North Korea’s International University

A trail of thirtyish couples with coffees in hand floated on the streets this morning, like wood planks and barrels from a wreck at sea. Gradually their density increased as I approached a hulking shape looming through the fog, which turned out to be an elementary school releasing parents with free coffees as they returned to their now-childless homes.

It’s back-to-school season in America.

North and South Korea both operate on different school calendars; for them, the school year begins in spring. When I taught English in South Korea, the school year ended in December and started again in early March. North Korean schools start about a month later at the beginning of April.

The difference is probably hard to imagine for most Americans; it conflicts with our whole concept of summer as a time of vacation, of idleness and play, of long days to fill with things other than school.

But for all the difference, going back to school is pretty much the same in spirit everywhere. Kids still have that anxious, excited energy to them and haven’t yet rediscovered the boredom of regular school days. And parents still want to take photos with their darlings before leaving them.

Parents take photos with their children on the first day of school at Pyongyang Middle School No. 1 on April 2, 2012. (Photo credit AP Photo / Jon Chol Jin). 

Continue reading

In the News – West Sea Becomes New Arena for Big-Power Rivalry

Aside

In the News – West Sea Becomes New Arena for Big-Power Rivalry

The West Sea is turning into a new arena of competition between the U.S., China and Japan. China plans to launch its first aircraft carrier in August, while Japan is mulling the deployment of Aegis destroyers near the West Sea. The U.S. is willing to dispatch its own aircraft carriers to the West Sea at any time if necessary.

The West Sea drew international attention following the sinking of the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan in 2010. Eight months later North Korea shelled South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island in the same waters. China fiercely protested when the U.S. dispatched the aircraft carrier George Washington to the West Sea to discourage further provocations from North Korea.

Japan’s Defense Ministry is mulling the deployment of Aegis destroyers to waters near the West Sea under the pretext of detecting North Korean missile launches. Experts suspect this is really a creeping expansion of the Japanese military’s range. “This appears to be a highly political move aimed at keeping China in check,” said a high-ranking government official here. The West Sea is a sort of gateway to China, so any moves to dispatch warships to waters nearby draw strong protests from Beijing.

◆ Extension of Naval Disputes

The U.S., China and Japan are vying for control of the East China and South China seas, and the West Sea looks increasingly like an extension of this power struggle. China is pursuing a policy of naval superiority powered by its newfound economic might.

Beijing plans to broaden its area of naval operations to Guam, Indonesia and Saipan by 2020 forming what it calls an “island chain,” while flying its red flag on the seven seas by 2050.

Under this broad strategy, China took a hard line in a dispute with Japan in September of 2010 over the Diaoyu Islands, which the Japanese call the Senkaku Islands. China has also clashed diplomatically with ASEAN as well as the U.S. over the South China Sea. It has bolstered its arms spending by more than 10 percent every year and pursues an “anti-access” policy to waters near China.

In contrast, the U.S. views the West Sea as an area of joint operations with South Korea. In this situation, Tokyo’s moves to deploy Aegis destroyers to waters near the West Sea could heighten the possibility of disputes in the region, experts say.

◆ S.Korean Naval Base

While the U.S., China and Japan are engaged in a power struggle in the West Sea, the South Korean government is clashing with civic groups over plans to build a naval base on the southern resort island of Jeju as a forward base for operations. The government has pursued the base since the Roh Moo-hyun administration to protect southern ocean trade routes and respond more effectively with maritime disputes with China and Japan. But fierce opposition from a handful of civic groups caused a 13-month delay in construction.

Only 15 percent of construction has been completed so far. The Navy plans to complete the base by December 2015 and station troops currently based in Busan and Jinhae there for deployment on naval missions in case of a clash between China and Japan. Around 20 naval vessels are scheduled to be stationed at the base, but the project still faces many obstacles.

 

Original article can be found here.

Two Years Later

Amidst the frenzy of North Korea’s recent rocket launch, another very important day came and passed. For many of you, this may have been just another day in your life. But whether you knew it or not, March 26th marked the second anniversary of the sinking of the Cheonan naval ship.

March 26th 2010 was just an average day for the 104 crew members of the Cheonan. They were on a routine patrol near Baekryong Island, which is an extremely tense maritime border with North Korea, when they were suddenly torpedoed. The ship tore apart into two and sank to the bottom of the sea, killing 46 soldiers. Continue reading

In the News – Students Targeted for Rocket ‘Rumors’

Aside

In the News – Students Targeted for Rocket ‘Rumors’

North Korea detains university students over a failed rocket launch.

