The Information Age stifled in North Korea

With one million cell phones in North Korea and a government-sponsored intranet, the regime believes it can survive the advent of information technology by restricting its use to the most elite of the population who have the largest stake in the survival of the regime as it currently exists.

North Korea intentionally restricts access to information to control its population.  TV and radios in North Korea are hardwired to only receive government-controlled media. Foreign newspapers and periodicals are forbidden.

North Koreans are not free to travel within the country without government permission. Foreigners who visit North Korea are carefully controlled by their (two) minders who keep them from interacting with the North Korean populace. In short, North Korea has traditionally viewed controlling the flow of information to its population as a fundamental necessity to ensure the survival of the state.

It is surprising then to see that the North Korea state has sanctioned the use of cell phones and other information technology. There are now more than 1 million third-generation cell phones in North Korea, as part of the Koryolink cell phone system. These phones can call other members of the Koryolink network, but cannot make calls outside of the country.

There is also a state-sponsored intranet in North Korea, called Kwangmyong. The intranet is restricted to elites in North Korea with good social standing. The intranet features message boards, chat functions, and state sponsored media; its use has also been encouraged among university students, technical experts and scientists, and others to exchange information.

Very few North Koreans have access to the unfiltered Internet. Andrei Lankov, a leading North Korean expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, estimated this number to be “a few dozen families” including Kim Jong-Un’s clan. Other select North Koreans may have restricted and/or monitored access to the Internet to gather data on the U.S. and South Korea, find content to populate the intranet, and maintain the North Korean government’s propaganda web sites.

The Coming North Korean Famine

From an article by Andrew S. Natsios, a Texas A&M University professor, and former USAID administrator and Special Envoy to Sudan:

The U.N.’s annual crop assessment for North Korea will shortly be published. This assessment will show that drought early this summer seriously damaged the crop so that the harvest will drive the country, always on the edge of starvation, ever deeper into nutritional disaster.

While famines anywhere have terrible humanitarian consequences, in North Korea’s case in particular, they have political consequences because they have nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. While the North Korean government has been building its nuclear arsenal and the maintaining the third largest land army in Asia, its people have been sliding into deepening poverty and acute malnutrition.

When Kim Jong Il died in late 2011, he left his 28-year-old son, Kim Jong Un, in charge of a government run by an aging party apparatus and military command structure. Bowing to Chinese pressure, Kim Jong Il appointed the boy’s uncle, Jang Song-taek, as Regent. To ensure the party cadres and military are loyal to the new leader, Taek has been forcing officials and generals into retirement to purge the system of the old order and ensure the loyalty of the new one. The purge, however, has created a class of officials angry at the new leadership for their loss of power and its perquisites.

All this could not come at a more inopportune time.

North Koreans outside their country

An estimated 60,000-70,000 North Koreans labor outside the country, according to Seoul-based advocacy groups, working in factories in China, logging camps in Siberia and construction sites in the Middle East.

Others choose a more direct route. A middleman in Shenyang who says that he helps North Korean refugees escape to prosperous South Korea has seen women choosing to be sold into marriage in China, or to work in brothels.

“They want to flee home but there’s no other way than to be sold in a form of marriage,” said the Korean-speaking man who requested anonymity because of his safety.

“One person is worth 10,000 yuan-12,000 yuan.” (US$1600 – 1900)

North’s poverty where annual gross domestic product per capita is estimated to be just $1,800 on a purchasing power parity basis, based on an independent analysis.

North Korea’s cautious experiment with economic zone Hwanggumphyong

Hwanggumphyong was launched with great fanfare in 2011 by Jang Song-thaek, the uncle of North Korea’s new ruler, with a pledge of tax breaks and repatriation of dividends, hoping to emulate a formula that has worked for economic zones the world over.

But for the moment, it remains little more than a small, boggy island.

The 14 km2 Hwanggumphyong island is one of four economic zones that were designed to be a magnet for Chinese capital and manufacturing. It lies on the Yalu river, across from the bustling Chinese border city of Dandong and one of the few areas where North Korea allows its citizens contact with the outside world.

