Archive for February, 2008

Vienna trains North Korean orchestra conductors…

Friday, February 29th, 2008

This week that Washington Post (hat tip Dr. Petrov)published an article which took a unique position on the NY Phil’s performance.  Rather than comment on whether the event was diplomatically significant, or whether it legitimized a regime with a poor human rights record, the columnist denounced it for having a “tinge of benevolent didacticism”…before pointing out that North Korea has no shortage of classically-trained, quality orchestra conductors.  In fact, for years they have been sending students to Vienna:

Asia is a hotbed of Western classical music. This passion has evidently not bypassed North Korea. Much of the West harbors images of North Koreans as either wealthy soldiers or starving peasants. But in Vienna, Austria, there is another image of them: as conducting students. The elite conducting class at the University of Music and Performing Arts there has trained no fewer than 17 North Korean students in the past decade.

According to Mark Stringer, the conductor who leads the class, the North Korean government decides, every few years, that it is time to train a new crop of elite young conductors. In the early 2000s — a few years before Stringer took over in 2005 — the government’s choice fell on this Vienna school. There were considerable bureaucratic hurdles to overcome; North Korean representatives insisted on sitting in on auditions, and had a hard time understanding why not all of their handpicked candidates were accepted by the school. But they were also paying attention.

“The next batch,” Stringer said, “knew what to expect. They were so prepared they could nail every single bit of our ferociously difficult entrance exam.”

The students also do not fulfill anyone’s expectations of politically guarded wards of the state. “They have a completely normal experience,” Stringer says. “Once they’re in the walls of the school, politics disappear. There is no breathing down our necks from the North Korean officials.” He describes the students as generally more open, easygoing and funny than their South Korean counterparts.

“Were they to be allowed to stay in the West,” he says, “a number of the ones I’ve seen would have a serious chance of a prominent international career. It’s phenomenal what they come to Vienna knowing how to do.”

UPDATE email from a reader:

I also visited that performance of the joint North-South Korean student’s orchestra at Vienna Music Universtity (and took a video of this performance).

Contrary to the Washington Post article the ambassadors were not attending the performance, but other staff of the respective embassies [were]. I don’t know, if they drank beer together, but anyhow, when arriving at the hall before performance the consuls (not ambassadors) greeted themselves nicely.

Very interesting the seating arrangement of the South and North Korean spectators in this student concert. The men (Korean, North an[d] south) in rows 2-4, the women in rows 5-6 and the students behind. (very Confucian …)  It was amazing to see how many North Koreans must be living here in Vienna.

In Vienna, there are not only North Korean conductor students, but also piano, violin, biology, architecture or English students. The same in Germany, Italy and maybe France and other countries.

The full article can be read here:
The N.Y. Philharmonic in North Korea: Symbology and the Music
Washington Post
Anne Midgette
Tuesday, February 26, 2008; Page C04


Russian ship makes it home

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

UPDATE: Dr. Petrov made some interesting comments that deserve highlighting:

The BBC report is full of mistakes. The name of the ship was “Lidia Demesh”. On board were 23 members of crew and 1 passenger. After being arrested the ship was escorted to the port of Kimchaek.

The situation was resolved quickly thanks to the Russian Consular General, E.Val’kovich, who personally went to Kimchaek and sorted things out. Most Russian diplomats posted to DPRK are fluent in Korean and exempt from travel restrictions. So, no traditional Hawaiian symbol of respect is needed. 

ORIGINAL POST: The BBC reported last week that the North Koreans pulled a surprise ‘Pueblo’ on the Russians.

The Lida Demesh, carrying a consignment of cars from Japan, was heading for the Russian port of Vladivostok when it was stopped by patrol near Cape Musudan.

An armed group boarded the ship and ordered the captain to change course and go to a North Korean port [Chongjin],” he told the Russian NTV network.

Mr Yeroshkin said the centre had been told the ship’s 25 crew-members were fine and that there had been no threat to their lives. (BBC)

Strangely, this was not the first time this has happened… 

A similar incident in 2005 took 15 days to resolve through diplomatic channels. (BBC)

Fortunately for the crew, the situation did not last that long.

