Discover more from AlternativeInsightSubstack
Purposely Misunderstanding Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea
Not understanding a situation creates doubts. Misunderstanding a situation creates problems. Purposely misunderstanding a situation generates unwarranted problems.
Why would the United States (U.S.) purposely misunderstand North Korea (DPRK)?
The U.S. State Department has to explain to itself and others its irrational policies. Despite U.S. flip flops on the subject, George H. Bush administration’s original policy, which pursued the replacement of the autocratic DPRK government by a friendly and democratic government as an essential goal, remains in place in the minds of DPRK and U.S. leaders. Similar to East and West Germany’s final arrangements, success of this policy will give impetus to the unification of the Koreas and establish a strong nation, allied with the West, on Russia’s Siberian border and the Northeastern Asian mainland.
Events forced U.S. administrations to reduce the objective of regime change and favor neutralizing DPRK nuclear weapon developments. Neutralization has not happened, and after the 60+ years that Uncle Sam has engaged North Korea, the bearded patriot has pushed the small and deprived state to become a military superpower, with ballistic missiles, nuclear weapons, and a possible capability to strike U.S. shores.
In signing the 1994 Agreed Framework, the United States agreed to "provide formal assurances to the DPRK against the threat or use of nuclear weapons by the U.S." Not resolving contentious claims that the DPRK was cheating on the agreements enabled the U.S. to renege on supplying North Korea with two nuclear reactors, temporary fuel, and food in trade for the North halting its nuclear program. U.S. shredding of the agreement, continuing joint military exercises with South Korea close to the DPRK border, and issuing a variety of sanctions provoked North Korea into becoming a nuclear-armed nation. From the North's perspective, the hostile nature of Uncle Sam's rhetoric did not "provide formal assurances to the DPRK against the threat or use of nuclear weapons by the U.S."
How has the United States purposely misunderstood the DPRK?
American officials and media describe North Korea as a threat to the world, a country of international terrorists, run by thugs who murder and impoverish their people, shove dissidents into brutal labor camps, and, in the words of George W. Bush, is a "prison run by a sadistic warden." The press provides sparse first-hand evidence of the charges, relying mostly on interviews with DPRK defectors and supposed satellite images of North Korean prison camps.
North Korea is a totalitarian state that has failed to supply material wants to all its people and has treated dissidents harshly. This article has no intention of minimizing the excesses committed by DPRK regimes that have caused suffering to the North Korean people. Nor is it possible and worthwhile to examine, with rigor, the credibility of past reports of inhumane prison camps, slave labor camps, and careless government policies that caused famines, atrocities, and political repression. Cursory examinations of some of the reports may be helpful by giving clues to the mindset that prepared the reports and in determining the reliability of present reports.
A bothersome aspect of the U.S. bludgeoning description of the DPRK is that severely negative descriptions can apply to nations where Washington has excellent relations and has leverage to correct repression. It also applies to the United States itself.
The U.S. reduced North Korea to ashes during the Korean War, scorched Vietnam, assisted Pakistan intelligence in enabling Osama bin Laden to organize al-Qaeda during the Soviet-Afghan war and the Taliban to grab Afghanistan from the Mujahedin, brought death, hunger, and misery to the heavily sanctioned Iraqi people, and invaded Afghanistan after the 9/11 catastrophe, which started a 20-year occupation and eventually permitted the return of the Taliban to Afghanistan. After these counterproductive policies, a few of many others committed by the United States during the post-World War II era and while contemplating the biggest debacle in American foreign policy ─ the 2003 invasion of Iraq ─ President George W. Bush labeled the DPRK a member of the axis-of-evil. In retrospect, who has North Korea invaded and how many foreign peoples have the North Korean military killed? Can George W. Bush, President of a nation that had committed great crimes around the world and was personally responsible for crimes inflicted upon the Iraqi people, define who is evil?
