The U.S. media will believe anything on North Korea — some perspective from a long-time Asia hand

Over the last week, the U.S. media have been filled with lurid accounts of a “coup” in North Korea and predictions of either a revolution from within or a coming collapse of the country. In this piece, I look first at the rumor-mill and then consider the views of a colleague who has been in Asia for decades and works for an organization with extensive contacts in North Korea (not the CIA!)

Like so much reported on North Korea, which many people forget was bombed into smithereens by the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War, the latest reports of a power struggle are as thin as gruel and lack even a modicum of skepticism or doubt.

Essentially, the logic of the speculation goes as follows: Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s 30-something hereditary dictator, has not been seen in public for something like 30 days and may be ill, possibly with gout; last weekend, a high-level delegation from the North came to South Korea led by a senior general and reached agreement on new talks with South Korea; some defectors say Kim is not in control; ergo, there’s been a coup!

Nobody seemed to pay any attention to the fact that reports of coups and assassinations in the North have been a staple of U.S. media propaganda for years, dating back almost to the country’s founding in 1948. Here’s two examples I found in a cursory search on NEXIS, and posted last week on Twitter:

  • Kim Jong Il’s assassination fears.” UPI, Nov. 10, 2009 (The Junior Kim died in 2011 of a heart attack. No assassination.)
  • “South Korea Says North’s President Dead Or Power Struggle Under Way.” AP, 1986 (The Great Leader died of a heart attack in 1994. No power struggle.)

One of the most irresponsible stories of the week was in VICE News, which published a sensationalist account on October 2 based on a single source, “Jang Jin-sung, formerly a key member of Kim Jong-il’s propaganda machine,” who is in exile in Europe. “Former Top Official Says Kim Jong-un Is No Longer in Control of North Korea,” the headline darkly proclaimed. Not to be outdone, the Daily Beast followed up a few days later with this headline: “Has North Korea’s Kim Jong Un Been Toppled?” The story included a few comments to the contrary, but was based heavily on the mysterious Mr. Jang.

As Business Insider commented in its round-up of the rumors: the claim made by Jang “has no outside confirmation.” That can be said of 99.9 percent of the latest reports.

(NOTE: I’ll have more on Jang tomorrow from a source who has worked with him. His claims were made September 18 at a conference at the University of Leiden in Holland, and followed the closed-door rules of Chatham House, the reknowned British foreign policy think-tank. The Vice reporter apparently did not attend the Leiden conference, but “confirmed” the gist of Jang’s comments later on the phone).

Lately, some outlets have tried to provide some actual reporting from Korea. In an excellent story today, the Guardian stated that “claims that Kim has been toppled are not supported by reports of internal North Korean lectures explaining the surprise visit” of its top general to the pro-U.S. South. And Bloomberg, in a dispatch today from Seoul, tried to add some caution:

The constant rumors are “a real headache” for intelligence agents, said [an academic analyst at] Hanzhong University. He cited a rumor last month that a coup led by North Korean military officer Jo Myong Rok toppled Kim. Jo has been dead since 2010.

Bloomberg went on to say:

Kim is “somewhere in the north of Pyongyang,” South Korean Defense Minister Han Min Koo told lawmakers on Oct. 7, citing “reliable information” from the intelligence unit of his ministry, according to footage from Yonhap TV. Han said his military was mobilizing all its intelligence assets. Yonhap said his comments support the view Kim is staying at a family mansion in the county of Kangdong. That estate has a 1,600-meter-long horse track and is one of a number of exclusive resorts used by the family, a former chef for the Kim family who goes by the pen name Kenji Fujimoto said in a 2003 memoir.

“For now, you can say what you want about Kim Jong Un and it’s hard to disprove some conspiracy theories until he reappears,” John Delury, a professor of international studies at Seoul’s Yonsei University, said by phone. “It’s a real soup of bad information, disinformation, paid-for information, and it’s hard to call anyone’s bluff.”

