Monthly Archives: November 2014

Kim Jong Un and relations with China

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Kim Jong-un’s vanity has been on display in the promotion of costly yet impractical construction projects that would be worthy of a pharaoh. These public works involve the mobilization of the masses—soldiers and students in addition to laborers—in “speed campaigns” to achieve hasty completion according to Kim Jong-un’s whim. The projects, including an elaborate ski resort, a refurbished amusement park, and an aquarium with a dolphin show, have done little to address the chronic malnutrition and meager living standards of a people isolated in an island of poverty in the midst of the most economically dynamic region of the world.

The projects, ostensibly undertaken to promote tourism, reflect the young general’s narcissistic lifestyle, as vividly described last year by retired basketball star Dennis Rodman. Rodman had made a visit with Kim Jong-un to the latter’s pleasure island, complete with horseback riding, free-flowing alcohol, and yachts.

The indulgent lifestyle probably also explains the use of a cane by thirty-something Kim Jong-un. He allegedly suffers from a series of debilitating illnesses—including obesity, gout, diabetes, and high blood pressure—usually associated with individuals twice his age.

In almost three years in power, Kim Jong-un, who once lived as a student in Switzerland where he was reportedly an avid fan of Western sports teams and rock music, has not left the country. This indicates a degree of insecurity and is in marked contrast to his father, Kim Jong-il, who is thought to have traveled three times to China and once to the Russian Far East during the last two years of his life. Kim Jong-un’s lack of an invitation to visit Beijing, North Korea’s sole ally in the world, has reached the point of embarrassment—especially after President Park Geun-hye of rival South Korea was invited on a state visit to Beijing in 2013, which was reciprocated by a visit to Seoul of Chinese president Xi Jinping this summer.

There is the question of the increasingly frosty relations between the two erstwhile allies. Kim Jong-un’s father was always careful to treat China, North Korea’s economic and energy lifeline, with a degree of respect, even traveling to China in May 2011, although in frail health, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance between China and North Korea. Kim Jong-un, however, has treated China with barely veiled contempt, causing Beijing to lose face when he went forward in early 2013 with a nuclear test despite Chinese admonishments to cease and desist. He then publicly purged and executed his uncle, a key Chinese ally, after condemning him for “economic crimes” linked to a foreign power—obviously a reference to China.

[The Weekly Standard]

Did you know one in 12 North Koreans have smartphones?

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What’s the point of a computer in a hermit country sealed off from the internet? What use can a smartphone be if the smartest uses are blocked? And why would anyone learn computer coding in a country closed off from the world-wide-web?

These are the conundrums at the core of the puzzle about technology in North Korea. If the South is the most teched-up nation in the world, the North ought to be the least — except it’s not.

At least one in 12 people in North Korea have smartphones. We know that North Korea has so many smartphones because its 3G network is run by Koryolink, a joint venture between an Egyptian company, Orascom Telecom, and the North Korean state. The Egyptian end publishes figures which add up to about two million North Korean subscribers.

Another question: How do North Koreans manage without the global internet? With difficulty, is the answer.

A few bright students are trained and do have access from controlled and monitored institutions while the mass of the citizenry have to make do with the internal North Korean intranet called the Kwangmyong.

There’s advice in English, Korean and Chinese on diet and age, the kind of health webpage which would generate clicks on any website anywhere. But this is some way short of the sum of all knowledge and delight provided by the worldwide web.

For the general populace this intranet has to suffice. The authorities are hyper-keen to close the slightest crack in the wall to the internet outside.


Where the majority of North Koreans access their news

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In North Korea the media is broadcast, printed and distributed under strict surveillance and censorship – the only information you’re allowed to access has been pre-approved.

North Korean media does cover international news, but there is a very limited amount of coverage and only information which has been approved by the government is shown. The North Korean media is not interested in reporting on Tibet or the ‘umbrella revolution’ in Hong Kong – any region demanding more autonomy from China is off-limits. But it does report news stories about anti-government demonstrations in South Korea, or demonstrations against human rights violations by the US government.

When it comes to domestic news there is Rodong Sinmun, KCNA, and Chosun Central TV – all relatively well-known, even to the outside world, plus a variety of other news outlets. Newspapers are the mouthpiece of the Korean Workers’ Party.

They are only interested in publishing stories that emphasize the superiority of the regime which means crimes or accidents are never reported. You’ll never see a news article about corruption and you’ll certainly never read about social injustice. Investigative journalism doesn’t exist.

Rodong Sinmun, regarded as the most influential newspaper, is at the forefront of “the battle of ideologies and politics” led by the government. The main business of disseminating news has been taken up by KCNA. It has access to most domestic and international information and is fast in reporting breaking news such as the arrival of VIPs.

In North Korea, there are two TV stations: Central Chosun TV and Mansudae TV. Chosun Central TV broadcasts news, but also soap operas, comedy shows, cooking shows, fashion programmes (complete with tips for viewers) and the weather. Mansudae TVis the cultural station.

There are also two radio stations: KCNA and Radio Pyongyang. Few people own TVs so radio is the main source of information.

[Kim Yoo-sung, who left Hamgyeongbukdo province in 2005]

How North Korean defectors send money to their families

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Under one common method of transferring money, North Korean defectors use online banking sites to wire money to a bank account of a Korean-Chinese broker based in a Chinese town near the border with North Korea. The broker then takes out 20 to 30 percent of the money as commissions and asks a Korean-Chinese trader, who can freely cross the border into North Korea, to deliver the rest of the money to the defector’s relatives.

