Tag Archives: North Korea

North Korea Undercover – BBC Panorama

On Monday 15 April 2012 the BBC broadcast a documentary in its Panorama series featuring an undercover report on North Korea from John Sweeney. The programme was controversial before it was broadcast because Sweeney, posing as a professor, joined a party of LSE students who were on an eight day tour of North Korea.

The students were told that the party would include a journalist, but at least some of them thought that this meant a single print journalist, rather than a three person TV crew. Some of the students have complained, claiming that the BBC put their safety at risk, and that they have received threatening emails from North Korea. The programme did obscure the identities of some members of the party.

The LSE and other academics have attacked the programme, alleging that the affair may damage their reputation for independence and transparency. See the websites of the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph and the BBC for more details of the controversy.

UK viewers can view the programme online via the I-Player. Panorama documentaries remain available for 12 months on the I-Player rather than the normal one week.

The most interesting part of the programme turned out to be a series of comments from Western experts and North Korean defectors filmed elsewhere, rather than the undercover film. The programme showed what Sweeney described as a ‘landscape bleak beyond words’, but did not add a great deal to our knowledge of North Korea because the tourists were closely supervised by two guides.

The tour featured numerous power cuts, including one when the party was visiting a factory that made electricity generators. They could not go further than the visitor’s centre because the factory has switched over to making military equipment because of the threat of war.

Other visits included a bottling plant where no bottling was taking place and a collective farm that lacked fields, crops and animals. In the words of The Independent’s TV critic, ‘North Korea is so poor that it can’t even build a convincing Potemkin village.’ For part of the tour, they stayed at a spa hotel that was surrounded with barbed wire.

One afternoon the party visited a hospital that had some impressive medical equipment, but no patients. It was explained that they are treated in the morning, and work or carry out social activities in the afternoon. The tourists could not meet the patients without their permission, and could not obtain their permission without meeting them,

The BBC crew did manage to take some photos of signs of poverty witnessed from the tour bus, despite being told not to do so by one of the tour guides. They included a women doing her washing in an icy river, people scavenging in mud and a market that appeared to lack any produce.

There were some interesting snippets from the tour. Posters of Marx and Lenin had disappeared from Pyongyang over the previous year, suggesting a focus on Nationalism rather than Communism.

There are now a million mobile phones in North Korea; they are not supposed to be used for international calls, but Sweeney got a South Korean signal on his i-phone when near the border.

A bank was being built next to the party’s Pyongyang hotel by a joint venture with a Chinese bank, showing continued Chinese investment.

The party visited the De Militarised Zone between the North and South on a day when North Korean TV was stepping up its threatening rhetoric against the South and the USA. There were no South Korean guards at the Joint Security Area, which Sweeney said was unusual. Perhaps they had been withdrawn to avoid an incident that might escalate?

Overall, however, the film from inside North Korea added nothing to a previous BBC documentary that was made openly a couple of years ago. The most interesting parts were the brief interviews with three Western experts and, especially, three North Korean defectors.

Professor Brian Myers of Donseo University said that the North Koreans were not planning a nuclear war, but one could come about due to some disastrous miscalculation. A higher proportion of population is in uniform than was the case in Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy before WWII. He argued that it is a far right, ultra Nationalist state, not a Communist one.

John Everard, the UK Ambassador to North Korea in 2006-8, describes it as being a  ‘deeply racially biased’ society. He said that Kim Jong Il was an admirer of Hitler and copied him, eg North Korean rallies are modelled on the Nuremberg ones. He commented that ordinary North Korean people would admit to him that their country was poor and backward, but blame this on outside pressures. He pointed out that the growth in the use of mobile phones means that news can now spread round the country far more quickly than in the past.

Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Security Studies, explained that Kim Il Sung, still head of state 19 years after his death, is regarded as a ‘kind of god.’

The best part of the programme was the brief interviews with three of the 25,000 North Korean defectors living in the South. Sweeney could have avoided the controversy and made a better programme by staying in the South and showing more of these.

Ji Seong Ho said that saying the wrong thing would mean being sent to a political prison camp; ‘disagreement means death.’ There was a famine in 1990s after North Korea lost of support from the USSR. He lost a leg and a hand after he fell under train whilst trying to stealing coal to pay for food. His grandmother and neighbours died of starvation, and he saw lots of corpses in cities at alleyways, markets and at railway stations. Two years ago the UN estimated 6m North Koreans (25% of population) needed urgent food aid.

A female doctor  who declined to be interviewed, presumably because she still has family in the North, said that the people of the North do not rebel because they are brainwashed from an early age. Doctors who asked for more money for medicines would have been killed regardless of their ranking.

Defector Jung Gwang Il was formerly an inmate of one of North Korea’s concentration camp, Camp 15. He said that the dead were not buried in winter because of the hard ground, but were left in a warehouse until April, by when the corpses were decomposing. They were then buried, 70-80 bodies per hole. Defectors say that the concentration camps getting bigger under Kim Jong Un’s regime. The programme showed brief footage of the Yodok Camp, which is available on You Tube.

