North Korea and Thailand are warming diplomatic ties

Warming diplomatic ties between Thailand and North Korea could mean a lot more investment into the country by one of Southeast Asia’s wealthiest nations.

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong, left, shakes hands with his Thai counterpart Thanasak Patimaprakorn in Bangkok, Thailand.
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong, left, shakes hands with his Thai counterpart Thanasak Patimaprakorn in Bangkok, Thailand.

North Korea is always looking for ways to break out from international sanctions and US-led diplomatic isolation.

But now a Thai military leader, a man who also leads the country’s foreign ministry, is encouraging his country to invest in North Korea.

Thai Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn in August 2015 (about two weeks ago) said he wants Thai businesses and individuals to invest in North Korea, and suggested Thailand could be a bridge between the hermit country and the international community.

(FYI, Thailand military overthrew the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of Thaksin Shinawatra. She was elected in August 2011 and was overthrown by a military junta in May 2014.)

Thailand is working to upgrade diplomatic relations with North Korea, and has already said it will soon open an embassy in Pyongyang “soon.”

“To open an embassy in any country is a good sign, but all related processes must be carefully considered, including staff and budgets,” General Tanasak said.

Gen. Tanasak discussed a number of bilateral issues with his North Korean counterpart, Ri Su-yong, including a “trade cooperation deal.”

If a deal does get worked out, it would facilitate Thai investment in North Korea’s special economic zone, among other things. But actually, Thailand has a history of investing in North Korea.

Thai-based corporation Loxley Pacific invested massively in North Korea’s IT infrastructure and, in particular, the country’s internet, namely in the Star Joint Venture Company.

The Star JV is a joint venture between Loxley, which is one of the country’s most powerful family-owned conglomerates, which is one of the country’s most powerful family-owned conglomerates, and North Korea’s Post and Telecommunications Corporation, and Star JV took control of North Korea’s Internet address allocation system on Dec. 21, 2009, the country’s single Internet Service Provider.

Loxley company

Loxley Pacific Thailand

Gen. Tanasak said the two ministers talk a lot about IT, as well as other issues like health, education and regional issues.

The general also said that Thailand “offered to facilitate talks between North Korea and any country it had conflict with,” according to reports coming from Thai media outlets.

Thai kidnap victim

Mr Ri reportedly told General Tanasak that authorities would follow up the case of Anocha Panjoy, a Thai national who was abducted from Macau by North Korean agents back in 1978.

Former US serviceman Charles Jenkins and his wife told the media they said they saw Ms Anocha alive and well in North Korea.

Before the meeting of the foreign ministers, Phil Robertson, Human Right Watch’s deputy director for the Asia division, pressured Gen. Tanasak to press North Korea for the return of Anocha. There are other human rights issues  stunting diplomatic ties from warming up.

Thailand is one of the countries used by North Korean defectors as a transit point to resettle in South Korea. The number of North Koreans who traveling into Thailand has decreased from around 2,000 in 2011 to under 500 in 2015, according to a Thai media report.

The powwow between the two foreign ministers was filled with many niceties, however. North Korea’s Ri Su-yong passed on good wishes from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to Her Majesty Queen Sirikit on her 83rd birthday.

He invited Gen Tanasak to visit North Korea as part of the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two East Asian countries.

An exchange of diplomatic visits began in May 2015 when deputy foreign minister Don Pramudwinai visited Pyongyang. Ri Su-yong is the first high-level North Korean diplomat to visit Thailand in a decade, when its then foreign minister Paek Nam-sun visited in 2005.

During his trip in Thailand, Ri Su-yong visited Thai royal family’s pet projects and agricultural pilot programs. Two weeks ago, the North Korean official was on an Southeast Asian diplomatic mission that included trips to Brunei  and meetings with ASEAN officials.

The Basmati Rice Issue

Earlier this year, the North Korean ambassador to Thailand, Mun Song-mo, asked the government to set up a diplomatic compound in Pyongyang. However, a government source said this would not happen in the near future.

