Tag: North Korea (page 1 of 4)

North Korea and Hollywood: the Perfect Holiday Storm


A perfect storm is defined as an event in which a rare combination of circumstances results in an event of unusual scale and magnitude. 9-11 is a classic, and tragic, perfect storm. This December the world has witnessed another perfect storm involving the confluence of culture and foreign policy: the bizarre North Korean hacking of Sony and the scare that arrived just in time for the holidays for millions of Americans.

Not since the Danish publication of a cartoon that Muslims viewed as an insult to Islam has a confluence of this kind had such serious consequences. The Sony executives, who made the spoof film involving a comedic sendup of North Korean repression that ended in an assassination of its sitting leader Kim Jong-un, cannot be faulted for making the film that North Korea took such exception to. But by filming a scene in which the dictator’s head explodes, they crossed a line and all but invited hacker retaliation.

Sony’s internet defenses were surprisingly low, given a previous and rather damaging cyber penetration of its networks. But Sony’s greatest error was actually to take the threat of terrorism from the North Korean hackers on U.S. movie theaters showing the film seriously. Instead of standing up for freedom of expression (and protecting its investment), along with the major movie theater chains it caved. Continue reading


Theatre and Cyber Security

By now I am sure many of you have seen the news that Sony has indefinitely postponed/canceled the theatrical release of The Interview under threat from hackers apparently connected to the regime in North Korea. It is not clear whether the threat was explicitly against movie goers or against the companies screening the film, and whether the assault would be virtual or physical in form (although the Obama Administration has suggested the theatre threat was overblown and has criticized Sony for withholding the film). What is clear is that the cancellation costs Sony tens of millions of dollars in lost production and promotion costs and has established a precedent that digital assaults can produce real world costs and behavioral changes.

Quite striking is the shift in construction of the Sony issue as a threat. Previous breaches of corporate information technology (IT) security have hardly prompted the kind of national security discourses the Sony case has generated. Indeed, the earlier disclosure of sensitive emails from the Sony IT breach did not result in discussions of national threat. Certainly, the more international and public elements of the situation suggest greater basis for making a national security claim. And yet, the appearances are deceptive. The Obama Administration specifically downplayed the possible threat to cinemas, with the Department of Homeland Security indicating there was no credible threat to cinemas or theatregoers. The cancelation of the film is certainly costly, but most of the cost is born by Sony (to the tune of tens of millions of dollars). To that end, the IT breach is not any different from other corporate IT breaches where customer information has been compromised. The North Korean element is certainly substantive, but not altogether unique. 

What the shift in discourse reveals is the socially constructed nature of threat. The public costs of the Sony IT breach are economically smaller than in other breaches, and the linkage to external state is not unique to the Sony case. So materially, there is little that obviously qualifies the Sony IT breach as a national security issue, much less something that calls for US government retaliation. The discursive shift regarding the national security ‘threat’ posed by the Sony incident highlights the utility of securitization theory for thinking about the issue of cyber security. Specifically, securitization theory directs our attention to how political actors are seeking to reconstruct the Sony IT breach in ways that justify extraordinary measures, in this case the US government risking conflict escalation with a isolated, reactive, and militarized regime in North Korea on behalf of a private economic/corporate entity. Notably, since the cancellation of the film discourses have highlighted core elements of American political identity, specifically the right to freedom of expression, as the basis of the security claim. This discursive shift suggests a societal boundary with respect to information technology issues in the United States between a private concern (Sony breach before film cancellation) and a public security matter.

Securitization also draws our attention to the political effects of security, and a consequence the costs of security. Who benefits from or is empowered by treating IT issues as security issues? What consequences arise from making IT security a national security matter? How can the state possibly mandate security measures for an issue that interweaves throughout the economy? What kinds of instabilities are created by involving states as security actors in the cyber realm with the strong potential of militarization? Certainly weak states will seek to take advantage of the asymmetric opportunities of global information technology, but the question of responsibility and countermeasures remains an open one for the most powerful and developed states in the system and whether those should lie with the state. Specifically, in past nonsecuritized (from the standpoint of the state) IT breaches, the responsibility and the cost were assumed to lie with the victimized corporation. Securitization shifts that responsibility and cost to the state.

I have long been a skeptic of the concept of cyber security as such, and for me securitization theory opens up an analytical space for critically interrogating the concept of cyber security, the process by which information technology issues are transformed into security, as well as the political and social effects of terming information technology as security.


**Thanks to Dave McCourt for helpful comments on this post!


Book Review: “North Korea in Transition” – Oh Wait, it’s Not in Transition…


I know book reviews bore everyone, but the journal where I published this doesn’t post electronic versions of book reviews. So I thought this would be a good place to put it for internet accessibility. I tried to make this interesting by focusing on trends in NK, rather than just summarizing the constituent essays. It’s a great introduction to North Korea with lots of big names. I learned a lot from it. But I had to object to the title, likely chosen by an ill-informed editor looking for something catchy. North Korea is not in transition. If anything, we should be focusing on how remarkably stable it is. No matter what happens to the Kim regime – famine, de-industrialization, ‘factionalism,’ Chinese take-over of the economy, Dennis Rodman and his tats – nothing seems to bring down the clan or ever seriously shake it. Its astonishing ability to not change is what we should be our focus. Here’s that review:

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Why Does South Korea View Japan as a National Security Threat Worse than China? My Hypothesis: Competition with North Korea

This has been on my mind a lot because the Korea-Japan meltdown has been so bad recently. And I think it’s a good research question if you are into Asian IR. I have written about this before and just did again this month and yet again. I’ve argued repeatedly that the reason America’s allies in Asia cooperate so poorly is moral hazard. But this is different question. It is meant to explore why Koreans exaggerate Japan so much. Why do Koreans – the media specifically – routinely say things like Japan is run by right-wing fanatics who want to invade the Liancourt Rocks with samurai? These statements are not only obviously false, they are ridiculous.

