Archive for August, 2009

NKoreans on quiet US trip on food aid

Saturday, August 29th, 2009

According to the AFP:

North Korean officials quietly visited Los Angeles last week to talk about resuming food aid, which the impoverished state cut off five months ago during a standoff, participants have said.

The move comes as tensions gradually ease with North Korea, which stunned the world by conducting a nuclear test earlier this year but in recent weeks has made overtures for dialogue.

Five North Korean officials received special US permission to visit Los Angeles where they met representatives of non-governmental organizations that provide relief worldwide, according to the groups.

Richard Walden, president of Operation USA, said the charity picked up the North Koreans at the airport as a goodwill gesture and took them on a tour of its warehouse stocked with medicine and medical equipment to be sent overseas.

“They were very open, very nice and very cordial,” Walden told AFP. “They looked like they were from any other aid ministry in any country.”

he delegation, which also met with other relief groups, included four members of the Korea-US Private Exchange Society, the North Korean body charged with handling relief goods from US non-governmental organizations.

A fifth delegation member came from North Korea’s mission at the United Nations and received special permission to travel beyond the New York area, Walden said.

I also read the North Koreans made a pit stop in Los Vegas

Read the full story here:
NKoreans on quiet US trip on food aid


DPRK rocket tests benefit Rusian military interests

Saturday, August 29th, 2009

Although the foreign policy implications of US missile defense plans with regards to Russia lie outside the scope of this blog, it is worth pointing out that the Russian government has very cleverly found a way to use North Korean rocket and missile tests to its strategic advantage–by claiming that the North Korean missile tests pose a potential danger to citizens of Eastern Russia.  The potential North Korean threat gives political cover for a build up of the Russian military capacities near Vladivostok where not only the Russian military but also the US, South & North Korean, Japanese, and Chinese forces are also strategically positioned.  According to the Times of London:

The Kremlin ordered troops to deploy Russia’s most advanced missile defence system, the S-400, to intercept any threats from North Korea’s nuclear programme. General Nikolai Makarov, the head of the Russian army, said that a mobile battery of 32 surface-to-air missiles had been put into operation in anticipation of any Korean tests.

“We are taking these preventative measures as a security guarantee against faulty launches of the missiles and to guarantee that fragments of these missiles never fall on Russian territory,” he said. “We are concerned by the fact that the site in North Korea where it carries out its nuclear tests is located quite close to the Russian border.”

A senior Russian senator said that use of the S-400 system could not be ruled out, but he rejected any comparison between Moscow’s actions and the decision by the United States to build a missile defence shield in Eastern Europe. The US argues that the shield is necessary to deter attacks by rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea, but Russia has denounced the plan as a threat to its national security.

Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Federation Council’s International Affairs Committee, said that the US was responding to “non-existent” dangers, while Russia was defending against “the emergence of real sources of threat”.

Russia’s Far Eastern city of Vladivostok is just 93 miles from its narrow border with North Korea. Six missiles test-fired by North Korea in 2006 reportedly fell in Russian waters in the Sea of Japan.

North Korea fired 11 short-range rockets with a range of up to 500km in two separate launches last month, defying a United Nations ban on ballistic missile activities linked to sanctions against its nuclear programme.

The regime in Pyongyang carried out a second underground nuclear explosion in May at the same time as it test-fired another series of short-range missiles. It also test-fired a long-range missile in April that is said to be capable of reaching Britain and the US.
The S-400 “Triumph” system has a range of up to 400km and is said to be capable of bringing down cruise and tactical missiles as well as aircraft using stealth technology.

Who will move next?

Read the full story here:
Russia deploys missiles along border with North Korea
Times of London
Tony Halpin


Why dictators love kitch

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

UPDATE: It seems the painting represents the struggle of DPRK to keep itself independent and the strength required to do so.


There is an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal this week analyzing the rather tacky painting in the background of the above picture of Bill Clinton and Kim Jong il.

