Archive for June, 2007

North Korea’s Dear Film Buff

Tuesday, June 19th, 2007

Asia Times
John Feffer

The North Korean film projectionist is thinking back on her earlier life. When she was younger, she tells the camera, she dreamed of acting. She wanted to play a heroic role on the screen. Her eyes take on a wistful look. And there is a hint of pain in her voice. In any other country, this would be an ordinary show of emotion. In North Korea, however, the ordinary is extraordinary, for outsiders catch a glimpse of it so very rarely.

The North Korean woman, Han Yong-sil, is one of four film projectionists featured in a new documentary, Comrades in Dreams. Directed by Ulli Gaulke, a young German filmmaker, the documentary ties together the lives of cinema lovers from four countries: the United States, Burkino Faso, India and North Korea.

While all the footage is fascinating, the material from North Korea is unique. Films from and about North Korea rarely pierce the carefully constructed surface that the country and its citizens present to the outside world. Yet here, captured by Gaulke, Comrade Han reveals an individual personality behind the ritualized propaganda that she initially offers the camera.

Film has played an unusually prominent role in North Korean culture and history. Although it opens an important window on to a closed society, North Korean film has been a singularly overlooked subject. North Korean films are almost never shown in the United States. They rarely appear in international film festivals. Few articles have been written on the subject.

That all may change soon, however. A French company has just bought the rights to show the North Korean film A Schoolgirl’s Diary, reportedly seen by 8 million North Koreans, more than one-third of the population. Scholars are beginning to comb through North Korean films for clues about how the system ticks. And documentaries like Comrades in Dreams and the latest effort from Dan Gordon and Nicholas Bonner, Crossing the Line, are attracting attention at film festivals around the world.

The US and North Korea are inching closer together as a result of ongoing nuclear negotiations. With normalized relations on the agenda, information about North Korean society becomes ever more valuable. But do North Korean films ultimately reveal or conceal the reality of the country?

Bring up the subject of North Korean film and most people would be hard pressed to name a single title. But nearly every article about North Korean leader Kim Jong-il mentions that he’s a film buff with one of the largest film collections in the world. In fact, Kim started out in the cinema world. The rise of the “Dear Leader” to political leadership is linked inextricably to his film career.

“Kim Jong-il used film to prove that he was the legitimate guardian of his father Kim Il-sung’s legacy,” explained Kim Suk-young (Speaking at the Library of Congress Next Week), a specialist on North Korean theater and film at the University of California-Santa Barbara. “Kim Il-sung was very keen on protecting his legacy as a national father. So Kim Jong-il in the 1970s used film to prove that he was the legitimate heir.”

These films helped solidify his father’s personality cult and demonstrated that Kim Il-sung’s successor, unlike Deng Xiaoping in China or Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, would avoid any iconoclastic reforms.

Kim Jong-il was not the first person in North Korea to recognize the political uses of film. The regime early on realized the revolutionary potential of the medium. When it took control over the northern half of the Korean Peninsula at the end of World War II, the North Korean Workers’ Party under Kim Il-sung relied heavily on Soviet assistance. The Soviets, having pioneered film technique in the early days of the Russian Revolution, offered cinematic help as well.

From the very start, however, North Korea showed its independent streak by not following the Soviet model. “Even at its very beginning,” writes historian Charles Armstrong, North Korean cinema “was diverging from its Soviet sponsors’ aims by creating a distinctive cinema rooted in melodramatic emotionalism, a sentimental attachment to the Korean countryside, and the alleged values of peasant life, and a nationalist politics centered around the person of Kim Il-sung”.

To merge Soviet communism with North Korean nationalism – all rolled into the package of Kim Il-sung’s personality cult – film was the ideal medium. As Kim Suk-young explains, it is much easier to send films throughout the country as a propaganda tool than, for instance, relying on traveling theater groups. More important, Pyongyang could control the form and content from beginning to end. Political speakers sent to deliver propaganda to the masses might succumb to improvisation. Theater actors might give an unintended interpretative spin to their lines of dialogue. But movies allow for total control – or as close as the regime could get to total control in the cultural sphere.

Re-imaging history
Unlike Josef Stalin, Kim Il-sung often clothed his political instruction in narrative form. His multi-volume autobiography, for instance, is full of stories and parables. But nothing could compare to the power of film to create resonant images and stirring nationalist messages.

For instance, in the 1960s film On the Railway, set during the Korean War, the train-engineer hero infiltrates the territory held by US and South Korean forces and pretends to be a defector driving his train over to the other side. He is, like Kim Il-sung, a trickster who achieves victory despite overwhelming odds. He doesn’t do so on behalf of the workers of the world, however. He is fighting for the Korean fatherland and against the foreign aggressor.

Other movies, such as An Jung Gun Shoots Ito Hirobumi and Star of Chosun, dramatize moments of Korean history such as the 1909 assassination of a Japanese colonial official and the life of Kim Il-sung. Like the 1915 US film The Birth of a Nation, these films present a rewritten history that can replace authentic memory and balanced scholarship. A government can censor books. But film has the appearance of reality and can more seductively change how a citizenry understands its past.

Kim Jong-il put his stamp on North Korean filmmaking with his involvement in productions such as Sea of Blood and Flower Girl. These films, adapted from revolutionary operas credited to his father Kim Il-sung, established a cultural vocabulary similar to the opera productions that Madame Mao (Jiang Qing) unleashed on the Chinese population during the Cultural Revolution (so memorably described in Anchee Min’s memoir Red Azalea).

