Report of the DPRK Association for Human Rights Studies: Full Text

Since the North Korean state seems unable to convey proper URLs for an arguably significant document, I’ve rooted around the website, done a bunch of cutting and pasting, and can present to you a full pdf of the Report of the DPRK Association for Human Rights Studies.

It runs 167 pages; obviously citations of such a work are problematic, but at the very least it deserves a proper read by individuals concerned with human rights discourse not just around, but in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea / the DPRK.

The Joys and Sorrows of Peer Review

Simone de Beauvoir; sparks from the proverbial forge

Simone de Beauvoir; sparks from the proverbial forge

Is our peer review process in some way broken? Does it cause more grief than joy?

My colleague Jon Sullivan  has done some writing on these kinds of issues as well, but I’d like to do a little more “thinking out loud” on this site with respect to the role that peer review plays in our lives as Sinologists & scholars. I find myself doing a great deal more reviewing than I did when my career was just beginning, which I think is logical, but also presents challenges. Not only in terms of time and document management (the latter can become particularly acute when a journal is still operating out of a bunch of individual e-mail inboxes), but in terms of what direction any given publication goes, and the type of advice that scholars are given by reviewers, and the tone in which it is given.

The question of volume is another one; as a reviewer, I have taken to giving longer reviews which are somewhat sloppy in terms of punctuation and grammar, but which get the meaning across in bulk, as quickly as possible, since speed is of the essence but as a writer nothing is more frustrating than the feeling that the work has been only cursorily read.

I have also had some thoughts about ways to repurpose prose generated for anonymous peer review, but this is again a work in progress that I think needs more consideration and would need to be negotiated with more reviewers than just myself. In other words: At what point is it OK, or is it ever OK, to slightly rework a couple of paragraphs, or a couple of pages, of prose that have been generated initially while doing a review into as a blog post or stump essay? The notion that we reviewers aren’t getting some sparks firing during the review process is surely incorrect, and sparks, at least in my case, tend to result in the creation of a Word file that then takes on some kind of attachment to a larger research cluster in which I have taken interest. Some of my most profitable intellectual exchanges are thus with people with whom I may never have spoken but whose work I’ve reviewed.

So far this summer, I’ve reviewed papers for Journal of Asian Studies, Asian Perspective, Papers of the British Association of Korean Studies (the journal for which I am also the new Editor — more on that later) and book manuscripts for Routledge as well as Rowman & Littlefield. And there is a lot more on my plate for the next three weeks.

Although very little of this work is remunerated, I enjoyed nearly all of it, and was also pleased to have been asked to review the full book manuscript of a more commercially-viable project dealing with Kim Il-song biography which I assume will be coming out in due course.  And of course I continue my work as editor of, where the summer was somewhat less than relentless, but still really good; consolidation has its merits.

The sparks have a way from falling from the forge and igniting various prairie fires, to mix metaphors in a way that would never pass muster in a proper essay.  In sum, there is more joy than sorrow in the labor, but there is surely labor, without which there would be no production.  

Some North Korea Commentary

My comments about North Korean foreign policy were carried in the last couple of days in The Diplomat and the Wall Street Journal‘s “Korea Real Time” blog. The interview at the former outlet is the most extensive, covering questions of continuity and change in North Korea; the latter is a more fun (yet arguably significant) piece that looks at North Korean views of the UK, specifically Scottish independence.

On the Inoki Visit to North Korea

Inoki Kanji in Tokyo, May 20, 2014

Inoki Kanji in Tokyo, May 20, 2014

Given the amount of public interest in the just-concluded visit of Japanese and American wrestlers to Pyongyang, led by lawmaker (and former wrestling star) Kanji Inoki, I thought I might share a few comments I prepared just as the visit was getting underway.


I think this particular trip is much more about Japan-DPRK relations than some sop to warmer relations with the United States (via the wrestlers or the erstwhile rapper). The core delegation is Japanese, Inoki is a viable (if somewhat eccentric) interlocutor, and North Korea stands very much to gain for looking more open to Japan at this particular moment.

It isn’t a coincidence that the Inoki visit is going forward just a few short weeks prior to what is going to be one of the more important and delicate moments in Japanese-North Korean relations since Koizumi went to Pyongyang for a short visit in 2002 – the unveiling of what is broadly called ‘the abduction report’ but which will also attempt to explain the fate of what I think are a few thousand Japanese who died in 1945-46 during the Soviet invasion and before the DPRK, properly speaking, existed.