On the one hand, a run-of-the-mill seascape, the kind of visual elevator music one finds in public spaces the world over, where the aim is to decorate but not offend. Yet there was something about the picture that wasn’t quite right and that kept drawing me back to it. For one thing, there was its vast internal scale. The waves were bigger, even, than the figures posing for the photograph, and they so dominated the foreground as if ready to break out and drown the assembled dignitaries.

Then there was the picture’s bizarre disunity. Two opposing visions of nature are combined, a benign one (the luminosity and fluttering birds), and an angry, violent one (the heaving seas and crashing waves). Just as strange, the painting’s various elements seem at war with each other. For instance, the rhythm of the breaking waves leads our eye from left to right, yet at the bottom right-hand corner—just to the right of the woman in the official party wearing a white jacket—a flock of birds, facing to the left, abruptly halts and reverses that momentum. A more accomplished artist would have found a way to integrate the various elements more harmoniously and lead our eye around the canvas more smoothly.

Then I realized: This is no ordinary painting but art with a purpose. What seem to our eye as limitations are the result of deliberate intent. It’s a piece of political propaganda. As such it belongs to a subspecies of kitsch known as totalitarian kitsch, where art’s sole raison d’etre is to bolster a dictatorial regime and glorify its leader.

The message of the painting, located in what appears to be the presidential palace [NKeconWatch: I think it is actually the Paekwawon Guest House], is a simple one: Kim Jong Il’s regime as a force of nature. The painting has a split personality because it aims to convey two distinct messages simultaneously: The soft light and gamboling birds conjure up thoughts of a natural paradise, an allusion to the “paradise” such regimes believe they are creating for their subjects. The crashing waves are a metaphor for the overwhelming power of the state and its Great Leader ready to crush all enemies.

No surprise there as to the painting’s purpose, but the author went on to elaborate on the style and its origins in the Soviet Union, borrowing heavily from Art Under Control in North Korea:

Totalitarian kitsch puts those ideas in the service of the state. It is the official art of authoritarian governments, aimed at extending state control through propaganda. Totalitarian kitsch exists to glorify the state, foster a personality cult surrounding the dictator and celebrate ceaseless and irrevocable social and economic progress through images of churning factories and happy, exultant workers. It does so using the corrupted language of academic realism—heavily muscled supermen and women and colossal scale. Pyongyang’s “Monument to Party Foundation” consists of three hands each emerging from a circular platform and holding, respectively, a hammer, a hoe and a brush. The hands alone are over 150 feet tall.

Such art isn’t produced by the proverbial starving artist in a garret but on an assembly line, like Mansudea Studio in Pyongyang.

“Mansudea is an ‘art-creation company’ as they call it, and it has over 3,000 workers in it,” says Jane Portal, author of “Art under Control in North Korea” and chairwoman of the department of Asian, Oceanic and African art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. “They create with great speed. Artists at the Mansudea produce on average two paintings a month.”

Totalitarian kitsch got its start in the Soviet Union in 1934 when the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers ratified the principles of what became known as Socialist Realism. The first decades of the century saw the greatest innovations of modernism through Europe, and in Russia, artists such as Kazmir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko made seminal contributions to the language of Cubism and abstract art.

But under Stalin, the Party decreed that art must serve the cause of revolution, and it could only do so with imagery that was universally and easily understandable and possessed of a didactic purpose. So in 1934 modernism was banned as bourgeois and reactionary (Malevich, who died the following year, spent the remainder of his days painting bland pictures of peasants) and artists began churning out heroic images of Stalin and the proletariat, a classic example of which is Vera Mukhina’s 1937 “Worker and a Kolkhoz Woman.” A statue some 80 feet tall (currently being restored), it shows two strapping figures, a man and a women, breasting the wind as they surge forward, hammer and sickle held high.

