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Feb 28 '15 - (North Korea's Economy) Spring Release

IN A fast-changing region, one thing has long been a constant: the utter disregard that the mafia dynasty ruling North Korea evinces for the welfare of ordinary people. So growing evidence of liberalising reforms in North Korea is tantalising.

“Reform” remains a taboo word in the North. But new measures in the countryside appear to sanction people farming for the market rather than for the state. It represents a tacit abandonment of state collectives in favour of family farming, and seems already to have had an effect. For the first time in decades, North Korea grew nearly enough to feed itself last year. Thanks to better harvests, the North Korean economy could grow by 7.5% this year, compared with annual growth of little more than 1% for a decade, reckons the Hyundai Research Institute, a think-tank in Seoul, the capital of South Korea. Asia’s basket case could prove to be its fastest-growing economy.

Caveats abound. North Korea divulges little useful data, and last year the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) was not allowed in to conduct field checks. Many homes still have too little to eat—North Koreans on average consume a little over half the number of calories of their rich brethren in South Korea (for other comparisons, see chart). Still, anecdotal evidence suggests that change in this benighted country is under way.

The agricultural experiment seems to have been devised in secret after Kim Jong Un came to power just over three years ago following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. It was set in motion from 2013. Initially, it allowed groups of about a dozen labourers to register as agricultural work teams, effectively reorganising the big socialist collectives that have been a feature of North Korean agriculture since the 1950s. Farmers were also allowed to retain 30% of a new quota on production—a much bigger share than before. In addition, they could keep (ie, sell on the market) any excess harvest above the quota. Previously any surplus would have gone to the state.

Under a plan referred to as the May 30th measures, those teams were shrunk again last year, to the size of a typical family, while their share of the quota was enlarged to 60%. Even the permitted size of families’ kitchen gardens, which are far more productive patches than land tilled for the state, have been expanded dramatically, from 100 square metres to 3,300 square metres. For Andrei Lankov, a longtime watcher of North Korea at Kookmin University in Seoul, the new measures, a quasi-privatisation of state land, are nothing short of revolutionary.

A second area of experimentation, in state industry, is equally striking. Under the May measures, state factory managers may appoint their own employees, set workers’ salaries, buy raw materials on the market and sell part of their production there too. Like farmers, managers will need to pay their dues to the state. Yet, says Mr Lankov, that is not so different from paying corporate taxes in a capitalist economy.

The regime is also promoting special economic zones (SEZs) with gusto, thanks to a new law on them. Andray Abrahamian of Choson Exchange, a non-profit group that organises business workshops in North Korea, describes a “palpable energy and excitement” among officials in charge of SEZs.

The oldest zone is the export-processing hub of Rason, in the north-east of the country near the borders with Russia and China. It was set up in 1991 and languished for years. But recent development has been swift. Chinese firms have paved roads linking its port to the Chinese border. Last July a new port terminal, linked to a freight railway to Russia, was launched. At a recent forum in Seoul on doing business in North Korea, Mark Kim, a Korean-American who operates a shoe factory in Rason, said his football boots were “selling like hot cakes” in the North (though he has yet to make a profit). Rason has also become the first place in North Korea where you are allowed to own your home.

The government has announced a further 19 SEZs since 2013, small hubs of between two and four square kilometres for everything from tourism (Chinese occasionally holiday in the North) and software development, to fertiliser- and rice-production. Nearly every North Korean city now has one or two zones (though, Mr Abrahamian says, they remain “underfunded and underconnected”).

Reforms have been announced before, in 2002. Aiming to motivate labourers by aligning state and market prices, Kim Jong Il declared that subsidies to state-owned firms would be withdrawn, while farmers could sell any extra produce in small-scale markets. Yet by 2005 these measures had been rolled back. This time round, comparisons to China’s economic lift-off from the late 1970s are being made more readily. Though his father died peacefully in his bed, Kim Jong Un may think his only chance of survival is change. Some analysts argue that he shows far more desire to improve livelihoods than his father ever did. Pak Pong Ju, the architect of the 2002 experiments (who has seen the fruits of Chinese reforms for himself), has re-emerged from the political wilderness and is now Mr Kim’s prime minister. Mr Kim visits orphanages and amusement parks, and regularly speaks of improving people’s quality of life. He has positioned himself as the champion of a growing urban consumer class in the capital, Pyongyang.

Yet there are grounds for scepticism. Perhaps the best that can be said of the new measures is that they try to narrow the gulf between the regime’s upbeat propaganda (“Make fruits cascade down and their sweet aroma fill the air on the sea of apple trees at the foot of Chol Pass!”) and the sordid reality of the lives that many North Koreans lead.

A new generation of North Koreans has little recollection of families depending on the state for all their needs, says Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea, a group that works with defectors. A disastrous currency confiscation in 2009 hit small traders hardest, cementing distrust of the state. It even instilled a degree of defiance in those who had to work against the state system to survive. Young urban North Koreans recently defecting to the South claim not to have been afraid to criticise the Kims among close friends and family. This group, hooked on foreign media being smuggled into the North, now refers to itself as “awoken”, says Mr Park. As ever more information from outside is ferreted into the country on DVDs and USB drives, state rhetoric and reality grow further apart. Parts of the regime understand this. Some of the impetus for the market-oriented measures, says Christopher Green of Daily NK, a news source with informants in the North, is to bring rhetoric and reality closer into line.

(Not quite Chol Pass, but it’s an improvement)

In other words, the regime may not be leading change so much as responding to it. The collapse of the public distribution system, through which the command economy used to apportion goods, including food, was both a cause and consequence of the famine. Informal trading and smuggling networks, and black markets for food, sprang up as a result of it. The state has on occasion tried to suppress these markets, but has no more succeeded than with its attempts to reinstate the distribution system. Today, three-quarters of what most people earn probably comes from an unregulated private economy. A forthcoming book, “North Korea Confidential”, by James Pearson and Daniel Tudor (a former correspondent for The Economist), says that nearly all North Koreans lead a “double economic life”, supplementing measly rations and puny state wages of as little as $1 a month with extra work in their spare time.

To an extent, the recent top-down measures may be an acknowledgment that the bottom-up change of the past 15 or so years is irreversible. In fact, the regime has a growing interest in the non-state economy. Officials tolerate private trade partly because they get a cut—in effect running a protection racket. Many have become entrepreneurs themselves, managing state firms for private profit. The Kim family itself gets money from such firms. To the extent that the state has recently cracked down on smuggling from China, it is in order for Mr Kim and the elites around him to get a bigger share of the pie, according to Kim Kwang Jin, an analyst and North Korean defector who once worked in the regime’s “royal-court” economy.

Yet official corruption and protection rackets point to the limits of reform. There are rumours of local officials taking a cut of farmers’ crops. Concerned about losing influence and privileged access to food, some officials are also trying to revive the state plan, says Randall Ireson, an expert on North Korean agriculture. Meanwhile, farmers will continue to depend on ropy government agencies for essential materials such as fertiliser and oil. As for last year’s higher yields, they come at a price: emptying water reservoirs during a dry spell has left the country facing even more severe shortages of electricity than usual.

There is a deeper lesson from the Chinese reform path. It is that real, sustained improvements to a decrepit economy are possible only with outside expertise and capital. Yet, fearful of political meddling, the North remains deeply suspicious of foreign investment. Commercial relations with China, supposedly an ally, are abysmal, with Chinese mining and trading companies complaining of broken contracts and outright theft by their North Korean state partners. Even Rason, at the forefront of North Korea’s economic experiments, has yet to receive promised Chinese electricity from neighbouring Jilin province. A third bridge being constructed over the Yalu river, which separates the southern end of the two countries’ border, was set to open in October; yet roads linking it to transport networks on either side are unfinished, and work on it has stalled.

But it is North Korea’s nuclear-weapons programmes that do most to darken its relations with the outside world, above all South Korea, America and Japan. (Only with Russia is North Korea on good terms, and since that amity is based on hopes of aid, it is not likely to last, given Russia’s straitened finances.) The programmes have brought international sanctions down on North Korea, but the North gives no impression of abandoning them.

Indeed, according to a report by the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, North Korea’s stockpile is poised for rapid expansion. From about a dozen weapons today, North Korea could build 100 within five years, even without a fourth nuclear test. Its plutonium-based weapons, the report claims, have already been miniaturised to carry on medium-range ballistic missiles.

It may be that the regime wants to develop the economy. But it is certainly not going to do so at the expense of developing nuclear weapons—or of lessening the repression and state violence by which it stays in power. It underscores the dead end into which its leaders have driven North Korea. Even if the current reforms are maintained, the improvement to the livelihoods of North Koreans is bound to be limited, no matter which Kim is in power.

Source: The Economist, 02.28.2015

Feb 2 '14 - Inside North Korea's Western-funded university

By Chris Rogers and Marshall Corwin

Entering the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, it is immediately clear this is no ordinary academic institution.

A military guard salutes us as our vehicle passes through the security checkpoint. Once inside the campus we hear the sound of marching and singing, not more guards but the students themselves.

They are the sons of some of the most powerful men in North Korea, including senior military figures.

“Our supreme commander Kim Jong-un, we will defend him with our lives,” they sing as they march to breakfast.

“Patriotism is a tradition,” explains a 20-year-old first-year student. “The songs we sing as we march are in thanks to our Great Leader.”

There are 500 students here – dressed smartly in black suits, white shirts, red ties and black, peaked caps with briefcases at their sides. They are all hand-picked by Kim Jong-un’s regime to receive a Western education.

The university’s official aim is to equip them with the skills to help modernise the impoverished country and engage with the international community.

All classes are in English and many of the lecturers are American. This is remarkable because North Korea has isolated itself from the outside world for decades and the US is its hated enemy.

After 18 months of negotiations, we have been given unique access to the students – though we are constantly monitored. The students explain they are warming to Americans – if not the US government.

”Of course at first we were nervous, but we now believe American people are different from the US,” says one student. “We want to make good relationship with all countries,” adds another.

The founder and president is Dr James Chin-Kyung Kim. The 78-year-old Korean-American Christian entrepreneur was invited by the regime to build a university based on a similar one he had opened in northern China.

He raised much of the £20m it cost from American and South Korean Christian charities.

“I am full of thanks to this government – they accepted me. They fully trust me and have given me all authority to operate these schools. Can you believe it?”

It is hard to believe – human rights groups say North Korean citizens found practising Christianity are persecuted.

Inside every classroom, portraits of North Korea’s brutal dictators take pride of place above the whiteboard.

Lecturer Colin McCulloch gives his time for free. Some of the other 40 lecturers are sponsored by Christian charities. Mr McCulloch has moved from Yorkshire to teach business to the regime’s future elite.

He splits the students into groups and tells them to form their own fantasy companies and compile their profit projections.

In a country where the supply of all goods is controlled by the regime, the concept of a free market is new to the students.

“I’m sure the leaders and the government here recognise they need to connect with the outside world,” Mr McCulloch tells us. “It’s not possible to be a totally hermetic, closed economy in the modern age.”

The university’s foreign lecturers are up against a lifetime of propaganda and conditioning – and almost complete isolation from the rest of the world, as we discover when American Erin Fink invites us to take part in her English class.

“It will be good for you to listen to these guys because their accent is very different from my accent – they speak British English,” she explains to her first year undergraduates.

They tell us they like a North Korean girl group called the Moranbong Music Band, one of Kim Jong-un’s latest propaganda tools.

We are learning foreign languages because foreign language is the eye of scientists. Learning a language is learning a culture. I want more of that”

When we mention Michael Jackson, we get a room full of blank faces. We try again.

“Raise your hands if you’ve heard of Michael Jackson.” Not a single arm goes up.

You might have thought students would have found out about Michael Jackson from the Internet – unlike most of North Korea it is available at the university.

But in the computer room a female minder censors all internet access. It is strictly no email, no social media, and no international news.

In North Korea, only absolute devotion to the supreme leader, and praise of all things North Korean, is permitted. According to human rights groups, that devotion is the result of conditioning from birth – and fear of execution or imprisonment in inhumane labour camps.

