Tag Archive | "propaganda"

South Korea’s Approach To Anti-Pyongyang Leaflets

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • On June 4, the Ministry of Unification announced plans to ban the deployment of balloons carrying anti-Pyongyang leaflets after North Korea issued a warning against these activities earlier that day.
  • On June 9, North Korea threatened to cut off all inter-Korean communication lines and did not answer routine military hotline calls from the South.
  • On June 11, the Ministry of Unification filed a legal complaint against two North Korean defector groups that sent anti-Pyongyang leaflets for violating inter-Korean cooperation, environmental, and aviation laws. The Ministry will also take steps to revoke government-issued business permits for those organizations.

Implications: The South Korean government’s recent decision to ban the deployment of anti-Pyongyang leaflets is consistent with the Moon administration’s ongoing effort to engage with North Korea. North Korea has issued threats over the leaflets before and Pyongyang routinely expresses its displeasure with Seoul by suspending communications. In response, the Moon administration has been looking for ways to prevent leaflet launches since 2017. Notably, this is the first time that the South Korean government invoked the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act and other laws to penalize groups that sent the leaflets.

Context: Previous conservative administrations have also used law enforcement to stop activist groups from deploying balloons with anti-Pyongyang leaflets to the North. However, the government’s responses were ad hoc and corresponded with the escalation of tensions with the North. Indeed, the government has never imposed punishments – the administration of both Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye rejected the notion that such balloon launches were illegal and did not take further legal steps to ban them outright.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of James Constant, Soojin Hwang, Sonia Kim, and Ingyeong Park.

Picture sources from Wikimedia commons

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How Might North Korea Respond to the New UN Sanctions?

By Troy Stangarone

With the passage of a new round of sanctions against North Korea, there is an expectation that Pyongyang will not go gracefully into negotiations over its weapons programs. While negotiating and passing a new resolution took the Obama Administration more than twice as long as any prior resolution in response to a North Korean nuclear or missile test, the result is far and away the strongest set of sanctions on North Korea to date. The new sanctions would require the inspection of all cargo to and from North Korea, place a full embargo on weapons trade with Pyongyang, limit or prohibit North Korea’s trade in minerals such as coal, and place financial sanctions on North Korean banks and assets. How might Pyongyang respond to the new sanctions?

Security Council Resolutions Updated

How North Korea Has Responded Before

To get a sense of how North Korea might respond we can look to prior behavior. For this it’s useful to separate out nuclear and missile tests conducted under Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un. Some elements of the approach to testing under Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un have been similar, but real differences arise in how each have handled the tests more broadly.

NK Provocations KJI v KJU Graphic 2

In both 2006 and 2009, Kim Jong-il began with a long-range missile test, both of which were unsuccessful. After the 2006 ballistic missile test, the United Nations quickly sanctioned North Korea and its first nuclear test followed three months later. While North Korea initially indicated that it would consider any additional sanctions an act of war and might retaliate, Pyongyang relatively quickly pivoted after the United Nations imposed additional sanctions by expressing regret to a Chinese delegation and indicating a willingness to return to the Six Party Talks.

The failed 2009 missile test did not result in additional UN sanctions, but was followed up with North Korea’s second nuclear test in May, which also included four days of short-range missile tests. The inclusion of the missile tests were most likely calibrated to gain international attention. While the United Nations placed additional sanctions on North Korea in response to the test, as the Six Party Talks were dormant at the time, the crisis largely dissipated without a return to talks.

While Kim Jong-un followed the pattern of conducting a long-range missile test prior to a nuclear test in late 2012, he broke the pattern this year by conducting the nuclear test prior to the missile test. In December of 2012 North Korea successfully placed its first satellite in orbit. After being sanctioned for the test by the United Nations in January of 2013 North Korea conducted its third nuclear test in February of 2013.

Where the 2013 crisis differs from the prior two under Kim Jong-il is the extent to which Kim Jong-un increased the level of tensions on the Korean peninsula. In addition to conducting the nuclear and missile tests, North Korea announced that it would restart the reactor at Yongbyun, conducted cyberattacks on South Korea, and withdrew its workers from the Kaesong Industrial Complex for nearly half the year.

The Role of Rhetoric in Responding to UN Sanctions

Beyond the actions taken, each crisis has a rhetorical dimension. In 2006, North Korea threatened to launch a nuclear missile if the U.S. did not engage in talks and war if additional sanctions were put in place after its nuclear test. South Korea’s decision to join the Proliferation Security Initiative after North Korea’s second nuclear test lead Pyongyang to declare that South Korea had sent the Korean peninsula to a “state of war” and threatened that it was no longer bound by the Korean War armistice.