In the decades following, Socialist Realism became the style of choice for dictatorships. The Nazis adopted it, as did Mao Zedong and Saddam Hussein. Mr. Hussein’s main artistic legacy is the 1989 “Hands of Victory” in Baghdad, consisting of enormous hands emerging from the ground holding swords that cross. It’s a classic of totalitarian kitsch, part personality cult—the hands are based on casts of Mr. Hussein’s forearms—and Orwellian doublespeak. They were erected to commemorate Iraq’s “victory” in the Iran-Iraq war, which, after eight years and hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides, in fact ended in a draw.

According to Ms. Portal in Boston, while North Korea’s version of Socialist Realism is typical—“The Kim cult is based on the Mao cult and the Stalin cult—personality cults where they’re regarded as gods,” she says—there are differences.

“One of the interesting things is women,” she says. In Soviet and Chinese art, women are shown shouldering as heavy a burden as men. In North Korean art, women aren’t shown working, and they wear makeup and dresses. “You never see them in pants,” says Ms. Portal. “This comes from Neo-Confucianism, which is traditionally Korean and very male chauvinist,” she says.

To an artist in a democratic country living the customary hand-to-mouth existence, working as a state employee might seem like a boon, even if it does mean doing the same thing day after day. But it too has its perils. Dictators fall and regimes go out of business. Worse than simply being unemployed, the artists might find themselves outcasts, symbols of a discredited ideology.

Some years after the collapse of Communism, I asked a Russian art critic what had happened to all the Socialist Realists in his country. He said they were still earning a living making other kinds of art, but that the transition hadn’t always been seamless. He cited the case of a painter whose stock in trade had been portraits of Lenin. The man was now earning his living churning out religious subjects. But, my friend added, so ingrained were his earlier habits that every time he painted the face of Jesus, he wound up with a likeness of Lenin.

Read the full article here:
Why Dictators Love Kitsch
Wall Street Journal
Eric Gibson


Preliminary DPRK census numbers

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

(h/t to H. Williams) Preliminary numbers from the UN-funded and administered DPRK census have been published.  According to the UN, the DPRK’s population as of October 2008 breaks down as follows:


Click on image for larger version, or better yet, see the results in the original PDF here.

Here is some more information from the Choson Ilbo:

The United Nations Population Fund announced a few days ago that a two-week census study conducted on North Korea in October of last year showed the country’s population as being 24.05 million people. That finding went against the forecasts of experts that North Korea’s population would have dropped from 21.21 million in 1993 to less than 18 million, due to a prolonged economic slump. Until 1993, North Korea had suppressed childbirth. But starting in 1996, when more and more people began starving to death, North Korea has been promoting childbirth by prohibiting abortions and offering special support payments to families that have many children.

North Korea also suffered from a concentration of its population, with 40 percent of its total population living in the Pyongan provinces. More than 4 million people live in South Pyongan Province, 3.26 million in the capital Pyongyang, and 2.73 million in North Pyongan Province. Unlike South Korea, there were 600,000 more women than men. But North Korea is said to have requested the UNFPA to keep the data under wraps. That was because of the breadth of the information contained the latest study, from details on individuals to data on incomes, the items owned by households, and even the availability of bathrooms, heating, tap water and sewage processing facilities.

The reason why North Korea had no choice but to agree to the information being unveiled was because South Korean capital and know-how was used to conduct the survey. According to a request by the UNFPA, South Korea footed $4 million of the $7 million spent to conduct the census, while the South’s National Statistical Office offered the method and technique used to conduct the census. As a result, the UNFPA mobilized 35,200 North Korean census takers and conducted house-to-house surveys on 5.89 million homes.

The UNFPA considered it “interesting” that North Korea had unveiled the results of the census to the world. Sultan Aziz, head of the UNFPA’s Asia-Pacific division, appeared on Voice of America and said North Korea unveiled itself to the world because it knew that it must first take a close look at itself in order to develop its own economy. That is why there are forecasts that North Korea will soon turn to the international community for help. The results of a detailed census, including the infant mortality rate and average life expectancy, due out in the first half of this year, will deliver more of a shock to North Korea than anyone else.


