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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

STTB: Pick Your Way to Engage Edition

by | June 20th, 2014 | 07:40 am
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While discussion about resuming the Six Party Talks grinds on, we summarize a few stories on various forms of international engagement with North Korea – some more welcome by the regime than others.

First, there’s the kick-you-in-the-face form of engagement. Last year, we covered a story on North Korean refugee and outspoken activist Park Sang Hak, who won the 2013 Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent by launching leaflet-loaded balloons over the border. This month, Bloomberg ran a fascinating profile on Park, covering his life in North Korea, his escape to the South, and subsequent shift towards activism. Park’s method of engagement with the North Korean people is both brazen and controversial; he has faced an assassination attempt as well as a physical battle with progressive South Korean protesters intent on stopping the launches.

If the winds aren’t blowing to your favor, how about taking engagement to the radio waves? Last week, North Korea Tech ran an update on South Korea’s beefed-up propaganda radio broadcasts targeted at the North. There are a number of players in this arena– including Voice of Freedom, Radio Free Asia, and South Korea’s government– engaged in a whack-a-mole game with the DPRK as the latter attempts to jam the offending transmissions. The fact that North Korea is using increasingly powerful resources to keep foreign radio broadcasts out is a signal for some activists that the radio campaigns are working.

So far we’ve covered forms of engagement viewed with hostility by the regime, but there are also recent stories on commercial and cultural exchange more welcome by the North. Yet another profile from Bloomberg Businessweek reviewed Pyongyang’s Mansudae Art Studio and the relatively lucrative Forex-earning operation churning out art, statues, and monuments for other countries. Recently, North Korea bagged a cool five million on commission for two statues of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, to be erected to mark Mugabe’s 90th birthday. The last time Zimbabwe commissioned art from North Korea, however, things didn’t go too well for relations between the two countries: something about erecting statues in the same region where DPRK-trained troops massacred thousands of civilians in the 1980s rubbed people the wrong way.

Finally, this can’t be an engagement story without mention of sports diplomacy. Japan Upper House Diet member and ex- pro wrestler Antonio Inoki (aka Inoki Kanji, aka Muhammad Hussain) seems to have taken up the mantle of sports diplomat extraordinaire after Rodman bungled Kim Jong Un’s birthday party. Inoki has already been to North Korea dozens of times, even meeting Jang Song Thaek right before his fateful ouster (link in Japanese). Last month, he announced plans to host an international pro-wrestling competition in Pyongyang this August. Like Rodman, Inoki’s methods have drawn a good deal of negative opinion from his own country (link in Japanese). Also like Rodman, it’s a good bet that he will face pressure to intertwine this friendly initiative with deeper diplomatic schisms, particularly Japan’s reopening of the abduction issue with the DPRK.