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mapping snoops annotate North Korea
June 2, 2009 10:51 PM   Subscribe

North Korea has a reputation as one of the most secretive, authoritarian, repressive countries in the world. But that doesn't stop Curtis Melvin, a PhD student at George Mason University, from trying to shine some light into the country's dark corners l His North Korea Economy Watch site, which includes The most authoritative map of North Korea on Google Earth l Gulags, Nukes and a Water Slide: Citizen Spies Lift North Korea's Veil.
posted by nickyskye (39 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
I bet this is 10,000 times better than anything the CIA has. Because the CIA is populated by incompetent hacks, who glory in a rich tradition of institutional incompetence. And open is better than closed.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:57 PM on June 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


Sorry. That was axe-grindy. Eck.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:58 PM on June 2, 2009 [3 favorites]


mr_roboto: I know I'm spoiled by Metafilter when I see someone saying, "Ah, wait, that comment I just made was maybe too aggressive. Sorry!" I'm way too used to YouTube, where your follow-up comment would have been something about gay Jews faking the moon landing.

And as for the last link, I'm with John Oliver on this one: the world would be a lot better off if Kim Jong Il actually used that waterslide a bit more often.
posted by Uppity Pigeon #2 at 11:17 PM on June 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm currently reading The Aquariums of Pyongyang: ten years in the North Korean gulag which might be one of the most harrowing things I've ever read.

It's the story of a ten year old kid who gets packed off to Yodok 're-education' camp when his grandfather displeases the regime. They don't just pack the offender off -- they send the whole family, root and branch.

It must have been particularly galling because the whole family had pretty well been raised in Japan, where the Grandparents had emigrated between WWI and WWII. They'd been very successful in Japan, but the grandmother was a communist who supported the North Korean project and never gave up the idea of returning to the homeland. So at some point in the 70's, they sell up and move, lock, stock and barrel -- with all their kids and all the grandchildren -- back home to North Korea. A home they'd never actually known.

At first, they're lauded for their contribution of foreign currency to the party coffers. But it isn't long before people in the secret police begin to develop covetous eyes towards what little property they have remaining, and granddad's grumbling (the grandfather was never a communist -- he was a successful businessman -- he just loved his wife too well) gave them the excuse they needed to send him off to the work camps, and the rest of his family to a reeducation camp.

It's well worth a read. Fascinating but heartbreaking.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:48 PM on June 2, 2009 [4 favorites]


Along the same lines (and previously linked): The forbidden journey - a train trip to Pyongyang
posted by clearly at 1:16 AM on June 3, 2009


You can't help but wonder how the NK leadership would respond to something like this. They're used to thinking in terms of states and intelligence organizations, and this is just a bunch of amateurs poring over public satellite pictures and talking over the Internet. How would they react to this sort of thing? Ignore it? Try to kidnap or assassinate anyone involved? Try to poison the well by feeding him false information?

I guess this is a little bit of a future shock moment for me too, because this is the sort of thing I've been reading about in SF novels for, geeze, 15 years or more. Vernor Vinge was one of the first I remember talking about this kind of thing becoming possible, but now it's actually happening. Actual real intelligence work is being done now by an informal network of interested people, solely out of curiosity, not sometime in the nebulous high-tech far future.

I can't help but wonder if a lot of the drive toward putting US citizens into preemptive chains is fear of exactly this sort of thing.
posted by Malor at 1:38 AM on June 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


Interesting map, I checked it out and WOW. The North Koreans are so ignorant, if they think that we were so stupid we couldn't make maps of the most secret nation in the world.
posted by Michael Leung at 1:43 AM on June 3, 2009


Calling North Korea authoritarian is like calling Hitler a conservative; it's a massive understatement. North Korea seems to be as close to the platonic ideal of totalitarianism as we have seen.

An example of this: five years ago, the North Korean state media reported that those who died in the Ryugyong train explosion perished whilst rushing into their burning houses to save portraits of the Dear Leader. Imagine the mindset, the massive internalised layers of fear, repression and Stockholm-syndrome-like rationalisation, that people would have to have to, when their house is on fire, first think about saving the mass-produced picture of the God-Emperor.
posted by acb at 2:33 AM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Or, indeed, that the state press agency would report this quite so matter-of-factly, as if such acts of abject compliance were laudable rather than ghoulish.
posted by acb at 2:35 AM on June 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


First citizen journalists, now citizen spies. Is there anything these citizens can't do?
posted by rhymer at 2:42 AM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


the North Korean state media reported that those who died in the Ryugyong train explosion perished whilst rushing into their burning houses to save portraits of the Dear Leader.

