On Chongjin and a Note on Sources
A couple of stories out of Chongjin City in North Hamgyong Province caught my eye this week. Chongjin, North Korea’s third-largest city, is a fairly restive place by North Korean standards. It was allegedly the site of large-scale protests against economic hardships in July and August of 2008, as well as a failed coup attempt against Kim Jong-il in 1995. Readers may recall that the defectors interviewed in Barbara Demick’s award-winning book, Nothing to Envy, were originally from Chongjin. If a “North Korean Spring” were to come to pass, my money would be on Chongjin as the city of origin.
According to the first story, early on the morning of the 18th of January, defector groups smuggled several thousand anti-Kim Jong-un leaflets into Chongjin and managed to disperse them throughout downtown Chongjin. (See here, in Korean).
The second story comes via the DailyNK. According to their source, four cadres including a National Security Agency officer, a prosecutor, and two officers from the People’s Safety Agency, were murdered. Allegedly, near the NSA official’s body was a note which read, “Punished in the name of the people” (인민의 이름으로 처단한다).
Taken against the backdrop of an increasing amount of refugees streaming across the border to China since the end of the mourning period (in Korean), a complete ban on cell phone usage in the border region for the next 100 days (in Korean) and a recent Rodong Shinmun editorial calling for “unity”, it would seem, on the surface at least, that something might just be afoot.
Or is it? A safer conclusion, if one takes all of the above stories at face value, is that the succession process is hitting a few bumps in the road. This would not be surprising, given that Kim Jong-il faced a period of quiet resistance during his first few years in office. But in order to draw that conclusion, one would have to assume that the sources used for the articles above are all correct, and doing that is something of a leap of faith.
Media outlets such as the DailyNK, Radio Free Chosun, RFA, and mainstream news outlets that rely on unnamed “sources” (소식통) in North Korea and along the Sino-Korean border that publish stories on the internal doings of the North must always be taken with a large grain of salt. The reason is that their reports simply cannot be corroborated, and are impossible to verify after the fact. Of course this is only natural and unavoidable when working in an environment with an all-pervasive security apparatus, and one in which speaking to foreigners without permission is tantamount to treason. Relying on the testimony of individual defectors is also unwise. Defectors naturally have an overly-negative view of the country; after all they did leave behind their families, friends, coworkers, and country. Their lives were so bad that they willingly left behind the “known” for a potentially very dangerous “unknown.” (Note that this should not be taken in any way shape or form as “knock” against defectors or NK-related media outlets).
But this does not mean that all hope is lost. Individual data points are not to be trusted, but the sum-totality of data points can help point us in the right direction. This process is called “consilience.” In the words of English philosopher William Whewell, “The Consilience of Inductions takes place when an induction, obtained from one class of facts, coincides with an Induction obtained from another different class,” or in less esoteric language, consilience occurs when multiple, independent strands of evidence point to the same conclusion. The classic example here is the link between smoking and cancer. When studies began emerging that showed a link between smoking and lung cancer, the tobacco companies were correct to point out that correlation is not causation and that other factors may be to blame for the link. But independent evidence began to mount: smoking unfiltered instead of filtered cigarettes increased the risk of getting cancer, quitting smoking was shown to decrease the risk, long-term smokers were more likely to develop cancer than short-term smokers, and so on. Taken together, these strands of evidence proved beyond a reasonable doubt that smoking was not merely correlated with cancer, but was actually a major causative factor.
Returning to North Korea: individual defector testimony may not tell us much about North Korean society, but when multiple defectors from different regions, leaving at different times are painting the same broad picture, we can be pretty confident in the veracity of our understanding of domestic conditions. The same is true with undercover reporting. When multiple individuals working with different media sources start reporting on growing disgruntlement and unrest (or any other story), and this reporting is corroborated (directly or indirectly) by NGOs and Chinese businessmen who deal frequently with the North, we can be relatively certain in our conclusions.
All of this is not to say that the events in Chongjin are indicators of potential unrest or succession issues. They may not have even happened, for all we know. But they provide a few tentative data points from which we may start to build up a constellation of facts to draw conclusions. But it should be remembered that unrest and disgruntlement do not necessarily herald the end of North Korea. As Dr. Cho Myeong-chul, a former professor at Kim Il Sung University told the the US Embassy in Seoul:
Cho dismissed the idea that increased hardship alone could make the DPRK’s working class revolt against the regime. The public would continue to sympathize with the
plight of the government so long as it believed the state was making a bona fide effort to provide for the people. Cho recalled from his days living in North Korea that local officials would visibly scramble to procure emergency food supplies for their districts in times of shortage. No
average North Korean would think that the state intentionally deprived the population of food under such circumstances. Rather, most would have been touched that the government worked so hard to provide for the people. Reports by outside visitors — and even North Korean refugees in the ROK — failed to take this factor into account, Cho argued.