Sunday, June 8, 2014

North Korea's Beauty & Untouched Wilderness

There is no doubt, North Korea is unlike any country on earth. Its heavily regulated society and militarized southern border has actually resulted in some of the most pristine wilderness areas in the modern world outside of the vast tropics. Unfortunately, many of these areas are under threat. I'd like to show you some of these amazing, if not always intentional, wilderness areas.

Korean Demilitarized Zone

DMZ outlined in yellow.

Apart from providing relative military stabilization, the DMZ has also created an unintentional nature preserve 155 miles long and 2.5 miles wide. Not only is it nearly impossible to traverse the DMZ because of the high risk of being shot, the zone also has roughly 1 million landmines left over from the Korean War which makes human movement all the more dangerous. This has meant that the 387 square mile region has been left nearly undisturbed for 60 years, with the exception of two very small villages (one of which is fake and the other, on the southern side, has a population of 218). This has allowed nature to reclaim the area and bounce back not only from three years of devastating war, but also from thousands of years of human settlement and movement. To quote Don Oberdorfer in his book "The Two Koreas", "This pristine nature preserve marks the most dangerous and heavily fortified border in the world."

The DMZ from the ground.

Within the boundaries of the DMZ there are 2,900 plant species, 70 mammal species, 320 types of bird, and over 80 species of fish. Some of the more interesting creatures include the Asiatic black bear, leopards, and lynx. There are also several animal species that only live within the DMZ. The DMZ plays host to countless numbers of birds each year as they migrate throughout eastern Asia and Japan. Approximately 1/3rd of all Red-crowned cranes (their entire wild population is less 3,000) use the DMZ during migration.

Pair of Red-Crowned Cranes in flight.

There are several organizations who are tying to have the DMZ, or at least parts of it, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve. Author Alan Weisman has said of the area within the DMZ, "it has inadvertently become one of the most important wildlife conservation sites in the world.” There are, however, several major obstacles in the way of preserving the DMZ, not least of which are the ever increasing levels of pollutants due to substantial urbanization occurring in areas adjacent to the zone. And, the only way for the full area to be protected is for the North Korean government to cooperate with the South which offers its own difficulties. Tourism to the zone, over 1.2 million people annually, accounts for 20% of South Korea's foreign visitors. If the zone were to be made into a nature preserve, it would be a boon not only to tourism and the economies of both countries, but could help bring the two Korea's back together because of the necessary steps needed to actually accomplish the goal of preserving wildlife within the DMZ.


National Coastal Fence

Dotted along the fence are small "border guard" shacks like this one.

As I've talked about before, most of the country is surrounded by a fence system. Most of the coastal fences were built during the famine, ostensibly to protect the fishing industry, but most likely (according to testimonies) it was done to prevent people from fleeing the country as well as "stealing" fish. This system, which includes the border fences with China, Russia, and South Korea, runs for thousands of miles, and long segments are actually electrified. The fence doesn't run uninterrupted, there are plenty of breaks to allow fishermen access to the sea (usually requiring them to pass through guarded gates), areas too rugged to need any fence, and places where the fence has either been torn down by locals needing wire or from the simple decay of time and weather.

This draconian system has resulted in vast stretches of undisturbed beaches and pockets of forested land in an otherwise barren environment, as huge portions of the country have been denuded of trees for agriculture and fire wood. The distance between the fence and the sea can range from 50 feet to over a thousand. Depending on the measurements, this thin green line actually adds up to several square miles (4 to 25) of relatively untouched territory. The key in all of this is coastal.

Notice the difference in tree density on either side of the fence.

From the destruction of thousand year old sand dunes, to rare plant species, to animal breeding and feeding grounds, coastal regions the world over are under constant threat. This small strip of land provides a protected zone for wildlife relatively free from those threats.

Untouched Forests


3D satellite imagery of ~100 square miles of forest. Nothing but a few footpaths traverse the area.

North Korea had vast forests until the 1980s, when drastic changes caused a dramatic decline in both the quantity and quality of forested areas. According to the World Bank, North Korea's forests covered 46% of the country in 2012, down from 53% in 2003 (compared to ~33% forest cover in the US). The amount of forest is due to the mountainous nature of North Korea, which is actually partially to blame for the decline in forests. All land belongs to the government and its use is tightly controlled. Only 22% of the country's land is arable, meaning that the government has undertaken a number of steps to increase agricultural production by cutting down forests to make room for farming. The poorly planned nature of these schemes has led to denuded hillsides surrounding every inhabited area which, in turn, cause devastating flooding and landslides each time a major rain occurs and that happens often).

Landscape of North Korea.

Despite this, there are still plenty of forests and unlike regions in Russia, China, and South America, where illegal logging and settlement have wrecked havoc on many the forests there, the tight controls on movement and land use has resulted in some spectacular stretches of forest. Of those, around 9.3% are old growth forest (the US has less than 2%). Unfortunately, the remaining forests are being cut down at an ever increasing rate and their future is in great doubt.


National Parks

Beleive it or not, North Korea has several national parks. The primary parks are: Baekdu-san (Mount Paektu), Ch'ilposan, Lake Bujo, Myohyang-san, Geumgang-san (Kumgangsan), and Guwol-san.

The Mt. Paektu region has the world's highest plant diversity in such a cool and temperate environment. It is also home to a few endangered Siberian tigers (with a global population of under 1,000).

A pair of Siberian Tigers.

Mt. Paektu, or Baekdu, is the highest mountain in North Korea at 9,003 ft (2,744 m). It lies on the border between the DPRK and China and is considered, by both Koreas, to be the legendary ancestral home of the Korean people. The volcanic mountain, with its deep blue crater lake (called "Heaven Lake") and snow capped sides plays an important role in North Korean propaganda as well as the country's personality cult. The North claims that Kim Il-Sung launched his "victorious" strike against the imperialist invaders from a secret base on the side of the mountain and that his son, Kim Jong-il, was born near the lake (despite actually being born in Russia).  The lake even has its own lake monster, the Lake Tianchi Monster, which was first reported in 1903.