“The key question is whether the university is training those young Koreans most likely to change the country in a positive way, or those most likely to perpetuate the current regime,” says Greg Scarlatoiu of the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

“If the price to pay for being allowed to establish a presence inside North Korea is ignoring the country’s egregious human rights violations, I will say that price is too high.”

Lord Alton chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea and is a patron of the university.

He hopes the experiment could kick-start more fundamental change and alter the mindset of a generation.

“You have to start somewhere. This isn’t an excuse for appeasement, which I’m totally opposed to.

“This is a form of engagement in order to try and change things.”

But are the students actually interested in embracing change? Even during the guarded conversations that we are allowed, it is clear some students are keen to connect with the outside world.

“We are learning foreign languages because foreign language is the eye of scientists,” says one undergraduate.

“And learning a language is learning a culture. I want more of that.”

Source: BBC, 02.02.2014

May 5 '14 - China plans for North Korean regime collapse leaked

By Julian Ryall, Tokyo

China has drawn up detailed contingency plans for the collapse of the North Korean government, suggesting that Beijing has little faith in the longevity of Kim Jong-un’s regime.

Documents drawn up by planners from China’s People’s Liberation Army that were leaked to Japanese media include proposals for detaining key North Korean leaders and the creation of refugee camps on the Chinese side of the frontier in the event of an outbreak of civil unrest in the secretive state.

The report calls for stepping up monitoring of China’s 879-mile border with North Korea.

Any senior North Korean military or political leaders who could be the target of either rival factions or another “military power,” thought to be a reference to the United States, should be given protection, the documents state.

According to Kyodo News, the Chinese report says key North Korean leaders should be detained in special camps where they can be monitored, but also prevented from directing further military operations or taking part in actions that could be damaging to China’s national interest.

The report suggests “foreign forces” could be involved in an incident that leads to the collapse of internal controls in North Korea, resulting to millions of refugees attempting to flee. The only route to safety the vast majority would have would be over the border into China.

The Chinese authorities intend to question new arrivals, determine their identities and turn away any who are considered dangerous or undesirable.

“This only underlines that all the countries with a stake in the stability of north-east Asia need to be talking to each other,” Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs, told The Telegraph.

“What we have learned from the collapse of other dictatorships – the Soviet Union, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya – is that the more totalitarian the regime, the harder and faster they fall,” he added.

“This is why we need contingency plans and I am sure that the US and South Korea have extensive plans in place, but the release of Chinese measures is new,” he said.

Okumura believes that the timing of the leak of the study is significant, given that China can have been expected to have similar contingency plans in place for the past two decades that North Korea has been teetering on the edge of implosion.

The release of the study comes just days after Beijing issued a thinly veiled warning to Pyongyang, ahead of a fourth anticipated nuclear test, that China would “by no means allow war or chaos to occur on our doorstep.”

China, which is North Korea’s sole remaining significant supporter, also refused to export any crude oil over its border to the North in the first three months of the year.

Source: The Telegraph, 05.05.2014

Feb 18 '14 - U.N. rights commissioner urges prosecution of North Korean crimes

(Reuters) – U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay urged world powers on Tuesday to refer North Korea to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) following a U.N. report documenting crimes against humanity.

North Korean security chiefs and possibly even Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un himself should face international justice for ordering systematic torture, starvation and killings comparable to Nazi-era atrocities, U.N. investigators said on Monday.

“We now need strong international leadership to follow up on the grave findings of the Commission of Inquiry. I therefore call on the international community, in line with the report’s recommendations, to use all the mechanisms at its disposal to ensure accountability, including referral to the International Criminal Court,” Pillay said in a statement issued in Geneva.

The independent U.N. investigators, led by Michael Kirby, recommended that the world body refer the situation in North Korea to the Hague-based ICC or set up a special tribunal.

The team also recommended targeted U.N. sanctions against civil officials and military commanders suspected of the worst crimes. North Korea is already subject to U.N. sanctions for refusing to give up its atomic bomb program.

Earlier on Tuesday, China rejected what it said was “unreasonable criticism” of Beijing in the U.N. report, but it would not be drawn on whether it would veto any proceedings in the Security Council to bring Pyongyang to book.

The U.N. Human Rights Council, a 47-member state forum that launched the inquiry a year ago, is due to hold a debate on the report on March 17 and vote on its recommendations by March 28.

The United States co-sponsored the commission of inquiry (COI) along with Japan, the European Union and South Korea although, like China, it is not a member of the ICC.

In a statement on Monday, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department said Washington looked forward “to thoroughly reviewing the report and discussing its recommendations with our partners, who share our deep concern about the human rights situation” in North Korea.

The report “provides compelling evidence of widespread and systematic human rights violations” by North Korea, where the rights situation was “among the world’s worst,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

“We will continue to work closely with the international community to sustain international attention on the deplorable human rights situation in North Korea beyond the work of the COI,” she added.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in China last week and said after talks in Beijing on Friday that China and the United States were discussing specific ways to press North Korea to give up its nuclear program.

A State Department official said on Tuesday that the United States and China agreed on “the fundamental importance of a denuclearized North Korea” but declined to comment on what he said were “private diplomatic conversations.”

Western countries and independent experts have accused China of failing to implement properly U.N. sanctions on North Korea, including punitive measures adopted after Pyongyang’s third nuclear test last February.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Tom Miles and Cynthai Osterman)

Source: Reuters, 02.18.2014

Feb 17 '14 - World must act on North Korea rights abuse, says UN report

The international community must act on evidence that crimes against humanity are being committed in North Korea, says a long-awaited UN report.

A panel of experts mandated by the UN’s Human Rights Council said North Koreans had suffered “unspeakable atrocities”, and that those responsible, including leader Kim Jong-un, must face justice.

The panel heard evidence of torture, political repression and other crimes.

Pyongyang refused to co-operate with the report and rejects its conclusions.

The UN commission said Mr Kim had failed to respond to an advance copy of the report, and a letter which warned him he could be held personally responsible for abuses.

Testimony given to the panel from defectors included an account of a woman forced to drown her own baby, children imprisoned from birth and starved, and families tortured for watching a foreign soap opera.

Michael Kirby, chairman of the independent Commission of Inquiry, said the report “calls for attention from the international community”.

“At the end of the Second World War so many people said ‘if only we had known… if only we had known the wrongs that were done in the countries of the hostile forces’,” he said.

(The North’s leaders are frequent targets of angry protests in the South)

“Well, now the international community does know… There will be no excusing of failure of action because we didn’t know,” he said, at a news conference at UN headquarters in Geneva.

“Too many times in this building there are reports and no action. Well this is a time for action.”

‘Unspeakable atrocities’

The BBC’s Imogen Foulkes in Geneva says the report is one of the most detailed and devastating ever published by the United Nations.

The “gravity, scale and nature” of the allegations “reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”, it says.

The report says that in North Korea:

– there is “an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” in North Korea
– “entrenched patterns of discrimination”, rooted in the state-assigned class system, affect every part of life
– discrimination against women is “pervasive in all aspects of society”
– the state “has used food as a means of control over the population” and deliberately blocked aid for ideological reasons, causing the deaths of “hundreds of thousands” of people
“hundreds of thousands of political prisoners” have died in “unspeakable atrocities” in prison camps in the past 50 years
– security forces “systematically employ violence and punishments that amount to gross human rights violations in order to create a climate of fear”

“In many instances, the violations of human rights found by the commission constitute crimes against humanity,” says the report.

(The cult of personality surrounding the Kim family is as strong as ever in North Korea)

(North Korea commemorated the birthday of Kim Jong-il, who died in 2011, on Sunday)

“These are not mere excesses of the state; they are essential components of a political system that has moved far from the ideals on which it claims to be founded.”

The UN “must ensure that those most responsible for the crimes against humanity” are held accountable, through a referral to the International Criminal Court, or a UN tribunal.

The UN should also adopt targeted sanctions “against those who appear to be most responsible for crimes against humanity”, says the report, and increase its monitoring of rights abuses in North Korea.

North Korea declined to participate in the panel’s investigation, and said it “categorically and totally rejects” the findings.

Its response came in a two-page statement sent to Reuters from its diplomatic mission in Geneva.

“The DPRK [North Korea] once again makes it clear that the ‘human rights violations’ mentioned in the so-called ‘report’ do not exist in our country.”

Mr Kirby said there was “a very good way to answer the many charges and complaints – and that is to allow the door to be opened” to the international community so they could see the situation for themselves.

(Since Kim Jong-un took over, his regime has threatened nuclear war and conducted a deadly purge)

Although this information has been in the public domain for years, the panel’s inquiry is the highest-profile international attempt to investigate the claims.

South Korea welcomed the report, saying it hoped it would “raise the international community’s awareness”, while the US said it “clearly and unequivocally documents the brutal reality” of the Pyongyang regime.

However China, North Korea’s only ally, said it would “not help resolve the human rights situation”.

The panel will formally present its findings next month, when the Human Rights Council will decide which recommendations to support.

But it remains unclear what action will result. Correspondents say China would be likely to block any attempt to refer the North to the International Criminal Court.

An ad-hoc tribunal, like those set up for Rwanda, Sierra Leone or Cambodia, would appear unlikely without co-operation from elements within the country.

Source: BBC, 02.17.2014

Feb 17 '14 - UN documents North Korean torture chambers, prison camps ... and luxury goods

(Reuters) – United Nations human rights investigators on Monday issued a damning report cataloguing massive human rights violations in North Korea that they said amount to crimes of humanity which should be brought to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The 372-page report is the result of a year-long investigation marked by unprecedented public testimony by defectors at hearings held in South Korea, Japan, Britain and the United States.

Kim Jong-un may be personally responsible for crimes against humanity, top U.N. investigator Michael Kirby said in a Jan. 20 letter to the North Korean leader that accompanies the report.

Here are some excepts from the report, to be debated by the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on March 17:


“Systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, its institutions and officials. In many instances, the violations of human rights found by the commission constitute crimes against humanity.

“The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” the report said.

“A number of long-standing and ongoing patterns of systematic and widespread violations which were documented by the commission, meet the high threshold required for proof of crimes against humanity in international law. The perpetrators enjoy immunity.

“The key to the political system is the vast political and security apparatus that strategically uses surveillance, coercion, fear and punishment to preclude the expression of any dissent.”


“Persons who are forcibly repatriated from China are commonly subjected to torture, arbitrary detention, summary execution, forced abortion and other forms of sexual violence.

China should “respect the principle of non-refoulement and accordingly abstain from forcibly repatriating any persons to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”.

“China should raise with the Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and other high-level authorities the issues of abductions, the infanticide of children entitled to Chinese nationality, forced abortions imposed on repatriated women and other human rights violations that target persons repatriated from China.

The report includes a Dec. 16 letter from chairman Kirby to China’s ambassador in Geneva, Wu Haitao, urging him to “caution relevant officials that such conduct on their part could amount to the aiding and abetting (of) crimes against humanity”.

Wu’s reply, dated Dec. 30, said North Koreans enter China illegally for economic reasons and some are engaged in “criminal acts such as theft, robbery, illegal harvesting”. Some North Koreans repeatedly enter China illegally, demonstrating that the allegation that repatriated citizens face torture is “not true”, Wu’s letter said.

The Commission of Inquiry cited estimates that there are 10,000 to 25,000 children born of Chinese fathers and North Korean mothers. “The status of most of these children appears to be effectively stateless, as the Chinese families have been discouraged from registering such children because of the illegal status of their mothers,” it said.

North Korean agents “appear to be operating on Chinese territory and attempting to gather information about DPRK citizens and persons supporting them. On some occasions, they appear even to have abducted DPRK citizens and at least one national of the ROK (Republic of Korea)”.


“Suspects of major political wrongs may find themselves in a detention interrogation centre anywhere from a few days to six months or more,” it said.

“Torture is an established feature of the interrogation process”, it said, citing testimony about a “torture chamber” at a detention facility of the State Security Department equipped with a water tank, shackles used to hang suspects upside down, and long needles driven underneath a suspect’s fingernails.

“Many suspects die at interrogation detention centres as a result of torture, deliberate starvation or illnesses developed or aggravated by the terrible living conditions.”

