Category All Things DC

Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power

[Book Review] The author, David Sanger, appears to have better access to classified information than most gov’t intel analysts; he certainly has better access to policy makers and strategists. The coverage of cyber operations, especially Stuxnet and Olympic Games, is the most powerful and revealing section of the book – given that Sanger was at the forefront of breaking these stories in the media, hardly a surprise.

The book, with its insider, high-level accounts of foreign policy strategy and operations covering much of Obama’s first term, practically puts you in the White House, but, perhaps inadvertently, it also serves as a reminder of the large gap between high level policymakers and low-level analysis/analysts. Specifically, as a former Asia analyst for the Joint Chiefs, it reminded me that academics and the media, even with only limited access to (formerly) classified information, are often better at predicting and spotting new, unexpected trends than those buried deep within government. So much intel analysis focuses on dealing with our software systems, building collections databases, and making link diagrams – all useful at a mechanical, tactical level – that the focus can narrow and turn reactive, missing broader, strategic level developments often apparent to those on the ground overseas … ala some members of the media, academia, and expat business folks.

While not an explicit message of Sanger’s book, which focuses much of its attention on how Obama’s team handled its foreign policy “inheritance” from the Bush era wars, the gap between inside intel and outside reporting becomes an easy takeaway.

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North-South tensions on the Korean peninsula – indicators for the future

UPDATE (3 April): The North closed entry to Kaesong today for South Koreans, but allowed those present in the complex to either remain in the North or head home to the South. Citing business and production concerns, only 33 of 446 South Korean workers in the complex actually came South, with the rest remaining behind to tend to their work or business interests. Posing the somewhat interesting question – given a choice, would you elect to stay in North Korea right now for your employer or business?

Previous closures have been short-lived, with few repercussions for those remaining behind, those who left, or the businesses located in the zone. Time will tell if this closure ends the same. Either way however, today’s closure signals a further heightening of tensions and worsening of inter-Korean relations.

UPDATE (1 April): The North actually threatened to close the Kaesong complex over the weekend, but most doubt they will follow through on the threat. If the North’s leadership is under the illusion that shutting the facility will hurt the South worse than the North they might be tempted, but short of that level of cluelessness, the North is unlikely to close such a prime hard currency source.

UPDATE (28 March): Reuters catching on to the idea of Kaesong as an indicator of the true level of tension on the Korean peninsula: Despite threats, North Korea keeps border factories open.

Every time tensions rise on the Korean peninsula, people start asking what’s going to happen next. Is there going to be a war? Will tensions cool? Will the North conduct an additional rocket or nuke test? Will there be another cyberattack or similar provocation? While no one outside of the North’s inner circle (now including Dennis Rodman?) can say for sure, there are a few indicators.

One I’ve discussed before is the status of the joint North-South economic development zone in Kaesong, just north of the DMZ. If the North suddenly closes the zone, or takes as hostages any South Koreans remaining in the zone, then that’s obviously not a good sign. Similarly, if the South orders its people out of Kaesong and forbids more to enter, that’s an indicator the South is expecting the situation to worsen, or is planning a response to a Northern provocation. South Korea’s president mentioned her concern about the North taking hostages at a meeting just this morning, indicating high-level concern over the issue in the South, but no plans to recall its citizens.

Other indicators, aside from updated imagery showing North Korean troop movements, include the North shutting down or greatly restricting access to its relatively new domestic cellphone service. I also detailed this indictor previously, calling any curtailment in service a sign the North was cracking down on or attempting to prevent internal dissent, or was suddenly concerned about a new threat.

More stories about South Korean military and defense officials spending their time playing golf instead of monitoring developments indicate the South’s level of concern over a possible provocation. While reports of more North Korean deserters, especially among frontline troops near the DMZ, show both military weariness and loss of capability for a conventional strike in the North.

