[NK News] Foreign fiction present in North Korea, though restricted

With some of the tightest restrictions on information on the planet, North Korea would never be called a book lover’s paradise. But aside from the domestic propaganda that spans media from comic books to newspapers, a North Korean bookworm can hope to access a limited, but increasing selection of foreign fiction, according to sources familiar with the country.

The choices available, however, could largely depend on where they live and if they can speak a foreign language.

“It’s getting easier to read books and sell books these days. It has been changing since (under) Kim Jong Il,” one recent defector surnamed Kim told NK News on condition of anonymity.

Kim, who left the northern city of Chongjin within the last two years, said officially sanctioned and translated foreign literature includes classics such as Gulliver’s TravelsTess of the d’UrbervillesRobinson CrusoeAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Gone with the Wind.

Gone with the Wind, in particular, has often been noted for its popularity in the country, even coming preloaded on a domestic version of the iPad.

While books with overtly political or religious themes are banned, classic Western, Chinese and Russian novels, as well as poetry, are sold at bookshops, albeit at prohibitively high prices, Kim said. He said a single book can cost $4-5. The average monthly wage for a worker in the country is around $40, according to an estimate by North Korea scholar Andrei Lankov.

Cho, a defector who said she worked as a librarian for five years, said books were available at libraries and chaekbang (book rooms), but were carefully selected by the authorities. She remembers reading two Chinese novels that were edited by the government: Dream of the Red Chamber and Light and Shadow.

“At those places, the government provides books to be lent and sold,” said Cho, who arrived in South Korea within the last five years but refused to name her hometown out of concern for her family still in North Korea. “But there, all the books are used for the government’s policies or propaganda.”

Novels are also sold on the black market and rented among the public, often for considerable sums, Kim said.

“There a lot of people selling books illegally in markets to make money,” said Kim, adding that he believes some government officials smuggle books into the country to make extra cash.

There a lot of people selling books illegally in markets to make money’

Cho painted a similar scene of the black market.

“There are many cases of individuals secretly selling on the black market after unsuccessfully trying to apply to sell at a government-approved business,” she said. “The age group varies, but there are many relatively poor people in their 20-30s.”

The experiences of another defector, surnamed Lee, also suggest that access to foreign fiction was previously more limited.

Lee said she had no experience of foreign novels before she left the country seven years ago. Even expressing curiosity about the outside world would have been dangerous, she said.

“Compared to before, it could be easier to find that sort of material. I think it could also depend on the region,” said Lee, who left the northern border area of Ryanggang Province while she was still in middle school.

At school, Lee’s exposure to literature was limited to stories extolling the ruling Kim family.

“There are books written by Kim Il Sung from my parents’ generation and I’ve seen people of that generation read those,” she said. “If you compare seven years ago to now, there is a greater variety of information.”

She also remembers being able to borrow books at train stations, but these were limited to stories about the Japanese occupation and other government- friendly narratives. Regardless, she said reading for leisure was not especially common.

“Everyone is so busy with work and life that they don’t have time to read books,” she said.

While access to foreign books may have become easier, the choice for readers of Korean appears to be still limited to the classics. Kim said he not seen or heard of any recent fiction translated in the country.

The situation is much different for North Koreans who can speak English in relatively wealthy and cosmopolitan Pyongyang, according to Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours and a frequent visitor to the country.

“I know quite a lot of people who’ve read Harry Potter. It’s quite popular among younger women, but these are English-speakers,” he said.

Cockerel said that such titles would probably come from a foreigner or friend who’d been abroad, as he’d never seen any in book shops in the capital.

“It wouldn’t amazingly shock me if someone told me they’d read a fairly recent work of foreign literature,” he said. “I wouldn’t consider that to be particularly remarkable in Pyongyang.”

The reading preferences of the capital’s middle class also throw up what might be considered an unlikely author.

Sidney Sheldon, an American writer of suspense novels who died in 2007, has a sizable following among those who can read English, Cockrell said.

