On April 13th, mere hours after the Unha 3 rocket crashed into the Yellow Sea, North Korea held the fifth session of its rubber stamp parliament, the Supreme People’s Assembly, at Mansudae Assembly Hall in Pyongyang. The timing of Kim Jong Il’s death has seemed to have made Kim Il Sung’s 100th birthday a naturally appropriate time to officially anoint his grandson Kim Jong Eun as successor to his father Kim Jong Il. When Kim Il Sung died, the regime had to make it clear that no successor could be a replacement, and so the dead leader was declared the republic’s Eternal President while Kim Jong Il assumed a series of titles to establish his authority. In predictable fashion, the same has been done for the third Kim. While Kim Jong Il was General Secretary of the Worker’s Party of Korea, that title has now been retired, and Kim Jong Eun has been promoted to the previously nonexistent post of First Secretary. This is also the case for his other promotions, just as his father was Chairman of the National Defense Commission, Kim Jong Eun is now First Chairman, and accordingly, his dead father is now Eternal Chairman.
The real surprise here is not what’s similar to the last rocket tests but what’s different; while the launch failed just as clearly as previous ones, the government has taken the unprecedented step of admitting its failure. There was a time when North Korea would not have even thought twice about lying to its own people. But with over a million cell phones now in the country, a more porous border with China and the stampede of foreign journalists invited to attend, they seem to have concluded that losing face is preferable to being caught in a lie by their own populace. After all, technical difficulties are far less damning than deliberate acts of deception. Still, one should obviously not take this to mean that they wouldn’t have lied had they thought there was a guaranteed opportunity to do so. Although foreign journalists had been allowed to congregate and snap pictures of the rocket waiting on its launch pad, they were not allowed to be there for the actual launch, hence the lack of footage. Given that the rocket failed apparently 81 seconds after liftoff, it’s not hard to see why. Really the only other time this regime has actually admitted that it failed was in the wake of its disastrous currency confiscation in 2009, ostensibly an attempt to eradicate private markets and individual’s personal savings. But in the wake of international condemnation for the launch, a Chinese firm has been caught violating U.N. sanctions by supplying technology to North Korea to help construct their launch facility. China’s government denies any wrong doing in the matter. In the weeks since the launch, many are predicting North Korea will conduct a new nuclear test within the next few months to save face and reinforce the threat. This would certainly fit its past patterns of provocation.
There are now over 20,000 North Korean defectors in South Korea, but only a small number of these are people who’ve managed to escape North Korea’s extensive network of concentration camps. Yet Shin Dong Hyuk is an even rarer breed in that he was the only one to escape what are called total control zones. Since they are designated for political criminals who are judged irredeemable and given life sentences, these special camps are literally the only places in North Korea where propaganda about the Kim family is totally absent. Shin was actually born inside of Camp 14, so he had never heard of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il. In a place where sex between prisoners brings an immediate death penalty, he was the product of two inmates given five hours together as a reward for his father’s good behavior doing mechanical work in the camp. Shin was on the brink of starvation from birth, and he had to watch his mother and brother be publicly executed. Only after an outsider broke rules and told him about the abundant food outside of the camp did he consider escaping. Eventually he managed just that, and in comparison, North Korean society seemed quite free to him. Despite being located closer to the DMZ than the Chinese border, Shin managed to escape the country, then make his way from China to South Korea. He’s been telling his story for years to those who will listen, but now journalist Blaine Harden has written a book called Escape From Camp 14 based on his extensive interviews with Shin.
Shin Sang Ok (신상옥) was a legendary South Korean film director in the 1950s and 1960s. Both he and his wife, star actress Choi Eun Hee (최은희), were household names in that era. Always very prolific, he directed over 70 films throughout his life, the “Orson Welles” of South Korea for those who love arbitrary comparisons. He helped progress cinema to new creative heights, and revealed his hallmark independence by refusing to follow orders from the various dictatorships of South Korea, who eventually revoked his license. But a scandal in 1976 resulted in a much publicized divorce from Choi, and his trials would eventually get much worse.