I find it interesting that North Korea is willing to talk to Inoki and will meet with a number of right-wing Japanese lawmakers, and that, relatively speaking, they have dialled back seriously on the anti-Japanese drumbeat in their official media. It took Pyongyang more than ten days to muster a comment on the visit of Japanese lawmakers to Yasukuni Shrine on 15 August, and they have yet to go after Prime Minister Abe Shinzo for his written message to the same venue on the same day; and they probably won’t go after him for that. There was also the meeting of the foreign ministers for the two countries at ASEAN, which I think was part of North Korea’s plan, certainly.

So the point is that the Inoki spectacle gives the Japanese public a different frame through which to view North Korea, and that it’s very much to Pyongyang’s benefit.


One of the most interesting aspects of the Inoki spectacle, like the Rodman spectacle before it, is the question of interactions with North Koreans. We tend to ask questions like ‘will this impact everyday North Korean views of the United States (or Japan)’? And what about the North Korean athletes that they meet in Pyongyang? Do such visits ‘change hearts and minds’?

Well, first, the North Koreans who are allowed to meet foreigners on such sanctioned trips are already generally very well vetted, and extremely loyal to the system and to the Kim family. You can imagine that their momentary contact with an American or a Japanese athelete is important, but it’s not going to be a situation where the scales are suddenly falling from their eyes – if anything, the loyalty to the leadership system is more intense, because it is the leadership that has cared so much for them that the leader has gone out of his way to arrange for this visit and the education it will bring in terms of sports technique and, consequently, national power. These athletes are going into what in some ways is situation without any context or administrative undergirding – there is no Japanese or American cultural center (let alone an Embassy) in Pyongyang where the students could follow up on any kindled interest in US culture. Notice who is interpreting for these groups – they will often change, and the same young interpreter who had Dennis Rodman’s ear on one visit will not be seen on the next visit.

More interesting and more important, really, are the North Koreans in positions of power who such athletes are allowed to meet with. Kim Jong-un went out of his way to appear accommodating to Rodman and Rodman’s delegation, meeting them each personally and reportedly even spending time with them in private, having parties, etc. This is done in part just for the leader’s entertainment and enjoyment. Seen cynically, there is something positively arcane about it, the importing of jokers and circuses for the amusement of the young king – but of course the top elites who allow such visits to go forward are not ignorant of the international media feedback loop, and so one can put an ‘international friendship’ bow around what is otherwise a bit of a lark for Kim Jong-un.

If you want to be much more serious and supportive of the event, you say that it ‘opens up channels of communication’ between states and peoples – I think this phrase is somewhat misleading, because, like an artery, if nothing is moving through it, it’s not actually a channel but is an unhealthy wall. If there is no mechanism for follow-up, if one’s interlocutors change – and keep in mind that Inoki was the last foreigner to meet Jang Song-taek before he was purged and killed – then you are forced to start over at every stage and the notion of ‘progress’ via such visits is illusory.


Finally there is the question of propaganda to consider. You will often hear the phrase ‘useful idiot’ bandied about, and North Korea’s use of foreign individuals in state media is clearly rendered in a rather exaggerated way for the state’s benefit, showing us as somewhat obsequious.

But who cares? If an American, European, or Japanese lawmaker visits Kim Il-sung’s birthplace, they can now do so knowing that it is OK to wear a wrestling mask around the place. Bowing to a statue isn’t going to kill anyone and the last time I checked, we didn’t lose the Korean War and we have a few dozen B-52 bombers on the way to Guam; a few photos of foreigners bowing to a statue of the two dead Kims is not going to change that basic fact. (This is of course very different when North Korea has arrested/detained Americans who are then forced into humiliating public apologies; but even that does not seem to bother people as much as it did during the 1950s.)

If North Korea is willing to let in more foreign athletes, musicians, artists, journalists, etc., being stuck into a few propaganda photos is a fairly small price to pay. Not to mention the fact that the revenue gained by the state in such ventures is negligible; it also costs the state a great deal to conduct surveillance on the foreigners it lets in, to construct ‘massive edifices’ like Masikryong Ski Resort to impress them, etc.


North Korea and China seem to use cultural events to work alongside bilateral disputes, such that exchanges go forward and at least preserve the veneer of normality between the two countries. We saw this after Jang Song-taek’s death, when Chinese song and dance ensembles visited North Korea for Chinese New Year, and the participation of a major national group from Beijing that came to Pyongyang in April for the arts festival. Because Chinese and North Korean official culture is still very Party-centered, they do have more inherent compatibility, but the principle is the same: We may be having serious disputes over a whole host of matters, but we are going to keep going with these very limited but also important musical and cultural exchanges, because appearances of comradeship still count.

I don’t think the ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ is quite the right parallel (largely because US-DPRK relations are structurally not ready for a wholesale interface, not to mention the fact that North Korea isn’t about to end its own Cultural Revolution-level cult of personality and turn toward ‘reform and opening up.’


