After more than twenty years of sanctions against North Korea

The economy and people of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has suffered through decades of international sanctions.

The health system of DPRK has been one of the most impacted sectors. International aid organizations and aid workers who are active in DPRK have been quite straightforward and linked the collapse of the vital public services to the international sanctions. Surgery anesthetics, common antibiotics, obstetric medicines, spare parts of medical devices and laboratory supplies cannot be imported or are significantly delayed to enter the country if some of their parts or substances are listed as prohibited goods.

Even a product which is almost entirely made in a third country but it has a component or a spare part made by a US based company, cannot be imported to North Korea without the permit of the US authorities. Those restrictions apply to everything, from the import of much needed technology to modernize public services, to spare parts of agricultural machinery, fertilizers and pesticides.

Even the donation of soccer balls is considered a breach of the international sanctions because the 1874 resolution of the UNSC includes all sports goods in its list of luxury items. Accordingly, in the autumn of 2013 the cargo of an American Charity was confiscated; it contained 1000 soccer balls to be donated to two North Korean orphanages.

The years of 2013 and 2014 were probably the worst for aid organizations working in DPRK. The sanctions against the Bank of Foreign Commerce of North Korea had frozen all financial transactions and the aid groups were unable to pay salaries to their staff, rent and utilities bills. Even the World Food Program (WFP) had to suspend production in five out of its seven factories producing fortified biscuits for malnourished children. More than half a million children were dependent on the WFP ratio for their daily nutritional needs.

But as far as the country’s elite, even with the sanctions they have never really suffered. Chanel goods, Italian wines, foreign cigarettes, Swiss watches were still largely available in Pyongyang and the major cities and the nuclear program continued to develop.

The question is: Is there any justification for the international sanctions besides their political significance?

[Read full CounterPunch article by Fragkiska Megaloudi]

Kim Jong Un demotes top North Korean official

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is believed to have demoted one of his top officials and sent him to a rural collective farm for reeducation, South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers Tuesday.

If confirmed, the banishment of Choe Ryong Hae would be the latest in a series of executions, purges and dismissals that Kim has orchestrated in what analysts say is a further strengthening of his grip on power since taking over in late 2011.

The National Intelligence Service (NIS) said that Choe’s demotion was related to the alleged collapse of a water tunnel at a power station. Choe was reportedly responsible for the construction of the power station in North Korea’s northeastern Ryanggang province. The NIS said Choe and Kim were also at odds over youth-related policies, according to Shin’s office.

Choe was a rising star after Kim inherited power upon the death of his dictator father Kim Jong Il. He held a series of top posts, including the top political officer in the Korean People’s Army which once made him North Korea’s second most powerful official following the 2013 execution of Kim’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek.

His influence is believed to have diminished in April 2014 when his top army post was found to have been given to Hwang Pyong So, who is now widely considered to be the North’s No. 2 official.

Choe was still considered one of Kim’s top aides and held a number of important posts, including member of the powerful Political Bureau of the ruling Worker’s Party and secretary of the party’s Central Committee. The NIS told lawmakers that Kim is eventually expected to rehabilitee Choe, but didn’t say when.

[Associated Press]

North Koreans’ access to TV and DVD players

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

Drought statistics for North Korea

Health, nutrition and sanitation conditions have deteriorated for citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) due to “a long period of abnormally dry weather,” according to the UN’s emergency aid coordination body OCHA. In a report released Wednesday, OCHA warned that a continued lack of rainfall will have a severe impact on the autumn harvest.

While UN agencies say the government has made major agricultural reforms over the past decade, and the famines of the past are unlikely now, mass hunger remains a threat that has been exacerbated by 18 months of low rainfall.

