Saturday, March 28, 2015

Kumgang Airbase Update

Three years ago, a new airbase appeared in a mountain valley 10.4 miles (16.7 km) west of the city of Chanjon, and 5.3 miles (8.9 km) north of the smaller town of Kumgang, Kwangon Province.

Changjon has had a number of improvements since 2005, including a new golf course, and a renovated harbor. It's also home to a naval base. Of course, Kumgang is nearby the very popular Mount Kumgang park.

The airbase was built between 2010 and October 2012. It has a 3,275 foot (1 km) long single runway and basic support facilities. It replaces the much smaller grass airstrip that once served the Kumgang area.

Here are the exact coordinates: 38°42'5"N 127°59'45"E (link opens Google Maps).

(Click image for larger view)

The facility has several aircraft dispersal pens, bunkers for either storage or maintenance, and 3 small fuel tanks. It will likely be used for civilian purposes, but as it stands, it can be considered primarily a military asset given its structure. 

Despite being fairly new, and the levee built to divert the nearby river (North Korea has built many runways very close to rivers, which doesn't seem prudent), the place seems somewhat deserted and has been flooded at least once.

Also, between 2007 and 2012, the surrounding area saw some upgrades too. A new communications tower was built as well as new housing.

There are no defensive artillery emplacements (that I can find) which typically guard airbases of this size, but there are a few small military units up and down the valley. The town of Kumgang itself, though, is protected by 3 anti-aircraft artillery emplacements which contain a combined 18 guns.

When it comes to completing projects, North Korea can accomplish seeming wonders in a short time (except the Ryugyong Hotel, and the fact that most things aren't built very sturdy), but when it comes to making good use of them, things tend to take a while. 

The newest images freely available date to October 2013 but given that so much effort is being placed on Pyongyang and Wonsan, I don't think the Kumgang area will see much more activity for a while.

--Jacob Bogle, 3/28/2015

Thursday, February 12, 2015

North Korea's Stealth Ship-s

In February 2015, North Korean state media released images of their newest naval asset - a stealth ship.

DPRK Stealth Vessel

Media outlets around the world reported on the "official" recognition of the craft, however there's definitely more than one.

The vessel, which is similar to a hovercraft (something the North Koreans seem to be fixated on), features an angled hull and other features which help to scatter radar. You'll note the similarities in design between the small North Korean ship and the British HMS Daring destroyer seen here:

British HMS Daring

These "surface effect ships" use hovercraft technology to reach high speeds without the need to decrease the weight of needed weaponry.

North Korea has been trying to modernize its military for two decades, but change comes slow to an overly bureaucratic nation severely low on funds. 

The specific ship reported on has been known since 2009, when it was visible on satellite imagery of the Munchon Naval Base (11 miles north of Wonsan).

Ship onshore in Munchon, 2009.

However, after reviewing images from Wonsan (and comparing image dates), North Korea has at least two of these vessels. Both ships can be seen in their respective docks on images dated 10/3/2009.

Wonsan ship. 

The Wonsan ship can actually be seen on images dating as far back as 2002.

This class of vessel is armed with two 30mm automated close-in weapon systems (CIWS) which is based on the Soviet AK-630, four indigenously-designed 14.5mm rotary cannons, a new surface-to-air missile system, plus two mounts for two of the lethal anti-ship missiles. The key weapon system is the Kh-35 anti-ship missile system.

--Jacob Bogle, 2/12/2015

Sunday, December 28, 2014

New Airbase Near Panghyon

UPDATE: According to Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr., the sites is actually a military vehicle training facility.


While I was continuing my mapping project, I found quite a surprise. Six miles (9.7 km) north of Panghyon Airport, near the town of Kusong in North Pyongan Province, is a brand spanking new air facility.

Here's the exact coordinates: 40°00'42.0"N 125°13'09.0"E (link opens Google Maps)

(Click for larger view.)

It has a little over 3,000 ft (914 m) of runway space and features two helipads. At the moment, it also has six bunkers (one of which is a large rectangular structure in the center of the runway) and the image suggests there will be two more.

Imagery dated May 27, 2014 shows that this airbase was created by Oct. 21 and was likely done as a military "speed" campaign.

(Click for larger view.)

Here's another view of the facility.

(Click for larger view.)

(Click for larger view.)

As the above wide-view satellite image shows, this new facility is surrounded by military units ("people" icons), artillery positions (red "A" icons), as well as other military locations and factories (hexagon icons).

According to the Federation of American Scientists, the region around Kusong is a "significant military industrial area" with multiple munitions plants. Some of North Korea's uranium mines also lie near the city and the facilities around Kusong played a role in the development of North Korea's nuclear program. Taechon Northwest Airfield also lies 8 miles (12.9 km) to the east.

