Friday, December 30, 2011

A Chip Off the Old Block...

Penned by myself in collaboration with the inestimable Cho Jong Ik here.
At 11AM yesterday morning, Kim Jong Eun gathered 100,000 or more Pyongyang civilians and soldiers in Kim Il Sung Square for a massive commemoration of the life of Kim Jong Il. However, in reality the event itself was more meaningful as a proclamation of the presence of a new leader of the North Korean people.

As such, the focus was less on memorializing the departed than about firmly establishing and demanding loyalty to both the dictatorship of Kim Jong Eun and the revolution. If Kim Jong Eun walking alongside the hearse carrying his deceased father during Wednesday's funeral cortège while shedding visible tears was intended to portray a son filled with 'filial respect', a highly valued emotion in traditional parts of East Asia, then yesterday was intended to show the people of North Korea and the world that the regime will go on, come what may.

It was Kim who stepped first onto the podium, followed by regime heavyweights Kim Yong Nam, Jang Sung Taek, Lee Young Ho and more. Once again, Kim was stamping the seal of the supreme leader in the people's minds.

In his comments, Supreme People's Assembly Standing Committee Chairman Kim Yong Nam demanded, "Carry forth comrade Kim Jong Eun as both the leader of the Party and the Supreme Commander of the military," adding for emphasis, "Completing the succession was Kim Jong Il's greatest achievement." It was not a eulogy, it was a call to arms.

Party secretary Kim Gi Nam spoke similarly, calling for loyalty by looking to the lineage of the new leader, pointing out, "We must accept and carry forth respected comrade Kim Jong Eun highly as the core of the leadership, and develop the strength of the Party of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il."

But Kim himself did not speak, something which did not come as a surprise. At a similar event upon the death of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il did not make a speech, either. As such, it may be that North Korea is planning to utilize the 'man of mystery' strategy in the process of Kim Jong Eun's idolization, just as Kim Jong Il did. 
Kim, lest we should forget, managed to make just one public statement in fully 37 years of rule. To those who are looking for a more open and approachable North Korean regime to emerge, it was a bad way to begin.
I'm firmly in favor of optimism, and in complete agreement with the diplomatic wait-and-see tactics that the allied Six-Party Talks protagonists appear to have adopted, but only the willfully blind would say that what we've seen since December 19th has been encouraging.

Simply, we would be wise to hope that a period of regime consolidation is seen in Pyongyang as a built-in and necessary part of an already existing program of modest change that the new broom has in store for an expectant world. That is what passes for optimism at this particular moment in time.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Kim Who Is Now 'There' But Not 'There'

In April, 2011 I wrote this, suggesting reasons why Kim Jong Eun cannot rule through the National Defense Commission as his father did. It is worth briefly reflecting on.

On Tuesday, December 20th the National Intelligence Service, in a report to the National Assembly Intelligence Committee, stated, "(Kim Jong Eun has been declared the successor but until such time as he becomes the official supreme leader) they will establish transitional ruling organs with the Party Central Military Commission at the core, and there present policy will be discussed."

In its current incarnation, the Central Military Commission does not represent the long term answer to the conundrum of through what or whom Kim Jong Eun should rule. As such, if he cements his leadership in the coming months without crisis, Kim will presumably get around to taking on the mantle of Chosun Workers' Party Chief-Secretary, yes perhaps via a Party Congress, and may then begin to rule North Korea through the overall Party apparatus that way.

However, on the other hand I still cannot yet see any good reason to believe that he will, as I said back in April, "step into the leader's slippers" and move into the big chair in the National Defense Commission.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Slow Road to Yuanization

How can it be that the state is not giving the North Korean people distribution, rice costs 5,000 North Korean won per kilo, the Chinese Yuan is trading for up to 1,000 North Korean won in some markets, and yet nobody appears to be starving?

This, in essence, is the conundrum troubling North Korea watchers today.

Some are really concerned. Here's Joo Seong Ha of North Korea Real Talk (from Ask a Korean!);
The price of rice in North Korea is not cheap even compared to South Korea's rice price. Unless it comes from an expensive brand, the price of rice in South Korea is under $2 per kilo. In other words, North Korean rice price is around half of South Korean rice price. Considering the huge disparity between the incomes of North and South Korea, the fact that North Koreans buy rice at this price is astonishing.
Joo believes that there is at least the risk that these rapidly rising prices portend impending famine. But, whether or not he is correct, it is certainly noticeable that his concerns are rooted more in the fact that he cannot assimilate the situation in any other way given the evidence available to him than because he has actual evidence of encroaching devastation. He continues;
In the spring of 1995, in Pyongyang, I saw the rice price going from 50 won per kilo to 200 won per kilo in just two or three months. And then two or three months later, mass starvation deaths began to occur everywhere in North Korea, and the regime declared the March of Struggle. But it is the fall right now, when rice just finished getting harvested -- and the price is already rising. I would rest a little easier if someone could explain to me that this is not a repeat of 1995.
Admittedly, his worries seem on the prima facie evidence available to be valid. 5,000 North Korean won per kilo is not a sustainable price for people earning around 5,000 North Korean won per month, after all. 

So what's the deal? 

Obviously nobody is saying there is no hunger. There presumably is. Similarly, it is not that Mr. Joo is wrong. No; instead, I wonder whether he and many others are looking at the wrong signal. In other words, I wonder whether the Yuan has become so overwhelmingly ubiquitous that North Korea has become the first ever 'Yuanized' state, and that, as a result, the price of rice denominated in North Korean won is becoming irrelevant because the buyers buy and the sellers sell in Chinese Yuan, and almost nobody is prepared to keep their savings in domestic currency. 

Were that to be the case, while it may suit the media to devote column inches to the skyrocketing price of rice, if few people are actually paying in that currency, then it is irrelevant, isn't it?

However, that is not precisely cause for celebration either, for if the government keeps forcing those parts of the economy it still controls to operate on North Korean won then there may well be a great deal of hunger and possible starvation, just as Mr. Joo predicted. This fits well with the narrative of a degraded and hungry military that has been a feature of analysis for some time. Equally, it will come as no comfort whatsoever to the "vulnerable people who have no access to the market" or those charged with providing aid to those people, and equally the statement, "helping the completely helpless in a state with no social safety net nor obvious desire to help its own people is something that only aid can realistically do at this point," also appears doomed to remain true for the foreseeable future.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Desperately Disappointing Darusman

Maruzki Darusman gave a press conference this morning to convey the results of his six-day trip to South Korea. The contents of my report on the event were published by Daily NK at the time, and are also republished below;

Maruzki Darusman, the UN’s special rapporteur on North Korean human rights issues, believes there has been no improvement since he took on the role in 2010, and has once again urged Pyongyang to take action to remedy its multitude of human rights failings.
Darusman, who gave a press conference at a Seoul hotel this morning, wrapping up a six-day visit to South Korea, noted that the only area in which any progress at all has been made with North Korea in the recent past is in terms of “cooperation with other UN entities, for instance the World Food Programme.”
Conversely, he slammed North Korea’s human rights record yet again, commenting, “The DPRK is perhaps the only country in the world today that does not recognize that non-cooperation with the human rights mechanism is not an option.” 
Darusman’s criticisms of North Korea, derived from the fact-finding trip, include the prevalence of human rights abuses in the testimony of new defectors at Hanawon, the resettlement center for defectors south of Seoul, a 17% year-on-year increase in defector numbers reaching Seoul, the current separated family reunions freeze and the ongoing stonewalling by North Korea of calls for the repatriation of more than 500 South Korean abductees still thought to be being held in the country. 
He also agreed to look into the case of Shin Suk Ja, saying, “The case of Oh Gil Nam is an emblematic case that illustrates the seriousness and magnitude of the problem and reminds us of the need to resolve the issue of abductions urgently." It is the internment of Dr. Oh’s wife Shin and their two children in a North Korean political prison camp which forms the inspiration for the ongoing ‘Save the Daughter of Tongyeong!’ movement in South Korea. 
However, disappointingly for the supporters of the movement, Darusman did so by saying that he plans to collect information on the case before “engaging the UN human rights mechanism, including the Working Group on Enforced Disappearances in Geneva,” rather than lending his voice to calls for Shin and her daughters to be released. 
“I will continue to be in touch with this matter on occasions” so as to “bring it forward to its resolution, hopefully in the near future,” he added. 
Darusman also initially refused to cite China directly for its role in repatriating defectors to face torture and imprisonment inside North Korea, instead noting simply that many defectors are “forcibly refouled or returned by the neighboring countries.” However he did, responding to a later question, note that “China would certainly be one of those countries.”

But I don't think the original content really represents the nuance of the event. Although my headline was soft around the edges for reasons of unity with Daily NK's Korean page, I personally believe the core of the story actually lies in the last two paragraphs.

