Secret market exposes North Korea food shortages

27 09 2010

NK backyard market_2010Richard Lloyd Parry (The Times, 27 September 2010) Days before the beginning of an historic leadership conference in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, The Times has uncovered a secret food market that reveals the failure of the regime of Kim Jong Il to feed his people.

Apart from a few strictly controlled official markets, private enterprise is illegal in North Korea, a Stalinist state where agriculture is collectivised and where the Government claims to provide for the needs of all its citizens through a public distribution system…

See the full text of the article here…

Bruce Cumings. The Korean War: A History.

26 09 2010

By Jeremy Kuzmarov,  The Cutting Edge (August 16th 2010)

Overshadowed by World War II and Vietnam, the Korean War has long been the “forgotten war” in American memory. Apart from a few notable exceptions, American historians have predominantly accepted the standard propaganda that the Communist North (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—DPRK) was singularly responsible for provoking the war by invading the Southern Republic of Korea (ROK) and carried out myriad atrocities, justifying U.S. action. Mainstream analysts and commentators similarly devour Washington’s line that North Korea today is a threat to humanity which should be contained and its leaders overthrown.

Bruce Cumings’s book The Korean War: A History shatters these conceptions and shows in vivid detail that the Korean War was among the most misguided, unjust, and murderous wars fought by the United States in its history, displaying many of the features of the Vietnam War that aroused mass public protest. Cumings, chair of the history department at the University of Chicago, writes: “Here was the Vietnam War we came to know before Vietnam—gooks, napalm, rapes, whores, an unreliable ally … untrained GIs fighting a war their generals barely understood, fragging of officers … press handouts from Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters apparently scripted by comedians or lunatics, an ostensible vision of bringing freedom and liberty to a sordid dictatorship run by servants of Japanese imperialism.”

The most disturbing element was the unrestrained air power that was used to destroy large portions of 18 of 22 major North Korean cities, and the indiscriminate killing of civilians by American and ROK soldiers which exceeded that of the DPRK by at least fifty percent. Hungarian journalist Tibor Meray is quoted as stating: “I saw destruction and horrible things committed by American forces … Everything which moved in North Korea is a military target, peasants in the field often were machine gunned by pilots, who, this was my impression, amused themselves to shoot targets which moved.”

[…] The North-South war, which began on June 25, 1950 when Kim’s Korean People’s Army (KPA) crossed the 38th parallel, was equally as brutal as the civil war in the south. While the New York Times likened the northern armies to “barbarian hordes and invading locusts reminiscent of Ghengis Khan” and the Nazi blitzkrieg, new archival evidence and the findings of the South Korean Commission on Truth and Reconciliation show that the torturing and shooting of POWs was carried out more systematically by the South and that the KNP liquidated the prisons in the aftermath of the DPRK invasion and shot thousands of people in the back of the head, including women and children. Driven by an acute racism, U.S. troops were also notorious for their cruelty and carried out numerous civilian massacres while showering the countryside with napalm. Much like in Vietnam, many soldiers were left to wonder why if South and North Koreans were identical “North Koreans fight like tigers and South Koreans run like sheep.”

These comments underscore for Cumings how Americans were ignorant of the political dynamic underlying the fratricidal war and its connection to the previous half century of Japanese colonial rule. As he writes: “it did not dawn on Americans that anti-colonial fighters might have something to fight about.” Characterized in American propaganda as a Soviet puppet and stooge, Kim Il-Sung presided over a nationalist revolutionary government, which whatever its flaws, promised autonomy from foreign colonialism and tutledge, and still does today. While harsh and oppressive, the DPRK never was Stalinist or totalitarian and land reform programs were less violent than in China and North Vietnam. Cumings likens the current regime to a modern form of monarchy that draws on neo-Confucianism and other historical traditions in Korean politics. Instead of adopting orientalist stereotypes, he argues, Westerners would be best to try and understand the country on its own terms, including how many of its policies have been designed out of fear of another invasion by the United States and by the threat of renewed domination by Japan. American bellicosity in this latter respect and “axis of evil” rhetoric has done nothing but harm.

