Love the North Korean Style: Alek Sigley’s Misfortune is a Coded Message

9 07 2019

South of the Border - shooting gallery

Last weekend the world was baffled by the statement of the (North) Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) which explained why Alek Sigley, the Australian student who had studied at the Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang, was detained, investigated and expelled. Nobody, including seasoned North Korea watchers, could make sense of this brief but eloquent statement that became viral among Western media even before it appeared on the KCNA official site.

The statement lambasted Mr Sigley for secretly conducting “anti-government propaganda via the Internet”. It said he was caught “red-handed committing anti-DPRK incitement through Internet” and questioned by the “relevant institution” on June 25. Investigation revealed that at the instigation of various ostensibly anti-DPRK media organisations Alek “several times handed over the data and photos he collected and analysed while combing Pyongyang”. He was able to explore the city because he held an identity card that labelled him as a foreign student”. The newsagency said that Mr Sigley “honestly admitted his spying acts”, “repeatedly asked for a pardon”, and apologised “for encroachment upon the sovereignty of the DPRK”. The DPRK government expelled him from the country on July 4, “by showing humanitarian leniency”.

It is true that, while studying in North Korea, Alek was a prolific user of various social media platforms and new means of communication. In 2019, he penned and published his writing on-line, describing the local restaurants, male and female fashion, mobile apps and popular hobbies. Perhaps, this was a marketing strategy to attract more attention to his business project, Tongil Tours, which he was running in addition to his work on the Master Thesis in Literature tentatively entitled “Love the North Korean Style”.

This would be innovative and interesting contribution to the North Korea Studies because no western scholar has systematically analysed how Love is understood in the most secluded and militaristic society on Earth. Alek must have been combing the streets and alleys of Pyongyang (which is romantically nicknamed in Korean a “willow capital”) in search of dating couples and happy families. In North Korea, marriage is permitted only if sanctioned by the state. To achieve that, every young man must serve 10 years in the military and every young woman must reach “revolutionary maturity” through studies or work. Until then Love can be expressed only towards their comrades, community or nation.

Creative research like this cannot be done is isolation and requires discussion and feedback. The use of the Internet in North Korea is permitted only to foreign visitors and residents, including international students, diplomats, accredited journalists and NGO staff. All of them have different visa types, which should not be confused. International students in North Korea are not supposed to report or exchange pictures and videos with foreign media outlets. In a country where every piece of foreign printed material must be meticulously declared at customs, uncensored access to the Internet poses a serious risk to national security. That is why ordinary North Koreans have no access to the World Wide Web or the telephone lines that can receive or make calls outside of the country. They use the Intranet and closed telephone and mobile networks monitored by the government.

Alek had the privilege of benefiting from the wonders of the 21st century while living in a country deeply stuck in the Cold War ideological conflict. DPRK national security law is fierce and intolerant to anyone who might breach it on purpose or accidentally. The grey area created by the usage of social media was bound to attract the attention of the almighty Ministry of State Security to Alek and his research. The two questions to consider here are “why did it happen now?” and “how is it that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was so fond of Alek and his work, could not even answer the question about his whereabouts?”

Perhaps the most plausible answer is that DPRK is not a monolith with single-hearted unity that speaks with one voice. There are many factions inside with very different views, and even if you are loved and in good graces of some parts of the DPRK government, the State Security apparatus is a coequal branch of government that rarely agrees with outward-looking people. The stability of the DPRK comes from this inertia that prevents any real change from happening. This also makes it very dangerous for naive foreigners who don’t get that there is no one-man rule or consolidated unity in what the government says, does, or thinks. One of the biggest misconceptions is that Kim Jong-un is the omnipotent autocrat who gets whatever he wants. The truth is much more complex: North Korea has its own “deep state”, just like any other nation.

For those who still believes that North Korea’s human rights record is problematic, they did not forget to remind us that Alek Sigley‘s release was an act of “humanitarian leniency”. People in the government wanted to show us that they have read Michael Kirby’s Report on Human Rights in North Korea and learnt their lesson.

