Korean War Armistice Signing Anniversary


Truce In Korea 1953

This past July 27th marked the 59th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that officially put the Korean War on hold. It was a silent holiday that went nearly unnoticed by the world. However, for those soldiers who lived through the Korean War, this was an important day, no matter what side they fought on, and many gathered to remember and to celebrate.

In North Korea, this day was celebrated with war veterans visiting Panmunjom to pledge their unchanging loyalty to North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un. Fireworks were also fired to celebrate the day. The commemorations are meant to kindle patriotism and loyalty in North Koreans, and especially the young, by showcasing veterans who fought for their country, said Kim Yeon-su of Korea National Defense University in Seoul. Ahead of the anniversary, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry reiterated its long-standing demand that the United States sign a peace treaty with North Korea to replace the armistice. However, the United States continues to stand by its claim that normal ties will only come after North Korea abandons its pursuit of nuclear weapons and takes other steps towards change. Continue reading

「남남갈등」의 회복이, 통일한국의 첫걸음입니다.

한국의 남북통일은, 경제적・정치적인 문제를 넘어 진정한 마음의 평화를 위해서 반드시 실현 해야 하는 사명이라고 생각합니다. 그러나, 단일민족이라고 하는 이유만으로 통일이 이루어진다면, 큰 비극을 만날 위험도 커질 것입니다. 먼저, 그들에 대해 이해하고, 우리들의 모습과 가치관에 대해서도 그들에게 전하는 노력이 전제가 되어야 할 것입니다.
그런데, 최근 한국의 여론은 통일반대의 목소리가 높아지고 있으며, 대북정책에 대해서도 완전히 두 개로 단절되어 있습니다. 즉, 한국도 사상적으로 분단되어 있는 「남남갈등」상태인 것입니다. 이대로는 통일을 바라볼 수 없으며, 통일이 이루어진다고 해도 더욱 큰 혼란이 찾아올 뿐일 것입니다.

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Competition Stalls North-South Negotiations

After another false start in what appeared to be a thaw in North-South relations, plans to hold high-level government negotiations collapsed. This time, North and South Korean officials squabbled over who to send as their top delegates to participate in the dialogue.

                South Korea planned to send unification minister Ryoo Kihl-jae, and asked Pyongyang to send Minister Ryoo’s North Korean counterpart, Kim Yang-gon, a Workers Party secretary. However, the North claimed that Kim was above a minister’s level, and appointed a party official of lower rank instead. In response, the South said it would send a lower ranking official as well. North Korea then withdrew from the talks, accusing the South of a “grave provocation.”

                This inability to agree on which officials are equivalent in authority reflects South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s firm stance against North Korean provocations. It also reflects a competition over pride that dates back decades. At one border talk, North Korean military officials added inches to the legs of their chairs so they looked taller than their South Korean counterparts. In an infamous 1969 meeting, both sides remained silent for over 11 hours, challenging the other side to speak first.

                “We must think of the pride of our people,” said South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/13/world/asia/behind-breakdown-of-korea-talks-a-history-of-suspicions.html?ref=northkorea).

                Hopefully similar bouts of competitiveness will subside so that high-level negotiations can take place in the future.


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North Korea, an Interesting Collection: Part III


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Following my previous article on North Korea and the European Media, I thought it would be a good idea to resurrect this series. Given that the standardized Western media is of limited use when trying to understand North Korea, additional sources are clearly preferable. As such, it is the aim of this article to provide those. Initially, it was not easy to find websites in English but a closer look revealed that apart from this very website, there are a multitude of additional high-quality sources available.


1) DailyNK




This is perhaps the most prominent source that provides quality insights into North Korea. DailyNK is run by North Korean defectors and publishes articles on an almost daily basis. What makes DailyNK very special is its vast network within North Korea. As such, it is possible to gain insights that would otherwise remain hidden. Hereby the “Defector’s Story” column deserves a special mention.


2) North Korean Economy Watch




As the name suggests, NK Economy Watch has a special focus on the economy. The author is a PhD student in economics and as such knows what he is talking about. This is very reflected in the quality of the articles. Recently, a very interesting article about the possibility of buying North Korean government bonds has been published. The underlying idea is that you buy these bonds hoping that the South Korean government will pay for North Korean debt upon Korean unification. Clearly, the associated risks are enormous – but so are the potential benefits and gains.


3) Free Radio North Korea




Free Radio North Korea is special because it does not only provide news in English, but also a radio service. More importantly, it can also be listened to in North Korea. Since its establishment in 2003, broadcasting hours and contents provided have increased steadily and Free Radio North Korea has been awarded with, among others, the Asian award for Democracy and Human Rights.


Ronald Reagan once said that “information is the oxygen of the modern age. It seeps through the walls topped by barbed wire, It wafts across the electrified borders”. This is especially true with respect to North Korea and all the above mentioned websites provide invaluable insights. Their actions and services provided are therefore all the more useful in order to properly prepare for unification.




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Why has North Korea not collapsed yet?

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North Korea’s downfall has been predicted time and time again, yet here we are, in the year 2013, and not much has changed in this regard. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and North Korea’s economic collapse in the early/mid 1990s, the end seemed more inevitable than ever. However, the political collapse did not follow suit and around 20 years have passed since then. This article therefore attempts to explain why the inevitable may not be so inevitable after all.

1) Incentives

Virtually every economist will tell you that “incentives matter”. And they do—perhaps even more so in North Korea. Despite not having served in the military, Kim Jong-un has recently been promoted to a four star general. Under normal circumstances, this would cause outrage among the military elites and established party cadres. However, since Seon-gun (Military First Policy) has been fully constitutionalized in April 2009, military officials enjoy priority access to virtually anything – without having to politically justify those actions. As such, they have little incentive to change the status quo. Similar arguments can be made about the privileged citizens of Pyongyang. They will lose the most from political dissent, as they risk being banished from the city for even minor offences. This is especially critical with respect to the next point, space.

2) Space

Space is very important in order to organize and coordinate. North Koreans lack space – private, public, and virtual. The last has been crucial in triggering the still ongoing Arab Spring but is almost entirely absent in North Korea. More importantly, it is not legal for more than three North Koreans to freely gather, making organized dissent all the more difficult. Given these circumstances, coordinated actions are most likely to happen in densely populated areas, i.e. cities. This stands in stark contrast to the previous point about urban residents mostly consisting of privileged classes, and may provide a potential explanation as to why this has not happened yet. Furthermore, markets also provide space because information, gossip, prices, etc. are all exchanged there. Despite not fitting into the socialist system, this is a major (if not the major) reason why the North Korean government is trying to suppress their development.  

