Author Archives for Grant Montgomery

Student fun, food and fashion in Pyongyang

Posted on by

Kim Il Sung University is located in a central part of the capital Pyongyang. Alek Sigley described the campus as “very green” and “orderly,” with plenty of trees, pristine lawns and tidy flower beds. Students don’t hang out on the lawns reading books or playing sports; rather, students are often seen mopping the hallway floors and weeding the flower beds. “It’s much more of like a serious atmosphere,” Sigley told ABC News.

All students must wear uniforms: The men a white button-up shirt with a red tie, slacks and a blazer, and the women have an option to wear either a traditional Korean style dress or a white button-up blouse with a pencil skirt.

Sigley and the other foreign students liked to explore Pyongyang’s culinary scene, trying to go to a different restaurant each week. He was pleasantly surprised by the cultural variety, from traditional North Korean dishes and authentic Chinese cuisine to Italian classics, such as pizza and spaghetti, and even some American fast-food favorites, like burgers and fried chicken. Most of these restaurants, however, are not accessible to tourists and are too expensive for the average North Korean. They are largely patronized by the elite and foreigners. There are cheaper restaurants frequented by locals that typically offer just Korean dishes, according to Sigley.

There’s also certain other places, like some shops and restaurants, that are off-limits to foreigners, and it’s taboo for a foreigner to visit the home of a local.

However, as a student, Sigley had more interaction with locals than most foreigners ever would. There are some North Korean students living among the foreign students in the foreign student dormitory at Kim Il Sung University, serving as their “guides,” and Sigley shared a room with one for several months.  Sigley said his North Korean roommate loved soccer and was a big fan of professional players Lionel Messi of Argentina and Neymar da Silva Santos Junior of Brazil. He followed top professional men’s soccer clubs such as Barcelona and Real Madrid and watched the FIFA World Cup, which wasn’t broadcast live on North Korean television but rather recorded and played back on the local sports channel. “In some respects, he’s just like any other kid in his early 20s,” Sigley said.

Fashion was under strict limitations in North Korea, forbidding denim, piercings and hair dye, as well as certain makeup, he said. Men must keep their hair short, while women’s hair can’t be longer than mid-length. Garments must be modest in fit and color, with dresses and skirts no shorter than knee-length. The typical style for men is a dark Mao suit with a crew cut and tinted sunglasses. Sigley told ABC News that he had noticed the younger men sporting slightly longer hairstyles on the streets of Pyongyang. Read more

[ABC News]

Life for the rare foreign students who study in Pyongyang

Posted on by

Authorities rarely stopped Australian postgraduate student Alek Sigley to ask for identification when he lived in Pyongyang, unless he was trying to catch the metro with one of his classmates who’s European and sticks out.

“Everything is pretty quickly smoothed over when we tell them that we’re foreign students and we show them some ID,” Sigley said. “But when I’ve gone alone, actually they’ve never stopped me, so I’ve kind of been able to blend in.”

Overall, Sigley said his experience with security in Pyongyang was “fairly laid back,” with authorities who were friendly and showed an “innocent curiosity” in foreign students like himself. “People there are people just like anywhere else,” he told ABC News. “They’re curious, especially in a sort of place where we don’t really get to see a lot of foreigners.”

According to Sigley, North Korea is one of the least wired nations in the world. Internet users are scant, with access restricted to regime elites, foreigners and select university students. Only the ruling elite and foreigners have direct access to the unrestricted global internet, as the outside world knows it. Privileged North Koreans use a domestic intranet network that is tightly-controlled by the government and only accessible from within the country’s borders.

Because he was a foreign student, Sigley said he had access to both. There’s a computer room in the foreign student dormitory at Kim Il Sung University where students can access the internet. But Sigley also used the domestic intranet service to play video games with the other foreign students, he said.

The country’s cellular networks along with a relatively new Wi-Fi service allow citizens in Pyongyang with mobile phones and other portable devices to access the intranet network, but not the global internet, according to Sigley.

North Korean laws and customs generally keep foreigners and locals separate in most aspects of life in Pyongyang, according to Sigley. For instance, foreigners are allowed to bring qualifying mobile phones into the country and purchase a SIM card with a local carrier or rent a handset with a SIM card; but they aren’t allowed to call locals, whose cellphones operate on a separate network. Read more

[ABC News]

North Koreans’ view of the USA

Posted on by

In June 2018, a historic summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump took place, the first time a sitting U.S. president met face-to-face with a North Korean leader.