Finally, we should not underestimate the Koreans’ penchant for symbolism in dates and numbers. Whatever was the reason for this strange security operation, Alek Sigley was arrested on the 25th June, the date when the Korean War started, and was liberated on the 4th July, when Americans were preparing to celebrate their national day. Perhaps, someone in the government wanted to do it in solidarity with the American people’s successful struggle against monarchy and colonialism.

Excerpts from this piece were used by the Sydney Morning Herald and The West Australian newspapers.

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Luck had nothing to do with Alek Sigley’s escape from North Korea

7 07 2019

Alek Sigley DPRK 1(Opinion by Leonid Petrov, The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 July 2019)

The last two weeks have been eventful in the contemporary story of North Korea. The first visit of China’s President Xi Jinping to Pyongyang was followed by the first visit to the Demilitarised Zone by US President Donald Trump. There he met North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Separated by a week, both events will potentially play a role in ending the Korean War, the oldest conflict of the Cold War era, which remains unfinished since the signing of the 1953 Armistice Agreement.

The optimistic glow of these events was tarnished by the ongoing anxiety about the Australian student, Alek Sigley, who had suddenly stopped communicating with his family and friends after staying in Pyongyang for more than a year. There was something symbolic in his disappearance from view on June 25, the day when the Korean War started 69 year ago. It was not only the Koreans, Chinese and Americans who fought in that war. Australia joined it too and lost more than 330 servicemen in Korea during the three years of conflict. The prospect of losing another Australian citizen, caught up in the inter-Korean and international geopolitics, was disturbing.

What happened to Sigley, who was suddenly released on Thursday morning and safely back in Japan by Thursday evening, remains unclear to date. He was not seen at his usual place of residence and did not respond to his mobile, Skype, Messenger, Twitter and other social media calls. The North Korean, or DPRK, government refused to acknowledge that he was arrested and the Swedish government’s special envoy to North Korea, Kent Rolf Magnus Harstedt, ambiguously commented on his disappearance: “There might be a more complicated explanation, for many reasons, for the timing and the way it happened.” In his first statement after leaving North Korea, Alek himself refused to give any explanations but sincerely thanked the Australian and Swedish government officials, and many other people “who worked hard in the background as well who worked hard behind the scenes”.

The incident is done and dusted. Alek is safe with his wife, his parents and friends are relieved as much as most Australians and everyone is praising the Swedes. Perhaps, the presidents of China, South Korea and the US should be thanked for their soft intervention too. Alek’s business partner, who ran the Tongil Tours with him until last week, is now more concerned about the future of their joint venture, but this issue is more personal than geopolitical. Everyone can go back to the normal life, including the North Koreans, who managed not to make a single public statement about this curious case.

What lessons, if any, can be drawn? Everything related to North Korea remains shrouded in mystery. The secrecy of North Korean authorities makes it difficult to visit, contact and deal with the country. The main reason for that is the continuing Korean War – the last ideological and military conflict of the 20th century inherited by this century. This unfinished business is the key to understanding North Korea.

Travelling to study or do business in a war zone is associated with risks. The usual freedoms of travel, information and consciousness are often curtailed or abrogated where the conflict is ongoing. In conflict zones, people get detained and interrogated before the decision is made what to do with them next. Some, like Sigley, are permitted to go home and might even continue doing business in North Korea, if they keep their lips tight. But others, like US student Otto Warmbier, fall victim to a system that considers itself at war with the rest of the world.

Alek has not escaped this potentially harmful situation unscathed because he is “lucky”. I know him. I met him when he was a student at the Australian National University where I worked. He is very intelligent and a gentleman. I predicted from day one, after he fell off the social media radars, that he would be fine and back home soon. He knows Korea well, he speaks the language, and understands the feelings of the Korean people divided by the Demilitarised Zone. His business reputation is impeccable and his intentions are sincere. He might be willing to go back to North Korea and resume his education travel business, perhaps after some re-branding.

The Australian government might be horrified by this scenario and the Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has already warned him not to return to North Korea. Will Sigley tempt fate once again? The answer is likely to echo special envoy Harstedt’s words: “It’s complicated.”

