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“Unusual Activity” at NK Ballistic Missile Site

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From Nightwatch:

“The activity has prompted concerns Pyongyang is planning a new round of ballistic missile tests of either medium or longer range missiles,” the unnamed officers said. But CNN added, “The activity is in its early stages and it’s not yet possible to determine what the North Koreans are doing.” The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff on Sunday said, “We haven’t confirmed reports of signs of North Korea preparing for a missile launch in Shinori.”

The North has never launched a Nodong ballistic missile from a west coast facility. Public preparation for a launch from a west coast site could be a factor in the provocative military actions off the west coast and the bellicose rhetoric. For example, a surprise launch form the west coast into international waters would be much more provocative and dangerous than one that occurred after the North had already ratcheted tension. In launching the North’s leaders would set a new precedent for medium range ballistic missile launches off the west coast as well as register their dissatisfaction with South Korea, or the Six Party Talks or a rejection of the Singapore tentative agreement, if that occurs.

A Nodong missile launch would lack the dramatic impact of an ICBM-scale launch, but it is one of the many tactics the North’s leaders can order to draw international attention.

Written by nkmonitor

April 15, 2008 at 3:50 am

Posted in Inside North Korea

Good Friends: Protests Erupted in Chongjin

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Thousands of North Korean women staged a massive protest against age restrictions in the Jangmadang earlier this month, said Good Friends. Discontent had been mounting since mid-February when 15 women were executed for “helping villagers cross the border into China and engaging in human trafficking.” Via World Tribue:

In early March, the authorities began to dismantle stalls that were owned by women younger than 50. That infuriated women who were already agitated over news of executions. Hundreds of women swarmed the market manager’s office in protest. It was a spontaneous outburst almost never seen in North Korea, according to the sources. “They shouted and demanded either to let them continue doing business in the open market or otherwise resume food distribution,” a source said. “It was not like South Korean-style protests we used to watch on TV. There were no organizers or leaders, but the number swelled into thousands in a very short time.” The scene was scary and surreal. But even more bizarre was that security officers did not try very hard to disperse the gathering.

[…]

According to the sources, the protest continued into the next day, and the market management office withdrew the age restriction on March 5.

IHT is also reporting that due to the increasingly scarce food situation and international jitters, grain prices in North Korean Jangmadang have skyrocketed:

The spreading fear of hard times is already helping drive up grain prices in North Korea by up to 70 percent over last year, according to experts in Seoul and North Korean defectors in South Korea who help their relatives back home through Chinese intermediaries. Kim Young Hoon, a food security analyst at the government-financed Korea Rural Economic Institute in Seoul, said the North’s food problem was particularly vulnerable to the political mood. “When the mood is bad, there is cornering and hoarding at the markets and the authorities reduce rations to save for the future,” Kim said. “It takes a heavy toll among the weak. It’s clear that the problem will get worse this year.”

Interesting times are upon us.

Written by nkmonitor

April 4, 2008 at 12:34 am

Posted in Inside North Korea

“Worse Than the Arduous March”

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Citing unnamed sources, Good Friends (via the Hankyoreh) is reporting that North Korea is now in its “worst ever” food crisis, as food rations remain suspended even in the main grain belts and the capital. In an unprecedented step, authorities announced that Pyongyang citizens will not get rations until September this year. No word on how long the provinces will have to wait. Never before has such a drastic move been taken.  Even more foreboding:

A grim prediction is spreading that there will be massive deaths from famine in provincial areas of the impoverished country around May, [the Good Friends report] also said.
[…]
Rumors are circulating around major cities such as Pyongyang and Hamhung and Chongjin, both on the North’s east coast, that the North will begin to see massive deaths from famine from this month, [an unnamed North Korean] official claimed.

As rumors of famine circulate, North Korea is now threatening “unspecified countermeasures” against the South, after South Korean military authorities refused to apologize for a hypothetical remark made by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Kim Tae-Young at a hearing before South Korea’s National Assembly earlier this week. According to the Mail and Guardian, North Korea will cease all dialogue with the South. However, how extensive the cessation will be was not made clear. Mail and Guardian talked to two North Korea analysts who believe the North will continue to rachet up tensions:

Yang Moo-Jin, of the University of North Korean Studies, said the North is following a pre-set plan to raise tensions.

