Nuclear Test, Videos, and Toys

North Korea’s third underground nuclear weapons test is a familiar chapter in a narrative with no conceivable end in sight. As usual, even the country’s closest allies have lined up to condemn the test as counterproductive to regional peace and security. But as long as China, which comprises roughly 70% of North Korea’s foreign trade takes no tangible action, there will be no consequence serious enough to deter Pyongyang’s leadership. The only substantial difference with this latest test is that it was suspected by many governments and observers to have involved highly enriched uranium. Unlike the limited stock of plutonium, this would give North Korea the ability to produce nuclear weapons well into the future. The highly enriched uranium would also make their nuclear exports a highly prized commodity on the international black market for weapons of mass destruction, and would facilitate their ability to covertly export them to the highest bidder. The other general fear here is that it will encourage other countries in the region to withdraw from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) in a defensive bid to protect themselves. One Free Korea has a piece revealing some of the methods by which Pyongyang routinely circumvents the international sanctions designed to deter their pursuit of a nuclear arsenal.

While the potential uses of a North Korean nuclear weapon open a range of possibilities, Pyongyang’s propagandists gladly filled in the blanks by releasing two surreal propaganda videos including one released by Uriminzokkiri in which a major American city is devastated by a nuclear missile to an instrumental version of “We Are The World” in what is depicted as the dream of a peacefully slumbering North Korean. The absurd fantasy of firing a nuclear warhead across the Pacific Ocean in a final bid of vengeance has proven too tempting to resist. Another, newer video shows Barack Obama and US troops in flames. In the gruesome context of DPRK propaganda, it is certainly nothing new. One distinction this time around is that both videos stole copyrighted material from major American video games, the first took explosions from Call of Duty and the second uses a looped segment from the theme song to Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, to the extent that YouTube eventually deleted both them after legal complaints from the publishers. The original source of these videos remains unknown but in this case points to younger pro-North sympathizers in South Korea, possibly in conjunction with propagandists inside North Korea. It doesn’t stop at videos though, a number of primitive web games have surfaced allowing players to kill prominent officials from the U.S., Japan, and South Korea. The last few years has seen an internet media blitz by North Korea to modernize their propaganda and widen its audience. The vengeful productions that continually surface have blurred the lines between content produced by the regime and that made by its supporters abroad. Many South Koreans, whether or not they favor the North’s policies, share its hostility toward the U.S. military presence in South Korea, and co-producing these videos with the regime’s more fervent volunteers would be another example of the DPRK inciting Korean nationalism abroad to pursue the interests of its elite.

An interesting article over at News Focus International examines the decline of Pyongyang’s standard of living relative to the rest of North Korea due to its distance from many black markets. Another piece there shows a recent trend among elite officials in Pyongyang to own a special refrigerator that holds the foods they’re routinely given as bribes. There’s also some good some pictures of North Korean toys.

Google CEO Visits North Korea with Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson

Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently concluded their “private humanitarian mission" to North Korea. While Richardson has long dealt with the North Koreans, especially when the State Department can’t do anything (which is most of the time), what Google’s CEO is doing there is a little less clear. North Korea not only lacks internet access, almost no one there even has a computer. On the domestic front, the trip’s use as propaganda is not exactly obvious since most North Koreans don’t even know what Google is. While Schmidt has long been an advocate of internet transparency and even hailed it as a way to topple dictators, any tangible influence his trip has on policy there will almost surely be zero. They were recorded visiting the Korea Computer Center in Pyongyang and certain locales in the country’s standard showcase circuit like the Grand People’s Study House. Technology was certainly the theme as they inspected North Korea’s own Samjiyeon tablets (allegedly Chinese clones), and the regime’s own brand of Linux. The North Korean “internet” is actually a large local intranet mainly used by students as a kind of reference database for research. Whenever Kim Jong Eun is shown at a computer with students, this is what’s usually onscreen. There is actual internet with only about a thousand IP addresses registered, but it is confined to a very elite handful and visiting journalists. If it’s true that the regime received Schmidt as a “rock star" like Richardson claims, the irony is palpable: Google Earth and its dedicated user base is more responsible than any other single party for exposing the true extent of North Korean’s network of concentration camps.

