Category North Korea

WORK HARD FOR THE KIMS! An Introduction to North Korea

UPDATE (19 FEB): The book is now (finally!) available on Kobo.


The “KIMS” in the title represent North Korea’s ruling family, in power in Pyongyang since the 40s and anxious to stay there. The images in the book introduce North Korean history, culture, and ideology by translating the country’s unique propaganda posters into English, then exploring their themes and messages.

Most of the posters used in the brief book are already here on the website, or available on the Facebook page, but the book includes additional details and explanations.

The book is currently available for download from Amazon for Kindle, Barnes and Noble for Nook, and Apple’s iBooks store. A Kobo version will be available soon. Please let me know if you’d like to see the book available in additional formats. There are no plans to publish a paperback or hardcover version at this time.

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New North Korean Propaganda Posters Added

New images, with translations and explanations, added to the North Korean Propaganda Posters page both here on the site, and in the much larger Facebook album.

Death of Kim Il-sung in 1994

The unlikeliest of images – a tall Kim Jong-il has rushed to the main public square overlooking Pyongyang to comfort the masses, distraught at the death of Kim Il-sung (in 1994). The younger Kim was, by nearly all accounts, quite reclusive, disliking the limelight and public appearances – making this one of the oddest, most unbelievable of NK propaganda posters.

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2009-2013 Internet attacks on South Korea part of ongoing cyber espionage campaign – McAfee Labs

McAfee, the Internet security company owned by Intel, has a research lab that just put out a report covering four years of hacking attacks aimed at South Korea. What previously appeared to be isolated attacks on media, banks, and government websites, many of them detailed here and in the report, are instead part of an ongoing 2009-2013 espionage campaign targeting military forces in South Korea in order to extract classified information. Targets included information on U.S. military forces and their operations in the South.

McAfee Labs

McAfee Labs

Through examining the evolving code used in the attacks, McAfee Labs found the attacks on South Korean banks, media, universities, elections, government, and other websites shared common source code, one encryption password, similar use of IRC botnets, consistent terminology, and a target set of military keywords. The report, on page 22, even lists the (somewhat poorly translated) Korean keywords used to target military operations in South Korea, including by U.S. forces.

Rather than a separate group of incidents targeting South Korea, which the South’s government, after conducting investigations, has attributed to the North, McAfee Labs is arguing that the incidents are all part of one, “secret, long-term campaign.” A campaign that reveals an adversary, “attempting to spy on and disrupt South Korea’s military and government activities.”

The McAfee report does not explicitly blame any particular country for the attacks, but makes the case that the attacks have been conducted by the same organization, taking the same measures against the same sites in an ongoing, state-level espionage operation. Investigating the same incidents separately, the South has laid official blame for the attacks on the North. If the South’s researchers haven’t already figured out what’s in the McAfee report, its findings will likely play a role in relations between the two Koreas very shortly.

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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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UNESCO adds North Korea, Iranian sites to Heritage List

UNESCO added a group of sites in and around Kaesong, North Korea to the World Heritage List yesterday, citing their importance to “the transition from Buddhism to neo-Confucianism in East Asia and to the assimilation of the cultural spiritual and political values of the states that existed prior to Korea’s unification under the Koryo Dynasty.”

I’ve visited the area in and around the sites and will post a few photos below.

nk-koryomuseum

 

The Koryo Museum, located on the grounds of a palace complex just outside Kaesong. 

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South Korea hit with cyber attacks on major banks, media outlets … again; North Korea blamed … again

UPDATE (10 April): The South made its preliminary case today that a North Korean espionage agency was behind the 20 March cyber attacks. According to the South’s report, the North began preparing for the attack last June, with systems testing beginning in late February. Of the 76 types of malicious code used in the attack, 30 were similar to previous attacks by the North, and 22 of 49 IP addresses overlapped with previous addresses used during cyber attacks traced to the North since 2009.

20MAR_cyberattack_graph

UPDATE (22 March): The South’s communications commission issued an update today declaring the cyber attack started from an IP address at a domestic bank (Nonghyup), not a Chinese address, as they reported yesterday. Meaning, aside from an irritated China and embarrassed Korean bureaucrats, that the attack erupted from a domestic source. How the code was placed on that server, by whom, and how it spread is still under investigation – an investigation likely to be much more circumspect in placing blame during future announcements.

On another note, perhaps the biggest news from the peninsula this week, submerged under the flood of reporting on the cyber attack, was a report that China’s oil exports to North Korea fell to zero in February. Perhaps a sign that the Chinese are getting fed up with the North’s missile and nuke testing – China normally sends 30-50,000 tons of oil to the North per month, an official figure that hasn’t gone to zero since 2007. If this continues through March, we may see a sudden change in the North’s tone, at least long enough for the Chinese to restart the spigots. Frankly, China shutting down its supply of oil to the North for two straight months would surprise me more than a semi-crazy member of the Bad Boys getting invited to Pyongyang to drink with the head Kim, but hey, stranger things have happened.

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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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Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad

[Book Review] I’m glad someone finally went to the trouble of researching and writing a book on the network, for obvious reasons quite secretive, which works to get North Korean defectors through China and into safety in South Korea or elsewhere.


You might ask why North Korean refugees aren’t safe once they reach China, given that China is obliged to protect the refugees by virtue of agreeing to international treaties including the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which includes The Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Unfortunately, at least in this case, China’s government pays about as much heed to international treaties as America’s Tea Party. Instead of upholding its treaty obligations, it actively tracks, arrests, and returns the refugees to the North, where they and their families face sentencing to one of the North’s infamous gulags. Those caught helping North Korean refugees in China face, at best, expulsion from the country, at worst, years in a Chinese prison.

Given these conditions, Kirkpatrick’s choice of subtitles, “The untold story of Asia’s underground railroad,” becomes more apt. Though the book’s comparisons to the slave-era American underground railroad are occasionally jarring, suddenly transporting the reader from modern Asia to 1800s America, they serve to highlight the similar dangers faced by everyone involved.

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North Korean Paintings from Mansudae Art Studio

In North Korea, most of the paintings I found were propaganda posters, some of which I’ve posted and discussed here on the blog. Online however (courtesy Mansudae Art Studio), the North has a great deal of traditional paintings, including some with an ideological motif, but also many of the ‘misty mountain landscapes’ so prevalent in East Asian painting.

I’ll post a few of them below, but head to my Facebook page to view the complete album.

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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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Using the ‘Internet’ inside North Korea

The BBC has an interesting article today on surfing the ‘Internet’ inside North Korea – which means, per previous description here, surfing a circumscribed, domestic-content-only version of the Net.

Fun fact #1 from the article: “There’s a curious quirk on every official North Korean website. A piece of programming that must be included in each page’s code. […] Whenever leader Kim Jong-un is mentioned, his name is automatically displayed ever so slightly bigger than the text around it.”

Fun fact #2: “The computer’s calendar does not read 2012, but 101 – the number of years since the birth of Kim Il-sung.”

Read the rest of the story at the BBC.

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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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Liberty in North Korea – Campaign for North Koreans

While most media reports on North Korea tend to focus on kooks and nukes, the actual people of North Korea get short shrift. Specifically, the idea that change in North Korea can best be achieved by fostering the flow of outside information into and among North Korea’s citizens has been largely absent, despite increasing agreement among NK specialists that information flows, and the threat thereof, may actually be the key to progress.

This campaign, by SHIFT at Liberty in North Korea, aims to change all of that. Watch the video and click the link for more information.

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