While the events of 2013 contained elements of North Korea’s prior provocations, there was a higher degree of specificity in the threats, an increase in the rhetorical intensity, and a longer duration than during previous crises. As in prior crises North Korea threatened South Korea, this time for South Korean cooperation with UN sanctions. It also went a step further by threatening South Korea’s final destruction during a UN disarmament conference, no less. The threat to withdrawal from the armistice was again issued. While North Korea had threatened nuclear strikes previously on the United States, this time it added Japan to its list. It also became more specific in its threats claiming to have targeted Guam, Hawaii, and the U.S. mainland, while also releasing a photo showing Washington, DC, San Diego, and Austin, TX as potential targets.

Under Kim Jong-un the rhetorical bar has been raised. This can be seen further in a 2013 study by KEI on North Korean rhetoric. In examining North Korean rhetoric on KCNA in 2012 prior to the crisis of 2013 in relation to prior crises, we found that:

references to “war” in KCNA were up 190 percent from 1998, when North Korea was sanctioned for a missile test, and 107 percent from North Korea’s second nuclear test in 2009. In 2012, references to war never fell below 217 in a month and were over 300 in all months but January and November. In 1998, they never exceeded 166 mentions in a single month, while in 2009 they only exceeded 200 when North Korea evicted IAEA inspectors in March and when it was sanctioned by the UN in June. In the case of 2009, mentions of war decreased by 50 percent in April and 28 percent in July after spikes in the prior months.

Use of terms “War” and “Peace” in 1998, 2009 and 2012

Rhetoric Chart 1

In the case of the usage of “nuclear” we found that:

nuclear in KCNA grew 164 percent from 1998 to 2009, and another 70 percent from 2009 to 2012. Overall, references to nuclear have grown 350 percent from 1998 to 2012 and were up another 139 percent over the first three months of 2013 compared to the same period in 2012.

What to Expect Going Forward

A few things stand out from the 2013 crisis compared to the two prior crises under Kim Jong-il. First, the 2013 crisis was longer in duration than the prior two. Second, Kim Jong-un was willing to expand beyond the use of rhetoric, missile, and nuclear tests to gain the attention of the international community. Lastly, both the usage and the specificity of North Korea’s rhetoric has grown.

While the limited number of prior crises make it difficult to predict how North Korea will react to the new round of sanctions, given the significant strengthening of sanctions on North Korea we should expect the current crisis to be longer in duration and there to be a significant increase in the usage of rhetoric by North Korea. Another factor here will be the clear shift by the international community from a mixed policy of engagement and sanctions to one more solidly focused on sanctions.

At the same time, Kim Jong-un has shown a willingness to think outside of the box when being provocative. With the Kaesong Industrial Complex now suspended that avenue has been closed to further provocations. However, South Korea’s intelligence agency has warned that North Korea could engage in cyberattacks, kidnappings, and the use of poison gas. While North Korea could choose to respond in a more traditional manner with additional nuclear or missile tests, in light of Kim Jong-un’s willingness to take new approaches there is a good probability that North Korea will look to unconventional means such as cyberattacks as part of their response to the new UN sanctions.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Rolf Venema’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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North Korea’s Top Five Outrageous Claims

By Jenna Gibson

Big news out of Pyongyang – a North Korean factory has made the world’s first hangover-free alcohol.

Or so they say.

North Korea has long been the butt of jokes, many of them centered on country’s eccentric leaders. This stems in part from curiosity – because news from North Korea is so rare, every crazy rumor is devoured with glee. And with over-the-top claims like this one, the entertainment factor is even greater.

From the superhero-esque origin stories of the Kim family to the fantastical inventions they have gifted to the world, here are five of the most outrageous claims from North Korea.

1.       North Korean scientists have cured cancer, Ebola, MERS, and AIDS

Originally produced in the 90s, the miraculous Kumdang-2 has been a point of pride for North Korea for years. When Ebola fears wracked the world in 2014, North Korea touted the power of this injection to both prevent and treat the deadly disease (meanwhile, they shut out foreign tourists for six months, just to be safe). And again in 2015, while its neighbor to the South was battling an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Pyongyang boasted that Kumdang-2 would take care of that too.