3) Uncoordinated international actions

The North Korean government has rarely felt truly isolated, because it was able to play one party against another due to uncoordinated actions by the countries of interest, such as ROK, U.S., etc. Especially American and South Korean government policies toward North Korea need to be more coordinated. The Bush Doctrine took a very conservative stand and famously labeled North Korea as an “axis of evil” country. At the same time, however, the South Korean government adopted a more liberal and inclusive approach, sunshine policy. During the Lee Myung-bak, who would have been more willing to take a hard-lined stance against the DPRK, administration, U.S. was already embroiled in a messy situation with Afghanistan and Iraq, causing it to divert its attention from the hermit kingdom. Given this recent track record, the current Obama-Park administrations seem to be more in sync, providing a much-needed change. If China can be included in this coordination process, North Korea may not be able to continue playing one party against the other. 

The reasons above are of course not the sole determinants in explaining the current situation; there are other various factors in play. However, they can provide potential reasons and, being an economist, I personally do believe that incentives as well as space matter and therefore need to be properly addressed and understood in order work toward unification.


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Release Kenneth Bae


             On April 30, the North Korean Supreme Court sentenced U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae to 15 years of hard labor. Bae was arrested in November 2012 after entering North Korea as a tourist and indicted for committing “hostile acts.” Initially, he was accused of trying to overthrow the Pyongyang government, a crime that could result in punishment as severe as the death penalty. Though Bae’s sentencing is less grave than what could have been, his punishment is still unjust and he should be released on humanitarian grounds.

Firstly, the North Korean legal system did not grant due process. When U.S. diplomatic presence is absent in North Korea, representatives from the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang are to step in. However, Swedish representatives were not at Bae’s trial, rendering the charge unfair.

             Furthermore, Bae’s punishment is simply a political move to initiate talks between the U.S. and the DPRK. When American citizens have been detained in the past, former presidents have flown to Pyongyang to negotiate their release. In 2009, Bill Clinton met with Kim Jong-il to free journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee. In 2010, Jimmy Carter went to North Korea to secure the release of Aijalon Mahli Gomes. In both cases, North Korea used the former presidents as messengers to the U.S. This puts President Obama in a tough situation—should he send a former president or high-ranking official to Pyongyang to free an American citizen? Or should he refuse to play North Korea’s game? It is true that all nations employ political strategies to shift conditions in their favor. But the fact that Bae will be subject to harsh labor and possible torture under this ploy makes this political gimmick inhumane.

             It could be argued that this hostage case is different from the ones in 2009 and 2010, as North Korea has rejected the conditional proposal for talks with U.S. But regardless of North Korea’s intentions, Bae was unfairly convicted and should therefore be released.


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New Options for the ROK and the U.S. – Harvard University

              On April 11, 2013, The ROK National Unification Advisory Council has hosted a panel discussion, “Toward a Peaceful Korean Unification-New Options for the ROK and the U.S.” at Harvard University. The panel discussions were divided into two different panels: “A New North Korea Policy for the ROK and the United States” and “Reinforcing the ROK-U.S. Alliance: Continuity and Change.” Prominent speakers from both South Korea and the United States generously came to provide insight into the policies necessary for the recent rising tensions and the new presidential regimes in the countries.


             During the first panel, “A New North Korea Policy for the ROK and the United States,” Dr. Jeong-woo Kil, member of the ROK National Assembly, Dr. Robert King, U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights Issues, Dr. Ho-Yeol Yoo, Professor at Korea University, Dr. Sang-hwa Chung, Research Fellow at the Sejong Institute, and Dr. Marcus Noland, Director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, came to discuss the future foreign policy of U.S. and ROK.


             Each discussant had distinguishing arguments, but there was a general consensus among the panel on the importance of a stronger ROK-U.S. alliance. Representatives of both ROK and the U.S. have recognized that national security as well as its ally’s security will be the utmost importance in their policy. Thus in going forward with foreign policy, national security and international security will be the main factor. Such emphasis may have resulted from the growing tensions between North and South Korea regarding DPRK’s nuclear program. Moreover, panel discussants have agreed that South Korea and U.S. should keep their relations strong. In my opinion, with ROK’s newly elected president and President Obama’s second term now underway, this new slate of presidency will allow the two countries to formulate and continuously communicate about what would be best to handle North Korea’s situation. I believe that if U.S. and ROK were to have completely different opinions on its foreign policy toward North Korea, it would send North Korea nothing more than confusing signal. A stronger, more unified alliance between ROK and U.S. allows the two presidents to cooperate on a foreign policy that’ll best secure national interest and international security.


             Discussants of the second panel,  “Reinforcing the ROK-US Alliance: Continuity and Change,” were Dr. Kathleen Stephens, former U.S. Foreign Service Officer to ROK, Dr. Jung-Hoon Lee, Professor at Yonsei University, Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt, Henry Wendt Chair, and Dr. Hyun-seok Yu, Professor at Kyunghee University. The panel moderator, Dr. Sung-yoon Lee, Professor at Fletcher School of Tufts University, gave insightful ideas and entertained the audience with his witty comments.


             As the title of the second panel suggests, the panel consisted of ideas: what will change? What will stay the same? Easy to say, the change may come in differing foreign policies from the two administrations. Park Geun-hye’s foreign policy is labeled as truspolitik, which seeks a more lenient policy than that of the previous administration. The continuity comes in play with North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. Both U.S. and ROK, as well as other international players encourage North Korea to abandon its nuclear program completely. Both sides agree that continuing to put sanctions on North Korea is the best way to deal with the current situation. Diplomatic talks should happen soon, but the biggest concern now should be how to reduce threats from North Korea.


             So how is the Korean peninsula to move towards a peaceful Korean Unification? A lot needs to be done. First and foremost, in short-term, reducing tension is key. Diplomatic talks will come once the tensions ease. However, moving towards a peaceful unification requires the effort from both Koreas. Dealing with North Korea’s economy, its abhorrent human rights issues and its political ideology must all change in order to move towards a peaceful unification.


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Photo Essay: Joseph Ferris’s Snapshots of Everday Life

The headline was “Rare Images Show A Side of North Korea That Outsiders Rarely See.”

I had immediately remembered Frühtau’s photos, which I loved for the same reason, and so of course I had to click.

These photos are just as rare and wonderful. Following them to their source, I found my next Flickr goldmine. Joseph A. Miller III is an American whose “day job” is working as Chief Mate on oceanographic research ships. On his months off, he began visiting North Korea, and soon became a partner and tour guide with Young Pioneer Tours.

He runs a blog called American in North Korea, which has more information about his tours, his perspectives, and his background. And his Flickr account has his gorgeous photos; check them out at http://www.flickr.com/photos/josephferris76/.

When he is in the country (as he is now through the end of May 2013), you can also follow his photos live on Instagram.

There are far too many wonderful photos to post them all, but here are a handful:




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Domestic Politics in North Korea

Tensions are becoming increasingly strained on the Korean peninsula. On March 11, North Korea nullified the 1953 Korean War armistice. At the end of March, it threatened to close the Kaesong complex. And it has allegedly moved a medium-range missile to the east coast.

