The Marmot's Hole

Korea... in Blog Format

Author: Robert Koehler (page 1 of 584)

Last Open Thread of 2014

It’s a beautiful final weekend of the year, at least here in Seoul. Hope you all get a chance to go out and enjoy it.

Photo: Yesterday evening’s sunset, seen from the back window of the office where I work in Seoul’s Bukchon Hanok Village.

Blog template dilemma

As you’ve probably guessed, I’d like to change my blog template for 2015.

Now, WordPress has provided a new default theme for the new year, Twenty Fifteen, which is nice enough but looks a bit odd on mobile platforms.

I liked the Editor theme, which I tried for a couple of days, but the size of the font and the blockquotes didn’t really do it for me on anything other than my really big iMac screen.

I really, really like something like the Blink or Literatum themes, which are a lot like the layout used by, including War is Boring. I’ve been using a “classic” layout like Andrew Sullivan for as long as I’ve been blogging, but a lot of the cool kiddies nowadays are adopting themes like Medium, Gawker or Vox. Now, I’m tempted to go in the direction of big feature images and nice topography (like Medium), but at the same time, I’m not sure if those layouts suit my style of blogging.

Of course, if I take this blog in a more long-form blogging direction, a Medium-like them might be good.

Anyway, if you’ve got advice (including “Keep the damn theme you’re using now!”), feel free to offer it.

Photo by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid.

Note to cobloggers: When you post, I’d appreciate it if you could add a feature image (see here). I get a lot of my feature images from Flickr’s creative commons.

Yes, Seoul can defend itself and the U.S. should probably pull out. But to be fair…

Over at War is Boring, Kyle Mizokami argues that South Korea’s military spending choices indicate one of two different things, and both of them mean the United States no longer has any business basing troops in the country:

Maybe South Korea believes North Korea is no longer a serious problem and the South can safely strive for regional standing. If Pyongyang is no longer a threat, U.S. troops should no longer be necessary on the Korean peninsula.

The alternative is that South Korea believes North Korea is still a threat, but with Americans defending the South, Seoul can risk turning its attention outward. That amounts to United States subsidizing South Korea’s foreign policy, potentially at the cost of American lives.

Either makes a strong case for pulling U.S. troops from South Korea.

Now, we here at the Marmot’s Hole have been arguing for a withdrawal of U.S. ground troops from Korea for as long as I can remember. South Korea is more than capable of defending itself on its own, and all the United States should be providing is naval, air and logistical support.

The thing is, the arguments for pulling U.S. troops out of Korea were just as valid long, long before Seoul started spending money on amphibious landing craft instead of upgraded missile defense systems.

But before we criticize Korea for taking in interest in things such as a blue water navy and F-35 fighters, it should be noted that Korea – the world’s 12th largest economy, its seventh largest exporter and ninth largest importer – has global economic, security and humanitarian interests that have absolutely nothing to do with North Korea. Since 1993, it has sent over 40,000 troops overseas on peacekeeping missions, including ongoing operations in Lebanon, South Sudan, Afghanistan and off the Somali coast and a recently concluded one-year relief operation in the Philippines. Vessels like the ROKS Dokdo and Aegis destroyers may come in handy in these kinds of operations, which countries like Korea are going to be counted on to undertake more and more in the future.

And frankly, I don’t find this allocation of military resources to be especially unusual. Even during the Cold War, when Western countries were focused squarely on the Soviet threat and U.S. armored cavalry regiments were defending the Fulda Gap, U.S. allies such as Great Britain and France still devoted resources to protecting their interests outside of Europe, such as the Falklands and West Africa. Heck, even South Korea managed to pony up 320,000 of its best fighters to send to Vietnam from 1964 to 1973, a time when Seoul was much, much less capable of defending itself against a much more aggressive North Korean threat.

It should also be noted that the United States has not been unsupportive of Korea’s growing regional and, especially, global role. From the joint communique of 2010’s South Korea-U.S. Security Consultative Meeting:

The Secretary and the Minister reaffirmed the commitment of the U.S. and ROK Presidents to build a comprehensive strategic Alliance of bilateral, regional, and global scope, based on common values and mutual trust, as set forth in the June 2009 Joint Vision for the Alliance of the ROK and the U.S. They also reaffirmed their shared view expressed at the ROK-U.S. Foreign and Defense Ministers’ Meeting in July that the scope of Alliance cooperation should continue to broaden and deepen to encompass both closer security cooperation and more comprehensive cooperation in other areas.

And from this October’s South Korea-U.S. Security Consultative Meeting:

The Secretary and the Minister pledged that the ROK and the United States would continue to enhance close Alliance cooperation to address wide-ranging global security challenges of mutual interest, including through peacekeeping activities, stabilization and reconstruction efforts, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief. In addition, the Secretary and the Minister emphasized that the Alliance’s joint response capabilities against various biological threats including disease and terrorism have been continuously enhanced through the Able Response Exercise (AR) and decided to pursue even more active bilateral cooperation on this issue. The Secretary praised the ROK’s contributions to counter-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden, UN peace-keeping mission in Lebanon, and reconstruction efforts in the Republic of South Sudan. Moreover, the Secretary expressed appreciation for the ROK government’s continued active participation in the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI).

