Korea: The North Attacks Again


March 20, 2011: Since the 18th, North Korea has been directing a GPS jamming signal across the border, and towards the southern capital, Seoul. The jamming signal can be detected up to a hundred kilometers south of the DMZ. The North Korea GPS jammers are based on known Russian models that North Korea bought and copied. The usual response for GPS jamming is to bomb the jammers, which are easy to find (jamming is nothing more than broadcasting a more powerful version of the frequency you want to interfere with). But such a response could lead to more fighting, so the south is still considering what to do. The jamming is a nuisance more than a threat, and most military equipment is equipped with electronics and other enhancements to defeat it. This is the third time in a year that the north has attacked the south. The first was the torpedoing of a South Korean warship a year ago, then the shelling of a South Korean island off the west coast last November. Now this jamming, and DDOS attacks on government websites.

Chinese merchants just across the border from North Korea are reporting an increase in high-value goods being sold by the North Korean elite. This includes the commemorative coins distributed to the elite on special occasions (like key anniversaries or rare occasions like the recent Meetings of the Delegates.) These coins contain some gold, but are valuable mainly because so few were produced. Some Chinese and North Korean traders, that regularly deal with the North Korean elite, are doing a lot of business with the few thousand families at the top of the food chain. Many of these families are selling off valuables, not because they are hungry, but because they want to move cash outside the country. This is a continuation of a trend that has been growing over the past few years, with wealthy families preparing to flee if the current government collapses.

Shortages have gotten so bad up north that government agencies have been stealing from each other to keep their own operations going. Police investigating theft and burglary cases are increasingly discovering, when they track down the thieves, that the culprits are well protected members of some government ministry. This has led to threats of violence, and the increased use of armed guards by some agencies. Stealing just got a lot more dangerous. But there are still some legal forms of theft. At the beginning of the year, the military was authorized to solicit donations from traders (markets are legal again, if you have permission from the local authorities). The traders provide a market for all sorts of things, but mainly they offer a way to obtain food. Many military units have run out of food, or are close to that, and the government has authorized the troops to tap into local markets for donations. Those traders who are not sufficiently generous can lose their legal marketplace stall. So the traders give. But there is always the danger that too many government agencies will tap certain traders, and drive them out of business. That's a risk the heavily armed, but hungry, soldiers are willing to take. Soldiers are also looting wartime supplies (especially fuel and medical supplies). The penalty for that kind of thieving, if you get caught, is death. But at least you go more quickly than starving or freezing to death.

The North Koreans are so intent on halting this theft that they have taken trusted (difficult to bribe) investigators off drug investigations and shifted them to these military theft incidents. This does not indicate more tolerance for illegal drugs, just recognition of the fact that thefts of military supplies are a bigger problem. Meanwhile, the upper class (Communist Party officials and military and police commanders) are still distraught over the growing drug use among their well-off children. Since the late 1990s, pharmacists and other medical personnel have been manufacturing methamphetamines, and selling the stuff to Chinese dealers across the border. This was a vital source of income at a time when starvation was an ever present danger. But in the last few years, more and more of the methamphetamines have been sold inside North Korea, to the children of the ruling class, and the growing number of affluent trader families. Angry, and very influential, parents ordered a crackdown last year, which has only been partially successful. Most of the methamphetamines are still produced in towns near the Chinese border, but distributors have been found in the capital, and some other major cities. Many of those caught are executed, others are given the fate-worse-than-death and sent to the dreaded "labor camps."

The government has responded to the increased theft and corruption by conducting more frequent inspections of people in charge (of factories, other enterprises or military or police units.) But this is not as effective as it used to be, because more and more of the inspectors are on the take, and looking for cash they can stash across the border, "just in case." Chinese banks are happy to accept all this new business (not all of it strictly legal) from North Korea, because they know that if the government over there does collapse, a lot of these new bank accounts will lose their owners in the bloody chaos. No one will notice if those deposits then disappear.  

Corrupt Chinese officials are also making plans, knowing that millions of North Koreans will flood into China and will need help in getting to South Korea. There is already a thriving (and illegal, but lucrative) business in this for Chinese officials with the ability to provide travel documents for those who have escaped from North Korea and want to get to South Korea as quickly as possible.

In South Korea, president Lee is encountering resistance from his generals and admirals. The brass are under pressure to carry out reforms, and they don't want to. The South Korean military, despite all the money lavished on it in the last two decades, and all that splendid new hardware, is more comfortable with unchanging procedures and customs. In other words, they are in a rut, and they want to keep it that way. American commanders have been after the South Korean officers for decades, pointing out that technology, and leadership methods, had advanced a lot since the 1950s, and that refusing to adapt would get more South Korean troops, and civilians, killed if the north ever invaded again. But it had become an article of faith in the south that the north was all bluff and bluster, not willing to risk the losses from attacking the heavily fortified DMZ. So the southern commanders went through the motions (from what the American generals could tell) and resisted most suggested reforms. But the current South Korean president was elected partly because of his willingness to take on the generals. He has, resistance was encountered, but the struggle continues.

March 18, 2011: North Korea offered to resume the six party (both Koreas, Japan, U.S., China and Russia) nuclear disarmament talks. The south refused, because the north did not offer to seriously negotiate anything of substance. In the past, most negotiation sessions with the north went nowhere, as North Korea just used the opportunity to spew propaganda and demand handouts.

Government and military web sites in South Korea are again under assault by North Korea, with DDOS (distributed denial of service) attacks. These are carried out by first using a computer virus (often delivered as an email attachment), that installs a secret a Trojan horse type program, that allows someone else to take over that computer remotely, and turn it into a "zombie" for spamming or DDOS attacks to shut down another site. There are millions of zombie PCs out there, and these can be rented, either form spamming or lunching DDOS attacks. Anyone with about $100,000 in cash, including North Korea, could carry out attacks. You can equip a web site to resist, or even brush off, a DDOS attack, and some of those attacked were prepared. But others were not. This is the third time since 2009 that someone, apparently North Korea, has launched DDOS attacks, and attempted to hack into South Korean networks. This time, it is believed that North Korea went out and built its own botnet of some 77,000 zombie PCs. South Korea said it was ready and thwarted the recent North Korean attacks. No details were given, which is typical when it comes to Cyber War matters.

March 15, 2011: North Korea finally agreed to accept 27 fishermen whose ship drifted into South Korean waters last month. Initially, the north refused to accept the 27 back, because another four members of the crew (including the captain) had refused to return, despite threats against their families. The north tried to force the south to send the four defectors back, but this did not work.

March 11, 2011: Massive earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant breakdown in neighboring Japan. South Korea rushes rescue units to the scene and offers whatever else is needed. North Korea, which usually makes propaganda out of any problems in Japan, is strangely silent this time.




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