A view of Heaven Lake.

Pilgrimages to Mt. Paektu are very common, with each citizen generally expected to visit the site at least once. China has sought to have the mountain designated as a World Heritage Site, although this attempt has been controversial. Regardless of the ever complex political scenery, satellite imagery of the mountain and surrounding areas shows that the pristine nature of the site is under severe threat, especially from logging (although North Korea agreed to prevent logging, they have clearly failed to do so) and the increasing levels of development for the North Korean elite's vacationing. Moreover, even the park & border guards - which are supposed to be among the most loyal - are having to poach and kill wildlife in order to survive since they aren't receiving enough supplies from the government.

The image below shows the Mt. Paektu region. The mountain is in the upper left corner, the yellow line is the China/DPRK border. The brown outline, encompassing roughly 250 square miles, outlines forested areas that show very clear signs of logging. The red markers are military sites, the rest show the positions of villas and the primary leadership compound with an entire support village next to it, as well as other locations.

Click for larger view.
Mount Kumgang

Mount Kumgang, or "Diamond Mountain", is a 5,375 foot (1,638 m) high mountain just a few miles from the DMZ. It lies within the 205 square mile "Mount Kumgang National Park" and began as a joint-venture with South Korea to improve relations and tourism. The Park has been heavily subsidized by South Korean companies (as well as the government), but has been closed for several years following the killing of a South Korean tourist by North Korean guards. Currently, only tours operated on the North Korean side are permitted, making the Park effectively out of reach for most western tourists and South Koreans (who made up the bulk of visitors).

Mountain view. Image source Flicker.

Despite the current situation, Mount Kumgang remains one of the most beautiful places in North Korea. Roughly 96 square miles of the Park have been recognized as an "Important Bird Area" by BirdLife International because it supports Red-crowned Cranes. The mountain itself is made up of granite and diorite which has been exposed over the eons. This weathering has created over 10,000 interesting stone formations and countless waterfalls.

The very famous "Nine Pools".

A beautiful scene from one of the lakes. Source Flicker.

The Kuryong Falls are a striking feature. They drop 246 feet to Kuryong Lake, which according to legend, was the home of nine dragons that defended the mountain.

Kuryong Falls.

The Park contains mixed broadleaf and coniferous forests.


The Park abuts the Sea of Japan, and contains several lagoons. Of them, Samil Lagoon is by far the most lovely.

View of Samil Lagoon.

While portions of the Kumgang tourist region are under threat from continued development, the heart of the area, namely the mountains, do seem generally free from settlement and deforestation. It is truly the Diamond Mountain. 



Image notes: pictures come from Wikimedia Commons or compiled from Google Earth unless otherwise noted.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Mapping Update #5 - Over 5,500 places and counting!

My "real life" has kept me relatively busy over the last few months so I've fallen a bit behind on the goals I set. However, I have marked over 5,500 locations (with over 1,000 military sites) and I am halfway finished with North Pyongan Province. As of today, I have fully mapped over 10,000 square miles and partially mapped a good portion of the rest of North Korea's 46,541 square miles. I've also decided to create a new file (for the whole country) which will mark the nation's extensive irrigation system - which consists of over 6,000 dams, pumping stations and other irrigation structures.

Once I've completed my own primary mapping project (excluding the irrigation file), I'm also going to integrate what I've done with the published works of two others to create a "master file" which should make available the whole of North Korea with no overlaps and very few, if any, holes. As time permits, I will also release additional files that will give you the locations of any other items I find interesting or that deal with national infrastructure (like town signs, rural schools, etc).

Some of Ryanggang's place marks. Click for larger view. 

In 2013, vast amounts of Ryanggang Province were covered by low resolution satellite imagery, however, much of that has now been updated to high res. This means that there's a lot of the Province I need to go over (once again) and map, since objects in the low res. areas were nearly impossible to interpret. The Province has a low population density so I'm hoping I can finish it and release the updated KMZ file for it relatively soon.

Until then, my next blog post will be about the incredible untouched wilderness areas of North Korea. So be sure to stay tuned!

Friday, January 17, 2014

North Korea: 2013 in Review

The year 2013 has been a busy one for us DPRK watchers. Lest we forget, here is a list of all things North Korea, both important and not so important.

2013 Crisis



2013 had barely begun when the provocations started pouring out of North Korea. On Jan. 22, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2087 which condemned the North's launch of their "satellite" back in Dec. 2012. In response, the North announced plans to conduct further nuclear tests (its last one was in 2009) and rocket launches. They also called America "the sworn enemy of the Korean people". Usually, the threats and bluster made by the North tends to be empty, and although threats are taken seriously there is often an underlying mood of "yeah, yeah, calm down kid". This time they weren't joking.

On Feb. 12, they conducted an underground nuclear test which was by far the largest test they had ever done with a yield somewhere between 6 and 8 kilotons. Although it was small compared to international standards (the 1945 Trinity Test by the U.S. came in at 20 kt), it was a clear sign that they had advanced their capabilities (the 2009 test was a mere 2.5 kt) and that they were serious about developing an operational nuclear arsenal.

In March, the U.S. and South Korea (ROK) began preparations for "Foal Eagle" which is an annual joint-military training exercise and dates back to 1997. It is one of the largest (if not the largest) annual military exercises in the world and in 2013 more than 210,000 troops participated (only 10,000 were American soldiers). By March 13, in response to the exercise, the DPRK announced it would withdraw from the 1953 Armistice and all non-aggression pacts with the ROK (which has happened 6 times) and they cut off the direct Seoul-Pyongyang hotline. The North went further and stated that the next action they would take would be to actually attack the South and the United States.

