Google executive and Governor Bill Richardson to visit North Korea

Posted on by

Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, will be traveling to North Korea on a private, humanitarian mission led by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson that could take place as early as this month, sources told The Associated Press.

The trip would be the first by a top executive from U.S.-based Google, the world’s largest Internet search provider, to a country considered to have the most restrictive Internet policies on the planet. To add to the mystery, last year a group of North Koreans paid a visit to Google headquarters in Mountain View, California.

North Korea is in the midst of what leader Kim Jong Un called a modern-day “industrial revolution” in a New Year’s Day speech to the nation. Kim Jong Un is pushing science and technology as a path to economic development for the impoverished country, aiming for computers in every school and digitized machinery in every factory.

However, giving citizens open access to the Internet has not been part of the regime’s strategy. While some North Koreans can access a domestic Intranet service, very few have clearance to freely surf the World Wide Web.

It was not immediately clear who Schmidt and Richardson expect to meet in North Korea.

The visit also follows North Korea’s announcement that an American citizen of Korean descent has been jailed in Pyongyang on suspicion of committing “hostile” acts against the state. Kenneth Bae, identified in North Korean state media by his Korean name, Pae Jun Ho, is the fifth American detained in North Korea in the past four years. The exact circumstances of his arrest were not clear.

Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who often serves as an envoy to countries that do not have diplomatic relations with the United States, will try to meet with North Korean officials, and possibly Bae, to discuss the case, the sources said.

Rare New Years address by Kim Jong-un

Posted on by

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called for an end to confrontation between the two Koreas, in a surprise New Year’s broadcast on state media.

“An important issue in putting an end to the division of the country and achieving its reunification is to remove confrontation between the north and the south,” Kim said in an address that appeared to be pre-recorded. “Past records of inter-Korean relations show that confrontation between fellow countrymen leads to nothing but war,” he said, speaking from an undisclosed location.

The New Year’s address was the first in 19 years by a North Korean leader, and appeared to take the place of the policy-setting New Year’s editorial published annually in the past in leading state newspapers. Additionally, his father, Kim Jong-il, rarely spoke in public.

Conspicuously absent from Kim’s speech though was any mention of North Korea’s nuclear arms program.

Kim’s statement “apparently contains a message that he has an intention to dispel the current face-off (between the two Koreas), which could eventually be linked with the North’s call for aid” from the South, said Kim Tae-woo, a North Korea expert at the state-funded Korea Institute for National Unification. “But such a move does not necessarily mean any substantive change in the North Korean regime’s policy towards the South.”

North Korea has offered olive branches before and Kim’s speech does not necessarily signify a change in tack from a country which vilifies the United States and U.S. ally South Korea at every chance.

Kim Jong Un facing an authoritarian contradiction

Posted on by

It’s a dilemma for Kim Jong Un who needs to find a way to modernize North Korea and its economy while holding onto absolute power.

In a clear sign of the North Korea’s border crackdowns, the number of North Korean refugees reaching South Korea in 2012 has dropped by almost half, to about 1,400, compared to last year.

Meanwhile, changing technologies, ambitious smugglers and well-funded critics of Pyongyang mean that everything from DVD melodramas to illegal Chinese cellphones to Korean-language radio news broadcasts funded by the U.S. government make their way into North Korea. And their presence exposes an ever-growing number of North Koreans to the outside world, which threatens the underpinnings of the Kim regime.

The hunger for the larger world resembles, in many ways, the appetites in China in the years after Mao Zedong’s 1976 death, when Beijing began opening the door for the world’s mass media.

“I felt sad about the state of my country when I watched the DVDs,” said a North Korean defector who now lives in Seoul and spoke on condition he not be named, fearing retribution against family still living in North Korea. “I could see Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, the United States … these other places were so much better off.”

“There has definitely been a push to roll back the tide of the flow of information,” said Nat Kretchun, associate director of an international consulting group InterMedia, which released a report earlier this year about information flow into North Korea, based on surveys of hundreds of recent North Korean defectors.

North Korea attempts to keep out ideological and cultural infiltration

Posted on by

The warning came from Kim Jong Un, the North Korean ruler who sees his isolated nation, just across the border from this busy Chinese trading town, as under siege. The attack, he said, must be stopped.

“We must extend the fight against the enemy’s ideological and cultural infiltration,” Kim said in an October speech, as he called upon his vast security network to “ruthlessly crush those hostile elements.”