Here are some additional close-up images.

(Click for larger view.)

(Click for larger view.)

I also want to note that this new airfield lies less than 20 miles (31.5 km) from the abandoned Taechon 200 MWe Magnox Nuclear Reactor and 33 miles (53 km) from the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center.

Monday, November 3, 2014

New Road Construction in Kim Jong-un's Korea

Construction is currently underway for at least 170 miles of new paved highways (with more extensions planned). This is on top of the completed highway projects since 2005 which has made transportation between North Korea's major cities much more rapid.

Due to the lack of equipment and fuel, most of these roads have been built using manual labor (primarily by college students and soldiers) supplemented with decades old machinery.

(New roads outlined in bold white lines. There are undoubtedly more roads being constructed, the ones marked are just the ones I have found.)

Of the two longest new highways I've found, one runs north to south, connecting the port cities of Wonsan (pop. 335,000) and Hamhung (pop. 770,000). The second runs east to west and will help tie the core of the country to the expanded trade route with China via the New Yalu River Bridge (whenever it's completed).

The Wonsan highway will play a key role in Kim Jong-un's desire to turn the relatively quiet city into an international tourist destination. Wonsan already has a botanical garden, an 8,000 ft long runway, and several palatial vacation communities for North Korea's elite. It's also just a couple hours away (by car) from the famed Diamond Mountain (Mt. Kumgang) region.

(Highway construction progress.)

(Wonsan, park & docks. Click for larger view.)

(Wonsan, sea-side hotels. Click for larger view.)

(Wonsan Botanical Gardens. Click for larger view.)

(Wonsan, elite beach homes. Click for larger view.)

And finally, to the north-west, the New Yalu River Bridge.

Construction began in 2010 with China providing the bulk of financing (roughly $360 million USD) and materials. The causes of the delay in completing and opening the bridge have been North Korea's failure to meet its financial obligations, rising tensions between China and the DPRK, the re-directing of materials provided by China (for the bridge) to other projects around North Korea (projects wholly unrelated to the bridge), and the other usual mismanagement and glacial bureaucratic speed with which North Korea has become synonymous.

Whenever the bridge does open, it has the potential of greatly boosting trade and providing the country's economy with a much-needed infusion. Whether or not the bridge will be allowed to fulfill its expectations is another matter. 

--Jacob Bogle, 11/3/2014

Monday, June 9, 2014

North Korea's Beauty & Untouched Wilderness

There is no doubt North Korea is unlike any country on earth. Its heavily regulated society and militarized southern border has actually resulted in some of the most pristine wilderness areas in the modern world outside of the vast tropics. Unfortunately, many of these areas are under threat. I'd like to show you some of these amazing, if not always intentional, wilderness areas.

Korean Demilitarized Zone

DMZ outlined in yellow.

Apart from providing relative military stabilization, the DMZ has also created an unintentional nature preserve 155 miles long and 2.5 miles wide. Not only is it nearly impossible to traverse the DMZ because of the high risk of being shot, the zone also has roughly 1 million landmines left over from the Korean War which makes human movement all the more dangerous. This has meant that the 387 square mile region has been left nearly undisturbed for over 60 years, with the exception of two very small villages (one of which is fake and the other, on the southern side, has a population of 218). This has allowed nature to reclaim the area and bounce back not only from three years of devastating war, but also from thousands of years of human settlement and movement. To quote Don Oberdorfer in his book "The Two Koreas", "This pristine nature preserve marks the most dangerous and heavily fortified border in the world."

The DMZ from the ground.

Within the boundaries of the DMZ there are 2,900 plant species, 70 mammal species, 320 types of bird, and over 80 species of fish. Some of the more interesting creatures include the Asiatic black bear, leopards, and lynx. There are also several animal species that only live within the DMZ. The DMZ plays host to countless numbers of birds each year as they migrate throughout eastern Asia and Japan. Approximately 1/3rd of all Red-crowned cranes (their entire wild population is less than 3,000) use the DMZ during migration.

Pair of Red-Crowned Cranes in flight.

There are several organizations which are trying to have the DMZ, or at least parts of it, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve. Author Alan Weisman has said of the area within the DMZ, "it has inadvertently become one of the most important wildlife conservation sites in the world.” There are, however, several major obstacles in the way of preserving the DMZ, not least of which are the ever-increasing levels of pollutants due to substantial urbanization occurring in areas adjacent to the zone. And, the only way for the full area to be protected is for the North Korean government to cooperate with the South, which offers its own difficulties. Tourism to the zone, over 1.2 million people annually, accounts for 20% of South Korea's foreign visitors. If the zone were to be made into a nature preserve, it would be a boon not only to tourism and the economies of both countries but could help bring the two Korea's back together because of the necessary steps needed to actually accomplish the goal of preserving wildlife within the DMZ.

