Friday, July 14, 2017

The Price of the Cult of Kim

(To save and read for later, you can download the PDF here)

Figure 1: Visitors bowing before statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il at the Mansu Hill Grand Monument. (Image credit: Commons/J.A. de Roo)


While state-directed personality cults are nothing new, the magnitude of the North Korean personality cult surrounding the ruling Kim family surpasses any other. The cult’s main foundations are structured around the thoughts and orders of the Kims. Having a large effect on the nation’s economy, culture, and military, the cult and its associated “Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism” (the revolutionary political and philosophical thought of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il) has been described as the primary focus of the country and a central motivation behind the activities of the government. [1][2]

The amount of resources dedicated to the construction, maintenance, and expansion of the cult over its decades of existence has cost the country billions in direct and indirect costs. The funding apparatus of this system features heavily within the bureaucratic hierarchies and helps to “grease the wheels” when it comes to providing assets for military programs and large construction projects; ostensibly to enable the construction of a “strong and prosperous nation”. In a country where one man rules with an iron grip and in which no major decision can be made without him, the use of the cult (and its mix of nepotism and bribery) is essential to Kim Jong-un’s ability to preserve his power and to direct resources to the parts of the economy he wishes to improve. However, the net effect of this has led to a byzantine system of kickbacks and inefficiencies that have hampered economic growth and progress as enormous efforts and monies are redirected away from the general economy to keep the system functioning.


The personality cult began soon after Kim Il-sung came to power in 1948. However, its intensity and the level of resources dedicated to it vastly expanded during Kim Jong-il’s rise to power as he elevated his father in an attempt to secure his own eventual succession as the unquestioned leader after his father’s eventual death in 1994 (after death he was then elevated to the position of Eternal President). Part of the cultural foundations of the cult that have allowed it to take root and survive for so many years, stem from Korea’s traditional imperial and Confucian past and its highly patriarchal nature. 

Additionally, in light of Korea’s history of reliance on and subjugation by outside forces, the development of Juche in the early history of North Korea (in practice, a mix of self-reliance and nationalist racialism) makes more sense. In such a context, the invention of a supreme leader (or Suryong) who is vested with the “will of the people” and who alone can guide and protect the nation is understandable. Since then, the cult has been embellished, refined, and expanded with each generation of Kim, as though by Divine Right. All fundamental documents and guiding principles of North Korea codify and are bound by the cult: the Constitution, the Juche Idea, and the Ten Principles for the Establishment of a Monolithic Ideology. It touches on every aspect of life: education, daily work, the economy, art, and the military.

In order to enforce the cult in the minds of the people, there are approximately 10,000 individual stone and bronze monuments throughout the country [3], and every train station, government office and home must contain images of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un (images of other family members, like Kim Jong-suk, can also be found). Many schools contain miniature models of Kim Il-sung’s Mangyongdae birthplace, and even the various places the leadership has visited become elevated; with ink pens used or benches sat upon turned into mini-shrines. [4] The most obvious evidence of the enormous resources poured into the cult is easily found in the thousands of monuments, propaganda signs, and museums which cover the nation.

Figure 2: Map showing some of the over 40 monuments in the city of Nampo. (Satellite base image: Google Earth, May 18, 2017)


The impact of the cult on the economy and culture is a complicated matter, not just due to the opaque nature of North Korea as a general rule, but also because so much of its effects aren’t as obvious as the many statues.

Perhaps the easiest area to review is in terms of hard dollars. There are no firm estimates about the overall cost of the cult, either in direct costs such as those of constructing monuments, or in the muddier costs due to its effects on education, its general impact on culture, etc. Having said that, the estimates that have been published vary somewhat as to the cost of maintaining the cult, with lower bound figures at $40 million to $100 million annually. [5][6] This doesn’t necessarily take into consideration large single expenditures such as the renovations to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace. In 1994 Kim Jong-il ordered the palace converted into Kim Il-sung’s mausoleum at a reported cost of $100 million. The palace underwent further changes after Kim Jong-il’s death in 2011. Upper bound estimates suggest several billion (note A) are spent each year on direct glorification of the Kims and indirectly via "cultural" and other spending which serve as a conduit to spread government propaganda.

Going further back in time, many of the costs of the cult during the Kim Il-sung-era are generally lacking, making acquiring firm estimates for that period even more difficult. What is known is that projects such as the original 1972 golden statue of Kim Il-sung at the Mansudae (Mansu Hill) Grand Monument, with a value estimated at $851 million, so appalled visiting Chinese dignitaries that it was later replaced with a bronze version [7], and that such large-scale projects have been blamed for part of North Korea’s economic decline in the 1980s, [8] with a famine following in the 1990s.

