Archive for Censorship

If N. Korea hacked Sony and threatened us, here’s how we should respond

The New York Times, quoting “[s]enior administration officials,” is reporting that “American officials have concluded that North Korea ordered the attacks on Sony Pictures’s computers.”

Senior administration officials, who would not speak on the record about the intelligence findings, said the White House was debating whether to publicly accuse North Korea of what amounts to a cyberterrorism attack. Sony capitulated after the hackers threatened additional attacks, perhaps on theaters themselves, if the movie, “The Interview,” was released. [N.Y. Times]

The Times report doesn’t say whether the feds also think North Korea was behind the threats that caused Sony to pull The Interview from theaters, but North Korea certainly is profiting from the perception that it was responsible for them. Today, another studio made the cowardly decision to kill a Steve Carell film that would have been set in North Korea.

Nor would this be the first time North Korea has used terrorism to censor The Interview. It has already used its kidnappings of Japanese citizens to censor the film’s closing scene:

Japan, where Sony is an iconic corporate name, has argued that a public accusation could interfere with delicate diplomatic negotiations for the return of Japanese citizens kidnapped years ago.

The administration’s sudden urgency came after a new threat delivered this week to desktop computers at Sony’s offices warned that if “The Interview” was released on Dec. 25, “the world will be full of fear.”

“Remember the 11th of September 2001,” it said. “We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time.” [N.Y. Times]

That’s one example of how negotiations with North Korea can be worse than no negotiations with North Korea. Separately, the Times reports on Sony’s internal debates about censoring The Interview, in a simpering kowtow to North Korea’s threats.

Disturbed by North Korean threats at a time when his company was already struggling, Sony’s Japanese chief executive, Kazuo Hirai, broke with what Sony executives say was a 25-year tradition. He intervened in the decision making of his company’s usually autonomous Hollywood studio, Sony Pictures Entertainment.

According to hacked emails published by other media and interviews with people briefed on the matter, he insisted over the summer that a scene in which Mr. Kim’s head explodes when hit by a tank shell be toned down to remove images of flaming hair and chunks of skull. [….]

At one point in the tug of war over the script, Mr. Rogen weighed in with an angry email to Ms. Pascal. “This is now a story of Americans changing their movie to make North Koreans happy,” he wrote. “That is a very damning story.” [N.Y. Times]

I’m not sure what leaves me more speechless–the brazenness of a direct attack on our freedom of expression in our own country; the cowardice of Hollywood, Sony, Japan, and the theater chains; or the idea that the U.S. State Department agreed to review scenes from The Interview, thus putting a stamp of government censorship (or endorsement) on the film.

Or, maybe it’s the argument of an irredeemable imbecile named Justin Moyer, who defends North Korea’s reaction in a blog post at The Washington Post, without even condemning its hacking, threats, violence, or use of its Japanese hostages. Moyer even writes, “If a future North Korean missile test, naval exercise, trip across the DMZ or future act of terror is blamed on ‘The Interview,’ Rogen can’t say he didn’t have fair warning.” Say what? I look forward to Moyer’s explanation of why Hitler had every right to be upset about “The Great Dictator,” or why Charlie Chaplin had “fair warning” about the Sudeten Crisis and Kristallnacht.

Whether the evidence ultimately proves North Korea responsible for this or not, petty despots everywhere have learned how to censor what the rest of us are allowed to read and see, and not only in America. I can’t help wondering whether Pyongyang, in turn, learned it from the Innocence of Muslims affair. These events have vast implications for our freedom of expression. Arguments about the film’s artistic merit have no place in this discussion. Parody, including tasteless parody, is at the core of how we express our views on matters of global public interest.

The breach is expected to cost Sony Pictures tens of millions of dollars as the company rebuilds its computer network, conducts a forensic investigation of the attack and deals with the legal fallout, including potential lawsuits from employees. It could also have an effect on the film industry’s creative choices.

“I’ve got to believe that this will spook anybody from considering making the North Koreans bad guys in a film,” movie producer Bill Gerber said. “Unless you were dealing with something that was fact-based and very compelling, it might not be worth it.” [L.A. Times]

This time, will our President stand up for our freedom of expression unambiguously? That would require him to act swiftly and firmly against those found to be responsible. Unfortunately, the Times‘s reporters end an otherwise excellent report with the tired, cliche falsehood that the President has no options because “[t]he North is already under some of the heaviest economic sanctions ever applied.” Pish-posh. I don’t know how many times I have to say it–people who write about sanctions should read them first. People who’ve read the sanctions know they’re weak.

Here, then, is a brief list of things the President could do in response, assuming the evidence shows that North Korea was responsible.

1. Restore it to the list of state sponsors of terrorism. One of the Bush Administration’s great, unsung foreign policy failures was its failed nuclear deal with Kim Jong Il, under which Bush relaxed sanctions and removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. North Korea’s de-listing marked the beginning of a period during which North Korea escalated its sponsorship of terrorism, including threats, assassinations, and arms shipments to terrorists.

2. Ask the Senate to follow the House’s example and pass the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, to remedy the weaknesses in our North Korea sanctions.

3. Sign an executive order blocking the assets of North Korean state entities responsible for censorship inside North Korea itself. That executive order could be modeled on one that already applies to Iran.

4. Sign a new executive order blocking the assets of entities found to have knowingly perpetrated, attempted, or supported hacking, cyber-attacks, or cyber-espionage against U.S. targets. That order could be modeled on existing executive orders that target the perpetrators and sponsors of terrorism and WMD proliferation.

5. Ask the Director of National Intelligence to compile a report on China’s support for North Korean hackers, release the unclassified portions to the public, and consider either a criminal prosecution or a civil forfeiture action to attach and seize the assets of any Chinese entities hosting, harboring, or supporting North Korea’s hackers.

Sony, of course, should release and promote The Interview in its original, uncut form. Theaters should show it. Newspapers should stop printing Sony’s hacked e-mails, except as they pertain to North Korea’s attempts to suppress the film. Artists should expose and criticize the cowardly decisions of studios to censor criticism of North Korea, and any other government. Courts should exclude Sony’s hacked e-mails as evidence in litigation. And individual citizens who love freedom of speech should give to Thor Halvorssen’s Human Rights Foundation, which plans to send copies of The Interview into North Korea by balloon.

South Korea’s censorship problem isn’t just about chromosomes

One of the most bipartisan political traditions in South Korea’s young democracy is the tendency of its presidents to use tax audits, prosecutions, libel suits, and state-subsidized street violence to censor their political opponents. This has always been wrong, but in America, our condemnation of it has always been selective.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Kim Dae Jung used tax audits to harass conservative newspapers. His successor, the leftist* Roh Moo Hyun, sued four right-wing newspapers for $400,000 each over what Roh called “comprehensive, persistent and massive defamation of my character that, not as president but as a human being, caused me psychological agony hard to express in words.” Roh tried to pass a media ownership law to shrink the right-wing press, used state funds to subsidize newspapers that supported him, and subsidized union goons and street thugs who intimidated and attacked his political opponents, and critics of North Korea’s human rights abuses. During rightist President Lee Myung’s term, the police arrested the members of a harmless left-wing fringe party.