Finally, the South raised its ‘cyber alert level’ on 12 February in response to North Korea’s most recent nuclear test. A further increase, or reduction, in this level is also a sign of where the South believes the situation is heading.

Hopefully, amid all of the fuss, bluff, and thunder on the peninsula, these indicators prove useful for predicting the course of future events in Korea, whether war, nothing more than talk, a conventional Northern provocation, or another Northern cyberattack on the South.

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North Korea conducts third nuclear test: two alternate response proposals

It appears the North is doing exactly what it said it was going to do – become a nuclear state, then, like every other nuclear state before it, develop a weapon small enough to fit atop a missile. This should be no surprise, the North’s takeaway from the war in Iraq was that it needed nukes to ensure its security; it literally mocked Qaddafi for being tricked into giving up his pursuit of nukes:

“The present Libyan crisis teaches the international community a serious lesson. It was fully exposed before the world that ‘Libya’s nuclear dismantlement’ much touted by the U.S. in the past turned out to be a mode of aggression whereby the latter coaxed the former […] to disarm itself and then swallowed it up by force. It proved once again the truth of history that peace can be preserved only when one builds up one’s own strength.” [KCNA website, 24 March 2011].

The idea that additional UN sanctions, much discussed in today’s reporting, will push North Korea from this path is delusory. This is a country that is already one of the most sanctioned on earth and operates under an ideology of self-reliance so stringent it views international trade as a weakness. Expecting anything different from additional sanctions brings to mind the old saw about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

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South accuses North of cyberattacks; Pyongyang relying less on spies, more on cyber?

The South officially accused the North today of launching a cyberattack against the JoongAng Ilbo, a conservative daily in the South. More interesting is what the South’s investigation also discovered – since 2009, the North’s cyber attacks on the South (targeting banks, elections, universities, and other organizations) have used the same China-based IP address owned by North Korea’s Ministry of Post and Telecommunications.

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Kaesong and the North’s cellphone network – two indicators of conditions on the peninsula

UPDATE (8 Feb.) – Earlier this week, South Korea announced a possible increase in inspections of goods headed into Kaesong based on tightened UN sanctions of North Korea (due to the December rocket test). North Korea, in it’s typical calm, understated fashion, threatened to return the entire industrial complex to a military zone due to the provocations from the South’s “puppet Ministry” in charge of the inspections. By Friday, South Korea had backed down, announcing that the “government does not consider the Gaeseong Industrial Complex as a means of sanctions against North Korea.” The North’s reaction and the South’s move to calm the issue, all in less than a week, show both the importance and sensitivity to Kaesong in both countries.

In a previous column on heightened tensions between North and South Korea over the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean naval ship, and the North’s shelling of the South’s Yeonpyeong Island, I highlighted Kaesong as a key indicator. If the joint North-South industrial complex at Kaesong remained open, tensions were not that serious and would soon ease. If the South withdrew its people from the complex however, that would indicate relations were about to get much worse, including a possible retaliatory strike by the South on the North.

As we now know, conditions in the complex remained largely the same and tensions on the peninsula soon cooled.

With the upcoming rocket launch by the North, Kaesong remains a good indicator of actual relations between the two countries. Post-launch, if operations in the complex remain normal, then relations will soon return to an even keel. However, any withdrawal by the South, or expulsion by the North, indicate a much greater risk of instability and/or provocative actions.

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Ever thought of working overseas? Read on

Bored? Need a job? A better job? A more interesting job? Tired of your cubicle, your daily rut, your relaxed and easy life?

How about working overseas? The Washington Post had a great article on working abroad a couple of weeks ago and I wanted to highlight it here.

First, according to the article, the number of Americans (and plenty of folks from other countries) working overseas has hit an all-time high, now standing at 6.3 million. A whole bunch more people are soon to be included in those figures – the percentage of Americans ages 25 to 34 who are planning to move overseas has quintupled in two years, from less than 1 percent to 5.1 percent. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, 40 percent are interested in moving abroad, up from 12 percent in 2007.

