Category South Korea

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.


Average South Korean Household Spends $200 a Month on ‘Media’

A mildly interesting story, for those of us selling content in Korea at least, says the average South Korean household spends W224,413 (roughly $200) per month on “media,” including charges for mobile phone, Internet, cable TV, home phone, and (printed) newspapers and magazines.

For someone currently paying for the same services in the U.S., with its far slower Internet speeds and cable bills that can easily hit $100 a month, the breakdown is striking:

  • W172,136 ($155) a month for cellphone service (again, this is per household, not per person)
  • W27,148 ($25) a month for Internet
  • W16,347 ($15) a month for cable (reminding me how fondly I recall that bill from Seoul, compared to DC)
  • W14,960 ($13.50) a month for home phone, for those who still have it
  • and W14,423 ($13) a month for newspapers and magazines

The survey, of 500 adults age 20-60, also asked people to rank the importance of various media forms on a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 being the most important. The Internet was ranked highest at 4.32, followed closely by mobile phones at 4.30, broadcast TV at 3.7, home phones at 2.5, and (printed) newspaper and magazines at 2.4.


“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.


How to send mail to North Korea; China to grant visas to 40K NK workers, miners

Two surprising North Korea stories today: Inter-Korean mailman goes legit about a new South Korean organization focused on helping separated family members send mail and donations, plus arrange meetings, with people inside the North (actions normally semi-legal, at best, in SK). The story highlights the experience and skills the organization’s 80-year-old founder has used to overcome barriers to smuggle get items into, and information out of, North Korea. A useful, interesting skill set indeed.

The second is China hires tens of thousands of North Korean guest workers about China’s plan to support the North, and dodge sanctions on aid to NK, by granting visas to at least 40,000 guest workers to labor in factories, mines, and construction projects in Chinese cities along the border. These northeastern areas of China, unlike the southeast and other more developed regions, have little need for additional, low-cost workers – highlighting both the concerns China has over North Koreans getting past its border region, and the aid-based, versus business-need, focus of the effort.


NK Resumes GPS Jamming in SK

UPDATE (3 July): Pyongyang denied it was responsible for the jamming. Thanks to North Korea Tech for the updated info (and my apologies for taking so long to post it).

North Korea has reportedly revived last year’s campaign to jam GPS signals in South Korea, harassing flights around both Incheon and Kimpo international airports. Affected airlines include Korean Air, United, and Delta, plus international freight carriers FedEx and UPS.

Last year’s jamming campaign only lasted for a few days, but this year’s has been ongoing since the end of April. The South plans to protest the North’s action (something I’m sure is keeping NK’s leaders awake at nights) to the International Telecommunication Union. Much handwringing and a very light slapping of wrists likely to ensue.

Unlike last year, there are no reports of the jamming affecting cellphone systems inside Seoul – perhaps due to SK Telecom (and presumably others) updating their systems to protect against NK jamming.

Interesting to see how NK, easily East Asia’s least technologically advanced country, is attempting to weaponize the technological sophistication of its rivals by finding and exploiting the new weaknesses of the networked era. Jamming GPS signals and launching hacker offensives at the South is a relatively cheap, safe, and punishment-free way of tormenting its neighbor, giving Pyongyang’s military and hardliners something to do, and developing a new chip to be traded away for some future benefit. Worth keeping an eye on.


‘Escape from Camp 14’ and North Korean Defectors

UPDATE (January 2015): Per my original comments, below, you can’t always trust defector testimony, as became clear earlier this week when Shin Dong-hyuk, upon whom this book is based, recanted parts of his story. While this made North Korea very happy – Pyongyang quickly jumped on the story to help boost its campaign to discredit defectors and others that criticize North Korean human rights – the changes in Shin’s story in no way alter the existence of horrible human rights violations in North Korea.

UPDATE (5 December 2012): 60 Minutes recently did an interview with the subject and author of the book. Their report follows a remarkably similar story arc to that of the book, though it does provide more information on the ‘three generations punishment system’ begun under Kim Il-sung.

UPDATE (3 April): [Book Review] A swift kick to the gut – swift, because the book is engrossing (and short) enough to finish in a single sitting; a kick to the gut because you won’t sleep afterwards. The idea that slaves are still bred and raised in this day and age, while the rest of the world turns at least a semi-blind eye, is disgusting enough, when you mix in the conditions these children are forced to fight and survive under … well, this one will haunt you for a while.