Figure 3: Monuments at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang. (Image credit: Google Earth/DigitalGlobe, October 4, 2016)

After Kim Jong-un’s rise to power, in part to help secure his rule due to his young age and perceived lack of experience, the government took rapid steps to build up a cult around him. At the same time, the state worked to escalate the veneration of Kim Jong-il - during which the government installed him as the nation’s second eternal leader: the Eternal General Secretary of the Korean Worker’s Party. The roughly 3,000 “Towers of Eternal Life” which were erected after Kim Il-sung’s death have been modified to include references to the eternal life of Kim Jong-il. And, based on a review of satellite imagery, included in the escalation of the Kim Jong-il cult was the construction of twenty-seven bronze statues in major cities to be placed alongside those of Kim Il-sung (some of which were replaced with newer versions). These statues range in size from 5.3 meters in height to the large 23-meter tall Mansudae statues. Additionally, approximately 150 five-meter high murals of Kim Jong-il were installed next to existing murals of Kim Il-sung in county seats and other towns.

Figure 4: Twenty-three-meter-tall statue of Kim Il-sung at Mansu Hill, Pyongyang. (Image Credit: Google Earth/NASA, April 10, 2011)

Figure 5: Image showing the newly installed statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il at Mansu Hill. (Image Credit: Google Earth/DigitalGlobe, Nov. 26, 2014)

Figure 6: Jangdae Hill, Pyongyang. Left: A mural of Kim Il-sung in 2010. Right: Twin murals of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il (installed in February 2011). Image credits: (Left) John Pavelka/Flickr; (Right) Wikimedia Commons.

Not to be out done, some monumental works glorifying Kim Jong-un are large enough to be seen from space, like a half-kilometer long sign in Ryanggang Province which reads, “Long Live General Kim Jong-un, the Shining Sun of [North Korea]!” Additionally, plans are now underway to place stand-alone “mosaic murals” of Kim Jong-un in each provincial capital. Funding of the cult comes not only from government sources, but also from the people themselves in the form of “loyalty payments” exacted from each citizen and business.

One area that is difficult, but not impossible, to estimate costs are in terms of misdirected labor and lost production due to the cult. Each year millions of man-hours are committed to constructing and maintaining facilities, preparing for parades and mass games, and on other projects. This continual labor is done in spite of regional food shortages, the flooding of cities, and other problems which could otherwise use that manpower to address those difficulties. The largest example of mass labor is the 100,000 people who train (unpaid) for months to produce the Arirang Mass Games each year. If we assume a base salary of $100 per month and calculate 351 hours of training per person, we reach nearly $22 million in lost pay for other work that could have been done instead of putting on a propaganda performance. [9] An account of what went in to Arirang can be found in the book In Order to Live, by defector and human rights activist Yeonmi Park, who wrote: 

"Most impressive were the thirty-thousand to fifty thousand children who had trained for many months to sit in the risers behind the stage, holding up colored squares like a living mural to create enormous, ever-changing scenes and slogans glorifying the regime. Only much later did I realize how abusive it was for these children to preform for hours and hours without even a small break to eat or use the bathroom." 

It’s important to look at the overall costs of non-penal forced labor as well (as those in the country's vast prison camp system are generally thought unworthy to participate in the glorification of the Kims). According to Open North Korea, a Seoul-based NGO, an estimated 400,000 people form a class of laborers called dolgyeokdae. These workers receive little pay and are required to work on major construction and prestige projects that the leadership can show to the world. Apart from general construction, work on monuments is part of their duties. All of this results in the leadership’s continued ability to boast about building a strong and prosperous nation. A feat that, according to the cult, can now only be done under the “wise leadership” of Kim Jong-un. The value of the labor is estimated to be $975 million annually.

Figure 7: Arch of Triumph, Pyongyang. Dedicated to the period of “Anti-Japanese Struggle” under Kim Il-sung. (Image Credit: Google Earth/DigitalGlobe, Oct. 4, 2016)

Less easily accounted for are the indirect costs to the nation’s ability to innovate and engage with international partners. From grade school to university, much of a student’s academic career is spent learning about the deeds of the leadership, so much so, that even elite students may struggle with relatively simple scholastic tasks.

Yeonmi Park speaks to the ordinary education of children, too:  "In the morning, after we finished cleaning the streets or polishing the monuments, we were marched off to class." And, "In the classroom every subject we learned...was delivered with a dose of propaganda... This worship of the Kims was reinforced in documentaries, movies, and shows broadcast by the single, state-run television station." Later on she recounts, "As soon as you are in school you are drilled in the 10 Principles of the regime...You learn the principle of juche...and you are taught to hate the enemies of the state with a burning passion." 