Meanwhile, Korean American Kenneth Bae (배준호) remains imprisoned somewhere in North Korea, detained in Rajin on November 3 and charged with “hostile acts against the republic”. This is a more plausible reason for Richardson to have made the trip, who is also a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and has acted as a de facto negotiator for the release of other Americans in North Korea. Bae operated a small tour group called “Nation Tours” which some speculate was a front for Christian missionary work. While North Korea’s statement that he “confessed” holds no credibility in itself, the accusation that he was there to spread the gospel is not something to be ruled out, as it would not be the first such incident. Back in 2009, a Korean American Christian named Robert Park walked across the Chinese border into North Korea on Christmas Day with a bible and letters demanding Kim Jong Il step down and close his prison camps. Trespassing would be bad enough, but an ethnic Korean in North Korea calling himself American and even smashing a portrait of the Dear Leader was beyond blasphemous; the severe torture and sexual abuse he endured as a result has caused him to attempt suicide several times since his return to the U.S. He’s since returned to Seoul to continue his activism. Then there’s Aijalon Mahli Gomes, another American Christian who was arrested in 2010 after illegally entering the North as well. The regime claimed he tried to kill himself while detained. While a U.S. envoy failed to negotiate his release, Jimmy Carter successfully “bailed him out”. This was the year after Bill Clinton had to do essentially the same thing for two American journalists detained for illegal entry while covering a story about human trafficking on the border. It is Richardson’s private diplomacy and his high contacts in Pyongyang which have helped secure the release of at least most of these Americans from North Korea, beginning in 1996 with Evan Hunziker, who committed suicide shortly after his return to the U.S. While it’s unclear whether that suicide was related to his detainment there, the crew of the U.S.S. Pueblo was tortured while they were detained for a year after the spy ship was captured by North Korea in 1968, and a number of them committed suicide after returning home. Suicide has been a disturbingly common trend here. But Richardson himself is indebted to the senior advisor who accompanied him, Tony Namkung, whose similarly close ties to the senior leadership combined with his experience spanning roughly 40 trips to the the DPRK played a vital role behind everything from Clinton’s “rescue” to the retrieval of U.S soldiers’ remains in 2008 and the opening of the AP bureau in Pyongyang. Eric Schmidt brought along Jared Cohen from Google Ideas, who has worked on applying technology to help solve problems in third world countries and co-wrote an article with Schmidt about how technology is redefining the relationship between states and their citizens. Well the objective of their trip may not be entirely apparent, their interest in the subject matter certainly is.


If the allegations of Bae’s missionary activity are true, it is unclear whether he was operating alone. South Korean newspaper Kookmin Ilbo citing an unnamed source reporting that he was imprisoned after authorities confiscated a hard drive with “sensitive material” on it. Some speculate he was taking pictures of orphans and malnourished children. During tours, North Korean minders usually delete such pictures from your digital camera right away or confiscate your film. If taking photographs was the extent of his offense, it is even possible that the government detained him simply as a bargaining chip. Proselytizing is another matter; an offense for which North Koreans themselves can be publicly executed. Surely his actions were under more scrutiny than a tourist as the rare foreign owner of a business operating in North Korea. The “underground railroad” in China, which helps North Korean defectors gain safe passage to countries that will send them to South Korea, is largely operated by Christian missionaries and human rights activists from South Korea who in many ways see their missions to convert and rescue as one and the same. This is reflected well in the 2008 South Korean film Crossing about a North Korean who defects to China to find medicine for his wife, receiving the help of this clandestine network. In any event, Richardson delivered a written letter from Bae’s son to authorities but was not allowed to visit him, left only with reassurances that his treatment has been fair and humane, and that judicial proceedings will occur soon.
North Korea Launches Satellite Into Orbit