Over the course of March tensions continued to climb. The U.S. sent B-52 bombers (nuclear capable) to patrol the South, set up additional Ground-Based Interceptor missiles in Alaska to protect the U.S. from any potential nuclear or other ballistic attack from the North, and deployed fighter jets and other defense systems. Japan also boosted their defensive position by deploying additional warships to the region. On March 20, banks and TV stations in South Korea were hit with a cyber attack linked to the North.

April saw the Kaeson Industrial Region closed. The region had served as an important symbolic joint-industrial facility between North and South, and an important source of hard currency for the North. Construction began in 2003 and cost billions of dollars to build, mostly financed by South Korean companies and the government. The purpose was to foster relations between the two countries and to benefit them both financially through light industrial activity. On April 8, the North recalled their 53,000 workers. Several hundred South Korean employees stayed at the complex and were subsequently cut off from food and aid, effectively serving as prisoners. The region remained closed until mid-September and the closure resulted in a loss of $944 million.

More importantly in April, the North announced that it would restart operations at the Yongbyon Nuclear Center which had been closed since 2007. The facility is crucial to the North's production of plutonium and thus their nuclear weapons program. By June, new satellite pictures showed the cooling tower had been rebuilt and pictures released on Aug. 31 showed the facility operating. During April the North also moved an intermediate-range ballistic missile platform to the east coast (with Japan being their nearest east coast neighbor) and the DPRK warned that certain countries with embassies in the North should evacuate their staff, including the U.K, Russia, and Sweden.

After several other weapons movements (on both sides), the North's fueling of their missiles, a dedicated war game by the U.S. to determine how easy/difficult it would be to secure the North's nuclear stockpiles (result: 90,000 troops and 59 days), the month ended with some additional bluster but most tellingly, the North agreed to re-enter into dialogue.

On May 6, the North withdrew two Musudan missiles from their launch sites, however, between May 18 and 20, they launched a total of six missiles into the Sea of Japan. May also saw several of China's largest banks putting an end to doing business with North Korea which was a significant step since China has usually turned a blind eye to the North's provocations.

At the beginning of June, North Korea rejected China's request that it halt any further nuclear tests, but on June 16, the DPRK government proposed direct talks with the United States to ease tensions. For the rest of the year things slowly began to cool down and saw North Korea, China, and Russia all proposing a resumption of the Six Party Talks. The Seoul-Pyongyang hotline was restored, both sides agree to re-open Kaeson and things returned to the schizophrenic "normal" that is so common on the Korean Peninsula.

However, there were still occasional threats, refusals to sign non-aggression pacts, and more threats; and this will likely continue for a very long time. 

Cargo Ship Seizure


North Korea has maintained a fairly healthy international arms trade for decades, yet as time goes by and international sanctions pile up, it is becoming ever increasingly more difficult for them to carry out their activities. The 509-foot long North Korean cargo ship Chong Chon Gang had been traveling in and out of the Panamanian area between April and July. In July, the ship was flagged for inspection, in part, because they had stopped signaling their location (which ships are required to do for navigation safety purposes). On July 15, Panamanian authorities seized the vessel and began searching it. They found 10,000 tons of Cuban sugar which was lying on top of undeclared cargo. That cargo included 240 tons of Cuban made weapons, two MiG-21 fighters in working condition, radar & control systems for missile launchers, 15 aircraft engines, 12 motors, and a quantity of ammunition. 

The official line from Cuban authorities was that the equipment was being sent to North Korea for repair (there is precedent for this so they could have been telling the truth). Of the 35 crew members, 33 were arrested for arms trafficking - the captain attempted suicide. The majority of the crew were finally released back to North Korea in November.
  

Kenneth Bae and Merrill Newman



From 1977 to 1983 the DPRK kidnapped dozens of Japanese citizens, they have also kidnapped South Korean actresses, producers, and other people from various countries (westerners were mostly kidnapped to work at the Foreign Language Office). I say that to impress upon you that the North Korean government has had no problem stealing people. In other cases, such as Kenneth Bae and Merrill Newman, the situation wasn't about making movies for Kim Jong-il, or the need for translators.

     Kenneth Bae is a Korean-American who has traveled to North Korea several times on business grounds. However, he has also been known to aid Christian groups in either spreading the Gospel or to assist them in getting people out of the country (both activities are strictly forbidden). On Nov. 3, 2012 Bae was visiting the Rason Special Economic District with five Europeans when he was arrested, it is claimed, for carrying a thumb drive filled with pictures of starving children, of conducting a smear campaign against the government, and of planning to toppled the DPRK government in collusion with the U.S., South Korea, and interestingly, China.

Bae was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. In July 2013, after being sent to a prison camp, he became severely ill and has been detained in a prison hospital since he can no longer take part in manual labor. Because the United States does not have diplomatic relations with the DPRK, all diplomatic matters are handled by the United State's protecting power, Sweden. And due to this it becomes increasingly difficult to ensure his release. Bae's imprisonment has also been a point of irritation for Dennis Rodman thanks to his "friend for life", Kim Jong-un.

     Merrill Newman is an 85 year old Korean War veteran from the United States. During the war he was a member of the United Nations Partisan Infantry (also known as the "White Tigers") and engaged in guerrilla type activities as well as training anti-communist insurgents. In October 2013, Newman traveled to North Korea, something many veterans have done before, for a nine-day trip. At the end of the trip, on Oct. 26, Newman boarded an Air Koryo plane, but just prior to takeoff he was escorted off the plane and arrested.

Although word of his detainment quickly reached the U.S. embassy in Beijing via one of his travelling companions, North Korea did not acknowledge his arrest until late November. Then, on Nov. 29, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) released a video of Newman reading from a prepared document in which he "confessed" and apologized to a wide array of war crimes. It was also alleged that he had, during his visit, been in possession of forbidden and subversive items. He was finally released on Dec. 7, thanks in part to our friends the Swedes.

