Monthly Archives: February 2013

World reaction to North Korean nuclear test

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While North Korea marked the anniversary of its departed ‘Dear Leader’ Kim Jong-il’s birth on February 16th with a military parade, mass dances and televised sporting activities, this week’s nuclear test drew international condemnation, with President Obama pledging to “lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats”.

The European Union will tighten sanctions on North Korea to curb trade in gold and diamonds and crack down on financial links in protest at Pyongyang’s recent rocket launch and nuclear bomb test, EU diplomats said on Friday.

In separate developments, North Korean officials have reportedly informed counterparts in China that further nuclear tests and rocket launches are planned for this year, with Pyongyang seeking to force the US into negotiations, a source told Reuters.

Commentators interpreted the North’s aggressive move as a statement by its new leader Kim Jong-un that he plans to follow his father’s “military first” strategy.

South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said tests to date indicate North Korea’s weapons had a range of about 6,200 miles, making the west coast of the United States a potential target.

Meanwhile, in the South Korean bordertown of Imjingak, defectors from the North released hundreds of thousands of helium balloons containing anti-regime leaflets and $1 currency notes, and bearing slogans declaring “Stop provocative acts with missiles and nuclear tests”, “North Koreans rise up” and “The Kim dynasty will soon collapse”.

Pyongyang has in the past threatened a “merciless military strike” in response to similar anti-North Korea propaganda leaflets, forcing the evacuation of South Korean residents.

US missile defense program response to North Korean nuclear test

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North Korea claims it has built a “smaller and light” bomb. If that’s true, Pyongyang is one step closer to developing an atomic warhead small enough to fit atop one of its long-range missiles.

North Korea’s latest nuclear test, coupled with its successful long-range rocket launch in December, is prompting renewed attention to the state of U.S. missile defenses. In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, President Barack Obama called North Korea’s nuclear test a “provocation” and said the United States is strengthening its missile defense system.

The United States has been working for years to make sure that it will be able to intercept such a missile if one is ever fired at its territory. Outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta referred to about 30 ground-based missile interceptors, almost all of which are deployed in Alaska.

Two Washington-based analysts told VOA they are not sure how effective the interceptors will be. “These interceptors in Alaska and California are believed to have some capability against a rudimentary intercontinental ballistic missile warhead of the kind that you would expect North Korea to have initially,” said Steven Pifer, head of the Arms Control Initiative at the Brookings Institution. Pifer said plans are underway to build more missile silos in Alaska. Also, the U.S. Navy has a missile called the SM3 that can intercept short- to medium-range ballistic missiles.

According to James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Obama administration has been focusing on stationing interceptors in northeast Asia to defend against North Korean missiles and conventional shorter-range Chinese missiles. He said the administration also has been working on a defense system in Europe to defend allies, and in the longer run the continental U.S., from Iranian missiles.

Most analysts believe North Korea is several years away from developing a missile that can hit the United States, but that improvements in the missile defense program will remain a top U.S. priority.


Jang Song-taek and Kim Kyong Hui, behind-the-scenes powers in North Korea

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At the time of Kim Jong Il’s apparent stroke in August 2008, his brother-in-law, Jang Song-taek (who is married to Kim’s sister, Kim Kyong-hui) was rumored to be the key backer of the older brother (Kim Jong-nam) of North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un.

However in early 2009, Jang shifted his support to Kim Jong-un in light of Kim Jong Il’s “special affection” for his third son and successor, and out of consideration for his own future political power. Worried about being purged as he was in 2004 for becoming too powerful within the regime, Jang reportedly reached a deal with Kim Jong Il and thus agreed to throw his support behind Kim Jong-un. In return, Kim Jong Il allowed Jang to engineer the succession by placing his allies in key posts throughout the regime.

Kim Kyong Hui, the aunt of North Korea’s present leader Kim Jong-un, has been known as the “godmother of the royal family.” Kyong Hui is herself a four-star general – the first woman in North Korea to hold that rank –  and well known for being a “shadow power broker.” Japanese companies seeking to move into North Korea sought out personal connections that would eventually lead to her.