Later that year, Choi was kidnapped in Hong Kong by North Korean agents, and when he went to look for her, they kidnapped him too. Shin would soon find his fate controlled by the whim of Kim Jong Il, who had kidnapped Shin and Choi for the express purpose of forcing them to make films to improve the international image of the Worker’s Party of Korea. While Shin’s initial accommodations were comfortable, he soon tried to escape, and was imprisoned for five years where he had to eat grass and hear propaganda daily. One day he and his wife, whose whereabouts had been totally unknown to him, were suddenly released and summoned by Kim, who then told him that North Korean’s cinematic standards were low, and that Shin could make any film he wanted.
Kim Jong Il gave him more creative room than any North Korean director; when Shin needed a train to explode, Kim immediately gave him one to detonate. While he obviously didn’t have total creative freedom, Kim never forced Shin to make idolatry films. Obsessed with cinema, Kim simply wanted better North Korean films. Quite unsurprisingly, Shin never actually believed in any of the propaganda, he was well aware that pure obedience was only the possible route for survival. He would direct films in North Korea for the next three years. The most famous production of his North Korean period was essentially a Godzilla set in feudal Korea with special effects help from Japan called Pulgasari (불가사리). But Shin’s favorite work was the first one he directed there called Runaway, about a Korean family in 1920s Manchuria, surviving oppression by the Japanese. Such was the very unexpected revival of his career, now worth three million dollars a year, and connection to North Korea’s Dear Leader. Once, Kim was throwing a birthday party for one of his generals, and Shin was present. During an adoring performance of young women wishing him long life, Kim even leaned over to Shin and told him it was all pretense.
After three years and seven films, he and Choi, by then remarried, had developed enough trust from Kim Jong Il, and once when they went to speak with him, Choi bought a small tape recorder beforehand in a Pyongyang Department Store, and made a recording of their conversation with Kim Jong Il lasting over forty minutes. Other than a small snippet of footage from a 1992 military rally and brief audio from the two inter-Korean summits, this is the only known recording of Kim Jong Il’s voice outside of North Korea. They had risked their lives to tape the conversation as proof that they had been abducted. This was presumably more to placate the government of South Korea, which was still under a dictatorship and may have punished Shin had he chosen to return there. He and Choi were eventually permitted to travel on business to Vienna. While there, they managed to escape their minders with the help of a Japanese film critic and sought asylum in a U.S. embassy. He would restart his career in the U.S., and ended up writing and directing some of the 3 Ninjas movies. He eventually returned to South Korea in 1994 and continued working on films there until his death in 2006.
Shin has said that if his life were ever a film, no one would believe it, and I am inclined to agree. Accordingly, his autobiography is entitled “I Was A Film”. He is survived by Choi, who helped published it. They had been remarried at Kim’s recommendation, and it’s fairly safe to say that would not have happened were it not for that eight year sojourn in the North.
Just weeks after completing negotiatons with the United States for food aid in return for halting uranium enrichment, nulcear tests, and missile tests among other programs, the DPRK has announced it will test what will now be its third satelllite under the name Kwangmyongsong (광명성), which means “guiding light” or Lode Star, in Korean. In North Korean propaganda, there are banners all across the country that read “Long Live General Kim Jong Il, Lode Star of the 21st Century”. The launch of Kwangmyongsong-3 is being perceived as a provocative act by nearly every nation even including China, which is by far North Korea’s closest benefactor and ally, because it is allegedly being conducted by launching long range multi-stage rockets that directly violate both U.N. resolutions to which it’s obligated and, in this case, to the deal it made with the U.S. weeks ago. It’s not the purported satellite that concerns other nations, but the Unha (은하) rocket that will supposedly carry it to space. Internationally, North Korea contends that it is entirely for peaceful use by emphasizing the fact that the missile tests are also meant to celebrate the 100th Day of the Sun, Kim Il-sung’s birthday, on April 15th. In state media it is being hailed as an achievement in space technology and a national milestone. But just last January a one hour documentary about Kim Jong Eun on KCNA attributed past nuclear tests to his own military genius. One might doubt that a country boasting about its prowess through the language of nuclear weaponry will be sincere about disarmament months later, but the U.S decided to follow through with a plan made while Kim Jong Il was alive that agrees to abandoing uranium enichment, nuclear tests, and more in return for food aid. Now that Kwangmyongsong-3 is being launched, the U.S. has described North Korea’s act as highly provocative; the U.S. State Department said it makes food aid “hard to imagine”, and the Defense Department claimed it would destabilize the region. Much of the international opposition is out of a mutual desire to avoid an arms race in East Asia.