For me, it is wholly indicative of the failure of the UN as it pertains to North Korea that the organization's own special rapporteur on North Korean human rights would be able to talk about the repatriation of defectors for five full minutes without mentioning China, and then not even mention the abductions issue in his recommendations despite having met Oh Gil Nam during the trip. Any headline on this press conference that you have read will have led with the contents of the post-press conference Q&A, and as such we should remember; if the press had not pushed Darusman on these two points, there would have been no mention of China at all and almost none of Shin Suk Ja.

I was not a huge fan of Darusman's predecessor Vitit Muntarbhorn, but that may have been simply because acting as the UN special rapporteur for this issue is such a thankless task in so many ways. However, to his immense credit, Muntarbhorn seemed clued up on the problems which he was required to address from the beginning. Darusman does not. He seemed uncomfortable to be responding to a question about Oh Gil Nam, at one point even seeking clarification of the question, and didn't even appear all that sure how many children Oh and Shin Suk Ja actually have. He then tried quite hard to avoid namechecking China. 

It was not an encouraging scene.

Keeping the Lid on Will Only Get Harder

Document dump alert! This commentary was published first by Daily NK on November 24th, 2011.

‘North Korea Sees Big Jump in Mobile Phone Use’, one AFP report announced on November 16th. AFP was not alone; in a piece on November 21st, Reuters added its voice, proclaiming, ‘Secretive North Korea Opens Up to Cell Phones.’

The interest of the two international news agencies had been piqued by the news, revealed in the third quarter earnings report of one half of North Korea’s monopoly 3G cell phone service provider, Orascom Telecom, that there are now more than 800,000 cell phone subscribers in the country.

At this moment of apparent progress, there are even those who see North Korea as a country on the cusp of a digital revolution. One, Dr. Alexandre Mansourov, a senior associate with the Nautilus Institute, wrote in a recent piece that Pyongyang could be about to “bandwagon with China’s digital juggernaut and catch up with the digital revolution in the South one day.”

Sadly, this is an unlikely outcome. But it is certainly sensible to contemplate whether the rapidly approaching era of one million North Korean cell phone users could one day herald a revolution of another kind, one along the lines of the bottom-up, citizen-led, SNS-driven Jasmine Revolution in the Middle East.

Pyongyang’s determination to use access to information as a way to control the North Korean people certainly militates against it. Recently, North Korea’s leaders have been particularly active in trying to block off the flow of information coming in, with controls over: ▲ illegal border crossing; ▲ use of Chinese cell phones; and ▲ private smuggling all strengthened, and violators punished unusually heavily.

Simultaneously, by cracking down on things like illegal radios, USBs, DVDs and other technology capable of containing, receiving or otherwise aiding in the distribution of external information, the authorities have also been striving to stop the circulation of external information within North Korea’s borders. Inspection units like ‘Group 109’ represent the practical enforcement of these efforts, and sources report that while in the past violations could be sidestepped through bribery, currently the official emphasis is very much on enforcement of the law and on punishment. In a period of harsh repression, Party cadres and members of the security forces are bound to reassess their incentives.

And yet, despite these repressive steps, it remains the case that there is now a form of spontaneously arising ‘public opinion’ in North Korea that there was not fifteen years ago, and this is something which can mostly be attributed to two things; marketization and the associated spread of technology.

Even as recently as the early 2000s, that information which did pass between civilians in North Korea was exceedingly simplistic; for example, “South Korea is doing well”, or “China has succeeded in reform and opening.” But now, thanks to marketization, there has come recognition of the essential nature of good, high quality, reliable information.

Take the example of rice prices. In North Korea today, rice prices are held to be among the most basic of information, something without which trading would be exceedingly difficult and inefficient. Fortunately, rice prices are not considered a state secret, and so they can be transmitted freely on a domestic cell phone using the Koryolink network. And yet, rice prices and exchange rates are not merely numerical values; because traders need to know about cause and effect, their transmission is guaranteed to elicit 2nd and even 3rd levels of information too, and this information can have a subversive edge; for instance about policy changes, agricultural conditions, Sino-North Korean economic cooperation or the presence/absence of international aid. Anyone with an interest in trading rice is sure to take a deep interest in all of these other things.

In addition to which, idle complaint such as “rice prices are so high, it is making life pretty hard” is also possible, since it does not trigger the state’s cell phone surveillance system, which is automated in the first instance and relies on the presence of key words in conversation.

Thus, while it is clear that spontaneously arising ‘public opinion’ and mild criticisms of this sort do not yet have the power to greatly affect official decision making, the very fact that people are making and communicating private judgments about information made independent from the explanations and analysis of the official media is an immensely meaningful change. Fatalistic resignation may still be the mainstream response to most major developments, but it is apparent that there is now the tendency to think about and analyze external information and the aims of domestic policy.

However, we must avoid over-interpreting the signs. As with the watching of South Korean dramas on North Korean DVD players, the presence of 800,000 cell phones in North Korea symbolizes an important phenomenon and an unexpected step forward, but it does not mean North Korea is becoming freer, or is likely to have its own Jasmine Revolution any time soon.

First, this is because if an average family in North Korea were to have three members, and any one family were only to have one cell phone, then 800,000 phones in the country would still only mean 2.4 million people with access to a cell phone, or roughly 10% of the population. In addition, given the overwhelming financial supremacy of Pyongyang over provincial areas, it is likely that a large majority of those phones reside in the capital region. As such, all we can say with certainty is that the number of cell phones in circulation represents a good indicator of the size of the affluent class in the country.

Second, because it is simply not Kim Jong Il’s intention, nor is it in his interest, to offer the people of North Korea the option of communicating freely. Simply, Koryolink, in which the North Korean state is a partner, is a good way for the regime to earn money. The fact that the company offers a discount on bills paid in Euro is proof of this purpose. Koryolink also allows the regime to issue propaganda about the development of the country, an increasingly important point when many other plans for the strong and prosperous state appear set to go up in smoke.

However, there is room to take heart. During yesterday's International Media Conference for North Korea Press Freedom held in Seoul, Daily NK president Park In Ho pointed out that it is the very same people who use cell phones, watch DVDs and carry illegal USB sticks who will find out time and time again that no matter how well educated they are and how successfully they trade, they cannot live the life they want to live because the regime won’t allow it. Every year that passes will bring more and more traders and students, cadres and ordinary women into closer and closer contact with each other. Invisible relationships will be built, information and modest grievances periodically aired, and people will thus become better able to appreciate that their country is not the place the authorities want them to think it is. This is a long but slippery slope for the regime.

It is not, in short, the ‘kotjebi’ who will lead the revolution in North Korea. When it happens it will be led by those young people from Pyongyang universities who have been deprived of a year of university education in order to get the construction of Changjeon St. done on time. It will not be easy to keep such a country in chains for too much longer.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Fast News in a Slow News Month

Two pieces of great news for today. 

First and foremost is that there is now the full text of 'NK People Speak, 2011' available in pdf format on the Daily NK database.

Second, that there is now also a way for people who are not in Seoul or Tongyeong to take sign the petition to save Shin Suk Ja and her two daughters, and maybe, just maybe, to close those dastardly prison camps!

It's been a slow news month, but you cannot say I never do anything for you!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Celebrity Tittle Tattle, But No Celebrity

There are many reasons why I don't always enjoy reading the South Korean media, and this past few days has seen me provided with one more; namely, Kim Han Sol.

Let's be clear: Kim Han Sol is a complete nobody. Not necessarily a good lad, but not necessarily a bad lad, either: he may or may not be kind to his friends, for example, and he may or may not send home gifts to his father at Chuseok and Seolnal religiously. Either way, we don't know the answers to these questions, and the reason why we don't know is because, even though his father is allegedly Kim Jong Il's first son Kim Jong Nam, it just. doesn't. matter.

It doesn't matter first and foremost because the boy is 16 years old. He had the misfortune of being born in North Korea, alongside the dodging-a-bullet good fortune of being born into the Kim family. But, like Prince Harry, he also has the good fortune of having absolutely no chance whatsoever of ever being the successor to anybody.

All of which then obviously begs the following question: why did the appearance of a young man of this name on the class list at a fairly obscure educational establishment in Bosnia & Herzegovina (a statement pretending that the arrival of Kim represents the absolute pinnacle of outreach can be read here, but the class list has been taken down) have the South Korean media falling over itself to publish not only his photos (the lad is relatively dashing, and has fashion sense best described as more 'Japanese-y' than Korean, piquing front page picture editors all over Seoul, including on the Korean side of my office) but also, pretty much verbatim, every comment he has ever posted/left on the internet?

For saving me the bother of reproducing said comments, thanks to Martyn Williams at North Korea Tech for this very brief overview of the kind of stuff that filled a page 2 spread in the Chosun Ilbo (see left, followed on from page 1 above, and synthesized in English in large part here, found via Leonid Petrov).

