Category Archives: Censorship

The more North Korea trades, the more it reforms, right? Wrong.

Yesterday, I questioned the premises of economic engagement with Pyongyang — that Pyongyang is socialist, that trade is capitalism, that capitalism inexorably erodes socialism, and that capitalism (least of all, state capitalism) is inherently liberal and peaceful. I argued that Pyongyang adopted state capitalism decades ago, and that it has grown steadily more menacing and repressive ever since. It feigns socialism to feed our false hopes of reform and arguments against sanctions, to tempt investors, to recruit apologists who embrace its socialist pretenses, and to justify the economic totalitarianism it uses to starve and isolate the vast majority of its subjects. Pyongyang doesn’t practice socialism; it imposes it on the underclasses. The underclasses are the only ones who can change that.

Sincere advocates of changing North Korea by engaging Pyongyang may accept that their best intentions didn’t work, yet still not lose heart. If they’re willing to rethink engagement in terms of engaging the people rather than the state, they’ll find more reason than ever to believe that change is in sight. For example, it now seems likely that within the next five years, anyone, anywhere in the world, will be able to access the internet. The signal might come from Google’s Project Loon, or Facebook’s, or maybe some combination of both. Universal internet access will shatter Korea’s virtual DMZ; eventually, it can break the physical one, too. The day is coming when North Koreans will be able to attend South Korean classes, sermons, movies, clinics, lectures, and family reunions. There can be a revolution in the people-to-people engagement that the Sunshine Policy promised, but couldn’t deliver, if South Koreans have the vision and the courage to weave a virtual Ho Chi Minh Trail of clandestine communication from South to North. North and South Koreans can use this network to rebuild the North’s civil institutions from the ground up, to establish shadow governments, to build the capacity to resist the state’s most repressive policies, and to begin the process of reconstruction.

Today, however, the South Korean government remains too timid to broadcast to its northern countrymen on AM radio. My friend (and now, National Assemblyman) Ha Tae Kyung, interviewed by the Daily NK, calls for Seoul to make broadcasting a part of its unification policy, which at present desperately lacks a Phase 2. Ha wonders how the Blue House and the Unifiction Ministry can be serious about reunification when they haven’t called for radio broadcasts to the North, broadcasts that could play an important part in the cultural and social reunification.

Of course, Pyongyang will try to enforce the poverty and isolation of its subjects as if its survival depends on it. Just as it cracked down on its northern border, tracks down and arrests the users of Chinese cell phones, and sends distributors of foreign media to the gulag, it will try to arrest, imprison, terrorize, or kill anyone who listens to South-to-North broadcasts, or who makes inter-Korean phone calls. Yet the right policies on our part can give the people a fighting chance.

This picture taken on April 6, 2013 shows a Chinese border guard standing on a look out post by the bridge that crosses the Yalu river to the North Korean town of Sinuiju across from the city of Dandong. The US is pressuring China's new President Xi Jinping to crack down on the regime in North Korea or face an increased US military presence in the region, The New York Times reported late April 5, 2013. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

[STR/AFP/Getty Images, via WaPo]

Isolating a country costs money, and with the decline in the Chinese economy, Pyongyang may be having more difficulty finding that money. The Wall Street Journal‘s Alastair Gale cites Chinese trade data showing that “[t]he value of North Korean exports to China … fell 9.8% through August from the year-earlier period … accelerating from a 2.4% decline last year.” Meanwhile, another report confirms what I’ve long suspected — that the security forces are funding themselves through some of this trade:

North Korea’s feared State Security Department (SSD) has established a new “trade organization” tasked with earning foreign currency from China, according to sources who say the branch will likely use its broad powers to tap into channels used by the impoverished nation’s subsistence smugglers.

The SSD, also known as the Ministry of State Security, set up the organization “very recently” with its headquarters in the capital Pyongyang and several satellite offices in “local areas” of North Korea, a source from North Hamgyong province, along the border with China, told RFA’s Korean Service.

“While the whole nation is aware of the shortage of foreign currency in North Korea, it seems strange to establish a new trade organization under the SSD, which traditionally monitors the population’s activities to ensure they do not contravene the rules of the regime,” said the source, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, after recently visiting China.

In addition to keeping an eye on the political actions of the public in North Korea, the SSD’s secret police force keeps tabs on North Koreans who travel to and from China, as well as telephone communications in border areas.

Sources said the move will likely have implications for North Koreans who subsist on Chinese currency they earn by running smuggling operations over the border. [….]

A source based in China who maintains a close relationship with North Koreans earning foreign currency there told RFA that a “large number of people belonging to the SSD” had been dispatched across the border since spring to “monitor and control the activities of North Korean residents” in the country.

“Since they are ostensibly working for foreign currency, they are called ‘trade representatives,’ just like others [who have been sent to earn cash for the regime],” said the source, who also declined to provide his name. [Radio Free Asia]

The regime’s use of trade to finance this crackdown sets up a zero-sum competition between state capitalism and free-market capitalism, the kind that has genuine potential to transform North Korean society. The SSD’s profiteering is neither a quiet capitalist revolution nor a sign of reform that is washing away the foundations of socialism. It pays for the enforcement of isolationism, and makes North Korea more unequal, oligarchical, and totalitarian (read: fascist). This may also be true of Pyongyang’s other trade relations, too, but we can only guess, because its finances are so opaque that not even the Treasury Department knows how it uses the proceeds.

In addition to broadcasting and people-to-people engagement, then, sanctions targeting the SSD’s assets are an important part of a policy to protect North Koreans from censorship and help them liberalize their society. By starving the security forces of cash, anti-censorship sanctions would deny the SSD the means to equip and pay its officers. They would foster the corruption that facilitates smuggling, and preferentially support engagement through independent free markets. The use of sanctions to fight censorship and support freedom of expression is nothing new. Treasury has anti-censorship sanctions against Iran to “facilitate communications by the Iranian people.” Why not North Korea?

Ha is dismissive of sanctions, perhaps because he lumps all kinds of sanctions together, and (like most people) doesn’t know the significant gaps in their enforcement. It’s a common myth that sanctions against Pyongyang are still strong, although I’ve previously debunked this myth in detail. Ha argues that the trade sanctions Seoul imposed on Pyongyang in 2010, after the attack on the ROKS Cheonan, haven’t made Pyongyang apologize or come to the negotiating table. He concludes that “economic sanctions don’t have effects, but broadcasts do.”

Respectfully, I think Assemblyman Ha is missing a few key points, including the role sanctions can play in protecting his North Korean listeners. First, the lifting of these trade sanctions has been at the top of Pyongyang’s list of demands since 2010. If it can be argued that loudspeaker propaganda was effective because Pyongyang sounded desperate to switch it off, the same can be argued of the bilateral trade sanctions.

Second, by lumping all “sanctions” together, Ha overlooks what is beyond serious dispute — that financial sanctions hit Pyongyang where it hurt most:

Practically overnight, banks throughout the region, even in China, began turning away or throwing out North Korean government business. By this one simple act, Mr. Zarate writes, “the United States set powerful shock waves into motion across the banking world, isolating Pyongyang from the international financial system to an unprecedented degree.” [….]

Then, Mr. Zarate writes, a North Korean representative contacted the United States, seeking relief from the 311. At the State Department’s insistence, negotiations began in Beijing, and appeared to end when a Chinese bank volunteered to handle a measly $25 million of North Korean money the authorities in Macau had frozen.