I think it’s a good thing that we’re beginning to redefine the Korea-U.S. alliance from a strictly defensive one against North Korea to a broader strategic global partnership. In fact, I’d argue that North Korea won’t be around forever, and if the Korea-U.S. alliance is to have a future, it needs to be based on the defense and promotion of common global interests and values, much in the same way NATO has become. Obviously, South Korea’s ability to contribute globally will be limited for the time being by its unique security situation, i.e., North Korea, but that’s no reason for it not to begin helping out now (as it has been) given the strong state of deterrence it currently enjoys vis-a-vis the North, in part thanks to the United States. And more to the point, we should not be surprised when South Korea starts acquiring the tools it needs to carry out those global missions.

One last point here. While some of Korea’s weapons systems procurements may be of limited use and/or overkill when it comes to the North Koreans – as Mikozami notes, “shooting down obsolete MiG-29s does not require budget-busting F-35s*” (Marmot’s note: shooting down Chinese J-31s in the event of a Chinese intervention would, though). Like many weapons procurements, however, there are political factors at work here, too, one of the most important on the Korean side being “solidifying the Korea-U.S. alliance.” The US$ 7 billion Seoul will spend on the F-35s might not be money spent “on equipment that’s actually useful for South Korea’s main problem, North Korea,” but it is money going to Lockheed Martin. And it’s not like Washington told Seoul, “Hey, don’t buy those F-35s! The alliance doesn’t need them!” In fact, the Americans were quite pleased with the sale, and it strikes me as a bit odd to punish Seoul with reduced security commitments for buying a weapon system we encouraged them to buy.

*Apparently, it’s something of a trend for Asian-Pacific nations with Aegis warships (namely, Korea, Japan and Australia) to also buy the F-35, and the United States very much views this as strengthening, not weakening, its Pacific alliances, including the one with Korea:

Both the Aegis and the Joint Strike Fighter, as well as the interaction between them, demonstrate how America is using military technology to strengthen its worldwide network of alliances. To begin with, the programs are both designed to strengthen the economic interdependence of America’s allies across the globe, with each nation utilizing comparative advantages in producing various parts for the Aegis and JSF, as well as further innovating them.

At the same time, systems like the F-35 and Aegis inherently foster greater interoperability between militaries that use them. This will be especially important for the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific, which currently lacks the kind of collective security mechanisms found in Europe or even the Persian Gulf. Although military systems like the F-35 and Aegis won’t be as effective in integrating regional defense as an organization like NATO, they should help prevent the kind of disasters seen at the Battle of Java should the U.S. and its allies ever find themselves fighting together in an actual conflict.

Photo courtesy of UNC – CFC – USFK

Merry Christmas

Just wishing this blog’s readers – and, heck, even people who don’t read this blog – a very merry Christmas.

Four Rivers report released

An government investigative committee composed of outside experts has issued a report on the Four Rivers Project, and what you take from it will probably depend on what you thought of the project in the first place.

Ye Olde Chosun, for instance, penned the headline, “Four Rivers Investigative Committee Announces Results of 16-Month Investigation: ‘4 Rivers Project Had Some Side Effects, But Achieved Some Goals’… End of Controversy.”

Except nobody passed the “end of controversy” memo to the Hankyoreh, which blasted the report for shoddy, roughshod investigations and called for a parliamentary investigation into the project. Which will never happen.

The Chosun also ran an editorial approving of the investigation and cautiously supporting the project, or at least rejecting the claims of its opponents.

What the committee actually found was that six of the 16 dams built on the four rivers had minor structural problems but nothing particularly major. It also found that water quality in the Hangang, Nakdonggang and Geumgang rivers have generally improved, but it has worsened in the Yeongsangang and along four stretches of the upper Nakdonggang. Which is my favorite part of the Nakdonggang. No, I’m not being a wise ass – I spent my first three years in Korea living near the upper Nakdonggang, and very fond memories of that part of the river.

On the positive side of the ledger, the project seems to have helped prevent floods and the pooled water – when not becoming algae farms, I’m assuming – has been useful in dealing with drought. All for the low, low cost of KRW 22 trillion.

Wrote the investigators in their report:

“All in all, the four-river project has attained its goals to some extent … but it has generated some side effects because it was carried out too hastily amid some limited local river management technology,

So, basically, it’s the Cheonggyecheon writ large. Check that – the Cheonggyecheon, for all its flaws, I think is still a net positive for the city of Seoul. I’m not sure I could say that about the Four Rivers, at least not yet, anyway, especially considering the hasty, poorly thought-out manner in which that project was conceived and conducted.

Photo by Alex LA.

And on the taxi front…

As you know, catching a cab at night can be a real pain in the ass. Not that there’s no taxis, mind you. It’s just that the drivers can be very selective in who they pick up. If you’re not going in the driver’s direction, or your fare just isn’t big enough, well, good luck.