Five of 10 ASEAN countries — Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia and Vietnam — have diplomatic missions in the North Korean capital.

Diplomatic ties between Thailand and North Korea were quite smooth, especially as Thailand had played a key role in bringing North Korea to the ASEAN Regional Forum back in 2000, when Thailand held the ASEAN chairmanship.

Two sticky Thai-North Korea issues include not only the kidnapping of Thai national Anocha back in the 1970s, but also North Korea’s outstanding rice debt payment. The Thai foreign minister said the issue of rice debt payment was not touched upon but would be discussed in later talks.

North Korea owes Thailand about $300 million after Thailand exported 750,000 tons of rice to North Korea from 1993 to 2002 when the country suffered devastating famine and floods.

Bilateral trade between North Korea and Thailand $42 million in the first half of this year, nearly of that in the form of  exports from Thailand ($39 million). Two-way trade was $126 million in 2014 and in 2013 it was $114 million. Thai exports to North Korea including rubber, chemicals and plastics, and Thai imports comprising mainly chemicals, iron and steel, and electrical machinery.





Children storm the DMZ

[This story was written originally in March 2013 reporting from the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)  for The Korea Herald and later re-published by The Nation in Thailand.]

Children in DMZ
I took this photo at the amusement park near Paju when the kids were gathering up for the buses to take them back to Seoul after a day-long outing inside the heavily militarized Demilitarized Zone dividing North and South Korea in March 2013.

A handful of tour buses carrying foreign diplomats, Korean reporters and children slowly lumbered across Unification Bridge into the demilitarised zone, carefully negotiating barricades assembled halfway along the bridge’s length.

The schoolchildren were fidgety and chattering excitedly, jumping out of their seats to peer out of the bus windows at sights they scarcely could have seen before – armoured vehicles, heavily armed checkpoints and nests of razor-wire, the legacy of a three-year civil war and 60 years of national division.

The schoolchildren, a dozen foreign envoys, and their entourage were part of March 21’s “International Children’s Peace Day”, a day-long tour of various tourist sites in and around Paju, a sleepy rural town north of Seoul. It was organised by International Cooperation of Environmental Youth, a US-based group led by organiser Lee Kyoung-tae and wife Melissa Lee.

The couple has made headlines over the years on peace and environmental issues, including a movement to build what the couple described as a “children’s peace forest” inside the DMZ.

“It is a great idea because peace is one of the most expensive ideas there is, and children can market the idea better than anyone else,” said Charitha Yattogoda, a diplomat from the Sri Lankan Embassy in Seoul.

“We also know how expensive peace can be in Sri Lanka. We had a civil conflict for 30 years and only recently achieved peace,” he said during the day-long event.

“We know how important it is, and we at the embassy immediately thought of joining this event to lend our support as best as we can.”

The DMZ can be a culture shock for any visitor. Barbed wire fences and security checkpoints abound, guarded by soldiers lugging machine guns.

The soldiers are not lonely, however, as busloads of tourists show up daily to gawk at the world’s most heavily fortified border, even as North Korea threatens to drown Seoul in a “sea of fire”.

“It’s a good experience for the children. This is not an easy place to organize a visit, so we appreciate the effort the organisers made for the children. Normally kids under 12 years of age are not allowed inside the DMZ,” said Wang Kai, wife of Austrian Ambassador Josef Muellner. Wang delivered welcome remarks at Imjinggak Pavilion at the start of the tour.

Imjinggak Pavilion was built “to remind Koreans of their painful past and their commitment to unification”, says the Gyeonggi provincial government.

The pavilion’s amusement park, fast-food joints and kitschy souvenir shops mix with an ever-present Cold War tension that is higher now than it has been in years, following North Korean outrage over UN sanctions and joint US-South Korean military drills that have included Cold War-style B-52 flyovers.

Sensing potential controversy, some foreign diplomats shied away from lending any insights about the divided Korea, the demilitarised zone or the North.

