Mystery Woman Reveals, Once Again, Our Lack of DPRK Intelligence

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (Right) and his mystery guest (Left) applaud during a demonstration performance by the newly formed Moranbong band in Pyongyang on July 9, 2012.

The West’s intelligence on the newly appointed DPRK regime is so sparse that one woman’s appearance beside Kim Jong-un has sparked a number of media speculations. During a publicly broadcast performance in Pyongyang yesterday, a mystery woman appeared right beside Kim. The international media’s focus has been on deciphering what this mystery woman’s close public placement might mean. Who is she? What is her relationship to Kim? And, more importantly, what does her public appearance tell us about the new regime’s direction?

Who Is She?

In a tightly closed country like North Korea, any speculation is difficult due to an astonishing lack of information. The outside world did not see a picture of Kim until 2010, and to this day the leader’s age remains unconfirmed (North Korea claims he is 30 years-old, however most foreign estimates place his age around 25-28 years-old).

This lack of information has not stopped media outlets and experts from voicing their opinions on the supposed identity of this woman. Speculations have hit a wide range of possibilities. It could be his aunt, wife, sister, or lover. One South Korean newspaper even suggested that she might be “a lover of the new leader’s late father, Kim Jong-il.” (A real possibility, as the now-deceased former leader had a reputation for illegitimate affairs and a lavish lifestyle.)

Most reasonable conjectures say she is likely Kim’s wife, although the other possibilities cannot be ruled out. In a CNN article published today, expert Andrei Lankov stressed that she is probably Kim’s wife, for it would be “unthinkable” for the North Korean leader to present a girlfriend or lover in public. Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, agreed, citing the appearance as a “timely” one to reveal the new leader’s wife to the public.

Why Would the DPRK Reveal Her Now?

Any officially released material from the North is always tailor-made to show only what the regime wants you to see. So, like a finely crafted film, the viewer knows that every visible detail is there for a reason. This is precisely why her presence has been scrutinized so highly.

One speculation is that her appearance was meant to portray Kim as something of a family man. In his short time as ruler, Kim has already emphasized this image by repeatedly appearing in photos smiling warmly with young schoolchildren. Kim has also made a point to draw comparisons between himself and his grandfather, the loved DPRK founder and Dear Leader Kim Il-sung.

Or, perhaps her appearance was designed to create an image in stark contrast to that of the isolated and aloof image of his father, Kim Jong-il. According to Lankov, the strategy from the DPRK leadership might be to present Kim as “much more approachable, human-like and soft on people” than his father, Kim Jong Il. “He travels much more than his father and even than his grandfather. He likes to hug everybody, physically hug. In this regard it’s probably he decided that it might be a good idea to hint that he does have a wife.”

Her appearance may also help Kim with another image problem. One of the initial concerns over the new leader centered on his young age and inexperience (which is likely why the North Korean government hides his official age and claims he is older than he really is). By portraying Kim as a husband, it may alleviate concerns over his youth. According to Cheong, his apparent age is Kim’s “biggest handicap” and revealing the possibility of a wife might make North Koreans “more comfortable” with his youthful appearance. (Although, Kim’s choice of an unauthorized Disney performance seems to fly in the face of this objective.)

Does This Signal a Change in North Korea?

Many media writers are eager to ask what implications this appearance might have for a possible change in the DPRK regime’s mentality. Kim Il-sung’s wife was hardly ever seen and, according to Lankov, her “existence was never even hinted at.” Journalists are quick to note that Kim’s choice of a performance scattered with an array of Western icons (Disney characters) and band members with trendy, strapless dresses seems to mark a change from the past as well.

While these images are indeed striking (and puzzling), it would be rash to say that they signal any significant signs of change in the regime. In many aspects, Kim has merely returned to the DPRK policies of the past; returning to a “juche” (self-reliance) mentality of his grandfather, keeping the North tightly closed both politically and economically, and continuing the aggressive forward posture and nuclear development of his father.

Although these recent developments may give us more of an insight into Kim’s image and tastes, any changes thus far have been merely superficial.

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Why Would a North Korean Defector Return?

Returned defector Pak Jung-suk standing under portraits of former North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung, left, and Kim Jong Il after speaking to reporters at the People’s Palace of Culture in Pyongyang, North Korea, on June 28, 2012.

Last month, the Guardian published an article reporting the highly publicized return of a North Korean woman who had defected to South Korea, most likely via China. Although the article emphasized the rarity of a defector returning to North Korea from the South, noting only one other known case, the story is really much more complicated. While defections from South Korea to North Korea are incredibly rare, this overlooks the alarming statistic that approximately 50 percent of North Koreans who bribe their way out, via the northern border with China, wind-up bribing their way back in. This prompts the obvious question: why would a North Korean defector ever return to the DPRK? A country with massive food shortages and a ruthlessly repressive regime.