Things may be changing, however.

To decrease the number of taxi drivers refusing passengers around the end of the year, the Seoul City and Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency have decided to work together to push forward regulations strengthening the crackdown on taxi drivers, and increasing the supply of alternative transportation.

On Dec. 16, the city announced that it was putting forth these regulations because taxi drivers are still refusing to take passengers late at night despite the continuing crackdown.
Starting from this month, the city will also without exception fine transportation company representatives for refusing passengers even if it’s a first time act. They will not give warnings for first offenses and will fine drivers 200,000 won without exception.

Sounds good, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

Seoul City has also been busy trying to rid its taxi fleet of drivers with criminal records. In 2006, ex-cons were banned from becoming new drivers, and in 2012, a law was passed banning individuals who’ve served time for murder, robbery, rape, fleeing the scene of an accident, habitual theft, habitual drunk driving, molestation, sex crimes against minors or buying sex from driving a taxi for up to 20 years from the end of their sentence.

It’s also conducting regular criminal record checks on new and existing drivers, cancelling the taxi licenses of those with records. In 2013, the city cancelled the licenses of 64 drivers, and this year, they’ve cancelled the licenses of 23 drivers through November.

The city brought this up because the Hankyoreh ran a story on a 44-year-old Seoul taxi driver who just got sentenced to 10 months in jail for molesting a young woman in his cab in Mapo in July. What made this especially bad was it was the guy’s fourth sexual offense – he’d sexually assaulted a female student when he was 16, did two years in the can for sexual assault in his 20s, and in 2010 was booked again for molesting a passenger in his cab. He had been able to keep driving because his first two offenses happened prior to 2006 and the 2010 victim dropped her complaint after an out-of-court settlement was reached.

Taxi drivers are also victims of crimes, too, and not just by drunken off-duty American GIs. To make drivers feel safer, Seoul City has decided to install partitions around the driver’s seats of its taxis, beginning with cabs driven by women drivers. If the results are good and the drivers like them, the city plans to expand the program to all taxis.

Photo by john and carolina.

New Blog Theme

Don’t try to adjust your monitor – I’ve adopted a completely new blog theme.

I rather like the simple layout, with big feature images and plenty of focus on content. It also looks good on mobile devices – and displays the author of each post, too, which the old layout did not on smartphones.

The only thing I’m not really sure about is the blockquote style, but I’ll probably get used to that.

Anyway, tell me what you think.

No Gawker for Kim Jong Un this morning

As the New York Times reported, North Korea is apparently having a really bad Internet day:

A strange thing happened to North Korea’s already tenuous link to the Internet on Monday: It broke.

While perhaps a coincidence, the failure of the country’s computer connections began only hours after President Obama declared Friday that the United States would launch a “proportional response” to what he termed an act of “cybervandalism” against Sony Pictures.

Over the weekend, as North Korean officials demanded a “joint investigation” into the Sony attacks and denied culpability — an assertion the United States rejected — Internet service began to get wobbly. By early Monday, the Internet went as dark as one of those satellite photographs showing the impoverished country by night.

Now, this could be any number of things other than the United States hitting North Korea back, including a server glitch, North Korea preemptively taking its sites down in preparation for a retaliatory cyber-attack, or the North Koreans have only just learned about Kim Kardashian’s ass and have overloaded the one line out of the country.

But if it was a U.S. cyber-attack and you were curious about the legal issues involved, the Daily Beast has got a good roundup of everything you wanted to know about the international legal aspects of cyberwarfare but were afraid to ask.

In case you were wondering, North Korea has just 1,024 official Internet protocol addresses. It wouldn’t surprise me if Ulleungdo has more.

Anyway, North Korea’s websites are reportedly back up and running now. Unless you live in South Korea, of course, where every day is a North Korea blackout day.

Speaking of South Korea…

S. Korean nuke plant hacked

A much more damaging Internet attack has taken place south of the DMZ, where several of South Korea’s nuclear power plants were hacked:

The hacker was able to access blueprints, floor maps and other information on the plant, the South Korean Yonhap News Agency reported Sunday. Using a Twitter account called “president of anti-nuclear reactor group,” the hacker has released a total of four postings of the leaked data since December 15, each one revealing internal designs and manuals of the Gori-2 and Wolsong-1 nuclear reactors run by Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co. (KHNP), Yonhap added. The hacker has threatened to leak further information unless the reactors are shut down.

The Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy and the Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Corp. also say malicious code was found within the operating network connected to the reactor control system.

As always, North Korea is a suspect, although the authorities also believe the hacker may reside in Hawaii and have asked the U.S. FBI for help. Still, there are plenty of locals who could be responsible, too, and for good reasons. Anyway, KHNP is now running cyber-warfare drills, even as the Hani accuses the government of being more concerned with covering up the attack.

Photo by Adam Mulligan.

