Category Archives: Korea

U.S. Submarine Success, 1944-45

From World War II at Sea, by Craig L. Symonds (Oxford U. Press, 2018), Kindle pp. 591-594, 611:

The quality of life on American submarines was greatly improved by 1944. Occasional showers were now possible, and rations were dramatically better. The captain of one sub reported that “our freezer was filled with boned meats—including steaks, roasts, chops, and hamburgers. The baker was up at 0300 each day to prepare fresh breads, rolls, cakes, and cookies.” On most subs, there was an “open door policy” that allowed crewmen to help themselves to cold cuts and sandwiches as well as fresh coffee around the clock. A number of boats had self-service Coca-Cola machines, which one skipper called “a real morale booster.” Periodically, the crews might gather in the forward torpedo room to watch a movie. Such luxuries were unimaginable to the crews of Germany’s “iron coffins,” or, indeed, those of Japanese or British submarines.

The new American subs were also more efficient. The torpedo problems had been largely solved (though the loss of the Tang showed that some problems remained), and the number of Japanese ships sunk increased dramatically. Whereas in 1942, American submarines sank a total of 612,039 tons of shipping, in 1944 they destroyed 2,388,709 tons, nearly four times as much. If that was less than the tonnage claimed by Dönitz’s more numerous U-boats back in the “happy time” of 1942, as a percentage of Japanese shipping it was far greater. In 1941 the Japanese had nearly 6.4 million tons of merchant shipping. Despite adding 3.5 million more during the war—nearly half of it in 1944—by the end of that year there was less than 2.5 million tons left. The Japanese merchant marine was steadily disappearing because Japan could not do what the United States did: build ships as fast or faster than its enemy could sink them.

Another reason for American success was that Japanese anti-submarine warfare was not particularly effective. Japanese escorts had both sonar and depth charges, but their crews were less efficient in using them than the British in the Atlantic or the Americans in the Pacific. It was not uncommon for American subs to endure prolonged depth charge attacks with little or no damage…. Of course, having to lie quiet and endure a depth-charge attack, even an unsuccessful one, was psychologically draining. The repeated concussions often shattered lightbulbs and loosened the cork lining on the bulkheads; still, as long as the pressure hull held, the boat survived. Japanese inefficiency in depth-charge attacks is especially curious since they were extraordinarily efficient in most other areas of naval warfare. The explanation may be at least partly cultural. Valuing the offense over the defense, Japanese destroyermen worked harder at perfecting torpedo attacks than they did at the more pedantic job of escorting lumbering merchant ships or pinpointing the location of unseen American submarines.

In addition to the gradual depletion of the number of Japanese ships, those that survived became increasingly inefficient. One reason was a shortage of cargo handlers. By 1944, conscription had swept up most experienced longshoremen into the armed forces and Japan was compelled to rely on dock workers rounded up from the regions they had conquered—Filipinos, Koreans, and Chinese—as well as Japanese women and even American prisoners of war. Such workers were inexperienced, and many of them were less than enthusiastic in their labor, so efficiency suffered. Another problem was Japanese reluctance to embrace convoys. They did not put a convoy system in place until late in 1943, and convoys did not become routine until the spring of 1944. Even then, there were so few escorts that convoys were delayed, sometimes for weeks, for lack of an escort vessel. In such circumstances, it seemed wiser to send out ships individually, especially through what were assumed to be safe areas. The problem was that by 1944 there were no safe areas.

The firebombing of Japan’s major cities was apocalyptic. The postwar Strategic Bombing Survey concluded that “some 40 percent of the built up area of the 66 cities attacked was destroyed. Approximately 30 percent of the entire urban population of Japan lost their homes and many their possessions.” The impact that such devastation had on Japan’s wartime economy is less clear. At the time, the [Army Air Forces] insisted that destruction of the “housing units” of factory workers weakened Japanese industry. Yet most of the industries in the areas that were destroyed by firebombing had ceased to function long before the raids began because American submarines had halted the delivery of most raw materials. A factory without access to raw materials is just a building. Several of the air strikes directed at Japan’s petroleum resources, for example, hit refineries that were no longer functioning and tank farms that were empty. The historian Mark Parillo put it anatomically: “The submarine had stopped Japan’s industrial heart from beating by severing its arteries and it did so well before the bomber ruptured the organ.” Given that, the B-29 firebombing raids that began in March 1945 and continued almost without interruption for the rest of the war were less strategic bombing than terror bombing.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, industry, Japan, Korea, labor, military, Pacific, Philippines, U.S., war