My advice to him would be to lie low for a while and consider the implications of what he has just been through. The situation could change quickly and soon. We may see the first quadrilateral summit – China, North Korea, South Korea and the United States – take place in coming months. A peace treaty is not out of the question. The opportunity to return under less complicated circumstances may arrive and he would be welcomed by the North Korean people.

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Donald Trump thanks Kim Jong-un for releasing US prisoners from North Korea

11 05 2018

US flag(Daniel Hurst, Tokyo, 10 May 2018) President Trump has thanked Kim Jong-un for the release of three American prisoners who have begun to describe their detention in North Korea.

Kim Dong-chul, Kim Hak-song and Tony Kim, who were released after Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, met Kim Jong-un yesterday, were taken to hospital in Washington soon after their arrival in the early hours of this morning.

“I was treated in many different ways, but overall I had to do much labour and when I became ill I received some treatment,” Kim Dong-chul said, via a translator. In a joint statement, the men said: “We thank God, and all our families and friends who prayed for us and for our return. God bless America, the greatest nation in the world.”

They were met at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland by Mr Trump and his wife, Melania. “Congratulations on being in this country,” Mr Trump told them.

The president said he “very much appreciated” the fact that the North Korean leader had allowed the trio to return home before the forthcoming summit meeting. “Frankly we didn’t think it was going to happen and it did,” Mr Trump said of the goodwill gesture. “We’re starting off on a new footing. This is a wonderful thing that he released the folks early.”

Mr Trump said he hoped to achieve denuclearisation in the Korean peninsular during his summit with Mr Kim, expected to take place in Singapore within weeks. “I think we have a very good chance of doing something very meaningful,” he said. “My proudest achievement will be, this is part of it, when we denuclearize that entire peninsula.”

The prisoner release clears one of the final barriers to the historic talks between Mr Trump and Mr Kim. Mr Pompeo met Mr Kim for 90 minutes in Pyongyang before flying out of the country “with the three wonderful gentlemen that everyone is looking so forward to meeting”, a triumphant Mr Trump tweeted.

Mr Kim hailed the forthcoming summit as a historic meeting and an “excellent first step”. In comments published by North Korea’s official news agency, Mr Kim said it would contribute towards improving the situation on the Korean peninsula and the “building of a good future”.

The three American citizens were arrested for alleged hostile or subversive acts against North Korea but the charges were widely seen as politically motivated.

A North Korean official characterised the release as an amnesty and was reported to have told Mr Pompeo: “You should take care that they do not make the same mistakes again. This was a hard decision.”

The men were flown to Japan, where they transferred to another plane that carried medical specialists and equipment. It made a stopover in Alaska before proceeding to Maryland.

Kim Dong-chul is a South Korean-born businessman and missionary in his early sixties who was taken into custody nearly three years ago and sentenced to ten years’ hard labour.

The other detainees had worked as academics at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. Kim Hak-song, who was born in China and educated in the US and is thought to be 55, was intercepted at a railway station a year ago and prevented from returning to his home in the Chinese border region of Dandong.

Tony Kim, 59, also known as Kim Sang-duk, had been on a short-term teaching assignment at the university before his arrest at Pyongyang International Airport in April last year. A religious man, he was believed to have been helping at an orphanage in North Korea.





Can the 3rd inter-Korean summit end the 70 years of Hot and Cold Wars in Korea?

27 04 2018

Kim Moon at Panmunjeom 2018.04.27Kim Jong-Un and Moon Jae-In have completely different political motives and goals, but strangely their intentions coincided this year.

Kim desperately needs to steer North Korea away from an imminent disaster (a nuclear war, a domestic upheaval or both).

Moon, in contrast, needs to keep South Korea in the comfort zone of US alliance and export-oriented economic trajectory in the quickly changing global trade and political climate.

Meeting and talking about inter-Korean reconciliation and economic cooperation will not only boost the two leaders’ popularity at home but will also give confidence to the neighbouring powers, who have been waging Hot and Cold Wars in Korea for regional domination since the late 19th century.

Everyone seems to realise today that without a peaceful Korea there will be no ultimate security and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region.





Kim-Trump Summit – a Game Changer?