UPDATE: Vox takes a really, really good look at the Internet in North Korea. Read it in its entirety on your own, but I’ll give you a sample:

But the third reason is less straightforward. North Korea’s very top elite, the inner core of the inner core, access the internet because they simply don’t live in the same universe as their countrymen. While most of North Korea exists in a propaganda bubble where any outside information is an existential ideological threat and truth about the world is scarce, North Korea’s top elite are perfectly aware of how it all really works. They allow themselves all the comforts: movies, books, internet access, forbidden technology, forbidden luxury goods, and foods and alcohol smuggled in for their pleasure. Kim Jong Un certainly participated in this himself, although it’s also a tool by which he maintains the loyalty of the elite. The country’s elites also do need this information — what’s really happening out there, how the world really works — to run their country, even if they are only running it to keep the cruel, despotic system in place.

Max Fisher also translated North Korea’s most recent rant against the United States and Sony into plain English.

More on the dissolution of the UPP

Over at Korea Expose – which if you’re not reading, you really should be – Ben Jackson has posted a wonderful analysis of the reactions to the Constitutional Court’s dissolution of the United Progressive Party (UPP) and what it means for Korean democracy.

I agree with the bulk of what Ben has to say. Judging simply from what I’ve read, I think the Constitutional Court’s decision was a bad one – if you’re going to disband a political party, an act not completely unheard of even in mature democracies, you’ve got to do so based on a criteria much more severe than anything I’ve seen yet in regards to this case. And while I might sympathize – for reasons such as this – with those uncomfortable with letting possibly pro-North Korean lawmakers sit in the National Assembly where they could cause trouble, even the Israelis allow openly anti-Zionist Arab parties to sit in the Knesset, and frankly, as Ben pointed out, there are probably bigger threats to Korea’s democratic order than a tiny minority party that is held in contempt by large swaths of the Korean public, including not a few progressives. In addition, the international optics of the decision are not good, and Amnesty International is already expressing concern. Some view the decision to drag the party before the court as political retribution for UPP party chief Lee Jung-hee’s trashing of President Park Geun-hye during the 2012 presidential debates, although frankly, Lee’s rhetoric may have actually helped Park more than it hurt.

Having said that, it is remarkable that the court not only decided to disband the UPP, but it did so in a 8-to-1 decision. Centrist justice Kang Il-won and even progressively minded justice Lee Jung-mi voted in favor of dissolving the party, which makes you wonder what exactly they heard during proceedings that was so bad that they gave an entire party the political death sentence. Moreover, opinion polls (printed in conservative papers, granted) suggest over 60% of the public supports the court’s decision.

As I said in the comment section of Korea Expose, it’s impossible to talk about the court’s decision without talking about former UPP lawmaker Lee Seok-ki, who is currently doing a nine-year stint for incitement to rebel. What Lee did, and more to the point, how the UPP handled what Lee did, was almost comically bad, as I wrote back in 2013:

It seems everybody can agree that the UPP’s response to this crisis has been, in a word, abysmal. The Chosun, of course, notes that the UPP went from “there was no meeting” to “there was a meeting, but nothing about guns and blowing stuff up was said” to “there was a meeting and ‘guns’ and ‘blowing stuff up’ might have been mentioned, but the NIS is manufacturing the context” to “we were only joking.” You know you’ve truly screwed the pooch, however, when you’ve got UPP members going to the Hankyoreh to bitch about how the party leadership has thrown the party in crisis by a) refusing to apologize for Lee’s bizarre comments and behavior and b) lying to the public despite internal agreements to come clean right at the beginning.

Although justices Kang and Lee didn’t say anything in particular, the Segye Ilbo, citing lawyers and academics, suggests that the records from Lee’s investigation swayed the two into deciding with the majority. And indeed, the decision text mentions controversial comments made by Lee, including those regarding his refusal to sing the national anthem. (UPDATE: You can read the court’s decision in English here, and in Korean here).

The Chosun Ilbo sheds even more light on this. Although during proceedings, the UPP argued that you couldn’t connect the activities of some party members – i.e., Lee and comrades – to the party as a whole, the court decided that the decision by the party to defend Lee when the party was coming under fire for his actions meant Lee’s sins were the party’s sins. OK, I might not have gone in that direction, but the Chosun notes that there’s more, and it’s sort of ironic both for Lee and the party. During the criminal trial, Lee and his seven co-conspirators argued that the so-called Revolutionary Organization (RO) was not a secret organization, but rather a party event held to figure out a direction for the party’s anti-war activities. Suwon District Court, however, rejected this and judged the RO to be a secret organization that was plotting an insurrection. In the appeal, however, Seoul High Court found insufficient evidence that the RO existed and acquitted him plotting an insurrection (the court upheld the conviction for inciting rebellion, however). More to the point, the court accepted some of Lee’s arguments, namely, that his comments were made during a party meeting. So while the decision was good for Lee personally – he got three years shaved off his original 12-year sentence – it was bad for the party, which now looked like it was hosting events where people talked about blowing up vital infrastructure in the event of a North Korean invasion. Not pretty.