Japanese Reactions to the Republic of China, 1912

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 697-698:

On December 28, 1911, the Manchu government issued a statement appealing for an end to hostilities and calling for a fair election to determine whether the people desired a constitutional monarchy or a republic. The following day, without reference to this appeal, an election was held in Nanking for the president of the provisional republican government. Sun Yat-sen was elected and took office on January 1, 1912.

Faced with this opposition at home and abroad, the cabinet abandoned hope for a constitutional monarchy. Opinion among the nobles was divided, and the situation was chaotic. Yüan concluded by asking Ijūin to offer his advice. Ijūin replied that Japan had no easy solution to offer, but he conveyed the Japanese hope for a constitutional monarchy, even if this reduced the emperor to being a mere figurehead. He added that the Japanese government was unlikely to recognize any government unless it demonstrated it was capable of suppressing disturbances. Until such time, Japan would have no choice but to treat China as a country without a government. This response upset Yüan greatly.

The end of the Manchu dynasty, after 300 years of rule, came a few weeks later. On February 12, 1912, the six-year-old Emperor Hsüan T’ung announced his abdication. Yüan Shih-k’ai formed a provisional republican government and was granted full powers to negotiate with the people’s army on unification. On the thirteenth Sun Yat-sen, recognizing Yüan’s military capability, offered his resignation as president to the Assembly in Nanking and proposed that Yüan Shih-k’ai be the new president. The Assembly agreed, and on March 10, in a ceremony held in Peking, Yüan took the oath of office as the first president of China.

Emperor Meiji’s reactions to the abdication of the Chinese emperor are not recorded, but he was undoubtedly more affected than, say, when he heard that the king of Portugal had been driven from his throne. Not only was China far closer than any European country, but his respect for China lingered despite the decisive defeat Japan had administered in the Sino-Japanese War. China may have lost its preeminence among the nations of East Asia, but when letters were exchanged between the emperor of China and the emperor of Japan, they both wrote in Chinese, and Meiji’s rescripts were dotted with Chinese words and phrases borrowed from Confucian texts.

Nationalists did not hesitate to say that the Japanese, rather than contemporary Chinese, were the true heirs to the ancient glories of Chinese civilization. The fall of the Chinese monarchy, breaking traditions of more than 2,000 years since the first emperor, could not be dismissed as most Japanese had dismissed the fall of the Ryūkyūan or the Korean monarchy as the unavoidable fate of a weak country in the modern world. During the next forty years or so, China was subjected by the Japanese military to humiliation and the ravages of war, but it continued to exercise a powerful attraction on Japanese intellectuals who felt that the Chinese past was in large part their own.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, democracy, Japan, Korea, language, military, nationalism, philosophy

Rectification of Korean Titles, 1910

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 673-677:

The memorandum that [Resident-General of Korea] Terauchi showed to Yi Wan-yong contained a somewhat earlier version of the treaty articles. It proposed, for example, that the Korean emperor be known henceforth as taikō denka [太公殿下] (His Highness, the archduke) and the crown prince as kōdenka [公殿下] (His Highness, the prince). These titles would be hereditary. The memorandum recognized that some people might object that this represented a demotion from their present status, but these titles would be Japanese, not merely Korean.