According to the Korean Central News Agency, the drug is produced from a local variety of ginseng mixed with rare-earth elements and small amounts of gold and platinum. According to The Guardian, a Moscow-based distributor lists a basic course of injections at 1,500 rubles ($18.35).

2.       Kim Jong-il is a golf genius

In 1994, Kim Jong-il made golf history when he shot a round of golf at 38-under par. It was, of course, the first time he had ever played. This amazing round, which was played on North Korea’s only golf course, included 11 holes-in-one. For reference, the lowest score in a PGA Tour tournament was 33-under, set by Steve Stricker in 2009.

Naturally, after his successful record-smashing round Kim Jong-il announced his immediate retirement from golf.

3.       Kim Jong-il found a cure for shortness

Along with the many communicable diseases North Korea has cured, they have also claimed mastery over genetics. In 1989, the government announced the discovery of a drug that would cure shortness, and distributed pamphlets encouraging citizens to try it out.

In actuality, the dictator (who was only 5’3” himself), rounded up those who came to claim their dose of the treatment and exiled them to uninhabited islands.

4.       Kim Jong-un was a child prodigy in various fields

Following in the footsteps of his father, North Korea’s current leader was a miracle worker from a very young age. By his 3rd birthday, he was learning to drive. And when a foreign yacht company executive visited North Korea, a 9-year-old Kim Jong-un trounced him in a sailing race.

These claims have all been included in middle and high school textbooks as part of a new required subject called “Kim Jong-un’s Revolutionary Activities,” which was introduced in 2015.

5.       North Korea just successfully tested a hydrogen bomb

Starting off 2016 with a bang, on January 6 North Korea announced that it had conducted a successful test of a hydrogen bomb. Seismic data confirmed that a test had indeed been carried out…but it was almost certainly not an H-bomb. In an interview with CCTV America, KEI Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade Troy Stangarone noted that the yield of a true H-bomb would be significantly greater than what was in fact detected from this test.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Stephan’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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T-ara, Titanic, and Taeyeon: Pop Culture and North Korea

By Lilka Marino

Recent tensions along the Demilitarized Zone have been notable for one reason: North Korea launched rockets at loudspeakers that broadcasted an array of propaganda from regional and international news, weather reports, and economic updates from both sides of the border. Curiously enough, the program also included certain K-pop songs chosen for their uplifting and inspirational lyrics. The contents of this broadcasts were enough for Pyongyang to threaten “strong military action” should they continue. While the rest of the contents of each program seem like a logical irritant to a regime that depends on maintaining factual silence from the outside world, the innocence of K-pop seems like an unlikely candidate to cause the recent “quasi-state of war”.

In Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick reports the official party line towards foreign media and contraband, by a defector who received this lecture at work:

Our enemies are using these specially made materials to beautify the world of imperialism and to spread their utterly rotten, bourgeoisie lifestyles. If we allow ourselves to be affected by these unusual materials, our revolutionary mind-set and class awareness will be paralyzed and our absolute idolization for the Marshal [Kim Il-sung] will disappear.[1]

While a government such as the Kim regime does rely on its self imposed isolation, and keeping its people from outside influences[2], the reality does not reflect the regime’s expectations. In August, three North Koreans were executed for watching South Korean television programs on their mobile phones.  This execution, along with the threat to destroy the loudspeakers is indicative of the growing fascination with the outside world and pop culture, along with the recent demand for designer handbags and high heeled shoes, trends in East Asia that North Korean women began to emulate when Ri Sol-ju, wife of Kim Jong-eun, adopted them for herself. Foreign culture has settled into the isolated nation, and will not dissipate anytime soon.

While most foreign media and culture was discouraged in North Korea, the interest in foreign culture started with legal translations of Western classics in the mid-1980s. Kim Il-sung ordered these translations in limited quantities for writers to improve their ability; translations included Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. A decade later, these books were made available for the general public to purchase.

Quite possibly the most popular work to be translated, and possibly the most famous example of Pyongyang’s fascination with foreign culture was Gone With the Wind, first translated in a three volume series and released along with other American novels from the 1900s-1960s. The novel permeates North Korean society. When teaching English at PUST, Suki Kim reported that the only American book her college students were aware of was Margaret Mitchell’s work. The typically restricted film adaptation is shown to upper class North Koreans to teach English; one defector reported that the film was a favorite of the elite. Consequently, when the Samjiyon tablet made its infamous debut in 2013, it came preloaded with not only a ported version of Angry Birds, but also Gone With the Wind.