The answer seems to lie in the combination of the regime’s repressive nature and strong ideology. North Korea’s people seem to have a dissonant mixture of love and admiration for the DPRK’s leaders combined with fears of reprisal and punishment. And punishment is a real possibility for North Korean defectors. A failed defection or repatriation from China, can lead to years in harsh gulags (labor camps) or even death. Defector’s families are not spared, and will typically receive sentences just as harsh as their defecting relative. Even family members three generations removed could be labelled ‘hostile’ to the regime and sentenced to life in a prison camp.

However, while a fear of harsh punishment may deter would-be defectors, it does not fully explain why one would return to the North. The explanation lies in the psychological hold the regime keeps over its people. As North Korean expert and author B.R. Myers said, “Nobody tried to bribe their way back in to the Soviet Union, or back in to East Germany … so we need to realize that [North Korea] is a country that survives not by dint of repressiveness alone, but because it is able to inspire its people still.”

This inspiration seems to last in the majority of North Koreans who decided to flee their homeland. According to a 2008 survey of nearly 300 defectors by Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Stiduies, 75 percent of North Korean defectors say that they continue to retain affection for DPRK leadership. The North Korean people are raised to believe that the dear DPRK leaders are more caring, affectionate, and valuable than their own lives or the lives of their families. A recent example was the act of a young North Korean girl who drowned in an attempt to save the portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Even more telling was that the leadership publicly rewarded her parents and school-teachers who helped nurture this line of thought.

The regime is certainly capitalizing on the rare return of a defector from South Korea to exhibit their ill feelings toward their southern neighbor, and portray a miserable life in the South. But what is even more telling is the real shame and guilt that defectors feel when they leave North Korea. Pak Jong-suk, during her press release after her return to the DPRK, said she was “an ingrate who had betrayed my motherland to seek better living while others devoted themselves to building a thriving nation, tightening their belts [due to a lack of food].” She also continually referenced “how affectionate” the leadership has been to her and how the dear Kim Jong-un brought her “under his warm care.”

While these certainly may be more the regime’s thoughts than Pak Jong-suk’s (especially the claim that she was “tricked” into defecting by South Koreans), the fact is that so many North Korean defectors – who initially exit through China – voluntarily return. And that many still harbor positive feelings toward the brutal regime, suggests the effectiveness of the government’s rhetoric and teaching.

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Russia’s New-Found Generosity

Former DPRK leader Kim Jong-il with former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during a 2011 visit just outside the Serbian town of Ulan-Ude. The meeting helped spark economic cooperation between Russia and North Korea.

Although North Korea finds itself at odds with much of the international community, it appears that cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang is on the rise. Last week the Russian government agreed to forgive nearly all (90 percent) of North Korea’s outstanding debt. The DPRK accumulated around $11 billion in debt to Moscow during the soviet-era, and, like all debts incurred by the North Korean regime, were never paid off. The specifics of the deal will have Russia forgive approximately $9.9 billion, with the remaining $1.1 billion to be invested in joint Russian-North Korean projects.

At a quick glance, the Russian rationale for the deal seems clear. The North Korean economy has been struggling terribly for decades, and the prospect of the DPRK’s ability (and willingness) to ever pay off their loans in full was extremely unlikely. What’s more, the two countries have had strong connections in the past, most notably during the Cold War era.

What’s striking about this deal, though, is the fact that until recently Russia had been firm in their demands for Pyongyang to pay-off their debts. When the Iron Curtain fell in the 1990s, relations between the two countries came to an abrupt halt. Russia officially recognized South Korea and immediately began to demand North Korea’s debts repaid. Relations between Moscow and Pyongyang did not continue until the election of Vladimir Putin in 1999 – and even then relations were not perfect. Although Putin was a man whom previous leader Kim Jong-il perceived as a Russian leader he could finally “do business with,” the issue of North Korean debts remained throughout the 2000s, as Russia continued to brush-aside requests from Pyongyang for debt forgiveness.

So why did Putin forgive the DPRK debts now? Russia’s new-found generosity regarding North Korean debts stemmed primarily from talks last year. In August of 2011, the late Kim Jong-il and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met in the Siberian city of Ulan-Ude to discuss the debt and other bilateral issues. One of the main discussion topics was the proposal to build a Trans-Korean gas pipeline from the Russian border, through North Korea, to supply considerable amounts of gas (over 10 billion cubic meters annually) to South Korea. Such a project could seemingly benefit Russia greatly. The pipeline was proposed under the guise of uniting the Korean peninsula in a common cause, thereby promoting inter-Korean relations. If the pipeline succeeded, Russia would receive credit for the improved relations, and would have the added bonus of being directly connected to South Korea’s booming economy.