Well, the same could be said of the U.S. press. As I’ve been writing for years, when it comes to North Korea, the media believes almost anything. Here’s the bottom line:

1) Don’t believe what you read in both the mainstream and web-based U.S. press.

2) Nobody really knows what’s happening inside the DPRK.

3) Some changes may be underway and, if so, we may know something soon.

I reached those conclusions last night in an email discussion with a friend and colleague who’s been following events in North Korea closely since the tumultuous years of the Reagan administration. He’s a retired U.S. military officer with decades of experience in East Asia, including in China, and works with an organization that, as I mentioned earlier, has experience in North Korea and is also well-known to the U.S. government.

His dispatch (below) is based on his own conversations in recent days with people knowledgeable about both Koreas, including a few I’ve worked with over the years on research and reporting projects. Basically, my writer says, look for any answers in what happens at the end of this week, when Pyongyang celebrates the birthday of its ruling Workers Party: If Kim is missing, then something quite extraordinary could be happening. But probably not along any of the lines our U.S. media experts have predicted.

The analysis herein is very much worth reading, and will hopefully show U.S. reporters and editors that, when it comes to Korea, actual reporting is what’s needed – not mindless speculation. He begins by listing reasons to think that North Korea – AKA the DPRK – is operating as usual, then lists some factors that may indicate that some changes may be underway, including the possibility of a government where the Kim family shares power with the ruling military and technocratic elite and the personality cult is either de-emphasized or used by the ruling circles for their own ends. He doesn’t seem to think an actual coup is in the works.

WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING IN NORTH KOREA?

Factors arguing DPRK is firmly under control:

– When there’s a big problem, DPRK often shuts almost all channels except for one so that DPRK completely controls what information flows to the outside, when and how.  They are actually reaching out to many audiences

– Several high level DPRK delegations travelled abroad recently.  It’s nearly impossible for that number of folks to travel to that many places  if no one’s in control or if there is an extreme degree of palace intrigue. DPRK sent high-level (Minister and above) to US, UN, Europe, ASEAN, Southeast Asia, Mongolia, and most recently South Korea.  DPRK’s Ambassador at the UN, UK and in Vienna have been reaching out, giving interviews and even acknowledging the obvious – that North Korea has political prison camps.  The breadth of activities point to some coherent, collective consciousness back in Pyongyang.

– Hwang Pyong-so delegation (Hwang Pyong-so, Choe Ryong-hae and Kim Yang-gon) delegation to ROK went in Kim Jong-un’s plane.  Whether or not Kim maintains a nuclear command and control suite on the aircraft, there would have to be a conscious highest-level decision to agree to let South Korea (and others) know that kind of information.

– DPRK openly said Kim Jong-un was healthy.  Normally, when DPRK officials or even rank and file are asked about the Supreme Leader’s health, they respond that asking after the Young Marshal’s health is an insult to the dignity of North Korea’s leadership.  DPRK is often accused of lying, but this is a case where they appear to have offered a straight forward answer.

– There do not seem to be any indications of troop movements or military alerts.  If there were internal dissension, we would likely see something ranging from KPA movement to mobilization and increased border security.  None of those seem to have happened.

Factors arguing that DPRK is firmly under control, just not under Kim Jong-un’s control:

– Kim Jong-il had almost 30 years to consolidate his rule over OGD [Note: that's the Organization and Guidance Department of the Korean Workers’ Party]. He endowed OGD with the ability to surveille members of the Workers Party of Korea.  Kim Jong-il likely did not finish transferring control of OGD to Kim Jong-un.  Kim Jong-un’s natural allies are Swiss classmates, not folks who have survived decades of trench warfare and internecine DPRK domestic conflict.

– Kim Jong-un has not been seen in over 30 days.  DPRK’s Supreme Leader has disappeared in past, but usually during times when U.S. was bombing places in Mid East or raising tensions in Asia.  DPRK often releases undated photos.  They could have released an undated photo or a waist up photo if the people really needed to be reassured that the Young Marshal was fine.

