North Korea Digest #12: October 2017

and…welcome back to NK Digest, the series that takes a look at everything going on within the hermit state since May of 2016! When we last left North Korea, they had made their sixth nuclear test, bringing war closer and disintegrating their ties with China, leaving many North Koreans unemployed. This week, we’re getting into October 2017.

We’ll get into October 2017 in a moment, but first, the customary note on sources.

Hankoryeh
South Korean newspaper formed in response to a media landscape that toed the party line of a military dictator. Nine years running the paper voted most trustworthy by journalists in South Korea. Great paper.

NK Daily
An SK paper that works with a network of sources within North Korea to report on the day to day happenings. Almost serves as a local paper for the whole country in tone. They pissed off the Chinese government, who “vowed to defeat them” this month. My favourite paper because of the originality, detail and courage of their work.

The Guardian
Look, when you get in the sticks, like NK Daily wonderfully lets you, a big paper a long way away can remind you of the wider picture. Their NK coverage isn’t great, but they give a sense of the wider response within the international community to North Korea.

Customary notes customarily noted, let’s get back into it.

October 2017

One of the big stories going into this month is the start of the trial of the two women who killed Kim Jong-nam, so let’s do a bit more of a recap on that, actually. Here’s the NKD that dealt with that story, but I can also summarise

  • Kim Jong-nam was the half brother of Kim Jong-un.
  • He was supposed to inherit the throne at one point, but lived in semi-exile after an embarassing and strange incident where he and his family tried to enter Japan to “go to Disneyland” under fake Dominican passports.
  • The reason I say semi-exile is that I don’t think it was legitimate, at least not under his father. Kim Jong-nam was famous in North Korean smuggling circles and was most likely fundraising out of harm’s way.
  • Kim Jong-un really got it into his head to kill Kim Jong-nam.
  • At Kuala Lumpur airport, two women: one Vietnamese, one Indonesian, rushed up to him and applied a deadly nerve agent to his face. He died shortly after.
  • Their story is that they were told it was part of a prank show. A North Korean man suspected of orchestrating it fled back to North Korea, alongside three others who fled the same day.

The trial starts with the questioning of Siti Aisyah, the Indonesian woman. Her story is that she had, a number of times before this, rubbed chilli or pepper oil on men’s faces in crowded places at the behest of a man claiming to be a producer for a Chinese prank show, being paid around $100 each time. She was living right around the edge of the poverty line and it was easy money. Her lawyer attempts to argue that just because they found heavy traces of VX on her after her arrest, doesn’t mean she put VX on him, likening it to not being guilty of a stabbing by virtue of owning a knife and y’know, he’s right. Knives and deadly chemical weapons that it’s a war crime to use: the two things you can find in any kitchen.

On a more general world stage, Russia – who started to get involved in this whole mess last month by warning of catastrophe and trying to facilitate negotiations – this month claim that their own intelligence has NK close to completing a missile that can hit America. You want to always be aware of the practice of non-linear warfare* when it comes to news out of Russia, mind.

*Non-linear warfare: the firehose approach to information and propaganda: hit them with so much contradictory stuff that they don’t know what’s true, here’s a nifty five minute film about it.

Speaking of Putin: Trump. Speaking of Trump: Twitter. Speaking of Twitter: 140 characters. Speaking of 140 characters: War and Peace. Speaking of War and Peace: while his Secretary of State tries to make peace talks happen, Trump is on Twitter, saying peace talks don’t work, only war. Speaking of that: That. Giving the NK envoy to the UN pretty good cause to argue that they need the weapons for their own protection. There are significant voices within North Korea still calling for diplomacy, however. Makes sense, as scenes within the country don’t really look like war prep.

Let’s talk about the upcoming Winter Olympics! So, for some reason, the British team is preparaing emergency evacuation plans to get all their athletes out of country, should they have to. Olympic diplomacy seems to be going okay, mind. This month, the first two North Korean athletes qualify, they apply for the Paralympics (odd: as NK doesn’t like admitting it has disabled people, but hey) and greater NK participation in the Olympics is anticipated. Moon, very pro-diplomacy, is also trying to repair SK and China’s damaged relationship.

Within the North, Kim Yo-jong, lil sis to the Dear Leader, takes a role within the politburo. She had previously been a vital part of the propaganda infrastructure of the North.

Crackdowns on gasoline trade between China and North Korea, both legal and illegal, continue this month. This is taking an axe to the prosperity of Rason: home to the Rason Special Economic Region, it unsurprisingly owes its prosperity to trade with China. In Chinese border city Dandong, more and more NK factory workers are being sent home. With all North Korean workers scheduled to be sent home by year’s end, the restraunts that serve as money making machines are standing empty. North Korea gets them back though – banning a Chinese holiday from being celebrated will show them!

New license plates were introduced as a legal necessity for all vehicles and now obtaining them requires payment in Chinese money, as the NK government bleeds its own people for the foreign money they can’t get through legitimate means. Meanwhile, the party is demanding fees for all members, even though the wage of party members who deal in toxic materials isn’t enough to cover a kilogram of rice a month. For some reason, the government feels a need to step up guard duties on official monuments and art about the greatness of the Kim family.

None of this is doing much for the festive spirit of Chuseok, the biggest holiday in either Korea. It’s bad enough that the discussed managed family reunions fell apart, but it’s a pre harvest feast holiday and no-one can afford much food. Hell, this year’s harvest is expected to be even worse than last year’s. Soldiers are being sent into the fields to gather their own food and border guards and ordinary citizens in border regions are starting to sneak across to China to steal grain in anticipation of outright famine. A fifty year old woman committs suicide after being hounded by debt collectors over 30kg of corn.

Here’s an interview with a reporter about a Major in the MPS (Ministry of People’s Security) and his way of dealing with drug traffickers: torture them, sexually if they’re female, pass most of the seized drugs across the proper channels and keep a bit to sell for himself. From the same city (Hyesan), a particular story from the general increase in activity against defector’s families, as police break into a woman’s house during her evening meal and just hang out in her kitchen, drinking alcohol.

On the bright side, a sadist cop was murdered a year ago and the killer still ain’t been caught, though another NK cop killer from 2016 was caught. He was executed and his entire family (seemingly) whisked away to a detention centre overnight.

Well, that’s it for October. Not sure when the theme of ending all of these on policing news started, but gee whiz, it does make for a grim ending. See you next week for November 2017*.

*A note on the shift to single month updates of a shorter length: I’ve had feedback from some readers that these are too dense. I’m also moving to South Korea next month (!!!) and have less time free to do these in. If people prefer the longer ones, let me know and, once life gets a little more sane, I’ll return to that format.

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