Thursday, December 16, 2004

North Korea's balancing act.

Date: Thursday 16 December 2004
Subj: North Korea's balancing act.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal.

- plus two articles on two kidnapped South Korean pastors.


Park Song-wu reports for the Korea Times, "North Korea has strengthened legal measures to protect private property in a recent revision of its criminal law, while stiffening penalties for anti-state crimes, according to a copy obtained by a local broadcaster.

"North Korea experts in Seoul said the revision, the fifth since 1950, can be understood as Pyongyang’s efforts to achieve two goals at the same time – safeguarding its communist regime and boosting its impoverished economy." (Link 1)

While prison sentences for theft, counterfeiting, evading tax and infringing copyright have been increased, so too have sentences for "anti-state crimes". Instead of facing a prison sentence of 5-10 years, those participating in armed riots will now receive "more than 5 years" – the ceiling has been abolished. Instigators of armed riots will face life imprisonment or the death penalty. Likewise, defectors who flee North Korea in an act of betrayal will also face "more than 5 years", instead of 5-10 years. Those who have defected, but are willing to declare loyalty to the regime and confess to being "economic migrants" will be pardoned upon their return. In future, those who flee for "non-political reasons" will receive two years in prison instead of three.

One new subject for punishment under the revised criminal law is keeping or distributing "anti-state broadcast materials". A person found guilty will receive a 2-5 year prison sentence. According to the Korea Times, "Experts believe the clause was created to prohibit North Koreans from listening to U.S.-funded radio broadcasts that will be bolstered next year with the endorsement of the North Korean Human Rights Bill in October."

Another new subject for punishment is the distribution of culturally "obscene" materials such as CDs, videotapes and music.

The Korea Times reports that Professor Ryoo Kihl-jae of the Graduate School of North Korean Studies at Kyungnam University questions Pyongyang’s intentions for the revisions of the criminal law. He believes that criminal law is not important in North Korea and the authorities will punish whoever they want using other means. Professor Ryoo believes the purpose of the revision is purely to make the world aware of North Korea's criminal law and of the penalties law-breakers will suffer. It is designed to give confidence to investors, and deter reformist agitators and "anti-state" agents.


The Kim jong-Il regime introduced market reforms in July 2002. The reforms, however, sent inflation soaring and drastically widened the income gap. Paik Hak-soon, director of North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute, told the Korea Times that, "Kim Jong-il is now trying to prevent social problems from drastically undermining his regime."

The free-market reforms have also brought many North Korean traders into contact with the outside world. As noted in a recent Washington Post (WP) article entitled, "For North Korea, Openness Proves a Two-Way Street" (13 Dec 2004), "...diplomats, analysts, intelligence sources and recent defectors say that the once airtight lid on information in what is known as the Hermit Kingdom is gradually loosening."

The WP article states, "Asian intelligence sources estimate that as many as 20,000 North Koreans -- particularly those trading in the newly thriving border area with China -- now have access to Chinese cellular phones, from which they can make undetected international calls in large areas of northern North Korea." Also, at the new Kaesong Industrial Park near the border with South Korea, and the tourist resort at Mount Kumgang, South Korean firms are directly employing and paying North Korean workers for the first time.

The WP quotes Sohn Kwang Joo, managing editor of the North Korea Daily (a Seoul-based website) as saying, "North Korean people and the elite bureaucrats all want more reform. But the faster the doors open, the more vulnerable becomes Kim Jong Il's tight grip of the nation. Kim Jong Il will therefore try to control and limit the opening. But as more people cross in and out of the border, there are more mobile phones, and more flows of information, the North Korean people will begin to realize the truth about Kim Jong Il."

David Wall, an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, recently traveled along the China-North Korean border and wrote a report that was published in the Japan Times. (Link 2)

He notes that Koreans have been crossing the frozen border rivers for generations and at least 2.3 million Koreans now live in China along the North Korean border. He says there have been between 200,000 to 300,000 recent illegal arrivals and, "The Korean communities are easy to identify by the many Christian churches, complete with spires and crosses on top." Wall believes that the immense vastness of the refugee/illegal immigrant situation makes it simply unmanageable for Chinese police who, he says, tend to leave the "migrants" alone unless they engage in criminal activity or publicly expose themselves in media stunts.

Wall says, "There is growing legal and even cross-border investment in which the Chinese Korean community is active. Every day hundreds, sometimes thousands, of traders and tourists cross the borders. They are not closed. It is easy for the migrants to move between the communities and send goods and money back."


North Korea is following China and Vietnam and gingerly opening up and reforming, to some degree, under a dictator who will not permit his rule to be threatened and who will, in any way, be propped up and supported by China in the event of any threat. The reforms are threatening the regime, so to ensure that situation does not get out of control, the regime (especially when it feels threatened) slows the process down and tightens its oppressive grip in a perpetual give and take balancing act.

Hamish McDonald reported to the Melbourne AGE (Australia) on 29 November that Pyongyang has asked the United Nations aid agencies to cut their foreign staff in the country by half. The regime has also said that it wants all international non-government organisations to quit once current programs are ended. There are five UN agencies, with about 64 foreign staff, operating inside North Korea. McDonald writes, "A narrowing of the world's main window into North Korea - through international aid organisations - could fit with the scenario of a hardliners' backlash, some UN officials speculate."

North Korea specialists in South Korea and China are positive that Kim's grip on power is rock solid, and that there is no imminent threat of regime collapse. However, Cho Min of the Korea Institute for National Unification told Reuters recently (26 Nov 2004), "I think there will be a drastic change to the Kim Jong-il regime at a certain point in time. But the change to the power structure is not likely to come from below. The change is likely to come from a high level, and once it happens, it's going to move very quickly."

Cho Min seems to believe that "change" (and he uses that term quite ambiguously) is inevitable, given the momentum now for openness and reform.

Next year – 2005 – will be the fifth anniversary of the signing of the North-South Joint Declaration at the historic 15 June 2000 Reunification talks in Pyongyang (see link 3), and the 60th anniversary of Korean independence (15 August 1945 – liberation from Japanese colonial rule). And we continue to pray.

- Elizabeth Kendal


1) NK Adopts Market-Friendly Criminal Law
Korea Times 8 Dec 2004

2) No witch hunt for North Koreans in China
By DAVID WALL, Special to The Japan Times, 6 Dec 2004

3) North-South Joint Declaration


South Korean pastor, the Reverend Ahn Seung-un (60), is believed to have been kidnapped from Yanji city while assisting refugees on the China/North Korea border in 1995. He has now emerged in North Korea, working for the official Korean Christian Federation and tightly controlled by North Korean guards.

Ex-South Korean Pastor Works for N. Korean Christian Federation
Korea Times, 7 Dec 2004

South Korean pastor, the Reverend Kim Dong-shik (57) was kidnapped from Yanji in 2000. He remains missing. On Friday 10 December, a 35-year-old Korean national named Ryu was detained in South Korea and charged with pastor Kim's abduction. Ryu was trained in Pyongyang and worked with a team of 10 North Korean agents to abduct pastor Kim whose name was on a list of those targeted by Pyongyang for abduction.

Government Urged to Press for Release of Kidnapped Pastor
By Reuben Staines, Park Song-wu
Korea Times, 14 Dec 2004