– Kim Jong-un missed a Parliamentary meeting.  Even though the meeting have a pro forma feeling it is important to show up in order to convey his personal imprimatur.  IF Kim misses the 10 October anniversary founding of the Party, the situations should be closely watched – it is a more serious indicator that something has changed in the top leadership.

– While in ROK, DPRK’s Vice chair of the National Defense Commission (North Korea’s Supreme Organ of National Power akin to China’s Politburo Standing Committee) only mentioned Kim Jong-un in passing.  If half-hearted clapping is a capital offense, slighting the Supreme Leader by failing to praise him in a foreign land is probably at least as serious.

– DPRK press is also not too bothered that Kim Jong-un has been missing.  DPRK press doesn’t make the decisions about what to show, but because of DPRK extensive surveillance network (1 informer per 20 households from MSS Ministry of State Security and 1 informer per 20 households from MPS Ministry of Public Security) they know when the people are getting antsy at not seeing Kim Jong-un and when the people are satisfied by not seeing Kim Jong-un.  There have been subtle signs of “adaptive discourse” or the press altering coverage in response to what the people perceive.  We’ve also seen increasing coverage of his sister, Kim Yeo-jong.  DPRK press only professes loyalty to the Baekdu bloodline – to which she belongs.

– DPRK has NEVER sent such a high-level delegation to South Korea.  Arguably when Jang Song-taek went in 2002, he was # 2 in actual power.  Although Jang Song-taek’s official position at that time ranked in the double digits, so it is an imperfect comparison.

– DPRK went from denigrating ROK President Park on a personal basis, saying South Korea can’t be dialogued with, to talking with her staff.  Granted some of change is due to statecraft, swallowing hard and then shaking hands, but still it indicates Kim’s word is not final.

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No boots on the ground, but plenty of contractors

The US just launched a new air war against ISIS. This week, Bill O’Reilly proposed that Blackwater send its private sector mercenaries to fight. I don’t know why; mercs are already there in force. My latest, from Salon:

A massive, $7.2 billion Army intelligence contract signed just 10 days ago underscores the central role to be played by the National Security Agency and its army of private contractors in the unfolding air war being carried out by the United States and its Gulf States allies against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

That war was greatly expanded Monday night when U.S. forces launched a “mix of fighter, bomber, remotely-piloted aircraft and Tomahawk” cruise missiles against ISIS targets in Syria. The Central Command said the strikes were led by the United States with support from Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. (UPDATE: “NSA intercepts key to locating, bombing new al Qaeda group in Syria.”)

INSCOM’s “global intelligence support” contract will place the contractors at the center of this fight. It was unveiled on Sept. 12 by the U.S. Army’s Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM), one of the largest military units that collects signals intelligence for the NSA.

Under its terms, 21 companies, led by Booz Allen Hamilton, BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, will compete over the next five years to provide “fully integrated intelligence, security and information operations” in Afghanistan and “future contingency operations” around the world.

The NSA is best-known to Americans for its awesome power to spy on the electronic communications of governments and populations around the world. But it is also a critical part of the Pentagon chain of command, particularly during wartime, and collects most of its intercepted communications from a global web of listening posts and military intelligence units operated by INSCOM and the other armed services.

INSCOM, which was created in 1978, has been at the cusp of U.S. policy in the wars on terror from the initial campaign against the Taliban in the fall of 2001 to the latest war against ISIS. Much of the top-secret work under the new INSCOM contract will take place at NSA’s networks of listening posts, and will “support complex, classified, compartmented, and/or unique ground-based and airborne reconnaissance and electronic intelligence collection and production systems,” the Pentagon said.

To read on, click here.

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Stunning report from South Korea: “A worker’s body is stolen.”

Read how Samsung treats its workers, even dead ones, and you might reconsider the giant company for your next phone. From Hankyoreh, one of South Korea’s only independent newspapers.