Instead, however, North-South relations have only gotten worse, which has spurred some analysts to question Russia’s initial motivations for their generosity toward the North. An article yesterday in the Korea Herald, for instance, accused Putin of “trying to help Kim Jong-un consolidate political power and overcome mounting economic difficulties.” The article notes how Moscow is continuing to find itself more isolated, and that perhaps Putin’s motivation is to rekindle relations with an old anti-American ally:

Russia is desperately running out of friends on the international stage. With Libya and Syria having already become victims of the “Arab Spring,” Moscow is scrambling to buttress dictatorial regimes in its vicinity. Anti-Americanism and curtailed political freedoms once again have become the primary criteria in gaining Kremlin sympathies. Belarus, Iran, the countries of Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and now North Korea, have all received special treatment from the increasingly anti-Western Russia … Moscow is now returning to an East Asia policy that echoes of the Cold War. Instead of reprimanding Kim Jong-un for his provocative actions and belligerent rhetoric, Putin is dumping trillions of tax-payers’ roubles into supporting a friendly dictator.

Whatever the motivations, it does seem that the Asia-Pacific region is once again becoming “a theater for large-scale geostrategic games where powerful empires scrum in a noxious struggle for domination,” as it was in the Cold War era. And at the moment, Russia (and China), may be siding with their old Cold War buddy.

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China Hires Thousands of North Korean Workers

North Korean workers at a South Korean clothing company’s factory in the inter-Korean industrial park in Kaesong. North Korea has a history of exported labor attempts, designed to raise funds for their chronically bankrupt regime.

North Korea keeps receiving help from its most generous ally. According to a Los Angeles Times article this morning, China has agreed to hire a large number of North Korean guest workers. The deal, which has not been made public by either country, would allow 40,000 “seamstresses, technicians, mechanics, construction workers and miners” to work legally in the Chinese Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture (a region adjacent to the Northeast China-Korea border) on industrial training visas. According to Kim So-yeol, a reporter with NK Daily, the number may rise to around 120,000 workers by the end of this year. Although large numbers of unskilled North Korean workers have long sought economic opportunities in China, the article notes that such a large number of legal migrant workers is “unprecedented,” as Beijing does not typically issue visas for “unskilled and semi-skilled workers.”

The benefits here for North Korea are clear. The country is facing extreme economic issues, which may only be worsened as they continue to face one of the worst droughts in recent Korean history. With a “teetering regime with little more to export than the drudgery of a desperately poor population,” the opportunity to raise much needed money is a no-brainer for the DPRK. The article notes that most of the money (around 80% or more) will likely bypass the workers and go straight into the pockets of the North Korean regime.

The rationale from China’s perspective is more complicated. Beijing has made support for North Korea a high priority: Experts estimate that since the mid-1980s (when North Korea’s economy began its sharp decline) China has provided an excess of $7 billion in handouts to the North. One reason for such spending, according to analysts, is that the collapse of the DPRK would be perceived as a blow to China’s dominance in the region, as it could open up the possibility of a unified Korean peninsula with strong ties to the U.S. The labor deal would also provide China with a number of ideal, albeit unskilled, North Korean workers. Park Hyeong-jung, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, notes that “[t]here are no better employees than North Koreans: They are obedient, efficient and cheap.”

On the other hand, as China continues to face mounting criticisms for its commitment to international humanitarian issues, such a deal with North Korea could be viewed as “violating the spirit, if not the letter,” of recent U.N. sanctions against the North for its determined pursuit of nuclear weapons and continued military development. The deal could raise national tensions within China as well, as a recent incident in which North Korean sailors hijacked three Chinese fishing boats infuriated many Chinese who believe their government is overly tolerant of DPRK recklessness. Moreover, according to the article, the deal will provide labor opportunities in a region that suffers “no labor shortages,” which may only escalate Chinese resentment of North Koreans. According to Zhang Lianggui, a North Korea expert at the Central Party School in Beijing, the North Korean laborers “will be competing directly with local youths for job opportunities.”

While North Korea must be pleased to receive the much-needed income, the overall success and repercussions of this deal remain to be seen.

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“Worst Dry Spell in a Century” Hits Korean Peninsula

Rice plants grow from cracked and dry soil in Ryongchon-ri, North Korea. The Korean peninsula is facing the worst drought in over a hundred years.

