Tag Archive | "social media"

Why Do We Believe Everything We Hear About North Korea?

By Jenna Gibson and Chris Hurst

The discovery of a unicorn lair, the execution of Kim Jong Un’s uncle by a pack of rabid dogs, and a decree that all North Korean men must copy Kim Jong Un’s haircut. All of these were stories that were widely covered in mainstream Western news outlets. And all of them are false.

These stories spread like wildfire around the internet, prompting North Korea watchers to push back. “Other than North Korean executions, what other news stories routinely get circulated as fact despite unknown and unreliable sources?” asked Alastair Gale, the Wall Street Journal’s Seoul correspondent, on Twitter.

We’ve been down this road before. After the dog execution story, the Washington Post wrote an article discussing this phenomenon. “This seems to be a problem particular to stories out of North Korea, about which almost any story is treated as broadly credible, no matter how outlandish or thinly sourced. There’s no other country to which we bring such a high degree of gullibility… We know so little about what really happens inside the country, and especially inside the leader’s head, that very little is disprovable. But the things we do know are often so bizarre that just about anything can seem possible.”

In journalism school, students are taught the five factors of newsworthiness: timing, significance, proximity, prominence, and human interest. Other professors added a final, key marker of newsworthiness – novelty. Is it odd? Unexpected? Maybe a little ridiculous? That can also be worth a story.

That’s exactly where these crazy stories about North Korea fit – and exactly what makes them so dangerous.

Take this week’s big story, for example. For the last few days, headlines have been proclaiming that Kim Jong Un executed two high-level officials using an anti-aircraft gun. Their supposed crime? Sleeping and slouching during meetings.

This story was picked up in dozens of major news outlets, all running similar astonished headlines. It’s not until the second or third paragraph, however, that the reporter mentions the fact that this news has not been confirmed. In fact, the South Korean newspaper who first reported the story relied on a single, anonymous source.

At least they were upfront about the possibility that this didn’t actually happen, right? Unfortunately, that’s just not good enough. According to a recent study from Columbia University, 59 percent of links shared on social media have never been clicked – meaning most people share stories without actually reading past the headline.

So what? What does it matter if people mistakenly think that Kim Jong Un is running around executing his generals with an anti-aircraft gun?

Well, besides the obvious implications for the stability of the country and the state of mind of a dangerous dictator, it creates a vicious cycle of confirmation bias that can become extremely difficult to break.

Confirmation bias is an important force in psychology – in essence, it means that people tend to see only evidence that confirms what they already think about a topic and ignore contradictory information. In this case, once people see several headlines about Kim Jong Un’s crazy antics, that is the paradigm that becomes set in people’s minds. And that paradigm makes it incredibly difficult to take North Korea seriously as a dangerous threat to global security and as a proven offender of countless gross human rights violations.

There is an easy way to stop this confirmation bias – by fact checking these reports before putting them to press. However, for journalist this can be a difficult task. The North Korean government can be an information black hole, as noted by Reporters Without Borders. North Korea has ranked near the bottom of their press freedom index since its creation. Few visa are granted for foreign press by the government, and those that are granted are closely watched by minders that restrict what they can report. Even depending on eye witness reporting, which has become popular in the age of Twitter and Facebook live streaming, is impossible because there is no internet for the public.

The lack of information from the North Korean government and its people leads reporters to rely on foreign governments to verify reports. But this creates its own issues, as those sources may use information to their advantage. Adding an additional layer of confusion is North Korea itself, which routinely sends out hyperbolic announcements about their miracle cures for cancer and the like. In the end, journalists end up filling this information vacuum with unsubstantiated news stories that are more viral than factual.

In addition, some may be wary of not reporting a big story just because it can’t be confirmed. During WWII, the public famously ignored reports about concentration camps because they sounded too unbelievable – but of course we know now that those reports turned out to be true.

All of this is not meant to say that journalists should not cover North Korea, in fact quite the opposite. They should just be aware of the power of sensational headlines and unconfirmed information. When it comes to North Korea, confirmation is particularly difficult, but also particularly important. Because it is so closed off, media reports are often the only way for people to learn about North Korea at all. Let’s make sure what they learn is actually true.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications and Chris Hurst is an intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from stephan’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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T-ara, Titanic, and Taeyeon: Pop Culture and North Korea

By Lilka Marino

Recent tensions along the Demilitarized Zone have been notable for one reason: North Korea launched rockets at loudspeakers that broadcasted an array of propaganda from regional and international news, weather reports, and economic updates from both sides of the border. Curiously enough, the program also included certain K-pop songs chosen for their uplifting and inspirational lyrics. The contents of this broadcasts were enough for Pyongyang to threaten “strong military action” should they continue. While the rest of the contents of each program seem like a logical irritant to a regime that depends on maintaining factual silence from the outside world, the innocence of K-pop seems like an unlikely candidate to cause the recent “quasi-state of war”.

In Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick reports the official party line towards foreign media and contraband, by a defector who received this lecture at work:

Our enemies are using these specially made materials to beautify the world of imperialism and to spread their utterly rotten, bourgeoisie lifestyles. If we allow ourselves to be affected by these unusual materials, our revolutionary mind-set and class awareness will be paralyzed and our absolute idolization for the Marshal [Kim Il-sung] will disappear.[1]

While a government such as the Kim regime does rely on its self imposed isolation, and keeping its people from outside influences[2], the reality does not reflect the regime’s expectations. In August, three North Koreans were executed for watching South Korean television programs on their mobile phones.  This execution, along with the threat to destroy the loudspeakers is indicative of the growing fascination with the outside world and pop culture, along with the recent demand for designer handbags and high heeled shoes, trends in East Asia that North Korean women began to emulate when Ri Sol-ju, wife of Kim Jong-eun, adopted them for herself. Foreign culture has settled into the isolated nation, and will not dissipate anytime soon.

