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N. Korea Perestroika watch: crackdown forces border guards to become robbers

Last week, China filed an official protest with North Korea over the December killing of four Chinese civilians by a rogue North Korean border guard who had turned to robbery. A Bloomberg reporter researches this further, in search of a pattern, and finds one:

A spate of murders by North Koreans inside China’s border is prompting some residents to abandon their homes, testing China’s ability to manage both the 1400-kilometre shared frontier and its relationship with the reclusive nation.

The violence reflects a growing desperation among soldiers, including border guards, since Kim Jong-un took over as supreme leader in Pyongyang three years ago. As well as seeking food, they are entering China to steal money.

“Bribes were one of the key sources of income for these guards to survive, but after Kim Jong-un came to power and tightened controls, it became difficult for them to take bribes, thus the criminal deviations,” said Kang Dong Wan, a professor of international relations at Busan’s Dong-a University in South Korea. [Bloomberg]

The reporter interviews “a senior local official,” who asked not to be identified, and who says that “[a]round 20 villagers have been murdered in Nanping by North Koreans in recent years.” Before the December incident, in September, another North Korean soldier murdered three members of another family over 500 yuan, just under $100. The soldier was later caught.

The crime wave has caused some residents to leave the village. The official says that in the winter, when the Tumen River freezes over, “it is common for soldiers to enter the village to demand food.”

“Barbed wires separating China and North Korea are as good as non-existent, with some parts of the border river being so shallow that you only risk getting yourself wet from the knee down when you wade across it,” Dr Kang said. “The geographic extensiveness of the border also makes it very difficult to maintain a complete watch.” [….]

“Military units in fringe areas or with less influence also get less food,” Mr Kwon said. “This will get worse. It is estimated about 2 million North Koreans are still unable to feed themselves properly even though the days of them starving to death are over.”

Reaching back into the vast OFK archives, there is a long history of known incidents of North Korean border guards and soldiers either getting involved in smuggling, defecting, or even fragging their officers. For example, in 2010, I wrote this:

Border guards were no exception.  As cross-border trade became more lucrative, so did the acceptance of bribes to overlook it.  The corruption of the border guards became so brazen that they have been photographed while smuggling in broad daylight.  Even field-grade officers, and most strikingly, members of North Korea’s intelligence services, went into the smuggling business. [….]

In October 2012, a soldier fragged two officers and fled across the DMZ, to South Korea.

May of 2012, the Daily NK reported that two North Korean border guards shot roughly half a dozen of their colleagues, crossed the border, and went up to the hills to hide. The Chinese caught them and repatriated them back to North Korea.

In February 2007, a group of twenty North Korean border guards defected. Asahi TV later interviewed two of them.

Historically, when disciplinary infractions have embarrassed the regime, it has carried out mass transfers of the force, sometimes swapping border guard for regular army units, or flooding the zone with officers of the Ministry of Public Security or State Security Department.

The regime knows too well that banditry can beget mutiny.

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Japanese TV Interviews Two of the North Korean Border Guards Who Deserted at Hoeryong

A remarkable new report, with video, strongly corroborates recent reports that 20  North Korean border guards defected, en masse, and fled into China. 

On the 12th, Japan’s Asahi TV interviewed two North Korean border guards who successfully defected from North Korea to a neighboring village in China.

On the 4th, the DailyNK reported that 1 platoon of border guards from the district of Hoiryeong had defected to China, and that secret agents had been sent to China in search of arrest.

Following the report, Asahi TV sent correspondents to the border regions of North Korea and China where they were able to meet two of the defected border guards….

First, the defected guards showed the correspondent the North Korean military uniforms which they had worn in North Korea. “In North Korea, this military uniform is called a tiger’s skin. As long as you are wearing this coat, no one can touch you” he said explaining the hierarchical privilege and status of the People’s Army.

When asked on which path the guards had taken, they revealed “We came through the mountains. It was really hard. It took about 2 days.   [Daily NK]

hoeryong-border.JPGHere’s a  GE of the border adjacent to Hoeryong.  You can see the bridge across the Tumen River border at left, and two small  guard posts at upper right.  Leading between the two is a footpath the guards use for their patrols.  If you zoom out to the wider area, you will see that there are rugged hills on either side of the city, but that the guards would have had to cross the river, which was probably frozen over.  If you watched the video on the Daily NK report, you saw what is purported to be a guard stripping off his pants, wading across the river, and dropping off some piece of merchandise. 

Is there more courageous journalism anywhere on this earth than what  the Dailly NK is giving us?  Further on, the guards claim that nearly all of their ex-comrades are corrupt and take bribes to move items across the border.  These men are not exactly heroes, in case you were wondering:

“We smuggled stuff through the border patrols. Even if someone asked for a woman, we sometimes engaged in human traffic. By doing this, we earned about 20,000 won a year. The border patrols have just begun investigations. We crossed over to China as we would be killed (if caught)” they said and confessed that they had committed felony.

On the other hand, you can excuse some pretty awful things when the alternative is starvation

The only question now is whether the ongoing  breakdown of the information blockade, which is the foundation of the regime’s authority, is too advanced for your tax dollars to preserve it.  The idea of putting money in Kim Jong Il’s coffers now rewards all of our enemies, betrays every principle we claimed to have, and betrays ever real and potential ally we have in the region.  Even knowing — especially knowing — that this deal won’t last, I’m stunned that we could be dumb and short-sighted enough to sign this thing at the moment we were putting some real pressure on this regime’s jugular.  We will pay a terrible price for this.  The longer we pretend this might actually work, the higher the price.


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N. Korea Still Hasn’t Caught Border Guards Who Deserted

You will recall that 20 of them dropped their weapons,  deserted,  and crossed over to China.  It looks like they’ve been successful in evading capture so far:

A North Korean source from the district of Onsung said on the 8th “20 or so people who looked like secret agents formed a group at Sambong Customs. These people and a soldier which looked like their captain had received orders and were preparing to cross over to China. He said “It seems that North Korean authorities are sending additional agents as there are a lot of guards who defected yet the arrests are slow.

Further, he added “North Korean authorities are concerned that the escaped guards will defect to the 3rd world countries if the arrests are further delayed” and “The fact that North Korean authorities are sending additional agents to China just goes to show how seriously they’re considering this case.   [Daily NK]

The report claims that the Chinese security forces are assisting them.  The usual and obvious  cautions about this report apply.  It’s not as if there are abundant means to check  the veracity of  sources and reports.

I’ll try to remember to put up a Google Earth of that area later.  It’s one of the bleakest parts of North Korea, resembling a bombed-out industrial wasteland, complete with blown bridges over the Tumen River.  See, for example,  this post on North Korea’s  “ghost cities.”  The second image in that post is from the vicinity of Onsong.

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Disciplinary Erosion Hits N. Korean Border Guards

The Daily NK reports that two border guards were caught taking money to allow refugees to cross the border and will be executed.  Although the state can’t decide whether to hang or shoot the two unfortunates, or how to schedule it around the Dear Leader’s birthday,  past history suggests that  the deed  will be carried out publicly to make an example of the men. 

Consider the  example set.  Of the two reported consequences, only one seems to have been intended:  for the time being, it is not possible to buy your way out of North Korea at any price.  The other consequence is not one Kim Jong Il  is likely to have wanted:

Recently, a platoon of border guards from the district of Hoiryeong escaped to China to avoid the arrest of inspection agency, an inside North Korean source informed the DailyNK on the 4th. North Korean authorities have responded by sending an inspection agency to China in search of these guards.

The mass defection of an entire unit would be a very big deal, but later, this turns out not to be the case.  The guards were nonetheless “affiliated” with the sergeant and vice-commander who are now facing the firing squad, which would suggest a degree of coordination and organization in their  corruption, and in their ultimate defiance of authority.

A resident of Hoiryeong, Lee Jong Sam (pseudonym) who discovered this case informed on the 4th “Recently, about 20 guards from the border city of Hoiryeong escaped to China. So the Security Control Centre under the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces and National Safety Agency the collaborated and dispatched a team to China.

As it turns out, the guards did not bring their weapons with them, either.  Still, if true, this story would mark another step in the decay of discipline in the state’s machinery of control.  To those who watch it carefully, North Korea just isn’t the monolith we believed it to be just a few years ago. Things are changing.

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N. Korea, dissent & desertions: as internal control tightens, border control degrades

I haven’t yet had time to read Nat Kretchun’s new report on the circulation of samizdat inside North Korea, but ReutersThe Washington Post, and Sokeel Park helpfully summarize its bleak findings: Kim Jong-un is not a Swiss-educated reformer, is not bringing Glasnost to North Korea, has turned Koryolink into a tool for hunting down dissent and dissenters, and is slowly winning the war to restore thought control. (Still unanswered is whether Syracuse University’s “engagement” program that taught Pyongyang how to do digital watermarking also helped it perfect its digital censorship.) North Koreans believe it has become more dangerous to watch foreign dramas under His Porcine Majesty’s rule. The only small bright spot is that DVDs and USBs with forbidden content continue to circulate. It will be difficult (if not impossible) to re-indoctrinate generations of disillusioned North Koreans, but highly possible for the state to isolate and repress them.

Still, it’s a profound testament to the power of hope that people would risk a slow death in a prison camp for a rare glimpse at a life worth living, and unfortunate that our own efforts to leverage that power are still in their infancy. South Korea, which knows the power of hallyu, is mulling ways to help spread information into North Korea, but again finds its efforts hobbled by the left-wing, anti-anti-North Korean politicians. One simple and powerful first step would be to extend the range of existing South Korean cell networks. A seemingly unrelated report suggests a second strategy, by highlighting the greatest vulnerability in Kim Jong-un’s control over his own population — low morale and indiscipline among the border guard force. Yes, it happened again:

The North Korean soldiers deserted their posts along the border area with China and illegally entered Changbai County in the country’s northeastern province of Jilin on Tuesday, according to the source.

“Chinese authorities notified residents to be on alert and immediately report their location if they are observed,” the source added. [Yonhap]

Although the Yonhap report doesn’t specifically say that the soldiers deserted, the fact that Chinese police are still looking for them strongly suggests that. Incidents like his have risen sharply since 2014. I’ve compiled reports about other defections, fraggings, desertions, and cross-border crimes by border guards here, and reports of similar disciplinary breakdowns within the North Korean military as a whole here (there’s plenty to read at those links if you’re interested in researching that topic further). This isn’t even the first such incident this year. In January, a border guard shot and killed seven of his comrades. Yonhap mentions just a few of those incidents in its report.

In July 2016, five runaway North Korean soldiers broke into residents’ houses in the county and committed robbery. Chinese police arrested two although two policemen suffered gunshot wounds in the process.

In December 2014, a North Korean army deserter killed four Chinese citizens in a robbery attempt in the Chinese border city of Helong, while an year earlier, a North Korean defector in his 20s killed an elderly Chinese couple in the Chinese border city of Yanji and stole 20,000 yuan (US$2,900). The North Korean defector was caught by Chinese authorities after fleeing to Beijing.

“Since the 2000s, worsening food shortages seems to be pushing North Korean soldiers into deserting their posts,” another source said. “North Korea seems to be suffering from more food shortages since massive flooding hit the country’s northeastern region in late August.” [Yonhap]

The immediate cause of all of these incidents is the fact that the soldiers aren’t being fed or paid properly. Look further behind that, and you find that the soldiers and non-commissioned officers had come to rely on bribes from smugglers to supplement their pay. Kim Jong-un’s crackdown on refugee flows, cell phones, and smuggling has forced the soldiers to rely on a commissary system that’s corrupt, inefficient, and incapable of providing for them.

