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26 October 2010 / SP

Weekly News Brief – 26 Oct 2010


  • Brookings – Legal Grounds for Protection of North Korean Refugees – Roberta Cohen breaks down the legal arguments for the protection of NKs as refugees in China.
  • The Joongang Daily has a readable series on NK refugees experiences in SK (parts one, two and three and this on Hanawon and Hana Centers).
  • North Korean refugees in South Korea are increasingly becoming involved in medical insurance fraud, due to ignorance about the insurance system and difficulty in adapting to SK society. Over the past five years refugees in Gyeonggi province alone received 3.1 billion won (28 million USD) from 31 insurance companies in bogus claims. “Insurance fraud has become almost the common thing to do among defectors after they come to South Korea,” Chun Ki-Won, a priest who helps the refugees, told AFP. Hanawon is now offering courses to educate refugees about the dangers of insurance scams. Refugees typically send 30 percent of their takings from the frauds to brokers in China and the rest to family still in the North. In a survey 66% of refugees described their living conditions as difficult, and 56% said their monthly income is below 500,000 won (450 USD) – officially deemed to be the lowest sum on which families can manage. This is the kind of bad news story that gives NK refugees a bad reputation in SK. NK refugees with limited knowledge of the SK capitalist system face the danger of becoming involved in scams, but the most important factor to work on is helping NK refugees to have the ability to make a livable wage through legitimate means in the formal economy.
  • Two NK refugees working as pimps were arrested for trafficking NK female refugees in Japan and forcing them to engage in prostitution. 13 NK refugees were also arrested for selling sex in Tokyo. Some of the trafficked women said during questioning they engaged in prostitution to cover fees needed to take their family members still in the North out of the poverty-stricken state.
  • The 100th NK refugee arrived in the US, via Russia. NB. there are an unknown additional number of NK refugees in the US illegally and therefore are not counted in the official data, these are people that initially resettled in SK but have since come to the US.
  • The number of NK refugees in SK will hit 20,000 in November. Ministry of Unification data shows that 7/10 defectors are women. 40% of refugees in recent years have already had relatives in the South. Family-linked defection is bringing more NK youth; 13.8% of refugees were children or teens at the time of defection. 8.8% of middle/high school students drop out, NKs are 4 times as likely to be unemployed, and they earn less than half the average wage in Seoul. In  a separate poll (N=210), 24% of NK refugees said that they wanted to leave SK, mainly because of discrimination in SK.


  • SK Unification Minister Hyun In-taek stated that there are 150,000-200,000 political prisoners in six camps in NK, confirming the same estimate that has been used for some years now. The large margin of error points to the lack of reliable information on the size of NKs political prison camps.
  • North Koreans reporting from inside North Korea are a new and growing phenomenon. Armed with easy-to-hide pinhole cameras and flash drives, they are getting videos, photographs and written information out of North Korea.
  • One organization supporting journalists in North Korea is Rimjin-gang magazine, a division of Osaka based AsiaPress International. They recruit reporters in the border regions of China. Budding journalists are given a crash course in the basics of journalism and taught to use essential technology and then go back to North Korea with enough money to travel around the country, pay bribes if they get into trouble, and eventually return to China.
  • The reporters focus on day-to-day life in North Korea, especially starvation, the growing market economy and corruption. They have produced more than 100 hours of video on these subjects. They also try to get information about the outside world into North Korea, usually in the form of CDs containing videos of South Korean soap operas, news shows or documentaries.
  • Foreign pornography is spreading into NK. RFA reports the govt is trying to clamp down, but are fighting a losing battle against demand. A source in North Pyongan Province said, “It’s easy to buy a smuggled Chinese video player, and it’s possible to reproduce DVDs at home with Chinese-made burners. Foreign porn has spread so widely that any home with a player usually has one or two porn DVDs.”
  • DVD players are reportedly already fairly prevalent in many parts of NK. It is well established that pornography consistently drives the early adoption and spread of new technologies in societies all over the world, this has been true for VHS, DVDs, the internet, etc. It can be expected that in a similar way demand for foreign porn in NK will increase the supply of illicit DVDs and players capable of playing them, which will further pave the way for other illicit materials to spread around NK society, for instance SK dramas and foreign films (one hopes that not too many NKs get their only glimpses of the outside world through porn, govt propagandists already have a penchant for depicting the west as a violent and sex-crazed place).
  • Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, a joint project by NK and SK (and throwback to the Sunshine Policy) will open next week. 17 professors from the US and EU and staff from SK will provide teaching in English. 160 students will study undergrad and masters in agriculture, information and communication technology, and industry and management. Forty doctorate-level students began studying with four foreign academics in the summer. The university plans to increase to 500 students and open more departments to teach architecture, engineering, construction and public health care. More on this project in the NYT.