Americans in Pyongyang: Detainees, Prisoners, Hostages, and Pawns

An exquisitely rendered photograph of an American apology to the DPRK from 1968 and the USS Pueblo Incident, part of a new exhibition in Pyongyang glorifying the "Songun leadership" of the young Kim Jong-il. Image via Chosun Central Television.

An exquisitely rendered photograph of an American apology to the DPRK from 1968 and the USS Pueblo Incident, part of a new exhibition in Pyongyang intended to glorify the “Songun leadership” of the young Kim Jong-il and drive home the propensity of the United States to relinquish all dignity in its militarized and espionage-heavy dealings with North Korea. Image via Chosun Central Television.

Yesterday, North Korea gave the US media momentary access to three American nationals currently detained in the DPRK. Finding the right terms to capture what function these three unfortunate men are serving at the moment is tricky at the moment. For convenience, let’s just start with nouns: “Detainee” is probably the most neutral designation, though for certain intrepid lawyers even this language has been tainted by post-9/11 practices and the erosion of habeus corpus at home. So we are hamstrung, and left with other choices of noun to describe the three Americans: “hostages” (much to be said for this designation), “prisoners” (though this is not true in the conventional sense of “inmates of a prison,” unless one’s definition of that term is stretched to include those who are unable to leave a North Korean hotel), or “well-coached, likely terrified and pliant Americans serving the opaque goals of North Korean foreign policy” (a bit on the long side, and hardly kind).

Since North Korea keeps minute surveillance on the foreigners within its sovereign boundaries and has the kind of legal system that can carry out a trial and levy a death sentence on someone like Jang Song-taek so quickly that it evokes the Chinese phrase”先判后审” (first the verdict, then the trial), for the sake of simplicity, let’s go with “hostages.”

You have to feel bad for the journalists sent to run this particular errand as well; they’re put in an awful predicament whereby to simply tell the North Koreans “no, we refuse to give you the publicity and amplification you so clearly are demanding” means to turn down what amounts to a major story that might actually justify one’s presence (and the bureau’s expenditure) in a country where all of one’s competitors are trying to figure out how to turn their state-guided tour of a water park and equestrian facility into some kind of compelling narrative about dictatorship.

Far more useful would be more putting of this story into a historical context which might include this, this (and this), and this, although the Wall Street Journal‘s quick analysis and links to the full interview footage is also not bad.

You might also take this little sign as indicating that the CNN “interviews” with the hostages were being actively guided and the specific questions prompted by North Korean officials, even though the Associated Press insists that its subsequent meetings with the men featured “uncensored questions.” While the AP can boast that it is the only American news agency with a bureau in Pyongyang, the fact that the North Koreans effectively gave the scoop to greenhorn CNN reporters indicates that whomever controls North Korea’s international media strategy is well above any feelings of sentimentality. Unless, of course, CNN is here being rewarded for past “good behavior,” i.e., having been pliant in 2009 when it facilitated Pyongyang’s orchestration of a nearly-identical scenario that led to the dispatch of former President Bill Clinton to the DPRK — as documented in two books that did extremely well with people who want their information about North Korea to be endorsed by Oprah Winfrey. In other words, we have been in this nasty little situation before.

Incidentally, I was supposed to have been in the DPRK port cities of Rajin-Sonbong (Rason) yesterday with a delegation from the European Parliament, but I had to cancel my participation in the trip. After yesterday’s distasteful spectacle, and having actually read the US State Department’s updated travel warning to North Korea (which is far more strenuous than it used to be, and highly recommended for readers of any nationality), I can’t say I regret the decision.


Reading North Korea’s Explosive Critique of ‘Opposite Number’

Channel 4 HQ in London, image via Wikimedia Commons

Channel 4 HQ in London, image via Wikimedia Commons

While some sections of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry and various Friendship associations were in middle of a major operation to woo foreign audiences via wrestling, Kim Jong-un was tending to the military. More to the point, his National Defence Commission was hammering out a very angry salvo threatening Britain. As there is no permanent hyperlink to the text of the threatening missive yet, I’ll paste it all in below. For background on the issue, see Channel 4’s own press release about the show (presumably read by someone on the NDC with Internet access, the trigger for the outburst) and this AFP story.

I’ll have more writing later about cultural exchange between Britain and the DPRK, since presumably the NDC is at the apex of all bureaucracies in North Korea, and their threat would ostensibly have some negative impact in the realm of soft power and regular exchanges. At least the missive ends with a minor paean to “hard-won relations” between Great Britain and the DPRK.

