This message told users the Indiegogo campaign had been deleted (Photo: North Korea Tech)

Internet-funded North Korean coup has short life

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A bizarre attempt to raise $10 million to fund a coup in North Korea appears to have ended shortly after it began.

A fund-raising campaign asking for money to “Help Bring Freedom to North Korea” was posted on Indiegogo on January 18, but several days later was deleted from the site.

An Indiegogo campaign, before it was deleted, asks for $10 million to end Kim Jong Un's regime

An Indiegogo campaign, before it was deleted, asks for $10 million to end Kim Jong Un’s regime

“We are Freedom Now, a covert multi-national group with the sole mission of bringing freedom and democracy to the people of North Korea,” read the introduction to the campaign when it was launched. Later, the description was edited to add another mission: “putting a stop to the tyrannical regime of Kim Jong-Un.”

Some of the money was said to be destined to build a radio network that would allow dissidents inside the country to communicate securely.

One of the goals of the campaign was to outfit people with secure communications (Photo: North Korea Tech)

One of the goals of the campaign was to outfit people with secure communications (Photo: North Korea Tech)

It’s a laudable goal. After all, similar networks have been tried in other countries, such as some in the Middle East. But those countries have comparative freedom compared to North Korea, where the government manages to maintain tight control on its people and dissent is not tolerated, so establishing such a network faces considerable hurdles.

Sending small radios into North Korea was another goal of the campaign (Photo: North Korea Tech)

Sending small radios into North Korea was another goal of the campaign (Photo: North Korea Tech)

The campaign also planned to send in small radios — something that existing South Korean activist groups are already doing. A handful of shortwave radio stations target North Korea with news and information and South Korean domestic stations can also be heard at nighttime — if listeners can get around North Korean jamming of the signals.

“We are confident that an effective communication network is not only possible, but inevitable with the necessary resources. The completion of this communication network will lead to opportunities for a coup and then to establish a democracy,” the campaign read.

The person or people behind the campaign appeared to be reluctant to tie themselves too closely with taking an active role in any coup in North Korea, in one paragraph writing “Freedom Now in no way acts out or will act out any illegal activity mentioned,” but its goal of a coup was obvious.

But with such goals, such a public funding campaign and a plan that apparently revolved solely around supplying radios to North Koreans and letting them do the rest themselves, it’s hard to take the campaign seriously.

The identity of the person or people behind the campaign was not known and it’s unclear if it was even serious. The campaign was staged so that the backer would receive the money whether it reached the $10 million target or not. When it disappeared from the site around $100 had been pledged.

Team members behind an Indiegogo campaign to bring regime change to North Korea (Photo: North Korea Tech)

Team members behind an Indiegogo campaign to bring regime change to North Korea (Photo: North Korea Tech)

The campaign was started in the names of “Andrew Fox” and “Dong Kyung-sun.” Both were listed as “verified” users, but that only proves the email addresses they used were legitimate. The profile page for Fox has since been deleted, but the profile for Dong remains.

The profile pictures are both stock images from Getty Images. The Andrew Fox image is titled “Confident business man” and the Dong Kyung-sun image is titled “Serious Korean man.”

Attempts to reach the campaign creator through an email address listed on Indiegogo were unsuccessful.

So, perhaps it was no surprise that within a few days, this is the message that greeted would-be funders:

This message told users the Indiegogo campaign had been deleted (Photo: North Korea Tech)

This message told users the Indiegogo campaign had been deleted (Photo: North Korea Tech)

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Obama says Internet could bring down Kim regime

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Greater access to information, particularly the Internet, will likely prove to be what ends the rule of North Korea’s regime, President Obama said last week in an interview.

Speaking to YouTube creators during an event at The White House, Obama said military options against the country were limited, in part because of the potential damage that South Korea could suffer in a conflict.

“Our capacity to affect change in North Korea is somewhat limited because you got a million person army and they have nuclear technologies and missiles,” said Obama. “That’s all they spend their money on essentially, is on their war machine, and we’ve got an ally of South Korea right next door that if there were a war a would be severely affected.”

The ability of the U.S. to affect change through sanctions is also limited, he said.

