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.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Kim Jong Il, c.1980

Talk briefly amongst yourselves about this South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs document, newly declassified under the ubiquitous 30-year rule, which analyzed the personality of one Kim Jong Il at the time of his revelation as the successor to Kim Il Sung in 1980, stating;

Kim is "extreme and stubborn, with an adventurous personality," but is also "on the clear-headed side."

So now you know.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

China Publicly Backs Kim Jong Eun (Perhaps)

Here (in English) is an interesting thing to ponder (below translation me, from Korean original);

Xinhua, unlike Chosun Central News Agency (KCNA), did not refer to Chinese State Councilor Meng Jianzhu saying that China "ardently congratulates Comrade Kim Jong Il on becoming General Secretary and Comrade Kim Jong Eun on becoming Chosun Workers' Party Central Military Commission Vice Chairman at the Chosun Workers' Party Delegates' Conference, therefore gloriously solving the problem of succession to the Chosun revolution."
Both reports emerged today. So did Meng congratulate the North on Kim Jong Eun's succession but the Chinese media is reluctant to report it? Or is KCNA just making it up (unlikely but not impossible)? Meng's words also went unreported here, to name but one other Chinese media source. Perhaps Adam Cathcart, a man of far greater Chinese knowledge than I, will come through with something domestically Chinese, or maybe, as I suspect is more likely, most people in the Chinese leadership, without regard to whether they support North Korea or simply wish it would go away, think it prudent not to make too much of this kind of thing.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Rising Sun Over Re-Raised Rasun

At the risk of you starting to think Destination Pyongyang is turning into an economics blog (a niche you might have noticed is being filled quite well by him and them, to name but two), here is my latest contribution to your distant understanding of what is afoot in Rasun, where the Chinese do indeed seem to be making something happen, though I think it a bit early to say quite what that is...

From here, by Kang Cheol Hwan;

No sooner has 2011 arrived than the Chinese are flocking into Rasun. North Korea constructed the Rasun-Sonbong Special Economic Zone in 1991 to attract foreign investment, but constant National Security Agency controls and official regulations left a handful of small traders and the zone was, to all intents and purposes, suspended. The revival of Rasun which suddenly began at the start of this year is down to the appearance of some big changes that could not be seen a few years ago.

According to a diplomatic source, the Chinese government is pressuring North Korea, which has been going down a blind alley since the currency redenomination, and sees in Rasun a golden opportunity to make a model of Chinese-style reform and opening. Chinese investment is flowing rapidly into Rasun for the purpose of using Rasun Port, which the Chinese see as indispensable for the development of 'Chang-Ji-Tu' (the Changchun-Jilin-Tumen triangle).

China is even looking as far as supplying electricity to Rasun. According to one defector, “Right now in Rasun, they are busy replacing the transformers for the purpose of taking Chinese electricity, which will be supplied starting in April.” It seems that China is moving forward with Chang-Ji-Tu development on an unprecedented basis because it has confidence in changes in North Korea.”

The Chinese government has already established an economic mission, which looks a lot like an embassy, in Rasun and is cooperating with North Korea to eliminate sources of friction between Chinese citizens and the North Korean authorities.

Specifically, to solve three major problems (passage, communications and customs) China is putting heavy pressure on the North Korean authorities, and the North Korean authorities are said to have acceded to all the Chinese demands.

According to a Chinese citizen who recently visited Rasun, “It didn't even take five minutes to pass through customs.” Previously, it took more than three hours, and failure to give bribes could lead to being caught up for as long as the North Koreans pleased for any number of reasons.

Chinese cellphones cannot be used yet, but connection with the outside is possible via landline, and it seems that connection with China via cellphone will soon be possible.

Hitherto, even Chinese people couldn't watch foreign films and speak or act freely, but starting this year the actions of Chinese people in Rasun have become practically free. Recently, a drunk member of a task force associated with the National Security Agency is said to have come to Chinese lodgings and demanded bribes, so the North Korean security forces and Chinese mission representatives received their protests, called in the man and punished him. The number of National Security Agency agents in Rasun has been drastically cut, and measures are being put in place to stop them intervening in the business activities of the Chinese.