The language of these operas-turned-films, which both describe the atrocities of the Japanese colonial period, defined the parameters of acceptable cultural discourse. The images became iconic, like the Biblical tableaux that appeared in classical painting and formed the visual vocabulary of pre-modern European culture.

By the late 1970s, having established his bona fides with his father, Kim Jong-il perceived that North Korean film had hit a dead end. At that time, he already possessed an extraordinary collection of world cinema. He understood the widening gap between the international and the national. To bridge the gap, Kim Jong-il sought help from outside.

Revolution lite
One of the most popular films in Bulgaria in the late 1980s was North Korea’s Hong Kil Dong (1986). A classic tale of a Korean Robin Hood, the film introduced Hong Kong-style action to the Soviet bloc. The ninja moves and soaring kicks dazzled East European audiences. “Hong Kil Dong attracted hundreds of thousands of people to the cinemas across Bulgaria,” writes Todor Nenov. “It was almost impossible to get tickets for it, unless you booked them two or three days earlier!”

Borrowing from Hong Kong action movies was only one of the ways that the North Korean film industry revived itself in the 1980s. Kim Jong-il borrowed more directly from outside when he arranged for the abduction of South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee in 1978. Six months later, Kim abducted her estranged husband, famous South Korean director Shin Sang-ok.

Before the pair managed to escape in 1986 during a stopover in Vienna, Shin Sang-ok introduced many new innovations into North Korean film. His most famous films during this period – a North Korean version of Godzilla called Pulgasari and a retelling of the famous Korean folk tale of Chunhyang called Love, Love, My Love – added science fiction and musical romance to the North Korean repertoire.

It is difficult to know whether the entertaining aspects of Hong Kil-Dong and Shin Sang-ok’s movies distracted North Korean moviegoers from the political messages or made those messages easier to absorb. The historical and fantastical settings allowed for greater leeway in presenting stories. Although the screenplays nod in the direction of the People, the writers needn’t lard the narrative with adoring references to the country’s leader or address the tasks facing contemporary North Korean society.

The contemporary love story in Traces of Life (1989) is by contrast entirely subordinate to the political message of building a utopian society. The movie tells the story of a grieving widow. Her husband has died in a suicide mission that blows up an invading South Korean ship. Guilty about arguing with him on the night he left to make the sacrifice, she exiles herself to the countryside, where she becomes a farmer and eventually raises rice production to unprecedented levels.

She thus transforms her love of husband into love of country. When Kim Il-sung himself comes to her farm and praises the collective’s success, her love achieves its apotheosis. The love of the hero leader has absolved her of the guilt she felt about not living up to the ideal of her hero husband.

Romance in North Korean films tends to be of the revolutionary not the bourgeois variety. As Ri Hyang, the character in Urban Girl Comes to Get Married (1993), explains to her friend, she wants “a man with perfume”. Her friend, surprised, replies that “a man is not a flower”. Ri Hyang continues: she is looking for “a man who creates his life with great ambition, a man who is respected by people”.

Although Urban Girl has a much lighter touch than Traces of Life, the message is the same: love should be reserved for those who want and can build “paradise on earth”. If that means partnering with the fellow on the farm who spends night and day working on a better breed of duck, as urban girl Ri Hyang ultimately does in the film, so be it.

Utopian dreams
Films in North Korea do not simply carry messages. They model behavior. Han Yong-sil, the projectionist in Comrades in Dreams, explains that the audiences for her films learn about new agricultural advances. And indeed, Urban Girl features information about livestock breeding and rice transplanting, and Traces of Life provides information on microbial fertilizer.

But the films don’t just supply technical content. They model revolutionary virtues. Kim Suk-young points to the popularity of amateur contests in which average North Koreans learn the lines of famous movie parts and then compete for the honor to present their monologues at the finals in Pyongyang. “It sounds very oppressive to us,” she says, “but there’s comfort in identifying with those heroes.” In this way we see that North Korean films don’t simply reveal or conceal reality. They actively construct North Korean society.

As a projectionist on a model farm, Han Yong-sil also struggles to live up to the examples set in the films she shows. Her husband is far away on an assignment to beautify Mount Paektu, the reputed birthplace of the Dear Leader. This is an important mission and, like the heroine of Traces of Life, she knows that she should subordinate her personal loneliness to the good of the nation. Still, it is clear that she finds this task very difficult.

Her display of emotions reveals the normalcy of North Koreans. Ironically, it is this very normalcy, because it falls short of the revolutionary ideal, that the North Korean government is loath to reveal to the world. And so the outside world tends to perceive North Koreans as slightly unreal, as mere mouthpieces for government propaganda.

In the 1960s and even into the 1970s, the utopian themes in North Korean cinema went hand in hand with the rising expectations of the population. After the devastation of World War II and then the Korean War, North Korea rapidly rebuilt itself. The government prided itself on the various industrial and agricultural advances that put it on par with and even ahead of South Korea. By the 1980s, however, North Korea was stagnant. It had fallen behind not only South Korea but even its own previous standards.