On December 12th North Korea conducted its fourth satellite launch, it is their second attempt with the Unha-3 (은하3호) rocket; carrying a satellite called Kwangmyeongseong-3 Unit 2 (Morning Star 3 Unit 2, 광명성-3호 2호기) on its final stage, so named because Unit 1 was the one that failed a few months ago. It is their first successful satellite launch. There are a couple of relevant outcomes to this particular test: that the rocket’s third stage was finally reached and that it actually succeeded in putting its payload into orbit. Despite being an impoverished nation devoid of democracy, North Korea is now only the tenth “space power” to have ever put an object into’s Earth orbit. Of course the country has claimed that every launch except the failure in April succeeded in doing so. The state news agency KCNA has described Kwangmyeongseong-3 as an earth observation satellite that will gather meteorological data and help with agricultural development, making maps and surveying land. Roughly a week after the launch, U.S. officials are claiming that while it appears to be malfunctioning, it could remain in orbit for several years. KCNA claimed that the satellite would gather scientific data and, as always, broadcast hymns to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on the UHF band. While the test’s ultimate function is to acquire knowledge about long range missile technology, this is at least close to a victory for the DPRK space program, since the satellite is currently in low earth orbit yet hasn’t proven to be functioning in any capacity yet.

As in the past, the international response including from the UN Security Council has been almost universal in condemning the launch as a provocation threatening stability in the region, though you wouldn’t know it from the KCNA mouthpiece. The single most consequential reaction will be from China to North Korea and may or may not become known in whole, as what is on paper is not the same as what happens on the ground. Though the nuclear issue serves the more tangible function of a deterrent, the 2010 attack on a South Korean submarine and the artillery bombardment of a South Korean island are not investments in defense but needless and bloody gambles, and illustrate just how far they are willing to go to make the mythical nightmare narrative into a very lethal reality. While the latest launch is being used to commemorate Kim Jong Il near the anniversary of his death, its practical significance is more connected with the nuclear deterrence. Their nuclear arsenal could not be a credible deterrent against the world without being able to pull off this kind of launch. Most of the world’s governments with a few notable exceptions are predictably concerned about the direction into which these kinds of tests take the region, including an arms race and the technology’s black market availability. But the tragedy of this nuclear crisis is not the international threat that hasn’t materialized, it is the massive number of people who have already starved to death in order to make it happen. This program was alive in the 1990s and was in full gear at a time when starved corpses literally lay in streets and train stations.   

Doubt On Camp 22 Closure, Agricultural Reform

Satellite imagery taken last Saturday and analyzed by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) has revealed that contrary to earlier reports mentioned here, at least parts of Camp 22 appear to still be operating. While none of it is conclusive, the images in question show that mining and farming continue to occur there. Whether reports of its closure are partially or entirely untrue cannot be confirmed yet, just as the original report could never be verified in a truly dependable manner. The same uncertainty that shades most North Korean news also applies to reports that a deputy defense minster was recently executed with a mortar round for drinking and carousing during the official mourning period for Kim Jong Il. One who has learned enough about North Korea knows better than to dismiss even claims that outlandish, but it’s enough for major papers like the Telegraph have even reported it as fact. Those executing him were apparently order to leave no trace of him behind, to his last hair. It’s also been speculated that false reports of his death were purposely released to gauge the reaction of certain officers whose loyalty is in question. Originally the report from intelligence submitted to a South Korean politician. While the truth could never be known, it appears likely that he was at least executed earlier this year, along with a number of other senior officers who are still being eliminated in a broader and ongoing purge. If there there is any discernible pattern in the purges it’s the possibility that Kim Jong Eun is shifting power from the military back to the party.

The June 28th Agriculture Policy has received a lot of attention since it was revealed months ago. This would allow farmers to keep 30% of their yield which would otherwise have gone to the government. It now turns out that this promise may not be binding when the yield isn’t so good, and citizens are hearing it will be delayed. Cooperative farm cadres in Hyesan have allegedly told the farmers that feeding the military is enough of a priority to postpone the policy’s implementation. Farmers can’t conclude this is the case until the harvest finishes in December, but it is looking bleak. Though it’s only a minor move toward agricultural reform it’s still a step in the right direction at least. Of course the almost obligatory comparison is China, where workers on certain collective farms in the 1970s conspired and started producing astronomically higher yields that ended their starvation by simply allowing each other to tend and sell their own crops. This actually gave farmers incentive to work on their own farms, whereas in the Mao era they would have received the same meager amount even if they had worked day and night. The result lifted the living standards of hundreds of millions of people. Even when North Korea implements the reformed policy, the government will still keep 70% of what they produce, so truly meaningful reform is still as elusive as ever.

