Category Archives: North Korea

‘Escape from Camp 14’ and North Korean Defectors

UPDATE (January 2015): Per my original comments, below, you can’t always trust defector testimony, as became clear earlier this week when Shin Dong-hyuk, upon whom this book is based, recanted parts of his story. While this made North Korea very happy – Pyongyang quickly jumped on the story to help boost its campaign to discredit defectors and others that criticize North Korean human rights – the changes in Shin’s story in no way alter the existence of horrible human rights violations in North Korea.

UPDATE (5 December 2012): 60 Minutes recently did an interview with the subject and author of the book. Their report follows a remarkably similar story arc to that of the book, though it does provide more information on the ‘three generations punishment system’ begun under Kim Il-sung.

UPDATE (3 April): [Book Review] A swift kick to the gut – swift, because the book is engrossing (and short) enough to finish in a single sitting; a kick to the gut because you won’t sleep afterwards. The idea that slaves are still bred and raised in this day and age, while the rest of the world turns at least a semi-blind eye, is disgusting enough, when you mix in the conditions these children are forced to fight and survive under … well, this one will haunt you for a while.



Escape from Camp 14 details the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, born to North Korean labor camp inmates occasionally allowed to breed as a reward for their hard work. The book cuts in and out of describing Shin’s life in the camp, North Korea in general, and Shin’s life during and after his escape. The sudden cuts from one story line to the next, in North Korea the main holidays are the birthdays of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il … aren’t quite that abrupt, but they do occasionally get in the way of the story. At times, it felt like the author was stretching to get a book out of a long magazine article, but while it affects the flow, it doesn’t detract from the overall strength and message of the book.

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North Korea Continues to Expand Cyber Capabilities; Cheap, Domestic Alternative to Buying Weapons from China, Russia

Partly for work, partly for personal interest, I’ve been following reports on North Korea’s efforts in cyberspace, including a cyber-attack on Korea University, an attack on the South’s agriculture bank and cooperative, Nonghyup, and speculation that Kim Jeong-Eun was behind at least some of the cyber attacks prior to taking over the country in December upon the death of his father.

U.S. defense officials are also tracking North Korea’s cyber activities, saying in testimony on Capitol Hill today that the North has added “sophisticated cyber attack capabilities” that mark “a skilled team of hackers” as the newest addition to North Korea’s arsenal.

Given the limited ability to definitively trace and prove the origin of cyber attacks, I’m not sure how these new capabilities fit in with the North’s unique method of international relations. A method whereby the North intentionally creates and escalates international tension, before trading away a reduction in those tensions in return for aid from China, South Korea, and elsewhere. If cyber attacks can’t be traced to the North, how can the North use them as a bargaining chip?

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FP Magazine: The Black Hole of North Korea

Great article (subtitled: What economists can’t tell you about the most isolated country on Earth) on the North Korean economy by Marcus Noland.

Restaurant in North Korea

While the best quote comes at the end of the article (“Former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale once counseled me that anyone who claims to be an expert on the North is a liar or a fool.”), the piece is an excellent reminder on the scarcity of accurate data coming out of the North. Take a look if you have time – a 10-minute read.

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New AP Bureau in Pyongyang Provides Photos, Video of NK Live Fire Exercises

The new Associated Press bureau in Pyongyang (which opened in January 2012) has brought some more unique coverage out of the North, this time on North Korean live fire exercises near the DMZ. The North’s drills reportedly come in response to joint U.S. – South Korean exercises, no surprise there. What is a surprise are photos, as shown here (apparently soldiers in every army around the world wedge blocks under vehicle wheels), and video from the exercise, both courtesy the new AP bureau. I don’t see the bureau providing much hard news, but it is good to see some new reporting coming out of the North.

North Korean Live Fire Drills

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Latest U.S. Deal with Pyongyang: good for hungry North Koreans … barren cupboard for U.S., SK

UPDATE (13 March): Right down to the word “tribute.” Compare the post on the recent U.S. deal with North Korea, below, with yesterday’s editorial from the Washington Post on the same subject. Thanks for coming out guys, way to be the ball, way to lead.

UPDATE (2 March): The AP’s new Pyongyang bureau weighs in on the new agreement in this article from the Washington Post. Not surprisingly, the citizens of Pyongyang allowed to speak to the AP are mistrustful of the U.S. and not very hopeful of any reduction in tensions. Going forward, it will be interesting to see what kind of reports this new bureau will be able to dispatch from the North.

Not to be overly pessimistic, but unless you are a starving North Korean, the recent headlines (JoongAng Daily, Washington Post) about North Korea agreeing to suspend nuclear weapons testing, long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment activities for U.S. food aid really don’t mean much.