North Korean students work on their computers at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, April 11, 2012.

Authorities in North Korea are hunting down college students suspected of “spreading rumors” about a recent failed rocket launch amid warnings the reclusive state may stage a nuclear test.

North Korea defied international warnings and fired a long-range rocket on April 13 saying that it would carry a satellite into space, but the rocket crashed into the sea just minutes after takeoff, drawing condemnation from the U.S. and its allies who called the act a “provocative” move.

New leader Kim Jong Un had shrugged off international concerns and pushed ahead with the launch in conjunction with the 100th birthday of his grandfather Kim Il Sung, the deceased founder of the state.

Now, according to students, security personnel at some universities in North Korea are being instructed to take those who talk about the rocket failure into custody.

“The authorities are hunting down students who have spread rumors about the failed launch of the Kwangmyung-sung-3 [satellite] at the Hoeryong Teacher Training College (now renamed Kim Jong Suk Teacher Training College),” said one student from North Hamyong province, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Continue reading

In the News – More N.Korean Workers to Earn Valuta for Kim Jong-un

Aside

In the News – More N.Korean Workers to Earn Valuta for Kim Jong-un

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un recently issued an order to send as many workers as possible abroad to earn hard currency, never mind the risk of defections, according to a South Korean government source.

This is a relatively unconventional position given that the North Korean regime has tried to limit the number of workers abroad to prevent “contamination” by foreign influences.

The source said North Korea has dispatched over 30,000 workers to some 40 countries around the world and plans to send out another 10,000 this year. “The reason is that sanctions by the international community have dried up North Korea’s sources of cash,” the source added. Continue reading

In the News – South Korea ‘On Alert’ for Possible North Attack

Aside

In the News – South Korea ‘On Alert’ for Possible North Attack

South Korea appears to be taking seriously the latest attack threat from North Korea.

Police say they have increased patrols around headquarters of nine conservative media outlets in Seoul after North Korea vowed to soon carry out a “special military action” on them by “unprecedented means and methods.”

South Korea’s government says it is concerned about Pyongyang’s threat to reduce to ashes, in several minutes, the support base for the country’s president, including several broadcasters and a leading daily newspaper, the Dong-a Ilbo.

Foreign ministry spokesman Cho Byung-je characterizes the latest threat from Pyongyang as “very dangerous and harsh.” Continue reading

In the News – Lee vows to retaliate against N. Korea if provoked

Aside

In the News – Lee vows to retaliate against N. Korea if provoked

SEOUL, March 26 (Yonhap) — President Lee Myung-bak said Monday that South Korea will thoroughly retaliate against North Korea if provoked again, amid rising tensions over Pyongyang’s plan to launch a long-range rocket in defiance of international warnings.

North Korea has recently threatened to launch a “sacred war” against South Korea over Seoul’s defamation of the dignity of its new leader Kim Jong-un and his late father, Kim Jong-il.

The communist country has also warned it will take the “strongest countermeasures which no one can imagine” if South Korea “dares find fault with its nuclear deterrent and satellite launch” at an international nuclear summit under way in Seoul.

South Korea will “thoroughly retaliate against North Korea” if Pyongyang provokes it, Lee said in a video message to a music concert in Seoul marking the second anniversary of the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship blamed on the North. Continue reading

In the News – Pyongyang Demands Answers from Seoul

Aside

In the News – Pyongyang Demands Answers from Seoul

Pyongyang on Thursday issued an “open questionnaire” that demands answers from Seoul if relations between the two Koreas are to improve.

The official KCNA news agency said that the questionnaire came from the policy department of the National Defense Commission, which “solemnly urges” South Korea to answer it “since it loudly trumpets a resumption of inter-Korean dialogue and improvement of relations.”  Continue reading

Cheonanham

There is a difficult balance between honoring the dead and the living.

This summer I visited Cheonanham, the memorial for a Korean Navy corvette that had sunk in March 2010. At that time, I had been teaching English in Jeollanam-do. We heard that a ship had sunk off of the coast, and 46 Korean sailors were dead. I remember the televised funeral services.

The ship was recovered from the seabed in two halves; upon investigation by an international team (South Korea called in foreign experts to increase the investigation’s credibility), the investigators determined that the ship broke in two from something called a bubble jet, caused by the explosion of a torpedo a few meters from the hull of the ship. The resulting pressure differential tore the ship in two.