Anyway, it's all irrelevant. As the post title suggests, it's celebrity tittle tattle, but without any sign of a celebrity. This young man, if indeed it is who the South Korean media believe it is, may one day end up in Pyongyang (or elsewhere) doing the bidding of whoever is on the throne in the North Korean capital. Then, much like Kim Jong Cheol and the sordid tale of his appearance at an Eric Clapton concert in Singapore, he will be fair game. It won't be interesting, but it will be legitimate, and connected criticism will be absolutely justified. The current press focus on Kim Han Sol is neither.

Part of me wants it all to turn out to have been an elaborate hoax, but the other half of me knows that the Korean media would then feel compelled to publish that, too, and I am not sure I can take much more.

(This is an extension of a commentary I wrote for The Daily NK on Saturday, October 2nd here, ably assisted, I might point out, by Mr. Gerard Armstrong, one of those behind-the-scenes kind of heroic translator sorts who make my daily management of Daily NK content so much easier.)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Complexities of Trade, in a Picture

In an e-mail received quite a lot more than a year ago from Professor Stephan Haggard, the co-author of 'Witness to Transformation' and a number of other critical tracts in the English-speaking world of North Korea analysis advised me that any serious scholar of North Korea in the modern age who did not possess a pretty firm grasp of economics (very broadly defined) would soon enough be a scholar left behind in the dust.

Though I am aware that it did not actually require a professor of political science to recognize that fact, coming from him it nevertheless had more of an impact. And it is a truism that is only becoming truer with the passing of time. The economic and political landscape of North Korea, a thorny topic at the best of times, seems now to be changing rapidly, and in some interesting ways.

For example, it is the view of the president of The Daily NK, Park In-ho, that the days when we can talk of North Korea having 'markets' or a 'jangmadang' should be put behind us. This is not to say that there are no markets; on the contrary, they are beginning to thrive again after the November, 2009 currency redenomination, although prices are too high given the ongoing lack of capital for many.

No, what Mr. Park actually means is that by referring to 'markets' or 'the jangmadang' as if they were one unit, we are basically hindering our capacity to understand what is going on in North Korea's capitalist economic sector. It was once a useful designation, then, but in many ways has ceased to be so.

What Mr. Park wants us to recognize is that North Korea now has formal and informal markets. These are more instructive terms, in that they tell us many things about the nature of the markets in question.

That being said, if you turn around and say to me, "But Chris, both these markets sell the same stuff, and are co-located to a very high degree," I'll only agree with you. In terms of demand, you'd be correct. After all, an informal market and a formal market do get their goods from many of the same sources, and do serve exactly the same people, with the same tastes in smuggled DVDs and Chinese clothing. Equally, they really are on two sides of one wall in many cases; on one side in a formal setting with multiple 1m x 1m stalls for which traders pay a fee and get the right to trade in exchange, the other on the street, with no stall fees, and no stalls; only goods, set up ad hoc on whatever is nearby. Therefore, they look somewhat different, but act in much the same way.

On the supply side, however, the distinction between formal and informal is more important, notably since the authorities persist in only allowing women of a certain age (and with a certain amount of clout with the powers-that-be, in most cases) to trade in the formal market. This form of arbitrary discrimination would be disastrous for those prohibited from trading if there were no alternative. However, there is an alternative and it is, obviously, the informal market.

Thus, while it is beyond my remit to suggest policies that might employ these facts, it is to be hoped that policy-makers in Washington, where Mr. Park was speaking, and elsewhere appreciate that somehow attempting to 'support the development of the jangmadang' or 'encourage capitalist activities in North Korea' is likely to result in supporting and developing some people (the wives of cadres being the quintessential example) who do not need it. More nuance is needed if such an ambition is to bear any fruit.

Second, if we move marginally up the commercial chain, we come to the subject of cross-border business. To which end, I bring you some art (see above)...

This is a recreation of a diagram penned by Professor Haggard when he visited The Daily NK a few months ago. Utilizing it, he pointed out one of the main things that characterize cross-border trade in the present day; most of it is being done by larger enterprises.

While small-scale private smuggling does still go on with some frequency, particularly in more rugged areas as shown by type-B transactions, it is true to say that most A-type transactions are no longer like that, involving as they do significant commercial entities on both sides of the Sino-North Korean border.

Whether or not this is bad is rather hard to decide, which may be why few people are prepared to try. On the positive side, these enterprises are both sustaining their own staff and, more importantly, feeding domestic traders' need for products in the form of C- and D-type transactions. On the negative side, they do pay their dues to the Party in the form of loyalty payments and such like, making them complicit tools in the perpetuation of the Kim dynasty, much like a formal market trader paying her stall fee to the market management office.

So there you are; just two good economic reasons why being against the North Korean regime and for the North Korean people is only going to get more complicated as time goes by, all without so much as mentioning a trans-Korean gas pipeline or the words 'Mount Geumgang'. Those are a whole other issue completely...

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Nice Lada, Where Did You Get It?

According to RBK Daily (via here), a North Korean company called Lucas Trading purchased 250 cars made by the Russian company AvtoVAZ in the first half of this year. The cars apparently included the Lada Priora and the Lada 4x4.

The same company apparently has a record of purchasing cars from AvtoVAZ; 500 in 2008 and 530 in 2009; however, it purchased none last year.

Obviously, none of this is in any sense news. Given its status as a former ally of the Soviet Union, North Korea has a history of buying both Lada and Volga cars, some of which can be seen crawling the underpopulated streets of Pyongyang to this day.

Regardless of which, inspired to see whether the North Koreans were getting much bang for their buck, I looked for some reviews online, and this is what I came up with;

1) My Lada car was hit severely twice, once from the back, the other from the front, without any remarkable damage. 2) High performance on the road with smooth driving and no problems as long as you follow the maintenance schedule. 3) Equipped with EEC, power steering operated with hydraulic power, air-conditioning and electric windows but without air-bag...

Sounds good, doesn't it? Bit of a luxury vehicle for some in the North Korean capital, I'd say. But I wonder whether the next review might not have been a factor, too;

Pull your head out of your ass and stop exaggerating. These vehicles are mediocre, at best. They will break down when least expected. The positive side, cheap and easy to fix, every mechanics' dream come true...
Bit rude, but I can certainly see cheap and easy to fix being quite popular features. Might one speculate that fuel efficiency is also quite good?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Flight of a Winter Butterfly

Crossing was a hard movie to like, hampered as it was by some weak effects that made it fundamentally quite difficult to believe in. Obviously, this was rooted in the indisputable fact that a great many things about life in North Korea are already exceptionally hard to grasp, but it is nevertheless important for the atmosphere of a movie to strike watchers as legitimate, even when it is a movie about a place as extreme as North Korea; the only industrialized country to have suffered a famine in peacetime.

Now, however, what Crossing did not achieve, 겨울 나비 (Winter Butterfly), the new movie from defector Kim Kyu Min, who previously worked on Crossing, does.

It is a film which portrays beautifully the stark surroundings of a rural or semi-rural North Korean family. It is a landscape with no real comforts to speak of, but also nothing that one can point at and say is inconceivably and intolerably uncomfortable. That is with one clear exception; the utter fragility of the situation.

What the film ends up doing is breaking down this reality; it points out that if, and it is a big if, a family is well-constructed, with a father, a wife and a healthy child or two, things are probably alright (represented here by the happy wedding photo from times past), and even if a family is broken in some way (in this case, father appears to have passed away some years before) it can still survive, actually, though not in a way that is necessarily favorable (in this case, the young boy has to gather wood to make money, rather than going to school, but the mother sells the wood, and the family buys corn).

Yet, if one thing out of many does happen to go seriously wrong, it can have such profound implications that an already weakened family unit is destroyed in a heartbeat. This is living on the edge, and not in a good way.

Winter Butterfly is, then, a very thoughtful portrait of this kind of life, and if it were to be shown at western film festivals it would be very well-received, of this I am sure. However, it has a problem, or rather, to be absolutely accurate, the audience has a problem that the film may not be able to fix.

This horrifying act is thoughtfully portrayed, relevant and insightful, but it can hardly avoid reaffirming a certain stereotype about the country potentially harbored by watchers less knowledgeable about North Korea than those reading this.

It is a huge problem, and one rooted in something not easily overcome. Yet this film itself is so good and so important, so intelligent and so valid, that I would be happy to subtitle and distribute it myself.

Update: I spoke to the director this morning, and he said that there is a subtitled version of the film ready for distribution to film festivals next year.

On the central issue that could affect how watchers take the movie, Kim made a good point; if a defector cannot say these things and have them openly accepted, then nobody can. And, as I pointed out in my piece above, it is the way that the regime has created a system that leaves families blowing around in the perilous wind of accidents and arbitrarily applied official fiat that is the point here. Horrifying acts are just the result.