I have said before (here, here) that Koreans have legitimate grievances regarding Japan, particularly on Yasukuni and the comfort women. But Koreans don’t stop there; they go over-the-top with things like the Sea of Japan re-naming campaign, claims that Japan wants to invade Korea again, that Japanese behavior in Korea equates with the Holocaust, or that Liancourt is worth going to war over – even though a Korean use of force against Japan would almost certainly eventuate a US departure from SK and therefore dramatically reduce Korean security. Other victims of earlier Japanese imperialism don’t talk like this, and I think a lot of well-meaning Japanese, who do recognize what Japan did in Korea, are genuinely baffled by all the hyperbole.

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Obama’s ‘Strategic Patience’ on North Korea is more Responsible than yet another Impossible ‘Vision’ to Solve NK

Newsweek Korea cover 2Newsweek Korea asked me to participate in a debate on Obama’s strategic patience. A friend of mine wrote against it; I wrote in defense. Here is the Korean language text at the NWK website. Below is my original English language version.

In brief I argue that North Korea is so hard to pin down, that big strategies never work with it, provoke it into lashing out, and raise impossible expectations on democratic decision-makers. So Obama is acting responsibly, IMO, by not promising more than he can deliver and by not giving a reason for NK to act out.

After 20+ years of negotiating on more or less the same topics, it should be pretty obvious that NK is insistent on not being placed in some box by outsiders. It will not be treated as some technocratic ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’ by a conference of experts, like global warming or something. And it will lash out if necessary to remind us of that. Hence, I argue for ‘muddling through,’ and that we should stop expecting our policy-makers to have some great NK strategy that will fix the issue. That’s not gonna happen. We all know that. We just have to wait for China to stop paying NK’s bills. Until then, all the sweeping declarations (‘agreed framework,’ ‘sunshine’,’ the ‘axis of evil,’ the current big idea du jour of ‘trust’) are rather pointless and raise impossible expectations among voters in SK, the US, and Japan. Let’s be a little more honest about what we can expect from North Korea.

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Abenomics is Not more Dangerous than the North Korean Missile Program


I continue to be amazed at how the Korean government won’t admit that Japan’s revival is really good for democracy in Asia and the prevention of Chinese regional primacy. No less than the SK finance minister (pic) actually said Abenomics is more dangerous to SK than the NK missile program. Wait, what?? The worst totalitarianism in history gets a pass when the Bank of Japan prints a lot of cheap money? Come on. That’s unbelievably irresponsible. Are Korean officials so deeply bought by the chaebol that they actually have to say stuff like that? Honestly if Minister Hyun really believes that (I doubt that though, see below), he should probably resign. This is just an embarrassment.

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Do US Alliances Re-Assure in Asia, or Create Moral Hazard?

Newsweek Korea cover

The conventional wisdom on the US presence in Asia is that we re-assure all players. Specifically, US allies don’t need to arms race local opponents, because the US has extended deterrence to cover them. Hence Japan and South Korea don’t need to go nuclear, for example. Among academics, this logic pops in the work of Christensen, Ikenberrry, and Nye; among policy analysts, here is the US military saying this, and here is the DC think-tank set.

But there’s flip-side to this logic that really needs to be investigated – whether the US presence also freezes conflicts in place, by reassuring Asian elites against their own reckless nationalist rhetoric, racially toxic historiographies, and Fox News-style inflammatory media (just read the Global Times op-ed page occasionally). I think the Liancourt Rocks fight is a particularly good example of this ‘moral hazard’ mechanic, as is the recent comment by no less than the South Korean foreign minister (!) that Abenomics’ threat to Korean export competitiveness is a greater danger to SK than North Korea’s nuclear program. That kind of preposterous, reckless myopia can only be explained by taking the US security umbrella for granted.

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North Korea is an ‘Upper Volta with Missiles’ who Cried Wolf Too Often

The North Korea flap seems to be calming down, so here I reprint my original essay from the Diplomat a few weeks ago on the crisis, plus a follow-up ‘response to my critics’ essay from the China Policy Institute Blog of the University of Nottingham and e-IR. Together, I think they make a nice whole, although it’s a little long for a blog-post. I would like to thank Harry Kazianas of the Diplomat, John Sullivan of Nottingham, and Max Nurnus of e-IR for soliciting me.

“North Korea is the ‘Boy who Cried Wolf’: There will be No War” (first essay, from April 10)

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Was Kaesong a Hole in the Korean Iron Curtain, or a Subsidy to the Kim Monarchy?


So it increasingly looks like the inter-Korean Kaesong industrial zone is closed for good. (The Wikipedia write-up is a pretty good quick history of it.)

The zone was set-up during the Sunshine Policy period (1998-2007). It was to do 3 things: 1) Lead to some liberal-capitalist spill-over in the North, 2) Expose regular North Koreans (the workers in the area) to regular South Koreans (the managers and staff), and 3) Generally provide some inter-Korean cooperation that might hopefully reduce larger tensions. A resort area in North Korea (Mt. Kumgang) was also opened along these lines in the Sunshine period. Broadly the idea was along the lines of liberal explanations for the Soviet Union’s changes in the 1980s: the Helsinki Accords and CSCE opened the USSR to the outside world, and the inflowing liberalism slowly changed attitudes that eventually helped wind-down the Cold War. Unfortunately, none of this seems to working in the NK case.

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What if US/Japan Try to Shoot Down a North Korean Missile & They Miss?

If the Japanese miss but take out MTV & Jersey Shore instead, that would still be ok

I think my toaster has more computing power than that guidance system…

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What will the North Korean Military do if Japan Shoots Down the Missile Launch?

