North Korean defector becomes Fulbright Scholar

Kim Seong Ryeol was 10 when he witnessed his first public execution. He recalls it being a monthly event in his North Korean hometown, with police gathering crowds near a local market where they would shoot or hang people accused of criticizing the regime.

More than two decades later, Kim finds himself in a different world — sitting in a futuristic, glass-clad skyscraper in the heart of Seoul, the capital of neighboring South Korea.

Kim is one of around 30,000 North Koreans who have escaped their totalitarian regime by fleeing south.

In 2015, after completing his undergraduate studies, he won a scholarship from the Open Society Foundation, a New York-based grant-making organization, to do a master’s degree in unification studies at a South Korean university.

The 32-year-old was recently awarded a Fulbright scholarship to do a Ph.D. in the U.S. As a boy he used to dream of killing American soldiers, but no more. “When I was little, every book, every curriculum, they always mentioned that America is the enemy.”

He’s also become a Christian, a religion he knew next to nothing about before leaving his homeland. In 2009, he attended a school run by Youth With a Mission, a Texas-based Christian missionary organization. “It broadened my perspective, when I met my American friends, and made me think differently, to see that the world is global,” he says.

[NBC]

Hacking is an almost perfect weapon for Pyongyang

North Korea’s army of more than 6,000 hackers is undeniably persistent, and undeniably improving, according to American and British security officials who have been tracing their attacks. And unlike its nuclear weapons tests, which have led to international sanctions, the North’s cyberstrikes have faced almost no pushback or punishment, even as the regime is already using its hacking capabilities for actual attacks against its adversaries in the West.

And just as Western analysts once scoffed at the potential of the North’s nuclear program, so did experts dismiss its cyberpotential — only to now acknowledge that hacking is an almost perfect weapon for a Pyongyang that is isolated and has little to lose.

“Cyber is a tailor-made instrument of power for them,” said Chris Inglis, a former deputy director of the National Security Agency, who now directs cyberstudies at the United States Naval Academy. “There’s a low cost of entry, it’s largely asymmetrical, there’s some degree of anonymity and stealth in its use. It can hold large swaths of nation state infrastructure and private-sector infrastructure at risk. It’s a source of income.”

Mr. Inglis added: “You could argue that they have one of the most successful cyberprograms on the planet, not because it’s technically sophisticated, but because it has achieved all of their aims at very low cost.”

North Korea’s primitive infrastructure is also far less vulnerable to cyberretaliation, and North Korean hackers operate outside the country, anyway.

Both the United States and South Korea have placed digital “implants” in the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the North Korean equivalent of the Central Intelligence Agency, according to documents that Edward J. Snowden released several years ago. Indeed, both sides see cyber as the way to gain tactical advantage in their nuclear and missile standoff.

“Everyone is focused on mushroom clouds,” said Robert P. Silvers, the former assistant secretary for cyberpolicy at the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration, “but there is far more potential for another kind of disastrous escalation.”

[New York Times]                                                                              Read more

North Korean cyberpower threat

Last week, a South Korean lawmaker revealed that North Korea had successfully broken into the South’s military networks to steal war plans, including for the “decapitation” of the North Korean leadership in the opening hours of a new Korean war.

North Korea is not motivated solely by politics: A chief political objective of the cyberprogram is to preserve the image of the North’s 33-year-old leader, Kim Jong-un. Its most famous cyberattack came in 2014, against Sony Pictures Entertainment, in a largely successful effort to block the release of a movie that satirized Mr. Kim, “The Interview.”

What has not been disclosed, until now, is that North Korea had also hacked into a British television network a few weeks earlier to stop it from broadcasting a drama about a nuclear scientist kidnapped in Pyongyang.

Intelligence officials estimate that North Korea also reaps hundreds of millions a dollars a year from ransomware, digital bank heists, online video game cracking, and more recently, hacks of South Korean Bitcoin exchanges. One former British intelligence chief estimates the take from its cyberheists may bring the North as much as $1 billion a year, or a third of the value of the nation’s exports.

A recent analysis by the cybersecurity firm Recorded Future found heavy North Korean internet activity in India, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nepal, Kenya, Mozambique, and Indonesia. In some cases, like that of New Zealand, North Korean hackers were simply routing their attacks through the country’s computers from abroad. In others, researchers believe they are now physically stationed in countries like India, where nearly one-fifth of Pyongyang’s cyberattacks now originate.