Most of them, however, realized the crucial role that today’s children must eventually take if peace and unification is to return to their country.

“War and peace is a game for politicians to play, but I think these young people will grow up to change the way the game is played,” said Sameer Alwahedy, an attache at the Jordanian Embassy in Seoul. “In Jordan, we believe in peace, everyone in the world has the right to live in peace. A children’s event like this could be a great help in the Israeli-Palestinian issue as well.”

It is easy to cynically dismiss the conflict-zone tourist industry that has slowly grown in the area, including the Dora Observatory, where one wave to soldiers and look at North Korea through binoculars for 500 won (Bt13), and the amusement park at the Imjinggak Pavilion, the start and end point for the day-long tour.

But the mix of tourist kitsch Cold War humor shows Paju’s residents are making the best of a bad situation, and it could offer hope.

“This event symbolizes to me the promotion of peace because, obviously, youth are the future. We have to make a commitment to conflict resolution and this is a conscious effort to promote peace,” said SU Ahmed, deputy head of mission at the Nigerian Embassy.

“Children are the ones who suffer the most in a conflict situation. That is why it is important to let them participate in being part of the solution in events like this one,” said Adamu A Musa, minister at the Nigerian Embassy in Seoul.

In addition to the amusement park, which is complete with rides and carnival booths, there are a number of other touristy things to do and see: take the bicycle tour; bang the Bell of Peace for 10,000 won; stroll on the Bridge of Freedom, which comes to an abrupt and symbolic dead end; and peer at the rusting steam engine stuck in situ since the end of the Korean War, riddled with bullet holes.

Musa, Ahmed and their wives returned to Seoul with souvenir DMZ baseball caps.

South Korea suffers 110,000 cyberattacks in five years

​South Korea was the target of over 110,000 cyberattacks in the past five years, according to a report submitted to the country’s National Assembly.

It’s perhaps important to emphasized how nearly impossible it is to locate the country of origin for these many cyber attacks. While that doesn’t point the finger at North Korea, it should not remove the country as a suspected country of origin.
[This story was written originally for ZDNet on Sep. 21, 2015]

North-South tension causes internet censorship in Korea: Is it justified?

South Korea can boast one of the world’s fastest average internet connection speeds, but the country also rates highly in censorship stakes.

Korea Security Standards in Telecommunications Commission
Korea Communications Standards Commission is located in Mokdong in Seoul, not far from the immigration office (which many foreigners residing in South Korea might be familiar with).
[This story was written originally for ZDNet in August 2015.]

South Korea has the world’s fastest internet with connectivity clocked at 25.3MBps by Akamai Technologies last year. That’s over two times better than the 11.5MBps measured in the United States. Such a wired environment, coupled with wide internet use, seem optimal grounds to foster free, creative discussions among peers in a democracy.

But it is another matter as far as internet freedom goes. The country’s internet censorship body, which watches over the comings and goings of South Koreans’ online activities, recently ordered 13 pieces of content on websites to be scrubbed that it determined were “misleading”.

The main cause was the recently ratcheted up tension between North Korea; the hermit state accused of planting mines in the borders that injured two South Korean soldiers. South Korea responded by playing loudspeaker propaganda, and the two Koreas exchanged fire last week. It ended when the two sides reached a deal to diffuse the tension.

“The deleted websites were neither ‘pro-North Korean’ websites nor included ‘pro-North Korean’ messages. They included misleading content on the North’s recent provocations — land mine blasts, firing of a shell into Yeoncheon — falsely accusing the South of fabricating provocations,” said a spokesperson from the Korea Communications Standards Commission.

The KCSC refused to identify by name the websites affected by its decision or say what it censored specifically.

“Deleted or blocked URLs are not open to [the] public by law,” said the spokesperson, but the censorship body did forward general descriptions of the “false accusations” and “misleading contents” in question.

Many South Koreans took to the internet to raise questions on some of the allegations that South Koreans made against the North.