While most foreign media and culture was discouraged in North Korea, the interest in foreign culture started with legal translations of Western classics in the mid-1980s. Kim Il-sung ordered these translations in limited quantities for writers to improve their ability; translations included Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. A decade later, these books were made available for the general public to purchase.

Quite possibly the most popular work to be translated, and possibly the most famous example of Pyongyang’s fascination with foreign culture was Gone With the Wind, first translated in a three volume series and released along with other American novels from the 1900s-1960s. The novel permeates North Korean society. When teaching English at PUST, Suki Kim reported that the only American book her college students were aware of was Margaret Mitchell’s work. The typically restricted film adaptation is shown to upper class North Koreans to teach English; one defector reported that the film was a favorite of the elite. Consequently, when the Samjiyon tablet made its infamous debut in 2013, it came preloaded with not only a ported version of Angry Birds, but also Gone With the Wind.

The biggest indication of national fascination is shown by the people’s love of the novel. Gone With the Wind has even made an appearance in talks between North Korean envoys and the United States, with the former apparently quoting “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn” during negotiations. One defector reported that for a time, one could not go into Pyongyang and not avoid discussing the work, and that everyone had an opinion about strong Scarlett O’Hara, swashbuckling Rhett Butler, and the destruction of the Confederacy by the Union’s hands. It is the latter that experts speculate that holds the most appeal to North Koreans, along with the plucky heroine, who manages to rebuild and prosper after losing everything to war.

Regardless of what message North Koreans heard from Mitchell’s work, it was clear that the average North Korean is hungry for information from the outside world. This hunger would not always be fed through legal means. In the jammadang open-air markets, one student bought and read a translated book from Russia regarding how capitalism had evolved since Marx wrote his Manifesto, and realized he was being kept in the dark on purpose. How could South Korea and China be worse off than North Korea if Chinese and South Korean goods were pouring into the jammadang?[3]  Another defector reported seeing pirated DVDs and portable DVD players. These DVDs were both Hollywood movies and episodes of South Korean dramas, which sold quickly.[4] A market grew from the demand for media in particular; by 2013, brokers would wait in markets for buyers, who would ask them for the next episodes, waiting only a few weeks after their initial airing in South Korea.

These brokers, usually working with a group known as the North Korea Strategy Center (which focuses on smuggling foreign media into North Korea), feed the demand for drams, movies, eBooks, and music. They are responsible for bringing 3,000 thumb drives into the nation annually. Founder Kang Chol-hwan likened this media to the infamous “red pill” from the Matrix franchise. One broker, a defector by the name of Jung Kwang-il, is another smuggler who deals exclusively with delivering foreign media to the jammadang. He has documented his practice of delivering laptops, radios, thumb drives, and DVDs to North Korean sellers on PBS Frontline. When asked why he risked his life to do this, Jung said:

[North Koreans are] sharing thumb drives a lot. Even officials have one or two. North Korea is trying to hunt them down because the thing that changes people’s mindsets is popular culture. It probably has the most important role in bringing about democracy in North Korea.

It’s been reported that almost half of the North Koreans who defect had watched foreign television, even though it’s illegal. Countless defectors cite foreign pop culture as the spark that made them start doubting North Korea. Park Yeon-mi credited the popular film Titanic as starting a “moral crisis”, as both the idea of a man sacrificing his life for a woman as well as the economic development of the early twentieth century being far more advanced than what she had in the twentieth-first century in North Korea would aid her family’s decision to leave.

Surveys of defectors suggest that more than a million North Koreans listen to illegal foreign radio. A fisherman accidentally picked up a South Korean radio program with two women arguing over a parking spot, which was an inconceivable notion to him, as he could not imagine a scenario where there were so many cars that anyone would have to fight over parking.[5] While mp3 and mp4 players are legal in North Korea, downloading foreign media to them is definitely not. Yet one defector theorized that if you “cracked down” on high school and university students who owned the devices in North Korea, all of them would have South Korean music on them.

South Korean dramas were especially powerful to defectors; the sheer beauty in the clothing of the actors and the bustling streets with healthy looking actors and flashy billboards advertising all sorts of goods made watching more addictive; it was fun to picture living in a trendy Seoul apartment until one realized that the reality reflected in Pyongyang’s propaganda did not match up to what they were watching on their portable DVD players. Expert Andrei Lankov has described the fascination with South Korean pop culture within North Korea as, possibly, “the single most important development of the last ten years”.

Seoul has even created media targeted at North Koreans in order to take advantage of this growing interest. One such example is Open Radio for North Korea, a radio station staffed by defectors that broadcast news and personal messages towards Pyongyang. Another is the television program known as Now On My Way to Meet You, which stars North Korean women who now live in Seoul. Part news, part variety show, and part beauty contest, the show aims to show North Koreans the truth about life in the outside world and to especially empower other female defectors. One star even said that she believed that her friends “back home” watch it, fantasize about life south of the DMZ, and even want to defect, too.

Despite the growing demand for foreign media, Kim Jong Un has reportedly sent his security forces house to house, searching for illegal DVDs, and in November 2013 ordered the execution of as many as 80 people, some for watching foreign television. Authorities punished thirty college students with hard labor for watching “Until the Azalea Blooms” on their cell phones last June. Despite the death toll attributed to consuming foreign pop culture, North Koreans still are willing to risk their lives distributing and owning music videos, DVDs, clothes, books, and so much more from the outside world. With this forbidden fruit comes knowledge, and with knowledge, agency.

A young defector summed the allure of pop culture to North Koreans best: “No matter how many people die, the sensational popularity doesn’t die…that is the power of culture.”