“Part of what’s happening is that the environment that we’re speaking in today, the Internet, is overtime is going to be penetrating that country and it is very hard to sustain that kind of brutal authoritarian regime in this modern world,” he said. “Information ends up seeping in over time and bringing about change and that something that we’re a constantly looking for ways to accelerate.”

Here’s what he said:

Kim Jong Un delivers his New Year address on January 1, 2015 (Photo: Korean Central Television)

Is western media an unwitting ally of North Korea’s propaganda?

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News outlets have raised concerns over the reliability of defector testimony after Shin Dong-hyuk recanted part of his story this week. For Pyongyang, this is a welcome distraction from its crimes, writes Michael Kirby, chair of the UN inquiry into North Korea’s human rights abuses.

Kim Jong Un delivers his New Year address on January 1, 2015 (Photo: Korean Central Television)

Kim Jong Un delivers his New Year address on January 1, 2015 (Photo: Korean Central Television)

By Michael Kirby

Are elements of western media unwitting allies of North Korean propaganda? Does the way we cover news and opinion in developed countries play into the hands of autocratic and totalitarian countries, which are skilfully focused on hiding their human rights crimes?

These are questions posed by the response to the news this week that a North Korean defector, Shin Dong-hyuk, has recanted parts of the dramatic story of his escape from a political detention camp in North Korea.

The admission came to light after North Korea released a video in October 2014 showing a man who claimed to be Shin’s father telling his son to repent false evidence he had given to the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea. Shin’s father said his son should return to the warm embrace of the Korean Workers Party and admit the falsehood of his claims.

Seeing his father, whom he had long believed to be dead, tormented the younger Shin. Eventually he told American writer Blaine Harden that some of the details in their popular book Escape from Camp 14 needed to be revised. Harden insisted the book be rewritten with full accuracy. Shin issued an emotional statement on social media last Sunday offering apologies to fellow refugees.

Where did this leave his testimony before the United Nations commission? Did it cast doubt on the accuracy of the fact-finding of that body? Did it require revision of its conclusions and recommendations? If Shin gave false evidence, did the whole inquiry collapse like a pack of cards? What could the United Nations do to prevent embarrassments of this kind in the future?

Instead of reporting on human rights in North Korea, these were the questions that many journalists breathlessly asked. These were journalists not from North Korea, but from western media.

Shin was only one of more than 200 witnesses who gave evidence to the UN commission. Of these, 80 witnesses were judged safe to give their evidence in public hearings. Gladly, they did so. The evidence was filmed and is online, available worldwide. Anyone can view hour after hour of distressing testimony that affirms the shocking abuses found in the commission’s conclusions. The evidence is believable and compelling. Everyone can reach their own conclusions upon it, except the citizens of North Korea. They have no access to the internet. And we have no immediate access to them.

Human justice is fallible. But it is still essential

International media is fascinated by this remote and peculiar country. Yet, because free access to the “hermit kingdom’’ is prohibited, media cannot go about freely investigating matters as it can in most other places. It cannot get the hard news that will slake the public’s demand for information and opinion.

The result has been, with some notable exceptions, an all too ready embrace of infotainment and trivialisation of the true picture of the abuse that was painstakingly described in the UN commission report.

We had the bizarre spectacle of a minor former sporting notable, Dennis Rodman, travelling to Pyongyang to visit his “friend” Kim Jong-un, the current Supreme Leader of North Korea. Astonishingly, this was treated as important. Virtually any horror story will be published: such as the statement that the body of the uncle by marriage of the Supreme Leader, executed in December 2013, was fed to wild dogs. The story was quickly traced to Chinese social media; but still it is still distributed. The haircut of the North Korea leader becomes a matter of endless reportage and humour.

On top of this, a few of the refugees who gave evidence of their suffering were selected for media packaging as “poster children’’. They were built up as heroes and “key witnesses’’. On their frail and often traumatised shoulders would seemingly rest the credibility of the entire refugee community.

That community numbers more than 23,000 in South Korea alone. They came forward in great numbers offering to give evidence to the UN inquiry which, for the first time, provided them with the opportunity of a public platform to tell of the wrongs that had been done to them and their families.