New papers from Johns Hopkins US-Korea Institute

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

The third edition of the SAIS U.S.-Korea Yearbook chronicles important developments in North and South Korea that characterized their relations with their allies and enemies in 2008. Each chapter was written by SAIS students in the course, “The Two Koreas: Contemporary Research and Record,” in the fall of 2008. Their insights were based not only on extensive reading and study, but also on numerous interviews conducted with government officials, scholars, NGO workers, academics and private sector experts in both Washington and Seoul.

The Yearbook is divided into two parts: South Korea’s Foreign Relations and North Korea’s Foreign Relations. In the first part, student authors explore the dynamic foreign policy changes that were brought about by the Lee Myung-bak administration, and how these policies affected South Korean politics both at home and abroad. In the second part, student authors explore how shifting power dynamics both in the United States, as well as among the member states of the Six-Party Talks, affected North Korea’s foreign relations in 2008.

Here are links to the North Korea chapters:
Chapter 6The Torturous Dilemma: The 2008 Six-Party Talks and U.S.-DPRK Relations, by Shin Yon Kim.

Chapter 7U.S. Alternative Diplomacy towards North Korea: Food Aid, Musical Diplomacy, and Track II Exchanges, by Erin Kruth.

Chapter 8North Korean Human Rights and Refugee Resettlement in the United States: A Slow and Quiet Progress, by Jane Kim

The US Korea Institute has also published a New Working paper:

“State Over Society: Science and Technology Policy”
Download Here
Since the late 1990s, the Kim Jong Il regime has laid an explicit emphasis on the role of science and technology (S&T) as an instrument of national power. Facing external security challenges, domestic economic stagnation, and rising political uncertainty stemming from the succession issue, North Korea has sought greater scientific and technological development for national revival. Yet few analysts have interrogated the contours of North Korea’s S&T policy or explored its dilemmas for the regime in Pyongyang. Considered a means of modernization, S&T strikes at the heart of manifold dilemmas facing the North Korean leadership as technology poses formidable challenges to the maintenance of political control by introducing new pressures to the balance of power between state and society. In this paper, Rian Jensen, a former USKI Student Fellow, identifies the goals of North Korea’s S&T policy, outlines its mode of implementation, assesses how science and technology is recalibrating North Korean state-society relations, and identifies key policy implications for the US government.


Natural phenomena legitimize Kim Jong il government

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

Using the STALIN search engine I found the 1997 KCNA articles which claim that “natural phenomena” are signs of future prosperity in the Kim Jong il era.  All the stories are posted below. 

Here are the dates  and brief summaries of the stories:

1. 3/21/1997 –Weather protects KJI.  Sunshine pours dowm on him for photo.
2. 9/29/1997–Flowers bloom on trees when KJI nominated SG of KWP.
3. 10/1/1997–Flowers and leaves bloom on trees.
4. 10/6/1997–KJI makes fog go away, fruit trees blossom.
5. 10/7/1997–Friut trees and flowers blossom – sign of good fortune under KJI.
6. 10/20/1997–Twenty-five consecutive days of beautiful sunrise at Mt. Paektu and sounds of cheers from Lake Chon when KJI nominated SG of KWP.
7. 12/8/1997–KJI visit brings good weather.

After 1997 we see only two more stories where “natural phenomena” legitimize Kim’s rule:

8. 8/29/2001–Natural phenomena occur in Russia as KJI travels to Moscow.
9. 2/12/2009–Snow melts on KJI birthday.

Further Information:

1. Below are the comparative DPRK/ROK per-captia GDP numbers in the KJI era (usual caveats apply). The numbers are in 1990 $US and are from Angus Maddison.


