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Authors: John Sweeney

North Korea Undercover



John Sweeney



To the forgotten of the gulag

The woman was paper-thin

A sign hung from her neck.

‘Selling my daughter, 100 won’

[100 won is roughly 73 US cents or 47p]

         Jang Jin Seong, ‘Selling My Daughter’

The Leader is the supreme brain of a living body, the Party is the nerve of that living body, and the masses are only endowed with life when they offer their absolute loyalty

         Juche, the guiding philosophy of the North Korean regime, set out in Kim Jong Ils
Ten Principles

Life, in the abstract, in its great coach – how nice;

But amidst vomit and outrage the real thing triumphs,

It flows, sewage and decay. . .

I suffer moons, hungers, cruel Christs of pus. . .

I give in bone the explanation of this, mymisfortune.

         ‘Pieta’ by North Korean gulag inmate1967–74, Ali Lameda

Preface to the American Edition

North Korea is mad, bad and dangerous to mock. Kim Jong Un may appear a fat clown but when his tyranny bites its venom, like a cobra’s, blackens flesh. In 2013 I went undercover to the dark state for BBC Panorama. Pyongyang feels like the set of some weird version of The Hunger Games. North Korea’s go-between kicked up a great fuss about our documentary and, to cut a long story short, the BBC apologised and I ended up losing my job.

So I feel great sympathy for the makers of
The Interview,
Seth Rogen and James Franco, who came up with a bold comedy idea about two dumb-ass American journalists getting an interview with Kim Jong Un. Along comes the CIA and they’re ordered to assassinate Kim. The movie has too many butt jokes but it is funny and good. There is a show-stopping moment when the hitherto entirely moronic celebrity interviewer asks a simple question of Kim Jong Un: ‘why don’t you feed your people?’ The North Koreans called
The Interview
‘an act of war.’ There followed a massive hack of the almighty Sony Picture Corporation.

The North Koreans denied hacking Sony but nevertheless called it a ‘righteous deed.’ When the film wasn’t shelved, a peculiar outfit calling itself ‘The Guardians of Peace’ made more threats: ‘We will clearly show it to you at the very time and places
The Interview
be shown, including the premiere, how bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to... The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September 2001.’

The idiom is pure North-Korglish, hate-speak with clunky English grammar boiler-plated in Pyongyang. Despite their denials of being responsible for the hacking, North Korea remains the prime suspect. The leaks show how the Japanese boss of the parent company, the Sony Corporation, worked hard to tone down the satire’s sting. Kazuo Hirai, the chief executive of Sony proper, instructed the Sony Pictures boss, Amy Pascal, and she emailed the film’s director, Rogen, to enfeeble the scene which culminates with Kim Jong Un’s head exploding. Pascal requested: ‘no face melting, less fire in the hair, fewer embers on the face.’

Rogen replied: ‘This is now a story of Americans changing their movie to make North Koreans happy.’ But in time chunks of the film, including‘ the entire secondary wave of head chunks,’ were deleted. Then Sony killed the movie, pulling it from release on Christmas Day 2014. The bad news for North Korea was that this was widely seen as a cave-in to a mad dictatorship. President Obama diplomatically rebuked Sony and on Twitter one wit replaced the famous ‘HOLLYWOOD’ sign with one boasting ‘NORTH KOREA.’ Sony reversed its decision and
The Interview
was watched in a small number of independently owned picture houses across the States but by millions moreon the internet.

Kim Jong Un’s minions should have been more wary of the Barbara Streisand effect, that if you try and suppress something in the West, you may end up giving it afar wider publicity. The great virtue of the
affair is that it has shone alight on the darkest government in the world and for that we have reasons to cheer Rogen and Franco. North Korea is a clown state but it is also evil. The simple aim of this book is to set out to Americans the nature of that evil and how it might be ended.

The European who has known North Korea the longest is Izidor Urian, who first went to the newly Stalinized state in 1948. The journey from his native Romania to Pyongyang by train took the best part of 14 days. Izidor ended up being Ceausescu’s interpreter when he visited the founder of the state, Kim Il Sung, in the early seventies. On YouTube you can see Izidor, a real-life Zelig, crouchingin the back of the massive limousine carrying the two despots when Ceausescu went to Pyongyang:

I tracked Izidor, now a very old man in his lateeighties, to his home in Bucharest. How long has the regime got? Izidor and I both agreed that Kim Il Sung’sgrandson, Kim Jong Un, was making a hash of power: openly bloody, reckless, foolish. ‘Fortyyears?’ said Izidor.

My take? Kim Jong Un could fall in forty months. How is that possible in a society whose people know next to nothing about the outside world? For example, the average North Korean doesn’t know that the Americans have landed on the moon, that Michael Jackson lived and died, and that Elvis lives again. For the vast majority of people, there is no internet. The regime shoves propaganda down people’s throats all the livelong day, telling them they live in the most perfect – and most racially pure – society in the world.

The good news is that I suspect more and more North Koreans are beginning to realise that that claim is a stinking lie. The reason is simple. North Korea’s information lockdown is no longer possible in the digital age. Just as the tyranny of Libya fell because people who hated the moronic, botoxed rule of Muammar Gaddafi realised via the internet and social media that they were not alone, North Koreans are beginning to understand that too. The most
powerful moment of optimism I felt in North Korea was the day when we visited the DMZ – the very south of the country – and one of the very bright LSE students I was with, an American, realised that his iPhone would work, piggy-backing off the signal from mobile phonemasts in the very north of South Korea. If we could do that, then so could a North Korean with a smuggled Chinese-manufactured phone. Likewise, North Koreans who live in the very north of the country can piggy-back signals fromthe very south of China. We met people who had seen
Homeland, Mission Impossible
– the complexity of explaining Tom Cruise’s devotion to the Church of Scientology to a North Korean was beyond me – and even, I suspected,
Team America
in which Kim The Second, Kim Jong Il, sings: ‘I’mso ronery and sadry arone’ while the skeleton of Hans Blix swims in the shark tank, his suitcase full of nuclear secrets still handcuffed to his hand.

