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North Korea: Lockdown as a Strategy

Jorge Silva/Pool Photo via AP

There used to be a saying that any country called the “People’s Democratic Republic” was the reverse. Nothing illustrates the semantic inversion better than the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, also known as North Korea). It is neither a democracy nor a republic; in fact, it is actually the only Communist aristocratic dynasty in the world.

But their Communist majesties are a royal family on the cheap. That makes them deceptively comical. The Nokor version of “Game of Thrones” featured the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother in Malaysia, which resulted in the entire DPRK embassy being recently expelled.

North Korean diplomats have vacated their embassy in Malaysia and are preparing to leave the country, after the two nations cut diplomatic relations in a spat over the extradition of a North Korean criminal suspect to the US.

The North Korean flag and embassy signage have been removed from the premises in a Kuala Lumpur suburb.

Two buses ferried the diplomats and their families on Sunday to the airport, where they were seen checking in for a flight to Shanghai.

Ties between North Korea and Malaysia have been virtually frozen since the 2017 assassination of the estranged half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

At least the North Koreans could ride a bus to the airport. Things are so threadbare in Pyongyang that Russian diplomats returning home from the DPRK had to leave by railroad handcar, the sort depicted in cartoons. Reuters reported in February:

SEOUL (Reuters) – A group of Russian diplomats and family members used a hand-pushed rail trolley to leave North Korea this week, amid Pyongyang’s strict anti-coronavirus measures, which include blocking most forms of passenger transport across the border.

North Korea has not reported any confirmed cases of the coronavirus, but has imposed crippling border closings, banned most international travel, and severely restricted movement inside the country.

The Democratic People’s Republic’s claim to be coronavirus-free cannot be independently confirmed in a country where lockdown is policy. The secret to the Kims’ ability to control the messaging is the principle that less is more. To achieve this, they deplatformed channels in favor of systems like their unique low bandwidth closed-circuit radio.

DPRK closed-circuit radio works just like a giant apartment intercom system. “When hundreds of houses and apartments were completed last year, North Korean media showed residents entering their new homes, welcomed with a pile of household goods. On the wall of each home was something else provided by the state: a dedicated receiver for the country’s secretive third radio network that relays daily news, instruction, and propaganda.”

It is obviously impossible to run an economy on the basis of an apartment intercom/loudspeaker. But the royal Kims are not interested in running an economy, just maintaining control. For this their infrastructure suffices. Its only enemies are the chronic electric shortages, which routinely plunge the Worker’s Paradise into darkness, which, unlike the handcar, cannot independently operate on muscle power.

For the DPRK the future of media is closed-circuit. North Korea’s is a lockdown with a purpose. They have air-gapped an entire population and like it.

At the recent Worker’s Party Congress, Kim Jong Un called for the third network (referred to as “wire broadcasting”) to be improved throughout the country:

“It is needed to readjust the wire broadcasting and cable TV networks, put the relevant technology on a higher level and provide full conditions for the people in all parts of the country, ranging from cities to remote mountain villages, to enjoy a better cultural and emotional life.”

Kim’s call comes as the country appears to be embarking on a new crackdown on foreign media and the third radio network could play an important part in that effort.

The one sector amply supplied with computer equipment and network bandwidth is its hacker army, Bureau 121. Much of that is abroad outside their own air-gapped country.

According to a report by Reuters, Bureau 121 is staffed by some of North Korea’s most talented computer experts and is run by the Korean military. A defector indicated that the agency has about 1,800 specialists. Many of the bureau’s hackers are hand-picked graduates of the University of Automation, Pyongyang and spend five years in training. While these specialists are scattered around the world, their families benefit from special privileges at home.

There may be even more 121s. “North Korea has at least 6,000 hackers and electronic warfare specialists working in its ranks, and many of these are operating abroad in countries such as Belarus, China, India, Malaysia, and Russia”, the U.S. Army said in a report. Whatever the true count, the hackers are motivated because their families are hostages in the Democratic People’s Republic.

There are indications the North Korean hacker army is now part of a larger totalitarian legion of cyber doom in company with China and Russia.

Outside of the United States – especially in China and Russia – cyberoperations are considered part of a broader concept of information warfare. The Russians, in particular, have proved very adept at combining information operations and cyberoperations. Information warfare includes using traditional spy tradecraft – operatives with false identities attempting to gain the trust of their targets – to collect and disseminate information.

The attack against cybersecurity researchers could indicate that North Korea is taking cues from these other powers. The low-cost ability of a second-tier authoritarian regime like North Korea to weaponize social media provides it an advantage against the much greater technical capabilities of the U.S.

North Korea has deliberately proofed itself against the virtue-signaling and human rights advocacy favored by the Biden administration. It has simply put out the eyes of a population so that it cannot even receive signals. By contrast, the West has heightened its sensitivity so that a Woke elite will scream in pain at the merest touch.

It is this feudal ruthlessness that makes it possible for the threadbare Kims to survive against the much richer South Korea, Japan, and the West. How could it do such a thing? To understand, it is important to remember that the real founder of the royal regime in Pyongyang, as Newsweek reminds us, was Joseph Stalin.

Born in 1912, Kim Il Sung went to the Soviet Far East in the 1930s to train with Stalin’s military during the war against Japan, which had occupied the Korean peninsula since 1910. The North makes much of Kim, the heroic soldier. But whether he actually fought against the Japanese is a matter of debate. What’s clear is that Stalin believed Kim was trustworthy, and after the Soviet invasion of the peninsula in 1945, installed him as the Communist leader in the North.

The remarkable Uncle Joe set a standard of ruthlessness that astonishes historians even to this day. Who but Stalin could kill his own generals, slaughter his friends, and create a secret laboratory to analyze Mao’s excrement, according to the BBC. It was he who famously said, “gratitude is a sickness suffered by dogs.” That founding legacy runs strong in the DPRK’s DNA and gives it a durability that the Woke may not be able to understand.

BooksWake Up: Why the World Has Gone Nuts. Wake Up is Piers’ rallying cry for a united future in which we reconsider what really matters in life. It is a plea for the return of true liberalism, where freedom of speech is king. Most of all, it is a powerful account of how the world finally started to wake up, and why it mustn’t go back to sleep again.

When Politicians Panicked: The New Coronavirus, Expert Opinion, and a Tragic Lapse of Reason Hardcover – March 30, 2021. In When Politicians Panicked, economic commentator John Tamny tells the heart-wrenching story of a time when politicians were tragically relieved of basic common sense in their response to the new coronavirus.

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