Park Geun Hye has continued this thuggish tradition by dissolving (admittedly fringe) political parties, decertifying (admittedly extreme) labor unions, and prosecuting people for (non-violently) praising North Korea—all actions I criticized as they happened.

On top of this, Yonhap now reports that the South Korean government is preventing a U.S. citizen, Shin Eun-Mi, from leaving the country (update: and issued her a summons) because of “an investigation into her alleged pro-North Korean remarks” on talk shows while in South Korea. Ironically, if the state had allowed Ms. Shin to fly back to her life of well-deserved obscurity, I’d neither know nor care who she was, and neither would you. Censorship only really works when totalitarians do it. Anywhere else, it’s not just bad policy, it’s the tool of imbeciles who can’t win arguments, and who almost always lose them without saying a word.

None of this is what just caused The Washington Post to declare a censorship crisis in South Korea, however. That happened because President Park filed libel suits against “media outlets that run reports it considers unfavorable.” Ironically, The Post now quotes the editors of left-wing Hankyoreh Shinmun, which suckled contentedly at Roh Moo Hyun’s nipples for the duration of his chokehold on the Chosun Ilbo and the Joongang Ilbo. Today, the editors of the Hanky call Park Geun Hye “shameless,” which is an interesting word choice for them.

President’s Park’s abuse of South Korea’s cumbrous libel laws is indefensible and stupid. It’s also incorrect to suggest that it’s a crisis. Crisis implies rapid deterioration. This is the extension of a long, bipartisan precedent. Worse, to suggest that this is only troubling because the person doing it inherited an X chromosome from Park Chung Hee misses the point widely:

This is sparking even more unflattering comparisons for the president. “Park Geun-hye is taking a page from her dictator father’s playbook,” said Peter Beck, a Korea expert at the New Paradigm Institute in Seoul. [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]

No, she isn’t. Park Chung Hee locked dissidents away for years and sometimes unjustly executed them. To compare such unequal wrongs smacks of false equivalence and dishonors the dissidents who fought for democracy during Park Chung Hee’s regime.

This isn’t the only serious error with Beck’s analogy. By ignoring the bipartisan tradition of “democratic” censorship in South Korea, Beck misses the issue of what reforms are needed to end these abuses and advance South Korea’s evolution toward open democracy. I know and like Peter Beck, and I hope he still likes me after he reads this post, but I don’t remember him taking note of any of the censorship of the left when it was happening. For that matter, the international media seldom noticed or remembered it, either. Nor has it shown much concern that the left’s goon squads are still turning out to censor freedom of expression today, while the left-wing opposition tries to do the same thing by legislative fiat.

As bad as all of that may be, none of it is the second coming of Park Chung Hee. It’s a different problem that requires different answers.

Park Geun Hye’s actions today are just part of a continuum in a political culture that doesn’t respect freedom of speech or protect it with content-neutral laws. South Korea’s transition to democracy did not end the tendency of its politicians, corporations, and government agencies to censor embarrassing speech; it merely changed their methods of censorship.

In the United States, we’ve long recognized the potential for libel suits to be abused to suppress public debate. In 1964, the Supreme Court decided New York Times v. Sullivan, which raised the standard for a libel suit by a “public figure” to survive a motion to dismiss. Even then, the cost of legal fees to defend a suit can suppress free expression, which is why many states have anti-SLAPP acts that require losing plaintiffs to pay the legal fees of winning defendants. If Korea’s left and right are serious about ending the abuse of libel suits, they should amend their libel laws to provide similar protections. Failing that, Korean courts should impose them as a matter of constitutional law.

I suppose the United States hasn’t set the best example for the apolitical integrity of tax audits, but I’d offer three suggestions to limit the problem. First, a state that can’t tax protected activities fairly should exempt them from taxation entirely. Second, every democracy needs a robust equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act, to allow citizens to obtain and publish government records. In the U.S. legal system, to the extent that those records show that an official violated an individual’s constitutional rights, the citizen can sue the official in his individual capacity and recover damages.

Finally, when political organizations use force or violence to suppress their opponents, governments shouldn’t subsidize them, they should sue them under anti-racketeering laws, and allow the victims of their violence to sue for conspiracy to violate their civil rights.

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* This left-right stuff never worked for me as a descriptor of political polarity in the U.S. It also works rather badly for South Korea. “Radicals” and “reactionaries” is still too simplistic. I wish I could think of a better alternative.

N. Korea: We didn’t hack Sony, but we’re glad someone did

As suspicions grow that North Korea was indeed responsible for the Sony hack, North Korea offers that oddly unconvincing denial. If the North Koreans really did do it, some commenters think the U.S. will have to respond:

Aitel says the hacks are potentially “a ‘near red-line moment'” because they represent the kind of incident that would almost require a US policy response assuming a rival state was behind it. As Aitel says, “This is the first demonstration of what the military would call Destructive Computer Network Attack (CNA) against a US Corporation on US soil … a broad escalation in cyberwarfare tactics” that would demand some kind of American response. [Business Insider]

Personally, I’d have thought that the 2009 incident when North Korea (or its sympathizers) was suspected of hacking “27 American and South Korean government agencies and commercial Web sites” would have crossed a red line. I’d be interested in knowing what evidence linked those attacks to North Korea, but targets of cyberattacks often avoid publicizing the fact that they were attacked.

Mandiant’s extensive report on China’s state-sponsored hacking was an exception to that rule. Maybe Mandiant should write a second report on North Korea, and especially about what support the North Korean hackers receive from China.

Sony Pictures should go after North Korean hackers’ Chinese enablers

Since the weekend, several of you have e-mailed me about “suspicions” — and really, I don’t think they went further than that — that North Korea may have hacked Sony Pictures and leaked unreleased movies to file sharers to punish it for “The Interview.” Those rumors were covered by many outlets, but frankly, the open-source evidence for North Korea’s complicity was little more than speculation, at least until I read this today:

Hackers who knocked Sony Pictures Entertainment’s computer systems offline last week used tools very similar to those used last year to attack South Korean television stations and ATMs, people briefed on the investigation said.

The similarity would reinforce a hunch among some investigators, which include Sony, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a team from Silicon Valley security company FireEye Inc., that North Korea played a role in the breach at the film and television studio, one of the largest in the U.S. South Korea publicly blamed the 2013 attacks on North Korea. [….]

Sony Pictures is set to release this month “The Interview,” a comedy in which U.S. spies enlist a television host played by James Franco and his producer, played by Seth Rogen, to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. In June, a spokesman for the Pyongyang government said distribution of the movie would be “the most undisguised terrorism and a war action” and threatened a “strong and merciless countermeasure” if the U.S. government “patronizes the film.” [Wall Street Journal]

It’s hardly proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but it’s something. Interestingly, “The Interview” wasn’t one of the Sony films the hackers leaked — not yet, anyway. For now, Sony Pictures continues to deny that it has direct knowledge of North Korea’s involvement. As I noted here, Sony was previously reported to have made changes to the script to appease the North Koreans. So much for appeasing North Korea, although South Korea seems congenitally incapable of learning that:

“The Interview,” a North Korea-themed satire starring actors Seth Rogen and James Franco, won’t be released in South Korea, a Seoul-based official for Sony Pictures Entertainment said. [….]