Mr. Zarate writes that “the amount of money wasn’t the issue” and that the North Koreans “wanted the frozen assets returned so as to remove the scarlet letter from their reputation.”

Then, he says, something amazing happened. Despite its government’s support of North Korea, the Chinese central bank refused to approve this solution, indicating that it, too, wanted nothing to do with a bank hit by a 311. “Perhaps the most important lesson was that the Chinese could in fact be moved to follow the U.S. Treasury’s lead and act against their own stated foreign policy and political interests,” he writes. “The predominance of American market dominance had leapfrogged traditional notions of financial sanctions.” [N.Y. Times Review, “Treasury’s War,” by Juan Zarate]

Third, the May 24, 2010 sanctions are narrow sanctions with narrow purposes — they exclude Kaesong, after all. Ha has a vision for reunification and has articulated it; Park Geun-Hye doesn’t and hasn’t. Still, even Park’s limited goals can be valid ones. Trade sanctions deter Pyongyang by imposing a (small) price for murdering South Koreans with premeditation and malice aforethought. They’re also consistent with U.N. Security Council resolutions, which prohibit member states from providing “public financial support for trade with the DPRK (including the granting of export credits, guarantees or insurance to their nationals or entities involved in such trade) where such financial support could contribute to the DPRK’s nuclear or ballistic missile programmes.” South Korea voted for those sanctions when it was a member of the Security Council. The other members of the Security Council approved them, in large part for South Korea’s own protection. Seoul can’t very well ignore them now.

We now have evidence that regime-controlled trade funds the oppression that isolates North Koreans, retards change, and helps Pyongyang repress the people who would listen to the broadcasts Ha supports. If the world wants North Korea to change, it has to give free markets — North Korea’s only independent institutions, on which most North Koreans depend for their survival — a fighting chance to survive. As long as Pyongyang’s oligarchy has unrestricted access to our financial system, it will use it to isolate and repress its people. We should seek to shift North Korea’s internal balance of power away from the ones with the guns and food toward those without. That means giving North Korea’s people information and access to markets. That, in turn, means blocking the funds that pay for Pyongyang’s policy of isolation and oppression.

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Sale of cell phone detectors to N. Korea adds to Germany’s debt to history

If there is any justice in our universe, there is a special septic tank in hell reserved for the people who profit by selling these things to Pyongyang:

According to local sources, North Korean authorities have recently begun carrying small, German manufactured radar detectors when patrolling near the Chinese border for the purpose of monitoring international phone calls made on Chinese-made cell phones.

These intensified measures follow a proliferation of stationary detectors installed in North Hamgyong Province in conjunction with enhanced wiretapping technology, as previously reported by Daily NK. [Daily NK]

What I wouldn’t give to know the name of the manufacturer and exporter. The Treasury Department has the authority — and the responsibility — to sanction them to extinction under Executive Order 13687.


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

Every government whose desire to open North Korea to the world matches its self-serving rhetoric ought to be investigating this case actively, including Germany, including South Korea, and including our own State Department.

On September 14th, Daily NK staff spoke with a source in Yanggang Province who confirmed that recently, personnel from a number of different security organs including the prosecutor’s office, the Ministry of People’s Security, and the State Security Department, have formed a ‘gruppa,’ or public order teams established for specific tasks, specifically for the purpose of cracking down on overseas phone calls. This unit patrols day and night using the small radar detectors to pick up on cell phone signals calling overseas.

An additional source in Yanggang Province confirmed these developments.

In the past,  the majority of sensors used for enforcement were carried in bags but the new radar detectors from Germany are small enough to be carried in a pocket, the source said, noting, “Before this, citizens who were wary of being caught would simply avoid any security officers toting bags. With the new devices, many people will see officers without bags and assume it is safe to make an overseas phone call–then they get caught.”

Knowing the human species’s gift for self-justification as I do, I’m sure that if you confronted the German government with evidence that one of its companies was helping Kim Jong-Un to seal the borders and oppress his population, at least one official would justify this trade by using the word “engagement.”

“Members of the task force, whether they are from the SSD or the MPS, are blindly rounding up citizens and searching the stored contents of their phones. If they find any South Korean songs, videos, or other materials the authorities deem ‘sensitive,’ the offender is arrested right then and there,” he said.

Despite the increase in and intensity of crackdowns, the appetite for South Korean dramas and films remains large and ever expanding, especially among university students. Because many students sell this type of media for a living, it is difficult to stamp out the problem at its roots.

But then, how different is the engagement that sells Kim Jong-Un cell phone detectors from the engagement that gives Kim Jong-Un the cash to pay for them?

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N. Korea Glasnost Watch: Video shows men sent to camps for copying American movies

The Telegraph has obtained guerrilla footage of two men, one 27 and one 30, being tried and sentenced to nine months in a labor camp for copying and selling American movies.

The North Korean judge, or official, says that one of the defendants is “a person immersed in the corrupt ideology of capitalism” and tells the crowd that the criminal acts were “revealed by agents in South Korea operated by our party.”
During the full 12 minutes of footage, filmed secretly by an onlooker and seen exclusively by the Telegraph, neither man is given the chance to speak, and both are sentenced to time in an unnamed correctional labour camp. The exact length of the sentence appears to be around nine months – experts say around one to two years is common.

Not stated in the article is that the men aggravated their crime by failing to pay a sufficient bribe to avoid trial entirely.

The footage is from September 2013, and the cameraman who took it obviously did so at great risk. With the recent crackdown on border control, it has become much harder to get information in or out of North Korea. The European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRNK) and New Focus International teamed up to smuggle the video out and get it into the hands of the media. Michael Glendenning, EAHRNK’s Director, comments:

“This video is in itself very rare – very few bits of footage are able to get out of North Korea. But also, public trials are extremely rarely reported outside North Korea,” he said.

“This video corroborates the vast evidence from witnesses’ testimony that there is no judicial system to speak of. People are denied access to lawyers, or any right to defend themselves, and are sentenced without any knowledge of what their sentence will be, in terms of length, or where they will end up. It demonstrates the brutality of the North Korean system.”

Footage like this is incalculably important for corroborating the testimonies of defectors, for increasing international pressure on the regime and those who help finance and perpetuate it, and as a deterrent against repressive actions like these. If cameras become ubiquitous enough that Pyongyang reasonably fears that its repressive acts will be filmed and shown abroad, it will face pressure to reconsider its actions for fear of greater international isolation.

In related news, the Daily NK reports that Pyongyang granted a Liberation Day amnesty to “thousands” of prisoners in its labor-reeducation camps. It arrives at this estimate by extrapolating from the number of releases observed in local areas. These are the smaller kyo-hwa-seo, not the larger kwan-li-so political prison camps. Those watching for signs of political change will be disappointed:

The first batch of released prisoners mainly consisted of petty economic criminals, robbers, violent offenders, and those who injured others while driving due to carelessness, he explained. Notably, the first cohort did not include a single prisoner arrested by the State Security Department [SSD] for what are considered “political crimes.” The second amnesty wave, set to take place at 5 prisons, is slated to follow the same pattern as the first: that is, political prison camp [kwanliso] detainees will remain exempt from amnesty. [Daily NK]

In other words, the regime is releasing people sentenced for acts that would be crimes in normal societies, even as it continues to arrest and hold people for thoughtcrimes, and other offenses against the state’s totalitarian control.

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Can Hollywood still make movies about North Korea? We’re about to find out.

