North Korean decision-maker Jang Song-Taek

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After only the second power transition in North Korea’s history, the government, essentially a Kim family criminal enterprise, appears to be stable.  However, the regime’s foundation is weak.

Last December “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il died, and his son, Kim Jong-un, tagged the “Great Successor,” was left nominally in charge.  However, it remains unclear if Kim also is the Great Decision-maker. Kim is surrounded by party officials and military officers who have long awaited their turn to rule.  Who is most accomplished at brutal intrigue?  Probably not the spoiled brat who spent his time in Swiss boarding school playing computer games and American basketball.

Greater power likely lies with Jang Song-Taek  (Kim Jong-un’s uncle), Kim Kyong-hui  (Kim Jong-un’s aunt) and other regime elders. Indeed, Jang’s experience with Kim family governance—he was purged and rehabilitated by both his father-in-law and brother-in-law—suggests that he might not desire to elevate the third generation to supreme power.

In any case, Jang promoted his ally Choe Ryong-hae to oversee the military. And the State Security Ministry, long overseen to some degree by Jang, also has gained in status.

Escape from North Korea

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Within and beyond China, remarkable heroes extend the North Korean Underground escape networks into numerous Asian countries as they work to assist North Koreans’ escape to freedom in South Korea and beyond. These heroes include:

  • Steve Kim, founder of 318 Partners (named for Article 318 of the Chinese criminal code which sent him to jail for aiding North Koreans in China);
  • “Mary and Jim,” a retired couple, who run orphanages in China for mixed children abandoned by missing North Korean mothers and desperate Chinese fathers (the undocumented status of these children makes them ineligible for adoption);
  • “Mr. Jung,” who has undergone face-changing surgeries to repeatedly fool Chinese authorities while rescuing South Korean prisoners of war held illegally in North Korea since 1953.

The tenacity of such brave individuals is sharply contrasted with the failure of the world – especially South Korea, the United States, even the United Nations – to confront and combat North Korea’s atrocities.

Melanie Kirkpatrick is a methodical writer, and her recent book “Escape from North Korea” offers an eye-opening opportunity to explore an overlooked, pressing topic. She shares with readers the harrowing testimonies, the wrenching struggles, and the inspiring successes of the North Korean Underground. Read more


What influence will China’s new leader exert on North Korea?

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Chosun Ilbo projects that China’s new leader Xi Jinping is unlikely to change the country’s relationship with North Korea drastically, but experts predict Xi could push for specific reform plans and greater market opening. “They will ask North Korea for more specific and tangible reforms and market-opening measures than in the Hu Jintao era,” said Choo Jae-woo at Kyunghee University.

“Beijing believes it is important to stabilize North Korea and halt its nuclear ambitions to benefit China’s economic growth,” said Park Byung-kwang at the Institute for National Security Strategy. “China thinks it is possible to stabilize North Korea and resolve the nuclear dilemma over the long-term by strengthening economic cooperation.”

North Korea is finding it increasingly difficult to ignore China’s demands. The North’s dependence on China for trade rose from 52 percent in 2005 to 84 percent last year. And 90 percent of the crude oil North Korea uses comes from China.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is expected to visit China and meet Xi as soon as possible. Some forecast a visit to China by Kim as early as January. He will also be looking for handouts from China ahead of the birthdays of former leader Kim Jong-il (Feb. 16) and nation founder Kim Il-sung (April 15).

Chinese experts have said that Beijing’s influence on the stubborn North Korean military is limited. If on the other hand China’s relationship with the U.S. worsens, North Korea’s strategic value increases. “China-North Korea relations will be closely related to China-U.S. relations, inter-Korean relations and China-South Korea relations,” said a diplomatic source.

A Swiss view of North Korea

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According to former Swiss federal councillor’s Peter Vollmer, just back from a trip to North Korea with a group of Swiss politicians, “North Korea has a cell phone network with its own frequency, and there is internet service, but it’s very limited. You can make a phone call, but it’s complicated. You don’t see any satellite dishes”.

The tour group visited a number of Swiss-funded aid projects, such as an agricultural one with a focus on cultivation methods for steep slopes. In addition, Switzerland has been supplying milk powder which is enriched with vitamins and distributed to infants, schools, hospitals and day care centres through the World Food Programme (WFP). “The project makes sense and helps the population,” Vollmer said.

There is little traffic outside Pyongyang and hardly any private transport. “On the highway, our bus was all alone. There were potholes, and we also drove on dirt roads – where corn was being dried and pedestrians and cyclists were travelling, too. It was pretty demanding for our driver; it took two hours to cover 60 kilometres.”

“Some of North Korea looks like Switzerland’s Emmental. Gently rolling hills plus steep slopes and many mountains with little arable farmland.” Although North Korea’s landscape is similar to that of the Emmental, he adds “the country is still a far cry from a democratic civil society”.