Alek Sigley an Australian student who studied at Kim Il Sung University, was in Pyongyang at the time and said there was immense interest in the summit among locals, who followed the extensive coverage of the big event on North Korea’s state-run media.

In the days leading up to the summit, Sigley said he saw long lines of people on the streets of Pyongyang waiting to collect their copies of the daily newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, which serves as the chief organ of the country’s ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. Sigley said he also had conversations with his North Korean classmates, who expressed hope that better relations with the United States could lead to sanctions relief and perhaps a peace treaty with South Korea to formally end the war.

The day after the summit, photos of Trump and Kim appeared on the front page of the Rodong Sinmun, and a documentary about the summit was featured another day later on North Korea’s state-owned broadcaster, Korean Central Television.

Sigley asked his North Korean roommate at the time how locals were reacting to the outcome of the summit. He told Sigley that they viewed it as a success on the part of their leader but were still awaiting actual change, particularly in sanctions. “People were still quite skeptical,” Sigley told ABC News.

“But then I noticed, after some time, there started to be quite a change in attitude.” In the days after the summit, Sigley said the state media toned down the anti-U.S. rhetoric and even some anti-American propaganda posted in prominent places around central Pyongyang were taken down. “There was a slogan board that said, ‘If the U.S. imperialists strike us again, we will wipe them from the face of the earth.’ That slogan board was removed,” Sigley said.

“There was another slogan board that had a picture of the White House being obliterated,” he added. “That one was taken down actually before the summit happened.” Sigley was also surprised by the impact the summit had on the attitudes of his North Korean teachers and classmates, who all described it as a “new era” and “the end” of decades of animosity with the United States. It was the first time Sigley saw some “genuine hope” that U.S.-North Korea relations could improve, he said.

Since the second Trump-Kim summit that took place in February in Vietnam? “I can still see a lot of the, like, distrust of Americans, which is historical, you know, because they remember the war,” Sigley told ABC News. “But there was more optimism than I’d ever seen before.”

[Read full ABC News article]

The case for humanitarian aid to North Korea

Posted on by

Since the impromptu meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un late last month, there have been signs the United States may be prepared to make major concessions—including, so the rumors go, easing economic sanctions—in exchange for a North Korean freeze on some weapons development.

Clearly, Pyongyang would welcome any moves to ease economic sanctions, since news reports suggest that North Korea may once again be facing serious food shortages, and calls from the United Nations for the world to provide humanitarian assistance have grown. For U.S. policymakers, though, sending aid is far from an open-and-shut case. Historically, the United States and other democratic countries have provided help intended for the North Korean people. But such assistance has not always gone to those who needed it most, and Pyongyang strongly resists any kind of international monitoring to try to make sure it does.

Even so, the United States should open its pocketbook. U.S. aid will certainly not fundamentally alter the regime’s posture on security issues, nor will it resolve North Korea’s long-term problems without fundamental reforms to its system of government. But at its core, providing food and medical assistance is an issue of morality and humanity.

In May, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a report stating that some 10.9 million people in the country—approximately 43 percent of the population—suffer from food insecurity, and nearly as many lack access to water, sanitation, and hygiene services. Ten million North Koreans lack access to safe drinking water, and the U.N. estimates that 16 percent do not have access to basic sanitation. Meanwhile, UNICEF notes that while there has been some improvement in recent years, one in five North Korean children suffers from stunted growth.

Natural disasters have aggravated these conditions, but the sad truth is that much of this human misery is manmade. North Korea is a land rich in resources and human capital. Government policies and political ideologies, not droughts or floods, are responsible for the suffering. The simplest proof of this is to contrast North and South Korea. The democratic, free-market South is the 11th most prosperous economy in the world. Recent data on per capita gross domestic product is estimated at $1,700 in the North, versus $37,600 in the South. Both sides of the border have similar geographies and climates.

President Trump has dramatically reduced tensions, but to induce Pyongyang to denuclearize, he’s going to have to offer more. Providing humanitarian assistance shouldn’t be thought of as a lever to bring about political change in North Korea. While North Korea’s government may have a callous attitude toward its people, Americans believe that every life has value. Right now, lives are at stake. We can help to save them, and we should.

[Foreign Policy]

Hungry North Korean soldiers reportedly caught stealing food in China

Posted on by

Two hungry North Korean soldiers were caught scrounging around for food in China, according to a report.

The guards, assigned to protect North Korea’s border, were spotted by locals stealing food from a house in the city of Dandong after crossing into China earlier this month, a source told DailyNK, a Seoul-based website that covers the North through a network of informants.

