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.
According to Choi, the financial cost of broadcasting to North Korea would be just a few million dollars — a tiny amount. When a publicly funded global media conglomerate refuses to broadcast to a country where the need is as great as it is in North Korea, I start to wonder what other motives are left unsaid. If we see the BBC open a Pyongyang Bureau next year, we’ll have our answer.
“Top Gear.” I hear that’s not all they’re downloading (ahem). According to “The Telegraph,” the deeds were done from the Ryugyong-dong district — also the place where all my hits from North Korea come from — a “neighbourhood in the northeast of Pyongyang … which contains … the Pyongyang International Communications Centre” and Koryolink’s main office. So that’s why.
On reflection, I suppose Martyn Williams is probably correct in identifying foreigners as the most likely culprits. You know what this means, of course: Pyongyang may be the only city in Asia where masturbation can be considered high-risk sex.
in North Korea is being shut down by the regime after being outed. The Diplomat reports that the unsecured wireless networks of foreign embassies had allowed North Koreans living nearby to access the internet without restriction, and that the hunger of North Koreans for that information was so great that it caused something of a housing boom in those neighborhoods.
Now that the security forces know about this, they’re cracking down, and forcing embassies to secure and password-protect their signals. I wonder if this means that my regular visits from Pyongyang are going to come to an end. I suppose not, because those visits are almost certainly coming from the North Korean intelligence services, but might be coming from embassies or other foreigners. (Hat tip to a new friend.)
Last week, a slick new video of Pyongyang by Rob Whitworth and JT Singh infected many writers and readers who don’t know much about North Korea with the Madonna Syndrome, defined as the illusion of entering virgin territory actually while plodding along a tired, well-worn, loveless, and morally ambiguous path in the footsteps of Dennis Rodman. The chirpy reaction of Washington Post blogger Abby Phillip was typical:
A new video aims to show a different side of Pyongyang. It is fascinating because it rather successfully portrays North Korea as a place that is — despite being one of the last truly totalitarian states on the planet — perfectly normal.
I don’t know what ought to fascinate us about the fact that people who live in totalitarian societies also eke out normality and fun where they can find it. All human beings do. It’s the idea that there’s a different side to see in this video that I challenge.
With the exception of a skateboard park — hardly an indication of transformative change by itself — the video reveals nothing new, at least about North Korea (but we’ll come to that). It’s really just a better-produced video of the same old badly produced city.
The city itself looks sterile, and in my own subjective view, some of the scenes look staged (specifically, the shots of the students at their computers). The camera shows us a gleaming Ryugyong Hotel, but doesn’t pan inside to reveal that it’s vacant under the glass. That much is deceptive enough, but it’s not the most deceptive aspect of this kind of propaganda.
By showing us a minders’-eye soda-straw view of Pyongyang — a closed city reserved for the elite — the filmmakers and their minders distort the reality of North Korea. For most North Koreans, life isn’t clean, orderly, or well-fed. You’ll get a far more accurate picture of North Korea, both its attractive and its gritty sides, in Pyongyang and beyond, by visiting the Flickr pages of “Moravius” or Eric Lafforgue, who was recently banned from North Korea for failing to obey his minders’ restrictions on what he could film.
For that matter, Google Earth is probably more revealing than this video.
Has North Korea changed under Kim Jong Un? Yes, but not necessarily for the better. The rich have access to more amenities, but they’ve had some moments of intense terror and heartbreak, too. For poorer North Koreans outside Pyongyang, economic conditions haven’t improved, but political repression has intensified almost immeasurably. I use the term “immeasurably” because our sources of information about most of North Korea are being silenced. Crackdowns on unauthorized information, such as illegal cell phones and DVDs, have been particularly harsh.
Kim Jong Un’s main legacy so far has been to isolate most North Koreans, rather than to reform the system or improve their lives in any meaningful way.
The most significant change the video evidences isn’t a way in which North Korea has changed, but a way we’ve changed. It’s a growing willingness of some foreigners to set aside any ethical considerations and collaborate with Pyongyang, in this case, to produce a slick video to portray it in a favorable light, notwithstanding the horrific crimes against humanity it is committing.
When foreigners “engage” with North Korea, it has always been the foreigners who’ve adapted to North Korea’s standards, not the other way around.
Yet for at least a decade now, everything foreigners have done in North Korea — no matter now carefully monitored and controlled — has been hyped as a bold and transformative. For more than a decade, people have been selling us the same bold views of the same transformative statues, idols, monuments, and museums. And yet the system does not transform.
I’d like to offer that this hype is wearing thin. China was bold and transformative for a few years starting in 1980. The U.S.S.R. was transformative for six years, starting around 1985. Maybe Pyongyang might have been transformative in 2000, but there must be some statute of limitations on describing the entry of foreigners into carefully select parts of a closed society — hopefully, without being arrested — as “pioneering,” when the velvet rope does not move and the political system resists material change.
Virginity isn’t a very persistent thing. Sell it promiscuously enough and other, less complimentary terms become more appropriate. After that, we are only negotiating the price.
~ ~ ~
~ ~ ~
Update: Jeff Stone has written a thoughtful piece on this topic in the International Business Times. I’m quoted near the end of the piece.