A chorus of international opposition has been joined by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, a South Korean national, who has urged North Korea to not to proceed. North Korea claims it has a sovereign right to test space technology, but the agreements to which it’s signed on have made clear that such a launch is not acceptable without violating the terms. The overwhelming consensus internationally is that the tests have been primarily to help develop the military technology necessary to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles. This would give their nuclear deterrence more meaning in general once it’s been confirmed that they are capable of hitting targets as far away as the U.S. It also makes the country a more attractive black market option for nations like Iran, which along with Syria has been a past customer of the North’s nuclear technology. North Korea’s government has informed the relevant international agencies that the rocket’s trajectory will take it over both Japan and Taiwan, before being expected to land in waters some 80 miles off South Korea’s coast. According to KCNA, Kwangmyongsong-3 is a “polar-orbiting earth observation satellite” that will be launched southward from Cholsan County in North Pyongan Province, which is on North Korea’s west coast. Japan has already publicly stated the possibility that they will shoot it down should it come within the nation’s airspace. This all comes as President Obama is set to visit Korea’s demilitarized zone (DMZ) on Sunday as part of his trip to the global nuclear security summit in South Korea.
The first and second Kwangmyongsong satellites, launched in 1998 and 2009 respectively, were both heralded by North Korea as successful tests of its space technology. But in fact, no other nation on Earth was able to detect that anything had actually entered orbit. Undeterred, state media described both launches as resounding triumphs, insisting that the first satellite had broadcast “The Song of General Kim Il Sung” and “The Song of General Kim Jong Il” after reaching space. Kwangmyongsong-1 was launched just as Kim Jong Il officially inherited the rule he had established right after Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994, and was launched at a time when tensions in the region were lower and nations had more immediate hopes of denuclearization in Asia. In fact the People’s Republic of China helped develop the satellite, just as when they launched Dong Far Hong I in 1970 under Mao and broadcast “The East is Red” when it successfully entered orbit, and that one did actually enter orbit. But while China aims at a manned lunar mission by 2020, North Korea still cannot feed its own population. The idea that space technology is of any immediate interest to a nation with such priorities is hard to swallow without the caveat that it’s for launch technology that will make its already existent WMDs deployable to a much bigger selection.
Kwangmyongsong-2 was launched just three years ago in a different international atmosphere. This time around the concern’s been graver and more overt after North Korea’s artillery bombardment of a South Korean island, its sinking of a South Korean submarine, major U.S. wars abroad, “axis of evil” reaction, multiple underground nuclear tests, a secret uranium enrichment program North Korea lied about for many years even while at the Six Party disarmanent talks, and a bevy of other factors. There’s been reluctance to antagonize the North at the moment in order to better understand how or if a regime under Kim Jong Eun would behave any differently, but the latest launch makes that more clear. Kim Jong Il relied less on the party for supremacy than his father and started an era of “military first” politics both to prevent a coup and to create a siege mentality that sacrifices for the military would be necessary for all North Koreans’ survival against imperialist aggression from the U.S. Kim Jong Eun seems destined to continue that policy for the time being. Anyone who understands the true grip of this personality cult on North Korean society would also understand why this country did not collapse after Kim Jong Il’s death. But tension is high now, with China receiving unusually publicized but always vocal criticism for its latest repatriation of North Korean refugees to what will certainly be punishments of torture and possible death back home. This even lead to a recent scuffle between North Korean and South Korean diplomats at a U.N. human rights meeting. China has just installed silent alarms in the houses of border towns for its crackdown on North Korean escapees, just as U.S. lawmakers are set to renew North Korean human rights legislation, which does everything from funding opposition radio broadcast into North Korea, to offering resettlement opportunities in the U.S.