Sweeney’s conclusion is that Kim Jong Un is an untested leader, who feels that he must threaten war to establish his position, but could take it too far and cause a war.

Leave a comment

Filed under Current affairs, Reviews

Ferocious, Weak and Crazy: The North Korean Strategy – Stratfor

Ferocious,  Weak and Crazy: The North Korean Strategy is republished with permission of  Stratfor.”

Read more:  Ferocious, Weak and Crazy: The North Korean Strategy | Stratfor

By George Friedman Founder  and Chairman, Stratfor

North Korea’s state-run media reported Sunday that North  Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered the country’s top security officials  to take “substantial and high-profile important state measures,” which has been  widely interpreted to mean that North  Korea is planning its third nuclear test. Kim said the orders were  retaliation for the U.S.-led push to tighten U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang  following North Korea’s missile test in October. A few days before Kim’s  statement emerged, the North Koreans said future tests would target the United  States, which North Korea regards as its key adversary along with Washington’s  tool, South Korea.

North Korea has been using the threat of tests and the tests themselves as  weapons against its neighbors and the United States for years. On the surface,  threatening to test weapons does not appear particularly sensible. If the test  fails, you look weak. If it succeeds, you look dangerous without  actually having a deliverable weapon. And the closer you come to having a  weapon, the more likely someone is to attack you so you don’t succeed in  actually getting one. Developing a weapon in absolute secret would seem to make  more sense. When the weapon is ready, you display it, and you have something  solid to threaten enemies with.

North Korea, of course, has been doing this for years and doing it  successfully, so what appears absurd on the surface quite obviously isn’t. On  the contrary, it has proved to be a very effective maneuver. North Korea is  estimated to have a gross domestic product of about $28 billion, about the same  as Latvia or Turkmenistan. Yet it has maneuvered itself into a situation where  the United States, Japan, China, Russia and South Korea have sat  down with it at the negotiating table in a bid to persuade it not to build  weapons. Sometimes, the great powers give North Korea money and food to persuade  it not to develop weapons. It sometimes agrees to a halt, but then resumes its  nuclear activities. It never completes a weapon, but it frequently threatens to  test one. And when it carries out such tests, it claims its tests are directed  at the United States and South Korea, as if the test itself were a threat.

There is brilliance in North Korea’s strategy. When the Soviet Union  collapsed, North Korea was left in dire economic straits. There were reasonable  expectations that its government would soon collapse, leading to the unification  of the Korean Peninsula. Naturally, the goal of the North Korean government was  regime survival, so it was terrified that outside powers would invade or support  an uprising against it. It needed a strategy that would dissuade anyone from  trying that. Being weak in every sense, this wasn’t going to be easy, but the  North Koreans developed a strategy that we  described more than 10 years ago as ferocious, weak and crazy. North Korea  has pursued this course since the 1990s, and the latest manifestation of this  strategy was on display last week. The strategy has worked marvelously and is  still working.

A Three-Part Strategy

First, the North Koreans positioned themselves as ferocious by appearing to  have, or to be on the verge of having, devastating power. Second, they  positioned themselves as being weak such that no matter how ferocious they are,  there would be no point in pushing them because they are going to collapse  anyway. And third, they positioned themselves as crazy, meaning pushing them  would be dangerous since they were liable to engage in the greatest risks  imaginable at the slightest provocation.

In the beginning, Pyongyang’s ability to appear ferocious was limited to the North Korean army’s  power to shell Seoul. It had massed artillery along the border and could  theoretically devastate the southern capital, assuming the North had enough  ammunition, its artillery worked and air power didn’t lay waste to its massed  artillery. The point was not that it was going to level Seoul but that it had  the ability to do so. There were benefits to outsiders in destabilizing the  northern regime, but Pyongyang’s ferocity — uncertain though its capabilities  were — was enough to dissuade South Korea and its allies from trying to  undermine the regime. Its later move to develop missiles and nuclear weapons  followed from the strategy of ferocity — since nothing was worth a nuclear war,  enraging the regime by trying to undermine it wasn’t worth the risk.

Many nations have tried to play the ferocity game, but the North Koreans  added a brilliant and subtle twist to it: being weak. The  North Koreans advertised the weakness of their economy, particularly its  food insecurity, by various means. This was not done overtly, but by allowing  glimpses of its weakness. Given the weakness of its economy and the difficulty  of life in North Korea, there was no need to risk trying to undermine the North.  It would collapse from its own defects.

This was a double inoculation. The North Koreans’ ferocity with weapons whose  effectiveness might be questionable, but still pose an unquantifiable threat,  caused its enemies to tread carefully. Why risk unleashing its ferocity when its  weakness would bring it down? Indeed, a constant debate among Western analysts  over the North’s power versus its weakness combines to paralyze  policymakers.

The North Koreans added a third layer to perfect all of this. They portrayed  themselves as crazy, working to appear unpredictable, given to extravagant  threats and seeming to welcome a war. Sometimes, they reaffirmed they were crazy  via steps like sinking South Korean ships for no apparent reason. As in poker,  so with the North: You can play against many sorts of players, from those who  truly understand the odds to those who are just playing for fun, but never, ever  play poker against a nut. He  is totally unpredictable, can’t be gamed, and if you play with his head you  don’t know what will happen.