A Russian cargo ship released by North Korean authorities on Wednesday has arrived in the Far East port of Vladivostok.

Captain Yury Buzanov said on returning to Russia that he was forced to enter North Korean waters to avoid a shipwreck due to a heavy storm.

“To save the crew I decided to enter North Korean waters because the waves in the Sea of Japan were three to four meters high with winds of 25 meters per second. In such stormy conditions, the cargo could have shifted in an instant causing the ship to lurch and sink,” the captain said. (Novosti)

No word if they ever used the traditional Hawaiian symbol of respect.

The full stories can be found here:
North Korea Detains Russian Ships

Russian ship arrives home after seizure by North Korea


NY Philharmonic wrap up (and US national anthem)…

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

UPDATE 2 (2013-6-24): A documentary was made of the NY Phil’s visit to Pyongyang.  You can watch both parts here:

Part I:

Part II:

UDATE 1 (2008-11-17): Suki Kim wrote about the experience in Harpers.  Download the PDF here:  harpers.pdf

ORIGINAL POST (2008-2-27): Its difficult to say anything about the NY Phil’s performance that has not already been reported on by numerous other forums, but I think I managed to put together enough interesting material to meet the high standards of North Korean Economy Watch readers:

Pyongyang and the Star Spangled Banner

This site claimed that the philharmonic’s performance would likely be the first time that the US national anthem was broadcast on North Korea’s airwaves.  The Joong Ang Daily backs this claim up with a caveat:

The Unification Ministry of South Korea said the U.S. national anthem was played in Pyongyang in 2005 at an international boxing match. It is, however, the first time the Star Spangled Banner has been broadcast live across North Korea. (Joong Ang Daily)

The first public performance of the Star Spangled Banner in Pyongyang was in honor of US female boxer Yvonne Caples (official biography here).  Here is how it was reported in KCNA:

DPRK Female Pro Boxer Choe Un Sun Wins World Championship

Pyongyang, June 28, 2005 (KCNA) — Female pro boxer Choe Un Sun of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea captured the championship title of the WBCF in the women’s light flyweight category (48.98 kg). Choe Un Sun settled the bout by a unanimous decision over Yvonne Caples of the United States.
The champion belt, trophy and certificate were awarded to Choe.
The match was held at the Ryugyong Jong Ju Yong Gymnasium in Pyongyang Tuesday.

In the interest of fair reporting, here is Ms. Caples’ side of the story:

…Yvonne traveled to Pyongyang, North Korea to be a part of the historic first professional boxing matches in North Korea to fight for the WBCF Jr. Flyweight World Title against North Korean Eun Soon Choi. During Yvonne’s bout the American National Anthem was played for the first time in North Korea. Yvonne knew that in order to get a decision she would probably have to get a knock out. Eun Soon Choi proved to be very strong and skillful. Fighting in front of 13,000 cheering North Koreans, Yvonne fought what she felt was the best fight of her career. Despite the intimidating crowd Yvonne felt relaxed and confident throughout the fight. “I fought the fight of my life and came on very strong in the last five rounds. Even though I felt I won the fight, I knew I wouldn’t get the decision. It is no joke fighting in an arena with 13,000 people cheering against you. I was so proud of myself for keeping my composure and fighting so hard in this fight. I do have to take my hat off to the North Korean fighters. I expected them to be strong and well-conditioned, but they were also very skillful fighters. I don’t think anyone would be able to go over there and completely dominate them or knock them out.”

Ms. Caples aside, the editor of this site sang the US national anthem on a bus full of tourists and north Korean guides traveling to Wonsan in August 2005. For the record, this counts as the second live, “public” performance of the Star Spangled Banner.  The NY Philharmonic is only now taking the bronze.

Jazz also made its debut.  According to Defector Kim Chol-woong:

[“An American in Paris”] is a masterpiece, a mixture of classical and jazz. I am amazed that they will play jazz, because the genre is strictly forbidden in North Korea.