The world faces a contemporary DPRK, a DPRK that enters the third decade of the 21st century with a changed perspective from the DPRK that entered the century. Rehashing of old grievances, reciting past DPRK policies that caused horrific happenings to its people, and purposeful misunderstanding of contemporary North Korea lead to misdirected policies and unwarranted problems. Purposeful misunderstanding comes from exaggerations of negative actions, from not proving these negative actions, from evaluating actions from agendas and opinions and not from facts, from selecting and guessing the facts, and from approaching matters from different perspectives and consciences. Start with the satellite images that show major world cities well-lit during the wee hours of the morning and Pyongyang obscured in darkness.
A matter of perception
Viewers who circulate the images get their jollies from reciting the images as a clear example of a backward nation that cannot supply sufficient electrical energy to its industry and citizens. True, with several caveats; two being that the DPRK lacks sufficient energy sources and sanctions have denied the country access to these sources. The U.S. Energy Information Administration explains the DPRK dilemma and the DPRK detractors purposely misunderstand the information.
North Korea has undertaken some limited crude oil exploration, but it has no proved reserves of petroleum and other liquids. During North Korea’s industrial peak in the 1970s and 1980s, it imported oil from China and the Soviet Union at below-market prices. After the Cold War, these deals ended, and North Korea’s oil consumption dropped from 76,000 barrels per day (b/d) in 1991 to lower than 15,000 b/d in 2017.
Following a unanimous vote, the United Nations Security Council imposed new limits on North Korean imports of petroleum products on December 22, 2017. Starting in January 2018, the UN prohibited most refined petroleum exports to North Korea by capping them at 500,000 barrels per year, and crude oil imports were limited to the current level of 4 million barrels per year (about 11,000 b/d).
Why belittle a nation that is denied from without and not from within and serves the world community by not having neon signs flickering day and night and massive office buildings staying lit all night?
U.S. offers of substantial concessions, such as lifting sanctions, if North Korea substantially dismantles its nuclear programs, are not perceived by the present DPRK leader, Kim Jung-un, as a simple quid pro quo. From his perception, reminders of what happened to Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, and Iraq dictator, Saddam Hussein, after they agreed to halt the pursuit of nuclear weapons are placing the chariot before the horse; the U.S. should first make the concessions, which Kim considers illegal impositions and not concessions, and then he will consider denuclearization.
A matter of deception
Repression of political views and suppression of human rights occur in the DPRK, but are they as sensational as described by its antagonists? Although North Korea undoubtedly contains a substantial number of political prisoners, the exact number has not been verified and the camps have not been well identified. Most information comes from dissidents and escapees who relate elements of truth, have a tendency to cater to the sensational, and have a propensity to exaggerate their pasts.
Amnesty International (AI) is one of the more respected institutions that investigate human rights throughout the globe. Well-funded, well-staffed, and well-committed, AI’s report, NORTH KOREA 2022, demonstrates how the knowing really know very little and couch their reports with “no evidence, “believed,” “there were reports,” “allegedly occurred,” “it was reported.” As many observers of North Korea, AI has no first-hand information of what is happening above the 38th parallel, relies on what others tell them, and presents the information from a partisan view. Note the almost entire negative stress, as if deliberately seeking and wanting to express the negative.
Freedom of movement and right to information remained severely restricted due to border closure. The government declared victory over Covid-19, but there was no evidence of vaccinations taking place. People including children were subject to forced labour and some people were forced into state-designated employment. Political prison camps were believed to remain in operation. There were reports that detainees were tortured and otherwise ill-treated.
Despite some reports that treatment of detainees had partially improved over the past few years, verbal abuse, beatings, torture, and executions allegedly occurred inside detention facilities run by law enforcement agencies, including the Ministry of State Security and the Ministry of Social Security. In particular, it was reported that beatings, torture, and dietary restrictions were used by officials of detention facilities to extract confessions or control detainees.
Mainly due to the Covid-19 epidemic, NK defections to the South abruptly decreased in the last years to only 67 in 2022. In previous decades about 2000 defectors struggled into South Korea annually and media attention to the stories from a few of them partially determined the worldview of the reclusive nation. These defectors furnish much of the published information on North Korea and have been known to exaggerate.
The Guardian, Why do North Korean defector testimonies so often fall apart?, Jiyoung Song for NK News, part of the North Korea network, Tue 13 Oct 2015
Cash incentives and the Western media’s endless appetite for shocking stories encourage refugees to exaggerate, Jiyoung Song argues.