Lilka Marino received her Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies from Hollins University with a double concentration in leadership theory and social sciences. Her interests include North Korean politics, Korean history, and traditional Korean culture. The views expressed here are her own.

Photo from Darrell Miller’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.


[1] Demick, Barbara. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. New York. Spiegel and Grau, 2009. Print.  p 255.

[2] Myers, B. R. The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Melville House, 2010. Print. p 55-75

[3] Demick, pg. 260.

[4] Demick, pg. 255.

[5] Demick, pg. 260

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5 Books to Help You Understand Hallyu

By Jenna Gibson

First coined in China in the 1990s, Hallyu literally means “Korean Wave” – meaning the wave of Korean TV shows, pop songs and even skincare products that has swept across Asia and beyond. Many have noted the existence of Hallyu, and since Psy made his famous debut on the world stage more and more people know about Korean pop culture. But what spurred the popularity of k-culture abroad? And what exactly does it mean for Korea’s standing in the world? And who are the biggest names in k-pop or k-dramas, anyway?

For newbies to the k-craze all the way up to seasoned veterans, these five books can help provide new perspectives on the Hallyu phenomenon.

1.       Soft Power, by Joseph Nye

Not exactly a book about Korean pop culture, but certainly a strong argument for why we’re talking about it so much in the first place. Political scientist Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power” to mean a country’s power of attraction. Through things like cultural exports, a country can persuade others to follow them without resorting to guns and bombs. And with millions invested in the entertainment industry, the Korean government is surely trying to bank on its pop culture’s soft power potential.

2.       The Birth of Korean Cool, by Euny Hong

Euny Hong’s book is based on the idea that you can’t understand Hallyu without understanding the country where it was born.  Half memoir of growing up in Gangnam decades before the world learned about its signature style, half expose of the massive behind-the-scenes mobilization that allowed Hallyu to flourish, Hong analyzes in great detail the aspects of Korean culture and society behind the popularity of what she calls Korea: The Brand.

3.       K-pop Now! The Korean Music Revolution by Mark James Russell

Less about Hallyu as a phenomenon and more about the bands that have made it possible, this book is a perfect primer for the k-pop newbie. Using bright photos and helpful labels, Russell runs through all the biggest bands in k-pop. Of course, in a few months there will be 50 new groups popping up, but he hits all the big names enough to give a great intro to the industry. Another unique feature – interviews with Ze:A’s Kevin and Brian Joo from Fly to the Sky.

4.       Structure, Audience, and Soft Power in East Asian Pop Culture, edited by Beng Chua

By providing a broader look at East Asian pop culture, this book explores Hallyu in the context of Korea’s neighbors. This comprehensive look offers some potential explanations for how Hallyu got to be so big – and how long it might last. Why have k-dramas taken off while Chinese dramas remain largely domestic? How are k-pop songs topping charts in Tokyo, while the reverse is unthinkable? This volume gives an essential comparative view of the Hallyu phenomenon.

5.       The Global Impact of South Korean Popular Culture, edited by Valentina Marinescu

While the majority of analyses of Hallyu’s power understandably focus on Korea’s Asian neighbors, this book takes a different tactic. Each chapter is written by a scholars from all over the globe about the spread of Hallyu in countries like the Czech Republic, Poland, Argentina and the UK. While in some of these cases the conclusion is that Hallyu has very little impact, it is interesting to see how far k-culture exports have spread.

Jenna Gibson is the Associate Director for Communication Technology and Programs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Graphic by Jenna Gibson of KEI.

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North Korea Allows Internet Access (For Foreigners)

By Chad O’Carroll

On Friday the Associated Press Pyongyang bureau reported that North Korean authorities will allow foreign visitors to access the internet using cellular devices from March 01. Predictably, the news was published with the caveat that access conditions will not change for local citizens, who will remain cut off from internet access and remain unable to make calls to foreign countries for the foreseeable future. As such, the news triggered skepticism in some quarters that the step was undertaken simply to encourage tourism and increase revenue for the North Korean government. But even if that is the case, there are nevertheless several reasons why we should be encouraging the relaxation in North Korean telecommunications.

Just four weeks ago, rules that prevented tourists bringing their cell phones in to North Korea were finally relaxed, a development that meant foreigners would no longer have to surrender their devices upon arrival in Pyongyang. Coming just weeks after Google Chairman Eric Schmidt’s recent trip to North Korea, many may now be wondering if his visit was behind the cellphone and internet access developments. But while some might see the recent news as evidence that Pyongyang took heed of Schmidt’s pronouncements, comments made by Orascom staff to Xinhua News suggest these changes had been long planned and were not consequently related to the Google trip.

Over the past four years Egypt’s Orascom Telecom Company has been working closely with North Korea to develop and expand the KoryoLink cell phone network. Run as a joint venture based on 75% Orascom and 25% North Korean ownership, the Cairo based tech firm put a strong focus on ensuring the DPRK cell network would use the latest 3G cell tower technology from the outset. As a result of this step, the North Korean network was always going to be ready for internet access, provided of course there was sufficient political will in Pyongyang. Now, with 92.9% of population areas covered by KoryoLink’s network, as a result of today’s news it seems that foreigners should be able to access the net wherever they go.

While only 30,000 tourists visit North Korea per year, their potential to access the internet could prove to be the first step towards a gradual opening up of the DPRK telecommunications infrastructure. North Koreans already comprise some two million KoryoLink subscribers, though currently they can only use their devices to communicate internally. However, some of these subscribers can already access limited domestic data services, to find weather reports or local news, for example. Looking to the medium to long-term future, it’s therefore quite possible that this latest move could pave the way for North Korea to roll out a limited internet service (perhaps similar to Iran) to its own citizens as a logical next step.  The same thing has already happened in Cuba, where tourist based access paved the way for increasing domestic access and even the emergence of blogs written by Cubans, but published via USB keys passed to foreigners who have net access in international class hotels.