The biggest indication of national fascination is shown by the people’s love of the novel. Gone With the Wind has even made an appearance in talks between North Korean envoys and the United States, with the former apparently quoting “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn” during negotiations. One defector reported that for a time, one could not go into Pyongyang and not avoid discussing the work, and that everyone had an opinion about strong Scarlett O’Hara, swashbuckling Rhett Butler, and the destruction of the Confederacy by the Union’s hands. It is the latter that experts speculate that holds the most appeal to North Koreans, along with the plucky heroine, who manages to rebuild and prosper after losing everything to war.

Regardless of what message North Koreans heard from Mitchell’s work, it was clear that the average North Korean is hungry for information from the outside world. This hunger would not always be fed through legal means. In the jammadang open-air markets, one student bought and read a translated book from Russia regarding how capitalism had evolved since Marx wrote his Manifesto, and realized he was being kept in the dark on purpose. How could South Korea and China be worse off than North Korea if Chinese and South Korean goods were pouring into the jammadang?[3]  Another defector reported seeing pirated DVDs and portable DVD players. These DVDs were both Hollywood movies and episodes of South Korean dramas, which sold quickly.[4] A market grew from the demand for media in particular; by 2013, brokers would wait in markets for buyers, who would ask them for the next episodes, waiting only a few weeks after their initial airing in South Korea.

These brokers, usually working with a group known as the North Korea Strategy Center (which focuses on smuggling foreign media into North Korea), feed the demand for drams, movies, eBooks, and music. They are responsible for bringing 3,000 thumb drives into the nation annually. Founder Kang Chol-hwan likened this media to the infamous “red pill” from the Matrix franchise. One broker, a defector by the name of Jung Kwang-il, is another smuggler who deals exclusively with delivering foreign media to the jammadang. He has documented his practice of delivering laptops, radios, thumb drives, and DVDs to North Korean sellers on PBS Frontline. When asked why he risked his life to do this, Jung said:

[North Koreans are] sharing thumb drives a lot. Even officials have one or two. North Korea is trying to hunt them down because the thing that changes people’s mindsets is popular culture. It probably has the most important role in bringing about democracy in North Korea.

It’s been reported that almost half of the North Koreans who defect had watched foreign television, even though it’s illegal. Countless defectors cite foreign pop culture as the spark that made them start doubting North Korea. Park Yeon-mi credited the popular film Titanic as starting a “moral crisis”, as both the idea of a man sacrificing his life for a woman as well as the economic development of the early twentieth century being far more advanced than what she had in the twentieth-first century in North Korea would aid her family’s decision to leave.

Surveys of defectors suggest that more than a million North Koreans listen to illegal foreign radio. A fisherman accidentally picked up a South Korean radio program with two women arguing over a parking spot, which was an inconceivable notion to him, as he could not imagine a scenario where there were so many cars that anyone would have to fight over parking.[5] While mp3 and mp4 players are legal in North Korea, downloading foreign media to them is definitely not. Yet one defector theorized that if you “cracked down” on high school and university students who owned the devices in North Korea, all of them would have South Korean music on them.

South Korean dramas were especially powerful to defectors; the sheer beauty in the clothing of the actors and the bustling streets with healthy looking actors and flashy billboards advertising all sorts of goods made watching more addictive; it was fun to picture living in a trendy Seoul apartment until one realized that the reality reflected in Pyongyang’s propaganda did not match up to what they were watching on their portable DVD players. Expert Andrei Lankov has described the fascination with South Korean pop culture within North Korea as, possibly, “the single most important development of the last ten years”.

Seoul has even created media targeted at North Koreans in order to take advantage of this growing interest. One such example is Open Radio for North Korea, a radio station staffed by defectors that broadcast news and personal messages towards Pyongyang. Another is the television program known as Now On My Way to Meet You, which stars North Korean women who now live in Seoul. Part news, part variety show, and part beauty contest, the show aims to show North Koreans the truth about life in the outside world and to especially empower other female defectors. One star even said that she believed that her friends “back home” watch it, fantasize about life south of the DMZ, and even want to defect, too.