13 04 2018

Pivot to Asia pic(RADIO SPUTNIK, John Harrison’s PIVOT TO ASIA, 12.04.2018) The much-heralded summit between President Trump and N. Korean leader Kim Jung-un is apparently going ahead, and preparatory negotiations are already taking place. What do we know of the agenda, and how important is it for Kim Jung-un to have Russia and China’s approval of negotiation terms. Joining the program to talk about this situation is Dr Leonid Petrov, a visiting Fellow in the College of Asia and the Pacific, at The Australian National University in Canberra.

Despite the situation in Syria, Dr Petrov feels that the summit will go ahead, because negotiations between the White House, the State Department and North Korean negotiators are taking place, so there is every reason to expect that the summit will happen before or during May. The situation is serious, with the Japanese recently activating their naval units for the first time since the Second World War. “It looks like there is a multilateral preparation going on for a potential tectonic shift with China and Russia on one side, the United States, Australia and Japan on the other, and South Korea somewhere in between…”

Japan sees the likelihood of the summit yielding positive results as being quite low, indeed Japan possibly sees the summit as being little other than a delaying tactic. Dr Petrov says: “Japan believes that it is a victim of the North Korean nuclear program,…however at the same time there have even been rumors that [Japan’s] Prime Minister Abe was also interested in having a summit with Kim Jung-un…”

China is perhaps in a difficult situation because on the one hand Beijing hopes that there will be an agreement reached at the summit but on the other hand will no doubt insist that US troops do not enter North Korea, as that would mean that they will be able to position themselves along the Chinese border, something the Chinese would never agree to. Dr Petrov comments:

“China has the so called three ‘No policies’ towards the Korean peninsula. Beijing doesn’t want to see another war in Korea, it doesn’t want the Korean peninsula to be nuclear, and they don’t want the North Korean regime to collapse….N. Korea [to the Chinese] plays the very important role of a buffer state separating the militarized South Korea from China, from Russia and definitely Beijing and Moscow would be very cautious about a major change in geopolitics; that’s why they are doing everything possible to support the regime despite joining the international sanctions against North Korea….Pyongyang and Beijing signed the Mutual Friendship and Security Treaty in 1961, which is still in force and it will remain in force until 2021….Kim Jong-un has very skillfully played Beijing off against Moscow and has tried to maintain an equidistant approach; milking both Russia and China, and it looks like Kim Jong-un is going to continue this policy. This time, North Korea is at a crossroads, whether to have a major deal, an agreement with the United States or not….All eyes in Moscow and Beijing are now on North Korea. Kim Jong-un understands this, and he tries to ensure his success in negotiations by having Russia and China as allies, not as enemies.”

The United States’ major goal is clearly to see North Korea de-nuclearized, however there is also the possibility of Trump offering a grand bargain, “‘everything for everything’ which potentially may work well for Kim Jung-un who is also a maverick leader and who is prepared to go ahead with unconventional negotiating strategies,…it looks like everything is right for the summit, in terms of a potential list of topics for discussions, but the interpretations can be very different. For example, the United States talks about the denuclearization of North Korea whilst the North Koreans talk about the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula…”

If the Americans can guarantee the future existence of North Korea is not clear, because, as Dr Petrov points out: “for the Americans, the alliance with South Korea and Japan is not just a symbolic thing. It’s a matter of revenue. The American military industrial complex provides [American] allies in the region with state-of-the-art military equipment, jet fighters, anti-missile systems, and without North Korea, without an aggressive, irrational, dangerous North Korea, no one would buy them.”

For the Americans, it is clearly important that Trump is able to make a deal with Kim, even if only to show that the US is still the biggest boy on the block in the region. “There could be a number of scenarios. One scenario would be that the status quo is maintained and there is no change to the Cold War structure, animosity, distrust and the arms race. For the United States, I believe this is the most preferred option. John Bolton and Mike Pompeo support the White House’s decision to negotiate with Kim Jong-un actually….They think it is likely to be just a meeting which would lead to nothing. The second scenario which would be a major breakthrough would be where Trump and Kim agree on bettering relations in principal, something verifiable, something irreversible. But denuclearization of North Korea cannot be verified, nobody would trust the North Korean leader because somewhere in the mountains there might be just one last nuclear device hidden for a rainy day. Trust must be built up and to build trust there should be more than just one handshake and a photo opportunity. Sanctions should be lifted, security assurances must be provided, there should be potential diplomatic recognition of North Korea…” Such a peace treaty would be a major step forward.