Moreover, the party and its predecessors have had serious internal issues in the past at least partly linked to its leadership’s attitudes toward North Korea (and its protection of members implicated in North Korea-related crimes), most notably in 2007 and 2012.

Still, while I’m much less despondent than co-blogger Anonymous_Joe or Ben, I do find myself agreeing with the lone dissenting voice on the court, who argued that it was wrong to punish the entire party for the actions of a few members and that Korea has laws – including the National Security Law – which could effectively remove seditious individuals from the policy making process. Moreover, if it’s potentially traitorous lawmakers you’re worried about, he argued, the National Assembly has its own measures to deal with them. Disbanding a party should be a last resort, and one ideally left to the voters at election time.

Sounds reasonable to me.

Anyway, a major theme in the conservative press is that Korea’s progressive movement needs to reinvent itself by cutting ties with pro-North Korean types – see today’s editorials in the Dong-A Ilbo and JoongAng Ilbo (the Chosun Ilbo, on the other hand, is still having too much fun beating up on the UPP). And sure enough, you can find progressive figures saying just that. Still, if the conservative press’s lectures come off nearly as annoying to progressives as progressive commentators’ lectures to conservatives sound every time we get spanked at the polls, I imagine the advice will fall on deaf ears. Instead, progressives are still wondering how the hell the Constitutional Court made its decision, and if today’s Hankyoreh editorial is anything to go by, what you’re going to hear are louder calls for reforming the Constitutional Court, where seven out of nine of the justices are selected by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the ruling party and all are former high-ranking court officers or prosecutors, both of which are viewed as bastions of conservatism. The Hani suggests adopting the practice of the German constitutional court, the model for Korea’s (not extending to the architecture, sadly), where justices need to be approved by a parliamentary two-thirds vote.

I think they are trying to say they’re upset

Pyongyang tells President Obama to take his proportional response and shove it:

“Surpassing the proportional response declared by Obama, (North Korea) will carry out a ultra-harsh war of reaction targeting the entire U.S. mainland, including the White House, the Pentagon, which are the base of terrorism,” the strategy department of the North’s powerful National Defense Commission (NDC) said in a statement, carried by the official (North) Korean Central News Agency.

This, children, is one of the reasons I just can’t take folk professing understanding of North Korea’s anger over the film seriously. Sure, depicting a sitting head of state’s head exploding isn’t particularly politic. We are talking about North Korea, however, a nation that is to civil international discourse what Malcolm Tucker is to polite discussion among colleagues.

Photo by Tormod Sandtorv.

UPDATE: In the WSJ, John Bolton argues for bringing the disproportional, so to speak, to North Korea:

Seoul’s war on Uber intensifies

The Seoul City Council passed on Friday an ordinance that would offer rewards of up to KRW 1 million to people who report Uber taxis.

The ordinance will go into effect after a final screening on Dec. 30.

The city also pointed out five things that make Uber really, really bad, including difficulties involving insurance and driver identification as well as Uber’s pricing system, which differs from Seoul taxi fares which are determined by law. They also don’t like Uber’s terms of agreement – the app provider takes responsibility for next to nothing while charging a 20% commission. Or so says the city, anyway.

Nowhere did the city mention pressure from taxi drivers or domestic app developers, of course.

It goes without saying that Uber is uber-unhappy about this:

“We urge the Council to reject this ordinance on the grounds that it contradicts the city’s sharing economy policies, undermines the city’s efforts to attract foreign investors, discriminating against Uber while the City actively supports (and invests in) companies offering similar services,” said the California-based firm in a press release.

The city government is planning to introduce its own taxi haling services next year in a joint effort with Daum Kakao, the operator of mobile messenger Kakao Talk.
“I cannot see how this ordinance serves the interests of Seoul citizens. It leads us to question that the City’s officials are bowing to pressure from taxi associations which have declared war on competitors,” said Allen Penn, the head of Asia operations for Uber, expressing his disappoint against the city government.

To be fair to the city, Kakao’s app, scheduled for released in the first half of next year, isn’t completely like Uber, and it probably does comply with the Passenger Transport Service Act:

South Korea’s leading free messenger service operator Daum Kakao said Wednesday it will launch a taxi service app by the first half of next year as it initiates a new platform of connecting online and offline businesses.

Daum Kakao signed a memorandum of understanding with the Seoul Taxi Association and Korea Smart Card Co. for the service that would link customers with the closest cab through a mobile app. The taxi association has some 255 Seoul-based cab operators as members, and Korea Smart Card is the country’s top transportation payment system provider.

“Daum Kakao has established important grounds for the operation of Kakao Taxi, and we plan to expand cooperation with other taxi operators throughout the country in the future,” the company said in its release.

Despite warnings from the government, Uber went live in Seoul earlier this month. This appears to be Uber’s modus operandi:

When Uber got off the ground as a company, its business had an unusual problem. In many markets where it was operating, it was violating the letter of the law. And in essentially all markets where it was operating, it was violating the spirit of the law. That’s because the “spirit” of the prevailing taxi regulations was, almost everywhere, wrong and pernicious. Alongside regulations aimed at promoting public safety, almost every city and state is burdened with rules designed to protect the incomes of incumbent taxi license holders.