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“Now that the election’s over” … U.S. policy options on North Korea

With the election fading, I’m seeing lots of articles on what to do with X now that the U.S. political scene is settled, with U.S. policy on North Korea having several turns as X. Already, I’ve read everything from ideological chest thumping in the Washington Times, to calls for more diplomatic make-work programs “a new diplomatic approach,” in Foreign Policy.

Reading most of these articles, my main takeaway is that anyone with a pulse and a keyboard, including yours truly, can get published. More diplomacy is the way forward with North Korea? Really? North Korea’s nukes and missiles are Obama’s fault? Seriously? This is the kind of nonsense that passes for informed discussion on U.S. policy toward North Korea?

First, short of an outright invasion (and with apologies to my former political science professors), what the U.S. government does or does not do has minimal affect on North Korea. Newsflash – North Korea’s ruling family does what is best for it, period. It is not blowing in the weak breeze of U.S. policy pronouncements. Just flip it around – no matter what diplomatic approach the Russians or Chinese pursue, the U.S. is not going to give up its nuclear weapons. Why people, “experts” even, think North Korea is any different, any more susceptible to diplomatic persuasion and asking really, really nicely, is beyond me. If the North’s rulers decide they need atom bombs and nuclear missiles, they’re going to have atom bombs and nuclear missiles, and, short of military action, there’s nothing the U.S. can do to change that, no matter who is president nor how cleverly it is argued.

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The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future

[Book Review] Surprisingly readable – I’d half-expected dense academia or right-wing politicizing (the author is a former Bush administration official), but instead found The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future engrossing, with a great overview of North Korea, new insights into the diplomatic make-work program 6-party talks, and solid policy takeaways on the importance of increasing outside information flow into the North.

The author pushes a theory, neojuche revivalism (“juche,” itself commonly translated as “self-reliance,” is North Korea’s governing ideology, pg. 410), which seems to have lost some saliency with the death of Kim Jong-il and the changes in personnel and governing structure taking place under his son. According to Cha, the new/updated ideology is a “return to a conservative and hard-line juche ideology of the 1950s and 1960s,” when the North was ahead of the South technologically and economically (pg. 410).

Though the theory sounds mildly interesting, North Korea’s opaqueness means it can’t really be tested, nor does it provide much policy-level utility, especially given the ongoing leadership changes.

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North Korea Entering Information Age with Cellphones, Domestic-only ‘Intranet’

Interesting article on cellphone and ‘Internet’ usage in North Korea – yes, there are both cellphones (now up to a million 3G subscribers, if the numbers are to be believed) and ‘Internet’ users in the North, though access to the outside Internet is limited to a very select few. Instead, North Korea has established a nationwide (mostly Pyongyang, but some connections in outlying areas), domestic-only, intranet for universities, research centers, and a few private homes/apartments.

The article, from The Diplomat, a leading provider of news and commentary on the Asia-Pacific, attributes the North’s acceptance of information age technology to a desire to attract and please international investors. While the concerns of international investors may play a role, I hardly agree that this is the driving force. Rather, the North, like any other country or group of people, wants to use the technology to communicate and share information, though, in the North’s case, with a heavy dollop of state control (none of the cellphones on the domestic network can access numbers outside the country) and propaganda messages from state authorities (taking spam texts to a whole new level).

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Iran and North Korea cooperating on cyber-defense, ‘domestic Internets’?

UPDATE (28 Mar): Article today from the Times on how hackers from both North Korea and Iran have launched cyber attacks over the past week. No information on a connection between the two, other than their “erratic decision making,” but their skills appear to be growing, with Iran taking down American Express for two hours today.

UPDATE (24 Mar): Good article in PC World today about the threats posed by Iranian and North Korean hackers. The article covers some of what’s been discussed here, but also highlights testimony in the House last week about the unpredictability of Iran and North Korea making them harder to deter than China and Russia. The article points out that while the Iranians and North Koreans lack the cyber skills of the Chinese and Russians, their greater sense of “intent” may make them the more dangerous threats.