Things are not getting any easier for the people of North Korea. According to an Associated Press article yesterday, the Korean peninsula is facing the worst drought “since record-keeping began nearly 105 years ago.” The news comes as North Korea is facing a serious food shortage – as they have been for the past twenty years or so since the droughts created a widespread famine in the 1990s, and economic mismanagement from the 1980s to the present has only exacerbated the issues. The article notes how the U.N. has reported a bleak picture in the country already, with about two-thirds of North Koreans (16 million people) facing chronic food shortages.

The future looks equally grim: If the DPRK administration continues to govern as it has in the past (and thus far most indications say they will), then the North’s new young leader, Kim Jong-un, could be faced with a problem he can’t solve. Although North Korea desperately needs food sources, until now Kim has relied on a “juche” (self-reliance) ideology that harkens back to his grandfather’s rule. Roughly, the rhetoric states that a nation strengthens its sovereignty and security by relying only on its own people, and if only the North Korean people work harder, longer hours, all will be well.

Unfortunately, this naive “strategy” overlooks the glaring obstacles workers face. The mountainous countryside of North Korea is not an ideal location to practice agricultural self-reliance, as only 20 percent of its land is arable. Moreover, the North has traditionally relied on outdated farming and industrial methods, and, according to the U.N., farmers presently lack basic resources such as “fuel, tractors, quality seeds and fertilizer.” During the last major drought in the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans were estimated to have died as a result.

Worse still, even if North Korea were to submit a request for international aid, the international community would be resistant to help. Due to previous unpaid debts, widespread government corruption, and a continued desire to develop nuclear weapons, the DPRK will likely receive very little international aid from developed countries not named China or Russia. Unless the North decides to officially begin denuclearizing or take steps toward a more transparent, accountable government, most countries will remain unwilling to cooperate.

Unless the DPRK changes its tune (or China remains willing and able to keep the country propped up), the results could be catastrophic.

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The Frustrating Life of a North Korean Ally

A political cartoon depicts the rocky relationship between China and North Korea. The image shows China’s current leader, Hu Jintao, admonishing North Korea’s previous leader, Kim Jong-il, who is depicted as a misbehaving puppet.

Although tensions between North Korea and its enemies (the U.S., Japan, and South Korea) have been on the rise lately, apparently life as an ally of the DPRK isn’t so smooth either. According to a New York Times article published over the weekend, China is beginning to lose patience with its rambunctious ally on the Korean peninsula. The article provided an insightful glimpse into the difficult life of political negotiations between China and North Korea. One major area of concern for the Chinese government that the article highlights is North Korea’s relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons. This reckless pursuit has continued despite the opposition of not only the U.S., but of the majority of the international community, including China. However, so far the North has refused to listen, even to its closest ally:

“We have made this absolutely clear to them; we are against any provocation,” Cui Tiankai, another Chinese vice minister of foreign affairs, said in a recent interview when asked about a possible third nuclear test by North Korea. “We have told them in a very direct way, time and again, we are against it.”

This is not the only issue the Chinese have had during their long relationship with the DPRK. With a floundering North Korean economy, which is state-controlled and primarily used as an instrument to sustain those in power, the issue of economic reform is also a cause of friction between the two nations. Victor Cha, the former director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, recalls the frustration of Chinese officials over the North’s inability to consider economic reform:

I would ask Chinese counterparts about the need to push the North to reform economically. The Chinese would look at me like I was some sort of idiot, responding, ‘Do you think we have not told them this before? We have told them many, many times!’ I asked if they referred the North to China’s own experiences as a template to be emulated. Again, I was looked at like some sort of Martian, with the response that the Chinese have always lectured the North about the comparison. The North Korean response was (1) ‘Don’t lecture us’; and (2) ‘North Korea is not China.’ (From The Impossible State, 153)

North Korea’s obstinate nature and unwillingness to heed the advice of other nations is nothing new (just ask South Korea and the U.S.). But what’s surprising is that the DPRK remains so stubbornly opposed to China, an ally that has basically kept the North afloat through massive contributions of aid during recent rough economic times. Korean experts and research fellows Stephan Haggard and Marcus Nolan estimate that since the mid-1980s (when North Korea’s economy began its sharp decline) China has provided an excess of $7 billion in handouts to the North. And China still continues to provide massive assistance to North Korea. According to a report by Drew Thompson, the director of China Studies and Starr Senior Fellow at The Nixon Center, China provides 80 percent of the North’s imported consumer goods and at least 45 percent of its food.

Yet, despite the incredible economic leverage China possesses, the North continues to ignore and even provoke its ally. Just last month, a group of Chinese fishermen were held captive in North Korea, and the lack of a firm Chinese response has ignited criticisms from a growing number of Chinese citizens.