I’m with Peter Diamandis when he writes that Uber is a “dematerializing, demonetizing and democratizing” app that “uses technology to dramatically improve a broken system.” Unlike him, however, I’ll put my money on the law winning in Korea, especially when the law is backed by major industrial associations and big local tech firms.

Oh, and while on the subject of IT, would it be too much to ask to put GTA: San Andreas on the Korea iTunes store, for Christ’s sake?

Obama says Sony hack not an act of war. Which is good, because there might not be much we can do.

President Obama is calling the Sony hack – which Washington believes to be the work of North Korea – an act of cyber vandalism, but not an act of war:

President Obama says in an interview to be broadcast Sunday morning that he did not think the Sony Pictures hack was not an act of war by North Korea.

“I think it was an act of cyber vandalism that was very costly, very expensive,” Obama said on CNN’s “State of the Union with Candy Crowley,” according to a transcript. “We take it very seriously. We will respond proportionately, as I said.”

Responding proportionately might be a tad difficult, given that North Korea doesn’t have much in the way of an Internet and placing more sanctions on the country would be the economic equivalent of making the rubble bounce:

President Barack Obama vowed Friday to punish North Korea for hacking a Hollywood studio, but Washington’s options are limited and Pyongyang’s economic weakness is a surprising strength.

No one expects the United States to launch a military strike against a nuclear-armed provocateur, but sanctions against its tiny economy or cyber attacks on its ramshackle Internet would achieve little.

“I’m sure they’re exploring covert options, but also looking at it through the prism of — ‘we don’t want to start an armed conflict on the Korean peninsula’,” said cyber war expert James Lewis.

The United States is apparently asking for China’s help in dealing with North Korean cyberattacks. Somehow, I don’t see that help coming anytime soon.

Over at One Free Korea, Joshua does a good job of outlining some of the options that are available for the enterprising U.S. policymaker interested in sticking it to North Korea, including putting North Korea back on the terrorism list and slapping real sanctions on the North. Read the post in its entirety on your own.

RAND, State Department involvement

Interestingly enough, it appears a North Korea expert at RAND Corporation and some U.S. State Department official screened the film and encouraged Sony to keep the final assassination scene in the film so that when the DVDs make their way to North Korea, some folk up there might get some ideas:

A series of leaked emails reveal that Sony enlisted the services of Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation who specializes in North Korea, to consult with them on The Interview. After he saw the film, including the gruesome ending where a giant missile hits Kim Jong-Un’s helicopter in slow-mo as Katy Perry’s “Firework” plays, and Kim’s head catches on fire and explodes, Bennett gave his assessment of it in a June 25 email to Lynton, just five days after North Korea’s initial threat.

“The North has never executed an artillery attack against the balloon launching areas. So it is very hard to tell what is pure bluster from North Korea, since they use the term ‘act of war’ so commonly,” wrote Bennett. “I also thought a bunch more about the ending. I have to admit that the only resolution I can see to the North Korean nuclear and other threats is for the North Korean regime to eventually go away.”

He added, “In fact, when I have briefed my book on ‘preparing for the possibility of a North Korean collapse’ [Sept 2013], I have been clear that the assassination of Kim Jong-Un is the most likely path to a collapse of the North Korean government. Thus while toning down the ending may reduce the North Korean response, I believe that a story that talks about the removal of the Kim family regime and the creation of a new government by the North Korean people (well, at least the elites) will start some real thinking in South Korea and, I believe, in the North once the DVD leaks into the North (which it almost certainly will). So from a personal perspective, I would personally prefer to leave the ending alone.”

According to emails, somebody high-up at State Department agreed with Bennett’s assessment, and it also turns out Robert King, U.S. special envoy for North Korean human-rights issues, consulted on the film and Daniel Russel, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, talked with Sony about it.

Obviously, this doesn’t make the folk at very happy:

Imagine how the U.S. and its CIA would respond if a major movie studio anywhere in the world were to make a film centered around the assassination of a sitting U.S. President: especially if a foreign government was involved, pushing for just such an assassination. That North Korea, or any state, might respond with speech-suppressing attacks and threats is not to be excused, but it should be no surprise either. Yet the US was more than happy to help foment a predictable crisis like this, thereby putting its own people at risk. And it did so by surreptitiously penetrating Hollywood to steer it toward using “artistic” existential threats to taunt a nation-state that is such a basket-case that it would only be dangerous to Americans if made desperate by such existential threats. That shows what little regard our “security force” has for our actual security, as compared to pursuing global power politics.

While it wasn’t produced by a major studio, a British filmmaker did do a mockumentary about the assassination of President Bush, which the Washington Post and, apparently, some international film festivals loved. And to be frank, while I don’t think it’s a good thing for studios to make films about the assassination of sitting heads of state (and agree with Adrian Hong that North Korea is no laughing matter), and much less so when the U.S. government is involved, I’d feel a lot worse about it if the country being targeted wasn’t a country whose national pastime used to be trying to assassinate South Korean presidents.