UPDATE (18 Jan): U.S. banks have officially sought help from the National Security Agency in dealing with the months-long cyberattacks, according to the Washington Post.

UPDATE (8 Jan): The Times has a story today with U.S. officials blaming Iran for attacks the past few months on “Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, U.S. Bancorp, PNC, Capital One, Fifth Third Bank, BB&T and HSBC.” The attacks are on a scale available to nation-states, not kids in a basement, “transforming the online equivalent of a few yapping Chihuahuas into a pack of fire-breathing Godzillas.” According to the story, the attacks are expected to continue.

UPDATE (3 Dec): Reuters carried a story from Kyodo yesterday about Iran stationing defense staff at a North Korean military facility, “apparently to strengthen cooperation in missile and nuclear development.” The “staff” reportedly consists of four people from Iran’s Ministry of Defense and “firms close to it.” The group may be in country for longterm collaboration, or to observe North Korea’s upcoming rocket launch.

UPDATE (24 Oct): The Times has an article today on an Iranian cyberattack on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil firm in August that is now believed to be, “among the most destructive acts of computer sabotage on a company to date.” The attack is thought to be retaliation for previous cyberattacks on Iranian oil facilities – and may have even used some of the same code. This is shaping up to be an interesting battle, clearly visible even in the open source world.

UPDATE (18 Oct): The cyberattacks on U.S. banks are continuing into their fifth week, with the Wall Street Journal now publicly blaming Iran as the source of the attacks.

UPDATE (1 Oct): The Times has a story this morning about the effects the bank attacks are having on U.S. customers, plus additional speculation on who is behind them, with Iran and the general ‘Middle East’ as the most mentioned sources.

UPDATE (28 Sep): Bloomberg (among others), is reporting an escalating, ongoing cyberattack on U.S. banks that some, including Senator Lieberman (head of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee), are blaming on Iran. It may or may not be Iran, part of the ‘beauty’ of cyberattacks is being able to disguise their origin, but the attack points to the growing sophistication of state-level actors (the North Koreans took down a major South Korean bank last year) and the dangers posed to the U.S. private sector by cooperation of the type highlighted below.

A couple of interesting stories on Iran and North Korea so far this week: the Washington Post reports Iran is preparing an internal version of the Internet designed to limit Iranian’s access to the outside Net, plus block foreign cyberattacks. The article stresses the difficulties the mullahs will have establishing the system, while acknowledging the security advantages afforded by such a project.

Nowhere however, does the article mention a connection with North Korea, which has long had a ‘domestic Internet’ of the type described in the article. NK’s internal network offers the exact advantages – security and training for cyber-operatives, mentioned in the Post article.

The second article, from The Christian Science Monitor, on a new Iran-NK pact designed to enhance research cooperation in the fields of “information technology, engineering, [etc.],” makes a connection between the two countries on ‘domestic Internet’ development seem both possible and natural. The focus of the article, and other media attention to the pact, is on shared nuclear weapon and missile development efforts. However, the juxtaposition of the two events highlighted in the stories, the shared interest in walled-off internal networks, and the recent pact formalizing ongoing joint research and development efforts begs the question of whether the North Koreans are also aiding the Iranians in establishing a more cyberattack-resistant internal network – thereby removing a tool outsiders use to influence and track Iranian nuclear weapons development.

While this development would be good for the Iranians, it would not be a positive for security and stability in the region. If Israel and the U.S. lose their cyber option for derailing and delaying Iran’s nuclear efforts, kinetic options become more likely – to no one’s benefit. Stay tuned.

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Nation Building in South Korea: Koreans, Americans, and the Making of a Democracy

[Book Review] Wonky, but surprisingly readable – Nation Building in South Korea: Koreans, Americans, and the Making of a Democracy traces the history of U.S. “nation building,” or “stand back and let the Koreans do their thing – ing” in South Korea.