Via Deadline Hollywood:

Hawaii Five-O star Daniel Dae Kim and his CBS-based production company 3AD are partnering with Sriram Das’ Das Films (November Man) to develop Mike Kim’s Escaping North Korea: Defiance And Hope In The World’s Most Repressive Country, as a feature film. Rosalind Ross (Matador) is attached to pen the adaptation, and the South Korean-born Daniel Dae Kim will star as Mike Kim (no relation).

The 2008 memoir chronicles a first-hand account of a high-risk mission to lead a group of refugees over the North Korean border through Southeast Asia using a modern-day Underground Railroad. Over the course of his four years in Asia, Mike Kim would end up aiding thousands of people of all ages find safe haven through his humanitarian missions. The project is timely given the recent border standoff and escalation in tensions between North and South Korea.

Yes, and by the time it’s released, it will be timely for some other reason. Maybe, let’s say, a nuke test. Or an artillery attack on a leaflet launch. Or a large, suspicious explosion somewhere in South Korea. Oh, here’s a good one — how about a cyberattack on 3AD studios and a threat against every movie theater that shows this movie?

Those damn disgruntled insiders — you never know when they’ll show up. No, seriously — I sure hope CBS and 3AD invest in some good cybersecurity, like now. Because, welcome to the age of global censorship, when in a small but very real sense, we’re all the subjects of Kim Jong-Un.

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Kim Jong Un’s censorship knows no limits or borders. To submit to it is to forfeit freedom.

If Kim Jong Un is weighing whether to answer leaflets from South Korea with artillery, it won’t discourage him that many on South Korea’s illiberal left have already begun to excuse him for it. Within this confused, transpatriated constituency, there is much “anxiety” lately about “inter-Korean tensions.” Those tensions have risen since North Korea has begun threatening to shell the North Korean defectors who send leaflets critical of Kim’s misrule across the DMZ. But then, any rational mind can see who is at fault when the object of non-violent criticism answers his critic’s threats with violence. Right?


[The Park Police should check those blankets for wet spots.]

I don’t suppose it occurred to these people to take their grievances and anxieties to the ones who are threatening war over non-violent expression. That would be the logical reaction if these people were really as concerned about “tension” as they were about acting as Kim Jong Un’s proxy censors. Their undisguised demand is that Seoul should censor — and that Washington should abstain from supporting — free expression, for the very reason that Pyongyang is threatening to shell civilian villages in response to it.

Dismiss this as the view of a lunatic fringe if you will, but not all of this lunacy is on the fringe.

For example, today is the fifth anniversary of North Korea’s premeditated and unprovoked sinking of the ROKS Cheonan, an act of war that killed 46 South Korean sailors. An international investigation team found that a torpedo fired from a North Korean submarine sank the Cheonan. Yet only yesterday, the head of the left-opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy finally acknowledged that the North did it. For five years, conspiracy kooks and appeasers had enough influence within the NPAD to prevent it from giving the first small comfort of this acknowledgement to the souls of the dead and the hearts of the bereaved. The NPAD’s long, reprehensible silence speaks more loudly than its words.

And now, here is Jeong Se-Hyun, who headed the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland Reunification Ministry under Kim Jong Il Roh Moo Hyun:

“The (South Korean) government claims the leaflet scattering is a matter of free expression, but such a slander on (North Korean leader) Kim Jong-un is something fatal to the North,” the former point man on the North said in a local symposium.

“If the Park Geun-hye administration wants to hold a meaningful inter-Korean dialogue during its term, it should send a sincere message that (Seoul) will acknowledge and respect (Pyongyang),” he noted. [Yonhap]

I could not answer this better than Shirley Lee did, in a series of three profound and cogent tweets:

With all this and more, it is laughably tragic that we who are free to think continue to think only within frames set by such a system.

Where each of its subjects living beyond its narrative must be despised and scorned, and those submitting to its frame to be praised.

We side with a brutal, inhumane, zero-sum system merely by siding with its frames, by not calling it out, forging and articulating our own.

Also, Jeong reveals too much here. If he really thinks that non-violent expression is “fatal,” he must believe that a few scattered scraps of paper have the potential to inspire the North Korean people to risk their lives to overthrow His Porcine Majesty. That, given half a chance, they’d hang him from a lamppost (and they should be sure it’s a very sturdy one). Jeong is a closet collapsist! Perhaps he could write me a guest post expanding on this.

Park Sang Hak – Hacking North Korea’s… by NORTHKOREATV

This week, Pyongyang’s proxy censors are especially afraid of Park Sang-Hak. Park is obviously under great pressure from both Korean governments, including the one that hasn’t yet tried to assassinate him. Just this week, Park has said that he would abstain from sending leaflets “for now,” and also vowed to send them “next week” despite the North’s threats.

Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 6.46.48 AM

[This is a syringe, loaded with the poison neostigmine bromide. Agents of North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau use them to assassinate dissidents and activists. One of them tried to kill Park Sang-Hak with this one.]

Incidentally — and please, stop me if you’ve read this somewhere — President George W. 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.

South Korea’s National Human Rights Commission has opined that Park’s activities are guaranteed under Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It might also have said that they’re protected under Article 21 of the South Korean Constitution. There is another party whose rights we shouldn’t forget, either. The North Korean people also have a right to receive information from across the no-smile line:

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]

Writing in The New York Times before the Sony attack and threat, Professor Lee and I took the moderate view that the South Korean government must honor these rights, but could still impose reasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner in which Park sends his leaflets. After all, North Korea clearly has no regard for the lives of South or North Koreans. Perhaps, then, we should concede the prudence of asking the activists to send their leaflets from less populated areas, for the sake of those who live nearby. But then, this recent story caused me to wonder if we had conceded too much:

North Korea on Tuesday threatened to mercilessly punish South Korean activists for allegedly hurting the dignity of its young leader Kim Jong-un during a public demonstration, the latest in a series of harsh rhetoric against rival South Korea.

The latest threat came days after a conservative activist in Seoul trampled a photo of Kim and slashed it with a knife during a rally as others burned printed replicas of North Korean flags. [Yonhap]

In other words, North Korea is now threatening free assembly and expression in downtown Seoul. When you consider that Pyongyang has sent multiple assassins to Seoul and to China to murder dissidents there, no dissident should see this as an idle threat. It has also repeatedly threatened and cyber-attacked South Korean newspapers and broadcasters. It’s not as if Pyongyang has the standing to demand that anyone respect its (unconscionable, soul-crushing) laws when it shows such contempt for the South’s society and laws. No government that submits to such threats can call itself a democracy. The only appropriate response to this is unprintable on a blog with a PG-13 rating, and for most people, would be anatomically impossible.

Aside from the desire to police thought on the streets of Seoul, what other principled grievance might Pyongyang have? Might it have a principled objection to cross-border propaganda leafleting, based on some idea of mutual non-interference? Umm, no:

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 8.16.51 PM Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 8.16.28 PM

In 1998, just after morning formation one day, a soldier friend found this outside the fence around Yongsan Garrison in Seoul and gave it to me. The Army told us to drop these things into special leaflet collection boxes, but who needs one of those cheap gift pens the ROK Defense Ministry hands out every year when you could have a souvenir like this? (Sorry for the wrinkles. Sweaty PT uniforms do that.)

Is it North Korea’s principled position that it’s an act of war to fly physical objects across the DMZ? I doubt that, too.

In any event, if the objection to balloons is that they’re a physical intrusion — notwithstanding their obvious non-violence — then the South Korean and U.S. governments should expand their support for Radio Free North Korea and Open Radio. South Korea should also let them broadcast on medium wave. Pyongyang and Seoul both broadcast to each other now, although on a limited scale.