South Korean media reports cite a Sony Pictures Korea official as saying the distributor never had plans to release the film due to concerns about inter-Korean relations. A Sony Pictures official declined to comment on the reasons behind the decision not to show the film in South Korea. [WSJ Korea Real Time, Jeyup S. Kwaak]

Cowards. Kwaak’s post notes that South Korean state censors prevented “Team America” from being screened in South Korea, but doesn’t link the suppression of “The Interview” to government censorship. One possibility is that the ROK government asked Sony very politely. Another is that Sony anticipated that the usual gang of pro-North Korean thugs and thought police would try to disrupt screenings.

And what recourse does Sony have against the hackers, assuming it can prove that North Korea was responsible? Hacking is a federal felony, and an attack on a U.S.-based computer system would arguably give the feds subject-matter jurisdiction. If the Justice Department prosecutes, it probably wouldn’t find any live bodies to stick in the dock, but because hacking is a predicate offense for money laundering, DOJ would still be able to forfeit assets of anyone the court convicted. Not that that would do Sony much good.

Sony might be able to sue North Korea by taking advantage of several exceptions to North Korea’s sovereign immunity under 28 U.S.C. 1605(a). Collecting the judgements, of course, would be another matter entirely. Just ask any of the lawyers who won these judgments.

More interesting, however, are suspicions that the hackers may have been operating out of China, which isn’t a novel theory. That almost certainly couldn’t happen without the knowledge of the Chinese government and other Chinese entities, perhaps including entities with assets that could be reached by U.S. courts.

This suggests that a more fruitful legal strategy may be for the feds to prosecute, and for parties like Sony to sue, the Chinese enablers. There are even indications that our government might have the political will do to that. The new Congress could also require the Director of National Intelligence to report on China’s sponsorship of North Korean hacking. Unclassified portions of that report might provide useful evidence for Sony’s case.

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Update: One reason Sony Pictures might not go after the hackers’ Chinese enablers is that Hollywood has been too preoccupied welcoming its new Chinese overlords and sucking up to its new censors. I thought it was bad enough when Sony Pictures bent over for Japan’s censorship; wait till you see what stultifying delights the Chinese have in store for us.

And the unlikely hero of this alarming and underreported controversy? Oliver Stone, himself a suspected disseminator of KGB propaganda, naturally. So I guess the wounds from the Stalin-Mao rift are still raw in some quarters. Hat tip to a reader.

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Update 2: According to this report by U.S. Army Major Steve Sin, a defector reported that as of 2004, members of a North Korean military hacker unit called Unit 121 conducted “some of its operations from a North Korean government-operated hotel called Chilbosan in Shenyang, China.” Business Insider sent a reporter there (Update: or, horked the pictures online; see comments) to see what the hotel looks like today.

N. Korea threatens to shell Blue House over U.N. vote (It’s not just about balloons)

At my comments section, also known as The Diplomat, two recent articles take opposing views on ideas I’ve written about at length here. The first piece, by Zach Przystup, entitled “Pyongyang’s Poverty Politics,” argues that the regime in Pyongyang deliberately keeps large segments of its population hungry. It’s a question I’ve struggled with for years, but the more I know, the more difficult it becomes to avoid that conclusion.

Then, Steven Denney posts a “respectful riposte” to my criticism of the South Korean left for its illiberal authoritarianism, particularly when it comes to ideas that challenge the totalitarians in Pyongyang. Denney agrees with my post in part, conceding the existence of censorship during previous left-wing governments. His principal criticism is that my argument wasn’t nuanced enough to catch the vibrancy of the NPAD’s intra-partisan debates.

Please note, however, that in the post that is the subject of Denney’s riposte, I linked (but chose not to rehash) a previous OFK post that described the battle for the NPAD’s ideological soul in depth, even expressing my hope that moderate views might finally prevail in the NPAD. I don’t believe I’ve ever characterized the entire Korean left as authoritarian, but it’s fair to say that I generalized. It’s also evident which faction has won the argument, at least for now. When the leaders of the “mainstream” left-opposition NPAD introduce legislation to censor leafleting — without any apparent opposition — I think it’s fair to generalize the views of the NPAD as favoring censorship of anti-North Korean speech.

(As for the other “left” party, the fringe UPP, goes, I’m not sure Mr. Denney really wants to go there, although the UPP is also riven into opposed factions.)

I would agree (or at least hope) that Lim Su Kyung doesn’t represent the NPAD’s future. Now, would Denney deny that Chung Dong Young or Moon Jae In might? The latter came within a few percentage points of winning the presidency in 2012, and both men represent continuity with the Roh Moo Hyun years, which were marked by troubling censorship, among other forms of appeasement.

Like my old friend Assemblyman Ha Tae Kyung, who I would describe as a classical liberal, I have my own tactical disagreements with the leafleters, even as I insist that a civil democracy must defend their right to speak freely. In the New York Times op-ed that Prof. Sung-Yoon Lee and I recently co-wrote, we suggested that the launches should be moved away from populated areas as a precaution to protect the safety of local residents. Of course, if the South Korean government gave financial support for radio broadcasting, allowed activists to broadcast on the medium wave spectrum, or (imagine this!) did its own broadcasting, crude (if telegenic) methods like balloon launches wouldn’t be necessary. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

Not that any such change in medium would satisfy North Korea, which, not so long ago, threatened to shell the offices of South Korean newspapers for printing criticism of its regime. Pyongyang’s latest threat is timely for purposes of this discussion. It has threatened war over South Korea’s vote for a U.N. General Assembly resolution criticizing the North for its crimes against humanity:

We would like to question the Park Geun Hye group busy billing the adoption of the above-said “resolution” as a sort of a significant event. Does she think Chongwadae will be safe if guns roar for aggression and a nuclear war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula? Can she prolong her remaining days in America after leaving south Korea?

The article doesn’t portend well for the thaw in North Korea’s relationship with Japan, either.

Japan, political pigmy, would be well advised to behave itself properly, cogitating about what miserable end it will meet.

Once a sacred war is launched to protect the sovereignty of the DPRK, not only the U.S. but the Park Geun Hye group and Japan will have to be hit hard and sent to the bottom of the sea.

We probably aren’t far from the day when Pyongyang can make good on that threat.

The UN also can never evade the responsibility for the catastrophic consequences entailed by what happened there. All this is the DPRK’s response to the “human rights” racket of the U.S.-led hostile forces. [KCNA, Nov. 23, 2014]

I’ve posted KCNA’s  entire missive below the fold, along with grafs from two other KCNA rants that accuse the South of a “a declaration of an all-out war” and threaten to attack the South for supporting the General Assembly resolution condemning the North’s human rights record.

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

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Denney, I think, sanitizes the view of the Korean left a bit too much when he summarizes it this way: “Do not engage in acts that could unnecessarily provoke or offend the North Korean regime, because this will only make genuine engagement and possible rapprochement harder, if not impossible.”

