A hackathon that aimed to find new ways to get information in, out and around North Korea took place over the weekend in San Francisco. The event, called “Hack North Korea,” was organized by New York-based charity Human Rights Foundation and brought together programmers, human rights campaigners and defectors.
Several teams spent the weekend working on ideas that would enable digital information to be concealed, hidden or otherwise transmitted without raising the suspicion of authorities. The ideas ran from the low-tech, using a catapult to fling things across the Yalu River that divides North Korea and China, to the high-tech, involving satellites, stenography and information hidden so a random check wouldn’t reveal it.
The weekend kicked off with speeches from four North Korean defectors who had made the trip from Seoul to attend the event.
They included Park Yeon Mi, best known for her appearances on the South Korean TV show “New On My Way To Meet You,” who spoke of how watching a smuggled copy of the movie “Titanic” spurred her to make the long journey most defectors must make from North Korea through China to South Korea.
Park Sang Hak, chairman of Fighters for a Free North Korea, spoke about his program to send leaflets into North Korea via balloon. Park’s organization regularly releases balloons carrying large bags full of propaganda leaflets, DVDs, USB sticks, radios and other items from a point near the inter-Korean border. The bags are timed to release their contents after a certain period of time over North Korean soil and Park sent around 4- to 5-million last year, he said.
Choi Song Il, a former North Korean dentist, joined the North Korean Strategy Center upon his arrival in South Korea and still conducts activities along the Chinese border today, helping research the current state of North Korea through talks with defectors that have made it out of the country.
And Kim Heung Kwang (김흥광), a former professor at Pyongyang Computer Technology University and executive director of North Korea Intellectual Solidarity, spoke about the importance of foreign information in the country and how it could educate people and help the free thinking of individuals.
The hackathon saw several groups contend for a prize of two round-trip air tickets to Seoul to further their work with defector groups. The Human Rights Foundation also said it would assist in realizing the top proposal.
The winner was a group that proposed using small, commercial satellite antennas to bring Skylife TV to North Korea. Skylife is a subscription satellite TV service offering around 100 channels of news, entertainment, sports and other programming. The group proposed using compact flat antennas and supposed that the service would be unlikely to be jammed because it would first penetrate the homes of elites and they wouldn’t want to lose service.
Here are YouTube videos of the speeches:
Last week I wrote about the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s regulations on U.S. carriers or aircraft using North Korean airspace. They prohibit flight in most of the skies controlled by Pyongyang but allow it — with caution — in a portion east of 132 degrees East latitude.
The ban is in place because of North Korea’s unpredictable short- and medium-range missile launches and uncertainties over just how good the coordination is between civil air traffic controllers and the military. The rules are in place to avoid an aircraft getting shot down, either by mistake or due to a misunderstanding.
So, I decided to take a closer look at what airlines, if any, use North Korean airspace.
I recorded a day’s worth of activity on Flightradar24, which maps the world’s air travel in realtime. The data for East Asia comes from volunteers in Japan, South Korea and Russia with radios that receive ADS-B transmissions from aircraft and feed them to the site. The data identifies the flight, speed, altitude and current location. Not all of North Korean airspace is covered, so domestic flights are generally missed, but most others were caught.
So, here’s 24 hours in North Korean airspace:
Direct Path to Europe
As can be seen, the North Korean skies are a good deal less busy that those of neighboring Japan and South Korea but air traffic controllers in Pyongyang aren’t idle all day. Several European airlines, which are not subject to FAA rules, fly through the area each day, including on the western side of the 132 degrees East latitude line, which the FAA has said is too dangerous for U.S. carriers.
The flights, operated by Lufthansa, Air France, Turkish Airlines, KLM and Finnair, are between Europe and the central and west Japan cities of Nagoya and Osaka (Kansai International Airport).
Here’s Lufthansa flight LH736 close to arrival at Nagoya. It’s being followed by three other European airliners.
Not surprisingly, the same airlines take the same route when going home. Flights to Europe from Tokyo’s Narita and Haneda airports stay outside of North Korean skies because they are further east.
Here are the European flights I found:
- Air France 291 / 292: Paris – Kansai – Paris
- Alitalia 793: Kansai – Rome (AZ 792 from Rome to Kansai avoids North Korea)
- Finnair 77 / 78: Helsinki – Kansai – Helsinki
- Finnair 79 / 80: Helsinki – Nagoya – Helsinki
- KLM 867 / 868: Amsterdam – Kansai – Amsterdam
- Lufthansa 736 / 737: Frankfurt – Nagoya – Frankfurt
- Lufthansa 740 / 741: Frankfurt – Kansai – Frankfurt
From Seoul, flights on Russia’s Aurora Airlines HZ 5636 / 5637 will take passengers through North Korean-controlled skies, but the airline appears to deliberately avoid the area where U.S. flights are banned. At the 132 degees East line, it makes a dog-leg and continues on its journey between Vladivostok and Seoul’s Incheon airport.