Kim Kyong Hui, married to the second-most powerful man in North Korea Jang Song-taek, has been described as cantankerous, obstinate and a drunk. North Korean insiders say Kyong Hui has a violent temperament and never changes her mind once she has made a decision. She was a regular member of the alcohol drinking parties hosted by Jong Il and attended by high-ranking party officials. According to sources, she cannot stop drinking once she starts. She has been known to drunkenly bellow at her husband: “Hey, Jang Song Taek, drink up!”

She met her husband, Jang Song Taek, who came from an ordinary family outside of Pyongyang, when they were students at Kim Il Sung University.

North Korea’s third nuclear test

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North Korea drew worldwide condemnation Tuesday after it announced it had successfully conducted its third nuclear test, in direct defiance to U.N. Security Council orders to shut down its atomic activity or face more sanctions and international isolation.

Experts say North Korea’s successful detonation of a miniaturized nuclear device is concerning because it indicates the country may be getting closer to the ability to put a nuclear device on a missile.

North Korea expert Andrei Lankov told Fox News that possession of such a “miniaturized” device would be necessary to create a nuclear warhead. “It shows they are advancing their nuclear technology,” Lankov said. He also noted the significance of the timing of the test, which came just months after North Korea’s successful intercontinental ballistic missile test. “It seems they are very close to being able to put a device on a missile,” Lankov said.

Peter Beck, an expert for Asia Society, tells Fox News the blast appears to be “significantly greater” than North Korea’s past nuclear tests. He, too, said the test “…shows a greater commitment by North Korea to marry the missile and nuclear programs.”

Earlier Tuesday, South Korean, U.S. and Japanese seismic monitoring agencies said they detected an earthquake in North Korea with a magnitude between 4.9 and 5.2.

The timing will be seen as significant. The test came hours before President Obama was scheduled to give his State of the Union speech, a major, nationally televised address. It’s also only days before the Saturday birthday of Kim Jong Un’s father, late leader Kim Jong Il, whose memory North Korean propaganda has repeatedly linked to the country’s nuclear ambitions. This year also marks the 60th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.

North Korea said the atomic test was merely its “first response” to what it called U.S. threats, and said it will continue with unspecified “second and third measures of greater intensity” if Washington maintains its hostility.

North Korean state-sponsored propaganda

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State-sponsored propaganda was once a mainstay of Cold War attempts to persuade — or bully — the masses to fall in line. Amid reports of North Korea readying yet another nuclear weapons test, the country has stepped up its propaganda offensive against the West.

Brian Anse Patrick, a communications professor at the University of Toledo, [says it’s designed to] “keep the adrenaline high, this sort of constant hyper state of mobilization” that makes it easier for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to maintain power.

Anthony Pratkanis, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, says the script North Korea is following is not far off from the one that Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels followed in the closing days of World War II.

Just like North Korea and the United States, “in Germany, Goebbels had his scapegoats — the Jews obviously, but also fear of the Soviets.”

But Goebbels used the V-2 rocket — advertised as a super weapon that could turn the tide — to buck up the Germans’ flagging morale.

His message: ” ‘We’ve been working on a secret technology that is going to change the whole history of the world. We’re going to win this war. When we have this technology, we’re going to bring Britain to its knees.’ And their American allies would soon follow. This was a phantom dream to give hope to an internal audience.”

Given the risks of underestimating North Korea, the West might do better to study, rather than laugh at, its propaganda, he says.

Just like the denouement of the Hitler regime, North Korea faces a struggle to maintain a grip on the population amid desperation and hunger.

“Propaganda is a window into what this regime might be thinking,” he says. “A thoughtful person would ask, ‘What are they saying here, what is going on?’ What it says to me is that it’s a very difficult situation, bordering on desperate.”


The Republic of Pyongyang

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Any improvement in living standards in North Korea looks to be almost entirely focused on the capital, Pyongyang, home to the elite which keeps the Kim family in power.

Kim Jong Un, who took power in North Korea following the death of his father last December, appears to have reinforced policies to bolster the fortunes of the capital, which is home to more than 3 million people, or about 12% of the population.