Cho (who spoke fluent Japanese) called that night on Terauchi and told him that he and Yi agreed that unless the name Han-guk [韓国] and the title of king were retained, no compromise could be reached. They were apparently under the impression that annexation would be a union of two countries, each retaining sovereign status, rather in the manner of Austria-Hungary or Sweden-Norway. Terauchi was surprised by this lack of understanding of Japanese aims, but he finally agreed to allow the country to be known by the old name of Chōsen [朝鮮]. In response to the request that the title of king be retained, Terauchi compromised to the extent of allowing the emperor to be known as riō denka [李王殿下] (His Highness the Yi king). The title ō was not the same as kokuō [国王] (king); in Japan, ō meant no more than a prince, but this concession seemed to satisfy the Koreans’ wounded pride. Retired Emperor Kojong would be known as taiō denka [太王殿下] (His Highness, the great king), and Crown Prince Yi Eun, as ōseishi denka [王世子殿下] (His Highness, the heir to the king). Cho agreed to these changes and informed Yi, who told Terauchi that he was confident he would be able to persuade the cabinet at the meeting on the next day to accept Terauchi’s compromise.

On the same day, August 29, a series of imperial ordinances were issued, proclaiming that Han-guk was henceforth to be called Chōsen, that the government general of Chōsen had been established, that an amnesty was to be put into effect in Chōsen, and that there would be an extraordinary imperial bounty in Chōsen. Other ordinances dealt with duties on Korean merchandise imported into Japan, patents, designs, copyrights, and similar commercial matters. After long years of laxness under their own rulers, the Koreans were getting an early taste of Japanese efficiency.

Korean news media got some small revenge when they reported the death of Emperor Hirohito in 1989. They demoted him to 日王 (ilwang), King of Japan.

Leave a comment

Filed under Japan, Korea, language, nationalism

Itō Hirobumi’s Iron Fist in Korea, 1905

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 640-642:

The discussion between Emperor Kojong and Itō Hirobumi lasted for four hours. The emperor must have felt humiliated, but he had no choice but to yield: Itō had made it clear that if he refused, the Japanese would intervene militarily and overthrow his dynasty. In descriptions of Itō in other situations, he is usually portrayed as an urbane, highly civilized man, but he now demonstrated he had an iron fist inside his velvet glove. His refusal to allow the emperor even the barest modicum of self-respect—by pretending that orders actually issued by the Japanese had originated with the emperor—was couched in suitably polite language, but Kojong recognized the seriousness of the threat. Kojong himself, hitherto described in most sources as a nonentity, especially in contrast with his consort, Queen Min, showed dignity and strength in this great crisis of his reign.

On November 16 Itō invited members of the Korean cabinet and senior statesmen to his hotel for a friendly chat which turned into a fierce argument that lasted until midnight. According to one Korean account: “The ministers, before coming to the hotel, had sworn to one another that they would not yield to the Japanese demands under any circumstances. The Japanese used every kind of reasoning, offered them immense bribes, cajoled them, and finally threatened to kill them if they refused to yield.”

On the following day a meeting between the Japanese (Itō, Minister Hayashi Gonsuke, and General Hasegawa Yoshimichi) and the Korean cabinet took place at the Japanese legation. Members of the cabinet continued to voice their opposition to the treaty, and no decision could be reached. The emperor appealed to Itō for a delay, lest forcing the issue lead to disorder, but Itō refused. Instead, the Japanese army and military police were called out. The same Korean account states, “Machine guns were everywhere in the streets, and even field guns were brought out to command the strategic points of the city. They made feint attacks, occupied gates, put their guns into position, and did everything short of actual violence to prove to the Koreans that they were prepared to enforce their demands.”

On November 18, 1905, the treaty of protection was signed. It was in five articles:

1. Japan would henceforth conduct foreign relations for Korea and, through its diplomatic and consular personnel abroad, protect Korean subjects and their interests.

2. Japan would carry out the provisions of treaties already concluded by Korea with foreign countries, but Korea would promise henceforth not to conclude international treaties without the prior consent of the Japanese government.

3. Japan would station in Korea as its representative a resident general who would be concerned exclusively with foreign affairs. He would have the privilege of audiences with the emperor. The Japanese government would station “residents” at opened ports and such other places in Korea as it deemed essential.

4. All existing agreements between Japan and Korea would remain in force, providing they did not conflict with the provisions of the present treaty.

