North Korean defectors return rhetorical fire

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Story highlights

  • True war on Korean Peninsula being fought in whispers, secret phone lines and smuggled radios
  • S. Korean propagandist: Angry rhetoric product of Kim Jong Un's weak standing as a new leader
  • North Korean defectors work at Daily NK, a Seoul-based website monitoring North Korea
  • Many at the publication fear that poor decisions can be made in times of fear

The world knows North Korea for its loud and over-the-top warmongering rhetoric about the U.S. But the true war is being fought in whispers, across secret phone lines and smuggled radios. And it's those whispers that reveal how close the peninsula may be to an actual war.

"North Koreans want to go to war soon and unite the country. They want to get out of their difficult lives through war," said Kim Seong Min, with Free North Korea Radio. "North Koreans are not getting any information from the outside world. They think they will win if a war breaks out."

Kim is a foot soldier in the propaganda war. He hopes to turn North Korea's people against the regime, broadcasting a message of democracy over the radio. He records commentaries and news bulletins that are blasted over a shortwave radio frequency. In his job, he speaks to paid sources who slip him information via Chinese mobile phones at the border. He also has sources within the elite Pyongyang military ranks.

Kim says the angry war rhetoric is a product of Kim Jong Un's weak standing as a new leader.

"Kim Jong Un is not even 30 years old and everyone in North Korea knows this. He also doesn't have a solid position within the army. North Koreans are also not sure how to handle the fact that their leader is so young."

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That's similar to what defectors are telling the Daily NK, an online news site based in Seoul funded by a U.S. endowment. The Daily NK also has sources within the military elite and the general North Korean population.

"The sources we're hearing from are exhausted with the drills and the mobilization of the masses. Some feel nationalistic pride that comes with the rhetoric out of North Korea. At the same time, they're aware of the stagnant economy on the decline and the real need for change and opening," says Daily NK's Gregory Pence.

    Pence is a Chicago native who came to Seoul as a Fulbright scholar. He stayed to work on the mission of opening up North Korea's human rights abuses to the international community.

    Pence says opinions at the Daily NK, which is staffed with North Korean defectors, vary. But many at the publication fear that poor decisions can be made in times of fear. What will hold back war, Pence believes, is regime preservation.

    "North Korea risks outright annihilation. If a war broke out and escalated, it would cost the peninsula, the world," Pence adds. "In the end, North Korea would not exist. And the leadership is aware of that."