             These actions have been viewed by many as a response to joint South Korea-United States military exercises. Others view North Korea’s aggressive rhetoric as a strategy to pressure the U.S. and South Korea to resume talks on denuclearization, hoping to gain much-needed aid.

             But rather than international politics, perhaps domestic politics are driving such threats.  North Korea has become increasingly reliant on China for economic support. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Beijing provides an estimated 80 percent of North Korea’s consumer goods and 45 percent of its food[i]. With this dependence comes the large possibility that Beijing will engulf North Korea—the former ancient Koguryo kingdom—and claim that Koguryo’s history is Chinese, not Korean. If this were to happen, the political backlash against Kim Jong-un would be enormous, and perhaps lead to internal collapse. How would Kim tell his people that North Korea is Chinese territory and that its history is Chinese history—especially when China was considered an ally—and be able to hold on to power?

             Pyongyang’s belligerent talk may be an effort to reassert Kim’s authority, in the face of an encroaching China. While North Korea’s threats can be seen as cries for attention from the South and the U.S., it’s also important to consider the internal political struggle in Pyongyang, and the political calculations Kim must make to maintain his dictatorship.

[i] Xu, Beina, and Jayshree Bajoria. “The China-North Korea Relationship.” Council on Foreign Relations. (2013): n. page. Print. http://www.cfr.org/china/china-north-korea-relationship/p11097.

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Dennis Rodman Conjures Similarities Between U.S. and N.K.


The intro video before Dennis Rodman’s recent ABC News interview with George Stephanopoulos wraps with a clip of Colonel Stephen Ganyard, USMC, saying, “There is nobody at the CIA who could tell you more personally about Kim Jong-un than Dennis Rodman, and that in itself is scary.”

The tape cuts to the interview. Rodman wears sunglasses and a baseball cap in addition to his many frightening tattoos and piercings. Stephanopoulos asks Rodman pointed questions about Kim Jong-un and North Korea. “When you said you loved Kim and think he’s awesome, were you aware of his threats to destroy the United States and his regime’s horrendous record on human rights?” “What did he tell you about America and what did you learn about him?” “You called them great leaders, do you really believe that?” “He wants a call from President Obama?” “Did you say, ‘Why don’t you pick up the phone and call President Obama?'”

A screenshot of Dennis Rodman on the air with ABC News (photo credit ABC News).

A screenshot of Dennis Rodman on the air with ABC News (photo credit ABC News).

Rodman does not articulate his thoughts well. Throughout the interview, Stephanopoulos (the former Senior Advisor for Policy and Strategy during the Clinton administration, and a current member of the Council on Foreign Relations) makes his skepticism toward Rodman’s claims obvious.

He asks: “A ‘great guy’ who puts two hundred thousand people in prison camps?”

Rodman responds that some of the things the American government does are similar.

Stephanopoulos is justifiably taken aback by this, because America does not have prison camps. It is a very different country. Although America imprisons more people than North Korea, its incarceration rate is lower, roughly seven per thousand instead of eight per thousand. One might argue that all Americans, even in prison, are freer than North Koreans. America has nothing like the torture and public executions North Korea has; instead, it permits torture and capital punishment only following due process of law, and then only rarely. Even America’s most infamous detention camp has been on the verge of being shut down for several years now, thanks to successful outcry, and few detainees die there, except sometimes when they have been detained without trial for ten years or more. Stephanopoulos is right to suggest that Rodman’s comparison is unfounded.

When Rodman claims that Kim does not want war, Stephanopoulos counters by quoting Kim’s threats against the United States saying the exact opposite. Stephanopoulos sensibly conflates threat with intention (though others, like Brian Myers, would perhaps argue that Kim must threaten war with the United States to legitimize his government).

Stephanopoulos’s point in all this: Rodman, who supposedly knows the most about Kim Jong -un, knows little. He gently asks Rodman, “Do you think you have a responsibility to ask him about [his regime’s horrendous record on human rights] so that you are not perceived as sort of propping up his regime, his cult of personality?”

His advice for Rodman: “Next time you go back, you should bring this report from the Human Rights Watch with you and maybe ask some questions about that as well, you might learn a lot more and it might press him as well, but thank you for coming on this morning and sharing your impressions.”

“Here’s the report.”

The minor details we can glean from Rodman’s words are of little use. We can tell, for instance, that Kim Jong-un has enough charisma to convince the people who meet him that he’s a great guy. What good is that? Since Kim is not actually a great guy, this fact is not worth exploring.

Second: according to Rodman, Kim is willing to say that he wants to talk to President Obama. This should probably be discredited as well; after all, as Stephanopoulos points out, if he really wanted to talk with Obama, he could just pick up the phone and call him.

Third: we have even more proof that Kim Jong-un loves basketball. Rodman stresses this: “He loves basketball. Obama loves basketball. Let’s start there. Let’s start there.” But, says Stephanopoulos before moving on, that’s just “one tiny bit of common ground.”

Best to discount it, as Stephanopoulos does.                                               



North Korea threats over sanctions

Over the past week, North Korea made headlines on all of South Korea’s newspapers with repeated violent threats of “pre-emptive nuclear strike.” DPRK claimed that the 60 year-old armistice agreement that ended the Korea War in 1953 has become invalidated due to new UN sanctions, and the two Koreas have entered a “state of war.”


Usually, when South Koreans read these types of news, they barely stop to give a second thought or to reflect on what it really means to them. But this time, the atmosphere in Korea is a bit more serious. Some still consider the threats merely as bluff, others are worried about the gravity of the bellicose rhetoric made by North Korea. The older generations are much more concerned about the security issues than the younger generations who are much desensitized about the tension on the Korean peninsula. A spokeswoman at the South Korea’s Ministry of Unification reported “Overall, there’s a heightened sense of alert this time”.

13,000 U.S. and South Korean forces are scheduled to have joint military exercises this month while North Korea is starting with its own large-scale military drill this week.


DPRK has yet to make a direct rhetorical condemnation of the new Seoul administration of President Park Geun-Hye, but the South Korean government is still sending out strong language to its citizens. Park Geun-Hye has vowed to strongly act against any provocation. This tough stance is to avoid any type of initial attack by the North. However, some are worried that such hard-lined stance may lead to an escalation of events far more unmanageable and destructive.


China, which has the closest diplomatic relation with the North, is strongly advocating for dialogue and diplomatic negotiation that could lead to an opportunity of negotiation settlement.


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News from the Inside

Whether they originate from Sudan, Afghanistan, or North Korea, refugees are a vital source of information regarding the present state of conditions inside of their countries of origin.  In those countries where hostile conditions render field and ground work dangerous and impossible, refugees are a reliable and essential source of up-to-date news.  Recently, I had the chance to interview a defector who had recently crossed back into North Korea for the first time after leaving his home in the North over two years ago.  The following are observations made from his recent trip back to his home in North Hamgyong Province.