National Coastal Fence

Dotted along the fence are small "border guard" shacks like this one.

As I've talked about before, most of the country is surrounded by a fence system. Most of the coastal fences were built during the famine, ostensibly to protect the fishing industry, but most likely (according to testimonies) it was done to prevent people from fleeing the country as well as "stealing" fish. This system, which includes the border fences with China, Russia, and South Korea, runs for over a thousand miles, and long segments are actually electrified. However, it must be said that the fence doesn't run uninterrupted. There are plenty of breaks to allow fishermen access to the sea (usually requiring them to pass through guarded gates), areas too rugged to need any fence, and places where the fence has either been torn down by locals needing wire or from the simple decay of time and weather.

This draconian system has resulted in vast stretches of undisturbed beaches and pockets of forested land in an otherwise barren environment, as huge portions of the country have been denuded of trees for agriculture and fire wood. The distance between the fence and the sea can range from 50 feet to over a thousand. Depending on the measurements, this thin green line actually adds up to several square miles (4 to 25) of relatively untouched territory. The key in all of this is coastal.

Notice the difference in tree density on either side of the fence.

From the destruction of thousand year old sand dunes, to rare plant species, to animal breeding and feeding grounds, coastal regions the world over are under constant threat. This small strip of land provides a protected zone for wildlife relatively free from those threats.

Untouched Forests

3D satellite imagery of ~100 square miles of forest. Nothing but a few footpaths traverse the area.

North Korea had vast forests until the 1980s, when drastic changes caused a dramatic decline in both the quantity and quality of many forested areas. According to the World Bank, North Korea's forests covered 46% of the country in 2012, down from 53% in 2003 (compared to ~33% forest cover in the US). The amount of forest is due to the mountainous nature of North Korea, which is actually partially to blame for the decline in forests. All land belongs to the government and its use is tightly controlled. Only 22% of the country's land is arable, meaning that the government has undertaken a number of steps to increase agricultural production by cutting down forests to make room for farming. The poorly planned nature of these schemes has led to denuded hillsides surrounding every inhabited area which, in turn, cause devastating flooding and landslides each time a major rain occurs (and that happens often).

Landscape of North Korea.

Despite this, there are still plenty of forests, and unlike regions in Russia, China, and South America, where illegal logging and settlement have wreaked havoc on many the forests there, the tight controls on movement and land use has resulted in some spectacular stretches of forest. Of those, around 9.3% are old growth forest (the US has less than 2%). Unfortunately, the remaining forests are being cut down at an ever increasing rate and their future is in great doubt.

National Parks

Beleive it or not, North Korea has several national parks. The primary parks are: Baekdu-san (Mount Paektu), Ch'ilposan, Lake Bujo, Myohyang-san, Geumgang-san (Kumgangsan), and Guwol-san.

The Mt. Paektu region has the world's highest plant diversity in such a cool and temperate environment. It is also home to a few endangered Siberian tigers (with a global population of under 1,000).

A pair of Siberian Tigers.

Mt. Paektu, or Baekdu, is the highest mountain in North Korea at 9,003 ft (2,744 m). It lies on the border between the DPRK and China and is considered, by both Koreas, to be the legendary ancestral home of the Korean people. The volcanic mountain, with its deep blue crater lake (called "Heaven Lake") and snow-capped sides plays an important role in North Korean propaganda as well as the country's personality cult. The North claims that Kim Il-Sung launched his "victorious" strike against the imperialist invaders from a secret base on the side of the mountain and that his son, Kim Jong-il, was born near the lake (despite actually being born in Russia).  The lake even has its own lake monster, the Lake Tianchi Monster, which was first reported in 1903.

A view of Heaven Lake.

Pilgrimages to Mt. Paektu are very common, with each citizen generally expected to visit the site at least once. China has sought to have the mountain designated as a World Heritage Site, although this attempt has been controversial. Regardless of the ever-complex political scenery, satellite imagery of the mountain and surrounding areas shows that the pristine nature of the site is under severe threat, especially from logging (although North Korea agreed to prevent logging, they have clearly failed to do so) and the increasing levels of development for the North Korean elite's vacationing. Moreover, even the park & border guards - which are supposed to be among the most loyal - are having to poach and kill wildlife in order to survive since they aren't receiving enough supplies from the government.