Members of the Samsung service workers chapter of the Korean Metal Workers’ Union and other labor activists sleep outside Samsung Electronics headquarters in Seoul’s Seocho district as part of an outdoor struggle, May 22. The general strike started on May 19, two days after one member committed suicide on May 17. The suicide was in protest of suppression of the labor union by Samsung, calling for workers to be paid a living wage. (by Lee Jeong-yong, staff photographer)

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Leaked document reveals extent of contracting in Afghanistan

So you think this is what only the government and the military can do? Think again – my latest, in Salon:

And here’s the contractors leading the way on this $400 million contract:

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Just as I thought: U.S. prevented ROK retaliation in 2010

Robert Gates’ new book on his time as Secretary of Defense makes an amazing claim that shows how close we were to war in Korea in 2010. It also describes how the United States stopped the South from launching an air strike at the time.

Well, I’m not surprised. And I will humbly take credit for being the only reporter to pick up on the U.S. actions, as it happened. My reporting was initially posted on Twitter during the 2010 confrontation between North and South Korea over a disputed maritime border, and later recounted in Salon. The Gates story shows I was right on the money – and, if I can say so myself, quite prescient.

Here’s the story, as reported today by AFP:

South Korea declined to comment Wednesday on revelations that the United States talked it down from launching a retaliatory air strike on North Korea in 2010. The claims were made in the newly published memoir of former US defense secretary Robert Gates.

The 2010 incident followed the North’s surprise shelling of a South Korean border island in November of that year. The attack triggered what Gates labelled a “very dangerous crisis”, with the South Korean government of then-president Lee Myung-Bak initially insisting on a robust military response.

Here’s the interesting part, with key points in bold:

South Korea’s original plans for retaliation were, we thought, disproportionately aggressive, involving both aircraft and artillery,” Gates wrote in his memoir.

“We were worried the exchanges could escalate dangerously,” he added. Over the next few days, Gates said he, US President Barack Obama and then secretary of state Hillary Clinton had numerous telephone calls with their South Korean counterparts in an effort to calm things down. “Ultimately, South Korea simply returned artillery fire on the location of the North Koreans’ batteries that had started the whole affair,” he said.

Now I didn’t report these exact facts, obviously. But I reported at the time it happened that the Pentagon had basically ordered the South Korean military to stand down. I gleaned this by carefully reading through the lines of an important DoD press conference on the day of the incident. Here’s how I recounted the story last year in Salon in an article about the most recent crisis with the DPRK:

At the height of the crisis, on Dec. 16, 2010, Gen. James Cartwright, the outspoken vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that he was deeply concerned about the situation escalating out of control. In words designed to be heard in Seoul, he made it clear that the Pentagon wanted to ratchet down the situation. If North Korea “misunderstood” or reacted “in a negative way” by firing back, he said, “that would start potentially a chain reaction of firing and counter-firing.  What you don’t want to have happen out of that is for the escalation to be — for us to lose control of the escalation.” Cartwright, and the Pentagon, had no desire to be drawn into a war that was not of their own making.

Few noticed the significance of these words – but I did. Four days later, I tweeted: “When Gen. Cartwright warned of a ‘chain reaction’ that would cause the United States to ‘lose control of the escalation,’ he was talking to SK -not NK.” The morning the military drills were scheduled to restart, many reporters and Korea-watchers on Twitter were predicting that a second Korean War was about to begin. Then, as the time came close for the first live-firing to commence, the South Korean military put out the word that the exercises would be “delayed” because of weather. They were – and then were scrapped altogether. Cartwright’s warning apparently worked. The crisis ended.

Every once in a while it’s nice to know you were were right as a reporter and outdid the rest of the pack. Readers of my blog and Twitter feed know that I’m a big critic of the standard U.S. reporting on North Korea, and I believe my stories from 2010 underscore the validity of that critique. In recent days I had a conversation with a prominent national security reporter who says he was stung by my comments a few years ago on his snarky and totally unprofessional stories on North Korea. Hopefully this post will convince him that I was serious. Snark is not journalism. Ever.

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