One of the greatest tragedies of the Korean War, which was a major watershed in the growth of the American overseas network of military bases and put the country on the path of a permanent war economy, is that it is still ongoing. After all the bloodshed and destruction, the artificial division still endures as do many of the stereotypes and caricatures of the northern enemy in the United States. The one positive development over the last 25 years was the reemergence of a pro-democracy movement in the ROK (receiving minimal support from the United States) and establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which has enabled many South Koreans to come to terms with their losses. While old enmities are starting to breakdown in the ROK and a more progressive leadership has taken charge, the United States remains locked in a 1950s, McCarthyite time-warp, exemplified in CNN’s ever present warning of the “new North Korean threat.” Failing to learn anything from history, Americans are currently replicating their Korean experience in Iraq where, as Cumings writes, “without forethought, due consideration, or self knowledge, the United States barged into a political, social, and cultural thicket without knowing what it was doing and now finds that it cannot get out.”

Cumings has written a powerful book which serves to refute many historical myths and distortions in the United States about the Korean War. He shows in lucid detail the vicious character of America’s strategic allies and the barbaric and genocidal nature of the air and ground wars. In spite of the manipulations of Washington and to a far lesser extent the Soviet Union, Koreans were ultimately most decisive in shaping the conflict. And one day, with hope, they will come up with their own solution to the mess which liberal heroes Truman and Acheson helped to create.

See the full text of Review – Bruce Cumings. The Korean War: A History. Random House, 2010. 320 pages.

Jeremy Kuzmarov is assistant professor of history, University of Tulsa and contributes to the History News Network, from which this article is adapted.

North Korea Wants to Make a Deal

17 09 2010

Jimmy Carter (The New York Times, 15 Sep., 2010)

During my recent travels to North Korea and China, I received clear, strong signals that Pyongyang wants to restart negotiations on a comprehensive peace treaty with the United States and South Korea and on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. […] There are now clear signals of eagerness from Pyongyang to resume negotiations and accept the basic provisions of the denuclearization and peace efforts.

In July, North Korean officials invited me to come to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, and other officials to secure the release of Mr. Gomes. Those who invited me said that no one else’s request for the prisoner’s release would be honored. They wanted me to come in the hope that I might help resurrect the agreements on denuclearization and peace that were the last official acts of Kim Il-sung before his death in 1994.

I notified the White House of this invitation, and approval for my visit was given in mid-August, after North Korea announced that Mr. Gomes would soon be transferred from his hospital back to prison and that Kim Jong-il was no longer available to meet with me. (I later learned that he would be in China.)

In Pyongyang I requested Mr. Gomes’s freedom, then had to wait 36 hours for his retrial, pardon and release. During this time I met with Kim Yong-nam, president of the presidium of the North’s Parliament, and Kim Kye-gwan, the vice foreign minister and chief negotiator for North Korea in the six-party nuclear talks. Both of them had participated in my previous negotiations with Kim Il-sung.

They understood that I had no official status and could not speak for the American government, so I listened to their proposals, asked questions and, when I returned to the United States, delivered their message to Washington. They told me they wanted to expand on the good relationships that had developed earlier in the decade with South Korea’s president at the time, Kim Dae-jung, and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan.

They expressed concern about several recent American actions, including unwarranted sanctions, ostentatious inclusion of North Korea among nations subject to nuclear attack and provocative military maneuvers with South Korea. Still, they said, they were ready to demonstrate their desire for peace and denuclearization. They referred to the six-party talks as being “sentenced to death but not yet executed.”

The following week I traveled to Beijing, where Chinese leaders informed me that Mr. Kim had delivered the same points to them while I was in Pyongyang, and that he later released the South Korean fishing crew and suggested the resumption of family reunions. Seeing this as a clear sign of North Korean interest, the Chinese are actively promoting the resumption of the six-party talks.