One thing is clear, Kim Jung-un needs to have Beijing and Moscow on its side before negotiations start. The North Korea foreign minister Ri Yong Ho just concluded a visit to Moscow when this program was recorded and conducted talks with Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart.

RADIO SPUTNIK would love to get your feedback at radio@sputniknews.com





Here’s what North Korea hopes to gain by offering denuclearization talks

7 03 2018

Kim Jung Un and Chung Eui Yong 2018.03.05The Clinton administration promised Pyongyang heavy fuel oil shipments and construction of light-water reactors, but these were delivered only partially or not at all, noted Leonid Petrov, a Korean studies researcher at the Australian National University. As a result, “North Korea suspended its nuclear and missile programs partially and resumed it when it became clear that the George W. Bush administration was not going to honor the promises,” Petrov added.

* * *

(By Nyshka Chandran, CNBC, 2018.03.07) North Korea is reportedly willing to hold talks on denuclearization in exchange for security guarantees from the U.S. If true, the development marks a fresh milestone in the global quest to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

But the rogue state’s latest olive branch may just be another ploy to gain concessions.

Following a two-day visit to the North by South Korean envoys — the latest chapter in peace efforts between the two neighbors — the head of the Southern delegation Chung Eui-yong said on Tuesday that the reclusive regime expressed a “willingness to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.”

But that’s only if “the military threat to the North was eliminated and its security guaranteed,” Chung noted.

Such comments are a welcome respite amid escalating tensions between President Donald Trump and Kim. Still, they aren’t expected to produce any breakthroughs.

The news “represent the next step in North Korea’s 2018 charm offensive,” Miha Hribernik, senior Asia analyst at global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, said in a note.

“If past experiences are anything to go by, Kim Jong Un is hoping to extract a loosening of sanctions or other assistance by feigning a willingness to disarm,” Hribernik explained. “The North Korean economy is straining under the weight of sanctions, forcing the country to resort to a well-worn playbook.”

Years of failed negotiations, most notably during the 2003-2009 Six-Party Talks, indicate the North’s long-standing pattern of offering talks in exchange for fuel oil, aid or a release of frozen funds.

A breakdown in dialogue is possible “at any time, particularly if Pyongyang fails to obtain significant concessions,” according to Hribernik.

Analysts also point out that President Bill Clinton’s administration provided a security guarantee to Pyongyang in 1994 as part of a deal to halt the country’s nuclear program but both parties didn’t keep to their side of the bargain.

The Clinton administration promised Pyongyang heavy fuel oil shipments and construction of light-water reactors, but these were delivered only partially or not at all, noted Leonid Petrov, a Korean studies researcher at the Australian National University.

As a result, “North Korea suspended its nuclear and missile programs partially and resumed it when it became clear that the George W. Bush administration was not going to honor the promises,” Petrov added…

See the full article here…





A Unified Korea – The Finland of Northeast Asia

16 02 2018

PyeongchangRadio Sputnik International (Pivot to Asia 15.02.2018) An amazing thing is happening in Korea. The North and the South are experiencing a thaw in relations and a visit by the President of South Korea to North Korea is on the cards. This thaw has huge geopolitical implications.

Dr. Leonid Petrov, a visiting Fellow in the College of Asia and the Pacific, at The Australian National University in Canberra discusses the situation with host John Harrison.

