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.

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.

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.

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.

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?