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The odds are greater than ever that someone who shares Jeong’s world view will be the next President of South Korea. In fact, given the healthy tendency of voters to tire of any extended rule by a single party, I’d assess them slightly higher than that. If Jeong speaks for a majority of South Koreans, South Korea won’t remain a free and open society for long. It was barely a free and open society when Roh Moo-Hyun was in charge. Let’s not forget that last year, the NPAD proposed to regulate (read: ban) cross-border leafleting. Does anyone expect North Korea to be more respectful of free expression in the South now that it’s at the verge of nuclear breakout? It wouldn’t be unprecedented for an appeasement-minded government in Seoul to add the in terrorem effect of arrests and tax audits to this.

The question here is nothing less than whether South Korea has the courage and reason to remain a free society. If it does, we should give South Korea our support. If not, just remember that Pyongyang’s demands have no borders or limits. Accede to one and there will be another. As a wise man said,

“We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States. If somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary they don’t like, or news reports they don’t like.”

Last year, Kim Jong Un effectively extended the reach of his censorship to the United States, not only by preventing theaters from screening a film critical of him, but also by preventing Hollywood studios from making any more of them. By my count, in the last year, Pyongyang has attempted to extent the writ of its censorship — with some success — to Seoul, Tokyo, Berlin, London, Rangoon, Paris, and an academic conference in downtown Washington, D.C. It is also suspected of a cyberattack against The Washington Post. Several years ago, someone hacked this very site.

Of course, South Korea doesn’t have to remain a free society, any more than the United States has to keep 28,500 soldiers and airmen there. Regardless of what kind of society South Korea chooses to be, the United States would still have interests in maintaining friendly relations and trade with it. It’s just that the world is descending into madness at the moment, and we’ve become more particular about who and what we’re willing to die for.

There are two possible lessons here, depending on the path taken in Seoul, Washington, and the world’s other capitals.

The first is that terrorism works when governments are more willing to yield to it than to stand up to it and protect free expression.

The second may not be the one that Pyongyang hoped for: that Pyongyang sounds as afraid of free expression as it is of sanctions. Something here has nipped an especially sensitive nerve in the tender man-bosoms of His Porcine Majesty. Where there is upset, there is also a deterrent. Perhaps Pentagon planners should explore the “soft” power of free expression, not only as a tool to transform North Korean society, but to deter North Korean provocations. An extended deployment of Commando Solo may be just the thing to deter a fourth nuclear test. Perhaps free speech isn’t the problem at all. Perhaps it’s an important part of the solution.

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How Barack Obama let Kim Jong Un get away with censoring and terrorizing America (updated)

Last December, after the FBI and the National Security Agency  concluded that North Korea’s Unit 121 had hacked Sony Pictures and threatened the Americans who wanted to see “The Interview,” President Obama publicly accused North Korea of the cyberattack and threat, and promised a “proportional response” to it. On January 2nd, the President signed a new executive order whose potential was sweeping, but whose actual effect was “symbolic at best.” In practice, the designations under the new executive order amounted to whack-a-mole sanctions against ten small-time arms dealers, who were probably replaced by ten other small-time arms dealers within weeks.

Is that all? Maybe not. If you believe Rep. Michael McCaul, the President also directed the intelligence community to take down North Korea’s internet for a few days. The Director of the CIA, who seems rather desperately to want to deny the story, nevertheless stuck to the CIA’s customary neither-confirm-nor-deny line — sometimes called a “Glomar” response — which will be read in most places, including Pyongyang, as, “So they did it.”

Had this been the act of a band of angry nerds in Guy Fawkes masks (and by the way, about those masks), most people would have applauded it. I still hope that it was. As the act of a great power that once treasured and defended the free expression of its people with all of its might, no word would describe this better than “chickenshit.” It suggests that angry nerds in Guy Fawkes masks have been put in charge of defending the lives, liberty, and security of the world’s greatest power with a mighty arsenal of college pranks. What’s next, flaming dog poop on the doorstep of North Korea’s U.N. mission? It’s hard to see how this will deter future North Korean attacks; after all, the internet is about as vital to North Korea as a subway system is to North Dakota.

In the United States, freedom of expression is not only the foundation of our system of government — of what makes us America — it is also the foundation of what those who shrink from the use of hard power call “soft power.” It is difficult to measure the damage our freedom of expression has suffered in just the last three months alone, but the cyberattack caused Sony Pictures to cancel the release of a major film just before the holidays, and a second studio, New Regency, also announced that it would scrap a second film about North Korea.

In a very real way, the world’s most oppressive system of government has extended the reach of its censorship to our society, and our government acts as if it is impotent to react to this. When one considers the very real legal and safety risks attendant to engaging in what the most extreme adherents of Islam call “blasphemy” today, one strains to argue that the United States is as free today as it was five years ago. If only there were a man whose duties and authorities consisted of preserving, protecting, and defending the Constitution of the United States.

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Knowing, as history has taught us, that finance is the only North Korean vulnerability the United States has ever exploited successfully, smarter people are following the money. No one should be following North Korea’s money more closely than Adam Szubin, the head of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (Szubin is also the Acting Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence because his predecessor, David Cohen, has been picked to be the new CIA Director. That should tell you everything about the importance of financial intelligence in U.S. foreign policy today.) This week, Szubin delivered a speech to a trade group in Florida, where he talked about the Obama Administration’s sanctions enforcement priorities:

We are imposing costs on Russia for its brazen violation of core international principles.  We are working to deprive ISIL of the financial means to terrorize the people of Iraq and Syria and spread its warped ideology.  We are keeping up the pressure on Iran while we seek a diplomatic means of ensuring that it will not acquire a nuclear weapon. [Treasury Dep’t Press Release]

By now, you’ve noticed a glaring omission from the list — the only state counterfeiter of the U.S. dollar. One of two nations (Iran being the other) singled out for countermeasures by the Financial Action Task Force. The only nation to have successfully suppressed freedom of expression in the United States by directing its clandestine agents to make a terrorist threat against the American people, in their own country. And as of this week, the only nation to have sponsored a cyberattack against multiple nuclear power plants, an attack that the South Korean government claims was intended to cause a reactor malfunction.

Where it matters — on the financial front — North Korea is a blind spot for the Obama Administration. You can see this manifested in a variety of ways. In this paper, I explained the general weakness of the sanctions authorities in place against North Korea, the relatively small number of North Korean entities designated for the blocking of their dollar-denominated assets, and the relatively low level of the entities designated. This matters, because as the U.N. Panel of Experts recently confirmed, North Korea still relies heavily on the dollar system to violate U.N. Security Council sanctions. Yet you’ll have to search far and wide for any evidence that Treasury has enforced even those sanctions against the banks that help North Korea finance itself, violate U.N. Security Council resolutions, break our laws, and suppress our fundamental freedoms, all by using our own financial institutions.

Last year, for example, the Treasury Department entered into the largest settlement of a potential sanctions penalty in its history, when the French parastatal bank BNP Paribas agreed to pay nearly $1 billion for stripping data out of records of transactions to evade sanctions. Sanctions against whom, you ask?

For instance, a Sudanese bank seeking to move U.S. dollars out of Sudan transferred funds internally within a BNP satellite bank, which then transferred the money to the Sudanese bank’s “intended beneficiary” without reference to the Sudanese bank.

BNP Paribas agreed with sanctioned entities “not to mention their names in U.S. dollar transactions,” and included explicit instructions to bank personnel, such as “! Payment in $ to [French Bank 1] without mentioning Sudan to N.Y.!!!” [….]

