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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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Our grand plans to engage North Korea must learn from their failures and evolve with the evidence

One of my cruel habits lately has been to ask the holdouts who still advocate the economic, cultural, and scientific “engagement” of Pyongyang to name a single significant, positive outcome their policies have purchased at the cost of $8 billion or more, over 20-odd years, as thousands of North Koreans died beyond our view and our earshot. I’ve yet to receive a non-sarcastic answer to that question. Yesterday, I salted this wound by pointing out that the largest remaining engagement experiment, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, has become a pool for hostages for Kim Jong-un, exactly as the Malaysian Embassy in Pyongyang recently was, and exactly as the Kaesong Industrial Complex will be if Moon Jae-in is foolish enough to reopen it — and if we’re foolish enough to let him draw us into this potential flashpoint for conflict (think Desert One with nukes).

It is now beyond serious debate that the Sunshine Policy (and every rebranded variation of it) has failed, and that it will never succeed as long as Kim Jong-un weighs down a throne in Pyongyang. Engagers will answer that it is essential to keep open lines of communication to prevent war. Fine, but such communications are best left to diplomats who can meet their North Korean counterparts in safe, neutral locations, not to anyone addlebrained enough to visit or take up residence in North Korea in times like these.

Engagers will also argue that North Korea will never change if North Koreans aren’t exposed to better ideas and ways of life. But if you were to interrogate the engagers and me, you’d find that I believe this point more strongly than the engagers themselves do. We differ in their belief, and my skepticism, that Pyongyang-approved engagement programs have the potential to catalyze positive change from the top down. Rather, it’s the smuggling and broadcasting of media that Pyongyang is waging an unrelenting war to suppress that have the proven potential to change North Korea from the bottom up, and for the better. Remember 2012, when the engagers figured Kim Jong-un for a Swiss-educated reformer? Instead, his signature domestic policy has been a counterinsurgency campaign — a violent war by his regime against an unorganized popular uprising. Except that in this war, only one side is organized and armed, and consequently, the other side has done all of the dying.

~   ~   ~

The evidence that has accumulated over 20 years yields no basis — none — to believe that we will see a kinder, gentler Kim Jong-un if we just throw enough money at him. Indeed, the legacy of the Sunshine Policy is far worse than its mere failure to succeed. It has also set back the cause of reform, opening, and change by financing the machinery of oppression and terror (of both the domestic and foreign varieties) that guards the status quo.

Several years ago, for example, I linked to reports that the dreaded State Security Department finances its salaries and expenses through a China-based trading company. Since then, the Treasury Department has designated three North Korean trading companies that sell coal and iron ore — Daewon Industries, which supports the Munitions Industry Department; the Kangbong Trading Corporation, which supports North Korea’s military; and Paeksol Trading Corporation, which supports the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the spy agency that carries out most of North Korea’s terrorist and cyber attacks. To these, the Wall Street Journal‘s Jay Solomon adds another example, involved in financing North Korea’s nuclear programs.

From this evidence, it follows that we would do more to disarm and transform North Korea by targeting those companies with sanctions and bankrupting them, and by forcing the soldiers and cadres that rely on their revenue to turn to corruption, than by financing them. If we’re serious about bringing change to North Korea, our sanctions policy should preferentially target North Korea’s security forces and border guards as much as it targets its proliferation network. That’s the part of “maximum pressure” the Trump administration gets.

The even greater potential source of pressure, which the Trump administration may or may not understand, is to employ an engagement strategy that seeks to reach the North Korea people directly, using technology to bypass Pyongyang’s minders and censors. The people of North Korea are looking for that bypass from within:

Amid heightened levels of surveillance and border control, an increasing number of North Koreans in the border areas are purchasing South Korean smartphone, which they perceive as more secure from detection by the authorities.
“Most smugglers own mobile phones that enable them to communicate across the border, but recently an increasing number of residents are looking for South Korean touch-phones (smartphones). There are rumors that the South Korean phones are not as easily detectable by the devices used by the security agencies,” a source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on May 1.
“Some say that residents with South Korean smartphones are able to send texts and pictures more quickly and evade detection. For this reason, individuals are paying large sums of money to smugglers for South Korean phones.” [Daily NK]

An engagement strategy that goes directly to the North Korean people has far more potential to achieve cultural, social, and political change than another rebranded variation of Sunshine. It would follow the plan I’ve written about at length and described as “guerrilla engagement” — one that directly engages North Korea’s discontented by harnessing the jangmadang economy and North Koreans’ hunger for information about the outside world. It would use entertainment and practical information (weather and market reports) as gateway drugs for those who might later opt to listen to overtly religious and political content. An essential reagent for the second phase of that strategy will be deploying the technology that not only allows North Koreans to hear our messages, but also to communicate and organize with each other. In time, it would organize and coalesce their grievances into a broad-based popular resistance movement with the capacity to broadcast photographs and video of the regime’s human rights abuses, stage strikes, deny the regime control of the market economy, and further strain the regime’s finances.