Hopefully the North Korean Ambassador in London isn’t being tasked with having to personally fluster British TV bureaucrats, as I would assume he has a few other more important and tangible items on his plate at present. And goodness knows the DPRK leadership is nervous (or at the very least needing to prepare) for an assault on its human rights record at the United Nations this autumn, of which the UK is no small part. Well. 

Sometimes you think that the North Korean leadership has a carefully calculated master plan, and other times it just feels like they are improvising and lashing out just to buy space and time while an actual strategy is formulated. UK-North Korea relations are bigger and more robust than one movie script alone can torch, but a missive like this cannot be seen as anything other than a shot across London’s bow, and thus needs to be taken into account: 


British Plan for Producing Anti-DPRK Movie Under Fire

Pyongyang, August 31 (KCNA) — A spokesman for the Policy Department of the National Defence Commission of the DPRK issued the following statement on Sunday:
    Recently the British 4th TV channel producers openly made public a plan for producing and airing a serial TV drama-style movie malignantly slandering the DPRK.
    The movie is nothing but a conspiratorial charade painting a wrong picture of the DPRK’s reality as it is based on a sheer lie intended to give impression that the DPRK’s nuclear treasured sword for self-defence was manufactured by “illegally acquiring” nuclear technology from Britain.
    The broadcasting service is blustering without hesitation that the purpose of the movie is to tell the world that the DPRK is the “most closed country on the earth” and the “biggest threat” to the Western world.
    No matter how desperately the producers of the above-said TV channel, hooligans and rogues under the guise of artistes, may work to falsify the reality, they can never hide the truth.
    The DPRK’s nuclear treasured sword for self-defence is the proud fruition of the defense industry in the era of Songun based on its own efforts, technology and resources from A to Z.
    The Juche-oriented nuclear power of the DPRK which is on the ultra-modern world level is so powerful and tremendous that no one can imagine.
    The U.S., a master hand at plots and fabrications, dares not deny this hard fact.
    Those who are talking about “illegal acquisition of nuclear technology” are no more than blind fools and idiots bereft of even elementary ability to discern the truth.
    The gravity of the situation lies in that this despicable burlesque is being orchestrated at the tacit connivance, patronage and instigation by “Downing Street”.
    This mud-slinging is a premeditated politically-motivated provocation and deliberate hostile act to hurt the dignity of the supreme leadership and tarnish the sovereign authority of the DPRK and its international image.
    It is not exaggeration to say that Britain is the country with inborn disposition of blindly copying the American-style diplomacy.
    This is evidenced by the fact that when a movie company of Hollywood distributed a preview of a reactionary movie peppered with the story hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK after producing it, the British broadcasting service deliberately used it for staging such charade.
    The British authorities should not forget even a moment the lesson drawn from the incident in which that it was sentenced to permanent death because of “poems of evil” which groundlessly slandered a country in the Mideast in the past.
    Reckless anti-DPRK hysteria would only bring disgrace and self-destruction.
    The British authorities should throw reactionary movies now being planned or in the process of production into a dumping ground without delay and punish the chief culprits.
    This would help prevent any hurt to the image of the UK and preserve the hard-won diplomatic relations between the DPRK and Britain.
    It would be well advised to judge itself what consequences would be entailed if it ignores the DPRK’s warning.

Ambassador Liu Makes a Visit to Rason, North Korea

PRC Ambassador Liu Hongcai in Rason, July 2-4, 2014. Photo via Chinese Embassy, Pyongyang.

PRC Ambassador Liu Hongcai in Rason, July 2-4, 2014. Photo via Chinese Embassy, Pyongyang.

The Chinese-North Korean relationship is hardly in full comradely bloom, but neither is it in a state of total breakdown and acrimony. Rason, the port/SEZ in the extreme northeast of the DPRK and a relatively short drive from China and its Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, is a good case in point.

One month ago, Liu Hongcai, the Chinese Ambassador in Pyongyang, made a trip around the Rason Special Economic Zone which went essentially unremarked upon. Xi Jinping was in Seoul on precisely the same dates. But Xinhua did not report on the Rason visit, and was thus in line with global media outlets (like the Guardian, for whom I wrote a piece on the dominant theme) in emphasizing how Xi’s visit was an explicit rebuff to North Korea and in fact indicated that relations were worsening.

As Choson Exchange has argued in a couple of useful translations from the Chinese media, things in Rason seem to be going just fine. And, spanning further along the border, Hankoryeh points out that the story about some Chinese oil “shut-off” to North Korea is completely overblown when put into its proper economic context. From the North Korean standpoint, trade with China is still huge, and Rason remains an important (if still under-utilized) node in that trade relationship.