A reader forwarded me this link of a speech I gave to members of the Korean Church Coalition at the National Press Club last month, and I thought I’d post it here.
It’s not just appearances, either. A few young Korean-American over-achievers — two of them from northern Virginia — have found a technological exploit around Pyongyang’s information firewall (second item).
Consider: we live in the kind of country that collects and incubates the best talent of Korea’s diaspora. No combination is as powerful as the combination of character and intellect. Put that combination into the ideal incubator and it exerts an irresistible liberating force on that diaspora’s ancestral homeland.
The Human Rights Foundation, “a New York-based group that focuses on closed societies,” will host a two-day “hackathon” this coming weekend to “harness the technical prowess of Silicon Valley to come up with new ways to get information safely into North Korea.” The event’s title is “Hack North Korea.”
Several prominent North Korean defectors will attend the event including pro-democracy activist Park Sang-hak, former North Korean child prisoner Kang Chol-hwan, media personality Park Yeon-mi and Kim Heung-Kwang, a former professor in computer studies in North Korea. They are expected to speak on the methods currently used to get information into the country, which include CDs and DVDs, USB sticks, shortwave radio, and leaflets dropped from balloons.
Organisers said they are not encouraging hacking in the sense of gaining unauthorised access to data, but is instead hoping to “spark better ideas for getting information into the world’s most closed and isolated society”.
“Participants will become familiar with the various ways that information and truth are smuggled into North Korea today, and gain an understanding of the technology landscape inside the country. Then, guided by our North Korean guests, attendees will break into teams to come up with new ways to help end the Kim dictatorship’s monopoly of information on the 25 million people living under its rule,” HRF said. [The Guardian]
You can read about some of the specific questions the hackathon will explore here.
My friend, Kurt Achin, who has been interested in subversive technology for years, will be attending Hack North Korea, and I’m hoping he’ll bring back a good report of the ideas under discussion. (Incidentally, Kurt podcasts for NK News, and you can subscribe on iTunes or Soundcloud. The interview with Justice Michael Kirby alone is worth the visit, and all the podcasts are free.)
Some of the materials HRF has launched into North Korea so far have been explicitly political and subversive, including “pro-democracy materials,” “DVDs with South Korean dramas,” and English-language versions of Wikipedia.
Unfortunately, the methods, including balloons, have been primitive. And while those things do teach North Koreans about how we earth people live, I think we overestimate their ignorance of us, and underestimate their ignorance of each other.
Look — I’m the last one to oppose against the idea of subverting North Korea, and I’ve long supported Park Sang-Hak’s balloon launches for their global propaganda value alone. But I don’t think our propaganda will be the thing that really destabilizes North Korea. The end will come because of a combination of North Koreans’ own sui generis grievances, and their acquisition of the means to express them collectively.
North Korea won’t fall because of what we tell them, but because of what they tell each other. The spark will be a popular backlash against prices, corruption, labor mobilizations, unsafe living and working conditions, a botched disaster response, ration cuts, land and crop seizures, wage stagnation, fiscal policy, or market restrictions. Or, all of those things. If we give them the means to talk about them, the rest is all inevitable and imminent.
When North Koreans can buy cheap smart phones in markets, and use them for texting, electronic banking, checking market prices, and emailing friends and co-conspirators, both domestically and internationally, and without fear of being monitored, that will cause a rapid shift in North Korea’s internal balance of power. That’s what I hope to see come out of Hack North Korea.
IF THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT WONDERS why its own people find its modern cultural output stultifying, then maybe it shouldn’t stultify quite so much:
A North Korean defector known for his satirical paintings on North Korean society was forbidden from holding a rare exhibition in Beijing on Sunday, with Chinese police officials removing his artwork shortly before the exhibition began.
The painter from North Korea with the pseudonym Sun Mu, who fled the North in 1998 and resettled in South Korea in 2001, has been called a “faceless” artist as he does not allow himself to be photographed out of fears that his family left behind could suffer retribution. [Yonhap]
This man must be brave to go to a country that’s swarming with regime agents, assassins, and abduction squads. The good news story here is that North Koreans are emerging as a cultural force in their own right. That will eventually make them a serious cultural threat to the regime.
OFK readers likely have offered a diverse spectrum of adjectives to describe the views expressed on this site, but one that most of them would probably affirm is “contrarian.” After Kim Jong Un’s coronation, it was briefly fashionable to perceive him as a reformer. I argued that little substantive evidence supported this theory, and cited evidence that His Porcine Majesty was closing down the border, statistical evidence that refugee flows to the South had fallen dramatically as a result, and that his regime was also cracking down on information flows.
The optimistic view of Kim Jong Un became less fashionable after last December’s purge of Jang Song Thaek, although I suspect that much of the reason for this was due to a misplaced belief that Jang himself was a reformer. A better reason would have been evidence of an intensified border-control crackdown following the purge. A new report co-written by recent defector Seongmin Lee tells us that this crackdown continues to intensify, and that the regime is now clearing a 200-meter wide control strip along the Tumen River.