She continues, "In North Korea, even arithmetic is a propaganda tool ...[and] any mention of the Kims had to be preceded by a title or tender description to show our infinite love and respect." 

Figure 8: Tower of Eternal Life and "Juche Study Hall" at Pyongyang University. (Image Credit: Google Earth/DigitalGlobe, Sept. 7, 2015)

Society and the Cult

The role of the public education system in instilling the tenants of the cult in the people can’t be overestimated. One of the first phrases children learn to speak is “thank you, Father Kim Il-sung”. [10] Similar to Christians thanking God before a meal, all North Koreans are taught that their food, housing, education, leisure activities, etc. are given to them by the grace and love of the leadership. This isn’t an abstract notion of gratitude either, but rather it is giving thanks for what is seen as the benevolence of the leadership, literally to each person individually, and without which they would go hungry.

North Korean society is divided into three main classes under the Songbun system. This system is how the government determines who gets what. What kind of careers and educational opportunities will be available, who can marry whom, and more. The top class of people are those who are seen as the most loyal while those at the bottom are seen as “hostile”. Political crimes and crimes of thought (such as questioning the regime) are considered to be some of the most serious offenses and can result in the “criminal” and their family being sent to a prison camp. In this way, one’s place in the very fabric of society is tied to one’s obedience and acceptance of the leadership and Party.

Recurring rituals, like the laying of flowers at statues, or the regular “self-criticism” sessions during which people are supposed to acknowledge their faults and the various ways they let the Great Leader down (even for the most minor offenses), have enabled the indoctrination of millions of North Koreans for generations into the Cult of Kim. Nearly every holiday is concerned with the Kims. The “Day of the Sun” is Kim Il-sung’s birthday, for example. Through these events people can prove their loyalty and maintain their positions, or be raised up (or made low). These times also serve as opportunities for the government to prove that the Leader is indeed the great benefactor of the people. Gifts proportionate to each citizen’s Songbun class are distributed during major holidays. Holidays are also times when the government tends to announce new large construction projects or the success of military projects, thereby validating (through exaggerated propaganda) what they have been telling the people year-round.

The cult can be looked at as a double-edge sword. It has the benefit of creating a fairly obedient and docile society who are bound to their fatherly leader, but it also results in huge amounts of money, labor, and material (as well as human lives) being expended to glorify the leadership. The loyalty payments the government demands from the people (along with other sources of income) creates a kind of “court economy” that can be used for anything from statues to ballistic technology, which in turn raises the risks of new international actions against the state. By spending so many hours teaching students about the great feats of the Kim family, a nation with millions of hard working people can be mobilized to complete massive projects at a frenzied pace. But it also results in less innovation. And a lack of understanding about trade hobbled the recovery after the famine as people were forced in order to survive into crash courses in economics in the streets at nascent, illegal markets. That disconnect between the government and the economic reality on the ground has enabled even more corruption and uncertainty to take hold. [11]


For those things that can be seen and measured, so long as the government continues to demand absolute fealty, millions will continue to be spent on stone edifices that dot the landscape and in countless other ways to remind the people that ‘without him, there is no us.’ [12] The people’s heart-felt dedication to the cult may have diminished since the days of Kim Il-sung, but it remains, nonetheless, an integral part of the whole society. This entrenched reality makes it highly unlikely that there will be any fundamental changes in the near future as any such changes would alter the structure of the cult and weaken the Kim's position. Additionally, outside attempts to diminish the cult (and thus its hold over the nation) through sanctions or other hard power methods are unlikely to have much effect, as the country itself relies on upholding the cult. Those in power remain in power through their loyalty and by finding ways to help finance the desires of Kim Jong-un. Likewise, those wishing to rise in influence can only achieve their wishes by contributing to the Cult of Kim. The best example of this was the rise of Kim Jong-il himself, who, prior to the years of work he engaged in the idolization of Kim Il-sung, was not originally seen to be a probable successor to his father.

One only needs to look at the remodeling of the Korean Revolutionary Museum, [13] the expansion underway at the underground vaults of the International Friendship Exhibition, or the Tower of Eternal Life in Pyongyang, which recently underwent renovations, to verify the continued outlay of resources on the personality cult and to see that Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism remains "the only guiding idea of the party" and nation. [14]

Figure 9: Scaffolding is visible on the Tower in this image dated October 4, 2016. (Image Credit: Google Earth/DigitalGlobe.)

Figure 10: Image from KCNA April 2017 broadcast showing the opening of Ryomyong Street and the Tower of Eternal Life after renovations. 

