Category Archives: North Korea

Kim Jong-il’s Death: What to Watch for Going Forward

UPDATE (21 December): So far, so good on Kaesong, one of the key indicators of stability and the state of North-South relations. Despite some reports of shorter hours and a tense atmosphere, the businesses in the complex are operating normally with little fallout detected or expected. If conditions in Kaesong remain stable, it’s a sign both of stability in the North’s government and non-hardline factions maintaining at least some influence in Pyongyang. Other indicators are mentioned below, in an earlier posting.

There is a lot out there on Kim Jong-il (KJI)’s death, his son and successor Kim Jong-un, and ‘what it all means’. I will not attempt to bore you by duplicating that here. Instead, I’ll highlight what to watch for over the coming weeks and months:

1. Changes in the status of Kaesong, the joint North-South industrial complex located in North Korea. A closing of the complex (unlikely), or new restrictions on its operation, indicate a harder line faction (likely from the ruling party, but possibly the military) is gaining the upper hand. The opposite, an expansion of the facility, indicates technocrats are gaining favor.

2. Increased mention in the North Korean press of Jang Song-taek (Kim Jong-un’s uncle) or one of KJI’s other sons. Jang is already one of the most powerful people in the North, thanks to his marriage to KJI’s sister, and the early transition to the young Jong-un could further empower him, or tempt him to make an outright grab for control. Press mention should offer a window into this possibility.

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An Actual War on Christmas? North Korea Warns South about Christmas Tree, Lights

UPDATE (2 JAN 2013): The South didn’t go through with the lighting of the tree last year, in 2011, but went ahead and approved it this holiday season, per the AP. The North was less than happy about the “open challenge and an unpardonable provocation” from the South, but has so far refrained from all but a verbal response.

Your favorite right-wing American fantasy come true, courtesy North Korea and the DMZ!



Calling the large metal structure decorated with lights and designed to look like a Christmas tree, a “tool of psychological warfare,” the North Korea affiliated website 우리 민족끼리 (roughly, ‘Our People’s Path’) threatened the South with “unexpected consequences” should the lights be turned on.

The metal structure in question, shown here courtesy Yonhap News and NKchosun.com, is roughly shaped like a Christmas tree and expected to be located on the South’s side of the de-militarized zone (DMZ), north of the city of Kimpo in Gyeonggi Province.

A Christian organization requested permission to set up at least one of the trees and decorate it with lights that would be visible from the North, as shown here.

The North, per the reaction quoted above, is not happy. Technically, as the North points out, the tree and lights may be a violation of a 2004 agreement between the two countries that prohibits “propaganda” in the DMZ.

The North’s strenuous objections under the agreement appear to highlight Pyongyang’s stunning hypocrisy sensitivity to outside, uncontrolled messages reaching its populace.

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Inside the Red Box: North Korea’s Post-totalitarian Politics

[Book Review] Though it starts out feeling like an odd combination of political science dissertation and basic intro to North Korea, with a theory that initially seems to amount to, “different factions exist in the North Korean government and Kim Jong-il plays them against one another” (um, duh), Inside the Red Box turns out to be a convincing examination of Pyongyang’s government.

I admit to having doubts when I saw the author works for the State Department, which left me expecting thick layers of bureaucratese, but the writing is quite clear and concise. The central thesis is that the party lost power in the transition from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il, shrinking from the center of power through which the government and country were run, to one of three factions (along with the military and cabinet) competing for ascendancy on a given issue. The author outlines a history of the three factions competing to have their agenda gain the imprimatur of Kim Jong-il, examining changes in North Korean policy through the lens of comments made by media related to each of the three groups.

The author’s case is convincing and a very welcome change from the “They’re just crazy/illogical/unknowable,” and the equally problematic “Kim Jong-il rules all,” lines of North Korean scholarship. With the exception of B.R. Myers’s The Cleanest Race, this is some of the best scholarship on North Korea in years.

The study even touches on my own favorite area of North Korean research, how access to international phones by the North Korean public can be used as a tool to gain information from inside the country and as a stick to compel changes in North Korea behavior. A stick that, “is more likely to impact one important basis of the regime’s claim to legitimacy than economic or financial sanctions […].” [pg. 233]

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Repeat Tahrir Square in Pyongyang?

For those wondering if Tahrir Square and similar events across North Africa and the Middle East can be repeated in Pyongyang, recent headlines out of Korea appear to answer the question. While their compatriots are busy using the Internet and social media to link up for everything from brainstorming to demonstrations, North Korean college students are serving as corvee labor on construction projects.

And not just any construction – the conditions, work schedule, and lack of safety are reportedly so bad that “hundreds” (also in Korean) are dying from the forced labor (additional English info here). These students aren’t being punished for committing a crime, they are simply being put to work to help beautify Pyongyang for next year’s centennial of Kim Il-sung’s birth.