Over the past year, Kim has intensified a border crackdown that has attempted to seal the once-porous 1,420-kilometer (880-mile) frontier with China, smugglers and analysts say. Special security units have been formed to seek out any contraband information or technology that Pyongyang sees as a threat.

The assault that Kim Jong Un fears? It’s being waged with cheap televisions rigged to receive foreign broadcasts, and with smuggled mobile phones that – if you can get a Chinese signal along the border – can call the outside world. Very often, it arrives in the form of wildly popular South Korean soap operas smuggled in on DVDs or computer thumb drives.

Their presence exposes an ever-growing number of North Koreans to the outside world and threatens the underpinnings of the Kim regime. Kim’s crackdown has been largely aimed at the border with China, long the route for much of the outside information making its way into North Korea, as well as for refugees trying to get out.

In a country where one family has held absolute control for more than 60 years, a communist enclave that survived the downfall of the Soviet Union and a devastating 1990s famine, the notion of allowing knowledge of the larger world is deeply feared.

North Korea songbun background

Posted on by

A caste system called songbun, effectively translating as “background“, has shadowed the life of every North Korean.

Bob Collins, who wove together smuggled documents, interviews with former North Korean security officials and discussions with an array of ordinary North Koreans,wrote an exhaustive songbun study released this year by the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. While the songbun system theoretically allows for movement within the hierarchy, Collins said most families’ standing today remains a reflection of their ancestors’ position in the 1950s and ’60s.

Despite its power, songbun is an almost-silent presence. Few people ever see their own songbun paperwork. Few “low-caste” families speak of it at all, exiles say, left mute by incomprehension and fear. It’s only when young people stumble into glass ceilings, normally when applying to universities or for jobs, that they begin to understand the years of slights.

Eventually, most grow to understand and accept its power, but they rarely have more than a general idea of where they fit into the pecking order, experts said. In a country where secrecy is reflexive, the state simply denies it exists.

To be caught at the bottom, defectors say, is to be lost in a nightmare of bloodline and bureaucracy. “My family was in the lowest of the lowest level,” said a former North Korean coal miner who fled to South Korea in 2006, hoping to give his young sons opportunities outside the mines. “Someone from the state was always watching what we were saying, watching what we were doing … The state treated us as if they were doing us a favor simply by allowing us to live.”

The man, like other North Korean refugees interviewed for this story, spoke on condition he not be named, fearing that relatives still in the North would be punished.

Read more

North Korean songbun caste system

Posted on by

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 is called songbun. And officially, it does not exist at all.

Today it is also quietly fraying, weakened by the growing importance of something that barely existed until recently in socialist North Korea: wealth.

“There’s one place where songbun doesn’t matter, and that’s in business,” said a North Korean soldier-turned-businessman who fled to South Korea after a prison stint. “Songbun means nothing to people who want to make money.”

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 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.

Very quickly, though, songbun became a professional hierarchy. The low caste became farmers and miners. The high caste filled the powerful bureaucracies. And children grew up and stepped into their parents’ roles.

BBC World Service to broadcast into North Korea?

Posted on by

The Independent reports that the BBC World Service could for the first time begin broadcasting programs aimed at residents of North Korea.

Barack Obama’s administration is encouraging the British Foreign Office to back plans to establish a BBC Korean service to help open up the most secret country on earth.  They believe the BBC’s reputation for impartiality could help build up trust with communist state’s 24 million population.

Peter Horrocks, the head of the BBC World Service, will discuss the matter in Westminster with MPs from the All Party Group on North Korea early in the new year. Lord Alton, who leads the group, which has also met with the Foreign Office minister Hugo Swire, said Washington-based officials had recently been in London to support the idea of a BBC service. The talks come amid signs that North Korean citizens are increasingly ignoring a ban that forbids them from accessing foreign media.

The US government-run networks Voice of America and Radio Free Asia already broadcast into North Korea. Based on interviews with some of the 25,000 North Korean defectors suggests that 14 per cent had listened to Radio Free Asia, 11.6 per cent to Voice of America and six per cent to South Korean radio.

Although the World Service transmits to 188 million in 27 countries it has never broadcast a Korean service. This is partly because North Korea arrests citizens discovered listening to foreign media and sends them to camps where more than 150,000 political prisoners are believed to be held.