Yang, speaking before the KCNA announcement, said it was expected to ban officials from crossing the land border and was “highly likely to engage in military muscle-flexing”.

“It may fire short-range missiles in the Yellow Sea, have its warships manoeuvre near the Northern Limit Line [sea border] and engage in provocative activities along the [land] border.”

Kim Yong-Hyun, of the University of Korea, forecast similar actions but said the North would be careful not to trigger an actual clash, since this would harden public opinion in the South.

Analysts believe it wants to sway the outcome of next week’s parliamentary election against the conservatives.

Written by nkmonitor

April 3, 2008 at 8:58 am

North Korean Kindergarteners

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Anyone who has ever visited a kindergarten classroom in some other part of the world knows children don’t behave like this. In this footage from a kindergarten in Wonsan, North Korea, we first witness the children at play on the playground, but later on there’s something sinister about the way they’re lined up on the balcony shouting “안녕히 가세요! (Lit: ‘go in peace’ or ‘goodbye’)” in unison without any teacher supervision. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but for some reason this video gives me the chills. 

Written by nkmonitor

April 2, 2008 at 5:22 am

Posted in Inside North Korea

“For Kim Jong Il, this will be his most difficult year”

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Park Syung Je, a scholar at the Asia Strategy Institute in Seoul, predicts this will be the most difficult year for Kim Jong Il. Park’s comments were reported in a Boston Globe article entitled “Urgency grows as severe food shortages loom in N. Korea.” International and meterological conditions have conspired to challenge Kim with one of the more severe crises his regime has faced:

This year is anything but good. Floods last August ruined part of the main yearly harvest, creating a 25 percent shortfall in the food supply and putting 6 million people in need, according to the UN World Food Program.
Over the winter, drought damaged the wheat and barley crop, according to a recent report in the official North Korean media. That crop normally tides people over during the summer “lean season” until the fall harvest.
North Korea’s ability to buy food, meanwhile, has plunged, as the cost of rice and wheat on the global market has jumped to record highs, up 50 percent in the past six months.
Equally important for North Korea, its reliably generous neighbors seem to be operating under new, less tolerant rules for charity.

South Korea is not the only neighbor that has been cutting back on good will. China, too, has been cutting back:

China, the North’s closest ally and main trading partner, also seems to be stiffening its food policies. It has quietly slashed food aid to North Korea, according to figures compiled by the World Food Program. Deliveries plummeted from 440,000 metric tons in 2005 to 207,000 tons in 2006.
The reason for the cuts has not been made public, but some analysts believe it is related to North Korea’s decision in 2006 to detonate a nuclear device

Though North Korean citizens are better able to cope with desperate economic conditions than in times past (as Dr. Petrov pointed out here), I can’t help but wonder if North Korea’s resurgence of hostility is in someway related to the deteriorating food situation. One of Kim’s coping mechanisms is to blame outsiders for domestic problems. During previous famines and trying times, Kim convinced most of his subjects that the U.S. was to blame.  This time around, Kim might be trying to provoke the South for domestic propaganda purposes.

Another related reason for the recent outburst might be that as Kim’ position becomes more tenuous, and he begins to loose the support of key regime figures, the probability that he will lash out at the South grows.  We may be witnessing the beginning stages of this process now. The fact that North Korea is constantly on war footing is well known; as is that fact that many North Korean citizens and soldiers believe that a “glorious war for reunification” is inevitable. If the the food situation reaches a critical level causing the upper echelons of the regime to begin to get resitve– and especially if Kim Jong Il feels backed up in a corner with few options left– open hostilities might be unavoidable.

Couple this with speculation that the Songun policy is on its way out—as some analyses suggest —and military leadership might be looking for an excuse to fortify their own positions. Hyping the military threat from the South would knock top civilian leadership out of their “complacency,” and thus restore the primacy of the military. 

Based on past experiences over the past 50 years, hostile spasms from North Korea are a regular and, for the most part, benign occurrence. As of now, there is no solid reason to believe the current tensions are anything but a cry for attention or an attempt at bullying. But, as this story continues to unfold over the coming weeks and months, we’ll be better able to judge whether the tell-tale signs of regime collapse–or worse–are something to be worried about.

UPDATE: All this talk of increasing hostilties got me thinking: What’s next for North-South relations?