So how, exactly, does this suggest a strategy? Because North Korea’s domestic economy is so barren, the Ministry of State Security and Reconnaissance General Bureau fund themselves with foreign trading companies and businesses. The same is almost certainly true of other internal security forces, including the border guard force. Targeting those funding sources with sanctions, money laundering prosecutions, forfeitures, and asset freezes would further strain the commissary system, morale, and discipline, and deny those forces the funds to buy materials, parts, and equipment like cell phone trackers. That, in turn, would widen the cracks in Pyongyang’s control over the borders and help smugglers get more DVDs, USBs, radios, cell phones, and human beings across the border.

As I’ve often argued, samizdat will not seriously threaten Kim Jong-un’s control over North Korea until North Koreans have some means of organizing with each other digitally. As I’ve also argued, those means are probably no more than a few years away if we leverage the experiments of Google, Facebook, or other innovative technologies. These strategies aren’t mutually exclusive; indeed, they can be mutually complementary. It isn’t a question of sanctions or information operations or diplomacy. It takes more than a tuba to perform a symphony. It’s all of those instruments playing at once, as long as they play the same music.

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RFA: North Korean border guard under arrest after killing seven comrades

This blog has closely followed reports of indiscipline within the North Korean military, resistance against the state, strategies for political subversion, and the breakdown of border control. Last week, another report of a mass shooting incident by a North Korean border guard reinforced my belief that morale and discipline within the border guard force are declining.

A young North Korean man conscripted to guard a customs post on his country’s border with China in (sic) under arrest for shooting dead seven platoon members who had angered him with bullying treatment, RFA’s Korean Service has learned.

After the shootings at dawn on Jan. 7 at Hyesan, a city in North Korea’s northern Yanggang province, the young conscript was arrested and taken to Pyongyang, sources familiar with the shooting told RFA.  [….]

“The incident at the Hyesan customs office was caused by the frequent beatings suffered by the new conscripts at the hands of their superiors, and the one who committed the crime is a new conscript who graduated from high school last spring,” the source told RFA on Jan. 16. [Radio Free Asia]

In this case, it was hazing that caused the soldier to snap. In other cases, it was the lack of sufficient pay and rations that led soldiers to turn to crime or fratricide. Most of those reports point to endemic corruption as the cause of fratricides and defections. Officers and NCOs skim pay and rations and either keep them or sell them for a profit. I don’t attribute this to sanctions, as I see no direct evidence of that, but if sanctions were to disrupt the regime’s pay and rationing systems, I’d expect to see more incidents like this.

I have seen it suggested that this incident could not have happened because, according to Chinese media reports, North Korean soldiers along the border aren’t issued ammunition. But there are enough similar reports that we can reject that claim and instead categorize this report as plausible but unconfirmed. Let’s start with this incident from last July, in which a group of five armed North Korean soldiers crossed the border to rob Chinese civilians and got into a “gunfight” with Chinese police. Because a gunfight isn’t likely unless both sides have both weapons and ammunition, there is evidence that in at least some cases, North Korean soldiers along the northern border have both, and aren’t always using them as directed. More here.

In March of 2015, two armed North Korean border guards fled to China. At least one of them was captured. In that incident, the Dandong border guard station warned that the soldiers “are thought to be armed with guns and knives,” but the same report also said one of the soldiers was carrying “three blank magazines.”

Between September and December 2014, several desperate North Korean border guards, denied the income that they would otherwise have earned by taking bribes from smugglers, deserted across the border into China to rob and murder several civilians. A January 2015 Bloomberg report reports that in one of these incidents, “a North Korean soldier shot four residents of Nanping, a border village of about 300 in northeastern Jilin province. Around 20 villagers have been murdered in Nanping by North Koreans in recent years, a senior local official said in an interview.” So serious was the concern about the chaos along the border that some Chinese fled their border villages, Chinese authorities formed vigilante patrols and deployed troops to the border, and North Korea fired the general in charge. (See also this and this.)

In March 2013, a border guard in Musan County, North Hamgyeong province, shot and killed five company commanders and attempted (unsuccessfully) to desert. The soldier was reportedly disgruntled because he was underfed and was caught stealing food. In April 2012, Chinese and North Korean authorities launched a manhunt for two border guards who shot and killed about half a dozen of their colleagues, then fled across the border. The men are later caught and sent back to North Korea. Going back to 2010, North Korean border guards shot dead three Chinese citizens after crossing the border.

There’s also substantial evidence that soldiers along the DMZ have weapons and ammunition, and that they also periodically shoot their officers, defect, or both. A case in point would be a 2012 incident in which a soldier on guard duty at the DMZ shot and killed two officers and crossed into South Korea. I’ve cataloged most recent reports of that kind at this post.

~   ~   ~

It is obvious why these incidents are horrible. It is less obvious why they may be hopeful for those who want to avoid greater horrors — another Korean War, the continuation of North Korea’s status quo, or the loss of South Korea’s freedom and independence. As long-time readers know, I’ve long believed that North Korea’s dictators want nuclear weapons to extort South Korea into submission. They aren’t interested in bargaining their nukes away for any price, with the exception of regime survival itself. Recently, centrists like Richard Armitage, Richard Haass, and Winston Lord have also come to believe that the overthrow of the North Korean system is probably the only way to disarm Kim Jong-un. But even as calls for regime change grow, the debate about how to execute such a policy is headed nowhere good.

The most obvious idea, that of a conventional attack, cautiously pushed in this post, is the worst and most dangerous plan for Götterdämmerung. Any plan for a sudden overthrow of Kim Jong-un will trigger a “use it or lose it” mentality within the North Korean leadership and is likely to get hundreds of thousands of people killed on both sides of the DMZ. Such a plan is likely to consolidate, rather than fracture, the cohesiveness of the North Korean command system and make officers and soldiers more (not less) likely to obey orders to fire on Seoul and Uijongbu. Our current defenses are inadequate to protect against North Korea’s large volume of artillery and rockets. A conventional invasion would not only enmesh us in an occupation of a country deeply indoctrinated with xenophobia and anti-Americanism, it might draw us into a direct conflict with China or result in a de-facto redrawing of the DMZ, turning part of Korea into a Chinese puppet state or “autonomous zone.” The idea of a full-on preemptive strike is a terrible, catastrophically bad idea that should only be considered in response to (or to preempt) an imminent all-out North Korean attack, which is unlikely absent a miscalculation.

Rather, any regime change strategy must take extraordinary care to avoid cornering Kim Jong-un until such time as he distrusts the loyalty and will of his military to obey orders to fire on South Korean cities. At every stage, North Korea’s leaders must believe that there are better and less risky options than this, including negotiations.

Until then, we should redouble our efforts to break down the cohesion of the North Korean command structure by appealing to elites, commanders, and enlisted soldiers alike. We should engage with and empower North Korea’s urban and rural poor to help them build a political underground and a new civil society, independent of their government. We should reassure North Korean elites that they have a future in a reunified Korea. We should offer clemency to commanders, including those who may be guilty of serious crimes, who choose to disobey unlawful orders at the critical moment. We should propagate a simple message of “rice, peace, and freedom” to soldiers and civilians alike. And yes, we should be willing to talk to the North Korean government and explain our position, provided we give no concessions on “engagement” or sanctions until North Korea makes verifiable progress (and also, provided that we never sideline our allies in Seoul and Tokyo). Progress toward what, and how much? Fortunately, people who thought about those questions wrote them into the law, giving the President a degree of flexibility to judge Pyongyang’s sincerity.

Meanwhile, sanctions can help catalyze that process by targeting the accounts and trading companies that pay North Korea’s military and security forces, to hasten the breakdown of its command systems, and to erode those forces’ morale and cohesion.

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Kim Jong Un’s border crackdown is a case study in how trade can help isolate, starve, and terrorize the North Korean people.

Rimjingang and the Daily NK have been running a stream of bleak reports on the dramatically worsening situation along the border between China and North Korea. In the six-week period since the purge of Jang Song Thaek, North Korea has virtually sealed that border by ordering border guards to shoot would-be defectors, increasing its use of cell phone detectors, torturing and bribing people into revealing the names of others, and flooding the zone with the most insufferable petty despots the human mind can conjure — university students with authority:

“Ministry of Public Security inspection teams made up of political university students are conducting checks targeting the people; of late four families have been arrested in the Tapseong-dong district of Hyesan alone for the crime of aiding defection,” a source in northerly Yangkang Province reported to Daily NK on the 22nd. “They are in possession of the residents’ ledger from the local MPS office and are using it to conduct checks.” [….]

According to the source, the presence of the teams of political university students on the banks of the Yalu River alongside MPS agents and border guards have made it such that any person deemed dubious in any way, as well as families moving as a unit, are being treated as targets. An imprudent glance across the river into China or walking along the levees above the river is also enough to attract unwanted attention. [….]

“The atmosphere along the border itself is really intense. You can see people being taken in or questioned by the inspection teams all the time,” she concluded. [Daily NK]

Rimjingang calls them “censorship units,” but its report is from the same city, and it’s clearly talking about the same people:

We have received information that large scale crackdowns by the state are taking place in the northern city of Hyesan, which shares a border with Jilin Province of China. These crackdowns are being carried out by the massive “Censorship Unit”(???) dispatched from Pyongyang. [….]

“At the beginning of the year, in Hyesin-dong, there was a case where the border guard fired on two women attempting to cross the river and defect into China. No one died in the event, but one woman was captured while other managed to reach the Chinese side. She escaped after she reached the riverbank, getting into a car which appeared to have been arranged beforehand.” [….]

Guards are known to fire at suspected defectors as long as these people are on the North Korean side. Once they start to cross the river, however, guards refrain from discharging their weapons. [Rimjingang]

The old and reliable patterns of corruption that had prized open the border and ended the Great Famine are breaking down. Border guards have been terrorized into shooting the people they collected bribes from a few months ago. Defectors and smugglers are being terrorized away from their survival strategies of last resort.

“Security has been beefed up and the locals are all on edge. Above all, stricter punishment for guards and brokers who aid defectors has led to an increase in the number of betrayals. People are losing money, and occasionally their lives; they are seeing their hopes and dreams disappear.”

Moreover, “When frequent border-crossers or traders get caught, they’re released as long as they pay the right bribe. But this doesn’t work for border guards who help people defect. There are guards facing punishment after smugglers they previously helped ratted them out.” [….]

“Would-be defectors are being arrested after being betrayed by the guards they sought help from. These people are hauled straight to the State Security Department and are beaten and tortured harshly.” [Daily NK]

As a result, “[i]t is simply a matter of time before those operating along the river are caught. It might be a year; it might be two. But they will eventually get caught,” interrogated, and if contradicted by other suspects, sent to a camp.

North Korea is sending the families of defectors to remote internment camps near the border with China. A source on Wednesday said the State Security Department has set a target of exiling all families of defectors to collective villages before April 15 and has started executing the plan. The measure apparently targets only family members of North Koreans who defected after leader Kim Jong-un came to power in 2012. [….]