Also, as a result of his comments, I have removed reference to what actually happens since that might spoil it for watchers. If that makes this piece somewhat confusing, I apologize, but hope it inspires more people to watch the film when the chance arises.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Looking at Food Aid with Open Eyes

The following piece appeared in the recently released Vol.6 of 'Korea Policy', a predominantly Korean language journal available here in South Korea. I waited for publication there before offering the piece up here.

It was written at a time when voiced fears about starvation were being rooted in the alleged failure of the last autumn harvest and the risks associated with the lean period before the spring potato harvest, though this subsequently turned into alleged problems with the potato harvest as well.

It was also written weeks before the EU decided to restart food aid to North Korea with a modest EUR10 million package, but I nevertheless hope it will end up as a blueprint for what the EU and others do, namely provide "the absolute minimum needed to help a very small number of people for the shortest possible time."

Evidently, one thing the EU is not going to do is go to the extremes of what has been suggested in terms of undermining the predatory ambitions of the Chosun People's Army, for example by cooking food on site prior to distribution, but the stated budget limitations do suggest that Brussels is at least mindful of the worst thing of all, namely entering into an open-ended commitment to support the deplorable policy choices of the North Korean regime.

The debate about food aid to North Korea has been going on since approximately the end of March, when Choi Tae Bok, the chair of North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly, visited the UK, taking up an invitation from Lord David Alton, one of the leading members of the British-North Korea All-Party Parliamentary Group.

According to Lord Alton, among the reasons for inviting Choi was to“expose him to the way we build our civil society in Britain1,”and he was indeed offered a myriad of experiences; he visited the School of Oriental and Asian Studies and looked around a TB unit at one of London's premier hospitals, received a book of Lord Byron’s poetry (Choi is a fan), went to Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, and was even handed the signal honor of being the first high-ranking member of the Kim regime to meet a North Korean defector and hear a question from him on human rights issues, though he didn’t know it was going to happen and would not have agreed to it if he had.

But all of that was an aside, ultimately overshadowed as it was by Choi’s repeated calls during the trip for food aid. He was not the first North Korean to do so, it should be noted; there had been rumors of calls for food from North Korean diplomats in places as far removed as Poland and Zimbabwe, not to mention the UK itself, but he was the most senior, and his calls resonated the loudest.

Choi’s words were very clear, “The next two months are a crisis time.” He was calling for food aid to see North Korea through the spring shortages, the time in April and May when food is traditionally scarce due to the normal farming cycle, but one which can ordinarily be overcome thanks in part to the availability of wild plants to supplement the basic diet (some of which South Koreans also eat in spring, it should be noted). However, given Choi's calls, many assumed that something must have gone very wrong.

And yet, looking back at April when the two months of spring shortages to which Choi was referring typically begin, most inside sources cited in The Daily NK reports showed guarded confidence that survival would be achieved;

"I called my parents a few days ago, and they said‘As long as you have money, you can buy as much rice in the market as you want. Some households are struggling with the spring shortages, but nobody is near the stage of eating porridge made from grasses.'" (Hwang, Shinuiju, April 6th)

"When I call my family and ask about food, they say ‘As long as you have money, you can take your pick of the rice.' Mid-level people are eating three meals of potato, corn and barley rice per day, and those for whom it is difficult are eating one meal of wheat flour noodles." (Hong, Yangkang Province, April 6th)

Further inside North Korea, more general reports of city-by-city food security emerged, showing a tough but not insurmountable situation;

"In Pyongsung, South Pyongan Province, a comparatively affluent city thanks to a somewhat thriving market located on a main arterial trade route, sources say that 85% of people can afford to have three meals a day, and 15% just two." (April 20th)

"In Haeju, a less advantageous coastal location in South Hwanghae Province facing Yeonpyeong Island, 80% of people are having three meals a day, 15% have two, and 5% just one." (April 20th)

One NGO, German Agro Action, also cut against the grain of a UN report released around the time of Choi's visit which had called for 430,000 tons of immediate food aid, saying that while there are unquestionably food shortages in North Korea, there are "political reasons behind Pyongyang’s drive to obtain aid and doubts about the validity of the report itself."

Meanwhile, further complexity was lent to the decision by the fact that there is always hunger in the country to some degree. This is because the Kim regime is one which, although it likes to blame bad weather and its perceived enemies for chronic food insecurity, is primarily responsible for the situation it finds itself in thanks to a politically-motivated determination to stick to totally inefficient food production methods, a fact that German Agro Action focused on in its dissenting remarks.

More information was needed. An important point was made in an April 30th piece, when Cheong Gwang Min, a researcher into the state of North Korean agriculture pointed out, “Those suffering from hunger in North Korea are no longer just those on the lowest rung of society, but also now includes those who have lost any means of participating in the market economy, i.e. the ‘new poor', including lower ranking soldiers.”

Clearly, this concept of the‘new poor represented tacit acknowledgement that the market, and not the state, is the de facto provider of food to most people in modern North Korea. To say that some go hungry precisely because they cannot participate in the market is very similar to saying most people do not go hungry because they can. Therefore, we can presume that as a result of the market’s existence and its resistance to official censure, nobody in North Korea with sufficient access to the market is starving. Thus, we would be wise to view the situation afresh; in particular, to note that there is (admittedly rather expensive) food out there, but that the regime does not have control of much of it, which from Pyongyang’s perspective is the fundamental problem, and the probable root of Choi's calls.

In other words, the regime lacks the food it needs to feed those it has either taken on the obligation to sustain or has the desire to placate; particularly, but not exclusively, the military and security services.

The international community and NGOs can and should recognize, therefore, that by not giving the regime food aid, Pyongyang is being denied one of its key tools of control, namely the ability to feed and fully guarantee the loyalty of the People’s Army, the National Security Agency, People’s Security Ministry and other sectors of the security forces it has traditionally prioritized. Denied, that is to say, unless it imports food, which is what it should be made to do.

At the same time, there are few people who would deny that a targeted program of aid to civilians who have “lost any means of participating in the market” is sensible, and that measures such as cooking food on site for distribution etc are capable of eliminating the majority of fears related to diversion. But as a general rule of thumb, no aid beyond the absolute minimum needed to help this very small number of people for the shortest possible time should be provided. As Professor Yoo Ho Yeol of Korea University put it at a recent forum, “For specific areas and groups which cannot obtain the benefits of the market, support is possible; however, this must be done temporarily, to a limited extent and with conditions.”

Even if we assume, as many did, that spring this year was a time for aid of this sort, to meet such stringent objectives the U.S. and international agencies would have needed to listen to Choi Tae Bok’s plea and act instantly to get food into North Korea to cover the difficulties of a small, precisely defined number of people during a brief period of April, May and the very start of June. But they did not do that, partly because nothing happens like that where North Korea is concerned, and partly because both the international community and various media organizations, including The Daily NK, entered into a lengthy round of debate as to why North Korea was calling so vociferously for food aid at that stage (Is it for the Strong and Prosperous State in 2012? Is it to build inventories to hunker down following a future nuclear test?).

The result is that the spring shortages are now over while almost no aid has been provided. It is noticeable that there have been no reports of widespread starvation whatsoever, despite Choi Tae Bok's dark warnings and some extremely sensationalized reporting in the western media. This indicates that the market is operating as it should.

For the time being, it would be preferable if the international community were to stop the debate on food aid altogether and take a step back to watch China, which seems to be taking an alternate path by pushing North Korea to conduct its affairs on conventional economic terms, and also the people of North Korea, who are quietly doing what the regime should have been doing for years, namely importing food to sell to the people in functioning markets. Market prices are lower now than they have been since 2009 thanks to stable Yuan exchange rates, and while purchasing power has decreased and a number of people have entered poverty who would not otherwise be there, conversely most people are sustaining themselves sufficiently to not require aid. Note also that most traders who had their funds expropriated by the state in the 2009 redenomination will not be in that position forever; given time and a small amount of good fortune, they too will be able to bounce back.

Contrary to our intentions, giving anything but the most essential aid to the most needy at the most critical moments would potentially reduce the influence of the market, both as a source of food but also of information circulation. A policy of ongoing aid provision, which the U.S. appears to be considering and which the South Korean opposition Democratic Party would almost certainly institute if it were to win the presidential poll in 2012, would risk a number of gains for insufficient reward.
I think the piece continues to stand in the face of current evidence, but dissension is welcome. I would like also like to draw attention to one phrase near the end;
Note also that most traders who had their funds expropriated by the state in the 2009 redenomination will not be in that position forever; given time and a small amount of good fortune, they too will be able to bounce back.
However, it is not actually about good fortune. What I mean to suggest is that the majority of our future investment in 'aiding' the North Korean people ought to be put not into quick fixes such as corn and high calorie biscuits, but instead into applying more creative ideas in an ongoing manner, starting with finding ways to get money back into the hands of traders so that they can pursue the work of freeing their comrades from the apron strings of the state. Microloans would be one way, but not the only one.