Despite the growing demand for foreign media, Kim Jong Un has reportedly sent his security forces house to house, searching for illegal DVDs, and in November 2013 ordered the execution of as many as 80 people, some for watching foreign television. Authorities punished thirty college students with hard labor for watching “Until the Azalea Blooms” on their cell phones last June. Despite the death toll attributed to consuming foreign pop culture, North Koreans still are willing to risk their lives distributing and owning music videos, DVDs, clothes, books, and so much more from the outside world. With this forbidden fruit comes knowledge, and with knowledge, agency.

A young defector summed the allure of pop culture to North Koreans best: “No matter how many people die, the sensational popularity doesn’t die…that is the power of culture.”

Lilka Marino received her Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies from Hollins University with a double concentration in leadership theory and social sciences. Her interests include North Korean politics, Korean history, and traditional Korean culture. The views expressed here are her own.

Photo from Darrell Miller’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

[1] Demick, Barbara. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. New York. Spiegel and Grau, 2009. Print.  p 255.

[2] Myers, B. R. The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Melville House, 2010. Print. p 55-75

[3] Demick, pg. 260.

[4] Demick, pg. 255.

[5] Demick, pg. 260

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Three Questions About North Korea’s Latest Execution

By Troy Stangarone

In the pantheon of executions, one would not expect to see a niche devoted to disagreements over forestry policy, which makes the news that Vice Premier Choe Yong-gon was executed by Kim Jong-un for a disagreement over reforesting North Korea and poor job performance such a perplexing development.

Executions of high level officials are seemingly becoming a common occurrence in North Korea. In 2013, Kim Jong-un executed his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, who was widely believed to be the second highest ranking official in North Korea, for treason. Earlier this year it was reported that Defense Minister Hyon Yong-chul was executed for failing to follow orders and nodding off in meetings, while other defense officials are widely believed to have recently been executed or demoted for failing to improve food rations for soldiers. All told, Kim Jong-un is believed to have executed some 70 officials since coming to power in 2011 with challenges to his authority or perceived acts of disrespect being among the primary causes among the higher profile cases.

The recent execution of Vice Premier Choe Yong-gon raises interesting questions about these power struggles in North Korea. Vice Premier Choe is reported to have been executed for disagreeing with Kim Jong-un’s forestry policies and a poor job performance. While seemingly a minor area of policy, North Korea’s forestry policy is important to its long-term potential economic development. After years of deforestation and over-fertilization of lands felled for farming, North Korea has largely exhausted its soil and has become more prone to flooding and other environmental damage. Kim Jong-un has noted this himself:

…as people have felled trees at random since the days of the Arduous March on the plea of obtaining cereals and firewood and, worse still, as no proper measures have been taken to prevent forest fire, the precious forest resources of the country have decreased to a great extent. As the mountains are sparsely wooded, even a slightly heavy rain in the rainy season causes flooding and landslides and rivers dry up in the dry season; this greatly hinders conducting economic construction and improving people’s standard of living …

At present, the forests of the country can be said to have reached a crossroads–whether to perish forever or to be restored. We can no longer back off from the issue related with the forests.

If Vice Premier Choe was executed for disagreeing with Kim Jong-un’s forestry policy, it raises three questions:

1. Was he executed for opposing Kim Jong-un’s plan to reforest North Korea?

2. If so, was it because he opposed part of the policy such as Kim Jong-un’s suggestion of utilizing the military as well as other resources to reforest North Korea?

3. Or, was Vice Premier Choe in favor of reforestation but felt that Kim Jong-un’s actions were insufficient despite his rhetoric?

As with any authoritarian regime Vice Premier Choe’s execution could have taken place for unrelated reasons and the notion of disagreements over forestry policy merely serving as a pretext for the act. However, if a disagreement over policy was the proximate cause, a more detailed understanding of the nature of the dispute could help to provide insight into the regime’s objectives and divisions.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the authors alone.

Photo from CIFOR’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Is There a Connection Between North Korean Rhetoric and Action?

By Chad 0Carroll

North Korea continues to ratchet up its belligerent rhetoric against South Korea, this week threatening to destroy a range of South Korean targets including the Blue House and the offices of various (and named) conservative newspapers and television stations. Rather spectacularly, DPRK state media claimed its military would “reduce all the rat-like groups and the bases for provocations to ashes in three or four minutes, in much shorter time, by unprecedented peculiar means and methods of our own style.”  As if this wasn’t enough, yesterday KCNA went one stage further and posted a series of eight cartoons depicting Lee Myung-bak‘s bloody death, head super-imposed on the body of a rat each and every time.  On one side, anyone following North Korean statements for the first time might be forgiven for thinking that the Koreas were coming ever-close to major war.  On the other, some long-time North Korea watchers will just dismiss the latest rhetoric as nothing more than bluster.  However, there is a range of reasons why both South Korea and the international community should remain on guard in the coming months.