“If they are not executed immediately, persons held accountable for major political wrongs are forcibly disappeared to political prison camps that officially do not exist. Most victims are incarcerated for life, without chance of leaving the camps alive.”

“The limited information that seeps out from the secret camps also creates a spectre of fear among the general population in the DPRK, creating a powerful deterrent against any future challenges to the political system.”

“Four large prison camps are known to exist in the DPRK today,” it said, adding that there may be additional ones and that there were 12 camps or more in the past.

“Over time, the system has been consolidated. Some camps were closed down and the remaining inmates transferred to other sites, which were expanded.

Sources including human rights groups concur there has been a drop in the political prison camp population over the last few years, but this may be partly due to an “extremely high rate of deaths in custody,” due to starvation and neglect, arduous force labour, disease and executions, the U.N. report said.

The Korea Institute for National Unification estimates 80,000 to 120,000 people are detained in political prison camps today, based on recent satellite imagery and first-hand testimony, the report said. The activist group Committee on Human Rights in North Korea put the figure at 80,000 to 130,000.


A 1995 food crisis sparked by floods and the collapse of support and hard currency from the Soviet Union led to famine.

“The State has used food as a means of control over the population …. The State has also used deliberate starvation as a means of control and punishment in detention facilities. This has resulted in the deaths of many political and ordinary prisoners.

“Military spending – predominantly on hardware and the development of weapons systems and the nuclear programme – has always been prioritised, even during periods of mass starvation.”

“The commission finds that decisions, actions and omissions by the State and its leadership caused the death of at least hundreds of thousands of people and inflicted permanent physical and psychological injuries on those who survived.

“Hunger and malnutrition continue to be widespread. Deaths from starvation continue to be reported.

“The commission is concerned that structural issues, including laws and policies that violate the right to adequate food and freedom from hunger, remain in place, which could lead to the recurrence of mass starvation.

“In his 2014 New Year’s message, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un called for ‘decisive improvement in guidance and management of economic projects’. However, measures for agricultural reform and opening the economy were not mentioned in the speech.”


North Korea “continues allocating a significant amount of the state’s resources for the purchase and importation of luxury goods”, the report said.

Such imports are in violation of Security Council sanctions and have included high-quality cognac and whiskey and equipment for a 1,000 person cinema, it said. There have been attempts to import Mercedes-Benz vehicles, high-end musical recording equipment and dozens of pianos, it said.

“Luxury good expenditure by the DPRK rose to $645.8 million in 2012. Reportedly, this was a sharp increase from the average of $300 million a year under Kim Jong-il,” it said, citing a British newspaper report in October 2013.

North Korean authorities also engage in legal and illegal activities to earn foreign currency, channelling it into “parallel funds” outside of the regular state budget, it said.

“They are kept a the personal disposal of the Supreme Leader and used to cover personal expenses of the Supreme Leader, his family and other elites surrounding him, as well as other politically sensitive expenditures,” it said.

Revenue from criminal activity including drugs has been estimated at up to $500 million a year in 2008, amounting to a third of North Korea’s annual exports at the time, it said.

A former North Korean official, not identified in the report, provided information on the “illegal activities of DPRK embassies around the world. They were engaged in activities such as the illegal sale of alcohol in Islamic countries or the internationally prohibited trafficking of ivory from African countries to China,” the report said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay)

Source: Reuters, 02.17.2014

Aug 21 '13 - How North Korea got itself hooked on meth

By Max Fisher

A North Korean soldier stands guard along the Chinese border. (GOH CHAI HIN/AFP/Getty Images)

A new study published in the journal North Korean Review says that parts of North Korea are experiencing a crystal meth “epidemic,” with an “upsurge” of recreational meth use and accompanying addiction in the country’s northern provinces.

“Almost every adult in that area [of North Korea] has experienced using ice and not just once,” a study co-author told the Wall Street Journal. “I estimate that at least 40% to 50% are seriously addicted to the drug.”

You might want to treat those sky-high numbers with some skepticism; it’s not clear how the authors could know this with such certainty or how so many North Koreans could get their hands on the drug when so many can’t afford or find basic medicine and when undernourishment remains a serious issue. A 2010 Brookings Institution report found that meth addiction rates were significant and growing but far from this scale. Still, the report is drawing attention to North Korea’s meth problem, which, whatever the scale, is well-documented and an apparently significant problem for the country.

So how do people in North Korea, a country where markets are so tightly regulated that even video CDs can be considered dangerous contraband and where social controls are often beyond Orwellian, manage to get hold of meth? It’s an interesting story, regardless of the scale of drug use today, and one that offers some interesting lessons for how North Korea works.

The problem actually goes back to the 1990s, when North Korea experienced a famine so devastating that virtually the entire world believed that the country would collapse at any moment. But it didn’t, in part because Pyongyang finally decided to open up the world’s most closed economy just a small crack, by allowing a degree of black market trade across North Korea’s border with China. The idea was that the black market would bring in food, which it did, preventing North Korea’s implosion.

The black market trade into China has remained that little bit open ever since, either because Pyongyang authorities can’t close it now or because they see some trade as beneficial, probably both. Some provinces along the border have seen their economies liberalize a tiny, tiny bit — most notably North Hamgyung, which is named in the North Korea Review report as particularly blighted by meth addiction.

In the years after the border with China opened that little crack, two other things have happened that led to the current meth crisis. First, medicine ran out and the once-not-terrible health system collapsed — more on this later. Second, North Korea started manufacturing meth in big state-run labs. The country badly needs hard currency and has almost no legitimate international trade. But it was able to exploit the black market trade across the Chinese border by sending state-made meth into China and bringing back the money of Chinese addicts.

This is where things started to spin out of control for North Korea. The state-run meth factories and the cross-border black market trade started to mingle. And some of that meth ended up migrating back across the border and into North Korea, through the black market trade that brings in Chinese rice and DVDs and the like. It’s possible that some North Korean civilians started making meth on their own domestically, although it’s not clear where they would get the chemicals or the cooking space, and the scale would surely not match that of the state factories. But, either way, the influx of meth into northern North Korean cities was a product of the same barely tolerated black markets that the state allowed to open to fight the famine now almost 20 years ago.

This is where the collapse of the North Korean health system becomes relevant. As Isaac Stone Fish reported in a great 2011 Newsweek story, many regular North Koreans started using meth to treat health problems. Real medicine is extremely scarce in the country. But meth is much more common, which means that the prices of medical drugs are artificially inflated, while the price of meth is artificially low. In a culture without much health education and lots of emphasis on traditional remedies, people were ready to believe that meth would do the trick for their medical problems, and many got addicted.

The meth problem is hard for North Korea to deal with for three reasons: (1) because its health system is ill-equipped, (2) because the state doesn’t want to shut down North Hamgyung’s quasi-liberalized economy but also can’t regulate the black market effectively, and (3) because the country believes it needs to keep making meth and shipping it across the border to bring in hard currency. Meanwhile, North Korean addicts, whatever their numbers, are on their own.

Source: Washington Post, 08.21.2013

Aug 20 '13 - North Korea Grapples With Crystal-Meth Epidemic

By Jason Strother

The 25-year-old North Korean man knew there would be no turning back once he escaped from North Korea across to the Chinese side of the frozen Tumen River. It was February 2009 and he knew he’d need to be swift to avoid detection by the armed North Korean and Chinese border guards.

He says only one thing could give him that clarity—the narcotic crystal meth, or methamphetamine.

“I inhaled about ten hits before I went to the river,” said the man, who now lives in Seoul and asked for his name not to be used. “I felt really focused, all I could think was go, go, go. I didn’t sleep for two days after that.”

Before his defection to South Korea, he says he used the drug, known as “bingdu” or “ice” in the North, off and on for about three years. He says it was easy to score, dealers worked the streets of his hometown of Hamhung, South Hamgyung Province.

A customs signaling disc lies on a table next to 20 kg of the illegal drug crystal meth in Munich, Germany.

The man and his friends would get high together before dinner and the buzz kept them awake all night.

“Doing ice was a social thing; it was a lot of fun,” he said.

North Korea is experiencing a “drug epidemic,” according to a study published in the Spring 2013 edition of the journal North Korea Review.

“A New Face of North Korean Drug Use: Upsurge in Methamphetamine Abuse Across the Northern Areas of North Korea” explains how during the past several years meth production has gone from government-owned factories to privately run underground laboratories and “home kitchens.”

According to the report, it’s not the first time that a drug originally intended for export into China and beyond ended up flooding North Korea’s domestic market.

Throughout the 1990s and into the next decade, opium was the narcotic of choice for both the cash-strapped Kim Jong Il regime and the populace. But by the mid 2000s, the poppy fields began to disappear and meth became pervasive.

As with most details regarding the North, Pyongyang offers no official statistics on the prevalence of illegal drug consumption. The study is the first to attempt to put a number on how widespread the use of crystal meth has become.

“Almost every adult in that area (of North Korea) has experienced using ice and not just once,” says Kim Seok-hyang, who co-authored the study. “I estimate that at least 40% to 50% are seriously addicted to the drug.”

How North Koreans kick their meth habit is unclear. Prof. Kim, a former Unification Ministry official who now lectures at Ewha Womans University, says some of the refugees she interviewed for the study deny that ice is addictive at all.

“They say you can stop it whenever you want. All you need to do is sleep all day long, for three or four days,” she says.

Extreme fatigue, anxiety and depression are effects of methamphetamine withdrawal, say health advocates. And according to some North Korean defectors, addicts back home are using other drugs to help them get clean and cope with the symptoms of coming off ice.

“People who are addicted to ice cannot sleep, so they buy sleeping pills off the black market as a counterbalance to the drug,” says Kim Young-il, who heads the Seoul-based refugee association PSCORE.

Not all North Koreans are able to shake off their dependency on drugs even after making it to South Korea. In a paper entitled “Drug Misuse by North Korean Defectors,” psychiatrist Jeon Jin-young of the Ministry of Unification’s Hanawon resettlement facility writes that self-diagnosis, doctor shopping and abuse of prescription medication, including sleeping pills, is a growing trend within South Korea’s defector community, which numbers more than 25,000.

The Ministry of Unification declined to respond to specific questions regarding drug use or provide a Hanawon doctor to be interviewed for this article.

Prof. Kim says the South Korean government has tried to deal with the issue quietly. “They need to recognize openly how serious the drug issue is and try to find a solution in an open manner,” she said.

As for the 25-year-old defector, he says he never felt addicted to ice and looks back fondly on his experiences getting high with his friends in the North. But like many other things he’s left behind, that aspect of his life stopped at the border.

“I wouldn’t do it again, even if I had the chance,” he says. “My experimenting days are over.”

Source: Washington Post, 08.20.2013

July 27 '13 - Cosmetic change, but no real reform, in North Korea

By Tom Cohen, CNN

Washington (CNN) — Four months ago, North Korea threatened to scrap the 1953 armistice agreement that ended the Korean War and resume hostilities against the United States and South Korea in response to tougher U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang after its latest nuclear test.

This week, the famously reclusive dictatorship welcomed a large Western media contingent, including CNN journalists, to cover the 60th anniversary of the armistice.

On Saturday, young leader Kim Jong Un made an unprecedented move when he deliberately walked through the throng of foreign media as he toured a new museum commemorating what North Korea calls its victory in the Korean civil war.

Such a shift in public posturing is common for North Korea, which is known for bellicose threats followed by diplomatic overtures intended to wring desperately needed aid and concessions from the outside world.

Korean war vet returns to North Korea Scars from the Korean War still linger Arirang Festival a reminder of division

“This is just a recurring pattern. Nothing special,” said Kongdan “Katy” Oh, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who specializes in East Asia.

The outward appearance of possible change in North Korea under Kim after decades of secretive dictatorship comes amid strained relations with its powerful neighbor and benefactor, China.

It followed followed Xi Jinping’s ascendancy to power in China, which essentially props up North Korea through its economic ties and aid.

Since Xi became head of the ruling Communist Party last November, Beijing has signaled growing impatience with Pyongyang’s tactics.

