Category Archives: North Korea

“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.

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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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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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  • Niche topic but useful info - Diplomats and Deceit: North Korea’s Criminal Activities in Africa https://t.co/oYiP4GKzAF - posted on 20/10/2017

  • Headline is off, plus some confusion over terms in the text, but interesting article overall. https://t.co/twHzyYFEGB - posted on 18/10/2017

  • Well done by VOA on the message and Robow quotes and pics: Death Toll Tops 300 From Mogadishu Blast https://t.co/uqsKzltksZ - posted on 17/10/2017

  • Interesting examination of the counter-productivity of sanctions: Engagement, Not Sanctions, Deserves Second Chance https://t.co/xvqD59tFI4 - posted on 16/10/2017

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