Smartphone Border Run Shamaness North Korea Remittance China Friendly Kim’s New Family KCNA Pastiche

KCNA, the North Korean “news” agency, has a fascinating piece on problems caused by smartphones in US prisons (thus simultaneously bashing America and reminding readers that mobile technology is potentially criminal), reminds us that Japan is on the warpath to imperial expansion in Asia (even as Japan still has, in a rare admission from KCNA, a peace constitution), that cadre and everyone else is bucking up for Kim Jong Il’s February 16 birthday by reading his hold-the-line-on-liberalization classic Kulloja speech of 1993, “Abuses of Socialism are Intolerable,” and that, although Kim Jong Il argued in 1993 that North Korea had been excessively dependent on its socialist international brothers, Chinese people loved “Dream of the Red Chamber” and therefore render many flower baskets to the Dear Leader.

Meanwhile, in news originating from outside the DPRK, Chinese tour operators seem to be slowly taking over what had been South Korean parvenu in Mount Kumgang.  About 400 tourists doesn’t sound like much, but in the grand scheme of North Korean foreign relations, that’s a sizable commitment for admittance given that during the currency reforms the DPRK closed the border with China.

And (hat tip to the ultimate rollback apostle for North Korea counter-revolution warm up the stealth fighters magnificently pinpointing the guardtowers on Yoduk and by all means send the Seventh Fleet to the Yellow Sea occasionally quoted in the Wall Street Journal blogger Joshua Stanton), we learn of some very unusual reversions to tradition in North Korea in the form of female fortune telling (via Good Friends):


Police Officers Afraid of Psychic Fortune Teller in Hamheung City

At the beginning of every year, there is a tendency for people to visit fortune tellers. This year is no exception. However, due to the arrest of a reputed psychic at the end of last year, Hamheung City residents have been discouraged from taking part in this tradition. The individual in question is 43 year old Seonghee Kim, living in Sinheung 1-dong of the Seongcheon River District. After being arrested on November 29, 2010 for her superstitious practices, the police conducted a thorough search of Kim’s residence and confiscated books allegedly used for reading the future. Since a bible was among the items seized, the police have also been investigating whether her work was political in nature. Nevertheless, it is reported that the officers in charge of questioning Kim are impressed by her purported abilities and are thus very cautious in dealing with her.

Kim, a psychic practitioner since childhood, became famous during the peak of the Arduous March in 1999, when people visited her to inquire about lost family members. She would inform clients the status of their loved ones—whether they were still alive, and if so, where they could be located. As rumors of Kim’s ability spread, the number of clients increased. Question topics ranged from potential profitability of items to be sold in the market or prospective yields from land patch farming. A number of those following her advice achieved a level of success, making her more famous. Although the police eventually took notice of Kim and brought her in to force her to write a self-criticism as punishment, she continued her practice, partly because she did not have any other means of self-support, but also because her clientele included high-level officials. Even when she was detained in the police station, Kim impressed officers with facial readings and dream interpretations to the extent that they released her immediately. She then began to be known as the most powerful psychic in the city. Afterwards, Provincial Party officials and other officers from Police and Security Departments often visited Kim for consultations.

As Kim’s fame grew, so did her income. Established merchants paid her 50,000 North Korean won or with a few large sacks of rice (80kg per sack) for a fortune telling session. Less affluent people paid her whatever they could afford–1,000 or 5,000 North Korean won or a few kilograms of rice. The very destitute offered her a few eggs as a token of gratitude. Her popularity not only revolved around her perceived fortune telling ability but also her accommodation of her client’s financial status. At the end of last year, when the Central Party issued an order to “destroy superstition,” the City Party refused to comply. This spurred the Provincial Party to intervene and arrest her. According to a police official, Kim cannot avoid a minimum sentence involving seven years of re-education. On an interesting note, the judges in charge of Kim’s case are said to be reluctant in questioning her because of their fear that it would bring them bad luck.

A second extremely interesting fact that has come from the most recent Good Friends report details the penetration of pro-China directives into every Party organization.  I’m just about done with Patrick McEachern’s Inside the Red Box, a fascinating study of North Korea’s interlocking and often intra-competitive bureaucracy, and a report that alleges wholesale conversion to the pro-China line is particularly significant:

Central Party Directs All Departments to Take a “Bold and All-Out” Stance When Dealing with China

The Central Party is once again emphasizing to all institutions, enterprises and government units the importance of strengthening cooperation with China. Following the instructions requesting to take a “big and all-out stance,” every government unit, including economic trade, political, and military areas, is reshaping its China policy. In particular, they are setting up internal guidelines at the party level to punish those enterprises or individuals committing credit violations or damaging credit in trade with China. Thus, there are claims that recent currency soaring valuations of the Yuan can be linked to the atmosphere of encouraging trade with China. As each of the institutions and enterprises tries to establish credible trading with China, many transactions based on credit are no longer possible. As a result, competition to acquire foreign currency has become more intense because deals can only be made with Yuan or dollars. Although recently there is a sharp increase in the number of inquires coming from China’s Three Northeast Provinces about investing in North Korea’s mining or ore mines, not many deals have been finalized. Therefore, foreign investment influx is insignificant. In other words, the value of foreign currency is rising rapidly because there are a lot expenses to be paid with foreign currency while there is no source of foreign currency income.