“Honestly, you’ll find a lot North Koreans who’ve read of English novels might mention Gone with the Windand or books by Jack London, then Sidney Sheldon, as if Sidney Sheldon is part of the pantheon of great Western literature. Why that is, I honestly have no idea.”

Jeong Gwang-myeong and Lee Mi-sun contributed to this article. 

The names of some interviewees were changed to protect their identity. Some timelines were also slightly altered.


[UCA News] South Korean Catholics seek healing across border

The division of the Korean Peninsula has outlasted the Cold War, numerous political leaders and repeated attempts at rapprochement. But as the 70th anniversary of division approaches next year, a group of Catholic clergy in South Korea is seeking engagement with the controversial state-sanctioned Church in North Korea in the hope of overcoming decades of separation and confrontation between the countries.

The Committee for the Reconciliation of the Korean People is working to hold a conference with the Pyongyang-approved Joseon Catholic Association next year to mark the anniversary and pray for peace, in the latest effort by South Korean Catholics to bridge the sides.

“The intention of the God we trust in is telling us to overcome division and conflict, and achieve reconciliation and concord,” Fr Lee Eun-hyung, the secretary-general of the organization under the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea, told ucanews.com. “It is saying let’s meet and pray together to overcome the current danger and crisis. The goal of this event is to say let’s gather our minds in prayer for peace.”

Lee said representatives from both sides agreed in principle to a faith conference during a meeting in Beijing last month but said an exact date and venue has yet to be set.

The group would need the approval of the governments of both Koreas for any event to go ahead.

The Catholic Church has often been associated with liberal activism in South Korea, a key focus of which is engagement with North Korea. In May, Cardinal Yeom Soo-jung, the archbishop of Seoul, visited an industrial park in North Korea jointly run by both governments. The South Korean hierarchy also invited its neighbor to send worshippers to events related to Pope Francis’ visit in August, though Pyongyang declined the offer.

Cooperation with North Korea, however, remains especially politically sensitive in a country that remains technically at war with its neighbor. South Korea’s sweeping National Security Law makes praise of the Kim Jong-un regime a crime and prohibits contact between the sides without prior government permission.

“The biggest challenge is the political situation between South and North Korea. I hope political influence does not influence religious or private exchanges, but if you look at the process up until now, it doesn’t look like it will be easy,” said Lee.

Also fraught is the very nature of the so-called Church north of the border. North Korea is ranked the least free country for practicing Christianity by Open Doors, an American NGO that tracks religious persecution worldwide. Extensive defector testimony has documented the imprisonment and execution of Christians for practicing their faith.

The fate of the Church could hardly have diverged more widely on the other side of the border: The Church in South Korea managed to almost triple its congregation between 1985 and 2005, defying the decline seen in other developed countries.

“They [the Kim regime] see it as a major challenge, a challenge coming from a completely different philosophical viewpoint, on the one hand, but also pretending to be a universal explanation of everything, like juche,” said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University and longtime North Korea watcher, referring to the state ideology of self-reliance.

A state-approved Church has existed in the capital Pyongyang since 1988, but defectors and human rights groups consider it a sham set up to fool outside visitors.

Andrei said that while genuine believers may exist within it, the North Korean Catholic leadership is largely comprised of members of the State Security Department, the regime’s secret police.

But he added that it is possible they could be influenced to question the regime through meetings with outsiders.

“They are human beings, they have brains,” said Lankov. “If you look, say… at the disintegration of the Soviet Union, you will be surprised how many of the subversive ideas got to the Soviet Union through the KGB, the Foreign Ministry, through all these carefully selected people.”

Lee himself acknowledged that there are no legitimate priests in the country, but expressed hope of reaching North Koreans with a Catholic background.

“There are no priests but there are people who have been baptized. There are people who were baptized before the division, and there are also people involved in the religious exchange process who have been baptized,” he said.

