Reading the Riot Act and the Technology Revolution: Weekly Digest
This week’s digest covers a plethora of Peninsula-pertinent issues, and represents the substantive introduction of my Yonsei University colleague, Brian Gleason, to SinoNK readers. Gleason, along yours truly, arrives with some original reporting on the issue of North Korean jamming of flights out of Inchon. Thus, if you are in-bound to Seoul, the digest suggests that you may want to tell your pilot to turn off the plane’s GPS. (Or, as Alec Guiness as the spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi once said, “Use the force, Luke.”) But technology remains at center stage, as in the recent publication by InterMedia of a US State Department commissioned report on the “technology revolution” in North Korea and the implications of the state losing its monopoly on information entering and leaving the country. – Steven Denney, Assistant Editor
Reading the Riot Act and the Technology Revolution: Weekly Digest
by Steven Denney and Brian Gleason
Public Speech Número Tres | In his third public statement (the others being a speech to the Workers’ Party on April 6 and his well-known April 15 speech), Kim Jong-un admonished officials of the Workers’ Party to care for the “management of national territory,” which included a focus on land conservation, infrastructure, and advice for the taking proper care of the capital - a “beautiful world city,” amongst other things. Besides pushing Pyongyang’s cosmopolitan appeal, the young dictator also revealed glimmers of his inner conservationist by “pointing out that officials who pay less attention to preventing air pollution are those lacking loyalty to the people,” according to a recent KCNA article entitled “Kim Jon Un’s Work, Important Guidelines for Land Management.”
Kim Said What? | In a “landmark” on-site-inspection, Kim Jong-un criticized management officials of an amusement park. Although criticism of this sort is not novel, the use of “media more accessible to outsiders” to publicize the discontent of the North’s leader is a new tactic, writes the DailyNK. With some very necessary references to history and a fantastic visual round-up, NK Leadership Watch also covers the curious episode.
Kim Jong-un’s recent public statement and latest on-site-inspection, when viewed together, reveal “something of a warning shot,” writes Andray Abrahamian at the Chosun Exchange, adding that “local officials who run things for personal gain will have to start worrying that pressure form the center may be coming to bear.”
Digital Terrorism? | Perhaps a bigger story, especially for those with flights in and out of Inchon International Airport, is the alleged jamming of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) from locations within North Korea.
Your humble authors recently had a conversation with the liaison between the ruling Saenuri Party and the Ministry of Unification, Park Chang-bong, about this very topic. According to Park, it is suspected that the North is jamming GPS systems for two reasons: one international, the other domestic. The international reason is North Korea’s offense at South Korea not recognizing the “dignity” of the North’s new leadership, especially Kim Jong-un; thus, the jamming of GPS by sending conflicting signals is a justified response to the South’s arrogance and disrespect.
In addition to making up for wounded pride, by interfering with technologically advance equipment, the North Korean leadership can show to its people the sophistication of its military equipment – something that bodes quite well for the notion of a strong and prosperous nation (with emphasis on the strong). The domestic reason, which is related to the latter half of the international reason, is simple: the leadership must save-face in light of the missile failure.
Considering the danger this poses to citizens on commercial flights, there are some, such as the author of this Chosun Ilbo editorial, who label GPS jamming efforts nothing short of terrorism. Taking into account that over the course of twelve days in May, 624 passenger planes and 49 foreign carriers “were affected by GPS jamming” which could “lead to a major accident,” claiming that the North is practicing (what is almost certainly “state-sponsored”) terrorism seems justifiable.
“Doi Moi” in Pyongyang | In an op-ed for NKNews.org, Ted Carpenter argues for a fundamentally new approach for the US in its relationship with the DPRK. “With past and present policies clearly not working, it’s time for a bold approach” for US policymakers to take towards “a North Korea that is a nuclear power but lacks meaningful international economic ties.” His “bold” solution is for the US to normalize relations with the DPRK.
Carpenter’s “boldly” progressive advice would resonate well with Yonsei Professor Moon Chung-in. In a recent interview published here at SinoNK.com, Moon argues that normalizing relations is the first in a series of necessary steps towards economic (and eventual political) reform in the DPRK a la building security-plus prosperity in a way similar to what happened in both China and Vietnam.
Shifting North Korean Media Environment | Despite North Korea’s consistent ranking as the country with the least media freedom in the world, several publications have highlighted the increasing access to foreign media within North Korea. In 2011, Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland published Witness to Transformation,which used extensive surveys with North Korean refugees to reveal (among a variety of other insights) that North Koreans’ consumption of foreign media is associated with more negative views of the regime and a greater willingness to hold the regime accountable for the country’s situation.
More recently, InterMedia released its US State Department commissioned report entitled, “A Quiet Opening: North Koreans in a Changing Media Environment,” by Nat Kretchun and Jane Kim. The report - based on research conducted among North Korean defectors, refugees and travelers, as well as other media analysts and expert interviews – finds that North Koreans’ access to outside media has grown considerably over the past two decades.
As an increasing number of North Koreans are able to learn more about the world via outside media, including foreign TV shows, radio broadcasts and DVDs, Kretchun and Kim conclude that the North Korean government no longer maintains a total monopoly over the information available to the population and, as a result, North Koreans’ understanding of the world is changing.
In a subsequent interview with the DailyNK, Krethcun noted that the North Korean regime “cannot completely control the narrative; they have to bow to the opinion of the people more than they used to.”
The speed with which Rodong Sinmun and KCNA now lash back at specific South Korean and international assertions about North Korea and its leadership — this linked piece being a good recent case in point over Kim Jong Un’s “politically incorrect” grandfather in Japan — would appear to substantiate Krethcun’s claims.
South Korean Debt Collector Knocking on Pyongyang’s Door | On May 4, the South Korean government notified the North that the first installment of its debt repayment, a combination of principal and interest worth $5.83 million, is due in early June. South Korea began providing loans for food in October of 2000, when the Kim Dae-jung administration signed the “Agreement on Provision of Food Loans” with Kim Jong-il, which provided a $720 million loan for rice and corn.
Additionally, South Korea has provided the North with $130 million in loans for a railroad connecting the two countries, as well as another $80 million for additional supplies. Thus, the total amount of loans due to South Korea is about $930 million, and many are skeptical about the North’s willingness to pay them back.
Some officials within the South Korean government have argued that the South should provide the North with assistance in the form of foodstuffs instead of loans, since the South could demand more stringent monitoring and have more of an ability to ensure that the assistance was being used for its intended purpose. Yet the North insisted on loans in order to enhance its autonomy. South Korea agreed, and only time will tell if these debts will be repaid.