Korea: The Great Escape

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February7, 2007: There has been a major prison break in North Korea, and police are still looking for nearly a hundred of the escapees. Last December 20th, a state of emergency was declared in North Korea, and it was unclear why. The government frequently declares emergencies, and the real reason is rarely known. Eventually, the reason for this one got out. The prison break, which was apparently carefully planned, took place at Camp 16 in Kochang-li, which holds over 10,000 prisoners. At least 120 prisoners got out, and most of those appeared to have gotten into China. North Korea made a big fuss with China about that, so that the Chinese picked up and returned about a dozen of the escapees. North Korea has several dozen prison camps, holding up to 200,000 people, mostly for political prisoners (or those considered a threat to the rule of Kim Jong Il). However, it is believed that this escape was of "economic", not "political" prisoners. The escape involved some bribes, and quite a bit of equipment (fence cutters, night vision gear for the lookouts, getaway cars). There is a growing criminal class in North Korea, and this may have been some gangsters taking care of business. The political prisoners are more closely guarded than the "economic" ones.

A prison break like this is very unusual up north, and may be the first one of this magnitude. The corruption at the border, and in the food distribution system, indicate a society that is in big trouble. The senior party and military officials are increasingly unsure about just how reliable their subordinates are. The increasing availability of South Korean and Chinese media competes with the government propaganda. The government no longer has a monopoly on information, and that makes many North Korean officials uneasy.

February 5, 2007: North Korean police guarding the Chinese border have apparently become too obvious in taking bribes. As a result, at least twenty of these North Korean police have deserted and fled to China. The problem may have been that the border guards were not sharing enough of the money with their superiors. Another cause for the crack down was government anger at the December prison camp escape.

February 4, 2007: Noting the increasing availability of shortwave radios in North Korean (where their possession is still, technically, tightly restricted), the United States is increasing its Voice of America radio broadcasts in Korean. Getting news from outside the country has become a popular activity in North Korea.

February 3, 2007: The amount of counterfeit American currency detected in South Korea, most of it North Korean hundred dollar bills, tripled last year, but was still only $84,000. However, a lot of the North Korean "supernotes" are used as a form of currency, and exchanged at a 30-40 percent discount. You have to be very good a spotting fakes to identify a supernote.

February 2, 2007: The U.S. has hammered out a proposed deal with North Korea, in which the north would shut down its largest nuclear reactor, but keep its existing nuclear weapons. In return, the U.S. would lift international banking restrictions and release $24 million in frozen funds, while (along with South Korea and Japan) provide massive fuel (millions of barrels of oil) and food aid. The Japanese refuse, unless North Korea comes clean about its three decade old kidnapping (of Japanese civilians) program.

February 1, 2007: Two days of negotiations found the North Koreas obsessed with lifting U.S. financial system restrictions. These were imposed to counter North Korean drug smuggling and counterfeiting (of American currency) operations. In particular, the North Koreans want to be able to operate via banks in Macao again. This southern Chinese city is also the home of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Ils oldest son, Kim Jong Nam. This 35 year old, whose mother was a movie actress girlfriend of Kim Jong Il, has been in Macao for the past three years, living it up in luxury hotels, and often seen gambling in casinos. Once the heir apparent, the unkempt Kim Jong Nam appears to be living in comfortable exile because he's a playboy and uninterested in being a dictator. Kim Jong Il has three other children (one via his wife, and two more via a deceased girlfriend). The eldest is a daughter, whose mother is his wife. Both wife and daughter are rarely seen. The youngest son, who is 22, is now seen as the heir apparent, as he apparently takes after dad, and even looks a lot like him. .

January 28, 2007:North Korea is shutting down outlets for South Korean pop culture (books, videos, music, fashion), because these distractions are seen as corrupting the children of the senior party and military officials, as well as the kids of the small, but growing, entrepreneurial class. North Korean culture is politically safe, but very dull. South Korean pop culture, like American pop culture, aims to excite and entertain. While the secret police provide a sort of excitement up north, there's not much in the way of entertainment.

 

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