It is interesting that Kim Jong-il perceived that North Korean film, too, was stagnant at this time. A kind of cognitive dissonance must have begun to emerge among the North Korean population. The government and the films were portraying an ever-improving society and yet the population must have been noticing that reality was stubbornly not keeping pace. In the Soviet Union, during the years under Leonid Brezhnev, people could get their entertainment elsewhere – foreign films, books, samizdat publications. But North Koreans, until very recently, did not have any alternatives. And so the North Korean film industry turned to escapism, like romance stories.

But even escapism has its limits, for there is a utopian quality to Urban Girl and Pulgasari as well. Perhaps in response to the growing cognitive dissonance, the North Korean entertainment industry has begun to address new themes: divorce, love triangles, the double and triple shifts of women. “These dramas dealing with failure suggest that people are craving something different,” observes Kim Suk-young.

Reaching out?
The North Korean government boasts of its world-class film industry. But since a devastating loss in an international film festival in Czechoslovakia in the early 1970s, North Korea hasn’t tried very hard to promote its films abroad.

Pyongyang has, however, hosted its own international film festival since 1987 and allows visitors to its film studio. “North Korea has never been shy about propagandizing its grand achievements, and the film industry is not something secretive,” said journalist Ron Gluckman. “You can visit the studios as part of a tourist itinerary.

“I did so on my first visit to North Korea back in 1992. I visited again in 2004, and the equipment shown off was definitely ancient. I suspect they have been unable to keep up to date due to the economic situation, and film has suffered as a consequence.”

More recently, the government has allowed outside directors to make films inside the country. Pyongyang Crescendo (2005) follows the story of a German conductor who spent 10 days in the North Korean capital teaching music students. Dan Gordon and Nicholas Bonner have produced three documentary films: on the North Korean soccer team that made it to the World Cup quarterfinals in 1966, on two girls training for the mass games in Pyongyang, and most recently on the US soldier James Dresnok, who defected to North Korea in 1962.

The Game of Their Lives, the 2002 soccer documentary, showed that films could be made in North Korea, said Nick Bonner. However, the country isn’t exactly issuing a general invitation to the film world. “It is still very difficult to film in [North Korea] and is certainly a case-by-case situation,” Bonner added.

With A Schoolgirl’s Diary, the North Korean film industry will try once again to break into the international market. In this 2006 release, a teenager complains that her scientist father is too busy to pay attention to her. It is, according to reviews, a “humorous drama about a rebellious teenage girl”. It offers a picture of the North Korean elite that, in the film, uses computers, carries Mickey Mouse schoolbags, and eats good food.

It shows a few flaws in the system, such as deteriorating housing stock. But these are, according to Bonner, the “day-to-day flaws that fit the story line of struggle during this time when great sacrifice is needed to build a strong country”.

Regardless of whether A Schoolgirl’s Diary attracts an international audience on the merits of its story and its filmmaking, it will be an important document of North Korea’s evolving society. It will also show what kind of model behavior the government now wants to inculcate in its citizens.

“We might have to imagine the world with North Korea for another 25 or 50 years,” Kim Suk-young concludes. “We should look at film in order to understand and co-exist and to have a glimpse of North Korea instead of reducing it to a one-dimensional propaganda tool.”


North Korean Restaurants in China Send $10,000~30,000 Annually Back to Its Native Country

Tuesday, June 19th, 2007

Daily NK
Kim Min Se

Having received permission from North Korean authorities, North Korean restaurants that are operating in China or in Southeast Asia are making fixed payments of $10,000 to 30,000 to North Korea.

The portion of payments made to North Korea by North Korean restaurants operating in China or Southeast Asia is a known reality, but this is the first time that the amount that these restaurants made to North Korea became known.

Kim Myung Ho (pseudonym, 59), who has experience running a North Korean restaurant in China under the auspices of a North Korean foreign currency-making activity organization, met our reporter in an unnamed quarter of Dandong in China on the 13th. He said, “Under the influence of each ministry in the administration or a money-making business, North Korea is trying to competitively establish restaurants abroad.”

According to Mr. Kim, the amount remitted by the restaurants is decided according to the number of waitresses and employees.

He said, “The amount sent back to the North is $10,000 if the number of employees is less than or equal to 15, but if it exceeds 20, then the amount of remittance is $20,000, and over that, the amount is capped at $30,000.”

Mr. Kim said, “Every year, the sum total is counted at the business headquarters in Pyongyang, but if there’s even a small default or lack of results, then the threat of evacuation is given.”

Currently, there are over a hundred odd restaurants which are known in China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. In the case that $10,000~30,000 is sent to North Korea every year, it can be calculated that North Korea is earning approximately several tens of thousands of dollars through overseas restaurant operations alone.

Mr. Kim revealed, “North Korean restaurants are receiving the limelight as main foreign currency-making activity businesses. Because they are pursuing business competitively, they have had to shut down operations one after the other due to the inability to manage internal affairs, such as employees breaking away.”

The shutdown of two North Korean restaurants, named “Pyongyang Moran Restaurant” and “Pyongyang Restaurant,” for several months due to the running away of waitresses was a confirmed fact of Daily NK’s investigations.

Presently, there are special trade companies who try to achieve the foreign-currency making activity plans issued by each ministry of the North Korean government. Most of North Korean restaurants that are operating overseas right now are associated with these trade companies.

Mr. Kim said, “Foreign currency collected in these ways is used as operating capital of superior offices Party and as a portion of the Party. Anything besides this, higher than that, is hard to say.”