The camps are in mountainous areas where temperatures dip to -20 degrees Celsius in winter. [Chosun Ilbo]

Border-crossing often relies on the use of illegal cell phones to arrange meetings and pick-ups of goods and people. That has also become much harder:

A source from North Hamkyung told Daily NK on the 23rd, “Supplementary mobile phone jamming gear recently arrived in Musan, Hoeryeong and Onsung.  As a result, people are reluctant to use Chinese mobile phones.  The equipment used to be carried around in security service vehicles or just in backpacks carried by agents.  Everyone knew that as long as they avoided these it was possible to make calls. Now, however, unfamiliar agents from other areas are using the equipment.” [Daily NK]

Agents are being promised promotions for discovering illegal phones. The only bright spot in this bleak picture is that North Koreans have found a way to evade detection by using Chinese international calling cards. Why a call made with a calling card is undetectable is beyond me. If you know, kindly drop a comment.

As you read this, remember that the Great Famine ended when North Koreans learned to survive by trading, and that much of North Korea’s nascent market economy depends on illegal or quasi-legal cross-border trade. If the regime succeeds in re-sealing the border, many North Koreans will lose their livelihoods, and many more will lose a key source of food they buy in the markets. Vulnerable people across North Korea could starve this spring, after winter stocks are depleted, and we may not find out about that until it’s too late.

~  ~  ~

These control measures cost money. It costs money to pay border guards, to build and maintain prison camps, to recruit and transport the petty despots to and from their political colleges, to pay bonuses and promotions to guards and snitches, and most likely, to buy that cell phone detection equipment from Chinese or European suppliers (who ought to be sanctioned into extinction).

We’ve all read a lot of trite, self-serving, or dishonest arguments that trade with the North Korean regime liberalizes its system, while sanctions contribute to North Koreans’ hunger or inhibit the flow of liberalizing foreign influences. We’ve been hearing that argument for well over a decade, and its proponents have very little to show for it. But in a very real way, these new reports suggest that the opposite may be much closer to the truth — the regime uses the money and goods it obtains through trade to enforce the hunger and isolation of its people.

We don’t know where the regime got the money to pay for this crackdown, of course. This is the world’s most financially opaque government, and those who trade with North Korea have to be willing to overlook that. Ultimately, however, all of the hard currency that underpins its economy; pays for finished goods, materials, and spare parts; props up its currency (such as that is); and pays for rations comes from foreign trade. Trade with the regime fills the regime’s pockets, and the regime isn’t trickling that wealth down to feed the hungry. It uses that money to enforce the very hunger and isolation that engagement advocates say trade is breaking down.

North Koreans have never known freedom, but at moments, they’ve known the next best thing: anarchy. Foreign influences are changing North Korea, but change isn’t driven by approved exchange programs involving hand-picked regime loyalists (or spies), or by tightly contained exclaves like Kaesong or Rajin. It’s being driven by the cross-border flow of consumer goods, DVDs, radios, and human beings — trade that the regime doesn’t control. That’s why the regime is desperate to re-seal the border. Somehow, it has found the resources to do just that. The consequence is that those flows have been staunched. Trade with the regime enables this isolation. The aggressive enforcement of sanctions, on the other hand, would deny the regime the means to pay border guards, to buy cell phone trackers, and to enforce the isolation of the North Korean people.

Update: More on this, here and here.


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Border Guard Fragging Incident

I’m not sure how I missed this one, but the Daily NK reports that two North Korean border guards shot roughly half a dozen of their colleagues, crossed the border, and went up to the hills to hide. The Chinese caught them and repatriated them back to North Korea, where they’re enduring the sort of treatment I wouldn’t even want to imagine, if they’re still alive. (Hat tip.)

This isn’t the first example of defections we’ve seen at the North’s northern or southern borders, and I have to wonder how many more incidents like this we don’t hear about because they happen in North Korea’s interior, where the news can’t get out.

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North Korea Cracks Down on Border Crossings Again

Open News reports that North Korea’s latest crackdown on border-crossing has made it difficult to get out of the country for any price:

Around the mid-1990s when North Korean defectors first emerged, the fee for crossing the river was 300-500 Yuan, about 50,000-80,000 Korean Won. The fee for crossing the river continued to rise as more and more North Koreans were escaping. In early 2009, the fee was 5,000-6,000 Yuan (800,000-1 million won), which is a 10-fold increase compared to the mid-1990s. This fee also increased to 10,00 Yuan, which is around 1,660,000 Won after the second nuclear testing and the launch of a rocket on May 5, 2009.

The fee for crossing the river is rising again with the internal control in North Korea rising. With stricter control, some North Koreans have a difficult time finding border guards who are willing to help them even with lots of money.

A North Korean defector, Mr. S (30 years old) stated that even though the average fee for crossing the river is 3-4 million Won, it is at times difficult to find guards to help them for even 10 million Won. He also stated that there was an order to shoot whoever crosses the Tumen River. Guards make a lot of money with helping 3-4 groups who cross rivers, and since some have been working for 10 years, there are guards who have made enough and do not have any incentive to help defectors anymore.

I wish I knew if this was the result of temporary measures timed with Kim Jong Il’s visit or a real shift of the regime’s assets designed to close the border. If the latter, and if I’m correct in guessing that a substantial percentage of the food in the markets is smuggled in, it could have a serious effect on the country’s food supply.

And of course, you can’t get to the border at all without a travel pass. Yet people find ways to get them:

Obtaining a travel document takes a week, and entry into Pyongyang and other special areas is impossible without relatives or friends. For instance, entry into the Rajin-Sunbong area is managed by the National Security Agency, and the procedure is extremely strict.

Restrictions on issuing permits as well as tough security are used in order to exercise control. Every province has a #10 security point (Note 1), which is managed by the military section designated for security. Pyongyang #10 security office is restricted by the highest level of the security section. Security around Rajin-Sunbong area is tight – barbed wire with 3,300 V.

However, citizens have been moving around despite all those restrictions with the help of bribes. Foreign cigarettes or food can be given to safety agents on trains. Some women offer their bodies to get on trains.

Those who manage to get out of North Korea and through China will also face closer scrutiny inside South Korea, to make sure they’re not North Korean spies on, say, assassination missions.

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Chosun Ilbo: North Korean guards beat Robert Park “to within an inch of his life.”

robert-park.jpgOur worst fears for Robert Park and his mission are being realized:

Sources say Robert Park, an ethnic Korean, told them he is an American citizen and came to call for human rights improvements and to urge leader Kim Jong-il “to repent.” In response, the guards beat him to within an inch of his life. Even remaining silent while another person denounces the leader or the system is a punishable offence in North Korea, so the guards were unlikely to react with equanimity in such an uncompromising climate.

The guards then checked Park’s passport and reported the event to the provincial office of the State Safety and Security Agency, who relayed it to headquarters. Officers from headquarters arrived within three days and took Park to Pyongyang.

They merely rebuked the guards for being over-zealous in their beating of Park. “I heard from soldiers that he was beaten so severely that he will need several months to recover,” said a Hoeryong resident who recently fled to China. [Chosun Ilbo]

The brutality of the guards is shocking, even somewhat surprising, even for North Korea. Ordinarily, one might expect North Korean military personnel to be disciplined and well trained on how to deal with foreigners. If this report is true, it is just a small example of how this system inculcates its subjects to brutalize each other, and with contempt for the civilized world. It is also a sad illustration of why non-violence will not change North Korea. Courage is not enough to resist and abolish this evil. The people cannot resist it with their bare hands.

There is also confirmation that Park won’t suffer alone for his choices. From the moment Robert Park crossed the Tumen River on Christmas, I knew that however good Park’s intentions, his mission was doomed to do more harm to others than good. Now, we have evidence that that is in fact so:

A North Korean defector with South Korean citizenship identified only as Kim has been arrested in China for helping an evangelical activist cross into North Korea in an eye-catching stunt to call for human rights there.

“We’ve confirmed through various channels that Kim, who was staying at a hideout in Yanji, Jilin Province, was arrested by Chinese police last Friday,” Kim Sung-min, the head of defector-run station Free North Korea Radio, said Sunday,

Kim was reportedly arrested in possession of video footage of Robert Park’s Christmas Eve crossing of the frozen Duman (or Tumen) River, which marks China’s border with the North. [Chosun Ilbo]

Kim Sung-min, head of the Seoul-based Radio Free North Korea, told Yonhap News Agency that a person identified only by his family name of Kim was arrested Friday by Chinese police at his hiding place in the city of Yanji. [Yonhap]

I doubt we’ve seen the last of the ill effects of what Robert Park has done. One wonders what names and places this defector will now reveal to his Chinese or North Korean interrogators, or what safe houses will have to be abandoned for fear that they’ve been compromised. How many refugees could this man who was arrested have led to safety? How much food could he have helped smuggle in? We have not yet touched on the question of ransom. Park was sincere when he said that he didn’t want his government to ransom him out and help legitimize or perpetuate the very evils he wanted to protest. But when a citizen of the United States is held in unjust captivity in a foreign country, his government is obligated to help him. Park doesn’t have the power to waive that duty.

Like many of you here, my friend Claudia Rosett differs, respectfully, with my views when she writes:

It is now almost three weeks since Park vanished into the shadows of North Korea. As he expected, he was seized by North Korean authorities. Among advocates of human rights for North Korea, his extraordinary act has sparked a debate over whether he was brave, foolish or crazy, and whether there can be any good reason for a man to walk deliberately into the blood-stained grip of Kim Jong-il’s regime.

But Park made his aims and requests quite clear. Before he crossed that frozen river, he gave an interview to Reuters, asking that it be held until he was in North Korea. In that interview, which Reuters released shortly after he had crossed over, Park spelled out “I do not want to be released. I don’t want President Obama to come and pay to get me out. What he wanted, he said, is for “the North Korean people to be free. Until the concentration camps are liberated, I do not want to come out. If I have to die with them, I will.

Those were not words of madness, but of passion for good over evil. Park knew what he was walking into. [Claudia Rosett, Forbes]

Rosett’s criticism rings particularly true when she strikes at the complete failure of international institutions to address any of the evils going on in North Korea:

Where in global officialdom has there been serious will and a true campaign to end these horrors? American soldiers are willing to fight and die for freedom, but not since the halt of the Korean War in 1953 have America and its allies actually done battle to try to rid the Korean peninsula of the North’s totalitarian regime. Neither has any international bureaucracy found the methods or backbone to force the Pyongyang regime to open its prisons or free its people. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, for instance, runs a comfortable, well guarded office in Beijing, where in keeping with the wishes of China’s government, the UNHCR politely refrains from offering haven to desperate and hunted North Korean refugees. The International Committee of the Red Cross pays court to Kim, in order to have access to some parts of his domain. But if any ICRC delegates have visited Kim’s gulag, they have not managed to leak the memo.

Robert Park, “American citizen,” looked into that heart of darkness, and walked toward it, calling for life and freedom for the 23 million people of North Korea ““ a message filled with the passions that are the soul of America itself.

Indeed, it is long past time to treat the institute led by Ban Ki Moon as irrelevant. Extraordinary means will be necessary to address this. But Park’s methods aren’t the ones that are going to effect change. There is much in what Ms. Rosett says that I agree with. There may be much that you disagree with, though I ask that if you express that, please be nice. I’m invited to her house this week.

None of this changes the fact that Robert Park is guilty of no crime and was unjustly beaten and imprisoned by a regime so brutal and intolerant that it would do so for no greater “crime” than the peaceful submission of a petition to its tyrant. The regime’s brutality toward Robert Park is just one more injustice added to many. I had hoped that the North Koreans would simply turn Park around at the border, but that didn’t happen, and it worries me what Robert Park, a man who meant the best for others, is now enduring. And as much as I worry about Park, I worry even more about those endangered by his actions.