In response to something like this, some people would say they don't know whether to laugh or cry. Not that I'm literally shedding tears, but the answer here is pretty obviously to cry. But it is so ridiculous, so beyond reasonable, it is laughable. I'd laugh at it if it weren't true.
posted by Uppity Pigeon #2 at 3:09 AM on June 3, 2009


Why on earth would you think the state paper is telling the truth about that? They've always been at war with Eastasia (or maybe they ARE Eastasia, heh) and all citizens are noble to the point of insanity.

They probably died in the explosion, or perhaps in some collapse of a Party-owned structure that was defective, and the apparatchiks spun it into 'citizen heroes'.

The one thing you can be pretty sure didn't happen is whatever you read in the NK newspaper.
posted by Malor at 3:12 AM on June 3, 2009 [6 favorites]


This travel agency (based in Beijing) specializes in taking Americans and other English speaking foreigners into North Korea. I saw one of the proprietors give a slide lecture a few months ago here in Seoul. You travel on a guided tour, and you have very little opportunity to do anything without being observed by your North Korean "tour guide" (although I was amazed at the relative amount of freedom you do seem to have to interact with North Koreans who aren't party of your tour).

What's interesting is that it's easier than ever for an American to visit North Korea, you just have to pay out the ass for a visa (maybe three or four thousand USD).

My first reaction was -- Capitalism at its finest!
posted by bardic at 3:27 AM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Why on earth would you think the state paper is telling the truth about that? ...

They probably died in the explosion, or perhaps in some collapse of a Party-owned structure that was defective, and the apparatchiks spun it into 'citizen heroes'.


That was actually my first reaction to that story. I didn't think for a second it was true. I find it depressing solely because someone in the North Korean propaganda industry thought that was a reasonable thing to have happened. That it was, on some level, a feel-good story. Kind of like a soft news story about a bake sale for a local school, but instead of sugar cookies, you have innocent peasants burning to death. Even if the bake sale story is also bullshit, at least the happy ending involves the principal's brownies going over splendidly, instead of people dying.
posted by Uppity Pigeon #2 at 3:37 AM on June 3, 2009


OTOH, I have heard stories of people (and their entire families) being put in brutal prison camps for accidentally defacing portraits of the Dear Leader. Given the all-pervasive propaganda venerating him, praising his miraculous wisdom and powers, the fact that all North Koreans wear pins with his face on them, and the harsh punishments meted out for the smallest transgressions, it's not a great leap to imagine that a North Korean, faced with the choice between saving his life or his childrens' lives and saving his portrait of the Dear Leader may opt for the latter.

The reasoning may go something like "if I don't save my kids, they'll die. If I save my kids but lose my portrait of the Dear Leader, my entire family will be deported to a prison camp to be worked to death."
posted by acb at 4:06 AM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


acb, the only reason I haven't flagged your comment is because "Logically sound but super depressing" isn't an option.
posted by Uppity Pigeon #2 at 4:15 AM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


I was about to post what acb just said. There were probably two alternatives -- rush in to save the portrait of Dear Leader & die in the flames, or be executed for not doing so.

This six-nation-negotiation shit is leading us nowhere -- there has GOT to be a way to deal with these thugs short of an Iraqi-style invasion. I know we don't hold as much sway with the Chinese as we'd like, seeing as how they own us and everything, but dammit -- it wouldn't hurt to ask, would it?
posted by Devils Rancher at 4:35 AM on June 3, 2009


We probably have been, repeatedly and pointedly. But China's big selling point is that "we don't interfere with other countries" -- it's their way of differentiating themselves from us, and it works.

Intervening in NK might make us happy, briefly, but the thing about America is that we never stay happy, and we never stop meddling, whether overtly or covertly.

If they DON'T intervene, they maintain face with all the nations they've been promising neutrality to, plus we have an expensive and pressing problem to deal with. We get weaker, they get stronger. And Japan might get nuked, which would make the Chinese smile very, very broadly.