A settlement on the Korean Peninsula is crucial to peace and stability in Asia, and it is long overdue. These positive messages from North Korea should be pursued aggressively and without delay, with each step in the process carefully and thoroughly confirmed.

Jimmy Carter, the 39th president, is the founder of the Carter Center and the winner of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize.

See the full text of this article here…

Could a change of leader change North Korea?

15 09 2010

North Korea is set to witness the process of only its second transition of power in 60 years. Many Korea-watchers see the imminent convening of the Korean Workers’ Party Conference as a move to pave the way to designate Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s twenty-something son, as his successor.

Kim Jong-il earlier this month visited China, meeting President Hu Jin Tao, in a trip that was seen by some analysts as seeking the approval of North Korea’s ally for this nepotistic move. However, there are no reports that Kim Jong-un was with his father.

The Chinese have said very little about the succession, but Beijing has expressed support for a resumption of the stalled six nation talks on North Korea’s nuclear future, with the prospect of finding a way to end Pyongyang’s isolation. This is seen as essential if there is to be any prospect of reviving the DPRK’s crippled economy.

In contrast with the North,  South Korea continues to thrive on its manufacturing economy, but is nonetheless deeply affected by the current strains, and by the sinking of the Cheonan warship, an inquiry into which remains inconclusive. Japan also remains at risk and concerned by the lack of resolution to the Korean conflict. Only the United States still has 28,500 forces (including nearly 9000 USAF personnel) tied up in Korea  and conducts risky military exercises near the Demilitarised Zone and disputed Northern Limit Line…

“Today’s threats to North East Asia: Could a change of leader change North Korea?” by Dr. Leonid Petrov, the University of Sydney.

Hosted by: Australian Institute of International Affairs, NSW Branch
The event will start on: Tuesday, 21 September 2010 at 6:00 PM
At The Glover Cottages, 124 Kent Street , Sydney, NSW
Tel: +61(2) 8011 4728

Register on-line here…

North Korean capital has a night life – minus the dazzle

14 09 2010

(IANS, Pyongyang, Sep. 12) Life in Pyongyang, capital city of North Korea, is boisterous and fun-filled even as the country is threatened with military action from the West due to its nuclear programme, reports Xinhua. Screams from roller coaster rides, karaoke and clink of beer glasses at night clubs seem to be quite a picture of metropolitan areas like New York, Tokyo or Beijing. Well, make no mistake. This is what actually happens at night in Pyongyang. Though without dazzling neon signs, the hustle and bustle of discos or the notorious red-light districts, night life in Pyongyang is not cloaked in silence…

…In many restaurants in the capital city, karaoke as well as popular music is played for the pleasure of customers. To liven things up, waitresses are also trained to sing. Beer bars and pubs are also reporting huge turnouts as night falls upon Pyongyang. Bars are seen filled with laughter, cheers, and the aroma of tasty homemade beer. The Qingxing beer house, Pyongyang’s largest bar, opened in April this year with a capacity of 1,000 people.

While retired people and housewives are seen in the daytime, government officials, public servants and workers would arrive after office hours. Interestingly, the beer bar prepares only tables for customers and provides no chairs. Drinkers have to stand, while waiters serve beverages in carts. During summer, the beer bar receives an estimated 3,500 to 4,000 customers per day. Meanwhile, in a bid to attract more female customers, the Taedong Beer Brewhouse, which produces beer in a Pyongyang surburb, was preparing a fruity flavour.

Read the full text of the article here…

N. Koreans may be frustrated with the government and likely rise of Kim Jong Eun

10 09 2010

By Chico Harlan (Washington Post, September 8, 2010)

SEOUL – Almost every night, seeking to gather opinion from a country where opinion is often punishable, Kim Eun Ho calls North Korea. He talks mostly to people in Hoeryong city in Hamgyong-bukto province, and the conversations never last long. Hoeryong city employs 14 men who monitor the region’s phone conversations, Kim believes, and typically they can tap a call within two or three minutes. Kim says he knows this because, as a North Korean police officer before he defected in December 2008, he sometimes monitored the conversations.