5. Japan guaranteed it would preserve the safety and dignity of the Korean imperial household.

There was naturally bitter resentment in Korea over the treaty imposed by Japan. Word of how the ministers had voted soon leaked out to the press, and newspapers courageously published editorials denouncing the treaty and those ministers who had betrayed their country by yielding to the Japanese demands. The following days were marked by “howls of grief” and mass demonstrations in the square in front of the palace. Shops and schools closed in protest, and Christian churches were filled with the sounds of lamentation.

Itō Hirobumi was appointed as the first resident general on December 21, 1905. His activities in Korea, despite his assurances to Emperor Kojong, were by no means restricted to foreign affairs. He determined, for example, to rid the palace of corruption in order to end its protection of banditry and uprisings elsewhere in the country. With the permission of the Korean emperor, Itō took personal command of the palace guards.

Itō’s assassin, An Jung-geun, later listed 15 reasons why Itō should be killed at his trial.

Leave a comment

Filed under Japan, Korea, migration, military, nationalism

Japan’s Treaty with Korea, 1876

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 256-257:

The first meeting between representatives of the two countries lasted for four days. The negotiations were conducted with ritual politeness on both sides but consisted mainly of repetitions of familiar arguments. The Japanese wanted to know why their attempts to secure a treaty of peace and friendship had been consistently rebuffed; the Koreans in return wanted to know why the Japanese had used titles for their emperor that put him on an equal footing with the emperor of China, thereby placing Korea in a subordinate position. After denying any intent of asserting suzerainty over Korea, the Japanese asked why their ship had been fired on at Kanghwa. The Koreans answered that because the Japanese marines were dressed in European-style uniforms, they were mistaken for either French or Americans. They failed to apologize, saying merely that the provincial officials had not recognized that the ships were Japanese. The Japanese delegates then demanded why the Korean government had not informed its provincial officials of the flags flown by Japanese ships and insisted that this required an apology. The Korean commandant replied that he was charged only with receiving the Japanese visitors; he was not authorized to make an apology.

The negotiations dragged on, interrupted by periods of consultation between the Korean commissioners and their government in Seoul, but on February 27, 1876, a treaty of friendship was at last signed between Japan and Korea. After the signing ceremony, the Japanese offered presents to the Koreans, not only the traditional bolts of silk, but a cannon, a six-shooter, a pocket watch, a barometer, and a compass. The gifts (with the exception of the silk) were strikingly like those the Americans had given the Japanese when the first treaty between the two nations was signed, and the treaty itself had almost identical significance: Japan was “opening” Korea, the hermit nation, to diplomatic relations and to trade. One Western scholar later commented,

As the Western Powers had done with herself, so did she now, without one particle of compunction, induce Korea to sign away her sovereign rights of executive and tariff autonomy, and to confer on Japanese residents within her borders all the extraterritorial privileges which were held to violate equity and justice when exercised by Europeans in Japan.

When word of the signing of the treaty reached the diplomatic community in Tōkyō, the ministers of the various countries asked for an audience with the emperor so that they might express their congratulations. The emperor invited them to a banquet at the Shiba Detached Palace, where each minister had the opportunity to convey joy over the signing of the treaty and hopes for greater and greater friendship between Japan and Korea.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, economics, France, Japan, Korea, migration, military, nationalism, U.S.

North Korea’s “First Sister”

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 245-247:

As one of the few people who Kim Jong Un trusts, Kim Yo Jong has come to play a crucial role in her brother’s regime, acting as a kind of chief of staff, protocol officer, and executive assistant all in one. She is his right-hand woman and gatekeeper.

In this way, the siblings are following the example set by their father. Kim Jong Il was very close to his younger sister, Kim Kyong Hui, the one who married Uncle Jang. He adored her, one family member would later say. After he sent his half brother into exile, she was really the only family he had. She played a crucial advisory role to her brother and held important positions within the Workers’ Party right up to her disappearance at the time her husband was executed by Kim Jong Un.

The two women were seen together at Kim Jong Un’s equestrian center at the end of 2012, both of them wearing brown jackets and riding white horses. Kim Kyong Hui appeared to be grooming her niece for the role of First Sister, just as Kim Jong Il had groomed his son.