Nevertheless, China has remained reluctant to punish North Korea, and has continued to sustain the DPRK. Even given the difficulties in the relationship, China still views a North Korean collapse as the greater of the two evils:

[S]enior Chinese officials “dare not use China’s economic leverage” against North Korea, said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. That is because a collapse of the North Korean government could result in a united Korea allied with the United States, which would be a nightmare scenario for China, Mr. Shi said.

The New York Times article notes that China is even more “concerned” due to recent U.S. naval developments in the Asia-Pacific region. China’s worried that the U.S. is attempting to exert more influence in the region, and the collapse of North Korea could open-up the possibility of a U.S.-friendly, and anti-China, Korean peninsula.

In China’s eyes, a united Korea strongly allied with the U.S. would be much worse than dealing with Kim Jong-un’s occasional antics and aid requests.

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North Koreans Taught Early to Hate the “American Bastards”

One of the tamer Anti-U.S. propaganda posters at the Kaeson Kindergarten in Pyongyang, North Korea. The poster reads, “Drive out the American imperialists. Let’’s reunify our fatherland.”

Apparently, learning to hate Americans and “U.S. imperialists” begins for North Koreans in their kindergarten classroom. A revealing article from the Associated Press yesterday, highlights the shocking anti-U.S. propaganda one can find in a typical Pyongyang classroom. Here’s a brief sample of some of the unbelievably violent and terrifying images that scatter the halls of these children’s schools:

A framed poster on the wall of a kindergarten classroom shows bright-eyed children brandishing rifles and bayonets as they attack a hapless American soldier, his face bandaged and blood spurting from his mouth. “We love playing military games knocking down the American bastards,” reads the slogan printed across the top. Another poster depicts an American with a noose around his neck. “Let’s wipe out the US imperialists,” it instructs … US soldiers are depicted as cruel, ghoulish barbarians with big noses and fiendish eyes. Teeth bared, they brand prisoners with hot irons, set wild dogs on women and wrench out a girl’s teeth with pliers. One drawing shows an American soldier crushing a girl with his boot, blood pouring from her mouth, her eyes wild with fear and pain.

Unfortunately, while this may come as a shock to some, such overtly anti-U.S. sentiment has been previously catalogued by North Korean experts. Victor Cha, the former director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, notes (in The Impossible State) how North Korean schoolchildren learn how to conjugate verbs “by reciting ‘We killed Americans,’ ‘We are killing Americans,’ [and] ‘We will kill Americans,'” and develop basic math skills by learning how to “subtract or divide the number of dead American soldiers to get the solution.”

This systematic hatred is typically reserved for the two worst enemies in the eyes of the DPRK: the U.S. and Japan. One poster on the wall reads, “The American imperialists and Japanese militarism are the sworn enemies of the North Korean people.” These two countries earned this antagonism through past military actions directed against the North, for instance Japan’s occupation of Korea and the U.S.’s involvement in the Korean war.

These feelings have been exacerbated by the warped official history of the DPRK. For instance, a teacher interviewed by members of the AP claimed that they begin by teaching the students how the “American imperialists started the [Korean] war.” (In reality, the war began with an invasion by North Korean leader and founder, Kim Il-sung.) Much of the emphasis in North Korean schools is on the brutal past actions of the U.S. and Japan. As North Korean analyst and author B.R. Myers observed:

The main theme of anti-American propaganda is not ‘We must be ready for an attack’ but ‘We must be ready for revenge … People are being whipped up to hate the United States on the basis of past actions.

While the focus may be on “revenge” for past actions, North Korea has also continually underscored the imminent threat the U.S. military poses, constantly referring to the U.S. as a threat to the “stability” and “sovereignty” of the North. Many of the propaganda images continually display U.S. soldiers with nuclear symbols on their helmets, to remind North Koreans of the threat the U.S. poses to their safety.

Recently (ever since South Korea officially ended unconditional aid to the North), the ROK leadership has come under fire as well. On the KCNA – the official news organization of the DPRK – website, one can find constant streaming messages urging North Koreans to “Cut Off the Windpipes of the [President of South Korea] Lee Myung Bak-Led Swarm of Rats!” Traditionally the South has been portrayed in North Korea as a land of U.S. “puppets”; a dreadful country filled with horrible people. (While in reality South Korea’s economy is booming, with its nominal GDP ranked 15th in the world.)

While the “histories” and caricatures of the U.S., Japan, and South Korea clearly contradict reality, the anti-West sentiments these instruments conjure in the people of North Korea are all too real.

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