Monthly Archives: December 2012

Kim Jong Un facing an authoritarian contradiction

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It’s a dilemma for Kim Jong Un who needs to find a way to modernize North Korea and its economy while holding onto absolute power.

In a clear sign of the North Korea’s border crackdowns, the number of North Korean refugees reaching South Korea in 2012 has dropped by almost half, to about 1,400, compared to last year.

Meanwhile, changing technologies, ambitious smugglers and well-funded critics of Pyongyang mean that everything from DVD melodramas to illegal Chinese cellphones to Korean-language radio news broadcasts funded by the U.S. government make their way into North Korea. And their presence exposes an ever-growing number of North Koreans to the outside world, which threatens the underpinnings of the Kim regime.

The hunger for the larger world resembles, in many ways, the appetites in China in the years after Mao Zedong’s 1976 death, when Beijing began opening the door for the world’s mass media.

“I felt sad about the state of my country when I watched the DVDs,” said a North Korean defector who now lives in Seoul and spoke on condition he not be named, fearing retribution against family still living in North Korea. “I could see Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, the United States … these other places were so much better off.”

“There has definitely been a push to roll back the tide of the flow of information,” said Nat Kretchun, associate director of an international consulting group InterMedia, which released a report earlier this year about information flow into North Korea, based on surveys of hundreds of recent North Korean defectors.

North Korea attempts to keep out ideological and cultural infiltration

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The warning came from Kim Jong Un, the North Korean ruler who sees his isolated nation, just across the border from this busy Chinese trading town, as under siege. The attack, he said, must be stopped.

“We must extend the fight against the enemy’s ideological and cultural infiltration,” Kim said in an October speech, as he called upon his vast security network to “ruthlessly crush those hostile elements.”

Over the past year, Kim has intensified a border crackdown that has attempted to seal the once-porous 1,420-kilometer (880-mile) frontier with China, smugglers and analysts say. Special security units have been formed to seek out any contraband information or technology that Pyongyang sees as a threat.

The assault that Kim Jong Un fears? It’s being waged with cheap televisions rigged to receive foreign broadcasts, and with smuggled mobile phones that – if you can get a Chinese signal along the border – can call the outside world. Very often, it arrives in the form of wildly popular South Korean soap operas smuggled in on DVDs or computer thumb drives.

Their presence exposes an ever-growing number of North Koreans to the outside world and threatens the underpinnings of the Kim regime. Kim’s crackdown has been largely aimed at the border with China, long the route for much of the outside information making its way into North Korea, as well as for refugees trying to get out.

In a country where one family has held absolute control for more than 60 years, a communist enclave that survived the downfall of the Soviet Union and a devastating 1990s famine, the notion of allowing knowledge of the larger world is deeply feared.

North Korea songbun background

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A caste system called songbun, effectively translating as “background“, has shadowed the life of every North Korean.

Bob Collins, who wove together smuggled documents, interviews with former North Korean security officials and discussions with an array of ordinary North Koreans,wrote an exhaustive songbun study released this year by the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. While the songbun system theoretically allows for movement within the hierarchy, Collins said most families’ standing today remains a reflection of their ancestors’ position in the 1950s and ’60s.

Despite its power, songbun is an almost-silent presence. Few people ever see their own songbun paperwork. Few “low-caste” families speak of it at all, exiles say, left mute by incomprehension and fear. It’s only when young people stumble into glass ceilings, normally when applying to universities or for jobs, that they begin to understand the years of slights.

Eventually, most grow to understand and accept its power, but they rarely have more than a general idea of where they fit into the pecking order, experts said. In a country where secrecy is reflexive, the state simply denies it exists.

To be caught at the bottom, defectors say, is to be lost in a nightmare of bloodline and bureaucracy. “My family was in the lowest of the lowest level,” said a former North Korean coal miner who fled to South Korea in 2006, hoping to give his young sons opportunities outside the mines. “Someone from the state was always watching what we were saying, watching what we were doing … The state treated us as if they were doing us a favor simply by allowing us to live.”

The man, like other North Korean refugees interviewed for this story, spoke on condition he not be named, fearing that relatives still in the North would be punished.

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North Korean songbun caste system

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For more than a half-century, a mysterious caste system has shadowed the life of every North Korean. It can decide whether they will live in the gated compounds of the minuscule elite, or in mountain villages where farmers hack at rocky soil with handmade tools. It is called songbun. And officially, it does not exist at all.

Today it is also quietly fraying, weakened by the growing importance of something that barely existed until recently in socialist North Korea: wealth.