2. Here is a graph comparing DPRK/ROK growth from 1950-2006, again from Dr. Maddison.  In 1950, both countries enjoyed a per-capita income of $850 (a number higher than I believe most North Koreans enjoy today).  In 2006, Dr. Maddison estimates that the representative North Korean earns an estimated $1,133 and the representative South Korean earns $18,356:


3. Below are all of the stories about the natural phenomena:
Great man and natural phenomena
Pyongyang, March 21, 1997 (KCNA) — A new legend is these days gaining circulation in korea, stirring up the hearts of people. it says, “the Snowstorm of mt. Paektu Fell in Fog”. A legendary phenomenon occured on November 24 last year when the respected General Kim Jong Il, the son of mt. Paektu and a peerlessly great man, was giving on-site guidance to the Panmunjom mission of the Korean People’s Army, an outpost of the forefront. That day, the area of Panmunjom was enveloped in thick fog from dawn. In the previous days, it had been cloudy but fog never set in in the area. The General went round various places of Panmunjom and mounted the balcony of the Panmun House to acquaint himself with the enemy situation. The fog would not go while he was making an inspection tour of the area. So, the enemy failed to observe the kpa post and, accordingly, they could not take any hint of happenings there. Mysterious is the fact that the fog began to lift suddenly and the weather cleared when the general posed for a photograph in front of the monument dedicated to an autograph signature of the great leader President Kim Il Sung. The fog disappeared after the General ended his inspection of Panmunjom. It was when he inspected the KPA Post on mt. Taedok in the western sector of the front on March 18 last year. No sooner had his car arrived at the entrance to the post within the range of the enemy observation than its sky was covered with inky clouds. Instantly the car passed by, the sky began to clear up. a mysterious natural phenomenon took place at a time when the General was inspecting a kpa unit which is defending cho island in the West Sea. After mounting a forward command post, exposed to rain and wind, he stood by a map of operations when the black rain cloud cleared and bright sunrays spread. Such a natural phenomenon happened when he posed for a photograph with sailors at a naval unit on that same day. Informed of them, people say that even the heaven ensures the personal safety of General Kim Jong Il, working mysterious wonders.

Mysterious phenomena in Korea
Pyongyang, September 29, 1997 (KCNA) — Mysterious natural phenomena are being witnessed in different parts of Korea while provincial party conferences adopt resolutions on recommending Secretary Kim Jong Il as General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea. White flowers came into bloom on a pear tree, attracting butterflies and bees at a factory in Pyongyang on September 27. The tree is as old as the factory. On their way to work, factory workers witnessed this phenomenon and said nature also welcomes the festive event. More than 100 blossoms opened on an apricot tree at the film processing plant in the city on that same day. Eighty-five blossoms were witnessed on five ten-year-old apricot trees and two fifteen-year-olds on a stock farm in Sangwon county on September 25. Fifty pear trees on the Jangchon Cooperative Farm in Sadong district made thousands of blossoms open between September 22 and 25. About 400 blossoms came into bloom on a 20-year-old wild pear tree in a park in front of the Kaesong Municipal Party Committee building in the same period. On the morning of September 22, fishermen of the fishery station in Rajin-Sonbong city caught a 10 cm-long white sea cucumber while fishing on the waters off Chongjin. They said the rare white sea cucumber has come to hail the auspicious event of electing Secretary Kim Jong Il as Party General Secretary. Seeing the mysterious natural phenomena, Koreans say Secretary Kim Jong Il is indeed the greatest of great men produced by heaven and that flowers come into bloom to mark the great event.


Land reclamation in the DPRK

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009

The DPRK has long been pursuing a policy of food self-sufficiency by expanding its stock of arable land via reclamation from the sea.  Below are some of the more notable land reclamation projects.

Taegye Island land reclamation project
About 20km south of Sinuiju is Taegyedo.  According to KCNA, the Taegyedo tideland constructors have recently dammed about 14 kilometers of rough sea to acquire 8,800 hectares of land.  The sea wall makes it possible to protect the farmland from salt damage. Rice has already been planted in the paddy field of 2,600 hectares. A great ring road will circle the entire project and fresh water and sea water reservoirs with shellfish and lobster farms and salt fields will be built.  Here is a Korea story about it.  Here is an image from Google Earth:


(Click on image for larger version. Coordinates: 39°50’43.01″N 124°14’3.12″E)