Generally speaking, so long as you follow the rules during a trip to North Korea you aren't likely to be arrested, detained, or otherwise harassed. However, people who are of South Korean origin, who fought during the Korean War, or whose family had fled the North during the war are more likely to be targeted. Kenneth Bae was born in South Korea and he was also a part of a Christian organization (Christians are particularly singled out for persecution) and, there is a chance he really was engaged in illegal activities. Of course, what the North considered illegal most of the world calls fundamental human rights. Bae could end up being released due to his health (it wouldn't look good if he died) but it's just as likely he will spend years more in prison.

In Merrill Newman's case, he was part of hostilities during the war (a war which technically is still ongoing), and his name, along with the names of thousands of others, were known to DPRK authorities before the 1953 Armistice was even signed. It is likely they singled him out not to capture or to kill, but to be used in domestic propaganda and then released, which is what happened. The valiant North Korean soldiers had finally caught an imperialist invader and forced him to confess to all the things the North routinely accuses the west of doing.

Anyone interested in travelling to North Korea, especially if you're an American, needs to be aware of the rules. If the North Korean government allows you to visit it's a good bet they have checked out your background and they will use the several sanctioned travel agencies to assist in determining your history, and thus your likely hidden agenda for going to the country. Carrying thumb drives, non-DPRK newspapers & books, Bibles, CDs, DVDs, U.S. currency, are all no-noes. Photography is controlled and if you tick off your minders you will either have your camera run over by the bus or confiscated, be immediately kicked out of the country, or if they're in the mood, you'll be charged with crimes against the state - something you really don't want to have happen. Here is an interesting & lighthearted article on being a tourist "20 Things I Learned While I Was in North Korea".

Jang Sung-taek


As I discussed earlier, Jang Sung-taek, Kim Jong-un's uncle, was executed on Dec. 13 for crimes against the state. Among the charges were: attempting to overthrow the government, collapse the economy, and degrade the cult of personality. His death was the highest level execution - and most public - since the time of Kim Il-sung. Jang's associates were also rounded up, including hundreds of family members (regardless of their actual guilt or complicity) and were either killed or sent off to concentration camps. These events are connected to a wider series of purges which Kim Jong-un has conducted ever since coming to power in 2011, all in an attempt to solidify his own absolute power. He was executed by firing squad.

His case reminds me of the arrest & execution of Pak Hon-yong in 1956. Pak was accused of trying to overthrow the government, of embezzling money (870,000 won as well as gold), and he held incredibly high office right up until the moment he was arrested. In reality, his real crime seems to have been questioning the power of Kim Il-sung.

Attack Notice




The year would not be complete without an obligatory warning to strike without warning. One Dec. 19, the North sent a fax to their southern counterparts warning them that they would hit the South with a "merciless strike without warning." These warnings are actually very common and their content from year-to-year doesn't change much, same for the medium through which they are sent. The purpose of these "surprise warnings" is up for debate, but the rationale behind the North's activities is about as clear as mud. On the one hand, constant warnings and even the occasional real attack has, at least for the past 30 years or so, led the South and international community to come to the bargaining table and allowed the North to elicit aid (food, fuel, cash, etc.). On the other, the North knows full well that it hasn't a chance of winning a true war, yet they are constantly drilling into the minds of their own people that war is always just around the corner and so it can serve as a means of propaganda and stress relief - as well as serving to keep the South in a constant (albeit just below the surface) state of anxiety, which can be thought of as a mild punishment for whatever sins the South had done that week. 

In Film

And now time for Hollywood. Apparently, North Korea has finally entered into public consciousness and because of that, the hermit kingdom known for its isolation has made a big splash on the big screen.



Olympus Has Fallen, featuring Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart, hearkens back to the 1968 Blue House raid in South Korea except this time the target is the White House. In the movie, North Korean assassins have infiltrated the South Korean president's protection unit. During an official ROK visit to the White House, these agents show their true colors and, in conjunction with a "sleeper cell" already in DC, overrun the White House and hold the U.S. president hostage. The goal? To use a top secret U.S. program to detonate our entire stock of nuclear weapons - irradiating the whole country. Thankfully, at the very last moment we're all saved.

The DPRK has a long history of assassination attempts against their southern brethren. Not only did they try to over take the ROK's executive mansion in 1968, they set off a bomb during an official ROK visit to Burma in 1983 which killed 21 people. North Korea maintains 150,000-200,000 special forces personnel and they truly are a force to reckon with. There is little doubt that they have at least considered such an attack on the U.S.

World War Z, is Brad Pitt's zombie apocalypse movie, and while the DPRK did not play a starring role in the film they were mentioned. North Korea was one of the few countries in the world which did not fall due to the zombie plague. Their defense? Since zombification was caused via biting, Kim Jong-un ordered that all of North Korea's 25 million citizens have their teeth removed; a feat accomplished in a matter of days (and according to the related book, they fled underground into the North's myriad of underground bunkers).

Next comes G.I. Joe: Retaliation. In this film, the "Joe's" infiltrate one of the North's many prisons to find an informant and bring him back to the U.S. Later on, the evil Zartan calls world leaders to a conference where he threatens the planet with destruction based on a new weapon. He says that the weapon could destroy each of the countries 14 times, but in the case of North Korea - 15 times (as a presumably Kim Jong-un gives a "why pick on me?" look).