Asked about the possible presence of government agents among purported Catholic representatives, Lee said it was hard to comment on an “internal problem”.

“There are many disappointing things to me about the religious conditions in North Korea, but I think it is fortunate that there is a representative group with whom to push for a meeting.”

Lee was adamant that their modest proposal could eventually grow into something much bigger for the benefit of all.

“Although it is now just a small and simple meeting, I believe these efforts for a meeting will bear large fruit one day through the Lord.”

[Christian Science Monitor] North Korea chooses optimum moment to release Americans Bae and Miller

The surprising weekend release of two Americans detained by North Korea has spurred the usual flurry of speculation over why the secretive regime in Pyongyang let them go.

North Korea watchers agree the freeing of Mr. Bae, an evangelical who had been in a labor camp for two years, and Matthew Miller, who was detained in April, certainly facilitates the strategic objectives of the Kim Jong-un dictatorship.

The releases appear to be Act Two of a process that began last month with the release of Jeffrey Fowle. The most likely scenarios are the North’s concern about being indicted for crimes against humanity at the United Nations, or that it is seeking talks or at least a diplomatic thaw with the US over its nuclear program, or both.

“N. Korea might… decide the timing now to prevent discussing North Korea human rights issues and North Korean denuclearization and additional actions on those two issues between the U.S. and China,” Mr. Song says.

In recent months North Korea has launched one of its rare diplomatic offenses overseas, designed to counter the possibility of a UN Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, based on years of abuses and killings in its labor camps.

But John Delury, professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, is skeptical that this issue, rather than outreach to the US, is driving Pyongyang’s policy. “They take their relationship with the United States very, very seriously, it’s one of their top strategic relationships, and it trumps [the issue of] human rights,” he says. The release of Bae and Miller removes an “irritant in their relationship with the Obama administration.”

North Korea has repeatedly called for the revival of six-nation talks over nuclear denuclearization, without preconditions. The US has insisted the regime demonstrate its sincerity through action. The talks involving the US, China, both Koreas, Russia and Japan have been dormant since 2008 when Pyongyang walked away from the negotiating table.

US officials insisted this weekend that no quid pro quo arrangement was made in the release of the two Americans. Obama said at the APEC summit on Monday that there had been no discussions on denuclearization.

But Mr. Delury says it is highly possible that Clapper did broach the nuclear issue, despite its denials.

“The Obama administration seems to put it as a point of pride, like we weren’t suckered into talking about this nuclear issue,” he says. “But that seems a little odd as a strategy. I mean, you send your intelligence director to Pyongyang, why would you not feel the North Koreans out?”

Bae was arrested two years ago while leading a tour group from China into the North and was sentenced to 15 years hard labor for spreading “Christian propaganda.” Miller arrived in Pyongyang as a tourist in April and tore up his visa, apparently so that he could be sent to a labor camp as a witness to alleged abuses. 

[Christian Science Monitor] North Korean leader misses key anniversary as rumors still swirl

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un remained out of sight Friday on one of his country’s most important political anniversaries, adding fuel to weeks of speculation about his absence.

His nonappearance on the 69th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party marked the young dictator’s 38th day missing from public view. Mr. Kim, who paid his respects to his late father and grandfather on previous anniversaries, has never gone more than three weeks without making an appearance in North Korean media, which usually follow his every move.

Observers contend that Kim’s prolonged absence is less remarkable than how it’s portrayed in foreign media. They dismiss many reports as breathless conjectures that illustrate the difficulty of obtaining accurate information about one of the world’s most secretive regimes.

Kim went missing for about 20 days in 2012 and again for two weeks this past April, says Michael Madden, who runs the blog North Korean Leadership Watch. Mr. Madden points out that Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, would also disappear for long periods of time during his 17-year reign.

“There is an absence of information, and people are going to fill it however they are going to fill it,” he says. “Some of this obviously comes from government officials who are under pressure to come up with an explanation for the boss. That’s not entirely unheard of.”