They covered a handful of topics, including that “North Korean soldiers did not plant the land mines and it was the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS)”. Another “misleading” piece of content claimed that the NIS and the country’s main conservative party are trying to divert attention away from a domestic hacking scandal.

The KCSC deletes or blocks online content concerning North Korea regularly. Criticism of government infringement on internet freedom in South Korea is not new either. Freedom House last year ranked the country’s internet as “partly free” for shuttering websites through IP blocking and forcing ISPs to scrub content.

In 2013, 22,986 webpages were deleted, and another 62,658 were blocked at the request of KCSC, according to a US-based non-profit.

South Korea’s censors believe they are protecting against threats to national security, and comments they see as praising North Korea, and denouncing the U.S. and/or the South Korean government raise red flags.

The KCSC also censors pornography and gambling, which are illegal in South Korea, as well as content deemed as harmful to minors. Online games are odious, too. South Koreans have to enter national identity numbers to play online games and, until last year, minors 16 years old or younger were banned from midnight to 6:00 am. The so-called “shutdown” law was amended last year with a parental consent clause.

Nearly 85 percent of the population had access to the internet in 2013, and a significant number of young people get their news exclusively from online sources.

As a result of considerable interference by the government into people’s online lives, many use VPNs. According to Global Web Index’s 4Q 2014 report, 10 percent of South Koreans aged between 16 to 64 years old use a VPN to access content online, meaning 3.3 million people use the internet with a VPN.

All this raises the perennial question — especially when North Korea is the issue — of what comes first: Freedom of speech or national security? Outside of South Korea, the best example is the Snowden leaks.

This seems a question that the global community will continue to debate going forward.

Scholar to publish book on Soviet involvement in the Korean War

This story was written originally for The Korea Times on Dec. 12, 2011.

An American professor, who brought to light in much more detail than ever before the nature and extent of the Soviet Union’s pivotal involvement in the Korean War, has decided during her six month teaching sabbatical in Seoul, to publish her original findings in a book for the Korean domestic audience.

Prof. Kathryn Weathersby, a visiting professor at Sungshin Women’s University in Seoul, mined Soviet archives for some four years in the early 1990s immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union in search of the true nature of the relationship between North Korea and the former Soviet Union.

Weathersby revealed that North Korea’s Kim Il-sung had to first receive permission from the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin in order to invade South Korea, as well as logistical support, training and military advisors.

“Kim Il-sung was a young idealist picked by Stalin,” Weathersby said. “He was an underling and Stalin was the big boss. (Kim) had to turn to him to make a major decision like that.”

She is credited as having been the first scholar to bring to light in much more detail the extent of Soviet involvement in the Korean War. Many researchers followed her example, mining Soviet archives to help tell the story of the Cold War as history.

She said what was of importance in her search was Stalin’s calculation, not Kim’s. “Kim’s not thinking. He only wants to invade the South, bring his revolution to the South. He’s not a careful tactician,” said Weathersby, a professor of political science and diplomacy, in an interview with The Korea Times at her office on the campus of the women’s college in Seoul.

She said she has not yet found a publisher, but she is aiming for 2012 for publication.

Weathersby received a Ph.D. in modern Russian history from Indiana University in 1990, with a second field in modern East Asian history. She said this is not her first time in Korea, but it is the professor’s first time for an extended stay.

She heads back to the United States this coming Thursday.

Her findings had a huge impact on how scholars and policy makers understand the Korean War and, by extension, the Cold War. In the 1990s, it was academically incendiary adding fuel to a polemical debate over how much Kim Il-sung was in actual control over the invasion he launched on June 25, 1950.

“It invalidated the so-called ‘revisionist school’ by showing that the decision was made directly by the Soviet Union,” she said, adding “it supported the original American decision to intervene.”

She cautioned against drawing direct parallels from a historical understanding to current political decisions.

“It’s not that there is a direct link between one piece of historical understanding and any specific current situation,” she said. “It does shape our collective understanding on issues like deterrence, on whether such policies worked in the past.”