[W]hat musicians are allowed to perform is strictly political. Jazz is forbidden because it is American music. Jazz is considered lewd and immoral. (Joong Ang Daily)

What are North Korea’s full musical capabillities?
Dr. Petrov sent in a great Washington Post article on North Korea’s musical capabilities on which I wrote a separate post.

How many people heard the performance?
The theater holds 1500.  According to the WSJ, there were a minimum of 150 foreigners likely in the audience (they flew in with the orchestra).  Who knows if any of the small business, NGO, and diplomatic community residing in Pyongyang were able to attend.  There was also a dress rehearsal for 1200 earlier in the day.

The Daily NK reports (Via the Japanese Mainichi) the the performance was not boradcast on radio, only on television.  This means that relatively few people saw it since the penetration of radios is far more significant than television in the DPRK.

Addendum: Who attended?
In the comment section below, “Gag Halfrunt” (clever handle) links to a list of VIP attnedees in KCNA.

Don Kirk notices who did not attend.

Here you can listen to the perfomrance:

In the comment section below, Greg Halfrunt posts a link to  Beginning Friday, Feb 29 (happy leap year), 2008.

The full stories cited in this post can be found here:
Americans in Pyongyang
Joong Ang Daily
Kim Ho-joung and Ser Myo-ja

Philharmonic is hopeful sign for defector
Joong Ang Daily
Ser Myo-ja

North Korea Criticizes the US during the New York Philharmonic Performance
Daily NK
Park In Ho

A Sour Note in Pyongyang
Asia Times
Don Kirk


Eric Clapton has important fan in North Korea

Tuesday, February 26th, 2008

Anna Fifield (whom I briefly met in Pyongyang in 2005) reports today in the  Financial Times that the DPRK has invited Eric Clapton to make an appearance in Pyongyang:

The New York Philharmonic performed in Pyongyang on Tuesday night. The North Korean State Symphony Orchestra plans to perform in London this summer.

Pyongyang has invited Mr Clapton, whose hits include “Cocaine” and “Tears in Heaven”, as a reciprocal visit for the North Korean orchestra tour, the Financial Times has learnt.

“These cultural exchanges are a way of promoting understanding between countries,” a North Korean official told the FT. “We want our music to be understood by the western world and we want our people to understand western music.” (Financial Times)

Of course, we have known since 2006 that Mr. Clapton has at least one important fan in the DPRK:

While the rest of the world was anxiously following news about North Korea’s recent missile tests, Kim Jong-il’s second son and possible heir apparent, Kim Jong-chul, had his mind focused on entirely different matters. He was among the fans who followed British rock and blues guitarist Eric Clapton on his German tour, which took him to Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Leipzig and Berlin.

Jong-chul, 25, is said to be a diehard Clapton fan, and may have acquired a taste for Western popular music when, in the mid-1990s, he studied at a private international boarding school in Bern, Switzerland. (Asia Times)

The full articles can be found below:
N Korea strikes chord with Clapton invite
Financial Times
Anna Fifield

Sons and heirs
Asia Times
Bertil Litner


More on the DPRK anti-corruption campaign…

Sunday, February 24th, 2008

Details are starting to emerge on North Korea’s recent anti-corruption drive.   

North Korean authorities have been investigating the chief of a North Korean committee in charge of inter-Korean economic cooperation for months after seizing $20 million from his house, a report said Friday.

Quoting an unidentified Chinese source informed on North Korean affairs, the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper said Pyongyang authorities are intensifying their investigation into Jung Woon-eop and 80 other officials of the committee over where the money came from.

It is possible that this is just a good old fashoned purge.

It is also possible that this campaign is the first stage in a policy shift.

The full article can be found here:
NK Official Suspected of Embezzling Funds From Seoul
Korea Times
Jung Sung-ki


North Korean embassies having business problems

Sunday, February 24th, 2008

As readers of North Korean Economy Watch are well ware, North Korean embassies do not receive all of their operational funding from Pyongyang.  In most cases, the embassy staff do not only generate their own income, they must also remit money back to Pyongyang.