Unless NK gets very stupid and threatens China directly, I just don't see that it's in their interest to get involved. They can only lose. If they stay neutral, the big losers are people they don't like (Japanese), people they don't care about (South Korea), and people they own (us). When you own someone, their opinion is largely irrelevant.
posted by Malor at 4:48 AM on June 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


Malor: But China's big selling point is that "we don't interfere with other countries" -- it's their way of differentiating themselves from us, and it works.

Seriously?
posted by crayz at 5:01 AM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


This six-nation-negotiation shit is leading us nowhere -- there has GOT to be a way to deal with these thugs short of an Iraqi-style invasion.

Give the nuke to Japan, South Korea and Australia. When China and Russia complains, shrug shoulders and say "What can we do, NK is threatening our allies, we must help them." Of course, that'll put the U.S. at odds with a lot of other countries and for what? To keep North Korea in check? It's already in check, it just likes to pretend it isn't. Quite paying so much attention them, let them act crazy and be China's headache.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:06 AM on June 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


Yep, crayz. The thing about the Chinese "intervention" is that they just buy resources. That's it. They don't presume to dictate anyone's "internal affairs", so unlike the US.

Rather, you have tin. They want the tin. They'll invest locally and create a company to extract it. They'll pay their taxes promptly and without complaint, and they don't care how the taxes are used. If you want to invade a neighbor or exploit your people, the Chinese just shrug. Your business. They just want the tin.

The PEOPLE might not like the Chinese, but the GOVERNMENTS sure do.
posted by Malor at 5:14 AM on June 3, 2009


(To be fair, there are some hints they're starting to meddle more than they did, but it's still nothing like what the US does on a routine basis.)
posted by Malor at 5:14 AM on June 3, 2009


Quit paying so much attention them, let them act crazy and be China's headache.

The problem for me as while this may be the most politically efficacious path, it does nothing for the horridly oppressed, starved, brutalized & murdered-to-death citizenry of NK. I give a whole lot more of a shit about seeing them not murdered & starved en masse by brutal criminals than I do about the realpolitik outcome. I wish the Chinese felt the same, is all. Also, I realize the futility of my wishes. It makes me sad and angsty.
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:18 AM on June 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


Quit paying so much attention them

Slide 4 in that third link's slide show is of suspected mass graves.
posted by pracowity at 5:32 AM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


I predict NK's next move will be to construct a humongous umbrella.
posted by orme at 5:47 AM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


The problem for me as while this may be the most politically efficacious path, it does nothing for the horridly oppressed, starved, brutalized & murdered-to-death citizenry of NK.

Either you're going to mount up and invade or you're bluffing and NK is going to call you on it. The more you bluff and get called it on, the less authority you have and the more powerful NK looks. Seriously, this whole song and dance must be comedy gold in China.

Seriously, the world flipping out because NK is launching shitty missiles isn't very productive.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:49 AM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Speaking of song and dance comedy gold, here's hoping there's an arms sales video out there with enough production value to rival the Israeli one, but featuring synchronized stadium human sign making.
posted by acro at 6:45 AM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


A couple of days ago, Planet Money had a story about exactly this, the hidden markets of North Korea. I normally really like Planet Money, but the story came off as naive: they thought these markets, which are tacitly supported by the government, were going to be the first cracks in the hold the government has over the people. The reasoning was that, if the people realize the government can't provide them with everything, the people of North Korea would start thinking about how they wouldn't need the government anymore.

This follows the same line of reasoning about China, that free markets are going to save the country from oppression. All that's happened is you can now buy Nikes as you get dragged away for talking about the Falun Gong.

I have MOB, thank you. I just wanted to share...
posted by gc at 6:50 AM on June 3, 2009


Give the nuke to Japan, South Korea and Australia.

All three of those countries are definitely fully capable of running up a full Bomb program if they really wanted it. For that matter, I'm pretty sure Japan wouldn't take nukes if we offered them.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:00 AM on June 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


Fascinating post, thanks.

I'm pretty sure the international community isn't going to do jack until Dear Leader dies. The question is, if China uses that transition period as an opportunity to invade, would anyone stop them?
posted by mkultra at 7:45 AM on June 3, 2009


Oh yeah, didn't mean to imply they couldn't. Supposedly Japan could do it within a year, if it wanted to.