In a report released last year, the UN accused the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, of crimes against humanity, and called for the case to be referred to the international criminal court. UN investigators had been denied access to the country, so the organisation had instead carried out 240 confidential interviews with North Korean refugees living in South Korea, Japan, the UK and the US, including Shin Dong-hyuk, whose story was told in the bestselling Escape from Camp 14. In January, the DPRK government released a video claiming to show Shin’s father denouncing his son’s stories as fake. When questioned, Shin confessed that parts of his account were also inaccurate, including sections on his time in Camp 14, the infamous labour camp for political prisoners, and the age at which he was tortured.
Shin is not alone. Another North Korean, Lee Soon-ok, offered testimony to the US House of Representatives in 2004, describing torture and the killing of Christians in hot iron liquid in a North Korean political prison. But Lee’s testimony was challenged by Chang In-suk, then head of the North Korean Defectors’ Association in Seoul, who claimed to know first hand that Lee had never been a political prisoner. Many former DPRK citizens on the website NKnet agreed Lee’s accounts were unlikely to be true.
Similarly, Kwon Hyuk told the US Congress that he was an intelligence officer at the DPRK embassy in Beijing and had witnessed human experiments in political prisons – a critical factor in the US decision to pass the North Korea Human Rights Act in 2004. Kwon’s account, retold in a BBC documentary back in 2004, was later questioned by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, which argued that he never had access to such information. Many years later, Kwon has since disappeared from the public eye.
One word ─ cash ─ summarizes why defectors embellish their experiences.
BBC News reports, “The South Korean government is quadrupling the reward it pays defectors from the North who share information to $860,000.”
Defectors can expect to receive the six-figure payout if they cross the border with intelligence that helps enhance South Korea's security. Defecting can be an expensive process as a result of dealing with people-smugglers. Other amounts will be given to soldiers who defect with weapons. South Korea's unification ministry said funds would be paid to individuals bringing artillery ranging from aircraft and tanks to small arms.
Daily NK reports that “Sixty-four of the 67 North Korean defectors who fled to the South in 2022 received a total of KRW 398 million (USD 296,459) as payment for divulging valuable information about their country of origin. The figures, released by Yonhap news agency on May 14, are based on Ministry of Unification data provided to Kim Sang-Hee, a deputy speaker of South Korea’s National Assembly.”
Examination of references to prison and labor camps also exposes dubious narratives.
RTE News states that “As many as 250,000 political prisoners and their families toil on starvation rations in the mostly remote mountain camps, according to estimates by international human rights groups.”
According to estimates of which human rights groups, none of whom have any access to the “remote mountain camps.”
RTE News mentions a blog by Joshua Stanton, a Washington lawyer who devotes his spare time to activism on North Korea's human rights.
Mr. Stanton's blog carries satellite images from Google Earth and analysis of the features of six political prisoner camps - three of which he is credited with playing a role in confirming or identifying.
The blogger identifies images of gates and guard houses, and in some cases coal mines and crude burial grounds - corroborated through the work of experts and interviews with defectors from North Korea who lived or worked in the camps.
I magnified a few Google satellite photos on Joshua Stanton’s blog. One of them, "Previously Unidentified Prison, south of Sinuiju, Not Confirmed by Witnesses," is shown below.
1) The yellow arrows in the photograph point to black areas, which are labeled as Guard Towers. Viewing the image on a high-definition 40" monitor reveals that the black lines are only shadows; all the black areas are shadows. There are no Guard Towers.
2) Only partially enclosing walls are apparent in the compound, not the usual construction for a prison.
3) The number of houses, when compared to the possible number of prisoners, is too many to house the personnel in an isolated prison. The combination of many homes, which extend beyond the scene, and several obvious roads indicate this is a village.
Examination of other images of prisons and "labor camps" display similar discrepancies. By being speculative and inaccurate, the Free Korea campaign creates doubts about its other assertions of North Korean treatment of dissidents and criminals. If those who claim to show detention facilities have falsified the images and are unable to show the facilities, then the obvious conclusion is that we need more reliable evidence.