According to South Korean media reports, North Korean authorities are planning to demolish all structures within 200 meters along a 270-kilometer stretch of the border with China. The initiative specifically targets Ryanggang Province and the provincial capital, Hyesan, which has served as a major defection route in recent years. Ostensibly, buildings will be leveled and homes destroyed to make way for a new road, though many believe the true intention is an intensified border crackdown aimed at preventing defections, smuggling and a growing influx of information from the outside world. [The Diplomat]
No word on where the residents of the destroyed homes will be sent. Rimjin-gang also publishes photographs taken from the Chinese side, showing vacant factories within the control zone and new fencing under construction.
The Reporting Team has confirmed significant changes since our April report, including the installation of border guard watch-houses and a wire fence under way in the area, along the North Korean side of the Amrok-gang. In the center of the border city, Hyesan in particular, sections of the fence have already been completed. [....]
The city of Hyesan, Ryanggang Province, located in the up-stream area of the Amrok-gang, has been subject to the most intensive tightening of security. Adding to the fact that the river is narrow enough to allow relatively easy illegal border crossing, the area has a large ethnic Korean population and has been a central junction of defection and smuggling for nearly 20 years. [Rimjin-gang]
In the April report referred to above, intact houses within the control zone also sit vacant.
From the Chinese side of the river, a number of houses can be seen in villages on the North Korean side. However, the chimneystacks of these houses emit no smoke, even at six o’clock on a bitter winter evening. The silent village covered with snow looked as if it was in the grips of a deep freeze. [Rimjin-gang]
The Daily NK reports that in the interior, authorities continue their efforts to crack down on prohibited information, particularly among the children of the elites:
A male in his 40s from South Hwanghae Province explained, “Kids of 15 and 16 have these things on memory sticks. They watch them, copy them, pass them on, and that is how South Korean media spreads among the young. Of course they are taught not to do it, but kids are inquisitive and so they find a way to do it regardless. Being told not to watch South Chosun films makes some do it all the more.”
The informant went on to claim that the spread of cellular phones is also spurring the greater spread of foreign music. [....]
According to the woman, a USB stick capable of holding a small volume of data (roughly three episodes of a South Korean television drama, each of which is ordinarily one hour in length) currently costs 70,000 North Korean won, while larger ones come in at between 100,000 and 150,000 won. “It costs 10,000 won to get hold of a popular movie, and about 5,000 for ordinary films,” she added.
As Daily NK reported on June 2nd, and as the informants universally agreed, regulation of access to external information such as movies, music and drama has been stepped up under the rule of Kim Jong Eun, and in particular since the conviction and execution of former Vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission Jang Sung Taek in December last year.
Severity of punishment varies both by region and whether the place in question is rural or urban. In some of the worst cases, evidence trickling out of North Korea reveals that executions have taken place, though this is much rarer than labor reeducation.
“The regulation has gotten much worse since Jang Sung Taek was executed,” a 40-something source from Hwanghae agreed. “At times like these, watching South Chosun media means trouble,” a male source from North Pyongan Province concurred. A woman from Sinuiju confirmed that ordinary people there generally do not go near South Korean media now, either. [Daily NK]
As previously noted here, the regime increasingly relies on levies of students to enforce the crackdown. One wonders if this means that the regime lacks for funds to pay enough dedicated security forces officers. On the other hand, the report suggests that the students are harder to bribe than full-time officers.
In addition to “109” and “927” groups, which are tasked with regulating matters concerning South Korean media, sources also revealed that Pyongyang recently saw task forces formed from graduating senior middle school (in effect, high school) students.
“109 Group means a specialist team made up of people from the Ministry of People’s Security (MPS), the Party, and the administration that looks for, in particular, discs of South Korean films, dramas, and music,” a male in his 40s from Hwanghae told Daily NK. “Getting caught by them is no fun.” A so-called “927 Group” keeps a lid on anti-socialist activities including the sale of such materials.
“Last year this ‘task force’ was organized under the district MPS,” a male in his 50s from Pyongyang recalled. “Those guys were 18 or 19-year old graduates from senior middle school. They did it all by the book, which made it even more difficult to deal with.”
The crackdown even extends to North Korea’s extra-governmental food supply, which enters North Korea through smuggling, and through so-called sotoji farms, where perhaps 25% of North Korea’s food is grown quasi-legally in cleared plots of land. In the past, the regime had often confiscated this land and its crops, or limited the size of the plots. Now, it is ordering the destruction of the crops:
The Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party has recently issued an order that all privately grown crops must be destroyed.
North Korea has a cooperative farming system where individuals are, in principle, banned from owning farms or smallholdings. Nevertheless, many individuals cultivate their own crops, and this is done quite openly.
But there have been serious differences in production success this year, according to sources; it has been a good year for privately owned plots, particularly in the regions of Hamgyong, Chagang and Yanggang provinces; but famine conditions have been witnessed on state-run cooperatives.
State security agents are said to have reported to the Central Committee that ‘private agriculture is becoming dangerously widespread.’ In response, the instructions given by the Committee has been to destroy all crops on private fields. Labour and student groups have now been mobilised to cut down privately grown crops, as these have been grown on the ‘private gardens of capitalism.’