Amid rumors of a coup or even an assassination, the most credible explanation for Kim’s absence may be that he is suffering from health problems. An unnamed source with access to the North Korean leadership told Reuters that Kim was recovering from a leg injury, the news outlet reported Thursday.

Andrei Lankov, a longtime North Korea watcher at Kookmin University in Seoul, doubts anything serious has happened to Kim. If the leader had died or been overthrown, Dr. Lankov says, “you would expect serious changes in the composition of the government.”

“Nothing like that has happened,” he says. “We see the same faces, the normal bureaucratic work of government.”

Lankov adds that recent visitors to the capital, Pyongyang, have not reported any cancelations of scheduled events or restrictions on traffic. He takes their reports as signs that things are relatively normal in North Korea despite Kim’s absence.

News outlets around the world often produce unverified and outlandish reports about North Korea, which has no independent media and prevents most of its citizens from leaving the country. In May, a popular North Korean singer performed in Pyongyang eight months after international media reported that the regime had executed her.

Even the South Korean government struggles to gather reliable information on the inner workings of its rival neighbor. The Unification Ministry, which handles cross-border relations, told local media on Friday that while the North Korean regime appeared stable, it had no information on Kim’s health.

South Korea’s intelligence agencies have a lot of difficulties acquiring accurate information on North Korea,” says Song Dae-sung, the president of Sejong Institute, a national security-focused think tank in Seoul. “All information in North Korean society has been so strongly controlled, so it is very difficult for us to say a definitive duration for Kim’s absence.”

[Christian Science Monitor] As Asian Games kick off, will North Korea flip its way into S. Korean hearts?

There is little to distinguish the North Korean delegation’s living quarters from among the two-dozen apartment blocks that make up the athletes’ village of the Asian Games opening this week in South Korea.

Hanging from the balconies of one tower, nine national flags provide the only obvious sign of Pyongyang’s participation in Asia’s biggest sporting event.

For many South Koreans, the competition that kicks off Friday is more than a mere sporting event. It doubles as the latest in a long list of attempts at engagement with the North, and has been a flashpoint for tension over how to best interact with the South’s oft-unruly neighbor.

“I really do hope [the Games are reconciliatory], but there is still a long way to go” says Ahn Sehyun, a professor of international relations at the University of Seoul, who sees the competition as a “stepping stone” to reinitiating talks between both sides.

‘We are one nation’

The North Koreans share their building with the delegation from China, Pyongyang’s only major ally. The South Koreans, divided from their countrymen in the North for more than 60 years, are accommodated in a separate building a short walk away.

Security has been tight since the first batch of North Koreans arrived last week under police escort from Incheon International Airport, where they were reportedly greeted with cheers of “We are one nation!” by a small group of South Koreans. An armored personnel carrier, SWAT officers, and metal detectors guard the entrance to the compound, restricting access inside. A second segment of the North Korean delegation, dressed in blue and white with the national flag on their lapels, was photographed in the local media this week flanked by security after they arrived.

Who pays for North Korea?

Just getting the North Koreans to the Games was a controversial task. In July, negotiations on the size and cost of hosting the North’s delegation broke down, leaving its participation in doubt.

Seoul eventually agreed to pay a portion of the 273-member delegation’s stay, declining to reveal the amount until after the event. At the last Asian Games in the country, held in 2002 under a liberal administration, South Korea paid the majority of the costs of North Korea’s participation.

Seoul’s conservative Park Geun-hye government, whose “trustpolitik” policy calls for trust-building with North Korea through mutual cooperation, may have an additional motivation for being determined to see its neighbor at the games, says Victor Cha, the top North Korean advisor to former US President George W. Bush and author of Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia.

“The administration… wants to look like they are trying, at least, [and] doesn’t want to be blamed for excluding North Korea. There is always a good 25 percent of the South Korean electorate that views North Korea in sort of a more positive light,” he says.