I am well aware that this would not help that small group of vulnerable people who have no access to the market, and am equally aware that helping the completely helpless in a state with no social safety net nor obvious desire to help its own people is something that only aid can realistically do at this point, but what it would do is help to build back up the nascent middle class that was hollowed out by the currency redenomination. This is important work, because while the truly poor will probably always struggle, in the long run it will be the burgeoning self-interest of the middle class that has the best chance of ending this nonsense once and for all.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Ambassador Stephens, Crossing Borders

On balance, it would be hard to find a less controversial space on the entire internet than the blog of an ambassador (unless it is former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray, perhaps), and this rule holds absolutely true for that of Ambassador Kathleen Stephens, the outgoing U.S. ambassador here in Seoul; so much so that I didn't know the blog even existed until the Hankyoreh decided to inform me of it. Bearing in mind I am a journalist, that is quite a high degree of non-controversy.

Anyhow, Hankyoreh plucked the Stephens blog from media obscurity on Saturday 25th in order to proclaim, "스티븐스 대사 'DJ 화해통일 비전 실현해야'" ("Ambassador Stephens, 'We must realize DJ's reconciliatory unification'"), the evidence for which came from this blog post, dated June 20th, about a cycling trip Ambassador Stephens recently took to the home province of Kim Dae Jung, Jeollanamdo.

There, in Gungang Park on the island of Jindo, Stephens told an assembled crowd in Korean (translation mine), "We remember Kim Dae Jung's vision of unification through reconciliation," and continued, "Let's strengthen our resolve to realize President Kim's vision!"

This, the Hankyoreh believes, is being interpreted by some (who these someones are, note, is not made clear) as containing an "indirect criticism of President Lee Myung Bak's hardline policy."

Erm, not really. But good try.

By the by, were you to read the same blog post in English, you'd find that the part about DJ is slightly different;

We remember President Kim’s vision of eventual reunification through reconciliation. We look forward to the day when the whole Peninsula is free and all Korean people experience a reconciliation befitting the sacrifice we honor.

Make of that what you will.

Monday, June 20, 2011

North Korean Human Rights Slides Again

What has long been suspected is official; the North Korean Human Rights Bill will not be addressed during the June session of the National Assembly.

Given that the same bill had been delayed or otherwise avoided by the powers that be for six years, having been first introduced way back in 2005, watchers are not surprised.

To be frank, it had never really seemed likely that the bill would make it onto the statute at this point either, given a history of implacable leftist opposition, the frequently violent nature of South Korean legislative politics and the fact that the Grand National Party has not always seemed unduly committed to making it happen anyway.

Meanwhile, whatever one may think of the Chosun Ilbo, and I have had some choice words for it before, it has always supported the bill, and in this article amply reflects the annoyance felt by many at the hypocrisy of the ruling party;

(GNP Floor Leader) Hwang Woo Yea, speaking on the 7th said, ‘If we were to not pass the North Korean Human Rights Bill within the session, there would be popular resistance and international criticism,’ and on the same day, policy head Lee Joo Young said, ‘We will absolutely pass the North Korea Human Rights Bill in the June National Assembly.’

However, these avowals became mere empty words. An anonymous official near the center of GNP politics said, ‘We judged that it would be all but impossible to deal with the North Korean Human Rights Bill within the June National Assembly given the Democratic Party’s opposition to dealing with it and insistence on merging it with their own North Korean Livelihoods and Human Rights Law.’ A Democratic Party person said, ‘The Grand National Party didn’t appear to have a strong will to deal with it during the June National Assembly from the beginning.’

So off the bill goes, leaving in its wake the task of addressing corruption vis a recent savings bank scandal and the composition of a group to deal with the ongoing dilly-dallying and silliness that passes for negotiation of the US-South Korea FTA.

Of course, on the human rights bill both sides may, in reality, have been quite right. The GNP really would find it extremely difficult to get the bill onto the statute in any form as things stand, and many GNP lawmakers see it as a bill which can be traded away for more beneficial, populist policies as time demands anyway. The Democratic Party knows all this equally well and is quite happy to play that particular game, leaving the original bill stalled in the Legislation and Judiciary Committee while the two sides trade self-aggrandizements about how much they 'truly' want to help the North Korean people.

If the nation continues on this path, of course, one day one of two things will occur. Either unification will come, and some hard questions will have to be asked of those who did nothing to help the North Korean people, or it will not come, defections will continue and eventually there will be enough defectors in areas of South Korea to make such a bill a vote winner.

It will be interesting then to see how quickly those lawmakers who would currently prefer to ignore the problem completely change their collective tune.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

An Anti-Reform Marriage of Convenience

I've made available links to two Cold War International History Project working papers written by Dr. Bernd Schaefer, as cited in an upcoming interview with Dr. Schaefer to be hosted by The Daily NK, here and here. Fantastic stuff.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Dizzying Ignorance, and Short Memories

I can honestly say that my recent interview in London with Lord David Alton (see here), much as I may disagree with some (though not all) of what he said, gave me a benchmark understanding of someone with a genuine intellectual and humanitarian interest in the welfare of the North Korean people.

He, as far as I could discern, read the recent WFP and NGO reports on the conditions in North Korea, listened to "our man in Pyongyang" and decided, not altogether unreasonably, that it painted a worrying picture, and has thereafter been acting with this fact in mind.

Whereas, there are some people who, motivations aside, deserve a kicking. Today's examples? Greta van Susteren and Bernd Goken of German NGO 'Cap Anamur'.

Let us begin with Van Susteren, who is guilty of, at best, transmitting some of the most absurd fearmongering I have ever come across on her recent week-long FOX News 'fact-finding' trip to North Korea.

Not only is her coverage, as noted by one close friend, "unwatchable" since "she can't even pronounce 'Taedong'", it is also dangerously and implausibly divorced from reality.

Here is her main point, one she was so keen to hammer home that she lost the run of herself completely and made three times, two of them in consecutive paragraphs;

This country is on the verge of a catastrophe. It is said by the world community beginning in June, they will run out of food and there will be a famine. The estimates of anywhere from one million to six million who will starve. This is a country of 26 million. One to six million may starve to death beginning in the month of June.

The problem that is bearing down on this country is the famine that is expected to start in June where there is a risk, at least an estimate by many in the world community that one to six million will starve to death because they've had such terrible crops and such a harsh winter in this country.

So this is greatly needed by this country, what is a longer term solution. The bigger problem is they run the risk, come June, enormous food shortage in this country. There could be one to six million people that begin to starve to death.

Elsewhere on her 'Gretawire' blog, there appears to be literally no end to the lengths she shows a willingness to go to in order to sow the seeds of a tearful tragedy, seeing herself as the modern day saviour of an entire people, no doubt, as she trumpets, 'Do you think this woman knows the food supply runs out in two weeks?' alongside a picture of a woman who, while no doubt living a life nobody would entirely wish upon her, is also clearly not a figure plucked at random from the huddled masses, either.

In the next, or was it last, I got thoroughly confused there were so many, pictorial classic she warns, 'Can you believe these pictures? So beautiful... but' as though if one were to come back in a fortnight there'd be nothing but the oxen for company.

However, while I don't actually expect better from FOX News, some organizations actually should know better, much better, and one among them is surely Cap Anamur, a German NGO with a long-standing record of helping North Korea. The group has, according to this VOA report, dispatched 200 tons of rice aid to Anju in South Pyongan Province and Haeju in South Hwanghae Province.

What bothers me is not the fact that this NGO has sent aid per se, since I can clearly see the benefit of well-targeted aid projects, and should remind you again at this point that there were a number of areas of agreement I shared with Lord Alton. No, what made me sigh in despair was this from head Bernd Goken;
The North Korean people like rice more than corn, so we decided to send rice.

Were it the case that the whole thing was just a happy matter of prefered menu choice, one wonders, would we even be in this mess? Where, I ask, is all that we have learned about aid diversion, aid going to the elite, being stored for next year, for a possible nuclear test, acting as balance of payments subsidy? Where, in short, is the sense in sending to North Korea the most diversion-prone aid there is?
The North Korean elite prefer wine and cheese to corn and baby formula, so we decided to send wine and cheese.

You see my point, right?

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Lord Alton Interview: Views on Food Aid

My recent absence, during which I spent two weeks in England in the kind of glorious weather that casts doubt on everything my overseas friends thought they once knew of that subject, gave me a chance to take a trip to Westminster and meet Lord David Alton, a man who describes himself as a "fairly obscure, independent cross-bench peer" but who can also be described as the chairman of the British-North Korea All-Party Parliamentary Group.

During the interview, I spoke in depth with Lord Alton on the subject of food aid, something he supports and I am somewhat skeptical of for a number of reasons.

