Category Archives: South Korea

Food Crisis in North? Or Pyongyang Planning Big Bash for 2012?

A couple of days after reports emerged of North Korean officials “begging” for food, even from countries in some of the world’s poorest regions, comes another report quoting an official at the Blue House (the home of South Korea’s president) casting doubt on the North’s need for food. According to the official, the North’s requests are part of preparations for 2012, the year the North promised its citizens it would become a “powerful and prosperous nation.” A quote from the Blue House official: “It is my understanding that the North’s harvest increased last year from the previous year […] We must keep in mind the possibility that the North is stockpiling food, while giving smaller rations. In that case, NGOs and foreign relief agency workers probably think the food shortage has worsened.” This contrasts with a November 2010 report from the World Food Programme (WFP), “About five million people living in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) will continue to face food shortages despite a relatively good harvest and a slight increase in food supply.” The main difference between the two sources is that the WFP and other foreign relief organizations have people working on the ground in the North. The Blue House is basing its information on … defector reports? Intel? Politics? Neither, both, or either source could be correct … and the people ruling in Pyongyang who may know the answer aren’t talking.  

Cyberwar in Korea – Kim Jong-eun’s Key to the Throne?

South Korea’s Defense Minister accused the North today of attempting to jam military communications in the South during joint U.S. – South Korean military exercises, with the GPS-disrupting signals used in the attack being traced back to military bases in North Korea’s Kaesong and Mt. Geumgang/Kumgang. Along with that attack, a South Korean defector organization, citing sources inside the North, is blaming the North for a 3 March cyberattack on government and business websites in the South. An earlier posting examined the GPS jamming attack on the South, but today’s defector report suddenly makes the cyberattack on the South Korean websites last week look a little more interesting. According to the report, the North was not only responsible for the attack (plus an earlier one on 7 July 2009), it was Kim Jong-eun, Kim Jong-il’s son and current heir to the throne, who was in charge of the attacks. While a single-source report from a website working toward regime change in the North is hardly definitive, it raises an interesting parallel for examining leadership succession in Pyongyang.

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GPS Problems in Seoul?

UPDATE (5 April): SK Telecom announced today that it was updating its systems to protect from future jamming attempts. Only a few days after a 3 March attack on South Korean government and business websites (Yonhap), Korean media is reporting today that North Korea attempted to jam GPS signals in the Seoul metropolitan area, causing “disruptions” to both military and public GPS systems. The attempted jamming is believed to be in response to current joint U.S., South Korean military drills – previous drills last August also brought jamming attempts by the North. Why is the North suspected? The signals sent to jam the equipment were traced back to North Korean military bases in Haeju and Kaesong, near the DMZ and, especially in the case of Kaesong, within the 50-100km range of the Russian jammers believed to have been used in the attacks. The North has reportedly purchased larger jammers capable of covering 400km, nearly all of South Korea, but they were not involved in the recent attacks. What motivated the North? Likely the chance for a real-life test of its equipment and the effect it would have on U.S. and South Korean forces. Advanced military systems were reportedly unaffected, but older equipment, plus civilian cellphones and GPS navigations systems, experienced some problems. Russian-made jammers? The equipment used by the North is believed to be Russian, either purchased and imported by the North, or made in the North to the specs of the Russian equipment. The device used is likely a W40,000 ($35) handheld piece of equipment manufactured by the Russian defense firm, Aviaconversiya [info on the firm from a recent ‘international defence exhibition and conference’ in Abu Dhabi, plus a small Wikipedia entry], and first displayed at the 1999 Paris Air Show. If you’ve been having problems with your GPS in Seoul the past few days, now you know why …

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

[hang1column element=”div” width=”122″][/hang1column] [Book Review] Powerful addition to English-language literature on North Korean refugees – the book tells the stories of six different North Korean refugees, both prior to their leaving the North and after they fled. The deterioration of the North Korean economy, a growing lack of medicine, decreasing food supplies and the threat of starvation, the stories paint a vivid, depressing picture of life in the North. The struggles of the refugees to adapt to life in the South, a relatively common theme in Korean writing on the subject, leaves a lasting impression and highlights why so many in the South are wary of the costs and challenges posed by a North Korean collapse.

Helping Defectors Escape the North – Interview with a ‘Broker’

A Korean news magazine (Sisa Journal) recently published an interview (in Korean) with a “broker” specializing in helping North Koreans defect to the South. The broker in the interview is identified as the head of a new organization dedicated to helping rescue North Korean defectors and refugees. I’ll put a brief translation of the interview below. The questions are from the reporter for Sisa Journal. Why have you come out of the shadows to establish this new organization? Brokers face a lot of difficulties, which in turn hurts North Koreans. Last year alone 10-15 people suffered incidents, including problems with Chinese police that led to their arrest and forced return to North Korea. Once they’re back in the North, we have no way of knowing if they’re dead or alive. If we [brokers] work together, we can hopefully avoid some of these problems. How many brokers are there in the South? There are about 200 people working either overtly or covertly helping defectors, but only about 10 are really specialists in the field, helping defectors from the moment they leave the North until they arrive in the South. I’m curious how many North Koreans you helped defect last year. Our team helped approximately 1800 people escape North Korea. Of them, we helped about 400 come to the South. There’s no limit to the number of people we can help escape to China – it’s easy to buy-off North Korean police, border guards, even high-level military officers, and get them to directly or indirectly work with us.