  • For the first time since President Lee took office in 2008, the SK govt is sending 5,000 tons of rice and 3 million cups of instant noodles to NK. The rice will feed 325,000 people for a month. Cement and medicine is scheduled to follow, part of an 12.4 million USD aid package agreed last month when NK and SK agreed to resume family reunions – which will begin 30 October and last for a week. The NK govt had requested aid for its flood-stricken people in August.
  • A cynical view would be that SK is timing this rapprochement to buy a thaw in tense N/S relations just in time for the Seoul G20 Summit (11-12 November), to reduce NK motivations to do anything to disrupt the summit. 5,000 tons is still a paltry amount compared to the 400,000 tons per year that was typical during the Sunshine Policy. A recent move to cancel a joint US-SK naval drill would fit this hypothesis as a concession to NK.
  • UN — NK is heading for a “chronic” new food crisis with drought and floods in different parts of the country exacerbated by cuts in international aid. There has been a shortage of rainfall in some parts of the country but in August torrential downpours caused floods in the north, near the Chinese border.
  • The UN predicted that the cereal yield would be nearly a fifth lower than in 2009. It said the country needs 3.5 million tons of cereals a year to feed its population and would have to import 1.1 million tons. In addition, UN agencies had raised only 20 percent of the 492 million dollars they estimated in 2009 would be needed for the North. With poor inter-Korean relations and NK in a nuclear arms standoff with the international community, UNSG Ban Ki-Moon said humanitarian aid should not be restricted “on the basis of political and security concerns.”
  • A Japanese daily claims that China’s Hu pledged 500,000 tons of rice aid during KJI’s August visit to China.
  • WFP and FAO have included NK in list of 22 countries facing protracted hunger crises, that need special attention from the aid community. FAO and WFP called for a significant rethinking of how assistance is delivered to countries in protracted crises. Official assistance needs to refocus attention on longer-term solutions by aiming to achieve sustained improvements in the productive capacity of vulnerable countries and strengthening their resilience to shocks, whilst continuing to support life saving and livelihoods protection activities.


  • Xi Jinping is expected to take over from Hu Jintao as China’s President in 2012, after being appointed  vice-chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission. Little is known of Xi’s character. The process by which China chooses its next leaders is not at all transparent. Kerry Brown suggests that the Chinese succession process is precarious and internal battles before the next power transfer could lead to surprisingly assertive foreign policy moves.
  • Park Jie-won, floor leader of SKs opposition Democratic Party claimed that in a 2009 meeting Xi expressed disapproval to Lee Myung-bak’s hard-line NK policy, instead preferring the Sunshine Policy approach. Beijing moved quickly to deny these comments to protect their leader-in-waiting from being used in SK domestic politics.
  • SP comment: what little is known about Xi would lead us to speculate that he will not push for a significant change in current Chinese policy towards NK. He can be expected to be China’s top leader for 10 years, presuming stability over that period within the CCP.
  • There has been recent speculation that NK was preparing for a third nuclear test, but this has since been downplayed by SK and the US govts. A nuclear test is not expected in the near future. NK has said that it wants to bolster its nuclear deterrent, in response to the threat from the US, whilst still being open to resumption of Six Party Talks (US and SK aren’t so keen on the talks these days).
  • It can be argued that the NK development of nuclear weapons is completely rational (or at least as rational as it has been for the other 8 nuclear weapon states). See here for the history of the US nuclear threat towards NK. It is very unlikely that NK will give up their nukes in the foreseeable future, although they are happy to play games at the SPT. Not only is nuclear weapon capability the ultimate security guarantee, but it is also are a great source of pride for the military – a key stakeholder in the NK govt. Ordinary NKs have also been encouraged to take nationalistic pride in the technological accomplishment. Unfortunately, the nuclear issue dominates US policy thinking towards NK and prevents diplomatic engagement and breakthroughs in other areas.


  • Boston Globe – amazing collection of photos of the events to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Korean Workers’ Party (feat. KJU).
  • A piece featuring a fast food store and an amusement park in Pyongyang (‘you must be over 160cm tall and a member of the ruling elite to enter this ride’). There was an article in 2008 claiming McDonald’s had rejected an invitation to open up a restaurant in Pyongyang… what a shame.

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