North Korea’s not the only one celebrating Kim Il Sung’s 100th birthday, there’s also a photographic exhibition of the Great Leader in New York, brought to you in part by the Associated Press. Meanwhile, the official website for the Korean Central News Agency declares on its front page “anyone hurting the dignity of the DPRK supreme leadership will find no breathing spell in this land or sky”. The owner of the gallery where the exhibition’s being hosted is on the Board of Directors for Human Rights Watch. Go figure.
When observing a place like North Korea, you’re often exposed to a way of life that many correctly assume would never be possible in an open society, or anywhere outside the country. While that’s usually accurate, it also begs the question of how over 150,000 Koreans in Japan openly express their loyalty to North Korea and the Kim family. They account for about a quarter of Japanese Koreans and have been present there since before Korea was divided. They are a testament to the power of families to indoctrinate even in a society that’s incompatible with their teachings. These Koreans are unified under an organization called Chongryon (총련) or the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (재일본 조선인 총련합회). Since North Korea has no diplomatic ties to Japan, it has served as the de facto embassy there. The majority of Japanese Koreans hold South Korean citizenship through a far more innocuous organization called Mindan (민단) or the Korean Residents Union in Japan (재일본대한민국민단) which for reasons that may soon be clear, is not quite as controversial. Unlike Mindan, Chongryon’s quasi-official status makes it a more direct representative of its nation, and the leaders of Chongryon are actually members of North Korea’s parliament. Their meetings in Japan appear like something straight out of Pyongyang.
Japan colonized Korea for 35 years, and the last years of this occupation were the most extreme, when Japan attempted to erase the Korean language, culture, and identity. In a bid to make a better a life for themselves and their families, thousands of Koreans moved to the Japanese mainland, learned the language, and settled there as immigrants. While some became Japanese citizens, most chose to live there as permanent residents. After Japan surrendered in WWII and Korea was divided, they were free apply for citizenship back home, but which Korea?
Short of manpower and foreign currency, North Korea established the “Return Project” in 1959 to repatriate Japanese Koreans by luring them with promises of “Paradise on Earth”. During this time, massive foreign aid from the Soviet Union allowed the North Korean economy to briefly surpass that of the South; a rare period when the North could back its rhetoric with superior numbers. Over 90,000 would heed the call to return over the next 20 years. But what these immigrants were expecting is not what they ended up experiencing, and like all other North Koreans, they were never permitted to leave once they arrived. They had anticipated that either Korea would soon be reunified or that North Korea would at least establish diplomatic relations with Japan, neither of which has happened to this day.
Sometimes entire families emigrated back to North Korea, while other times they sent their children to live there. In a documentary called Dear Pyongyang, a Japanese Korean documents her elderly father, who was a leading member of Chongryon and sent all three of his sons to live in North Korea. He has had to grapple with that decision for decades now, but him and his ardent communist wife still believe in the cause. Other cases are more blatantly tragic, a more infamous example being that of Kang Chol Hwan, who was just a boy when he and his entire family moved to Pyongyang in the 1960s. He and his family were never fully accepted in North Korea due to their time in Japan, and after his family kept losing one possession after another to the party, his father was eventually accused of being a counter-revolutionary. After a knock on the door at night, the entire family was trucked off to a concentration camp where he survived for ten years and was eventually released before escaping to South Korea via China and becoming a journalist in Seoul. The memoir The Aquariums of Pyongyang describes his ten years in the gulag and is a veritable horror story of beatings, torture, executions, starvation, and relentless propaganda. He was one of the few to make it out of both the camp and the country alive. North Korea denies the camps exist.
Not only do the Japanese Koreans of Chongryon adhere to North Korean ideology, they are also known in Japan and elsewhere for their exclusive and isolated education system. While the children of these families grow up next door to their Japanese counterparts, they only attend special schools run by Chongryon. In fact, the organization operates 140 schools from kindergartens to a university. In many ways, the schools are a microcosm of North Korea, complete with portraits of the Kims hanging in every classroom, and the main language of instruction being Korean. Their textbooks have also courted controversy, insisting that the North’s 1987 bombing of a Korean Air flight never happened and is a fabrication. This is in contrast to the memoir of the spy who planted the explosives. Sometimes the schools organize field trips to Pyongyang, complete with as much propaganda as any Western visitor would ever receive.