  1. Open Dissent

    Although not entirely unheard of, open dissension of the Kim Jong-il regime was not common, as such an action constitutes as a major political felony with severe consequences.  However, open ridicule and criticism of Kim Jong-un about the elaborate display of pomp and circumstance he made of inviting NBA Hall-of-Famer Dennis Rodman to Pyongyang could be heard in the provinces from disturbed citizens who are perpetually hungry from a lack of food.  My defector friend reported that many have been resorting to suicide in order to end their own misery.

  2. Civilian Drills

    One piece of information that I was particularly shocked to learn was that North Korean citizens are actively preparing for war. Bomb raid drills are a regular practice in the provinces.  People are required to pack-up their necessities and find refuge and shelter deep in the mountains. For three days they must remain hidden in the mountains and are not allowed to return to their homes.  Some particularly nefarious individuals make good use of this opportunity to break into the empty, unguarded homes and steal valuables.

  3. Currency Devaluation

    The purchasing power of the North Korean Won has depreciated so much that, in the less crude words of my defector friend, “the only thing it’s good for is wiping yourself after a visit to the bathroom.”  In the unofficial North Korean markets, the only ‘legal ’tender used for purchasing is Chinese RMB and… US Dollars, who knew?  North Korean money has so little value that 5,000 won—the largest note—will buy a meager 2 kilograms of rice.  For those of you who neither eat nor cook rice on a daily basis, that’s about 3 days’ worth of rice for one person.  A warning for those of you who attempt to buy anything in the markets of North Korea with the local currency: prepared to be mocked and laughed at.

  4. Religious Persecution

    Some things just don’t change after two, ten, twenty or even fifty years later; religious freedom continues to be heavily suppressed in the North. Upon returning to his home in North Korea, my defector friend was met with the tragic news that his uncle had been incarcerated for his religious beliefs.  A firm and avid Christian, his uncle had spent the last few years evangelizing to members of his large family.  However, one day he ‘over-stepped’ that boundary and was reported to the police when he began to share his beliefs to people outside of the family.  He was tortured and interrogated in the prison facilities reserved for the most ‘heinous’ criminals until he confessed his crime: being a Christian. He lasted just 8 months before he succumbed to his treacherous conditions and deteriorating health.

With the nation of North Korea still in the very early phases of its leadership transition, conditions under Kim Jong-un’s regime can, and probably will change at a significantly faster rate than what has been recorded in the past. Defectors, refugees and those who cross back and forth into China are a reliable and valuable source of information about the present state of condition in the ever-changing North Korea.  Their observations, testimonies and opinions provide a good basis for us to determine the nature of society and activity in the totalitarian state.



A Unification Conversation

Often times it is the random, seemingly insignificant occurrences in our lives that can have the most profound impact on shaping our ideas, dreams and convictions. Sometimes these minor events can even play a powerful role in breaking the unexamined preconceptions and unchallenged prejudices that we unknowingly grasp on to. The people that we meet—and the conversations that we have with them—can be an effective catalyst for propelling our thoughts and refining our own understanding of who we are and what we stand for.

I met Professor Um on the 24-hour-long train ride departing from Beijing destined towards the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in mainland China—a curious region nestled in the far northeastern frontier of the country where the nations of China, Russia and North Korea meet.  We had both booked our ticket late so we were forced to make the dreadfully long journey by seating class, rather than the substantially more comfortable sleeping compartment. Tightly squeezed in our narrow seats, we sat facing each other separated by a mere meter distance and a small table on which all of our next three meals would be eaten during the coming 24 hours. 

As the train pulled out of the station and screamed its farewell, the passengers settled and commenced with their train-riding routine. On these long train journeys you can do one (or any combination) of four activities: play card games, eat your heart’s content of sunflower seeds, sleep or talk.  As the woman sitting beside me started on her bag of sunflower seeds, Professor Um examined me quietly with searching eyes before sparking up a conversation.  I don’t remember what language we started our conversation in, but Professor Um eventually introduced himself as an ethnic Chinese-Korean, or Joseonjok, and a professor and researcher of the Korean ethnic population.  Thus, I spent the majority of the journey receiving a private lecture from the professor.

We talked about a wide variety of topics related to the Korean peninsula and people.  Starting from current events, we talked about the election of Park Geun Hye as the new President of the South Korea and worked our way backwards through time discussing such topics as the prominence of Ban Ki Moon as Secretary General of the United Nations, the events of Saigu (4.19, more commonly known as the 1992 Los Angeles riots), the economic developments and political histories of North and South Korea, the Korean resistance and independence movement of freedom fighters from Japanese colonial occupation, and finally, the unification of the Korean peninsula.

As a Joseonjok, Professor Um’s views on, and desire for unification were quite strong.  Historically, Joseonjok have maintained close ties with North Korea, as many of them can trace their lineage back to the North; even their Korean dialects are similar. However, in recent years, many Joseonjok have found economic opportunities in South Korea and continue to migrate there in large numbers for work.  Notwithstanding, the culture of South Korea has pierced deep into the heart of Yanbian. Because of this dual allegiance, association and affinity for both ‘sides’, Professor Um explained that the Joseonjok people maintain a strong desire for Korean unification.  He went on to state that unification is not an act which can be accomplished by the authority of Presidents, but through the will of the people. The professor urged me to advocate and talk about Korea unification with others just as he had done with me.  He identified this as the most single most important duty I could undertake for the unification of the Korean peninsula.

24 hours after we began our conversation, the train reached its final stop and we disembarked having reached our destination just a short distance from the Sino-DPRK border.  If it weren’t for a divided Korea, I could have probably taken that train all the way to Seoul or Busan. As we exchanged goodbyes on the station platform, Professor Um charged me one last time to take to heart the things he had told me. 

Our meeting had been entirely coincidental, but my encounter with Professor Um forced me to re-examine and revisit my role as an overseas correspondent for the Ministry of Unification, the influence that this title carries, and the messages I aim to convey through my articles. I came to realize just how important widespread support is for the cause of Korean unification, and how vital that education and awareness of the issues are.  You and I may not have the authority of the President of South Korea or the Supreme Leader of North Korea, but we each have the simple power of a conversation at our disposal; a tool that can be influential in helping to shape the opinions, attitudes and feelings of others towards the goal of Korean unification, and that is a powerful tool.


<국제법과 북한의 전략>

핵실험과 미사일발사등, 북한은 국제법을 막무가내로 파기하는 것처럼 보일 것입니다. 그러나 그들은 나름대로의 국제법관에 근거하여  ‘북한식국제법이해를 통해오히려 국제법을 적극 활용하고 있습니다. 이번 기사에서는, 북한 국제법연구라는책에 있는 북한의자료들을 통하여 북한의 국제법관에대해 소개해 보려고 합니다.


