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16 August 2011 / SP

Weekly News Brief – 16 August 2011


  • Several pieces on NK’s nouvelle rich. Lankov: The new rich are high-level officials and entrepeneurs who disguise their private operations under the cover of a state agency – possible because of widespread corruption. They buy houses and household appliances including flat-screen TVs and large fridges. To overcome power cuts they may strike a deal with a local military commander or manager of the local power grid to gain illegal connections to secure electricity sources. Many of these nouvelle rich fear getting on the wrong side of the authorities as many of their activities are illegal, and the growth of the private economy erodes the control and authority of the central govt. However unification may also not be in these people’s interests as they may lose out in the resultant upheaval and competition from SKorean businesses. A KEI blog piece describes steets in Pyongyang filled with people and cars, the availability of foreign consumer goods, machinery, wifi and touch-screens at KIS University, and suggestions of a growing wealth gap between this privileged group and the suffering masses. Kyodo: Pizza, espresso, and European brand-name clothes and accessories are gaining popularity with the new rich in Pyongyang. Tour-operator Walters Keats also says Pyongyang is showing signs of economic progress, and talks of a renewed sense of confidence. However Haggard says that anti-market policies have shrunk the number of market retailers and the middle class, and concentrated wealth in the hands of powerful wholesalers.
  • There are over 660,000 mobile phone users on the official Orascom/koryolink network – more than triple the number of users 12 months ago. NK’s uriminzokkiri propaganda-portal launched a smart phone-optimized version of their site ‘to celebrate 66 years of independence’. The site even has videos and pictures purportedly created by NKorean students and citizens. koryolink is also expected to launch a 3G service for iPad this autumn. Presumably its only a matter of time before the ‘Juche app’ comes out.
  • Hidden camera footage of a market in Pyongyang: Unliscenced traders resist being moved on by an inspector. English transcript here.
  • KCNA: Typhoon Muifa killed or injured at least 10 and damaged thousands of hectares of cropland. UN FAO: The floods hit NK in its main cereal producing regions. The EU has donated 200,000 EUR to the IFRC to repair flood damage in NK.
  • Rodong Sinmun acknowledged NK’s economic difficulties but rejected pressure to reform or open up: “‘Reform’ and ‘opening’ much touted by the imperialists and reactionaries are not ‘a remedy’ for the DPRK to weather its economic difficulties or to revitalize its economy.”
  • Students who have rich parents in the Party are avoiding being mobilised on construction projects by paying 100 USD to their university every month. Rumour has it that the work could last for a year, causing anxiety in less-affluent households.
  • SK intelligence officials have reportedly determined that NK’s defence minister has been sidelined in the succession process because of rivalries between his supporters and KJU’s younger supporters in the military. However it could also be because he is old and ailing.
  • Kim Myong-chol: “The Korean people, the Workers’ Party of Korea, government and the Korean People’s Army consider Kim Jong-eun a manifestation of the founding father, Kim Il-sung that effectively keeps him alive and in charge for ever.” The NKorean propagandist also credits KJU with installing the country’s 3G mobile phone network.
  • KINU: The NK Govt, worried about Arab Spring-style social unrest, is reportedly instructing regional police stations to be lenient towards people trying to make a living in the markets and is stepping up surveillance on university students.


  • NK imported more corn and less rice from China in H1 2011 compared to H1 2010, in efforts to make up for food shortages with little cash. They also increased imports of fertiliser. Burma is also reportedly selling 160,000 bags of low-quality rice to NK.
  • UNSG Ban Ki-moon called for food aid to NK to be depoliticised.
  • Russia will send 50,000 tons of grain to NK to help it deal with floods and food shortages.
  • SK offered aid including nutritional foods for infants, biscuits and instant noodles to help NK recover from the floods. The aid list includes 1.92 million choco pies.
  • There is still no news on the USG’s decision on food aid to NK. Amb.-nominee Sung Kim’s nomination as new US ambo to SK may be being held up because at least one Republican senator is seeking an assurance that the US will not provide food aid.
  • WFP video – WFP’s field monitors have noticed a worrying number of children being brought into hospitals showing clear signs of malnutrition.


  • Daily NK: Various sources suggest that crackdowns on smuggling and defections have increased through the first half of this year on the orders of KJU. The latest crackdown is reportedly being carried out by officers with the authority to execute people who fail to cooperate.
  • NK has also reportedly installed surveillance cameras and barbed wire along parts of the border to stem the flow of defectors and smugglers. KJI reportedly made a trip to Sinuiju in early July and criticised the residents for being influenced by capitalism.   
  • Interview with Danny Lee.



  • SK fired artillery shells into waters near the disputed West Sea maritime border after they detected NK shells being fired. NK claimed they did not fire any shells and said the blasts heard were just construction work.
  • The Economist on NK’s hackers and SK’s accusations they used their skills to illegally make money from online games. KCNA denied the allegations and accused SK of using “cheap gimmicks”.  
  • This week US-ROK military exercises will practise locating and destroying NK WMD. NK called for their cancellation to help denuclearise NK and end the Korean War.
  • The SK military rescued four NKoreans from two sinking boats in the West Sea. They were briefly questioned and sent back the following day. Another drifting NKorean fishing boat was refueled and returned back straight away. This contrasts with an episode earlier this year when SKorean officials questioned 31 NKorean accidental drifters for nearly a month before sending 27 of them back to the north.
  • SK intelligence officials believe NK is plotting to assasinate SK’s defence minister.
  • NK said it is considering holding a reunion for Korean-Americans and their family members in NK. The USG also voiced their support for reunions.
  • NK is trying to attract more tourists by opening a new air route with Malaysia. Air Koryo is also increasing its flights from Shenyang, China.
  • Russian FM Lavrov said NK is ‘positive’ about an overland gas pipeline connecting Russia with SK via NK.
  • Sebastian Strangio on NK-Cambodian relations through history.
  • Haggard, Lee and Noland paper on China-NK cross-border exchange.


  • NYT piece on the difficulty of reporting on the information black hole of NK.
  • Lankov on the first breaches in NK’s information blockade – back-firing propaganda regarding the 1980 Kwangju uprising and the story of pro-North student Im Su-gyong, through which NKoreans learned that SK was far more affluent than they had been led to believe and was soft in dealing with internal opposition. Lankov therefore supports all exchanges with NK, even those conducted on Pyongyang’s terms.
  • Brian Myers on NK: “You get the impression of a nation that is still cohering… It is not simply because of repression, but because the regime still manages to inspire people.” Myers is currently researching how pan-Korean nationalism undermines state patriotism in South Korea.
  • The number of people convicted for breaking the National Security Law in SK has increased by 25% under LMB to an average of 87 per year. One example is a 49 year old man sentenced to one year in jail for making an unauthorised visit to NK and keeping KIS’s memoirs.
  • Dutch tourist Willem van der Bilj has returned home after reportedly being detained in NK, possibly for taking unauthorised photos, and forced to sign a confession. An op-ed piece credited to him appeared in the Pyongyang Times praising NK’s democracy.
  • Barbara Demick at the Oslo Freedom Forum (youtube video).

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