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Murder, Plain and Simple: North Korean Snipers Killing Refugees Along the Chinese Border

[Updated below with photographs; Digg it here.]

Helping Hands Korea, one of the most intrepid and trustworthy organizations that assists North Korean refugees escape from their repressive, famine-plagued homeland, has written to me with a detailed account of how the North Korean and Chinese militaries have joined forces to prevent North Koreans from escaping their homeland, one where large numbers are people are now starving to death once again because the government won’t feed them and won’t let them fend for themselves.

The most chilling detail: Helping Hands has spotted North Korean snipers stationed in various vantage points along its border with China, ruled by a nominally friendly regime. One Helping Hands member, a U.S. military veteran, has identified the sniper rifles as Soviet-designed Dragunov SVD’s. Helping Hands believes that the North Korean soldiers are under orders to shoot and kill border crossers, most of whom are either refugees or people trying to smuggle goods (increasingly food) into North Korea. Helping Hands has promised to send me photographs of one or more North Korean soldiers carrying Dragunovs. I have also asked him to obtain photographs of the dead bodies of refugees, which he reports can be seen along the banks of the Tumen River.

I am publishing Helping Hands’s complete account here, with no edits, but with a few explanatory notes in brackets:

1. The clear consensus of opinions gathered from field volunteers, as well as my own eyewitness accounts, is that the OG08 [OFK: OG08=”Olympic Games 2008″] has had a clear impact on the daunting challenges currently facing the NKRs [North Korean refugees]. Although I will not be able to develop the topics I’m mentioning here, the information gathered is reliable from trusted veterans.

(a) Border patrols on both sides of the Tumen and Yalu Rivers are being beefed up: more guards and shorter distances between them.

(b) Credible reports of “shoot-on-sight” order given to NK border patrol re: NKRs trying to cross the border illegally. One activist reported that snipers are now being posted at elevated positions above the river, giving them a wider view and a longer time to train their scopes on fleeing NKRs. This same activist reported finding several NKRs floating in the Tumen River with telltale small bullet holes in one side of the body at the entry point, and a much larger hole at the bullet’s exit. Even in the five days I stayed near the river, I saw ample evidence of high-powered searchlights at night on the NK side and was later informed by local CN [Chinese national] residents that the searchlights are used to detect NKRs seeking to approach the river under the cover of darkness.

(c) Another side of the crossing situation–deeply imbedded (& worsening) corruption of NK border guards, who will let certain NK citizens cross to CN upon agreement that when they return, a certain amount of money will be given to the guards (usually Y1,000 or about USD$150). It must be added that there is also evidence that Pyongyang is desperately attempting to root out this corruption, and frequent rotation of border guards may be one of the main instruments to stem this tide of bribe-taking. As usual, the bribe-taking and crackdowns on this behavior follows a cyclical pattern.

(d) Deeply troubling and very recent report of a forced abortion carried out on a repatriated female NKR by a NK government physician in a border patrol facility.

(e) Widespread house-to-house checks by CN police in border areas to ferret out NKRs in CN households as of the past few months.

(f) The work of volunteers has been hindered by an extreme tightening of hotel and guesthouse (H/G) registration requirements. It used to be that if a foreigner was traveling with a local volunteer to a border region, that registration at a H/G could be done just with the name of the local, thereby shielding the foreigner from undue exposure. As of the last few months, rules are strictly enforced that the passport of each traveler must be registered with the H/G, and this data processing is directly accessible by the local police office. In a similar vein, I was startled to be denied use of Internet café’s this time in China, as entry could only be gained by showing a Chinese national ID card. I’d never encountered this restriction in the last 12 years!

(g) Police officials in CN/NK border regions are authorized to use substantial bribes to the local ethnic Korean-Chinese population to reveal the whereabouts of NKRs hiding in their neighborhoods. These bribes have reportedly been increased in recent months. These bribes are especially pernicious as they are designed to undermine the very sympathy that the ethnic Korean Chinese population naturally has for their NKR cousins from across the river. Bribes are also offered in larger sums to inform on any local resident or foreigner who might be helping the NKRs in CN.

2. It’s really quite impossible to ascertain how many are crossing secretly along a two-river border that stretches many hundreds of miles between CN & NK. However, due to the rapidly worsening food situation inside NK (much exacerbated by a recent embargo by the CN government of grain exports due to the global food crisis, the more strict regulation of food aid by the new South .Korean government, declining distribution worldwide by the WFP, etc.), the so-called “push factors” on NK citizens to take these chances to cross are growing. Widespread reports at the border area confirm that food shortages are now critical in the central part of the country and that news of death from malnutrition is becoming more widespread, always with comparisons to the severity of food shortages in the mid-1990’s. A kilo of rice in 2006 was roughly NKWon 1,000, in 2007 it rose to 1,400, now in 2008 the price has skyrocketed to about NKWon 2,600 (more than one month’s salary of a normal worker!) It is also reported that a growing number black marketers inside NK are deliberately withholding the rice to further escalate the price, a particularly pernicious practice in time of famine. A very credible report from someone who travels frequently inside NK and is able to talk with some residents, revealed that from early 2008, Kim Jong Il decreed that for every man, woman and child, .2 hectares of land are to be cultivated in either soybeans or potatoes, both of which are uniquely suited for transport. The decree goes on to say that 90% of the harvests from these hectares are to be sent to Pyongyang for the good of the Revolution and the Party. Some sources inside NK claim that food being sent to the capital is being stockpiled in order to be traded for oil.

This said, however, and despite these growing push factors, the combined tightening on both side of the Tumen & Yalu rivers has resulted in some reduction in the successful crossings of the NKRs into CN. It is very clear that Beijing has put a high priority on keeping the NKRs out of its country while it’s on the world stage. Again, it’s very difficult to put a numeric characterization of this reduction. The bottom line is this: it’s currently harder to cross the Tumen and Yalu Rivers, and it’s harder to survive on the Chinese side. It’s too early to tell if this is a temporary condition, whether the border regime will relax after the OG08.

The best estimate I’ve heard from experts right on the border is that roughly 30% of the NKRs are caught by the CN and sent back at present. One recent and reliable report indicated that the gruesome practice of forced abortions on some pregnant NKR females who are repatriated is still in use. How widespread I do not know. A testimony heard on 5/12/08 regarding a NKR mother of two small children (ages 6 & 7) was repatriated to NK the previous day without her children, i.e. the authorities paid no heed to the mother-children relationship and callously repatriated the mother only. The activist said that this indicated a new level of hardening of the CN position in such cases. As we passed the Tumen Detention Center, one knowledgeable resident who was driving the vehicle stated that the there are currently 600 NKRs being held by Chinese authorities in that one detention center alone. They are repatriated systematically once a month, according to this well-placed source.

As for punishment inside NK, one very reliable source stated that there are a number of indications that punishments on repatriated NKRs for leaving NK without permission are getting heavier these days. One could easily speculate that CN may be providing incentives to the NK government for doing so, to assist Beijing in its quest for a ‘harmonious’ ) G08, but I do not have proof of this.

Moreover, the previous and relatively widespread practice of bribing prison officials and using ‘inside connections’ to get some NKRs out (usually by their family members) of severe punishment is being systematically eliminated. This would seem an obvious attempt to deter people from leaving NK when it becomes clear that any loopholes used to escape punishment are being systematically removed. I don’t have details on systematic changes within the prison camp system, etc. But I was told that some repatriated NKRs in the NK town of Hoeryong are being forced to walk up to 40 km. to a worksite and the same distance back in a work camp, as part of their punishment for fleeing their homeland. How widespread such a practice is would be hard to ascertain.

[E-mail message from Helping Hands Korea to OFK, 23 May 08]

The United Nations and its cowardly South Korean General Secretary have done nothing for the people of North Korea. The Human Rights Industry says next to nothing for them. The Bush Administration has betrayed them. By default of inaction, non-violence has been eliminated as an option. We cannot even give them food without the regime stealing it from them. The North Korean people cannot survive unless the regime is destroyed. To survive, they need guns and the courage to use them. Is there any humanitarian assistance but guns and ammunition that we can give to the North Korean people?

Update: Helping Hands sends these three photographs of North Korean troops patrolling the border area with dogs. The rifles, however, are not Dragunovs; they appear to be standard wooden-stock AK’s. The pictures appear to have been taken several months ago, before the famine really hit. The border is easier to cross when the rivers are frozen over.

Click the thumbnails to see the full-size images.

dscf0050.jpg dscf0048.jpg dscf0052.jpg

Helping Hands has told me that it has better photos, and I hope I’ll get a chance to publish them.

Update 2: The Korea Times picks up the story.

Afterthought: I wonder if Charles J. Hanley would consider this newsworthy. Place your bets….

Update 3: UPI, on the other hand, isn’t so big on attribution; instead, they attributed the story to the Korea Times reporter, who actually did have enough class to attribute OFK (and from what I’m told, made Page One, so congrats to Michael Ha of the Korea Times). It’s probably petty of me to really care about this; after all, it’s the brave people in Helping Hands who are actually gathering the information and taking the risks to do it. Still, after the Voice of America horked my story through a remarkably unlikely coincidence, reported on North Korea’s undergound airfield just one day after I put up this post, this sort of crap is starting to wear thin. I do this stuff on my own time and at my own expense, and I’ll never see dime one of it again. I don’t have a personal or financial interest here other than to be able to bring more attention to this and other newsworthy things that the media pay insufficient attention to. Is a little attribution and a link too much to ask? Evidently. @#$%^! UPI thieves ….

If any of this causes you to feel any sympathy — for the poor refugees, that is, not me — then please help bring some attention to their predicament by digging this post.

Update 4: The Joongang Ilbo is also reporting it.

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North Korea Is Losing Control of Its Border

[Update: Someone “Dugg” this post –thanks — and it’s climbing fast. The digg permlink is here. Page one of “Digg” gets far more attention than just about anything out there, so your diggs are greatly appreciated and are a great way to spread the word. Thank you.]

Last week, North Korea announced that several “spies,” possibly including a foreign national, had been caught.  The Daily NK informs us that North Korea’s National Security has claimed credit for the arrests.  The news site speculates about the identity of those arrested and prints an interesting backgrounder on  the National Security Agency, which is also responsible for the horrific conditions in North Korea’s concentration camps.

If the report is true, rather than a fictionalized account meant to whip up popular vigilance against foreign enemies, some brave people may have risked all and lost.   We can be fairly certain of what their fate will be:

[9:59, From CNN’s “Undercover in the Secret State”]

Recently, North Korea has taken to executing people in public. Having accepted that it is no longer loved, the regime now aspires only to be feared. The execution you just saw happened in March 2005. Three people were shot for making contact with the outside world, most likely missionaries or defection brokers.

It would be especially sad if those arrested were part of the nascent resistance network that  brings us  its remarkable  “guerrilla camera” footage, such as this footage of Camp 15,  the concentration camp  at Yodok.


In the escalating clandestine war between the regime and those who would subvert the lies on which its survival depends, however,  the regime seems to be losing the wider war.  Nowhere is the erosion of the regime’s  control more consequential than the losing battle to control its borders. 

