Category Archives: Censorship

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?

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[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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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