[New York Times]

75% of all North Korean defectors are from just two provinces

South Korea’s Ministry of Unification publishes yearly statistics on the provinces of origin of North Korean defectors settled in South Korea. According to the figures, as of the year 2016, over 75% (23,138) of all North Korean defectors hailed from just two provinces: North Hamgyong Province and Ryanggang Province, with the former accounting for over 60% of all defections.

Even given that both provinces straddle the border with China, 75% is still a significant portion given that the DPRK has nine other provinces. Two other provinces which also straddle the border, and which are actually larger in population, Jagang and North Pyongan … only account for 3.3% of North Korean defectors.

While there are a number of possible explanations for this discrepancy, perhaps one of the simplest relates to geography. While both sections straddle the Chinese border and are, as a result, exposed to an overflow of Chinese/foreign sounds, culture, ideas, and lights, one section presents a considerably more formidable land obstacle.

North Pyongan and Jagang provinces straddle the Yalu river portion of the border. The Yalu is wider, deeper, stronger, and is more densely populated on the Chinese side, making it more difficult to cross safely and unnoticed.

On the other hand, North Hamgyong and part of Ryanggang province sit on the Tumen river, which is, by comparison, more narrow, shallow, and calmer than the Yalu – making it easier to cross. In addition, the area along the Chinese side of the Tumen river … has a large ethnic Korean population. In addition to being easier to access, this side of the border is, likely, culturally more approachable for defectors as well.

Despite its location and reputation as a city for the elite class, Pyongyang itself also produced more defectors (695) than a number of other North Korean provinces, and more than triple that of Jagang province, which sits on the border with China.

Altogether, almost 90% of all defectors come from just four North Korean provinces, and these provinces account for only 40% (10 million of 25 million) of North Korea’s population in total.

[Source: Shaquille James, Co-Founder of the North Korea Network]

Celebrity defector women of North Korea changing stereotype

South Korean entertainment is awash in fads that come and go. Here’s one with staying power: celebrity defectors from North Korea.

In recent years, North Koreans have populated a new wave of talk shows, reality TV programs and dramas — each of them promising viewers a thrilling glimpse of life north of them. Often enlightening, sometimes tawdry (and occasionally both), these programs have proved highly popular.

It also sharply inverts the typical image of fly-nibbled refugees, replacing it with a new stereotype: celebrity defectors who are invariably young, female and attractive. For decades, North Korean defectors have been regarded by their southern siblings as sad, backwards and possibly still brainwashed. That is now changing.

One such talk show called “Now On My Way To Meet You” is propelled by a rotating cast of North Korean defectors — almost all of them glamorously dressed young women with perfect skin. These “northern beauties,” as they’re called by the show, are quizzed by upbeat hosts about life beyond the border. The success of that show inspired a new spate of defector-themed shows.

One celebrity North Korean defector Kim Ah-ra says, “They’re starting to see that the story of our people is much bigger than Kim Jong-un and nuclear bombs. … Now we have shows that present us in a lighter, more human way.”

[USAToday]

Celebrity North Korean defector Kim Ah-ra

Among rising stars of celebrity North Korean defectors is a 25-year-old actress named Kim Ah-ra. Her hipster leggings and elaborately painted toenails give little indication that she grew up amid famine, eating grass soup to survive.

Kim was only 12 when she slipped away from her home province, in a mountainous corner of North Korea, to the hinterlands of China. After a long spell in the Chinese countryside, she finally defected to South Korea around 2009.

Both Kim and her mother were aided by an underground railroad run by Christians. This daring network illegally traffics North Koreans out of China and into countries that will link them up with South Korean authorities. From there, they’re given a free plane ticket to Seoul and a new life in one of the most technologically advanced societies on Earth.

Almost all of Kim’s early memories revolve around food — or rather its scarcity. “When we had food, we ate it immediately. We’d take one or two spoons of rice, add some grass and pour in a lot of water to make a dark porridge. That had to feed four people.”

“I remember wandering the village, looking at the ground, hoping to spot a stray noodle or chicken head,” Kim says. “My dad would cook rats and tell us it was rabbit meat.”

[USAToday]

North Korean hackers steal US-South Korea war plans

Hackers from North Korea are reported to have stolen a large cache of military documents from South Korea, including a plan to assassinate North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un.