The step of carrying money across the border is not always necessary when the go-betweens are involved in separate operations of smuggling Chinese goods for sale in North Korean markets. For example, a North Korean broker who owes money to a Chinese supplier could pay the debt by giving a defector’s family cash, if the supplier is also involved in the transaction.

If a defector’s family lives far from the Chinese border, a transfer will take more effort because North Korea restricts its citizens’ movement and has poor transportation services.

In the early days, brokers frequently cheated defectors, but the business has since become more orderly and lucrative, with brokers more concerned about retaining customers.

It’s not known how many North Koreans have been arrested for getting money from their relatives in South Korea or communicating with them. But activists who have interviewed defectors say many North Koreans have avoided trouble by using some of the money to bribe local officials.

At the same time, activists and defectors say North Korea has been cracking down, using equipment near the border to check for signals from Chinese mobile phones.


Smuggling preferences for North Koreans

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A North Korean defector calling himself “Mr Chung” revealed North Korea’s smuggling preferences in a Channel 4 documentary last year.

He smuggles radios, USB sticks and DVDs of soap operas and entertainment shows into the North, posing as a mushroom importer.  He said, “Men love their action films! I sent them Skyfall recently. The women enjoy watching soap operas and dramas.

“The more people are exposed to such media the more likely they are to become disillusioned with the regime and start wanting to live differently.”

A group of activists in South Korea led by another defector from the North send satchels containing anti-regime flyers, noodles, $1 bills and USB sticks containing South Korean soap operas over the border attached to balloons.

North Korea forbids its 24 million people from watching foreign broadcasts and videos out of fear outside influence could undermine the dictatorship’s ideology.

Anyone caught smuggling them in or distributing illicit material can be executed for crimes against the state and viewers have reportedly been sentenced to years in prison camps or hard labor. A purge was reported last year, when around 80 people were said to be executed for watching South Korean television shows in November.

[The Independent]

EU human rights rep confirms North Korean invite

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A European Union official confirmed that North Korea has invited the EU’s special representative for human rights to visit, which would be a significant step toward resuming a human rights dialogue that Pyongyang broke off in 2003.

For North Korea to offer any dialogue on human rights, a topic which its government until recently would not discuss, is seen as significant by the international community. But such an offer also has been greeted with skepticism by rights groups and some diplomats.

North Korea also has offered the possibility of visits by United Nations rights officials, but the North Korea diplomat, Kim Un Chol, said that those offers would be dropped unless a U.N. resolution on the country removes any reference to the International Criminal Court.

North Korea has been on the defensive since a U.N. commission of inquiry early this year detailed what it said were vast human rights abuses in the impoverished but nuclear-armed country and warned that leader Kim Jong Un could be held accountable.


North Korea tourism with a Christian motive

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An American who was detained for nearly six months in North Korea said that he left a Bible in a nightclub hoping it would get into the hands of what he called the country’s underground Christian church. Jeffrey Fowle said he traveled to the country as a tourist but saw the opportunity as a way to follow the Christian mission “to carry the Gospel to all corners of the Earth.”

“I knew it was a risk, that I was taking a gamble, but I felt compelled to do that to aid the underground church in some small way,” Fowle said in an interview in his lawyer’s office. “I felt once I left the Bible somewhere that God would take it the rest of the way into the hands of some kind of Christian organization, and I’d be able to waltz out of country fat, dumb and happy, no problem,” he said. “But God had other plans.”

Fowle said he left the Bible — with his name in it — in a bathroom under a trash bin at a nightclub in the northern port city of Chongjin and hoped a Christian would find it. He chose that city and the nightclub in the belief there would be less security. He bought the Korean-language Bible before his trip.

Instead, his tour guide asked the next day if anyone had left a Bible there and he owned up to it. He was detained a few days later while going through customs before departure.

Fowle was taken to a hotel for about three weeks and questioned, then moved to another facility. He wrote a confession and answered questions about his motivations. He said authorities couldn’t believe he had acted on his own, but he made clear it was his own decision. He was treated well and was comfortable but was in his locked quarters 23 1/2 hours a day, he said.

He was allowed to speak in September to Western news organizations in five-minute interviews. He said he was given “talking points” for those interviews, meant to convey his “desperate situation.” He said he never considered going off script, although he did reject requests that he try to be more emotional and more demanding of the U.S. government.

Fowle said his release came as a surprise — he thought he was about to be taken to prison — and he was told by an American who helped escort him home that the North Korean government was responsible for his return.

U.S. officials are trying to win the release of two other Americans who are being held in North Korea, Matthew Miller and Kenneth Bae. Fowle said he had had no contact with either.

[The Columbus Dispatch]

Jeffery Fowle admits motive in leaving Bible in North Korean nightclub

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The American detained in North Korea for leaving a Bible in a nightclub said he did exactly what the communist country accused him of.

The 56-year-old said he planned to leave the Bible in North Korea long before he even traveled to the country, he told the Dayton Daily News. He was not necessarily there to proselytize, he said, but he was driven by his “strong motivation to help the Christians” in the area, he said.

He was kept in isolation and passed the time by writing letters to his family and watching North Korean state TV, he told NBC News. Despite being in jail, he said he was treated relatively well.  He was given hearty meals of rice, meat and vegetables. When he complained that his food was too spicy, the cook turned down the heat, he said.

Two Americans remain detained in North Korea. Both Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller were convicted of crimes and sentenced to hard labor.