We begin with corruption, one of our favorite topics. Kim Jong-un, the Magnanimous Comrade, in Greg Scarlatoiu’s parlance, announced a special amnesty for prisoners this year which Steph Haggard and Jaesung Ryu likened to a shell game. Now the Daily NK is reporting that the possibility of amnesty is being used to shake down prisoners. The paper writes that South Korean relatives of prisoners are receiving phone calls from their incarcerated loved ones requesting that they send money to bail them out. According the paper, “Prisoners have apparently been informed that those able to obtain funds for the expansion work will be eligible for release in the amnesty, which is taking place in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of national founder Kim Il Sung on April 15th.”
At least some of those calls originate from cell phones operating on the Chinese network. And while use of the Chinese phones may be ok for extorting the families of prisoners, they are not for everyone’s use. In another story, the paper reports that the National Security Agency has been laying traps for users, “widening the scope of signal jamming on the one hand but also simultaneously establishing set areas without jamming on the other, so as to encourage the making of calls which can then be detected and the perpetrators arrested.”
But what happens when the cops themselves are corrupt? In yet another story from the Daily NK, (should we be paying them royalties or should they be paying us for the publicity?), Kim Yong Hun reports that agents working for a unit established in November 2010 on Kim Jong-un’s orders to combat ‘anti-socialist activities’ has itself become mired in corruption. The group’s mission is to combat the spread of illicit recordings and trafficking in illegal drugs, as well as deal with issues of Chinese cell phone and foreign currency use. In something that reads like something straight out of the Witness to Transformation playbook, the unit’s fearsome reputation makes them highly effective predators: according to the story, Unit 1118 inspectors can make $30,000-40,000 a year through extortion—money for nothing—and the sexual harassment opportunities are free.
The South Korean government has released data showing surging North-South trade—up 36 percent year-over-year in the first two months of 2012--despite the bleak diplomatic atmosphere. And to think some doubted our characterization of the Kaesong Industrial Complex as being largely insulated from politics.
Finally, AP has a story on the group of young accordion players who became a YouTube sensation covering A-ha’s “Take on Me.” The agency recently opened a bureau in Pyongyang, and we had previously commented some of their mishaps such as releasing photos doctored by the North Korean authorities. (Ironically AP is now co-sponsoring an exhibition of North Korean photography with that country's state-run news agency, KCNA.) Isaac Stone Fish has a nice piece on FP.com in which he talks to an AP PR flak who pretty much gives a demonstration of how not to do PR. One has to expect that critics will see the accordion piece "Accordionists who gave Internet an A-ha moment challenge preconceptions about North Koreans" as another example of AP being in the tank for the North Koreans. I just want my MTV.