east asia

The Institute of World Politics lecture on North Korean Propaganda

This past Wednesday, the Institute of World Politics hosted a lecture on propaganda in North Korea. Jang Jin-Sung, a former propaganda poet within the North Korean regime, came to talk about his former country and the nature of psychological control.

There is a great deal about Jang’s comments which I believe most Americans need to understand when we talk about North Korea. Despite the harshness and misery of the regime, it does not rule entirely through fear or the point of a bayonet. The people of North Korea really do believe a great deal (though not necessarily all) of the tripe which is forced down their throats by the propaganda regime. In fact, the army does not govern North Korea as much as Westerners think it does. The Workers’ Party of Korea may no longer adhere to Communism, but they still are the most important organization within North Korea ( along with an organization called the OGD which I will get into below)

And that propaganda regime, according to Jang, is more restrictive than any other regime in history. He even compared Stalin’s cult of personality favorably to the Kims’ cult of personality – at least Stalin’s cult did not try to build the entirety of world history around the man. North Korea does. For example, Kim Il-Sung’s birth date, April 15, 1912, happens to be the same day on which the Titanic sank. North Korean propaganda claims that the two events are related, as they show the decline of the West in favor of the rise of the glorious Kim family and North Korea.

That is hardly the worst or the most absurd propaganda fact of the North Korean regime. Jang said that in contrast to the “socialist realism” famous in other Communist countries, North Korea practices “realist socialism.” Reality itself must conform to the socialist ideal practiced and preached by North Korea, and Jang all but stated that “doublethink” is applied in that country. It is not enough to ban culture which criticizes the Kim regime, or may import values incompatible with Juche. ALL art produced in North Korea must be officially produced and sanctioned by a North Korean Worker’s Party art division, and ALL art must praise the North Korean regime – no exceptions. The three leaders of North Korea, Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il, and Kim Jong-Un must be the protagonists of any and all North Korean stories. While there may be other official protagonists, such characters are inevitably saved by the great North Korean leaders. On film sets, when the actor who plays the role of the North Korean Supreme Leader is in costume, everyone is required to treat him with the same respect that they would show to the Supreme Leader himself.

Jang also took some time to focus away from North Korean propaganda to focus on a secret North Korean organization called the Organization and Guidance Department(OGD) of North Korea. While Western media generally focuses on the Kim family, or sometimes the generals surrounding him, Jang states that the OGD are the real power in North Korea. The OGD controls all appointments to higher office in North Korea and runs North Korea’s StateSec. They are not loyal to North Korea or to Juche, but rather serve the Kim family and ensure that they maintain their grip on power. While he did not state so, my impression of Jang’s description of the organization would be to compare them to Martin Bormann, Hitler’s personal secretary who all but ran Germany during the final years of the Third Reich.

However, the OGD suffers from the limitation that no member of the OGD actually holds political office. It is an ingenious system for the protection of the Kims. Those who hold office do not have enough power to actually threaten the family, while those with power do not possess the public reputation to overthrow them either.

But the OGD and North Korean propaganda aside, there is one issue regarding North Korea which irritates me, and it definitely came up in the question and answer session following Jang’s lecture. While the North Korea is a cruel, vicious regime which the world would be better off without, there are far too many people who seem more concerned with the visceral abuses which the regime inflicts on their people or their ludicrous displays done for the purposes of internal consumption instead of actually trying to understand North Korea. North Korea is more than just a bunch of propaganda and prison camps, just like Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia were more than the concentration camps and the gulags. To understand a country, you have to figure out their goals and how they intend to pursue them. Purpose is more important than facts. While I cannot speak highly enough of Jang’s lectures and the truth he has helped bring to light about North Korea, truth is not a purpose in and of itself. It is the means which truth serves that matters.

If you are further interested in what Jang had to say, I have attached my notes/transcription of what he had to say in Wednesday’s lecture below.

Feb 4, 2015 – Propaganda in North Korea

On Japanese pacifism: the problem of those freeriding on American security.

A Department of Defense report released last Thursday discussed China’s continuing efforts to modernize its military. It noted that China is preparing not just for contingencies in its traditional problem with Taiwan, but in the South and East China Sea, where it has territorial disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan. The report particularly noted the modernization of the Chinese Air Force, calling it “unprecedented in history” and also mentioned that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy conducted its largest naval exercise at the Philippine Sea. Chinese President Xi Jiping and Barrack Obama did affirm that their two countries should work together to expand cooperation and dialogue, but naturally such Chinese military modernization must provoke concern in the eyes of Washington. And if Washington is worried across the Pacific Ocean, surely nearby Asian countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, South Korea, and Japan are also starting to prepare for China’s military rise, correct?

No, not really.


Some short facts on China’s rise in non-renewable consumption.

Two weeks ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report which discussed the dire effects of climate change as well as the failure of governments across the nation to actually do anything about it. Among things discussed in the IPCC report was the fact that rising middle-income nations like China are the biggest contributors to new greenhouse emissions.

Well, the IPCC certainly will not be feeling better about new Chinese efforts to increase its coal production. This is not to say that China has been totally negligent in its desire to pursue renewables. China has been investing a great deal in renewable energy over the past year, with some reports stating that almost 60% of new Chinese energy capacity is in renewables. But the reality is that while the percentages may be in favor of renewables, dirty, polluting coal remains the primary energy source for China. Renewables simply do not represent a viable short or medium term alternative coal.