Jpn Patriots

A few days ago, I predicted there would be no war, probably because I’m lazy and predicting the future will be the same as the present is an easy way to protect my credibility. But I got some criticism that I was a dippy academic who doesn’t see how dangerous the situation really is. And if I am wrong, I won’t be around to see it anyway; I’ll be swimming for Japan. So here is the most likely escalation pathway I can see, despite my firm conviction the North Koreans do not want a war, because they will lose badly and quickly, and then face the hangman in Southern prisons.

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The Awful State of US Punditry on the North Korea Crisis: Bill Richardson called Kim Il Sung ‘Kim Yun Sum,’ or something like that, on CNN Yesterday

North Korea 2012 279I know what you’re thinking, I’m being a show-off area specialist, Asian language names can be hard for anglophones (and vice versa), and who cares about KIS anyway, because this crisis is about Kim Jong Un? All of that is true of course, especially the first one, but come on…

Richardson isn’t just any old hack like me on North Korea. (Here’s my take on the crisis.) He has been a regular point man for the  US on NK for more than a decade and markets himself as such on the talk-shows. And if you study NK in even the most basic way (here’s a good place to start), you know who KIS is. He’s everywhere. He founded the state in 1948 and ruled it until 1994 as his own personal fiefdom. The whole country is built around his personality cult. The regime even started calling its ideology ‘Kimilsungism,’ giving up the fictions of Marxism, communism, etc. KJU has called NK ‘KIS country’ and explicitly models himself after KIS in his clothing, hairstyle, and girth. Statues of KIS are everywhere, and Richardson has been there apparently eight times. I went there just once, and I’ve got my propaganda down pat about the Great Korean Leader, Comrade KIS’ heroic construction of socialism in our style under the revolutionary guidance of the Korean People’s Army defending the peasant and workers against the bourgeois imperialist Yankee Colony..… (I could keep going like that for a few more sentences if you like).

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Guest Post – David Kang: The Media Coverage of the Korean Crisis is Inflammatory

359344-funny-images-on-leader-kim-jong-unMy own thinking on the current Korea flap is on The Diplomat. I argue it’s a faux crisis, which promptly got me accused of being an air-head academic in the comment section. Lovely. I was also pleased to respond to Kim Jong Un’s threat that I should leave the country. And I managed not to explode laughing when a reporter asked me point blank on live TV if Kim Jong Un was ‘just bonkers.’ Was itching to say yes to that one actually. Good times… Never waste a missile crisis, right?

Anyway, here’s David Kang suggesting the cable and satellite news services are overhyping this thing, a point I argue in the Diplomat as well. Regular readers will know that Dave is my good friend and a far better Korea/Asia hand than I’ll ever be. A professor of international relations and business at the University of Southern California and director of its Korean Studies Institute, I’d certainly recommend his work. Here and here are his previous guest posts.        REK

The Non-Crisis on the Korean Peninsula

In a poll released by Dong-A Daily last week, 4.5 percent of South Koreans think North Korea means to start a war. In contrast, a CNN poll reveals that 51 percent of Americans think the latest round of name-calling will only end in war, and 41 percent think North Korea is an “immediate threat” to the U.S. So – either South Koreans are incredibly naïve, or Americans over-reacting. Hmmm…I wonder which it is.

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‘Rodman-gate’: Can ‘Useful Idiots’ please Stop Shilling for North Korea?

rodman nk

Studying North Korea inevitably means people ask me pretty outlandish stuff. People have asked, if the North really believes long hair is bad for socialism, if that goiter on Kim Il Sung’s neck made him crazy, if Kim Jong Il’s platform shoes meant that he liked disco, and if North Korean women are good looking because a food shortage would mean everyone is slim. (I presume that last one is a reaction to the obesity epidemic in the US.) So I tried to avoid this latest outbreak of Norko bizarreness with Rodman. But people keep asking me, so here a few thoughts to the effect that no one should shill for North Korea – ever.

Call it yet another chapter in the history of clueless foreigners getting lost in and manipulated by North Korea – Lenin’s ‘useful idiots’ from the West who defended the Soviet experiment. Who knows what to make of that utterly weird photograph of Rodman in bling and Kim Jong Un dressed like Mao. There are so many contradictions in there, it’s not even worth unpacking.

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USC-CSIS Conference on Korean Unification (3): DPRK ‘Sovereignty’ is a Sino-Russian Fig-Leaf to Slow Unification and Check US power

CSIS Korea Project

Here are part one and part two of this post. I spoke last Tuesday at a USC-CSIS conference on Korean unification. I learned a lot, and it was very good. If you’re interested in unification, start here with the primary report on which the conference was based. The principal investigators said a final wrap-up report will come at some point, and I’ll put up that link when it arrives.

My comments below are on the papers presented on Tuesday about neighboring states’ reactions to Korean unification. These papers aren’t publicly posted yet, so all the comments might not make sense. But in the interest of completism, I’m putting this up to round out my thinking on this excellent unification project. (For my earlier thoughts on dealing with NK, try this; for my travelogue of my trip to the DPRK, try this.)

My big beef with these sorts of conferences on NK – I go to a lot – is that inevitably outsiders, especially Chinese scholars, start laying down all sorts of guidelines, restrictions, parameters, etc. for unification, as if it’s our right to muck around in this thing. I can understand the national interest in doing so. But we shouldn’t have the temerity to try to legitimate our muddying of the waters in what is really an internal family affair. It would also help a lot if the Chinese would stop talking (not so much at this conference, but definitely at others I’ve gone to) about how Korea needs to respect its wishes, because China is big and important now, post-2008 Olympics. I heard one guy once even say that China is now the ‘veto-player’ on unification. That’s true of course in realist sense, but that sorta cockiness infuriates Koreans who’ve really soured on China in the last decade. I see the same kind of emergent Chinese bullying on unification that Southeast Asian littoral states see on the South China Sea. So I try to call that out whenever it seems necessary.

Anyway, here on my thoughts on Japan, Russia, and China’s role in this thing.