International media is fascinated by this remote country… yet it cannot get the hard news that will slake the public’s demand for information

The exact details of the inconsistencies that Shin now acknowledges need to be clarified. Was I surprised at his recantation? Not at all. My experience over 34 years as a judge repeatedly involved instances of such a kind. Human justice is fallible. But it is still essential. Trained decision-makers learn to look on all evidence with a degree of caution. Where grave crimes against humanity are asserted, there must be very strong evidence to support the conclusion that they are established.

Testimony needs to be confirmed and, if possible, corroborated. The difficulty with North Korea arises from the extreme secrecy imposed by the regime. They will not let media, still less UN investigators, enter their country. It is necessary to rely on outsiders. North Korea cannot ultimately prevent the world from getting to the bottom of the accusations.

Shin’s evidence was special only in that he claimed to have escaped from the most severe detention camp where he and his parents had been held as political prisoners. This was the “total control zone’’ of Camp 14. It now seems that it may have been another camp. This is a trifle. His camp may have been two stars on the horror scale whereas Camp 14 is three stars, but any detention camp in North Korea is horrible enough.

Until recently, North Korea denied the very existence of these camps. Now, in the face of satellite images, they admit their existence, but they blame foreign sanctions; everyone is responsible, except the regime.

North Korea cannot ultimately prevent the world from getting to the bottom of the accusations

We need to return to the undoubted facts. Grave crimes against humanity in North Korea have been established by strong, credible evidence. They have been happening for decades.

We should not be diverted from resolute action to demand accountability. In December 2014, the UN Security Council placed the issue of human rights in North Korea on its agenda. This was an unusual and a strong step. The international community needs to persist with calling North Korea to account. It should not be deflected from that course by the minor retractions of a single, highly traumatised person who remains just another of the tragic victims of the totalitarian regime in Pyongyang.

Michael Kirby was chair of the UN Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea (2013-14) and Justice of the High Court of Australia (1996-2009)

Michael Kirby speaks at a UN news conference by Commission of Inquiry on the situation of human rights in the DPRK (Photo: Eskinder Debebe/UN)

Michael Kirby speaks at a UN news conference by Commission of Inquiry on the situation of human rights in the DPRK (Photo: Eskinder Debebe/UN)

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Obama speaks on hacking during State of the Union

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North Korea didn’t get a direct mention during President Obama’s State of the Union address on January 20, but Obama did take on the issue of computer hacking — something that has been put on the U.S. agenda since the November 2014 attack on Sony Pictures.

The U.S. government has blamed North Korea for the action and he mentioned nation-state attacks during the speech.

“No foreign nation, no hacker, should be able to shut down our networks, steal our trade secrets, or invade the privacy of American families, especially our kids,” Obama said. “We are making sure our government integrates intelligence to combat cyber threats, just as we have done to combat terrorism.”

He also reiterated plans to introduce legislation that would help the U.S. government better respond to cyberattacks.

“And tonight, I urge this Congress to finally pass the legislation we need to better meet the evolving threat of cyber-attacks, combat identity theft, and protect our children’s information. If we don’t act, we’ll leave our nation and our economy vulnerable. If we do, we can continue to protect the technologies that have unleashed untold opportunities for people around the globe.”

Balloons carrying propaganda material are launched from Paju, South Korea, towards North Korea on January 15, 2014. (HRF handout)

Balloon launch of “The Interview” DVDs to go ahead

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A U.S.-based group says a launch it is sponsoring of balloons carrying copies of the Sony Pictures movie “The Interview” into North Korea will go ahead, despite threats against it by the North Korean government.

The Human Rights Foundation said on Monday that the launch, performed by the group Fighters for Free North Korea (FFNK), would take place sometime this week. Park Sang Hak, who heads the FFNK, had earlier told local media that he was considering halting the launch after threats against him.

“Despite these and previous threats, HRF will proceed with launching balloons carrying leaflets, transistor radios, media and cultural artifacts into North Korea this week, as part of a broader effort to help defector groups break the Kim regime’s monopoly on information,” The Human Rights Foundation said in a statement.

The exact timing of the launch would not be revealed in advance “because of the increased security risks for the launches and the threats we’ve received from the North Korea regime,” said Jamie Hancock, a spokesman for HRF.