Kim Yo Jong is several years younger than her brother; exactly how many years is anyone’s guess. The South Korean intelligence service says she was born in 1988; the US government thinks it was 1989. When she joined her older siblings in Bern, registered as Pak Mi Hyang, her birthdate was declared as April 28, 1991. That seems too late and may have been changed to get her into a younger class in Switzerland as she learned a new language.

A photo from this time shows a girl of about eight or nine with a bright smile and chubby cheeks that are a stark contrast to her angled face of today. She is wearing a choker necklace, the kind that was fashionable in the late 1990s, and a red dress. Like her mother, she loved to dance.

She led a cloistered life, growing up in the royal palaces of North Korea. Her father called her “sweet, sweet Yo Jong” and “Princess Yo Jong” and thought she was quick-witted and possessed good leadership skills. Kim Jong Il identified both Kim Jong Un and Kim Yo Jong as having an aptitude for political life.

She had joined her brothers in Switzerland and attended the same public school in Bern. She stayed there until late 2000, having completed the American equivalent of sixth grade. She is thought to have finished her schooling with a private tutor and then to have studied at Kim Il Sung University.

We didn’t see her again until it was time for her brother to take the reins. She appears in the grainy family photo taken under the tree in Wonsan in 2009, and she was at the same Workers’ Party conference in 2010 where her brother emerged as their father’s successor. She stood alongside Kim Jong Il’s fifth “wife,” who worked in the leader’s personal secretariat. This suggested that the First Sister was working in the secretariat too.

Then she was seen at her father’s funeral, a gaunt figure in a black dress, her face down as she walked behind her brother toward their father’s body. But so little was known about her that no one was sure who she was, leading to the speculation that she might be Kim Jong Un’s wife. At that stage, no one knew about First Lady Ri Sol Ju.

From the earliest days of her brother’s leadership, Kim Yo Jong has been there, supporting him.

While the glamorous Ri Sol Ju is at Kim Jong Un’s side to make him appear a more modern leader and convey a sense of aspiration, Kim Yo Jong is working. The first lady may swan about in bright outfits and clutch her husband’s arm, but the First Sister is usually seen in the background, making sure everything goes smoothly.

She could be seen popping out from behind a pillar on a balcony overlooking a huge military ceremony in Pyongyang in 2017, bringing documents to her brother that were apparently related to the spectacle taking place in the square and sky in front of them. At the opening of a flagship residential district in the capital, she was there on the stage, making sure that the photographers were in place and everything was ready before her brother arrived. She’s often checking her phone.

Leave a comment

Filed under education, Korea, military, nationalism, Switzerland

Origin of North Korea’s Nuclear Program

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 232-234:

In 1962, the Soviet Union and the United States were locked in a thirteen-day standoff over the installation of nuclear-armed Soviet missiles in Cuba, less than one hundred miles from the US coastline. For those two weeks, the world teetered on the edge of nuclear war. But the conflict was resolved diplomatically when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles as long as President John Kennedy agreed not to invade Cuba. A deal was done.

Kim Il Sung viewed this deal as a capitulation by the Soviet Union to the United States, a sign that Moscow was willing to sell out an ally for the sake of its own security. The Great Leader apparently learned from this that North Korea should never entrust its national security to any other government. This injected new momentum into his drive for nuclear independence. Within a few months, Kim Il Sung’s regime had started to explore the possibility of developing a nuclear deterrent of its own. The leader who had espoused a need for a stronger agricultural policy was soon standing before the cadres in Pyongyang to hammer home the importance of putting equal emphasis on economic growth and national defense. This was the first “simultaneous push” policy. The proportion of the national budget devoted to defense rose from only 4.3 percent in 1956 to almost 30 percent within a decade.

The nuclear scientists who returned home from the Soviet Union set about building, about sixty miles northeast of Pyongyang, a similar complex to the one they’d worked at in Dubna. This would eventually become the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Complex.

More impetus came in the early 1970s, when it emerged that North Korea’s other main ally, China, had secretly started to forge relations with the United States, an effort that led to President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing in 1972.