The West has perhaps been caught off guard by what is happening right now in Korea. The North and South of country are on the verge of opening up diplomatic negotiations despite the will of the USA. When North Korean leader Kim Jong Un proposed resuming talks with South Korea in his New Year’s Day address, Seoul seemed to leap at the opportunity. Dr. Petrov explains that President of South Korea Moon Jae-in was elected with a promise that he would improve relations with the North, and that has not yet happened. Now it is possible, after a 10-year freeze that another era of ‘sunshine policy’ will once again lead to improved relations. “Before then, there were zones of cooperation, charter flights between the two countries; tourists could drive their own cars into North Korea to visit their loved ones who they hadn’t seen for decades after the Korean War.” Koreans, whether they live in the South or the North, Dr. Petrov says, are, in general, interested in improving relations between the two countries. But unification would bring its own difficulties. “Young and old will all tell you that unification of the country is their dream. But it depends what the next question is going to be. Are you going to introduce a unification tax, are you going to give your job to brothers and sisters in North Korea, who would agree to be paid half of your salary? So they might say — let’s have unification sometime in the future, not now. South Koreans view North Korea as a territory which needs to be liberated and emancipated.”

One could perhaps compare the possible unification of the two Koreas with the unification of East and West Germany, but that, Dr. Petrov said would not be a very good comparison because the wage levels of North Koreans are proportionally far lower than those of the East Germans before the Berlin wall came down. The South Koreans are extremely well educated now and competitive in commercial and industrial know-how and skills, this is clearly very different from the situation in North Korea. “North and South can talk about unification but only after a joint process of collaboration and education. That’s why President Moon Jae-in’s thesis is firstly one of reconciliation, second, economic integration and only then unification. The nuclearization, well that’s something that makes the whole story very complex because North Korea is not preparing to denuclearize.”

The Americans see their presence in South Korea as having provided stability in the area, surely they are not going to take been shouldered out lying down?, John Harrison asks. To that, Dr. Petrov answers that the whole idea of American presence in South Korea is based on anti-communist sentiment. “It is very ideological and political; this is in essence, a Cold war mentality which brings together American and Seoul right wing politicians. …For them, it is important to stand together because China and Russia are just next door, and the Americans want to be present. South Korea provides the opportunity for American troops to be stationed in the South Pacific….An American withdrawal would undermine the whole thesis of an American-Korean brotherhood in arms built on anti-communism.”

Since coming to power, President Trump has questioned Seoul’s contributions towards the alliance, opened renegotiations of the long-fought US-Korea Free Trade Agreement, and threatened direct military action against the North for which the South would bear the bulk of the risk. Dr. Petrov says that South Korea is the power that will benefit from Trump’s inconsistences in foreign policy. “South Korea will gain access to raw materials and minerals which North Korea is now selling to China….South Korea will be much stronger. This is why Japan is so paranoid about reconciliation as well. Everybody is against the idea of reconciliation but one country, and that is Russia. Russia is very keep to sell its raw materials and expertise to the unified Korea….Right now, North Korea is a black hole in a quickly growing region. For Russia, it makes much more sense to support the unification project because that will open the doors to export opportunities in South Korea, and the Russian Far East is hugely under developed and under populated….I think it is a win-win-win situation for Moscow, Pyongyang and Seoul to see the reconciliation process restarted, maybe at the expense of the South Korean-American alliance. The Americans don’t want to see a unified Korea right next door to Vladivostok, the home of the Russian Pacific Fleet. China is also paranoid about potential US military bases on its borders. So, for Russia and China, it is important to see Korea as a kind of Finland of East Asia. A country which is nonaligned but prosperous, which is peaceful but vigilant, and is an economic powerhouse.”

There is a possibility that the current thaw between the two Koreas might actually lead to an increased likelihood of war because the US may feel that it needs to safeguard its alliance whilst it can. Dr. Petrov explains that this is unlikely because of the close proximity of large centers of population spread between the two countries. “What President Trump was talking about last year, about fire and fury, about a nuclear armada all turned out to be just empty talk, he didn’t send a nuclear armada to the shores of North Korea because the coastline of North Korea is not far away from the Russian coastline, and the Russian Pacific fleet. I don’t think the United States is going to jeopardize its own naval and air assets and the lives of hundreds of thousands of American citizens who live work and study in South Korea because if war starts there, there is going to massive loss of human life, huge nuclear contamination of the whole region and economic disaster for everyone involved. South Korea would not tolerate any reckless action, President Moon Jae-in made it very clear to President Trump that there will be no war without his consent, that there will be no war against North Korea without the specific permission of the South Korean government, and the South Korea government is not suicidal…”

Listen to the full podcast of this interview here.