Even recently, Kim Jong-un is seen to have expressed worry about the food situation. But with this latest move, which again prioritises the enforcement of the Party’s political control mechanisms over providing duty of care, public sentiments regarding the leadership is said to have taken a hit.
Sources report that even in group situations, North Korean individuals are heard asking questions such as, ‘How can [Kim Jong-un's] belly be so round when he is reduced to eating potatoes out of concern for his people?’ [New Focus International]
To put this report into context, consider the recent U.N. finding that 84% of North Korean households have poor or borderline food consumption, the World Food Program’s decision to cut feeding programs due to a lack of funding, and other evidence that the regime prioritized food below luxury imports and military expenditures. It certainly doesn’t suggest that this government wants its people to eat well.
Worse, the reports suggest that Kim Jong Un intends to reverse the trends that ended North Korea’s Great Famine — the erosion of border controls and the rise of private agriculture and markets. He can undertake these initiatives and still maintain his own extravagant lifestyle and weapons development programs because he can afford to. Conventional wisdom about North Korea holds that aid and trade will eventually drive reforms in North Korean society, but these reports suggest that the money Kim Jong Un gains from abroad are being used to suppress the trends that are driving reform.
They also suggest that the opposite may be closer to the truth — if we cut off Kim Jong Un’s access to cash, border controls will break down again, and North Korea will see a new influx of free information and a freer distribution of food. It suggests, again, that sanctions can be a tool of reform by helping break down the repression that impedes it.
Evidently, North Koreans are unfamiliar with The First Rule of Holes:
Pyongyang, May 12 (KCNA) — The spokesman for the DPRK Foreign Ministry gave the following answer to a question put by KCNA on Monday accusing U.S. officials of pulling up the DPRK over its residents’ criticism of Obama reported by its media:
The resentment expressed by individuals of the DPRK at Obama recently was a proper reaction to him who malignantly insulted and slandered the dignified DPRK during his junket to south Korea.
Obama termed the DPRK’s inevitable steps for self-defence a “provocation” and “threats” and cried out for tougher “sanctions”, “pressure” and “not ruling out the use of military force.” Not content with this vitriol, he went the lengths of letting loose a spate of such invectives that the DPRK is a “country which makes its people go hungry and takes a lonely path”, “isolated state”, “abnormal state” and “reckless and irresponsible” government.
This is an unpardonable insult to the people of the DPRK who are leading a happy life under the benevolent socialist system and considering independence dearer than their life and their resentment at the U.S. is running high.
The U.S. had better stop letting loose rhetoric about the resentment expressed by DPRK residents at Obama and look back on his unspeakable invectives which enraged them so much.
The U.S. is trying to cover up the thrice-cursed wrongs committed by Obama and divert elsewhere criticism of him while finding fault with the bitter accusations of Koreans against him, but such a move would get it nowhere. -0- [KCNA]
Hat tip: The Korea Herald. Overall, it’s striking to me how disinterested the South Korean press has been in this story, in contrast to the high level of interest in the U.S. and Europe. It may be that Koreans are still preoccupied with the Sewol Ferry tragedy, but Koreans really don’t seem to be terribly outraged about this — or, for that matter, about the sexist attacks on their own President. It may be that South Koreans have just built a very high tolerance for North Korea’s offenses, which means North Korea is able to get away with just about anything.
~ ~ ~
Update: Maybe I spoke too soon. Yonhap has the story now.
~ ~ ~
Update: Professor Lee and I have an op-ed published at CNN.com on the more material aspects of North Korea’s racism and sexism.
~ ~ ~
Update: Here are some links to other informed comments about this topic. Dennis Halpin of the Center for Strategic & International Studies wonders why activists who’ve protested far less egregious examples of racism, sexism, and homophobia have given North Korea a pass. Halpin has a good point here. Is there any question that North Korea’s treatment of gays, women, and racial minorities are worse than Brunei’s? If there is, it’s only because North Korea is so good at hiding its crimes from the world.
Writing at Forbes, Don Kirk of the Christian Science Monitor puts North Korea’s racism into the context of its broader xenophobia — its hatred of foreign influences and ideas. Finally, Isaac Stone Fish of Foreign Policy (as if in response to commenter Emil Lewis) writes about North Korea’s long-standing history of anti-black racism.
Is the AP a cabal of closet Marxist-Leninists or just the supine courtesan of every tyrant who lets it open a bureau in his kingdom? Either way, I really don’t understand what drives its corporate conscience. On one hand, it recently criticized the Obama Administration for “propaganda” photos. On the other hand, it did this not long after putting on an exhibition of actual propaganda photos of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
Now, the AP has released a breathless expose of a U.S.A.I.D.-backed program, launched by the Obama Administration, to bring just a sliver of free speech to Cuba, in the form of a Twitter clone called “ZunZuneo.” AP even gave the 60 Minutes treatment to the civil servant who ran the program, following him home and sticking a camera in his face.
Let’s sum this up. The program was completely non-violent and appears to have broken no laws except Cuban censorship laws. It never even got far enough to plant any subversive information (unfortunately!). It was also popular and potentially effective. Before the AP exposed it, it was providing a service that Cubans liked and used. What if they liked and used it even more after it became a safe place to complain about food shortages, nosy block committees, corruption, the persecution of dissidents, and censorship? Is it morally wrong for people living under oppressive governments to be able to complain about those things or organize online?