Another benefit of foreigners being able to access the internet while in North Korea is that it could seriously catalyze the speed at which important world news gets to the country. While those coming into regular contact with foreigners tend to come from the top tiers of North Korean society, that foreigners will now theoretically be able to spread news as it happens means the development will lead to a new and credible addition to the country’s infamous “bush telegraph”. And though little is known about how the North Korean government intends to prevent local citizens from ever using approved devices to access the internet, we can bet that some will find a way. To be sure this will be a tiny fraction of people, but given North Korea’s history of an impermeable iron curtain, it is meaningful in any case.

It will be particularly interesting if foreigners will be able to access South Korean news and information websites through the KoryoLink infrastructure. Even if these and other websites do turn out to be blocked, it won’t take long for crafty visitors to get around the rules using VPN and other IP proxy technologies. As such, the only way Orascom will really ever be able to assure its North Korean hosts of absolute control will be to shut off access for everyone, completely.  Such a move can’t be discounted, with cell usage having been dramatically curtailed in a u-turn policy change on made by Pyongyang in 2004, the year an explosion took place allegedly near to Kim Jong Il’s passing train.

Another benefit of the move will be that it will be easier for visitors to share with the world the reality of life in North Korea. With photography having long been restricted and visitors subject to random photo deletions by over-zealous border guards, the latest development should theoretically allow foreigners to upload pictures straight to the internet, as quickly as they take them. Naturally, it is likely that access will be monitored to some degree, but the more widespread access becomes, the harder it will be for DPRK authorities to track use.

One potential hurdle to the above advantages relates to costs.  To date foreign residents and business people have been able to access the internet access using satellite technology, but the costs have been so exorbitant that it has significantly reduced the potential for the internet to have many of the positive effects described above.  Unfortunately, figures obtained by the Wall Street Journal suggest that for its part, the new mobile internet service will not be cheap, with a set up fee of around 150 EUROS for the SIM card, then data fees of around 150 euros for 2GB of bandwidth. Prices this high mean it will be expensive for people to get the type of access required to create the various impacts detailed above, but it’s a start nonetheless. And while the high fees reflect that access is currently aimed more at long term residents than tourists, a KoryoLink technician said that his team was working to persuade the North Korean government to get permission to introduce cheaper and short-term tourist focused services. Time will tell how significant Friday’s development is, but it seems clear that any opening, no matter how small, should be welcomed and encouraged vigorously.

Chad 0′Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from djking’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Malware Attacks on Korean News Websites

By Chad 0’Carroll

Last week The Daily NK, an online newspaper dedicated to covering North Korea from a human rights perspective, suffered a malware attack.  It was by no means the first malware infection of the site (936 pages infected in the last 90 days alone, according to Google), but comes following a spate of infections on other Korea related news websites. It also occurred following growing reports of hacking attempts against specific members of the North Korea watcher community.  So what exactly is going on?  Are Korea watchers being specifically targeted, or should these attacks be seen in a broader context?

Malware is malicious code that is installed onto websites by a third party.  Without adequate protection, visitors to infected sites obliviously download the malicious code which can in turn give third parties unauthorized access to computer systems.  But it is important to note that “malware” is a catchall term, covering malicious code that includes Trojan horses, spyware, and computer viruses.  As a result, the effect of malware infections can vary significantly.  Sometimes malware is used to install a script which turns the infected computer into a “bot”, which can be used to take part in a distributed denial of service attack (DDS).  But oftentimes the malware’s purpose is a lot more dangerous.

IP Address Poster in Kim Il Sung University’s Computing Department

According to this Google report, the malware found recently on the Daily NK site took the form of a Trojan horse, a malicious script which unlike a virus, does not spread by itself. Once activated, Trojan scripts can create backdoor access on a computer that can give the creator access to confidential or personal information. Functions of these scripts can include stealing your passwords, viewing your screen as you are working, and even broadcasting all that one types to another location.  With the Daily NK frequented by many serious North Korea watchers and human rights activists, it is easy to understand why pro-North Korea actors or entities might be interested in obtaining back-door entry to the computer systems of the Daily NK audience profile.  After all, the type of information that could be sourced through any script installed on a U.S. government employee or NGO worker’s computer could be extremely useful for the North Korean state.

The Daily NK have reported that they are aware that the source of the malware infections is China, something also corroborated by Google’s own site report, which says the same scripts can be found on digtaobao.com and 10086chongzhi.com, two Chinese registered domains that presently contain no website content.  But just because a script is associated with China, we cannot assume that it was necessarily coded by Chinese hackers.  Martyn Williams of NK Tech explains…

“The “evidence” usually cited is an IP-address, but herein lies the problem. Malware and other hacking attempts are usually routed through multiple IP addresses to avoid detection and sometimes fake the address, so it’s possible the real culprits are elsewhere but savvy enough to make their attack look like it came from a North Korean address. After all, North Korea is a very convenient and believable culprit.”

Likewise, much of North Korea’s own internet infrastructure goes through China, and there are reports that there are batches of Chinese IP addresses owned specifically by North Korean entities.  And although Google has said that the Daily NK malware takes the form of a Trojan horse and we know that it is going through China, we don’t know what the scripts that have infected the site were actually designed to do.

