North Korea Goes Incommunicado, Upping The Ante In North-South Standoff

A Chinese analysis of why Kim Jong II has provoked a new impasse with his southern neighbor. The North Korean leader has a special knack for provoking crises as a means to obtain concessions.

A fence along the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) separating North and South Korea (Ben Kucinski)
A fence along the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) separating North and South Korea (Ben Kucinski)
Wang Wenqi


The icy standoff on the Korean peninsula took a turn for the worse on May 30, when North Korea threatened to cut off a military hotline with South Korea and stop talking with its southern rival. At first glance, this decision might appear to be a sudden move, but in fact relations on the peninsula have been deteriorating since 2010.

In March 2010, South Korea accused North Korea of torpedoing its naval vessel, the Cheonan, and causing the death of 46 sailors – which North Korea denies. Two months later there was the shelling of Yin Ping Island, an incident the two sides blamed on each other. In a Defense White Paper dating back to December 2010, South Korea described its northern neighbor as an "enemy" rather than a "direct threat," North Korea's previous official designation. Tension between the two rivals is now palpable.

Compared to the aggressiveness showed by the South, North Korea had seemed surprisingly calm. When asked why North Korea's stance was less tough than before, the regime said it didn't want to respond to South's every provocation. But North Korea is now giving signs that it might become restless again. According to a Northern official spokesman, South Korea's continuous criticism of Kim Jong II and his regime, as well as the endless military exercises organized by the government of Lee Myung-bak, have become unbearable.

North Korea's extreme reaction probably has less to do with anything specific its Southern neighbor said or did than with the diplomatic strategy the regime has honed over the years. The question to be asked is: Why has it decided to cut off communications, and why now?

The timing of the announcement seems very interesting, as it came immediately after Kim Jong II's return from a trip to China. One can't help wonder whether his visit to the great regional power had something to do with the regime's hard line attitude towards the South.

In the meantime, South Korea is predicting there might be some major changes occurring in the North. Based on past experiences, this kind of assessment seems justified. Time and time again, North Korea has used military and verbal hawkishness to divert attention from problems at home. After stirring the waters in Northeast Asia, it usually waits to see what the reaction from the rest of the world will be. And while countries such as China, Japan, Russia or the United States are busy dealing with the situation on the Korean Peninsula, the North can quietly take care of its domestic problems.

Much depends on relations between the two countries, and the ongoing crisis on the Korean Peninsula has long monopolized the attention of the big powers. South Korea has America as its big brother, while North Korea feels it is relatively small and weak. So since the 1990s, it has often resorted to drastic actions, making the great powers nervous and thus more willing to compromise. Neither China, Japan, Russia nor America wants to see the crisis deepen. Should the tension ever become a full-fledged war, all sides will lose. So North Korea is keen on pushing every crisis to the brink without really provoking a war, which has proven to be a successful tactic time and again.

Apart from these domestic considerations, North Korea is probably also taking into account the changes taking place south of its border. Since Lee Myung-bak became President in 2008, the South has adopted a much tougher attitude towards the North, particularly since the last half of 2010. It is also worth bearing in mind that the government of Lee Myung-bak has domestic issues of its own, as South Korea is preparing for a presidential election in 2012.

North Korea knows that the Cheonan incident and the way in which South Korea handled it – President Lee was quick to say that he would counterattack, but never did – resulted in a crushing defeat in local elections (June 2010) for the South's ruling Grand National Party. This prompted the South Korean government to take tougher measures and reorganize the defense forces.

Although the South Korean public is not satisfied with the strength of the country's defensive forces, it clearly does not want to totally fall out with North Korea either. After all, the two countries share the same people and same roots. For this reason, the Lee government must make sure its diplomatic strategy does not result in cutting off relations completely with North Korea. It is very likely that North Korea's recent announcement is based on this very conviction.

North Korea is probably playing a multi-level game, with its decision to break relations based on a combination of all the factors mentioned above.

Read the original article in Chinese.

Photo - Ben Kucinski

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!