Escape from Camp 14 details the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, born to North Korean labor camp inmates occasionally allowed to breed as a reward for their hard work. The book cuts in and out of describing Shin’s life in the camp, North Korea in general, and Shin’s life during and after his escape. The sudden cuts from one story line to the next, in North Korea the main holidays are the birthdays of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il … aren’t quite that abrupt, but they do occasionally get in the way of the story. At times, it felt like the author was stretching to get a book out of a long magazine article, but while it affects the flow, it doesn’t detract from the overall strength and message of the book.

Whether as a download or an actual book, new to North Korea or not, this one is worth reading.


North Korea Continues to Expand Cyber Capabilities; Cheap, Domestic Alternative to Buying Weapons from China, Russia

Partly for work, partly for personal interest, I’ve been following reports on North Korea’s efforts in cyberspace, including a cyber-attack on Korea University, an attack on the South’s agriculture bank and cooperative, Nonghyup, and speculation that Kim Jeong-Eun was behind at least some of the cyber attacks prior to taking over the country in December upon the death of his father.

U.S. defense officials are also tracking North Korea’s cyber activities, saying in testimony on Capitol Hill today that the North has added “sophisticated cyber attack capabilities” that mark “a skilled team of hackers” as the newest addition to North Korea’s arsenal.

Given the limited ability to definitively trace and prove the origin of cyber attacks, I’m not sure how these new capabilities fit in with the North’s unique method of international relations. A method whereby the North intentionally creates and escalates international tension, before trading away a reduction in those tensions in return for aid from China, South Korea, and elsewhere. If cyber attacks can’t be traced to the North, how can the North use them as a bargaining chip?

Instead, the new cyber capabilities appear to be exactly what they were called on the Hill today – military weapons. The North will likely continue to expand and hone its cyber capabilities, including attacks on outside countries, viewing them as a cheap, domestically-produced alternative to weapons purchased from Russia or China. A weapon capable of use with far less backlash, or evidence, than shelling South Korean islands or torpedoing South Korean warships. These new cyber assets are less about generating aid than about improving military capabilities in a cost-effective, easily testable, relatively safe manner.

After all, which is easier, cheaper, and offers less potential blowback – building and testing a missile that can threaten the U.S., or developing a cyber capability that can accomplish the same thing?


FP Magazine: The Black Hole of North Korea

Great article (subtitled: What economists can’t tell you about the most isolated country on Earth) on the North Korean economy by Marcus Noland.

While the best quote comes at the end of the article (“Former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale once counseled me that anyone who claims to be an expert on the North is a liar or a fool.”), the piece is an excellent reminder on the scarcity of accurate data coming out of the North. Take a look if you have time – a 10-minute read.


New AP Bureau in Pyongyang Provides Photos, Video of NK Live Fire Exercises

The new Associated Press bureau in Pyongyang (which opened in January) has brought some more unique coverage out of the North, this time on North Korean live fire exercises near the DMZ. The North’s drills reportedly come in response to joint U.S. – South Korean exercises, no surprise there. What is a surprise are photos, as shown here (apparently soldiers in every army around the world wedge blocks under vehicle wheels), and video from the exercise, both courtesy the new AP bureau. I don’t see the bureau providing much hard news, but it is good to see some new reporting coming out of the North.


Latest U.S. Deal with Pyongyang: good for hungry North Koreans … barren cupboard for U.S., SK

UPDATE (13 March): Right down to the word “tribute.” Compare the post on the recent U.S. deal with North Korea, below, with yesterday’s editorial from the Washington Post on the same subject. Thanks for coming out guys, way to be the ball, way to lead.

UPDATE (2 March): The AP’s new Pyongyang bureau weighs in on the new agreement in this article from the Washington Post. Not surprisingly, the citizens of Pyongyang allowed to speak to the AP are mistrustful of the U.S. and not very hopeful of any reduction in tensions. Going forward, it will be interesting to see what kind of reports this new bureau will be able to dispatch from the North.

Not to be overly pessimistic, but unless you are a starving North Korean, the recent headlines (JoongAng Daily, Washington Post) about North Korea agreeing to suspend nuclear weapons testing, long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment activities for U.S. food aid really don’t mean much.

As South Korea trades in electronics, cars, and the rest, North Korea trades in international tension. The recent deal allows the North to acquire 240-300,000 tons (accounts vary) of badly needed food aid from the U.S. in return for hitting pause, not stop, on its nuclear and long-range missile development programs. Once the food arrives, there is little to prevent Pyongyang from resuming either of these activities.