Category Archives: South Korea

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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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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Kim Jong-il’s Death: What to Watch for Going Forward

UPDATE (21 December): So far, so good on Kaesong, one of the key indicators of stability and the state of North-South relations. Despite some reports of shorter hours and a tense atmosphere, the businesses in the complex are operating normally with little fallout detected or expected. If conditions in Kaesong remain stable, it’s a sign both of stability in the North’s government and non-hardline factions maintaining at least some influence in Pyongyang. Other indicators are mentioned below, in an earlier posting.

There is a lot out there on Kim Jong-il (KJI)’s death, his son and successor Kim Jong-un, and ‘what it all means’. I will not attempt to bore you by duplicating that here. Instead, I’ll highlight what to watch for over the coming weeks and months:

1. Changes in the status of Kaesong, the joint North-South industrial complex located in North Korea. A closing of the complex (unlikely), or new restrictions on its operation, indicate a harder line faction (likely from the ruling party, but possibly the military) is gaining the upper hand. The opposite, an expansion of the facility, indicates technocrats are gaining favor.

2. Increased mention in the North Korean press of Jang Song-taek (Kim Jong-un’s uncle) or one of KJI’s other sons. Jang is already one of the most powerful people in the North, thanks to his marriage to KJI’s sister, and the early transition to the young Jong-un could further empower him, or tempt him to make an outright grab for control. Press mention should offer a window into this possibility.

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An Actual War on Christmas? North Korea Warns South about Christmas Tree, Lights

UPDATE (2 JAN 2013): The South didn’t go through with the lighting of the tree last year, in 2011, but went ahead and approved it this holiday season, per the AP. The North was less than happy about the “open challenge and an unpardonable provocation” from the South, but has so far refrained from all but a verbal response.

Your favorite right-wing American fantasy come true, courtesy North Korea and the DMZ!



Calling the large metal structure decorated with lights and designed to look like a Christmas tree, a “tool of psychological warfare,” the North Korea affiliated website 우리 민족끼리 (roughly, ‘Our People’s Path’) threatened the South with “unexpected consequences” should the lights be turned on.

The metal structure in question, shown here courtesy Yonhap News and NKchosun.com, is roughly shaped like a Christmas tree and expected to be located on the South’s side of the de-militarized zone (DMZ), north of the city of Kimpo in Gyeonggi Province.

A Christian organization requested permission to set up at least one of the trees and decorate it with lights that would be visible from the North, as shown here.

The North, per the reaction quoted above, is not happy. Technically, as the North points out, the tree and lights may be a violation of a 2004 agreement between the two countries that prohibits “propaganda” in the DMZ.

The North’s strenuous objections under the agreement appear to highlight Pyongyang’s stunning hypocrisy sensitivity to outside, uncontrolled messages reaching its populace.

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Choco Pie – Dangerous Symbol of Capitalism or Harmless Snack?

The Choco Pie, a popular South Korean snack food, has apparently become so popular in Kaesong’s joint North-South industrial park (i.e. SK businesses, NK labor) that they have become viewed as “dangerous symbols of capitalism” by some in the North. It seems North Korean workers are smuggling out the pies, commonly handed out as snacks by SK businesses in the park, and then selling them to other North Koreans. Snack food for sale! The horror! If Mubarak and Qaddafi had only banned snacks, they’d still be in power today.



The issue has gotten so serious, representatives from SK companies operating in the park met to develop a “uniform Choco Pie policy” (you can’t make this stuff up) limiting the number of the pies handed out to workers as a way to mitigate the crisis. The North’s government urged the snack food be banned altogether and replaced with cash (food, bad; hard currency, good), but so far the companies have refused.

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Upcoming Wave of North Korean Boat People?

According to an article from today’s Daily NK (a website run by North Korean defectors living in the South), a recent tightening of border controls by North Korea, together with a crackdown by Chinese authorities on North Korean refugees in China, is causing more people to flee the North by ship.

So far this year, 73 North Korean refugees have arrived in the South by ship, compared to nine people in 2010 and 11 in 2009. The instances of arrivals by sea have also increased, with six cases so far this year, compared to five in 2010 and one in 2009. The number of passengers per boat has also risen, from 2-3 per boat last year to upwards of 20-30 per boat this year.

The story quotes a source inside the North as saying would-be defectors can choose between risking death at sea, or getting caught by North Korean border guards and/or Chinese authorities. Heightened border and internal security measures by North Korea and China have led an increasing number of defectors to risk the sea route. Unfortunately, finding a ship captain willing to take a family to the South (and thus agree to defect with his/her own family, or risk death upon return) is reportedly much more difficult and expensive than finding a people smuggler to get into China, crackdown or not. Thus, a wave of “boat people” escaping the North is, according to the story, highly unlikely.

UPDATE (28 November): Looks like the North Korean government is so concerned about this year’s increase in defections by boat to South Korea that it has pulled patrol craft off of duties near the Northern Limit Line (NLL – disputed sea border between NK and SK, site of numerous deadly naval clashes) to bolster coastal patrols. The purpose of the new patrols, according to an article in today’s JoongAng Daily (and another in The Korea Herald), is to increase monitoring along the North’s southwest coast to prevent defections by boat through the Yellow Sea. No word on measures to reduce defections along the east coast.

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One Program, Three Countries – Study in Korea, China and Japan

Interested in studying abroad in Korea, China or Japan? How about a program combining all three? The governments of South Korea, Japan and China recently signed an agreement, Campus Asia (modeled on Europe’s Erasmus Program), to launch joint degree programs for both graduate and undergraduate students. The universities involved in the program (10 in Korea, 10 in Japan and 7 in China) include the top schools in each country and some of the best in the world: Seoul National University (full disclosure: I have an MA from SNU), Beijing/Peking University, and the University of Tokyo. The program for graduate students sounds especially interesting, allowing a student to spend a year at each of the schools above and receive up to three degrees(!) – worth the price of admission for the networking alone. No word on whether the programs are limited to only the nationalities above, or whether any registered student at the schools can participate. During my time at Seoul National, I was treated just like a Korean student, so, at least from SNU’s side, I would expect the program to be open to students of any nationality.
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Researching Pyongyang?

The Chosun Daily is reporting (in Korean) it has obtained data from a September 2004 Pyongyang census containing the names, gender, birthdates, address, and related information for over two million adults (age over 17) living in the city. The data reportedly originated from North Korean internal security services and was somehow smuggled out of the North and obtained by a South Korean intelligence source working in the China, North Korean border region.

According to the data, at the time of the survey, there were only 71 men for every 100 women living in the city – a discrepancy the story attributed to large numbers of men being away for mandatory military service (which lasts approximately ten years in the North).

Other data shows the number of foreigners living in the city: 124, out of a total population of over two million. A haven of cosmopolitanism Pyongyang is not.

For more on the story, including (at the bottom) information on how to contact the paper for permission to access the data, click here and take a look. As noted above, the story is in Korean.

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  • Ridiculous that #SouthKorea gov't fears this site. Hopefully Moon changes. North Korea Tech & censorship in SK https://t.co/vKZK7lKNSD - posted on 26/06/2017

  • Interesting use of NGO social media counternarrative capabilities: How Facebook Can Fight the Hate https://t.co/8TFLeYNXrC - posted on 25/06/2017

  • A state that desires isolation is punished ...by being isolated? Huh? - Do American Travelers Belong in North Korea? https://t.co/nkgblnVoWQ - posted on 22/06/2017

  • If only policy was to beg China, up sanctions, pass UN res., & make mil threats, then we'd ... oh wait. #NorthKorea https://t.co/dpUAWi0jX8 - posted on 11/06/2017

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