North Korean Concentration Camp Closes, Civilian Radio Stations Jammed
After first learning about the horrors inside Camp No. 22 in Hoeryeong (회령), North Korea near the Russian and Chinese borders, I had hoped its inevitable end would be under more liberating circumstances, but apparently the government decided to shut it down after its warden and a second official defected from the country in June. When we say “camp” here we are talking about 20,000 - 50,000 partially to fully starving people enclosed by electric fences and guard towers in the mountains with weekly executions and punishments like putting people in a box for a week. This particular camp has also had the infamous distinction of being used for human experimentation according to former officials from the camp who defected years ago. The large network of camps like this in North Korea are called kwanliso (관리소) in Korean or “political penal labor colonies”. Misdemeanors are one thing, but serious crimes or insults to the Kim family or Juche ideology merit a complete omission of judicial process and the imprisonment of three generations of the prisoners’ relatives in these special camps. Collective punishment of family members is one of the main incentives for all North Koreans to keep their mouths shut and tow the line. One of the many reasons people don’t know more about these places is the same reason it took one of the only publications with sources inside North Korea, DailyNK, most of this year just to separate fact from rumor and confirm the news of its closure. While we can’ know for sure why the camp has been closed, the fact that its prisoners are all being sent to other camps and the warden’s defection would suggest it’s out of fear of more defections in the camp’s remote and precarious location close to two national borders. If one wants evidence of the Kim Jong Eun regime’s comparative plans for human rights, they can note that since he took power the regime has greatly escalated its jamming of shortwave radio stations in South Korea that broadcast news into the North from the outside world and facts about human rights atrocities, damning lies endlessly spread as truth by the North Korean regime, defector stories, and so on. The civilian radio stations that make these human rights broadcasts are continuing to ask the South Korean government for permission to use stronger medium wave frequencies that cannot be easily jammed by North Korea. Unlike the technology otherwise ubiquitous to East Asia, analog shortwave radios are a very common form of media for North Koreans, and the one station all their radios are fixed to is Voice of Korea, formerly Radio Pyongyang, which still broadcasts “news” about the leader and ideology in eight languages including Arabic on shortwave frequencies every day. The fact that they broadcast it in Russian and Chinese does make sense, but I am convinced to this day that the only people listening to the Spanish shortwave broadcast of North Korean propaganda are radio hobbyists and Alejandro Cao de Benós, a Spaniard who moved to North Korea, wears a communist jumpsuit with a Kim Il Sung badge and calls himself North Korean.
Two Traitors and Their Tales

There have been two revealing articles published by the New York Times in the past week or so, both about outsiders to North Korea who through different circumstances became personally acquainted with the notoriously secretive Kim dynasty that rules North Korea. One is about Kenji Fujimoto, the pen name of a Japanese man who was Kim Jong-il’s personal sushi chef from the late 1980s to 2001 when he escaped North Korea. He has been well known to all those studying North Korea since then for being one of the very few people to have known the Kims personally and lived to tell about it outside the country. Another remarkable aspect of his story has been his decision to write about his experience with them in detail, which culminated into three books published in Japanese with titles like Kim’s Chef and The Honorable General Who Loved Nuclear Weapons and Girls. None of them have been translated into English so far. In these memoirs the Kim family is portrayed as one indulging in a nearly surreal amount of decadent hedonism. But for once the latest story about him adds a new chapter; after being so fearful of potential reprisals by the regime that he had reconstructive surgery, he received an invitation to the North in June by Kim Jong Eun. After some reluctance he finally went back, presumably taking the risk to see his family there. Kim forgave his betrayal, an impossibility under Kim Jong Il. Apparently enough has changed in Pyongyang to make some kind of an impression on him, and though his accounts of a modernizing living standard in Pyongyang are consistent with those of visiting journalists, he’s careful not to make any conclusions about the rest of the country.

