Korea: A Long And Ignoble Tradition


November 24,2008:  North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is apparently alive, and apparently incapacitated. Various factions in the government are maneuvering to grab power. The Chinese are involved, backing at least one faction. Chinese and South Korean businessmen who still get into North Korea indicate that there are lot of nervous and scared people up north at the moment. The North Korean government has released photos of Kim Jong Il out and about. But some of these photos are obvious fakes, and none of them is conclusive "proof of life".

Meanwhile, Kim Jong Ils brother-in-law, Jang Song Taek, is apparently running the country, That makes sense, because Jang Song Taek runs the secret police, and in communist police states, the main job of the secret police is to make sure everyone, including the police and military, do as they are told. That said, Jang Song Taek does not appear to have enough clout to take over as the supreme leader, and is more likely to form a coalition with other factions (from the army,  national police, Communist Party and any other politicians or officials who appear to have juice). All is has an air of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, as the North Korean economy continues to collapse, and the food situation is getting worse.

South Korean officials are desperately seeking some legal way to stop North Korean refugees living in South Korea, from sending leaflets to North Korea via balloons. This is not illegal, and many South Koreans support it. But North Korea considers the balloon leaflets a threat to their power, and threaten all sorts of bad things if the balloons don't stop coming. Currently, North Korea is demanding decisive action by the South Korea government by December 1st, or else. In the north, the government has policemen, in areas where the balloons land, telling people that the leaflets are radioactive and will make those that handle them go blind. But the plastic leaflets are having an impact, as North Koreans who have escaped to China, or even South Korea (a much more arduous trip), admit that they were inspired by the leaflets. North Koreans are kept as ignorant as possible about the outside world, by a government that controls all media. The balloons crack, just a little bit, this information monopoly, and the North Korean government is willing to do itself a lot of economic damage to stop it.

Currently, the favorite tactic is to use rather large (ten meters long and one meter in diameter) hydrogen filled balloons, which carry over a thousand plastic leaflets, and a timer that releases them when they have crossed into North Korea. The balloons are launched from hillsides near the DMZ, when the winds are right. The North Korea refugee groups have also released the balloons from boats off the North Korean coast.

North Korea is trying to gain more control over the markets it has legalized, originally as a way to get more food, and other goods, to those who could afford it. Alas, the markets also deal in news, and anger against the government. There have even been anti-communist pamphlets distributed in some markets. So the government is proposing only opening the markets a few days a month, and policing them more heavily. This has stirred unrest in the north, and the government is apparently fearful of pushing the issue.

Another contentious issue is the twelve year old ban on women riding bicycles. This ban was imposed by Kim Jong Il himself, as the idea of women on bicycles offended him for some reason. But most of the markets are run by women (who are seen as less political by the police), and the women have to move their goods. Police enforce this no-riding (walking alongside a bike loaded with goods is legal) edict as an excuse to extort a bribe from the market women. This is another source of unrest up north, just one of many.

November 20, 2008: Up north, it's time for the annual mass executions at the slave labor camps. These are believed to be about fifty of these prisons up north, holding nearly 300,000 prisoners in the "Reeducation" system. People caught trying to leave the country, or doing forbidden things like viewing foreign videos or TV, are sent to the camps, which are basically industrial enterprises. The camps are very profitable, as little is spent on caring for the prisoners. The camps also contain common criminals, some serving life sentences. But most are serving 1-5 years, as these will then go home and serve as a living example of why you should not mess with the state. But each year, at about this time, the prisoners are forced to witness the mass execution of twenty or more of the "most troublesome" prisoners. It's believed the number killed will be larger this year, because of the larger prisoner population (50 percent greater than a few years ago), and food shortages. Surviving in these camps, for more than a decade, is becoming more and more difficult. Common criminals are being released earlier, as the camps fill up with more people accused of "disloyalty" (for trying to get out of North Korea, run a business, or complain about living conditions.) More about these camps is known as more former prisoners, and guards, escape to South Korea, and tell their stories. South Koreans no longer dismiss these stories as delusions, no matter how bizarre they are. In any event, the North Korean Reeducation Camps are no different than those found in China, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The annual execution of prisoners, to ease overcrowding, was something Saddam Hussein used regularly in Iraq. Thus the North Koreans are carrying out a long and ignoble tradition.

November 12, 2008: North Korea has threatened to cut phone and rail lines between north and south, shut down South Korean factories in the north, and a UN food aid coordinating office, as well as halting the shutdown of its nuclear weapons program. All this, if South Korea did not stop NGO (non-governmental organizations) that were getting information about what is really happening in North Korea, into North Korea via balloons with leaflets attached. These NGOs contain many North Koreans who have escaped to South Korea, and are determined to let more North Koreans know that it is possible to get out, and that the rest of the world is a much nicer place than North Korea.




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