Approaching the Cheonanham (author’s photo)

Continue reading

In the News – Kim Jong Nam Says N.Korean Regime Won’t Last Long

Aside

In the News – Kim Jong Nam Says N.Korean Regime Won’t Last Long

Former North Korean Leader Kim Jong-il’s eldest son Jong-nam has said the isolated regime will eventually fail with or without reforms. The comment appears in e-mail conversations exchanged over seven years between Kim Jong-nam and a Japanese journalist and obtained by the Monthly Chosun.

The nearly 100 e-mails were sent from 2004 until December last year to Yoji Komi, an editor at the Tokyo Shimbun daily. The two also spoke in person in January and May last year. Continue reading

The MOU Internship: Pt. 1

Imagine an internship where your interests are a priority. Now add being treated with respect. And then add on top of that field trips every week to some of the most interesting places in South Korea. And as a bonus, go ahead and add the opportunity to eat some of the best food in Seoul with some of the most important people within the Ministry of Unification. Sound too good to be true? Usually, it would be. But, believe it or not, all of this, and so much more, is what the MOU summer internship was like for me. Hopefully I have your attention by now, so let me give you some more details. Continue reading

In the News – Lee Holds Out Hand to N.Korea

Aside

In the News – Lee Holds Out Hand to N.Korea

President Lee Myung-bak on Monday offered North Korea a “new era” in bilateral relations provided the Stalinist country shows it is sincere.

Six-party nuclear disarmament talks “could resume as soon as the North stops its nuclear activities,” Lee said in a nationally televised New Year’s address. “We are prepared to give the North the necessary assistance to remove its worries about security… and restore its economy.”

Lee did not demand an apology for the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. But a senior presidential official later said Lee “didn’t exempt the North from its responsibility to apologize. It’s a message that anything the North wants will be possible once the peninsula is denuclearized. Through his New Year’s address, he extended his hand to the North.”

Another official said Lee suggested he would leave the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong issues “in the area of strategic ambiguity.”

Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik said, “We are going to watch how the North reacts while maintaining a flexible approach.”

The North Korean regime in its regular New Year’s editorial in the state papers earlier reaffirmed that it will not engage with the Lee Myung-bak administration.

Original article can be found here.

In the News – North Korea Paints a Picture of Stability

Aside

In the News – North Korea Paints a Picture of Stability

kcna/Reuters

 

By EVAN RAMSTAD

SEOUL—North Korean state media in recent days have showed Kim Jong Eun, the country’s presumed new leader, in the company of generals with long personal ties to his late father Kim Jong Il, in what appears to be an attempt to signal a stable transition in the authoritarian regime.

As North Korea goes through its second father-to-son transfer of power, questions have focused on whether the younger Mr. Kim has the all-important support of the upper ranks of the military, which the country’s opaque political structure makes difficult to gauge. But the state media images, along with announcements in the country’s biggest newspaper from Saturday to Monday bestowing the young leader with several new titles, are seen as further moves in the apparent process to give the family succession an air of legitimacy.

In one often-shown picture over the weekend, Mr. Kim stood between Gen. Ri Yong Ho, who went to military school with his father, and another general who put down the only rebellion Kim Jong Il is known to have faced.

Gen. Ri, who stood on Kim Jong Eun’s right in the weekend photo, went to school with his father Kim Jong Il and was the same age. As well, Gen. Ri’s father fought alongside Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il’s father and Kim Jong Eun’s grandfather, against the Japanese in World War II. Gen. Ri’s father later became the Kim family doctor.

Standing on the left in the weekend photo was Kim Yong Chun, who around 1995 or 1996 warned Kim Jong Il of a rebellion in a military unit in North Korea’s remote northeast, and led a harsh crackdown that is believed to have resulted in the deaths of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of soldiers. Kim Jong Il kept the general close to him since that crackdown.

Among the top generals, Gen. Ri is widely considered by outside analysts as the figure whose actions and fate will play a major role in determining Kim Jong Eun’s success with the military, and perhaps his ultimate ability to maintain power

On Sunday, Jang Song Thaek, the brother-in-law of Kim Jong Il who was his chief political lieutenant for the last five years, added to the image of unity by appearing in a military uniform rather than a business suit. He has also held a military title since June 2010.

Separately, the new leader dealt for the first time with a high-profile group of South Koreans, the widows of a former president and business executive who came to pay condolences over the death of Kim Jong Il.