Many of the elder Chongryon members are aging ideologues nostalgic for the brief period when North Korea’s economy was stronger than that of the South. But it’s more of a conundrum to figure out how the younger members can grow up in a globalized, consumer society and yet maintain their loyalty to an impoverished totalitarian nation that many of them have never been to. Some maintain their adherence, but evidence is showing that third and fourth generation Chongryon members are dissatisfied and being more assimilated into Japanese society. Yet their roots in the organization have been the source of an increasing social problem for them because no one who graduates from these schools is eligible for the college entrance exams. Already a minority in Japan, it makes their prospects in the competitive job market there that much more bleak. The few schools run by Mindan and other foreign schools are eligible, but many of these also teach in Japanese and are more integrated. A short documentary featuring interviews with younger Chogryon members can be found here.
Financially, the relationship between Chongryon and North Korea is an important two way street. The Japanese have a game called pachinko, which can be described as a cross between a pinball and a slot machine. It’s the only form of gambling nominally tolerated by the government there, and it’s usually played inside loud fluorescent parlors with narrow rows of seats often fully occupied. While some of these are by the Japanese mafia, anywhere from 30-80% are operated by Chongryon. Much of the revenue goes back to Pyongyang along with remittances, and in 2005 alone the total exceeded $120 million. Some of Chongryon’s education system is occasionally funded in part by Japanese taxpayers, and in part by North Korea. There used to be over 160 schools, but many have shut down due to decreasing funds; there’s even footage of an abandoned one here. Until a few years ago, Chongryon’s semi-official status gave it diplomatic immunity from legal action, but not so anymore. It has been in the spotlight for not repaying its loans, as well as various other charges from embezzlement to unlicensed accounting and tax evasion. A Japanese Marxist governor exempted Chongryon from taxes in 1972, but this was revoked in 2003.
Though South Korea is a liberal democracy, its National Security Law presents an exception to freedom of speech by archaically banning any material regarded as pro-North Korea. As such, no organization even remotely like Chongryon would be permitted to exist there. North Korea allows Chongryon families in Japan to visit their relatives living in the country on a somewhat regular basis. They often smuggle in remittances and bring gifts. All of the travel is on board a passenger ferry called the Mangyongbong-92 (만경봉 92호), built in 1992 to commemorate Kim Il Sung’s 80th birthday. It travels from Niigata, Japan to Wonsan, North Korea on trips roughly a day long about 20-30 times a year. The ship was banned from Japanese ports for six months in 2006 following allegations that North Korean spies had been trawling Tokyo’s megamalls for everything from Playstations to camera lenses with the sole purpose of expropriating the technology for its military hardware. It’s been the target of numerous accusations and rumors of smuggling including methamphetamines. Nowadays it is also being used as a tourist cruise ship that travels between domestic ports in North Korea.
Chongryon was largely responsible for North Korea’s representation on the internet for quite some time, and still maintains a large portion of it through propaganda websites republishing articles from the Workers Party’s official organs. There are also some North Korean websites hosted in China, though many are actually based in North Korea now as well. It’s worth nothing that due to the law mentioned above, all of these sites are banned in South Korea, when trying to access them you instead get a government warning, and unless one knows how to connect through a proxy server that’s the case with most of these websites, certainly the ones hosted in North Korea itself. While South Korea has the greatest ratio of internet users in the world, almost no one in North Korea has a computer, and even if they did the internet is out of the question. In fact, one village in particular has been without electricity for seven years. The target audience for these websites has not always been clear, but North Korea’s propaganda wing has still made efforts to expand to Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube in recent times as well. Apparently for quite some time the North Korean government’s Facebook profile said it was interested in men.