Meanwhile, in South Korea, the strongman Park Chung-hee, a general who’d seized the presidency through a military coup, was secretly pursuing nuclear weapons of his own. When this news emerged, it was an unbearable blow to Kim Il Sung’s personal vanity and sense of national pride.

Another key factor that must have been weighing on Kim Il Sung’s mind was his own mortality. He was in his sixties by this time and was starting to prepare his son to take over. He thought that having nuclear weapons would make it easier for his son to keep a grip on the state. In lieu of charisma, Kim Jong Il should at least have nukes.

In the late 1970s onward, the North Koreans had built more than one hundred nuclear facilities at Yongbyon alone. American intelligence agencies were alarmed. In the space of about six years, a country with no previous experience had built a functioning nuclear reactor. Three years later came unambiguous proof that the reactor’s purpose was military, not civilian; the country had built a major reprocessing facility that would enable it to turn the fuel from the reactor into fissile material.

But its efforts were not going unnoticed among allies either. The Soviet Union pressured Kim Il Sung into signing the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty at the end of 1985. It took seven years for North Korea to allow in the inspectors required under that treaty, and when they got in, they found numerous signs that the regime was secretly working on the very kind of nuclear program it had pledged against. In 1993, Kim Il Sung threatened to withdraw from the treaty, triggering an alarming standoff. North Korea and the United States came the closest to war in forty years.

Talks to resolve the impasse were ongoing when Kim Il Sung suddenly died in the summer of 1994, propelling both sides into unknown territory. They did, however, manage to sign a landmark nuclear disarmament deal called the Agreed Framework, under which North Korea agreed to freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear weapons program and a US-led coalition agreed to build two civilian nuclear reactors that could be used to generate electricity for the energy-starved country.

Pyongyang had no intention of abiding by this agreement either. Signing the deal was all about buying the Kim regime time to work on its program while maintaining the appearance of cooperating.

North Korea had developed a close relationship with Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. In the 1990s, while North Koreans were dying of starvation and while Kim Jong Un was watching Jackie Chan movies in Switzerland, the regime was building a uranium-enrichment program. Uranium enrichment wasn’t technically covered under the Agreed Framework. And North Korea loves technicalities.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, energy, Korea, military, nationalism, Pakistan, science, U.S., USSR, war

North Korea’s Masters of Money

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 147-148:

Private property ownership is still technically illegal in North Korea, but that hasn’t stopped the emergence of a vibrant housing market. Sometimes people lease out the right to live in the apartments assigned to them by the state; at other times, masters of money sell the apartments they’ve been allocated in these new developments for substantial profits.

As a result, real estate prices have soared, with prices in Pyongyang increasing as much as tenfold. A decent two- or three-bedroom apartment in the capital costs up to $80,000, but a luxury three-bedroom apartment in a sought-after complex in central Pyongyang can fetch $180,000. It is an unimaginable sum in a country where the official government salary remains at about $4 a month.

Another reason for the real estate boom is the almost complete lack of a banking system. The masters of money can’t stash their cash in an interest-bearing account or investment fund, so they channel it into bricks and mortar.

Ri Jong Ho’s entrepreneurial good fortune began in the mid-’80s, when he began working for Office 39. By earning money for Kim Jong Il’s slush fund, he was enabling the Dear Leader to buy all that cognac and sushi. That made Ri an important person to the regime, and he lived a good life as a result.

His last job was in the Chinese port city of Dalian, not far from the border with North Korea, where he was the head of a branch of Taehung, a North Korean trading company involved in shipping, coal and seafood exports, and oil imports. He had previously been president of a ship-trading company and chairman of Korea Kumgang Group, a company that formed a venture with Sam Pa, a [notorious] Chinese businessman, to start a taxi company in Pyongyang. Ri showed me a photo of him and Pa onboard a private jet to Pyongyang.

As head of the Dalian branch of the Taehung export business, Ri would send millions of dollars in profits—denominated in American dollars or Chinese yuan—to Pyongyang. In the first nine months of 2014, until his defection in October that year, Ri said he sent the equivalent of about $10 million to the regime. Despite all the sanctions, the US dollar is still the preferred currency for North Korean businessmen since it is easiest to convert and spend.