The majority of that section of the interview didn't make the cut, so in the spirit of openness and because there is much of interest in what he had to say, here is the transcript of that section of the interview;

DP: Let’s turn to the topic of food aid. As you know, the South Korean and American governments have their doubts…

Lord Alton: I can only rely on three things; one is the evidence of Peter Hughes, our ambassador in Pyongyang, who is on the public record as saying that he has seen increased evidence of malnutrition in the country; there is the evidence of my own eyes for that matter as well; but most important of all is the evidence produced by the United Nations through the World Food Programme, which has given the figures on how much food the North will be short by.

Now I know that in South Korea there is a fear that the food will go into the hands of the wrong people, the million men under arms; but they are human beings too, and I have never believed that trying to starve armies or peoples into submission is a very wise approach. If you corner people and try to starve them they are likely to respond in ways which you wouldn’t desire, so starving people into submission doesn’t seem like a very sensible way to proceed. We have had monitors in North Korea in the past, and the monitors who have been there like Professor Hazel Smith, who has given evidence before my own committee, have said that the overwhelming majority of the food that has gone there in the past has reached the civilian population.

But it is true that some will go to the military, I think that is just almost inevitable. And who are these million men? They are conscripts, they aren’t trained militias raised on rib-eye steaks and the rest, and you can see that these are people who have not had much nourishment themselves or a stable diet.

So I think we have to take the WFP at their word. Now it may well be South Korea’s fear that this is just an attempt to store up food for distribution next year’s 2012 celebrations; I can’t say there is no possibility of that happening, but it is also clear that there is a desperate need for food over the next two months, although I do think it is reasonable for the international community to insist on proper monitoring.

DP: But as it stands the North Koreans are calling for rice, rather than any other products, which is a very odd demand if you are making a legitimate call for food.

Lord Alton: Yes, well we heard requests for a variety of foods, but anyway, the sincerity of their demands needs to be tested. However, I think a blanket ban on food exports into North Korea would be wrong. Food should never be used as a weapon of war, and if there is a need over the next two months for food to sustain the population, then let’s make available that food. Maybe you are right, maybe it should not just be food that can be stored for the future, and let’s insist on there being proper monitors; they are both reasonable requests. But that isn’t after all the position that is being taken right now by the United States and South Korea; their position is that no food is being made available.

DP: From the South Korean perspective, the worry is that if you send food aid and in some small way it does go to feed soldiers and then those soldiers are used to kill South Koreans in one way or another; that is going to be politically untenable.

Lord Alton: I think all of these are scenarios that are perfectly reasonable for people to raise, and I am not here to defend North Korea, but I do want to find a way forward, and I think to spend all our lives denying people food and worrying about nuclear tests when we know there have already been tests and there has already been a famine which cost two million lives is a bit like counting the deckchairs on the Titanic; it would be better to try and make sure that the vessel is watertight, and the only way to do that is to find a long-term solution, so I want to see an increase in diplomatic efforts to solve the longer term problem.

It may be that in the meantime we have to do some things which are mildly unpalatable. But if they get so desperate that we see food protests in some towns then some people in the military may well see it that some provocative acts to concentrate the minds of the populace might be a good idea, and is that in anybody’s best interests either?

DP: No, but in the northern provinces the price of rice is actually falling, and that is causing some understandable confusion.

Lord Alton: That’s true, and I can understand the confusion, and if North Korea wants to pursue the argument of receiving outside support then it would be helpful to let the WFP and other assessors come in and visit those provinces and to see for themselves. At the moment we just seem to have a stand-off, with neither side moving and with South Korea and the United States not really wanting anyone to move. The people caught in the crossfire will be weak people; children, old people, people whose health is already impaired. So the sincerity of this call should be tested; for example, why not ask China if they would mount an investigative mission to corroborate things one way or the other?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Marvellous South Korean Media Machine

A small cornucopia of may-or-may-not be true stuff coming out of the Korean media today, not least among which was the juiciest titbit that tells us Kim Jong Eun is now the head of the National Security Agency.

Elsewhere, there is a heart-warming tale about how people in the most inhospitable areas of Gangwon Province, a larger than average province divided down the middle by the 38th Parallel, have been living off items provided at random by those private groups in South Korea who make a habit of floating balloons full of medicine, other usable items and anti-Kim propaganda across the DMZ and into North Korea, much to the chagrin of both the Kim regime and the opposition Democratic Party.

"They are using stuff like lighters sent over from South Korea hanging from balloons," the piece explains, adding by way of disconcertingly vague explanation, "A long time ago a load of South Korean-made products were left there; the people value and are using them."

Third on the block is a piece re-reported by the Chosun Ilbo from a Changchun daily newspaper, which announces that 'Three Nation Tours' started being offered by Chinese tour agencies at the start of April, taking in the delights of the Yanbian Autonomous Region of China, Rasun in North Korea and Russia's starkly beautiful Far East. It's allegedly a three-company joint affair, led on the North Korean side by the Rasun Tourism Company, which may or may not choose to translate itself that way given half a chance.

The route as it stands appears to begin in Hunchun, before going by train to Slavyanka, a place which Wikipedia reliably informs me has a population of less than 20,000, and down to Rasun. However, the authorities in Yanbian are, it alleges, working to open up a route down through Rasun to Pyongyang and on to Panmunjom, which, if it came to pass, would surely get the blood swirling in the loins of those who dream of that illusive train trip from the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula to Busan... 'all' one would have to do is sneak onto a train out of the Kaesong Complex...

Anyway, to return to that first story about Kim Jong Eun, I think I would generally tend to doubt it, but there has been a weight of rumor in North Korea of late that says recent harsh decrees have been his doing, and the unusually strict enforcement of said decrees only adds weight to the suspicions. Here, to name but one.

That said, no story about a harsh decree in North Korea is any longer complete without the addition of a comment about Kim Jong Eun. It is surely a fierce battle to decide who hates him more; the people of North Korea, or South Korean activists who write about him.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Kim Who Was Never Going to Be 'There'

There has always been a National Defense Commission. It used to be small, and concerned itself with security matters.

But when an omnipotent founding father begins to fade and then passes away, his successor cannot merely shove the elder statesman aside and step into his ruling slippers as if nothing has happened. God lord no, such a thing would never do! The ailing-soon-to-be-former leader is a God, a hero amongst men; not, in short, someone to be cast aside without a second thought!

So what did Kim Jong Il do when his father died? Well, first he mourned for three years while a devastating famine swept the northern provinces of the country. Then, rather like Stalin at the dawn of World War 2, he pulled himself together and made a plan. That plan was quite good, actually. First, he vowed to turn the country, more than it already was, into a military dictatorship. Then, having adopted this notion of ‘Military-first’ rule, he took the National Defense Commission, which he had been leading as Commander-in-Chief since 1991, and turned it into the de facto state ruling body, thus becoming, to every newsreader on the peninsula, “National Defense Commission Chairman Kim Jong Il…”

Now, fast forward fifteen years or so. There is a new leader on the rise, or so it is said. And he, too, has a problem. First of all, his father isn’t dead either, although in many ways this is fortunate since the young man doesn’t have much to work with as it stands. No, the real problem is that this young man needs a way to rule, a route by which to grip the levers of power. The same problem this young man’s father had is back to haunt him; his own father has been lionized for so long, been elevated to the verge of that pantheon of Gods upon which his grandfather sits (though nowadays the nation’s subjects apparently laugh into their hands as they speak of such things). He cannot simply walk in the older man's shoes. To reiterate; he can’t just step into the leader’s slippers!

So, just as his father did, this young man goes in through the side door. This is a military state, so he needs to take power in that field; in short, he needs to find a seat on a military… commission? Yes, that’s the answer, a military commission! How about the Central Military Commission? Bravo!

We should perhaps not, then, be particularly stunned by the fact that even Kim Jong Eun's name itself went unsaid yesterday. Kim Jong Il is the National Defense Commission, and when he dies, the National Defense Commission may well die with him. Kim Jong Eun, meanwhile, needs to find a different road...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Zooming Down a Reuters Wormhole

Alright, I've got a very minor mystery for you. Basically, this morning Reuters ran an article about some new violations of UN Resolutions pertaining to Iran, in which it stated North Korean culpability. Here is an article about it from the UN Security Council website, which references the case but is short on detail.

The interesting thing is that shortly after I read the Reuters piece and while I was still in the process of writing about it, Reuters took the original article down and it has never gone back up.

What to make of it is up to you. In order to help you decide, the newsworthy part of my work is below, and here is the only other article in existence on the subject; it is from the Jerusalem Post, and cites the orginal Reuters piece.

North Korea and Iran are continuing to try and circumvent UN Security Council sanctions in place against them, it was revealed in a regular sanctions meeting in New York yesterday.