The Daily NK  now brings us dramatic evidence of just how deep the regime’s troubles really are, in the form of  a video of North Korean border guards smuggling across the Yalu River.   The man you see here crosses the river on an inner tube, where he is greeted by a uniformed border guard and hands the guard a bag the size of a potato sack.  All of this happens in broad daylight.  You can hear the sound of horns honking, presumably on the Chinese side of the river.  Slow to load, but still a must-see.


I’ve previously posted about low morale and indiscipline among North Korean border guards, including a recent mass desertion. Corruption is reportedly rife among the poorly paid border guards, but for the regime, the most unforgiveable offense was the appearance of two of the deserters in an interview for a Japanese television station. For the right price, it seems that you can get just about anything  into North Korea, which opens up more subversive possibilities than I  care to list here.   A few years ago, finding a way through Kim Jong Il’s information blockade  would have required some extraordinarily (any maybe excessively) creative thinking.  Today, ordinary means seem sufficient  to reach people in  most areas of the country, though not with large quantities of food or other supplies.   

How much good will an expensive new border  fence do if those who should be guarding it are looking for ways under, over, and around it?   Probably not much.  If the guards are on the take,  the cost of building  that  fence would be just one more  small cut that bleeds the regime white.  If every citizen, train, and truck is a potential carrier of subversion, the regime will be forced  to spend more of its limited resources on internal control until the cost of stemming the  spreading discontent breaks it. 

Unless the next South Korean government continues Roh Moo Hyun’s geometric escalation of inter-governmental aid, the erosion of the system’s capacity to sustain itself will accelerate.  Indeed, Roh’s election  may well have  that  delayed Kim Jong Il’s Ceaucescu Moment for several years.  The cost in human life of delaying that moment may be incalculable. 

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‘Organized’ Groups Attack N. Korean Border Posts

[Post moved up]

Did I just feel the earth twitch?

Unidentified armed men carried out a series of attacks on North Korean border guards along the country’s border with China right before the lunar New Year, according to North Korean sources. The sources also claimed that some of the unidentified armed men who conducted the attacks carried firearms and showed signs of organized movement, which has piqued curiosity as to their identity.

You may recall that in December (at the Freedom House Conference, no doubt to the chagrin of a few) some very disgruntled ex-North Korean special forces promised to attack North Korean border posts. Here’s what they said at the time:

Lim Chun Young, who served 14 years in one of the North Korean military’s special warfare units before defecting to the South in 2000, said that former soldiers are best suited to end leader Kim Jong Il’s regime and improve human rights conditions.

“We will try to bring about regime change unless North Korea abolishes its slaughterhouse-like political prison camps and unleashes the freedom of its people who are chained to the country’s system,” Lim said at the news conference.

“This is not word play, but a last warning ahead of action,” Lim said. In a press release, the group said it plans to forge links with the North Korean military. Lim said the group planned to carry out “direct activities” in relation to North Korean border guards, though he provided no details. Wednesday’s news conference was attended by eight other former soldiers. Lim said his group includes some 53 ex-soldiers from the special units.

At the time, I said this:

Is this for real? I suspect, given the media savvy of North Korean dissident groups, that we’ll soon see video if it is.

Today, the Donga Ilbo reports that someone has indeed attacked several border posts adjacent to China, and that the attacks appear to be both organized and coordinated, if not always completely successful. In one case, a North Korean border guard tried to stop some men from crossing. Because the guard’s buddy was off drinking Victory Soju, the effort cost the guard his life, but not before he raised enough ruckus to scatter the attackers. They left a few items on the field:

Three disassembled rifles, ammunition, a camcorder, and a cell phone were found inside the abandoned bags, North Korean sources claim. Specific details such as the types of rifles are unknown.

Bandits with just one camcorder? In another case, however, the attack was more deliberate:

At around the same time, in Hoiryong City, 40km away from the above incident, several unidentified men crossed the Duman River, fired their weapons at a North Korean border guard post, and returned to China. It is reported that North Korean border troops did not return fire.

That’s not all. The Donga story mentions a spate of attacks in the northern regions and along the border. And the word (and I venture to say, hope) is spreading inside North Korea:

Inside North Korea, rumors that the attacks were launched by defectors who went to South Korea are already spreading. Some claim that they were launched by defectors unable to live well in South Korea. Other rumors claim the attacks are the work of forces trying to strain North Korea-China relations after Chairman Kim Jong Il’s visit to China.

Is this the beginning of the North Korean revolution? The report’s sources are obviously murky. No one has claimed responsibility. Nothing but circumstantial evidence and the Donga’s speculation indicates that this attack is politically motivated. The Donga, however, probably missed the story I linked in my December 12th post. Someone with a political motive did warn that this attack–or some attack–was coming, and the North Koreans appear to be treating it that way. The circumstances fit.

Banditry? It was my first choice, mainly because I want this to be an act of resistance, and I tend to guess more accurately when I break ties against my wishes. Yet it doesn’t make complete sense. Any rational bandit would bribe a border guard or sneak past a border guard before attacking a border post, much less several. A bandit stands to lose the considerable benefits of official laxity and inattention by confronting the government’s guns.

I’m tempted at this point to launch into full screed mode, but I’m not yet fully convinced of what’s going on here. For now, this is just a story that merits very careful watching. If confirmed, however, it could be the most important North Korea story since 1953.

ht DPRK Studies.

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The North Korean Revolution: Coming Soon to a Border Post Near You

I’ve been expecting to hear of the formation of armed anti-government resistance groups in North Korea for some time, so it doesn’t come as a great surprise to me that some of North Korea’s vaunted Special Forces troops are now threatening to turn their guns against their former masters:

Nine former North Korean special forces soldiers who defected to the South vowed Wednesday to push for regime change in their communist homeland unless it abolishes political prison camps and improves human rights.

The Association of Free North Korean Soldiers made the pledge at a press conference a day before South Korean, U.S. and other officials and activists open a high-profile international conference on human rights abuses in the North.

Is this for real? I suspect, given the media savvy of North Korean dissident groups, that we’ll soon see video if it is. If so, it will go down as the most historic even of this week’s conference. The people of North Korea have no peaceful options of ensuring their own survival in the face of a man-made famine that has already killed millions, and which threatens an imminent return. I think Thomas Jefferson put it best:

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, . . . [t]hat whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.

These North Koreans, some of them ex-Special Forces, are perfectly trained for guerrilla warfare. Global Security adds:

The north Korean government considers guerrilla warfare a necessary component of the revolutionary struggle. Guerrilla warfare is considered to be both a form of warfare and a continuation of defined political goals. Depending on the origin of these groups and their missions, the guerrillas are organized into units ranging in size from less than a platoon all the way up to a regiment. Conventional units may form guerrilla units, using soldiers from their unit, for a limited time. These units are used to establish and aid local guerrilla forces, conducting long-range reconnaissance, and conducting special operations in support of the parent unit. After completing the mission, the soldiers return to their original duty. These soldiers are also used to convert dispersed and defeated conventional units into long-range guerrilla units. Enemy rebel groups are recruited into the guerrilla force by disrupting them with propaganda and coercion. Also, former prisoners are often politically indoctrinated into guerrilla units.

These guys say they’re serious.

Lim Chun Young, who served 14 years in one of the North Korean military’s special warfare units before defecting to the South in 2000, said that former soldiers are best suited to end leader Kim Jong Il’s regime and improve human rights conditions.

“We will try to bring about regime change unless North Korea abolishes its slaughterhouse-like political prison camps and unleashes the freedom of its people who are chained to the country’s system,” Lim said at the news conference.

“This is not word play, but a last warning ahead of action,” Lim said.

In a press release, the group said it plans to forge links with the North Korean military. Lim said the group planned to carry out “direct activities” in relation to North Korean border guards, though he provided no details.

Wednesday’s news conference was attended by eight other former soldiers. Lim said his group includes some 53 ex-soldiers from the special units.

What is particularly interesting is that these soldiers were speaking in the same venue as the U.S. ambassador, and just one day before. I wonder how this one managed to squeak through the State Department minders.

ht: The Kommentariat

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Pompeo, Malinowski, and The Change That Dare Not Speak Its Name

The failure of “engaging” North Korea into reform and peace, the madness of war, and the impossibility of coexisting with a nuclear North Korea are, however belatedly, causing more Americans to do some hard thinking about hastening our progression toward the post-Kim Jong-Un era. Last week, CIA Director Mike Pompeo (who speaks to the President about North Korea frequently) caused a stir in Washington and apoplexy in Pyongyang when he made comments at the Aspen Security Forum that hinted at this.

He continued, “So from the administration’s perspective, the most important thing we can do is separate those two. Right? Separate capacity and someone who might well have intent and break those two apart.”

Pompeo said both the intelligence community and the Department of Defense have been tasked with drafting plans for what “ultimately needs to be achieved” with regard to the North Korean nuclear threat.

When asked if he meant he was advocating regime change, Pompeo denied that was necessarily what he was talking about but seemed to suggest advocating Kim’s ouster. He said he believed the US could tackle “every piece” of the North Korean threat.

“As for the regime, I am hopeful we will find a way to separate that regime from this system,” Pompeo said. “The North Korean people I’m sure are lovely people and would love to see him go.”

During the question and answer portion of the event, Pompeo clarified he did not view Kim’s ouster as an “unadulterated good” for the US, and pointing to the unknown consequences, Pompeo asked, “What’s behind door number three?”

He went on to clarify that this was not an immediate task underway “to make happen tomorrow,” and said the challenge was to convince other nations on the issue. [CNN]

I’ve never made a secret of my desire to see the regime in Pyongyang altered or abolished, but I’ve never been fond of the term “regime change” in the North Korean context, either. When most people hear that term, they think of something I adamantly oppose — an invasion or a military attack. But as I’ve argued before, everyone but the most ardent North Korea apologists supports some plan to change this regime. Advocates of Sunshine and “engagement” policies were really selling a plan for gradual regime change — albeit one whose fatal flaw was its reliance on the cooperation of a regime determined to resist change at all costs, and that consequently took precautions to ensure that it would never happen. On the other extreme is the growing talk of changing the regime by force, which is just that, for now — talk, and talk that scares our friends more than it scares our enemies. 

Pompeo, by contrast, seems to be hinting at enabling internal opposition in North Korea, which is the kind of talk that makes Foreign Ministry officials in Pyongyang lose their shit.

“Should the U.S. dare to show even the slightest sign of attempt to remove our supreme leadership, we will strike a merciless blow at the heart of the U.S. with our powerful nuclear hammer, honed and hardened over time,” the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said, quoting a spokesman of the North Korean foreign ministry.

The report said Pompeo’s remarks “have gone over the line, and it has now become clear that the ultimate aim of the Trump administration … is the regime change.”

Those remarks display Pompeo’s “illiteracy about the DPRK and an explicit illustration of incompetence of the U.S. intelligence community,” the report also said, calling the country by the acronym of its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“If the supreme dignity of the DPRK is threatened, (North Korea) must preemptively annihilate those countries and entities that are directly or indirectly involved in it by mobilizing all kinds of strike means including the nuclear ones,” according to the KCNA.

“The likes of Pompeo will bitterly experience the catastrophic and miserable consequences caused by having dared to shake their little fists at the supreme leadership,” it said, referring to the country’s leader Kim Jong-un. [Yonhap]

Attention, Director Pompeo: this is how Pyongyang reacts when you’ve just said the very thing it fears more than it fears anything else. Just in case that knowledge might be useful to you in some way.

Pompeo’s statement is at variance with previous statements by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the U.S. (in CNN’s phasing) “was against forcing Kim out of power or the collapse of his government.” It also signals U.S. ambivalence about South Korean President Moon Jae-In’s ardent opposition to “regime change,” making this just the latest indication that Moon’s summit with Trump avoided disaster but ultimately bridged few real differences on THAAD, on USFK cost sharing, trade, or North Korea policy.

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In case you wondered if Pompeo was the lone person in our government who was receptive to doing more than wishing for the revolution that North Korea desperately needs, Tom Malinowski, who served as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor during the Obama administration, has offered much more specific thoughts in an interesting op-ed in Politico. Malinowski became the one Obama administration official I liked and admired more than any other, despite my criticism of the broader reticence and incoherence of the administration’s North Korea policy. Behind the scenes, Malinowski fought to keep human rights on the administration’s North Korea policy agenda, and did it skillfully and effectively. Let’s start our discussion of Malinowski’s proposal with this interesting confirmation of one of the best things the Obama administration did:

At the State Department, I oversaw the U.S. government’s efforts to get information into North Korea. We funded defector-run radio stations, which had the added benefit of training North Koreans to be journalists. We saw an increase in North Koreans watching Chinese and South Korean TV, and supported groups producing shows North Koreans would find interesting (like reality shows about the daily experiences—good and bad—of defectors in the South). We helped non-governmental organizations that send in foreign movies and TV shows through the market trade, including one group that made cross-border deliveries by drone of specific films that North Koreans requested (we used to joke that we were running a peculiar version of Netflix for North Korea). A big priority was educating North Koreans on how to protect themselves from surveillance, and staying ahead of regime efforts to turn technology against its people. Last year, for example, we learned that North Korea had updated the operating system for its cellphones so that they could read media only with a government-approved digital signature; there should be a countermeasure for this (and hopefully for whatever the regime does to counter the countermeasure). [Tom Malinowski, Politico]

I certainly hope Rex Tillerson is carrying on with this, if only because the law calls on him to do so. This is the sort of direct, people-to-people engagement we should have started doing decades ago, rather than the people-to-minder engagement that filled Pyongyang’s coffers and validated its propaganda. What’s more, the change that Malinowski contemplates is not merely evolutionary, but revolutionary.

None of this means that effective political resistance is yet possible in North Korea. Its police state remains brutal and effective. But similar totalitarian regimes—Romania under Ceausescu, Libya under Qadhafi—have appeared just as impregnable, until they were not. Unpredictable events—a local riot that police hesitate to put down, a change in the health of the leader, the execution of the wrong person, a split in the security forces—can break open hidden cracks in what seems a solid foundation. Exposure to information is a predicate for this. Without it, North Koreans could not conceive an alternative to the present regime, or any way to attain it. With it, their regime becomes just an ordinary dictatorship, vulnerable to the sudden swings of fortune that all dictatorships eventually suffer.

That day will bring its own challenges. The Kim regime cannot “evolve” in the way communist China has because, again, it presides over an artificial country. If its people gain even a bit of freedom, the first question they will ask is the one East Germans asked in 1989: Why should they stay separated by minefields and machine gun nests from a vastly wealthier and freer version of themselves? So the regime must rule as it has or lose a country to rule. [Tom Malinowski, Politico]

Malinowski acknowledges and discusses the risks this will bring. But with Pyongyang validating on a weekly basis that it isn’t interested in a negotiated disarmament, the competing risks increasingly come down to nuclear war, global WMD proliferation, surrendering South Korea, or this. That’s driving The Change That Dare Not Speak Its Name out of closets on both sides of the hallway. Still, one senses some internal discord in Malinowski’s liberal vision of North Korea’s revolution.

But knowledge—about the prosperity and freedom of their fellow Koreans south of the DMZ, and about the abnormality of their own suffering—is spreading among North Koreans. We are learning more about them, too—they are not brainwashed, “robotic” denizens of an “ant colony,” as they are so often described. They are resilient, increasingly entrepreneurial people with normal aspirations, who will some day want a say in the fate of their country.

No one can predict when and how Kim’s hold will weaken, and it would be foolish to think we can force change from the outside. So if anyone reading this has fantasies about setting up governments in exile or fomenting coups or calling for uprisings, please put them aside—that kind of talk will only get people inside North Korea killed. There are, however, forces in play within North Korea that will probably lead to the end of its regime and its reason to exist as a country. Political change in Pyongyang and the reunification of Korea, as hard as it may be to imagine, is actually much more likely than the denuclearization of the present regime. The central aim of our strategy should be to foster conditions that enable this natural, internal process to move faster, while preparing ourselves, our allies and the North Korean people for the challenges we will face when change comes. [Tom Malinowski, Politico]

It’s hard for me to see how North Koreans can challenge Pyongyang in the way Malinowski describes elsewhere in his essay and survive the experience without eventually resorting to force of arms. I really wish there was another way. Yes, much of the most important work of quietly breaking the North Korean people free of Pyongyang’s control can and should be done peacefully, by sanctioning the regime even as we help the poor build a shadow banking system and government. We should do everything Malinowski proposes and hope that it works just as he suggests it will. 

But if it doesn’t, how much further should we go? One should never resort to violence to do what can be done without violence. One should never support a greater amount of violence than is necessary to preempt something worse — say, a nuclear war, or crimes against humanity that the oxymoron sometimes called the “international community” has consistently failed to respond to. One must never support those — such as those in power in Pyongyang now — who target noncombatants or violate the laws of armed conflict. One must always leave a way open to a negotiated peace that ends the violence as quickly as possible, provided that the terms are likely to result in a real and lasting peace. And if change must come to North Korea from within, then it will only come when the North Korean people themselves are ready to demand it.

But eventually, change will come. Historically, totalitarian states have either reformed or perished, and Pyongyang is determined to resist reform, and may soon be in desperate need of other people’s money. If you can see past the disinformed reporting from Pyongyang that shows the North Korean people as automatons, there is ample evidence of discontent among the elites (over Kim Jong-Un’s purges) and the poor (over the regime’s corruption and brutality, and economic inequality). It’s fair to infer that if diplomats, elite workers, elite students, border guards, money launderers, senior officials from the security forces, and soldiers are defecting and deserting in growing numbers, many others must also be discontented. A regime that is so despised that a party member and his entire family prefer to take cyanide than be sent back there suggests the existence of profound discontent. We cannot do reliable public opinion polling in North Korea, for obvious reasons, though some have made admirable efforts to do so. Eventually, however, one must acknowledge that the plural of “anecdote” is “data.”

The day the North Korean people are given the technological means to coalesce around their grievances, the regime’s capacity to suppress dissent will be overwhelmed, the myths on which this regime built its foundations will erode, and the regime’s days will be numbered. Then, we will transition from the current crisis to the next one.

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For Beijing, a sharper choice on N. Korea: accord and prosperity, or discord and chaos

Writing in Foreign Affairs this week, Zhu Feng sketched out a vision of the thinking in Beijing from the perspective of a person more reasonable than Xi Jinping has been, so far. Zhu’s piece suggests the outlines of an agreement with Beijing to defang Kim Jong-Un and manage North Korea’s transition to peace. Alas, Zhu Feng is not in charge in Beijing, and Xi Jinping is. Suspend your paranoia that this essay is only an artifice to persuade us that Beijing will be reasonable, if only we stay our hands on secondary sanctions another year or two (years we no longer have). The piece is well worth reading in its entirety, if only for what it tells us about the thoughts of those in Beijing whose influence we should seek to weaken or strengthen, and whose fears we should seek to exploit. 

In this regard, Trump needs to understand the complexity of China’s thinking on North Korean policy. Getting China to take more responsibility on North Korea requires both a gentle and a hard push. The Trump administration has made it clear that it will not tolerate a nuclear North Korea—but Beijing has heard this before. Despite the rhetorical flourish, to the experienced Chinese diplomat, the Trump administration’s policy sounds quite a lot like those of Presidents George W. Bush and Obama: a desire to achieve denuclearization but an unwillingness for this to come at the cost of war on the peninsula. Chinese President Xi Jinping is similarly bound by the strategic logic of China’s long-standing approach to its petulant neighbor—avoiding the dangers and uncertainty of war and instability by looking past the present consequences of North Korea’s actions. Xi’s view of North Korea is still dominated by the fear of a reunified Korea under Seoul, which may want U.S. forces to remain in the country. This is a legitimate concern, but it is possible, given Trump’s isolationist stance, that he might consider not stationing U.S. troops above the 38th parallel or deploying offensive capabilities to a unified Korea. [Zhu Feng, Foreign Affairs]

I can envision how an agreement with Beijing might work: China would enforce the U.N. Security Council resolutions — no more and no less. It would import no more than $400 million worth of coal, and it would not buy coal or anything else from any entities designated by the U.N., that were associated with Pyongyang’s weapons programs, or that were reasonably suspected of contributing to those programs. It would freeze the assets of North Korea’s proliferators and their front companies and put their agents on the first Air Koryo flight home. It would also freeze any accounts of North Korean nationals or trading companies until it ensured, in accordance with UNSCR 1718, paragraph 8(d), that those funds could not be used for WMD programs or other prohibited purposes. For good measure, it would also expel any North Korean workers. It would keep those measures in place until Pyongyang was fully disarmed. That, in turn, would almost certainly require the removal of Kim Jong-Un, but coordinated economic strangulation of the regime — which should carefully avoid impeding the trade in food — would likely cause the elites to lose confidence in him. By many accounts, that confidence is already shaky.

In return, the U.S. would agree not to station forces inside the borders of what is now North Korea (something that we should not do under any circumstances anyway). We might even discuss a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. ground forces, which would no longer be needed in Korea. We would agree to suspend sanctions, year by year, provided Pyongyang was making progress toward the conditions described in our laws, toward a more humane and open society whose disarmament we could actually believe in. This state would be neither a militarized totalitarian cult nor a Jeffersonian democracy, but a state that was evolving from totalitarianism to one that was merely authoritarian, along the lines of what we see in Burma today. Great change takes time. North Korea and its people would need time to evolve into a self-governable society, ready to take its place in the world.

Once North Korea was disarmed and the artillery was removed from the bunkers along the DMZ, Korea could be reunified in all but name. Korean families would be reunited, a new pan-Korean culture would be reborn, and commerce would flow freely across the nature reserve formerly known as the DMZ. An agreement with Beijing and Seoul might preserve a fig leaf of separation for an agreeable transitional period, excluding any foreign forces and ensuring friendly relations with all of Korea’s neighbors, friends, and trading partners, to assuage Beijing’s security and economic concerns. South Korea would assume responsibility for controlling the China-North Korea border and caring for the poor and dispossessed North Koreans who might otherwise cross it. The consequent economic revitalization, including access to refurbished North Korean seaports, would be a boon to China’s northeastern rust belt. The political status of North Korea after this transitional period — say, ten years — would be for the people of both Koreas to decide. Enough of foreign powers drawing lines through a nation that ought to be able to decide its own fate. A unified Korea would be no threat to China.

Of course, if Beijing does not cooperate, things might have to take a darker turn.

The real difference that Beijing and Washington must overcome, however, is China’s fear of chaos in North Korea spilling over its own borders. Such instability could spell an unmanageable situation involving all sorts of crises: civil war, famine, and mass displacement, not to mention the danger of fissile material and biological weapons falling into even more unstable hands. Of course, some Chinese hardliners take this view even further, suggesting that it would be foolish for China to take the North Korean burden off the back of its greatest competitor. They argue that, considering that the United States is in many ways a thorn in the flesh to Chinese interests in areas such as Taiwan and the South China Sea, it would be against China’s national interests to release the United States from this problem.

Today, many within China believe that Beijing must reevaluate its relationship with both Koreas, which essentially means abandoning Pyongyang. It is both the strategic and the moral choice. Choosing South Korea, a democracy with a strong economy, will place China on the right side of history. China’s lack of clear direction on this issue is beginning to negatively affect its reputation, with Beijing seen by the international community as reluctant to cooperate or behave responsibly. These are not traits that behoove a rising power. [Zhu Feng, Foreign Affairs]

I can also envision how things would have to work if China does not cooperate. The alternative would be China’s greatest fear — chaos. It would have to be. Pyongyang insists that its nuclear program is non-negotiable. Even assuming that, under extreme duress, Pyongyang eventually said otherwise, it will never be possible for a prudent person to believe in the denuclearization of a society as closed as North Korea’s, or to trust the words of a regime as mendacious as Pyongyang’s.

Because of all the years wasted by Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, we may, for a while, be stuck with the option of trying to deter a nuclear North Korea. This option is only slightly less terrible than war, and anyone who has watched how Pyongyang has behaved in recent years knows that this isn’t sustainable. We are always laying down red lines we think Pyongyang wouldn’t dare cross. Our calculations are invariably miscalculations, and Pyongyang crosses our red lines like so many cracks in a sidewalk. Can we deter a regime that built a reactor in Syria, used VX in the middle of the crowded Kuala Lumpur Airport terminal, or uses cyber attacks to terrorize us, smother own freedom of expression, and rob banks? Can we deter a regime that has carried out multiple armed attacks, cyber attacks, and assassination attempts in South Korea since 2010, killing at least 50 people? Can we deter a regime that sells chemical weapons technology to Assad and MANPADS to terrorists? How do you deter Pyongyang once it thinks it can nuke Seoul, Tokyo and New York? Will Pyongyang become more restrained when it thinks we think it can, or might?

Eventually, Pyongyang will go too far and we will be at war. Deterrence will fail. That’s why the Trump administration is right to turn down the idea of a freeze — not that Pyongyang is interested in one anyway. Pyongyang can’t be allowed to have nukes, or even nuclear technology to sell to others. But no one believes it is possible to take these things away from Pyongyang without a fundamental change in the regime’s character.

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The cold, hard truth that too few of us are willing to confront is this — there is no peaceful solution to the North Korea crisis as long as Kim Jong-Un remains in power. The syllogism is a simple one: if Kim Jong-Un won’t disarm, and if we can’t live with Kim Jong-Un (or he won’t live with us) if he doesn’t disarm, then Kim Jong-Un must go. The question then becomes a matter of finding the least-risky option to achieve that result.

Once we conclude that Pyongyang won’t disarm under pressure, what it means for sanctions to “work” shifts. Then, the focus of sanctions also shifts, from creating economic pressure on Pyongyang to supporting political subversion of the regime by targeting its immune system — the border guards, the army, Ministry of State Security, the State Security Department, the Reconnaissance General Bureau, and the Propaganda and Agitation Department. In a country whose political and economic models are fragile and possibly unsustainable, change can take many forms. Certainly, it should not take the form of invasion or decapitation unless that’s our only protection against a grave and imminent threat to ourselves and our allies. It could mean sudden collapse if the elites turn on Kim Jong-Un, but our influence over such an event would be indirect at best. Don’t get me wrong — we should do everything within our power to prepare the Pyongyang elites for it, if only to make the right people in Pyongyang and Beijing nervous, and most urgently, to discourage North Korean troops from killing their brother and sister Koreans in the event we can’t prevent war.

The change we can do the most to catalyze, however, is a slow-motion revolution in the countryside. Our strategy should be to use sanctions and information warfare to degrade the regime’s capacity to repress, even as we use economic engagement and information warfare help an informed, enriched, and empowered people rise. This would not be regime change, exactly, but regime decline and regime replacement by dozens of local shadow governments. As the security forces lost their foreign sources of income due to sanctions, their members would desert, turn to corruption, or allow themselves to be coopted by the rising merchants and shadow warlords. Officers patrolling the markets could not shake the people down without fear of resistance or reprisal. Inside the jangmadang, they would become prisoners of the people. Inside their stations, they would be besieged, isolated, and ineffective. As the state’s power melted away and flowed back down the songbun scale, information operations would tell the elites that Kim Jong-Un’s days are numbered, that they should not support him, and that they should disobey any orders to kill their brothers and sisters. Implicit in the slow degradation of a totalitarian state is the historical inevitability that it can decline only so much before it can’t contain an explosion. That is, it must change or perish. Political change tends to happen like bankruptcy: gradually, then suddenly. Who is to say when regime decline might become the people’s revolution that Thae Yong-Ho has predicted? Beijing and Pyongyang should certainly worry about this.

For poor North Koreans, this would mean freedom of trade, freedom from fear, and freedom from the confiscation of their land and their crops. It might also mean chaos along China’s border. China would have to deploy troops to seal that border. Dandong, Dalian, and other cities involved in cross-border trade would face the concentrated effects of secondary sanctions, and even a loss of access to trade with America, that might plunge them into recession and unemployment. If the propaganda circulating in the jangmadang harnessed North Korea’s nationalism in an intensely anti-Chinese direction, it could make North Korea an unsafe place for Chinese investments for years to come. Even after reunification, Chinese goods would face steep fees for the use of North Korean ports. China would be offered no guarantees about the future disposition of U.S. forces (though we’d be smart to leave the pacification of North Korea to the Koreans). Chinese investments — particularly those found to violate U.N. sanctions — might be confiscated, or written off as odious debts. Refugees would flood across the Tumen, and Seoul and Washington would be powerless to stop that flood. To prevent Pyongyang from proliferating, we might have to impose a naval blockade, and an economic air blockade.

All of this is a much more chaotic alternative than an agreement to enforce the sanctions Beijing already voted for at the U.N. Security Council, but for us, it’s far better than the collapse of global nonproliferation or a coerced capitulation of South Korea. If Beijing is blithe about (or applauds, or encourages) our greatest security fears, then our response should be to identify and exploit its greatest fears in return.

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Stop talking about bombing North Korea. Talk about the revolution it desperately needs.

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.  – Sun Tzu

On the Fourth of July, I had a long talk with a Famous Person who would probably prefer that I not mention his name here. He’s famous (or infamous — your mileage may vary) for his association with a foreign policy philosophy described as “neoconservative,” whatever that means. Like many Famous Persons, this person’s public image is an injustice to his actual views, which sounded classically liberal to my ears. He had an easy and unpretentious manner, and great depth in both experience and intellect. He recalled, at length, his support for Kim Dae-Jung’s life and freedom during South Korea’s right-wing dictatorship and other events I watched in rapt attention years ago. Because I’m not naming him, he probably won’t mind me quoting a wise thing he said: “This talk of bombing North Korea is scaring our friends more than it scares our enemies.” I couldn’t agree more. The word I keep returning to is “madness.” Not that it should matter, but there are people in Seoul I love.

It will probably also scare some of our friends that I made the case to this Famous Person that we must match Pyongyang’s escalation and deter the next one by helping the people of North Korea to resist the regime, but at least that suggestion has the advantage of terrifying our enemies and merely dividing our friends. Already, some of you are thinking that I’m scaring the Chinese and the Russians away from cooperating with us, as if all of the State Department’s supplications of the last 20 years have achieved anything. Or, that I’m scaring Pyongyang away from the negotiating table, as if Pyongyang would come back to the negotiating table otherwise, and as if Pyongyang doesn’t already believe we’re trying to overthrow it. Or that I’m ignoring the danger of loose nukes — as if the danger of WMD proliferation isn’t just as great or greater with this regime intact.

If we’re really honest, we’re all praying for some kind of regime change in North Korea. Prayer, of course, is not a strategy. The Sunshine Policy didn’t work, but it was a strategy for regime change by other means. Former South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung, the architect of that policy, was extraordinarily cautious about suggesting an intent to catalyze political change in the North, but a careful reader could see that it necessarily had political objectives: “Through open interaction with the global economy, North Korea will emerge as a responsible member of the international community, contribute to the stability of the peninsula, and develop its economy efficiently.” As Professor Lee, Bruce Klingner and I explained in the pages of Foreign Affairs, that is also why Pyongyang couldn’t let the Sunshine Policy succeed. I also doubt that Kim Dae-Jung was only speaking of South Korea’s former right-wing dictators when he quoted Confucious in his Nobel acceptance speech: “The king is son of heaven. Heaven sent him to serve the people with just rule. If he fails and oppresses the people, the people have the right, on behalf of heaven, to dispose of him.” (This is a point I’ll return to later in this post.)

The same is true of Americans who believe (or believed) in the Sunshine Policy. As the unreconstructed arch-engager David Kang once wrote, “I am totally for regime change, or a regime that modifies its ways and introduces economic and social reforms that improve the lives of its people.” At the height of talks over the 1994 Agreed Framework, Wendy Sherman pined for something more kinetic: “We just thought all that would bring about the collapse of the North Korean government within two or three years.”

We’ve all wished for a change of regime in North Korea, if only on an emotional level, notwithstanding how expensive, chaotic, and dangerous we know Kim Jong-Un’s Götterdämmerung could be. For years, we desperately hoped there might be some path to easy, evolutionary change. The unstated part of this hope was that with sufficient time and engagement, that evolutionary process might terminate as it did in Eastern Europe. But as events have proven beyond a reasonable doubt, there is no path to easy, evolutionary change in North Korea. There is profiteering and outright theft, and Pyongyang’s rich are getting richer. Call that capitalism if you want, but it’s the capitalism of a predatory military-industrial complex that’s no more a harbinger of peace or political reform than Krupp, Messerschmitt, or I.G. Farben were.

Contrary to Wendy Sherman’s expectations, the North Korean government did not collapse, because the North Korean people were too afraid, too hungry, too exhausted, and (above all) too isolated from each other to challenge the state. That is why, though there have been a thousand small and not-small acts of armed and unarmed resistance by the North Korean people against the state in recent years, those acts could not threaten the state’s control or disrupt its oppressive strategy. The people of North Korea had no means to communicate, organize, or resist. For those things, they will need our help. We should give them that help, in ways that would be public knowledge, and in other ways that would necessarily remain covert or clandestine. I don’t see another way. If you do, the comments are open.

In this week’s posts, I’ve explained why every other option ends in either a nuclear war, a surrender of South Korea, the collapse of nonproliferation, or grave threats to our own security and freedom. The hard realities are, in no particular order, that we cannot live with a nuclear North Korea, and that neither talks, nor surrender, nor China, nor the Swiss-educated reformer who never was will solve this crisis for us. War would, but it would also be a catastrophe of incalculable proportions. All options that remain — including the option of doing nothing, or seeking an accommodation with the regime — come with a significant or unacceptable risk of ending catastrophically. There is no safe option left to us; there are only less-dangerous ones. Dramatically improved enforcement of sanctions is the only nonviolent one left, and while I continue to believe that vigorously enforced sanctions could bring the regime to an existential crisis that could dethrone His Porcine Majesty, only the removal of Kim Jong-Un from power (and consequently, from this Earth) can disarm Pyongyang now.

It is increasingly hard to avoid the conclusion that Kim Jong-Un must die so that Korea may live, and that the coup de grâce must come from within, and not from us. It may be that the only way to prevent a larger war is to catalyze a smaller one. But that smaller war — or even the credible threat of one — may stand the best chance of ending with a peace agreement worthy of its name, from which Korea would emerge intact, liberated, unoccupied by foreign powers, and on a manageable timetable for reunification.

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Let’s stop tiptoeing around what most of us have quietly wished for, but which we’ve done nothing — at least nothing I can see — to instigate: North Korea needs a revolution. It is in our interest to be rid of Kim Jong-Un, but above all, it’s in the interests of the North Korean people to be rid of him. The merchants who have waged an unarmed war of resistance against the state’s uniformed shake-down artists and press-gangs want to be rid of him. The nameless victims of torture who wanted nothing more than the right to live and move freely want to be rid of him. The people of North Hamgyeong, who are still waiting for an uncaring government to help them more than a year after floods devastated their homes and farms, want to be rid of him. The dirt-poor private farmers whose land is being confiscated, even as food prices rise, want to be rid of him. The collective farmers whose hopes for agricultural reform were dashed into the reality of exploitative sharecropping want to be rid of him. The poor in North Korea’s cities and towns, who scrape through life inside the confines of a state-imposed class system, want to be rid of him. The soldiers who are killing their abusive officers or walking through minefields to freedom want to be rid of him. The desperately hungry border guards who carry their guns into China and desert want to be rid of him. The elites in Pyongyang, who have begun defecting in greater numbers than ever — to include diplomats, money launderers, security officials, and (most recently) one of Kim Jong-Un’s bodyguards — want to be rid of him. The men, women, and children in the gulags must surely pray that they may live long enough to be rid of him. The 30,000 North Koreans who risked everything to flee to South Korea — and the countless others who died along the way, or in prison camps after they were recaptured — wanted to be rid of him.

Our real military option isn’t bombing, but a combination of overt, covert, and clandestine operations to catalyze the formation of a resistance movement by North Korea’s rural poor, historically its most exploited and discontented class, particularly in the northern and eastern provinces. The tried-and-tested argument for that uprising is the timeless appeal of class warfare. North Korea’s is a society of artificial, politically assigned, hereditary classes that mark every citizen for life and decide her access to education, a decent job or place to live, and even food.

As for the organizational foundations of such a movement, I’ve already discussed them at length, but they aren’t so different from the model used by Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood. That model begins with a guerrilla banking system that seeds a multitude of unaffiliated, clandestine social welfare organizations and evolves into a shadow government, providing for the needs of the people that the state does not, and that resists the state’s violation of the fundamental human rights of the people in whatever ways it can. The essential and missing element is a means of communication, but even that isn’t far off. I’ll keep the discussion of logistics to myself or leave that to Dave Maxwell — he’s the retired Special Forces colonel, not me. I’ll only say that North Korea has two long coastlines, one long and partially porous border, robust smuggling networks, and a population that has learned to be extraordinarily resourceful to survive. The markets in North Korea seem to provide anything for which there is a demand.

I think — and there is a basis for my speculation — that Kim Jong-Un’s nightmare scenario is to wake up one day to hear that after an MPS officer beat a merchant who refused him a bribe, that the merchants rioted and killed the officer with a pistol bought from a deserting soldier, that riots spread throughout the province once people began texting the news on smuggled phones, and that people had set up roadblocks all over Hoeryong, within sight of journalists just across the border in China.

There would be no question, of course, of a peasant army marching on Pyongyang. That would be impossible, undesirable, and unnecessary. It would present Pyongyang with the sudden, use-it-or-lose-it choice that we must carefully avoid. The state’s loss of control would instead be gradual. If North Korea’s vast, almost roadless interior dissolved into anarchy as Syria and Libya did so unexpectedly, Pyongyang could lose its land access to the fisheries of the east, the coal mines and power plants in the interior, and all the remote places where it hides his missiles. Broadcasts directed at his elites, who are already defecting in growing numbers, would show them how the countryside was slipping into anarchy. If the security forces were already sanctioned to the verge of bankruptcy, they would be hard-pressed to pay, fuel, and maintain an army to patrol the borders, and the villages and fields near the most critical roads, railroads, and power lines. It is the economic and political blows, not the military one, that would be fatal, and that would force Pyongyang’s elites to demand peace talks on terms that would lead to a genuine peace.

As border control broke down, information would flow in and people would flow out. Trade links to China would become untenable, adding more financial pressure to the effects of sanctions. As Pyongyang functionally became a city-state surrounded by an ungovernable countryside and a patchwork of liberated zones, the elites might decide that the world was closing in on them and hedge their bets about the future. In exchange for our covert support, a thousand unseen eyes in the mountains could report the location of every missile truck, slip messages to unit commanders, or send out videos of gulags or abuses by soldiers. In the towns and villages of Ryanggang and North Hamgyeong, the State Security Department’s officers would become prisoners of the people, too afraid to patrol the markets and reduced to taking bribes from those they no longer dared to extort, in exchange for looking the other way at more open acts of subversion. No foreign power, including China, would dare wade into this mess. As for the generals, all that would be asked of them to save themselves and their families would be to make sure that at the critical hour, their troops don’t move and don’t shoot.

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What can America give to the people of North Korea? First, a means to communicate and organize among themselves; second, a message to galvanize and focus their discontent; third, a concerted legal attack on the finances of the security forces to give the people breathing space; and perhaps, as a deterrent to further acts of aggression and oppression, a covert supply of arms, or a way to manufacture them in small guerrilla workshops.

We already have specialized aircraft designed for hijacking the airwaves of hostile states. The message we broadcast must be tailored to different audiences — the elites, the military, and the rural poor. For the elites in Pyongyang, the message must be that there is a better future without Kim Jong-Un than with him. That for those who resist the state and refuse to take part in its crimes against humanity, there will be clemency, freedom, and a better life in the future. If the regime persists, they can expect to meet the same fate as Jang Song-Thaek and his family.

For the soldiers, it must be a message of rice, peace, and freedom. In the event of war, they must refrain from killing their brothers and sisters in the South. They must be told that the targets assigned to them are civilian targets, and that their duty as Koreans is to disable their weapons, refuse to fire, or intentionally miss those targets.

For the rural poor, it must be that they are poor and hungry because of the state’s choices — to build weapons and ski resorts, and to import yachts and missile trucks, instead of feeding them. That the state keeps them hungry to control them. That it divides them against each other by making them inform on one another. The message must be rich with actual, credible stories about people like them who have suffered from the regime’s abuse, corruption, and oppression. They must awaken to the fact that they alone can change that, because no one else is coming to save them.

For all North Koreans, we should help them begin a conversation about the difficulties that sudden change will mean to a society that isn’t prepared for them. Should they stay in place or move? Who will own the soil, and who will till it? Will they be allowed to sell the land, and for what price? Will rich South Koreans flood in and make them second-class citizens in their own country? Will they acquire legal ownership of their own homes? Will industries in the hands of the state, the donju, or foreign investors be nationalized and sold off? Will the communes be broken up or consolidated? How can they prevent foreign occupation? What is the right balance between free speech and social stability? Who will be held responsible for crimes against the North Korean people, and who will be forgiven in the name of ending them? They must feel that they will have a say in how those questions are answered.

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Our sanctions-targeting strategy must also evolve with the recognition of these same hard realities. During this event on Capitol Hill several weeks ago, former Treasury Undersecretary and former CIA Deputy Director David Cohen made a profoundly important statement that would have been easy to miss. Cohen said that the strategy for sanctions enforcement depends on the objective of sanctions. Until now, it has been to pressure Kim Jong-Un to negotiate away his nukes, based on the flawed premise that he cares about the welfare of his people and the development of his country (in fact, those things would pose serious threats to his internal control by breaking the peoples’ material and ideological dependence on the state).

If we agree that Kim Jong-Un will never disarm voluntarily, then our sanctions should instead target the regime’s security forces and their capacity to suppress the population. How? We know, for example, that two sanctioned North Korean coal export companies support the military and that a third supports the Reconnaissance General Bureau. The security forces fund themselves with certain trading companies. If so, our sanctions should preferentially target the regime’s immune system to disrupt its capacity to oppress, to compel its security forces to rely on corruption, and to break down barriers to the smuggling of goods, people, and information across North Korea’s borders.

Part of this strategy could take several years to prepare, unfortunately. The critical communications technology to allow North Koreans to organize still isn’t in place. Once resistance begins, it’s difficult to know whether it would spread or how quickly. If we controlled its funding, we could exercise some control over its conduct, but only to an extent. We can expect Pyongyang to hit back (though in limited, non-suicidal ways) if it knows or assumes that we’re supporting internal resistance. In the meantime, we’ll need an interim containment strategy, including aggressive sanctions enforcement, the accelerated deployment of missile defenses and deterrence, and perhaps a blockade. The President may have to use force to deter the next Yeonpyeong-do incident or slow North Korea’s missile development, and hope that a limited conflict stays limited. At the same time, we must never close the door to an agreement in which Pyongyang would disarm and begin a graduated process of humanitarian reform in exchange for the suspension of sanctions. But in the end, containment alone is not a permanent solution to this problem, and deterrence has been failing since 2010.

For years, the experts who have held the tiller of our policy for so much of the last three decades have offered Pyongyang “security guarantees” for a disarmament deal. Pyongyang either didn’t take them or took them and reneged. It’s time to turn this formula on its head and offer Pyongyang insecurity guarantees as long as it refuses to disarm. Once we pose a credible threat of destabilizing the countryside between Pyongyang and Dandong, our chances of a diplomatic solution rise from zero to something more than zero. How much more depends on the credibility of the threat and how much we have to offer in terms of trading stability for a lasting peace.

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When Kim Dae Jung quoted Confucious in his Nobel speech, he reminded his audience that Confucious spoke those words 2,000 years before John Locke wrote of his version of the social contract theory, which incorporated a right of revolution. Against Locke, Thomas Hobbes argued, based on his bitter experiences during England’s civil war, that the subject’s duty was to obey the sovereign for better or for worse lest he reduce his kingdom to a state of anarchy where life would be “nasty, brutish, and short.” But North Korea, where the regime has imposed its social contract on the people, is as Hobbesian a place as you will find — it is a living (if one can call it that) exhibit to Locke’s brief for the right to revolution. In another hundred years, Thomas Jefferson would write that when a government becomes destructive of the ends of the life, liberty, and happiness of the people, “it is the right of the people to alter, or to abolish it.” I do not reserve that right to Americans alone. That would make me an American exceptionalist.   

In our long war of skirmishes against the Kim Dynasty, it has always been the people of North Korea who have been our most important — and most overlooked — potential allies. Kim Jong-Il now presents a grave threat to our freedom, our security, our prosperity, and our way of life. We are justified in threatening the integrity of his political system in return. The perpetuation of that system represents a grave threat to us, to our allies, and to the people of North Korea most of all. We also compelled to do this in a way that reduces the risk of catastrophe as much as that is still possible, and that minimizes unnecessary suffering by the North Korean people. Our support for any resistance group must be strictly conditioned on its adherence to the Law of Armed Conflict. It must tolerate no attacks against noncombatants, no banditry, and no theft. The choice to resist, of course, is a choice that belongs to the people of North Korea. But if they are willing to make it, they should find no better friend than us.

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