...and let's not forget Red Dawn from 2012 (it came out in November, so close enough). This remake of the 1984 cult classic was one of my favorite movies of the year. Unlike the Soviet terror in the original, the 2012 version features the DPRK (with help from the Russians, those bastards) unleashing a new, very high tech weapon - an EMP device. The lead character, played by Chris Hemsworth, leads an army of local youths in a battle to rid the American northwest of the surprisingly well fed Korean invaders. While the film's plot is unlikely, the threat of a surprise attack from the DPRK is not.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

On the Death of Jang Sung-taek



(This is rather long. Feel free to download this PDF version so you can read it at your leisure.)

Jang Sung-taek was born in 1946 and married the daughter of Kim Il-sung, Kim Kyong-hiu, in 1972. In 1982 he became the vice-director of the Worker's Party of Korea's Organization and Guidance Department. The OGD is one of the most powerful bodies within the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's (DPRK) government and is responsible for the organization and vision of the Party, ideology, propaganda, and North Korea's infamous cult of personality. In 1992 he became the director of the OGD and was made a full member of the WPK's Central Committee.  

Sometime in the early 2000s he was purged from his positions, possibly due to clashes over the issue of leadership succession. The true make-up of the DPRK's internal governing structure and the inter-relations of all the various military, government, and domestic organizations continues to be rather opaque. However, the primary set-up and supreme law of the country is called the "Ten Principles for the Establishment of a Monolithic Ideological System", aka the "Ten Principles". Proposed by Kim Yong-ju, Kim Il-sung's brother, in 1967, these principles, which consist of 65 additional clauses, lay out the cult of personality and demand complete loyalty to the Kim family and contributes to the understanding that the country must, and will, always be led by dynastic succession. Furthermore, in North Korea it is understood that the life, the very spirit of the nation, resides within Kim Il-sung, his son Kim Jong-il, and now Kim Jong-un and that unless a direct descendant of Kim Il-sung runs the country, the entire system will collapse and the stars in heaven will heave themselves to the ground. (artistic license taken)

During a political purge, a person is either killed outright, sent to one of the many concentration camps to die, or sent to a prison (or camp) to be "rehabilitated". While undergoing rehabilitation prisoners are subjected to intense physical labor, little food, and long hours of self-criticism sessions which are ubiquitous in North Korean society. The aim of these sessions is to expunge oneself of impure thoughts and to re-instill "correct" thought and ideology as promulgated by the Kim's.

By 2006, Jang had reappeared and accompanied Kim Jong-il on an official trip to China. In 2007, he was promoted to the post of first vice-director of the WPK and later appointed vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission which is the highest military body. After the death of Kim Jong-il in 2011, Jang continued to serve at various posts and, at least on the surface, was a supporter of Kim Jong-un's succession. Jang was responsible for a wide array of projects within the country and helped see that the Yalu River Bridge came to fruition. The bridge spans the Yalu River which serves as the border between China and the DPRK. It is both symbolic in nature and will become a major economic artery. Unfortunately, the good times were not to last for Mr. Jang.

On December 3, 2013, South Korean sources reported that Jang had been removed from his posts. Then, in a move reminiscent of Stalin's purges, Jang was "erased" from various documentaries and news reports shown nationwide throughout December. The act of removing a person from images, statues, films, official documents, etc. is called damnatio memoriae and it seeks to erase the memory, and thus deny the very existence, of someone who has run afoul of a government or leader. On December 8th, Jang was expelled from the WPK and arrested. All of this was broadcast on state TV. His fall from grace was probably the most public of any dismissal of a member of the Kim family.

Naturally, speculation is rampant with people saying he was ousted because he was corrupt, because the military-first faction of the country had him removed (he was a supporter economic reform over Songun), or that he secretly desired to rule the country. When it comes to finding the truth in North Korea it is all but an impossible task. Regardless of the reason, Jang was executed. Under the direction of the Party, a military tribunal was held by the Ministry of State Security and he was found guilty of, and confessed to, multiple crimes.

The military tribunal

On December 12th, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the state run and primary news agency of the country, issued a 2,700 word statement which detailed his alleged crimes. In typical authoritarian communist flourish, they called Jang worse than a dog, a thrice-time traitor, and accused him of a multitude of crimes. I say his alleged crimes because the world will likely never know the full story. Even the testimony he gave was likely written by the government and provided to him. To find a recent example of DPRK fabricated testimonies one has no further to look than the case of Merrill Newman

I'd like to take a look at some of his alleged crimes and try to explain what they mean, provide some context, explain why they're important, and hopefully tie it all together. 

1. The first real charge against him was that he led a faction of counter-revolutionaries which attempted to overthrow the government by using "all sorts of intrigues" and attempted to grab the reins of power for himself. 

-- Hwang Jang-yop, the highest level defector from North Korea, speculated before his (Hwang's) death   that Jang could be a possible successor to Kim Jong-il. The issue of succession came to the forefront after   Kim Jong-il had a stroke in 2008. Prior to this, Kim Jong-un was basically unheard of, even within North Korea. And so, unlike his father's decades long grooming, the process for Jong-un's succession was hurried and uncertain. The statement also claims that Jang enlisted the aid of "discontented elements" and those who had, in the past, been "problematic" - which I discuss somewhat below.

-- Given the additional charges relating to Jang's power grab, it looks as though Jang tried to pursued others to reject the idea of a 3rd generation of dynasty and support him instead. And since Jang had already held positions of high power for many years, he was a better candidate for leadership from a practical standpoint than Kim Jong-un who had largely been left to live life as a spoiled son and not a potential national leader; an unknown quantity. (Even planning for or discussing the eventual death of a leader, unless initiated by the leader himself, could cause one to disappear.)