For a book in English, it contains a surprisingly large amount of the Korean perspective in building their nation into the success that it is today. Still, it seems too heavily focused on the U.S. role, while underplaying the role of the South Koreans. Perhaps a more reflective title would be The U.S. Role in South Korean Nation Building.

Either way, the book is an informative, readable history on U.S. – Korea relations and Korean development.

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Amtrak’s Northeast Regional train – slow and utilitarian, but beats the hell out of I95

Having ridden the DC-NYC portion of Amtrak’s Northeast Regional twice a month for the past three years, I feel I should write something about it, but do so more out of a sense of obligation than any deep feelings for Amtrak at its most utilitarian. To quote Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express, “No good train ever goes far enough, just as no bad train ever reaches its destination soon enough.” The Northeast Regional lies squarely in the mildly pleasant middle.

Northeast Regional

 

 

 

 

 

 

First off, compared to most other routes, the Northeast Regional is expensive – which is probably why it’s the only Amtrak line that pays for itself. It can also get crowded, forcing people to roam from car to car in search of a seat or, as I did one Thanksgiving-eve, sit on the floor between cars, surrounded by fumes (the tunnel into Baltimore was especially pungent) and the occasional snowflake.

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“To Expect ‘Change’ from DPRK Is Foolish Ambition: Spokesman”

One of the best (i.e. amusing and somewhat readable) and most interesting (i.e. not solely about overfilled production quotas or the godlike exploits of the Great/Dear/Newest Leader) articles from North Korea’s official news agency I’ve come across in a while. Give it a click if you have a few minutes.

With the recent change in leadership brought on by the death of Kim Jong-il and succession of his son Kim Jong-un, has come heightened speculation on possible changes, reforms, modernization, and the like in North Korea. This article is North Korea’s forceful response. Some of the highlights, aside from the headline:

  • “Upset by this, the puppet group [i.e. South Korea] let experts in the north affairs and others interpret the stirring situation of the DPRK in a self-centered manner, vociferating about ‘signs of policy change’ and ‘attempt at reform and opening’. This ridiculous rhetoric only revealed its ignorance and sinister intention against the DPRK.”
  • “As far as ‘signs of policy change’ are concerned, there can not be any slightest change in all policies of the DPRK as they are meant to carry forward and accomplish the ideas and cause of the peerlessly great persons generation after generation [highlighting and justifying the family-based leadership successions], to all intents and purposes.”
  • “From decades of trumpeting ‘reform and opening’ to impose their corrupt system upon the DPRK, the hostile forces now seem to have been preoccupied by hallucination that such a move is taking place in the DPRK. Such idiots ignorant of the DPRK are professing experts in the north affairs. Pitiful are the U.S. and the puppet group which are resorting to foolish ambition on the basis of their sham analysis.”
  • [My favorite]: “To expect ‘policy change’ and ‘reform and opening’ from the DPRK is nothing but a foolish and silly dream just like wanting the sun to rise in the west.”

Except for a few changes around the edges, this is one of the rare times North Korea’s official line actually conflates with reality.

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The Ugly American

[Book Review] Stunning that a book written in 1958 about Vietnam and SE Asia is still so dead-on accurate. Reading it, you’d never know it wasn’t written last week about Iraq or Afghanistan.

A collection of semi-fictional vignettes about Americans working in the made-up SE Asian country of Sarkhan (read: Vietnam), anyone with a hint of overseas experience, or even time working with the U.S. government, will quickly (and in many cases, depressingly) recognize the various archetypes of Americans abroad illustrated here. The authors reportedly based many of the characters on real people they’d met while overseas. A quick bit of Googling sheds light on the origin of many of them.

A quick, enjoyable read – whether a story at a time, or the whole book. Highly recommended, especially for those heading overseas, or to DC, to work with the U.S. government and/or military.

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