Such launches have been occurring for years and while each one serves to annoy the North Korean government, the level of protest from Pyongyang usually depends on internal conditions in the country.

“The Interview” depicts a plot to kill leader Kim Jong Un, an incredibly sensitive subject for the government.

After North Korea was blamed for the November 2014 hack on Sony Pictures, HRF launches a “Hack Them Back” fundraising campaign that succeeded in raising over $50,000 to fund sponsorship of future balloon launches.

Balloons carrying propaganda material are launched from Paju, South Korea, towards North Korea on January 15, 2014. (HRF handout)

Balloons carrying propaganda material are launched from Paju, South Korea, towards North Korea on January 15, 2014. (HRF handout)

The large helium-filled balloons that are launched from the border region typically carry several large plastic bags filled with thousands of leaflets that condemn the ruling regime in addition to other cargo like radios capable of receiving overseas broadcasts, U.S. dollar bills, and TV shows and movies on DVD and USB memory stick. A year ago, HRF sponsored the launch of balloons carrying the Korean version of Wikipedia on USB sticks.

The bags are fitted with timers that release them after a certain time in the air, in the hope that the contents flutter down over the North Korean countryside and into cities.

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TV Review: Hidden State: Inside North Korea

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Al Jazeera’s “Fault Lines” takes on North Korea in its latest episode, scheduled for broadcast on Al Jazeera America on January 19, 2015, at 9pm ET.

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The 30-minute program called “Hidden State: Inside North Korea,” is based around a 2014 reporting trip to the country by Teresa Bo. Bo is a former Latin American correspondent for the network and now works on the award-winning documentary series.

Bo attempts to understand what has changed since Kim Jong Un came to power and how U.S.-North Korean relations are viewed from Pyongyang. Two recent events: the hack on Sony Pictures and the report of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK; give the the visit added poignance.

Viewers get an insight into life in Pyongyang, both for a reporter trying to cover the country and for a citizen — at least, for a citizen that has been asked to speak to foreign media.

Sin Gyong Ju, a family member of a Kim Il Sung University professor, lives in one of Pyongyang’s new apartment buildings and talks of her worry for the health of Kim Jong Un after he disappeared from public view for several weeks.

That worry is almost certainly for the benefit of the cameras, and so it’s interesting that North Korean officials steered the conversation towards such a topic, especially when state media was silent on Kim’s condition during the time he was absent.

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The documentary doesn’t confine itself it Pyongyang.

“In North Korea, we spoke only to people chosen by the government,” Bo says during the report. “So to get a sense of what life was really like under Kim Jong Un, at least for some, we traveled to Seoul.”

In South Korea, the team met several defectors, who spoke of how they assumed they would die if caught defecting, but decided to try anyway. A woman speaks of how people carried poison, so they could commit suicide rather than be arrested and sent to the country’s labor camps.

Others speak of torture endured at the hands of the regime.

And the documentary also presents footage, said to be shot undercover in South Pyongan province, of couriers waiting for goods to arrive by train. They are said to be ferrying Chinese-made electronics, shampoo and DVDs to merchants.

Couriers wait to ferry Chinese goods to local markets, in a clip from Al Jazeera's Fault Lines documentary. (Photo: North Korea Tech)

Couriers wait to ferry Chinese goods to local markets, in a clip from Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines documentary. (Photo: North Korea Tech)

Analysis comes in part from Andrei Lankov, a well-known analyst of North Korean affairs at Seoul’s Kookmin University, who provides balance and context to the stories. A lot of it might be familiar for a specialist audience, but many don’t have detailed knowledge of North Korea and the program does a good job of explaining the situation.

It also manages to avoid relying on endless clips of troops marching through Kim Il Sung Square and dancers at the Arirang mass games.

North Korea watchers will notice at least one additional familiar face in the documentary: Alejandro Cao de Benós. The leader of the Korean Friendship Association appears in a scene sitting alongside Bo when she is interviewing the Ryu Kyong Il, of North Korea’s Committee on Foreign Relations.