Additional Reading
1. Who Are They? - Some Historical Perspective, Frontline/PBS
2. The 1st Marxist Monarchy, The Washington Post (1978)
3. North Korean Cult of Personality, Wikipedia

A. A 2007 study by the Korean Institute for International Economic Policy reported that state expenditures on the cult grew from 19.5% of the nation's budget in 1990, to 38.5% by 2004. Outside of the military, which is a separate economic and budgetary entity within North Korea, Professor RĂ¼diger Frank suggests that the national budget can be viewed as synonymous with the economy. If this is the case, 38.5% of an approx. $23 billion GDP (2004) equals $8.8 billion.

1. Jin-sung, Jang, Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee – A Look Inside North Korea. New York, NY. 37INK/Atria, 2014. Page 132.

2. Kim Jong-un, The Cause of the Great Party of Comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il is Ever Victorious, Foreign Languages Publishing House, October 4, 2015.

3. The number of monuments is derived from a four-year long mapping project by the author.

4. Oberdorfer, Don Carlin, Robert, The Two Koreas A Contemporary History, New York, NY, Basic Books, 2013. Page 16.

5. Kim Jong-il Personality Cult 'Cost $40 Million', The Chosun Ilbo, August 25, 2012,

6. Mike Firn, Kim Jong-il personality cult costs North Korea £62m, The Telegraph, December 5, 2012,

7. Becker, Jasper, Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea, New York, NY, Oxford University Press, 2005. Page 150.

8. Martin, Bradley, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, New York, NY, St. Martin's Griffin, 2006.  Pages 322-323

9. The figure is derived using a base salary of $100/month. Each participant trains for at least 90 minutes a day, six days a week from January to September. That gives 234 days of training (six-day weeks), multiplied by 90 minutes equals 351 hours per person. 351 hours equals 2.19 months’ worth of 40-hour work weeks, or $219 in would-be salary per person. Multiplied by 100,000 participants and you reach $21,900,000.

10. U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Thank you, Father Kim Il Sung: Eyewitness Accounts of Severe Violations of Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion in North Korea. November 2005. Page 1

11. Babson, Bradley O., The North Korean Economic System: Challenges and Issues, International Journal of Korean Studies, Vol. XX, No. 1. DPRK Economic Forum, U.S.-Korea Institute, SAIS, Spring 2016. Page 156

12. “Without you, there would be no us!” is a verse from the North Korean song “No Motherland Without You” about Kim Jong-il.

13. Remodeled Korean Revolution Museum Opened, Rodong Sinmun, April 1, 2017

14. RĂ¼diger, Frank, North Korea in 2012: Domestic Politics, the Economy and Social Issues, Brill Publishers, 2013. Page 45

Friday, July 7, 2017

International Friendship Exhibition Expands

Entrance to the Kim Il-sung Exhibition Hall. Source: Commons/TF92.

New excavation activity has been spotted at one of North Korea's largest museums. The International Friendship Exhibition is a massive underground complex in Myohyangsan, North Pyongan Province that houses vast stores of gifts and artifacts relating to the lives of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and now Kim Jong-un. The exhibition is a major tourist destination and pilgrimage site for foreigners and North Korean citizens respectively.

It was constructed in 1978 among Myohyang Mountain (Mysterious Fragrant Mountain) which is the alleged home of King Tangun - the legendary father of the Korean people. This location helps to solidify the Kim's regime claim to be the rightful rulers, not just of the north, but of all Koreans; similar to the implication of the claim that Kim Jong-un was born on Mt. Paektu, which is the spiritual birthplace of the Korean people. Surrounded by centuries old temples and religious hermitages, as well as the mystical significance of the area, this museum to the legitimacy and "global importance" of the atheistic and communist Kim family takes up as much as 70,000 square meters (753,000 square feet) of space - much of which has been cut deeply into a mountain side - and contains upwards of 220,000 gifts.

Now that Kim Jong-un is the ruler, gifts to him (including such mundane things as an iPad and Lenovo desktop PC) need their own space within this complex, and satellite images now show increasing activity at the site.

(Note: to examine images more closely, simply click on them.)

In the above image you can see the three main external buildings as well as the two areas of recent excavation activity. The horizontal distance between the two sites is approx. 530 meters (1,738 ft).

Here is a close up of the upper site as seen on Oct. 8, 2016. Traces of old spoils/debris can be seen as well as the original underground entrance to the excavation areas within the mountain.

The trail of newly dumped material extends for some 110 m (360 feet) from the entrance as seen in this image dated May 7, 2017.

In this larger view of the lower area of activity, you can also see an older dump site of previously excavated materials. The site's hardened electrical substation is also visible.

Finally, this comparison close-up image of the lower site clearly shows the activity underway.

