Monthly Archives: October 2013

Case Closed (DPRK, n.d.)

The film opens with a story from the Korean War: the unsolved murder of a railway worker killed next to the railroad to Pyongyang. It then skips ahead to 1976 and the Panmunjom Incident, when DPRK troops murdered two American officers with an axe when they led a team that was trimming the branches of a large poplar tree within the Joint Security Area.

(If you visit the northern Joint Security Area you can usually find the ax on display in the DPRK Panmunjom museum. Following the murders, the United Nations command launched a massive operation to cut down the tree, an operation that involved huge numbers of mobilised regular troops, army engineers, special forces, helicopters, fighter jets, and strategic bombers. The operation was a success.)

The film posits that the Panmunjom incident was part of a larger scheme of confrontations coordinated by the United States, which also involved the activation of spies who had infiltrated a city near Pyongyang during Korean War and who were waiting for their moment to strike. And that’s where the film picks up the story: the DPRK counterintelligence agency finds evidence that two of these American-trained spies are trying to steal the prized “C-5 Servo Tool” from a DPRK factory. But they soon discover evidence that suggests much more nefarious business is afoot.

This film is reminiscent of the spy thrillers made after the Second World War as the Cold War took hold. The spies have old-school cover names like “Night Cat” and “White Rose”; they pass messages using carrier pigeons and dead letter drops. But the film also features some high tech spy gadgets. Back in the mid-1970s – when the film is set – remote controls bombs were arguably still something of a novelty (at least in the DPRK). And we see one of the enemy agents using a night vision lens, which was certainly a high tech in the mid-1970s.

The DPRK counterintelligence agents talk about one of the enemy agents as being the “Son of an eliminated landlord…” The DPRK government is very interested in the family background of its citizens. From around 1960 onwards the state developed the Songbun system, a political caste system that classifies all the country’s citizens according to their background. Citizens all fell under three broad Songbun categories: core, basic, or hostile. The core class included members of families whose members fought in the revolutionary movement. The hostile class included citizens whose family members were landlords, or collaborators with landlords or the Japanese occupying forces. The remainder were put under a ‘basic’ category. Citizens with a poor Songbun, and their family members, usually find themselves denied high level posts within the civil service or industry. Citizens with a poor Songbun can face stronger penalties if they are convicted of crimes. They are unable to live in Pyongyang and may be excluded from major cities entirely, forced to live in the countryside or in prison farms. So talk of someone being the “Son of an eliminated landlord…” has more complex social connotations in the context of the DPRK than it would in other socialist countries in the 1970s. (This report by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea provides a good description of the Songbun system and the role it plays in the lives of citizens of the DPRK.)

There are several scenes notable for the fact that they contain a caucasian actor playing the role of an American commander. I’m not sure who it is but at a guess I’d say it is either James Dresnok or Charles Jenkins, who gained fame in the DPRK playing the role of stereotype Bastard American Soldiers. They became permanent residents of the DPRK after defecting to the country in 1962 and 1965, respectively. (The documentary ‘Crossing the Line’ tells the story of Dresnok’s defection and subsequent life in the DPRK.)

This is an entertaining and engaging little film (the running time is only 70 minutes.) If you can get your hands on a copy of the DVD it is definitely worth a look. (You can also find a copy on YouTube with English subtitles.)

(Many thanks to Koryo Tours for loaning me a copy of this film. Each month, Koryo Tours holds a screening of a film from the DPRK (with English subtitles) at their office in Chaoyang, Beijing. And they sell DPRK beer and cider to enjoy during the film! For details of their upcoming film nights check out their blog and the Koryo Tours Twitter account.) 

“Sorry, this content violates relevant regulations”

In September 2013 Reuters published an article about the work of censors at Sina Weibo. The article talks about the work of a microblog censor, including the large number of posts that they are expected to review per hour, the low pay, and the poor ongoing career prospects. (The low pay and conditions might have something to do with the glut of competition: a Chinese government official has previously suggested that 1 in 10 Beijingers work in propaganda services.)

Reuters article puts something close to a human face on work that underwent intensive quantitative study by independent researcher Tao Zhu and his colleagues at Bowden College, Rice University, and the University of New Mexico. The team sought to understand the reactiveness of Weibo’s censorship regime. To do this they developed a protocol that allowed them to track the response of censors to posts by Sensitive Users.

Sensitive Users were those who had previously lodged posts containing key words that had previously been (temporarily) blocked. The researchers added to their initial list of 25 users by penciling in users who had been re-blogged five or more times by these users on the assumption that they are also likely to fall into the category of Sensitive Users; users who had more than five posts deleted within “a period of time” were included in the study.