Fundamental split

But North Korea’s participation has also generated controversy south of the border, highlighting the fundamental split in domestic politics between liberals who tend to be enthusiastic toward engagement and conservatives who remain guarded.

One controversy centered around North Korea’s cheerleaders – who won devoted fans in the South during the 2002 Games. Last month, Pyongyang reversed an earlier pledge to send cheerleaders, causing the Unification Ministry to send assurances that the cheerleaders were still welcome.

Even as the Unification Ministry insisted last month that North Korea’s cheerleaders would be received enthusiastically if they came, Seoul’s Defense Ministry described their appearance as a “shell” to conceal their true propaganda purpose.

Earlier this month, meanwhile, the national flags of the 45 participating countries were removed from the streets of Incheon following protests about the display of the North Korean flag.

“North Korea has an ulterior agenda for wanting to participate in the Asian Games,” says Song Dae-sung, the president of the Sejong Institute, a think tank in Seoul that specializes in security and regional affairs.

“The current image of Kim Jong-un has been the very negative one of being an authoritarian military dictatorship. North Korea is going to promote its fake, attractive image through its participation in the Games, hiding its original bad image.”

Aside from cynicism about North Korea’s true motives, some observers simply question the extent to which a sporting event can affect such an uneasy and complicated relationship between countries.

Effective sports diplomacy usually happens in the context of wider engagement, such as the “ping pong diplomacy” of the 1970s that marked a thaw in between the United States and China, says Mr. Cha.

“The problem, I think, in North-South [relations] right now is there isn’t a lot going on, and you just have this Asian Games thing there with the hope that it will somehow generate some sort of diplomat breakthrough. Unfortunately, the reality is the events don’t generate diplomatic breakthroughs if there is no prior undercurrent of policy sort of moving in that direction.”

“The problem, I think, in North-South [relations] right now is there isn’t a lot going on, and you just have this Asian Games thing there with the hope that it will somehow generate some sort of diplomat breakthrough. Unfortunately, the reality is the events don’t generate diplomatic breakthroughs if there is no prior undercurrent of policy sort of moving in that direction.”

The Relevance of the South Korea-US Alliance

The following article originally appeared in The Diplomat — John. 

More than 60 years old, the South Korea-U.S. military alliance has weathered monumental change on the divided Korean Peninsula. Since the signing of the Mutual Defense Treaty at the close of the Korean War in 1953, South Korea has transformed from a poor authoritarian state to a prosperous democracy. The once poorer sibling’s economy now dwarfs that of neighboring North Korea, its primary security concern. Further afar, the Cold War has been consigned to history. Meanwhile, China has entered the international consciousness as a burgeoning superpower.

Yet, fundamentally, the alliance remains little changed. South Korea’s defense continues to be the responsibility of the U.S., which retains wartime control over the local military and stations close to 30,000 troops on Korean soil. A plan to transfer wartime control to South Korea, first agreed upon in 2006, has been delayed repeatedly, most recently to 2015 – a date that itself looks in doubt due to trepidation from the conservative government in Seoul.

Despite the now vast development gap between the Koreas, both Washington and Seoul insist their partnership remains essential. Marking its 60th anniversary last May, a joint statement described the relationship as an “anchor for stability, security, and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula, in the Asia-Pacific region, and increasingly around the world.”

Kwon Kih-yeon, foreign communications officer at South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense, told The Diplomat of the continuing importance of the alliance. “Going beyond the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula, the two countries, through the alliance, are currently fostering the advance of a comprehensive 21st century strategy that is to the benefit of the Asia-Pacific region and international law.”

Bolstering the case for the status quo have been pessimistic assessments by defense officials and analysts of how the South would fare in a one-on-one conflict with the North. Speaking at a parliamentary audit last November, Cho Bo-geun, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, claimed that Seoul would likely lose such a war.

