Kept in the Dark

North Korea, unusually, isn't telling its people about escalating tensions with the South.

Cheonan-305.jpg A floating crane lifts the stern of the South Korean warship Cheonan out of the ocean, April 15, 2010.

SEOUL—The North Korean public appears unaware of escalating international tensions surrounding a new report that blames Pyongyang for the sinking of a South Korean warship, according to residents of North Korea interviewed by telephone.

Ordinary North Koreans are oblivious to the threats of “extreme measures, including all-out war” made by North Korean authorities, including the National Defense Commission (NDC), in response to the May 20 report issued by the South Korean government.

The United Nations announced Friday it will convene a special committee to review the investigation accusing North Korea of attacking the South Korean patrol ship Cheonan.

According to a North Korean resident of Northern Hamgyong province, contacted by telephone, “even border guards are leisurely walking around villages,” apparently ignorant of the heightened inter-Korean tension.

“When was such a statement released? I haven’t heard about it yet,” said the North Korean, who asked not to be named, when asked his opinion about the remarks made by the NDC spokesman.

“Here [in North Korea], TV broadcasting begins at 5 p.m., so probably we’ll hear something around that time, but the power may just go out, and in that case, we won’t be able to watch TV or hear anything about it,” he said.

Unusual strategy

North Korean authorities declare a state of emergency each year when the U.S. and South Korea conduct joint military exercises.

The apparent lack of public awareness in North Korea following the Cheonan incident is strangely irregular, residents said, and may indicate that Pyongyang is trying to downplay the severity of the situation inside the country.

According to a resident of Hyesan city in North Korea’s Yangang province, in similar situations in the past authorities have prepared the public for a nationwide broadcast.

The Hyesan city resident said he “had not heard about the statement by the NDC” and added that in critical situations, “managers or lower-ranking Workers’ Party officials would have informed people during the regular morning meeting—but such action was not taken.”

When asked if the announcement had been made on closed circuit broadcasting, via speakers installed in homes, the Hyesan resident said:

“Who listens to closed circuit broadcasting these days? Nowadays, closed circuit broadcasting hardly works anywhere in North Korea.”

He said that even if central authorities had attempted to convey the information to the public by telephone in a special broadcast, no one would know because “effective [May 20], people are being mobilized to work in agriculture and they are all busy preparing for their farming duties.”

“All over North Korea, everyone in middle school, third grade or older, has been ordered to perform ‘voluntary’ farm work, and all of them have no choice but to engage in that activity,” the resident said.

“Even if war broke out, the [North Korean] military wouldn’t be able to fight, because they have no rice … Wouldn’t one need food in order to fight a war?”

‘Evidence overwhelming’

The U.N. Command’s Military Armistice Commission, which has overseen a truce between the North and South since 1953, said it will launch an inquiry into the incident separate from the investigation that announced its results May 20, in the South Korean capital Seoul.

That South Korean-led team, which included members from the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Sweden, concluded that the Cheonan was sunk on March 26 by a North Korean torpedo, killing 46 of 104 South Korean sailors aboard.

Arriving in Tokyo ahead of a visit to Beijing and Seoul, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called evidence that North Korea was responsible for the incident “overwhelming and condemning,” adding that the U.S. “strongly condemns this act of aggression.”

While it is “premature” to announce a response without consulting regional governments most affected by Pyongyang’s actions, Clinton said an international response is needed to “send a clear message to North Korea that provocative actions have consequences.”

On Thursday, South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak said the sinking was a "military provocation" that violated the U.N. Charter as well as the truce that ended fighting between the two Koreas, but he called for a cautious response.

Seoul's 10 million residents are vulnerable to large batteries of North Korean artillery located just across the border.

A raised awareness

North Korean refugees living in the U.S. said they have long anticipated that North Korea was responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan.

Kim Kwang Jin, a North Korean defector and researcher with the Washington-based U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, said the incident has highlighted security concerns for the South after years of engagement with the North.

“The current situation constitutes a turning point in awakening our people in the Republic of Korea regarding the security situation on the Korean peninsula.”

According to Kim, once President Lee Myung-Bak revisited the decade-long reckless policy of unconditional giving to the North Koreans, Pyongyang restructured its Reconnaissance Bureau and spy agencies—a signal that such provocations might occur.

Kim said the South Korean government must now make clear to North Korea the advantages of democracy, and that the transparent multinational investigation and U.N. involvement will help to do so.

Jo Jin Hye, another North Korean refugee, said that she and other defectors had assumed that Pyongyang was responsible for the attack all along.

Jo said the incident was an attempt by North Korea to make its presence felt and to express dissatisfaction with the tougher stance recently adopted by South Korea and the U.S.

“North Korea’s intention was probably to say … ‘let’s make our presence felt,’ and, since South Korea is very keen on protecting human rights, North Korea sees that as a weakness … it knows that South Korea can’t go to war.”

“One can no longer adopt a conciliatory policy of appeasement towards the North Korean regime of Kim Jong Il. One must show North Koreans that democratic societies are stronger. If that is not done, North Korea will always have more demands.”

Original reporting by Sung Hwi Moon and Hee Jung Yang for RFA’s Korean service. Korean service director: Bong Park. Translated from the Korean by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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