Tuesday, August 28, 2007

new blog

Here, for the time being.

Saturday, January 15, 2005


The indefatigable Dr Lankov (pdf file) has a fascinating and shocking article in Asia Times about food distribution in North Korea. Defectors are his main source of information.

They reckon time by "before" or "after" the collapse of the Public Distribution System (PDS). That was when short rations became progressively shorter, when ration cards and artificially low prices were meaningless because the supplies had failed.

Thousands of people died. Estimates vary - the more conservative put it at just over 500,000 but some say more than 2 million. Even the BBC mentions vague reports by "aid agencies" suggesting that up to two million people died.

It is sobering to read the report of the World Food Programme (pdf file).
In 2004, 6.5 million people in the DPR Korea - mainly women and children - will continue to need food assistance. At present they are targeting about 6.5 million beneficiaries: children, nursing mothers, and the elderly.
Other humanitarian organisations are at work there, including the Red Cross, which claims a staggering 330,000 volunteers and 371,730 Red Cross Youth at the community level, and over a million members in the DPRK.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

And another thing

And another thing.

Much has been made over RoK's Unification Minister's statement about block groups of defectors. I don't know a thing about this of course. But I am suspicious of groups that take money for transporting defectors. No government would want to have much truck with them. Some of the aiding groups seem to have a questionable religious agenda. And it may not be simply a matter of appeasing DPRK anyway as commentators seem to think. They are shocked at the human rights issue - these are Korean citizens (the RoK constitution extends its remit to North Korea). But hang on a minute. Isn't it the same old story of fear of "swamping"? That ugly selfishness that makes ordinary people fear for their jobs and wages, when desperate incomers are prepared to work for low wages, in appalling conditions? The same sort of fear and resentment that afflicts Brits vis a vis East Europeans, West Germans vis a vis Osties, Americans vis a vis Mexicans? Deeply unpleasant, but the sort of gut reaction from many voters that all but the bravest politicians find hard to resist.


I'm no lover of the North Korean régime. Until someone can show me evidence to the contrary, I shall continue to suspect it is anything but Democratic or a People's Republic - though sometimes, out of ironic courtesy, I refer to it as DPRK. As far as I can tell, its leadership treats ordinary people with contempt: lies to them, cheats them of knowledge, political power, and even food. It cheats its young men of their youth by requiring 10 years' National Service. It has kidnapped foreign nationals for use by the state as educators. It imprisons people for crimes of dissent, uses their slave labour, and if some defectors are to be believed, even experiments on them in the manner of a latter-day Mengele.

However, that doesn't mean I'm a dyed-in-the wool neocon. I'm fairly ignorant of what's going on, trying to inform myself a little, and be critical of the sources of information. The west does itself no favours when it descends to the level of news distortion.

AOL, for instance, today is running a story with the headline "N Korea Prepares for War with US":
North Korea has ordered its people to be ready for a protracted war against the United States, issuing guidelines on evacuating to underground bunkers with weapons, food and portraits of leader Kim Jong Il.

The 33 page Detailed Wartime Guidelines published in South Korea's Kyunghyang newspaper and verified by Seoul, was issued last April, at a time when the communist regime was claiming that it was Washington's next target following the Iraq war.

The manual -- the first such North Korean document made public in the outside world -- was signed by Kim Jong Il in his capacity as chairman of the Central Military Committee of the ruling Workers' Party. That ended speculation over whether Kim has assumed the top military post following the 1994 death of his father, President Kim Il Sung.

Analysts said the guidelines reflected Pyongyang's fear over a possible US military strike amid stalled talks on its nuclear weapons programmes, as well as its campaign to whip up a sense of crisis among its 22 million population, reportedly growing discontent amid economic hardship.

"The United States has cooked up suspicion over our nuclear programs and is escalating an offensive of international pressure to strangle and destroy our republic," the booklet said. "If this tactic doesn't work, it plots to use this nuclear problem as an excuse for armed invasion.

"Kyunghyang did not clarify where it acquired the document classified as "top secret".

Seoul's National Intelligence Service said in a one-sentence statement: "We believe the document reflects North Korea's wartime preparations.

"The manual urged the military to build restaurants, wells, toilets and air purifiers in underground bunkers where government offices and military units will move in if war breaks out.

When North Koreans evacuate to underground facilities, they should make sure that they take the portraits, plaster busts and bronze statues of Kim and his parents so that they can "protect" them in a special room.

The Kim family has ruled North Korea for more than a half century, creating a powerful personality cult. Portraits of Kim and his father hang side-by-side on the walls of every house.
In fact, it's the same story that Korea Times was carrying earlier in the day, the same story that is repeated endlessly and thoughtlessly in news services around the world. The headline suggests that N Korea is rattling its sabres, and that this is something new. The detail is entirely different. It's not news (except that somehow the top secret document was "recently obtained by a local daily, the Kyunghyang Shinmun", as Korea Herald points out. And there is hardly anything surprising in a country preparing for siege when it's already been declared as part of the "axis of evil", seeing what's happened in Iraq.

