minicomputer, named for the mountain where Kim Jong-il was said to have been born. As a computer science professor at Hamhung University, he had even taught students who would go on to work for North Korea’s cyberwarfare brigade, Unit 121—the group suspected of the Sony breach—in the basics of networking and operation systems.

After black markets began to spread, Kim was reassigned in 2000 to a military division that went door-to-door to search for contraband media. “I loved it,” he says. “I had the power to go into homes and take these materials and no one could even question me.”

One of the perks of Kim’s position, of course, was nearly infinite access to the media he confiscated. He began to watch the contraband films and TV shows and even loaned out his collection to friends, who rewarded him with gifts like alcohol and meat.

In 2002, Kim was given a PC, part of what he describes as a secret aid shipment from South Korea. Its hard drive had been wiped. But using forensic recovery software, Kim was able to reassemble its deleted contents. They included 400 files: films, TV shows, and, most important to his intellectual sensibilities, ebooks.

“You can’t imagine how excited I was,” he says. “I had hit a gold mine.” Read more

North Korean thought policeman abdicates

[A PC containing 400 files of films, TV shows, and ebooks] were what finally transformed Kim Heung kwang’s thinking. He remembers reading a Dale Carnegie self-help book and Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave. But most influential was a history book about Middle Eastern dictators, including the stories of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, all friends of the Kim regime. “Reading about the crimes happening in these countries, I began to realize that those crimes were happening in my country too,” Kim says. “That was the starting point of the logic shifting in my brain. I began to understand the nature of dictatorship.”

In 2003 he was arrested and taken to a detention center; he’d been ratted out by one of the comrades with whom he’d shared his secret store. He says the police tortured him for a week, forcing him to write hundreds of pages of confession under hot lights and preventing him from sleeping by jabbing his forehead with a needle. After the year of drudgery at a reeducation farm, Kim was released and managed to bribe a border guard to help him escape across the Tumen. He made his way from China to Seoul, where he set up North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity.

Kim uses Chinese traders and smuggler contacts to smuggle contraband media into North Korea. The content on Kim’s drives are mostly short educational documentaries created by and starring Kim himself. He explains to North Koreans what democracy is, for instance, or simply shows them what a bookstore or the Internet looks like. “When a North Korean watches an action movie with a chase scene in a grocery store, they want to slow it down to see what’s on the shelves,” he says. “I show them what they want to see—what I wanted to see when I was there.”

Kim has also developed what he calls stealth USB drives, designed to avoid detection. To any casual observer, the drive seems empty. But its contents reappear with a simple trigger, the details of which Kim asked that I not publicize.

[Wired]

North Korea’s short history of apologies

After the longest consecutive talks ever held between North and South Korea, the two sides came to an historic agreement last Tuesday defusing tensions that could have ignited a wider armed conflict.

The most significant aspect of the deal appeared to be that North Korea apologized for the mines planted in the southern section of the DMZ. That incident precipitated South Korea’s resumption of loudspeaker broadcasts, which it had ended in 2004.

North Korea has little history of apologies, analysts say.

[Christian Science Monitor]

Rival Koreas masters at pulling back from the brink

If history is any judge, the Koreas always seem to find a way to save face and avert the war that both sides have been threatening since 1953:

December 2010: North Korea backs off from an earlier threat of “catastrophic retaliation” after South Korea defiantly goes ahead with live-fire drills near the country’s disputed western sea boundary.

May 2010: North Korea threatens “all-out counterattacks” after Seoul moves to resume psychological warfare operations to punish the North over a torpedo attack that reportedly killed 46 South Korean sailors earlier in the year.

Early 2000s: In what has been called the “second North Korean nuclear crisis,” animosity soars after Washington says the North, after being confronted in 2002 by a U.S. envoy, admits privately that it has a secret nuclear fuel program, a violation of an earlier nuclear accord. North Korea denies this and, already angry at being lumped earlier by President George W. Bush into an “Axis of Evil,” says in early 2003 that it has withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty. South Korea, meanwhile, tries to better ties with the North under two liberal presidents, including Kim Dae-jung who is awarded the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to promote peace on the Korean Peninsula.

1992-94: The “first North Korean nuclear crisis” includes North Korean threats to withdraw from the NPT and Washington’s exploration of possible air strikes amid U.S. government estimates that the North is pursuing large-scale nuclear bomb fuel production. There’s also the North’s 1994 threat, for the first time, to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.”

1968: A team of 31 North Korean commandos slips undetected across the border and comes within striking distance of the Seoul palace of President Park Chung-hee, the dictator father of current President Park Geun-hye. Furious, Park establishes a secret commando team tasked with demolishing Kim Il Sung’s presidential mansion. Despite this drama, the rival Koreas eventually sign a major accord in 1972 to work toward peaceful reunification.

[AP]