The researchers final list contained 3,567 Sensitive Users whose accounts they would monitor. They opened 300 fake Weibo accounts and used Tor circuits to cycle through IP addresses so they could monitor the 50 most recent posts of their Sensitive Users at a rate of once per minute without their connections being blocked by Weibo’s servers. They then implemented a secondary protocol to test whether a post that disappeared from the timeline of a Sensitive User was deleted by the user or by Weibo. Posts deleted by users themselves returned a “post does not exist” error. Posts deleted by Weibo were tagged as “permission-denied deletions”: Weibo’s servers indicated that the post still existed but that it was not publicly accessible. This protocol allowed the researchers to detect instances of censorship within 1-2 minutes of a post being deleted.

The team found that 25% of censored posts were deleted within 5-30 minutes, and that 90% of deletions occurred within 24 hours. They estimated that Weibo would need 1,400 censors working simultaneously 24-hours a day in order to process the approximately 70,000 new posts lodged each minute. This led them to (not unreasonably) surmise that Weibo used a combination of automatic and manual review of posts to facilitate censorship.

Censorship techniques

The researchers identified nine techniques that Weibo appears to use for censoring posts:

1. Explicit filtering: posts containing banned phrases are instantly rejected, and the user is notified that the post violated “regulation rules”.

2. Implicit filtering: when a user lodges a post containing a potentially sensitive phrase they notified that there is a delay due to “server data synchronization”; the post is likely then checked manually.

3. Camouflaged posts: these are instances where a censored post appears for the user on their timeline as but (without their knowledge) cannot be viewed by other users.

4. Backwards reposts search: the researchers found instances where re-posts of a censored post were found and deleted en masse.

5. Backward keyword searches: censors appear to retrospectively search for posts containing phrases that have subsequently become sensitive; this lead to a noticeable spike in censor activity.

6. Monitoring specific users: it appears that the posts of specific users are monitored more closely for censorable content.

7. Account closures: Weibo sometimes closes the accounts of users who post sensitive content.

8. Search filtering: Weibo maintains a list of phrases that are excluded from its search function.

9. Public timeline filtering: posts on sensitive topics are filtered out of the public timeline.

Different problems, different solutions

The researchers say that the Weibo censorship system maintains multiple lists of sensitive phrases, which accounts for the different responses to the use of different sensitive phrases. For example, one reference list contains phrases that result in a post being automatically deleted; another list contains phrases that lead to a post being flagged a post as requiring manual review and either approval or deletion.

Combined with China’s new laws that provide for jail terms of up to three years for users that post socially-disruptive “rumours” online, and the censorship processes applied to long form blogs, the Party has in place a highly developed censorship system that helps to maintain the harmony of the Internet in China.

Say what you like, but say it quietly

In 2013 the Chinese government unveiled new laws regarding the Correct Use of the Internet. The laws provide for jail sentences of up to three years for people who post “rumours” or “slanderous comments” online if their post is viewed by at least 5,000 people or “retweeted” 500 or more times. (The use of the term “retweeted” by Xinhua is amusing given that the Great Firewall of China blocks access to Twitter. This hasn’t stopped Xinhua from opening it’s own Twitter account much to the annoyance of some Chinese netizens, see here and here.)

One of the reasons given by the Chinese government for the creation of the new laws is they are concerned that rumours spreading online has “done greater social harm than traditional offences, with some even disrupting social order and triggering unrest.”

The importance of social stability

One of the primary goals of the Chinese Communist Party (at least since the mid-1970s and the wrapping up of the Cultural Revolution) is to maintain social stability: Deng Xiaoping proclaimed “stability overrides everything else” (稳定压倒一切, wending yadao yiqie), Jiang Zemin said “without stability, nothing can be achieved” (没有稳定,什么事也干不成, meiyou wending, shenmeshi ye ganbucheng), and Hu Jintao is famous for his emphasis on creating a “harmonious society” (和谐社会, hexie shehui). Every day that there is social stability in China is one more day in which the Party will remain in control.

The Party’s social stability mechanism has two main leavers. The first is for social control; the second is for social management. In the authoritarian state of Oceania conjured up by George Orwell in the novel ‘1984’ the Ministry of Love represents social control through its detention of potential political activists. Social management is represented by the Ministry of Truth, which uses propaganda and censorship to manage political space.

In China the Party has been developing two leavers that help it to manage the online political space. The first represents censorship, which is a measure of social management. The second represents social control, which is where the new Internet rumours laws come in.

Stiffling the potential for collective action

In 2012 researchers from Harvard University published the results of their study on the censorship of 3,674,698 posts made over a six-month period in 2011 on 1,382 Chinese social media websites. They excluded Weibo (Twitter-like microblog) posts and focused instead on sites “in which it is at least possible for writers to express themselves fully, prior to possible censorship”. The researchers defined two theories as to the goals of censorship: state critique theory, and collective action potential theory. The former is based on the idea that the Party uses censorship to suppress dissent and limit criticism, while the goal of the latter is to prevent collective action (e.g. public protests).