ZunZuneo’s organizers wanted the social network to grow slowly to avoid detection by the Cuban government. Eventually, documents and interviews reveal, they hoped the network would reach critical mass so that dissidents could organize “smart mobs” — mass gatherings called at a moment’s notice — that could trigger political demonstrations, or “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.” [AP]
I want our government to help people do that! There’s no evidence that anyone was hurt by this program, and had it succeeded, no one would have been hurt except the Castro brothers and their censors. At worst, the program might have been housed more appropriately in the CIA or the Broadcasting Board of Governors, although U.S.A.I.D. didn’t deny its involvement after the program’s exposure. The Cubans who used ZunZuneo were unaware of its U.S. government connections and weren’t endangered (one good reason why U.S.A.I.D. initially concealed its links to ZunZuneo). Why is this a scandal — other than the fact of its public exposure? Is it the AP’s position that the Cuban people should spend their whole lives living under poverty and oppression? How else will those conditions ever change?
Also, note how the AP “interviews” Cuban citizens, almost certainly in the presence of government minders, without telling us whether any minders were present. That fact, however relevant to the viewer, would have illustrated the absurdity of the AP’s argument nicely.
Say, do you suppose the AP has a bureau in Havana? Do you suppose it ever covers stories about dissent in Cuba, or is it pretty much like AP’s bureau in Pyongyang — a lucrative partnership with censors and propagandists? This story is a good example of why, as much as I distrust all news media, I distrust the AP more than the rest of them.
Based on everything in the AP’s report, I conclude that this was actually a great idea that served both the interests of the United States and those of the Cuban people. I wonder how hard it would be for the CIA to hack into Koryolink and bring Twitter to North Korea. I wonder how long it would take for the AP to blow the lid on that.
Last weekend, while reading Popular Science, I stumbled on this fascinating article about how the Mexican drug cartel known as The Zetas used ordinary two-way radios and hidden antennas to build a sophisticated intra-national and international communications network that stretched from Guatemala to Arizona, facilitating drug smuggling and money laundering across its entire reach.
The potential for nobler applications in North Korea is obvious. The prerequisite to the rise of any national resistance movement is the creation of a broad-based, grass-roots political organization with a unifying ideology and the capacity to communicate and provide for its members. As you read this — especially those of you who are more tech-savvy than I am — think about how the Zetas’ environment differs from North Korea, and about ways to level those differences. Off-hand, the only one that occurs to me is that Mexico has a crowded radio spectrum, a problem that can be solved by flooding North Korea’s spectrum with decoy signals.
The U.S. nerve center of the Zetas’ network was an inconspicuous little shop on the outskirts of a small border town.
One of those swept up in the net was a 37-year-old resident of McAllen, Texas, named Jose Luis Del Toro Estrada. He seemed, at first, not particularly significant—a luckless guppy caught swimming with sharks. His arrest barely warranted mention in the local paper. His house, a well-maintained white-brick rancher with an arbor of pink flowers over the front door, contained no cocaine or caches of AK-47s. He lacked an extensive rap sheet and in fact seemed to have no criminal record at all. On the outskirts of McAllen, he ran a small, nondescript shop that installed car alarms and sold two-way radios.
In the weeks that followed, a different picture began to emerge. Del Toro Estrada was neither capo nor killer, but he played a critical role in The Company. According to federal prosecutors, the shop owner—who went by the alias Tecnico—had served as The Company’s communications expert. He was the cartel’s in-house geek, the head of IT, and he had used his expertise to help engineer its brutal rise to power. Del Toro Estrada had not only set up secret camera networks to spy on Mexican officials and surveil drug stash houses, but he also built from the ground up an elaborate, covert communications network that covered much of the country. This system enabled the cartel to smuggle narcotics by the ton into the U.S., as well as billions of dollars in drug money back into Mexico. Most remarkably, it had provided The Company with a Gorgon-like omniscience or, according to Pike, the ability to track everything related to its narcotics distribution: drug loads but also Mexican police, military, even U.S. border-patrol agents. That a cartel had begun employing communications experts was likely news to most of law enforcement. That it had pulled off a massive engineering project spanning most of Mexico—and done so largely in secret—was unparalleled in the annals of criminal enterprise.
The Zetas rejected cell phones in favor of old-fashioned two-way radio.
It’s impossible to say exactly why the Zetas chose to build the radio network, but given their military and law-enforcement background, it seems likely that Z1 and his capos understood that a widespread communications system would provide a crucial competitive edge over other cartels. Radio was the clear choice. Unlike cell phones, which are expensive, traceable, and easily tapped, radio equipment is cheap, easy to set up, and more secure. Handheld walkie-talkies, antennas, and signal repeaters to boost transmissions are all available at a good radio shop or from a Motorola distributor. A radio network could provide communications in many of the remote areas in Mexico where the cartel operated. And, if they suspected law enforcement eavesdropping, the cartel’s drug smugglers and gunmen could easily switch frequencies or use commercially available software to garble voice transmissions.