USC-CSIS Conference on Korean Unification (2): ‘One Country, Two Systems’ will not happen


Here is part one of this post. The following will make more sense if you start there. I noted that I am participating, today in Seoul (attend if you can), in a USC-CSIS project on Korean unification. This is the final ‘phase’ of their Korea Project on unification.

I thought I would post my thoughts on the previous USC-CSIS Korea report (available here) which provided all sorts of suggestions for reconstruction. It’s useful reading if your area is East Asia or Korea, but I actually disagree with a fair number of the analogies of NK to Iraq and Afghanistan. I think Germany is a better model for what will happen, and I think a ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement like in greater China is nearly impossible given the extraordinary deep ideological divide, which is also existentially necessary for NK to demonstrate why it must be a separate, poorer Korean state. So it’s either implosion or stalemate.

Anyway, the rest of my thoughts are after the jump. Having read the CSIS report is not a prerequisite to understanding my arguments, but it would help.

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USC/CSIS Conference on Korean Unification (1): it will cost WAY more than people think

Cha_Challenges__110The University of Southern California Korean Studies Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies are running a joint Korea Project: Planning for the Long Term (pic to the left). CSIS will hold the last of three conferences in this project at the Asan Institute on January 21st next week. If you are in Seoul, you should go. The agenda looks pretty good. (Contact the Asan Institute.) I’d like to thank USC and CSIS for soliciting my participation..

The January 21 conference is actually the last meeting of the Project. The first meeting asked Korea area experts to look at unification; the second meeting asked functional experts to do the same. This upcoming third meeting will look at regional impacts from unification. I will comment on papers from Russia and Japan. I will put up my thoughts on those papers after the Phase III conference, but for now, I thought I would post my comments on the Phase II conference (by the functional experts).

Basically I argue that  Germany is a better model for what will happen here than either the occupations of Iraq or Afghanistan, or LDCs in transition. Also I don’t buy for one second that NK will enter into a meaningful ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement like in greater China. DPRK change meaningful enough to permit a federation would be so far-reaching, that it would inevitably raise the question why the DPRK  exists at all. Ideological change is an existential threat to the regime: why be a poorer version of SK if you’re in a federation with SK? why not just join up? This is the logic that undid the GDR. So it’s either implosion or stalemate IMO.

Here is the final CSIS report on Phase II (a must-read if you want to research unification); my gloss on that follows the jump. (Here is the much shorter Phase I report.)

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Gangnam Style and IR

So North Korea has issued a “Gangnam Style” video to mock a South Korean presidential candidate, Park Guen Hye, from the ruling conservative party. According to Malaysia’s The Sun Daily:
“The parody, posted on the official government website Uriminzokkiri, shows a crudely photo-shopped image of Park doing the “horse-riding dance” created by South Korean rapper Psy on the original “Gangnam Style” video.

The North Korean version mocks Park as a devoted admirer of the “Yushin” system of autocratic rule set up by her father, Park Chung-Hee, after he seized power in South Korea in a 1961 military coup.

“I’m Yushin style!,” read a subtitle under the image of the dancing Park, South Korea’s first female presidential candidate.”

Who says, the North Koreans have no sense of humor?  Whether this will lead to a violent dance-off between the arch-rivals is still unclear.  The US Navy is apparently ready and all too willing to intervene in any dance-off:

We await further updates from our Duck Correspondent in Korea, Robert E. Kelly…

Pyongyang isn’t ‘Laid-Back & Leafy,’ or What Parag Khanna didn’t Learn in NK

North Korea 2012 056
I know what you’re thinking – how many more d— pictures of this guy and Kim Il Sung (left, KJI right) do I have to look at? Well…too bad! They go on and on and on…

In the last two weeks I rolled out a series of impressions from my trip to North Korea (one, two, three, four). Apparently Parag Khanna went to NK at the same time I did (last month) and simultaneously put up his impressions at CNN-GPS, making for an interesting comparison of views this week. (You don’t have to go to the Khanna link, as I have reprinted the piece after the break, with some response comments.)

Dan Nexon and Dan Drezner both noted the coincidence (favorably, I am happy to say), and the blogosphere reaction to the Khanna piece has been pretty negative (look at the piece’ comments and then this, which is genuinely disturbing). I also thought the piece was too puffy and far too pleasant-toned for a place like NK.

I am amazed Khanna didn’t talk up the personality cult, as this is easily what any even mildly politically astute observer would catch, especially in Pyongyang which is ground-zero for the KIS cult. The guides practically beat you over the head with it at every turn. (NB: I tried make this point, about the blindingly obvious KIS cult, by posting a comment to the article on CNN. It failed moderation, twice. Come on, CNN. Really? Why censor me when other commenters are accusing Khanna of being paid by NK? Lame.)

Anyway, all this surprises me, because Khanna seems like a pretty good scholar. I thought Second World was pretty good and cited it in my tangle over Russia and the BRICS earlier this year. More generally, he’s probably a pretty bright guy, and it doesn’t take much political sophistication to see that the NK tour-guides were steering us toward certain images, impressions, ‘heroic’ sites and tales, etc., so that we would leave NK and write something as complimentary as Khanna just did. Khanna didn’t see that? Really? How?

I’m just flabbergasted that someone with his level of sophistication about politics couldn’t detect raw agit-prop staring him in the face. I know Morozov thinks Khanna looks the other way on democracy to praise Asian technocratic authoritarianism. But NK hardly fits that mold; visiting NK is like travelling around Africa, not Singapore. The food is poor quality, the lights don’t work, hot water is rare, but brown water isn’t, the potholes are so bad that no one sits behind the rear axel, etc. There’s nothing technocratic or ‘Beijing Consensus’ about NK. Dilapidation is everywhere, but for the few miles around Kim Il Sung Square. Khanna left that tiny bubble, so he surely must have seen that.
So I don’t really get it, unless there’s a long-term access issue at play. Perhaps Khanna wants to be able to return to NK and thought he had to write a puff-piece piece in order to get another visa in the future. I hear this accusation a lot here in SK. South Korean conservatives often accuse foreign scholars who soft-pedal NK of doing so in order to keep getting visas so they can return, thereby keeping their cachet as ‘insiders’ with ‘unique access’ to NK. 