The image below shows the Mt. Paektu region. The mountain is in the upper left corner, the yellow line is the China/DPRK border. The brown outline, encompassing roughly 250 square miles, outlines forested areas that show very clear signs of logging. The red markers are military sites, the rest show the positions of villas and the primary leadership compound with an entire support village next to it, as well as other locations.

Click for larger view.
Mount Kumgang

Mount Kumgang, or "Diamond Mountain", is a 5,375 foot (1,638 m) high mountain just a few miles from the DMZ. It lies within the 205 square mile "Mount Kumgang National Park" and began as a joint-venture with South Korea to improve relations and tourism. The Park has been heavily subsidized by South Korean companies (as well as the government) but has been closed for several years following the killing of a South Korean tourist by North Korean guards. Currently, only tours operated on the North Korean side are permitted, making the Park effectively out of reach for most western tourists and South Koreans (who made up the bulk of visitors).

Mountain view. Image source Flicker.

Despite the current situation, Mount Kumgang remains one of the most beautiful places in North Korea. Roughly 96 square miles of the Park have been recognized as an "Important Bird Area" by BirdLife International because it supports Red-crowned Cranes. The mountain itself is made up of granite and diorite which has been exposed over the eons. This weathering has created over 10,000 interesting stone formations and countless waterfalls.

The very famous "Nine Pools".

A beautiful scene from one of the lakes. Source Flicker.

The Kuryong Falls are a striking feature. They drop 246 feet to Kuryong Lake, which according to legend, was the home of nine dragons that defended the mountain.

Kuryong Falls.

The Park contains mixed broadleaf and coniferous forests.

The Park abuts the Sea of Japan and contains several lagoons. Of them, Samil Lagoon is by far the most lovely.

View of Samil Lagoon.

While portions of the Kumgang tourist region are under threat from continued development, the heart of the area, namely the mountains, do seem generally free from settlement and deforestation. It is, truly, the Diamond Mountain. 

Image notes: pictures come from Wikimedia Commons or compiled from Google Earth unless otherwise noted.

--Jacob Bogle 6/8/2014

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Mapping Update #5 - Over 5,500 places and counting!

My "real life" has kept me relatively busy over the last few months so I've fallen a bit behind on the goals I set. However, I have marked over 5,500 locations (with over 1,000 military sites) and I am halfway finished with North Pyongan Province. As of today, I have fully mapped over 10,000 square miles and partially mapped a good portion of the rest of North Korea's 46,541 square miles. I've also decided to create a new file (for the whole country) which will mark the nation's extensive irrigation system - which consists of over 6,000 dams, pumping stations and other irrigation structures.

Once I've completed my own primary mapping project (excluding the irrigation file), I'm also going to integrate what I've done with the published works of two others to create a "master file" which should make available the whole of North Korea with no overlaps and very few, if any, holes. As time permits, I will also release additional files that will give you the locations of any other items I find interesting or that deal with national infrastructure (like town signs, rural schools, etc.).

Some of Ryanggang's place marks. Click for larger view. 

In 2013, vast amounts of Ryanggang Province were covered by low resolution satellite imagery, however, much of that has now been updated to high res. This means that there's a lot of the Province I need to go over (once again) and map, since objects in the low res. areas were nearly impossible to interpret. The Province has a low population density so I'm hoping I can finish it and release the updated KMZ file for it relatively soon.

Until then, my next blog post will be about the incredible untouched wilderness areas of North Korea. So be sure to stay tuned!

--Jacob Bogle, 5/28/2014

Friday, January 17, 2014

North Korea: 2013 in Review

The year 2013 has been a busy one for we DPRK watchers. Lest we forget, here is a list of all things North Korea, both important and not so important.

2013 Crisis

2013 had barely begun when the provocations started pouring out of North Korea. On Jan. 22, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2087 which condemned the North's launch of their "satellite" back in Dec. 2012. In response, the North announced plans to conduct further nuclear tests (its last one was in 2009) and rocket launches. They also called America "the sworn enemy of the Korean people". Usually, the threats and bluster made by the North tends to be empty, and although threats are taken seriously there is often an underlying mood of "yeah, yeah, calm down kid". This time they weren't joking.

On Feb. 12, they conducted an underground nuclear test which was by far the largest test they had ever done with a yield somewhere between 6 and 8 kilotons. Although it was small compared to international standards (the 1945 Trinity Test by the U.S. came in at 20 kt), it was a clear sign that they had advanced their capabilities (the 2009 test was a mere 2.5 kt) and that they were serious about developing an operational nuclear arsenal.