A case involving North Korea was one of two fresh violations presented to a committee charged with overseeing the enforcement of sanctions against the Middle Eastern country and apparently involved an attempt by Pyongyang to sell aluminum powder to Tehran.

Although the details were not revealed publicly by the committee, currently chaired by Ambassador Néstor Osorio of Colombia; the facts were later revealed to Reuters by another UN diplomat.

"The aluminum powder was from North Korea and interdicted by Singapore," the diplomat is quoted as saying.

In the other case, the diplomat said that phosphor bronze had been exported by a Chinese company but interdicted in South Korea.

According to Reuters, other diplomats subsequently confirmed both cases.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Demonstration Effect Cuts Both Ways

It doesn't take a genius to realize that the international community's decisive action against Libya will convince Kim Jong Il that the choices he has made over the last 30 years have been vindicated.

No, there is little doubt that if Colonel Qadhafi had gone further, jumped higher, lied more, worn slightly higher shoes, slightly less ridiculous clothes and flown just a little lower under the international radar for a few years longer, he too could be sitting pretty in his Tripoli palace atop a small pile of nuclear bombs of highly suspect reliability and almost certainly complete undeliverability but that would, as night surely follows day, have stopped his now practically inevitable fall from power.

Yes, Kim will amble to his little book of political lessons well learned, pick it up in his good hand and, as Reudiger Frank notes in his piece for 38 North, write the name of the presumably soon to be jobless Colonel Muammar Al Qadhafi next to Mikhail Gorbachev and Saddam Hussein on his list of leaders who tried to play with the west, and ended up getting burned bad.

It requires little imaginative power to see what conclusions will be drawn in Pyongyang. If there was anybody left at all in the elite who would dare try to persuade his leaders to sit down with the West and find a way to denuclearize, he will now be silent. Those who thought that the economic price of the military-first policy was too high will stand corrected. Not yielding an inch on the nuclear question will continue to be the key paradigm of North Korea’s foreign policy for the foreseeable future.

Indeed so. Or, to put it another way;

Hey, remember when Bush Administration officials tried to convince Kim Jong Il that he could get the same denuclearization deal Bush gave Qadhafi?

Yeah, the last couple of days might explain why Kim didn’t think it was such a great idea.

But must we continue to look at it this way? Such activities get us nowhere; they frustrate. Instead, how about this;

News of the recent attack on Libya by a coalition of countries is spreading in the jangmadang thanks to traders coming in from China, leading North Korean people doing business there to wonder whether, if they were to rise up and make enough noise, the international community might come to their aid. As a result, sources report that a number of groups have begun to consider ways to launch protests in big regional cities...

You get the idea, and yes of course I made it up. It is a distant aim, too, but let us be clear; we know exactly how to get this information to those people who need to hear it, because we've been talking it over since at least March 26th, 2010, when North Korea put a torpedo through a South Korean naval corvette and killed 46 conscript sailors.

So let's not remember the first anniversary of the Cheonan in silence, then. How about making a little bit more noise of our own?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Suspicious Death in Mia-dong

Nobody likes a peddler of implausible rumor, a weaver or believer of conspiracy theories, a conceiver of the inconceivable, a... anyway, suffice it to say that I hope I have built a sufficient reserve of goodwill within the North Korean studies community to be able to point out that this is a bit suspicious.

For your information, the English translation team at Yonhap saw fit to make it look like this, but, not least since they took leave of an oddly graphic description of the death itself in the process, here is my translation of the Korean original;
The mother of the general secretary of a conservative organization which sends leaflets into North Korea has been murdered. In the light of this, an upcoming leaflet release event has been cancelled.

According to Seoul police, "At approximately 3:20PM on the afternoon of the 10th in Seoul, Gangbuk-gu, Mia-dong, a neighborhood shop owner found Mrs. Han (75) dead in her store and called 119 to report it." Mrs. Han was the mother of Mr. Chu (52), the general secretary of one of three leafleting organizations.

Rescue workers report that Mrs. Han collapsed against a wall after receiving a blow to the head, smearing blood on the wall. Someone connected with the police said, "It is being treated as homicide so an investigation is underway, but I can say that nothing had been stolen so it doesn't appear to have been a robbery."

Meanwhile, according to the general manager of the conservative organization itself, "The wind was looking good, so we were intending to hold a leaflet launch on the morning of the 12th at 10AM, but it has been cancelled. This is not just a delay of a few days, we will wait for the official investigation (into whether or not it was a terrorist attack) results to be announced."

The conservative organization has, however, affirmed that it will conduct the leaflet launch in due course.

The police are testing fingerprints and hair found at the scene to try and establish what really happened to Mrs. Han.
It is not for me to shout from the rooftops that Mrs. Han was murdered by North Korea or its South Korean proxies, let that be clear. I don't know who did it, obviously, any better than you do. However, it is odd and it does come at a time when North Korea (via KCNA, 2/27/11) is clearly pretty uncomfortable with outside propaganda efforts against it;
If the psychological warfare activities were to continue, decisive action on the basis of self-defense would be taken, including a direct attack on Imjingak and other sources of anti-Republic psychological plotting activities.
If North Korea's doing, this murder would be, I'm afraid, a direct attack on Imjingak, and as plausibly deniable warnings to such organizations go, hitting a member of the family of an outlier seems like a smart choice (Mr. Chu's organization is of the shoutier, more militant sort, or so my leafleting friends assure me, and so its leader's mother would have been suitable for this role).

On the other hand, of course, plenty of murders occur in South Korea annually even without the shadowy presence of North Korea's ideological hand, and this could have simply been one of them.

Nonetheless, if it were to appear likely that North Korea "did it", it would raise some interesting questions about the efficacy of Seoul's current policy of very public deterrence and the ability of the Lee administration to carry that policy through to its logical conclusion.

Since the Cheonan, and in particular since Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea has set out its public stall very firmly; if you attack us, we will retaliate hard. There is even a four-star general at the top of the Ministry of National Defense.

And it all sounds fair enough, really; after all, more than 50 South Koreans have been murdered by North Korea in the last year, and that would not be acceptable for any nation.

But, problematically, it is a good deal harder in practice to state clearly where the red lines for retaliation actually are; I mean, if it comes to pass that this murder was done on the say-so of North Korea, what does the South then do?

Obviously, starting a war on the basis of the murder of the mother of the leader of one of the more right-of-center NGO groups out there would be, in and of itself, exceedingly foolish. The days of Unit 684 have also, I presume, passed.

All of which would, then, tend to lead to a policy of not rocking the boat. And such a policy, given that it would be completely at odds with the official policy of deterrence and instant retaliation, would lead directly to a government cover-up.

And that, given that it would stand a high chance of leading to fissures in public and governmental opinion, would be ideal for North Korea. Furthermore, it would prove to Pyongyang yet again that South Korea is toothless in most cases to retaliate against its provocative behavior, and encourage more of the same.

Friday, March 4, 2011

"5.4% Interest from the Central Bank?"

Since this newspaper does not have an English site, I thought people with one eye on the economic pulse of North Korea would want me to translate this;

The Chosun Central Bank is said to have raised interest rates by 1.8 times. Customers are also now able to get instant access to their money. As a result, the bank's total deposits are also said to be growing.

These measures appear to be the bank coming forward to guarantee deposits given that people have been unwilling to put their money there since the 2009 currency redenomination.

North Korea watchers are observing the situation, saying that there is a chance that measures like these could be an indicator of financial sector reform.

Speaking on the 1st, one such source said, "I hear that the number of people putting their money in the bank is growing. The total reserves of the Chosun Central Bank are also growing. The causes of this are that access to withdrawals has recently been freed up and the interest rate has risen steeply." According to the source, the interest rate offered by the bank was previously 3%, but has recently risen to 5.4%.

The Chosun Central Bank is a government entity under the Cabinet, doing the job of both a central and commercial bank at the same time. It offers savings, loans and insurance services.

North Korean people can deposit money there and earn interest on it; in this, it is much the same as the Post Office, which also takes deposits and gives interest.

In terms of allocation in North Korea, the state does it by force, and there are also cases of deposits being coerced. Indeed, until now it has been hard for North Korean people to recover capital deposited with the bank.

The source explained, "At times when the economic situation has been bad, it has not just been hard to get interest, it has even been common to illegally have to give 20% of the value of the capital to Central Bank management and then take the rest," but added, "Recently, North Korean people have been able to get hold of their deposits surprisingly easily, and the rumor 'We can get our money! And the interest has gone up!' is going around."

Cho Byung Hyun of the Industrial Bank of Korea's research institute explained more, saying, "Following the failure of the 2009 currency redenomination, people disliked putting their money in the bank so, for the circulation of money, the bank instituted a policy of allowing instant access to deposits and raising interest rates."

North Korea suffered serious fallout from the currency redenomination, including rapidly rising prices and the execution of its architect, former Workers' Party financial planning head Pak Nam Gi.