According to New York regulators, the scope of the violations was much larger. DFS said from 2002 to 2012, BNP Paribas provided more than $190 billion of dollar-clearing services for Sudanese, Iranian and Cuban parties.

Under orders from “high levels of the Bank’s group management,” BNP Paribas engaged in a “systematic practice…of removing or omitting Sudanese, Iranian or Cuban information” from U.S. dollar-denominated transactions with the purpose of avoiding disclosure “to any potential investigatory authorities,” according to the DFS document. [Wall Street Journal]

Once again, North Korea is absent from the list. Even after the BNP Paribas settlement, Treasury continued to investigate “at least six banks in Germany, France, Italy or Japan” for violating sanctions against “Iran, Sudan, Cuba or other nations hit with U.S. sanctions.” Although North Korea wasn’t one of the principal targets of that investigation, the article gave reason to hope that there would be at least one enforcement action against a bank this year. It linked to this 2014 report by Germany’s Commerzbank, revealing that the bank was under investigation for possible sanctions violations involving North Korea. That probably means that Commerzbank was suspected of dealing with the Foreign Trade Bank or Daedong Credit Bank, the only two North Korean banks of significance that have been designated by Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Months passed with no word of any enforcement action against Commerzbank. Then, last week, Treasury issued a press statement confirming the outcome of its investigation: Commerzbank signed a settlement with OFAC, agreeing to pay $258,660,796 for “apparent” violations of sanctions on Iran, Sudan, Burma, Cuba. What about North Korea? To be fair, OFAC also suspected Commerzbank of violating Executive Order 13,382, “Blocking Property of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferators and Their Supporters,” which is the authority for approximately half of the North Korean designations. Yet no North Korean entities are mentioned in the settlement agreement, which explains Commerzbank’s alleged violations in detail. Here’s Treasury’s summary of how Commerzbank did it:

Those practices included deleting or omitting references to Iranian financial institutions and replacing the originating bank information with Commerzbank’s name from payment messages sent to U.S. financial institutions.  Commerzbank also created a process to route payments involving Iranian counterparties to a payment queue requiring manual processing by bank employees rather than routine, automated processing.  Commerzbank utilized these practices in 1,596 financial transactions routed to or through banks in the United States between 2005 and 2010….

As is customary, Commerzbank denied any wrongdoing in the settlement agreement. The report does have one bright spot — It also notes that “Deutsche Bank, Germany’s largest bank, has said it stopped doing new business with Iran, Syria, Sudan and North Korea in 2007.”

It’s worth clarifying that the Treasury Department isn’t the problem here. Szubin is regarded by congressional staffers of both parties as a highly competent bureaucrat and technocrat. The problem is that his remarks reflect the priorities of the president he serves. For the same reasons, the OFAC staff aren’t the problem, either; when sufficiently resourced, they do their jobs very well. The problem is at the top — the President hasn’t made it a priority or dedicated sufficient resources to the problem, most likely because the State Department has persuaded the President to slow-walk sanctions enforcement. The result is that the President keeps the sweep of the sanctions narrow, barely enforces the sanctions that are in effect, and pays token attention to violations and offenses he absolutely can’t ignore.

That abstention from responsibility is now threatening the most fundamental freedoms of the American people, the safety of the South Korean people, the integrity of the U.N. Security Council’s sanctions, and the entire global nonproliferation system. North Korea has made it clear that its system of government and ours cannot coexist. The very least we should do is less of what we’re doing now to help North Korean fascism to continue to exist.

~   ~   ~

If you believe the anonymous U.S. government sources who talked to the Daily Beast, we didn’t knock KCNA down, but we did something else. The sources won’t say what, and more importantly, it’s hard to tell if these sources are high enough in their own organizations to understand the full picture of what various other agencies were up to.

On Tuesday, the online news outlet Daily Beast cited unidentified sources with knowledge of the U.S. government cyber-operations against North as saying that the operations were “designed to send a message that North Korean officials weren’t beyond the reach of the American government.”

The U.S. operations took place before the blackout, but the takedown itself was not the result of those operations, the sources were quoted as saying. The report also said independent hackers have claimed they are the ones that took the North offline.

Former U.S. intelligence officials were also quoted as saying that the American government would hesitate to take down the North’s entire network because it would cut intelligence agencies off from the cyber-spying they were doing inside North Korea. [Yonhap]

You can read the Daily Beast report here.

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Once again, North Korea threatens free speech here in the United States

On December 19, 2014, in response to the FBI’s conclusion that North Korea was behind the threats against audiences for “The Interview,” President Obama said, “We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States.” After all, the President reasoned, “if somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary that they don’t like or news reports that they don’t like.”

Or, he might have added, a human rights conference put on by an N.G.O. in downtown Washington, D.C., where current and former U.S. diplomats were in attendance.

North Korea says it will respond “very strongly” to a conference in Washington on Tuesday about its widespread human rights abuses and says the United States ignored Pyongyang’s offer to attend and defend itself. Puzzled conference organizers said the event was open to the public.

North Korea’s U.N. Ambassador Jang Il Hun told reporters Monday his country has asked the U.S. government to “immediately scrap the so-called conference” hosted by the nonprofit Center for Strategic & International Studies. Speakers include Robert King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues. [AP]

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.

You can debate what Jang meant and exactly what he was threatening, if you care to. I have no doubt that Jang’s masters chose exactly the words they did so that they could preserve a modicum of deniability, while allowing the rest of us to put his words into the context of North Korea’s recent actions and draw the obvious conclusions. What’s beyond dispute is that Pyongyang is trying to censor debate right here in Washington, D.C., by purporting to tell Americans what they can meet and talk about. Pyongyang now believes it can enforce its censorship writs on Rhode Island Avenue. It must be disabused of that notion.

If the President of the United States believes in defending our freedom to debate issues that are important to public policy, his first response will be to expel Ambassador Jang for activities incompatible with his diplomatic status. His second response will be to put North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. His third response will be to get on with that “proportional” response he promised, after North Korean hackers threatened to attack American moviegoers. Those threats successfully suppressed two major films, and they have done incalculable harm to our freedom of expression. The President’s response ought to be premised on the determination that if North Korea forces us to choose between our freedom of expression and North Korea’s existence, then North Korea must cease to exist. A policy of imposing incremental inconvenience would no longer do.

Few Americans would describe President Obama as a particularly good president, particularly when it comes to foreign policy, although I’d still argue that with respect to North Korea, President Bush’s combination of empty tough talk and appeasement was even worse. Yet for some reason, fair or unfair, the North Koreans have made the calculation that Obama is a lightweight, and that he won’t offer a serious response to this sort of thing. That means we’re sure to hear more like this from them.

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S. Korean Human Rights Commission: Government can’t ban leaflets

“The privately organized spread of propaganda leaflets is a form of free speech protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” the sources quoted the final statement as saying. “Restricting these scatterings is like listening to the North’s demands at the expense of South Koreans’ human rights.” [Yonhap]

Yes! I’d started to wonder whether anyone in South Korea grasped this. I think we can now say that the HRC has rehabilitated itself from the days under Roh Moo Hyun when it became a laughingstock because of its refusal to consider human rights in North Korea, while taking up Iraq. Well, no longer.

But then, there are people right here in America who would ban “slander” of North Korea, or who don’t think Americans should be able to make films like “The Interview” in deference to the sensitivities of foreign despots. For some, the temptation to appease overcomes greater principles. For others, who set out to engage and transform North Korea, it is they who change to match their surroundings.

I also hope that the leafleters will take some reasonable precautions, and launch from unpopulated areas, or at night.

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Then they came for the Germans: N. Korea’s global censorship campaign

Having seen “The Interview,” I’d rate it as good an artistic fit for the Berlin Film Festival as Klaus Nomi might have been for the half-time entertainment at a tractor pull. North Korean diplomats, however, aren’t widely esteemed for certain qualities — like, diplomacy, or diplomacy, academic rigor, or cultural sophistication. Consequently, when they heard that “The Interview” was to open in Germany on February 5th, they misunderstood that it was on the festival agenda. And they said this:

The North Korean statement issued Wednesday stated: “The screening of the movie that hurts the dignity of the supreme leadership of North Korea and openly agitates state-sponsored terrorism has nothing to do with the ‘freedom of expression’ touted by Germany. It is evidently agitation of terrorism quite contrary to the purpose and nature of the Berlin International Film Festival.” [Variety]

They also called the film “state-sponsored terrorism.” Sigh. Someone really should lend the North Koreans a dictionary or a law book, because words, like, you know, actually mean stuff.

It ended: “The U.S. and Germany should immediately stop the farce of screening the anti-North Korean movie at the film festival. Those who attempt at terrorist acts and commit politically-motivated provocations and those who join them in violation of the sovereignty and dignity of North Korea will never be able to escape merciless punishment.” [Variety]

You can thank me for verifying that quote on KCNA, the Phuket back-alley ladyboy of the Internet, so you don’t have to. KCNA even compares “The Interview” to the Holocaust, which is a privilege they’re not entitled because … well, this would be one reason. And this would be another. And this (OK, you get the idea). Read it in full below the fold. It’s a thing of such blithe obliviousness that a certain childlike wonder soon washes over one’s sense of outrage.

You’d think that in these times, Europe would be unusually principled and protective of free expression. To sterner folk, the appropriate response would have been a gruff “Verpiss dich!,” and the prompt addition of “The Interview” to the festival agenda. To other Europeans, “Je Suis Charlie” is the safeword their dominatrix taught them, to be cried out in vain during a prison riot. That attitude describes the reaction of the German government, which summoned the head of the festival to give the Norks a polite explanation. Or so say the rheumy-eyed, snaggletoothed old Trotskyites at The Grauniad.

Festival head Dieter Kosslick was reportedly forced to meet with the North Korean ambassador to Germany to explain. A spokesperson told Variety the situation was now resolved and Pyongyang understood the comedy was not being screened at the Berlinale. [The Guardian]

His name is even Dieter. Delicious ….

No word as to whether the North Koreans were able to suppress their embarrassment quickly enough to demand that the film be declared verboten everywhere else in Germany.

There are signs, however, that North Korea is expanding its campaign to suppress “The Interview” globally. On January 16th, The New York Times reported that North Korean diplomats demanded that Burmese authorities seize any copies of “The Interview” they find. (The copies were bootlegged; this may have been the first thing North Korea has done in the last two months that Sony Pictures approved of.) On January 25th, The Bangkok Post reported that North Korea had asked Cambodia to ban sales of “The Interview.”

Now, I suppose it’s better for Nork diplos to be wasting their time on a movie than on rounding up child refugees to send back to reeducation camps. Still, one fears that when the ostensibly democratic world would rather define free expression down than stand up for it, precious few of us will have the testicular fortitude to say, “Je suis Park Sang-Hak.”

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China to Obama: Drop dead

The best news I’ve heard today is that Sony Pictures has either grown a pair or decided that it would rather wilt under domestic political pressure than wilt under foreign terrorist pressure. That means that some theaters will be showing The Interview on Christmas after all. I won’t stand in line to see it, but when it comes to my neighborhood, I’m taking my son (my daughter might not be old enough).

Fortunately, this sounds like exactly the kind of crappy movie that might just be fun to watch with a twelve year-old. At Epcot Center, we almost punctured our lungs laughing at Captain EO, clearly the worst film I’ve ever seen. How much worse could this possibly be? I expect The Interview to be stupid and distasteful, for the reasons we explained here, but I’m willing to compartmentalize that. There is an even more important principle involved now, and my son is old enough to understand that.

That also suggests one reason why China would harbor those responsible for these attacks, from Chinese soil, routed “through servers in Singapore, Thailand and Bolivia.” China also favors the remote-control censorship of American speech. The editors of The Global Times, for example, believe they have standing to define the acceptable limits of free speech here:

“No matter how U.S. society looks at North Korea and Kim Jong-un, Kim is still the leader of the country. The vicious mocking of Kim is only a result of senseless cultural arrogance,” the Chinese state-run paper said in an editorial.

“The biggest motive for Sony Pictures may be the box office, by putting out a sensational story. However, if the movie really was shown on a large scale, it would further upset the already troubled U.S.-North Korea ties,” it said. [Yonhap]

The editors of The Global Times can go fuck themselves. They’re the first ones to whine about “interference” in China’s “internal affairs” when civilized nations protest that China’s tyrants gun down students, jail dissidents, persecute Tibetans, or send North Korean kids to death camps. It takes some chutzpah for a gang of toadies for stultifying, culture-strangling despots to lecture a free society with a legitimate government about what kinds of speech it should allow.

Good thing whoever hacked North Korea’s internet didn’t also take down The Global Times. Why, that might cause problems for U.S.-China relations! Perish the thought that China should conclude that the U.S. was allowing people to attack its interests from U.S. soil.

China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, also strongly denied media reports that China was involved in the Internet outage in North Korea, slamming such reports as “not trustworthy” and “irresponsible.” [Yonhap]

Yesterday, there was some speculation that the outage of North Korea’s internet service might be the result of China shutting down North Korea’s access at the White House’s request.

“We have discussed this issue with the Chinese to share information, express our concerns about this attack, and to ask for their cooperation,” the official said. “In our cybersecurity discussions, both China and the United States have expressed the view that conducting destructive attacks in cyberspace is outside the norms of appropriate cyber behavior.”

North Korea’s Internet traffic goes through China. President Barack Obama said Friday, “We’ve got no indication that North Korea was acting in conjunction with another country.” [CNN]

But if there was any such “cooperation,” it didn’t last long. The evidence to the contrary is stronger. Not only is Xi Jinping knowingly harboring North Korean hackers who attack U.S. interests, he’s also telling President Obama to leave him out of it and work it out with Kim Jong Un himself:

“We have noted the relevant remarks made by the U.S. and the DPRK (North Korea) over recent days,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying replied during a regular press briefing, when asked whether China has responded to calls by the U.S. over the Sony hacking.

“We believe that the DPRK and the U.S. can have communication on that,” Hua said, without elaborating further. [Yonhap]

Again, the newspapers are filled with speculation that at last, China is done with North Korea and ready to cooperate with us to pressure Kim Jong Un — the same kind of speculation we see after every North Korean nuke test, missile test, purge, or attack. It makes for interesting reading. I can even believe that some people in China really are annoyed with Kim Jong Un. But I’ll believe that China is ready to cut Kim Jong Un off when I see it. I’d say it’s at least 60% likely that this is disinformation, designed to restrain gullible Americans from taking legal action against North Korea’s Chinese enablers. Which is the only way to change China’s behavior, and North Korea’s.

After 9/11, we didn’t ask the Taliban to “investigate” Osama Bin Laden. We’re obviously not going to invade China, but we should do to those who sponsored North Korea’s hackers and terrorists what we did to Kim Dotcom. In the Kim Dotcom case, the Chinese government saw that its interests favored cooperation, so it cooperated. If China continues to sponsor attacks against American interests in our own country, then it’s time to restrict China’s access to U.S. markets. If push comes to shove, China isn’t going to choose its relationship with North Korea over its relationship with the United States. Its business interests won’t allow that. We must force China to make that choice.

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N. Korea perestroika watch: corruption defeats information crackdown

I’ve previously reported on Kim Jong Un’s efforts to crack down on illegal cell phones, memory sticks, DVDs, and other subversive information flows, even as some wishful observers clung to sketchy evidence to argue that Kim Jong Un was a reformer. The good news is that after an initial period in which smuggled DVDs became hard to find, they are making their way back into circulation.

“People caught for watching South Korean dramas aren’t being punished that harshly anymore,” a source based in Pyongyang told the Daily NK on Wednesday. “Authorities in charge have been turning a blind eye in exchange for bribes, so all we hear about is people being caught and not punished for what they did.”

However, she was quick to note that this situation is not indicative of any lax in regulation. “This doesn’t mean the crackdowns from the 109 group, the SSD, the Ministry of People’s Security, and inminban [people’s unit] have gotten any looser,” she explained. “They frequently search people’s homes and demand bribes if any CDs or flash drives containing South Korean dramas are discovered.”

She went on to explain that the 109 Group, a specialist team comprising people from the Ministry of People’s Security [MPS], the Party, and the administration, looks for, in particular, discs of South Korean films, dramas, and music. Some residents have reportedly paid up to 500 USD in bribes in response to the demands by this group and others conducting clampdowns.

“Some of the personnel carrying out these crackdowns tell people that if they don’t give them bribes, they might be sent to prison camps, never to leave for the rest of their lives,” the source said. “They often tell you that if you don’t have enough, that you should at least make an effort; many times they eventually say they’ll look the other way for 100 USD.” [Daily NK]

According to the article, lower-ranking officials are telling their seniors that the crackdown is working to a greater extent than it really is. Similarly, officials at all levels pay lip service to Kim Jong Un’s threat to punish corruption, which continues as it always has.

Not all of the news is good. Illegal cell phones are still nearly impossible to use, thanks to cell phone trackers the regime recently imported from Germany. That’s important, because those phones provide a critical cross-border link for the escape of refugees, and for cross-border trade in all kinds of smuggled goods.

The obvious caution is that most of these reports invariably depend on a small number of sources. They may reflect local conditions, or individual biases.

One can imagine the existence of a degree of passive official tolerance of this corruption, and even the possession of the offending materials, as a function of those officials’ political apathy or disillusionment. It’s likely that corruption has now embedded itself into the official culture to the point where it will be difficult to extirpate, even after reunification.

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N. Korea: Stop accusing us of terrorism, or else!

There is something strangely unconvincing about North Korea’s denial that it hacked Sony Pictures or threatened “9/11 style” attacks on theaters:

North Korea rejected the notion that it would attack “innocent moviegoers.”

“We will not tolerate the people who are willing to insult our supreme leader, but even when we retaliate, we will not conduct terror against innocent moviegoers,” KCNA said.

“The retaliation will target the ones who are responsible and the originators of the insults. Our army has the intention and ability to do (so).” [CNN]

And this:

“As the United States is spreading groundless allegations and slandering us, we propose a joint investigation with it into this incident,” the spokesman was quoted as saying by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

The spokesman also threatened “grave consequences” if the US continued to discuss retaliation against North Korea on this matter. [….]

Despite denying the attack, the North’s top military body the National Defence Commission has slammed Sony for “abetting a terrorist act while hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership”, according to KCNA. [AFP]

In contrast to this hyperbolic characterization, President Obama offers an oddly hypobolic one, calling North Korea’s actions “cyber vandalism.” I suppose we should be thankful that he didn’t attribute it to the “junior varsity” of North Korea’s hack squad, Unit 121. But if North Korea is also responsible for the threat to attack American movie theaters that Nakoulad two of the world’s largest movie studios into submission — and that’s how I read the FBI’s statement — we’re talking about something far worse than “vandalism.”

North Korea is also threatening a nuke test, in response to the full General Assembly’s passage of a resolution condemning it for crimes against humanity, and recommending a prosecution of responsible North Korean officials by the international criminal court.

“We will step up our efforts to strengthen self-defensive capability, including nuclear capability,” the North’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement, arguing that the resolution was a U.S-led political scheme to find an excuse for a military invasion against it. [Yonhap]

You can read the full text of that General Assembly resolution here, which you should, because we are all North Koreans now.

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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We are all North Koreans now

As far as I know, I didn’t liberate a single North Korean during my four-year tour with the Army in South Korea, although I’ve argued their distant and forgotten cause ever since I came home. The crimes of Kim Jong Un were still distant just five weeks ago, when Professor Lee and I, writing in The New York Times, sounded a lonely warning about Kim’s efforts to censor his critics in the South with terror and violence, writing that “[c]aving into blackmailers merely begets more blackmail.” To some, that probably seemed absolutist, even hyperbolic. It should seem more prophetic now.

One morning this week, I awoke to the realization that the rights I’m arguing for are my own—in my own home, and in my own neighborhood. Here, in America. In the suburbs of Washington, D.C.  Today, in a very small way, we are all North Koreans. Most of us have spent the last several decades ignoring the men who oppress North Koreans. Now, in a small but incalculably important way, the same men have oppressed us. Here is the FBI’s statement about the Sony hack, and the terrorist threats that followed it:

As a result of our investigation, and in close collaboration with other U.S. government departments and agencies, the FBI now has enough information to conclude that the North Korean government is responsible for these actions. While the need to protect sensitive sources and methods precludes us from sharing all of this information, our conclusion is based, in part, on the following:

– Technical analysis of the data deletion malware used in this attack revealed links to other malware that the FBI knows North Korean actors previously developed. For example, there were similarities in specific lines of code, encryption algorithms, data deletion methods, and compromised networks.

– The FBI also observed significant overlap between the infrastructure used in this attack and other malicious cyber activity the U.S. government has previously linked directly to North Korea. For example, the FBI discovered that several Internet protocol (IP) addresses associated with known North Korean infrastructure communicated with IP addresses that were hardcoded into the data deletion malware used in this attack.

– Separately, the tools used in the SPE attack have similarities to a cyber attack in March of last year against South Korean banks and media outlets, which was carried out by North Korea.

We are deeply concerned about the destructive nature of this attack on a private sector entity and the ordinary citizens who worked there. Further, North Korea’s attack on SPE reaffirms that cyber threats pose one of the gravest national security dangers to the United States. Though the FBI has seen a wide variety and increasing number of cyber intrusions, the destructive nature of this attack, coupled with its coercive nature, sets it apart. North Korea’s actions were intended to inflict significant harm on a U.S. business and suppress the right of American citizens to express themselves. Such acts of intimidation fall outside the bounds of acceptable state behavior. The FBI takes seriously any attempt—whether through cyber-enabled means, threats of violence, or otherwise—to undermine the economic and social prosperity of our citizens. [FBI Press Release]

The feds sound very confident about their conclusions:

Intelligence officials “know very specifically who the attackers are,” said one individual familiar with the investigation, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity because the case is ongoing. [Washington Post]

As with the Cheonan incident, it’s almost as if North Korea wants everyone to know it did it, while leaving just enough doubt to let its apologists do their work. That strategy worked well for them in South Korea, which never responded to the two deadly attacks on its territory in 2010. Why should Kim Jong Un believe that attacking us would lead to different results? That’s one reason why I’m so glad the President said something about the importance of protecting free speech:

“We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States,” Obama said. “Because if somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary that they don’t like or news reports that they don’t like.

