Monthly Archives: January 2013

Kim Jong-un playing out dictator fantasies in a new world

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From an opinion piece in LA Daily News:

After a brief hint that he might be a regular fella – producing a pretty wife allowed to be photographed in public – North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un has reverted to the weird ways of his pops and gramps, fellow supremes.

As if we lived not in the real world but in a “Batman” episode, he now refers to America as “the arch-enemy.” He makes a special point of saying that the new inter-continental ballistic missiles his military are testing are designed to reach the U.S. of A. What a sweetheart.

The rhetorical saber-rattling is not so worrisome, but the missiles are. New Secretary of State John Kerry’s “Korea Desk” scholars will have their hands full figuring out the balanced approach that will bring the new Kim down off his ledge.

Google is making inroads in increasing the flow of information to the rest of the world about a nation that has been closed in on itself for generations. …And there’s something serious about this new flow of data where previously there was little. Kim can try to keep his nation closed to the outside world. But it’s a different world than the one in which his father and grandfather played out their dictator fantasies. He can’t stop the flow of information any more than King Canute could hold back the tide.

The impact of information on North Koreans

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North Koreans are indeed getting more information than ever before. Computers, television, DVDs, MP3 players and USB drives have found their way into North Korean hands. While domestic televisions must be fixed to official channels, North Koreans are increasingly gaining access to television sets that are capable of showing foreign broadcasts. Others modify their televisions to dodge state controls.

Modifying television sets is not a new phenomenon. In Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick describes how in the 1990s a young North Korean named Jun-sang bought a Sony television that had been fixed to government stations and had its tuners disabled by a North Korean version of “crippleware,” ensuring that televisions wouldn’t receive foreign broadcasts. He registered the set with the Electric Wave Inspection Bureau, which put a paper seal over the television’s buttons to certify it had been preset on the politically correct station. Television inspectors would show up unexpectedly to make sure nobody tampered with the sets.

Jun-sang, eager for news from outside North Korea, used a sewing needle to push the buttons without damaging the seal and also constructed his own antenna. Then, when everyone was asleep, he listened to South Korean television.

What he learned turned his world upside down.

He heard that the United States was supplying thousands of tons of rice in humanitarian aid. A U.S. congressional delegation said in a news conference that 2 million had died of starvation in North Korea. And for the first time Jun-sang heard the actual voice of his own leader, Kim Jong-il, whose words were usually read by reverent North Korean radio announcers. Kim’s voice was tinny, old, and utterly devoid of mystique. “Listening to South Korean television was like looking in the mirror for the first time in your life and realizing you were unattractive,” Demick wrote. In Jun-sang’s case, these realizations contributed to his crisis of faith in the regime and his ultimate decision to defect.

Examples like these illustrate how even the most basic access to information could be devastating to the North Korean regime.



The North Korean license to provoke

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If North Korea’s latest cycle of misdeeds, followed by international censure, followed by menacing words out of Pyongyang has a familiar ring to it, it is because this behavior has become a fixture of the accordion-like rhythm of Northeast Asian security. But a familiar path is not the same thing as a prudent one. It would be a mistake to let North Korea’s young leader think he has inherited the family license to provoke with immunity.

On January 22, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2087. The resolution strengthens existing sanctions, curbing the travel and potentially the finances of the agencies and senior officials responsible for the rocket launch.

The resolution leaves open a diplomatic path. It encourages North Korea to rejoin Six Party Talks with China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and the United States, aimed at realizing Pyongyang’s official pledge of September 19, 2005, to move toward total denuclearization. But the U.N. measure also signals a “significant determination” to impose harsher measures in the event of a third nuclear test.

Pyongyang’s verbal reaction to sanctions has been swift and purposeful. Declaring sanctions to be tantamount to “a declaration of war,” North Korea is threatening further missile and nuclear tests. Invective is conveniently aimed at the North’s “sworn enemy” the United States, as the Obama administration transitions its national security team for a second term.

Just as South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye seeks to instigate a more peaceful inter-Korean relationship, the North Korean regime appears to quash that initiative before it gets off the ground. Kim Jong Un himself may be threatened by the mere prospect of a summit with South Korea’s Iron Lady.

Despite a well-trodden history of provocation, sanction and threat, the North’s latest threats should not be sloughed off as insignificant. North Korea’s next nuclear test may well pave the way for a sizeable expansion of its nuclear arsenal. Beyond the obvious goal of regime survival, burgeoning nuclear and missile programs may be changing North Korea’s tolerance for risk.

In sum, although North Korea is taking the world down a familiar path, key officials need to ask anew whether the familiar path is still the best one.

Read full CNN article


North Korean rhetoric intensifies as US citizen detained and accused of plotting to kill NK leadership

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Another U.S. citizen has been detained in North Korea and is accused of plotting to topple the regime and assassinating the leadership, a member of his delegation told The Korea Herald.