Flights on S7 Airlines from Vladivostok to Hong Kong, S 7545 / 7546, take a similar route, flying directly south from Vladivostok before turning. And flights from Incheon to Yakutsk on Yakutia Airlines SYL 505 / 506 also gives North Korea a wide berth.
South Korea airlines avoid North Korean airspace in its totality, as you might expect. Here’s the Asiana flight from Incheon to Vladivostok, OZ 570. It adds about 35 minutes to the flight time.
For perhaps the best view of North Korea without actually going there, China Southern Airlines offers a flight between Tokyo’s Narita and Shenyang that flies directly over the country, crossing close to Pyongyang.
CZ 621 / 622, which also carries a Japan Airlines JL 5021 / 5022 codeshare number, flies right over the center of the country, as does a second flight later in the day, CZ 627 / 628.
It was this flight that North Korean missiles came close to hitting back in March. The missiles passed through the airspace the jet had occupied just 7 minutes earlier.
It’s easy to see why that might happen. Rather than crossing perpendicularly, the China Southern flight heads directly to and from the country, along the same rough path as the missile test firings.
China Southern’s flight from Kansai to Shenyang, CZ 611 / 612 takes a similar route. It also shares a JAL flight number, 5023 / 5024.
It’s perhaps surprising that China Southern hasn’t rerouted the flight after the March incident.
Japan’s All Nippon Airways takes a very different route for its NH 925 / 926 that flies between the same two cities. The difference in flight times? 25 minutes.
In fact, China Southern’s direct path over North Korea en-route to Shenyang is all the more surprising considering its CZ 631 / 632 between Kansai and Harbin flies around North Korean skies rather than taking a more direct route.
Because Flightradar24 doesn’t have anyone contributing data from North Korea, coverage of the skies above its land is spotty, but you can spot a flight in the animation running from Pyongyang to Vladivostok and back. It’s Air Koryo JS 271 / 272.
Speaking during a news conference at The Pentagon on Tuesday, Admiral Sam Locklear, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said he was concerned that the international community was becoming “numb” to them.
“Over and over and over again, you see it and you become somewhat numb to it, immune to it, and you start to say, well, it’s not such a big deal,” he said.
North Korea has fired a number of missiles from bases across the country into the Sea of Japan (East Sea) over the last few months. Most recently, it fired four short-range missiles on Wednesday this week.
Locklear said he assumed that every test represented a step forward in North Korean technology, “otherwise they probably wouldn’t be doing it.”
Getting Better In The Long Run
Locklear was also asked if the continued resistance of North Korea to United Nations and United States sanctions meant the U.S. was losing ground on North Korea’s nuclear proliferation activities.
“I wouldn’t characterize it as us losing ground,” he said.
“We have a growing interest among nations in the region and throughout the world and participating in our counterproliferation exercises, and we’re growing our capabilities across nations and across institutions to be able to better anticipate and to deal with this. So I think in the long run we’re getting better.”
Plan For The Worst
A reporter also asked Locklear what he made of North Korea’s nuclear capability.
“As a military commander, I have to plan for the worst and I have to plan for, number one, what the North Koreans say they have, and they say they have it, and what they demonstrate they might have when they show it to us,” he said.
“And so from those indications, then we have to ensure that we’re properly postured to protect not only our own homeland, which includes all of our territories and the state of Hawaii, where I happen to be, but also that we’re able to provide defense and security for our allies and our key partners in the region.”
Engineers from North Korea and seven other nations are being given training in technology related to China’s Beidou (Compass) satellite navigation system this week, according to Chinese media reports.
The engineers are attending a course in Hubei province being put on by the National Remote Sensing Center. The organization is part of China’s Ministry of Science and Technology and is charged with development of the Beidou system.
Beidou is a satellite navigation system developed to reduce Chinese reliance on the U.S. Navstar Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) system. It’s one of several new satellite navigation networks being launched to supplement the American system. Satellite navigation has become so important to defense and global trade that countries worry about the economic or military impact should the U.S. block access or the system suffer a failure.
In addition to the North Korean engineers, representatives from Thailand, Malaysia, Pakistan, Brunei, Indonesia, Cambodia and Laos are also in attendance, said Xinhua.
As part of the training, they visited China’s largest remote-sensing satellite ground station, pictured below by Xinhua.
GPS technology is embargoed from being taken into North Korea. The country doesn’t want its citizens to have accurate satellite navigation technology and North Korea’s neighbors don’t want the country’s military to obtain the same.