Obama said he wished Sony had “spoken to me first,” adding: “I would have told them, ‘Do not get into a pattern where you get intimidated by these criminal attacks.’ ” [Washington Post]

Well, depending on who you believe, maybe they did. Still, that’s a welcome change, coming from the President who asked YouTube to take down “The Innocence of Muslims,” and whose Justice Department hustled Nakoula Nakoula off to jail to appease the whooping loonies who dominate the Middle East’s political culture today. But not to worry—the CEO of Sony Pictures says he’s “considering some sort of release on the Internet.”

I’ve never been much of a George Clooney fan, but he’s one of the few people in Hollywood with the spine to stand against North Korea’s terrorism:

“We’re talking about an actual country deciding what content we’re going to have,” he told Deadline. “This affects not just movies, this affects every part of business that we have.”

“What happens if a newsroom decides to go with a story, and a country or an individual or corporation decides they don’t like it? Forget the hacking part of it. You have someone threaten to blow up buildings, and all of a sudden everybody has to bow down. [CNN]

Our attention now turns toward what President Obama will do. Let’s hope it exceeds my low expectations, and Pyongyang’s:

Even in my myopic world view, these attacks raise far weightier questions than what our North Korea policy should be. The President’s response must be enough to restore U.S. deterrence of North Korea, and the confidence of our artists, media, journalists, and lowly bloggers that our government will protect them from the world’s petty despots:

“We will respond proportionally,” Obama said, “and we will respond at a place and time that we choose.”

U.S. officials have made clear for several years that they have a range of diplomatic, economic, legal and military options at their disposal in response to cyberattacks. Those steps might include indicting individuals believed to be behind the attack, asking like-minded states to join in condemning the intrusion, and if North Korea persists, undertaking a covert action to dismantle the computer systems used in the operation. [Washington Post]

I’ve already written here about what that response should include. One of those possible responses seems almost inevitable, now that Senator Bob Menendez has asked Secretary of State John Kerry to put North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. It’s difficult to see how he could avoid doing that, given the destructive power of the attack, its chilling effect on free speech, and the extensive evidence that North Korea was already sponsoring terrorism even before this incident.

“The United States condemns North Korea for the cyber-attack targeting Sony Pictures Entertainment and the unacceptable threats against movie theaters and moviegoers,” he said in written statement.

“We encourage our allies and partners to stand with us as we defend the values of all of our people in the face of state-sponsored intimidation,” Kerry added.

Separately, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said U.S. and Chinese officials had met in Washington and Beijing to discuss the issue, adding that: “Both China and the United States agree that conducting destructive attacks in cyberspace is outside the norms of appropriate cyber behavior.” [Yonhap]

As is customary among journalists, The New York Times and Reuters printed the standard-issue, off-the-record-senior-State-Department-official talking point that North Korea sanctions are maxed out, without bothering to read the sanctions. This talking point sometimes comes without any citation of authority whatsoever, and sometimes cites “experts” who appear not to have ever read a sanctions regulation. When I pointed out to these Bloomberg reporters that they’d cited a cybersecurity expert‘s analysis of a legal question–and that the analysis was wrong–I received a polite and interested reply, suggesting that the reporters genuinely intend to research the question. In the case of Reuters, in particular, the propagation of this false narrative is disappointing, because most of the Reuters reporters I follow check their facts painstakingly before publishing them.

The Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Cheng and Jeyup Kwaak did a better job:

On the financial front, the U.S. has wide latitude to target the North’s financial capabilities and its links to the global banking system, says Joshua Stanton, a Washington, D.C. lawyer and blogger who has advised the U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee on North Korea sanctions legislation.

Mr. Stanton says the U.S. can designate the North’s banking system as a money-laundering concern, add the country back to a list of state sponsors of terrorism, and move toward blocking U.S. tourism to the North.

“Our North Korea sanctions are weaker than our Zimbabwe sanctions,” Mr. Stanton said in an interview. “All of the top officials in the government of Zimbabwe have their assets blocked, and none of the top officials in the government of North Korea do.” [….]

“The single biggest thing that we can do is to designate the country as a primary money-laundering concern,” Mr. Stanton says, which he says would block the regime from conducting dollar-denominated transactions through the U.S. financial system, as its institutions can now do.

“That would have a very big impact on North Korea—banks around the world are very reputation-conscious,” he says, and would shy away from conducting any transactions with institutions tied to Pyongyang.

Some defectors from North Korea say Pyongyang has learned from the Banco Delta Asia sanctions, and now keeps much of its money outside the traditional banking system, which could limit the impact of such a move.

Mr. Stanton also notes that U.S. sanctions list just 63 North Korean ships, companies and individuals, far fewer than those for Myanmar or Cuba. He also says that U.S. Congress could start moving legislation that would impose similar restrictions blocking U.S. citizens from traveling to North Korea and spending money. [Wall Street Journal, Jonathan Cheng and Jeyup S. Kwaak]

Bruce Klingner of the Heritage foundation was also battling against this myth:

Oh, and for the record:

A North Korean U.N. diplomat said Pyongyang had nothing to do with the cyber attack. “DPRK (North Korea) is not part of this,” the diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity. [Reuters]

I think I speak for all of humanity when I sincerely hope this isn’t all Barack Obama’s pretext to advance Joe Biden’s cryptic plot to dominate North Korea’s vast riches of coal, meth, and refugees.

One thing that seems far more likely today is that the House and Senate will make North Korea sanctions legislation a higher priority. Even before the FBI fingered North Korea for this attack, and before President Obama announced his outreach to Cuba, Senator Menendez introduced a sotto voce version of the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, S. 3012. That bill is too weak to be worth passing in its current form, but it’s structurally similar enough to what the House passed last year that it should be viewed as a serious opening bid and a welcome step toward a good compromise.

A friend on the Hill told me yesterday that in terms of seizing Congress’s attention, the events of this week are the equivalent of “two or three nuke tests.” A Chinese Security Council veto of U.N. human rights sanctions–sanctions that were just recommended by the full General Assembly–should be the equivalent of another. At an exceptionally formative moment, Congress’s attention has been focused on North Korea. The administration is distinguishing North Korea from Cuba, is almost certainly considering new sanctions, and has probably just scrapped its plans for Agreed Framework 3.0. If a bipartisan, centrist consensus concludes that the agony of North Koreans is no longer a problem we can treat as remote and irrelevant, and that it’s time to discard the failed solution of appeasement, we will have reached an inflection point in our North Korea policy.

One avenue of response I hope the President won’t overlook is that information warfare works both ways. Certainly, carefully targeted sanctions can play an important part in defunding and disrupting the regime’s capacity to censor and oppress its people. Symbolically and practically, however, no response–not even sanctions–would do more to alter North Korea than to wage a quiet, non-violent war against its information blockade. It is difficult to imagine that despite all of America’s innovative potential, it still lacks the means to bring free speech to the people of North Korea, and to help them find their own way to rid themselves of the accursed men who tread them–and us–down.

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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 would leave me more speechless–a direct, brazen 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 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. Put North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. One of George W. Bush’s great, unsung foreign policy failures was his failed nuclear deal with Kim Jong Il, under which he relaxed sanctions and removed North Korea from the list. 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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