Alejandro Cao de Benós, center, sits alongside Al Jazeera journalist Teresa Bo, left, in the TV station's Fault Lines documentary. (Photo: North Korea Tech)

Alejandro Cao de Benós, center, sits alongside Al Jazeera journalist Teresa Bo, left, in the TV station’s Fault Lines documentary. (Photo: North Korea Tech)

Last week, NK News reported on the large mark-ups that Cao de Benós charges foreign media crews that want to report from inside North Korea. Posing as a Swedish filmmaker, NK News was quoted a price of 46,000 euros for a three-person, seven day shoot. More than half of that amount was for filming permits and visas.

Hidden State: Inside North Korea” airs on Al Jazeera America on January 19, 2015, at 9pm ET. It will air again at 12am ET and 4am ET, and on January 24 at 7pm ET and 10pm ET. Fault Lines is also broadcast outside of the U.S. on Al Jazeera English.

Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang in May 2014 (UN Photo)

NSA had access to North Korean computer network, says report

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The U.S. National Security Agency had access to internal North Korean computer networks before the attack on Sony Pictures, according to a report by The New York Times. That access enabled the U.S. to conclude, with confidence, that North Korea was responsible for the hack on Sony.

The report quotes interviews with former U.S. and foreign officials, computer experts briefed on the matter and an intelligence agency document that was recently published by the German news magazine Der Spiegel.

The New York Times doesn’t go into any technical details on the level of access or how it was done, but the document does.

It says that the U.S. managed to get into North Korean computers by using existing secret access points run by South Korean intelligence agencies. The South Koreans had managed to hack computers used by North Korean officials and U.S. piggybacked on those vulnerabilities. It’s unclear if South Korea was aware the U.S. was using the access points, but it appears from the document that they did not.

Using the access, the N.S.A. was able to pull data from North Korean computers and learn more about the north’s computer networks. That enabled the U.S. to begin its own program.

The revelations go a long way to explaining why the U.S. government was able to conclude so quickly that North Korea was responsible for the Sony attack. Attributing cyberattacks to any actor is incredibly difficult, often taking months or not being possible at all, but the F.B.I. made its assertion less than a month after the attack happened.

Hours later, President Obama repeated the allegation and promised the U.S. would respond. Early in January, the U.S. slapped sanctions on several North Korean state actors including the Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB). The RGB is believed to handle much of North Korea’s traditional and cyber espionage activities.

The speed of the U.S. conclusion, numerous inconsistencies with previous attacks attributed to North Korea, and the lack of any compelling evidence led many to question North Korea’s involvement, including this blog.

North Korea denied the allegations.

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KCTV launches HD satellite broadcasts

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Korean Central Television (조선중앙방송), North Korea’s main national television station, has begun high-definition broadcasting.

The TV station has been available in standard definition via the Thaicom satellite for more than 15 years, and earlier in January a second high-definition feed of the TV station appeared.

The technical parameters of the new broadcast are as follows: 3696MHz, horizontally polarized, 4167 symbol rate, DVB-S2 format.

The new feed began by carrying KCTV’s regular standard definition broadcasts in a letterboxed format, so while the broadcast is technically in a high-definition format, the content isn’t … yet.

Recent coverage of major national events has been produced in widescreen format, which probably means it’s being filming with high-definition equipment and converted down to standard definition for the current broadcasts.

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The TV station got a major upgrade in 2012 when China Central Television provided the broadcaster with around $800,000 worth of digital broadcasting equipment. Some of it can be seen in this photo, which was carried by Chinese media at the time.

North Korea’s satellite broadcast via Thaicom 5 reaches across a broad part of the globe including all of Asia and much of Africa and Europe. In this image below, the signal is receivable in all areas enclosed within the large outline of this map. However, a large satellite dish or at least 2-meters or more in diameter is required.

The footprint of the Thaicom 5 satellite, which carries Korean Central Television

The footprint of the Thaicom 5 satellite, shown in light blue, which carries Korean Central Television

It’s not clear whether North Korea has plans for terrestrial broadcasting in high definition. The country began testing digital TV broadcasting at the end of 2012, according to a report, but state media hasn’t provided any updates on progress of the trials.

Recent models of tablet computer on sale in the country include analog TV tuners but no digital reception, although that might be due to cost rather than absence of broadcasts.

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