Chinese investors are showing little appetite for North Korea, whose economy is worse off than it was 20 years ago from a combination of sanctions over its nuclear weapons ambitions, famine and mismanagement.

Many analysts say the North Korean leadership is terrified that reforms could weaken its iron grip on the state and it has repeatedly baulked at any sweeping changes, ignoring pressure from China, its only real ally, to emerge from a self-imposed cocoon.

China’s leverage is limited and its fear that North Korea could collapse appears to make it willing, albeit begrudgingly, to support the government of leader Kim Jong-un.


On the price of rice in North Korea

In North Korea, the price of rice (so important, with the word for “rice” synonymous with “food”) has nearly doubled since the beginning of the year, the result of declining foreign aid, a weak harvest and hoarding by speculators.

“Maybe 1 out of 10,000 North Koreans can afford to eat white rice every day like the people in China,” said a 58-year-old North Korean man from Suncheon, 30 miles north of Pyongyang, who has been working in a brick factory in China.

At North Korea’s state-owned factories, wages are so low (often less than $1 per month) that people will pay for the privilege of not showing up to work. They use their time instead to collect firewood or edible greens or to trade something on the market.

As for the vaunted North Korean military, rank-and-file soldiers have so little to eat that their parents have to send money and food for them to survive. Cornfields have to be guarded 24 hours a day to prevent thievery, with many of the culprits being hungry soldiers.

Outside of the relative privilege of Pyongyang, the North Koreans said, it is still common for people to die of starvation, albeit not at the same rate as during the famine of the 1990s.

One North Korean interviewed said that from January through May of this year she’d seen three elderly women out on the streets who appeared to be dead. “Young people have a hard time surviving themselves, so sometimes they have to kick the old people out of the house,” she said.

North Korea relaxing strict rules to cater to Chinese tourists

Although the North Korean government is known for being paranoid about foreign visitors, it has recently adopted a softer attitude toward Chinese tourists. Chinese tourism has proven one of North Korea’s best sources of foreign currency to help offset losses after United Nations sanctions from 2009 shut down opportunities for the country to earn hard cash. Some 60,000 to 70,000 Chinese tourists visited last year, up from an estimated 40,000 visitors in 2010.

The totalitarian regime has also been modernizing its infrastructure to lure Chinese visitors.The waiting time for group visa processing has been shortened from weeks to 24-hours in China’s border city of Dandong. And at the border, North Korean customs didn’t even bother to check these group tourists’ passports.

Rules for tourists’ photo taking have also been relaxed. In order to satisfy their visitors’ curiosities, the North Korean government has revised its original rules banning foreigners from taking photos from coaches. Security guards that were sometimes planted at the end of tourist coaches have also been removed. The new rule is that photo taking in Pyongyang is allowed, including spontaneously inviting locals to take photos together.

Still, Chinese tourists are not easy to deal with in North Koreans’ eyes, even though the two countries are supposed to be “as close as lips and teeth.” North Korean tour guides, who were used to taking national security as their priorities, now try their best to ensure their guests not leave with negative impression. However, once Chinese tourists enter the “Hermit Kingdom”, North Korean tour guides have to repeatedly urge them to keep their voices down and stick to group activities – these tour guides are obligated to take responsibility for their clients’ behavior. Even so, Chinese tourists usually fail to cooperate.

What must really irritate North Koreans is Chinese tourists’ arrogance with their wealth. In a recent visit with a Chinese tour group, three college students in their early 20s lured North Korean children to take photos with them in downtown Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung Square with candy. At night, these three Chinese college students further tested their minder’s patience by sneaking out of Pyongyang’s Yanggakdo hotel, wondering around in downtown Pyongyang and eventually dining in a Korean barbecue restaurant. On their way back, they talked three North Koreans into giving them rides to Yanggakdo hotel for 20 yuan (about US$3.20). At the end, one of them convinced one of the North Koreans to sell his Kim Il-sung badge to him, and the hotel’s security guards showed up out of nowhere to kick the North Korean to the ground when they were bargaining. In North Korea, losing a badge of the dear leaders could severely jeopardize lives of North Koreans.