The reason for the expensive price of food at North Korean restaurants is due to these remittance amounts. They exceed the price of food at surrounding restaurants by three times. In Dandung City, nangmyeon (Korean buckwheat noodle), which can be obtained for 6 Yuan at a high-class Chinese restaurant, is two times pricier at 10~15 Yuan at North Korean restaurants.

The price is expensive, but what makes these restaurants popular, which cannot be found at no other restaurant, is the performances accompanied by song and dance of North Korean waitresses. Performers are usually 20~25 young women who draw customers by singing North Korean songs and even Chinese songs.

Mr. Wang, a Chinese patron seeking a North Korean restaurant in the evening of the 14th, confessed, “I like the fact that I don’t have to seek out a karaoke, because I can sing and dance with the ladies of Pyongyang.”

Further, he expressed contentment that “I can receive high-class service which is difficult to receive at a Chinese restaurant, so it is good for entertaining business partners.” North Korean restaurants are drawing popularity by its unique business method of simultaneously providing food and amusement. Recently, they have tried to actively rouse regular customers by not only providing performances, but dancing with the customers.

A person of Korean-Chinese descent, who is pursuing North Korea-Chinese trade in Dandung, expressed, “It’s disappointing to see the sight of restaurants multiplying when trade is not sanctioned normally due to the lack of foreign currency. Businesses are operating with food and entertainment due to a lack of good income sources; in Dandung alone, there are over 10 restaurants.”


North Korean Film Turns to Romance on the Failure of Propaganda Campaign

Tuesday, June 19th, 2007

Daily NK
Yang Jung A

“North Korean government has employed movies to propagate superiority of the regime and Su-Ryeong (supreme leader) absolutism. However, North Korean movies have seen a new wave recently.” John Feffer, co- director at Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF), an Institute for politics & diplomacy in the U.S, declared through his article on the web on 12th.

Feffer remarked “North Korea was quickly recovered from World War∥ and Korean War. From the 60s to 70s, North Korean had had a great expectation on Utopia” “However, it has been stagnated since then.”

He was interested in the fact that even Kim Jong Il himself perceived that North Korean film was stagnant the same time of North Korean stagnation. Additionally, “The government and the films were portraying an ever-improving society and yet the population must have been noticing that reality was stubbornly not keeping pace” he explained.

◆ People noticed North Korean reality

He appraised “During the reign of Brezhnev (1965 ~1983), people in the former Soviet Union could get their entertainment from foreign movies, books and samizdat publications. On the other hand, the North Korean had no other alternatives” Thereafter, North Korean film industry has gone for a romance for escapism, he explained.

The most representative film is “the family” series. This series of short film, 9 episodes in all, pictured a struggle of the family caused by the couple’s divorce and their troubled children.

Feffer also said that North Korean movies, which haven’t opened to the public, have released to the world audience one after another.

Currently a film titled “A Schoolgirl’s Diary” portraying a story of a North Korean girl, has been expected to be released in Europe by a French distributor. Also, Daniel Gordon British director, have produced documentary films “A State of Mind (2005)” and “The Game of Their Lives (2002)” gaining permission from North Korean government.

Feffer pointed out “Since Film has played an prominent role in North Korean culture and history, scholars are beginning to comb through North Korean films for clues about how the system ticks.” However, he doubted whether North Korean films ultimately reveal the reality of the country or not.

He continued “We should look at film in order to understand and coexist and to have a glimpse of North Korea instead of reducing it to a one-dimensional propaganda tool.” “Besides, Kim Jong Il made most of movies to manage his political agenda.” He added.

He said that media have often said Kim Jong Il is a huge film buff.” “Therefore, the rise of the “Dear Leader” to political leadership is linked inextricably to his film career.” He explained.

  • Bulgarian audience fascinated by “Hong Kil Dong”

He continued to observe “North Korean movies would play a role to idolize Kim Il Sung. And Kim Jong Il, unlike Deng Xiaoping in China and Gorbachev in the former Soviet Union, was able to escape from criticism against the hereditary succession of power.”

Feffer noted. “In the 70s, Kim Jong Il, having established idolatry cult on his father, Kim Il Sung with movies, realized North Korean film hit the dead end.“ At that time, Kim, who is a remarkable film collector, had clearly understood the widening gap between national and overseas films.”

” ‘Hong Kil Dong’ was the most popular movie in the late 80s in Bulgaria and this classic tale, Korean version of Robin Hood, introduced Hong Kong style action to the East European for the first time.” “The brilliant action footage of the film dazzled the East European audience. It was part of the plan to revive North Korean film adopting Hong Kong style action.” he specified.

Kim’s passion on film reached the peak as abducting Choi Eun Hee , South Korean actress, in 1978.

Feffer mentioned “He also abducted Shin Sang Ok, the estranged husband of Choi Eun Hee, and made him to produce movies. This couple had brought a new wave on North Korean film industry until their escape in 1986.”

”The most renowned movie among Shin’s production is “ Pulgasari,” North Korean version of “Godzilla” and “Love, Love, Oh my Love,” revived Chunhyang, classic romance in Korea. Shin Sang Ok adapted Romance and SF to Korean style story line,” he assessed.
However, he pointed out “It’s difficult to know whether entertaining aspect on “Hong Kil Dong” and the new wave on Shin Sang Ok distracted the North Korean audience from political messages or made those messages easily absorbed.”