Kim Jong Il has three major options:

1) Back down. Kim would probably not back down unless there was some way he could save face. That would probably mean a formal or tacit agreement between the Northern and Southern governments along with confidence-building measures. But, given Lee Myung Bak’s stated policy of reciprocity, this outcome would be unlikely unless the North were willing to make a concession as well. It also would depend on which issues Lee holds most dear. If reciprocity starts off with small measures that build confidence and gradually moves to encompass larger, more volitile issues, there is a good chance for sucess. If Lee requests the entire farm right off the bat, then see numbers two and three.

2) Continue to escalate the situation. Kim could take any of the following actions to further escalate tensions between North and South: a naval confrontation in the West Sea (many eyes will be carefully watching this year’s May-June crab fishing season); a firefight in the DMZ; a long-range missile test (especially one that skirts Japanese or South Korean territory); cancellation of one of the “reconciliation projects” like Geumgangsan, or Kaesong; a second nuclear test; restarting the Yongbyon facility; withdrawing entirely from the Six-Party Talks; or proliferating nuclear arms.  A limited attack on South Korea or Japan is extremely unlikely, unless the regime really felt it were trapped or on the verge of collapse. An escalation in hostility would be most likely in the event that the South cut off all aid shipments.

3) Maintain the status quo. Probably the most likely option at this stage. This would entail continued diplomatic, rhetorical, and symbolic hostility. Perhaps accompanied by a minor “escalation event” at some point; like slowing down the denuclearization process. Such perpetual hostilities would probably go on indefinitely as long as limited aid were still provided. Or a major diplomatic breakthrough occurs (see number one). Or Kim decides to increase hostilities. In which case, see number two.
 

Written by nkmonitor

March 31, 2008 at 5:42 am

Posted in Inside North Korea

North Korea Cancels April Spring Friendship Art Festival

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The North’s bienniel Aprils Spring Friendship Art Festival has been cancelled, reports United Press International. Some analysts see this as a sign of further deterioration of North’s economy, currently facing its worst food shortages in years. Most significantly, the Art Festival pays homage to the birthday of Kim Il Sung. Is this an ominous sign?

North Korea’s April Spring Friendship Art Festival will be held once every two years beginning this year, in what some say is a sign of deteriorating economic conditions in the reclusive communist nation, Yonhap news agency reported Sunday.

An aid group in Seoul, South Korea, said last week that North Korea is bracing for worsening food shortages. Moreover, the World Food Program has warned North Korea could face its worst food shortage in years because of last year’s floods and a winter drought.

The South Korean news agency said the North began the spring festival in 1982 on the occasion of the founding leader’s 70th birthday. For the festivities, Pyongyang customarily hosts big-name foreign musicians and art groups.

Last year, the North Korean paid airfares and accommodations for British opera singer Suzannah Clarke and the popular U.S. gospel music group Casting Crowns, Yonhap reported.

This news comes on the heels of reports that food distribution in Pyongyang has ceased (see: “The Beginning of the End: Food Shortages Reach Pyongyang” over at One Free Korea).

Written by nkmonitor

March 24, 2008 at 5:10 am

Posted in Inside North Korea

2007 North Korean GDP Figures

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Via the Korea Times:

North Korea’s gross domestic product (GDP) remained unchanged at $40 billion for the third consecutive year in 2007, according to the latest report by the top U.S. intelligence agency. But the North’s per capita GDP rose by about 5 percent to $1,900 last year from $1,800 in 2006, the Central Intelligence Agency said in its World Factbook 2008, which is now available on its Website.

Something doesn’t add up here. How can total GDP remain unchanged yet GDP per capita increased by 5%? The CIA calculate GDP per capita as  “GDP on a purchasing power parity basis divided by population as of 1 July for the same year (see: CIA 2008 World Factbook).” Please correct me if I’m wrong, but if GDP did not change that would imply that population decreased. In fact, this is not the case. North Korea’s population slightly increased:

 North Korea’s population was estimated at 23.3 million as of last July, a rise of 0.785 percent, or some 188,700, from 23,113,019 a year ago (Korea Times).

 North Korea does not publish official GDP figures. All figures above were estimated by the CIA using available data.

Written by nkmonitor

March 13, 2008 at 1:28 am

Posted in Inside North Korea