Overall they found that 16% of posts on topics they assessed as having low-level political sensitivity (e.g. video games) were censored. This figure rose to 17% for topics with medium-level political sensitivity (e.g. the one-child policy), and 24% for posts with high-level political sensitivity (e.g. Al Weiwei).

They also found that rates of censorship of posts on a given topic rose substantially if the topic was one with a relatively high level of collective action potential. For example, if there is a burst of public interest in a sensitive topic, the proportion of posts on that topic that are censored increases sharply. Posts about a sensitive topic that might not ordinarily be censored are more likely to be blocked if they appear during one of these bursts of public interest. And censorship of these posts increased even when the theme of a post was pro-government. The researchers give the example of posts about Chen Fei, who is an environmental activist who works with the support of the Party. They founds that supportive posts were censored “apparently for their collective action potential.”

The researchers concluded that “the purpose of the censorship program is to reduce the probability of collective action by clipping social ties whenever any localised social movements are in evidence or expected.”

Using both levers to make the machine work

If a social media post draws sufficient interest that it has been “retweeted” 500 or more times, or has been seen by 5,000 or more people, one could expect that it would have come to the attention of the censors. If it is a rumour (or ‘unofficial news’) that could be politically sensitive one could also expect that the post (and subsequent re-posts) would be deleted; the social management lever would have been pulled. The new Internet laws provide a lever for social control: a measure that works to compliment social management. The detention of an online activist shows that the Party can be present in a very real way to take concrete steps should social management fail to have the desired effect.

There is also a secondary feedback mechanism resulting from measures of social control. The most effective way to censor is to train people to individuals to censor themselves. Hearing reports of bloggers who have been arrested acts as a warning to the more rebellious members of the Chinese online community that the most egregious examples of online revolt will be punished, which may make them think twice before they post. Meanwhile the average online citizen can continue to be managed primarily by the less visible system of social management.

Wish (DPRK, 2011)

This film is about a married couple striving to work hard so that the Respected General, Kim Jong Il, will visit their workplaces so that their work units can have a photo taken with him. Or, as the cover blurb puts it, the film depicts “the earnest desires of our people and servicepersons, who always dream of meeting and having the respected General Kim Jong Il with them”.

The husband works in an army engineering team that is building a new hydroelectric power station in Huichon. His wife is a member of an artistic troupe training to perform for the workers on the project. The couple have a son who is struggling to deal with the absence of his father, whose worksite is far from home. The film explores the impact of the division of the family on their lives.

One of the key messages is that of the importance of ordinary people working together to achieve great things for the DPRK, despite the pressures that their hard work (often far from home) can put on their personal lives.

Much of the political content of the film can be split into four main categories: the centrality of the Respected General, the role of speed campaigns, representations of affluence, and the depictions of gender relations.

The Respected General

The primary purpose of the film is to showcase the love that The People have for Kim Jong Il. The husband and wife work hard every day to show their love to him. The work teams strive to complete their projects early to please him, and they plant flowers at the dam construction site so that it looks beautiful when he visits. The role of Kim Jong Il as the ‘national parent’ is shown through the linking of the strong desire of the couple’s son for a family photo to be taken with his father present, and the equally strong desire of the workers to have their photo taken with the Respected General. (In real life, Kim Jong Il reportedly visited the Huichon construction site eight times. You can read about his visits 2010 and 2011 at the Korean Central News Agency website.)

The Huichon project is alleged to have played a part in Kim Jong Il’s death. The ROK news agency Chosun Ilbo reported that upon hearing of serious structural defects in the hastily completed dam, including reports of serious leaks, the Respected General flew into a fit of rage so great that it caused his fatal heart attack. (The usual caveats about the difficulty in confirming the accuracy of reports about the DPRK leadership are attached to this story.)

Spirit Campaigns

The work of the husband on the Huichon Hydroelectric Power Station is referred to during the film as being part of the “Huichon Spirit Campaign”. Spirit Campaigns (also known as Speed Campaigns) are a recurring theme in the economic history of the DPRK. They involve the mobilisation of large numbers of people (including the military) to work on a major development project, in this case the building of a new hydroelectric power station, with the goal of completing the project in a much smaller space of time than what would usually be required.

Due to the lack of energy (e.g. fuel oil) in the DPRK the availability of mechanised construction equipment is relatively limited. Spirit Campaigns replace mechanisation with the use of vast amounts of people power. This is demonstrated during a scene in which we see people throwing rocks into the back of trucks by hand, a task that in more energy rich countries would likely be achieved with bulldozers.