The Chosun Ilbo casts a suspicious eye on the reasons for the document's appearance now. There has been a flurry of stories suggesting that Kim Jong Il's hold is weakening, and that vast numbers of senior military have been defecting, and so on. And of course they've been denied.

I don't know what to believe about those stories. I have no confidence that Washington isn't behind the scenes, stirring up stories from almost nothing. Given the twitchiness of news services, as soon as something appears it's spread globally, often without much analysis. It seems, sometimes, that the mere proliferation of these stories is enough to lend them credibility.

I don't suppose I'm alone in finding the requirement that citizens "should make sure that they take the portraits, plaster busts and bronze statues of Kim and his parents so that they can "protect" them in a special room" both laughable and deeply offensive.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Dwindling dot

Megumi Yokota was a 13 year old schoolgirl who disappeared from a beach near her home in Japan in 1977. When President Koizumi visited Pyongyang 2 years ago, Kim Jong Il apologised for abductions of Japanese nationals, of whom she was one. After years of teaching Japanese language and culture in North Korea, Megumi allegedly committed suicide. Eight of the dozen or so abductees are allegedly dead. (One of the survivors married the defector Charles Jenkins.) If the story of abduction is incredible, so too is the aftermath.

Disgusted by the return of cremated remains which it claims (according to DNA tests) cannot be hers, Japan has already halted food aid. It seems only a matter of time before other sanctions. What would they achieve, though?

Trade sanctions hit the poorest. The élite are the last to suffer. Kim Jong Il's record gives little cause for hope that he would take steps to protect the powerless from starvation if it will cost him loss of face.

What outcome would satisfy the Japanese? Over 70% are in favour of sanctions. The motive seems to be punitive - understandable, but unlikely to get the world much further forward.

Not everyone is in favour of sanctions. Masao Okonogi, who teaches Korean Studies at Keio University, argues on asahi.com that sanctions should be used as a last resort. Even then, it's not clear from the article what they are supposed to achieve. Everyone wants DPRK to return to the nuclear negotiating table. This doesn't seem to have much to do with Megumi, but it's right there in his article.

And the western press is talking up the instability of the régime. There seems to be no way, yet, of knowing the truth.

I don't begin to understand this. It seems rather like bashing an old-fashioned TV set in the hope that it will make it work.

Saturday, December 18, 2004


Antti Leppänen is a Finnish anthropologist studying neighbourhood shopkeepers and entrepreneurs in Korea. He has just been blogging about Grandfather Kwôn, a widowed laundryman whose frank account of his life brings home how differently people can live. He has had many jobs in his time, and many women. His was an arranged marriage. It is hard to imagine their relationship:
She was so sunbakhada (simple, honest, unspoiled etc.) that she could even have a room prepared in their home if he got to know a nice girl. It actually happened once. At that time a woman couldn’t pack her things and leave (pottari ssaji ank’o), a woman couldn’t make even a sound.
Antti's blog is worth reading regularly for the light he sheds on ordinary lives.
(I wonder what an anthropologist would make of the entrepreneurs in the village where I live: the cobbler, the baker, the butcher who opens at 7am every day but Sunday, the Indian, Chinese and Turkish restaurateurs, the Pakistani newsagent, the successful car dealer whose father was a wartime Czech refugee?)

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Defectors speak

There's an interesting post at NKZone today, in which a teacher working with North Korean defectors reports on his students' perceptions of the possibility of change in the DPRK.

The questions posed seem based on many unspoken assumptions - most seriously, a suggestion that everyone wants reform, and that armed uprising might be a good way of achieving it.

It seems a missed opportunity to ask more open questions about their perception of the political structure of DPRK and reform. For example, what is their attitude to inward investment? And how autonomous can regions be in practice?

I'd like to know more about what it's actually like living there - where do people live, what work do they do, what do they eat, are they able to form frank friendships or is everyone always suspicious? Are ordinary people cynical about the government, do they want reform? Do people readily spot the discrepancy between what's reported and what they know? What about Ryongchon -what if anything did they hear about that, and where from? How much do they know about the rest of their country? Does anyone really love Kim Jong Il? Does anyone believe that stuff about the star and the two rainbows?

And above all, why did they defect? These are all questions to which we may think we already know the answers, but it would be good to hear from people who really know.

I trust that these students (whose English isn't good enough to read NKZone) knew that the information they gave would be used in this way.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Weapons of Mass Distraction

A cogent article by Selig Harrison on the Council on Foreign Relations website argues that the US exaggerates the threat from Pyongyang with regard to nuclear weapons capability whilst overlooking the more tangible threat from re-processed plutonium which it can sell on to other powers. It suits DPRK to be cagey about their capability. But it is very dangerous for the US to proceed on a worst-case scenario basis. He accuses the US administration of misrepresenting the intelligence and ignoring the one real threat.