In March, less than a week before Xi also became president, China joined the rest of the U.N. Security Council in backing tougher sanctions against North Korea in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear test in February.

The sanctions prompted the war threats by North Korea and test-firing of missiles, raising tension on the Korean peninsula.

Oh explained that China was angry with Kim for a December satellite launch in violation of U.N. resolutions that raised regional tensions during Xi’s transition to power. The February nuclear test further exacerbated China’s anger, she said.

Before Xi headed to the United States for a trip that included a June meeting with President Barack Obama, North Korea sent an envoy to China who got treated “like cold rice,” according to Oh.

Kurt Campbell, who recently served as U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told CNN before the Xi-Obama meeting that the Chinese “have just about had it with North Korea.

“They recognize that the steps that they have taken — nuclear provocations — are creating the context for more military activities on the part of the United States and other countries that ultimately are not in China’s best strategic interests,” Campbell said then.

However, Oh dismissed any chance that China would use its leverage to try to force reforms in North Korea, saying the history and structure of the military backed dictatorship made it impossible for Kim to undo the legacy of this father and grandfather.

The satellite launch in December and nuclear test in February were Kim’s way of establishing his leadership with the military, on which his power depends, Oh explained. She likened North Korea to an impoverished African dictatorship that happened to have nuclear weapons.

Now, with chronic food shortages exacerbated in the months before the harvest, Kim is putting on what Oh called “an early summer charm offensive” to ensure his regime gets all the aid and economic benefit available from China and others.

That means allowing in the Western media for the armistice commemoration events and reportedly signaling support for resuming long-suspended six-party talks on curtailing North Korea’s nuclear program.

In addition, recent visits from Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and former U.S. basketball star Dennis Rodman have boosted North Korea’s popularity as a travel destination.

Tour operators say a record number of foreigners were coming to this year’s Arirang Festival, a seven-week celebration of gymnastics and music that began Monday at Pyongyang’s May Day Stadium.
To Oh, it amounts to cosmetic changes rather than anything close to real reform.

On Friday, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported that Kim supported China’s call for resuming the six-party talks with the United States, South Korea and others.

According to Xinhua, Kim’s backing for more six-party talks came after he met with Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao, the highest-level Chinese official to visit North Korea since Kim took power in 2011 after the death of his father, longtime dictator Kim Jong Il.

However, a report on Li’s visit by the North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency made no mention of his call for resuming the nuclear talks or Kim’s supporting it.

Source: CNN, 07.27.2013

April 9 '13 - How does North Korea make its money?

by Susannah Cullinane, CNN

(CNN) — There’s a reason that the historical nickname of the “Hermit Kingdom” for the old unified Korea is now applied to the closed North Korea – officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

The country is notoriously difficult to get information on and its sanctions-hit economy is said to operate on a number of different levels, including a black market, with the government not even releasing official trade statistics.

CNN examines the North Korean economy and how Pyongyang generates its income.

What’s the overall condition of North Korea’s economy?

Not good. North Korea’s economy is one of the world’s “most centrally directed and least open” and faces “chronic economic problems,” according to the CIA World Factbook — which collects information for U.S. government agencies.

“Industrial capital stock is nearly beyond repair as a result of years of underinvestment, shortages of spare parts, and poor maintenance. Large-scale military spending draws off resources needed for investment and civilian consumption,” it continues.

The factbook projected data from a 1999 OECD study to estimate North Korea’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2011 to be $1,800 per capita.

It puts growth at 0.8%. However, U.N. estimates for 2011 put per capita GDP at $506 and growth at -0.1.
In comparison, the factbook estimates South Korea’s GDP per capita in 2011 to be $31,700 and puts growth at 3.6%. Figures for 2012 were $32,400 and 2% respectively.

What are North Korea’s main sources of income?

The factbook defines North Korea’s industries as military products, machine building, electrical power, chemicals, mining, metallurgy, textiles, food processing and tourism.

Its main exports were minerals, metallurgical products, manufactures including armaments, textiles and agricultural and fishery products and its main imports petroleum, coking coal, machinery and equipment, textiles and grain, it says.

Estimated industry accounted for nearly half of GDP, followed by services and agriculture, the factbook says.

South Korea’s Ministry of Unification put the amount of trade between the two countries in 2011 at about $1.7 billion. Of that, about $914 million was inbound and $800 million outbound. Government and private humanitarian assistance to North Korea totaled about $17.4 million, the ministry said.

Jang Jin-sung is the editor-in-chief of the website New Focus International, which produces news based on a network of North Korean exiles and sources within North Korea. Jang himself in 2004 fled North Korea, where he said he had been on the DPRK Central Broadcasting Committee and the country’s Poet Laureate.

Jang said South Korean investments generated the bulk of North Korea’s foreign currency income with another large chunk of income coming from trade with China. The largest portion of this was from the arms trade, he said.

All North Korean businesses involved with China were also required to give part of their profits — usually more than 50% — to the government’s financial organization known as “Office 38” as “loyalty offerings,” Jang said.

Who are North Korea’s trading partners?

The CIA World Factbook said China accounted for an estimated 67.2% of North Korea’s exports and 61.6% of imports in 2011. South Korea accounted for 19.4% of exports and 20% of imports, while India received an estimated 3.6% of exports and the European Union provided about 4% of imports in 2011.

Professor Jim Hoare is a senior teaching fellow at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). He established Britain’s first embassy in North Korea in 2001.

Hoare said that for a time in the early part of the last decade South Korea had been Pyongyang’s main known trading partner. However, that had deteriorated since the last president — Lee Myung-bak — ended Seoul’s previous policy of engagement and China became Pyongyang’s main trading partner.

“There are Chinese goods all over the country. China supplies it with oil and food stuffs and everything from buses to toilet seats,” Hoare said.

What interest does China have in helping North Korea?

It’s commonly believed that Beijing feels it is safer to have North Korea on its border than U.S. ally South Korea, Jang said. However, China moved against North Korea when it voted in favor of the U.N. resolution condemning Pyonyang’s nuclear test earlier this year.

Jang said he believed China was supporting sanctions in response to attempts by North Korea’s military to claw back power it had lost under the regency rule of Kim Jong Un’s uncle Jang Song-taek and his aunt Kim Kyong-hui. The military under Kim Jong Il had created a headache for China and that it would rather have the regency holding power, he said.

Writing for, Jenny Jun speculated that Beijing might have “experienced a classic mismatch between means and ends when efforts to maintain the status quo by propping up the internal regime ended up propping up the North’s nuclear program as well.”

What standard of living do ordinary North Koreans have?

In 2011, UNICEF estimated that about a quarter of North Korea’s population — or six million people — did not have enough to eat. Nearly a million of those were children under the age of five, it said. UNICEF said food was rationed in North Korea and that the country was “susceptible to food crises because of political and economic isolation, and climate change.”

The World Food Programme says North Korea continues “to face regular, significant food shortages,” with one in every three children chronically malnourished or too short for their age.

The United States suspended shipments of food aid to North Korea in 2009 after the North started rejecting shipments amid tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear program and concerns that the supplies were not reaching those most in need.

In March 2012, Pyongyang agreed to halt portions of its nuclear and missile programs and accept the return of nuclear inspectors in exchange for 240,000 metric tons of U.S. food aid.

However, later the same month North Korea’s announcement of another rocket test ended the deal.

Hoare said the standard of living in Pyongyang differed from other parts of the country. “Pyongyang is the elite. A lot of people do have money — the restaurants are used by Koreans, officials and others. Elsewhere, senior officials will have access to funds.

“Most people live a pretty hand-to-mouth existence in the North apart from the elite.”
The diet of North Koreans was a “much more reduced one than that in the South,” he said. “Most people live on grains and vegetables with meat and fish very, very, rare in their diet. Even in Pyongyang, people aren’t living that high on the hog,” he said, although the elite and foreigners were protected.

Why is North Korea’s economy in such bad shape?

The official economy was based around heavy industry on North Korea’s east coast and until at least the mid-1970s, North Korea was one of the two main industrial nations in Asia, alongside Japan, Hoare said. While not an official member, North Korea had also benefited from the Soviet-led Council for Mutual

Economic Assistance — an economic union between Soviet states referred to as Comecon.
However, the collapse of the Soviet Union and a series of natural disasters saw its industrial sector enter a steep decline in the 1980s, which further intensified in the 1990s, leaving the economy “pretty decrepit,” he said. The country also had an oil shortage. “It used to get its oil from the Soviet Union, it doesn’t anymore,” Hoare said. Agriculture had been on a “downward spiral” since the 1980s, with an overdependence on fertilizers. “The land is worn out, people are worn out, equipment is worn out.”

But it’s difficult to get reliable information on North Korea’s economy. Hoare said Pyongyang had not published any statistics on its economy since the early 1960s. “This is all a very murky and difficult area. It’s not clear, it is opaque and it’s hard to get very precise figures and an exact picture.

That’s the nature of the animal,” he said.

The country also had electricity shortages, he said, which was one of Pyongyang’s arguments for developing nuclear power.

Since Pyongyang’s first nuclear test in 2006, the U.N. Security Council has also targeted North Korea with sanctions over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

It has frozen economic assets controlled by entities engaged in or providing support for North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile-related programs.

New sanctions introduced in March blocked the sale of luxury goods — such as yachts and certain high-end jewelry — to North Korea.

Don’t the sanctions affect ordinary North Koreans?

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said the block on luxury goods would mean “North Korea’s ruling elite, who have been living large while impoverishing their people, will pay a direct price” for the country’s nuclear activities.

Jang said a body known as “Office 38” generated money for North Korea’s ruling party and the infrastructure of the elite and had been seen as Kim Jong Il’s personal fund when he was alive. It was foreign currency based, he said.

He said there was also a “people’s economy” mainly based on the black market since North Korea’s won currency had lost value.

This market economy had emerged “partly as a coping mechanism as a result of the famine – since the
1990s,” Hoare said. He broke the economies down into the official economy, the people’s economy, a military economy and an economy “to keep the leadership in the style to which it is accustomed.”
What about the arms trade?

In its March 2013 resolution following North Korea’s February nuclear test, the U.N. Security Council referred to the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation (KOMID), as North Korea’s “primary arms dealer and main exporter of goods and equipment related to ballistic missiles and conventional weapons.”

On April 2 2013, North Korea was one of three U.N. member states — alongside Syria and Iran — to vote against the organization’s first treaty to regulate the global arms trade.

What other illicit trades is North Korea allegedly involved in?

North Korean citizens, including government officials have been involved in drug trafficking for years, according to the CIA World Factbook. It said in recent years North Korea had been linked to large shipments of heroin and methamphetamine.

Other illegal exports North Korea had intended for foreigners had come back to bite the country, Jang said. Counterfeit notes proved to be too poor a quality for foreign use but had ended up on the North Korean market. The problem was so widespread that Pyongyang would not accept widely counterfeit $100 notes for loyalty offerings, insisting $50 notes were paid instead, he said. For its part, the North Koreans have denied any involvement in counterfeiting.

Similarly, recreational drugs intended for international criminal markets had instead become a domestic headache, with many North Koreans now suffering from addiction to drugs such as meth and opium, he said. Click here to read New Focus’ article on drugs in North Korea.

North Korea has denied involvement in illegal drugs and arms smuggling.

So how do ordinary North Koreans get by?

North Korea had traditionally fed its people but when the Soviet Union collapsed they had nothing and started bartering for food and all kinds of items, Jang said. Items were brought in from China to be traded so Chinese traders dominate the people’s market.

New Focus International reported that black-market trading “provides the main source of income for most North Koreans.” The black-markets were known as “jangmadang,” it said.

Hoare said that when North Korea’s economy had been stronger, workers had received money through the state’s Public Distribution System. “Wages are worthless but now people trade on the markets.”

He said markets were “tolerated” and could sometimes be seen down side streets. “My wife and I once walked through what was known as a ‘frogs market’.” The term arose because traders would “leap up and disappear like frogs and then reassemble behind you as it were.”

What currency is used in North Korea?