Determined to quell the notion that its citizens live in anything less than a worker’s paradise, one of North Korea’s more infamous contributions to the de-militarized zone (DMZ) includes a propaganda “village” of around 200 people that almost all outside observers agree is entirely fake with no actual inhabitants. While North Korea officially insists that Kijongdong (기정동) is a collective farm of 200 families with schools and healthcare centers, this does not appear to stand up to scrutiny. Any quick telescopic viewing reveals empty buildings without glass windows or even interior rooms. The sidewalks are empty, and all of the village’s lights turn off and on at set times. Occasionally a crew comes to maintain the area. While the North Koreans sometimes refer to it as “Peace Village” (평화촌), the South Korean media have dubbed it the “Propaganda Village” (선전마을). A modern incarnation of the Potemkin village phenomenon, the village was built in the 1950s to encourage defection from South Koreans, and after the Korean War it was one of only two settlements allowed to remain in the heavily fortified DMZ that now divides the Korean peninsula. When it was built, the brand new buildings, freshly painted and apparently wired for electricity, would have been a luxury for any Korean. It’s the only North Korean “settlement” visible from the DMZ itself, but no tourist in North Korea has ever been allowed to visit. It’s also called Propaganda Village because of the virulent anti-Western propaganda blared over loudspeakers 20 hours a day near the village, though this is done in different parts of the DMZ. The broadcasts stopped in 2004 after a thaw in inter-Korean relations, but resumed in 2010 after North Korea torpedoed and sank a South Korean submarine, killing 46 soldiers.
It’s also home to what was once the world’s second tallest flagpole, raised in response to a South Korean flag nearby. This eventually started a “flagpole war” during the 1980s in which the North eventually proved it cares a lot more by building one so tall that at 525 feet, it needs its own outside structure just to support it from falling.
A North Korean restaurant has just opened in Amsterdam. These restaurants can be found in Asian countries like China, Thailand, and Nepal, and there’s one in Dubai as well, but this is the first one in a Western country. Adorned with propaganda in every corner, they are known for their singing waitresses in red but in other ways resemble the drunken karaoke fare found in countless eateries across Asia. They are also lucrative sources of hard currency for the Kim regime, as each is required to remit up to a few hundred thousand dollars to Pyongyang on an annual basis. All of the branches are technically spun off from the Okryu restaurant in Pyongyang (옥류관) and bear the same name, though the new Netherlands addition is called Pyongyang Restaurant. The man who supervised the original restaurant’s design and construction was eventually dispatched to South Korea as a spy, and repatriated in 2000. Many if not most of the outlets depend on South Korean customers, though the South Korean government strongly discourages such visits. Pyongyang and Hamheung on the North’s east cost have been famous for their own varieties of cold noodle (냉면) for centuries, and it’s a very popular dish at the restaurants. There have been defections, though it’s somewhat rare because landing a job in one of these restaurants is very fortunate for North Koreans, allowing them to remit part of a regular income back to their home.
North Korea is apparently developing unmanned attack aircraft based off 1970s U.S. target drones purchased from the Middle East, probably Syria. The MQM-107D is used by the US and South Korean military to test guided missiles. They are apparenty acquiring them for use as “kamikaze drones”. Right now the Syrian connection is also worth mentioning as the American embassy there was just shut down today amid more violent upheavel. Every government is waiting to see whether Israel will bomb an Iranian nuclear reactor, and this is partly because they have already bombed a Syrian nuclear reactor designed by North Korea.
North Korea has announced that those using mobile phones during the one hundred day mourning period for Kim Jong Il will be punished as war criminals. Anyone caught using one during this time now has a variety of gulag options. The country’s 3G network was established in 2008 by the Egyptian telecommunications company Orascom. Most current estimates put the total number of users at the better part of a million, so surveillance has become an escalating challenge for the regime. Controlling the proliferation of cheap Chinese cell phones in North Korean black markets seems more or less impossible now. Their greatest fear comes from those in the border regions who can relay their signals from Chinese stations to expand coverage beyond the country’s borders, allowing them to talk to people in South Korea. Many assume now that North Korea cannot go back and they’re almost definitely correct. Public rage following the disastrous 2009 currency revaluation has already shown that there’s some kind of line which cannot be crossed. The underground, market economy of North Korea is a lifeline for everyone and is run by private entrepreneurs who rely on cell phones in a place where they can’t rely on electricity or transportation. As to the reason for the ban, one can presume it’s a preemptive measure to quell potential unrest, though somehow I don’t imagine it was portrayed that way.
Digital technology has been the greatest obstacle toward enforcing the isolation of North Korean society. Authorities used to shut down the electricity in a neighborhood, then enter each house with a VCR to see what tape was caught inside. They’ve struggled to maintain this tenacity, but rooting out anti-socialist elements isn’t what it used to be.