Sin Island (probably not as much fun as it sounds)
Prior to Taegyedo, the DPRK reclaimed the Pidansom Tideland–reclaiming 5,500 hectares from the water.  This bought Sindo County ito existance. Here is the location on Google Earth:


(Click on image for larger version. Coordinates: 39°47’38.18″N 124°28’11.11″E)

Tasado Tideland reclamation
Appx 1000 hectares.  This is my best guess for the location:


(Click on image for larger version. Coordinates: 39°49’17.18″N 124°25’52.14″E)

Image from Google Earth:


(Click on image for larger version. Coordinates: 39°49’17.18″N 124°25’52.14″E)

Rather than using its comparative advantages  (via international trade and investment) to increase living standards at home, the DPRK has chosen to invest its capital in the production of agricultural goods.  Unfortunately this is yet another case where poor economic policy makes perfect political sense.


Tesco reports drop in sales to North Koreans in Dandong

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

According to Bloomberg, North Koreans in the Chinese city of Dandong have slashed purchases of ham, shirts, and candy at UK-owned Tesco:

At the Tesco store, Zhao said fewer North Koreans are coming in, and they’re spending less. Most North Koreans can’t freely cross the border, and only those with the ability to travel abroad shop in Dandong.

“Before this year, they would buy over 10,000 yuan in goods, now they typically only spend thousands,” she said. (10,000 yuan is about $1,460.)

Shopkeepers working within sight of the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge spanning the Yalu River that separates the countries said traffic is down by as much as half since May.

Fan Bo said he sells about 10 generators a month to North Korea, all to Chinese companies doing business there. “The North Koreans don’t need generators,” he said. “They don’t use electricity.” Mao Yifeng, a tire seller, blames the global financial crisis for the slowdown.

Over the course of half an hour on Aug. 12, two empty blue Chinese trucks crossed the bridge into Dandong. One diesel freight train, also Chinese, crossed to China from North Korea. The open door on one of its two cars revealed there was nothing inside.

Over 45 minutes the next morning, two empty trucks and three empty North Korean buses crossed into China. No trucks were seen heading into the North.

A souvenir salesman who only gave his surname, Huang, said he’s seen road and rail traffic on the Friendship Bridge fall by about half since North Korea’s nuclear test in May. “It was never busy, now it’s even less,” Huang said.

….Trade Aid

China is the North’s biggest trading partner. Its support for the regime can be gauged by the trade surplus it runs with the country, according to Nicholas Eberstadt, a Korea specialist at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. That fell to $386 million in the first half of this year from $1.27 billion in all of 2008, as China’s imports of coal from North Korea hit the highest level in at least five years, China’s Ministry of Commerce data show.

“China is Kim Jong Il’s patron of last resort,” said Eberstadt. “If net transfers from China continue to shrink, it will be ‘back to the 1990s’ for North Korea. That can only be an alarming prospect for Kim Jong Il and his would-be successors.”

Official trade statistics, incomplete and not including goods smuggled by sea or across the 1,415-kilometer (880 mile) border, show two-way trade between China and North Korea fell 2.5 percent in the first six months of this year to $1.12 billion, according to China’s Commerce Ministry. Trade between China and South Korea during the same period was $67.6 billion.

Read the full artilce here:
North Koreans Spurn Tesco Ham as China Trade Withers
Michael Forsythe


Umbrellas of Pyongyang (Update below)

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009


(click for larger version)

Traffic Control Platform beneath Umbrella Installed at Intersections of Pyongyang

Pyongyang, August 13 (KCNA) — Unique platforms under umbrellas are being set up in traffic control posts at intersections of Pyongyang these days, attracting attention of people.

The round platform under well-shaped large umbrella is clearly seen at far distance.

The umbrella shields the traffic controllers from sunrays and rain and the platform shuts out heat from the heated asphalt.

The female traffic controllers are commanding the traffic with a bright face on the platform under the umbrella even in the hottest period of summer.

Passers-by stop walking for a while to see the new scene.

They say it can be seen only in the country led by Kim Jong Il.

