Thursday, February 23, 2012

Progressive When It Suits Them

A commentary piece I rendered this morning from a rather briefer and less forceful Korean-language news piece by Daily NK reporter Mok Yong Jae;
Despite a growing chorus of criticism from both South Korea and the wider international community, the newly formed United Progressive Party (UPP) has been depressingly silent on the issue of North Korean defectors being forcibly repatriated by the Chinese security forces. Alas, this is not a surprise, marking as it does a disappointing continuation of the policy of one of the party’s founding partners, the former Democratic Labor Party, which has also failed to comment on the absurd and anti-democratic 3rd generation hereditary succession. 
The UPP leadership, made up of former president of the Democratic Labor Party Lee Jung Hee, Shim Sang Jung of the former New Progressive Party, and the Roh Moo Hyun-era former Minister of Health and Welfare Yoo Shi Min, has made absolutely no public reference to forced repatriations to date. Indeed, party spokesperson Woo Wi Yeong remarked to Daily NK on February 22nd, “The issue of forced repatriations has never been discussed within the party.” 
The chances are that the UPP will continue to say nothing, citing in justification, if justify it they do, the imperative not to incite North Korea. Yet this stance cannot possibly be reconciled with the party’s claim that it works in support of the rights of minorities. 
It also cannot be reconciled with the attitude of some of the party’s prospective voters. For while the UPP sidesteps, domestic and international opposition is growing to the Chinese government policy, with not only conservative politicians and voters but also the Democratic United Party and social progressive writers, actors and comics literally lining up to support the rights of defectors not to face life in a North Korean prison camp or possibly death. 
One, Gong Ji Young, a progressive veteran of the 1980s and 90s student movement, author of the 2009 book which became the 2011 film ‘The Crucible’ and someone with more than 38,000 followers on Twitter, tweeted on February 21st, “I oppose the forced repatriation of defectors. Everybody has the right to live where they want to live. We cannot allow these people to be repatriated when we know what is going to happen to them after they return.” 
Elsewhere, comedienne and broadcaster Kim Mi Hwa reprimanded the government’s inactivity via Twitter on Monday, writing, “If the government only had the will, could they not prevent forced repatriations and bring the defectors here?” Popular novelist Lee Oisoo also encouraged his 120,000-plus Twitter followers to sign a petition against forced repatriation which has gone viral in the social networking world, attracting more than 30,000 signatures as of yesterday afternoon. 
The conservative ruling Saenuri Party and minority Liberty Forward Party have been quick to express their concern for defectors arrested in China, too, calling for humanitarian concerns to be addressed, and even the opposition Democratic United Party released a commentary on the 21st “expressing regret that North Korean civilians cannot get human rights protection in a third country and are even suffering forced repatriation.” 
It is clear from all this that support for the rights of defectors is a civilized constant, regardless of personal political leanings. Not, however, at the offices of the United Progressive Party.
I would like to say at this point that in spite of the above, I actually quite like Rhyu Si Min. His recent career has been, as knowledgeable commentator Andy Jackson put it, "less than stellar", and he is now in grave danger of falling beneath the softly spoken Moon Jae In juggernaut in the race to become the progressive candidate for president this year, but '유시민의 따뜻한 라디오 ' was a genuinely entertaining podcast and he seems to be a decent man.

However, there appears to be little doubt that Democratic Labor Party leader Lee Jung Hee is a pro-North Korea extremist, and that her presence should by rights not help Rhyu or anyone else associated with this ill-advised union. Similarly unhelpful, it should be hoped, is the fact that this party, one which nominally supports the rights of minority groups in South Korea, cannot even summon the unity of purpose to criticize the forced repatriation of overwhelmingly innocent people who now face imprisonment and/or death simply because they are traitorous enough to desire a better life.

Friday, February 10, 2012

A Face for Radio: 'North Korean Defectors'

About a month or so ago I had the signal pleasure of being able to stick my oar into the public debate about post-Kim Jong Il North Korea, an interview which is now on NPR here. Kudos to freelance journalist Lisa Schroeder for making it all hang together nicely.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Letting the Train (Not) Take the Strain

A report carried by Daily NK this morning brings news of the unwelcome return of roofriding, i.e. the practice of travelling on the roof (of a train, in this case), as undertaken by people in low income countries worldwide.

It is unclear whether people are riding on the roofs of trains nationwide; however, it is clear that they are doing so between mountainous Musan and Chongjin, two cities in North Hamkyung Province. But what we also do know, as the article reports, is that power shortages are the talk of the diplomatic community in Pyongyang as well, and one thing that is taught to students taking North Korea Watching 101 on day one is that if things are getting worse in Pyongyang then they have already gotten worse in the provinces.

Thus, we can assume that if there is a shortage of electricity in Pyongyang then there is also a more serious one in the provinces, and if that is true then there must also be a shortage of trains everywhere (since the vast majority of North Korea's main train lines are electrified). This may well be resulting in nationwide roofriding.

The line in question from Musan to Chongjin, which is where the evidence of roofriding has emerged from, branches off from the main Pyongra Line, which takes in Hamheung and Chongjin on its way up the industrial east coast to Rajin and, for those lucky enough, travels onward to Russia. Trains on the line run with ten carriages from Pyongyang to Chongjin, before splitting and one part travelling on to Musan, a border town, the other to Tumengang. Tickets are sold for numbered seats.

The hitch is that the source says there is insufficient power to run the scheduled twice or thrice weekly service, so it is currently only running once. This (hopefully only) temporarily reduced service is not being scheduled, causing the whole thing to become a big, competitive guessing game.

Imagine a train arriving in Chongjin after a 22-hour journey, with passengers (mostly) seated. The part of said train that is travelling to Musan is decoupled, and the waiting commences. Naturally, during the wait more passengers arrive. Needless to say, if today's train is also yesterday's train, then yesterday's passenger is still in today's passenger's seat, so today's passenger either has to fight for it or, with possession being nine-tenths of the law, sit on the floor. Within three days the carriage is packed to the gunnels, leading day four's arrivals to take to the areas between the carriages. By day five, there are people on the roof. It is, as reporter Choi Song Min put it, "Completely inevitable."

The sanguine acceptance of this scenario to be found in many parts of South and Southeast Asia (though not here, granted) is nowhere in evidence in North Korea, however, and the railway police naturally strive to get roofriders off the roof. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is mostly because they don't want Party cadres to see the roofriders, but regardless of the reason it leads to much jostling, argument and bribery. The whole thing, Choi says, "is a complete mess."

However, the bigger question for local people is apparently whether the return of roofriding could actually indicate a wider malaise that might even portend a return to the 1990s famine "nightmare." However, this is unlikely; and, as with most things, that is due to the jangmadang.

It is probable that all the fuel needed to generate 24-hour electricity for Pyongyang during the mourning period for Kim Jong Il took the stuffing out of state reserves at a time of year that is already known for its electricity shortages (winter in Korea is as dry as bone, and North Korea's energy mix contains a great degree of hydroelectric generation). China allegedly delivered food and fuel to North Korea in January, perhaps offering evidence of temporal shortages.

But such a lack of fuel for electricity does not in any way indicate that North Korea is heading from food insecurity to famine. For while electricity for state railways is a state concern, food is delivered privately through the market. It goes without saying that the market is working much the better of the two.