So here’s a gloss on Khanna’s article, noting some pretty disturbing oversights:


The specter of U.S.-South Korean military exercises, a potential nuclear test, assassinations of defectors in South Korea, and general saber-rattling haven’t prevented a record 4,000 tourists from arriving in Pyongyang this year. There’s even a hopeful air among diplomats that the two Koreas, as well as China and Japan, might find the right balance of words and gestures to smooth out their emotional grievances that fuel regular nationalist flare-ups. [WAIT, HAS KHANNA EVEN READ THE NEWS ABOUT THE NASTY TERRITORIAL FLARE-UP OUT HERE IN THE LAST MONTH OR SO? THE US AMBASSADOR TO JAPAN CALLED KOREA ‘IRRATIONAL’ OVER THIS MELTDOWN. IT’S SO BAD, MY UNIVERSITY’S HOLDING A CONFERENCE ABOUT IT NEXT MONTH.]

The scene at Beijing airport already gives clues into how North Korean society continues to defy economic gravity. Pyongyong elites check in dozens of boxes of household goods (from electronics to wine glasses) for their own use or to resell. [IT’S HIGHLY UNLIKELY KHANNA ACTUALLY WITNESSED THAT UNLESS HE HAD A VERY SPECIAL FLIGHT AND PACKAGE.]
Like upscale Iranians ferrying in and out of Dubai, the international, multilingual and urbane class may seem like precisely the ones to support regime change, but also profit the most from the status quo. [DID HE REALLY JUST WRITE ‘INTERNATIONAL, MULTILINGUAL, AND URBANE’ ABOUT THE NK GANSTER ELITE HE JUST WITNESSED VIOLATING UN SANCTIONS IN THE BEIJING AIRPORT?]


Despite Typhoon Bolaven battering the country at the start of our visit, we came during a week when student groups, worker units, and families from all parts of the country flocked to Pyongyang for the Arirang mass games, which take place in the 150,000-capacity May Day stadium and feature up to 100,000 performers in the most spectacularly choreographed precision movements ever staged — almost every single night. North Koreans are no longer afraid or suspicious to engage with foreigners. [!!! I THINK MY HEAD JUST EXPLODED. WHEN WE RODE THE PYONGYANG METRO, PEOPLE WERE FREAKED OUT JUST TO SIT NEXT TO US. THE STAFF YOU MEET ON THE TOUR, WHO SEEM ‘UNSUSPICIOUS,’ HAVE ALL BEEN HEAVILY BACKGROUND-CHECKED IN ORDER TO BE ALLOWED TO INTERACT WITH YOU.]


We encountered locals at the mass games, film studios, world’s deepest underground metro, art schools, and delicious restaurants. This is not a society voluntarily marching in lockstep.[GAH! ARE YOU SURE YOU WENT TO NORTH KOREA? DIDN’T YOU JUST TELL ME YOU WENT TO THE ARIRANG GAMES, WHICH IS 10,000 PEOPLE MOVING IN PERFECT LOCKSTEP, WHICH IS THE WHOLE POINT OF THE PERFORMANCE?]


Our appreciation of their beautiful cultural offerings reminds them that they are a rich civilization temporarily trapped in an anachronistic state. Outside of Pyongyang one witnesses the reality afflicting many of the country’s 20 million-plus citizens: poverty and malnutrition. Most of those labeled defectors into China are actually economic migrants, and even in Pyongyang one can tell which children come from poor villages by their ragged sandals and brownish hair, made lighter by long hours under the sun in the fields. [HERE KHANNA HAS DRIFTED INTO GENUINELY IMMORAL ‘USEFUL IDIOT’ TERRITORY, IF HE REALLY THINKS THAT BLACK HAIR REDDENS NATURALLY IN THE SUN. IT DOESN’T. THAT’S FROM MALNUTRITION; THAT’S PART OF CHLDHOOD STUNTING FROM BORDERLINE STARVATION. HONESTLY, HE SHOULD PROBABLY APOLOGIZE FOR THAT LINE.]

One of Pyongyang’s crown jewels is the 150-meter tall Juche tower, which celebrates the country’s ideal of self-reliance. Plaques in the lobby commemorate the visits of dignitaries and earnest academics from Gambia, Tunisia, Pakistan and dozens of other nations who devoted serious study to North Korea’s Juche ideology in the 1970s and 1980s. We all know what’s happened to them. North Korea too feels on the cusp of a new phase. [WE SAW ABSOLUTELY NO PHYSICAL EVIDENCE OF THAT. IF HE MEANS CHINESE AID, THAT’S NOT NEW. NK HAS PLAYED OFF ITS NEIGHBORS FOR AID FOR DECADES. WHAT’S NK IMPORTING RIGHT NOW, IN THIS ‘NEW PHASE’? FOOD? CONSUMER GOODS? NO. GRANITE, SO THAT IT CAN RECUT ALL THE JUCHE COLUMNS AROUND THE COUNTRY TO INCLUDE KJU’S NAME NEXT TO HIS PREDECESSORS.]

