Anti-Rat Bombast and Rational Conference: Weekly Digest
Spring arrives, and with it, the season for demonstrations of all kinds — spontaneous, coordinated, repressed. Comrades in Zhongnanhai are hardly ignorant of the fact, but it is the North Korean leadership that has taken mobilization to new levels with the blossoming weather. After all, there is no point in ending up like Syria. Steven Denney arrives from the political whirlwind of Seoul in order to carry us through technological queries, plenum recaps, and documentation/analysis of the increasing flow of north-south venom on the peninsula. – Adam Cathcart, Chief Editor
Anti-Rat Bombast and Rational Conference: Weekly Digest
by Steven Denney
Technology and “Opening” | Following the failed missile launch and North Korea’s “acknowledgement” of such (they did not actually acknowledge overall failure, per se, just a failure of the rocket to enter into orbit), a question of the “Hermit Kingdom’s” actual level of isolation was again brought to the media forefront.
There are a few pieces out there that should be read side-by-side on this subject. One is Christian Oliver and Kang Buseong’s piece in the Financial Times about the communication-enabling effect of mobile phones in the DPRK, featuring the pride of Kookmin University. After reading about phones, take a close look at the latest posting by DailyNK’s Chris Green at Destination Pyongyang. In his latest installment, Green critiques “The Mad Myth of the $15 Website” theory and discusses the diffusion of information via television in North Korea. And recent Good Friends report carries a fascinating look at the crackdown on cell phones with certain prefix numbers (the number 133- a China Mobile or China Unicom number, seems particularly dangerous) along the border.
Beautiful images and anecdotes from Pyongyang give further texture to the idea of a rapid spread of mobile technology.
Plenty at the Plenum | Last week at the Westin Chosun Hotel in Seoul, academics from several leading Eastern and Western think tanks and academic organizations arrived to discuss the concept of “Leadership” in the 21st century. Naturally, due to location and the specialty of the scholars in attendance, much focus was given to the issue of North Korea, East Asian security and human rights. “Session Sketches” of all the different panels is available at Asan’s official Plenum website. Panels of particular relevance to SinoNK include: Crisis on the Korean Peninsula, American Foreign Policy towards the Korean Peninsula, Humanitarian Crisis in North Korea and Nuclear Crisis in Northeast Asia. Proceedings in journal format will be available next month with extensive summaries and analysis managed by yours truly.
Beyond the Sea of Flames | Bombastic, apocalyptic language is the default prose setting for writers and editors from North Korea’s KCNA and Rodong Sinmun. However, the recent promise of “unprecedented action against South Korea,” in addition to specific threats against South Korean officials and graphic caricatures has garnered more attention than usual for its departure from the quotidian “sea of fire” language typically used. Then again, how can depicting the head of a president on a rat’s body tied to a pole surrounded by burning flames not attract attention?
More “rat-like” caricatures and strongly worded denunciations of President Lee and his “wicked conservative media,” including blame for spread of mad cow disease abound in recent news stories coming from north of the 38th. This recent recording by Korean Central Television shows the extent to which the North Korean state goes to “educate” the youth by means of pre-lecture morning denunciations and “draw the rat Lee Myung-bak” art time.
And conservatives thought the North’s slightly tactless caricatures of George W. Bush were bad?
According to one recent KCNA article, the reason behind the North’s professional polemicists specifically targeting “traitor Lee Myung Bak” is for “letting loose a spate of provocative remarks gravely hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK and its social system.” It may be as true that the campaign is being used to ask for more labor from the population and to give them something tangible against which to encircle and defend their Respected General, if not their personal computers.
In addition to the North’s constant state of paranoia vis-à-vis the outside world, remarks following the humiliation of the failed rocket launch are bound to aggravate an already sensitive North Korean media. Comments by President Lee about the “mounting pressure of bottom-up protests” like the Arab Spring, in addition to his visit to see view South Korean cruise missiles with the capability of hitting targets “deep inside North Korea” have only serve to exacerbated the North’s sense of shame, thus galvanizing efforts to more strongly, and more specifically, condemn South Korea’s conservative leadership. Comments like these by US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta do not help either. Meanwhile the DPRK media is saying things like “War on the Korean peninsula means just a nuclear war” without people taking much notice, the dial already perhaps being so close to the edge.
But Do They Walk the Walk? | A very illuminating — though slightly discomforting for those of us residing in Seoul — report by Chad O’Carrol at KEI’s The Peninsula shows that although most of the time North Korea’s threats go unfulfilled, the country does occasionally follow through in its threat to do something provocative (e.g. DPRK fighter jet over ROK airspace or conducting a nuclear test) or extremely belligerent (e.g. sink a naval vessel or shell an island). Given the possibility that the “Northern Winds” are no longer effective, an increase in the frequency of “active” behavior on the part of North Korea may not be too far-fetched. Here again, the Lee Myung Bak propaganda serves the purpose of saying, more or less that North Korea has the right to retaliate in whatever way it seems fit, because its vaunted “dignity” has been assaulted from the South.
Other Reads/Stories | Stephen Costello talks about how progress can only be made on the peninsula when the US and ROK governments are on the same page, regarding their overall strategy towards North Korea, in addition to admonishes the US to make a “whole-of-government review of national interests” in order to find a more effective approach to North Korea.
Christopher Hill argues that China, due to its “special relationship” with North Korea should use its economic leverage to affect change. He specifically calls on China to “follow up on its Security Council vote to condemn North Korea’s behavior by shutting down bilateral trade.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton applied pressure on China as well, although absent a call for a cessation of trade, in her opening remarks to the two-day U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
Whether that will actually happen or not is up for debate, but in the meantime the UN has put 3 North Korean companies on its blacklist of firms banned from international trade as punishment for the failed rocket launch.
If read alongside Scott Bruce’s piece on Extended Nuclear Deterrence (END), the argument put forward by Masashi Nishihara that a Northeast Asian nuclear weapon-free zone (NWFZ) is implausible is strengthened that much more.
Despite optimistic claims to the contrary, US Radio Free Asia has reported the UNHCR High Commissioner as saying that China has not suspended the repatriation of detained North Korean defectors.