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.





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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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.





Imagining the Catastrophic Consequences of a New War in Korea

27 09 2017

New War in Korea(Leonid Petrov for Daily Telegraph, 23 September 2017) The 1953 Armistice Agreement brought a sustainable halt to the Korean War, but has never ended it. Nor did it transform into a peace regime. During the last sixty four years the North and South Koreans live in the conditions of neither-war-nor-peace, which has certain advantages and downsides for both regimes separated by the Demilitarised Zone.

For the communist government in the North, the continuing war provides legitimacy and consolidates the masses around the Leader, who does not need to justify his power or explain the economic woes. For the export-oriented economy and steadily democratising society of South Korea, the continuing war against communism provides broad international sympathy, which is translated into the staunch security alliance and economic cooperation with the US. Any change (intentional or inadvertent) in the current balance of power or threat on the peninsula would lead to immediate re-adjustment or re-balancing of the equilibrium.

Military provocations of the North, does not matter how grave or audacious (i.e. 1968 guerrilla attack on the Blue House in Seoul, 1968 the USS Pueblo incident, 1976 Axe Murder Incident, 2002 naval clashes in the West Sea, the 2010 ROK corvette Cheonan sinking or Yeonpyeong Island shelling), have never led to the resumption of war. Similarly, peace and reconciliation-oriented initiatives (i.e. the 1972 Joint North-South Korean Communiqué, the 1991 Joint Declaration of South and North Korea on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, or the 2000 North–South Joint Declaration) inevitably end with a bitter disappointment. It seems that both Koreas are destined to live in the perpetual fear of war without really experiencing it.

Regional neighbours find this situation annoying but acceptable because the reunification of Korea can be potentially dangerous for some and advantageous for others. The Cold War mentality persists in Northeast Asia and dictates to its leaders to exercise caution in any decisions related to the Korean peninsula, which is known to be the regional balancer. After the WWII, Korea was divided by the great powers for a good reason – to separate the communist bloc from the capitalist democracies. Seventy years later, Korea still serves as a buffer zone which separates the economic interests of China and Russia-dominated Northeast Asia from the US-dominated Pacific Rim.

Should any of the actors start changing the equilibrium in Korea, the stabilising forces of reasoning and good judgement will inevitably return the situation to the original and steady balance of threat. Neither the UN intervention in Korea nor the Chinese counterattack in 1950 could help Koreans to reunify their country. Similarly, North Korea’s progress in building their nuclear and rocket deterrent (independently from what is promised by the alliance with China) will be counterbalanced by the return of US-owned nuclear weapons to South Korea or by the resumption of Seoul’s indigenous nuclear program, which was abandoned in the 1970s. When the balance of threat is restored, a temporary period of improved inter-Korean and DPRK-US relations will follow. Peaceful or hostile co-existence in Korea serves the interests of the ruling elites in both Koreas and benefits their foreign partners too.

Imagining the catastrophic consequences of a new war in Korea is pointless because everyone (in Pyongyang and Seoul, Washington and Moscow, Beijing and Tokyo) understands the risks associated with imminent nuclear retaliation. After the 2006 nuclear test North Korea is a fully-fledged nuclear power and what was previously possible (or at least hypothetically imaginable) with regards to a military action against Pyongyang is simply out of question these days. Whether Washington admits the reality or continues to produce the self-deceitful blandishments of a surgical strike against North Korea, a new hot war in Korea is not feasible simply because it serves no ones’ interest.

First, it would be suicidal for the aggressor and equally catastrophic for the victim of aggression. Second, when the nuclear dust settles the presumed victor would not know what to do with the trophy. The Kim dynasty would not survive another war for unification. Democratically elected government in Seoul would not know how to rule the third of its (newly acquired) population who is not familiar with the concept self-organisation. The cost of damaged physical infrastructure rebuilding will be dwarfed by the long-term expenditures required for maintaining social order in the conquered territories, re-education and lustration of the captured population. Survivors would prefer to seek refuge in a third country out of fear for revenge and reprisals. The exodus of Korean reunification is not something that regional neighbours are ready to welcome or absorb. It will take years and trillions of dollars before Korea can recover after the shock of violent unification.

Even a peaceful unification is likely to pose threat to Korea’s neighbours. The windfall of natural resources and economical labour force, if combined with advanced technologies and nationalism-driven investments, will help Korea outperform the industrial powerhouse of Japan and enter into open competition with China. A narrow but strategically located Russo-Korean border corridor will link the European markets and Siberian oil with Korean industrial producers. An underwater tunnel, once completed between Korean and Japan, will undermine the Sino-American duopoly and link the peninsula with the islands.