Spirit Campaigns are usually for projects with national prestige. In this case, the building of a new power plant that we are told will provide much needed energy for The People. (The importance of hydroelectric power in the DPRK can be seen by the presence of a hydropower dam in the national emblem.) And the achievement of the engineering team in blasting a waterway tunnel through bedrock is compared to the glory of killing American soldiers in war.

Reference in made in the film to another Spirit Campaign, the West Sea Barrage, which we are told was worked on by a colleague of the main characters in the film. More recent examples of Spirit Campaigns are the the 150-Day Battle in 2009 and the current Masikryong Ski Resort campaign.

Despite the efforts put into Spirit Campaigns, the results are not always helpful. A similar phenomenon to the Spirit Campaigns can be found in the history of China’s Great Leap Forward, such as in the failed attempt to massively increase domestic steel production by using backyard smelters.

Affluence

The film depicts the characters as living lives of relative affluence (for the DPRK). Their affluence is represented in several ways. We see the wife preparing a variety of foods, the in-laws visit with large baskets filled with rice cakes and fresh fruit, and we are shown supermarket shelves fully stocked with a multitude of products. The first view we have of the couple’s apartment shows us their television, which has traditionally been considered a sign of affluence. (The Kims have a history of giving televisions as gifts to the faithful, see here for one example.) The couple’s close friends have a large and very well furnished apartment. They also have a digital camera that they use to take a photo of their family, although we don’t see a computer in their home. The characters work at night using electric lights: a reliable supply of electricity (especially at night) is still seen as a propaganda prop in the DPRK because in reality it is a rarity.

These displays of affluence are counterbalanced by some interesting moments in the film that acknowledge the country’s economic hardship, with one character even going so far as to say “Though we don’t have enough food and electricity now, your house is filled with lots of love.”

We see the wife tending to ducks in the ‘sideline farm’ that the couple have on their balcony, and there are a couple of other mentions of ‘sideline farms’. Sideline food production became increasingly important in the 1990s as the famine known as the Arduous March took hold. Since the 1950s citizens of the DPRK, especially in the cities, relied on food rations provided through the state’s Public Distribution System. As the Arduous March progressed, the rations provided to most citizens started to shrink. By the mid-1990s the Public Distribution System had collapsed and widespread starvation commenced. Many citizens realised that their greatest chance of survival lay in growing food in small private plots of land. What the producers themselves didn’t consume was sold in the private market or traded for other household goods and services. That sideline farms were mentioned a couple of times during the film shows that the filmmakers (and therefore the state) acknowledge that sideline farms have become a part of life.

Gender relations

The film provides a view of traditional gender relations within the DPRK. It is made quite clear that it is the role of women to look after household tasks like preparing food and looking after children. The role of women in family life was made described explicitly in one scene in which the wife asks her friend “Do you have any desires?” and her friend replies “For us women it’s just to serve our husbands well and make good housework. That’s wives’ pleasure and happiness.”

In contrast to this traditional conception of the role of women, the film hints at the contemporary role of women in the DPRK economy. For example, the wife was shown as being responsible for looking after the sideline food production for their household. When the private market blossomed in the DPRK during the Arduous March it was women that were primarily responsible for producing and trading goods and services. As married women were expected to look after their household they were generally free of the obligation to go to work, which gave them the time and opportunity required to engage in private market activities. The men however still had to go to work, despite the fact that there was very little work to do.

Shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia decided that the novelty of providing heavily subsidised fuel oil to the DPRK – which had no intention of reforming its highly inefficient centralised economy – had finally worn off. The DPRK was unable to afford the energy it needed at market prices and industry ground to a halt. But workers still had to turn up to the factories at which production had ceased. As there was officially no private industry in the DPRK, workers were technically all state employees. And state employees had to show up and clock in order to get paid, and to avoid arrest and punishment for dereliction of their duty to the state. This obligation largely prevented men from engaging in private market activity, which became (and largely remains) the purview of women.

Not all films from the DPRK are so explicitly focused on talking about the Respected General or the Dear Leader, Kim Il Sung. For example, Centre Forward is a cracking film about soccer that successfully incorporates ideological themes in a way that is “at times unnoticeable.” It is the stark obviousness of this film’s political theme that at times makes it tiresome viewing. It is curious that the DPRK has gone to the effort to produce English subtitles for a film that caters almost entirely to the domestic audience (and the very small audience of foreign fans of DPRK films).

If you do decide to watch this film two things to look out for are an appearance by Ri Chun Hui, the country’s most famous newsreader, and a rather trippy scene involving a flying shot across the countryside at hyper-speed.

(Many thanks to Koryo Tours for loaning me a copy of this film. Each month, Koryo Tours holds a screening of a film from the DPRK (with English subtitles) at their office in Chaoyang, Beijing. And they sell DPRK beer and cider to enjoy during the film! For details of their upcoming film nights check out their blog and the Koryo Tours Twitter account.)