(HT to, well, I’m not really sure what to call you. But you know who you are)

UPDATE: Oh, and North Korea is offering to conduct a joint investigation:

KCNA quoted the foreign ministry as saying: “As the United States is spreading groundless allegations and slandering us, we propose a joint investigation with it into this incident.

“Without resorting to such tortures as were used by the CIA, we have means to prove that this incident has nothing to do with us.”

Oh, I see what they did there. They made a “CIA torture” joke.

Granted, the North Koreans never admit to anything upfront, and I do think it’s very likely that either North Korea or some North Korean front group like Chongryon is behind the hack. Still, I’m far from certain about that, and there’s still plenty of reason to think otherwise.

What U.S.-Cuba ties mean for North Korea

So, what can North Korea learn from Cuba?

That’s what the editorial staffs of the Chosun Ilbo and Dong-A Ilbo were asking today. And the answer they reached was, essentially, if the North Koreans were to just stop being a-holes, good things might happen for them.

Both papers noted that what made the normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations possible was Cuba’s efforts to undertake economic reforms and promote greater openness. They also note that with Libya, Myanmar and Cuba coming in from the cold and even Iran currently engaged in negotiations with the United States, North Korea was pretty much the only really isolated country left on the planet.

The way to improve relations with the United States is not to threaten them with nukes, but to open up and reform, the papers say. That Cuba was North Korea’s brother in international communism should make Havana’s efforts even more meaningful for Pyongyang.

Of course, other papers suggest that the United States should apply lessons learned with Cuba to North Korea, too. The JoongAng Ilbo – no friends of North Korea, mind you, given that they were cyber-attacked by the North in 2012 – said the United States, as a party to the Korean War armistice, should take a greater interest in ending the Cold War structure on the Korean Peninsula. In particular, it said Washington should drop its insistence on North Korea giving up its nuke program as a precondition to improved relations, and instead make the nuke issue a long-term project to be resolved. It also noted that President Obama admitted the embargo on Cuba, which lays just off the American coast, had failed, suggesting, I guess, that it should also admit its isolation of North Korea had failed, too.

The Hankyoreh also calls on both North Korea and the United States to learn lessons from the Cuban example, and hopes South Korea helps the learning process:

The normalization of relations between the US and Cuba could be an opportunity to change the mood in the international community, which has focused on conflict over cooperation in recent years. In particular, South Korea needs to play an active role so that the goals of addressing North Korea’s nuclear program and normalizing relations between North Korea and the US can be achieved simultaneously. The departure point should be improving inter-Korean relations and resuming the six-party talks.

Marmot’s Notes

Even if the North Koreans were open to learning lessons from Cuba – and I’m not entirely sure they are, given that they’ve had decades to study China and Vietnam and have apparently decided there wasn’t much to learn – I imagine they’d wait awhile to see how developments with the United States play out. Congressional Republicans – whose support President Obama is going to need to lift sanctions against Cuba – and even some Democrats aren’t thrilled about the president’s Cuba surprise. And at any rate, if you’re North Korea, there are lots of lessons to learn, and not all of them point to a happy ending. Pyongyang likely remembers what happened to Muammar Gaddafi, another former Cold War enemy who made nice with the United States only to find himself riding a bayonet after a NATO bombing campaign.

Then there’s the question as to whether the United States can try the same thing with North Korea, or even wants to. With President Obama set to take a major league shellacking from Congressional Republican over Cuba and Ukraine and the Middle East going to shite, the White House could be all out of political capital to spend on foreign affairs. President Obama might also decide to make up for Cuba by taking a tough line against Pyongyang, especially if they really have determined that North Korea was behind the Sony hacking and subsequent threats against U.S. theaters. And outside the United States, improving ties with Cuba seems to be a pretty popular choice, especially among the Western left. You don’t get the same kind of international brownie points for making nice with North Korea, which seems universally disliked, even by Pyongyang’s own allies. Still, the Nobel committee gave Kim Dae-jung the Peace Prize for meeting with Kim Jong-il, so I could be wrong here.

Then there’s the fact that North Korea ain’t Cuba. Cuba was never nearly as isolated, either in terms of its foreign relations or private interactions with the outside world, as North Korea was and is. While both ostensibly communist, they have vastly different histories, cultures and polities, which means even if U.S. trade and interaction with Cuba yields positive results, there’s little reason to believe it would work with North Korea. I suppose this isn’t an argument against at least trying to improve relations with North Korea as long as you a) don’t mind the risk of subsidizing Pyongyang’s nuclear program with U.S. taxpayer money and b) are OK with possibly bankrolling the North Korean regime. But it does breed a healthy dose of skepticism.

Photo by Alex Brown.

Sony cancels ‘The Interview’ release, U.S. intel officials link N. Korea

All I’m going to say is, WTF?