It’s not clear to me why radio was “a clear choice.” After all, cell phones use a radio signal, too. (Maybe someone can explain this.) But the network had enormous utility to the Zetas.
How Jose Luis Del Toro Estrada was tapped to develop the covert radio network also remains a mystery, but as his system grew, it supplied the Zetas with what’s called a command-and-control capacity. “It essentially linked all the different members of the cartel—the people doing the trafficking and the people doing the protection—so there was a communication between them,” says Pike, the DEA special agent. Armed with handheld radios, the cartel’s street-corner halcones, or hawks, could help commanders avoid arrest by alerting them whenever police set up checkpoints. A midlevel boss in Nuevo Laredo could monitor a semitruck carrying several tons of cocaine as it trundled across the border into Texas. Most crucially, Zetas gunmen could use the system to attack and seize plazas, or smuggling corridors, held by other drug gangs.
“With a network like this, you can take what resources you have and maximize them for effectiveness,” says Bunker. “If [the Zetas] are going into a different cartel’s area, they can bring resources in,” such as weapons, vehicles, and reinforcements. “It means for every one enforcer or foot soldier, you get a multiplier effect. From a command-and-control perspective, it’s phenomenal.”
The network wasn’t just an advantage over the police, but also over rival gangs, which the Zetas proceeded to exterminate. Ironically, one of the businesses that the Zetas went into was DVD smuggling (like drug smuggling, it’s also a big business along the Sino-Korean border).
In any new city where the cartel wished to expand, Del Toro Estrada’s first step would have been to map the local radio spectrum. Identifying who operated on what frequencies and which had the lightest traffic would preclude, for example, a local taxi company’s radio chatter from disrupting a coordinated attack on a police station. In urban areas, Del Toro Estrada often affixed a cartel antenna to an existing commercial radio tower. He also hijacked radio repeaters—devices that receive and boost radio signals—from companies like Nextel and reprogrammed the equipment to use the cartel’s preselected, low-volume frequencies. (Nextel maintains both cellular and, for its push-to-talk phones, radio networks). In at least one location, Del Toro Estrada installed a repeater on the roof of a Mexican police station, either a brazen display of the cartel’s impunity or a signal of the department’s corruption.
Expanding into more remote areas, like the jungle in southern Veracruz state, was more technically challenging: Towers had to be built atop high vantage points—a volcano’s summit, for example—to ensure surrounding hills or other natural obstacles didn’t block transmissions. Del Toro Estrada then installed repeaters and antennas on top of the tower, and in some instances, the structure was painted a dark green to camouflage it amid the foliage. To provide power, he wired the equipment to car batteries or, in many cases, photovoltaic solar panels. In Veracruz, a string of about a dozen tower installations provided a 100-mile radius of communications capability—meaning the Zetas could track anything that moved, whether encroaching Sinaloa cartel gunmen or military convoys, in at least 10 towns and cities.
“It was just a constant flow of information,” Pike says. “I equate it to the scene in Black Hawk Down when the chopper’s taking off from the military base and the child up on the mountain with the telephone calls down and says, ‘They’re coming.’”
As subnetworks went live in new areas, Del Toro Estrada daisy-chained them together into a larger, interoperable system. This ability to link different units of the cartel was the network’s strength, more than anything else. With commercial software from companies like Motorola, he could remotely manage thousands of walkie-talkies at one time. If a frequency in one area became too congested, he could switch users’ radios to another. If a local boss in Matamoros had to coordinate a drug load with someone in Monterrey, Del Toro Estrada could connect them. If Zetas were captured, he could disable their handsets to thwart eavesdroppers. He also used digital inversion software, which scrambles radio transmissions into garbled, R2-D2–like squawking. The cartel even established regional command centers to manage some of its communications. In Coahuila state, Mexican soldiers raided a Zetas-occupied home that contained networked laptops, 63 digital walkie-talkies, a central processing unit to remotely control repeaters, and a digital radio that communicated with airplanes.
The Zetas invested significant resources in maintaining, expanding, and exploiting the network:
By 2008, Del Toro Estrada’s infrastructure was operational in most states in Mexico (and likely in the U.S. borderlands as well). Local bosses chipped in for equipment, and the Zetas maintained ledgers detailing outlays for communications gear. Del Toro Estrada himself employed a team of specialists—his own cartel Geek Squad—to research new technology and program equipment. The network’s architecture, like the nodes of routers that undergird the Internet, was resilient: If the Mexican military knocked out one tower, traffic could likely be routed through another. And it was, relatively speaking, cheap: The Company probably spent tens of millions of dollars building the network—a capital investment that would have paid for itself with the delivery of one large cocaine shipment into the U.S.
“This thing was huge,” the former official says of the cartel’s communications system. “It was extensive, and it was interconnected. It was the most sophisticated radio network we’d ever encountered.” [....]