I sang ‘I’m so ronery’in Pyongyang – to myself, very quietly – because I was, am, and always will be confident that the Kim regime is a force for evil in the world and evil should be challenged, not accommodated. That challenge is all the more difficult because the North Koreans have now exploded three nuclear devices below ground. Making a nuclear bomb isone thing. Delivering it is quite different. Thus far, the North Koreans have not been able to shrink a nuke sothat it can sit on top of one of their rockets. Thus far, their best bit of rocketry has been to fire a missile over the waist of Japan, splashing into the Pacific on the eastern seaboard of that country. That is a very, very long way from Los Angeles. The other thought to bear in mind is that any military challenge to the United States or itsally South Korea will be regime suicide. If North Korea dares strike, Kim Jong Un and his merry men will die, very quickly. Common sense tells us that threats of nuclear war from Pyongyang are empty bluster, but
the hate-speak masks a human rights tragedy on an immensescale. The evidence of defectors, which numbers more than 25,000 people, points to the gulag being as hellish as Nazi concentration camps. That is the clear message from the United Nations Commission of Inquiry into human rights abuses in North Korea.

Calls to have Kim Jong Un hauled up in front of the International Criminal Court will be frustrated by China and Russia. The Kremlin is currently happy to back a regime that does not threaten it but does irritate the West. Beijing is vastly more powerful. If China wanted to crushthe Kim tyranny, it could do so very easily. But the ultra-conservative security and military complex that runs China to this day fears an American ally, South Korea, moving up to its borders, so better, in its view, to put up with a tricky and occasionally obnoxious neighbour than have a US proxy there instead. The other regionalstake-holders, South Korea, Japan, and the United States, fear any sudden transition from the status quo. War is not an option with an adversary with nuclear weapons tucked away somewhere underground. Stasis is better than a mob armed, not with pikes, but nukes.

For the moment the key to unlocking the poor, wretched people of North Korea from their prison-cell state lies in the hands of the Chinese government, and there is little sign of Beijing lifting a finger. On the contrary, there is powerful evidence that the Chinese routinely break international laws they have signed up to and send back refugees from North Korea, causing the victims fresh misery.

That picture could change. The Japanese right is pressingthe Americans, by asking: ‘why should we abjure nuclear weapons if the North Koreans have them?’That question causes unease in Beijing. The Stalinist show-trial of Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Sung Taek, and his execution in 2013, reportedly by being bitten to death
by savage dogs although most likely by the traditional method of nine grams of lead to the back of the head, conveyed a message to China. Uncle Jang was China’s man in Pyongyang and the message from Kim Jong Un was don’t mess with me. For the moment, the subterranean pressures in Beijing favour toleration of the North Korean tyrant. That, too, could change.

Regime change in North Korea is most likely to happen when a general, perhaps head of the rocket division, realises that he may soon die because his toys won’t work properly. Rather than accepting his fate, he may realise that killing Kim Jong Un is the better solution. The thing which could easily tilt it is someone powerful in China telling that North Korean general: ‘if you shoot Kim Jong Un, we won’t mind.’

As some point, the regime will get crushed by its own internal contradictions. The land is poor and mountainous and unless North Korea trades with the rest of the world is cannot feed its own people; if it trades, people will mix with the outside world and realise that the regime has been telling them a great big lie. The great famine of the late nineties, in which maybe four millions died out of a population of 20-odd million, was a shearing point. From the famine onwards, people knew in their hearts that the regime could not feed its subjects. I write that but am continually drawn to the internet. On YouTube you can watch videos of mass weeping at the death of Kim Jong Il in 2011, a man who presided over the famine. Do they meanit? Or are they mucking about?

The answer to that is tricky and conflicted. Yes, it seems, many, many millions of North Koreans continue to be brainwashed – and I use that word deliberately – but a much smaller number are beginning to become sceptical. The point is that the sceptics, the people who watch South Korean videos showing the good life, the
food, the cars, the clothes that ordinary people in the world’s 11th most successful economy enjoy, smuggled in on thumb-sticks, are growing in number. We in the West should do more to help that.

I believe that my former employer, the BBC – by the way, still a great thing – should broadcast into North Korea as it broadcast into Nazi-occupied Europe during the Second World War. I believe that American broadcasters, such as Voice of America, should boost their output.

Charles Robert Jenkins was an American GI who made the long mistake of crossing the DMZ and defecting to North Korea in 1965. One of the best moments of his 40 years inthe dungeon state was listening to a dramatization of
Of Mice And Men
on Voice of America, beamed from Japan.

The West’s broadcasters should pump out the work of great organisations, like the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, based in Washington DC, but also the froth and giddy sillinesses of Western culture, in English and in North Korean. They should broadcast
Miami Vice
Star Trek
from the sixties, eighties, and nineties – remember, no North Korean has ever seen these shows – and report the saga of
The Interview,
warts and all, and show the North Koreans that a society or a company or a culture that can admit that it can get things wrong is far better than one that denies the very possibility of failure.

Information is light and the people of the dark state of North Korea need more of that than anything else. America: use your power to switch on the light.

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