While North Korea has often been derogatory about South Korean leaders, the latest bluster is much more militant than what we have seen in recent years.  Indeed, the most recent threats have shown a specificity in targets not seen before (including a long list of Conservative media outlets), while the “cartoon” series shows just how far Pyongyang’s disdain for Lee Myung-bak has come since him taking the Presidency in 2008.  On the surface, the harsh reaction seems to be a tit-for-tat retaliation to Lee Myung Bak’s recent farmland advice to Kim Jong-un, his suggestion that North Korea could have used its rocket-launch budget to instead alleviate hunger, and the South Korean militaries’ decision to showcase extended-range cruise missile to international media last week, capable of reaching “anywhere in North Korea.”  Beyond these triggers, internal factors are likely also contributing to the increase in North Korean rhetoric, with the government either trying to divert attention from the failed satellite launch or attempting to increase tension in order to bolster flailing support for new leader Kim Jong-un.

But should we read anything particularly into this? Of course, this is not the first time belligerent rhetoric has been used against Seoul, with North Korea threatening to spill seas of blood and destroy imperialist lackeys for many years now.  In fact, on most days there is language published on KCNA which might in one way or another be construed as being threatening to South Korea or the U.S and as a result, some are on record as saying these threats are little to worry about.  This is presumably why one report from 2010 suggested that most young people in the ROK remain unconcerned about North Korea, despite heightened tensions even after the sinking of the Cheonan. Of course, decades of threats make it relatively easy to disregard them.  But is there a risk to assume that North Korean rhetoric is something that can be safely ignored?

On occasion, the language in North Korea’s threats becomes far more belligerent than what is usually the norm for even its own fiery style. Often, this type of belligerent language includes threats of “Holy War”, “Seas of Fire”, “Bolstering Deterrence”, and “Physical Retaliation”.  A close look at the chronology of events on the Korean peninsula since 1994 (when Google News records first recorded Pyongyang’s first- use of its famous “sea of fire” threat) shows that it is imprudent to simply dismiss DPRK threats as bluster.  An inspection of 15 of North Korea’s most well-reported threats (that use belligerent rhetoric as described above) since 1994 show an alarming number of “incidents” that occurred subsequent to warnings:

Table: North Korean Threats and Actions




1994 (April)

“Sea of Fire” (No KCNA record)

Made as the potential of U.S. strikes increased during the first nuclear crisis of 1994

1998 (December)

“Sea of Flames” (KCNA)

Made towards the U.S. following criticism of the August 1998 Taepodong launch

2003 (January)

“Holy War” (No KCNA record)

A threat made in response to criticism for leaving the NPT

2003 (February)


Continued fallout from DPRK departure from NPT

2003 (March)


Continued fallout from DPRK departure from NPT

2003 (July)


Continued fallout from DPRK departure from NPT

2006 (October)

“Bolster War Deterrent” (KCNA)

Threat made following tightened sanctions under George Bush, including freezing of Banco Delta Asia funds in September 2005

2006 (October)


DPRK conducts nuclear test six days after warning.

2009 (April)

“Bolster self-defensive nuclear deterrent” (KCNA)

Following criticism of Unha-2 launch, DPRK withdrew from Six Party Talks and threatened a nuclear test

2009 (May)


North Korea makes good on its threat of another nuclear test within less than a month of initial threat

2009 (May)

“Sea of Fire” (KCNA)

Made by the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland just days after North Korea’s second nuclear test, and roughly a month after the Unha-2 rocket launch.

2009 (June)


Takes place following North Korea’s second nuclear test and Unha-2 rocket launch

2010 (January)

“Holy War” (Threat from NDC)

Came amid announcement of ROK contingency plans to deal with collapse of Pyongyang government and prior to failed DPRK attempts to talk about formalizing a Peace Treaty with the U.S.

2010 (26 March)


Occurred following several DPRK attempts to restart dialogue and formalize peace treaty with U.S. (amid “strategic patience” policy)

2010 (June)

“Sea of Flames”  (KCNA)

Following raised inter-Korean tensions post sinking of the Cheonan corvette

2010 (August)

“Strong Physical Retaliation” (KCNA)

Warning fishermen to keep away from disputed border waters, made following five days of anti-submarine exercises

2010 (September)

"DPRK is prepared to counter any preemptive attack” (KCNA)

Warning made by the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland in advance of joint war U.S. - ROK exercises in both the East and West Seas.

