Friday, January 17, 2014

North Korea: 2013 in Review

The year 2013 has been a busy one for we 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 States' 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, 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.

--Jacob Bogle, 1/17/2014