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.

Pyongyang bureau a coup for AP, or pact with devil?

12 06 2012

Image(by Rick Wallace, The Australian, 11 June 2012) ON the face of it, Associated Press scored a big coup in January when it became the first Western media outlet allowed to open a bureau inside secretive North Korea.

The bureau gave AP a chance to provide a rare glimpse of some of what happens inside the Stalinist state. And, in the event of a collapse or uprising, the New York-based news agency would have a major advantage over its rivals Reuters and Agence France Press.

AP, formed in 1846 by four US newspapers, has a staff of 3700 spread across 300 locations. It has been hit by criticism from within the small but active community of North Korea-watchers that it has entered into a Faustian bargain with the most evil regime in the world.

AP had been trying for years to establish an operation in the reclusive and repressive state before it finally struck a deal last July. Its bureau started up just weeks after dictator Kim Jong-il’s death in December, and has been in action during the leadership transition to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. The young princeling has started with a bang, firing off a long-range rocket (which failed miserably) and then hosting a military parade where as many as 880 items of hardware were on display.

There’s no question that AP has found its subscribers keen for its Pyongyang content, but its close collaboration with state-run media KCNA has brought questions of editorial independence. The ugly nature of its partner agency was highlighted in recent weeks as KCNA ran on its website a series of slogans threatening — among other things — to rip out the windpipe of South Korea President Lee Myung-bak and carry out attacks on the South.

The AP bureau is believed to be housed within KCNA’s Pyongyang offices and AP has hired two KNCA staff to operate the bureau during the periods that correspondent Jean Lee and photographer David Guttenfelder are not there. It’s believed that, under the arrangement, Lee and Guttenfelder are allowed to visit fairly frequently, but not to reside in Pyongyang.

The arrangement has generated praise from pro-engagement Korea scholars, but in the other corner are those who argue that AP is presenting a false, regime-sanctioned picture of North Korea that ignores the gulags, torture, extra-judicial executions and starvation.

University of Sydney Korea scholar Leonid Petrov, who has led many trips to North Korea, is broadly supportive of AP’s move. But he says AP correspondents would not be allowed to interview anyone not authorised by the government and the two staff from KCNA were essentially government agents.”Every time you are in North Korea you will be accompanied by two minders. For journalists, it’s even tougher and they are shown even less than tourists are,” he told Media.

“David Guttenfelder is doing an amazing job by showing us what he can see through his enormous lens. He shows the ordinary people of North Korea; they don’t pose for pictures, so he tries to capture them with a zoom lens.”

Petrov says any requests from AP to visit prison camps or talk to starving people would be summarily rejected. He says KCNA and the regime would never have agreed to allow AP to be in Pyongyang unless the agency had reached a gentlemen’s agreement “not to portray North Korea in a damaging light” — something AP denies. Still, Petrov thinks it’s worth it in terms of breaking down barriers and helping to create a civil society in North Korea.

But another leading Korea scholar, the Asia Foundation’s Peter Beck, says the arrangement had not been a success so far and had the potential to sully AP’s reputation. “AP decided it was in their interests to put a high price — both in monetary terms and editorial independence — to set up a bureau,” he told Media.

Beck says claims by the AP to editorial independence while operating in Pyongyang “didn’t pass the laugh test”. “The simple fact is, they wouldn’t be able to keep their office if they were reporting accurately about what’s happening in Pyongyang. You cannot do both,” he says.

Beck says engaging with North Korea always comes at a price and, while there is the potential for a huge payoff if there is a collapse or other momentous event in North Korea, AP is not currently getting much in exchange for this price. “Any deal with North Korea is basically a deal with the devil,” he says.

Another keen observer of the Korean peninsula, lawyer and blogger Joshua Stanton, is so enraged by AP’s move that he has started a subpage on his One Free Korea blog called AP Watch. Stanton, who has catalogued the locations and details of various prison camps in North Korea to help lift human rights issues to prominence, has published a stream of biting posts on the blog criticising AP’s operations there and the lack of focus on human rights.

So far, AP is yet to really engage on these criticisms and has released no details of the contract it has struck to operate in North Korea. In a recent interview on National Public Radio in the US, executive editor and senior vice-president Kathleen Carroll strived to assert AP’s editorial independence.

She said if forced to choose between censoring coverage and been booted out of North Korea, AP would choose the latter. “It’s much better to be there and be able to ask questions whether or not you get all the answers that you might seek than it is to not be there at all,” she added.

Media put a list of more than 20 questions to AP about the details and ethical considerations of its operations in North Korea and requested an interview with the correspondents involved or an executive involved establishing the bureau.

AP’s director of media relations, Paul Colford, initially promised an interview with one of the players involved in setting up the bureau but rescinded the offer after receiving the questions, saying they suggested “a highly sceptical view of our efforts”.

Colford says AP’s efforts in North Korea have yielded a string of exclusive reports, pictures and videos including interviews with a senior politburo member and the sole Western in-country reports of Kim Jong-il’s funeral.

See a related story here… North Korean Engagement Strategy Transforms the Associated Press (One Free Korea, 12 June 2012)