The visit by former first lady Lee Hee-ho and Hyun Jeong-eun, chairwoman of the Hyundai Group, is the only one during the memorial period that has been officially approved by governments in both countries, which technically remain in a state of war. Ms. Lee’s husband, Kim Dae-jung, as South Korea’s president from 1998 to 2003, reached out to Kim Jong Il and, backed by funds and investments from Ms. Hyun’s husband Chung Mong-han, staged the first inter-Korean summit in 2000.

The widows, accompanied by a small group of relatives and associates, arrived Monday afternoon and were scheduled to return to South Korea on Tuesday morning.

Mr. Kim, who is just 27 or 28 years old, is far less experienced in the byzantine organizations of the authoritarian regime than his father was when he took over from Mr. Kim’s grandfather 17 years ago. For that reason, analysts expect North Korean authorities in coming weeks to stage an event to give Mr. Kim more titles.

For now, North Korea’s biggest newspaper, Rodung Shinmun, has started promoting him as “supreme commander” of the military and chief of a major committee in the main political party. TV and photo images on North Korean state media have repeatedly shown Mr. Kim surrounded by loyalists, many with ties to his family stretching back a generation or more.

“Most of the top generals and key party leaders, their family ties with the Kims go back to World War II,” said Bruce Bechtol, a professor at the Center for Security Studies at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas.

Also spotted in TV images with the younger Mr. Kim this past week are Gens. O Kuk Ryol and Kim Kyok Sik. Gen. O runs North Korea’s special forces, which account for about 25% of its one million-person military, and was close to Kim Jong Il since childhood, when his mother took care of Mr. Kim and his sister after the death of their mother. Kim Kyok Sik, another family friend and leader of forces on the inter-Korean border, is believed by analysts to have directed the 2010 attacks on the South Korean warship Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island, which is controlled by South Korea.

At the same political conference in September 2010 where Kim Jong Il officially revealed Kim Jong Eun to the North Korean public, he promoted Gen. Ri to vice marshal. Just a few weeks later, Gen. Ri took the No. 2 spot behind Kim Jong Il on the National Defense Commission, North Korea’s most powerful organization, following the death of a general who had also served with Kim Il Sung.

This year, Gen. Ri appeared with the two Kims at approximately 60 public occasions, according to a count by an American graduate student, Luke Herman, published at the web site NK News.

The North Korean regime is structured so that the dictator stands at the intersection of three competing forces: the political party, the military and a state security department that monitors loyalty.

Each of the three has some power over the others. For instance, the party must approve any military appointment above the level of brigadier general. And the system discourages individuals from seeking to replace the man in the middle.

“I don’t think anyone in the elite would try to grab power because there is a well-established check-and-balance system,” said Chang Yong-seok, senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University. “It would be suicidal.”

Original article can be found here.

North Korea: the Modern Day Grinch?

With Christmas just days away, the streets here in South Korea seem even more crowded than usual. There are people rushing around doing their Christmas shopping and Christmas carols playing at every store you pass. There’s just something about this time of year that makes the world seem more at peace, more joyful. It’s a time when we can forget our troubles and just enjoy the company of the people we love. Or even just enjoy the time away from work.

But there is at least one place that I can think of that won’t be enjoying the same things that you and I will be enjoying this Sunday. Continue reading

A Discussion with Professor Katharine Moon: A Different Perspective

Map of Yeonpyeong

The blue line indicates the oceanic border as understood by South Korea; the red line indicates the border as insisted by North Korea.

CHRISTINE OH (edited by Daisy Chang)

February 8th, 2011—Professor Katharine Moon of Political Science at Wellesley College sits comfortably in her chair, wearing a gray ANKHR sweater. She is the unofficial advisor for the Wellesley student organization, Advocates for North Korean Human Rights (ANKHR). ANKHR invited her to speak at a casual dinner-and-discussion to address a question that has been on all of our minds: What the hell is going on with North Korea?

Almost thirty students are gathered in a big living room, intently listening to her speak. She starts out by asking a familiar and frequently asked question: To whom do you listen when it comes to North Korea, and how to we know who’s right? From its governmental system to its organizational structure, everything about North Korea is foggy compared to the relative transparence of other nations.

So, what do we know about North Korea? Her answer: Well, not much. And what we do know, we must always question how we know it. Whatever information we have about the country, she says, must always be questioned. Continue reading