As I wrote about in 2015, a new runway was constructed at the site to ensure ease of access. Additionally, the nearby and mysterious Hagap site has also had activity resume as of 2016.

--Jacob Bogle 7/7/17

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

North Korea by the Numbers

Phase II of the #AccessDPRK Mapping Project was published on March 5, 2017, but simply knowing where everything is doesn't make understanding the full picture much easier - especially when considering there's over 50,000 places marked. So I've put together these basic charts showing the total number of items per division (monuments, military, and domestic), the total items per province, and the total number of items within each type mapped (AAA sites, elite compounds, dams, communication centers, schools, etc.).

I'd like to point out that the overall figures here will differ slightly form the ones listed in the March 5th publication article. All told, there are some 600 individual sub-folders I have to keep track of and the resulting numbers take up 24 pages; minor mistakes happen. A couple numbers were inverted and a few were slightly off, however the overall discrepancies are very minor when compared with the whole. After making those needed corrections, the information below should be considered as authoritative as it will get with regards to the project.

The following charts (monuments, military, and domestic) represents the most detailed map of North Korea ever released to the public.

Many monuments are clustered closely together, making marking each one individually impractical. Instead, some markers are placed next to a group of monuments (2-4 generally), so while Pyongyang may have 1,049 markers on the map, those markers represent 1,230 individual monuments.

It's important to note, for those unfamiliar with the project, that the numbers below represent the numbers within the various folders by those names. There will be some items where there will only be one or two places within a province - those didn't necessitate their own folders. In such cases, they're often located in the "un-categorized" folder. An example of this is military training centers and military factories. Just about every province has at least one, but only a few have a folder dedicated to them.  A similar situation exists within the domestic file; bunkers, water towers, jails, and others may or may not have their own folder, but they will all be mapped.

While the purpose of this project is to map every one of a particular item, there are some items that I did not intend on mapping each and every one of, such as "firing positions". These trenches and prepared (but empty) gun positions cover the country and number in the thousands. In many cases it's also difficult to determine whether or not something was just a leftover temporary fortification from the Korean War or is part of the country's current defense structure (which does include having trenches in just about every available space). Additionally, the "radar" count is predominantly stand-alone radar sites, not the numerous smaller radars that accompany permanent artillery positions; although some of those are mapped as well. "Gates" are only mapped when they help define the boundaries of an area or are large - there's no real need to map every single gate at every single military site.

With the exception of a few items: canals, signs, factories and farming (to a degree), mountaintop sites, gates, and water supply, I have tried to be as comprehensive as possible in mapping each and every one of the other sites. Regarding the number of factories and farming/agricultural facilities, I focused on only mapping the larger sites, while also mapping some smaller agricultural facilities (like wheat threshing sites) to provide examples of what those numerous places look like. 

In short the map contains 8,865 monument markers (representing 9,896 individual monuments), 9,594 military sites, and 35,252 domestic and economic sites for a total of 53,711 placemarks. There are also hundreds of fences and other things outlined in the Google Earth file (link downloads file), but those aren't included in the counts as the places fenced in have already been accounted for.

#AccessDPRK will occasionally be updated to provide greater accuracy as new information comes in, fixing any unintentional errors, and adding more details.

--Jacob Bogle 7/4/17

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Otto Warmbier, Dennis Rodman, and North Korea

The following is based on a interview I had with Dan Mandis on his Nashville, TN radio show (99.7 FM) on June 20, 2017. It is not a direct transcript but covers everything discussed and adds some additional information that we weren't able to get to due time restraints. The actual interview is available on iTunes for free (my segment begins at minute 18:44).

Dan Mandis Show 99.7 WWTN, Nashville
12:35-12:55 CST

Why was Otto Warmbier there and why does anybody still go to North Korea?
Otto was travelling in China and the decision to visit North Korea seems to have been fairly impulsive after he saw an advertisement from a tour group. North Korea holds a certain allure for many and several hundred Americans and a few thousand Westerners visit each year, along with thousands of Chinese and smaller numbers from countries around the world.

As for why, North Korea is unique and can offer a lot in the way of throw-back Soviet-style culture that’s mixed with ancient Korean history. And for the most part, they leave people alone. There’s an argument to be made that people shouldn’t visit because you’re giving money to an evil regime, but there’s also a counter argument that defends travel because you expose North Koreans to different people and ideas – which can help weaken the leadership over time. And really the only people who can resolve the dispute are the people who decide for themselves to either visit or not.

Who are remaining prisoners?
There are three Americans still being held by North Korea: Kim Sang-duk, Kim Hak-song, and Kim Dong Chul. All three are Korean-American Christians and are charged with crimes relating to missionary work, something North Korea takes very seriously. Of the 16 Americans detain by the North since 1999, 5 were connected to Christian groups. Nine were Korean-Americans.