Especially, with all trading companies attempting to acquire food in preparation for February 16 holidays, the foreign currency value is expected to continue to rise for the time being. Trading companies have established the policy of refraining from importing everyday essential goods other than special items, and making every effort to acquire food instead. In terms of politics, the recently proposed political dialogue with South Korea can be interpreted as North Korea’s attempt to win China’s good will by showing respect to China’s demand. An official says, “All the departments of the government are having on-going discussions to reshape the policies with China because we are instructed to honor the demands made by China as much as we can and cooperate closely with China to solve all the problems by strengthening our ties with them. We are reaching out to South Korea first because of China’s influence, but it doesn’t matter whether South Korea accepts our offer or not. We are not responsible for South Korea’s refusal to accept our offer. We’re just trying to show that we have done our part.”

On the notion of North Korean kowtowing to China, it’s often rather embarrassing to read the work of some bloggers, for whom repetition of pre-digested knowledge is beyond commonplace, who browbeat their readers with statements like  “I told you this would come to pass” or “As I have been predicting for months in previous posts …”  Do these kind of statements attract a following of myrmidons?  As a reader, I am really supposed to take these people seriously?  Apparently I am.  “Holy shit, man, I heard it here first from the anonymous American blogger who has a really cute baby picture for the avatar!  The Chinese are investing big-time in North Korea!”  Duh.  I’m not sure if you noticed this, but the Chinese are investing big everywhere.  As annoying and as in need of deposing as is old Thomas Friedman, even he knows when to back off from statements hailing his own acumen in predicting trends.  (Well, maybe he doesn’t, but you get my point.)

In any case, having acknowledged the dangers of such useless techno-narcissism, I should like bring you but modest proof of my own perspicacity, alacrity, and certitude in the field of things factually Sino-North Korean by calling your attention to two things which I’ve been on the warpath about for more than a year on the present blog: 1) the Chinese media will occasionally trot out something resembling a scoop on North Korea (such as a totally unnoticed-by-anyone-save-your-favorite-youngish-cellist-professor recent visit by a Huanqiu Shibao reporter to Rajin), and 2) the media in China (which is, obviously, all pretty much official, strained through the old Xinhua goggles) is having, relatively speaking, a field day when it comes to reporting on Kim Jong Il’s whacky family.

Confirmation of both trends comes in the form of a Shijie Zhishi report that Kim Jong Il has a seven year old son, via his relatively new girlfriend Kim Ok who traveled with him to China last April.  Shijie Zhishi, or “World Knowledge,” has been the standard weekly magazine published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing since 1950.  (I own a slightly-singed copy of the first six-month run of the journal in 1950, most of which is full of the strongest possible invective against the United States and support for the new Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  “Back off, American devils who are here to revive the Japanese war machine!  These lips are full of anti-aircraft Chapstick” it fairly screams.)  When China wants to make a statement, in other words, Shijie Zhishi is a very good place to do it.  So the appearance of this article about Kim Jong Il’s private life — an online version of which I have yet to find — is significant in ways I think we will slowly come to understand.

Oh yes, musn’t forget to gonflerais, you heard it here first!  (No, actually, you heard it on the Chosun Ilbo first, though strangely, the Chosun Ilbo’s Chinese-language site took a while to post the story and doesn’t mention the Shijie Zhishi report at all.  Go figure.)

If it’s real scholarship mixed with only the most appropriate dab of self-promotion you’re after, let’s concede the power of Marcus Noland, speaking below about Witness to Transformation, his latest must-read book:

Of further interest on the Chinese version of the Chosun Ilbo is a recent defector report that annual remittances into North Korea from defectors total roughly 10 million USD.  Shocking?  More shocking still is that, according to the source, 30% goes to cellular phone fees.   And so we’re back to the beginning: using phones to break out of the joint and to map out one’s far-flung enterprises.

If at this point you need to wake up in order to digest the contents above, or on your attempt to find the ultimate link which will answer all of life’s lingering questions (among which really you need to include “does Kim Jong Eun really know every alcove in his father’s many bunkers?”) try a little bit of gangster rap, Frankfurt style.  It goes without saying that the author of this blog condones neither the occasional curse word nor the occasional gesture in the video, but he does enjoy the “up from your bootstraps via schrewd and timely labor” notion of, as is mentioned in the second verse, “yesterday Döner, today Argentinian steak.”  That’s what Max Weber would call the Islamic-Protestant Work Ethic.   I think Germany’s connections to the Middle East — and its ability to contain kids in Berlin who cheer for Japan in the World Cup then freestyle with me on the U-Bahn then try to rob me while making me laugh and cry —  are what keep its rap scene (what’s the word?) authentic.   And if you’re prowling the Sino-North Korean frontier with a cell phone, wondering what the shamaness in Hamhung is prophesying, not thinking for a moment about what nonsense all the academics and bloggers are prancing out in their warm and satiated dens and libraries, than I think you’ll understand it all the more.


  1. Why would the people of China even need smart phones if they really couldn’t use them because of all of their restrictions.

    1. Oh, I think there is plenty of material for Chinese to surf…but for North Koreans there are much heavier penalties for having the wrong equipment at the wrong time…

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