A study in 2011 by the Korea Economic Research Institute raised questions even about the security of South Korea with U.S. support, claiming that “it would not be entirely wrong to say North Korea’s military strength is stronger,” while adding that the U.S. and South would ultimately prevail.

Yang Uk, a research fellow at private think tank Korea Security and Defense Forum, said that while possessing a strong conventional military, South Korea continues to lack the kind of intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities provided by the U.S.

“If the Korean armed forces is a boxer, we have a strong punch but we don’t have any good eyes, or good movement, like the U.S. What we need is we have to train that much harder,” Yang, who describes the alliance as “crucial,” said.

“…The crucial problem of the Korean armed forces today is their intelligence, surveillance and targeting.”

But even with vastly improved intelligence and surveillance, Seoul would still lack the North’s ace in the hole: nuclear arms. Part of the U.S. nuclear umbrella and a signatory to several non-proliferation agreements, South Korea is prohibited from developing its own nuclear deterrent.

“Regarding the rationale for U.S. defense capabilities augmentation to South Korea, I would answer that North’s nuclear threat is the primary reason why both Washington and Seoul have no disagreement on maintaining the robust alliance,” said Nam Chang-hee, an expert in Northeast Asia relations at Inha University in Incheon, about 30 kilometers west of Seoul. “Should the U.S. leave Korea, Seoul has no other choice but going nuclear, which, however, harms its own long-term security interest by further unleashing proliferation in the region.”

For segments of Korea’s political left, however, the calculation isn’t how necessary the alliance is, but how harmful. Rather than a force for peace and stability, they see a source of tensions and, ultimately, an obstacle to the eventual reunification of the country.

“The current Korea and U.S. alliance only reinforces the partition and confrontation structure between the two Koreas, and hinders the establishment of a peace structure,” said Oh Mi-jung, secretary general for Solidarity for Peace and Reunification of Korea, a local civic group.

Oh considers the alliance itself to be a violation of the 1953 armistice agreement between the two Koreas, noting, for instance, that the U.S. disregarded a provision prohibiting the deployment of new weaponry on the peninsula, just a few years after its signing. The defense pact, agues Oh, is incompatible with a peace treaty.

“Solidarity for Peace and Reunification of Korea takes the view that the long-held hostile relationship between the U.S .and North Korea has to be eased for the establishment of permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula. Aiming for this, we insist on the official end of the Korean War and the signing of a peace treaty of mutual nonaggression.”

In the U.S., other analysts question the alliance, too, albeit from a very different perspective – that of the non-interventionist right. Their primary concerns are cost and whether the partnership actually serves U.S. interests.

Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Washington D.C.-based based Cato Institute, is one such observer who objects to the United States’ military subsidization of South Korea. He believes Seoul is capable of defending itself.

“I think it would have to make some adjustments in its current force structure and spending, but there’s no reason to believe that South Korea, with a much larger economy and population, is not capable of dealing with North Korea,” said Bandow. “The North is quite decrepit, in terms of its economy and infrastructure, as well as in terms of its reserve capacity.”

Bandow accepts that there was a legitimate argument for defending South Korea after the Korean War at a time of communist expansion, but sees no convincing rationale today. Instead, he sees the alliance as symptomatic of a world in which “everyone wants America to defend it.”

The perception that the U.S. is unfairly burdened with being the world’s watchman could have profound implications for the future of the alliance, especially if such weariness were to reach critical mass among the American public. U.S. government budget constraints, too, raise questions about the sustainability of the U.S. commitment to South Korea, despite a massive plan currently under way to modernize its installations in the country.

Bandow pointed to these two factors as spelling uncertainly for the future of U.S. involvement in the South’s national defense.

“To the extent that Americans realize that they have to make some choices — and those choices include, ‘How much do you spend on the military versus social security, Medicare, Medicaid?’ – my guess is that the American population is more likely to say ‘let our wealthy allies do more, we should do less.’ And that will certainly apply to South Korea.”