The DPRK’s official currency is the North Korean won, but Jang said everything in North Korea was pegged on the U.S. dollar, including the black market economy. The won was effectively “like toilet paper” he said and because all business was done using dollars the currency was used by people to barter even at the lowest levels of North Korean society.

Pyongyang had tried to revalue the currency but because everyone used U.S. dollars to trade, the dollar consistently went up and the won continued to fall in value, he said.

Hoare said euros were increasingly being used in some areas because North Koreans were worried the U.S. would somehow cut off dollars. Foreign currency flowed into North Korea in a number of ways including cross border trade with China and visiting foreigners, he said. All embassies also had to operate in foreign currency.

“We were not supposed to handle North Korean money. So it’s pretty widespread. If you go into a hotel or restaurant prices are in foreign currency rather than Korean won,” he said. North Koreans in Japan or South Korea and defectors were also reportedly sending money back — usually through China, Hoare said.
In its article on jangmadang, New Focus International describes how money sent by a defector to his family in North Korea is laundered on the illegal markets.

What is the Kaesong Industrial Complex?

North Korea has said it will pull out all of its workers and suspend operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, accusing the South of seeking “to turn the zone into a hotbed of war.”

The complex sits on the North’s side of the border but houses the operations of several of South Korean companies. The complex is considered to be an important source of hard currency for Kim Jong Un’s regime. More than 50,000 North Koreans work in the zone, producing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of goods each year. Those workers earn on average $134 a month, of which North Korean authorities take about 45% in various taxes.

South Korean company Hyandai Asan — affiliated to the carmaker Hyundai — was involved in the complex’s development.

Hoare said the complex was “all that’s left of the engagement policy all that was used from 1997 on.” Jang said it was the last card of any significance held by North Korea as Pyongyang knew that outsiders saw it as a symbol of cooperation.

Are there any other such joint projects between the Koreas?

The only other joint business project had been the Mount Kumgang Tourist Region, Hoare said, Hyundai Asan operated tours.

However, tours were suspended when a North Korean guard shot dead a South Korean woman in 2008 and Pyongyang refused Seoul’s request for an inquiry. “North Korea effectively confiscated the South Korean complex and began to use it themselves for tourism,” Hoare said. “There was talk in 2007 of developing other such complexes but then there was a change of president.”

Source: CNN, 04.09.2013

April 9 '13 - North Korean army 'split' over Kim Jong-un

By Michael Moore

North Korea’s army was deeply split over whether to accept the command of Kim Jong-un, a former officer has revealed, giving a possible clue to the tensions lying behind the young leader’s calls to war.

North Korean Harbin H-5 bomber jets at Uiju Airfield near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong Photo: REUTERS/Jacky Chen

First Lieutenant Kim, 42, said he had been forced to flee North Korea after he murdered a rival officer as the factions within his army unit battled for control.

“I killed a three-star company commander, the same rank as me,” he said. “He was the head of the faction supporting Kim Jong-un. There were two fights. In the first fight, they surrounded us and arrested a lot of people.

“But I got away and gathered others from the barracks. We found them and I shot the commander. After that, I escaped”.

The battles occurred at the end of 2011, shortly before Kim Jong-un succeeded his father as the “supreme commander” of the Korean People’s Army, the 1.2 million-strong standing force that remains at the heart of North Korea’s “military-first” society.

“It was before he came to power, but we all knew for a long time that he was going to be made the leader. There were a lot of people who were against him. But everyone in that faction got arrested after he came to power,” said Lt. Kim.

His group, he said, supported Kim Yong-nam, North Korea’s 85-year-old president.

Divisions within the military, and the desire of a leader who may be only 30-years-old to consolidate his position, could be one factor behind the current spate of aggression.

“The further north you go (in North Korea), the more you hear rumours of dissension and divisions over who is or who would have been a better leader,” said Joseph Bermudez, an expert on the North Korean military and an analyst at DigitalGlobe.

He added that there had been rumours last year of a possibly violent falling-out between two major departments over who would be in charge of army reconnaissance. That, he said, might have alarmed Kim Jong-un, who subsequently reshuffled a host of leading generals.

Lt Kim, who would not give his first name, said he was from Uiju county, close to the Chinese border city of Dandong. He has spent the last two years lying low in China, rarely venturing out, and waiting for his chance to travel to South Korea.

“We knew that South Korea was on a path to democracy and they had a good life and they had enough food. I had never eaten rice, and I cried the first time I smelled it cooking here in China,” he added.

Wearing a pair of cheap Chinese trainers, a patterned jumper and a green Chinese army surplus great coat, a palpably scared Lt Kim was unable to offer any formal identification. His left arm hung awkwardly from an old wound to his shoulder.

If he is caught by the Chinese, he will be sent back to face either the death penalty or life in a gulag.
A halting interview with him, in the back of a taxi parked in the sparse countryside outside Dandong, was arranged through an agent who is helping to smuggle him to the South, and who charged £100 to speak to the former officer.

“I give him food,” the agent said. “He used to be skinny, but after staying indoors these years, he has eaten well.

“I have contact with the South Korean spies who are here in Dandong. They keep an eye on relations between China and the North, but they also pay for me to deliver North Koreans to them. He will probably be sold next month, but until then the North Koreans are searching for him.” The agent, a trim ethnic Korean in a nylon bomber jacket, declined to give his name.

He claimed that he had smuggled out 60 to 80 people out last year, many of whom were escaping after internal riots last year in Manpo, another city close to the border. “Only three in 10 defectors are successful,” he said. “The others are arrested or are shot as they escape.”

After two years outside of the country, Lt Kim said he had “no idea” what lay behind this month’s aggression. “I do not know why they are doing what they are doing now,” he said.

“Before I left, we used to hear that there was fighting between Kim Jong-un and his brother, who does not like China. They have different mothers so they are struggling against each other.”

But he predicted there would be “no war” and that the regime would continue its hold on power, despite the desperate problems in many parts of the country.

“The situation is very bad. People are starving. There are some rich people, some rich politicians, who have a lot of money, but the rest of the people do not have anything. My father and mother both starved to death and my older brother died of illness,” he said.

Lt Kim said he had commanded a construction company which excavated mountains for military installations.

“We were digging fortifications to prepare for war,” he said. “Some of the projects would last for six years.”

Mr Bermudez said there was still not enough information to establish the motive for North Korea’s war footing. “We have not seen this before. We might be seeing that the generals have been given far more room and they are exploiting that, without really understanding the effect on the international community.”

When asked if the North Korean army is still strong, Lt Kim answered automatically: “Yes, very strong”. The man who smuggled him out of North Korea, however, doubled up laughing at the officer’s response.

“They are taught that they are the strongest army in the world, and the best equipped. But in reality, their equipment is what we were using in China 60 years ago!” he said.

Source: The Telegraph, 04.09.2013

Mar 29 '13 - Pyongyang Blusters, and U.S. Worries About Quieter Risks

By Choe Sang-hun and David E. Sanger

University students marched through Kim Il Sung Square in downtown Pyongyang, North Korea, on Friday. Jon Chol Jin/Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea — This week, North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jung-un, ordered his underlings to prepare for a missile attack on the United States. He appeared at a command center in front of a wall map with the bold, unlikely title, “Plans to Attack the Mainland U.S.” Earlier in the month, his generals boasted of developing a “Korean-style” nuclear warhead that could be fitted atop a long-range missile.

But the missile systems that figure in Mr. Kim’s blitz of threats and orders do not yet have the range to approach American shores. There is no evidence his nuclear weapons can be shrunk to fit atop a missile. And a prominent photograph showing Mr. Kim’s military making a Normandy-style beach landing appears to have been manufactured, raising questions about whether his forces could possibly repeat the feat his grandfather pulled off in 1950, ordering a ground attack to open the Korean War.

On top of all that, most countries on the verge of a major military assault do not broadcast their battle plans to the world.

“You would expect such a military order to be issued in secret,” said Kim Min-seok, spokesman of the South Korean Defense Ministry. “We believe that by revealing it to the media and publicizing it to the world, North Korea is playing psychology.”

In fact, it is the abilities that Mr. Kim is not showing off that have the Obama administration most worried. The cyberattacks on South Korea’s banking system and television broadcasters two weeks ago were surprisingly successful, as was the torpedo attack three years ago this week on the Cheonan, a naval corvette, that killed 46 South Korean sailors. The North has never acknowledged involvement in either — though the South believes it was responsible for both and so do American experts.

“We’re convinced this is about Kim solidifying his place with his own people and his own military, who still don’t know him,” one senior administration official said Friday. He added, “We’re worried about what he’s going to do next, but we’re not worried about what he seems to be threatening to do next.”

The cyberattacks and torpedo attack have something in common: Unlike the missile attacks and beach landings that Mr. Kim seems to be suggesting are imminent, they are hard to trace to North Korea, at least immediately. As a result, they are hard to retaliate against, and in fact the South never struck back militarily for the sinking of the Cheonan, even after a commission of inquiry, with experts from outside South Korea, concluded it was the work of a submarine-launched torpedo.

To North Korea experts in Washington and Seoul, there is something familiar in the country’s threats to “keep the White House in the cross hairs of our long-range missiles.” Such threat of armed brinkmanship — the catchphrase in the 1990s was that Seoul would become a “sea of fire,” a term recently revived by North Korea’s news agencies — has in the past drawn its adversaries to the bargaining table with economic concessions. But at the same time, the tensions with the outside world provide the government with opportunities to elevate its leader’s status among his people — which might be more important to a young, untested leader than it was to his father and grandfather.

According to the view that North Korea’s propaganda machine pounds into its citizens’ minds, the North is a tiny nation besieged by hostile outside forces, one that survived despite decades of sanctions and can finally stand up to both its longtime Chinese ally and American enemy — all thanks to the strong “military-first” leadership of the Kim family and the country’s nuclear arsenal.

In such a setting, Mr. Kim’s trip to a border island on a wooden boat — it almost seemed designed to create a “Washington crossing the Delaware” motif — is proof of his “daring and pluck,” as the country’s main party newspaper, Rodong, explained. Rodong also declared about North Korea’s nuclear weapons: “Let the American imperialists and their followers know! We are not a pushover like Iraq or Libya.” The first, famously, had no nuclear weapons; the second gave up its nascent nuclear program in late 2003, a move North Korea describes as Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s greatest mistake.

In the propaganda world that the three generations of the Kim dynasty has created, Mr. Kim is “a great iron-willed general admired by all of his people, including real generals who have actually served in the military,” said Lee Sung-yoon, North Korea specialist at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. “For the Kim III, fantasy is reality.”

Keeping the fantasy up has required a lot of work in the past month, with many visits to military units on both of the country’s coasts, and a lot of conferences at midnight with generals.

Yet in each of these scenes, North Korea’s propagandists sometimes made Mr. Kim look as much a clumsy actor as a new leader of one of the world’s most belligerent governments.

For one, North Korean state-run media on March 12 released a photo showing Mr. Kim arriving at an island within the gun range of South Korean marines and quoted him as threatening to “cut the windpipes of the enemies.” But it strained credibility that he traveled to a region he called a powder keg on a small unarmed wooden boat, as shown in the photo.

On Tuesday, North Korea released a photo showing Mr. Kim watching hovercrafts storm a snow-covered beach in eastern North Korea. But it did not take long for journalists and analysts to conclude that the picture was clumsily doctored to add more amphibious landing vehicles and make the drill look far more imposing than it really was.

Then on Friday, photos released by the North’s state media, which also showed signs of digital manipulation, featured Mr. Kim huddling with his top generals during a midnight meeting to approve “plans to strike the mainland U.S.” A military chart behind them showed a series of lines shooting out of North Korea and hitting major cities in the United States, including those on the East Coast. Even if the North Koreans had such missiles — most analysts doubt it does — would they really intend to launch them at the United States in what would be a suicidal action for the Pyongyang government?

“We’re all trying to put him on the couch,” said Jonathan D. Pollack, a North Korea expert at the Brookings Institution. “A year ago the U.S. and the Chinese saw at least the possibility that you could do business with him. But he has steadily reverted to form,” adopting the approach of his father and grandfather in using the perception of an external threat to solidify support at home.