The traffic controllers are moved by the warm affection shown for them by General Secretary Kim Jong Il who saw to it that the platforms with umbrellas are being set up this time after raincoats, rain boots, sunglasses, gloves and cosmetics as well as seasonal uniforms were provided to them.

UPDATE: MarkT seems to have discovered similar technology (though much older) in Afghanistan:


Image from Military Photos


The trial of US journalists and North Korean criminal law

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)
IFES Forum No. 09-8-18-1
Choi Eun-suk, Research Professor, IFES, Kyungnam University

Detention of U.S. Journalists

Korean-American Euna Lee (Lee Seung-eun) and Chinese-American Laura Ling, reporters for the U.S.-based Current TV, were detained by North Korean soldiers on March 17, 2009 while near the Tuman River border between North Korea and China. On June 8, the Central Court, the highest court in North Korea, sentenced each of the two to an unprecedented 12 years of ‘Reform through Labour.’ However, after less than two months, a visit by former U.S. President Bill Clinton on August 4 led to the ‘special pardon’ of the two women, bringing a relatively swift conclusion to their plight.

What laws were enforced against the two American reporters? North Korean criminal code article 69 (Jo-seon-min-jok-Jeok-dae-joi, or literally, Korean Nation Antagonism Crime) states, “If a foreign person resides abroad with the intention of antagonizing Korea or injuring the body or assets of a sojourning Korean, or if national discord arises, they shall be faced with a sentence of more than 5 and less than 10 years of Reform through Labour (Ro-dong-Ky-ohwa-hyeong). In serious circumstances, [the person] faces a sentence of more than 10 years Reform through Labour.” Criminal Law article 233 (Illegal Border Crossing) dictates that “A person illegally crossing the national border faces less than 2 years of labor discipline (Ro-dong-dan-ryeon-hyeong). In serious circumstances, [the person] faces less than 3 years of reform through labour (Rodong Kyohwa-hyeong).

North Korea’s Criminal Procedures and the Accused’s Right to Council

The North Korean legal system maintains a 3-tier, 2-trial system. That is, the courts are divided into three levels, but actually, trials may only be heard twice. However, in the case of the two reporters, the trial was directly handled by the Central Court, meaning that only one trial would be held, and there was, of course, no chance to appeal.

Examining the North’s judicial system and criminal law, one can see that the DPRK constitution divides power among the Central Court, Provincial Courts, People’s Courts, and Special Courts (Constitutional Law, article 153). In addition, according to North Korea’s Criminal Procedure Law, the Central Court was established in order to handle appeals when verdicts handed out by lower courts were challenged (Criminal Procedure Law, article 129, clause 1), and it was designated the supreme court in the North Korea (Constitutional Law, article 161). The law also allows for the direct intervention of the Central Court, or for a case to be sent to a court on the same level or of the same kind as the court giving the initial verdict (Criminal Procedure Law, article 129, clause 2). Furthermore, according to the system established by these codes, after a case is opened in one of these courts, it must be completed within 25 days (Criminal Procedure Law, article 287). In the case of the two American reporters, the prosecution received notice of their charges on May 14, meaning that if they were to be prosecuted, the trial would have to have been completed by June 7.

When the Central Court holds the initial hearing in a prosecution, there are two possibilities for retrial. Only “in the event that it becomes known that the evidence upon which a decision is based was false,” or, “facts become known that could influence a decision and that were not known at the time of the trial,” can a Central Court case be reheard (Criminal Procedure Law, article 409). The decision to retry is in the hands of the North’s judicial authorities, meaning that it would have been difficult to find a route to appeal or retrial for the two reporters.

The verdict in an initial trial is decided by a judge and two civilian jurors, although in special cases a panel of three judges is allowed (court organization law, article 9). Any North Korean citizen with the right to vote can be a judge or civilian juror (Court Organization Law, article 6), and judges and jurors are chosen through democratic elections (Court Organization Law, article 4). A criminal case in North Korea follows a process of investigation, pretrial hearing, indictment, and trial (in that order). A detention order must be signed by a public prosecutor within 48 hours of a suspect’s arrest, and charges must be filed within 10 days (Criminal Procedure Law, article 144, clause 1).

