This is a series of notes written to touch upon several intricate topics that we promised to keep track of, and for acquainting the audience with the latest news from the Korean peninsula.
The Case of South Korean spies in the North
According to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), while trying to get to Pyongyang, another spy was captured. First, he disguised himself as a Chinese citizen, but later confessed that he is an employee of the National Intelligence Service of Korea.
The investigation is still in progress, but according to the published information, this spy (the name has not been released) arrived in the country “to destabilize the situation in society”, presenting himself as a religious figure, and during six years was engaged in subversive activities against the DPRK from neighbouring countries. Details are presented, but according to some sources, it could have been the PRC and Russia, where representatives of pseudo-Protestant sects at one time tried to recruit Russian Koreans for action against the North, but failed because the civilian identity of “Kore Saram” (the name Koreans traditionally give themselves in Russia and CIS) prevails over ethnicity.
National Intelligence Service of Korea called the accusations of espionage absurd.
As for Kenneth Bae, he continues to serve his sentence, and international norms are followed, with regards to his treatment. Anyway, he was allowed to meet with his elderly mother, who went to North Korea, said that his health has improved, and did not put forward any specific claims against the Pyongyang regime. Some Western experts believe that in the case of certain warming of US-North Korean relations, Pyongyang can make a nice gesture and release the missionary, if health problems continue.
Here, perhaps, it is necessary to provide some explanation. As early as during the reign of Kim Il Sung in North Korea, religion was eradicated even at the level of household superstitions, and temples were mainly designed for foreign nationals and a small group of reliable comrades, who were being held for possible contacts with religious organizations abroad. This also concerns the Orthodox church in Pyongyang. Basically, Russian embassy employees go there. Of course, on the background of the “Arduous March”, there was a number of people turning to the religious world, but it is necessary to understand the attitude of the authorities to the activities of the South Korean Protestant sects, which are naturally perceived as a fifth column. So when you hear about the persecution of Christians in North Korea, we are talking about the persecution of Protestant preachers, based in Korea, many of whom openly declare Pyongyang regime an offspring of Satan, talking about the need to fight with it by all means. They are eager to create a network of informants who will notify their spiritual leaders about what is happening in the country. It is unclear how this differs from espionage.
Further activities of Michael Kirby’s Commission
Interviewing witnesses in Seoul, the commission moved to Tokyo where it is mainly engaged in finding out about the kidnapped Japanese. They talked both with those released, and with relatives of those who never returned. The North Koreans claim that these people died, and their tombs were destroyed during the flood. However, relatives want to believe that they are alive. Moreover, keeping in mind the reputation of the DPRK, such explanations and excuses seem far-fetched. Once, North Korea tried to present the remains of one of the deceased to conduct a DNA test, but in Japan, it was widely announced that the materials do not match, and the government tried to cheat the relatives. However, it became clear later that, due to the lack of professionalism in conducting the examination, the samples were contaminated and corrupted. Therefore, the question remains open, and the journal Nature even wrote a special article that criticized the Japanese government for attempts to interfere with scientific research.
The Commission then moved to Washington and London, where, in particular, it examined the question of whether the famine in North Korea had been provoked artificially. Marcus Noland and Andrew Natsios were invited as experts. These two are both members of the American Council on Human Rights in North Korea. According to them, the regime is certainly guilty of the famine, because military expenditures have gotten out of hand and it could not increase the supply of food (we tend to forget that the country was already under sanctions, and food would not have been sold to it).
Moreover, Natsios said that the northeastern provinces specifically suffered famine as the population there opposed the regime. During two years, Pyongyang allegedly forbade sending aid to the region and agreed to do so only when the UN threatened not to send food to the country.
Here Natsios is even more disingenuous. First, the difficulties with the delivery of food were associated with poor road network and most of the roads were closed because of landslides. Second, in contrast to the central regions, the north-eastern provinces were able to be “fed” through neighbouring China and Russia. Thus, most of the food was transported to those regions where the people had no other food sources.