On Saturday those threats were South Korea and “the Americans and their puppets,” a statement from the North said. The two Koreas “were back to a state of war,” it said, and the North’s foes “should know that everything is different under our peerless general and dear Marshal Kim Jong-un.” While many fear that Mr. Kim’s rhetoric is building up toward some action, Mr. Pollack held out the hope that the threats could abate as United States and South Korean military exercises, which infuriate the North, wind up at the end of April.

Source: The New York Times, 03.29.2013

Mar 7 '13 - U.N. Security Council approves new sanctions against North Korea

By Colum Lynch and Joby Warrick

UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. Security Council took direct aim at North Korea’s leadership Thursday with new sanctions targeting cash transfers and luxury items, punishing the reclusive regime for its latest nuclear test while evoking a fresh torrent of threats from the North Korean capital.

The sanctions, drafted by the United States and China and approved unanimously, were adopted against a backdrop of apocalyptic rhetoric from Pyongyang, including a threat to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against foreign “aggressors,” a term traditionally interpreted to include the United States.

The Obama administration dismissed the threat and warned North Korea of further isolation and economic pain if it conducts more nuclear tests.

“We are fully capable of defending the United States,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington shortly after the U.N. vote.

Hours after the sanctions were approved, North Korea also said it would nullify a nonaggression agreement with South Korea and close a liaison channel along the demilitarized border that divides the two countries.

The sanctions approved by the 15-member Security Council were among the most comprehensive in recent years, as the world body acted with unanimity to denounce North Korea’s third nuclear test since 2006.

The U.N. resolution imposed new restrictions on North Korean shipping firms and financial institutions and sought to block certain kinds of cash transfers frequently used by North Korean officials to obtain weapons-sensitive technology or to circumvent existing sanction law. A provision that directly targeted the North’s ruling elite also tightened restrictions on overseas travel and on the importation of such luxury items as yachts, jewelry and racing cars.

The council warned of “further significant measures” if the North carried out another nuclear or ballistic missile test, a threat echoed by U.S. officials and diplomats. “Taken together, these sanctions will bite, and bite hard,” Susan E. Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said after the vote.

China’s prominent role in drafting the measures highlighted the growing isolation of the hermetic Stalinist state, long regarded as a close ally of Beijing. China’s U.N. envoy, Li Baodong, described the vote as one step in a “hard, tedious” journey to achieve the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. He said his government hopes the international community will now pursue talks with Pyongyang.

“The adoption of the resolution . . . is not for the sake of sanctions,” Li said after the vote. “The top priority now is to defuse the tension, bring down the heat, focus on [the] diplomatic track.”

There were no conciliatory signs from Pyongyang. Instead, in the hours before the vote, the North increased its bluster, issuing taunts and threats that were shrill even by North Korean standards.

A Foreign Ministry statement published by Pyongyang’s news agency decried the new sanctions as part of a U.S.-led “war of aggression,” vowing that the North would respond with a display of “the might . . . it built up decades after decades, and put an end to the evil cycle of tension.” The statement further warned that Pyongyang would exercise its right for “a preemptive nuclear attack to destroy the strongholds of the aggressors.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney dismissed the threat, citing improved U.S. missile-defense capabilities against the “limited ballistic missile threats” that might emanate from North Korea in the coming years.

“Let us be clear: We are fully capable of dealing with that threat,” Carney said.

On Capitol Hill, Glyn T. Davies, the State Department’s special representative for North Korean policy, said Pyongyang’s recent nuclear test was the latest in a series of provocations that demanded a firm global response.

“North Korea’s [weapons of mass destruction], ballistic missile, conventional arms and proliferation activities constitute a serious and unacceptable threat to U.S. national security,” Davies said in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“The . . . leadership in Pyongyang faces sharp choices,” Davies said, “and we are working to further sharpen those choices.”

Warrick reported from Washington. Chico Harlan in Seoul contributed to this report.

Source: The Washington Post, 03.07.2013

Full text of the resolution:

Mar 6 '13 - New Images Show Blurring of Prison Camps and Villages in North Korea

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – Analysis of new satellite images shows the North Korean government is blurring the lines between its political prison camps and the surrounding population, Amnesty International said on Thursday, as it reiterated its call for U.N. Member States to establish an independent Commission of Inquiry into grave, systematic and widespread human rights violations in North Korea – including crimes against humanity.

Responding to reports of the possible construction of a new political prison camp (Kwan-li-so) adjacent to Camp No. 14 in Kaechon, South Pyongan Province, Amnesty International USA’s (AIUSA) Science for Human Rights program commissioned satellite imagery and analysis of the area from the commercial provider DigitalGlobe.

Analysts found that from 2006 to February 2013, North Korea constructed 20km of perimeter around the Ch’oma-Bong valley – located 70km north-northeast of Pyongyang – and its inhabitants, new controlled access points and a number of probable guard towers. Analysts also found construction of new buildings that appear to house workers, likely associated with an expansion of mining activity in the region.

The activity points to a tightening in the control of movement of the local population adjacent to Camp No. 14, thus muddying the line between those detained in the political prison camp and the valley’s inhabitants. This raises fears for the population within the perimeter, the current conditions faced by them and the North Korean government’s future intentions for the valley and those that live there.

“We expected to find a new or expanded prison camp. What we found is in some ways even more worrisome,” said Frank Jannuzi, AIUSA deputy executive director. “The creation of a security perimeter with controlled access points and guard towers beyond what appears to be the formal boundaries of Camp 14 blurs the line between more than 100,000 people who suffer in North Korea’s Kwan-li-so system and the neighboring civilian population.”

Hundreds of thousands of people – including children – are held in political prison camps and other detention facilities in North Korea, where they are subject to human rights violations, such as forced hard labor, denying food as punishment, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Many of those held in political prison camps have not committed any crime, but are related to those deemed unfriendly to the regime and detained as a form of collective punishment.

“The security and control adjacent to Camp 14 shows the degree to which general repression and restrictions on the right to liberty of movement have become commonplace in North Korea,” said Rajiv Narayan, North Korea Researcher for Amnesty International. “These latest images reinforce why it is imperative a robust independent Commission of Inquiry is established to investigate the grave and systematic human rights abuses that continue under North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s rule.”

Amnesty International is calling for unfettered access to the area for human rights observers, to include both the Ch’oma-bong valley as well as Camp No. 14, and for North Korea to officially acknowledge that political prison camps such as Camp 15 in Yodok and Camp 14 in Kaechon exist.

In 2011, Amnesty International published analysis of satellite imagery that showed the expansion of the notorious Yodok political prison camp, believed to house 50,000 men, women, and children. According to former detainees at the political prison camp at Yodok, prisoners are forced to work in slave-like conditions and are frequently subjected to torture and other ill-treatment. Despite this overwhelming evidence the North Korean government continues to deny the camp’s existence.

Amnesty International reaffirms its call for member states to adopt a resolution at the 22nd session of the U.N. Human Rights Council to establish an independent Commission of Inquiry into the abysmal conditions and the general human rights situation in North Korea – described by the U.N. as being in “its own category” – both in political prison camps and outside.

The Science for Human Rights program, housed within the Crisis Prevention and Response Unit at Amnesty International USA, leverages new or non-traditional technologies for documentation of human rights abuses. For more than five years, the program has used satellite imaging and analysis to shine a light on human rights abuses in armed conflict, within closed regimes and elsewhere across the globe.

Source: Amnesty International, 03.06.2013

Feb 9 '13 - Rumblings from Below

A monstrously unjust society is changing in ways its despotic ruler may not be able to control.

WITH her turquoise top, Dayglo trainers and Hello Kitty mobile phone, Jeon Geum Ju fits right in among the young latte-sippers in a Starbucks in downtown Seoul. Her dark eyes sparkle as she talks—and she talks a lot. The only time that the 26-year-old hesitates, and tugs at her hair awkwardly, is when she is asked about Kim Jong Un, the young leader of North Korea who took over her country in 2011, a year after she fled to South Korea. She was, she says, so brainwashed from a very early age that she still cannot bring herself to criticise him.

Ms Jeon is no apologist for the regime. Though her escape from North Korea was not caused by the starvation and abject cruelty that force others to leave, it was, she says, still a flight from oppression. What she craved was the freedom to wear flared jeans and jewellery and to let her hair, which most North Korean women keep in a bun, grow long and wavy. She even fantasised about driving a red sports car, with dark glasses on.

She nurtured such dreams in her bedroom, watching illegal South Korean and American TV dramas smuggled in from China and shared among her friends on memory sticks which they plugged into black-market computers, some made by South Korea’s Samsung. She even flaunted her tastes in public. That was until the fashion police—no figure of speech in North Korea—arrested her for wearing a winter hat with “New York” on it. She was screamed at as “bourgeois trash” and released only when her mother, then a black-market trader, handed over two dozen packets of cigarettes as a bribe.

Such materialist tastes, however incongruous in a country where more than a quarter of young children are chronically malnourished, appear to reflect a changing reality in North Korea. While the Kim family dynasty, now in its third generation, seems almost immutable, the country that it rules over has altered dramatically. Instead of relying on state patronage for survival, people now hustle to make ends meet, and many of those who succeed use corruption, black markets, influence-peddling, inside information, criminality: in short, all the dark arts of an unregulated, out-of-control private economy.

Until recently, the outside world has known little about North Korean society. But during the past decade information has flowed—albeit illegally—both into and out of North Korea (see chart 1). Last year an American government-backed report by InterMedia, a consultancy, welcomed the deluge pouring into the North through digital media and old-style broadcasting such as Voice of America and the Korean Broadcasting System. “North Koreans can get more outside information…than ever before,” it said, “and they are less fearful of sharing that information.”

This has had two effects. First, people inside North Korea with access to outside influences can now compare their impoverished lives with others’ elsewhere. That has helped trigger a craving for the material trappings of the modern world, and the flow of such contraband goods from China to the North Korean border, orchestrated or waved on by corrupt officials. It has, says Andrei Lankov, a Russian expert on North Korea at Kookmin University in Seoul, become a society where money now talks even more loudly than your relationship to the regime. “It’s a completely different society than it was 15 years ago. This has not happened because of government policy. It’s a change from below.”

Second, new information flows have given outsiders an insight into the changes taking place in North Korean society. This year, for the first time, Google and some dedicated North Korea-watchers have mapped the interior of the country, locating everything from underground railway stations to labour camps. That information will not be available to North Koreans, almost all of whom are barred from using the internet. But for outsiders it helps unravel the all-enwrapping shroud of secrecy.

Meanwhile economists have studied defectors, making remarkable discoveries about the huge role private income now plays in people’s lives, and the changing sexual dynamics as women who run the black markets become the main breadwinners. Defector-led news sources, such as the Seoul-based DailyNK, amplify the information flow. They have built up contacts with clandestine sources inside North Korea, who use illegal mobile phones to provide news ranging from gossip about Mr Kim’s new wife to evidence of galloping inflation and currency turmoil (see chart 2). What has emerged is a picture of a two-speed society. Pyongyang has surged ahead of the rest of the country, the kleptocrats have grown stronger, and canny traders have joined a fledgling class of nouveaux riches.

These changes have been easy to miss with so much attention falling on the Kim family, particularly in the past year. The ascendancy of Kim Jong Un after his father’s death in December 2011 brought hopes that he might be a great reformer. His more boisterous style of leadership, supplemented by a fashionable wife and a taste for visits to fairgrounds, suggested that he might be closer to the people. His speeches were peppered with references to people’s livelihoods, rather than the “military-first” obsession of his father. Domestically, the greatest coup of his first year in office was the launch of a satellite into orbit in December, despite protests from around the world that he was experimenting with missile technology.

Partying in Pyongyang

The change of mood is said to be palpable in the capital. “Pyongyang is more relaxed. It is still extremely repressive socially, but people are taking their cue from the new leadership,” says a diplomat who lives there. On New Year’s Day senior diplomats were invited to a party hosted by Mr Kim that included the scientists behind the rocket launch. Many ambassadors were delighted to shake the hand of the despot-in-chief for the first time—though there was chagrin that the former Swiss-school pupil did not speak English. “Not even ‘Happy new year’,” one guest noted.