This system might seem strange to westerners, but it has one major benefit to Pyongyang: the embassies actually earn a profit! The down side, however, is that more than one North Korean diplomat has been caught neck deep in some kind of shady business deal.

It might be possible, though, that business for the embassies is not too brisk these days…

This week, the Daily NK reports that Kim Jong il’s half-brother, who is the exiled ambassador to Poland, seems to be making overhead cutbacks at his embassy:

The North Korea embassy in Poland has not been able to hold Kim Jong Il’s birthday party in the embassy since 2006 due to financial problems. Despite this, they have been holding events, ceremonies and parties in pro-North Korean organizations or North Korean branch companies with pro-North Korean figures in Poland.” (Daily NK)

This is the second DPRK emabssy story in the media recently.  Just a few days ago, it was reported the the North Korean ambassy in Australia was also closing

What other DPRK embassy cutbacks are we unuware of?

The full article can be found here:
Kim Pyong Il Says Kim Jong Il System Will Last For a While
Daily NK
Yang Jung A


Energy shortages lead to fall in appliance sales in DPRK state-run stores

Friday, February 22nd, 2008

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)
Nk Brief No. 08-2-22-1

The South Korean NGO ‘Good Friends’ has reported that government stores in North Korea are mourning the drop in sales of electrical appliance, which appear to be out of favor due to electrical shortages around the country. Good Friends, an organization focused on supplying aid to North Korea, printed in its latest newsletter, “From November of last year to this February electricity has not been available on a regular basis in Chungjin City. At one foreign goods store in the Pohang District, electrical appliances have been barely selling…not only have the store’s sellers have been unable to meet monthly sales targets for several months, sales in February are no different.”

In addition, the newsletter describes the seriousness of the North’s energy shortage, pointing out that “as it becomes more and more difficult for residents to see electricity, they are seeking out Chinese-made 12V batteries, car batteries, candles, and other alternatives.” According to the article, most well-off residents are using car batteries, while average laborers carry flashlights or small battery chargers to work, using electricity slated for industrial use to charge personal items. ”Authorities or people with relatively good jobs usually have around five rechargers in their offices, while some may have more than ten…people with no money or access to industrial-use electricity are buying candles for light.”

The article concluded with, “Electricity has not flown into Soonchun City since October of last year, and five hours of current provided for the people last January 1st, New Year’s Day, was practically the only [electricity]…when returning home after work in the evenings, there is no electricity and nothing to eat, making life difficult.” Along with this, the newsletter reported, “North Korean authorities will no longer permit private dummy corporations…in serious cases, public executions are carried out.”


Haeju receives South Korean broadcasts

Friday, February 22nd, 2008

How pervasive is the flow of outside information in North Korea?  Typically stories in the media answer this question as though geography is the determinate variable: Cities near the Chinese border are the most influenced by heterodox ideas (since cell phones, clear television signals, and smuggling have been commonplace for years), and cities in the south (along the DMZ) are the most isolated (aside from Kaesong).  North Korea’s internal travel restrictions prevent foreign ideas from spreading.  This view was recently repeated by Andrei Lankov.

“The Kaesong exception” is thought to be correlated to the growth of the the Kaesong Industrial Zone.  The theory goes that the thousands of North Koreans who are employed in Kaesong (who work in South Korean facilities for South Korean managers) pick up bits of outside information at the margin and share it with their friends and family back home.  It is not an unreasonable theory.   

A new story in the Daily NK, however, presents evidence which points to ideological contamination on a nationwide scale (irrespective of geography).  The story claims that the city of Haeju is not only thoroughly exposed to South Korean radio and television – it is a production hub of a pirate video market:

“We can receive the TV broadcast of KBS (Korean Broadcasting System) and SBS (Seoul Broadcasting System) fine in Haeju. Sometimes, we can watch MBC (Moonhwa Broadcasting Corporation) as well. I watched Dae Jo Yong (a popular TV drama from KBS) on TV. However, I wanted to watch it again, so I bought a CD and watched it several more time.” He said, “We can get copies of South Korean TV programs from China. However, a great number of copies are also produced in Haeju.”