Chinese tourists are now allowed to travel to North Korea from China’s border cities, including Liaoning province’s Dandong and Shenyang, as well as Jilin province’s Yanji and Tumen. From here, they can reach Pyongyang, Hoeryong, Chongjin and Rason.

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Kim Jong-un’s willingness to get closer to his people

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shows an unaccustomed informality – in contrast to his father’s practice of only posing at mass rallies – as he is photographed with a group of children during a visit to an ice rink in Pyongyang.

Apparently Kim even took to the ice himself,with a cohort of officials in tow. This certainly seems to indicate a new willingness to get closer to his people.

The above image was released by the official Korean Central News Agency today, and published in The Independent.

South Korea’s Park pledges engagement with Pyongyang

South Korea’s presidential frontrunner Park Geun-hye proposed on Monday to open liaison offices in the capitals of the rival Koreas in a sweeping policy statement that aimed to revive ties between the two countries.

Park, who is seeking to become the country’s first woman president, said she was willing to meet North Korea’s leader but said Pyongyang must renew its commitment to end its nuclear programme. Park, who is the daughter of assassinated leader Park Chung-hee, leads her two major liberal opponents by double digits in a race for a December 19 vote to pick South Korea’s president for a single five-year term.

Park’s call for a more accommodative policy toward the North is aimed at distancing herself from President Lee Myung-bak’s hardline position. Offering a different policy approach to Lee, Park also said she would separate the humanitarian crisis in North Korea from politics. Lee, who cut off aid to the North when he took power in 2008, has linked a resumption of food aid to a political thaw.

“For continued and systematic development of South-North economic cooperation and social and cultural exchange, I will establish South-North exchange and cooperation offices in Seoul and Pyongyang,” Park told a news conference. Park called for a confidence building process as a way to normalize ties between the two Koreas, adding it should begin with the two sides reaffirming existing agreements.

Shin Dong Hyok – Growing up in a North Korean prison camp

On Nov. 29, 1996, a 14-year-old North Korean, Shin Dong Hyok, and his father were made to sit in the front row of a crowd assembled to watch executions.

The two had already spent seven months in a North Korean prison camp’s torture compound, and Shin assumed they were among those to be put to death.

Instead, the guards brought out his mother and his 22-year-old brother. The mother was hanged, the brother was shot by a firing squad.

“Before she was executed, my mother looked at me,” Shin said in a recent interview. “I don’t know if she wanted to say something, because she was bound and gagged. But I avoided her eyes.”

North Korean prison camp inmates [like Shin] were held in the “revolutionizing zone” at Camp No. 15 in Yodok in eastern North Korea. This means that the emphasis was on “re-educating” the prisoners. If they survived long enough to complete their sentences, they were released.

Shin is the first North Korean who made it to South Korea who is known to have escaped from such a prison camp, a “total-control zone.”

Shin “is a living example of the most brutal form of human rights abuse,” said Yoon Yeo Sang, president of Database Center for North Korean Human Rights in Seoul. “He comes from a place where people are deprived of their ability to have the most basic human feelings, such as love, hatred and even a sense of being sad or mistreated.”

[Excerpt of an International Herald Tribune article by Choe Sang-Hun]

German theaters to screen movie on North Korean political prison camp

A movie about a former North Korean political prisoner will be screened in theaters in Berlin and nine other German cities on November 8.

Director Marc Wiese’s “Camp 14 ― Total Control Zone” is about the dramatic life of Shin Dong-hyuk, who was born in a political prison camp, according to the documentary film company.

Shin remained in the camp for 24 years before escaping over electrified fences and making his way to China. He settled in South Korea in 2006.

“Our sole purpose was to follow the rules of the work camp and then die,” Shin said in a synopsis. “Sometimes people tried to escape, driven by fear of starving or being beaten, but they were publicly executed and became the object of hate for those of us who were left behind.” Shin has said inmates were subjected to torture, hard labor and arbitrary execution.

The movie follows the March publication of “Escape from Camp 14,” a book on Shin’s experiences by American journalist Blaine Harden.