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Pyongyang to Seoul – 12 Days?

A drive from Pyongyang to Seoul, should such an event ever become possible, would take 3-4 hours, depending on traffic once you neared Seoul. Lacking that connection, plus mail and phone connections (not to mention an Internet connection), North Korea’s legislative body, the “Supreme People’s Assembly,” decided to send a letter to the South’s parliament using DHL, the international carrier. How long do you think it took DHL to cover the three-hour drive from Pyongyang down to Seoul? If you read the headline, then you probably guessed right – 12 days! I realize Pyongyang is not a hotbed of international commerce, but 12 days to go from Pyongyang to Seoul (most likely via Beijing)? Jeez. Hope they got a special rate. If anyone in the South cares to complain, the DHL office in Pyongyang can be reached at 850-2-381-8053. Though there aren’t any phone links between the two countries, and the call would probably be illegal for a South Korean national, at least without prior government approval … Good thing it wasn’t a letter offering world peace, but only if you act right away.

No Underwear for You!

While I can understand the reasoning behind not sending aid, especially fungible items like food and fuel, to a regime that bombards you, sinks your ships, and prefers nukes to feeding its own people, but underwear for kids? That would seem pretty safe from diversion to the military or corrupt officials (though I’m sure a few of the latter would be able to intercept enough to sell on the black market). Instead, the South Korean government decided to reject a request by South Korean humanitarian organizations to send thermal underwear to children in North Korea. The Ministry of Unification reportedly turned down the request due to poor relations and the collapse of recent talks. I’m not sure how keeping kids cold will benefit the South, but I’m sure it makes sense to some bureaucrat somewhere.

Watch Kaesong

UPDATE (15 JAN): With North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, and the South’s vow of a stronger response, the key to judging Seoul’s seriousness was once again the industrial park at Kaesong. Despite some tough talk and South Korean artillery drills in the days and weeks after the incident, Kaesong continued to operate. By the new year, just 6 weeks after the shelling, tensions had cooled, attentions had drifted, and a resumption of the 6-Party Talks was once again under discussion.


UPDATE: On 23 June, the South Korean Unification Minister said his Ministry is putting together a W100,000,000,000 [$84,000,000 U.S.] fund for damages suffered by South Korean companies with operations in Kaesong. The availability of this type of fund makes it easier for the South to pull out of the complex, should the powers that be so decide. Definitely an indicator worth continued monitoring.


Want to know how events are going to play out on the Korean peninsula now that the South has blamed the North for sinking the Cheonan? Watch what happens with the Kaesong industrial complex. When the South first blamed the North, both sides threatened to shut down the complex, but in recent days, emotions seem to have cooled. The South has continued to send workers and managers across the DMZ into Kaesong, a policy that was up in the air as recently as last week. For its part, the North has continued to allow the Southerners to cross into Kaesong, plus stopped focusing its rhetoric on closing down the complex. Instead, the North appears to have decided to keep the cash coming by keeping the complex open. If both countries continue down this path, talking and acting tough, but leaving Kaesong open, then the chance of outright war declines dramatically, likely only occurring through miscalculation. If Kaesong closes however, it’s a strong indicator that at least one side is planning military action, having already given up on the last significant tie that connects the two countries. If you see the South order all of its citizens out of the North, get ready.

Sleeping with a Fan on Can Kill You! Or not …

Most outsiders who’ve spent time in Korea, especially in the summer, have heard the warnings about fan death [Wikipedia]. If you shut the bedroom door, close your windows, turn on your fan, and go to sleep, YOU WILL DIE. The fan will, depending on the person explaining the threat, either suck all of the oxygen from the room, leaving you to suffocate, or will lower your core body temperature (especially if the fan is pointed directly at you) so much you will succumb to hypothermia.

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GoodFriends Korea – Info on North Korea

For anyone who speaks Korean (or wants to learn how the North Koreans write things), then try the defector-run website GoodFriends Korea.
Operated by North Korean defectors in South Korea, the information on the site is used by journalists, intel agencies, aid groups, academics, and others interested in the North. Much of the information is based on defector testimony and reports sent to the organization by North Koreans who have smuggled cell phones back into their country. While little of the info is verifiable by outsiders, GoodFriends provides a quantity and range of info on the North available nowhere else.

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