Author Archives: Scott

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.

The book’s strength is in highlighting the importance of using “all means possible to increase the flow of information from the outside world into North Korea” (pg. 461). Since, “without control of information, there is no [North Korean] ideology,” which means there is no North Korea (pg. 461).

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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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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 online reservation system

Air Koryo, the official airline of overweight smugglers?
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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?

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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.

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  • A legit deal if true, but something seems off. Hard to tell without access to the data. https://t.co/OOixlyY75U - posted on 19/08/2017

  • Interesting quote, "The [#NorthKorea] state’s calculation is that technology will allow it to gain more control tha… https://t.co/ekrK1W3H8S - posted on 16/08/2017

  • #NorthKorea sending a message. https://t.co/PzJvO6vi7K - posted on 15/08/2017

  • One of only a few articles to get the info piece right; underutilized tool for dealing with #NorthKorea https://t.co/Hl3XeFI5P5 - posted on 13/08/2017

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