But these days, with Pyongyang preparing for a Workers’ Party convention that could trumpet the rise of leader Kim Jong Il’s youngest son, Kim Eun Ho and other defectors who speak regularly to North Koreans hear plenty of opinions reflecting what he described as a broad sentiment against hereditary succession. “Of 10 people I talk to,” he said, “all 10 have a problem with Kim Jong Eun taking over.”

Just as North Koreans know little about their potential future leader, the rest of the world knows almost nothing about North Korean opinions. Recent academic research, based on surveys with defectors, suggests that North Koreans are growing frustrated with a government that allowed widespread starvation in the early 1990s and orchestrated brutal currency reform in 2009 that was designed to wipe out the private markets that enable most residents to feed themselves.

The defectors are motivated to emphasize the worst-case scenario in their homeland. There are some who think that Kim Jong Eun will take power and gradually lead North Korea to Soviet-style reforms. Some defectors say that even though the younger Kim is largely unknown, they hope he’ll allow for a free economy after his father dies.

Still, in South Korea, an emerging patchwork of mini-samples suggests that many North Koreans view their government as a failed anachronism, and they see the young general, as he’s called, as a sign of the status quo. They associate Kim Jong Eun with the December 2009 currency revaluation. They don’t know his age – he’s thought to be in his late 20s – but they think he’s too young to be anything more than a figurehead.

Sohn Kwang Joo, chief editor of the Daily NK, a Seoul-based publication focusing on North Korea, receives frequent reports from stringers in four North Korean provinces. Those ground-level reporters, gathering information mostly from intellectuals, farmers and laborers, suggest to Sohn that “eight or nine out of every 10 people are critical of Kim Jong Eun.”

A recent report from PSCORE, a Seoul-based nongovernmental organization promoting harmony on the Korean Peninsula, suggested that two party officials were sent to a gulag last month for slandering the chosen heir. Kim Young Il, a PSCORE director who was in China during Kim Jong Il’s recent trip, said: “Criticism of Kim Jong Eun is very strong. . . . What you see now is face-level loyalty, but it’s not genuine.”

Kim Eun Ho, the former North Korean police officer, works as a reporter for Seoul-based Free North Korea Radio. The nightly routine testifies to the difficulty of gathering information from within the world’s most reclusive state. Kim first calls a friend who lives close to the Chinese border, where a smuggled foreign cellphone receives a clear signal. When Kim reaches his friend, the friend uses a second phone – a North Korean line – to call one of Kim’s police sources in Pyongyang. The friend then places the North Korean phone and the Chinese phone side-by-side, volume raised on the receivers, allowing Kim an indirect, muffled connection. For extra caution, the conversations rely on code words.

“For general citizens, Kim Jong Eun is vastly unpopular,” Kim says. “People cannot take him seriously, in reality. He just suddenly appeared, and he’s too young.” A defector-based survey released in March, co-written by North Korea experts Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard, provided the first sharp indication of growing discontent with Kim Jong Il’s regime, linked in large part to an information seal that no longer keeps everything out. North Koreans have access to South Korean television shows. Some travel to China for business.

For now, though, experts and U.S. officials see little likelihood that North Koreans’ closely guarded skepticism about their government will pose a threat to the government. Without churches and social clubs, North Koreans have few places where opinion can harden into resistance. “They’ve almost perfected the system of social control,” says Katy Oh Hassig, an expert on North Korea at the Institute for Defense Analyses, which does research for the Pentagon.

Like Kim Eun Ho, Jin Sun Rak, director of Free North Korea Radio, calls his old country almost every night. His wife and 14-year-old daughter live in North Korea. He decided to defect – telling nobody but his brother – in 2008, after traveling to China and seeing the relative wealth. The first time he went, hoping to sell 80 grams of unrefined gold, he bribed a border guard and carried a dagger, tucked near the lower part of a leg. His first night in China was “beyond imagination.” He said he went to a restaurant, had some drinks and ended up at a karaoke bar where he knew none of the songs. Days later, he returned to North Korea with some money and a new frame of reference.

