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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

“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.

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.

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).

North Korea’s Air Koryo adds online flight booking system

Just in time for your holiday travel planning, Air Koryo, the official airline of North Korea, has launched an online booking system! According to the massive timetable, the new system allows international travelers to book one of eight weekly flights between Pyongyang and Beijing, Pyongyang and Shenyang, or Pyongyang and Vladivostok.

Perhaps in an effort to raise its status as the world’s only one-star airline, the new online booking system also allows customers to purchase extra seats for a “blackbox” (Iranian nuclear scientists and cyberwar experts will be delighted), or for their “fat” (hello, Kim clan).



Air Koryo, the official airline of overweight smugglers?

North Korea suddenly hikes taxes for businesses in Kaesong, threatens to make hike retroactive for up to 8 years

UPDATE (21 OCT): The Times had an article today on rising tensions between North Korea and China due to similar issues – North Korea’s mistreatment of outside firms doing business within the country. Hardly a surprise, and gets to the point people constantly make about getting China to “do something about North Korea.” In the end, the North doesn’t listen to the Chinese much either, and for the Chinese to bring them to heel would require Beijing to utilize the type of extreme measures (e.g. halt in oil shipments) they’ve rarely proven willing to employ.

I get it that the South’s government wants to reduce the eventual, astronomical costs of reunifying with the North by amortizing those costs over the longest period possible, but as a business owner, why on earth would you risk investing in the North?

Yesterday’s JoongAng Daily, a South Korean English language paper, carried a story on the North suddenly upping tax rates on South Korean businesses in Kaesong, the joint North-South industrial zone located just over the border inside North Korea. The North told the SK businesses and the South’s government it was unilaterally changing 117 out of the 120 clauses in the zone’s regulations on 2 Aug. – a move that violates the agreement governing the zone, which stipulates a bilateral agreement is required before any changes can be made. Anyone surprised by this sudden, unilateral change by the North, please begin holding your breath.

Not only did the North change the rules, it reserved the right to decide the tax rate on a product-by-product basis, as well as charge up to eight years of back taxes on the new rate (the zone opened in 2004). So the taxes are not just going up now and into the future, businesses may suddenly owe the new rate on all of their previous years’ taxes as well. Fun.

So, having started and helped run two businesses in the South, I know my answer if the South’s government ever comes calling, urging me to invest in the North – NO. While I can understand the South’s government, that the more businesses, jobs, infrastructure, etc. that is created now, the less they’ll have to create in the eventual post-reunification future, the North’s investment climate just isn’t good enough.

Security issues knocking on South Korea’s door

A North Korean soldier slipped across the DMZ the night of 2 October, getting through a fence on the North’s side, followed by an electrified fence, then a barbed-wire-topped South Korean fence, before finally … walking up to a South Korean army barracks door and knocking, telling the soldiers inside he wanted to defect.

Until he literally knocked on the front door, no one in the South had detected his presence – a problem that is getting a great deal of attention in the South Korean press (a brief story in English here, a longer summary in Korean here, an editorial complaining of the situation here).

Coming so soon after another man swam across the border undetected, only to be discovered drunk and half-naked after breaking into someone’s home and stealing their soju, serious questions are being raised in the SK media about the security of the South’s border with the North.

Coming only a year after the South installed a pricey new electronic monitoring and information collection system along the border, the two lapses in security raise questions about the ease with which the North can infiltrate the South. As the editorial said, it was lucky the North Korean soldier came to defect, had he been armed and bent on creating trouble, the outcome for the soldiers in that barracks would have been far worse.

Want to make millions from North Korea? Become a luxury goods exporter in China during the next succession

An interesting story has been making the rounds of South Korean media the past couple of days (in English, in Korean) about a sudden, large jump in luxury goods imported into North Korea.

Using trade stats from Chinese customs (the North’s main trading partner), a parliamentary committee in the South found North Korean imports of vehicles (Northern elites tend to prefer German iron, especially Mercedes); TVs, computers, and other electronics; liquor; and luxury watches (gifting expensive watches on important occasions is a cultural trait the North actually shares with the South) went from roughly 300,000,000 U.S. dollars in 2008 and $322,530,000 in 2009, to $446,170,000 in 2010 and then $584,820,000 in 2011.

The large jumps in 2010 and 2011 (and presumably this year as well) overlap with the sudden appointment and rushed power transition from Kim Jong-il to his son, Kim Jong-eun. In essence, the North’s 0.001% has been throwing around a few hundred million dollars worth of hard-to-obtain luxury items to keep Pyongyang’s 1% satisfied, or at least mildly mollified, during the latest dynastic succession. An effort that, to date, appears to be working, plus furnishing a nice bump to Northeast Asian sales of Hennessy, Rolex, and the rest of the dictator chic product line.

Photos of Pyongyang’s Giant Ryugyong (류경) Hotel

The North Korea travel specialists at Koryo Tours were recently allowed to visit Pyongyang’s Ryugyong Hotel and posted about it on their blog this morning. They became among the first Western tourists (I imagine various Chinese officials, Egyptians from Orascom – the company paying for the most recent wave of construction, and other non-Westerners have also toured the facility) to visit the hotel, hulking unfinished over Pyongyang’s skyline for over 20 years.

From the blog and photos, it looks like some progress is being made, especially on closing in the facade with what must have been a huge amount of glass. I’ll post of couple of the photos below. More are available on the Koryo Tours blog and their Facebook page.