-- According to Jang's testimony, he had also planned to use his allies in the military to achieve his coup. This is not out of the realm of possibility. From a simple logistical standpoint it's obvious that he would need to enlist the military to complete the task. The personal bodyguard corps (Unit 963) of the Kim family has anywhere from 95,000 to 120,000 dedicated and intensely trained officers. Also, the military runs a decent chunk of the economy and is the primary exporting body. Beyond that, the military serves as a major source of labor due to its size (around 9 million including reserves) and since the official policy of the nation is to support the military the military's reach is pervasive and it is indispensable as an institution. There's also precedent for the military to be involved in a coup attempt. In 1996, in the middle of the famine, the Korean People's Army 6th Corps planned a coup, however they were discovered before they could carry it out and 340 leaders were either killed or otherwise punished. The main obstacle to a military coup is the disjointed nature of the Korean military. Unlike modern powers, the various branches of the military (army, navy, air force, etc.) rarely engage in joint exercises and there is severe doubt as to their interoperability. On top of that, the level of mistrust between the leadership and its generals (and among the generals themselves) means that only a few top-level military personnel know how the full military machine works, making it less likely for a coordinated coup to even be plausible.   

2. In several sections he is charged with economic crimes and using his authority to extend his own reach, increase his wealth, and trying to usurp the national government. One of the more propaganda driven charges says, "He let the decadent capitalist lifestyle find its way to our society by distributing all sorts of pornographic pictures among his confidants since 2009. He led a dissolute, depraved life, squandering money wherever he went." Additionally, "he schemed to drive the economy of the country and people's living into an uncontrollable catastrophe," and that he embezzled millions of euros for his own benefit. They also charged him in connection with the devastating currency revaluation of 2009 which erased the life savings of nearly everyone and led to the execution of Park Nam-gi, the then director of the Planning & Finance Department. 

--Jang had substantial control over a large segment of the economy. Obviously, if he wanted to rule the country he would need to control the economy, but it's just as likely that he was a reform-minded individual and tried to use his resources to improve the state of affairs. Any attempts to deviate from the top-down, totalitarian driven, fully planned economy is seen as betraying the desires of Kim Il-sung, who is still the president of North Korea despite being dead for nearly two decades. And, any time something goes wrong in the economy blame is placed squarely on capitalistic ideals, reactionaries, and factionalists who have let impurities of ideology (ideology, not basic mathematics or economics) bring hardship down upon the heads of the people. 

-- The idea that he schemed to drive the economy into an uncontrollable catastrophe could prove difficult for the government to really explain to the people. Anyone over the age of 15 would remember the famine and even today thousands routinely die of starvation. Kim Jong-il's dogmatic insistence on the military-first policy (Songun) has meant that the military receives food, clothing, heating, and medicine first. It has also meant that the only thing Kim succeeded at during his 17 year reign was the development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology. He failed at solving the food crisis, the energy crisis, and failed at improving the lives of 24 million North Koreans. And people know this, even if they can't talk about it except under the most secretive conditions.

-- However, there have been several reports of other members of the elite who have run afoul of the leader due to their extravagant lifestyle. I recall one case where a man was purged because his villa was in plain sight of the village and it looked larger than one of Kim Il-sung's. There is little doubt that the ruling elite have no qualms about largess living. That being said, I find it difficult to believe that there aren't at least some who have a desire to improve the country and the standard of living of the average citizen, even if it's only because they want to live an even more extravagant lifestyle.   

-- Lastly, on the charge of spending millions (4.6 million in one year to be exact), I can only imagine how absurd this charge must appear to those within the inner circle of leadership. In a truly communist state, especially a poor one, the idea that anyone could be keeping profits and spending millions on themselves at the expense of the masses would be worse than blasphemy and utterly horrifying. But, at least in the case of the Kim family, spending millions is expected. To rise among the ranks officials are encouraged to give vast sums of cash to the Dear Leader and for Kim Jong-il's birthday, Office 39 presented him with upwards of $20 million each year. Kim Jong-il spent millions on alcohol, food, palaces, "loyalty" gifts to officials, rare animals and much more. He even had $4 billion stowed away in foreign banks by some estimates.

3. The next charges against him that I will talk about gets into the details of his betrayal of trust. It says, "It is an elementary obligation of a human being to repay trust with sense of obligation and benevolence with loyalty." He is accused of having "an ax to grind" and, until Kim Jong-il died, of quietly plotting to grab power. Once he died, it goes on to say that Jang actively bribed people and built up a "little kingdom" all in the name of his desired coup. 

-- The Ten Principles compel every citizen to respect the Kims and to offer up complete and never wavering loyalty to the regime. Almost every one of the ten principles and sixty-five sub-clauses at least partially mention obedience to the state and to the Kim family. Principle III says, "Make absolute the authority of the Great Leader Comrade KIM Il Sung. Affirming the absolute nature of the Great Leader Comrade Kim Il Sung’s authority is the supreme demand of our revolutionary task and the revolutionary volition of our party and people." Later editions have been amended to include Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un in the appropriate places. This alone means that any dissent from the supreme leader is a crime against the martyrs of the Liberation (Korean War), against the "great heart" of Kim Il-sung, and against the very soul of the nation. A further related crime was that "he committed such anti-party acts as systematically denying the party line and policies."

-- Despite the Principles, the older generation of North Koreans remember when the north was actually better off than the south. During the Japanese occupation (1910-45), Japan invested heavily in factories, railroads, and industry in the north, leaving the south to serve as the bread basket of the peninsula. And so after WWII, when Korea was split between Soviet and American spheres of influence, the north retained its position as an industrial powerhouse for the region. Even after the Korean War, North Korea benefited from Soviet & Chinese patronage during which North Korea played each country off the other and extracted billions in aid and trade. It wasn't until the late 1970s when the south finally began to overcome the north in terms of economic and technological development. When the USSR finally dissolved, the loss of patronage compounded systemic economic problems and, along with the inherent flaws of its planned economy, created a downward spiral which led to a famine which killed upwards of 1 million. 

