Author Archives: Scott

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.

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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.




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Iran and North Korea cooperating on cyber-defense, ‘domestic Internets’?

UPDATE (28 Mar): Article today from the Times on how hackers from both North Korea and Iran have launched cyber attacks over the past week. No information on a connection between the two, other than their “erratic decision making,” but their skills appear to be growing, with Iran taking down American Express for two hours today.

UPDATE (24 Mar): Good article in PC World today about the threats posed by Iranian and North Korean hackers. The article covers some of what’s been discussed here, but also highlights testimony in the House last week about the unpredictability of Iran and North Korea making them harder to deter than China and Russia. The article points out that while the Iranians and North Koreans lack the cyber skills of the Chinese and Russians, their greater sense of “intent” may make them the more dangerous threats.

UPDATE (18 Jan): U.S. banks have officially sought help from the National Security Agency in dealing with the months-long cyberattacks, according to the Washington Post.

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Tried Reading ‘Current History’?

I’m not sure how many people actually read Current History (a dozen?), which, while still quite wonky, is normally more readable and less arduous than Foreign Affairs, though their website offers next to nothing for non-subscribers.

I bring up the magazine here because the September issue is on East Asia and includes worthwhile articles on South Korea, China, and the rest of the region. As a bonus, there’s also an article on North Korea by curmudgeonly old Bruce Cumings – anyone wishing to relive the 60s/70s is urged to pop in a good 8-track, spark up their grooviest bong, and read the Cumings piece. You won’t learn much about North Korea (apparently, they bow less than the South Koreans), but you will get a jarring blast of old-school leftism.

Check it out if you have a chance, though again, the Current History website is nearly useless.

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South Korea’s Ministry of Defense to double size of cyber command in face of cyber attacks from North; effort unlikely to succeed

I’ve been following North Korean cyberattacks on the South for several years, so it was interesting to see the South’s Ministry of Defense announce (English, Korean) yesterday that it was already doubling the size of its Cyber Command, to 1000 people. Given it just launched the command in January 2010, deciding to increase the size already indicates the seriousness with which it views the threat of North Korean cyber attacks, plus the easy availability of funding for this new arena of conflict.

North Korean cyber attacks on the South include jamming GPS signals (forcing planes at Inchon international airport to use alternate systems when landing and taking off), locking up to 30 million account holders (a number which seems awfully high, but I’m quoting the article) out of Nonghyup, the South’s main agriculture and cooperative bank, and hacking the email accounts of Korea University’s Graduate School of Information Security (one of the South’s top schools). With public, embarrassing attacks such as these, the North has certainly caught the attention of the South’s defense and cyber establishments, helping drive the expansion in funding and personnel resources.

The added capabilities are to include both defensive and offensive programs, with the second being the more interesting of the two. Given North Korea’s much more limited use of the Internet – essentially a few elites conducting research and military/intel groups looking for information and opportunities – the well-wired South has far more to lose in an online confrontation than the hardscrabble North. Combine Southern reliance on the Internet with the difficulty of definitively tracing the origin of a cyber attack, and, expanded capabilities or not, the South looks to lose a few more rounds of this battle.

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  • Chronicler of Islamic State 'killing machine' goes public https://t.co/BtwUPTxkXn - posted on 08/12/2017

  • #NorthKorea joins US in increasing focus on coal; NK remains nominally in support of Paris climate accord. https://t.co/IJeABeMGzy - posted on 05/12/2017

  • Interesting use of data and visualization tools by the AP: The message in Pyongyang's propaganda https://t.co/qYy9JUUqrt - posted on 04/12/2017

  • 'Despite committing 100s of 1000s of men from the Iraqi army, special forces, and militias to fight ISIS offline, t… https://t.co/241O1VxAHZ - posted on 25/11/2017

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