“There’s one place where songbun doesn’t matter, and that’s in business,” said a North Korean soldier-turned-businessman who fled to South Korea after a prison stint. “Songbun means nothing to people who want to make money.”

Songbun, a word that translates as “ingredient” but effectively means “background,” first took shape in the 1950s and ’60s. It was a time when North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, was forging one of the world’s most repressive states and seeking ways to reward supporters and isolate potential enemies.

Historians say songbun was partially modeled on Soviet class divisions, and echoes a similar system that China abandoned in the 1980s amid the growth of the market economy there. In Korea, songbun turned a fiercely hierarchical society upside down, pushing peasants to the top of the caste ladder; aristocrats and landlords toward the bottom. The very top was reserved for those closest to Kim: his relatives and guerrillas who had fought with him against Korea’s Japanese occupiers.

Very quickly, though, songbun became a professional hierarchy. The low caste became farmers and miners. The high caste filled the powerful bureaucracies. And children grew up and stepped into their parents’ roles.

BBC World Service to broadcast into North Korea?

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The Independent reports that the BBC World Service could for the first time begin broadcasting programs aimed at residents of North Korea.

Barack Obama’s administration is encouraging the British Foreign Office to back plans to establish a BBC Korean service to help open up the most secret country on earth.  They believe the BBC’s reputation for impartiality could help build up trust with communist state’s 24 million population.

Peter Horrocks, the head of the BBC World Service, will discuss the matter in Westminster with MPs from the All Party Group on North Korea early in the new year. Lord Alton, who leads the group, which has also met with the Foreign Office minister Hugo Swire, said Washington-based officials had recently been in London to support the idea of a BBC service. The talks come amid signs that North Korean citizens are increasingly ignoring a ban that forbids them from accessing foreign media.

The US government-run networks Voice of America and Radio Free Asia already broadcast into North Korea. Based on interviews with some of the 25,000 North Korean defectors suggests that 14 per cent had listened to Radio Free Asia, 11.6 per cent to Voice of America and six per cent to South Korean radio.

Although the World Service transmits to 188 million in 27 countries it has never broadcast a Korean service. This is partly because North Korea arrests citizens discovered listening to foreign media and sends them to camps where more than 150,000 political prisoners are believed to be held.

North Korean markets with women at the helm

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Five North Koreans visiting China spoke to NPR recently, offering a rare insight into how political dictates have had an extraordinary social impact in their own homes. All of them count among the elite, who have enough money to enter China legally and hope to return to their families North Korea.

“In the past, our husbands would bring home rations, and we’d live off that,” says Mrs. Kim. “Now there are no rations, and the women support the families. If we don’t make money, they starve, so life is hard for women.”

Facing a catastrophic famine in the mid-1990s, the state had reduced — and then mostly stopped — giving out the rations, known as the Public Distribution System.

By then, markets had sprung up illegally to keep people alive, and have thrived despite the state’s numerous attempts to roll them back. The government had imposed a welter of restrictions on market activity, including forbidding anyone except older women from market trading. Those restrictions have largely been relaxed recently.

Most women trade in the markets, orjangmadang. Mrs. Kim gets up at 4:30 each morning to feed the animals she sells, and also brews alcohol illegally. Every minute of the day is spent figuring out how to feed her family, including an adult son and daughter whose state-run jobs do not provide enough to live on.

For almost half of North Korean families, private trading forms the only source of income, according to research done by American academics at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.


More purging of the Old Guard anticipated in North Korea

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As North Korean leader Kim Jong-un wraps up his first year in power, marked by the purging of several old guard elites, he may replace the country’s No. 2 leader, Kim Yong-nam, and some other top officials next year, according to a North Korea expert, Alexandre Mansourov, a specialist in Northeast Asian security, who works as a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

“Who replaces Kim Yong-nam may tell us about the future direction of the restructuring of the political system,” said.  (He added Kim Yong-nam will likely “honorably retire,” rather than being purged.)

Mansourov raised four possible scenarios for the replacement of Kim Yong-nam as ceremonial head of state:

  • Kim Jong-un could assume the position himself;
  • choose Jang Song-thaek, his uncle, who is apparently at the center of the governing group;
  • select another figure like Kang Sok-ju, a longtime confidant to late leader Kim Jong-il on foreign affairs,
  • or appoint some dark horse.

The first case would add to speculation that the young leader is in full control of the regime, Mansourov said.

“The appointment of Jang Song-thaek as the nominal head of state will be an indicator of Jang’s rising political and foreign policy influences and continued efforts to secure his grip on power beyond his wife, Kim Kyong-hui,” the sister of Kim Jong-il, he added.