-- North Korea hasn't fully recovered from either the famine or the loss of friendly trade and patronage. On top of that, international sanctions have slowly chipped away at the vast wealth of the ruling elite; although the average citizen suffers disproportionately from them. As I said earlier, I find it difficult to believe that there aren't some who would like to see real reform in the county, especially by the elite who have access to a vastly greater range of information and can see the truth about the modern state of the world and their dying country. I could also easily imagine that Jang really did have an ax to grind. He had loyally served the state for decades, knew how the system worked and saw its flaws, and then was passed over without a second thought in favor of an untested kid in his twenties. This would have been similar to the events surrounding Kim Jong-il's ascent to power, when several of his father's friends and relations, who strongly disapproved of dynastic succession, were killed or removed from their posts leaving no doubt as to who really held power. 

4. Finally, I want to discuss his crimes surrounding my favorite topic, the cult of personality. The relevant and dastardly charges are as follows (direct quotes):

  • He behaved so arrogantly and insolently as unwillingly standing up from his seat and half-heartedly clapping.
  • He was so imprudent as to prevent the Taedonggang Tile Factory from erecting a mosaic depicting Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and a monument to field guidance given by them. Moreover, Jang turned down the unanimous request of the service personnel of a unit of the Korean People's Internal Security Forces to have the autograph letter sent by Kim Jong Un to the unit carved on a natural granite and erected with good care in front of the building of its command. He was so reckless as to instruct the unit to erect it in a shaded corner.
  • Due to his persistent moves to create illusion and idolization of him his flatterers and followers in his department and organs under it praised him as "No. 1 comrade."
  • He made the reckless remark that "the rewriting of the construction law would solve the problem.
 
                            A newly erected statue of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il

If you've ever seen a video of a Kim walking into a room or being praised you'll see how enthusiastic, and robotic, the crowd is. Clapping and shouting "Ten Thousand Years!" is protocol in a crowd setting and anyone not showing enough respect becomes suspected of disloyalty. To most of the world, the idea that "half-heartedly clapping" would be seen as something serious is laughable, in North Korea it is taken very seriously. Kim Il-sung worked hard at developing the idea that he was the father of the nation and, in a very real sense, the respect he receives even today is one that only a godlike paternal figure could be due. Likewise, each generation of Kim is seen as the sun, the loving father, the protector, the provider, the breath of life.

Korea, and much of that part of the world, is a deeply Confucian region. Respect and patriarchy are an integral part of their society. North Korea simply took long held Confucian beliefs (along with co-opting other religions) and twisted them in such a way as to exert total control. You clap because if you don't, you are disrespecting the person who directly feeds you. You live and breathe by the will of the party and the mind, body, and soul of the party is the supreme leader. The cult has actually been the cause of friction between the DPRK, China, and Russia - despite similar cults to Mao and Stalin. However, North Korea's cult far surpasses any other.

Kim Il-sung began laying the foundations of the cult before WWII was even over and once he was installed as the leader of North Korea (by the Soviets) he started to enshrine the cult into the fabric of society. At first, it was a matter of genuine respect owed to a very real nationalist hero and so it didn't seem too odd. As time went on with new generations born, and a mass purge in 1953, the cult grew into something compulsory. When Kim Il-sung died, the nation erected thousands of monuments to his honor as they continue to do today. There are well over 40,000 statues and murals throughout the country and each year upwards of 40% of the nation's entire budget is spent on maintaining the personality cult. The mausoleum of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il is rumored to have cost $1 billion all-in-all. 

The expanse of the cult begins in school, where children are taught that they are fed and clothed by the "grace of the Chairman". Schools also contain rooms dedicated to the life and teachings of both former Kim's. At home, a wall is dedicated solely to three pictures, one of each Kim. And those pictures must (by law) be cleaned daily with a special cloth and if they're not you can be punished. Once you reach adulthood you must wear a lapel pin bearing the likeness of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Beyond that, marriages are often performed in the presence of images or monuments and everyone is required to bow before the nearest monument during festivals and holidays (which, by the way, include the birthdays of the leaders). Public buildings must also carry the image of the Kim's, the image's size determined by the size of the building.

Any title expressing highest respect, love, affection, or political station, such as "No. 1 Comrade", is exclusively used to refer to the supreme leader. Thus, anyone using such a title for anyone else is gravely disrespecting the leader and it's tantamount to blasphemy. Regarding the constitution, the national constitution of the DPRK is little more than a pretty piece of paper in most respects, except that it enshrines the supreme leadership of the Kim's and enables the various political organs to fulfill their mandate - the edification of the Kim family and to ensure total loyalty and subservience to the leader and Party.

The constitution and other official documents and agencies are seen as the will of the supreme leader, and even more specifically, the will of Eternal President, Kim Il-sung. To suggest a change to it without guidance from the leadership or to suggest any change which may diminish the power and sovereignty of the leader and party is similar to an attack against the leader himself, the ultimate form of treason. 

Conclusion

In the end, I think it is equally plausible that he was killed because he was a reformer, killed because he really was a traitor, or killed for a mixture of reasons. If he was reform-minded, there is also the question of the degree to which individuals within leadership can question the aims of the party and the supreme leader. And so it's difficult to ascertain the depth of Jang's betrayal. Did he simply suggest a different course, or did he actively try to depose Kim Jong-un before his rule was cemented and grab total power for himself? He very well could have committed real crimes like embezzlement, but even then, was his crime that he tried to amass a fortune, or was it that he stole from the boss

At this point it doesn't matter what his crimes were. He and his allies were punished, the regime will go on for another day, and the people will continue to live in abject poverty with the ever present danger of being killed for simply wanting a better life. As the tribunal said:

"The revolutionary army will never pardon all those who disobey the order of the Supreme Commander and there will be no place for them to be buried even after their death."

The truth of it all is that he questioned the state. In the DPRK, the will of the government is the will of the people, not the other way around. All three Kim's are individually and jointly the total embodiment of the party, state, army, and people. There can be no change to that without, by necessity, altering the very fabric of North Korean society. 

