In our third review of 2014, we look at some of the North Korea related news, and stories which put the peninsula in a wider East Asian context.
- Kim Jong Un’s disappearance from public view in the Autumn prompted speculation ranging from a case of gout to a “very specific kind of coup”. South Korea’s intelligence agency finally concluded that he had had a cyst removed from his ankle.
- A Pyongyang apartment block collapsed, causing as many as 400 deaths. Engineers responsible for the construction were reportedly shot.
- One of the crazier rumours about the DPRK this year was that students were supposed to cut their hair like Kim Jong Un, but no-one could find any evidence of it.
- North Korea’s plans to acquire Emmental cheesemaking expertise were thwarted by a lack of available places at France’s National Dairy Industry College.
- 400-500 gang members got into a street fight in Hamheung, Hamgyong Province, using knives, bludgeons, shovels and nunchucks.
DPRK on screen
- A US Hip-Hop duo released a music video shot in Pyongyang
- It was reported that Denis Rodman’s basketball diplomacy with Kim Jong-un would be turned into a movie.
- A UK Channel 4 proposal for a fictional spy drama about the “illegal acquisition of nuclear technology” came under fire from KCNA. The British were reminded of the problems caused by Satanic Verses
- A low-brow Hollywood comedy involving a the assassination of the North Korean leader caused a lot more trouble:
- DPRK flagged well in advance that it was going to be an issue, going as far as to raise it at the UN.
- The hacking attack on Sony could have been an inside job , but the FBI concluded that Pyongyang was responsible
- Following threats, Sony suspended the film’s release but then went ahead following encouragement from POTUS, prompting this response from the DPRK: “Obama always goes reckless in words and deeds like a monkey in a tropical forest”
- A lot of time was spent watching and writing about the film by people who normally wouldn’t go near such a thing. One prominent defector opined: “this is the first time I’ve seen this kind of shit.”
- Pyongyang proposed that some of their top illusionists should tour America to perform magic tricks
- Top artists from Mansudae studio came to London to paint local scenes and exhibit their work
- The British Council signed a memorandum of understanding with the DPRK Cultural Committee. The fruits of an earlier collaboration project, the photographic exhibition Above the Line, were shown at the British Council London offices.
- The DPRK successfully had their version of Arirang listed at UNESCO
- Mansudae Art Studios contracted with Zimbabwe to supply two statues of Robert Mugabe for $5 million, to celebrate his 90th birthday.
- North Korea reportedly shut down Jang Song-taek’s former Workers Party department, executed his family and 200 of his “loyalists” – though according to Kim Jong-il’s former sushi chef Jang’s execution was due to sexual rather than political misconduct
- In France, a North Korean student went on the run to escape Pyongyang’s agents, and in Denmark suspected agents assaulted a refugee.
- On 17 February the UN Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the DPRK launched its report. Botswana immediately severed diplomatic ties with North Korea, but China dismissed the report.
- On 13 September North responded with its own report (full document here), and declared itself open to dialogue with non-hostile states – and a senior diplomat, Kang Sok-ju, came for talks in the EU, some say to avoid an adverse vote at the UN General Assembly later in the year.
- There were reports that the DPRK started moving prisoners out of Yodok to make it look like a collective farm.
- On 26 October the North Korean YouTube channel Uriminzokkiri uploaded a video casting doubt on the credibility of Camp 14 escapee Shin Dong-hyuk
- On 18 December the UN General Assembly adopted a text requiring the report to be submitted to the Security Council with a recommendation that the Security Council refer the situation to the International Criminal Court and impose “targeted sanctions against those who appeared to be most responsible for acts that the Commission of Inquiry had said could possibly constitute crimes against humanity”
- The DPRK rejected the resolution, promising that “The service personnel and people of the DPRK will smash the hostile forces’ reckless “human rights” racket through unprecedentedly toughest counteractions and firmly defend the socialist system, their life and soul.”
Americans in North Korea
- An American called Matthew Miller tore up his tourist visa as he went through north Korean immigration and claimed he had come to the country “after choosing it as a shelter”. He was arrested for gross violation of North Korean law.
- Another American tried to swim to North Korea across the Han River near Gimpo, saying he wanted to meet Kim Jong-un. He was taken into custody by South Korean marines
- American missionary Kenneth Bae was released after years of detention in North Korea . Matthew Miller was returned on the same plane, after a release negotiated by director of national intelligence James Clapper, the highest ranking American to visit North Korea in more than a decade.
- Another American, Jeffrey Fowle, was released after six months in custody for leaving a bible in a Pyongyang nightclub.
DPRK and China
- The North’s relations with China seemed to cool off this year: China suspended oil shipments, reportedly paralysing the North Korean army
- Fraternal greetings from Xi Pinping on the 66th anniversary of the foundation of North Korea were relegated to page 3 of the Rodong Sinmun rather than the front page, while Kim Jong-un’s reciprocal greetings on China’s national day was cooler than usual.
- According to one source, a signboard at one cadet school had the message “China is a betrayer and our enemy”
- China condemned DPRK’s short-range missile launch in July. In return, the DPRK’s National Defense Commission called China “spineless” and accused China of “following the stinking bottom of the US” and “struggling to embrace Park Geun-hye”.
The Two Koreas
- Drones, suspected to be North Korean, were found in Baengnyeong Island and Paju.
- Work continued on the Korean dictionary that covers language in both halves of the peninsula.
- North Korea banned Choco-pies from the Kaesong industrial complex.
- There was a brief meeting of separated families at Mt Kumgang in February
- President Park made various conciliatory noises:
- Her “Dresden Declaration” was immediately rejected by Pyongyang as espousing unification by absorption.
- The South mulled removal of the “May 24 Sanctions” imposed after the Cheonan sinking in 2010, but said the North had to make the first move
- In October, ahead of planned high level talks with the North, the South pulled down a tower on Aegibong Peak in Gimpo (3 km from Kaesong) which used to be decorated as a Christmas tree in the festive season.
South Korea and China
Could be worse
- The Korea-China Free Trade Agreement was signed in record time.
- In a trio of pro-Korea, anti-Japan gestures, China opened a memorial to Korean independence fighter Ahn Jung-geun in Harbin, who assassinated the first Japanese governor-general in Korea, started work on a memorial in Xian to the Korean Liberation Army who fought under the direction of the Korean Government in exile, and designated the Korean Government-in-exile’s headquarters in Hangzhou as an official state site.
- Chinese President Xi said that his visit to Korea felt like “a trip to see a relative”. Presidents Park and Xi had their fifth summit in November.
- Korea announced plans to set up a food production zone in Jeollabuk-do to serve the Chinese market.
Could be better
- Korea refused to join China’s infrastructure bank, bowing to US pressure
- A Chinese cosmetics company used an unauthorised picture of President Park to advertise its eye cream
- Chinese fishermen continued to fish illegally in Korean waters and one of them was fatally shot by coast guards.
- Korea ignored Chinese protests and donated a warship to the Philippines.
- Korea decided not to send their Black Eagles aerobatics team to a Chinese Air show, as they were bound by their contracts with Lockheed not to fly the planes over “hostile” territory.