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Friday, February 18, 2011     GET REAL

Balloons send leaflets to starving North Koreans explaining why their leaders are so fat

By Donald Kirk

SEOUL — Revolution and upheaval in Arab capitals offers hope for more democratic outcomes and fears that Islamic extremists will come to dominate governments and societies once on good terms with Washington.


Kim Jong-Nam, left, and Kim Jong-Un     AFP/Saul Loeb
The ultimate threat is the spread of weapons of mass destruction among extremists who might be tempted to use them in the same spirit in which they set roadside mines and stage suicide bombings.

The relationship between North Korea and much of the Arab world and non-Arab Iran offers dramatic evidence. North Korea for years has been exporting missiles, and missile technology, to Arab nations from Libya and Egypt to Syria and Yemen and has exchanged nuclear components and technology with Iran. Now North Korea would like nothing better than to expand its exports to radical Islamists.

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That worry has risen with new evidence that North Korea has constructed a second missile launch site in the northwestern region from which it’s likely to be testing missiles in the coming months. The U.S. military refuses to comment, but satellite imagery revealed on the website shows the needed ingredients — “a rocket engine test stand, missile assembly and test buildings, a launch bunker and an observation tower.”

All that, according to, makes the facility “more advanced” than the one at Musudan-ri near the eastern coast from which North Korean technicians launched a long-range Taepodong-2 missile nearly two years ago. North Korea at the time said the missile had put a satellite into orbit, but the missile landed harmlessly in the western Pacific with no sign of a satellite going anywhere.

The new facility, while it’s not likely to launch a satellite, suggests North Korean engineers are upgrading short and medium-range missiles for export while also improving the Taepodong, theoretically powerful enough to carry a warhead as far as Alaska, Hawaii or even the western United States. It’s only a matter of time, perhaps five or 10 years say some experts, before North Korea will acquire the know-how to fix a weapon of mass destruction, nuclear, biological or chemical, to a missile and fire it toward targets near or far.

For North Korea, the specter of radical Islam plays into the reluctance of China to do much if anything to persuade the North Koreans to talk seriously about halting their nuclear program. China’s Public Security Minister Meng Kianzhu, visiting Pyongyang this week, did not hesitate to congratulate Kim Jong-Il’s third son and heir apparent, Kim Jong-Un, on his election as vice chairman of the military commission of the Workers’ Party, said Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency, as “the successful solution of the issue of succession to the Korean revolution.”

Kim Jong-Il, celebrating either his 69th or 70th birthday on Wednesday, Feb, 16, could not have asked for a better present. The Chinese may not approve of all that North Korea is doing, but Beijing is loathe to do much to curb North Korea’s missile or nuclear programs while ensuring the continuity of a system for which it provides 80 percent of survival needs, notably food and fuel.

By way of reaffirming Kim Jong-Un’s ascendancy, he appeared to have much to do with arranging a party formally hosted by the National Defense Commission, not to be confused with the Workers’ Party military commission. The National Defense Commission, on which his father serves as chairman, is the center of power in North Korea. Kim Jong-Un’s appearance as the first name listed among those in attendance reaffirmed the plan of his ailing father, suffering from diabetes and high blood pressure, his left arm clearly immobilized by a stroke, to have him succeed him as defense commission chairman.

Neither Kim Jong-Il nor his son appeared in public, but that omission did not stop the North Korean propaganda machine from engaging in the usual myth-making. Early on the morning of the birthday, said KCNA, “A gust as strong as 25 meters per second suddenly blew all around while ice cracked openly, rattling the earth, sky and the lake of Mount Baekdu,” the peak on the Chinese border that North Korea claims as his birthplace.

Kim Jong-Il’s actual birth took place near Khabarovsk in eastern Siberia while his father, Kim Il-Sung, the future Great Leader, was serving in a non-combatant role as a captain in the Soviet army, an historical reality that hardly interferes with the mythology. Similarly, North Korean authorities have long since lopped a year off his age so that he would be 30 years younger than his father, who died in 1994. It won’t be until next Feb. 16 that North Koreans celebrate Kim Jong-Il’s 70th, two months before observing the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-Sung on April 15.

On this year’s birthday, second son, Kim Jong-Chol, may have been having the best time of all — not in Pyongyang but in Singapore, where South Korea’s KBS TV network reported having spotted him two days beforehand at an Eric Clapton concert. Jong-Chol, passed up to succeed his father, became a Clapton fan while studying in Germany. Eldest brother Kim Jong-Nam remained in Macau, where he recently gave an interview to a Japanese newspaper saying he did not believe in dynastic succession but supported his youngest brother.

For North Koreans, though, the harshest reality is that the country is suffering through its coldest winter in years. No one believes North Koreans are in any position to protest openly despite the example of protest against established rule in Egypt and Tunisia and protests elsewhere in the Middle East. For one thing, the North Korean media carry not a word about all that, and all anyone is likely to know has to be via surreptitious, risky cell phones on Chinese mobile networks near the Chinese border.

Fearfully, North Koreans are enduring a winter of discontent exacerbated by a total lack of electricity for home heating or lighting. In Pyongyang, electrical power is a luxury that few are qualified to receive. Residents have battled the sub-zero cold by draping vinyl over windows and doors. The government also was unable to distribute extra rice and small gifts normally handed out on Kim Jong-Il’s birthday, though there was still enough power somehow to turn on festive lanterns.

South Korean activists sought to exploit the suffering, firing balloons carrying thousands of leaflets on waterproof pieces of plastic bearing insulting messages about Kim Jong-Il and his three sons. Beneath the headline, “Republic of Fat,” were photos of Kim Jong-Il quaffing a glass of wine and of the puffed-up faces of Kim Jong-Nam and Kim Jong-Un.

“They’re sick because they ate too much,” said the caption. Opposite those were pictures of emaciated children and a young woman whose body was discovered in a field after she starved to death. “This woman is picking clover not for a rabbit but for herself,” the caption says.

Another leaflet was pasted to a DVD with images of revolutionary protest in the Middle East. Although few North Koreans are likely to be able to play the DVDs, activists believed some would pick them up despite draconian penalties inflicted on those caught with such material.

“The people we contact say protest and the fall of the regime is impossible in North Korea,” said Ha Tae-Keung, whose Open Radio for North Korea gleans news from informants by cell phone and broadcasts by short wave into the North. “They don’t see any chances of success in protesting.”

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