Kun “Tony” Namkung, a North Korea expert known for longstanding ties with Pyongyang, arranged and took part in the recent trip by Richardson and Google Inc. executive chairman Eric Schmidt from Jan. 7-10. The much-trumpeted mission was partly aimed at negotiating the release of Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American tour operator who was arrested in November in the Rason economic zone. The North’s official media said Bae had committed “crimes against the state” but details had remained unclear.

Namkung, 68, is the grandson of Namkung Hyuk, who headed a Presbyterian seminary in Pyongyang set up in 1901 by American missionaries. Since 1990, he has made more than two dozen trips to North Korea and served as an unofficial liaison between Pyongyang and Washington. He advised Richardson on Asian affairs during his 2003-10 governorship and now works as an independent scholar and consultant.

Meanwhile North Korean leader Kim Jong-un convened top security and foreign affairs officials and ordered them to take “substantial and high-profile important state measures”, state media said on Sunday, indicating that he plans to push forward with a threat to explode a nuclear device in defiance of the United Nations.

The committee includes top military brass like new army chief Hyon Yong-chol and the army’s top ideologue Choe Ryong-hae, Minister for State Security Kim Won-hong, Pak To-chun, the man overseeing nuclear arms development, party bigwigs Kim Yong-il and Hong Sung-mu who deal with foreign policy, and Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan, a comparative moderate and long the point man in negotiations with the U.S.

North Korean rhetoric and reality

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According to its official statements, North Korea is ready to go to the brink. But how serious are Pyongyang’s threats?

This week, new U.N. sanctions punishing the North’s successful December rocket launch have elicited a furious response from Pyongyang: strong hints that a third nuclear test is coming, along with bigger and better long-range missiles; “all-out action” against its “sworn enemy,” the United States; and on Friday, a threat of “strong physical countermeasures” against South Korea if Seoul participates in the sanctions. “Sanctions mean war,” said a statement carried by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency.

In the face of international condemnation, North Korea can usually be counted on for such flights of rhetorical pique. In recent years it threatened to turn South Korea into a “sea of fire,” and to wage a “sacred war” against its enemies.

If the past is any indication, its threats of war are overblown. But the chances it will conduct another nuclear test are high. And it is gaining ground in its missile program, experts say, though still a long way from seriously threatening the U.S. mainland.

“It’s not the first time they’ve made a similar threat of war,” said Ryoo Kihl-jae, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. “What’s more serious than the probability of an attack on South Korea is that of a nuclear test. I see very slim chances of North Korea following through with its threat of war.”

Although North Korea’s leadership is undeniably concerned that it might be attacked or bullied by outside powers, the tough talk is mainly an attempt to bolster its bargaining position in diplomatic negotiations.


On relations between China and North Korea

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China took a step against longtime ally North Korea by voting in favor of a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Pyongyang’s long-range rocket launch in December. Here are some questions and answers concerning China’s relationship with North Korea, as summarized in an AP article:

WHY DOES CHINA SUPPORT NORTH KOREA? – Beijing fears a collapse of the North Korean regime could send a massive flow of desperate, starving refugees into northeastern China and lead to a pro-U.S. government setting up across its border. Chinese firms could lose their leading position in North Korea, while South Korean investment in China would be diverted to help rebuild the devastated North’s economy.

WHAT ABOUT NORTH KOREA’S MISSILES AND NUCLEAR PROGRAM? – China wants a stable, peaceful Northeast Asia and doesn’t want the North to provoke retaliation from the South, Japan or the United States. China calls for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, though Beijing’s leaders are seen as resigned to the North possessing some sort of atomic weapon.

WHAT APPROACH DOES BEIJING RECOMMEND? – China typically calls for dialogue instead of sanctions, and has hosted successive rounds of talks also involving the two Koreas, Japan, Russia, and the U.S. Pyongyang agreed at the six-nation talks to end its nuclear programs, but discussions broke down over how to verify that.

SO WHY DID CHINA VOTE FOR THE NEW U.N. RESOLUTION? – China wants to register its displeasure with Pyongyang’s missile launch and doesn’t wish to be seen as obstructing the U.N.’s work. At the same time, it has pushed for a watered-down response, agreeing to strengthen existing sanctions while opposing substantially new ones. Beijing also wants to appear cooperative with the second Obama administration.

HOW MUCH INFLUENCE DOES BEIJING HAVE WITH PYONGYANG? – Hard to say. Chinese scholars and officials say not as much as the outside world thinks, and that sanctions have little effect on Pyongyang. That’s despite China being the North’s most important political ally, as well as its biggest source of food and fuel aid to prevent total economic collapse. China’s overriding fear of the North becoming a failed state severely limits Beijing’s options.