Looking at the broader context, it is extremely important to point out that malware is extremely common in South Korea.  In summer 2010, South Korea had the highest infection rates of malware in the world.  While the government has done much to improve this situation, a quick glance of online news resources in South Korea shows the following sites to have encountered malware infections in the past 90 days:

Of a total of 22 major news websites in South Korea, a remarkable 36% are thus somehow infected with malware. In this light, it is quite possible that the Daily NK infection should just be seen as forming part of this trend, in which Korean websites, for whatever reason, continue to remain a hotbed for malware activity. But without having the actual malicious scripts to compare (and an IT security expert to analyze them), there is no way of knowing if the Daily NK code construes either a specific threat to the Korea watcher community or instead is something more akin to the code found on these other news sites.  However, when considering other factors, dismissing Daily NK malware as being merely reflective of the high level of infection in South Korea could be risky.

As Curtis Melvin has been chronicling over the past year (here, here, and here), there has been a strikingly determined campaign to infect the computers of specific individuals working on Korea policy.  In the course of writing this piece, one member of KEI staff even received another example of these emails.  Like the Daily NK malware, this approach has also involved the use of a Trojan horse mechanism, with individuals contracting infections after opening contaminated attachments in emails. These emails are often crafted specifically for the characteristics of seasoned North Korea watchers, inviting recipients to take part in North Korea related interviews, or to read North Korea related manuscripts and texts. Often, the senders portray themselves as being media representatives, fellow North Korea analysts, or even Kim Il-Sung apologists.  With the text of the emails being relatively convincing, it is quite likely that a number of infections may have already taken place, despite warnings posted on Mr. Melvin’s site.  But exactly what the code does when it has infected a user’s computer is yet unknown.  However, the personally tailored approach of the emails suggests that a) there is a list of specific people the senders are trying to compromise and b) that accessing the recipient’s computer and files is probably the priority.  But is this likely a lone individual or something more sinister? IT Security expert Alexander Sverdlov of Nopasara.com explained:

Grid Computing poster at Kim Il Sung University

“The only case when you could suspect an individual attacking you with no organization behind them is if you had a disgruntled system administrator / IT person who had to be fired, or if a highly trained individual is for some reason offended by what you do to them or someone else. In all other cases you can bet that an attack is funded / backed by a large organization / corporation / government. These attacks are very expensive; they are highly risky for their implementers and thus their high price. Not everyone can afford to hire a hacker to individually target you and / or your organization.”

If the aim is to get access to as many North Korea watcher’s computers as possible, it would be entirely consistent for the programmers of this malicious email code to want to infect sites like the Daily NK, too.  Receiving hundreds of visitors per day, infecting the Daily NK would easily increase the likelihood that the code’s programmers could obtain sensitive information related to defectors, human rights NGOs, and more.  What’s more, North Korea has already made its disdain for Daily NK clear, with a post in 2010 showing KCNA’s contempt of the South Korean based website.  But does all this suggest tacit North Korean involvement?

Despite all the circumstantial evidence, it is difficult to draw conclusions about who or what is responsible for the malware on Daily NK and the malicious emails that have been doing the rounds.  Given its paranoia and extensive spying networks, there is undoubtedly motivation for North Korea to want to bolster intelligence gathering capacities, and these approaches could definitely help to that end.  For this reason, North Korea is routinely blamed for masterminding cyber-attacks in South Korea, often though without much evidence.  But it is also important to remember that cyber attacks occur worldwide ordinarily, and Trojan horses are relatively easy to code. As such, there is always the potential that both the emails and malware form part of this wider pattern, or that they are the work of lone individuals, perhaps sympathetic to the North Korean government.  Nevertheless, neither of these explanations should give anyone much confidence, because even if it is not North Korea that is trying to hack your computer, then there is still cause for concern.  In short, be extremely careful when opening email attachments from strangers or visiting websites related to the Koreas.  If there is a sign of malware, steer clear.

Chad 0’Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

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Five Factors to Watch for South Korea’s National Assembly Elections

By Chad O’Carroll

In 2012 South Korea will hold elections for both the National Assembly and the presidency, the first time that both votes will be in held during the same year in several decades. With South Korean president’s being limited to a maximum term of five years, Lee Myung-bak will be ending his term in December, most likely to be replaced by either a candidate from the ruling Saenuri party, or from the main opposition – the Democratic United Party.  But what are the main issues of contention between the two parties in this year’s two elections?  The Peninsula takes a closer look at five of the main factors that will contribute towards the outcome of the 2012 votes:

PARTY REBRANDING

Despite Lee Myung-bak having brought the ruling conservative party success with a landslide victory in 2007, recent developments have led to a reorientation away from traditional political values on both sides of the political spectrum:

  1. The recent win in the Seoul mayoral election by political novice Park Won-soon has altered the political environment for the 2012 elections, contributing to one in which more focus on identifying with younger generations will be important.  Having beaten the ruling party backed candidate, Park’s victory was aided by key support from software tycoon Ahn Chul-soo, a potential Presidential candidate that himself enjoys widespread popularity among younger generations.
  2. As a result of the mayoral elections, both major parties have undergone name and identity changes in an attempt to capture some of the recent surge in support for non-traditional figures like Park Won-soon and Ahn Cheol-soo. The ruling party (GNP) has been renamed to Saenuri (“New Frontier Party”), while the Democratic Party is now known as the “Democratic Unified Party”.
  3. The proportion of voters who regard themselves as conservatives fell from 43 percent in 2007 to 31 percent in 2011.  But despite the DUP’s efforts to change, one recent poll suggests the public view the Saenuri Party’s change of direction as being more credible.