Though it hasn’t accepted Japanese apologies for World War II imperial atrocities, and its many monuments excoriate in stone America’s Korean War aggression in which 420,000 bombs were dropped on Pyongyang alone (greater than the number of residents in the city at the time), the concrete high-rises with intermittent water supply and belching buses are all reaching the end of their shelf-life. Soviet support and fuel subsidies collapsed in the early 1990s, and food security has been tenuous ever since. Most investment now comes from China, but much less so ideological support. Nominally committed to the same Communist ethos, China has still become one of the world’s largest economies while North Korea lacks a credit rating. It’s not likely that the young regime of Kim Jong-Un will actually collapse. Though the Arab Spring teaches us not to put much faith in the softer sons of iron-fisted rulers, North Korea is a deeply Confucian society and symbolically views itself as still run by Jong-Un’s late grandfather and national revolutionary Kim Il-Sung and father Kim Jong-Il. Jong-Un is something of a caretaker while the old clique continues with anti-Japanese propaganda, nuclear brinksmanship, and threats against the South. The country’s premier, Kim Jung Nam, has been increasingly visible as a decisive government official, but as with everything else in North Korea, it is a carefully staged diversification of authority [‘DIVERSIFICATION OF AUTHORITY’? IN NK?! WHAT PROOF OF THAT HAS HE GOT?], not a transition towards democracy.

As one wanders [LET’S GET THIS STRAIGHT – NO FOREIGNER ‘WANDERS’ IN NK; I WENT TO THE LAVATORY ONCE WITHOUT PERMISSION, AND OUR MINDER CAME RUNNIG AFTER ME.] through lively [‘LIVELY’? ARE YOU SERIOUS? DID YOU SEE STREET VENDORS OR A COLORFUL STREET MARKET? DIDN’T YOU SEE MILITARY EVERYWERE? HAVE YOU EVER SEEN A REAL BUSTLING ASIAN STREET MARKET IN BUSAN, HANOI, HONG KONG?] street arcades full of roller-skaters [‘FULL’ – I THINK I SAW ABOUT 5 KIDS IN NK WEARING ROLLER SKATES] and volleyball games, one has to hope that Confucian communism can make enough space for capitalism such that the burden of isolation falls on the regime rather than society.

More tourism, mobile phones [ONLY ELITES GET LEGAL CELLPHONES – THIS WAS PRETTY OBVIOUS TO SEE…], and industrial joint ventures all help. One of the most promising is the Chinese funded special economic zone of Rason at the intersection of Russia and China, a warm water port that would serve all three countries. A decade from now, it could be North Korea’s Shenzhen. Another is Dandong, also on China’s border. Suddenly North Korea is making flat-screen televisions and its own DVD players. [WHAT? WHERE DID THAT LAST LINE COME FROM? THE QUEUE AT BEST BUY WILL BE AROUND THE BLOCK FOR THE NK-LED!]

While not wanting to buttress the Kim regime as China has, South Korea fears being marginalized for influence in the North and is returning to the economic engagement of its 1990s “sunshine” policy [THAT IS ABSOLUTELY FACTUALLY INACCURATE UNDER THE CURRENT CONSERVATIVE SK PRESIDENT – COME ON], and is considering expanding investment in its own special economic zone at Kaesong.

But a rail line meant to connect Seoul and Pyongyang remains dormant. Still, the North too fears becoming too dependent on China, and like Myanmar, is courting more foreign investment for those with a high appetite for risk. [THAT PHRASEOLOGY IS MISLEADING, B/C THERE’S ONLY ONE COUNTRY INVESTING IN NK – CHINA, AND THAT’S FAR MORE ABOUT POLITICS AND ASSET-STRIPPING THAN MODERNIZATION. ]

North Korea does indeed have plenty to offer. Its largely mountainous territory is rich in gold and magnesium. Mining operations are picking up, with serious interest from Australia and other extractive giants. Its mighty rivers could be key hydropower resource both to electrify the country and sell power to the South. It also produces agricultural staples like rice, corn, soybeans and potatoes. And of course there could be much more tourism, including to scenic Mt. Paekdu and to witness the centuries of well-preserved Korean traditions in Pyongyang. For example, Beijing-based Koryo Tours has increased its tourist volume from 200 to 2,000 over the past decade, almost half of which are American. The nation’s capital, the largest of its half-dozen large cities, feels like an Asian Kiev. Like Ukraine’s capital, it has broad avenues with revolutionary monuments and fountains, but also a laid-back, leafy feel. [MY HEAD JUST EXPLODED, AGAIN, LIKE THAT GUY IN ‘SCANNERS.’ ‘LEAFY’? – LIKE HAPPY COUPLES STROLLING DOWN UNTER DEN LINDEN? ‘LAID-BACK’? WERE YOU IN THE SAME CITY I WAS, WHERE GUARDS CARRY MACHINE GUNS ALL OVER THE PLACE, WHERE THE INFAMOUS TRAFFIC COPS DIRECT LIKE ROBOTS, WHERE UBIQUITOUS MURALS AND STATUERY REGULARLY DEPICT HARSH MILITARISTIC IMAGES OR KIS LOOKING DOWN ON YOU LIKE BIG BROTHER STRAIGHT OUT OF 1984?]

Czech made trams still roll through the city ferrying workers and students between homes, offices, and schools.North Koreans are not automatons but citizens [HOLY C—! DID HE JUST WRITE THAT? NO VOTE, NO VOICE, NO DISSENT, NO RIGHTS, A THEOCRATIC SUN-KING CULT – THAT’S WHAT CITIZENSHIP IS ALL ABOUT], loyal but misinformed, curious and educated [THAT’S BECAUSE THEY TOOK YOU TO THE ELITE SCHOOLS IN PYONGYANG FOR THE CHILDREN OF THE KWP/KPA LEADERSHIP. WE WENT THERE TOO, SO THAT WE MIGHT GET THE SAME FALSE IMPRESSION. YOU COULDN’T FIGURE THAT OUT?].