If the North and South are unified, the presence of US troops will be questioned not only in Korea but in Japan as well. US security alliance structures across the Pacific will crumble, followed by economic and technological withdrawal from the region. Even the new Cold War against China and Russia won’t help Washington to prevent the major rollback of American influence in Asia and the Pacific. Russia and China, as well, upon losing the common adversary will need to resume competition and power struggle for regional hegemony. Thus, the unification of Korea will open a new era of regional tensions, which nobody is really prepared to endure.

Korea today, however divided and problematic, is a capstone of regional peace and stability which must not be touched by political adventurists. The balance of Northeast Asian regional security architecture has been hinging on the 1953 Armistice Agreement, which proved to be sold and robust enough to survive many international conflicts. Even the acquisition of nuclear armaments by North Korea is not going to change the inter-Korean relations or Koreans’ relations with neighbours. However, if North Korea is deliberately targeted or attacked and destroyed, as has been threatened from the UN podium, that would trigger the processes far beyond of our imagination and control and inevitably lead to tectonic shifts in politics, security and economy of the region, which collectively produces and consumes approximately 19% of the global Gross Domestic Product. Surely, nobody will play with fire when so much is at stake.





“Neither War Nor Peace” Regime in Korea in Untenable

21 06 2017

LP @bevvo14(ABC TV The World, 2017.06.20) Otto Warmbier has become the most recent victim of the continuing Korean War, where the most adamant participants (DPRK on one side and ROK and US on the other) still refuse to recognise each other and systematically threaten each other with preemptive strikes and nuclear retaliation.

Otto bore the brunt of unending hostility and continuing thirst for vengeance, which dominate politics on and around the Korean peninsula. His tragic death is a reminder to all of us that the “neither war nor peace” regime is unacceptable and is fraught with new dramas and victims. Tourism may help to heal the conflict, but it’s also most susceptible to political football and puts innocent or reckless people at a heightened risk. That’s why the zones of inter-Korean economic cooperation and tourism have been shut down one after another in the last decade. Unless the war is officially over, the Koreans, Americans and anyone involved in this conflict will be in real danger of arrest, abuse or even execution.





The Ball is in the US Court

19 04 2017

LP ABC TV 2017.04.17(ABC TV, 7:30 Report, 2017.04.17) US Vice President Mike Pence has warned the ‘era of strategic patience’ with North Korea is over after the country carried out a failed missile launch. The world now awaits the next move of the brutal North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

DONALD TRUMP, US PRESIDENT: North Korea’s a problem. The problem will be taken care of.

LT. GENERAL H.R. MCMASTER, WHITE HOUSE NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: The President has made clear that he will not accept the United States and its allies and partners in the region being under threat from this hostile regime.

LEONID PETROV, ANU COLLEGE OF ASIA AND THE PACIFIC: The whole population is determined to stand up and fight until the last bullet, until the last soldier.

STAN GRANT, REPORTER: North Korea is at war. Nothing has changed in more than 60 years. For this reclusive country, the Korean War has never ended.

LEONID PETROV: For North Korea, the state of war is their normal state of existence, and the population of North Korea is told every day that the war is going on, it never ended in 1953.

STAN GRANT: The drums are now beating louder. American warships are steaming near the Korean Coast. This past weekend, North Korea put on a display of its own firepower. It sends a deadly warning – it has the weapons and, if pushed, it could use them.

LEONID PETROV: The worst thing for the Kim regime is an attack, a regime change, occupation of North Korea, total chaos and the termination of the dynasty.

STAN GRANT: Leonid Petrov has spent a lifetime studying this hermit kingdom. He was in the capital, Pyongyang, just this year. It is, he says, a strange place, where time has stood still.

LEONID PETROV: North Koreans live in year 106.

STAN GRANT: 106?

LEONID PETROV: Yes, 106th year after the birth of their founding father. Kim Il-sung.

STAN GRANT: They’re not living in the 21st Century?

LEONID PETROV: They live in the year 106.

STAN GRANT: Survival of the regime now rests with the boy king, Kim Jong-un. He came to power before he was 30 years old. Like his father and grandfather, he is brutal, he executes writers, he rules his people with fear and he continues to amass a military that threatens nuclear apocalypse.

In a report for the United Nations, former Australian High Court judge Michael Kirby peered into this terrifying world of secret prisons, mass starvation and state-sanctioned violence.

MICHAEL KIRBY, UNITED NATIONS INVESTIGATOR: We found that there was widespread, prolonged and brutal wrongs done to the people of North Korea, many of which rose to the level of crimes against humanity.

STAN GRANT: So, could a regime that turns its guns on its own people launch an attack against the rest of us?