김일성 교시에 「조선에 대한 미제의 무력침범은 유엔헌장과 국제법의 란폭한 위반입니다. 유엔은 세계의 항구한 평화와 안전을 위하여 창설된 것이지, 미제국주의자들이 타국 령토를 침범하여 타민족의 독립과 자유를 유린하며 약소민족들을 식민지노예로 만들려는 침략적 목적에 리용하라고 창설된 것이 아닙니다.」라는 글이 있습니다. 이것을 통하여 북한도 국제법을 인정하고 있음을 알 수 있습니다.

김일성의 비밀교시(사진출처:http://www.newdaily.co.kr/news/article.html?no=115194)

김일성의 비밀교시(사진출처:http://www.newdaily.co.kr/news/article.html?no=115194)

1971년 조선민주주의 인민공화국 사회과학원 법학연구소는 법학 사전을 발간했습니다. 수많은 항목 중 ‘국제법의 당사자’라는 항목에는 이하의 구절이 등장합니다.
「조선민주주의인민공화국은 남북조선인민의 총의에 의하여 창건된 유일하게 합법적인 자주독립국가로서 자기의 모든 로선과 정책을 자주적으로 규정하며 대외관계에서 완전한 평등권과 자주권을 행사하고 있다. 따라서 조선민주주의인민공화국만이 전체 조선인민의 의사와 리익을 대표하는 국제법의 당사자이다.」
이를 통하여 대한민국의 정체성을 부정하고 있으며, 미국의 지령에 따라 움직이는 괴뢰정권에 불과하다고 비난하고 있습니다. 이것은 북한의 국가성을 인정하지 않고 있는 대한민국의 헌법과 동일한 내용이라고 할 수 있습니다.

그러나, 이규창씨는 동 법학사전이 모순이 있음을 지적하고 있습니다.
국제법이 국가들 간의 관계를 규제하는 법이기 때문에 자연인 또는 UN이 그 주체가 될 수 없다면 민족해방운동단체에도 그 주체성이 인정되지 않는 것이 논리적으로 맞지만 그것에 대해서 설명하지 못하고 있다는 것입니다. 또한, 물질적 기초로서의 일정한 지역과 영토가 있어야 한다고 주장하면서 민족해방운동단체의 국제법 주체성을 인정하려 함은 정상적인 논리에서 크게 벗어난다는 것입니다.

북한의 국제법관의 가장 큰 특징은 ‘자주권’을 강조하고 있다는 점입니다.
정치적 독립의 물질적 기초로 되는 자립적 민족경제를 건설하여야 하며 자주적 국방력을 가져야 한다. 국가 자주권은 그 국가의 신성한 권리로서 어떠한 외세의 간섭도 허용하지 않는다. 국가 자주권에 대한 침해는 곧 침략으로 된다.」
이 내용을 보고, 필자는 한국 또는 세계의 많은 나라들이 경제적으로 풍요롭게 잘 살고 있다는 것을 북한 주민들에게 전한다고 해서, 북한이 크게 변하지는 않을 것이라는 생각을 하게 되었습니다. 그들은 분명 배고프지만, 철저히 미국을 적국으로 돌리고 있으며 침략해 오는 대상으로 간주하고 있으므로 미국에게 침략을 당하느니 굶어 죽으리라는 사상이 뿌리깊게 박혀 있는 것이 아니겠습니까. 그러므로, 비교적인 부유함을 강조하기 보다는 김일성주석의 신적인 모습에 대한 허구성을 보여주는 전략이 필요한 시점이라고 생각합니다.

또 하나의 특이한 점으로서, 국제법 서술방식이 하나같이 “경애하는 수령 김일성 동지께서는 다음과 같이 교시하였다”고 하며 김일성 교시를 인용하는 것입니다. 이규창씨는 ‘주체의 국제법리론’이라 하는 것은 ‘김일성교시’를 가리키는 것이라 하였습니다. 북한에서는 김일성 교시가 절대적 권위를 갖고 있는데 「유일사상체계 확립의 10대원칙」이 조선노동당 중앙위원회에서 채택된 후 사회과학에 관한 북한 학자들의 논문서술방식에서 한결같이 김일성교시를 인용하게 되었다는 것입니다. 즉, 이규창씨의 주장에 의하면, 「그들은 현 국제법에서 착상을 얻어 그것을 자의적으로 적용하고 있다」는 결론에 도달할 수 있게 됩니다. 다르게 말하면, 북한은 국제법을 하나의 체계가 아닌 개개의 법규를 선택적으로 수락하고 있다는 것입니다.
국제법은 국제관계의 시스템이 효율적으로 이루어지기 위해 국가들이 조약으로 또는 관습법 형식으로 받아들이고 있는 법입니다. 국제법에는 아직 개선을 필요로 하는 부분이 있으며 보다 많은 나라들의 합의를 얻는 방향으로 나아가야 할 것입니다. 그러나, 불리한 부분은 국제법이 아니고 유리한 부분은 오히려 이용을 하여 국제사회를 어지럽히는 북한의 행동은 분명 옳지 못하다고 말할 수 있습니다. 모든 책임을 타국에 넘기려는 특성이 이곳에서도 드러난 것이겠지요. 이러한 태도라면 어떠한 협상도 진행해 나갈 수 없을 것입니다. 자신의 모습을 돌아보고 잘못된 행동을 인정했을 때 그들이 바라는 자주국가도 실현될 것이며 관계의 회복이 시작될 것입니다.

김찬규, 이규창(2009) 『북한 국제법 연구』 한국학술정보㈜

10 ju yeong name card

The Ethics of Tourism in North Korea


How ethical is it to visit North Korea? A visit will cost a minimum of around $150 a day for a mandatory guide, hotel room, and food, according to Lonely Planet. And that foreign currency is desperately needed by the cash-starved government. Thus a tour of North Korea, at least in a small way, helps the current regime to stay in power.

Since most of us oppose the current regime, it seems we ought to oppose visiting North Korea, too.

But it’s not that clear-cut. James Griffiths, writing for the Shanghaiist, collects some expert opinions on the matter, and he finds that, of the five North Korean specialists he queried, four of them advocated in favor of visiting the regime.

Perhaps there’s a selection bias going on here, but it’s worth seeing what they had to say. You can read all of their responses in full on shanghaiist.com.

The most extensive response came from Tad Farrell, the founder of NKNews.org. He notes that even if all Western tourists decided to stop visiting North Korea, the difference in cash flow for the North Korean government would only be $400,000, or about a thousandth of a percent of the country’s GDP. That figure is insignificant enough that whether we visit or not, the abuses of the regime would continue.

Although the dangers are imaginary, the benefits, Farrell says, are real. Contact with foreigners, even the superficial contact that comes as a result of carefully restricted tours, “will slowly influence the way ordinary North Koreans think about their situation, government, and borders.”