As South Korea trades in electronics, cars, and the rest, North Korea trades in international tension. The recent deal allows the North to acquire 240-300,000 tons (accounts vary) of badly needed food aid from the U.S. in return for hitting pause, not stop, on its nuclear and long-range missile development programs. Once the food arrives, there is little to prevent Pyongyang from resuming either of these activities.

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China Ignores Seoul, International Treaty Obligations; Repatriates North Korean Defectors

For the better part of a week, South Korea has been worrying over and protesting China’s return of North Korean defectors caught inside China. The South has even discussed bringing the issue to the UN – a move that would mark a radical (and long overdue) departure from South Korea’s normal kowtowing to quiet diplomacy with its much larger neighbor.

It’s high time that China lived up to its international treaty obligations and stopped returning defectors to a country, in this case North Korea, knowing full well the dire consequences awaiting the refugees upon their repatriation. For its part, the South needs to be firm with China about protecting a group of people that, under South Korean law, have the right to become South Korean citizens. This may have short-term trade repercussions for the South with its largest trading partner, China, but long-term economic trends will mitigate any momentary damage to the relationship, plus provide domestic political and diplomatic benefits for the party willing to take a stand.

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The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War

[Book Review] Thick. I’ve always enjoyed Halberstam’s work and this book is no exception, with well-sourced, evocative writing that brings alive the subject and keeps the reader interested long into the night.

At over 660 pages, this will not be a quick weekend read, but the insight and enjoyment make the book worth tackling. The portrayal of MacArthur alone is worth the price of entry, as is the discussion of U.S. failures to see and understand China’s entry into the war, despite numerous warnings (feel free to insert parallels to Pearl Harbor and 9/11 here).



I should have reviewed this in 2007 when I first read it. Apologies for the delay in highlighting this worthwhile, enjoyable work.

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Kim Jong-nam Predicts Trouble for Kid Brother, the New Ruler of North Korea

UPDATE (22 January): The Guardian has an updated, more in-depth story on the book and its interviews with Kim Jong-nam. You can check it out here.

There’s been a flurry of reporting (The Washington Post, The Guardian, The New York Times) the past couple of days about a new Japanese book purportedly based on interviews with Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-il’s eldest son and older half-brother of Kim Jong-eun, North Korea’s new ruler.

The Tokyo-based journalist who wrote the book, Yoji Gomi, says it is based on email exchanges and interviews with Kim Jong-nam over a period of years. In it, the older brother reportedly calls the third-generation succession a “joke” and expects Jong-eun will be nothing more than a figurehead. Not exactly a shocking prediction, but interesting given the reported source. If true, this book offers some of the most interesting insight into North Korea since that written by Kim Jong-il’s former sushi chef.

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North Korea Blamed for Cyber-Attack on Korea University

One of the newer, more interesting areas of conflict between North and South Korea has been in cyberspace, with some reports blaming the new leader, Kim Jong-eun, for North Korean hacking attacks on South Korean websites.

Whoever is managing the attacks, they do not appear to be stopping. On Monday (16 January), a spokesperson for Korea University, one of South Korea’s top schools, said email accounts at the college’s Graduate School of Information Security (hmm …) were hacked using a server and methodology previously associated with North Korean cyber-attacks. The latest attempt is reportedly similar to one made against the Korean Military Academy last May.

No damage came from the attack, since none of the students or graduates opened the problematic file attached to the emails used during the hack. The university was later able to relocate the graduate school’s email server behind additional security and, in cooperation with defense and intelligence officials, track the origin of the code used in the attack.

Banks, the South Korean military, schools, and businesses have all reportedly been victims or targets of North Korean cyber-attacks. With the difficulty of preventing the attacks, and of definitively tracing their origin, the likelihood is high that they will both continue and grow more effective as their instigators become more experienced. Couple that with a new North Korean leader anxious to prove his military and security bonafides, and cyber-security specialists in the South and U.S. should be getting plenty of new material.

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NK Cracking Down on Defectors?

It’s been a couple of weeks now since Kim Jong-il died and his son, Kim Jong-un, took over. Reports are now beginning to filter out through the normal defector reporting networks about changes in North Korean policies during the transition.

While the defector networks are hardly free from bias, recent reporting indicates the regime is cracking down sharply on defectors. NK border guards have reportedly been given orders authorizing them to shoot those attempting to defect, while state media, which had previously ignored or downplayed defection, has begun publicizing the punishment that awaits those attempting to flee the country.

According to the story, the North’s policy of ‘three-generation punishment’ has been extended to defectors and their families. Meaning, if someone attempts to defect, three generations of their family will be executed, or perhaps sent to a labor camp (which is often a death sentence in its own right). This policy has long been used for political crimes (for insight read Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, about a young boy forced to come of age in a labor camp after his grandfather made some anti-regime comments) and an extension of this policy to the ‘crime’ of defection would be an ominous sign, both for the defectors and for the direction the regime is heading under its new leadership.

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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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