According to Vollmer, an atmosphere of change had prevailed there during his last visit in 1985. “At that time, agricultural mechanization was taking off there, and North Korea was developing its own tractors. But the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union brought on a total collapse. From one day to the next, Russia turned off the oil spigot and only delivered in exchange for hard currency, while the North Korean economy was on the brink of ruin. Then came the great famine – a huge setback,” Vollmer said.

Today the country is heavily de-industrialised; productivity is low, crop yields modest and infrastructure obsolete. You see factories that no longer operate, and because of international sanctions, there are no spare parts.

“People are constantly walking somewhere briskly, often carrying heavy loads. They march for 20 or 30 kilometres, sometimes with ox carts,” Vollmer said. He says the little-developed railway network is mainly used for the transport of goods, while people often travel in 50-year-old open trucks.

“We were able to take photos of everything except military installations. Earlier, there was a soldier stationed at every intersection, bridge and tunnel, but this is no longer the case,” Vollmer said.

Vollmer is aware that his group only saw a tiny part of the country during its short visit. And the chaperones were omnipresent. But in his opinion, North Korea is a poor country that is trying to meet the basic needs of its population – albeit at a very low level.

The Information Age stifled in North Korea

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With one million cell phones in North Korea and a government-sponsored intranet, the regime believes it can survive the advent of information technology by restricting its use to the most elite of the population who have the largest stake in the survival of the regime as it currently exists.

North Korea intentionally restricts access to information to control its population.  TV and radios in North Korea are hardwired to only receive government-controlled media. Foreign newspapers and periodicals are forbidden.

North Koreans are not free to travel within the country without government permission. Foreigners who visit North Korea are carefully controlled by their (two) minders who keep them from interacting with the North Korean populace. In short, North Korea has traditionally viewed controlling the flow of information to its population as a fundamental necessity to ensure the survival of the state.

It is surprising then to see that the North Korea state has sanctioned the use of cell phones and other information technology. There are now more than 1 million third-generation cell phones in North Korea, as part of the Koryolink cell phone system. These phones can call other members of the Koryolink network, but cannot make calls outside of the country.

There is also a state-sponsored intranet in North Korea, called Kwangmyong. The intranet is restricted to elites in North Korea with good social standing. The intranet features message boards, chat functions, and state sponsored media; its use has also been encouraged among university students, technical experts and scientists, and others to exchange information.

Very few North Koreans have access to the unfiltered Internet. Andrei Lankov, a leading North Korean expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, estimated this number to be “a few dozen families” including Kim Jong-Un’s clan. Other select North Koreans may have restricted and/or monitored access to the Internet to gather data on the U.S. and South Korea, find content to populate the intranet, and maintain the North Korean government’s propaganda web sites.

The Coming North Korean Famine

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From an article by Andrew S. Natsios, a Texas A&M University professor, and former USAID administrator and Special Envoy to Sudan:

The U.N.’s annual crop assessment for North Korea will shortly be published. This assessment will show that drought early this summer seriously damaged the crop so that the harvest will drive the country, always on the edge of starvation, ever deeper into nutritional disaster.

While famines anywhere have terrible humanitarian consequences, in North Korea’s case in particular, they have political consequences because they have nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. While the North Korean government has been building its nuclear arsenal and the maintaining the third largest land army in Asia, its people have been sliding into deepening poverty and acute malnutrition.

When Kim Jong Il died in late 2011, he left his 28-year-old son, Kim Jong Un, in charge of a government run by an aging party apparatus and military command structure. Bowing to Chinese pressure, Kim Jong Il appointed the boy’s uncle, Jang Song-taek, as Regent. To ensure the party cadres and military are loyal to the new leader, Taek has been forcing officials and generals into retirement to purge the system of the old order and ensure the loyalty of the new one. The purge, however, has created a class of officials angry at the new leadership for their loss of power and its perquisites.

All this could not come at a more inopportune time.

North Koreans outside their country

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An estimated 60,000-70,000 North Koreans labor outside the country, according to Seoul-based advocacy groups, working in factories in China, logging camps in Siberia and construction sites in the Middle East.

Others choose a more direct route. A middleman in Shenyang who says that he helps North Korean refugees escape to prosperous South Korea has seen women choosing to be sold into marriage in China, or to work in brothels.

“They want to flee home but there’s no other way than to be sold in a form of marriage,” said the Korean-speaking man who requested anonymity because of his safety.

“One person is worth 10,000 yuan-12,000 yuan.” (US$1600 – 1900)

North’s poverty where annual gross domestic product per capita is estimated to be just $1,800 on a purchasing power parity basis, based on an independent analysis.

North Korea’s cautious experiment with economic zone Hwanggumphyong

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Hwanggumphyong was launched with great fanfare in 2011 by Jang Song-thaek, the uncle of North Korea’s new ruler, with a pledge of tax breaks and repatriation of dividends, hoping to emulate a formula that has worked for economic zones the world over.