The two reporters were apprehended March 17, and were not transferred to the court until May 14, almost two months later. According to North Korean law, a preliminary hearing must be held within two months of opening a pre-trial investigation (Criminal Procedure Law, article 151, clause 1). If investigators want to extend the investigation period, they must receive permission from a public prosecutor, and then can only extend the investigation for an additional two months (Criminal Procedure Law, article 152). Charges of crimes against the state or against the nation are investigated by the State Security Department (Criminal Procedure Law, article 124). In the case of Lee and Ling, investigators did not apply for an extension, and handed the case over to the courts within the allowed two-month period.

The North Korean constitution guarantees a public trial and the guaranteed the right of defense, although in some cases courtrooms are allowed to be closed (Constitutional Law, article 158). The constitution also guarantees that a foreigner will be able to speak in their native tongue during a hearing (Constitutional Law, article 159). A defendant has the right to choose their legal counsel, and that choice can include family members or a representative from work (Criminal Procedure Law, article 108), as well as the freedom to waive their right to council (Criminal Procedure Law, article 109). The right to choose one’s lawyer is directly related to one’s basic freedoms. In the case of the two American reporters, Laura Ling retained council, while Euna Lee chose not to be represented or give any statement.

The North Korean Central Court sentenced Lee and Ling to ten years of reform through labour for ‘Korean Nation Antagonism Crime’ (Criminal Law, article 69) and an additional four years for illegally crossing into the country (Criminal Law, article 233). However, in the North, in the case of multiple charges, the sentence for the more minor charge is halved, then added to the sentence of the more serious offence, meaning a 12-year sentence for the two reporters. This sentence was to begin within 10 days of the verdict. North Korean law dictates that reform through labour be carried out in reform institution (Judicial Conduct Law, article 25). When a defendant is sentenced, they are to be sent to a reform institution within 10 days, along with a copy of the court’s decision, detention orders, and all other relevant paperwork (judicial conduct law, article 33). This, in a nutshell, is the North Korean legal system, from arrest to starting to serve a sentence.

Kim Jong Il’s Power of Pardon and the Release of U.S. Journalists

When North Korea released the two U.S. reporters, the government claimed to do so based on its “humanitarian and peace-loving policy,” and stated that former President Clinton’s visit deepened understanding and helped to build trust between Washington and Pyongyang. This was an interesting use of Kim Jong Il’s power of pardon. It appears that last April, at the first session of the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly, there was a constitutional revision that transferred the ability to grant pardons from the SPA Presidium to the Chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC). According to a ‘report’ of Clinton’s visit released by North Korean authorities on August 5, “In accordance with the Socialist Constitution Article 103, pardon is granted to two U.S. reporters sentenced to reform through labour; the Chairman of the National Defense Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea passed down the order for [their] release.”

After the previous constitutional revision, coinciding with the launch of the Kim Jong Il regime in September 1998, article 103 clause 5 specified the duties and powers of the chairman of the NDC, but there was no mention of the ability to pardon. However, article 110, clause 17, which defines the duties and powers of the SPA Presidium, states that it “exercises the right to grant general amnesties or special pardon.” In the past, when pardons were granted on national holidays or in conjunction with other important events, they were done so in the name of the SPA Presidium. North Korea has yet to publicize what constitutional changes were made in April, but with the release of the two Americans in the name of Kim Jong Il, it can be seen that the ability to grant general amnesty has been transferred to the NDC chairman. Earlier, on May 22, the Japanese newspaper Nikkei (日本經濟新聞) quoted members of a delegation from the Economic Research Institute for North East Asia (ERINA) as saying that their North Korean counterparts had explained that the power to ratify and nullify treaties, to grant amnesty, and to issue announcements in times of emergency had been transferred to the chairman of the NDC.

After 142 days, Euna Lee and Laura Ling have finally returned to their families.