However, it is also possible in part to interpret the failed redenomination as an opportunity to activate capitalist banking practices.

Cho went on, "We know North Korea has recently been preparing financial reforms. At the moment, banks under existing trade banks etc are controlled by the Central Bank, but this can be seen as propelling reform in the direction of giving independence to each bank."

Meanwhile, Professor Lee Sang Min of Joongang University economics department pointed out, "This can be seen as helping with the introduction of a capitalist system in North Korea in the long term. It is an opportunity for the North Korean people to learn about a capitalist banking system."

However, it is as yet too early to see this sort of phenomenon as meaning that the financial system of North Korea is settled. As one defector pointed out, "For this to develop into a system, the North Korean authorities shall have to spend a long time building trust."
Actually, there is one more paragraph, but that last one was so clearly the better end that I wanted to divide them. Nevertheless, here it is;
Another North Korea source added, "The dollar tended to be thought of by the North Korean people as the standard currency, but the Yuan is gradually moving to center stage." This is analyzed by experts as being down to recent economic exchanges between the North and China and the rising value of the Yuan.
Anyway, if true (and the usual caveats do apply, in my opinion extremely strongly) then it is an interesting piece, one which at the very least lends credence to the notion that North Korea is a land of extreme inequality. But it is also evidence of the fact that for some there is money available, and, along with news of the rush into Rasun, there is now a narrative which says that, in Pyongyang and among the upper echelons of the Party, state, military and indeed the markets, money is being made and spent.

Note I am planning to raise this with some high(ish) rolling former cadre sorts tomorrow, and see what they think. The jury is, then, out.


My source said that it is perfectly feasible that money earned through trade is being deposited, and that this is being encouraged via higher interest rates. However, he pointed out that the story will only be true for the trading activities of enterprises and government organs, which in any case makes up at least 80% of trading activity in North Korea today.

In the case of the other 20%, which can be seen as encompassing the economic activities of individual market traders, private farming and illegal payments made between individuals, he said there is still "absolutely no chance whatsoever, under any circumstances," that they would willingly deposit their money with the Central Bank.

Which, given that the self-same bank was the primary vehicle in the expropriation of the majority of most small- and medium-sized traders' assets just 16 months ago, makes a lot of sense.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

It's Not True Just Because You Wish It

Since it won't be brought to you in English until Monday over at The Daily NK, here's a sobering English-language exclusive;
The recently reported news that a protest involving a few hundred traders and others in a Sinuiju market had erupted on the 18th was actually the mis-reporting of the fact that market management and traders at Chinseon Market in the city argued violently over stall fees, which had just been raised. It was, in other words, an argument about the right to make a living that did not spread.

Meanwhile, it appears that at other Sinuiju markets; namely Daehyeong, Chaeha, Sumun and Namsong, nothing special took place.

Although Kim Jong Il has apparently launched the formation of "riot squads" at the provincial level to deal with any whiff of unrest, there has been nothing for them to do thus far.

So there we go. Hopes, for the time being, dashed. But we shouldn't be downhearted; arguments about livelihoods are currently the most likely way for real unrest to begin.

While we wait, though, the whole situation does at least give me a chance to discuss something;

This is last Thursday's Chosun Ilbo, the very edition which revealed the news of this (alas) non-existent demonstration in Sinuiju. There's the front page, a piece on the right with the somewhat over-the-top image of a man in a flat cap looking not unlike a British miner circa 1940 from page 5, and an editorial (middle left) from page 39.

Aside from running the protest story on page 1 (below the commentary, bottom left), the main story on page 5 repeats the same, brings together news of anything else that has looked like unrest since late 2009 (the currency redenomination, which is taken by many to be a watershed), describes it and marshals together a nice graphic of the same events, with dates. It looks, at first glance, like the very makings of a revolution.

But it isn't, and the Chosun Ilbo knows this. I know it knows this because it admits it knows this on page 39 in the editorial which, while it continues to take the protests as fact, of course, also simultaneously contrives to offer plenty of doubt; not only pointing out that there are in fact no grounds upon which to guess that this news will turn into meaningful action that could hurt the regime, but also adding that the North Korean people are too interested in finding food to protest, that there is no infrastructure through which to communicate grievances between people, that Kim Jong Il won't hesitate to crucify anyone who protests, and that the people are well aware of this.

Which begs the question; if you think so on page 39, why does page 5 look like this? Take a closer look;

One doesn't really need to know what it says, so much as note both when these events happened (i.e. between November 30, 2009 when the currency redenomination was implemented overnight and February 18, 2011, when this alleged protest occurred in Sinuiju) and more importantly how it is said (i.e. "LOOK AT ALL THESE FLASHPOINTS!") and the way it is designed (red spots of doom, barbed wire, man with gun, fire etc etc).

It is, I'm afraid, pretty, but highly misleading. We ought to keep hoping for a revolution in North Korea, but despite the best efforts of the Chosun Ilbo, I think hopes are all we have just at the moment.

P.S. It's worth zooming in to the left of the protesting British miner, where you'll see mention made of a story the Chosun Ilbo carried on the 14th about a series of protests in some small towns in North Pyongan Province, in which several tens of people supposedly protested their lack of electricity and food, the former allegedly a result of electricity being diverted to Pyongyang for the celebration of Kim Jong Il's birthday.

Here's the problem.

First of all, three protests in three towns at one time in a country where cellphones don't actually work nationwide and the internet doesn't work at all seemed a bit farfetched. According to a source, cellphones in North Hamkyung Province only work within 8kms of one's location at any given time. Koryolink may eventually turn out to be Kim Jong Il's greatest mistake, but it isn't there yet, and without it, I don't think the protests could have been sparked simultaneously.

Second, the report states that people fashioned megaphones out of old newspapers and started using them as loudhailers. This, in particular, seems rather silly. Newspapers in North Korea are available in single copies in individual enterprises and government organs, and are stuck behind glass on subway platforms and in the street in Pyongyang and major cities for the people to read. They are not, on the other hand, available willy-nilly from street-side stalls for the impromptu broadcasting of grievances.

I don't buy this story, and I don't recommend anyone quoting it as evidence of unrest in term papers, either. It's as dodgy as the one about Sinuiju, I'm afraid.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

To C or Not to C, That Is the Question

Today I was browsing the latest photos to be uploaded onto Kernbeisser's Flickr photo stream, and came across this image, which I found interesting because it asks many of the most interesting questions which lie constantly in the backdrop to aid provision to North Korea.

As per the photo caption;
The DPRK authorities insisted the factory should be equipped with a modern control room full of computers and monitors. In fact, all the processes are controlled manually and can be run without any numerical control.
I worked my way through university in a seed-processing unit of this sort, so I know from bitter, bitter experience how true the phrase "all the processes are controlled manually and can be run without any numerical control" really is. It was old, dusty, and run, extremely manually, by students just like me.

Anyway, the difference in this case is that the German NGO "Welthungerhilfe (German Agro Action)" has built a manually controllable processing facility but also provided at least a few thousand dollars-worth of totally superfluous computer controlled x, y and z to go along with it because... well, that is the question. Why?

There are three possible answers.

The first is simple. Pride. North Korean functionaries know their country is behind the times and they are somewhat troubled to be accepting foreign aid, but since they are required to do so, they want the aid to pay for something as modern as possible, something that feels like progress.

The second is that someone made the decision to request something that was needed/wanted elsewhere in order to plunder it later and put it to that other use. This basically means that German Agro Action provided computers whose end use they could not be expected to know (a Party hack's home, perhaps?) simply in order to be allowed to build this seed processing facility (and a very nice kindergarten, as well).

The final reason relates (a bit) to the succession of Kim Jong Eun.

There are a number of ways in which the North Korean propaganda wonks have decided to address the problem of Kim Jong Eun's age (let's just say that he is less than 30, for the sake of brevity). One among them is to leverage the supposed advantages of his youth, a concept that can basically be characterized as "young people are good with technology."

To this end, for example, the concept of CNC (computer-numerical control) has been doing the rounds on billboards and such for a while (see here, for one). I would not be surprised if the people who OK'd the project here had one eye on this propaganda trend.

In any case, regardless of where the truth lies, such deals are not easy to embrace because they are dirty.

On the one hand, North Korea clearly needs good seed stock, and who in their right mind could possibly object to a kindergarten, even if it does have a sign above the door saying "Thank you, revered father Kim Jong Il", a poster inside saying "Our General is the best," and a timetable that reserves the first period on a Monday, Tuesday and Saturday for the study of the unabridged greatness of the Kim family.

But on the other hand, the unecessary and expensive control room is an example of much that is wrong, and it could be argued that the German NGO should have stood its ground and refused to install it.

I don't have an answer to this problem. But, if you want to ponder it longer, I do suggest you take a look at this recent piece by Bradley K. Martin, which analyzes the same issue on a slightly larger scale.