[The Diplomat] The ghosts of Korea’s killers

This article first appeared in The Diplomat on May 16, 2014.

Kang Min-cheol was a mass murderer, killing nearly two dozen people in an attempt to blow up South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan and his delegation, including cabinet ministers, in Rangoon, Burma in 1983. He was also a member of the notorious Kang Chang-su Unit, a North Korean Special Forces team named after its commanding officer, Brigadier General Kang Chang-su (no relation).

Yet Kang was also a Cold War casualty and a victim in the decades-long inter-Korean conflict, according to former vice minister of South Korea’s spy agency, Ra Jong-yil, who profiles the man in his recent book The Aung San Terrorist Kang Min-cheol.

Published last October, on the thirtieth anniversary of the infamous bombing Ra’s book is more than a character profile of a killer. In it, he draws a picture of how thousands of forgotten young men like Kang from both North and South Korea were trained and used on dangerous missions long after the Korean War officially ended in 1953. Many of these men were then cast aside and forgotten after their missions ended.

Ra would seem an unlikely source for a sympathetic account of the life of one of North Korea’s most deadly spies. Now a professor at a university in Seoul – and formerly an ambassador to Japan and Great Britain, in addition to his service at the spy agency – he appears to be cut from a familiar cloth among South Korea’s political class, garbed in a crisply ironed shirt, a conservative suit and tie, and primed short-cut hair.

Cheating Death

In Burma on an official visit, the South Korean president planned to lay a wreath at the Martyr’s Mausoleum to commemorate Aung San — considered the founder of modern Burma — and the father of Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Kang and two other North Korean operatives planted a bomb in the ceiling of the mausoleum. On that cloudy tropical Sunday morning on October 9, they waited for their target, disguised as locals outside the venue.

But the assassins missed their mark. Chun cheated them, and death. He was delayed by the Burmese foreign minister who was supposed to accompany him to the venue.

A Burmese honor guard trumpeter, mistaking the entrance of South Korean Ambassador to Burma Lee Gye-chol for the arrival of the president, signaled the beginning of the ceremony. Kang and his comrades remotely detonated the bomb.

Chaos ensued, some of it captured by Japanese TV. The bomb tore through the mausoleum and scores of people, scattering limbs and timber among a cacophony of smoke, confusion and screams.

Among the dead were 17 South Koreans, including top government ministers, a National Assembly representative, and a journalist.

‘Not the Whole Story’

“The terrorist attack at Aung San cannot be isolated from the circumstances prevailing on the Korean Peninsula. We cannot single out that incident and say ‘North Korea again committed an act of terrorism and barbarism.’ That is not the whole story. That happened in the context of the North-South conflict in the early 1980s,” said Ra, in a recent interview with The Diplomat.

North Korea denied any connection with the attack or with Kang. In the South, the deed was declared an atrocity. For his crime, Kang was “erased,” Ra said.

In 2008, after languishing in a Rangoon cell for 25 years, Kang eventually succumbed to liver cancer at the age of 53. He was survived by no known wife, no family, and no country.

Ra depicted Kang in The Aung San Terrorist in an effort to finally recognize the thousands of young men from both Koreas trained as secret soldiers, used in covert operations, and then tossed aside.

Political leaders denied the missions of these secret soldiers ever took place, misled their families, and lied to the public, according to Ra.

In The Aung San Terrorist, Ra unmasks political leaders on both sides as culpable in “erasing the lives” of men like Kang. He accuses both nations of wiping away any trace of their very existence.

Approximately 13,000 anti-North agents were trained from 1951 to 1994 by the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Defense Intelligence Command, according to one report. Among them, some 7,800 never returned from their mission. Since it was first revealed that South Korea trained Special Forces agents of its own, awareness of them has grown.

The Aung San Terrorist comes after former National Assembly representative Kim Seong-ho’s We The Erased Faces (2006) and after Broadcaster SBS featured the topic early last year on its I Want To Know This current affairs program.