2010 (October)

“Blow up their strongholds” (KCNA)

Made by the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland as a warning to the U.S. and ROK to not go ahead with joint “DPRK targeted” PSI exercises near Busan.

2010 (23 November)


Occurred in context of recent naval exercises in NLL area

2011 (January / February)           

“Sea of Flames” (KCNA)

A threat to try and prevent joint U.S. – ROK military exercises from occurring

2011 (March)

“Sea of Flames” (KCNA)

Following ROK army unit using pictures of Kim family for target practice

2011 (November)


“Sea of Fire” – (KCNA)

Made after ROK military exercises  responding to Yeonpyeong Island shelling anniversary exercises

2012 (March)

“Sea of Flames” (KCNA)

Made in context of anti-Lee Myung-bak rhetoric ahead of South Korean National Assembly elections

From this table we can observe that from a total of 15 major threats, 8 subsequent incidents took place (5 if you count the 3 occurring between February – July 2003 as a single response).  Caveat: this is only using a small range of threat terms – there have been times when North Korea has made good on other less belligerent threats and many other times when it has not.  And while it is difficult to know if we can link specific warnings to incidents like naval clashes or the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents, some are obviously very clearly linked (for example, nuclear test warnings).

So should we be worried about the current increase in threat from North Korea?  With elections forthcoming in South Korea, Pyongyang has a strong motivation to try to manipulate the South Korean populace.  It’s no secret that the DPRK prefers a liberal administration in the Blue House so Pyongyang will be keen to demonstrate to South Koreans that keeping the conservatives in power will create unnecessary future complications. As a result, these recent threats might be designed to make South Korean voters think twice when voting at the next elections, especially after the conservative’s recent (albeit marginal) victory in April’s parliamentary elections.  But if is true that North Korean threats will no longer make an impact on the future voting behavior of South Korea, might Pyongyang have a stronger motivation to actually make good of its latest range of threats?

Pyongyang’s claim that their newly threatened special actions will be “unprecedented” implies that nuclear tests, naval skirmishes, and border incidents along the DMZ are unlikely to comprise the core of their most recent threats.  If these threats are to come to fruition, perhaps we can expect  unconventional means, like those used on  Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, or large-scale cyber-attacks on South Korean online media and government.  “Limited” actions such as these appear far more likely than major aggressions like the outright shelling of targets in Seoul, perhaps explaining why South Korea has stationed around 240 officers around aforementioned media offices.  Either way, with the Blue House and South Korean military promising severe retaliation to any provocation, the risk of escalation remains severe if North Korea goes ahead even with even limited physical attacks.

Although reading into North Korean threats is like attempting to read tea leaves, one should not be too hasty in dismissing them entirely.  With Kim Jong-un’s uncertain hold of power, there is a stronger chance than ever that brinkmanship between the two Koreas could prove highly dangerous this year. The sinking of the Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island have changed the dynamics on the Korean peninsula and South Korea may be unable to show the restraint it has during past provocations. .  However, while Seoul shouldn’t pander to North Korea’s belligerence, it should also be cognizant that for the moment it seems it is the hardliners who are behind the wheel of North Korean foreign policy.

Chad 0Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

Posted in Inter-Korean, North Korea, slider, South KoreaComments (6)

Seeing What I Could See in North Korea

By Nicholas Hamisevicz

In late August, I joined a tourist group led by the Young Pioneer Tours company on a one week trip to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (or North Korea). Visits to Pyongyang, Mount Paektu, Samjiyon, Chongjin, and Wonsan attracted adventure tourists, some of whom had been to other places like Iran, Burma, and Bosnia, as well as Korea and China analysts like me.  Although it was only my first time to North Korea and without any meetings with government officials, four things stood out about policy toward North Korea: connections with China, small cracks in the North Korean system and story, direct evidence of the third generation leadership transition in North Korea, and that unification will be a significant financial burden for South Korea. Granted, these are not huge revelations, but they are apparent as one travels by bus and plane for a week throughout North Korea.

