Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The (Market) Forces of History in North Korea

Friday, October 30th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The market is a common topic for debate in history. How did it impact the rise of the anti-slavery movement in the US and the UK? What impact did economic conditions have in the French Revolution? These questions are, and should be, asked in the current debate about North Korea’s socioeconomic development as well.

But despite the hope of many, the market might not simply be a story of growing individualism and disconnect from the power of the state. While such a trend may well be at work, it could also be the other way around.

This was recently illuminated through an interesting story by Reuters. In a visit to Pyongyang, they took a look at how markets and everyday business transaction function in North Korea at the moment. As they note, it is telling that a reporter from an international news agency can make transactions in the open, with a government minder by his side, at the black market rate. Business that previously had to be done in the shadows now happens in the open:

Shoppers openly slapped down large stacks of U.S. dollars at the cashier’s counter. They received change in dollars, Chinese yuan or North Korean won – at the black market rate. The same was true elsewhere in the capital: taxi drivers offered change for fares at black market rates, as did other shops and street stalls that Reuters visited.

The most obvious conclusion is that the state is adapting itself to the bottom-up development of the market. Indeed, this is the way the story is often told. In this narrative, the government is only reacting to developments and has long lost the economic policy initiative.

But one could also see a government that is confident enough to relax the rules. It just isn’t a certain fact that the state and the market are two opposing entities.

First, connections to the state still seem to be good for those wanting to trade on the market. For example, according to the surveys conducted by Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland that laid the foundation for Witness to Transformation (2011)party membership is still considered one of the best ways to get ahead in North Korea (or at least it was at the time when the surveys were conducted). A somewhat similar trend can be discerned in survey results presented by Byung-Yeon Kim of Seoul National University at a conference at Johns Hopkins SAIS in late September this year. Kim’s results also indicate that there is a strong positive correlation between party membership and participation in both the formal and informal economy.

Second, the government is making money off of the market. DailyNK recently reported that the fees charged by state authorities for market stalls was raised. They also noted that regulations of the markets seemed to have gotten more detailed over the years. As noted in this report published by the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS, the space that the government allocates to markets has consistently increased in the past few years. Not only have official markets grown, many of them have also been renovated and given better building structures.

All in all, this paints a picture of a government that controls markets while allowing them more space to function. It is not clear that formerly black market activity happening in the open means that the market is gaining ground at the expense of the state. They may well be moving together. That is good news for those hoping for stability, but bad news for those banking on a market-induced revolution. Despite the hope of many that the market will cause the demise of the regime, the role of the market force in North Korea’s history is far from clear.


A closer look at Kim Jong-un’s forestry speech

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

Vice-premier Choe Yong-gon was reportedly executed because he criticized Kim Jong-un’s reforestation policy initiative. It is interesting to look in more depth at what these policies actually are.

The forestry issue is tightly connected and reinforced both to the lack of food and energy, and to flooding damage. (I have laid out some of these connections in an earlier post.) There can be little doubt that Kim Jong-un is justified in focusing attention to the forestry issue.

The best (and only?) official guide I have seen so far to the policies underlying the reforestation drive of the past few months – which, again, Choe was reportedly executing for criticizing – is a speech delivered by Kim Jong-un to “senior officials of the party, the army and the state economic organs on February 26, Juche 104 (2015).” To understand the reforestation policies and their pitfalls, this speech is an interesting piece of information. Here are a few interesting things to note from the speech:

First, Kim is quite frank about describing the core problem. In the beginning of the speech, he talks openly about how the “arduous march” (the famine of the 1990s) has led people to cut down trees on a large scale across the country. He also mentions the reasons: to “obtain cereals and firewood”, and talks about how this causes landslides and flooding. Perhaps this is part of an overall pattern in recent years where North Korean authorities are less prone to deny the extent of problems and sometimes even exaggerate them, as may have been the case with the drought impact warnings of the early summer.

But it is also interesting to speculate about whether this says something about the way that information is treated in the uppermost echelons of North Korea. Some have claimed that Kim Il-sung might not have been informed of the extent of the country’s economic problems in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and that this might have been the case for Kim Jong-il as well. In this context, the frank way in which Kim Jong-un describes the results of the lack of food and fuel is striking.

Earlier official narratives of the impacts of natural disasters, like those in the mid-1990s, have often blamed the impacts on nature rather than on politics. Kim Jong-un seems to see it the other way around (which of course makes all the sense in the world).

Second, Kim seems to criticize politicized forestry management. In one sentence, he says that trees shouldn’t just be planted on official days and ceremonial “tree-planting days” (my emphasis):

Forest planting should not be done in such a way as planting some trees ceremoniously on tree­-planting days or transplanting fully­ grown trees, as was done in the past. It should be done in the way of raising young trees in large numbers and enlisting all the people in transplanting and cultivating them.