But despite increased attention, recognition and compensation has not followed.

An epigraph in Ra’s book from a 2009 speech by novelist Murakami Haruki points to why a former vice minister of national intelligence would write a book decrying the mistreatment of a confessed North Korean assassin in a Rangoon prison. Murakami is quoted as saying:

“If there is a hard, high wall and an egg that breaks against it, no matter how right the wall or how wrong the egg, I will stand on the side of the egg, because each of us is an egg, a unique soul enclosed in a fragile shell. The high wall is the system which forces us to do the things we would not ordinarily see fit to do as individuals.”

“We are all human beings, individuals, fragile eggs. We have no hope against the wall: it’s too high, too dark and too cold. To fight the wall, we must join our souls together for warmth and strength. We must not let the system control us, and create who we are.”

Foiled Escape

Kang and the two others — Kim Jin-su and Shin Ki-chul — tried desperately to escape. They headed for the river and for a speedboat that would take them to a freighter in Rangoon Harbor. But the boat was not there. So, they split up, with Shin in the lead. They made their way down stream as stealthily as possible toward the harbor and a waiting freighter.

Shin was intercepted by the Burmese police. He tried to shoot his way clear, but was gunned down.

It would not have mattered anyway; there was no freighter. North Korean planners did not tell the men that the freighter was denied entrance into Rangoon Harbor. Pyongyang feared that the information could discourage them from completing their mission.

With grenades and guns, Kang and Kim similarly attempted the shoot their way out, but their grenades were booby trapped and they blew themselves up. Kang lost his right arm.

Miraculously, the two men survived. Kim was later executed; a Burmese court spared Kang. In exchange, he revealed the planning and thinking that went into the bombing. North Korea had indeed intended to assassinate the South Korean president, but its ambitions were much greater. According to Ra, planners in Pyongyang believed they could incite a revolution in the South with a single audacious provocation.

Chun had seized power just three years earlier in a bloody military coup d’etat, and massacred hundreds — thousands by some estimates — in Gwangju, to brutally put down a popular democratic uprising against his regime.

It was true that Chun was not liked at home and had only tepid support abroad. His backers were well aware of it. Chun and those young military officers who took power sought to strengthen their position by reaching out to non-aligned nations.

The South Korean strongman’s visit to Burma was one leg of a multi-nation Asia trip to India, Sri Lanka, Brunei, Australia and New Zealand.

A young Ban Ki-moon — today the secretary-general of the United Nations, then chief of staff to Foreign Minister Lee Beom-seok, who was killed in the bombing – dubbed the diplomatic gesture, “the Chrysanthemum Strategy,” after the flower known to bloom in October.

North Korea’s plot backfired. Although Chun’s trip was cut short, his outreach to non-aligned movement nations such as India continued. Moreover, China was infuriated with its pugnacious ally. (Some things never change.) Burma cut off ties with North Korea altogether. International condemnation of the bombing was universal.

Despite that, a softening of the ideological sclerosis between North and South Korea followed. Kim Il-sung and Chun Doo-hwan initiated a North-South détente. Kang was forgotten.

“During these talks in the 1980s between Kim Il-sung and Chun Doo-hwan, there was never ever any mention of this young man. I think these two men deserve most of the blame for what happened in Burma,” Ra said, adding that back then almost no regard was ever paid to those caught in the North-versus-South ideological grinder.

When a U.S. Army excavation team discovered the remains of North Korean soldiers during a search for remains of their own, for example, no one wanted to receive them.

“They discovered the remains of about 23 or 24 North Korean soldiers. They asked the North Koreans to take them back, but the North refused. The South Korean government, too, was not moved at all.”

The Americans ended up hiring a Buddhist monk on their own, and conducted their own funeral ceremony for the soldiers.

“I was so angry about that,” said Ra. “Do we really deserve re-unification while we neglect our own people, and while we neglect the lives of these men?”