Indeed, Feffer appraised Kim Jong Il is not the first individual who recognize the political uses of film.

He explained that North Korean regime have recognised the evolutional potential of the media. Korea Workers’ Party, under the Kim Il Sung’s lead, was able to occupy Northern Korean Peninsula after the World War ∥ relying on the support from the former Soviet Union. The Soviets had already pioneered film technique in the early days of the Russian revolution.

However, North Korea already showed its independent streak not following the Soviet model .

Feffer said “Film was ideal means to adapt Russian Communism to North Korean Nationalism, which is solely manipulated for idolatry on Kim Il Sung.” “Leaders in Pyongyang was able to control over all the context. Government can manipulate publications. Still, film can be more powerful maneuvers of the past for it reflects reality.”


Chongryon’s trouble

Tuesday, June 19th, 2007

Korea Herald

The General Association of (pro-Pyongyang) Korean Residents in Japan or Chongryon (Jochongnyeon) is in the most serious trouble since its founding half a century ago. The Tokyo District Court on Monday ordered it to repay 62.7 billion yen (about $780 million) to a Japanese official debt-collection agency and allowed the agency to seize the premises housing Chongryon headquarters in Tokyo. If and when the Resolution and Collection Corp. starts procedures to impound the property, Chongryon will face eviction.

RCC took over non-performing loans from a Chongryon-affiliated credit union upon its bankruptcy, and filed a suit to have Chongryon repay them on the grounds that the loans had in effect been channeled to the Korean residents’ association. Chongryon asserted that the suit was politically motivated to deprive it of its headquarters building and force its dissolution. The judge rejected the claim and ruled in favor of RCC.

The Japanese media has extensively covered the suit as well as an unsuccessful attempt by Chongryon to turn over the ownership of the premises to a Japanese investment advisory firm headed by a former government intelligence chief in order to avoid seizure of the property. Ownership was transferred in the official registry, but no actual payment was made in the fake sale, and the transfer was canceled before the court ruling.

Chongryon, which has served as North Korea’s virtual embassy in Japan in the absence of diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang, has funneled funds to the North collected from Korean firms and individuals affiliated with it. Japanese government’s and civil society’s antagonism toward it grew over the past few years as a result of the disclosure of North Korea’s abduction of Japanese nationals, its nuclear arms development and occasional test-firing of missiles toward and over Japan.

Japan’s “right turn” in recent days has curtailed Chongryon’s activities on political and social levels. Since Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara lifted tax exemption on Chongryon facilities, other autonomous bodies have followed suit, causing deeper financial woes to the organization. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to cut ties between Pyongyang and Chongryon as he believed the residents’ association was instrumental in North Korea’s illicit operations in Japan.

Under these circumstances, Mindan or the pro-Seoul Korean Residents’ Association in Japan sought amity with Chongryon and the two organizations issued a “joint statement” on May 17 last year agreeing on steps toward reconciliation and concord, including joint observation of the Aug. 15 liberation anniversary. That accord, however, has not produced practical results.

The impending seizure of the Chongryon headquarters in Tokyo in lieu of debt payment will hasten the decline of the organization. The Tokyo court ruling will be followed by similar court actions against provincial Chongryon chapters that are more or less in similar situations. Japanese media reported that nine of 29 major Chongryon facilities across the country have already been seized by the Resolution and Collection Corp.

Young affiliates of Chongryon are leaving the organization or naturalizing in Japan in increasing numbers. Older Chongryon Koreans who had lived with the fantasy of a “socialist paradise” in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula up until the 1980s have long lost their pride. They are now seeing their once beloved fatherland still demanding contributions from their expatriates in Japan when their organization is facing eviction and eventual dissolution. It is a bitter irony that some Japanese liberals are protesting to their government for what they call the political persecution of Chongryon.


Fuel pipeline explosion killed 110 N. Koreans: civic group

Tuesday, June 19th, 2007

Sohn Suk-joo

An aging fuel pipeline exploded in northwestern North Korea about two weeks ago, killing more than 100 residents there, a South Korean civic group claimed Tuesday.

“On June 9, a fire broke out at a field in Sonchon County in North Pyongan Province and some 110 North Koreans were killed,” Good Friends, a Seoul-based Buddhist civic organization, said in an e-mail newsletter.

The alleged disaster came when a lot of people came out to collect gasoline from the fuel pipe, which burst and spilled fuel. “People collected gasoline in their vessels, pandemonium erupted, and a fire broke out,” the newsletter said.

The pipeline from a chemical company in North Pyongan Province to Taedong County in South Pyongan Province was being used to deliver 200 tons of gasoline across the fields and paddies, according to the letter.

“Gasoline costs about 2,500 won a kilogram in North Korea, so many people jockeyed for position for the purpose of making money and the fire started by accident,” it said, adding that the fire was not contained until the following day.

Seoul government and intelligence authorities said they were still trying to verify the claim.

“If such a big accident happened in Sonchon, the news might have spread outside already. I haven’t heard about it yet,” a Unification Ministry official said.


Inter-Korean trade up by 300%

Tuesday, June 19th, 2007

Joong Ang Daily
Hwang Young-jin

graph.jpgTrade volume between North and South Koreas has increased more than threefold since the historical June 15 Declaration in 2000.