NORTH KOREA

While a recent poll suggested that just 8.1% of South Koreans believe improving inter-Korean ties is an important goal for the next president, there are three reasons North Korea will nevertheless play an important role in determining the outcome of this year’s elections:

  1. After five years of hard-line policy under Lee Myung-bak, indicators suggest that there will be increased impetus to make engaging with North Korea a priority on both sides of the political compass.  Seoul’s new progressive mayor has already started engaging with Pyongyang in cultural and sporting domains, while the ruling parties’ approval of these activities suggests that Saenuri are also becoming more open to engagement with North Korea.
  2. North Korea has long been suspected of trying to influence elections in South Korea to create a more amenable Blue House.  This year, Pyongyang’s state-run media has been making a special effort to undermine the ruling Saenuri party and has been working hard to frame the elections as a dichotomy between war and peace.  With overseas citizens now able to in Korean elections for the first time this year, there are concerns North Korea’s input may have some influence in determining the votes of overseas Koreans.
  3. Should North Korea decide to act belligerently in advance of either vote, then it could seriously impact the outcome of the elections. Following provocations like the sinking of the Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong, many South Koreans took on a more hardline view of North Korea, less willing to pursue engagement policies. Because of this, North Korea might be reluctant to initiate any major provocations in advance of general elections, fearful of putting pro-engagement candidates at a disadvantage.

SOCIAL MEDIA

Social media, including Twitter, are playing an increasingly prominent role in Korean political discourse. A recent Hankyroreh and Korea Society Opinion Institute poll showed politics to be one of the most retweeted topics by users in South Korea this year. This and other indicators suggest social media will continue to shape the electoral campaigns in the months to come:

  1. As mentioned, Seoul’s 2011 mayoral elections brought to power a political novice with a history of social activism.  This was achieved mainly through the support he garnered from younger generations through IT tycoon Ahn Cheol-soo (who is also extremely popular on Twitter with the under 40 age group).
  2. Seeking to draw the attention of the politically active younger generations and increase transparency, in January the Democratic Unity Party decided to accept text votes from cell-phones to select their new leader.  The mobile voting system had previously proved influential, especially during the aforementioned 2011 Seoul mayoral by-election.
  3. The team behind one of the world’s most listened to podcast, Naneun Ggomsuda, may also have a key role in determining the outcome of elections in South Korea this year.  Specializing in political satire, the podcast has to date taken a vehemently anti- Lee Myung Bak and New Frontier Party (formerly the Grand National Party) position which may influence listeners to vote for the opposition.

KORUS FTA

Signed in 2007by late President Roh Moo-hyun and his Uri Party (one of the predecessors of the renamed Democratic Unified Party), the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement was later renegotiated by President Lee Myung-bak and his American counterparts in December 2010.  But while the FTA should therefore enjoy bipartisan support in South Korea, recent developments suggest it may emerge as an electoral issue later in 2012:

  1. On Feb 8 2012, DUP Chairwoman Han Myeong-sook said her party would scrap the FTA upon winning power unless several “poison clauses” were modified.   Since threatening to scrap the FTA, Han has been silent on the matter. This may have been due to a backlash in public opinion, with some key groups worried her position could undermine Korea’s international credibility.
  2. In response to Han’s threat, the Saenuri party conducted a poll which determined that 50.5% of the population thought scrapping the FTA would damage the interests of Korea, with just 33.2% in favor of nullifying the treat.  Lee Myung-bak has also rebuked the opposition for flip-flopping on the agreement, with many opposition figures having originally supported it under former leader President Roh.
  3. The KORUS FTA is set to enter the implementation stage as of March 15.  But with Han having labeled the forthcoming April 11 general election as a referendum of the Lee administrations “overall policies”, it could nevertheless re-emerge in the 2012 political discourse.

“WELFARE POPULISM”

With an ever widening gap between rich and poor in South Korea, there is an increasing demand for politicians to address the issues of equality and welfare.  In response, both of the main political parties have been articulating new policies to address these concerns.  But some suggest welfare promises are nothing more than an attempt to pacify the demands of voters:

  1. The ruling Saenuri Party is considering campaign platforms which may include raising the wages of conscripts to 400,000 won a month from below 100,000 won at present, providing free child care to families with children under the age of 5, and free high school education.  Similarly, the Democratic United Party’s promises include free school meals for all elementary and middle school students, a drastic expansion in national health insurance coverage, and slashing college tuitions by half.
  2. The Finance Ministry has expressed concern regarding the continuing announcement of welfare proposals from both main parties, saying that if implemented, they could cost nearly one-third of South Korea’s entire gross domestic product.  “From the perspective of fiscal authorities, it is challenging to accept the pledges unveiled by the political circles,” the Finance Ministry said.
  3. Given the extreme financial burden of the suggested reforms, politicians on both sides have been accused of pursuing populist (but unworkable) policies to attract votes. Nevertheless, opposition figures suggest that these policies are essential because the current administration drove the majority of people to greater economic difficulty with its ‘business-friendly’ policies.  For their part, the ruling party’s move towards welfare policies has been explained as an attempt to improve “the life cycle of each individual, boost employment and strengthen the government’s role in ensuring fair competition.”

Chad 0Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

Photo from Jens-Olaf Walter’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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12 Things on the Korean Peninsula to Watch for in 2012

By Nicholas Hamisevicz, Sarah K. Yun, Chad O’Carroll, and Troy Stangarone

Last year saw significant changes on the Korean peninsula. While 2011 ended with the surprise death of Kim Jong-il and the beginning of succession to Kim Jong-un, last year also saw Korea become one of only nine nations to surpass $1 trillion in total trade, the passage of the KORUS FTA, and a surprise election for the mayor of Seoul. With even more change set for 2012 in both Northeast Asia and on the Korean peninsula, here are twelve economic and foreign policy issues that are worth following in the coming year:

1.      The Transition and Public Events in North Korea: Kim Jong-un has been declared the successor to his father. The North Korean government is working hard to illustrate the unity of the nation and the loyalty of the elites to Kim Jong-un. There will likely be a formal meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea where titles and positions will be made and adjusted. Kim Jong Un possibly has an advantage with the early schedule of public events where his new leadership will continue to be highlighted, such as the one hundred year anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth in April and the start of North Korea’s development as a prosperous and powerful nation. However, after those events, there could be more room for maneuvering if other North Korean elites do not like the direction of the country.