(Latest meeting of the Pyongyang Missile-Appreciation Society)

The mood has soured since. Mr Kim’s new-year speech called for an end to confrontation between North and South. Yet as soon as the UN Security Council issued new sanctions against the regime as a result of the rocket launch, the response was apoplectic, warning of more tests and threatening to attack America. The son’s regime, it turns out, is no less capricious than his father’s was.

The changes beneath him, however, seem likely to continue. They are easiest to spot in Pyongyang, where the proliferation of new city lights is exclusively fed by the Huichon hydroelectric power station. The lights conspicuously stay on at night in some of the new high-rise apartment buildings; the plushest ones at Mansudae, 45 storeys high, flash in several colours. (Inside, though, residents are said to keep buckets of water in reserve for when the taps run dry.)

More cars run on better-paved roads. Rüdiger Frank, a German economist and regular visitor to North Korea, wrote recently that two-storey establishments with a shop on the ground floor and restaurant and sauna above have mushroomed. “Prices are horrendous; three kilograms [6.6lb] of apples cost as much as one (official) month’s wages. But the fact that even things like bananas are being sold is remarkable. The problem does not seem to be access any more…[just] having the right amount of the right currency.”

One of those currencies is good information. There are said to be 2m PCs, 1.5m mobile phones, not counting the illegal Chinese ones, and a home-produced tablet computer. Behind closed doors, these have fostered new signs of change, such as the adoption among the elite of South Korean clothes, mannerisms and even accents. In his recent book, “Only Beautiful, Please”, John Everard, Britain’s ambassador to Pyongyang from 2006 to 2008, recounts a story of one mother, answering a phone call from one of her child’s friends, joking: “It’s Seoul on the line for you.”

Yet there is also a dash of Potemkin about Pyongyang. Behind the high-rises lie unpaved roads. Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, of the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics, have referred to the “Pyongyang illusion”. They believe the authorities may not just want to improve the capital, but also to forestall an uprising among urbanites. And resources may be sucked from the rest of the country to pay for it.

A widening gap also yawns between Pyongyang and the rest of the country. UN agencies reported a slight improvement in overall nutrition levels last year, but revealed a stark contrast between the level of stunting, or chronic malnutrition, among under-fives. The shares range from below 20% in the capital to almost 40% in Ryanggang province, part of North Korea’s most impoverished rural north.

Genies into bottles

Mr Frank, the German economist, notes that there is nothing unusual about growing gaps between the capital city and elsewhere. The regime may have decided, he says, to develop one city as best as they can, “rather than spreading their scarce resources across the country with a watering can and achieving no visible results.”

Yet it is also possible that the brighter lights, firework displays and spruced up parks in Pyongyang are a cynical attempt to give unhappy citizens in the provinces somewhere else to yearn to live besides Seoul. It seems to be no coincidence that as the skyline of Pyongyang becomes more alluring, a severe crackdown is in force on TV dramas from South Korea and on escapes to South Korea via China: the numbers fleeing dropped by 44% last year, to 1,509. It is as if the regime is trying to stuff the genie back into the bottle—but too late. “The country is beset with macroeconomic instability, deepening inequality, rising corruption and a political leadership that appears to lack the vision or capacity to respond,” Mr Noland wrote last year.

He talks of a “supply line” that now runs up the west of the country to Chinese towns like Dandong near the north-western border, along which raw materials flow in exchange for illicitly procured consumer goods that flow back the other way, paid for in hard currency. He says there is anecdotal evidence that senior officials are involved in these trades. For instance, a senior food-distribution official may have the best information on the rising price of grain, which means he will try to increase imports. His wife may well be the main grain-wholesaler in the black market.

When there have been crackdowns on the markets, as during a disastrous currency experiment in 2009, Mr Noland reckons large chunks of the economy may have seized up because of shortages of basics, such as cement. This may have taught the authorities to turn a blind eye to the illegal activities. Even remittances from defectors in South Korea seem to be tolerated, provided officials get a cut. A system loosely akin to Islamic hawalahas developed, in which money flows between banks in South Korea and China and brokers deliver the cash equivalent to family members in North Korea. Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea, a group which works with defectors, says this is how some people acquire cash to escape.

Enterprise, North Korean-style

It is not just the elite who have benefited from what Messrs Haggard and Noland call “entrepreneurial coping behaviour”. Lee Seongmin, a 27-year-old defector in Seoul, had no such privileges when, at the age of 12, he started to sneak into China to find food as famine ravaged North Korea. At 17, however, he was caught, imprisoned and severely beaten. When he came out he decided to take a more enterprising route, befriending border guards and acquiring an illegal mobile phone from his sister in China. He started importing car parts, using his phone to call China for deliveries. The soldiers at the border would pull the merchandise across the Yalu river with ropes, he says, and he would pay them off. He would then use his job working for a state distribution company to truck the parts around the country. He made so much money that he had to bury it under his kitchen floor, and often regrets his impulsive decision to defect.

These illegal markets, Mr Lee says, have produced a class of new rich who sometimes flaunt their wealth—and pay off the authorities if they become too suspicious about it. Those with hard currency also instantly became relatively richer after the 2009 currency experiments, which had the effect of severely devaluing the North Korean won.

Since then, conspicuous consumption appears to have increased. Mr Lankov writes of rich people going to expensive sushi bars and buying illegal property, TVs and refrigerators. Their main complaint is the unreliable electricity supply. Perhaps the biggest luxury is a dedicated line to the local power substation, paid for by bribing a corrupt official or military commander.

These entrepreneurs may eventually pose a threat to the regime, though they also have a stake in preserving the status quo if it enables them to make money. The test may come if a serious attempt is made to seize their wealth. Alternatively, the increasingly visible gap between rich and poor may breed resentment. Ms Jeon says she was sickened to see one class of justice for the rich and another for the poor. One of her mother’s impoverished acquaintances was sentenced to death for helping two girls leave the country; the woman’s children were summoned to witness the firing squad without realising their mother was the victim. Ms Jeon surmises that if the woman had had more money or better contacts, she might have been spared.

North Korea has long been a grotesquely unjust society. But since a famine in the late 1990s killed up to 1m people, and led to the breakdown of the system through which food was distributed around the country, experts say the state’s control over people’s lives has waned. “North Korean society has become defined by one’s relationship to money, not by one’s relationship to the bureaucracy or one’s inherited caste status,” Mr Lankov writes.

As yet there are no visible signs of protest. There appear to be no covert human-rights groups, despite the estimated 200,000 political prisoners who fester in concentration camps, and no subversive intellectuals, as in the former Soviet Union. Ms Jeon says that it never once occurred to her to risk talking about regime change. Korean experts say the lack of resistance is not only the result of brainwashing. It is because North Korea’s tradition of oppression dates back to far before the Kims: for most of the first half of the 20th century its citizens were bossed around by the Japanese, and before that by a rigid monarchy. They know of little better.

There are, however, tentative signs of openness to the outside world. Groups like Choson Exchange, based in Singapore, and the Pyongyang Project, a Canadian-American NGO, have set up workshops with North Korean civil servants to discuss previously touchy subjects such as banking and finance. At times, the North Koreans’ ambitions seem unrealistic: in 2010 one group was asked to lecture on how to establish exchange-traded funds and private equity, in a country without deposit-taking banks. But contact is as important as content, says one of the groups’ leaders.

Pressure is also growing for other forms of engagement—especially ways around North Korea’s information blockade. Some North Korea-watchers welcomed the visit by Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, to the country in January as a step forward. The BBC World Service, too, is being urged to develop a Korean-language channel. In such endeavours, experts say, information on other ways of life is more valuable than political indoctrination. Mr Lee, the defector, believes that information should be as high a priority as food aid. “It is only when people can tell the difference between truth and lies that their curiosity is stimulated,” he says. Curiosity may be what this obsessively secret regime most has to fear.

Source: The Economist, 02.09.2013

Jan 24 '13 - North Korea's New, Man-Made Famine

by Todd Crowell

TOKYO – Recent foreign visitors to Pyongyang are often impressed by the new construction that seems to be sprouting up everywhere in North Korea’s drab capital. New high-rise apartment buildings have been erected, department stores and theaters refurbished and even amusement parks and theme parks opened.

“Ever since Kim Jong-un assumed the position of supreme leader, the media in North Korea and visiting foreigners have reported on the beautifully developing capital, Pyongyang. But in the shadow of the ‘gorgeous’ capital a hidden famine has broken out,” says Jiro Ishimaru, chief editor of Asiapress in Osaka, a North Korean watchdog with numerous clandestine reporters throughout North Korea.

The dark secret behind all of this new capital glitz and glamour has been a raging famine in the two Hwanghae provinces, where by some estimates 20,000 people have died of starvation in South Hwanghae alone in the year since Kim Jong-il died in December 2011 and was succeeded by his son and heir, the 29-year-old Kim Jong-un.

The Hwangwhe provinces, north and south, lie just south of the capital, between Pyongyang and the South Korean border. They are often said to be the “breadbasket” of North Korea, supplying food to both key elements of North Korea’s social order: The million-man army, many of them deployed along their southern border facing South Korea; and the capital, Pyongyang.

For the past year, however, these provinces have not been able to feed themselves, due in part to the demands of these two powerful groups. In particular the capital has required considerably more of the provincial agriculture output to feed the thousands of workers who were imported to work on the major construction projects underway for the past three to four years.

So to the familiar list of culprits of food shortages — floods followed by severe drought — can be added a political, and completely man-made, dimension that has not been seen as much in the previous food shortages that have plagued North Korea for the better part of the last decade.

The country has only limited resources of capital and foreign exchange, and much of these funds have been diverted to pay for elaborate entertainment complexes, including roller coasters from Italy and dolphins to stock a theme park instead of food. “You can see where Kim Jong-un’s priorities lie,” said Ishimura.

In order to consolidate his rule, the young Kim must have these two important elements of North Korean society on his side. That’s why, according to Ishimura, so much of the food from Hwanghae has been taken away for the “food for the army” and “food for the capital.” His organization reports on regime commissary officers ransacking villages and dwellings looking for hidden stockpiles.

The effort to turn Pyongyang into a showcase capital actually preceded the rise of the young Kim by several years. As far back as 2008, North Korea watchers, such as the news site, have reported on new construction in the capital and wondered where the money would come from to pay for it all.

The new buildings and restoration projects were aimed to coincide with the “Day of the Sun” celebrations honoring the 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korea’s founding dictator Kim Il-sung on April 15, 2012. Indeed, the elaborate funeral for Kim Jong-il, the birthday festivities and other celebrations of the Kim family have strained the country’s budget.

The exact number of people who have starved to death in Hwanghae is hard to pin down, but is likely in the tens of thousands, Ishimura says, based on reports from his own sources. There have also been numerous reports of cannibalism according to his sources on the ground. The situation is said to be worse than the “Arduous March,” the Korean term for the famine of 1994-1998.

“Kim Jong-un was photographed last summer with his wife visiting one of Pyongyang’s new theme parks, but as far as is known he has not visited the disaster areas just south of the capital or been photographed meeting with victims. Indeed, the government has apparently said nothing about the famine and done nothing to seek additional foreign food aid.

The younger Kim seems to have deliberately scuttled his chances of getting more foreign food assistance by his determination to launch long-range missiles in defiance of UN resolutions and world opinion. Washington declined to consider more aid in the wake of the April launching that fizzled; its position was reinforced by the successful launch in December.

South Korea’s new President Park Geun-hye’s position is somewhat ambiguous, but she too seems determined to link food aid to progress in dismantling North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programs. Since there is essentially no progress on these issues, the prospects for more immediate aid seem slim. Meanwhile, North Koreans continue to starve.

Source: RealClearWorld, 01.23.2013

Dec 16 '12 - North Korean Residents: 'What Good are Satellites?'

(Queuing for rice rations)

The North Korean government appears to be celebrating after it successfully launched a long-ranged missile. On the other hand, the response from the citizenry has been unenthusiastic. More worried about obtaining food, they ask, how would artificial satellites help them?