WHAT’S THE HISTORY BETWEEN THESE TWO? – Chinese troops fought on behalf of the North Korean regime in the 1950-53 Korean War and relations between the communist neighbors were long described as being “as close as lips and teeth.”

In brief, Beijing is concerned that North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are destabilizing the region, but is willing to go only so far to punish its economically struggling neighbor.

New Concentration Camp in North Korea

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Chosun Ilbo claims North Korea has built a new compound believed to be a prison camp next to an existing one, Camp 14, in Kaechon, South Pyongan Province.

Curtis Melvin wrote on his blog North Korean Economy Watch that, based on Google Earth images, he believes the compound was built sometime between Dec. 17, 2006 and Sept. 21, 2011.

According to Melvin’s analysis, the new gulag is surrounded by a 20 km security perimeter and has two checkpoints and six guard posts. Several buildings believed to be office and housing units are also distinguishable. It sits just west of Camp 14, but it is unclear whether it is an extension of the existing camp or an entirely new camp, according to an South Korean intelligence official.

“The new facility is about one tenth the size of Camp 14,” said one informed source here. “Perhaps it is an expanded facility since Camp 14 became overcrowded.”

North Korea currently has six concentration camps where people are held for political reasons.

Tens of thousands of North Korean mothers and children stranded in China

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Some statistics cited by Park Ki-choon, a lawmaker for South Korea’s opposition party, from a report by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) based on interviews with 100 children born to defecting North Korean mothers in 14 regions in China’s Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang and Shandong provinces last year:

  • 21% of the children lived with their North Korean birth mother,
  • 20% lived with their father only.
  • 39% were looked after by grandparents or relatives,
  • 20% lived in shelters run by evangelical missionaries.

The NHRC believes there are 20,000 to 30,000 children under 19 born in China to North Korean mothers, based on the estimates by Korean NGOs and researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

However, a missionary working with North Korean defectors in China said, “We estimate that there are 50,000 stateless orphans whose basic livelihood is not protected in northeast China, to say nothing of their education.”

In any case, if these figures are extrapolated, there are tens of thousands of innocent children and mothers sadly impacted by the main reason that these children are abandoned: Because of existing policy, China has deported the mothers back to North Korea.

[Source: Chosun Ilbo]

More on North Korean defector discovered working for Seoul Metropolitan Government

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The data gathered by the City Hall bureaucrat Yoo, which he fed to Pyongyang, could potentially threaten the safety of thousands of North Korean defectors, as well as their families still in North Korea, and has also raised questions about oversight of the South Korean government’s handling of defectors.

He apparently joined the Seoul city government in June 2011 in a two-year contract. The contract public servant was hired by the Seoul Metropolitan Government through an employment procedure for North Korean defectors , and worked at the welfare policy bureau. He was in charge of collating information for more than 10,000 North Koreans who have fled their homeland over the years. His duties apparently included meeting with families on a weekly basis, providing advice and counseling by phone and collecting details on the defectors’ lives.

Security officials were reportedly alerted to the man’s activities after it was learned that he was travelling to China frequently and may also have crossed the border back into North Korea.

“The city government is keeping a close eye on the case, waiting until the result of the investigation comes out,” said Lee Chang-hak, the spokesperson for the Seoul Metropolitan Government, emphasizing Yoo had limited access to information, such as names and phone numbers.

The claim has not helped address the understandable paranoia suffered by the nearly 25,000 North Korean defectors living in the south, said Kim Sang-hun, chairman of the Database Centre for North Korean Human Rights. “Many North Koreans here feel that the whole North Korean apparatus is after them,” he said.

In any case, it is the first time a North Korea defector working at a public office has been arrested for espionage. The man’s family are still apparently in North Korea and it is also possible that they were being used as hostages to make him comply with Pyongyang’s demands for information on defectors.

North Korean defector charged in Seoul with spying

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Dong-a Ilbo reports that a former North Korean defector, who was working at City Hall in Seoul in a capacity of assisting other defectors, has been charged with spying, the first incident of its kind in South Korea.

“Circumstantial evidence suggests that the official … handed over to Pyongyang the full list of defectors living in Seoul and details of their situations, setting off alarm bells in the South Korean government’s management of defectors.

“He was charged with violating a ban on execution of objectives, special infiltration and escape, assembly and communication under the National Security Act for the State Security Department in Pyongyang.

“According to South Korean intelligence, the official defected alone to the South in 2004 and used to be part of the North Korean elite. He worked as a surgeon for one year after graduating from Chongjin Medical School in North Hamgyong Province. After defecting, he majored in Chinese and business at a prestigious private university in Seoul, and was hired by a trading company thanks to his fluency in English and Chinese. His family reportedly remains in the North.

“Intelligence authorities are investigating if he applied for the city government post with the intent to spy for Pyongyang, as well as the process of how he handed over data at the instruction of North Korea’s State Security Department.”