LEONID PETROV: If North Korea is attacked with the force which is similar to nuclear capability, nuclear attack, then North Koreans probably wouldn’t think twice before using the weapons of mass destruction.

STAN GRANT: Petrov fears an American attack that pushes North Korea into a corner. Kim Jong-un, he says, would immediately strike across the border into South Korea. Military strategists believe it could rain down half a million artillery rounds in just one hour.

LEONID PETROV: That would cause tens of thousands of human lives, at least, and massive panic, and also devastation to the infrastructure…

(Watch the full interview here… )





Isolated Kim Relies on Old North Korea Tensions Playbook

28 08 2015

One Korea_One enormous challenge (By Sam Kim and David Tweed, Bloomberg News, August 25, 2015) SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s military standoff against South Korea, with his threats to annihilate the government in Seoul, was not just about the loudspeakers blasting propaganda and K-pop tunes over the demilitarized zone.

Rather, the events that took tensions on the peninsula to their highest level since the aftermath of North Korea’s nuclear test in early 2013 reflected Kim’s efforts to control how ties between countries in North Asia are evolving.

The young dictator, who came to power in late 2011, is looking isolated. Kim’s nuclear ambitions and his unwillingness to take guidance from Beijing have irritated China and strained ties with Pyongyang’s traditional ally. South Korean President Park Geun-hye enjoys a rapport with President Xi Jinping and is inching toward improved ties with Japan.

Faced with a dilapidated economy and drought at home, and potentially pressured by senior officers in his military to show some mettle, Kim resorted to an old North Korean playbook — pick a fight to force concessions from South Korea on trade and aid. It’s also a warning to Park against taking North Korea lightly in her dealings with China, Japan and the United States, all of whom have urged Kim to abandon his nuclear weapons program.

“This is more than a loudspeaker issue,” said Zhang Baohui, director of the Center for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. “In the end this could be Kim’s outreach strategy. Maybe they think the South hasn’t been responding enough, so provoked a crisis to get to this stage.”

The stakes are high for Kim. He has a series of upcoming anniversaries where he must prove he’s worthy of commanding North Korea’s 1.2 million troops. Economic woes facing his 24 million people are unlikely to ease soon, while North Korea’s increasingly porous border with China means ordinary people have greater access to electronics and news of life outside the reclusive country.

In the end, both leaders gave some ground after days of high-level talks among negotiators at a border village — and both can probably claim a victory. The regime in Pyongyang agreed to lift its “semi-state of war” and expressed regret over landmine blasts that maimed two South Korean soldiers, while Seoul said it’d stop the propaganda broadcasts.

Risks remain, and Kim faces the challenge of a more strident Park in the face of any further provocations.

“The question is will the dialog stick? That will be harder because there is going to be some kind of crisis that tests this in relative short order,” said John Delury, a political science professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, citing the potential for skirmishes on the maritime border or over the demarcation line.

Since Park’s government said last week it traded fire with North Korea across the demilitarized zone, her approval rating has risen. Even as the tensions roiled South Korea’s financial markets she said Monday she would not stop pressuring Kim.

“The broadcasts play to particular parts of her support base, particularly the Christian right and the nationalist right,” said Tessa Morris-Suzuki, a professor of Asian affairs at the Australian National University in Canberra, of the South Korean leader who passes the half-way mark of her five-year tenure on Tuesday.

On the same day Kim marks the day of “Songun,” a military-first philosophy chartered by his late father Kim Jong Il. In less than two months he’ll celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party as he seeks to promote himself as a shrewd politician and tough military tactician.

“This is a very important commemorative year for Kim Jong Un,” Lee Sung-yoon, a professor of Korean studies at Tufts University, said by email. “The young Kim has a compelling need to mark it with a bang, as he did in 2012 on the 100th anniversary of his grandfather’s birthday, when North Korea was miraculously to become a powerful and prosperous country.”

Kim can’t afford to look weak. Since taking power he’s conducted a series of purges to root out potential threats.

“His spate of high-level executions shows a high degree of frustration that his policies are not being implemented to his satisfaction,” Patrick Cronin, senior adviser for the Asia- Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, said in an email.

The country is suffering chronic food shortages. North Korea said earlier this year it had been in the worst drought in a hundred years and the United Nations said in June that was worsening food-security concerns in the country.

“They’re facing a poor harvest, so this could be a way to divert people’s attention to patriotism and jingoism that wouldn’t be necessary had there been plentiful crops,” said Leonid Petrov, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University in Canberra. “Kim knows he cannot offer much to his population other than superficial window dressing. He has to use the same methods his father and grandfather did.”