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Choco Pie – Dangerous Symbol of Capitalism or Harmless Snack?

The Choco Pie, a popular South Korean snack food, has apparently become so popular in Kaesong’s joint North-South industrial park (i.e. SK businesses, NK labor) that they have become viewed as “dangerous symbols of capitalism” by some in the North. It seems North Korean workers are smuggling out the pies, commonly handed out as snacks by SK businesses in the park, and then selling them to other North Koreans. Snack food for sale! The horror! If Mubarak and Qaddafi had only banned snacks, they’d still be in power today.



The issue has gotten so serious, representatives from SK companies operating in the park met to develop a “uniform Choco Pie policy” (you can’t make this stuff up) limiting the number of the pies handed out to workers as a way to mitigate the crisis. The North’s government urged the snack food be banned altogether and replaced with cash (food, bad; hard currency, good), but so far the companies have refused.

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Number of North Korean Cellphone Subscribers Continues to Grow

North Korea continues to have one of the fastest growing cellphone networks in the world, at least according to Orascom Telecom, the Egypt-based company in charge of developing the North’s system. According to a report (quoted by Daily NK) recently released by the company, there were a total of 809,000 cellphone subscribers in the North at the end of September, up 169% year-on-year.

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Upcoming Wave of North Korean Boat People?

According to an article from today’s Daily NK (a website run by North Korean defectors living in the South), a recent tightening of border controls by North Korea, together with a crackdown by Chinese authorities on North Korean refugees in China, is causing more people to flee the North by ship.

So far this year, 73 North Korean refugees have arrived in the South by ship, compared to nine people in 2010 and 11 in 2009. The instances of arrivals by sea have also increased, with six cases so far this year, compared to five in 2010 and one in 2009. The number of passengers per boat has also risen, from 2-3 per boat last year to upwards of 20-30 per boat this year.

The story quotes a source inside the North as saying would-be defectors can choose between risking death at sea, or getting caught by North Korean border guards and/or Chinese authorities. Heightened border and internal security measures by North Korea and China have led an increasing number of defectors to risk the sea route. Unfortunately, finding a ship captain willing to take a family to the South (and thus agree to defect with his/her own family, or risk death upon return) is reportedly much more difficult and expensive than finding a people smuggler to get into China, crackdown or not. Thus, a wave of “boat people” escaping the North is, according to the story, highly unlikely.

UPDATE (28 November): Looks like the North Korean government is so concerned about this year’s increase in defections by boat to South Korea that it has pulled patrol craft off of duties near the Northern Limit Line (NLL – disputed sea border between NK and SK, site of numerous deadly naval clashes) to bolster coastal patrols. The purpose of the new patrols, according to an article in today’s JoongAng Daily (and another in The Korea Herald), is to increase monitoring along the North’s southwest coast to prevent defections by boat through the Yellow Sea. No word on measures to reduce defections along the east coast.

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Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea

[Book Review] Less a book to curl up with and read than a research treatise to consult. As always, Noland and Haggard provide a solid work of North Korean scholarship useful for anyone studying or writing on the North.

Aside from the valuable quantitative data covering refugee/defector opinion, the conclusion is the most readable, least dense section.



Essentially, just reading the conclusion, and then consulting the rest of the study as needed, will make the book worthwhile and allow the most efficient investment of your time.

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Sleeping with the Enemy?

I’m not sure why (boredom?), but I found this report that U.S. and North Korean negotiators are staying at the same hotel in Geneva interesting. According to the article, during the State Department’s endless job security for diplomats program (also known as, ‘nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea’), negotiators from the two sides have never before stayed at the same hotel during talks.

Staying in the same place will likely lead to a more relaxed atmosphere, impromptu and informal contacts, and maybe even a few secret discussions – the kind of relationship building necessary to encourage risk-taking and fresh ideas – the exact needs of the current negotiations. While a breakthrough is difficult to expect, this kind of meeting could lay the groundwork for actual ‘progress’ in the discussions and overall relations. Keeping in mind that progress in negotiations with the North is often ethereal, best measured in microns, and rarely sustainable.

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Researching Pyongyang?

The Chosun Daily is reporting (in Korean) it has obtained data from a September 2004 Pyongyang census containing the names, gender, birthdates, address, and related information for over two million adults (age over 17) living in the city. The data reportedly originated from North Korean internal security services and was somehow smuggled out of the North and obtained by a South Korean intelligence source working in the China, North Korean border region.

According to the data, at the time of the survey, there were only 71 men for every 100 women living in the city – a discrepancy the story attributed to large numbers of men being away for mandatory military service (which lasts approximately ten years in the North).

Other data shows the number of foreigners living in the city: 124, out of a total population of over two million. A haven of cosmopolitanism Pyongyang is not.

For more on the story, including (at the bottom) information on how to contact the paper for permission to access the data, click here and take a look. As noted above, the story is in Korean.

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