Maybe I am reading too much into this, but this can be read as a criticism of the North Korean practice of honoring various occasions by economic measures, like doling out extra rations on the leader’s birthdays et cetera. At least in forestry, Kim seems to be advocating pragmatism at the expense of ideological rigour. He also gives an anti-formalism shoutout later on, saying that

The plan for forest restoration should not remain in figures or charts on a piece of paper.

Third, Kim indicates that tree-felling will become more severely punished. He calls unauthorized felling of trees an act of “treachery” (my emphasis):

Random felling of trees in mountains must be prohibited. Now some people climb mountains and cut down trees to obtain firewood or timber without permission as they do not care a bit about the country’s forests. Unauthorized felling of trees is tantamount to treachery. All the people on this land should treasure and protect even a blade of grass and a tree of their country.

Later on, he says that

Random felling should be made a serious issue of whatever the unit concerned is and whoever the person concerned is.

This might speak against the sense of pragmatism mentioned above. Of course, people aren’t cutting down trees for fun or to ruin things for the state. It’s part of the coping-behavior that has been developed since the famine, where people do what they can to get by.

The state has expanded the scope for what is allowed in other areas, such as private market trade, in order to better align with the reality on the ground. Here, in contrast, Kim seems to suggest that cutting down trees must be punished more harshly, even though the core reasons why people cut down trees to begin with – lack of fuel and food – remain. Implementing harsher punishments would probably be a difficult task for local authorities.

Kim does mention that the fuel problem needs to be solved that that trees should be planted specifically for firewood. But almost in passing: he basically says that the fuel problem should be solved and moves on (I don’t imagine that most North Korean localities have the resources necessary to replace firewood with biogas at the moment):

In order to conserve forest resources, we should solve the people’s problem of fuel. Positive measures should be taken to solve this problem, including creating forests for firewood in every place and increasing the production and supply of coal for the people’s living. There are several units which have solved the fuel problem with biogas, fly ash or ultraanthracite. By actively popularizing their experience, we should ensure that all regions solve the fuel problem on any account by their own effort.

The strategy outlined isn’t all that impressive, and the forestry issue highlights politics as a battle for scarce resources: on the one hand, the state needs to prevent the floods and landslides that keep coming back every summer. On the other hand, people on the ground need a way to access firewood and space to grow food as the state isn’t providing these things. The problem won’t be solved by just saying that everyone should have access to fuel and all will be well. Nevertheless, it’ll be interesting to follow how this all plays out, and how the policies that Kim has outlined will be implemented (or not implemented) on the ground.


Cost of defection rising (or demand curves slope down)

Thursday, May 21st, 2015

According to Reuters:

It’s much more dangerous, and twice as expensive, to defect from North Korea since Kim Jong Un took power in Pyongyang three and a half years ago, refugees and experts say, and far fewer people are escaping from the repressive and impoverished country.

With barbed-wire fencing erected on both sides of the Tumen River that marks the border with China, more guard posts and closer monitoring of cross-border phone calls, the number of North Koreans coming annually to the South via China has halved since 2011.

Most defections are arranged through brokers, usually Chinese citizens who are ethnically Korean, and their charges have doubled to about $8,000 per person, beyond the reach of most North Koreans – and that gets them only as far as China.

“Intelligence has stepped up monitoring (of phone calls) on border passages, dampening brokers’ activities,” said Han Dong-ho, a research fellow at the government-run Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, who regularly interviews defectors.

“The more dangerous, the more expensive. Many connections with brokers, which North Koreans call ‘lines’, have been lost.”

The crackdown on defections under Kim has come even as his government has eased restrictions on economic activity, resulting in a slight improvement in livelihoods for many, and providing less reason to escape.

The hundreds of miles of barbed wire strung across T-shaped concrete pillars on the banks of the Tumen were put in place in 2012, according to residents on the Chinese side and historical satellite imagery.

On the North Korean side, guard posts, dogs and shabby concrete watch towers dot the banks of the river, where locals said children from both sides once played together on the winter ice.

“Since Kim Jong Un came in, there have been times where local brokers have refused to go to certain areas on the Chinese side because of the increased security risk,” said Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), which works with defectors.

There are 27,810 North Koreans resettled in South Korea, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry.

The annual number of defections rose steadily from the late 1990s, according to South Korean government data, when a devastating famine sent desperate North Koreans into China in search of food. It peaked in 2009, when 2,914 North Koreans arrived in the South – the greatest influx since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

But in Kim Jong Un’s first year in power in 2012, just 1,502 North Koreans made it to the South – a 44 percent decrease on the previous year. Last year, the number was 1,396.