2.      Political Change in South Korea: While North Korea may have got the jump on political change in 2012, South Korea will conduct elections for both the National Assembly and the presidency this year. With South Korean presidents limited to a maximum term of five years, Lee Myung-bak will be ending his term in December.  Lee’s Grand National Party (GNP) has Park Geun-hye at the forefront of potential presidential candidates. However, she will likely face a significant challenge from Ahn Cheol-soo, founder of anti-virus software company AhnLab.  Although yet to declare his candidacy, there are growing signs that he will run as the opposition candidate – and recent polls suggest that he has strong support polling at 49.7 percent, some 7 percent more than rival Park Geun-hye.

Additionally, in April, all 299 seats of the National Assembly will be up for vote, with 245 in single-member districts and 54 seats determined through proportional representation. The ruling GNP has fared poorly in local elections recently and developments indicate that progressives may be uniting under a unified banner for the April elections that could seriously compound difficulties for the GNP.

3.      Kim Jong-un and China: In the early days of the transition, China has thrown its support behind Kim Jong-un. Who from China visits North Korea, and especially if Kim visits the new leadership in China, will likely provide clues to the relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing, as well as how secure the new regime feels in its position. Given that China will undergo its own leadership transition this year, 2012 will likely set the tone for both sides going forward.

4.     The Role of Social Media in South Korean Politics: Social media, including Twitter, are playing an increasingly prominent role in Korean political discourse. A recent Hankyroreh and Korea Society Opinion Institute poll showed politics to be one of the most retweeted topics by users in South Korea this year. This suggests that the conversations that take place on Twitter in 2012 will play a significant variable in this year’s presidential election.  South Korea’s Twitter community has an active user rate that is some two times higher than the world average, with nearly 10% of the nation signed up.  The important role Twitter plays in politics can be seen in a campaign that was credited with a higher than expected voter turnout among young voters during the during the April 2011 by-elections.

The team behind the one of the world’s most listened to podcast, Naneun Ggomsuda, may have a key role in determining the outcome of elections in South Korea this year.  Specializing in political satire, their podcast has to date taken a vehemently anti- Lee Myung Bak and Grand National Party position.  They have also developed a number of investigative stories that have attempted to highlight mis-steps by the ruling government, often with significant media interest.  Their feature on Na Kyung-won’s alleged visits to a luxury skin care clinic is said to have contributed to her loss of support in recent Seoul mayoral elections.

5.   The Euro Crisis: Strictly speaking, this isn’t about Korea, but with Korea heavily dependent upon trade for growth and Europe a major trading partner, the euro zone matters for Korea. If Europe is unable to restore market confidence and avoid a deepening of its debt crisis, a steep economic decline in Europe or the unraveling of the euro could hit the global economy hard. While Europe has managed to consistently fail to address the debt crisis in a comprehensive manner, there may be some tell tale signs early in the year regarding whether Europe has turned the corner or not. If France is able to maintain its AAA credit rating and Italy and Spain are able to roll over nearly $200 billion in debt in the first quarter of the year, Europe will likely have passed the most immediate dangers. When it comes to Korea, the stats to think about are this, the EU accounted for 10.2 percent of Korea’s exports and 9.6 percent of its total trade through the first 11 months of 2011.

6.    U.S. Defense Budget Cuts: The U.S. Department of Defense budget is expected to cut $260 billion over the next five years and more than $450 billion over the next decade. In the new budget strategy announcement on January 5, President Obama and Secretary of Defense Panetta presented a revamped U.S. military strategy with an emphasis on Asia and space and cyber capabilities, and preservation of missions in the Middle East.

With a reduced defense budget, partner relationships will become more important. Although the 5% increase in the 2012 South Korean defense budget may offset the potential challenges in the U.S.-Korea military alliance, uncertainties continue as both countries enter an election year. Despite reassurances from Obama and Panetta, the future shape of United States presence in Korea and Asia is still to be determined. With both nations preparing for op-con transfer in 2015, how the budget and strategy changes in the U.S. play out could play a role in the future force structure of the alliance.

7.    North Korea’s Interaction with the United States and South Korea:  Despite its current turn inwards, North Korea will likely turn its attention outwards at some point in 2012. North Korea and the United States seemed to be on the verge of a deal over food aid and possibly moving forward on nuclear talks before Kim Jong-il’s death, and there are early indications these may start back up at some point. As for South Korea, Pyongyang has said that it will not deal with the current administration in Seoul, but 2012 will also bring fresh elections for the National Assembly in April and the presidency in December, key points to watch for in North-South relations.

8.    Seoul Nuclear Security Summit: Seoul will be hosting the second Nuclear Security Summit in March with participation from over 50 national leaders. The agenda will consist of mainly three issues: international cooperation against nuclear terrorism, prevention of illicit transaction of nuclear materials, and protection of nuclear materials, nuclear power plants and other nuclear related institutions.

The appointment of Korea as the chair of the second NSS is both practical and symbolic – practical in that Korea is a close ally of the U.S., enabling smooth coordination; and symbolic in that Korea has been an active member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty with advanced nuclear energy capabilities, yet facing a serious nuclear threat from North Korea.

Whereas the hosting of the G-20 in 2011 elevated Korea’s status as a world economic power, the Seoul NSS will elevate Korea as a world security leader. The NSS will be even more significant in light of Kim Jong-il’s death. President Lee Myung-bak had previously extended an invitation to Kim Jong-il to attend. It will be interesting to see how the new regime responds to the summit.