First, the connections with China are easily visible. Chinese tourists abound, from our hotels in Pyongyang to the Be Dae Bong Hotel near Samjiyon and Mount Paektu. Gift shops and book stores seemed more comfortable using Chinese Yuan than Euros, which the government run Korea International Travel Company had suggested for our group, giving Yuan back as change rather Euros. Further evidence of China-North Korea connections were on full display during the Arirang Mass Games performance held at the May Day Stadium in Pyongyang. The second to last scene celebrated the friendship and history of China and North Korea, with dancing pandas, flags of the two countries, and Korean and Chinese characters being flashed on the placards.

Second, in a recent episode of KEI’s Korean Kontext podcast, Curtis Melvin, author of the North Korea Econ Watch blog, mentioned that one can see “cracks” in the North Korean system and story when they visit. Some of these cracks could be seen on our trip.  Hot water was only available from 7:00AM to 8:000AM at the Be Dae Bong Hotel and in our Wonsan hotel; moreover, we had no running water at our hotel in Chongjin. As other visitors have reported, there is a lot of construction happening in Pyongyang and other cities, yet few pieces of heavy machinery that could aid in the construction, such as cranes and bulldozers, are visible on the construction sites. Heavy machinery was also absent from the fields of corn alongside the road from Orang airport to Chongjin.

Nowhere was the fear of the revelation of the cracks in the North Korean system more evident than when we traveled to the port city of Chongjin. As mentioned, our hotel had no running water. The original permission to take pictures of anything not related to the military and checkpoints was now gone, and we had to ask for permission for every photo we wanted to take.  Our North Korean tour guides seemed more nervous and hesitant. A tour guide from Chongjin joined us, and if you were looking for someone who might be in one of the Chongjin gangs described in Barbara Demick’s book, Nothing to Envy, he’d be it.

It was clear the North Koreans didn’t like us being in Chongjin and wanted us out quickly.  Our itinerary had scheduled a guided bus tour of the city. Also, because we were in this seaside city and had yet to see any water, many in the group wanted to see the port of Chongjin. However, after a visit to a preschool, the North Koreans drove us directly out of Chongjin. We were fortunate to realize this before we were too far out of the city, and somehow, we convinced the guides to take us back to the city and to the port. We drove straight back up the main street, past our hotel, directly to the port.  The bus then hastily turned around in a hotel with a People’s Republic of China flag raised atop its flagpole, and we were immediately back on the route out of Chongjin.  The tour guides explained that Chinese sailors visiting Chongjin port stay at that hotel.

But it was hard to tell if these cracks were large enough for change to break through from the inside or where policy prescriptions from the outside could infiltrate and induce reform. As North Korea watchers know, the country has been incredibly resilient and predictions of its imminent demise usually end in error.

North Korea is trying to prevent the predicted collapse scenarios by cultivating a smooth transition from the Kim Jong-il regime. Kim Jong-il appears to have positioned his third son, Kim Jong-un to be his successor. Since being promoted to a four-star general and appointed as a Vice Chairman of the Central Military Committee in North Korea last year, North Korean watchers have been following Kim Jong-un to see if he will be able to handle this transition. Recent travelers to North Korea, including my colleagueAbraham Kim, have noticed a set of three propaganda banners that suggest the transition to Kim Jong-un. The signs, “Suryeongbok” and “Janggunbok,” are “typical congratulations” for having the good fortune or happiness to be led by Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, while the third phrase, “Daejangbok,” signifies “people enjoy the happiness (bok) of having general (daejang) Kim Jong-un.” Most of these signs have been spotted in and around Pyongyang by visitors; however, the banners were displayed on the outside of a building near the main square in Chongjin.

Lastly, the costs of unification will be significant.  Again, it is not an Earth-shattering revelation, but a factor that becomes even clearer when driving on unpaved roads that connect major cities and areas of the country. The new construction of buildings, while probably being done in preparation for the start of North Korea’s effort to become a strong and prosperous nation, might not be up to the current safety and construction standards of those in South Korea.  Numerous other signs like wood-burning trucks, unheated food at some buffet meals, and unlit areas of functioning museums and buildings all suggest unification will be a costly process.

While these aren’t relatively new insights into North Korea, these are issues that the Korean policy community needs to understand and constantly follow. The connections with China, the cracks in the system, succession issues, and the costs of unification are all factors that impact policies toward North Korea. As a Korea analyst, I was fortunate to see these firsthand, and I would definitely want to go back to North Korea to see what else I can see.

Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute. His views are his own.

Photo courtesy of NK News – a North Korean news source.

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The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.