What happened to Otto?
The official North Korean story is that he had botulism poisoning, which you can get from inappropriately packaged food – something that’s plausible given the state of affairs over there. Of course, Otto’s American doctors say there was no evidence of that. What really happen may never be known; he could have easily been hurt during an accident, beating, or during a torture session. We know from previous detainees that North Korea is not afraid to abuse American prisoners. And while his death is very sad, given how long he was in a comma and the damage to his brain, his death wasn’t surprising.

North Korea tries to hide anything that hints at the terrible conditions in their prisons or the failure of their medical system, so it’s reasonable to think they held him for so long in the hopes he would recover so they could coverup the whole thing. But the last thing North Korea wanted was to have a dead American in their custody, and I think his inability to come out of the coma played a role in them releasing him.

Describe what hard labor is really like in North Korea?
Honestly, it depends. But looking at the average, hard labor usually involves working in agriculture or in mining operations. The lack of equipment means using brut human strength and simple things like Ox carts and hand tools to farm the land – very much Medieval technology. Mining is done in deplorable conditions with little to no safety considerations. Accidents and mine collapses are common.

Prisoners are forced to work up to 15 hours a day, every day, and often receive less than 400 grams of food rations (usually corn with salt) – that’s a maximum of 1,500 calories a day. That means prisoners have to find mice, bugs, and even weeds to supplement their diets. When you add nonexistent sanitation, under those conditions the body quickly starts falling apart.   

What is our policy?
Currently the only policy the US has regarding travel to North Korea, is that Americans are discouraged from going. We don’t have diplomatic relations with them so direct travel is not possible. Every American that goes there must do so via a third-party nation, usually China. Even if we were to outright ban travel there, unless China helped us enforce that ban, Americans could still find a way if they were intent on it. The US State Department doesn’t (or can’t) even keep track of who goes to North Korea.

We don’t have any explicit policy on dealing with the North either when it comes detainees – and Otto was the first American prisoner to die since basically the Korean War. All we can do consider stronger sanctions – which haven’t stopped the slow progress of their military or prevented their economy from grinding forward.

What has Dennis Rodman accomplished this time around?
What role Rodman played in Otto’s release, if any, isn’t known. Prisoner releases have happened whenever a high-profile politician or former official payed a visit, because it confers a level of legitimacy on the regime, or when the North extracted some kind of food aid or other concession. They basically use prisoners as pawns. Having said that. Rodman’s visit could have just been coincidental, as he does consider Kim Jong-un a friend of sorts and since the US had been working toward Otto’s release since day one.

What About Young Pioneer Tours?
People are always encouraged to travel to North Korea using one of several official tour companies. Visiting on your own invites disaster. The problem with the company Otto used, Young Pioneer Tours, is that they appear to have used deceptive marketing to make the risks associated with going to North Korea seem less than they really were for Americans, while also promoting the allure of a “risky adventure” by saying their company somehow held sway in North Korea and if you used them you were less likely to be harassed or arrested.

Since these companies are often based in China, China’s obligation in this would be to tighten regulations associated with such companies. As I said earlier, even if the US were to enact a travel ban, it would be up to China to be the main enforcer.

In the end, the real point is to never take travelling to North Korea lightly and do a whole lot of research before you go. The overall risk is relatively low (it’s less than 1%), but even bending the rules there can get you in deep trouble and without adequate research, you may inadvertently break a law you didn’t realize even would be a law. An example of that is the disposal of newspapers that have the image of Kim Jong-un on them. You are not allowed to just throw it away, you can’t even fold the paper to where the picture is folded in half. 

--Jacob Bogle, 6/20/2017

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Kim Jong-un's Secret Escape Plan

Pyongyang has one of the deepest subway systems in the world. It dives as much as 360 feet (110 meters) beneath the earth. And like many subways in national capitals, there are rumors of secret train lines that stand ready to spirit the country's elite to safety in the event of war or revolt. North Korea applied much of what it learned from the Soviet Union when it comes to protecting the leadership: from secret subway lines, to tunnels that run for miles connecting various palaces and government buildings, and even an alleged one that extends all the way to China!

There are special runways, helipads, and train stations that allow the Kims to travel their country in luxury and safety (and without having to wait in line for hours like the average peasant). These "No. 1" train stations are well known and easily identifiable, and even the special runways can be found with little effort (including the new ones that keep popping up), but it can be difficult to find tunnels via satellite. It's even more difficult to verify the rumors about secret underground escape routes.