With the Zetas at the center of the violence, the Mexican military decided to strike back at their most valuable asset: the radio network. Battalions of troops were dispatched, and the military began attacking the system, probably aided by DEA-supplied intelligence directly from Del Toro Estrada, who began cooperating with the agency after his arrest and provided information about the system’s infrastructure. During one operation in 2011, Mexican marines discovered several 18-wheelers housing mobile communications systems in Veracruz. Another operation spanned four states and resulted in an astonishing haul: 167 antennas, 155 repeaters, 71 computers, 166 solar panels and batteries, and nearly 3,000 radios and Nextel push-to-talk phones. Later, marines discovered a 300-foot-tall antenna tower by a major highway.
With the help of their radio network, the Zetas made parts of Mexico ungovernable. Given North Korea’s almost roadless interior, the decrepit state of its railways, and the small size of its helicopter force, one wonders how hard it would be for a political opposition — particularly one that supplied the local population with food, medical care, and essential services — to take root, and eventually, to disrupt state control. A network like this wouldn’t have to fire a shot to put an enormous strain on North Korea’s security forces, and impose a potentially crippling financial cost on the state.
The article is interesting in other ways, such as how the Zetas managed to corrupt police, soldiers, and ordinary citizens to serve as spies or soldiers in its network. Of course, North Korea is a state built around internal control, and it’s specifically designed to defend against just this sort of subversion. But a movement that can provide for the most vulnerable elements of the population always has the potential to take root, and to expand its reach to the lower rungs of North Korea’s songbun system.
North Korea’s bipolar cycle is now familiar to most Korea watchers, including the President of South Korea. The North pursues its nuclear weapons capability with consistent determination in all phases of that cycle, but not always with consistent ostentation. There are periodic acts of satellite theater — a new excavation here, a new launch pad there, or steam from a cooling tower. Words vacillate between conciliation (often cryptic) and belligerence (but mostly, belligerence).
You can’t really time North Korea’s cycles with a calendar — although it does strike me that it would be interesting to try — but it is possible to identify some broad patterns. The cycles have higher tides and lower ebbs when the North wants to test a new or weakened administration in the United States or South Korea. The tides ebb when the North calculates that it’s about to get a payoff, or that it has gone as far as it can without suffering some consequence that it fears. They probably rise due to a combination of domestic political motives, a desire to keep its opponents off balance, and simple extortion. As for how the tone of North Korean propaganda has changed under Kim Jong Un, I’ll recommend this analysis by the Daily NK.
What is increasingly clear is that North Korea’s current moon-faced tyrant has entered a waxing phase.
Three years ago the retaliation was limited to Yeonpyeong, but in the future it will include the presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae and other centers of the puppet South Korean government,” said the statement carried by the Korean Central News Agency.
The KPA command, which is responsible for units facing the sea demarcation line in the Yellow Sea, claimed that if Seoul has forgotten the “crushing defeat” it received in the past, it will face greater tragedy for making any kind of impudent provocations.
A senior North Korean official has also threatened the U.S., South Korea, and Japan with “a nuclear catastrophe.” (North Korea was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Discuss among yourselves.)
By the end of the Lee Myung Bak administration, the North had posted banners on the KCNA website calling for the slitting of Lee’s throat. We can already see that Pyongyang has begun the process of making Ms. Park its new Emmanuel Goldstein. Last week, KCNA called Park “a political prostitute.” This week, it’s Uriminzokkiri’s turn:
Uriminzokkiri, North Korea’s main Internet-based media and propaganda website, said a Pyongyang printing house released a booklet called a “diagnosis of the South’s theory of principle” that dissected the follies of policy goals being pursued by the conservative Park government.
It said the so-called principled approach lauded by the chief executive who took power in late February effectively aims to change the North, and is based on the arrogant idea that the South can dictate actions of the North.
According to the website, the booklet claimed South Korean hardliners want to wrestle the initiative in inter-Korean dialogue and use this advantage to strive for unification based on a free and democratic political system.
Where else is this headed? For one thing, we continue to read rumors that the North is ready to conduct another nuclear test. Recent strains between the U.S. and China may tempt Pyongyang to see a moment of opportunity to get away with a provocation.
Personally, I hope North Korea does test a nuke. If it can be said that the Obama Administration has a North Korea policy at all, that policy clearly isn’t working, and is allowing North Korea to rush toward nuclear breakout almost unimpeded. The administration seems disinterested in North Korea, perhaps because it has quietly resigned itself to a nuclear North Korea, or perhaps because it’s distracted by domestic troubles or Iran. Whatever the cause of the administration’s apparent lack of a coherent policy, it’s not going to change unless busy policymakers stop thinking about immigration reform, Obamacare, the 2014 elections, or Iran long enough to focus on this problem for a week or two. Every time they do, it becomes more obvious to them that the old approach has failed and that a new, tougher approach is needed.
What will make this test different from every other test is that this time, there is a ready policy alternative at hand that threatens to cause severe (and possibly fatal) damage to North Korea’s ruling class. At the very least, a sudden case of bankruptcy should convince an unsteady new North Korean leader that time isn’t on his side.
Visit Pyongyang – An idiom used to describe a desperate plea for media attention (see also Jump the Shark) by a washed-up celebrity or politician (see Jimmy Carter, Bill Richardson, Ric Flair) who, lacking the residual talent to attract such attention by any other means or device, visits the one place on Earth where any publicity-seeker whose name is vaguely recalled by persons over 40 can be assured of making global headlines without being arrested, indicted, or otherwise worthy of public interest. Lacks the mortality risks of space travel (see Lance Bass) or Celebrity Rehab, but does require travel on Air Koryo.