It is known that after North Korea announced the successful launch of “Kwangmyongsong-3,” its government made orders for a nationwide celebration.

On December 12th, on Radio Free Asia, one laborer in the border parts of North Hamgyong province, who works in a machine factory, said, “I found out on the 12th when the overseer ran in during lunchtime and said that the missile launch was a success. Our work for the afternoon was canceled and they told us to go out into the dance hall and dance. So we danced until late in the evening.”

He said, “From the broadcast cars parked all over the city, they kept broadcasting, ‘great satellite nation that launched a satellite.’ I guess they were told to make a big event out of it.”

The response from the citizenry has been bland, however.

According to the worker, the residents are skeptical of the usefulness of artificial satellites. He said, “Maybe the overseers are happy, but what good is that to us? Even when they were launching Kwangmyongsong-1, they said it would improve public life, but what’s changed since then?”

He added, “When they launched Kwangmyongsong-2 in 2009, they said they would relay television signals with the satellite but in our district, it’s been a while since we watched television because we don’t have electricity.”

Many residents were also unhappy that they had go out and dance in the middle of winter.

One college student from Shinuiju, North Pyeongan Province, said, “My college mobilized the youth and we danced, but how joyful can we be when our hands and feet are freezing?”

In the past five days, 20cm of snow fell on the areas on the western coast, including Pyongyang. Recently, the morning temperature in Shinuiju fell below -10 C°.

The student claimed, “They said the songs of Generals Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il will ring out from Kwangmyongsong-3, but the authorities told us the same thing 14 years ago.”

North Korean residents, having celebrated satellite launches in both 1998 and 2009, do not find the most recent one all that welcome. This is due to the fact that while North Korean’s government has been claiming to have successfully launched satellites for over 10 years, it has failed to give proof of the benefits.

Source: NKinUSA, 12.06.2012

Translated by ENoK

Dec 16 '12 - North Korea: in the Midst of the Rocket Launch, Number of Homeless Children on the Rise

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un flaunts the success of the recent rocket launch, but it is known that to this day, there are still many homeless children wandering the streets in the North.

One Pyongyang resident, who was visiting relatives in China, said: “The state-owned inns that shelter kkotjaebis (homeless children) are overflowing with them. In Pyongyang, the ‘Scientist Inn’ and the ‘Transmission Inn’ are the main shelters for kkotjaebis.”

He added, “The third floor of Scientist Inn, on Munsu Street, is an official housing area for kkotjaebis. The authorities keep them on the third floor to isolate them, so they can’t run away.”

The inspectors that catch and bring in the kkotjaebis keep watch over Pyongyang’s train stations and subway stations for this bewildering reason: “If kkotjaebis are caught on satellite images, it tarnishes the image of the Republic.”

Recently, Kim Jong Un, the First Secretary of the Worker’s Party, instructed that “Pyongyang be made a civilized city overflowing with the people’s laughter,” but actually, he gave orders to tighten the watch over kkotjaebis.

The Pyongyang resident who was interviewed said that “in the shelters, they give out 300 grams of flour and corn soup to each kkotjaebi per day, but if the children can’t adjust to a disciplined lifestyle and run away, they dispatch the inspectors and bring them back.”

“State-owned inns that have been neglected due to interruptions in business are being converted to shelters for kkotjaebis.” Outside of the capital, the situation is just as serious.

An American aid worker who recently visited North Korea revealed, “In Sariwon, Hwanghae Province, the children’s shelters and orphanages house several thousands of orphans.”

Last November, while opening the Mothers’ Conference, the North Korean government urged its female citizens to adopt more orphans. According to North Korean sources, “each representative in the Mothers’ Conference was given clothing fabric as a gift” and that “during this conference, the issue of raising orphans was debated very seriously.”

Source: NKinUSA, 12.16.2012

Translated by ENoK

Nov 9 '12 - Starving North Koreans Storing Rice in Toilets

To avoid confiscation, residents hide rice in toilets
Insider says, “If you go out into the countryside and look what’s in the cooking pots… even animals can’t eat what’s inside”

by Kim So Jeong

In Hwanghae Province, government agents have been going from house to house and confiscating rice, an insider source revealed. After inspecting the harvest and searching the houses, they take away most of the rice to be used as army rations or as food for residents of Pyongyang.

According to the insider, farmers affected by the search and confiscation effort have attempted to hide some of their rice by wrapping it in plastic sheets and placing them in their toilets, but the police searched even the toilets and found the rice. It was said that these farmers are currently eating worse than animals.

The insider said, “Armed soldiers kept watch over the barns and then took away all the rice. The farmers kept some rice hidden by wrapping them in plastic and storing them in kimchi jars or even in toilets. But [the police] looked even there and confiscated the rice.”

This information was relayed personally by a regional official to a North Korean expat who was recently in North Korea to visit relatives.

This official has the role of traveling through farming areas and communicating the ideas of the Worker’s Party to the residents, it was said. Thus, he is well aware of the situation in the province.

He said, “That’s why in Hwanghae Province, they say, ‘When the rice is in the fields, it’s the farmer’s. When it’s cut, it’s the sorter’s. When it’s in the threshing place, it’s the overseer’s. When it goes to town, it’s the village Party secretary’s.’ There’s rampant corruption among the mid-level officials.”

People have also been saying things like, “Before, in farming areas, you could get 20, 30 kg of rice but now, it’s difficult to get even 1, 2 kg.”

The official also said, “If you go out into the countryside and look what’s in the cooking pots… even animals can’t eat that. During a foreign occupation, this would be understandable. But this is happening under our own government… there’s not one chicken here. If there are any animals, the monitor, the security chairman, and the village secretary take them as tribute. They took all the pigs, half a dozen of them, and they receive even the animal feed as tribute.”

(Mangyeongdae district, Pyongyang. Farmers harvesting at the Chilgol Professional Vegetable Farm.)

Relating to this, the source said, “Right now in North Korea, there’s no city that’s running properly. The industrial areas can’t supply the building materials, like cement and metal, so they make the farmers do it. During the March of Suffering, the Hwanghae Ironworks Factory even came and took our scrap metal.”

He said that residents were saying such things as this: “Kim Il Sung created fantasies in our heads, saying ‘I will have you eat steamed rice and meat soup, and live in tile-roofed houses, and wear silk clothes.’ Then Kim Jong Il fooled us, saying, ‘I will build you a strong and prosperous nation that is internationally powerful, where everything is good, where you can live without fear.’ Now his son says, ‘It is our Party’s firm determination to never allow our people to tighten their belts in hunger again, and to make sure that they enjoy the luxuries of socialism to their hearts’ content.’ As if we’d fall for that again.”

The official said, “Using words like ‘luxuries’ to people who say, ‘I just wish they’d fill our pockets even a little, so we don’t go hungry’ … Kim Jong Un only goes to nice places and doesn’t know how the people live.”

Regarding the March of Suffering, which began in 1997, he said, “Abroad, they think people starved because there were heavy rains in ’95 and ’96, which flooded the fields and reduced the harvest. But that’s not the truth. For the people in North Hamgyeong Province, Yanggang Province, and Jagang Province, it looks like the enormous sum of money spent during the World Festival of Youth and Students had little effect.”

He explained, “Before then, the economy had been deteriorating, and with such wasteful celebrations, the rations kept decreasing. From ’89 on, rationing in North Hamgyeong Province, Yanggang Province, and Jagang Province was totally cut off. At this point people started to starve, so the March of Suffering began not in the late ‘90s but at the end of the ’80s.

“I think I heard on a South Korean program that the national budget is about 25 billion dollars. I think perhaps, 20 to 30% go to idolizing the leaders. If they had money after Kim Il Sung died, they shouldn’t have spent it on idolizing him while people were suffering.

“We were used to receiving rations and getting help from the state. So after this happened, people who couldn’t move forward died. People who couldn’t do business died. This is not a natural disaster but a manmade one. I understand it in that light.”

The source said, “Right now, people in North Korea look at Kim Jong Un and said, ‘the son does exactly the same thing his father did.’ In front of Kim Il Sung’s mausoleum, there used to be a fountain. Kim Jong Il broke it up and paved over it. Now the son says, ‘This shouldn’t be paved. Plant trees and grass instead,’ and so they’re doing construction on it again.

“Doing such unproductive and uneconomical things, that is exactly why it’s so hard for people to live here.

“Currently in North Korea, there is not only the police but also a thing called the squad. Whenever there’s a disturbance, the squad acquires heavy machinery, machine guns, even tanks. Wherever there’s a disturbance, they crack down mercilessly. When the first level of suppression doesn’t work, troops come in and then you can’t do anything.

This is why in the outside world, people say, ‘North Koreans are so pathetic. Libya, Egypt, and Syria all rose up. In a country like North Korea, why don’t the people do anything?’ They don’t have any choice.” Still, “The authorities are hogging all of the nation’s wealth and oppressing the people. We can’t tell what will happen in the future.”

Source: Dailian, 11.09.2012

Translated by ENoK

Oct 22 '12 - Leaflets Sent by Balloon to North Korea Despite Ban, Activists Say

by Choe Sang-Hun

SEOUL, South Korea — Activists said on Monday that they had succeeded in sending large balloons drifting into North Korea carrying tens of thousands of leaflets, despite South Korean police efforts to block the action and a threat from the North Korean government to retaliate with a military attack.

The police cordoned off a street in the South Korean border city of Paju to stop activists from reaching the leaflet launch site.

The threat of a military clash prompted the South Korean authorities to block the activists, mostly defectors from the North, from reaching Imjingak, a border village northwest of Seoul, where they had planned to release the balloons. Hundreds of South Korean farmers living in nearby villages were ordered to go to bomb shelters, and the alert level was raised all along the border.

But the activists said later that they had eluded the police and released the balloons from an island west of Seoul instead.

It was not immediately clear whether the balloons successfully scattered the leaflets over the isolated North, where the government struggles to keep nearly total control on its impoverished populace and bristles at any intrusion of outside news or opinion. There was no immediate response from North Korea.

Activist leaflets typically discuss the vast gaps between the economies and living standards in the North and the South, include lurid accounts of the luxuries that the North Korean ruling family enjoys and contradict the North’s official history books, which claim that the Korean War was started by the United States rather than by the North’s invasion of the South in 1950. Some leaflets carry Christian messages.

“We could not delay our plans to send the leaflets, because they carry our promise and love for our North Korean brothers,” the activists said in a statement posted on the Web site of Free North Korea Radio, a Seoul-based group that seeks to broadcast outside news into the North.

Kim Seong-min, the head of the radio group and a leader of the leaflet campaign, criticized the South Korean authorities for blocking the activists from releasing balloons in the border village. “South Korea is retreating under a North Korean threat,” he said. “Once you retreat under this kind of blackmail, you will continue to be pushed back.”

The North Korean threat of retaliation, issued on Friday, was hardly unprecedented. In recent months, the North has threatened to attack the Seoul office of President Lee Myung-bak, whom it has called a rat, and vowed to bombard the offices of major newspapers and television stations in the South that criticize the North.

Still, South Korean police appeared to take the threat seriously, erecting roadblocks, banning tourists and journalists from the area, and scuffling briefly with activists who tried to barge through their cordon.

A rival group of activists rallied near the border village, carrying banners that accused the leaflet activists of trying to incite a war between the Koreas.

On Monday, Glyn Davies, the top American envoy on North Korean matters, told reporters in Beijing that it was grossly disproportionate for North Korea “to have threatened to respond to balloons with bombs,” The Associated Press reported.

China, the North’s main ally, welcomed the South Korean government’s efforts to check the balloon-flying and urged the Koreas to “stay calm and restrained.”

During the cold war, both Koreas used balloons to send official propaganda leaflets across their heavily fortified frontier, a practice that ended after the first inter-Korean summit meeting in 2000. But in recent years, some defectors began sending propaganda balloons of their own into the North. The latest episode came at a politically delicate time in South Korea, where a presidential election is due in December and the political parties are highly attuned to how a surprise North Korean move might affect the outcome.

Source: The New York Times, 10.22.2012

Translated by ENoK