But giving nuclear weapons to countries without them would be quicker, that's my only point there.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:49 AM on June 3, 2009


I'm pretty sure the international community isn't going to do jack until Dear Leader dies

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss?
posted by jquinby at 7:51 AM on June 3, 2009


mkultra: the transition period is already beginning, with the citizens currently learning the lyrics to the songs they now must sing in praise of Kim Jong-Un, who was just officially named successor.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:56 AM on June 3, 2009


If anyone has a subscription to Harpers, you should definitely read Made in North Korea. It's fucking depressing.
Hun-sik Kim was the principal of Pyongyang Light Engineering College. She was sentenced to a five-year imprisonment for suggesting to the City Education Board that her students' labor responsibility be reduced so that they could spend more time studying. In prison, she was assigned the work of measuring fabric to produce jackets, which were to be given as gifts to workers outside by the president on his birthday. One time, she miscalculated the imported nylon fabric but immediately corrected the error and no fabric was wasted. However, she was detained in the punishment cell for ten days for "attempting sabotage." She was crippled and partly paralyzed when she was released from the punishment cell. On a very hot summer day in August, the camp doctors burned her bottom with heated stones to see if she could feel pain. She never felt any pain when her flesh was burning. Just before she died a few weeks later, she whispered to me, with a twittering tongue and tears in her eyes, "I want to see the blue sky. You know my children are waiting for me."
posted by chunking express at 8:07 AM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


National Geographic had an interesting article about the people who escape from North Korea. It's a long and harrowing journey: they cross the border into China, but can't stay there because they risk being deported back to North Korea by the Chinese government. They have to travel 2,000 miles across eastern China, down through Laos (where they also cannot stay), and into Thailand, where they can finally claim asylum. On the way, many fall prey to unscrupulous traffickers, and end up robbed and/or forced into working as laborers or sex workers.
posted by bookish at 8:45 AM on June 3, 2009


Seriously, the world flipping out because NK is launching shitty missiles isn't very productive.

That's not exactly what I was doing, there. I've been following the bouncing ball for most of my adult life, and have long-since read many, many accounts of NK's brutality, nukes or no nukes. I seriously doubt they'd use nukes, unprovoked. Their recent round of missile & bomb testing hasn't really changed the way I feel about the situation there -- it's merely provided a number of Metafilter posts in which I've been given the opportunity to express them. As I stated above, I know wishing for * or % from the Chinese (insert your favorite wild-card here) is utterly futile. These feelings of futility also don't change my opinion that the China is probably the only outside country that could actually influence the situation in a manner positive to the NK populace.

I'm just anti-suffering. Suffering is bad.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:04 AM on June 3, 2009


The thing about the Chinese "intervention" is that they just buy resources. That's it. They don't presume to dictate anyone's "internal affairs", so unlike the US.

This is baloney. They pay off dictators with hard cash, same as the US did during the Cold War. They're actually closer to the US in this regard then the old Soviet Union, who usually offered weapons because they didn't have cash. The difference is that they don't even bother with a fig-leaf of ideology - they're out to wring every last drop from developing countries too corrupt to stop them in a new form of colonialism. There is nothing admirable about it, and nothing to counter-point American practice, except to point out we're nowhere near as rapacious, even at the height of the cold war.

They also take a firm hand in propping up their pet dictators - remember the shipload of deep discount arms the Chinese were trying to send Mugabe? Wouldn't do to have their pet dictator overthrown by a pro-western democracy advocate in a fair election. They also have squads of special forces... "military advisors"... in-country to help with stamping out dissent.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:49 AM on June 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


"But giving nuclear weapons to countries without them would be quicker, that's my only point there."

South Korea, Japan, and Australia effectively have nukes in the form of land and sea-based American aircraft and submarines. It's kind of out-dated to think in terms of these countries either having or not having their own nuclear arsenal.
posted by bardic at 7:29 PM on June 3, 2009


Thanks for this, nickyskye. I always feel like I'm peering into some sort of political/action/thriller/sci-fi novel or movie when I read about the DPRK [official site].
posted by not_on_display at 6:06 AM on June 10, 2009


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