North Korean markets with women at the helm

Posted on by

Five North Koreans visiting China spoke to NPR recently, offering a rare insight into how political dictates have had an extraordinary social impact in their own homes. All of them count among the elite, who have enough money to enter China legally and hope to return to their families North Korea.

“In the past, our husbands would bring home rations, and we’d live off that,” says Mrs. Kim. “Now there are no rations, and the women support the families. If we don’t make money, they starve, so life is hard for women.”

Facing a catastrophic famine in the mid-1990s, the state had reduced — and then mostly stopped — giving out the rations, known as the Public Distribution System.

By then, markets had sprung up illegally to keep people alive, and have thrived despite the state’s numerous attempts to roll them back. The government had imposed a welter of restrictions on market activity, including forbidding anyone except older women from market trading. Those restrictions have largely been relaxed recently.

Most women trade in the markets, orjangmadang. Mrs. Kim gets up at 4:30 each morning to feed the animals she sells, and also brews alcohol illegally. Every minute of the day is spent figuring out how to feed her family, including an adult son and daughter whose state-run jobs do not provide enough to live on.

For almost half of North Korean families, private trading forms the only source of income, according to research done by American academics at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

 

More purging of the Old Guard anticipated in North Korea

Posted on by

As North Korean leader Kim Jong-un wraps up his first year in power, marked by the purging of several old guard elites, he may replace the country’s No. 2 leader, Kim Yong-nam, and some other top officials next year, according to a North Korea expert, Alexandre Mansourov, a specialist in Northeast Asian security, who works as a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

“Who replaces Kim Yong-nam may tell us about the future direction of the restructuring of the political system,” said.  (He added Kim Yong-nam will likely “honorably retire,” rather than being purged.)

Mansourov raised four possible scenarios for the replacement of Kim Yong-nam as ceremonial head of state:

  • Kim Jong-un could assume the position himself;
  • choose Jang Song-thaek, his uncle, who is apparently at the center of the governing group;
  • select another figure like Kang Sok-ju, a longtime confidant to late leader Kim Jong-il on foreign affairs,
  • or appoint some dark horse.

The first case would add to speculation that the young leader is in full control of the regime, Mansourov said.

“The appointment of Jang Song-thaek as the nominal head of state will be an indicator of Jang’s rising political and foreign policy influences and continued efforts to secure his grip on power beyond his wife, Kim Kyong-hui,” the sister of Kim Jong-il, he added.

Among the so-called “Gang of Seven,” who walked alongside the hearse carrying Kim Jong-il’s body a year ago, four have been dismissed, with two others also sidelined, he pointed out.

Jang Song-thaek is the only figure who remains in power.

“As for his uncle Jang, I believe the young marshal will use him for as long as he has to, but then he will surely cut him off, probably without much regret, just like his father purged his own uncle Kim Yong-ju when Kim Jong-il deemed him as a threat to his own power bid in the mid-1970s,” Mansourov said.

Yonhap News

South Korea’s new trustpolitik with North Korea

Posted on by

After a tight race, South Korean voters last week picked Park Geun-hye of the establishment Saenuri Party as their next President.

Park’s foremost challenge when she takes office in February will be North Korea. The outgoing government of President Lee Myung-bak, a no-nonsense former corporate CEO, reversed 10 years of so-called sunshine policy — a conciliatory approach to Pyongyang that saw two summits, the South’s investments in the North and reunions of family members separated by the Korean War. Lee adopted a stern approach, cutting off dialogue and humanitarian aid over Pyongyang’s unwillingness to drop its nuclear-weapons program.

When Pyongyang shelled South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island, Lee ordered the South Korean military to prepare for retaliatory strikes on the North’s missile bases in the event of further provocation. He also canceled inter-Korean Red Cross talks that were scheduled to occur two days after the shelling.

This past year, Pyongyang’s failed long-range rocket launch in April and a successful launch earlier this month further strained relations between the two Koreas. “There’s a sense that something has to give,” says Hahm Chai-bong, head of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

Park looks as if she will be doing the giving. Despite Pyongyang’s persistent recalcitrance, Park believes that improving bilateral relations will help persuade North Korea to curtail its nuclear program as well as set the two Koreas on a path of reunification — the “100% completion of Korea,” as she has termed it. Her confidence-building measures — she calls them “trustpolitik” — include the renewal of humanitarian aid to the North and re-establishing social and cultural exchanges.

TIME