Among the so-called “Gang of Seven,” who walked alongside the hearse carrying Kim Jong-il’s body a year ago, four have been dismissed, with two others also sidelined, he pointed out.

Jang Song-thaek is the only figure who remains in power.

“As for his uncle Jang, I believe the young marshal will use him for as long as he has to, but then he will surely cut him off, probably without much regret, just like his father purged his own uncle Kim Yong-ju when Kim Jong-il deemed him as a threat to his own power bid in the mid-1970s,” Mansourov said.

Yonhap News

South Korea’s new trustpolitik with North Korea

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After a tight race, South Korean voters last week picked Park Geun-hye of the establishment Saenuri Party as their next President.

Park’s foremost challenge when she takes office in February will be North Korea. The outgoing government of President Lee Myung-bak, a no-nonsense former corporate CEO, reversed 10 years of so-called sunshine policy — a conciliatory approach to Pyongyang that saw two summits, the South’s investments in the North and reunions of family members separated by the Korean War. Lee adopted a stern approach, cutting off dialogue and humanitarian aid over Pyongyang’s unwillingness to drop its nuclear-weapons program.

When Pyongyang shelled South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island, Lee ordered the South Korean military to prepare for retaliatory strikes on the North’s missile bases in the event of further provocation. He also canceled inter-Korean Red Cross talks that were scheduled to occur two days after the shelling.

This past year, Pyongyang’s failed long-range rocket launch in April and a successful launch earlier this month further strained relations between the two Koreas. “There’s a sense that something has to give,” says Hahm Chai-bong, head of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

Park looks as if she will be doing the giving. Despite Pyongyang’s persistent recalcitrance, Park believes that improving bilateral relations will help persuade North Korea to curtail its nuclear program as well as set the two Koreas on a path of reunification — the “100% completion of Korea,” as she has termed it. Her confidence-building measures — she calls them “trustpolitik” — include the renewal of humanitarian aid to the North and re-establishing social and cultural exchanges.


No changes in China policy on North Korea

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Communist Party chief Xi Jinping has surprised many with his actions domestically but few are betting on any drastic changes from him in China’s policy on and support for its ally North Korea. Observers say Xi will opt for the status quo.

After North Korea’s rocket launch, which fired a weather satellite into space on December 12, China’s foreign ministry expressed “regret” at the development. Meanwhile China’s diplomats have opposed the UN’s attempts to punish its ally with more sanctions.

North Korea is the only country China has inked a security treaty with – in 1961 – which compels them to provide military aid if either party comes under attack.

Singapore-based analyst Li Mingjiang said Beijing wants to keep Pyongyang as one of its few true friends, especially after seeing its south-western neighbor Myanmar leaning further away from China with its democratic reforms since 2010.

Analyst Scott Harold of the US-based think-tank Rand Corporation cited a belief in Communist China that liberalization of another Communist country would “constitute a loss for Beijing”.

There is also a growing belief among some that Beijing is being held ransom – perhaps unwittingly – by Pyongyang.

Japan’s former defense minister Yuriko Koike said the North’s latest action showed its belief that “a more robust vision of national defense in Japan and South Korea would antagonize China, which, isolated in East Asia, will then be more likely to maintain its support for the Kim regime.

“Thus, the missile launch can be viewed as an indication of how threatened the Kim dynasty feels – the regime appears to believe that it must blackmail its closest ally in order to maintain its support,” wrote Koike in a Project Syndicate article last Friday.

Kim Jong-un calls for more powerful missiles

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Friday called on scientists to develop more powerful rockets, the North’s KCNA news agency reported.

“You should develop and launch a variety of working satellites… and carrier rockets of bigger capacity,” Kim was quoted as saying at a banquet in Pyongyang honoring the scientists who built the rocket launched on Dec. 12.

Kim added that the successful launch of the rocket “was the biggest present we dedicated to our great leader Kim Jong-il and a product of painstaking efforts and heroic struggle of our people and Workers Party.”

But the new leader admitted failing to achieve his goal of turning North Korea into a “powerful and prosperous nation” this year, which marks the centenary of nation founder Kim Il-sung’s birth. “We will work even harder to fly the red flag of a powerful and prosperous nation atop the mountain of victory as soon as possible,” he said.

He urged the scientists to do their best to bring that day closer, evidently trying to associate progress in missile development with the “prosperity and happiness” of the people.

Afterwards Kim and his wife Ri Sol-ju personally saw off the scientists, technicians and workers of the missile development program as they returned to their quarters, KCNA reported.