Disguises and secret codes
From his smoke-filled office in Seoul, human rights activist and defector middleman Kim Yong-hwa manages secret hideouts in China for North Korean refugees, sending them South Korean clothes for disguise and secret codes to communicate with brokers.

“There are still many people who want to cross over to China and to South Korea, but the reality has changed,” said Kim, who is himself a defector and heads the NK Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea.

Kim connects North Koreans hiding in China with brokers there, asking the defectors to get new mobile phones or wipe their contacts to keep traceable calls to a minimum.

Tighter border controls, however, have significantly increased the risk – and therefore the cost – of defecting.

Kim, who says he has helped thousands of North Koreans flee the country over the last decade, has considered closing his business this year due to his network of willing brokers dwindling to 20 from about 60 in the past.

“They demand advance payments now, given the risks they have in China,” Kim said, adding that he has resources to help only half of the 40 or 50 North Koreans who call him every month.

The overwhelming majority of defectors are female, and come from just two neighboring provinces in the northeast of the country, far from the capital Pyongyang, in an area bordering China where North Koreans considered disloyal under the country’s political class system have traditionally been sent.

Unlike men, who tend to have obligations to the state and workplace, North Korean women often have more flexibility and are freer to trade, smuggle, or secretly flee. Women accounted for a record-high 83 percent of the 292 defections to South Korea in the first three months of 2015.

Those who make the illegal crossing risk being shot, or repatriated and possibly tortured, according to a United Nations report last year.

But beyond the danger of getting caught at the border, an improvement in living conditions in some parts of North Korea may affect anyone’s resolve to leave the country. Economically, North Korea has changed since the famine years of the nineties, and a burgeoning market economy means food is easily obtained.

“All things being equal, an improving economy in North Korea, especially in the northeast provinces, would also lead to a decline in defector numbers,” said Park of LiNK.

But a gradual improvement in living standards cannot account for the 44 percent drop in defections under Kim Jong Un, Park said, pointing to the ramped-up border security.

“Compared to 10 years ago the primary motivation for defection has gone from food, to freedom,” he said.

Read the full story here:
It now costs $8,000 per person to defect from North Korea
Ju-min Park and James Pearson


Dandong businesses propose lowering trade duties

Monday, March 30th, 2015

According to Yonhap:

Chinese firms have proposed establishing a non-tariff trade market with North Korea where cheap goods can be traded without tariffs between the two nations, according to the Chinese border city of Dandong on Monday.

The proposal was made by representatives of Chinese firms in Dandong on Thursday when they met with a North Korean trade delegation, led by Pak Ung-sik, director of the North’s Korean International Exhibition Corporation, according to a statement posted on the Chinese city’s website.

More than 70 percent of bilateral trade between North Korea and China is conducted through Dandong.

Pak reacted positively to the proposal, saying he would relay it to the relevant North Korean authorities and hopes to hold more discussions over the proposal, according to the statement.

Another Chinese border city, Tumen, in the northeastern Jilin province, opened a non-tariff trade market with North Korea in 2010, but the market was quickly suspended as North Korea banned civilians from participating in it due to concerns over the spread of banned materials that may enrage the North’s leadership.

At that time, Tumen had pledged not to impose tariffs on the trade of goods worth less than 8,000 yuan (US$1,287) per person.

China’s is the economic lifeline of North Korea, but their political ties remain strained over the North’s defiant pursuit of nuclear ambitions.

North Korea’s annual trade with China fell 2.4 percent from a year ago in 2014, marking the first decline since 2009, according to data compiled by the Beijing unit of the South’s Korea Trade and Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA).

The North’s trade with China totaled US$6.39 billion last year, compared with $6.54 billion in 2013, the data showed.

Read the full story here:
Chinese firms propose non-tariff trade of cheap goods with N. Korea


Friday fun: My first Yeon-mi Park post…

Friday, March 20th, 2015

Though Yeon-mi Park is arguably one of the most well-known North Korean defectors these days, for numerous reasons I have not devoted much of my time to her work. I was also surprised when Uriminzokkiri released two videos discredit Ms. Park (Video one in three parts is here. Video two is here). Maybe someday the North Koreans will catch onto the fact that these videos actually raise the status/profile of those they are trying to vilify, but in the meantime we can have some fun with them.

Ms. Park is the third North Korean defector (of whom I am aware) about which the DPRK has made these sorts of films. She now joins company with Shin Dong-hyuk and and Ma Yong-hae, though doubtless there are more.