It didn’t matter that there were supposedly stringent international sanctions in place. Ri’s underlings simply handed a bag of cash to the captain of a ship leaving from Dalian to the North Korean port of Nampho or gave it to someone to take on the train across the border.

But Uncle Jang’s downfall at the end of 2013 spooked many masters of money, including Ri. He and his family escaped from Dalian to South Korea and then eventually to the United States.

He clearly made a tidy sum of money for himself on the sidelines of his official job. The family lived a comfortable life in the Virginia suburbs. But even in the United States, Ri was cagey about meeting me and careful about what he said. “There are so many other stories, but I can’t tell you all them. Do you understand?”

He gives occasional public speeches about the North Korean regime—and much more private advice to the American government—while his children work on their English and study to go to an American university. They want Ivy League or, failing that, Georgetown.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, economics, education, industry, Korea, migration, U.S.

North Korea’s Caste System

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 120-123:

Why, then, if so many North Koreans know about the outside world, and know that the regime is lying to them, has the system survived? The answer lies in the unparalleled brutality of the regime, which has no compunction in meting out severe punishments for the smallest hint of disaffection.

To enforce the lie that he’s the best man for the job, Kim Jong Un has perpetuated North Korea’s political caste system with zeal, rewarding those deemed most loyal to him and ruthlessly punishing those who dare question him.

This caste system is another legacy of his grandfather. When he was creating his ideal state, Kim Il Sung borrowed some of the feudal practices of the Chosun Dynasty, which had ruled Korea for five centuries until almost 1900. He adopted the Chosun-era system of guilt by association. It is this system that, even now, can lead to three generations of an entire family being imprisoned, sometimes for life, for one person’s wrongdoing.

He also stole the discriminatory class system called songbun from the Chosun era, dividing North Korea into fifty-one different categories that fall into three broad classes: loyal, wavering, and hostile.

To this day, in Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, the loyal are given every advantage. They are the 10 to 15 percent of the population who are considered the most politically committed to the system and have the most interest in it continuing. They get to live in Pyongyang and receive better schooling, including the possibility of attending Kim II Sung University. They are set up for plum jobs and have a head start on Workers’ Party membership. The loyal caste live in better apartments, wear better clothes, eat better and more food, and are more likely to be able to visit a doctor who actually has medicine.

At the bottom are the hostiles: the Japanese collaborators, the Christians, the skeptics. They comprise about 40 percent of the population and are generally banished to the inhospitable mountains of the north, where winters are unbearable and food is scarce even by North Korean standards.

These “undesirables” have no social mobility and no hope of advancement. Their lives revolve around a collective farm or factory—an assignment that, for the last few decades, has meant fending for themselves.

In between the loyal and the hostile is the wavering class, the ordinary people who make up about half the North Korean population. They exist in a kind of limbo. They have no chance of going to college or having a professional job, but if they’re lucky, they might secure a good assignment during their military service that will help them work their way to a slightly better standard of living.

Someone born with bad songbun has no hope of moving up the social hierarchy. The upper levels, however, can plummet all the way to the bottom if they put a foot wrong. Through this system, and the constant threat of being demoted down the classes, Kim Jong Un has been able to maintain power.

If you’re a member of the loyal class—living in Pyongyang and able to earn some money on the side of your ministry job to send your children to university—you would think twice before openly questioning whether the leader could really drive a car at age five or criticizing the decision to spend millions on nuclear weapons instead of on hospitals and schools. There is always someone to keep an eye on you and report if you’re not sufficiently devoted to the regime. At the grassroots level, it starts with the inminban, literally “people’s group,” a kind of neighborhood watch system. Each neighborhood is broken down into groups of thirty or forty households, with a leader who is always an interfering middle-aged woman. It is her job to keep an eye on what people in her assigned households are up to. North Koreans like to say that the leader of their neighborhood group is supposed to know how many chopsticks and how many spoons each house has.

