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Kim’s death shows N Korea’s tight grip on news

(AFP) / 20 December 2011

Seoul — The world was in the dark about the death of Kim Jong-Il until North Korea’s shock announcement two days later, illustrating Pyongyang’s tight grip on news in a global age of lightning-fast social media.

The bombshell news from arguably the world’s most secretive state was announced by a tearful presenter on North Korean state television Monday, without even a whisper of rumour beforehand.

South Korean officials who came under fire for their perceived intelligence failure pointed out that other countries who keep close watch on the enigmatic North were also taken by surprise.

National Intelligence Service (NIS) head Won Sei-Hoon admitted Tuesday that he learned about Kim’s death only after the North’s announcement, according to lawmakers at a closed parliamentary session.

‘China, the United States and Japan seemed to have been unaware of it, too,’ he was quoted by a ruling party legislator as saying.

The North said Monday that Kim had died aboard a train on the morning of Saturday, December 17 from a heart attack brought on by pressure of work.

Even parts of the North’s military appeared to have had no advance information on Kim’s death, Won said, citing two short-range missile launches off the east coast on Monday.

North Korean troops fired missiles before noon but cancelled their plan to launch more missiles in the afternoon and returned to their camps after Kim’s death was announced, he said.

‘I believe only a few close confidants of (Kim Jong-Il) might have learned of (his death),’ Won said.

North Korea is one of the world’s most closed nations. Most of its citizens are banned from travelling abroad and visitors to the country are typically closely monitored and not permitted to stray from the capital.

Pyongyang tightly controls access to the Internet and attempts to block other sources of information. The regime also fixes the tuning dials of radio and TV sets so that households can only receive official channels.

Phone calls from South Korea are blocked and until a few years ago North Koreans faced prison camp if they were caught with a mobile phone.

That rule was jettisoned and the North had more than 800,000 registered mobile phone subscribers as of the end of September as citizens snapped them up despite grinding poverty levels.

However, Seoul-based activists say it is still difficult for cellphone-owners to make or receive overseas calls because of limited service and tight oversight.

Observers of the hermit state say the North’s control of information about Kim’s movements was so effective that the outside world could resort only to satellites.

‘The North’s tight grip on information about Kim was very effective and perfect, with his aides and bodyguards forced to live in thorough secrecy,’ Baek Seung-Joo of the Korea Institute for Defence Analyses told AFP.

In May the South’s intelligence services came under fire for failing to obtain accurate information about the leader’s trip to China. Officials said Kim’s son was making the trip while in fact it was his father.

‘South Korea and its allies are using satellites to secure information about Kim’s daily activities. Nobody knows what’s going on, especially when he was travelling aboard a train,’ Baek said.

South Korean Defence Minister Kim Kwan-Jin told a separate meeting with legislators that he learned of Kim’s death along with everyone else — through watching the news.

‘Figuring out Kim Jong-Il’s death under the current defence intelligence system is somewhat difficult, and I desperately feel the need to beef up our intelligence capacity,’ he said.

The minister was briefing legislators in parliament on a defence reform bill when Pyongyang dropped its bombshell.

Park Sun-Yong, a conservative opposition lawmaker, urged the nation’s spy chief to resign over the intelligence failure.

‘This is intolerable... as intelligence organisations have spent an enormous amount of state money on collecting information on North Korea,’ he told a Seoul radio programme.

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