9.    The Implementation of the KORUS FTA: Now that the United States and Korea have passed the KORUS FTA the two governments are looking to implement the agreement. The agreement should come into force early in the year, but might slip until after National Assembly elections in Korea for political reasons.

10.  The Politics Around the KORUS FTA and U.S.-Korea Relations: Speaking of the politics of the KORUS FTA, prior to the death of Kim Jong-il, the opposition in Korea was turning the FTA into a major campaign issue, calling on Korea to renegotiate certain provisions such as those relating to investor-state dispute settlement. Some had gone so far as to suggest Korea should withdraw from the agreement. Korea’s relationship with the United States is a complex one, and anti-Americanism has played a role in previous elections. While North Korea is now likely to become the major campaign issue, look for the FTA and Korea’s broader relationship with the United States to remain caught up in domestic politics for the time being.

11.  South Korea-China FTA: China has become South Korea’s largest trading partner by a significant margin, with the two countries doing more than $200 billion in trade in the first eleven months of 2011. With the EU and KORUS FTA now concluded, Korea will look to start negotiations with its biggest trading partner in the next few months.

12.  World Expo 2012 – Yeosu, Korea:From May to August, Korea will host the 2012 Expo in the port city of Yeosu. Under the theme of “The Living Ocean and Coast,” the Yeosu Expo will share knowledge in maritime cooperation, marine science, and the proper use of ocean and coast. Korea is anticipating an international recognition of Korea as a leading maritime nation.

Hosting the Expo can be seen as a completion of Korea’s campaign as a world leader – the 2011 G-20 on economic issues, the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit on security issues, and the 2012 Expo on cultural and soft power issues.

Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs, Sarah K. Yun is the Director of Public Affairs and Regional Issues, Chad 0Carroll is the Director of Communications, and Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are the authors alone.

Photo from Rachael Towne’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Growing Role of Social Media in South Korea

By Chad 0Carroll

Last week the hosts of the world’s most popular political podcast, Naneun Ggomsuda, spoke to a packed audience in Washington DC as part of a tour that also took them to Boston, New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.  Focusing primarily on the satire of domestic South Korean politics, worldwide demand for the podcast is particularly noteworthy as the podcast now has six million listeners worldwide.  Their popularity is the latest evidence that younger South Koreans are using the internet more than ever before to explore their political views.  And as more of them do so, it will become increasingly important for political groups in South Korea to proactively communicate with younger generations online.

South Korea has emerged as the world leader in internet connectivity with nearly 95% of the population now having high-speed access.  This is the result of a significant investment in communications infrastructure, low cost access from intense competition in the market, and the ease of connecting South Korea’s high density population to the web.  But it’s not just households that are enjoying the internet; over twenty million smart phone users in South Korea (nearly half the population) now browse a highly personalized version of the internet on a daily basis.   Taken together, this is leading to fundamental changes in the way people communicate and receive information in South Korea.

Compared to the United States where Facebook remains the main forum for online communication, South Korea has long favored social media platforms that encourage an exchange of personal opinion over merely connecting with friends.   As a result, the ROK is home to one of the world’s largest blogging communities (second only to China), while its Twitter community has an active user rate that is some two times higher than the world average.  In addition, there is significant use of online forums and bulletin-board systems, with many designed specifically to debate politics and current affairs. Deep internet penetration and huge demand for social networking platforms can thus quickly propel issues of relative insignificance onto center stage in South Korea.

A look at recent history reveals some very interesting insights into the interplay between the internet and politics in South Korea.  In 2000, following the shocking defeat of Roh Moo-hyun in a National Assembly election, an online fan club emerged called “Rohsamo” (people who love Roh).  Conducting volunteer work, fundraising and even a viral SMS campaign on the day of the election, the Rohsamo may have played a key role in contributing to Roh’s dramatic 2002 election win.  Another very important contribution to Roh’s victory came from internet news service OhMyNews, a liberal-leaning news service originally built to provide an alternative news source for younger generations “disillusioned with the biased reporting of traditional media”.   It put Roh’s electoral campaign center stage in front of a politically motivated audience that helped draw attention to his candidacy through a number of advocacy activities.

If 2002 represented the start of South Korean social media activism, 2008 marked its evolution with the protests against a resumption of U.S. beef imports.  As the resumption of beef imports was being negotiated, rumor and speculation regarding potential exposure to Mad Cow disease started circulating online, receiving considerable attention even in the mainstream press.  Social media platforms soon mobilized hundreds of thousands throughout the country opposed to the resumption of U.S. beef imports to participate in candlelight vigils, marking the biggest anti-government protest in over twenty years.  Although the vigils’ didn’t end-up stopping the importation of U.S. beef, they did end up leading to a commercial agreement  putting some restrictions in place and a universal offer to resign from Lee Myung Bak’s cabinet.

This year has seen the convergence of social media and political interests continue, with a Twitter campaign being credited with higher than expected voter turnout during the during the April 2011 by-elections .  And in the recent Seoul mayoral elections, social media campaigning may have been the reason political-novice Park Won-soon received three times more votes from younger generations than his GNP rival.”

With presidential elections around the corner in South Korea, the growing convergence of social media and political activism suggests that we should expect significant political interest amongst younger voters in 2012.  While the emergence of an online forum for activists is difficult to control, politicians in South Korea can learn much from the team behind President Obama’s election in 2008.  Their embrace of social media and commitment to reach out to younger generations played a large role in helping propel President Obama’s promise of “change” to young people not just in the United States, but across the globe.

Chad 0Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

Image by Aslan Media

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About The Peninsula

The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.