With an average increase of 24.3 percent, annually, the total amount will reach $1.7 billion by the end of the year, according to the report on inter-Korean Trade from the Korea International Trade Association, also known as KITA.

Annual trade volume in 2000 was $425 million, which increased to $1.3 billion last year. Trade volume so far this year until May has already reached $563 million, which is a 31.3 percent increase year-on-year.

Besides the overall growth, what is healthy about the trade quality is that commercial trade accounts for almost 70 percent of the total trade. That figure was below 60 in 2000, according to the report. Non-commercial trade refers to aid including items such as rice, clothing and fuel. In other words, they are products that were sent to North Korea free of charge.

“The success of the Kaesong Industrial Complex is the biggest reason [for the rise],” said Roh Sung-ho, head of the Inter-Korean trade support team at KITA. “We are accepting bids for additional space at the Kaesong complex, and three times more companies bid than there are lots available.”

With more and more companies establishing factories in Kaesong, more material is exported from the South, and more manufactured goods return, said Roh.

The value of goods leaving South Korea was higher than the value of goods returning. However, about 30 percent of those goods were aid and were given free of charge. When that is taken into account, the North made more money from its exports to the South than the South made in exports to the North.

This allows the North to record a profit in trade account books.

“The nuclear incident last year, didn’t affect inter-Korean trade. There might be minor falls, but I expect trade volume between the two Koreas to increase for the time being,” Roh said.


N.Korea’s Kang Sok-ju Appointed to NDC

Monday, June 18th, 2007

Choson Ilbo (Hat Tip DPRK Studies)

North Korea’s First Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok-ju, who is in responsible for Pyongyang’s diplomatic affairs including the nuclear issue, was in May made a member of the ruling National Defense Commission (NDC) led by dictator Kim Jong-il, Russian sources said Sunday.

The sources said Kim appointed Kang to the leadership body to strengthen his power base, with the move seen as ensuring the NDC holds sway over the military as well as domestic and foreign affairs.

Kang has served as the First Vice Foreign Minister since 1986 and is known as the only foreign ministry official who can directly advise Kim. He was a signer of the 1994 Geneva Accords between the U.S. and North Korea and the leader of Pyongyang’s representatives in the six-nation talks. Kang recently visited Moscow for treatment of a cataract.

The sources also said that General Lee Myung-soo, who was the North Korean military’s director of operations, has been made an organizer in the NDC.

The NDC currently consists of the country’s nine most powerful leaders, including Kim who serves as the body’s head, Vice Marshal Cho Myong Rok, who is Kim’s special envoy, Vice Marshal Kim Young-choon, General Rhee Yong-mu, General Kim Il-cheol and Secretary Chun Byung-ho.


Japanese court orders seizure of pro-N. Korean group

Monday, June 18th, 2007


A Japanese court Monday allowed the seizure of the headquarters of a pro-North Korean organization based in Japan because of its failure to repay its debts, a news report said.

In its ruling, the Tokyo District Court ordered the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, better known here as “Chongryon,” to repay 62.7 billion yen to a government debt-collection body, the Kyodo News Agency reported.

Resolution and Collection Corp. (RCC) is expected to start procedures to confiscate the organization’s building, as it claims that the debt was part of loans extended by now-defunct credit unions associated with the group.

The RCC, which took over the non-performing loans from the credit unions, claimed that Chongryon is bound to pay the 62.7 billion yen (US$508 million) as the money was effectively purported to be handed over to Chongryon under the arrangements of the credit associations.

In connection with the suit, an investment advisory firm headed by the former chief of the Public Security Intelligence Agency, Shigetake Ogata, tried in vain to purchase the Chongryon head office for 3.5 billion yen (US$28.4 million) in an effort to prevent the premises from being seized.

Chongryon acknowledged the existence of the loans, but failed to reach an out-of-court settlement with the RCC.

Chongryon argued that the RCC, a public organization, had no right to demand that Chongryon pay the loans at face value, since the RCC had acquired the debts at very low prices.

“There is a purpose in depriving Chongryon of the headquarters’ premises and leading it to dissolution,” Chongryon said. “It offends public order and morality.”


Pyongyang Makes an Appearance

Sunday, June 17th, 2007

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

Keeping up appearances: this is how the official North Korean policy in regard to the city of Pyongyang, the cradle of revolution, can be best summed up. Being a Pyongyang dweller is a great privilege in itself. Until things began to fall apart in the mid-1990s, this meant that your food rations would consist largely of rice (not barley and corn, as in the countryside) and that your children would be entitled to a small glass of milk in school. But you also had to follow the rules, and participate in the grandiose symbolic performance that Pyongyang actually was _ and to an extent still is.

Many laws which dealt with the daily life of Pyongyang’s residents essentially served the purposes of presentation. Take, for example, the case of Pyongyang bikes. East Asia has a well-deserved reputation as a cyclists’ paradise. Nonetheless, North Korea used to be different. Until the early 1990s bicycles were outlawed in Pyongyang. Obviously, the North Korean authorities saw bicycles as decisively low-tech _ and hence inappropriate for the “capital of revolution.’’

Foreigners were not exempt from this charade. When in the mid-1970s a visiting Norwegian diplomat brought his bike to Pyongyang, he stirred up a diplomatic controversy. After painful negotiations he was granted permission to ride his bike… on weekends only.