I don’t intend to spend a lot of time writing about Dennis Rodman, so I will answer Max Fisher’s question this way: “No.”
If no right-thinking person would visit or do business with apartheid-era South Africa in the 1980s, how can any right-thinking person justify paying money to Kim Jong Un-era North Korea? It would be (mildly) interesting to know what Dennis Rodman’s views on apartheid were, but I don’t have to go out on a long limb to suppose that he thinks it was unjust. He would be right about that, of course.
There were some important differences between these two dictatorships, but none supports a defense of Rodman. The most important one is that present-day North Korea kills a thousand-fold more people and keeps the survivors in a state of infinitely greater misery. Other important differences can be seen in this historic video of “Sun City,” a single used to popularize an artistic boycott of apartheid-era South Africa. There is a manifestly hypocritical difference in elite mass opinion about how to treat these two dictatorships — isolate (bad) South Africa, engage (worse) North Korea:
One can only hope that Rodman will eventually perceive his surroundings with the moral clarity that Muhammad Ali did despite the ravages of Parkinson’s disease (hat tip to me for that cite).
Sure, it’s creepy when North Korea teaches children to torment effigies of your president, but that’s the kind of insult a mature society learns to ignore. The next time the North erupts in contrived outrage about some perceived slight to its leaders, just put that into perspective. Words are just words, unless they’re threats. When North Korea communicates threats, we need to treat those like acts of terrorism and sanction them accordingly.
North Korea’s jamming of GPS used by airliners, of course, is more than just words — it has caused “four close calls where passenger jets approaching Incheon and Gimpo airports abruptly shifted course when their GPS malfunctioned and landed only after circling the airports.” I can see why South Koreans would call that terrorism, too.
North Korea was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008.
For years, advocates of appeasing the North Korean regime have claimed that more “engagement” with its dictators would gradually change its character and moderate its belligerent and brutal tendencies. U.S. policy expressed this hope in a series of failed agreed frameworks by presidents of both political parties. These made no progress toward disarming North Korea, but did provide significant, regime-sustaining financial windfalls for Kim Jong Il. South Korea’s version of this theory was its “Sunshine” policy, which was — you guessed it — an immense, regime-sustaining financial windfall for Kim Jong Il, but which probably did more to change the character of South Korea’s regime than North Korea’s.
The latest Sunshine experiment is the AP’s establishment of a bureau in Pyongyang, which the AP hailed as a “new window” into North Korea, but which has been controlled strictly on North Korea’s terms. So far, this experiment has produced plenty of propaganda and at least some outright fakery, but no new insights into reports of, say, widespread famine deaths and human rights atrocities a short drive from the AP’s bureau.
This is not to deny that engagement on the right terms can change the character of North Korea, both profoundly and irreversibly. It has — when the engagement is directly with the people of North Korea, not with its regime, but in spite of the regime. We saw the first hard evidence of this in Witness to Transformation, by Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard. More recently, outside observers were surprised when North Korea admitted that its launch of an Unha-3 rocket had failed, causing most to speculate that the regime knew it couldn’t keep the failure secret. Today, a new report finds that the North Korean regime shows no signs of easing its controls on information intentionally, but is losing control over what its subjects can read and hear, and the subversive impact could be profound:
More and more North Koreans are defying strict government controls on access to outside information that starkly contrasts with official propaganda, said a U.S. study released Wednesday.
Avid consumption of South Korean movies and pop music as well as foreign radio and television broadcasts is changing North Korean views of its southern neighbor and even of the United States, a report by the InterMedia consultancy showed.
“In 2012, North Koreans can get more outside information, through more types of media, from more sources, than ever before ? and they are less fearful of sharing that information than ever before,” said InterMedia.
The U.S. State Department-commissioned study, “A Quiet Opening: North Koreans in a Changing Media Environment,” captures 10 years of research on refugees, travelers and defectors from North Korea, including face-to-face interviews with more than 650 adults in 2010 and 2011. [Reuters, Paul Eckert]
The information leakage includes “mobile phones, computers, MP3 players and USB drives . . . in substantial numbers, particularly among the elites.”
Access to information by itself will disillusion the North Korean people, but by itself, it will not change the regime. The regime is willing to use any degree of force necessary to preserve its power, and the people know that. The problem of communication in North Korea is not only the problem of establishing communication between North Koreans and the outside world, but also of communication between North Koreans and other North Koreans. Without the means to organize, North Koreans can never pose a significant challenge to the state. That’s why multiple incidents of anti-regime resistance were quickly contained and quelled. Organization will begin in small ways, like social and trade networks, and then evolve toward more political applications, like churches, alternative media, and labor organizations. It will be the ability to organize the North Korean people on a wider scale that will enable the people to challenge the state, whether by popular mobilization or by force of arms. This report is several steps from that inevitable consequence, but it shows us that North Korea has made strides toward it.
Update: Radio Free Asia reports that smuggled South Korean DVDs are widely available in the North now. No surprise there.