So, China’s use of coal will continue to grow. China is currently discussing with Turkey a possible $10-12 billion investment into the Afsin-Elbistan coal field, and is expected to increase coal generation from 36 Gigawatts (Gw) in 2014 to 47 Gw in 2017. Meanwhile, shale gas in China is also expected to grow by leaps and bounds, jumping from 200 million cubic feet currently to as much as 6.5 billlion in 2015.  Perhaps the percentages may be favoring renewables for the long-term.  But if climate change is as dangerous as the IPCC makes it out to be, Earth does not care about percentages, it cares about the flat rate of emissions.

On Asia, and “Salami Tactics”: The Illusion of the benefits of Nukes.

Today in the National Interest, Professor Harvey M. Sapolsky penned an argument arguing for what he deemed “tailored proliferation”, where he argued that in order to counter Chinese interest in East Asia, the United States should encourage Australia, Japan, and South Korea to obtain nuclear weapons.  Calling nuclear weapons “the great equalizer” and arguing that nuclear weapons helped to prevent the Cold War from turning hot, Sapolsky claims that democratic institutions, civilian control of the military, and a lack of lobbing missiles at one another shows that the countries of East Asia would make reliable stewards of nuclear weapons.  This policy would benefit the United States, Sapolsky argues, because the presence of nukes would mean that the United States would be able to draw down its substantial conventional forces in the region and thus save a great deal of money.

Sapolsky is not the only one I have seen these days who has been discussing not just the harms of non-proliferation, but the BENEFITS of active proliferation.  In the aftermath of the Russian seizure of Crimea as well as their continued antagonism of Eastern Ukraine, there has been a great deal of hand-wringing, especially from the Ukranians themselves, about how Ukraine traded  nuclear weapons in exchange for a guarantee of its sovereignty, and how this apparently broken agreement has shown that Ukraine should have kept the nuclear weapons after all.  In Iran, apologists for the mullahs and those who fight against American hegemony to show that they are “well-informed” have in fact argued that an Iranian nuclear program would guarantee peace in the Middle East – because since the US could no longer invade Iran, this would encourage the disparate peoples of the Middle East to get along…somehow.

But reality is different.  Nuclear weapons are not an end-all be-all.  They are not a guarantor of world peace.  They are a destabilizing factor, and every country, every group, every person who gets their access to nuclear weapons is just one more factor that has to be watched in order to ensure that no one goes mad.  And frankly for Dr. Sapolsky’s argument, nuclear weapons would not ensure stability in the Middle East, as the British comedy series Yes Minister observed nearly thirty years ago:

For those who would prefer not to waste their time watching YouTube videos, a simple observation about Sapolsky’s argument: what will nukes do about the Senkakus?  What will it solve?  The idea of Japan and China actually fighting a conventional war over the rocks, even after the dispute began in earnest nearly two years ago, is just as absurd in East Asia as it is here in the United States.  And if a conventional war is ridiculous enough, then what about nukes?  Will Japan launch nukes over a Chinese intrusion on the Senkakus?  Will the Philippines launch nukes over the South China Sea?  The answer is clearly, whichever way this is answered, a losing proposition for the smaller states.  If Japan does not launch nukes, it appears to be impotent.  If it does launch nukes over an intrusion on a couple rocks, the shock at such an overreaction would mean that Japan would be massively diplomatically isolated at best, and at worst would repeat the experiences of 1944-45 again.

Nukes are only useful if one has a very strong reason to believe that its core territories are under a realistic threat of invasion, and sometimes not even then ( Ukraine is an example: as Tom Nichols noted, the reality was that no one in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, whether Russia or the United States, had the slightest interest in seeing a then highly-unstable Ukraine with nuclear weapons).  Outside of that direct threat, they are useless at best, and a tool for nationalistic flag-waving which threatens to massively destabilize a crisis at worst.  The states of East Asia and Oceania do not need nukes.  They need conventional forces to handle smaller threats from China that are far more realistic to occur than a scenario straight out of Red Dawn.  And there is no one who can handle that better than the United States, especially since even an amateur on the East Asia should know how nervous China will get over a Japanese conventional build-up, or North Korea over a South Korean military expansion.

Panel Review: The Center for Strategic and Intl Studies on Obama’s Asian Trip

Next week, President Obama will embark on an Asian tour which will include stops in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Yesterday at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) held a panel discussing what Obama’s visit means for the US-Japan alliance, the key lynchpin to American policy in East Asia. There was plenty for the four panel members to discuss.


Japan to hand over weapons-grade plutonium to the US.

Asahi Shimbun link

I touched on the problems of Japanese nuclear security in an earlier post, but one thing I did not discuss was that Japan already has a large stockpile of plutonium and uranium, not only stored in Japan itself, but in France and Britain.  This plutonium was supplied to Japan by the United States during the Cold War, and it appears that Japan will be handing them back.

This is without a doubt a very good thing.  Just as an Iranian nuclear bomb is bad for global peace as it could spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, a Japanese nuke would be a possible spark towards creating a arms race in the even more vital East Asia.  North Korea is already dangerous enough – South Korea, which doesn’t particularly trust the United States to begin with, having nukes on their own would do nothing for the sake of stability.  It should be noted, however, that despite this transfer, Japan has without a doubt the scientific and technological know-how to make a nuclear bomb within a time frame of 6 months to 2 years should it so desire, but there is really nothing which can be done about that.