Another example is a strict dress code imposed on the female dwellers of Pyongyang and some other cities. Women are not supposed to wear trousers outside their work. Actually, police turn a blind eye to such inappropriately dressed women in winter. Older halmoni also can walk in trousers with impunity _ at least if they do not stray outside their neighborhood. But for other women in summer time, skirts are obligatory, and until the late 1990s an attempt to walk the street in trousers would result in a fine and a probable report to police.

There are other restrictions as well: a certain tradition or institution may not be outlawed but should not be mentioned in the press. A phenomenon could exist in the real world, but it is not permitted to enter the world carefully constructed by Pyongyang propaganda.

My favorite example is the pram. North Korean women carry their children like women in East Asia have done for centuries: on their backs. This is probably a very good way: at least, Russian Koreans, arguably the most de-Koreanized of all overseas Korean communities, still sometimes follow this custom after some 150 years of their life in Russia. Perhaps, it makes sense: a baby feels so comfortable on a mother’s back!

But the North Korean authorities decided that this age-old habit of carrying children on the back should not be too widely advertised. Hence, you cannot find pictures of women carrying kids on their back. Instead, on the glossy pages of the North Korean propaganda monthlies, readers frequently encounter pictures of impossibly happy mothers who are moving their children about in prams. In real life one has to spend several weeks in Pyongyang before chancing on a pram-pushing lady. The politically incorrect tradition of carrying children on the back should not be mentioned in official publications or depicted in visual arts (unless they employed as a reference to the bad old days before the coming of the Kim dynasty).

Nowadays, the rules have been somewhat relaxed, but back in the 1970s or 1980s a foreigner took some risk by taking a picture of a mother with a baby on her back. There were chances that, if spotted, the film would be removed from the camera and exposed to the light.

The same fate could easily befall somebody who dared take pictures of Korean women moving heavy loads on their heads. Such scenes are increasingly rare in Seoul these days, but in Pyongyang this is still a commonplace sight. Nonetheless, in the ideal world of the official propaganda, Korean women do not carry large weight in such an archaic way, and no media is allowed to break the censorship of such subversive information.

Actually, I think that there are good reasons why the North Korean officials are afraid of such scenes. They likely know little about Edward Said’s writings on “Orientalism’’: after all, Leninist regimes were always very suspicious about non-Leninist brands of leftist ideology, so people like Gramsci, Althusser, or Said were never much loved in Moscow, Beijing, or Pyongyang. But they obviously grasped some of Said’s “Orientalist’’ ideas instinctively. For most Western readers, pictures of women with children on their backs or of old ladies moving heavy loads on the top of their heads do hint at “exoticism’’ and also, by implication, “underdevelopment’’. And the North Korean state does not want to present itself as underdeveloped.

But all these efforts to impress the world appear quite strange when we remember how small the target audience actually was. North Koreans knew the truth anyway, and foreigners in Pyongyang were very few in number. In most cases their positions and experiences made them very skeptical of all these propaganda exercises. But the North Korean officials tried hard nonetheless.


North Korea Gets $25 Million Frozen by U.S. Probe

Friday, June 15th, 2007

Washington Post, A17
Glenn Kessler

North Korea took possession yesterday of about $25 million in funds previously frozen by a Treasury Department investigation, potentially clearing the way for Pyongyang to fulfill its commitment to shut down an aging nuclear reactor.

An impasse over transferring the money had stalled an agreement announced in February that the Bush administration had hailed as a first step toward ending North Korea’s nuclear activities.

Under that agreement, which angered President Bush’s conservative supporters, the United States was supposed to end the Treasury investigation within a month and North Korea was to shutter its reactor at Yongbyon by April 14. But North Korea refused to take that step until it received money caught up in the investigation.

The reactor had been frozen under a 1994 deal with the Clinton administration, but in 2002 Pyongyang restarted it after a dispute with the Bush administration. Experts estimate that North Korea — which conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006 — has obtained enough plutonium from the reactor for as many as 12 nuclear weapons.

Late this year or in early 2008, North Korea would need to produce fresh fuel to keep the reactor going, says a recent report by the Institute for Science and International Security.

The Treasury Department had targeted Banco Delta Asia, in the Chinese special administrative region Macau, alleging it was involved in money-laundering for North Korea. But the Treasury’s action had wider repercussions, essentially convincing banks around the world not to do business with North Korean firms.

Though the Treasury Department agreed to allow the return of money tainted by illicit activities, no bank was willing to transfer the money without explicit assurances that the Treasury would take no regulatory action. North Korea could have withdrawn the money in cash, but many experts suspected Pyongyang demanded a wire transfer to signal to financial institutions that it was once again part of the financial system.

U.S. officials trying to save the deal desperately searched for a willing bank, but each time an arrangement seemed possible, complications arose. Finally, after Russia indicated that one of its banks could help, the Treasury arranged for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to transfer the money to a dormant North Korea account at a Russian bank that operates in the Far East, near the border with North Korea.

“Basically all of it has been transferred,” the Macau government said in a statement yesterday. “For Macao, this incident has come to a conclusion.”

When the Treasury ended the Banco Delta Asia investigation in March, it formally ordered a broad range of U.S. financial institutions to stop doing business with BDA. But that order did not include the banks’ regulator — the Federal Reserve system — which allowed the New York Fed to handle yesterday’s transaction without requiring an exemption from the Treasury.