The second video attacking Ms. Park was interesting to me due to the use of geography to try and discredit her story. So I thought I would write about what the video claims and examine whether its assertions hold up to some basic scrutiny. As was the case with the videos attacking Mr. Shin, the North Koreans appear to unintentionally verify some Ms. Park’s claims. So let’s begin.

The video states at the 3:33 mark:

In one of her lies, Park said that about eight kilometers from Hyesan in Ryanggang Province there is a “Juche Rock” in a peak of a mountain called “Kot-dong-ji (?)” in Komsan-ri (검산리). She said if you look down from that mountain peak you can see Pongsu-ri (봉수리) of Pochon County and [the] Amnok River. She said she took that route to escape.


But in fact there is a highway from Hyesan to Pochon County and just on its left side there is a small rock called “Juche Rock.” And if you look down from there the opposite side is Changbai  County of Jilin Province, China.


On the far other side of [the] Amok River, you can see not the Pongsu-ri of Pochon County but Yonpung-dong, Hyesan City.  So how on earth did she manage to find a mountain here in the region which she is said to have crossed at the risk of her life?

The video was indeed filmed in Hyesan, but unfortunately for the North Koreans, when I combine (a) data in the video with (b) administrative data published in North Korea with (c) satellite imagery, I get results that verify claims made by Ms. Park (as described in the video).

Here is a Google Earth satellite image  of the area described in the video (where Ms. Park is alleged to have crossed the Amnok River):


To begin with, “Juche Rock” (41.449298°, 128.247329°) can clearly be seen on top of a mountain in Hyesan, Ryanggang province. I am not sure why the North Koreans wanted to bother disproving the existence of a mountain–especially if they are going to record a video from the top of it.

Secondly, “Juche Rock” is on the outer border of Komsan-ri:


Thirdly, later in the video (6:16), the North Koreans identify a house they claim was Ms. Park’s in Sinhung-dong, Hyesan City. Here is a satellite picture of that house (Marked in yellow: 41.397725°, 128.171969°):


I have no idea if the Park family actually lived here, but this house is exactly 8.48 km from “Juche Rock”. It’s a bit further on foot. So again, the satellite data is confirming what the video asserts Ms. Park claimed.

Finally, the point about the village to the north of “Juche Rock” being Yonpung-dong, Hyesan City, not  Pongsu-ri of Pochon County, was the most difficult to for me to untangle. This confusion stemmed from two causes. The first was because Ms. Park is technically wrong about “Pongsu-ri” being the next village north of Juche Rock. The second source of confusion is because the North Koreans recently changed the border between Hyesan City and Pochon County and have apparently done some renaming in the process.

I have three maps (published in North Korea) that identify ‘Yonpung-dong, Hyesan City’ as ‘Hwajon-ri (화전리), Pochon County.’ You can see the area for yourself on Google Earth at  41.460212°, 128.231495°. Apparently sometime recently (I don’t know when), the North Koreans shifted the border of Hyesan City further north into Pochon County. At this time I suspect that Hwajon-ri was renamed Yonpung-dong. The only evidence that I have of the border change is a blurry map that the North Koreans produced to show the location of Hyesan’s new economic development zone. It shows the Hyesan border has moved north from its original location, however even it retains the name “Hwajon-ri.” The only source I have that the area has been renamed “Yonpung-dong” is this Uriminzokkiri video. But all of this certainly took place after Ms. Park had left the DPRK.

Here are approximate before and after pictures of the Hyesan – Pochon border changes:



To Ms. Park’s credit, however, there is an area just north of Yonpung-dong/Hwajon-ri called ‘Pongsu’ (봉수). It is not a ‘ri’, but it used to have a train station with the same name. The train station has since been torn down, but that may be the reason she remembers the area as “Pongsu.”


So to recap: The North Koreans published a video in which they called Ms. Park a liar (among other things) and used geography to prove that she had mislead people. The geographic points they raise in the video, however, tend to support comments Ms. Park is alleged to have made.

There is a separate question as to whether Ms. Park made the claims referenced in the video, and to that I have no idea. As I mentioned, I have not paid particular attention to her story.

However, I am delighted that digging into this video has taught me that the border between Hyesan and Pochon has changed.

There are other claims in the video that I don’t want to address because, frankly, I am not qualified–and it is Friday.


Two new books out on North Korea…

Thursday, March 19th, 2015

Two new books are out on North Korea. Together they “book-end” North Korea’s history. One takes place in the beginning. The other takes place in current times. Info and links below.

North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors
By Daniel Tudor and James Pearson


You can learn more about the book and order it from

I have read bits of this book and found it very interesting.