He added that, in the face of diminishing resources, the Obama administration’s much-vaunted “Asia pivot” may ultimately mean nothing more than the region being less affected by an inevitable reduction in military presence worldwide.

But neither South Korea nor the U.S. has given any indication of countenancing a future where Korea goes it alone. Just last October, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel insisted that looming defense cuts would not lead to a reduction in the U.S. troop presence here.

Asked if the government could envisage a time when South Korea would not lean on U.S. military support, the Defense Ministry’s Kwon said that the current alliance would not only be maintained in the future, but “elevated.”

“Even the U.S . – which possesses the world’s strongest military – cooperates with European countries, Britain, Japan , Australia, and us (South Korea) to receive protection from influences that threaten national security,” said Kwon. “In this sort of context, as an alliance, South Korea will continuously have mutual cooperation with the U.S. in the future, too.”

[The Diplomat] What does South Korea’s export of tear gas say about its role in global affairs?

Shipments of the agent to Bahrain reveal the country’s uncertainty in its role as a middle power.

By John Power and Philip Iglauer

South Korean consumer products aren’t hard to find in Bahrain, one of the fastest-growing markets in the Persian Gulf for conglomerate Samsung Electronics. But more than two years into anti-government protests in the Gulf state, it is South Korean tear gas – rather than smartphones or flat-screen TVs – that is attracting international scrutiny for its role in an unfinished chapter of the Arab Spring.

Since October, human rights activists have been urging Seoul to block a local firm’s planned shipment of tear gas to the country, which has been using the agent in huge quantities to quell Shia Muslim discontent with the minority Sunni royal family.

The order, revealed in a tender document released by U.K.-based advocacy group Bahrain Watch, calls for the shipment of 1.6 million canisters of tear gas to a country of just 1.3 million people. South Korea’s connection to the unrest goes back to 2011,when the Shia majority took to the streets in their thousands to demand a greater say in government. In that and the following year alone, two Korean firms, Daekwang Chemical and CNO Tech, exported more than 1.5 million canisters to the country, according to the advocacy group. The group believes Daekwang is the sole supplier of the latest order, an assertion the firm declined to confirm to The Diplomat.

Korea’s role is controversial because of what Bahrain Watch founding member Bill Marczak, calls the “unprecedented misuse” of the agent by the Bahraini authorities.

“The police don’t fire it at violent demonstrations; they mostly fire it in villages at night time. And the rationale behind this is to punish people who are in areas that support the protest,” Marczak said.

Physicians for Human Rights, a New York-based non-profit, has blamed such tactics for 39 deaths in the country. The Bahraini government has insisted its use of tear gas has been in accordance with international norms.

The use of South Korean tear gas on Bahraini streets is one of countless examples of the growing global presence of a country that in several decades transformed itself into a wealthy democracy out of the devastation of the Korean War.

(It also eerily parallels a period of Korea’s own recent history: PHR similarly condemned the Seoul government’s “unprecedented” use of tear gas against civilians in 1987.)

Long self-deprecatingly described as a “shrimp among whales” for its proximity to Japan, China and Russia, South Korea has been eager in recent years to exert a greater influence in international affairs.

Asia’s fourth-largest economy became the first non-G7 country to host the G20 summit in 2010, a milestone proclaimed by then President Lee Myung-bak as a sign the country had “moved to the center of the world.” Last year, Korea became the host of the Global Green Growth Institute, the fruit of efforts to position itself as a leader in renewable energy and the first international body to be headquartered in the country. Seoul hosted the Nuclear Security Summit the same March. Then, this year, the country took a seat as a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council for the second time. Upon South Korea’s selection months previously, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs hailed the opportunity to take a “leading part in the U.N.’s efforts for world peace and security.”

But activists like Marczak see a contradiction between Korea’s desire to be a respected and influential member of the international community and any potential contribution to oppression elsewhere.