Besides, Natsios very trickily formulated this statement: of course, the North did not create famine intentionally, but when it started, the authorities did not take measures to protect the population, focusing on the survival of the regime, rather than trying to feed the people. Natsios believes that Kim Jong Il, and approximately 2,000 officials at various levels related to his family clan, were responsible for the hunger.
In addition, based on studies of defectors, he suggests that 40 to 70% of food aid was directed to military and party personnel. Here, however, the correction is done again. The reason for this was not the instructions from Pyongyang, but the loss of control of the situation in some regions.
Marcus Noland added, asserting that the famine began even before the floods of 1995 occurred. Here he is also disingenuous, because famine in his opinion is associated with the difficulties with food that lead to an attempt to impose a two meal living to the people. He also claims that after receiving aid, Pyongyang reduced the import of food for money. If Kim Jong Il had spent another 100 or 200 million dollars a year for the purchase of food (such reserves he seems to have had), there could not have been a shortage of food.
And again, the American specialist does not tell the whole truth. First, the programme fighting with the consequences of the catastrophe includes not only the purchase of food, but also the restoration of the ruined economy. Thus, the money from the state reserve went for this. Second, some statements have been forgotten: “If North Korea has the means to purchase food products, why are they begging to get them for free? Let them pay for everything.”
Of course, from a formal point of view, the commission of inquiry on human rights in the DPRK has the right to ask the opinion of those involved in this problem. However, we must remember that this Council is a biased organization, using inflated data. This data concerns both the scale of the stolen aid and the number of victims. None of these experts has been to the DPRK or speaks Korean. If we start to ask those who have studied this problem seriously, the picture is quite different. We have already mentioned the article by A. Lankov, but another authoritative source is James Morris – Director of the World Food Programme, directly engaged in providing assistance to the DPRK. In his interview in 2005 on issues of hunger and distributed aid, the real situation is described. Thus, we can suppose that the opinions of Noland and Natsios could be exaggerated.
Although Morris said that into a number of areas (north and north-west of the country, but not the above mentioned north-east) they were not allowed for security reasons, and as a result “we cannot accurately assess the situation absolutely everywhere”, at the same time “they provided us with greater access various areas… reducing the time required to obtain permission to travel to certain regions… the monitoring system of supply and distribution is expanding”. He estimates the attitude of the authorities as “much more friendly than at the beginning of our work. Perhaps they began to believe us, in what we do, what we say – that we supply food, rather than anything else.”
In addition, Morris is “confident that all aid passing through us, does not become the object of speculation, but reaches to the needy.” His position is shared by Hazel Smith, another representative of the World Food Programme. At the public press conference in Seoul in 2003, she confirmed that the aid was directed to the DPRK, consisting mainly of baby food and dietary supplements, distributed as intended and not stolen or going to the needs of the army or elite.
Respondents of the author, who worked in the DPRK in monitoring the process of the distribution of food and humanitarian aid, also confirm that there was no total embezzlement or withdrawal of aid in favour of the party cadres and military units. Another matter is that the insufficient aid generates rumours that in fact it has been more but it has been misdirected.
Kirby, however, is very cautious, although his remarks are quite emotional. He is trying to find somebody responsible. Does it lie with the central government, or on specific individuals – because often a stealing official, or a cruel investigator, are not always representative of the actual powers, and “getting” them is easier than those that lead the country. Therefore, we shall see what the outcome of the commission is. Accusatory direction is already visible, but the question of how the former President of the Supreme Court of Australia will be able to reflect the real picture of events and not the propaganda image of the Evil Empire, is still open. The fact is that even if crimes against humanity will be proven, the conclusion of the International Criminal Court will have to obtain the approval of the UN Security Council, where the verdict is likely to be vetoed by China. And, if the commission continues to shape their conclusions in this way, this veto will be dictated not only by political considerations. Serious accusations should be backed up by as serious evidential base, and not only by the testimony of experts and manipulation of facts that may be noticed by any more or less objective expert.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.