Thursday, July 5, 2012

Beware the North Korean Rumor Mill

This is a story that appeared on the Radio Free Asia (RFA) website on July 3rd. Given the glacial, infrequent and patchy nature of RFA translations, here is my [reduced and lightly edited for clarity of purpose] English version;
There is a rumor going around that Kim Jong Eun is in favor of the reform and opening of the North Korean economy but is being stopped from so-doing by Jang Sung Taek and Kim Kyung Hee. This news is causing the North Korean people’s dislike of the couple [Jang and Kim are a married couple] to go through the roof.

Reporter Moon Sung Hwee is here with the story.

Moon: Criticism of Kim Jong Eun’s aunt Kim Kyung Hee and her husband Jang is spreading in the markets and in universities, and popular dislike of the two is growing rapidly as a result. This is supposedly because they are implacably opposed to Kim Jong Eun’s plans to reform and open the North Korean economy.

A student from North Hamkyung Province whom I recently spoke to explained, “Kim Jong Eun’s reform and opening plan is not being allowed to reach fruition because of the implacable opposition of Kim Kyung Hee and Jang Sung Taek. This story is whizzing around universities in Pyongyang and the provinces, of course, and also in the markets, and some people are really angry.”

According to the student, Kim planned to make the complete reform of farming and the military his first job following the death of Kim Jong Il, and had made implementation plans.

[The report then goes on to discuss the ways in which Kim hoped (and may still hope) to carry out military and agricultural reform. This includes military modernization (including troop number and military service length reductions). Notably, he also apparently strongly believes in the need to follow the Chinese road in agriculture so as to solve food insecurity issues.]

However, when she heard about Kim’s ideas, Kim Kyung Hee reportedly demanded of him, “Would you, in the fourth generation, discard the ‘juche agricultural law’ and ‘military-first political line’ made by my father Premier Kim Il Sung and adhered to by my brother NDC Chairman Kim Jong Il?”

“You will not abandon socialism for as long as I live,” she apparently went on to declare, and husband Jang declared that rapid reform could lead to regime collapse.
[Ed.: As with all quotes in all articles in all Korean print and online media all the time, the precise accuracy of this quote has to be regarded with circumspection. Anyway, onward...]
However, a Party cadre source in Yangkang Province, while agreeing that the story is indeed going around, added, “For one thing, we don’t know if that is a true story, and even if it is a true story we cannot say for sure when it took place. And, even if it did happen, doubts still exist over the way it leaked out.”

Nevertheless, “The unconfirmed rumor is circulating, and the people’s feelings towards Kim Kyung Hee and Jang Sung Taek are worsening greatly,” the cadre source continued. “People who know well how people’s minds work may very well have leaked the rumor in order to try and restrain Jang Sung Taek.”

It is important to note that this article is no guide whatsoever to government policy, nor is it meant to be. It is premised on an (almost certainly) baseless rumor going around in the markets of Yangkang Province, from whence its author hails, and it only cites one source.

However, it does a good job of bringing up something critical to remember when analyzing information flowing out of North Korea; namely, that the North Korean authorities are well aware of how the system works.

What we (with "we" meaning any group trying to get news out of North Korea) are working with is, in truth, a pretty fragile piece of news gathering architecture; in the classic format, the words of a source are received by phone, and those words are then both tested for credibility by people with knowledge of how North Korea tends to operate and cross-checked with other sources from the same region or, in the case of big stories, areas nationwide (at least in the case of my organization; I would not be willing to vouch for any others).

While some of the information that emerges comes from rather well-connected sources such as Chosun Workers’ Party cadres of good standing, much of it is derived from conversations held in local markets. Obviously, since many of the women (only women) trading in these formal markets are connected to Party cadres, there is some crossover  and a lot of that information will also be of good quality, but some will not; it will be hearsay received at three, four or ten times remove.

Not only that; this fragile, relatively limited infrastructure is also open to North Korean abuse. North Korea actively operates on the premise that a well-timed declaration in the market in Hyesan, Shinuiju or Namyang will be on the pages of Chosun Ilbo or, as in this case, Radio Free Asia in a heartbeat. From there, of course, rumor gains its own currency, and eventually becomes fact. Before you know it, it is informing government policy inside the Beltway.

The aim is not just to misinform the international community, either. In a country like North Korea, where lateral and downward flows of information are deliberately impeded, methods of affecting public opinion outside the limited strictures of the state media are in very short supply.

What this means is that when one party wishes to constrain the actions of another party, whomever each may be, one of the best ways to do so is by word-of-mouth. Ergo, as the cadre in the article points out, “People who know well how people’s minds work may very well have leaked that rumor in order to try and restrain Jang Sung Taek.”

If so, what could the spreading of this particular rumor have been intended to achieve? Some back-of-an-envelope ideas;

1) It could be a rumor put out by the government itself, acting with the full knowledge of Kim Jong Eun, Jang Sung Taek and Kim Kyung Hee, to make sure that the development of Kim Jong Eun’s public image as a 'man of the people' is not damaged by the state's failure to meet the reformist expectations of the public (i.e. “Kim really wanted reform because he loves you people so much, but those assholes Jang and Kim stopped him doing it”); or

2) It could be someone from within the Cabinet, which mostly controls the civilian economy, putting out the rumor in order to raise public expectations of reform and force the government’s hand in that direction, a move which can then be attributed to Kim Jong Eun’s determined leadership later on (i.e. “That couple Jang and Kim wanted to stop the leader reforming the nation out of his boundless love for the people, but he would not be stopped and now he has won!”); or

3) It could be the government wanting to convince the international community that there is a dispute in the North Korean elite between reformers and conservatives in the hope that this will lead governments in Seoul, Washington, Tokyo, Moscow and Beijing to lend a supporting hand to the government on the premise that giving aid and development assistance on a massive scale will help to buttress the influence of the reformist wing (i.e. “Let’s conspire to convince our dumbass neighbors that there is a fight for influence in Pyongyang, and that only by their giving aid for the sake of those of us who want to open the country will they be able to help us face down the conservatives. Everybody in?”)

I am not here to try and claim to know which one of these is right or wrong, or even to present a comprehensive list of the possible purpose. Much less am I here to point the finger of doubt at Moon Sung Hwee, who is a friend and someone I respect. No; my only point is that the ‘North Korea newsgathering structure’ is, by necessity, designed in such a way that it is open to exploitation by the North Korean government and its affiliates.

Do not begin to imagine they haven’t thought of this, and are not trying to use it to their advantage. Read and analyze with care.

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