The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and The Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom
By Blaine Harden


You can learn more about this book and order it at

Media coverage of the book here and here.


Other books, videos, blogs, etc are here.


DPRK also acknowledges Shin was in Camp 18 (unintentionally)

Sunday, January 18th, 2015

UPDATE 2 (2015-9-24): For what it is worth, I do not believe much of Shin’s story (either of the three versions that have now been released). I believe he continues to deceive us on significant aspects of his history.

UPDATE 1 (2015-9-24): The latest version of Escape from Camp 14 has been released. Mr Harden has added a new forward to the book, but does not appear to have altered any of the passages in the text itself despite the fact that Shin has admitted that they contain inaccurate information. Since the book’s new forward references me, I thought I should post the information I provided Mr. Harden here for public scrutiny.

First of all, here are the maps of Kaechon and Pukchang that Mr. Harden references in the book’s new forward. This map was published in a North Korean atlas released in 1978:


This map shows that the area that came to be known as Camp 18, Pongchang-ri (봉창리), is clearly inside the borders of Kaechon County in 1978.

Here are the borders of Camp 18 overlapped on the map of 1978 Kaechon:


Because Pongchang-ri is inside Kaechon and is connected by rail to Camp 14, I stated that it is “plausible” that the area that came to be known as Camp 18 was actually part of Camp 14 in 1978.

According to the North Korean atlas Samchonri published by the Pyongyang Informatics Center, “in February 1984, Pongchang-ri of Kaechon County was incorporated into Pukchang County.” I told Mr. Harden that is was “plausible” that this is when Camp 18 was separated from Camp 14, since the two camps would now be housed in different counties. Shin claimed that Camp 18 was separated from Camp 14 in Kaechon sometime around 1980 for which I have no corroborating evidence.

Here is a North Korean atlas map of Pukchang published in 1997 which indicates that Pongchang-ri (봉창리, Camp  18) is part of Pukchang County:


And here is the same map with the border of Camp 18 outlined on it:


So North Korean sources indicate that the area that came to be known as Camp 18 was part of the same county as Camp 14 (Kaechon), until it was transferred to Pukchang in 1984.

ORIGINAL POST (2015-1-18): On October 26, 2014, Uriminzokkiri uploaded two videos to YouTube to discredit human rights activist Shin Dong-hyuk. Video one is here. Video two is here.

Below are some notes I took from the videos (back in October). I shared them with a couple of friends, but never published them. Point number 4 seems most relevant to the news this weekend, that Shin spent time in Camp 18.

1. Shin’s father, Shin Kyong-sop (신경섭?) claims he was born in Ryongbuk-ri, Mundok County: 룡북리, 39.498574°, 125.455410°. However, this ri was made part of Chongnam District. Chongnam District was initially carved out of Mundok County in 1980. In 1998 it was abolished and reincorporated into Mundok County. However, in 1999 Chongnam District was re-established with Ryongbuk-ri and Sin-ri of Mundok County. Either Shin’s father did not know that his home village had been moved into a new jurisdiction [because he has been incarcerated and not updated], or he is reporting that the ri was part of Mundok when he was born (it was). Ryongbuk-ri is appx 67km from Tukjang (as the crow flies), where Shin’s father lives now (according to the videos). More on Tukjang below.

Ryongbuk-ri-DPRK-ATLAS Tukjang-SP-Province

2. The video asserts that Shin was born in 1980 (1:01, in video 1) and that his original name is Shin In-gun (신인근). Shin acknowledged this name, I am unsure about the birth year.

3. Shin claims he is from Oedong-ri (외동리, 39.575453°, 126.071407°) which is inside [officially unacknowledged] Camp 14. (1:37, Video 1). Camp boundaries in yellow.


4. Shin’s father claims that they did not live in a political prison camp [Camp 14] (1:52, Video 1), but in Pongchang-ri (봉창리, 39.562650°, 126.077345°). Pongchang-ri is on the opposite side of the Taedong River from Oedong-ri in Camp 14, where Shin claims he is from. Pongchang-ri became part of Pukchang County in February 1984. Before that, Pongchang-ri was officially part of Kaechon County (where Camp 14 is located).


However more importantly, Pongchang-ri is inside the former Camp 18. Shin’s father offers a photo he claims is of a six-year-old Shin in Pongchang-ri. The year would be 1986, but Camp 18 was not closed until the 2000s. So revealing that Shin lived in Pongchang-ri as a child is admitting he was in a prison camp (Camp 18)…just not the one he claims to have been from (Camp 14). So now the North Koreans and Shin can at least agree he was in Camp 18.


I have posted 2010 KCTV footage of Pongchang-ri (coal mine) here which matches the satellite imagery of the site.