In a nod to communist efficiency, the subject interviewed in the Daily NK story even claims that in Haeju it is easier to pick up South Korean television signals than those from North Korea! 

With a “manufacturing” facility in Haeju, black market DVDs or VCDs can be copied and distributed throughout the south east even if security is tighter along the Chinese border.  Additionally, these DVDs/VCDs would be cheaper and more widely distributed because they are produced locally (as opposed to using Chinese labor/capital) and will require fewer middlemen to get them across the border and into the hands of consumers.  If this has been going on for some time, then it is safe to assume that most urban centers from Haeju to Pyongyang have regular access to South Korean media! 

Of course a decline in acceptance of the state ideology means the government must rely on external controls (rather than an individual’s self-control) to maintain the system.  The good news is that external controls can be avoided through technolgy, corruption, or both: 

“In the border areas with China and South Korea such as Hwanghae and Kangwon Province, the North Korean authorities try to prevent people from watching S. Korean TV by soldering and pre-tuning TV sets to Chonsun (North Korea) Central TV. Lately, the authorities also attempt to restrict the usage of remote control by covering the sensor with silver paper.

However, North Korean people circumvent the regulation. Instead of giving away their remote control to the authorities, they purchase an extra and watch the TV as they please after removing the silver paper. After all, the authorities’ efforts to control TV channels turn out to be futile for those who have remote control TV sets.

The full article can be found here:
North Korean People Copy South Korean TV Drama for Trade
Daily NK
Lee Sung Jin


DPRK anti-corruption drive: purge, policy change, or both?

Thursday, February 21st, 2008

A little over a week ago, the North Korean government announced an anti-corruption campaign in two agencies: the United Front Department and the National Economic Cooperation Council

As I said then, these sorts of campaigns have nothing to do with making the bureaucracy more accountable or responsive to public demands, but are political maneuvers to prevent “rents” or funds from being channeled to uses that lie outside the leadership’s control (or some faction of the leadership).  In other words, they are regime enhancing (like a purge).

Today, the Daily NK offers a scenario whereby this anti-corruption drive might be a necessary precondition for a drastic policy change: 

The fact that the Guidance Department is involved in the current investigation may be a sign that Kim Jong Il is trying to rebuild the party so that he can change the focus of policy from the military to economic matters. Kim Jong Il has already created a militarily powerful country by acquiring nuclear weapons. Now he wishes to improve other areas.

Within the context of the anti-corruption campaign, today’s Daily NK does a wonderful job identifying the specific agencies involved in reorganizing the DPRK’s levers of power:

The Defense Security Command of the [Korean] People’s Army and the National Security Agency are also launching inspections, but these kinds of inspection are limited. A Defense Security Command investigation can inspect military organizations, local party organizations and individual cadres, but it cannot investigate party branches in the capital and the National Security Agency. At the same time, the National Security Agency’s investigators cannot access the party organizations in Pyongyang, the military and the Defense Security Command.

However, the Guidance Department’s inspection can examine every organization including party organizations in Pyongyang, the Defense Security Command, and the National Security Agency. [A Guidance Department investigation requires Kim Jong Il’s direct authorization. It is often said that if one is the target of such an investigation, one stands little chance of reprieve.]

There are only two known examples of a Guidance Department-led investigation in North Korean history. The first was the investigation of the National Security Agency in February, 1984. […] The second case occurred in 1997 and was known as the Shimhwajo case, resulting in the hushed-up removal of many of Kim Il Sung’s close associates. This inspection was approved by Kim Jong Il and was operated by Jang Sung Taek, Kim’s brother-in-law and the First Vice-Director of the Guidance Department. Through the investigation, thousands of high officials who followed Kim Il Sung were punished, expelled, secretly executed, or sent to prison camps.

