Archive for Censorship

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

~   ~   ~

Update:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sony Pictures should go after North Korean hackers’ Chinese enablers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This post was edited after publication.

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

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

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

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

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

gestapo radio detector

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14.5mm hole

[via Yonhap]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… according to Freedom House.

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

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

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

Just lovely. Background here.

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

Assuming you have wired internet, that is.

North Korea tries to censor a British TV series

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

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