The other article is about Kim Young Hwan, a South Korean student activist whose virulent anti-Americanism and pro-North stance helped galvanize the underground activist movement which opposed the government of South Korean dictator Chun Doo Hwan in the 1980s. While the movement was unabashedly pro-democracy, Kim naively believed North Korean propaganda that claimed it was more democratic than the South, and he steered the movement in a pro-North direction, blaming American imperialism for the ills he and so many other South Koreans had suffered. Since the US had refused to intervene when Chun Doo Hwan ordered the South Korean military to slaughter students in the 1980 Gwangju massacre, the sentiment quickly echoed throughout the movement, and even today this stance is the status quo throughout much of the South Korean education system. He even joined North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party. He eventually received an encrypted message from Radio Pyongyang to board a boat taking him North to meet the Great Leader in person. Ironically it was his personal meeting with Kim Il Sung which helped change him and his views completely. Apparently the aging supreme leader was no better at explaining the North’s juche philosophy than anyone else was, and his mind was stuck firmly in memories of the 1930s anti-Japanese guerrilla struggle to liberate occupied Korea, a chapter of history that North Koreans hear about in their propaganda to no end. This revelation jolted him, and though he went so far as to accept money from the North to establish a political party for overthrowing the South, his eventual discovery of the rampant and egregious human rights abuses from those fleeing the 1990s mass famine there inspired him to actively change sides and become a vocal critic of North Korea. Ever the activist, he helped establish an underground network in China to help North Korean defectors evade the Chinese authorities who are all too happy to return them to the North. He was eventually caught and interrogated. In the Times article, I’ve found the memory of Kim Il Sung’s rambling nostalgia to be the most revealing note, one of endless signs that the ideological integrity of North Korea is a complete mirage. It is no coincidence that the man who actually invented North Korea’s cornerstone juche philosophy, Hwang Jang Yop, became its highest ranking defector and one of the most vocal opponents of the regime.

Keeping Out the Capitalist Contamination

When Willem van der Bijl, a Dutch tourist and entrepeneur who’d visited North Korea 24 times was arrested there on charges of espionage last year, it was certainly a surprise. Little did he realize that his detention would last a year and that his picture along with quotes praising North Korea’s excellent election system would be published by the regime. Despite a lengthy relationship and a healthy business venture with the North, even he could not escape the perpetual paranoia of secret police. Incidents like his serve as a litmus test for just how open North Korea is to outsiders. The surveillance of foreigners in North Korea in one form or another seemingly has no exceptions; even Mr. van der Bijl’s colleagues in the North were required to report everything they did with him. The fact that such ominous watching is even a feasible task gives one an accurate idea of just how few foreigners are in the country at any given time.

Reform in North Korea has always been a constant mirage to outside observers. Now that the Associated Press have a “bureau” in Pyongyang where mandatory guides kindly usher the journalists to places of interest, the speculation machine is even more rampant. Victor Cha brings this into perspective and his piece reminds one of what qualifies as real reform in North Korea; that is, the kind that hasn’t yet come. While Kim Jong Il happened to be very elusive and more private with his own matters compared to his son, this made him an exception. If a dictator basking in the limelight and showing himself off were somehow always indications of a closest reformer, there would probably be far less autocracy today. The impression it gives off probably serves a more useful function for foreign policy than anything domestic. Average North Koreans are constantly mobilized for hard labor with 150 day “labor” battles that never net them anything of their own, it’s a tactic that successfully exhausts them and occupies the time they could be spending earning private incomes in black markets. What’s changed for journalists covering North Korea has not changed for them.

Meanwhile, all signs point to the old strategy of developing isolated “islands” of capitalism where a handful of selected North Koreans work alongside foreigners in business ventures funded mostly by China. These “special economic zones" like Rason and Hwanggeumpyong Island are meant to control the unwanted influence of capitalist, bourgeois, “anti-socialist” influences. Such locations really are necessary for any kind of private enterprise controlled by foreign investors to work because otherwise the social controls would prohibit most of their operation, for instance, the very sensitive matter of foreigners actually speaking to North Koreans. A great example is the Dutchman above. The latest indication that they’re following this strategy would have to be Jang Song Thaek’s 50 delegate trip to China. As long as the North pursues xenophobic policies to “purify” and isolate their society, attracting investment will always be a problem.