She is responsible for registering overnight visitors—in North Korea, a person can’t stay at a friend or relative’s house without notifying the authorities—and often, together with the local police, conducts dead-of-night raids to ensure there are no forbidden guests or that residents like Man-bok or Jung-a are not watching South Korean movies. She inspects everyone’s state-issued radio to make sure they haven’t tuned it to anything other than the state station. She checks cell phones to make sure they don’t contain unauthorized music or photos from the outside world.

She also encourages neighbors to report on one another. If a family is thought to be eating white rice and meat suspiciously often, people might wonder how they’re making their money.

North Koreans live in a system where every aspect of their lives is monitored, where every infraction is recorded, where the smallest deviation from the system will result in punishment. It is ubiquitous, and it keeps many people from even raising an eyebrow at the regime. The neighborhood leader needs to report transgressions in order to stay in good stead with the higher authorities, especially the two main security agencies.

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, economics, education, industry, Japan, Korea, labor, migration, military, nationalism, philosophy, religion

North Korea’s Market Economy

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 100-101:

Chinese-style reform and opening—allowing information to flow in at the same time as loosening up on the economic controls—was not an option for Kim. Allowing the population to have access to the truth would mean they would also see that the Great Successor was, in fact, not so great. But small economic “improvements”—North Korea doesn’t call them “reforms” because that implies there’s something wrong with the system—pose relatively little risk.

Instead, he allowed the markets, called “jangmadang,” to blossom.

From the smallest of towns to the biggest of cities, there’s at least one bustling marketplace. Across the country, these markets have become the center of daily life. They are overwhelmingly run by women, who, once married, are no longer required to work in state jobs. So while their husbands go off to coal mines without electricity or hospitals without medicine, the women make proper money.

People with permission—or with enough money to buy permission—to travel to China cross the Tumen River and bring back rice cookers, high-heeled shoes, solar panels, deworming tablets, colorful shirts, cell phone cases, and screwdrivers. Sometimes they bring literal kitchen sinks. About 80 percent of the products in North Korea’s markets are made in China.

Those who can’t travel set up shop as hairdressers or bike repairers, open restaurants, or sell homemade sweets. Some entrepreneurial types make money by renting out their cell phones for calls to South Korea or their apartments to couples wanting some privacy.

These markets have become the biggest agent for change that North Korea has ever experienced. People across the country have seen their living standards improve—just as Kim Jong Un promised. Maybe things didn’t improve as much as many citizens, such as Mr. Hong, wanted, but they’re still heading in a positive direction. There is now a middle class in North Korea.

There are now more than four hundred government-approved markets in North Korea, double the number that existed when Kim Jong Un took over the country. The city of Chongjin alone has about twenty. The markets in Sinuiju and the “smugglers’ village” of Hyesan, both close to the border with China, as well as those in the port city of Haeju, have all grown rapidly and visibly in recent years. Satellite images show new markets popping up all over North Korea and old markets moving into bigger, newer buildings.

With an average of fifteen hundred stalls in a market, there is stiff competition to secure a prime spot. A good stall in a prominent place in Hyesan was going for about $700 in 2015—an astronomical sum in North Korea. But there is so much demand for stalls that even these expensive slots are being snapped up as soon as they become available.

At every turn, there is someone seeking to make money from the markets. The security services extract bribes from those seeking to cross the river into China. The supposedly communist authorities have embraced the decidedly capitalist concept of tax. People running stalls in the markets must now pay 10 percent of the value of their sales to the market management office. South Korean researchers estimate that the authorities rake in about $15 million a day in stall rental fees from merchants, while other estimates suggest the state can earn almost a quarter of a million dollars in a single day by levying taxes on stall owners.

Each market is run by a manager, someone who is almost always a man and who is well connected with local bureaucrats. This is a powerful role that comes with the opportunity to make a lot of money—and, of course, an obligation to pay kickbacks to higher-ups who put them in the job.

As the state economy has failed, with industry grinding to a halt thanks to a lack of electricity or raw goods, the markets have become the lifeblood of North Korea.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, economics, Korea, labor, migration, nationalism