Rhee Cheol-hee, a South Korean lawmaker, said the compromised documents include wartime contingency plans drawn up by the US and South Korea.

Plans for South Korean special forces were reportedly also accessed, along with information on significant power plants and military facilities in the South.

Mr Rhee sits on its parliament’s defense committee, and said some 235 gigabytes of military documents had been stolen from the Defence Integrated Data Centre, and that 80% of them have yet to be identified.

The hack took place in September last year. In May, South Korea said a large amount of data had been stolen and that North Korea may have instigated the cyber attack – but gave no details of what was taken.

[BBC]

US works its worldwide squeeze on North Korea

Over 20 nations have curbed diplomatic or business operations of the North Korean government following a more-than-yearlong effort by the U.S. State Department, an indication of the kind of behind-the-scenes pressure the U.S. is using to tackle an emerging nuclear standoff.

U.S. officials have asked countries to shut down businesses owned by the North Korean government, remove North Korean vessels from ship registries, end flights by the country’s national air carrier and expel its ambassadors. At the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit earlier this year, U.S. diplomats made sure North Korea couldn’t secure any bilateral meetings.

Mexico, Peru, Spain and Kuwait all expelled their North Korean ambassadors after the U.S. warned that Pyongyang was using its embassies to ship contraband and possibly weapons components in diplomatic pouches and earn currency for the regime. Italy became the latest country to do so on Oct. 1.

Kuwait and Qatar, among other countries, have agreed to reduce the presence of North Korean guest workers, according to U.S. officials and people familiar with the matter.

State Department officials drew up a detailed spreadsheet that listed all of North Korea’s known political, economic and military interests around the world, a former U.S. official said. The document functioned as a “to do” list of entities to target for closure. The campaign abroad is intensifying as the Trump administration adopts stricter sanctions at home, and the United Nations pursues enforcement of its tightest sanctions on Pyongyang yet.

The talks are also a contrast to the heated exchanges between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Mr. Trump, who has issued a series of vague threats of possible military action, saying diplomacy has failed. The latest threat came in a Twitter message Saturday from the president. “Sorry, but only one thing will work,” Mr. Trump wrote. On Thursday, he said a White House meeting with military leaders represented “the calm before the storm.” The White House refused to clarify either remark.

Rep. Ed Royce (R., Calif.), House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, has said that new pressure tactics need time to work, but that North Korea eventually will lack the resources to run its missile program.

[Wall Street Journal]

Kim Jong-un promotes sister to North Korean politburo

Kim Yo-jong, the youngest daughter of late leader Kim Jong-il, will be replacing her aunt as a member of the Workers Party’s Politburo.

Kim Yo-jong (30), who has frequently appeared alongside her brother in public and is thought to have been responsible for his public image, was already influential as vice-director of the propaganda and agitation department.  She was referred to as a senior party official three years ago.

Her promotion was announced by Mr Kim at a party meeting on Saturday as part of a reshuffle involving dozens of other top officials.

The BBC’s Danny Savage says the move to elevate Ms Kim will be seen as further evidence of the Kim family’s iron grip on North Korea.

When Ms Kim was given a key post at the country’s rare ruling party congress last year, it was widely expected that she would take up an important role in the country’s core leadership.

[BBC]

Kim Jong Un promotes his sister to center of power

In a meeting of the powerful Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party on Saturday, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un made his sister, Kim Yo Jong, an alternate member of the politburo — the top decision-making body over which Kim Jong Un presides.

Alongside Kim Jong Un himself, the promotion makes Kim Yo Jong the only other millennial member of the influential body. Her new position indicates the 28-year-old has become a replacement for Kim Jong Un’s aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, who had been a key decision maker when former leader Kim Jong Il was alive.

“It is a further consolidation of the Kim family’s power,” said Michael Madden, a North Korea expert at Johns Hopkins University’s 38 North website.

In January, the U.S. Treasury blacklisted Kim Yo Jong along with other North Korean officials over “severe human rights abuses”.

North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Yong Ho, who named Donald Trump “President Evil” in a bombastic speech to the U.N. General Assembly last month, was also promoted to full vote-carrying member of the politburo.

“Ri can now be safely identified as one of North Korea’s top policy makers,” said Madden. “Even if he has informal or off the record meetings, Ri’s interlocutors can be assured that whatever proposals they proffer will be taken directly to the top,” he said.

[Reuters]