He may be right. But there’s little evidence to think the rate of that influence on the populace will be any more significant than the effects of tourism-related cash flow on the government. Still, people are harder to quantify than money; we can’t be sure.

Aidan Foster-Carter, a Senior Research Fellow at Leeds University, had a similar opinion to that of Farrell. And Hannah Barraclough, of Koryo Tours, thinks that tourism actually helps many of the people it ought to help, not the government: it gives jobs to guides, restaurant staff, and other workers in the tourism industry. From the view of the foreign visitors, tourism provokes beneficial contact with citizens and broadens their perspectives.

Melanie Kirkpatrick of the Hudson Institute takes the opposing view. She thinks that the foreign exchange value of tourist dollars is more significant than a comparison to the GDP would suggest, so the government is getting more money; more importantly, she argues that “any foreigner who argues that his visit will help ‘people-to-people’ contacts is dreaming,” because of the strict controls on that contact.

These are all good arguments. A recent defector from North Korea, alias Sang-hyun, says in an unrelated forum on Reddit:

“I think tourism in North Korea is a positive thing. It means that North Korean people can see and meet foreigners, even if they can’t have a conversation. If that happens, a lot then North Korean people’s thinking can change, especially if they can see the difference in the way foreigners live. Tourism and foreigners coming to the country is also in the direction of opening the country up, so I think it is a positive thing.”

I don’t know what the right answer is. As with most ethical questions, we can’t be sure. The balance seems to be in favor; it’s still up to each person to decide for themselves.






North Korea: An Interesting Collection, Part II

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When looking for documentaries about North Korea, one often finds such “high quality” films like “The VICE Guide to North Korea”. In the best case, they end up being uninformative, and in the worst case they simply refuse to take North Korea seriously. As such, it is the aim of this second and last part of the series to present two rather unknown documentaries about North Korea that go beyond the usual mockumentary.

4) North Korea: A Day in the Life


This Dutch documentary by Pieter Fleury aims to portray the ordinary life of a North Korean family. Just trying to explore this issue makes this documentary stand out because most others focus on the “usual suspects”, e.g. politics, economics, and history. The presented family has evidently been pre-selected because it would otherwise not be possible to get permission to film inside a truly ordinary North Korean’s home. Furthermore, seeing North Koreans openly talking about using the internet is clearly not an accurate picture. However, when watching Fleury’s film one does get the distinct impression that he is aware of these limitations and that he trusts the viewer to pick up on them as well. Personally, this feeling is achieved because “A Day in the Life” is not narrated. In doing so, it is not trying to judge, blame, or point fingers. When looking close enough, it is therefore possible to clearly see the cracks behind the façade and catch a glimpse of what a real day in life in North Korea may look like.

5) Crossing the Line



During the Korean War, six American soldiers are known to have defected to North Korea. Out of these six, James Joseph Dresnok is the most prominent one because he did not re-defect but more importantly, because he is an official North Korean citizen and the last remaining of the American defectors to be alive. He has no intention of leaving and plans to spend the rest of his life in North Korea, where he spends his time teaching, translating, fishing, and acting. I do not know to what extent his story is widely known but I personally find it extremely fascinating and would therefore like to share it.

I hope that this series has shown some rather unusual and interesting aspects about North Korea that go beyond what is usually shown in the Western media. It is crucial to go beyond generally streamlined articles in order to better understand North Korea and therefore better prepare for unification.


Photo Credit:



Sanctions and Threats, or The Sound and The Fury


Though they don’t seem to be changing North Korea’s behavior in the short-term, new sanctions were approved in early March that “will bite and bite hard,” according to Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, as quoted in a recent Yonhap News article.

South Korea has been pushing for stronger sanctions but is a minor player in what the clever Yonhap writer calls the “G-2” negotiations between the United States and China.

The sanctions include more rigorous inspections of North Korean transport vessels, restrictions on financial transactions and luxury imports, and a call to increase vigilance over North Korean officials abroad.

This round of sanctions was particularly noteworthy for China’s participation in shaping them, since China has traditionally been North Korea’s strongest ally. In the past, China has been criticized for being the weak link in global sanctions against North Korea, because it doesn’t matter much whether everyone else makes a commitment if North Korea’s closest neighbor and biggest trading partner stays idle.

This time China’s support for sanctions was drastically increased; this makes nations like the U.S. and South Korea, both of which argue for stronger restrictions since the 2013 nuclear tests, happy. South Korea’s ambassador to the UN said, “These are the strongest and most comprehensive sanctions on North Korea [yet]… China played a positive role.”

The actual implementation of sanctions, on the other hand, can leave something to be desired. Japan also has its eye on the sanctions’ success, as reported by the Yomiuri Shimbun. They write, “we hope the new measures will prove effective by being implemented thoroughly.”

It may be a vain hope, though; back in another article in Yonhap’s pages, Moon Heung-ho, professor at Seoul’s Hanyang University, says that China “is unlikely to take a maximum approach to implement the sanctions.”

Since the sanctions North Korea’s government has seemed to increase its threats toward South Korea and the United States. Most recently, North Korea claimed it tore up the 1953 ceasefire agreement and cut off the long-standing telephone hotline between North and South Korea, as the LA Times reports. They don’t mention that North Korea has taken both actions, which are implied to be significant, several times before (see this Peterson Institute blog post).

Stronger sanctions with uncertain implementation, threats without apparent action; in the ever-increasing coverage of Korean peninsular news since Kim Jong Un’s rise to power, there is a lot of sound and fury. It is difficult to tell how much is signified.



<대북방위협의, 한일관계개선의 걸음이 되기를>


이번 기사에서는, 일본 요미우리신문의 사설을 참고하여, 일본 대표언론기관의 입장을 소개해 보려고 합니다. 6월3일자 사설의 제목은 対北防衛協議 日韓関係改善の一方にしたい(대북방위협의, 일한관계개선의 한걸음이 되기를)입니다. 코노,헤겔,김관진 3인의 각국 국방장관은 싱가포르에서 열린 회담에 참가하였습니다. 이 자리에서, UN 결의에 근거한 핵무기, 개발계획파기의 의무이행을 북한에 강하게 요구하는 것과 함께, 북한의 도발을 방지하기 위해서 한미일이 협력할 것을 공동성명으로 발표 했습니다.

요미우리신문은, 대북외교의 성과를 높이기 위해서는, 한미일이 중국, 러시아를 포함한 북한포위망을 구축해서, 실효성 있는 압력을 가할 필요가 있다고 했습니다. 또한, 한미일이 부대 공동훈련을 더하여, 경계감시활동을 강화하는 것도 중요하다고 주장했습니다. 한미일의 협력은, 대북외교 이외에도, 재해원조, 인도지원, 해적정책 등에도 확대되고 있는 상황인 것을 강조 했습니다.