To read about another similar change in the balance of power in the DPRK, read the rest of the story here:
Inside the North Korean Shake-up
Daily NK
Moon Sung Hwee


“Special provisions are not necessary. Just do not regulate the markets”

Thursday, February 21st, 2008

market.jpgAt its height, North Korea’s socialist infrastructure was responsible for the vast majority of the people’s standard of living.  Ration coupons and large purchases (such as for a car or refrigerator) were all provided through one’s employer.  This is because society was vertically integrated, with state-owned companies and ministries providing a broad array of social services that are handled by a variety of agents in a capitalist society (food, housing, education, childcare, health care etc..). There was little room for markets, or even prices, in people’s lives.

Although this system only worked for North Koreans in large urban areas, and excluded those in smaller villages and the country side who were much more dependent on themselves, for the vast majority of North Koreans today that system (or social contract) is a distant memory.  Out of fiscal necessity it has been chiseled away over the years, and as a result the scope for individual entrepreneurship in both the public and private spheres is increasing.  I do not want to give the impression that capitalism is running wild, but when compared to the past, the control of the North Korean state over the lives of its people is diminished.

One practice which has been retained to some degree, however, is the distribution of gifts or special provisions on the birthdays of the two leaders, Kim il Sung and Kim Jong il.  The scale of one’s gift, however, allegedly depends on one’s rank in society.  A common farmer might get a new pair of socks.  A senior Worker’s Party official probably receives a good deal more.  One estimate puts the value of these special gifts at USD$20m

The origins of these gifts are mixed.  Some are donated by foreignersSome are imported by the leadershipOthers are made domestically by the people themselves.

According to a story in today’s Daily NK, creeping marketization – bringing with it an increase in price and quality discrimination,  has left many North Korean consumers less than impressed with this year’s gift offerings:

A North Korean source in Shinuiju said in a phone conversation on the 17th, “When looking at the goods provided this time around, the quality has gone up as a whole in contrast to the past. However, the citizens did not attach too much significance to the ‘Great General’s gift’ as in the past.”

The source relayed the public sentiment as “Goods more valuable than his gifts are all over the place in the jangmadang. A portion of the people has said, ‘Special provisions are not necessary. Just do not regulate the markets.'”

In Shinuiju, a bottle of luxury liquor, 2kg of tangerine, and two pheasants were provided to the party organization through the “special provision’ and a bottle of liquor and a modest amount of fruits such as apples and tangerines were given to regular organizations. The People’s Units received a bottle of liquor, a toothbrush, and a bar of soap and pre-school and elementary school students received five pieces of gum, two rice crackers, two packs of chips, and one pack of candy.

The source added, “Those receiving the ‘title of hero’ and the Secretaries in charge of the county parties were given boxes marked with the label ‘gift,’ but its contents are uncertain.”

Another source in Hoiryeong in a phone conversation on this day said, “A bottle of liquor, a bar of soap, and a bottle of toothpaste were provided through the February 16th holiday provision and the children received a pack of candy, two packs of chips, a pack of pea candy, two packs of rice crackers, and seven pieces of gum.”

He also expressed discontent, saying, “It is pitiful to have to wait in line in front of the stores through which provisions are handed out for a mere bottle of liquor and soap.”

In the Hyesan, Yangkang Province region, laborers working at state enterprises were given 3kg of Annam rice (wild rice) and a bottle of liquor and oil were given to average households.

North Korea, in time for Kim Jong Il’s birthday in 2007, provided around 10 food items and daily necessities, including liquor and beer, cider and rice tally, oil, chips, and gum, to civilians.

In 2007, 200g of chips, 200g of candy, 100g of rice snacks, and five pieces of gum were given to elementary school students. Due to the shortage in foreign currency, special provisions were not offered to average civilians.

A caveat to this story is that all of the data points are from the large cities on the Chinese border.  These cities have benefited the most from trade with China and in all likelihood are the most “ideologically contaminated” in the DPRK.  

Jangmadang Goods Are More Valuable Than the General’s Gifts
Daily NK
Choi Choel Hee