20 Year Ban On Women Riding Bicycles is Repealed

North Korea has just repealed a 20 year ban on women riding bicycles. While one might reasonably assume that this marks a historical first for the country, the ban is from the 1990s and seems to have been a result of Kim Jong Il hearing that the daughter of a powerful general was hit by a car in Pyongyang while riding one. The incident also brought about laws requiring registration and what are basically license plates. There was a fine imposed and confiscation for repeat offenses, though the above article mentions that bike lanes were also a result of the new laws. Etiquette was also a motive for the ban, as women riding bicycles was considered unbecoming. Bicycles are used in the countryside often enough that its enforcement in the provinces was relaxed by the next decade, as many photgraphs of the countryside can attest to. Daily NK also points out that most bicycles in North Korea are imported from China and Japan. 

It’s worth nothing that many of those that are made in North Korea are the result of forced penal labor. In a country where prviate ownership of cars is beyond the means of most North Koreans and highly restricted anyway, bicycles are valued significantly here. While cars are very gradually becoming more used for private enterprises, they are still well beyond the means of most North Koreans so bicycles remain by far the most common choice. Those with a significant commute or load to haul often depend on it with their lives. An accompanying ban on women wearing trousers often made it more difficult for those women who defied the ban; women are the only ones allowed to work in marketplaces, where their control of family income has slowly increased their influence in North Korean society. While the appearance of Kim Jong Eun’s wife has lead many to predict a more “open” North Korea, it is of course only tangible action for common people that ever counts for anything. Though we don’t who is responsible for repealing it, the ban extended to a national level and it’s hard to imagine it being possible without the dearest supreme leader’s consent.

Preparing For History

A North Korean living room, followed by a mock “North Korean” living room inside a South Korean museum:

North Korea Burns Lee Myung Bak

On April 15th, Kim Jong Eun made his first public speech at the centenary parade for Kim Il Sung’s birthday in Pyongyang. In the course of one minute he utterered more words in public than Kim Jong Il did during his entire reign of 17 years. This marks an approach much closer to his grandfather Kim Il Sung, who was clearly more comfortable with public appearances and who often made speeches lasting hours. Kim Jong Il was only presented in still slides and footage with voice over narration, and it many ways reflected just how little even North Koreans knew about the man they have to idolize every day.

One of the North Korean regime’s trademark characteristics for quite some time has been its state news agency’s penchant for what is, by almost all accounts, an incredibly inappropriate level of inflammatory rhetoric directed at the United States, South Korea, and Japan. The enormous amount of hyperbole found in its countless diatribes contributes to this tone of permanent hysteria in which it’s often very hard to tell when any particular threat should be taken seriously. While the propaganda of Kim Jong Eun’s era had seemed mostly indistinguishable from that of his father, a series of pieces aired over the last two months has amplified the rhetoric and made it more gruesomely personal.  Kim Il Sung’s centenary has marked a sensitive period for the regime’s leadership, who has just completed a delicate transfer of power and is eager to prove its worth in the face of heightened promises and expectations to its populace. When South Korean president Lee Myung Bak suggested that $850 million would be better spent on food than nuclear weapons and other shockingly rational statements, the regime chose to take it as a personal insult to the “dignity of its supreme leadership.” In reaction, state television has aired videos of regiments from the Korean People’s Army threatening to kill the South Korean president, his defense minister, and one other official involved in the statements.

Soldiers in front of the camera continually refer to the president as vermin and describe their intent to dismember him and his officials personally. In one video, soldiers fire their guns at a target representing the president, then blow it away entirely with a rocket launcher for extra effect. This vendetta campaign hasn’t been confined to the military though, during a recent rally at Kim Chaek University in Pyongyang, dummies were made of Lee Myung Bak and his two officials, dragged before a crowd of angry students chanting slogans, and set on fire. 

While the regime is eager to display its pride, prowess, or potency, it is usually less eager to show the outside world its more direct orgies of hatred, which are practically identical to hate week in the Orwell’s 1984. Calling out such performances for having too much projection, however, doesn’t quite account for context; the communal rage culminates in public executions where attendance tends to be mandatory, and Pyongyang is no exception. International pressure apparently curbed public executions roughly a decade ago, but it’s always been there.