5. Dad says Shin went to primary school in Pongchang and secondary school in Tukjang (2:07, Video 1). But graduated from a different secondary school (“Suwon Secondary School”) and got a job in the “Suwon Pit”.  [How common is it for North Korean schoolchildren to change secondary schools? Under what conditions does this happen?]  Mr. Song Yoon-bok, chief secretary of “No Fence in North Korea,” has told me that the father did not say “Suwon” but rather “Suan,” and Uriminzokkiri misspelled it in English on the videos. “Suan” is a small area of eastern Pongchang-ri, and “Several former Camp 18 survivors now living in Seoul certainly remember the name and location…in Camp 18.” I cannot find this area on any maps, but a defector named Kim Hye-Suk identified it in this publication.

After the Suwon/Suan pit, Shin’s father claims he left home and moved to Puhung Mine in Unsan (2:53, Video 1). However when Shin was 12, (December 1992), Puhung Workers` District was incorporated into Sunchon City. It is still in Sunchon City. So his father is incorrect about the county/city that his son’s mine was in (unless Shin started working there before he was 12).


Shin’s father also says that most of Shin’s injuries come from mining accidents (3:23, Video 1). As of 2015-1-17, Shin still maintains his injuries are from torture.

Also, the father does not seem surprised when he is asked about family members being “raped to death” (4:05) [Like he does when he is asked about “reward Marriage”]. I believe that even most North Koreans would have a more visceral reaction to that question. Implies more coaching.

6. According to the video, Shin’s parents live in Kalgol-dong No. 146 of Tukjang Workers’ District. 39.577267°, 126.225550°. The North Korean video footage matches satellite imagery of Tukjang Workers’ District, but not of Kalgol-dong (3:20, Video 1). Tukjang Workers’ District lies just outside boundaries of former Camp 18.

 kalgol-146-Uriminzokkiri kalgol-146-GE

7. The neighbor who discusses the alleged murder committed by Shin’s mother and brother seems to know about Shin’s “treasonous activities” in South Korea. How could she (or his father) have any idea what he is up to outside of the country unless they were coached? Also, the North Koreans are claiming that Shin’s mother and brother are guilty of axe murder! This is the second instance of axe murder in the DPRK of which I am aware (the first instance is quite famous).  How many axe murders are there in the DPRK?

8. Shin’s father says he married his second wife in 1996 and Shin was 19 then (8:18, video 1). But if Shin was born in 1980, he should only be 16 (8:26, Video 1). The math on this is pretty easy, so the fact that he got it wrong implies it could have been fabricated. Shin’s father claims the newly-married couple lived with Shin for five years (8:40, Video 1), that would be from 1996 until 2001. Shin should be 16-21 years old during this period, but according to dad’s erroneous age he would be 19-24. This would mean that he moved to Puhung Mine when he was 21 (or 24 by fathers count).

When Shin’s father states that Shin was 19 when they were married, the mother-in-law nods her head in agreement (8:31, Video 1). At 8:40, however, there is a subtle cut in the video. The reason for the cut remains unknown (more coaching?). After the cut, Shin’s step-mother says that they lived with Shin for 3 years (1996-1999). She did not correct the age error. If Shin left their home in 1999, he would have moved to Puhung Mine in 1999 at the age of 19.

The manager at the Puhung Mine claims that Shin arrived in August 2002 (1:54, video 1), so there is a gap here of approximately one year by the father’s data and three years by the step-mother’s data. The mine manager describes Shin as “burly” (4:25). Not a description I would use.

9. The video claims Shin raped 13-year old at Puhung Mine (5:31) in June 2001 (5:45). Shin would be 21 then. This is over a year before he was employed at the Puhung Mine according to the manager. Why was he there? He should have still been living with his parents in Tukjang. Why was he never arrested or tried for the crime?

Other notes:
A. Shin’s uncle is in the video. Has Shin said anything about him?
B. Shin’s father was able to remarry a younger woman? 70 vs 56.
C. Shin’s father has a nice tv and radio. Is this really his home?
D. Finally: The DPRK previously tried to discredit Shin with this written statement. This written statement claims that Shin is from Soksan-ri (now part of Tukjang–the part that matches the video footage above). Soksan-ri is not ever mentioned in these videos by name, and it is not the same area of Tukjang as Kalgol-dong. There is also additional information on crimes committed by Shin’s father which are never address in the videos. This statement also mentions a first border crossing in 2002, after which Shin was sent back to the DPRK.

Hopefully Mr. Harden can get Mr. Shin to address some of these points in a revised publication.

Addendum: For the record, I have met Mr. Shin a couple of times at events in Washington. The extent of my interaction with him has been limited to a couple of handshakes. I have never emailed him, interviewed him, or had an extensive conversation with him.


Camp 15 update…

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

UPDATE 1 (2015-2-17): HRNK has published a report on Camp 15 that confirms some of the information on this web page and adds more.

ORIGINAL POST (2014-12-9): I do not really focus in human rights issues. The only real exception to this is that I keep up with new satellite imagery of incarceration facilities when pictures are released on services like Google Earth.

In the past couple of years, we have seen interesting developments in the camps. No.’s 18 and 22 were closed, and are being converted into ordinary villages and coal mines. I was also the first to write about the expansion of Camp 14 and Camp 25. There have also been minor changes to Camp 16, and I was able to point out exports from the camp that are possibly used for generating hard currency.

So now we turn our heads to Camp 15, AKA Yodok. This was the most “well known” of the prison camps before Shin Dong-hyok’s book on Camp 14 was published. Yodok was the subject of Kang Chol-hwan’s The Aquariums of Pyongyang, and it even inspired a musical.

Camp 15 is an enormous facility in Yodok County, South Hamgyong Province. It borders Maengsan County, Nyongwon County and Taehung County in South Phyongan Province. The camp is over 22km from north to south and over 20km from east to west. There are two entrances to the camp. The main entrance is on the south side, just north of kuup-ri (구읍리) and approximately six kilometers from the town of Yodok (요덕). There is a secondary entrance on the north end of the camp on Paek-san that borders with Nyongwon County. According to North Korean sources, there are four villages (리) officially listed within the camp perimeter: Ryongphyong-ri (룡평리),  Phyongjon-ri (평전리), Ripsok-ri (립석리) and Taesuk-ri (대숙리).

HRNK’s Hidden Gulag describes the camp security perimeter this way:

The whole encampment is surrounded by a barbed-wire fence measuring 3 to 4 meters (10 to 13 feet) in height. In some areas there are walls 2 to 3 meters (7 to 10 feet) tall, topped with electrical wire. Along the fence there are watchtowers measuring 7 to 8 meters (23 to 26 feet) in height, set at 1-kilometer (0.62-mile) intervals, and patrolled by 1,000 guards armed with automatic rifles and hand grenades. Additionally, there are teams with guard dogs. Inside the camp, each village has two guards on duty at all times.



Pictured above: The borders of Camp 15, AKA, Yodok.

On November 8, the Daily NK published  a story claiming that the camp had been closed and torn down:

“That political prison camp that used to be in Yodeok County in South Hamkyung has already been broken up. There’s not a trace of it left,” the source, who is with the military in the northerly province, claimed in conversation with Daily NK on the 7th. However, the disbanding of Camp 15 does not seem to have brought liberty for many of its inmates. According to the same source, “The political prisoners who were there have been divided up and moved to camps 14 and 16.”

I have viewed satellite imagery from as recent as October 20, 2014, and based on that evidence, I am unsure of the present status of the camp. Mines have been closed along with Sorimchon District, but guard housing has increased, as have security units. I also saw no change in the security perimeter.

Below is a list of changes with before and after images that can be seen on Google Earth. Although the latest Google Earth imagery is dated 2014-5-5, I did not see anything on imagery from October 20, 2014 that added to this analysis.

1. “Sorimchon District (aka Kumchon-ri)” has mostly been torn down:


Image Date (Google Earth): 2008-12-12


Image Date (Google Earth): 2014-5-5

This area was first described (in English) in the second version of HRNK’s Hidden Gulag (See pages: 56, 64, 66, and 68. On Page 69 is a map, and on page 199 is a labeled satellite image).

Sometime between 2008-12-12 and 2014-5-5 most of these buildings were destroyed. The only remaining building is thought to be the Ministry for State Security (MSS, SSD, NSA) office.

2. A building identified by HRNK in 2003 as a “holding cell” in Knup-ri area was torn down and replaced by additional guard housing (this probably happened sometime around 2008-12-12). Hidden Gulag refers to “Knup-ri” but I believe this actually refers to “Kuup-ri”, which is the name of the village that lies just outside the camp’s perimeter:


Image Date (Google Earth): 2008-12-12


Image date (Google Earth): 2014-5-5

But between 2002 and 2008, this area saw a significant increase in guard housing:



All of this housing remained as of October 20, 2014.