But for the moment, it remains little more than a small, boggy island.

The 14 km2 Hwanggumphyong island is one of four economic zones that were designed to be a magnet for Chinese capital and manufacturing. It lies on the Yalu river, across from the bustling Chinese border city of Dandong and one of the few areas where North Korea allows its citizens contact with the outside world.

Chinese investors are showing little appetite for North Korea, whose economy is worse off than it was 20 years ago from a combination of sanctions over its nuclear weapons ambitions, famine and mismanagement.

Many analysts say the North Korean leadership is terrified that reforms could weaken its iron grip on the state and it has repeatedly baulked at any sweeping changes, ignoring pressure from China, its only real ally, to emerge from a self-imposed cocoon.

China’s leverage is limited and its fear that North Korea could collapse appears to make it willing, albeit begrudgingly, to support the government of leader Kim Jong-un.


On the price of rice in North Korea

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In North Korea, the price of rice (so important, with the word for “rice” synonymous with “food”) has nearly doubled since the beginning of the year, the result of declining foreign aid, a weak harvest and hoarding by speculators.

“Maybe 1 out of 10,000 North Koreans can afford to eat white rice every day like the people in China,” said a 58-year-old North Korean man from Suncheon, 30 miles north of Pyongyang, who has been working in a brick factory in China.

At North Korea’s state-owned factories, wages are so low (often less than $1 per month) that people will pay for the privilege of not showing up to work. They use their time instead to collect firewood or edible greens or to trade something on the market.

As for the vaunted North Korean military, rank-and-file soldiers have so little to eat that their parents have to send money and food for them to survive. Cornfields have to be guarded 24 hours a day to prevent thievery, with many of the culprits being hungry soldiers.

Outside of the relative privilege of Pyongyang, the North Koreans said, it is still common for people to die of starvation, albeit not at the same rate as during the famine of the 1990s.

One North Korean interviewed said that from January through May of this year she’d seen three elderly women out on the streets who appeared to be dead. “Young people have a hard time surviving themselves, so sometimes they have to kick the old people out of the house,” she said.

North Korea relaxing strict rules to cater to Chinese tourists

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Although the North Korean government is known for being paranoid about foreign visitors, it has recently adopted a softer attitude toward Chinese tourists. Chinese tourism has proven one of North Korea’s best sources of foreign currency to help offset losses after United Nations sanctions from 2009 shut down opportunities for the country to earn hard cash. Some 60,000 to 70,000 Chinese tourists visited last year, up from an estimated 40,000 visitors in 2010.

The totalitarian regime has also been modernizing its infrastructure to lure Chinese visitors.The waiting time for group visa processing has been shortened from weeks to 24-hours in China’s border city of Dandong. And at the border, North Korean customs didn’t even bother to check these group tourists’ passports.

Rules for tourists’ photo taking have also been relaxed. In order to satisfy their visitors’ curiosities, the North Korean government has revised its original rules banning foreigners from taking photos from coaches. Security guards that were sometimes planted at the end of tourist coaches have also been removed. The new rule is that photo taking in Pyongyang is allowed, including spontaneously inviting locals to take photos together.

Still, Chinese tourists are not easy to deal with in North Koreans’ eyes, even though the two countries are supposed to be “as close as lips and teeth.” North Korean tour guides, who were used to taking national security as their priorities, now try their best to ensure their guests not leave with negative impression. However, once Chinese tourists enter the “Hermit Kingdom”, North Korean tour guides have to repeatedly urge them to keep their voices down and stick to group activities – these tour guides are obligated to take responsibility for their clients’ behavior. Even so, Chinese tourists usually fail to cooperate.

What must really irritate North Koreans is Chinese tourists’ arrogance with their wealth. In a recent visit with a Chinese tour group, three college students in their early 20s lured North Korean children to take photos with them in downtown Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung Square with candy. At night, these three Chinese college students further tested their minder’s patience by sneaking out of Pyongyang’s Yanggakdo hotel, wondering around in downtown Pyongyang and eventually dining in a Korean barbecue restaurant. On their way back, they talked three North Koreans into giving them rides to Yanggakdo hotel for 20 yuan (about US$3.20). At the end, one of them convinced one of the North Koreans to sell his Kim Il-sung badge to him, and the hotel’s security guards showed up out of nowhere to kick the North Korean to the ground when they were bargaining. In North Korea, losing a badge of the dear leaders could severely jeopardize lives of North Koreans.

Chinese tourists are now allowed to travel to North Korea from China’s border cities, including Liaoning province’s Dandong and Shenyang, as well as Jilin province’s Yanji and Tumen. From here, they can reach Pyongyang, Hoeryong, Chongjin and Rason.

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