Here are some key figures:
600,000 – 2.5 million: Estimates of the number of people who died from famine in the 1990s
70: The percentage of the DPRK’s 24.6 million people whom the World Food Programme (WFP) deems “food insecure and highly vulnerable to shortages in food production”
27.9: The percentage of the population that is chronically malnourished and subject to stunted growth (2012 Nutrition Survey)
4: The percentage of the population that is acutely malnourished and subject to wasting (2012 Nutrition Survey)
US $1,800: GDP per capita (CIA World Factbook)
US $645,800,000: The estimated amount North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jon-un spent on luxury goods in 2012 (UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK)
106: The percentage increase in diarrhoea incidence between January and June in 2015 compared with 2014 in the four provinces hardest hit by the drought (OCHA)
36: The percentage received by August of the US $117 million the UN says it needs to address humanitarian needs
100: The number of years the state-owned Korean Central News Agency says it has been since the country faced a drought of these proportions

[IRIN]  

10 months of North Korean torture and then transferred to prison camp

Jung Gwang Il is sitting in a comfortable hotel room in Seoul, South Korea, recalling the hell he endured when he still lived in North Korea.

He describes something that resembles waterboarding and being shocked repeatedly with live wires. Worse, he says, was “pigeon torture,” where his hands were bound behind his back and fastened to a wall at a height that made squatting or standing impossible. He was forced to lean forward, twisting in agony for days, his chest puffed like a pigeon’s breast. “It was so awful because they could just leave me there for a week, and I’d be tortured without them having to do anything,” he says. “That’s how evil they are.”

Jung ended 10 months of torture by confessing to spying — a crime he hadn’t committed — and was sent to a prison camp where he slept in barracks with 600 other men. The slave labor and lack of food took a toll: He arrived weighing 167 pounds and left three years later at 79 pounds, his teeth bashed into stubs.

Now a defector living in South Korea — with a new set of teeth — Jung, 51, is determined to inflict maximum damage on the regime of supreme leader Kim Jong Un to the north. His primary weapon is not military arms but rather the Western media he smuggles into his former country, designed to embarrass the regime and expose the lies told by its propagandists and believed by its subjects. Educational material and entertainment both are popular within North Korea’s black market, but the latter is more effective because it is more difficult to demonize as propaganda.

[Hollywood Reporter]

Yeon-mi Park the tiny woman facing the wrath of North Korea Part 1

What does a nuclear power with the fifth largest army in the world have to fear from a pint-sized university student in a pink frock? A great deal, apparently.

On 31 January 2015, a North Korean government-run website posted an 18-minute video titled The Human Rights Propaganda Puppet, Yeon-mi Park, which denounced the charismatic 21-year-old North Korean defector. It was the latest attack in a smear campaign aimed at silencing Yeon-mi, a human rights activist and outspoken critic of the world’s most repressive and secretive regime.

Last fall, Yeon-mi took the podium at the One Young World Summit in Dublin, and became a YouTube sensation. Looking like a fragile porcelain doll dressed in a flowing pink hanbok (traditional Korean dress), Yeon-mi told a harrowing and heartbreaking story: “North Korea is an unimaginable country,” she began in halting English. … When she was nine years old she saw her friend’s mother publicly executed for a minor infraction.

When she was 13, she fled into China, only to see her mother raped by a human trafficker. Her father later died in China, where she buried his ashes in secret. “I couldn’t even cry,” she said. “I was afraid to be sent back to North Korea.”

Eventually Yeon-mi and her mother escaped into Mongolia by walking and crawling across the frozen Gobi desert.

By the time Yeon-mi had finished with a plea to “shed light on the darkest place in the world”, the whole audience was in tears and on its feet. Yeon-mi became the human face of North Korea’s oppressed.

Attacks on prominent North Korean defectors are nothing new. These individuals regularly endure charges that they lie and exaggerate. Occasionally there are death threats. But the regime’s most common weapon against its critics is character assassination.

Read more about Yeon-mi Park 

Yeon-mi Park the tiny woman facing the wrath of North Korea Part 2

As Yeon-mi’s “collaborator” – a publishing term for a writer who helps an author find her voice and turn her story into a narrative – I was immediately taken with the power of Yeon-mi’s testimony, as well as the warmth of her personality and her playful sense of humor. It was hard to fathom how this vibrant young woman could have suffered such an ordeal.