From conversations I have had with authoritative persons, who know North Korea well, there are labor villages, where government officials who have fallen from grace are exiled with their families. They live and toil in these villages in agriculture, mining, and industry. Brutal conditions and starvation have not been cited as prevalent in these labor villages.
A matter of opinion and a guess on facts
Speculative comments presented as facts are obvious in the American media. Jared Quigg, a junior studying journalism and political science, explains why “The western press should stop lying about North Korea.”
In 2014, the dishrag that is the New York Post published a story titled, “North Korean men ordered to get Kim Jong Un’s haircut.” Three years later and seemingly without an ounce of shame, the same outlet published a story called, “North Korean men aren’t allowed to get Kim Jong Un’s haircut.”
And it isn’t just embarrassments like the Post who publish such nonsense: the “serious” journalists at the BBC also ran the haircut story. The serious journalists at The Guardian reported that North Korea had banned skinny jeans in an effort to combat “capitalistic lifestyles.” The Guardian wrote this story with confidence; meanwhile, fact checkers at Snopes said that reports of such a ban are unproven.
You might say these stories are inconsequential, harmless even — that is, if one considers portraying a foreign country in the most absurd possible light to be harmless. Wrong! As an example, consider when in 2020 several outlets reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was in critical condition, or possibly even dead, after having heart surgery. He did not die, of course, and there’s no evidence to suggest he was close to dying.
The press has also falsely claimed numerous times that notable North Koreans had been executed only for these dead people to appear later on television. In 2014, it was reported that a singer – apparently the ex-girlfriend of Kim – had been executed. A year later she was seen on live television praising Kim’s leadership.
Other fake purges and executions include a story from 2016 about a North Korean General reported by South Korean intelligence to have been executed only to later appear alive, and a 2019 story about a diplomat who had apparently been sent to a labor camp only to be seen not in a labor camp days later.
Understanding North Korea
North Korea is not a threat to any country except itself. Its leaders know obsolete weapons do not support the military capability required to overcome a South Korea that has modern weapons and support from the U.S. military. Why make a nation that has an inferiority complex feel more inferior? Why deny a relatively poor country the resources it needs to gain prosperity? Can a more understanding attitude of North Korea evolve a revised policy and reverse the course of North Korea's belligerent attitude? Definitely, but slowly.
A resource-limited nation does not want to waste resources on military development. The obvious explanation for North Korea's excessive attention to military prowess is as a deterrent against attack. Having military maneuvers by foreign powers off your coasts, and troops from an antagonistic nation stationed close to your borders generates fear. Political strategists recite a "nuclear bee-sting" alternative, in which smaller states obtain a nuclear weapon to deter major military action against them. North Korean leaders are demonstrating that the "nuclear bee-sting" proposition fits their strategy of preventing a U.S. military confrontation on the Korean peninsula.
It is doubtful that Kim will be willing to sidetrack a nuclear effort that took decades of sacrifice and an abundance of resources and energy. He may be willing to temporarily halt developments and then slowly denuclearize and only after the U.S. removes its soldiers from South Korea and its nuclear weapons from Japan.
North Korea is not threatening the U.S.; it is challenging the U.S. to leave it alone in its arrangements, which the U.S. rebuts as deranged and threatening. If the United States and South Korea halt their threatening military maneuvers and the U.S. moves its troops out of South Korea, will the North react positively? Of course. Get rid of the sanctions, help North Korea with its energy and food problems, and leave them alone to resolve their domestic problems and the world will witness a different North Korea; not a model democracy or one that respects individual rights, more similar to China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Venezuela, Cuba, and a host of other nations that bother the United States and do not invite military confrontation.
North Korea might go down in history as the nation that awakened the world to the consequences of global saber rattling. It has shown that the nuclear world can become one big poker game, in which a challenge to a bluff can be an 'all win' and 'all lose' proposition. Which gambler is willing to play that game when an 'all win' doesn't add much more to what he already has, and an 'all lose' means leaving the person with nothing? The odds greatly favor America, but the wager return is not worth taking the bet, despite the odds. Keep it sweet and simple, let the Koreans settle their problems, and we will see doves flying over the Korean peninsula.