So long as the North Koreans remained ferocious, weak and crazy, the best  thing to do was not irritate them too much and not to worry what kind of  government they had. But being weak and crazy was the easy part for the North;  maintaining its appearance of ferocity was more challenging. Not only did the  North Koreans have to keep increasing their ferocity, they had to avoid  increasing it so much that it overpowered the deterrent effect of their weakness  and craziness.

A Cautious Nuclear Program

Hence, we have North Korea’s eternal nuclear program. It never quite produces  a weapon, but no one can be sure whether a weapon might be produced. Due to  widespread perceptions that the North Koreans are crazy, it is widely believed  they might rush to complete their weapon and go to war at the slightest  provocation. The result is the United States, Russia, China, Japan and South  Korea holding meetings with North Korea to try to persuade it not to do  something crazy.

Interestingly, North Korea never does anything significant and dangerous, or  at least not dangerous enough to break the pattern. Since the Korean War, North  Korea has carefully calculated its actions, timing them to avoid any move that  could force a major reaction. We see this caution built into its nuclear  program. After more than a decade of very public ferocity, the North Koreans  have not come close to a deliverable weapon. But since if you upset them, they  just might, the best bet has been to tread lightly and see if you can gently  persuade them not to do something insane.

The North’s positioning is superb: Minimal risky action sufficient to lend  credibility to its ferocity and craziness plus endless rhetorical threats  maneuvers North Korea into being a major global threat in the eyes of the great  powers. Having won themselves this position, the North Koreans are not about to  risk it, even if a 20-something leader is hurling threats.

The China Angle and the Iranian Pupil

There is, however, a somewhat more interesting dimension emerging. Over the  years, the United States, Japan and South Korea have looked to the Chinese to  intercede and persuade the North Koreans not to do anything rash. This  diplomatic pattern has established itself so firmly that we wonder what the  actual Chinese role is in all this. China is currently engaged in territorial  disputes with U.S. allies in the South and East China seas. Whether anyone would  or could go to war over islands in these waters is dubious, but the situation is  still worth noting.

The Chinese and  the Japanese have been particularly hostile toward one another in recent  weeks in terms of rhetoric and moving their ships around. A crisis in North  Korea, particularly one in which the North tested a nuclear weapon, would  inevitably initiate the diplomatic dance whereby the Americans and Japanese ask  the Chinese to intercede with the North Koreans. The Chinese would oblige.  This is not a great effort for them, since having detonated a nuclear device,  the North isn’t interested in doing much more. In fact, Pyongyang will be  drawing on the test’s proverbial fallout for some time. The Chinese are calling  in no chits with the North Koreans, and the Americans and Japanese — terribly  afraid of what the ferocious, weak, crazy North Koreans will do next — will be  grateful to China for defusing the “crisis.” And who could be so churlish as to  raise issues on trade or minor islands when China has used its power to force  North Korea to step down?

It is impossible for us to know what the Chinese are thinking, and we have no  overt basis for assuming the Chinese and North Koreans are collaborating, but we  do note that China has taken an increasing interest in stabilizing North Korea.  For its part, North Korea has tended to stage these crises — and their  subsequent Chinese interventions — at quite useful times for Beijing.

It should also be noted that other countries have learned the ferocious,  weak, crazy maneuver from North Korea. Iran is the best pupil. It has  convincingly portrayed itself as ferocious via its nuclear program, endlessly  and quite publicly pursuing its program without ever quite succeeding. It is  also persistently seen as weak, perpetually facing  economic crises and wrathful mobs of iPod-wielding youths. Whether Iran can  play the weakness card as skillfully as North Korea remains unclear — Iran just  doesn’t have the famines North Korea has.

Additionally, Iran’s rhetoric at times can certainly be considered crazy:  Tehran has carefully cultivated perceptions that it would wage nuclear war even  if this meant the death of all Iranians. Like North Korea, Iran also has managed  to retain its form of government and its national sovereignty. Endless  predictions of the fall of the Islamic republic to a rising generation have  proved false.

I do not mean to appear to be criticizing the “ferocious, weak and crazy”  strategy. When you are playing a weak hand, such a strategy can yield  demonstrable benefits. It preserves regimes, centers one as a major  international player and can wring concessions out of major powers. It can be  pushed too far, however, when the fear of ferocity and craziness undermines the  solace your opponents find in your weakness.

Diplomacy is the art of nations achieving their ends without resorting to  war. It is particularly important for small, isolated nations to survive without  going to war. As in many things, the paradox of appearing willing to go to war  in spite of all rational calculations can be the foundation for avoiding war. It  is a sound strategy, and for North Korea and Iran, for the time being at least,  it has worked.

Read more:  Ferocious, Weak and Crazy: The North Korean Strategy | Stratfor

Leave a comment

Filed under Current affairs