“Whenever they say something,” Jin said of the government, “they’re lying. They’re as worthless as barking dogs.” As for a greater cynicism about the government, Jin said: “I think it’s something unstoppable now. People’s minds have been changed. Young people know the value of money. They don’t want to be party members anymore. They’ve been exposed to the private markets.” Jin, who lives in Seoul, rarely talks to his wife and daughter. He doesn’t think it’s safe to tell them his opinion…

Korean War comes back to life

9 09 2010

(SBS Film, 06 September 2010) Cinema depicting the Korean War can help raise awareness of the conflict and offer clues to how ultimately Korea might be unified, according to Leonid Petrov, an organiser of the Korean War in Film screening and discussion program.

The lion’s share of Australia’s Korean community is from the South; with only about 10,000 of a 125,000-strong Korean population having their roots in North Korea. As such, within the local Korean community, perspectives on the 1950-1953 war are largely one-sided.

Petrov, who lectures in Korean Studies at the University of Sydney, says many Koreans living in Australia have a somewhat limited knowledge of their nation’s history. Young South Koreans are particularly curious about their past, particularly as North Korea remains isolated to this day, whilst the North-South struggle for State legitimacy continues. Here, Petrov believes “the art of film plays a role”.

Organised in conjunction with the Korean Media and Culture Club (KMCC), the Korean War in Film event is taking place over three successive Wednesdays this month, following an earlier round of screenings held in May 2010.

The following three films are being shown:

Kang Je-gyu’s The Brotherhood of War (2004), the highest-grossing Korean film of all time upon its theatrical release, revolving around two brothers who are drafted into the army by force during the outbreak of the Korean War.

Lewis Milestone-directed US film Pork Chop Hill (1959), which depicts the fierce battle fought between the US Army and Chinese and Korean Communist forces at the tail end of the War.

Kim Song Gyo’s On the Railway (1960), a North Korean classic set during the autumn of 1950, when a locomotive engineer is attempting to evacuate precious machinery and equipment during the North Korean retreat.

“Until the early ‘90s, the Korean film industry was suppressed, there were only about a dozen films a year and they were underfunded,” Petrov explains. “They managed somehow to produce good quality films, but could not compete with Hollywood blockbusters.

“Then the legislation changed and quotas became favourable to local films. More investment came and venture capital streamed into the industry. Films started to be exported, along with Korean songs, fashion design, computer games, industrial design etc.”

Despite this cultural gain, Petrov stresses that a “Cold War structure” remains in the region; not only in Korea but in China and Taiwan and Japan and Russia.

Locally, the Korean community is very tight-knit, with organised cultural activity revolving around Korean businesses, Korean newspapers and, especially, the Korean church.

Founded by fellow Korean Studies lecturer, Ki-sung Kwak, the KMCC is an informal group that aims to promote Korean culture and foster social interaction through social activities including seminars and film screenings.

“We not only wish to show films but also have some sort of activity,” Ki-Sung explains. “We would like to have performances by Korean musicians and artists living in Sydney and other Australian cities, and we plan to invite people from the local community to talk about issues, such as the relationship between the North and South.”

Less active in recent times, the club held a film festival event in both 2006 and 2007, which received generous support from the Korean consulate. Ki-sung admits it is a challenge to refresh club membership amongst the student base.

“I really want the club to be very active but when our members graduate we have to encourage new members to join the club,” he says. “What I actually plan to do is ask some student representatives to actually run the club.”

Aside from students moving on, the proliferation of Korean product available on DVD presents a further challenge to the club.

“When we first showed a Korean film here, it was back in 1999,” Ki-sung says. “DVD was not so popular, and we attracted about 300 people from the community.

“Also, with the internet, people can now easily download movies. The Korean government is planning to develop technology to download a two-hour film in less than 10 seconds, so that’s quite attractive.”

The Korean Media and Culture Club screenings are held at the University of Sydney. For information visit