The soldiers, reported to be in their early 20s and wearing military uniforms, were then arrested and sent back across the Yalu River into North Korea.

“I’ve never heard of low-ranking soldiers crossing over into China… because they’re hungry,” the source said. “The Chinese authorities believe … droughts last year and this year are the reason for the lack of food.”

DailyNK reports that North Korean border guards have been under increasing financial strain due to international sanctions that have been placed upon the Hermit Kingdom, leading to a decline in smuggling. The guards, the website says, rely on bribes from smugglers and defectors as a source of income.

[Fox News]

Positive development for Free Joseon embassy activists

Posted on by

Christopher Ahn, a former U.S. Marine involved in the daytime raid of North Korea’s embassy in Madrid in February was released on bail this week to live in home confinement in California as he awaits possible extradition to Spain.

Ahn’s lawyer, Naeun Rim, said in a statement: “This case continues to unnecessarily endanger the life of an American veteran based on the statements of North Korean officials who lack all credibility. While we will continue to challenge the extradition vigorously in court, the United States government has the power to end this whenever it wants.”

“It’s a sea change in the legal proceedings and public narrative out there,” said Sung-Yoon Lee, a North Korea expert at Tufts University who has been following the case. “Most people were convinced they had broken in and used some egregious violence and now it appears that there’s no evidence.”

Ahn’s lawyers have said that accusations of violence against the North Korean officials are inaccurate and are based on unreliable claims by the North Koreans. Spanish authorities had accused the group of breaking into the Madrid Embassy, tying up the staff, beating them and stealing laptops, phones and documents, but before allowing Ahn’s release, U.S. Magistrate Judge Jean Rosenbluth noted that “nothing corroborates the most serious allegations” against Ahn that he and other assailants “struck and injured some of the North Koreans inside the embassy.”

Henry Song, a Washington-based North Korea activist, said Ahn’s release was good news for defectors who support efforts to undermine Kim Jong Un’s regime. “He is a hero,” Song said, urging the United States not to extradite Ahn to Spain.

Adrian Hong Chang, an alleged accomplice of Ahn who is accused of masterminding the raid, is on the run from U.S. authorities. Hong is in hiding because of potential safety threats by North Korean agents, said his lawyer, Lee Wolosky.

[Washington Post]

Sweden’s unique relationship with North Korea

Posted on by

Sweden often acts as an intermediary in negotiations between North Korea and Western countries, and has been especially active in improving the ties of North Korea and the United States.

Sweden is also one of the biggest providers of international aid to the “hermit kingdom”, providing about Aus $6.1 million (US$4.3 million) every year.

Back in 1975, Sweden was the first Western country to establish an embassy in North Korea, with the prospect of trade being one of the biggest influencers for these initial ties; Swedish companies such as Volvo, Atlas Copco and Kockums were keen to begin exporting to the Asian country. The export strategy didn’t play out — the 1,000 Volvos that North Korea ordered several decades ago have never been paid for — but it did open diplomatic relations.

Until 2001, when Germany joined this exclusive club, Sweden was the only Western embassy in North Korea, and it is still only one of 25 in the country. Over the years, Sweden has garnered a reputation as a neutral player and its embassy and diplomats have played a crucial role in helping other countries retrieve their citizens from the clutches of North Korea.

The Swedish embassy still represents Australia, Canada, and other Nordic countries, as well as the United States.

The friendly relations between Sweden and North Korea has been demonstrated multiple times, since then-Swedish-Prime Minister Göran Persson visited North Korea in 2001 — the first western leader to do so — for talks on increasing diplomatic ties.

In 2018, that visit was reciprocated when North Korea’s deputy foreign minister visited Sweden to discuss the country’s summit with the US later that year. There were talks for some time that Sweden would host the historic Trump-Kim summit, which was later held in Singapore.

[Australian Broadcasting Corporation]

North Korean food shortages have left generations stunted

Posted on by

Mass starvation is no longer the crisis it once was in North Korea, but the nation still endures high levels of food insecurity. More than 40 percent of the population is undernourished — up to 10.3 million people don’t get enough to eat, according to the World Food Programme. And the political, social and health consequences of the famine a generation ago still linger today.

Severe food shortages in the mid-1990s devastated the country. Some 3 million people died, and many others barely survived on a diet of contraband grain or watery gruel.