And to leave no room for doubt as to who currently and forever will run the nation:

"No matter how much water flows under the bridge and no matter how frequently a generation is replaced by new one, the lineage of Paektu* will remain unchanged and irreplaceable.

 Our party, state, army and people do not know anyone except Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un."



Jacob Bogle, 12/14/2013

(*Note: Mt. Paektu is a volcano on the border of China and North Korea. It is the legendary home of the Korean race. It is also used a metaphor for Kim Il-sung and the Revolution.)
Additional Reading:
1. KWP Central Committee Organization and Guidance Department (3 pages, PDF, from NK Leadership Watch)
3. North Korea's Dynastic Succession (5 pages, PDF, from UK gov)


Thursday, August 22, 2013

Kangdong Residence

Kangdong Residence is a summer retreat and the secondary main residence of the leaders of North Korea. It is located about 19 miles from downtown Pyongyang near the border with South Pyongan Province and includes multiple houses, pools, horse tracks, a dedicated rail line, security barracks and more. Near Kangdong are two other elite residential compounds which seem to be satellite residences for other members of North Korea's inner circle. The main compound encompasses an area greater than 1.5 square miles. Between 2006-2011 several improvements and additions have been constructed (such as the trail station and an underground entrance).

Like all official residences (there are more than a dozen), security is tight. Kangdong airfield is near by and the compound is surrounded on two sides with multiple anti-aircraft artillery sites.

You can get the full KMZ file of this compound for Google Earth here.

(click to view larger)
The above image is a large view showing everything. The main compound is off-center to the right, the dedicated rail line is in green (with another line being built [lighter color] which goes to 2 unknown facilities), the anti-aircraft artillery sites are marked with the red "A-drop" icon and the yellow & red lines are fences. 

Below, gives a less cluttered look of the defensive positions with Kim Jong-un's residence marked.


Like all official compounds, the area is ringed with successive fences. Some are basic and others are electrified with multi-layered walls and firing positions (along with a vast network of foot paths).


The purple line marks out the main walls and surrounds the primary residences. Red denotes an outer "inner" wall, yellow is the outermost fence, and green marks out other basic walls surrounding various buildings.

Here is a close-up of the main residential section. There are 19-20 homes and you can see the wide fence/wall system surrounding the area.


Here is a larger view of the main compound. 


Again, with fences showing and some places marked.


As I said earlier, there have been some additions. This is an image from 2004 showing the main residential compound, you'll notice the house I marked as possibly Kim Jong-un's isn't there and the horse track is different. There is imagery from 2006 without the additions but it was taken during winter and isn't as clear.


And the newly built train station.


Leading south from the train station is a road and bridge which crosses the Taedong River. Once you cross the river you come to a gate. This gate serves as one of many, but it is one of the main entrances. If you follow the northern route (take a left if you're on the road) you will end up at the main complex. If you take the road in the left of this image you will get to the first "satellite" compound (which is pictured further below).



This is a side-by-side before & after image of the underground entrance. It goes beneath the hill the new palace was built upon. The left-side image is from 2004, the right is 2011.



Scattered around the complex are storage bunkers. Based on my understanding they're used to store fuel. However, some could be used to store anything and one or two may be large enough to be used as some kind of emergency bunker in the event of a war or attack.


A close-up. The rounded areas are the actual bunkers and it has a maintenance shed nearby.


There is also a very odd and very large area next to the horse tracks which covers the floor of some small valleys between hills. It is made up of hundreds (if not more) of these rectangular structures. Each are aligned side-by-side 10 or 12 feet apart. The whole area covers more than 230,000 square feet based on my calculations. I have no idea what they are, nor does anyone else I know.

 
Here are the other two smaller "satellite" compounds.



And finally, a side track is being constructed off the main train track. It goes south and ends at two sets of newly constructed buildings.

Here is the area in 2010 (track path is marked).


And the facilities as seen in the latest available imagery (2011).



I hope you enjoyed this little trip around Kim Jong-un's backyard.

-- Jacob Bogle
My Facebook page

Thursday, August 15, 2013

North Korea and Satellite Resolution

Google Earth pools data from many sources, weather satellites, public imaging satellites, areal photography, and often the information between each source is years apart. This leads to a wide variety of resolutions (0.5 meter to 2.5 m plus) and quality.

These resolution variances offers an interesting obstacle when it comes to mapping North Korea. Some of the images are merely days old with resolutions of such quality you can make out individual windows and see people walking in the streets.

(This image is about 750 feet wide)

And then there are other regions, mostly from France's National Centre for Space Studies (CNES) SPOT satellite, where the resolution is measured in meters. At this resolution you can only make out large structures, like the outline of houses.

(This image spans more than 2,500 feet)

Given the low resolution of the SPOT images, it can be almost impossible to definitively label something. Attempting to interpret an image is pointless in most cases. So, to help keep me (and others) from spending so much time scanning around trying to find an area of higher resolution, I've mapped out all of the larger low-res regions. Surprisingly, they make up a decent chunk of the country.


Once I've gone through the better quality regions I will go over these low-res areas and mark whatever items I can find. You can download this file here.

Just for fun, I'm going to provide several examples of the different resolutions, colors, and seasons that one can find while exploring North Korea.

This is Pukchong, South Hamgyong. It is split between SPOT imaging and higher resolution images.

A town during winter

From MapABC, a Chinese company. Notice the poor coloration.

The same area in 2010 from Digital Globe 

Battle of Pochonbo Monument

Monument closeup 

A forest

And this is an example of what I call "foggy" imagery. I don't know what causes it, but it has nothing to do with actual fog/smog etc. It annoys me to no end because it makes it difficult to pick out certain features, like monuments or propaganda signs. Plus, it's just rough on the eyes.