There is an arc of natural hills that lie north of downtown Pyongyang, and each of them is covered with military bases, intelligence buildings, artillery sites, etc., but one of them is special. Located next to the Ministry of Armed Forces District, a hardened, partially underground heliport reveals itself. Its exact coordinates are 39.0633°, 125.7336°, and since I haven't seen any (ANY) information about it, I thought it would be a good idea to share what I know.

It's within a mile of four known metro stations, adjacent to the West Pyongyang Train Station, and near a main arterial highway. You can use all three modes of transportation to rapidly go from Pyongyang's secured government quarter to the Military District. And if there are secret tunnel connections, Kim Jong-un could make the trip without fear of being blown up. It's also only 4 miles (6.4 km) away from the newly modernized elite heliport which is used by Kim and the regime's top dogs, and 10 miles (16 km) south of Pyongyang Int'l Airport (which doubles as the home of North Korea's version of Air Force One).

This secret "get out" heliport is not directly connected to the Military District above ground. In fact, a multilayered fence divides the two areas, however, a tunnel exits near a villa that goes into the hill and could theoretically connect the two areas, which are less than 500 meters apart.

Google Earth/DigitalGlobe image clearly showing the tunnel entrance and villa. Dated May 7, 2013.

Based on satellite imagery, the heliport and associated buildings was under construction in June 2000 and was completed by November 2000.

Here is a Google Earth image from June 12, 2000 showing the construction process.

This one shows the completed work on Nov. 5, 2000.

The area surrounding the heliport also underwent drastic changes over a number of years. Below is an image of the area on Nov. 5, 2000.

After several years of work, the area had been completely changed. Most of the work was completed by the end of 2006.

More recent activity was seen in 2013, when one of the hardened hangars was demolished following what appears to have been a collapse. The apparent collapse occurred at the start of 2013 and the cleanup work seems to have been completed by the end of the year.

While helicopters haven't been seen in any public access satellite images, the protective hangar doors have been seen opened in several images. One such time was May 10, 2016.

In September 2016, what looks to be the scorch marks from a fire or explosion can be seen on the left landing pad. On the Google Earth image dated Aug. 27, 2016, an unidentified object or mound of material can be seen on the landing pad. By the Sept. 23 image, a large blackened area can been seen, indicative of a fire or explosion.

While I don't know if the object/mound in the first image is actually related to the explosion, the fact it was there soon before is worth mentioning. The burnt area hasn't been repaired as of April 22, 2017.

Trying to figure out where Kim Jong-un could go without knowing what kind of helicopters are available here is a bit of a guessing game, but if we assume they're one of the known helicopter types North Korea has (such as the Mi-8 Hip, or Mi-2 Hoplite), he could easily reach 270-300 miles (434-482 km) before needing to refuel. That range places nearly every other airport, palace, and key military base in North Korea within reach. It would also enable an emergency flight to China.

What exactly goes on at this site or where Kim Jong-un could ultimately end up if he had to flee, can only be a matter of speculation (for now), but it's obvious the regime has taken great steps over the years toward protecting itself.

--Jacob Bogle, May 24, 2017

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

History of Americans Detained by North Korea

Otto Warmbier (left) and Kim Dong Chul (right), both are Americans who have been detained. 
Image source: Washington Times.

Since 1999 there have been 16 US citizens detained by North Korea. Of those, 9 have been Korean-Americans, and all but one have been detained since 2009 - the same year the Six-Party Talks broke down. At least three were Christian missionaries and a further two were associated with Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), which was founded by evangelical Christians. The most recent detainees are Kim Sang-duk (arrested on April 21, 2017) and Kim Hak-song (arrested on May 7, 2017). Their arrests mean that there were four Americans being held in North Korea at the same time (until June 13, 2017). The other two are Otto Warmbier (released on June 13, 2017) and Kim Dong Chul. This is the second time that there have been four detained Americans at once.

In a minority of cases, those arrested committed what would be considered an actual crime by the rest of the world. One such case is that of Otto Warmbier, who tried to steal a propaganda sign. However, I doubt many would think his 15-year prison sentence is acceptable. In most cases, there doesn't seem to have been any internationally acknowledged crimes that were committed.

Since the United States doesn't have diplomatic relations with North Korea, American's can't travel there directly and so must go through either China or another country first. And because the US State Department doesn't have the ability to track who visits the DPRK, there are no firm numbers on how many Americans make the expensive trip to the "Hermit Kingdom". It is estimated that 3,000-4,000 Westerners visit each year and that a few hundred of those are Americans. This makes a person's overall risk of being arrested fairly low, but it's definitely is a risk.