In the past, Rasun was swarming with so many National Security Agency personnel that it was said to be half traders and half National Security Agency agents, and being hauled in and interrogated for ludicrous reasons was a common occurence. This atmosphere has totally changed.

Recently North Korea has taken another step forward by starting to sell land in Rasun to the Chinese. In the middle of Rasun City it has started to be sold for $50 per 'pyeong', while in surrounding areas it is $30 per 'pyeong'; the Chinese, who still lack trust in the North Korean regime, have not taken to it yet, but the act of selling land to individuals itself is an epochal change.

North Korea set in place the plan to build a large scale industrial area in the form of the Kaesong Industrial Complex and is now consulting with the Chinese side, but China is pushing for a guarantee of complete freedom for Chinese companies, unlike the situation in Kaesong, where personnel management is not free.

One high level defector who recently arrived in South Korea said of this, "North Korea is looking to use Rasun to break through its isolation, which accelerated following the nuclear tests and currency redenomination." It means North Korea, with its extreme financial difficulties, was unable to refuse China's demands for change, and now the enforced changes have actually started. The defector added that hitherto North Korea would not change its system and relied on foreign currency earners, but said that the role the Chinese government will play in as yet unseen North Korean change beyond Rasun remains to be seen.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Kim, Your Paratroopers Can't Parachute

It won't come as a shock to anyone, but may serve as a worthwhile reminder of how weak the North Korean military has become since Kim Il Sung left the stage; according to a source who spent the 12 years prior to 2009 serving in the Chosun People's Army, “We were paratroopers, but not once in 12 years could we do any parachute training.”

“I served with the 6th Air Force Squadron,” the former (non-)flyer continues in a Free North Korea Radio piece re-reported (and changed, a bit) here, “but we couldn't do live fire training more than about 9 times in 12 years, let alone fly planes. With the exception of tedious ideological education, the only things which stick in the mind are gathering edible herbs and wild plants and preparing firewood.”

Not quite all, actually, but not far off. “All the training I got in 12 years of Army life was marching every Saturday, winter drills for two months and summer training for one month. My memories of special forces training are of mountain warfare, a little bit of marching, some target practice, studying topography and swimming.”

Oh, and catching frogs in a valley to sell to local people and picking wild herbs to sell to traders; small insights into capitalism which we can but hope will have a chance to stand him in good stead.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Our (Old) Man in Pyongyang

If Witness to Transformation were not enough to convince you, the world, that the North Korean market is the only democratization game in North Korea right now, Radio Free Asia has some fragments of a talk given by Britain's former man in Pyongyang, John Everard, at KEI in Washington on the 2nd.

Money quote (translation me, apologies to Mr. Everard);

It is clear that in the jangmadang, they are not just haggling over products. People there are transmitting information on incidents such as public executions and floods occurring in various regions. Right now, the situation in Egypt is the talk of the jangmadang.

And from the presentation (in English here);

Markets thus present both an ideological and a political challenge to the regime, and it is unlikely to diminish. They are probably clearing houses for news and opinions, a role that may well grow as the regime’s information blockade crumbles and as information circulates more freely (through mobile telephones, for example). All together markets are one of the regime’s greatest domestic dilemmas—it loathes them and probably fears them, but it cannot close them down.

This is exactly what we should be looking for; news of successful revolutions around the world is dynamite. It is information which probably gets into North Korea via smugglers and/or radio stations broadcasting out of South Korea, and then spreads in the markets, a system which Everard notes that the regime hates, but cannot live without. In Everard's own words, "as so often in the DPRK, what the regime wanted was not always what actually happened."

And this is why we, the world, need to think long and hard before we start sending aid, any aid, to North Korea. There is ample evidence that the market is undermined by such aid and that smugglers are mines of information. The market: it's where the real sunshine is.