The Korean Central News Agency has yet to report on the visit.
The planned expansion of the U.S. missile defense shield to guard against potential threats from North Korea and other nations will cost $5.8 billion over the coming years, according to an estimate released this week.
The estimate was made by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in response to a question from Jeff Sessions, a Republican senator for Alabama and a member of the Senate Subcommittee on Strategic Forces. They examine the cost of the system over the last few years and its likely cost over the coming five years.
It reveals that the Missile Defense Agency’s Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) program has cost just under $9 billion from 2008 to 2014 and will cost more than a billion dollars over each of the next four years and close to a billion dollars in 2019.
The system currently consists of 30 interceptor missiles, 4 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and the remainder at Fort Greely in Alaska. Just last week, the Missile Defense Agency began work on environmental impact studies at four proposed expansion sites.
The figures include tests, support work and maintenance in addition to research and development work and were based on Department of Defense budget justification documents, according to the CBO.
The CBO noted that from 2014, some GMD activities were moved to the operation and maintenance cost line at Congressional direction.
“The individual projects within the RDT&E category have changed in both name and project content over the years. To better display trends in budgets for specific activities over time, CBO used the list of projects in the Fiscal Year 2015 budget for the attached table and presented the budget for projects in earlier years using those categories.”
The shooting down of MH17 over Ukraine has raised awareness of a series of restrictions the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has placed on aircraft operating around the world, including over North Korea.
North Korean airspace extends well beyond the land borders of the country to include a large portion of the Sea of Japan (East Sea) and, to a lesser extent, a region over the Yellow Sea (West Sea.) It’s called the Pyongyang FIR (flight information region) and is shown in the map below.
The FAA regulations date back to April 1997, when North Korea began allowing foreign airlines to fly through its airspace. That included U.S. carriers, but they couldn’t exercise the option because the Office of Foreign Assets Control prohibited payment of the so-called overflight fees. On April 7, OFAC lifted that restriction, effectively clearing the way for American air carriers to use North Korean airspace, but it didn’t last long.
Less than two weeks later, on April 18, the FAA issued Special Federal Aviation Regulation number 79 (SFAR 79) saying “immediate action is necessary to prohibit certain flight operations within DPRK airspace.”
The FAA cited safety concerns, but specifically the danger of civilian aircraft being shot down.
“The DPRK air defense system includes modern surface-to-air missile systems and interceptor aircraft capable of engaging aircraft at cruising altitudes,” the notice said. “The FAA has been unable to determine the current level of coordination and cooperation between civil air traffic authorities and air defense commanders for civil aircraft overflights, including military rules of engagement if an aircraft strays from its assigned flight route. Any lack of coordination presents a risk that civil aircraft operating in the Pyongyang FIR west of 132 degrees east longitude could be misidentified as a threat by the DPRK.”
“Given the DPRK’s air defense capabilities, including its rules of engagement and limited capability to distinguish between military and civil aircraft, the FAA has determined that civil aircraft operating in the Pyongyang FIR west of 132 degrees east longitude could be misidentified and inadvertently engaged by the DPRK.”
I’ve added the 132 degrees East line to the map below in light blue. (Click to make the image larger)
The FAA however extended its prohibition to the entire Pyongyang FIR, including the area east of the 132 degrees east line, pending review of safety information from the DPRK. It stayed that way for almost a year, with the FAA allowing flights in the eastern most part of the region from February 1998.
The regulation covers all U.S. airlines; FAA-licensed pilots except those flying U.S.-licensed aircraft for foreign carriers; and operators flying U.S.-registered aircraft, unless they are foreign carriers.
There are a couple of additional exceptions. U.S. pilots and aircraft can be taken into Pyongyang with U.S. government or FAA approval, typically on diplomatic or humanitarian missions, and in emergency situations.
The FAA revisited these restrictions in June this year.
“U.S. operators flying in and around the Pyongyang FIR east of 132 degrees east longitude are advised that North Korea has a history of launching short-range ballistic missiles with no warning. In March 2014, North Korea launched two medium-range missiles. These launches were into the Pyongyang FIR and impacted the Sea of Japan beyond the boundary of SFAR 79,” the FAA said. “U.S. operators are advised that future launches may occur with little or no warning and should use caution when planning for and operating in and around the Pyongyang FIR east of 132 degrees east longitude.”
The FAA said it would review the need for the caution by November this year.
While North Korea’s recent short- and medium-range missiles fell within the boundaries of its airspace, the countries long-range missiles overshoot the region. On occasions in the past when that’s been likely, the DPRK authorities have issued warnings to air and sea traffic on some occasions.