Still, a group of Republican lawmakers this week asked the Government Accountability Office to examine whether the transaction complies with money-laundering and counterfeiting laws.

N Korea fund transfer ‘under way’


The transfer of North Korea’s funds from a bank in Macau – a key issue in nuclear disarmament talks – appears to be under way.

A Macau finance minister reportedly said $20m of Pyongyang’s $25m (£12.7m) had left a blacklisted bank in Macau.

The money was earlier reported to be going to a North Korean bank account in Russia, via the US Federal Reserve.

North Korea insists it must access its funds before abiding by a deal to begin shutting its nuclear facilities.

Q&A: North Korean money in Macau

In February North Korea agreed to a timeline for giving up its main nuclear site by April – in return for badly-needed fuel and the return of $25m from a bank in Macau.

But the money has yet to be transferred, and the site remains open.

Now, though, the Russians are offering to step in and get the money to Pyongyang, which could remove a key sticking point in neutralising North Korea’s nuclear capability.

How has such a small amount of money become such a sticking point?

The money is, in a sense, only the visible part of a broader problem.

Dozens of North Korean government departments do their international business through a bank in Macau called Banco Delta Asia.

But in September 2005, the US Treasury accused BDA of being a conduit for laundering money for Pyongyang, triggering severe limits on the bank’s dealings with US financial institutions – and a freeze on $25m of North Korean money in the bank’s accounts.

According to the Treasury, BDA was a “willing pawn” of North Korea, helping process as much as $500m a year in dirty money without asking awkward questions.

The move sent relations between Washington, DC and Pyongyang – frosty at the best of times – into the deep freeze.

Between then and now, the $25m became a tool for the US to achieve a deal on North Korea’s ambitions for nuclear weapons – and an excuse for North Korea to stall.

So has a deal been reached now?

Yes, in February this year. North Korea pledged to give up its nuclear reprocessing activities in exchange for thousands of tonnes of fuel.

At the same time, the $25m would be unfrozen, and could – in theory – head back to North Korea.

But the money has yet to leave Macau, because at the same time the US Treasury cut BDA off altogether from the US banking system.

This ultimate sanction, in banking terms, was made under section 311 of the USA Patriot Act – passed shortly after the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York. Effectively, it bars any financial institution from having anything to do with BDA, if they want to do business with or in America.

Understandably, therefore, attempts to find a way of wiring the money back to North Korea have failed.

Banks in China and Vietnam have been approached and have refused to get involved.

One US bank – Wachovia – has been asked by the US State Department to consider helping out, but it points out that it will need assurances that it is not in breach of section 311 before it can do anything.

What is Russia offering to do?

Russia is one of the partners in the six-way talks over denuclearisation of North Korea, and – given that it shares a border with North Korea – has a powerful interest in moving discussions along.

Early in June, Russian officials suggested that a Russian bank might step in to get the frozen $25m from Macau to Pyongyang – directly or via intermediaries.

The US Treasury has now acknowledged the possibility of Russian assistance.

But Russia is likely to require cast-iron assurances that US sanctions against banks which carry out transactions with North Korea will not apply.

One possibility would be for the money to go first via the New York branch of the US central bank, the Federal Reserve, and then on to Russia’s own central bank before being paid into Moscow’s Far East Commercial Bank, where North Korea has a long-unused account.

But what does a country like North Korea need money-laundering services for?

North Korea, in practical terms, is flat broke.

Its trade is minimal, its agriculture is suffering, and its contact with the outside world is severely limited.

But according to the US Treasury, not to mention many experts elsewhere in intelligence and financial crime, Pyongyang has for the past two decades made up for its lack of legitimate trade by taking an unhealthy interest in faking US banknotes, smuggling counterfeit tobacco products and even the narcotics trade.

Much of the proceeds, the US claims, have been laundered through BDA, which has also facilitated huge bulk cash shipments back to Pyongyang – as well as large trades in precious metals.

BDA, it should be said, has always strongly denied the allegations, insisting its business with North Korea is above board.

Why does the US not just send the money back itself?

In theory, the US could have provided a bank with the reassurance it needs to get involved, although that has yet to happen – and could, in any case, be legally tricky. “Difficult, yes; impossible, no,” was how the State Department’s spokesman described it.

Similarly, reports have suggested that since 2001 there has been a conduit for fund transfers between the State Department’s credit union and the Foreign Trade Bank in Pyongyang.

But as far as the Treasury is concerned, the ball is now in Macau’s court. It is up to the regulators there to work out how to get the money back to North Korea – and in the meantime the section 311 rule stays in force.

In any case, after years of playing hardball with North Korea, the last thing the current US administration wants is look as if it is doing things Pyongyang’s way.

Can’t North Korea get it back any other way?

It could – for instance, through a direct withdrawal from BDA back to Pyongyang.

Alternatively, if the US is right that bulk cash shipments have been going on for years illicitly, perhaps the technique could be used for above-board purposes.

But as far as North Korea is concerned, that kind of deal is unacceptable.

It seems that the authorities in Pyongyang want the transfer to pass through the international financial system, so as to send a signal that handling North Korean money does not mean instant ostracism.

Not only that; keeping the matter rumbling on means more time to extract concessions – and, some experts fear, to keep reprocessing nuclear material.