Whether in schools, billiard halls, or karaoke bars (Some Pyongyang girls have perfected Celine Dion’s “Titanic” theme song), the people can be quite open about their concerns. [YOU DIDN’T REALLY JUST WRITE THAT DID YOU? YOU REALLY THINK THEY OPENED UP TO YOU, A FOREIGNER WHO DOESN’T SPEAK THEIR LANGUAGE AND WHOM THEY’LL NEVER SEE AGAIN? STOP DRINKING THE JUCHE KOOLAID! ]

Some mothers would rather their kids practice the piano than spend hours training for the mass games; some teachers want their kids to focus more on math. Outside the capital, where information flow is more a one-way street, Western powers and responsible neighbors have to provide the young Kim with opportunities to change the hostile rhetoric. After the New York Philharmonic performed in Pyongyang, the reciprocal visit was effectively killed by Washington, which rejected the North Korean visas. But how about having the mind-blowing Arirang youth performers take stage at halftime in the Superbowl? Surely Kim wouldn’t call for America’s destruction after that. [JESUS! STOP! PLEASE! AN ARIRANG PERFORMANCE AT THE SUPERBOWL?! ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND? DID YOU WATCH THE SAME MILITARISTIC, HYPER-NATIONALISTIC, BELLIGERENT, JAPAN- AND AMERICA-BASHING, HYPER-CONTROLLED, ROBOTIC, BLATANTLY-LYING-ABOUT-AGRICULTURAL-PRODUCTION, INDIVIDUALITY-CRUSHING, PARTY-WORSHIPING, JUCHE-CELEBRATING, KIM-ADULATING, YOU’RE-JUST-A-COG-IN-THE-COLLECTIVIST-MACHINE PERFORMANCE I SAW? THE AIRANG GAMES IS NOT ‘AMAZING’; IT’S TERRIFYING. IT’S ‘TRIUMPH OF THE WILL’ FOR A POPULATION WITHOUT TELEVISIONS. ALL THE BANNERS ABOUT THE PARTY, THE MILITARY TRIUMPHALISM, THE IMAGES OF THE KIMS, THE BLATANT LYING IN THE IMAGERY ABOUT NK AFFLUENCE DIDN’T MAKE THAT PAINFULLY OBVIOUS?]

Indeed, Jong-Un has an opportunity now his failed Arab counterparts missed: to lead the rehabilitation of his country and enjoy his remaining decades not as a pariah but a statesman, not feared by his people but admired by them. [ADMIRATION FOR THE KIM FAMILY?………..[PROCESSING FAILURE]..…. DO YOU KNOW THAT SK STILL HAS THE DEATH PENALTY ON THE BOOKS, EVEN THOUGH THEY NEVER USE IT DOMESTICALLY, BECAUSE THEY’RE GOING TO HANG MOST OF THE KIM FAMILY AND KPA & KWP ELITE AFTER IT’S ALL OVER?]

Rather than being banned from most international travel he could enjoy basketball games in Europe as he did during high school in Switzerland. Whether or not the North reunifies with the South like West Germany absorbing the East in the early 1990s, the current priority should be turning the country into a passageway between China and South Korea rather than a buffer. There’s no guarantee that economic opening will lead to political reform; indeed, China is if anything a more likely future model of governance for North Korea than outright democratization or sudden reunification. All the more reason then to stop pretending that placing conditions on investment such as freezing the nuclear program will actually work. [I DON’T KNOW ANYONE IN SK, EVEN ON THE LEFT, WHO BELIEVES THAT.]

Diplomacy with pre-requisites has a very poor track record with nuclearizing states. Rather than wait for statues to be violently yanked down in city centers, the goal should be de facto economic integration without political humiliation. The heavily fortified De-Militarized Zone (DMZ), then, would quickly go from Cold War flashpoint to nature park given its unique ecosystem and flora. The past 20 years of revolutions followed by slow, halting, and even reversed transitions from the Balkans to the Middle East teaches us to be guarded in our optimism about the pace of change in countries whose political and economic systems have been frozen in time. Today North Korea is like Turkmenistan, isolated and ideological. Even with a surge of infrastructure investment and technology, a decade from now it could at best become like post-Communist Romania, exporting industry and agriculture but still corrupt and destitute. But it would be an economic passageway with greater freedom and opportunity for its people, and have a greater stake in peace than war. So come to North Korea, and come soon [*SIGH*  I’M JUST OUT OF OUTRAGE. GIMME A BREAK. NK AS A HOT TOURIST DESTINATION? WITH LAID-BACK, LEAFY BOULEVARDS? THE KIDS WILL LOVE IT! KIS WILL SMILE HIS BENOVOLENT RADIANCE DOWN UPON THEM!]

The Pyongyang International Film Festival takes place in September with documentaries and avant garde movies being screened from a dozen countries. [YEAH, WELL, YOU SEE THE THING ABOUT ‘AVANT GARDE’ IN NK IS THAT THERE IT MEANS YOU STAND IN FRONT OF THE GUARD SO THAT HE CAN MORE EASILY ARREST YOU THAN WHEN YOU ARE RUNNING AWAY. — JUST READ THE D— HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH PAGE ON NK, PLEASE.]


And here’s one more KIS pic for the road…
North Korea 2012 196
Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.

“Kim Il Sung will always be with Us,” or what I learned in NK (4)


This is my final post about NK; here is one, two, and three. The post title comes from a remark a local guide made to me, and that is the standard KIS image in the pic.

7. The Korean People’s Army is pretty much everywhere.

This is easily the most militarized state I’ve ever been in. Soldiers and other uniformed military are everywhere, and units of KPA were doing all sorts of even banal things, like going to the Pyongyang fun fair, together en bloc. Guards carried automatic weapons openly in public with disturbing frequency. And the KPA was pretty clearly a captive, exploited labor force. Again and again we saw KPA young men fixing roads, constructing buildings, working in the fields, felling trees, and doing all sorts of things with little connection to actual soldiering – and doing all these dirty tasks in uniform, looking very uncomfortable and overheated. Guides regularly told us about a ‘heroic, glorious’ KPA work brigade that built that or this, but all I could think of was how miserable those young men looked making bricks or hoeing a field in the August heat while in a uniform wholly unsuited for the job and probably getting paid zippo. This wasn’t the army – it was impressed labor in a workers’ state. Ironically, if there’s any one thing East Asia has in abundance, it’s construction companies; SK, Japan, and China love building white elephants. What a shame then to waste your 20s as semi-enslaved labor building a crappy highway for the KPA that no one will use anyway, because no one owns a car.