Leaving aside the question of whether genuine engagement and rapprochement with Kim Jong Un are remotely plausible, isn’t the word “unnecessarily” an example of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy? One struggles to find examples of even mild criticism of Pyongyang that Uri and Minju-led governments weren’t willing to censor when they were in power. Under their leadership, South Korea repeatedly abstained from General Assembly resolutions on human rights in the North. We can be fairly certain that had Moon Jae-In won the last election, South Korea would not be supporting action in the U.N. today.

For years, the NPAD and its predecessors blocked a human rights law that would fund some of the civic groups that oppose Pyongyang’s abuses … maybe even civic groups that want to broadcast to North Korea, over the radio. The Saenuri Party, possibly shamed that the U.N. is showing South Korea to be a passive bystander to the brutality of its kindred in the North, is again trying to force the issue:

The National Assembly has been slow to handle bills addressing North Korea’s human rights situation due mainly to opposition parties’ concerns that they could anger Pyongyang and worsen the already strained cross-border ties.

In their deliberations, the rival parties are expected to clash over the issue of giving assistance to civic groups engaged in flying anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets across the border. [Yonhap]

More recently, the NPAD has shifted strategy, supporting an alternative “human rights” bill that would amount to another aid giveaway for Pyongyang.

The point being this: this argument is about much more than leaflets or balloons. It’s about North Korea’s deliberate state policy of using the threat of violence to shut down any form of criticism in South Korea, and Pyongyang’s refusal to coexist with even nonviolent criticism, regardless of the medium, and without regard to whether the speaker is a fire-eating activist, the President of the Republic, the United States, or the United Nations General Assembly.

That is, it’s the message, not the medium. If the NPAD thinks that censoring free expression to shrink from those threats is appropriate at certain times, it should say where the censorship would end, and when it would finally stand firm and defend the rights of Koreans on either side of the DMZ to speak, print, read, and think freely. The question is whether South Korea chooses to remain a free society.

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Correction: In my haste to promote Steven Denney to his rightful station in life, I assigned him the title “Professor,” prematurely, as it turns out. Mr. Denney writes in to note that he’s still working on his doctorate.

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South Korea’s illiberal left: authoritarians in the service of totalitarians

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. [Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19]

In America, we have grown accustomed to a political polarity in which we associate “left” with “liberal.” Whatever the merits of that correlation here, it’s useless to any understanding of politics in South Korea, where very few people on either side of the political spectrum can be described as liberal, and the only real candidate for that description — at the least the only candidate I can offer — is a member of the “right” Saenuri Party. For the most part, the Korean right has never overcome the authoritarian reputation Park Chung-Hee and Chun Doo-Hwan gave it, and the arrival of democracy did not mean the end of the old right’s use of an overbroad National Security Law to censor nonviolent speech that wiser men would have held up to ridicule and criticism instead.

Meanwhile, the Korean left seems to have dedicated itself to justifying the continued need for the National Security Law, and to making its own criticism of the NSL, however legitimate in isolation, seem hypocritical in the broader context.

In the history of “democratic” South Korea, it is the left that has been responsible for the most pervasive and pernicious censorship. During the Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun years, the Korean left censored human rights activists, refugees, newspapers, and playwrights, acting as Pyongyang’s thought police in the South. To the extent Minju-dang and Uri governments didn’t directly censor criticism of Kim Jong Il, they effectively practiced vicarious censorship, standing by while left-wing unions and “civic” groups used violence to suppress it. They even subsidized the unions and civic groups that were responsible for the worst of the street violence.

In many cases, the Korean left’s political leanings have been exposed as illiberal or totalitarian. On more occasions than I could ever describe here, members of “left” parties, and the civic groups and labor unions that support them, have been caught propagating Pyongyang’s ideology or acting as its agents for espionage — even violent attacks in support of a putative North Korean invasion.

Thus, what American and European liberals almost always get wrong about the Korean left is how illiberal it is, and how little it has in common with them. The Korean left lacks the liberal passion for protecting the vulnerable. American liberals want to lift restrictions on immigration and spare illegal immigrants from deportation; the South Korean left despises North Korean refugees and heaps abuse on them. It would rather let them die in place than offend Pyongyang by letting them in. Euro-American liberals loathe racism and nationalism; the Korean left propagates and exploits them. Euro-American labor unions fight for decent pay and working conditions globally; the Korean left supports the slavery and exploitation of its fellow Koreans at Kaesong. Traditionally, Euro-American liberals stood for freedom of expression. The Korean left would sacrifice the right of South Koreans to speak nonviolently, and of North Koreans to freedom of information, to appease the totalitarians in Pyongyang:

The main opposition party on Wednesday proposed a bill requiring government approval to send propaganda leaflets to North Korea as part of efforts to help ease simmering inter-Korean tensions.

The move by the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) comes as South Korean activists’ sending of balloons with anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border has been a source of inter-Korean rows and tensions.

Pyongyang has urged Seoul to block such activities, while Seoul insists it has no legal ground to regulate their “freedom of speech.”

According to the revision bill to the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act proposed by Rep. Yoon Hu-duk of the NPAD, currencies, leaflets and any printed materials shall be added to the category of goods that need to be approved by the unification ministry before they can be sent across the inter-Korean border.

It also stipulates that the minister must give the go-ahead “to unspecified individuals with mobile equipment, including balloons,” before they can be launched.

The revision bill would also ban the unification minister from giving the green light to sending items into North Korea that “could cause legitimate concerns of hurting inter-Korean exchange and cooperation.”

“The leaflet campaign has hampered the recent thawing inter-Korean mood and posed threats to the safety of the people residing near the border regions,” Rep. Yoon said.

Criticizing the Seoul government for “sitting idle and doing nothing to regulate the activities,” the lawmaker said the revision bill would give the government a legal ground for regulating such activities to help protect residents and improve inter-Korean ties. [Yonhap]

Now take a moment and read about one of the people the NPAD wants to censor. Read about his life’s history, as described by the European liberalism’s newspaper of record:

The food shortage hit my family in 1997. My mother, my wife, and my son died of hunger that winter. The boy was always frail, he died because he could not eat properly.

All my family had died apart from my eldest child. I decided to escape North Korea so that he could live.

I had always lived in obedience to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, but the death of my family changed that. Once I had dreamt of communism being achieved, listening to the lectures of the Kim family every day – but it was only a delusion.

Rebelling against the country would only lead to death. I decided to leave. [The Guardian]

The man fled to survive, but once outside North Korea, freedom of information showed him that it was also possible to live:

Despite the hardships, I tried to listen to South Korean broadcasts every night and sometimes people who had worked there would tell me stories. There was a programme called “To the People of the Workers’ Party” – the presenters were knowledgeable about the reality of North Korea. This is when I realised South Korea was not what I thought it would be. I decided to try to get there.

Today, he is one of the activists who sends leaflets into North Korea. Freedom of information transformed his life, and today, he wants to exercise his new right to speak freely, to give freedom of information to those he left behind. These are the rights — the universally guaranteed rights — that the NPAD wants to deny its fellow Koreans.

Can you imagine The Hankyoreh printing this story? Its editors wouldn’t tolerate it, and its readers would seethe at it.

I don’t think most people would call me a liberal, but I suppose it was around the time the angry left started to call itself “progressive” that I stopped using the word “liberal” pejoratively and attached a certain reverence to it. If liberalism still stands for things like tolerance and equality and nonviolence and free expression and free love, then Korea’s left does not deserve to be called liberal. Instead, it has degenerated to little more than authoritarianism in the service of totalitarianism.

~   ~   ~

This post was edited after publication.

N. Korea perestroika watch: regime installs German-made cell phone trackers

If and when the Security Council takes up North Korea human rights sanctions, I hope they’ll start by ordering the public flogging of whomever sold these to Pyongyang:

The North Korean authorities have installed a series of German-produced radio wave detectors along the border areas to monitor and block residents from making phone calls with people in other countries. The Daily NK has learned that by using the new devices near borders areas where phone reception can be detected, the authorities have been tapping phones and tracking down the call locations. 

“It has become very difficult to make mobile phone calls from the North Korea-China border area,” a source in North Hamkyung Province told the Daily NK on Tuesday. [Daily NK]

Now, I suppose it’s possible that the German manufacturer wasn’t aware that its products would end up being used by the North Korean security forces. I suppose it’s also possible that this is another example of a philosophy — one that’s too prevalent in Europe — that all trade drives North Korea inexorably toward perestroika.

gestapo radio detector

[Berlin, 1941: Gestapo officers demonstrate “a mobile radio detector to pick up resistance signals” to a visiting Spanish delegation]

The saddest thing about this shameful trade is that as near as I can tell, it doesn’t even violate EU sanctions. Not that that matters much, given what a lousy job the EU is doing of enforcing sanctions anyway.

In the NYT: N. Korea, extortion, freedom of speech, and freedom of information

Professor Lee and I are published in The New York Times today, expressing our disappointment at the South Korean government’s failure to stand up for freedom of speech for South Koreans and freedom of information for North Koreans, something the Universal Declaration of Human Rights speaks to quite clearly:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

It’s one thing to say that Park Sang-Hak’s balloon launches should be moved away from populated areas as a prudent precaution in the interest of public safety. It’s another thing entirely to say–as South Korea’s left-wing opposition is building toward arguing–that the launches should be censored entirely to appease Pyongyang:

South Korea’s main opposition party will study ways to restrict civic groups’ flying of anti-North Korea propaganda leaflets across the border, its chief policymaker said Tuesday, citing heightened cross-border tensions resulting from the campaign. [….]

“Leaders of defector groups say they will continue to secretly scatter leaflets across the border, but our party can no longer watch the government’s laissez-faire attitude,” Rep. Baek Jae-hyun, the chief policymaker of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), said in a party meeting.

“We will soon study legal measures to restrict the flying of such leaflets.” [….]

The resolution, signed by 25 other NPAD lawmakers, urges the government to block the activity under the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act, swiftly execute a ban on cross-border slander and normalize ties with the North through dialogue. [Yonhap]

Fine, then–so now tell me where North Korea’s veto ends. Balloons are no more violent than radio broadcasting, nor any greater violation of North Korea’s sovereignty, so will South Korea’s left demand that Free North Korea Radio be shut down next? Will it demand the abandonment of policy proposals or actions at the U.N. that North Korea objects to? Will it want to censor newspapers that print things North Korea objects to? Would it ban movies and TV shows North Korea classifies as “slander?” Would it withdraw police protection from the activists North Korea has tried to assassinate, including Park Sang-Hak? If South Korea disregards the rights of North Koreans to freedom of information–despite recognizing them in the ROK Constitution–would it accede to North Korea’s “right” to track down and punish people who use illegal cell phones?

Given the history of the NPAD’s predecessor parties, the Uri Party and the Minju-Dang, those questions are hardly far-fetched. Once you acknowledge Pyongyang’s veto power over whatever it defines as “slander,” you’ve traded away your liberty for security, and you deserve neither.

Certainly the leaflet balloons are a powerful symbol for those of us outside Korea, but I’ve always wondered how much of an effect the leaflets could possibly have. It has to be significant. How else to explain North Korea’s reaction? At least one of the balloon activists claims that one of the leaflets played a part in inducing his own defection. That surprises me.

What doesn’t surprise me in the slightest is that John Feffer thinks the South Korean government should ban the balloon launches (Update: or at the very least, that the activists should censor themselves). That’s a rather illiberal view from someone who has railed against “McCarthyism” in South Korea and argued that the National Security Law suppresses free speech. Now, I’ve been a persistent critic of the NSL for years, and I happen to agree with Feffer that it’s overbroad, has been used to censor non-violent speech in ways that violate the plain meaning of the ROK Constitution, and should be repealed or struck down to the extent it goes beyond prohibiting violent conspiracies, the theft and disclosure of government secrets, and unregistered foreign agency. But it’s never acceptable for governments to censor nonviolent expression–whether John Feffer happens to agree with their viewpoint or not.

The proper response to violent attacks against peaceful expression isn’t censorship. It’s artillery.

Silencing Park Sang-Hak won’t end North Korea’s threats (updated)

For the first time since 2010, North Korea has fired across the border into South Korean territory, this time with 14.5-millimeter anti-aircraft guns. The North Koreans were shooting at the second of two launches of balloons carrying a total of 1.5 million leaflets, by North Korean refugee Park Sang-Hak and the Fighters for a Free North Korea.

The North Koreans didn’t respond to the first launch of 10 balloons at noon, but at around 4:00 in the afternoon, they fired on a second group of 23 balloons. Thankfully, no one got hurt, at least on the southern side. It’s not clear whether the North Koreans hit any balloons, although the 14.5 ammunition probably cost more than the balloon and its cargo. A few rounds landed “near military units and public service centers in Yeoncheon County,” near the DMZ, and one of them did this:

14.5mm hole

[via Yonhap]

The Soviet-designed 14.5-millimeter anti-aircraft gun comes in 2- and 4-barrel variants, as this quaintly aged U.S. Army training film shows.

True to their word, the ROKs shot back. They used K-6 machine guns, which are similar to the American M-2 .50 caliber machine gun, a slightly smaller caliber than the 14.5. Despite Park Geun-Hye’s public instructions to return fire without waiting for her permission, the ROKs didn’t shoot back until 5:30, about 90 minutes after the North Koreans fired. This time lag suggests that the front-line soldiers held their fire until they received orders from higher up their chain of command, although it’s not clear how high.

Rather than give the ROK Army the last word, the North Koreans fired again after this.

In launching the balloons, Park Sang-Hak and his compatriots defied threats from North Korea, because if you have the brass to sneak across the border into China and make it to South Korea, and if you’ve already survived one assassination attempt, you’re no ordinary man, you’re a honey badger who learned to shave, dress himself, and speak Korean.

Needless to say, the South Korean government’s “call for restraint,” to avoid harming “burgeoning fence-mending between the Koreas,” has no effect on such beings:

“We, defectors, run toward the frontline of freedom and democratic unification to end Kim Jong-un’s three-generation power transition in order to fulfill Hwang’s lifetime goal of liberating North Koreans and democratizing the country,” read the leaflets, which were launched with one-dollar bills and other pamphlets.

“In the North, Hwang is known to have died tragically. This campaign is meant to let North Koreans know he is buried in the South Korean national cemetery.” Park Sang-hak, the head of the activists group, said. [….]

Continuing its previous statements, Pyongyang warned through its official Korean Central News Agency a day earlier that Seoul should stop the activists from sending the anti-North Korea leaflets or face an “uncontrollable catastrophe” in inter-Korean relations. [Yonhap]

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

Right after the statement from the North, the unification ministry asked the civic groups to scrap their plan, citing inter-Korean tensions. Despite its call, however, the government largely retained its long-standing hands-off position on the issue, saying it has no legal ground to stop them. “The issue is something that the leaflet-scattering group should decide for themselves,” a unification ministry official said on condition of anonymity.

Which is good, because a lot of South Koreans want their government to block Park Sang-Hak from sending any more of his leaflet balloons.

Now, far be it for me (of all people) to denigrate the critical importance of setting the right ambience for North Korea. But if solving the North Korean nuclear crisis is really all about mood lighting, scented candles, and Marvin Gaye music, Park Geun-Hye might be a bigger problem than Park Sang-Hak, at least if you judge by what the North Koreans themselves are saying:

North Korea resumed its direct criticism of South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Friday, warning that her “nasty” remarks toward Pyongyang may dampen a rare mood of inter-Korean reconciliation.

In a statement, the National Reconciliation Council took issue with Park’s comments earlier this week that the communist neighbor is showing an ambivalent behavior of provocations and peace gestures. [….]

“(Park’s remarks) are an unacceptable provocation against us,” said an unnamed representative for the North’s council, a working-level agency dealing with inter-Korean affairs.

It is an “impolite and reckless” act, which throws cold water on the mood of improved inter-Korean relations created by a high-profile North Korean delegation’s trip to the South last week, read the statement. [Yonhap]

See also, etcetera. Sure, you can always say that the responsible thing is to avoid antagonizing violent people. Some might even say it’s the government’s job to prevent anyone else from offending violent people, even if the offense is caused by completely non-violent expression. Send leaflets over North Korea and it’s just a matter of time before they answer you with artillery, right? In the same spirit, if your newspapers print blasphemous cartoons, if your authors write blasphemous books, or if some guy publishes a crappy blasphemous movie on YouTube, hey, people might riot, other people might get hurt, and really, isn’t the mature thing to do to censor ourselves just this one time? Or maybe just one more time, because the North Koreans are offended by some dumbass American movie, and Japan wants to get its hostages back? Or because North Korea is offended by a British TV series? Or by Kim Seung Min’s radio broadcasts? Or by the election of a defector to the National Assembly, whom Pyongyang threatened to “hunt down?” Or by a policy proposal by the President of South Korea, one that North Korea also answered with artillery?

By now, you can see where this ends. Or, to be more accurate, where this doesn’t end, ever.

~   ~   ~

Update: The ROK Government now says that it is mulling “appropriate” measures to protect its citizens from similar incidents in the future, but that those measures will not include preventing more launches.

“As we said previously, there is no legal ground or relevant regulation to forcibly block the leaflet scattering as it is a matter to be handled by civilian groups on a voluntary basis,” he said at a press briefing. “The government, which is in charge of the safety and security of our people, will instead push for appropriate steps to deal with the matter.”

This is a more promising direction. Under U.S. constitutional law, the government can lawfully place reasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner of speech that’s protected under the First Amendment.

If Korean courts interpret the ROK Constitution similarly, and if the ROK Government were to restrict the FFNK from launching from populated areas or near military installations, that might be constitutional, would allow the launches to continue, would avoid rewarding a violent response to non-violent speech, and might also reduce the risk that North Korean attacks would harm bystanders.

Just remember this: Park and the FFNK are South Korean citizens, too.

Would it be slander if I called Rep. Sim Jae-kwon a fascist masquerading as a liberal?

A South Korean opposition lawmaker filed a resolution Thursday calling for the implementation of past inter-Korean agreements to stop slander between the two sides.

The resolution, submitted by Rep. Sim Jae-kwon of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), calls on the two Koreas to recognize that mutual recognition and respect are the basis for trust-building. It also urges the two sides to honor such agreements as the joint statement of July 1972, which bans cross-border slander. [Yonhap]

Sim went further than this, and called on the South Korean police to take what he darkly called “appropriate action” against the Fighters for a Free North Korea, in the name of “inter-Korean relations” — in other words, censorship to appease Pyongyang.

But once you agree to impose Pyongyang’s definition of slander on a free society to appease it, there’s no end to the reach of Pyongyang’s censorship, because inter-Korean relations will always be subject to however Pyongyang reinterprets “slander.” And when the likes of Sim were in power, the state’s censorship, or content-selective subsidies, extended to the newspapers, theater, movies, political demonstrations, and even the intimidation of refugees from the North to keep silent. That is no more liberal than Kim Jong Un is a Marxist.

Sim’s call is also a warning that North Korea’s sympathizers in the South will blame Park Sang-Hak and those who join him if the North attacks them in some way. I do wish Park would try to be a bit more unpredictable in his cat-and-mouse game with those who might be tracking his operations. That might even make their activities more interesting for journalists. And if there is an attack, it would inevitably focus media speculation on someone inside South Korea who revealed Park’s location to the North Koreans.

North Korea ranks 197th out of 197 countries for press freedom this year,

… according to Freedom House.

Remember 2011, when Pyongyang’s deal with the Associated Press was supposed to usher in a new era of press freedom in North Korea? Wouldn’t it be great if one of the AP’s editors or correspondents would sit for an interview, review how that’s worked out, and answer hard questions about the North Korean regime’s restrictions on the access and coverage? I don’t mean softball interviews like this; I mean the kind of hard questions that make them execute evasive maneuvers, or walk away in a huff.

Come to think of it, we may need a whole new system to rank the press freedom of news agencies. I wonder how engagement with North Korea has affected the AP’s ranking.

N. Korea perestroika watch: Regime bans all wireless internet use by foreigners.

Just lovely. Background here.

If any of my regulars in Pyongyang who aren’t spies — and in a spirit of inclusiveness, also those who are spies — care to risk summary execution and pass along their anonymous observations, I’m listening.

Assuming you have wired internet, that is.

North Korea tries to censor a British TV series

In the case of “The Interview,” North Korea used its Japanese hostages to get to Sony pictures. Now, it’s using its diplomatic relations with Britain to get to “Opposite Number.

Those who “engage” Pyongyang always say they will change it, but Pyongyang always changes them instead.

A victory for free speech in South Korea

”The nation’s top court on Thursday upheld the acquittal of a 26-year-old man accused of retweeting posts sympathizing with North Korea’s communist regime.” [link]

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The National Security Law is overbroad and unconstitutional (see Article 21).

Clarification: It’s overbroad and unconstitutional when it’s used to censor political speech, but not when it’s used to prosecute people who act as agents of foreign governments or who conspire to commit violence.

How terrorism works: N. Korea uses Japanese hostages to censor “The Interview”

Last week, I wrote that the North Koreans who had unwittingly lavished free publicity on “The Interview” by threatening its makers still had a thing or two to learn from the mobs of angry Muslim extremists who extorted President Obama into asking YouTube to “consider” removing “The Innocence of Muslims.”

My judgment may have been premature. Film industry trade journals are now reporting that Sony Pictures Japan has demanded changes to the script of “The Interview” to minimize the offense against His Porcine Majesty. If true, the report suggests that North Korea has successfully used its kidnapping of Japanese civilians from their own country to demand — and get — the censorship of a mass-marketed film parodying its dictator:

The film, about a pair of TV journalists recruited by the CIA to assassinate the North Korean despot, has become a hot potato for the studio, which is owned by Japan’s Sony Corp. (the country recently has taken steps to ease tensions with its enemy to the West after decades of icy relations). Sources say the studio is considering cutting a scene in which the face of Kim Jong Un (played by Randall Park) is melted off graphically in slow motion. Although studio sources insist that Sony Japan isn’t exerting pressure, the move comes in the wake of provocative comments from Pyongyang that the film’s concept “shows the desperation of the U.S. government and American society.” (Directors Rogen and Evan Goldberg are in fact Canadians.) An unofficial spokesperson for the rogue nation took issue with the satirical depiction of the assassination of a sitting world leader and on July 17 asked President Barack Obama to halt the film’s release.

It is unlikely that North Korea is just now catching wind of the film’s hot-button storyline given that THR first wrote about The Interview and its plot in March 2013 (Dan Sterling wrote the screenplay). What’s more likely irking Kim Jong Un — a noted film buff, like his father — is the use of the military hardware, which can be seen in the film’s first trailer released in June.

A source close to Sony’s decision-making says the move to alter the hardware was precipitated by “clearance issues,” particularly because it involves a living person, Kim Jong Un. [The Hollywood Reporter]

The website Firstshowing.net is denying that these changes are due to pressure from Sony Japan, but why else would Sony make this change other than because of North Korean objections?

Some of the changes reportedly come at the behest of Sony Japan, in the interest of improving and maintaining relations with its nearby neighbor. The face-melting scene is reportedly being judged for comic value, but who actually believes that it might be cut at this point for any reason other than keeping North Korea happy? [Slashfilm]

The next question is why Sony Pictures Japan even cares what Kim Jong Un thinks. The answer is almost certainly ransom. If not for a recent ransom deal between Pyongyang and Tokyo, in which Tokyo agreed to relax sanctions in exchange for Pyongyang’s agreement to “investigate” the whereabouts of the Japanese abductees, there would be no reason for anyone pay attention to North Korea’s bluster.

In the years preceding October 11, 2008, it had been the U.S. government’s view that North Korea’s kidnapping of Japanese citizens (including a 13 year-old girl) from their own country was terrorism, and that its continuing captivity of these hostages (not all of them Japanese) was one of several reasons to list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. In April of 2006, President Bush met with the mother of that girl, calling it “one of the most moving meetings since I’ve been the President here in the Oval Office.”

But North Korea is an accomplished exceptionalist to the rules that the rest of humanity lives by, and just two years after that meeting and Bush’s implied promise to the mother, Sakie Yokota, Kim Jong Il cajoled Bush into removing it from the list and lifting some powerful financial sanctions that may have brought his regime to the brink of extinction, and that might well have forced North Korea to let the abductees go.

Suddenly, and with a brazen mendacity not seen since Moscow in the 1930’s (except, of course, in Pyongyang), it became the official position of the U.S. Department of State that North Korea was “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” (The statement would become more difficult to defend with the passage of time, as North Korea was caught selling arms to Hamas and Hezbollah, and launched a campaign of poison-needle assassinations of human rights activists and North Korean exiles.)

The unintended consequences of Bush’s reversal have continued right up to this year, and include a decision by an impatient Japanese government to unilaterally lift sanctions against North Korea as an initial ransom payment for the return of its people. The Obama Administration, which paid little mind to Japan’s pleas for U.S. support on the abduction issue, has reacted to this with justifiable alarm. Japan’s relaxation of sanctions not only rewards terrorism, it weakens a regional security alliance against Pyongyang, and relaxes the economic pressure that is its last slender hope to disarm Pyongyang of its nuclear arsenal.

Although Pyongyang has delivered little so far in admitting to the whereabouts of the missing Japanese, there have been rumors in the Japanese press that its demands were not all financial. It has demanded, for example, the return of the headquarters of Chongryeon, the North Korean front organization in Japan that had a hand in the kidnappings of Japanese, and which had been seized for non-payment of taxes. It is also rumored to have used its business relationships with Japanese media companies to suppress the views of critics of North Korea’s human rights atrocities.

So it always goes when governments and businesses are tempted into intercourse with Pyongyang. The patron is expected to pay exorbitantly for a brief and unsatisfying rut, and in the end, it is never Pyongyang that is seduced — or infected — by the exchange.

The fact that “The Interview” is likely of dubious artistic merit is beside the point. If North Korean censorship has arrived at a multiplex near you, that’s pernicious, and may be the best reason yet to boycott the film.

~   ~   ~

Update: This post was edited after publication.

First as tragedy, then as farce

The story I linked Monday about Michael Kirby’s comments spurring the U.N. to action in North Korea eventually grew into two posts, because in the same story, Kirby also warned against trivializing what’s happening in North Korea.

The Commission of Inquiry, which reported to the UN in March, detailed horrific abuses of human rights in North Korea, including starving political prisoners reduced to eating grass and rodents in secret gulags, schoolchildren made to watch firing squad executions, and women forced to drown their own babies to uphold racial purity laws.

Justice Kirby compared the actions of the North Korean regime to a modern-day Holocaust, and he warned against treating North Korea as a quirky, oddball regime.

“Please do not think North Korea is a cuddly, cute sort of a case, with a leader with a bad haircut who is nonetheless loveable and is going to go in the right direction because he’s a young man. This is not a situation where a young person is going to bring a new broom, if his is a new broom it is a violent new broom. Things have not improved.”

I suppose Justice Kirby was talking about films like “The Interview” and the Dennis Rodman parody “Diplomats,” neither of which I’ve seen. Based on the description of the plot premise, it’s clear to me that “Diplomats” is too stupid to have much redeeming artistic merit, and will almost certainly trivialize a terrible tragedy. It deserves, frankly, to be the object of a boycott, but as North Korea has learned, protests like these often backfire — just like Dennis Rodman’s birthday serenade did. The learner’s-permit demographic that films like “Diplomats” target are unmoved by moral and philosophical arguments, and by standards of taste.

If you filled a thimble with everything Dennis Rodman knew about North Korea last year, there would still be room for everything Dennis Rodman remembers about North Korea this year. Rodman has suggested, probably seriously, that he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for his addlebrained adventures in North Korea. Most people dismissed this as farce, but to be fair, Rodman may (however inadvertently) have done as much to bring Pyongyang’s crimes against humanity into the global consciousness as Kirby’s carefully documented report.