“Pyongyang is a different planet,” said a 35 year-old Chinese trader who had lived in a small town in North Korea for more than 25 years and regularly visits there, most recently several months ago.

Pyongyang has been dubbed the “Republic of Pyongyang” by outsiders thanks to the lavish perks given to its residents in the form of theme parks, new apartments and renovations, in stark contrast to the rest of the country, where UN data shows a third of children are malnourished.

“In the past, people couldn’t feel the gap between the rich and the poor because of state control. But since that control is loosening up, the gap between those who have and don’t have is widening,” said a Chinese trader who sometimes sells clothes to North Koreans.


Third North Korea nuclear test imminent

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North Korea has been signaling that a third nuclear test is imminent, and speculation of a major advance has been fueled by the assertion of its top military body, the National Defense Commission, that any test will be of a “higher level”.

Numerous analysts believe this could point to the first-time test of a uranium device. The North’s two previous tests in 2006 and 2009 used plutonium for fissile material. The test will offer a rare chance to gauge where its nuclear program is headed, with most expert attention focused on what type of device is detonated and how.

“It’s not that a uranium test would reflect any great technical achievement,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the non-proliferation program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “But it would confirm what has long been suspected: that the North can produce weapons-grade uranium which doubles its pathways to building more bombs in the future,” Fitzpatrick said.

A basic uranium bomb is no more potent than a basic plutonium one, but the uranium path holds various advantages for the North, which has substantial deposits of uranium ore. North Korea revealed it was enriching uranium in 2010 when it allowed foreign experts to visit a centrifuge facility at its Yongbyon nuclear complex.

Another red flag raised by a uranium device relates to proliferation, according to Paul Carroll, program director at the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation based in California. “Highly enriched uranium is the preferred currency of rogue states or terrorist groups,” Carroll said. “It’s the easiest fissile material to make a crude bomb out of and the technical know-how and machinery for enriching uranium is more readily transferred and sold,” he added.

[Read full article]

Background of the North Korean caste system songbun

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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 can help determine what hospital will take them if they fall sick, whether they go to college and, very often, whom they will marry.

It is called 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 North 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.

[Huffington Post]

North Korean caste system part of new market economy

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Reluctantly, the North Korean government has allowed the establishment of informal markets, with ordinary people setting up stalls to sell food, clothes or cheap consumer goods.

But in the murky economy where nearly any major business deal requires under-the-table payments, most analysts believe it is the same songbun elite that profits in the business world. They are part of an informal club that gives them access to powerful contacts. If they need help finalizing a black-market business deal, they have people to call.

“Who gets the bribes?” asked Bob Collins, who wrote an exhaustive songbun study released recently by Washington’s Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, who believes the caste system remains deeply entrenched. “It’s the guys at the upper levels of songbun,” a mysterious caste system has shadowed the life of every North Korean.

[Huffington Post]

Cannibalism in North Korea?

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In North Korea in the mid-1990s, as a great famine wiped out perhaps 10 percent of the population … it wasn’t unusual for people to disappear; they were dying by the thousands, maybe millions. But dark rumors were spreading, too horrifying to believe, too persistent to ignore.

“Don’t buy any meat if you don’t know where it comes from,” one Chongjin woman whispered to a friend, who later defected and recounted the conversation to reporter Barbara Demick.

Fear of cannibalism spread. People avoided the meat in street-side soup vendors and warned children not to be alone at night. At least one person in Chongjin was arrested and executed for eating human flesh.

The panic, Demick concludes, may have exceeded the actual threat. “It does not seem,” she writes, “that the practice was widespread.” But it does appear to have happened.

North Korea’s famine is over, but the stories of desperate men and women, driven so insane by starvation that they consume their own children, have resurfaced. Last week, Asia Press published a report alleging that thousands recently died of starvation in a North Korean province, a trend that is sometimes called a micro-famine. The story was sourced to Rimjingang, a collection of underground North Korean journalists whose work is generally considered reputable. According to Rimjingang’s sources, the famine, like others before it, had led to cannibalism. One man, they said, had been arrested and executed for killing and eating his children.

Is cannibalism still happening? The simple answer is that we don’t, and can’t, know for sure.

[Washington Post]