Sony is canceling The Interview’s planned theatrical release in response to all major US theater chains deciding not to show the film after attacks were threatened. “In light of the decision by the majority of our exhibitors not to show the film The Interview, we have decided not to move forward with the planned December 25 theatrical release,” Sony says in a statement, reprinted by Variety. “We respect and understand our partners’ decision and, of course, completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theater-goers.”

The hackers who stole data from Sony threatened attacks on screenings of The Interview yesterday afternoon. In the time since, around half of all movie screens in the US declined to show the film.

Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence officials are telling the New York Times that the North Korean government was “centrally involved,” whatever that means, in the cyberhack of Sony:

American intelligence officials have concluded that the North Korean government was “centrally involved” in the recent attacks on Sony Pictures’s computers, a determination reached just as Sony on Wednesday canceled its release of the comedy, which is based on a plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader.

Senior administration officials, who would not speak on the record about the intelligence findings, said the White House was still debating whether to publicly accuse North Korea of what amounts to a cyberterrorism campaign. Sony’s decision to cancel release of “The Interview” amounted to a capitulation to the threats sent out by hackers this week that they would launch attacks, perhaps on theaters themselves, if the movie was released.

If it’s true North Korea was behind the attack, I imagine it’ll be difficult not to respond.

UPDATE: Other North Korea-related films are being dropped, too, apparently:

The shockwaves from the Sony hack have finally reached Hollywood’s development community, as New Regency has pulled the plug on its Steve Carell movie Pyongyang, which Gore Verbinski had been prepping for a March start date, an individual familiar with the project has toldTheWrap.

Based on the graphic novel by Guy Delisle, Pyongyang is a paranoid thriller about a Westerner’s experiences working in North Korea for a year.

On the other hand, the evidence that North Korea was behind this might be a bit flimsy (HT to Dan).

Seoul goes to war against the noble ginkgo

Seoul Metropolitan Government will be removing 33 female ginkgo trees from high-traffic areas in the downtown area in order to lessen the, ahem, smell pollution:

And the official fight against it kicked off in Seoul during the final week of November. The Seoul Metropolitan Government removed 33 female ginkgo trees – which produce seeds – from areas in the city’s downtown where human traffic is high.

The trees were transplanted to city-run facilities in and near Seoul.

“We chose trees that block people’s passage the most,” Kim Won-sik from the Green Seoul Bureau’s landscape division told the Korea JoongAng Daily.

The city hopes to expand the program by removing female trees and replacing them with male trees—which, ironically, don’t have stinky nuts—in other neighborhoods of Seoul.

I’m a big fan of the ginkgo tree, and don’t really mind the odor. Let’s you know it’s autumn, after all. This autumn, in fact, I learned a couple of (IMHO) interesting things about the noble ginkgo tree:

1) The ginkgo is a living fossil that been around even longer than “CSI”:

Previous fossils revealed that Ginkgo species have remained unchanged for the past 51 million years, and that similar trees were alive and well 170 million years ago, during the Jurassic period. But what happened between the two dates was unknown. The new finds, from the 121-million-year-old Yixian rock formation in northeast China, provide a much-needed missing link between ancient and more modern plants.

2) In the event of a nuclear war, only the cockroaches, ginkgo trees and possibly a few particularly noxious species of Boston sports fans will survive:

Extreme examples of the ginkgo’s tenacity may be seen in Hiroshima, Japan, where six trees growing between 1–2 km from the 1945 atom bomb explosion were among the few living things in the area to survive the blast. Although almost all other plants (and animals) in the area were destroyed, the ginkgos, though charred, survived and were soon healthy again. The trees are alive to this day.

You can find pictures of the trees here.

3) Even though the name “ginkgo” is Japanese, the Japanese do not, in fact, call the trees “ginkgo.” Seems like something got lost in translation:

The older Chinese name for this plant is 銀果, meaning “silver fruit”, pronounced yínguǒ in Mandarin or Ngan-gwo in Cantonese. The most usual names today are 白果 (bái guǒ), meaning “white fruit”, and 銀杏 (yínxìng), meaning “silver apricot”. The former name was borrowed directly in Vietnamese as bạch quả. The latter name was borrowed in Japanese ぎんなん (ginnan) and Korean 은행 (eunhaeng), when the tree itself was introduced from China.

The scientific name Ginkgo is the result of a spelling error that occurred three centuries ago. Kanji typically have multiple pronunciations in Japanese, and the characters 銀杏 used for ginnan can also be pronounced ginkyō. Engelbert Kaempfer, the first Westerner to investigate the species in 1690, wrote down this pronunciation in his notes he later used for the Amoenitates Exoticae (1712) with the “awkward” spelling “ginkgo”. This appears to be a simple error of Kaempfer, taking his spelling of other Japanese words containing the syllable “kyō” into account, a more precise romanization following his writing habits would have been “ginkio” or “ginkjo”. Linné, who relied on Kaempfer when dealing with Japanese plants adopted the spelling given in Kaempfer’s “Flora Japonica” (Amoenitates Exoticae, p. 811).

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