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True, the election of Moon Jae-in threatens to reanimate the old, failed approach to engagement, though without much of a popular mandate. In due course, a revival of Sunshine will collapse under the weight of Kim Jong-un’s predatory and impulsive nature, just as Kim Jong-Il’s conduct eventually discredited Roh Moo-hyun’s policy. Until then, neutralizing South Korean opposition to “maximum pressure” will require us to bargain harder with Seoul that George W. Bush or Barack Obama ever did. Moon’s election may require us to find information strategies that circumvent his obstructionism by relying on our own technological innovation, and perhaps by shifting toward a closer operational partnership with Japan.

We tend to forget that until just over a year ago, engagement and sanctions worked at cross purposes — effectively, sanctions and subsidies were mutually canceling. But consider the potential of those two strategies if we ever coordinated them. It is one thing to bankrupt the border guards, but entirely another to do so while helping smugglers bribe or evade them. It is one thing to bankrupt the security forces, but entirely another to do so while helping clandestine journalists show their abuses to the world. It is one thing to bankrupt the military’s commissary system, but entirely another to do so while empowering clandestine humanitarian NGOs to minister to, and provide for the material needs of, demoralized, hungry, and mistreated soldiers. If the Sunshine experiment was allowed so many years to double and triple down on failure, might we at least experiment with an engagement strategy designed to shift North Korea’s internal balance of power, gradually enough so that Kim Jong-un never faces the dangerous use-it-or-lose-it proposition that our loose talk of “decapitation” raises?

Engagers will say this means regime change, and it’s certainly some kind of change, but a kind that looks less like Iraq than the unkept promises of glasnost and perestroika we heard from the engagers themselves 20 years ago. As Professor Lee, Bruce Klingner and I pointed out in the pages of Foreign Affairs recently:

The failure of engagement was just as inevitable as the failure of the Agreed Framework. Its premise—that capitalism would spur liberalism in a despotic state—was flawed. After all, over the past two decades, both China and Russia have cracked down on domestic dissent and threatened the United States and its allies abroad, even as they have cautiously welcomed in capitalism. In 2003, even as it cashed Seoul’s checks, Pyongyang warned party officials in the state newspaper that “it is the imperialist’s old trick to carry out ideological and cultural infiltration prior to their launching of an aggression openly.” For the regime, engagement was a “silent, crafty and villainous method of aggression, intervention and domination.” Given this attitude, it’s no surprise that Kim Jong Il never opened up North Korea. The political change that engagement advocates promised was exactly what he feared the most.

That is to say, the Sunshine Policy could never work because it was a strategy for regime change that depended on the very people with the most to lose if it succeeded — the ruling class in Pyongyang. (Either that, or Sunshine was really a marketing strategy for overcoming U.S. objections to subsidizing Pyongyang and canceling out the effect of sanctions by clothing it as regime change. In which case, it succeeded brilliantly.)

Taking the aims of Sunshine at face value, however, its manifest failure calls for a complete rethinking. Engagement must appeal, first, to the people who seek change, rather than those who resist it. The information component of this strategy must be tailored to different constituencies — soldiers, the elites, and of course, the poor who are trapped at the bottom of the songbun scale. By engaging the North Korean people directly, we can help expand the private farming and trading that fill the markets. We can broaden the cracks in Kim Jong-un’s blockade to expand the freedom of information that really can bring social and political change. We can slow the pace of proliferation and relax the grip of the state’s oppression on the people. We can hasten the erosion of belief in Kim Jong-un’s personality cult, promote peace, and help prevent (or shorten) a war.

We will also need a separate strategy to engage the elites in Pyongyang, to persuade them not to resist change, to abstain from crimes against humanity, and to refuse (as much as they are able) to attack civilian targets in South Korea. This must be an appeal to the interests of the men with the guns. We should seek to undermine their confidence in Kim Jong-un and convince them that they have a better and safer future in a reunified Korea. That may require the difficult choice to offer some form of clemency to those who have taken innocent life, but only if they save innocent North or South Korean lives at critical moments. We must speak to them with candor about the recent purges in Pyongyang — how the status quo eventually means physical obliteration for them and a slow death in the prison camps for their families. If we employ these strategies in tandem, the elites will realize that time is not on their side, and that their reward for preserving Kim Jong-un’s reign will be physical extinction for themselves, a bleak future for their families, and a legacy on the ash-heap of history.

No pressure can ever be “maximum” if it excludes this reinvented, disruptive new approach to engagement.

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Yesterday’s Senate hearing on North Korea policy

Yesterday’s hearing before the full Senate Foreign Relations Committee on North Korea policy was a one-panel affair, with no administration witnesses and two experts — Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute and Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations. The full hearing is on video here.

In his testimony, Snyder called for (of course) strengthening the alliances with South Korea and Japan, tougher secondary sanctions on North Korea’s Chinese enablers, and “that we erode Kim Jong Un’s internal support base by making the argument that North Korean elites can have a better future outside the regime than in it and by increasing the incentives and pathways for them to exit North Korea.”

Eberstadt drove home the point that “engagement” with Pyongyang had been a conclusive failure, defining that strategy broadly to include not only cultural and economic engagement, but also the diplomatic anachronism of trying to buy North Korea into freezing or dismantling its nuclear programs.

First: North Korea is embarked on a steady, methodical, and relentless journey, whose intended endpoint is a credible capacity to hit New York and Washington with nuclear weapons.

Second: America’s policy for nuclear nonproliferation in North Korea is a prolonged, and thoroughly bipartisan, failure.

Third: Our North Korea policy is a failure because our public and our leaders do not understand our adversary and his intentions.

Fourth: We cannot hope to cope successfully with the North Korean threat until we do.

Fifth: Any successful effort to make the North Korean threat smaller will require not just better understanding of this adversary, but also a coherent and sustained strategy of threat reduction informed by such an understanding. [Nicholas Eberstadt, AEI]

Rather than make you wait until my evening commute for a point-by-point summary, I’ll just refer you to Anthony Ruggiero, who live-tweeted the whole thing (just keep scrolling; also, follow him). Ruggiero, of course, was sitting behind the bench no so long ago as a staffer for Senator Rubio and has insider experience from his days in the State and Treasury departments. NK News also reported on the hearing here.

Nothing that Eberstadt, Snyder, or most of the senators said shocked me. Senator Corker, on the other hand, expressed skepticism about “piddling” secondary sanctions and seems to be teetering between accepting North Korea as a nuclear state and preemptive war (or strikes, which could mean war). The flaws in the latter option are self-evident. As to the former, we’re talking about accepting as a nuclear state a regime that thinks it can use cyberterrorism to decide what movies Americans can watch, and that built a nuclear reactor in a part of Syria now controlled by ISIS.

Corker’s questions did show interest in subversive information operations and exploiting “pockets” of instability, but he doesn’t seem to grasp the key point that information operations and sanctions aren’t mutually exclusive strategies. In fact, sanctions can complement an information strategy. Freezing the accounts and trading companies that fund the border guards and security forces, for example, can help break down the regime’s capacity to censor information and seal North Korea’s borders. On the bright side, Corker’s questions make Rex Tillerson look great (Corker was widely reported to be on Trump’s short list for Secretary of State). The question now is what team the new administration puts in place, and what policies it will pursue. Here’s hoping that the Asia Subcommittee, which has performed admirably under Senator Gardner’s leadership, will enlighten us on that in the coming months.

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Is this what a North Korean malaise speech looks like?

Readers know that I’ve been critical of those who cherry-pick words out of North Korean dictators’ rambling New Year speeches to find evidence to support their arguments. Having made the sacrifice of actually reading this one (full text below the jump), I would not characterize it as profoundly different from the same old crap North Korean dictators have told their subjects year after year. No, it was not quite a North Korean “malaise speech,” but it was filled with clear (if tacit) acknowledgments that the byungjin policy (nukes plus economic development) hasn’t delivered the “white rice and meat soup” Kim Jong-un promised North Koreans five years ago. 

So, on guard against overstating the significance of what follows, this language shows more contrition and introspection than I’m accustomed to from North Korean tyrants.

My desires were burning all the time, but I spent the past year feeling anxious and remorseful for the lack of my ability. I am hardening my resolve to seek more tasks for the sake of the people this year and make redoubled, devoted efforts to this end.

Previously, all the people used to sing the song We Are the Happiest in the World, feeling optimistic about the future with confidence in the great Comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. I will work with devotion to ensure that the past era does not remain as a moment in history but is re-presented in the present era. On this first morning of the new year I swear to become a true servant loyal to our people who faithfully supports them with a pure conscience.