That is both good and a sad comment on the state of our media and human rights watchdogs today. The sadder comment is that no watchdog, no global law-giver, no son of Korea in any position of global leadership, and no Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader of any nation, indispensable or otherwise, has lifted more than a token finger to press for action on the findings of the COI’s report, so far. The people of North Korea have been forgotten for decades. All indications are that in September, the General Assembly will send Justice Kirby’s report to the Security Council. All indications also suggest that after 48 hours of page four news, the U.N. will have forgotten it by the end of October.

My expectations for “The Interview” are almost as low. “The Interview,” however, benefits from much promotional assistance from the North Korean government. With its impeccable talent for irony, North Korea’s official “news” service, KCNA, printed a statement by the Foreign Ministry that called the film “terrorism,” accused the United States of “bribing a rogue movie maker to dare hurt the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK,” and threatened “to mercilessly destroy anyone who dares hurt or attack the supreme leadership of the country even a bit.” It concluded, “Those who defamed our supreme leadership and committed the hostile acts against the DPRK can never escape the stern punishment to be meted out according to a law wherever they might be in the world.”

North Korea was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. KCNA and the Associated Press signed two still-undisclosed memoranda of agreement in 2011, under which they agreed to cooperate in their reporting of “news” from North Korea.

Thankfully, Pyongyang still hasn’t learned that the best way to censor speech in America is violence — say, summoning mobs into the streets, sacking our embassies, and killing our diplomats. Do that, and our President will go on TV to apologize to the mobs for the very existence of free speech, we’ll jail the heretics who offend you, and our own government will be your vicarious censor. (This is the real Benghazi scandal — and the Republicans can’t see that.)

As with the U.N.’s greater interest in objectively lesser crises, parodies of North Korea also raise the question of double standards. Can you imagine someone making a spoof film about Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or even Gaza? (Not that anyone should.) How many decades passed before a film like “Inglorious Basterds” could be made?

This isn’t to say that North Korea shouldn’t be parodied (it should be), or even that the parodies must be tasteful (the good ones seldom are). What I suppose I am saying is that artistic judgments are balancing tests that weigh what makes a work distasteful against what makes it important. I struggled with that balance in my judgments of films like “Borat” (very funny and thought-provoking, but even more distasteful) and “Team America” (distasteful, but funny and profanely profound). The moral risks of failing that test are greater if the work’s effect is to blunt our sense of outrage.

The truth, of course, is that Justice Kirby deserves the Nobel Prize, and deserves to be the subject of a serious nomination campaign for both himself and his fellow Commissioners. Perhaps that campaign would give one of our world’s great institutions, or their so-called leaders, a small twinge of responsibility to act.

If, in the end, the world is only capable of answering tragedy with farce, it least it should be good farce. It ought to be better a better farce than “Diplomats,” and diplomats.

Wanted: Information about North Korea’s cell phone tracking gear

THE DAILY NK REPORTS that North Korean border guards are shaking down and extorting border-area residents suspected of making illegal cross-border phone calls:

Secret agents in border areas of North Korea are extorting payoffs from residents in exchange for keeping silent about illicit international phone calls, an inside source has reported to Daily NK. 

The source in North Hamkyung Province told Daily NK on July 22nd,  “At the beginning of this year they installed radio wave detectors around here to pick up signals from illegal calls. Calling out from much of the Hoeryong region has become much more difficult.” 

This extortion is possible because the regime brought in new 24-hour radio wave detectors at the beginning of the year, which makes it much easier to detect the calls. I’d bet good money that someone in China (or some other foreign country) sold those detectors to the North Koreans, and I’d really, really like to find ouyt the name of that company. And rat them out.

However, security agents are often prepared to let the activity go on in exchange for a portion of any remittances residents may receive from family overseas, the source said.

She explained, “In areas like the Yuseon district of Hoeryong and Heungam in Musan the detection equipment exists but making calls isn’t a problem” as long as you “fork over 20% of the wired funds you received.”  [Daily NK]

Still, the fact that guards are taking bribes is worse than the alternative. It means that there are holes in the net.

N. Korea bans celebrated photographer Eric Lafforgue

North Korea has banned the French photographer Eric Lafforgue, who in recent years had captured some of the most remarkably unfiltered images of North Korea not taken from outer space. At Business Insider, Lafforgue explains how a group of North Korean sympathizers from Spain ratted him out over a careless comment about their Kim Jong-Il t-shirts (really!), which shows you how freely some citizens of liberal societies imbibe the local quisling culture in the name of solidarity.

As with so much “engagement” with North Korea, we are left asking, “Who changed who?” Lafforgue, who refused to be changed, eventually wore out his welcome, while the obedient Associated Press remains. It doesn’t suggest that North Korea is ready to open itself to the world.

Lafforgue’s work is admired by North Korea watchers of diverse persuasions. Fortunately, he leaves an extensive body of wonderful work, which is sampled — along with Lafforgue’s commentary — at The Daily Mail and elsewhere, and at his Flickr page. In the Daily Mail, Lafforgue describes his struggles with his minders to capture just about every image shown. It’s often unclear how Lafforgue managed to get his pictures anyway, and we’re left with the impression that after he was denied permission, he still found a way.

Because Lafforgue tried so hard to reflect life in North Korea as he found it, both those who are sympathetic and those who are hostile to the regime both found degrees of validation in his imagery. From my decidedly hostile perspective, I suspect that Lafforgue’s images of high-songbun regimentation and low-songbun poverty both reflect reality — two separate and unequal realities. We are most often shown images of North Korea as a militarized and regimented society. To Lafforgue, this was a facade, a cliché to be disproven:

“I was disappointed as I think I tried to show more than just the clichés you hear about this country,” says Lafforgue of his travel ban. “I was trying to speak to people, let them talk, show they are not robots and that they have families and a lot of culture.”

“I tried to document North Korea in the same way I would any other country in the world, but for them to accept it, you really need to follow their rules and for me, some of those rules just weren’t acceptable.”

Occasionally, I’ve seen commenters attribute that cliché to hard-liners in America, although it would be more accurate to attribute it to the regime itself, with a generous assist from lazy journalists who broadcast it, often without questioning it. The reality of The Other North Korea that Lafforgue also showed us seems closer to 14th Century feudalism than 1930s Moscow or Berlin.

Breaking through that facade may be the most useful service Lafforgue did for us. He did it by breaking through North Korea’s widening class barriers, which are themselves reflected in a wide gap between standards of living in Pyongyang and everywhere else.

Lafforgue’s images from inside the invisible dome surrounding Pyongyang often have the most artistic merit, although most of those images, or the events they portray, are too staged to have much analytical value.

But it’s when Lafforgue ventured outside the dome that he did his most interesting work. I end up marveling at how much he got away with, and regretting that Pyongyang decided to close the revealing window he opened. I’ve long asked myself the same question about the extraordinary work of Kernbeisser, aka Moravius, who exceeds even Lafforgue in his ability to show North Korea’s gritty side. However they did it, Lafforgue or Kernbeisser have told us far more about North Korea than photographers who work for more established news services.