It's important to note that Americans aren't the only nationality to be targeted, but outside of the kidnappings of  South Koreans and Japanese over the decades, Americans make up the bulk of persons being detained post-1953. Outside of legitimate crimes, the reasoning behind North Korea's actions isn't exactly known. Having high-ranking American officials (current and former) involved in the release of detainees helps to confer some level of legitimacy on the North Korean regime. The actions can also be seen as a "safe" way to exercise some manner of strength against the United States, and it provides a domestic propaganda win - "our country is strong and we won't let the imperialist Americans harm our 'supreme dignity' ".

For those who do end up behind bars, the experience is nightmarish. In May, Pyongyang said it had a right to "ruthlessly punish" the Americans it detains, and stories of hard labor, malnourishment, beatings, and lack of proper healthcare are common to many who have been behind bars. However, their treatment doesn't appear to be as bad as those sent to "total control" camps within North Korea's expansive gulag system. It's logical to conclude that keeping Americans alive is more beneficial to the regime than the lives of thousands of North Koreans the government allows to languish to death each year.

Here's some additional information about the history of US citizens who have been held by North Korea.
  • The following years saw more than one American detained: 2009 (3), 2010 (2), 2014 (3), 2015 (2), and 2017 (2). As mentioned, 2009 was the year diplomatic talks to halt their nuclear program broke down, 2014 saw a series of medium-range ballistic missile launches, and 2017 has also seen a number of various missile launches as well as preparations for another nuclear test.
  • The two main "target" demographics are Korean-Americans and Christians. Korean-Americans are easy to label as spies, and it's easy to charge Christians with trying to overthrow the regime (after all, God is the only King, and Kim Jong-un can be the only god). 
  • The shortest period of detention was the 'catch and release' of Sandra Sun, which all occurred on April 8, 2015. She was charged with "harming the dignity of the supreme leadership, trying to use religion to destroy the North Korean system", but was released the same day. The longest time was the two years Kenneth Bae served in North Korean prison (Nov. 3, 2012- Nov. 8, 2015). Bae, a Korean-American and a missionary was charged with illegal religious activities. 
  • Five Americans were charged with illegally entering the country, while six were charged with either espionage, "hostile acts", or crimes against the state. 

--Jacob Bogle, 5/17/2017

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Wonchong Border Crossing Nears Completion

The Wonchong North Korea-China border crossing is one of two crossings in Rason (Rajin) and one of 13 official crossing points either by road or rail with China.

In a long and slow process that has been occurring since at least 2009, the border crossing's snail-paced expansion seems to be nearing completion. The enlargement of the this border crossing comes during a period in which North Korea has begun work on a new crossing and on upgrading two others. The bridge at the Manpo crossing was completed in 2012. Additionally, despite spending $350 million, construction of the New Yalu River Bridge, a large suspension bridge between Dandong, China and Sinuiju, North Korea has stalled.

The near completion (or full completion, as the most recent satellite image is from 2016) of the border crossing comes at a time of heightened tensions with China. China is North Korea's main trading partner, accounting for 60-70% of all imports and exports. Coal, being the single largest North Korean commodity has been used by the international community as one of the main economic pressure points to get North Korea to stop their nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs. Since China is their main trading partner, China has held the responsibility for the bulk of sanctions regarding trade. Giving Wonchong added relevance, the crossing is near the city of Undok which is where the coal-rich 'June 13 Coal Field' is located. I would discuss the complicated history of DPRK-China trade relations (particularly with regards to coal), but you can find ample information on that in these two articles: The Myth of China's Coal Imports and China's 'Ban' on North Korean Coal Isn't the Tough Stance it Seems.

I wanted to bring up the trade issue because the continued work on border crossings tell a story of anticipated continued and expanded trade. While certain sectors like coal may see fluctuations, trade in consumer goods for North Korea's newly-minted middle class has meant a flood of Chinese products entering the North Korean marketplace. Medicinal herbs, trade in metals, foodstuffs, and other products have also risen sharply in the past decade. The long-term implications of all of this are likely to result in the weakening of the Monolithic Ideological and socialist regime. For now, construction continues.

One last bit of interesting information, the Wonchong crossing was the site of Christian Missionary Kenneth Bae's arrest in 2012. In April 2013 Bae was sentenced to 15-years imprisonment. After failing health (hard labor and starvation conditions tends to break people down) and negotiations, Bae, along with another American prisoner Matthew Miller, was released on Nov. 8, 2014.

Click images for larger view.

Wonchong Border Crossing as seen in 2010.

Crossing on Sept. 15, 2013 showing some new construction. 

The new bridge under construction can be seen by Sept. 6, 2015 as well as additional construction.

Work on the bridge deck is underway as of March 19, 2016. General construction continues as well.

--Jacob Bogle, April 14, 2017