For example, in 2009 the country advised the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) that it would be launching a long-range missile. Here’s a map of the Pyongyang FIR with the drop zone for the first-stage indicated as “danger area 1.” The second-stage of the rocket overflew Japan and landed in the Pacific Ocean.
This map also shows the various airways that cross through the Pyongyang FIR, including several in the area to the east of the 132 degrees east longitude line.
The FAA’s June advisory was accompanied by an International Flight Information Manager (IFIM) notice that specifically mentioned two of the air routes that can be see in the map above.
“Both No Dong medium-range ballistic missiles and SCUD short-range ballistic missiles are capable of flying beyond the boundary of SFAR 79,” it said. “Such activities pose a potential hazard to flight operations, including operators flying on air routes B467 and G711.”
The FAA also asked pilots to report any observed launches.
South Korea’s latest attempt to sway the minds of the North Korean people looks like a dud before it’s even begun.
This month, the South Korean military begins regular programming on a new shortwave radio station aimed at the DPRK, but the selection of frequency, low transmitter power and aggressive jamming means few if anyone in the DPRK can probably hear it.
Voice of Freedom began several years ago on FM along the border. The use of FM hobbled the station because the signals typically only travel a few tens of kilometers and are susceptible to being blocked by the many hills in the area.
In May Voice of Freedom began test broadcasts began on shortwave, which can reach much further because the signals bounce off the ionosphere and come back down far from the transmitter site.
It’s the only reliable way to get regular radio programming into North Korea and is used by several broadcasters, including outlets like Radio Free Asia, which use high power transmitters as far away as the Northern Mariana Islands to get their signal into the DPRK.
Radio stations can choose their own spot on the shortwave dial and, while it’s less crowded than it used to, the frequency still needs to selected with care. It not only needs to avoid other stations, which come on and off the air at different times of day, but to match the expected atmospheric conditions for the time of year and the distance to be covered.
Voice of Freedom turned up on 6,135kHz, well inside the most crowded shortwave band in East Asia. This means it not only has to overcome North Korean jamming, which is already aggressively blocking its signal most days, but it also has to compete with more powerful stations.
“I don’t know who or why they picked this frequency,” said Jamie Labadia in an email to North Korea Tech. Labadia is a U.S.-based shortwave engineer who was contracted by the South Korean military to build the station.
“Not only is it the most crowded band one could pick in the evening, it is also rather high in frequency for the short distance to the target area,” he said. The frequency was suitable for the daytime, but at night the signal was probably bouncing right over a large part of the southern portion of North Korea.
In the couple of weeks before North Korea caught on to the broadcasts, they were being heard across Asia and in the United States, but no more. North Korean jamming, similar to that faced by Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, KBS and several other broadcasters, has been wiping out the signal.
“I know the pulse is destroying us,” Labadia said to Glenn Hauser, author of the popular DXLD shortwave newsletter. “Pretty discouraging to go through all of these struggles, only to have it be for naught.”
Labadia said he had “tried to convince [the South Korean military] to use a second frequency, however as of now they are staying on 6135.”
Two stations run by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service use a series of transmitters on different frequencies to maximize their chances of getting through North Korea’s jamming blockade. As of now, it looks like Voice of Freedom won’t be doing the same so the station might be an exercise in frustration.
Here’s the broadcasting schedule, provided by Labadia to DXLD:
0800 to 0000 GMT / 1700 to 0900 local time
0300 to 0500 GMT / 1200 to 1400 local time
The station isn’t on air during work hours because foreign radio listening is typically done in secret, at home.
The website of the Korean Association of Cooks offers hundreds of recipes in addition to an introduction to restaurants in North Korea and details of the cooking association.
State media first reported on its launch in March 2012 and again in January of 2013 but both times it wasn’t accessible from the Internet. It was assumed to be an internal site on the Kwangmyong nationwide intranet system accessible in libraries and schools.
But this week a site with the same domain “www.cooks.org.kp” name was discovered to be accessible from the Internet. The exact date it appeared is unclear but Doug Madory from Renesys, which specializes in Internet performance monitoring, said the domain name for the site appeared as far back as May 8 this year.
This is how KCNA described the domestic site:
“The homepage deals with common knowledge and theories on variety of dishes and how to cook them. It also offers such data as origins and anecdotes about dishes and global trend in cooking development. It has a distinctive catalogue for serving housewives’ convenience.”
“When a visitor chooses any food material in the catalogue, she can get detailed information about lists of dishes prepared with it and their cookery. The homepage contains multimedia on national and foreign dishes. Through homepage visitors can exchange their knowledge and views with each other and acquire a wide-ranging cooking.”
The HTML code for the page carries a date of May 2013.
There’s even a contact page: