There’s something rotten in the state of North Korea.
It’s not often you get an idea of what’s really worrying Pyongyang. Mostly, the closest you get to the inner thoughts of North Korea is blustering rhetoric about the South Korean puppet sophists and the American imperialists. But the past few weeks have given an indication that something is really annoying the Kim Jong-il regime.
It’s all to do with unofficial activist organisations within South Korea pissing Pyongyang off by sending propaganda north of the border. Using helium-filled balloons that drift with the wind over the border, these organisations attempt to distribute leaflets and DVDs describing or showing the excesses of the North Korean regime or life in South Korea. These balloons have also been known to carry radios that can be tuned and hence pick up South Korean radio (North Korean radios are only tuned to state broadcasters) and sometimes hard currency.
Evidence that information dissemination can have an effect on the local population came when nine North Korean defectors were found drifting in a boat off the east of South Korea last month. Some of the defectors described how they used illegal short-wave radios to tune into radio programmes broadcast from South Korea by North Korean defectors.
Pyongyang also claimed this month that activist defectors were broadcasting TV on the same frequency as the state-run network from an island in the Yellow Sea. Obviously, it being North Korea, the spokesman from the Ministry of Post and Communications didn’t politely ask for these broadcasts to stop because they were a bit miffed. No, he warned of ‘merciless punishment’.
Now, we shouldn’t get too excited by some bellicose chat from North Korea. Threats from Pyongyang are so common that it has become an academic art to pinpoint when it’s actually escalating its rhetoric (hint: specific references to turning bits of South Korea into a ‘sea of fire’ is always bad. Unspecific threats of punishment are fairly run of the mill). But a recent assassination attempt with a poison-tipped needle indicates that this time Pyongyang really is peeved.
Yes, that’s right. An assassination attempt with a poison-tipped needle. An alleged North Korean agent (all we know at the moment is the name An) was arrested in mid-September carrying the needle at a rendez-vous point arranged with Park Sang-hak, a North Korean defector who has been leading the cross-border leaflet/balloon campaign. An was, apparently, a North Korean defector himself now living in South Korea but was recruited to undertake this mission (well, actually, a different defector was originally the target, but became too heavily protected) while on business in Mongolia.
(As an aside, whacking defectors and critics is par for the course in North Korea; three North Koreans were jailed in July 2010 and January 2011 for trying to assassinate the highest-ranking defector ever, Hwang Jang-yop (ironically, he died of natural causes in October 2010). And daring missions in South Korea or against South Korean personnel are also fairly de rigeur: like the Blue House raid in 1968, which involved an elite 31-man unit landing in South Korea and trying to assassinate the South Korean president in his residence (the Blue House). It failed. Or the Korean Air 858 flight brought down by a North Korean bomb in 1987, with the two agents responsible taking cyanide hidden in a packet of Marlboros as soon as they realised they would be arrested (one survived).)
Combine the assassination attempt of Park with the recent rhetoric and it seems that Pyongyang is taking this propaganda stuff seriously. This might be because the country is gearing up for the handover of power from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un and doesn’t want any disruptions. It might be because the number of defectors has steadily grown since the 1990s famine, with about 20,000 having crossed over to the south since then.
Or it might be because Pyongyang is starting to see some genuine signs of discontent (extremely rare, small protests occurred in three cities near the Chinese border in February over a lack of electricity; more significant protests occurred in December 2009 over a disastrous currency revaluation). Pyongyang is well aware that information can be dangerous and it is increasingly difficult to control: all 18,000 students of Kim Il-sung University were searched in October 2009 and 2,000 of them were found with anti-North Korea proganda on DVDs or USB memory sticks.
Don’t expect a revolution in North Korea any time soon. The Kim regime is still firmly in control. But the latest incidents are signs that small-scale change is afoot in the country and can be encouraged from the south. With a handover of power coming, the stability Pyongyang so desires may prove more elusive.