Alternative translation here, via NK News. Of course, Kim Jong-un and his father have struck notes of contrition in these speeches before. The theme of a self-sacrificing paternal leader deeply concerned for the welfare of his subjects is an old one in North Korean propaganda. Even so, this seems even more contrite than usual. I haven’t the time or the stomach to do a line-by-line linguistic comparison, but I don’t recall His Porcine Majesty having used — or closed with — such strong language before. Clearly, he knows that things should have been better by now. He knows that his people are unhappy with their standard of living, and perhaps more. Whoever wrote the text saw a need for him to acknowledge the misery of his people, lest he seem detached or callous about it.

Contrast Kim’s aspirational claims about prosperity and economic development with his claims of “consolidating the defence capability of Juche Korea” and that North Korea had “achieved the status of a nuclear power, a military giant, in the East which no enemy, however formidable, would dare to provoke.” There’s nothing aspirational about that. Still, it can’t be lost on his people that he’d traded away their prosperity for his nukes, so he tried to project blame:

Even though the enemy grew more blatant in their obstructive schemes and severe difficulties cropped up one after another, all the service personnel and people drew themselves closer together around the Party and waged a vigorous struggle in the revolutionary spirit of self-reliance and fortitude. This was how they achieved the world-startling, miraculous successes under such trying circumstances. 

Last year the imperialist reactionary forces’ moves for political and military pressure and sanctions against our country reached an extreme. But they failed to break the faith of our service personnel and people in victory, and could not check the vigorous revolutionary advance of Juche Korea.

We should resolutely thwart the enemy’s sinister and pernicious schemes to check the warm and pure-hearted aspiration of our people who follow the Party single-heartedly and to alienate the Party from them.

Other statements in the speech acknowledged social and political problems that belied the many claims of single-hearted unity.

We should thoroughly apply the people-first doctrine, the crystallization of the Juche-oriented view on the people, philosophy of the people, in Party work and all the spheres of state and social life, and wage an intensive struggle to root out abuses of power, bureaucratism and corruption that spoil the flower garden of single-hearted unity.

They should resolutely break with defeatism, self-preservation, formalism and expediency, and devote their heart and soul to the struggle for carrying out the Party’s plans and intentions.

There may be various reasons why Kim Jong-un’s birthday celebrations were relatively muted this year. He may be sensitive about his age, but I suspect that the idolization of Kim would be more advanced by now if the regime believed that he was deeply and genuinely popular.

Reportedly out of concern for adverse publicity, the regime has banned public executions (it’s killing people privately instead). Kim Jong-un has even reportedly told his security forces to stop searching homes without warrants(!) due to “escalating disgruntlement and official complaints to the district office over the the tyrannical behavior of law enforcement officers.” That is the kind of order that seems unlikely to stick in practice, but if it’s true, it would be evidence of discontent with security crackdowns like those that preceded last year’s party Congress. The Daily NK also points to other, more recent acts of protest. See also this post.

More than 1,400 North Koreans defected from North to South in 2016, a rise of 11 percent. This is the first increase since Kim Jong-un’s succession, but that is not necessarily useful evidence for measuring popular morale. More likely, it indicates that an initially successful crackdown on border control is flagging due to low morale and indiscipline within the border guard force (as with the rest of the military) and due to the destruction of border posts and fences, and the border guards themselves, by last year’s floods.

What does seem significant for morale, however, is that higher-ranking North Koreans and those of higher “songbun” (political loyalty classification) are defecting in higher numbers, for reasons that are more political than material. Some reports attribute this to sanctions, which may be partially true — North Korean elites posted overseas have rigid quotas for sending cash back to Pyongyang. In some cases, those who can’t meet those quotas due to sanctions may be tempted to defect rather than return home. That North Korean workers in Russia report an increase in wage theft may mean that they’re being squeezed to make up for revenue lost elsewhere (which in turn leads to more group defections like this one — the “death spiral” I’ve spoken of before). That many of the elites are afraid of being purged is another likely factor. 

Overall, however, the prospect of a long, bleak future under Kim Jong-un and the fading of any hopes that he would be a reformer may well be the greatest cause of North Korea’s malaise. I’ll give Thae Yong-ho the last word:

“As the Kim Jong-un regime took power, I had a slight hope that he would make a rational, reasonable regime because he must be well aware of how the world runs after he studied overseas for a long time,” Thae said. But Kim turned out even more merciless than his father and late leader Kim Jong-il, he said, citing the shocking public execution of the leader’s once-powerful uncle Jang Song-thaek in 2013 as one of the moments of awakening that eventually solidified his decision to defect. [Yonhap]

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Update: More here.

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