Intelligence: Altitude Versus Attitude


August 16, 2019: Earlier this year foreigners noted that new apartment buildings in central Pyongyang were getting some unusual alterations on apartments facing the many government buildings in that part of the North Korean capital. This was an unexpected result of legalizing entrepreneurs. For over a decade the North Korean economy has survived largely because the government legalized the activities of donju (entrepreneurs), who make the decrepit communist command economy work well enough to create a new class of North Koreans with money to spend. A lot of that money went into real estate, especially the construction of new apartment towers in the capital. This was the only part of the country where there was reliable electricity service and an existing population of well-off government officials. Many of the bureaucrats had become quietly and unofficially wealthy from the growing bribery culture. All of this clashed with the traditional fear and paranoia that thrived in the North Korean bureaucracy. Government officials noted that these new apartment towers were taller than many of the four or five story government buildings in the city center. The new apartment towers also contained amenities, like balconies. The apartment buildings were often ten or more stories high and the balconies provided splendid views of the bland government buildings. Commercial satellite photos show nothing special about these government buildings but the state security officials decided to show off by ordering these upper story balconies modified to prevent surveillance (by spies) of the government buildings. The alterations consisted of cement walls built on the balconies that blocked the view. These new walls also blocked sunlight from getting into these apartments, which were normally sold for a premium price because of the view. These modified apartments lost over 60 percent of their value because of the modifications. Worse, the visibility of these modifications made it difficult to find someone willing to take a bribe to get the barriers removed.

There is something else behind this paranoia about forbidden photographs. More donju also buy high-end cellphones as well as high-rise apartments and new cars. Over the last five years, the quality and capabilities of high-end Chinese, South Korean and American cell phone cameras rapidly advanced. The secret police are aware of this because they often confiscate these phones (many are illegal in North Korea) and have an opportunity to test the capabilities of the new cell phone cameras. The secret police also have access to the international Internet and note the quality of photos posted, especially from China, has gotten much better. Building these walls on apartment balconies is a very visible way to show their bosses that “something is being done.”

Neighboring China has faced a similar situation and took a somewhat different approach to deal with the problem. This occurred in 2015 when a  new aircraft carrier was under construction in northeast China (Dalian). The mystery ship had all the hallmarks of a carrier. At the time the only unknown was whether this large (over 50,000 ton) vessel would have an angled flight deck. If not, it could be an amphibious ship using helicopters or an improved version of China’s first carrier. As construction proceeded all these questions would be answered unofficially because Chinese civilians in the area were eagerly taking photos with cellphone cameras and posting them to the Internet. In 2015 what was visible was just one section of the ship and it was unclear how many of these sections there would be and how long the ship is. Although Chinese intelligence officials had ordered the construction of a 22 meter (71 foot) wall around parts of the Dalian naval base to prevent people from taking pictures of what is going on there, this had not stopped amateur naval enthusiasts. Some of the new commercial construction in the area has resulted in an unexpectedly tall apartment building going up near the base. The military got new laws passed to restrict the height of new buildings put up near military bases. Getting existing buildings torn down or modified (as in North Korea) was too difficult because some of the building owners were powerful local communist officials. So up went the wall and the flood of photos kept coming anyway.

One of the best sources of information on Chinese warship construction is the Internet. Thousands of Chinese naval buffs living close to major shipyards provide a steady supply of photos on the web. The Chinese government tried to prevent this but over the previous decade came to realize that cracking down on enthusiastic and Internet savvy Chinese fans of the navy was not a wise move. A lot of important secrets are still preserved by building parts of ships in a shed and a lot of the most valuable military secrets are with equipment installed inside the ship or behind a wall. So the government allows all (with a few exceptions) of these photos to appear.

The North Korean government has nothing to be proud of that can be seen from the top floors of the new apartment buildings in Pyongyang. Actually, the most impressive new development in Pyongyang is those new luxury apartment towers. The donju don’t want to buy apartments in any of the shoddy government-built apartment buildings. Not only are these apartments shabby when new but recently one of these newly built government apartment buildings collapsed because of “structural errors” in their construction. These new donju apartment towers are a security threat but not of the sort the government even wants to discuss. The donju have higher construction standards or everything they build and those differences are on public display in Pyongyang. It would take a different kind of wall to conceal that problem.


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