3. In the Knup-ri guard housing area, a new park or cemetery appears to be under construction:


Image Date (Google Earth): 2008-12-12


Image Date (Google Earth): 2014-5-5

4. Mining area near Taesuk-ri torn down (TBD if it will be renovated):


Image Date (Google Earth): 2008-12-12


Image Date (Google Earth): 2014-5-5


Image Date (Google Earth): 2008-12-12


Image Date (Google Earth): 2014-5-5

5. A mine in Ripsok-ri was also torn down (TBD if it will be renovated):


Image Date (Google Earth): 2008-12-12


Image Date (Google Earth): 2014-5-5

5. Mining activity in Phyongjon-ri has also apparently come to a halt:


Image Date (Google Earth): 2003-10-1


Image Date (Google Earth): 2014-5-5

6. The camp initiated a logging site:


Image Date (Google Earth): 2003-10-1


Image Date (Google Earth): 2014-5-5

7. Two new security units have been built:


Image Date (Google Earth): 2008-12-12


Image Date (Google Earth): 2014-5-5


Image Date (Google Earth): 2008-12-12


Image Date (Google Earth): 2014-5-5

8. A new checkpoint building has been built on the northern perimeter crossing: 


Image Date (Google Earth): 2008-12-12


Image Date (Google Earth): 2014-5-5

9. A new facility has been constructed in Knup-ri area that appears to be a new factory:


Image Date (Google Earth): 2008-12-12


Image Date (Google Earth): 2014-5-5


Hungnam Industrial Development Zone to be built in DPRK

Friday, December 5th, 2014

According to KCNA:

The Hungnam Industrial Development Zone will be built in Hamhung City, South Hamgyong Province of the DPRK.

The zone is to be engaged mainly in bonded processing, machine and equipment making and production of chemical goods, building-materials and medicines, according to an official concerned.

It is now drawing attention of foreign governments and investors for its favorable geographical conditions and economic foundations.

In around the area there are harbor and railway station, several power plants and the Songchon River as well as various industrial establishments, including Ryongsong Machine Complex, February 8 Vinalon Complex and Hamhung Wood Processing Factory.

The area is also favorable for tourism as it has Majon bathing beach and Majon Hotel.

A development area for the first stage is 2 square kilometers and the DPRK government plans to encourage various forms of development projects including joint venture between the country’s relevant enterprises and foreign investors.


Did a forest fire burn down Kim Jong-il’s official birthpalce?

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

UPDATE 1 (2015-1-26): The Milyong Revolutionary site has not appeared on the evening news (to the best of my knowledge) since the fire was reported.

ORIGINAL POST (2014-1023): According to the Daily NK:

A raging wildfire that broke out on October 21st in North Korea’s Samjiyon County, Yangkang Province is said to have burned down former leader Kim Jong Il’s home on Mount Baekdu near Milyong, the alleged birthplace of the late leader, the Daily NK has learned.

“The fire in Samjiyon County has spread to Baekam County putting the country in a state of emergency,” a source in Yangkang Province told the Daily NK on Tuesday. “The Baekdu Milyong home and most of the historic revolutionary landmarks have gone up in flames.”

“The 10th Corps [a military body charged with maintain order and security] in Yangkang Province, the State Security Department, and provincial units of the People’s Safety Ministry are all on high alert,” the source elaborated. “To determine the cause of the fire, cadres from the Central Party have also been dispatched.”

North Korea appears to be trying to wipe out the fire by mobilizing residents in the area. “They started broadcasts from the 20th in downtown Hyesan, and even on the Third Broadcast [fixed cable system to which only North Korean residents are exposed], they’ve been saying that everyone actively must lend a hand to get the fire under control,” the source said. It is not only in Hyesan City, but residents in Bochon [Pochon], Unheung [Unhung], Baekam [Paekam], and Shinpa [Sinpha] Counties that have also been mobilized to combat the wildfire.

“The autumn air is dry and so are the leaves. On top of that the winds are strong, so they haven’t been able to effectively fight the fire,” she went on. “Despite days having passed since the fire broke out, they haven’t been able to tame the flames.”

“Already people are saying, whether the fire was deliberate or an accident, anyone tied to it will probably be executed,” she said, speculating, “If it’s arson, it will be a huge problem, since it will be seen as treason. Even if that’s not the case, they will be held accountable for not managing a key historic site of the country.”

“Some security officials have said that this incident will not end with simply one or two people being held responsible,” the source alleged. “Even provincial Party members have been staying onsite, eating and sleeping there, to try to put out the fire.”

North Korean state media outlets have yet to report on the fire, but attention is on how or if it will provide coverage of the incident.

I am unable to obtain a recent satellite image of the area, but this one was published in the Donga Ilbo:


This satellite image is fairly low quality, but it does not appear to me that there is a fire at the Milyong Revolutionary site.

Read the full stories here:
Fire Swallows Kim Jong Il’s Landmark Home
Daily NK
Kang Mi Jin