As soon as we began working together, I noticed there were some minor discrepancies in the articles written about Yeon-mi, a jumbling of dates and places and some inconsistent details about her family’s escape. Most of these issues could be explained by a language barrier – Yeon-mi was giving interviews in English before she was fully fluent. But Yeon-mi was also protecting a secret, something she had tried to bury and forget from the moment she arrived in South Korea at age 15: like tens of thousands of other refugees, Yeon-mi had been trafficked in China. In South Korea – and many other societies – admitting to such a “shameful” past would destroy her prospects for marriage and any sort of normal life.

She had hoped that by changing a few details about her escape she could avoid revealing the full story. But after she decided to plunge into human rights activism, she realized that without the whole truth, the story of her life would have no real power or meaning. She has apologized for any discrepancies in her public record, and is determined that her book be scrupulously accurate.

With Yeon-mi’s cooperation, I have been able to verify her story through family members and fellow defectors who knew her in North Korea and China. Sometimes Yeon-mi had forgotten or blocked out graphic details from her childhood, only to have the memories return in all their horror as we reviewed her recollections with other witnesses. It seemed that she wasn’t just remembering these things, but actually reliving them.

Dr Judith Herman, clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard tells me: “Traumatized people don’t give you a perfect, complete narrative on the first go-round. You see this all the time with refugees seeking asylum. That doesn’t mean their story isn’t credible, because the gist of their story is consistent.”

[Journalist Maryanne Vollers, writing in The Guardian]

Women in North Korean society

The following is based on excerpts of responses to questions posed to a North Korean defector in China:

North Korea is highly patriarchal. … In the past, women faced criticism if their husbands were seen in the kitchen, though things might have gotten slightly better these days. Women, and not men, are expected to take care of everything that happens within the house.

No matter how hard it is to make a living, the only duty men are expected to perform at home is to ban family members from doing anything against the policies of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK).

The two women who prop up North Korea’s Kim Jong-un

Kim Jong-un’s wife Ri Sol Ju

Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong

One sports a Christian Dior handbag and favors Western clothes. The other carries a notebook and wears dark uniforms. These fashion opposites are the two most influential women in North Korea.

While Kim Jong-un’s wife Ri Sol Ju and younger sister Kim Yo-jong are currently allies in sustaining one of the world’s most reclusive leaders, their overlapping influence makes them potential rivals in a regime where family ties aren’t strong enough to protect against Kim’s penchant for purges.

“Uneasiness is inevitable in a relationship like this,” Kang Myong Do, a son-in-law of North Korea’s former Prime Minister, Kang Song San, said by phone. “The wife wouldn’t like it if her husband got too close to his sister; the sister wouldn’t like it if her brother got too close to his wife.”

Citing conversations with people who have been in the room with both women at the same time, Michael Madden, editor of the North Korea Leadership Watch blog, said the two appeared friendly to each other as they sat at opposite sides – Ri with her husband and Kim with senior party officials.

Read more

The influence of Kim Jong-un’s wife Ri Sol Ju

Kim Jong-un’s wife Ri Sol Ju commands a growing following among the wives of North Korean elite while Kim Yo-jong now holds a senior position in the ruling Workers’ Party and serves as an adviser to her brother.

The purge of Jang Song Thaek may have strengthened the hand of Ri with the North Korean elite looking to avoid a similar fate. There are accounts that the wives of North Korean elite used their ties to Ri to “limit the number of officials removed from office due to the Jang purge,” Madden said.

“What we’ll need to watch for is whether Ri Sol Ju becomes Queen Bee among the wives or if that role is assumed by Yo-jong,” he said in an e-mail. “They are a quiet but politically influential cohort in the North Korean elite.”

In public Ri offers a softer side of the Supreme Leader and has been a regular in North Korean propaganda. In 2005, she traveled to South Korea as a teenage cheerleader for North Korean teams at an athletic competition. Seven years later she was revealed as his wife at an appearance with Kim at an amusement park in July 2012.

Still, so little is known about their relationship that it took former NBA star Dennis Rodman to reveal the couple had a child after a trip to Pyongyang in 2013 to play basketball. Rodman told the Guardian newspaper that he held Kim’s daughter Ju-ae and that Kim is a “good dad and has a beautiful family”.

Read more