“It is not just Bahrain, it is this pattern of being the world’s supplier of tear gas in some sense,” said Marczak, who noted that tear gas used in suppressing protests in Turkey earlier this year was also revealed to have come from Korea. “Whenever there is a protest, Korea is there – just buy tear gas. And I definitively think it is not a good image to have associated with (the country).”

At least some Korean officials appear concerned about the risk of negative perceptions abroad. An official from the Defense Acquisition Program Administration, the body that has to approve the shipment, told The Diplomat on Monday (Dec. 16th) that loss of life in Bahrain would have to be taken into consideration in its decision, as well as international arms protocol and South Korea’s relations with the country.

DAPA spokesman Baek Youn-hyeong said that there was a “low probability” that permission would be granted for the export but that no decision had been made.

“If more loss of life results after South Korea exports tear gas to Bahrain, even though tear gas is not a lethal weapons system, would that hurt South Korea’s image in the international community? That would certainly hurt. That is why there is a low probability. But we have not made that decision at this time,” he said.

He said there was no timeline for when a conclusion would be reached.

Image Credit: REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

Image Credit: REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

For now, the export remains in the balance, with the impact on Korea’s image as yet unclear. Generally, though, the art of managing its national image abroad remains underdeveloped in Korea, according to Byung Jong Lee, a professor at Sookmyung Women’s University and expert on nation branding.

“This realization, this need of Korea, is a relatively new concept. For a long (time), Korea didn’t care too much about its outside reputation. We were too busy building our economy and our own economic system,” said Lee. “But now, gradually, Korea is realizing the importance of this and learning from its experiences. In that regard, I don’t think that at the moment Korea is doing enough to achieve this, but in the near future (it will), Korea is a fast learner. In the near future, Korea will be able to meet international expectations.”

Korea’s role in global affairs should be considered in terms beyond just nation branding, according to Carl Joergen Saxer, a political science professor at Hanyang University in Seoul. He said Korea’s foreign policy itself is in its relative infancy.

“Korea is rather new to being a middle power and Korean foreign policy has never really had a moral or ethical kind of element to it. It is just in the last few years that the whole idea about potential blowback, for instance, has arisen in Korea,” said Saxer.

“And in particular in what regards to what Korean corporations either sell or do overseas, it is only in recent years again – and mostly driven by what Korean companies have been doing in low labor-cost countries like China, for instance, where there has been a lot of controversy with how they have acted there. So it is only in the last few years that the realization that how Korean acts overseas, be that in a private or in a government function, has consequences, potentially.”

Saxer added that Korea’s stance on the Bahrain issue should also be seen in the context of its business interests in the region.

“If it starts having consequences for the reputation of Korea, then the Korean government will also start noticing. But you’ve got to realize that Korea… has a strong interest in having good relations with the Middle East because a lot of Korean constructions companies have very big orders in the Middle East. But that good relationship has of course focused on state to state relations, meaning the South Korean government is mostly concerned about its relationship to the Bahrain government and of course it is the Bahrain government that buys the tear gas canisters in question.”

South Korea, of course, is far from the first democracy to be criticized for its conduct abroad.

Park Sang-seek, a former foreign affairs ministry official and previously the rector of the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies at Kyung Hee University, said sometimes questionable arms trading was a simple reality worldwide.

“As you know, all countries condemn the export of military weapons to ‘rogue states, failed states, or evil states,’ but they make money by selling any kind of weapons to such countries,” said Park, while stressing that he did not have adequate knowledge of the situation in Bahrain to comment specifically on Korea’s involvement there.

“Some of them say that they do not officially sell weapons and that it is impossible to prevent private groups to engage in illegal weapons sales. As you know, many developed countries make a lot of money out of this business. Even some developing countries engage in such a business. Tear gas may not be a military weapon, but is used by many states to suppress riots or anti-government demonstrations. Intellectuals of the world are condemning such acts, but of no avail. We live in a brutal world. If you find any solution to solve the inhumane behavior of nations, please tell me.”