그러나, 미일, 한미관계에 비해 한일의 연계는 충분하지 않다는 염려를 표했습니다. 이명박 전 대통령의 독도 방문 후 악화된 한일관계는, 야스쿠니 신사참배나 위안부 발언 등으로 악화되고 있습니다. 그로 인하여, 박근혜 대통령과의 회담은 한번도 이루어지지 않았다는 것을 지적하고 있습니다. 요미우리 신문은, 그러나, 이 3자회담을 통하여 한일관계를 재구축하기를 바라고 있습니다. 또한, 북한뿐만 아니라 대두하고 있는 중국에 대응하기 위하여도 한일관계는 반드시 강화해야 한다고 말하고 있습니다.

일본에 살고 있는 필자의 견해로, 침략에 대한 의문 또는 위안부 발언 등, 한국인으로서는 납득할 수 없는 발언들이 이루어지고 있는 것에 큰 유감을 느낍니다. 그것은, 책임을 지지 않으려고 하는 좋지 않은 국민성에 근거한 모습입니다. 수상, 오사카 시장의 발언 등은, 한 개인의 의견으로 바라보기에는 어려운 문제입니다. 어느 나라보다도 좋은 관계를 맺을 수 있는 밑바탕이 마련되어 있는 것이 한일관계입니다. 진심어린 사죄를 구하는 것은, 더 좋은 관계를 맺기 위한 요구인 것입니다. 이 세대에 깊은 역사 갈등을 끝내고, 새로운 관계로 접어드는 한일관계가 되기를 바랍니다.

요미우리신문 홈페이지

10 ju yeong name card

<중국이 미국주도의 ‘대조선포위망’에 찬동하고 있다는 소문의 진실성은?>
일본 교토의 리츠메이칸 대학에는 코리아 연구 센터가 있습니다. 코리아 연구 센터에서는 매월 월례연구회를 진행하고 있는데요, 이번달(4월 22일)에는 중국 칭화대 초빙교수인 정기열씨가「북경에서 보는 조미대결전과 지구촌 정세」라는 주제로 강의를 진행 하셨습니다.

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정기열 교수는 우선, 중국이 소위 미국주도의 ‘대조선포위망’에 찬동하고 있다는 소문은 사실이 아니라고 단언하셨습니다. 중국은 다른 대부분의 나라와 같이 하나의 지평선에 놓고 정치, 사회, 문화에 관한 이야기를 할 수 없다고 하셨습니다. 왜냐하면, 중국에는 56개의 민족이 있으며 15개의 국가와 국경을 접하고 있고, 8000만 명 규모의 공산당이 전체를 지배하고 있는 국가이기 때문입니다. 그러므로, 중국의 행동은 쉽게 예측할 수 없다는 결론에 이르게 됩니다.

그러나, 2009년 6월 UN대북결의안에 중국이 참여함으로써, 「드디어 미국의 ‘중북이간정책’이 성공에 향하고 있으며, 궁극적으로는 대중포위전략을 만들어가고 있다 」는 주장이 힘을 얻게 되었습니다. 그러나, 그로부터 4개월 후 2009년 10월, 중국의 원자바오 총리는 평양을 방문하여 ‘조중혈맹은 영원하리’라는 발언을 합니다. 또한 2011년 10월 당중앙위원회 전원회의에서 후진타오 국가주석은 “중국의 서구화가 중국이 처한 가장 중대한 위기다”, “서방의 중국 사회에 대한 침투가 조직적으로 이루어져서 분열하려는 책략을 막아야 한다”라는 정도로 서구사회에 대한 경계를 대내외적으로 표했습니다. 그렇다면, 이 소문의 진실은 무엇일까요? 정기열 교수는 “실제로 중국 공산당 내의 세력다툼이 존재한다”고 하셨습니다. 공산당은 양분되어 있으며 그것은 서구화를 추구해야 한다는 세력과 전통을 중시하는 세력인 것입니다. 중국 대북전문가들은 “중조관계는 때로 시험에 처할지라도 영원하다”라며 강력히 주장하고 있다고 합니다.

중국의 친미학자들의 사상을 주로 다루는 “환구시보”라는 신문이 있습니다만, 이러한 언론에서도 “조,미 전쟁, 이미 끝난 전쟁, 조선이 승리했다”, “인류사 최장, 극단의 비대칭전쟁인 북미대결전쟁은 이미 끝났다” 라는 주장을 하고 있다는 것입니다. 과거의 제국들을 모두 복속시킨 중국의 문화는 적을 바로 내치지 않는 다는 것입니다. 일단 상대의 의견을 들으며 말할 기회를 준다는 것입니다. 정기열씨는 그것이 중국의 힘이 아닌가 라고 하셨습니다. 즉, 중국을 이해함에 있어서, 겉으로 보이는 모습만으로 판단하는 것은 불가능하며, 중국을 이길 수 없다는 것입니다.

시진핑 주석은 ‘부패와의 전쟁’을 선언하였으며, 이것은 실제로 중국 공산당 내부까지 자본주의세력이 파고들었다는 사실을 반증하는 것이기도 할 것입니다. 그러므로, 친미(전략파)세력이 커지면 ‘대북제재’에 동참하고 ‘조중관계를 끊어야 한다’는 소리가 나오는 ‘시기’가 있다는 것입니다. 다르게 말하면, 전통파의 세력이 커질 경우 전혀 반대의 주장이 나올 수 있다는 것입니다. 이러한 힘 싸움이 있기에 중국을 하나의 잣대로 판단할 수 없으며, 중국의 외교정책은 고정적일 수도 없다는 것입니다. 정기열씨는 서양의 언론은 전략파 세력의 소리만을 강조하는 것이라고 주장했습니다.

미국의 입장에서는 상대도 안 되는 작은 나라 ‘북한’이 세계 최대 강국 미국에게 도발하고 전면전을 선포하는데, 마음만 먹으면 무너뜨릴 수 있음에도 대화를 제의한 이유는? 그리고 북한이 그것을 거절할 수 있었던 배짱은? 정기열씨는, 이미 북한이 승리했으며 동북아를 중심으로 세계의 정세가 결정될 것이고 축이 뒤바뀌게 될 것이라고 주장했습니다.

