Nonprofits Eke Out Knowledge about Events Big and Small in North Korea

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December 20, 2011; Source:  Alexandria Town Talk (Associated Press) | In 1939, Winston Churchill described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” That could be the understatement of the twenty-first century if used to describe North Korea, whose leader, Kim Jong Il, died of a heart attack on Saturday. The former leader has left the nation under the control of his little-known son, Kim Jong Un, as though North Korea were a hereditary monarchy to be handed down from tsar to tsarevich.

Little is known about the ruling elite in the country—until last year, when he was suddenly named his father’s heir apparent, the 20-something Kim Jong Un hadn’t even been photographed since he was around 11 years old. The lack of knowledge reaches the highest levels of the U.S. government, which, due to precious few intelligence assets on the ground, was as surprised as the general public to discover that the North Koreans had suppressed knowledge for over 22 hours of the death of their “dear leader” and the transfer of power to his “great successor.” So if the United States and even South Korea are dependent on official North Korean press releases for information, who is talking with or to North Korea—or North Koreans—who might have some granular sense of what is happening in that mysterious, impoverished country? Are the information sources possibly nonprofits?

Many of the press reports in the wake of Kim Jong Il’s death have cited a Singapore-based nonprofit called the Choson Exchange, described as “facilitat[ing] educational exchange with North Korea.” The Choson Exchange’s executive director, Andreay Abrahamian, gave the Associated Press this perspective on the future of the country under Kim Jong Un: “It is impossible to say with certainty what his era will look like. Trying to anticipate the near future is tough enough[. . . .] We expect greater caution and less willingness to try new things in the near term, making our programs more difficult to run. Things look like they’re locking down already.” Another Choson Exchange representative told the Guardian that he anticipated “some form of lockdown on communications and travel in the immediate period as North Korean authorities move to stabilise the situation and prepare for mourning”—as if current conditions weren’t already locked down tighter than a drum.

Some groups do get in, though it isn’t clear from news reports exactly how much freedom of movement they actually have. For example, recently the Fuller Center for Housing (the group that the late Millard Fuller founded after he and Habitat for Humanity came to a parting of the ways) was reported to be in Pyongyang building 25 energy-efficient duplex homes for ordinary North Koreans.

The National, based in Dubai, wondered if the passing of Kim Jong Il would be like the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, ushering in a torrent of democratic aspirations and ferment. The National sought the perspectives of Adrian Hong, the founder and director of Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), which does advocacy on North Korean issues and helps smuggles refugees of the secretive country, who seemed dubious about Kim Jong Il’s death leading quickly to regime change: “I consider the Arab Spring a dress rehearsal for North Korea. But North Korea is a far more lethal, prepared and massive opponent for the people than Syria, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia or Yemen, in every category: pervasiveness of public security and secret police, size of military and mobilisation, hopelessness and general impoverished and malnourished state of the people.”)

Why do we need the nonprofit sector? The lack of a civil society structure in North Korea is a telling example. In a statement, the executive director of Human Rights Watch Kenneth Roth said that North Korea was “a human rights hell on Earth . . . ruled [by Kim Jong Il] through fear generated by systematic and pervasive human rights abuses including arbitrary executions, torture, forced labour and strict limits on freedom of speech and association.” It may be fashionable for some to suggest that the imperialist regimes of Presidents Bush and Obama have simply victimized and impoverished North Korea through punitive trade policies and embargoes simply because what the United States supports overseas has got to be wrong, but truth be told, the North Korea of Kim Il Sung, his son Kim Jong Il, and his son Kim Jong Un is a long way from its version of an “Arab Spring,” and nonprofits have a vital role to play in maintaining even the flimsiest of communications links to the people of this unhappy country.—Rick Cohen