8. Don’t Personality Cults face Time-Constraints as They Age?

Another thing I kept wondering about is how long this whole ideological structure can lurch on, when everyday takes North Koreans further and further away from the actual life and exploits of KIS. In the first post, I noted that NK felt like a neopatrimonial absolute monarchy or even theocracy – mostly focused on the persons themselves of KJI and especially KIS as a Korean-communist version of Jesus. So if NK isn’t even Korea anymore, but the “Kim Il Sung state,” then how long can it hang on – or to be more specific, remain ideologically coherent – without KIS around? If the whole show is built around one or two guys, and they aren’t around, then isn’t there a time limit to how long such an ideology can actually remain convincing to anyone? For example, we saw students using computers at a university. KIS (d. 1994) never saw any computers and provided no guidance on them. So as computers become more common in even NK, how can that be connected to a personality cult whose traits are frozen in time, i.e., KIS’ lifespan, 1912-94?

This problem strikes me as inevitable for any highly personalized system. At some point everyone, even Stalin, dies; time continues to tick by; eventually new generations grow up for whom this stuff isn’t even a distant memory, it’s just ritual. Maybe the ‘KIS state’ can sorta work 18 years after his death, but what about 50 or 100 years? George Washington, a similarly lionized founder, may have been such an inspiration to early Americans that he was offered the kingship of America, but it’s hard to imagine a ‘George Washington state’ by, say, 1850. At some point, the sheer passage of time would undercut any such personalistic regime, no?

Maybe NK is aware of this, because it looks like they’re trying to replace one personality with another in the personality cult (KJU replaces KJI replaces KIS), but doesn’t that violate the basic premise of a personality cult – that one awesome personage (Hitler, Stalin, Mao) instantiates everything great about a certain national community? (If you’ve actually studied personality cults and their longevity, please chime in here). So instead of NK being a personality cult, I guess it’s now a ‘family cult’? Does that even make sense? Can that work if the latest guy in the family line has almost no accomplishments at all? At least, KJI had the nukes.

As the pics in this post show, KIS is everywhere, but he’s been dead now for almost 20 years. I guess that is not too far in the past yet, but inevitably it will be. Time marches on, and no matter what the regime does, eventually KIS will become a distant memory – a frozen almost mythic great leader, again like George Washington is to Americans perhaps, but not an actual present figure guiding the state. The personality cult of KJI was already a struggle and less convincing. KJI never equaled his father in terms of (real or apparent) successes, like struggling against the Japanese or founding the DPRK, and there aren’t nearly as many statues and such of KJI as there are of KIS. Is KJU just up to the task? I doubt it. People are mortal and can’t be institutions, no matter how powerful they are.

Similarly, the cult felt frozen because it rehearsed again and again for us the ‘glory days’ – KIS’ guerilla war against the Japanese, the founding of the DPRK, and the Korean war. (Not surprisingly, the propaganda wildly overblows KIS’ role in both the defeat of Japan and the creation of NK; there’s almost no mention of the American, Chinese or Soviet role in any of this. And apparently NK won the Korean war too.) So if you’re a N Korean, you really get it that KIS did some great stuff in the 40s and 50s. Ok. But what about the other 60 years since then? There’s almost nothing. What did KIS do in the 60s or 70s or 80s? I have almost no idea judging by the statuary, the murals, the parks and locations we visited, the talks we got, etc., because it all focused on the independence struggle and the Korean war. (KIS smiling and pointing to a dam or the metro hardly compares with defeating Japan, and sheer volume of imagery of the latter over the former makes that pretty clear.) But the further in time these glories recede, the more it becomes stale no matter how much it gets mythologized. At some point, the past is past, and nothing we saw told me that NK has a strategy for the future.


9. A Few more Notable Observations

a. Just to reinforce just much NK really is the KIS state, NK runs an alternate ‘Juche Calendar’ whose point of origin is the year of KIS birth. So 2012 is Juche year 101. This was all over the literature we received.

b. Forgetting where I was for a moment, I asked our guides if they had email addresses so I could send some pictures. None of them had one. When we were showed computers (see we’re modern), they all ran on bootlegged copies of Windows XP, and the ‘internet’ was actually a NK intranet. No surprise there, but notable nonetheless.

c. Corn was planted in almost every accessible nook and cranny of the countryside. We saw it constantly – up and down in hills in crazy-quilt patterns, or in gullies and ditches next to roads at terrible angles – all of which will be pretty hard to access for harvesting. We took that to be a mark of just how food-desperate the country was.

d. Dilapidation was everywhere. We saw people starting trucks by cranking the engine with a crowbar (I don’t think I’ve ever seen that outside of the movies). On the Soviet-era plane we flew to Mt. Paekdu, the overhead bins had no doors. If we’d hit turbulence, imagine the bags flying all over the place smashing into people’s heads. Flush toilets outside of Pyongyang were a luxury. Beds were flat boards with a blanket on top. Brownouts and back-up candles were common; hot water was not. The roads were atrocious; everyone began to avoid the back of the bus.To be honest, it kept reminding me of traveling in southern Africa where nothing worked right and our drivers kept saying ‘TIA.’

e. I kept wondering what SK will do with all this commie crap when they finally take over (and I do think NK will collapse one day). The historian in me says it’d be a terrible shame to rip it all down. It’s history, whether we like it or not and shouldn’t get airbrushed out. The political scientist in me says the opposite: tear it all down ASAP as symbols of possibly the worst government in the history of East Asia and get on with reorientation toward democracy. Tough question.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.

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