필자는 북한을 연구함에 있어서 기본적으로 진보, 보수 양쪽의 주장 나름대로 일리가 있다는 입장을 갖고 있습니다. 이번 강연은 저 개인적으로는 약간의 충격이 있을 만큼 새로운 시각의 주장이었습니다. 정기열씨는 반미성향이 매우 강한 분이며, 북한의 대한민국 공산화 계획의 진실성 여부에 대해서는 간과하고 있다는 마음이 들었습니다만, 이러한 분의 주장도 그 경험에서 나온 근거와 개인적인 성향에 따라 도출된 결론일 것입니다. 즉, 중국이 힘 싸움에 따라 외교정책이 순간적으로 뒤바뀔 수 있듯이, 대한민국의 대북정책도 시기와 환경에 따라 진보, 보수를 선택 혹은 적절한 통합을 할 수 있는 마음을 열어두어야 한다고 생각하고 있습니다. 어떠한 주장도 진리가 될 수 없기 때문에, 원칙은 정해두더라도 항상 더 효과적인 정책을 추구해 나가야 할 것입니다. 북미갈등은 어떠한 결론에 이르게 될까요? 누구도 확신할 수 없지만, 우리는 정치 이상의 것을 지금부터 생각해야 할 것입니다. 그러기 위해서는 조선의 역사, 분단 후의 역사, 그들의 법과 문화에 대한 이해가 전제 되어야 할 것입니다. 어떠한 결론으로 도달할지는 알 수 없지만, 결국은 준비되어있는 자들이 진정한 통일한국에 일꾼으로 쓰일 수 있을 것입니다.

10 ju yeong name card

A Reading List for 2013


Wondering what to read about North Korea in 2013? Some of the contributors at Sino-NK.org had a talk recently about what they read last year. Their interests are diverse, although since Sino-NK tends toward scholarly analysis, the readings each author recommends take a similar bias toward the scholarly. But they still make good recommendations for all curious readers.

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Books, books, and more books. Photo credit Wonderlane via Flickr.


The panelists were Roger Cavazos, Chris Green, Adam Cathcart, and Steven Denney. Cavazos is an associate at the Nautilus Institute; Green is the English editor of the Daily NK; Cathcart is a professor at Queen’s University Belfast; and Denney is a grad student at Seoul’s Yonsei University specializing in East Asian political economy.


As you might guess from their day jobs, they read a lot about North Korea. What looks interesting in this pile of publications? I’d like to read Rudiger Frank’s essay “The Risks of Improvisation,” which appeared on 38 North last year. According to Cathcart, it “analyzes things from within the sphere of the DPRK’s own self-image and system,” which sounds great. I would hope it might be something similar to Brian Myers’ book The Cleanest Race. Another good one looks to be North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics, by Kwan Hyeon-Ik and Chung Byung-Ho. This was strongly recommended by both Cavazos and Green; among other things, it “gives specific examples to help divine the seed for what some perceive as North Korea’s random policy generator.”




The peer-reviewed articles were, surprisingly, the most interesting ones for me: these were the ones that seemed to have the strongest and most personal recommendations. Cathcart recommended an article by Jennifer Lind about North Korean collapse scenarios, available at Harvard’s website for a limited time. Lind also wrote what looks to be a good article called “The Memory of Kim” about how a unified Korea might come to terms with Kim Il-Sung’s legacy.


Green recommended a speech given by former South Korean ambassador Ra Jong-Yil. It’s called The Darkness of the Heart, and it “explain[s] far, far better than any 200-page scholarly text ever could precisely why it is that the actions of the atavistic North Korean state power diminish every single one of us.” That’s probably the most exciting one of all.


I notice that I’m attracted to a certain kind of title, such as: “The Darkness of the Heart,” “The Memory of Kim,” and “The Risks of Improvisation.” I’m sure I’m limiting myself by ignoring the scintillating writing in other recommendations with names like “Democracy Without Parties?: Political Parties and Social Movements for Democratic Representation in Korea” (available in the Korea Observer’s Spring 2009 issue), but I can’t help it.


They offer many more recommendations; if you’d like more ideas, check out the full discussion at Sino-NK.org.




Google CEO’s Daughter Writes About Pyongyang

It’s been widely reported that Google CEO Eric Schmidt made a recent trip to North Korea. It’s also been widely wondered why. North Korea seems like the last place in the world for an Internet mogul to get much accomplished. Schmidt’s trip aimed to persuade the government to open up the Internet to its citizens, according to an article in PC Magazine. It’s likely his trip had some positive effects in that direction, but there aren’t yet any signs that North Korea is revolutionizing its Internet policy.

His daughter Sophie accompanied him on the trip, and she documented it in an interesting blog called Sophie in North Korea. Her perspective on North Korea is interesting, even though she doesn’t get to see much beyond the tightly controlled atmosphere of Pyongyang. Sophie warns:

“It’s impossible to know how much we can extrapolate from what we saw in Pyongyang to what the DPRK is really like. Our trip was a mixture of highly staged encounters, tightly orchestrated viewings and what seemed like genuine human moments. We had zero interactions with non-state-approved North Koreans and were never far from our two minders (2, so one can mind the other).”

One of Sophie’s most obvious impressions was that North Korea in January is cold. We expect outside temperatures to be cold in North Korea; cold air masses coming down from Siberia mean that average temperatures in January are around 18 degrees Fahrenheit. But temperatures inside, she said, weren’t much better. Lack of heating meant heavy coats and below-freezing temperatures indoors.

The energy scarcity is apparent even in Pyongyang, even when important people visit. Sophie also noted that the power went out during a subway ride; the other commuters in the station all calmly pulled out flashlights and went on their way.



Power outage in a Pyongyang metro. Photo credit Sophie Schmidt.

You might imagine that heating would be even worse in the countryside (where electricity is even rarer), but apparently people in the countryside are usually warmer than their counterparts in the cities. NKNews.org’s Jae-young reports that families in her rural town used wood to heat their homes. Because wood was much cheaper than coal and more reliable than electricity, she was always warmer at home than when she visited relatives in the cities who had no access to wood.

The cold aside, Sophie also reported on the country’s technology, which was the main reason her father had made the trip. The delegation was shown North Korea’s latest gadgets, including an Android-enabled tablet, virtual-reality software, a video chat platform, and musical composition software.

Sophie found the engineers, despite living in such a technologically isolated country, surprisingly knowledgeable. Among other things, they asked Schmidt when the next version of Android was coming out; presumably they wanted their tablet to be as up-to-date as they could make it. Sophie makes the point that it’s not at all clear what kind of market there would be for such a device; certainly no ordinary citizens of North Korea would be able to afford it. Even if they could, there wouldn’t be much point in using it until the Internet is more accessible. Still, the tablet does represent a surprising degree of technological sophistication. The engineers also asked Schmidt how they might offer their apps through the Android marketplace. That surprised me, to hear that North Korea is building apps. Schmidt told them that international sanctions make it impossible at the moment, and I’m sure the country’s recent missile launches and nuclear tests won’t make it likely to happen soon.

She concludes:

“They seemed to acknowledge that connectivity is coming and that they can’t hope to keep it out. Indeed, some seemed to understand that it’s only with connectivity that their country has a snowball’s chance in hell of keeping up with the 21st century. But we’ll have to wait and see what direction they choose to take.”

You can read more about her trip, and see the many pictures she took, on her blog: Sophie in North Korea.