And long after the worst of the famine, North Koreans continue to bear its marks. Through his research, Daniel Jong Schwekendiek a professor at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul who has researched nutrition in North Korea, found that:
– Contemporary South Korean preschool children are up to 3 kilograms (about 6 and a half pounds) heavier than North Korean preschoolers.
– South Korean women on average weigh 4 to 9 kilograms (8.8 to 19.9 pounds) more than their peers in the North.
– Those differences are the result of “socio-economic living conditions,”, not any genetic differences between the populations north and south of the Demilitarized Zone.

For North Korean children who defect to South Korea, their weight catches up within two years. As for their height, that depends on when the child enters South Korea and what diet they are exposed to, according to Lee Soo-kyung, nutrition professor at Inha University in South Korea.

In recent years, nutritional conditions in North Korea have improved. The number of North Korean children under the age of 5 suffering from stunting, or short stature resulting from  chronic malnutrition, has fallen to about 19 percent, according to UNICEF, down from 28 percent in 2012. But that still leaves 1 in 5 North Korean children under 5 years old stunted.

Life in the capital, Pyongyang,  presents the most flagrant example of inequality. Stunting affects 10 percent of children in Pyongyang, compared to 32 percent of those in rural Ryanggang considered moderately or severely stunted, according to UNICEF.


North Korea suffering worst downturn likely since 1990s Famine

Posted on by

How much are sanctions hurting Kim Jong Un? North Korea’s economy hasn’t been in such bad shape since his father was battling floods, droughts and a famine that some estimates say killed as much as 10% of the population.

While North Korea’s isolation, secrecy and dearth of official statistics make estimates difficult, the economy probably contracted more than 5% last year, according to Kim Byung-yeon, an economics professor at Seoul National University. “As long as sanctions remain, time is on the U.S. side,” said Kim. “Sanctions are the most effective means to draw North Korea into negotiations, so they should not be lifted or eased without major progress on denuclearization.” Read more

A decline of 5% would mean that international curbs on North Korean trade — measures crucially backed by China — have put the country on its weakest economic footing since 1997. (Back then, the isolated nation was reeling from policy missteps under Kim Jong Il and a famine so bad some defectors reported rumors of cannibalism.)

The Bank of Korea estimated a 3.5% contraction in 2017, leaving North Korea an economy roughly the size of the U.S. state of Vermont. The South Korean central bank’s annual report on its northern neighbor — due for release later this month — will provide a fresh look at the impact of U.S. President Donald Trump’s pressure campaign just as the two sides prepare to restart talks.

One thing sanctions aren’t doing: stopping Kim from developing the nuclear arsenal that prompted his showdown with Trump. (The cost launching the more than 30 ballistic missiles Kim Jong Un has tested since taking power in 2011 comes in at about $100 million, according to estimates by South Korea’s defense ministry.) Nevertheless, Trump is counting on the economic pressure to compel Kim to compromise.


Statistics on North Korea: Sanctions bite

Posted on by

North Korea is heavily reliant on China, which accounts for about 90% of the country’s trade. And Beijing’s decision to support tougher international sanctions against North Korea following its sixth nuclear test in September 2017 has put severe pressure on the economy.

  • China’s imports from North Korea have slowed to a trickle, falling about 90% year on year in 2018, according to the Korea International Trade Association.
  • The drying up of hard currency due to plunging trade is potentially creating an “economic crisis” for Kim, the state-run Korea Development Institute in Sejong, said earlier this month.
  • Exports of food and fuel from China to the North have also tumbled. The fuel crunch has exacerbated decades of economic stagnation. North Korea’s oil consumption has fallen by about 80% from 1991 to 2017, according to the United Nations World Food Program (WFP).
  • Less fuel has meant less diesel to run farm tractors and irrigation pumps, hitting farms already affected by droughts last summer. Last year, farmers had a little less than 90 milliliters (3 fluid ounces) of fuel a day to farm an area about the size of two soccer fields, according to calculations based on WFP data.
  • The sanctions have led to shortages of other necessary agricultural items, including machinery and spare parts, and farm output has dropped in the provinces that make up North Korea’s southern and western breadbaskets, the World Food Program and Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations said in a May assessment.
  • Paddy production declined at least 17% last year in South Hwanghae and North Pyongan provinces, regions that together account for half of North Korea’s rice.

In April, Kim Jong Un replaced his prime minister and leading technocrat Pak Pong Ju with Kim Jae Ryong, a veteran overseer of one of North Korea’s most impoverished provinces whose reputation for weathering tough times suggests leader Kim may also see a need to dig in rather than experiment should the sanctions continue.