In March, the U.S. and South Korea (ROK) began preparations for "Foal Eagle" which is an annual joint-military training exercise and dates back to 1997. It is one of the largest (if not the largest) annual military exercises in the world and in 2013 more than 210,000 troops participated (only 10,000 were American soldiers). By March 13, in response to the exercise, the DPRK announced it would withdraw from the 1953 Armistice and all non-aggression pacts with the ROK (which has happened 6 times) and they cut off the direct Seoul-Pyongyang hotline. The North went further and stated that the next action they would take would be to actually attack the South and the United States.

Over the course of March tensions continued to climb. The U.S. sent B-52 bombers (nuclear capable) to patrol the South, set up additional Ground-Based Interceptor missiles in Alaska to protect the U.S. from any potential nuclear or other ballistic attack from the North, and deployed fighter jets and other defense systems. Japan also boosted their defensive position by deploying additional warships to the region. On March 20, banks and TV stations in South Korea were hit with a cyber attack linked to the North.

April saw the Kaeson Industrial Region closed. The region had served as an important symbolic joint-industrial facility between North and South, and an important source of hard currency for the North. Construction began in 2003 and cost billions of dollars to build, mostly financed by South Korean companies and the government. The purpose was to foster relations between the two countries and to benefit them both financially through light industrial activity. On April 8, the North recalled their 53,000 workers. Several hundred South Korean employees stayed at the complex and were subsequently cut off from food and aid, effectively serving as prisoners. The region remained closed until mid-September and the closure resulted in a loss of $944 million.

More importantly in April, the North announced that it would restart operations at the Yongbyon Nuclear Center which had been closed since 2007. The facility is crucial to the North's production of plutonium and thus their nuclear weapons program. By June, new satellite pictures showed the cooling tower had been rebuilt and pictures released on Aug. 31 showed the facility operating. During April the North also moved an intermediate-range ballistic missile platform to the east coast (with Japan being their nearest east coast neighbor) and the DPRK warned that certain countries with embassies in the North should evacuate their staff, including the U.K, Russia, and Sweden.

After several other weapons movements (on both sides), the North's fueling of their missiles, a dedicated war game by the U.S. to determine how easy/difficult it would be to secure the North's nuclear stockpiles (result: 90,000 troops and 59 days), the month ended with some additional bluster but most tellingly, the North agreed to re-enter into dialogue.

On May 6, the North withdrew two Musudan missiles from their launch sites, however, between May 18 and 20, they launched a total of six missiles into the Sea of Japan. May also saw several of China's largest banks putting an end to doing business with North Korea which was a significant step since China has usually turned a blind eye to the North's provocations.

At the beginning of June, North Korea rejected China's request that it halt any further nuclear tests, but on June 16, the DPRK government proposed direct talks with the United States to ease tensions. For the rest of the year things slowly began to cool down and saw North Korea, China, and Russia all proposing a resumption of the Six Party Talks. The Seoul-Pyongyang hotline was restored, both sides agree to re-open Kaeson and things returned to the schizophrenic "normal" that is so common on the Korean Peninsula.

However, there were still occasional threats, refusals to sign non-aggression pacts, and more threats; and this will likely continue for a very long time. 

Cargo Ship Seizure

North Korea has maintained a fairly healthy international arms trade for decades, yet as time goes by and international sanctions pile up, it is becoming ever increasingly more difficult for them to carry out their activities. The 509-foot long North Korean cargo ship Chong Chon Gang had been traveling in and out of the Panamanian area between April and July. In July, the ship was flagged for inspection, in part, because they had stopped signaling their location (which ships are required to do for navigation safety purposes). On July 15, Panamanian authorities seized the vessel and began searching it. They found 10,000 tons of Cuban sugar which was lying on top of undeclared cargo. That cargo included 240 tons of Cuban made weapons, two MiG-21 fighters in working condition, radar & control systems for missile launchers, 15 aircraft engines, 12 motors, and a quantity of ammunition. 

The official line from Cuban authorities was that the equipment was being sent to North Korea for repair (there is precedent for this so they could have been telling the truth). Of the 35 crew members, 33 were arrested for arms trafficking - the captain attempted suicide. The majority of the crew were finally released back to North Korea in November.

Kenneth Bae and Merrill Newman

From 1977 to 1983 the DPRK kidnapped dozens of Japanese citizens, they have also kidnapped South Korean actresses, producers, and other people from various countries (westerners were mostly kidnapped to work at the Foreign Language Office). I say that to impress upon you that the North Korean government has had no problem stealing people. In other cases, such as Kenneth Bae and Merrill Newman, the situation wasn't about making movies for Kim Jong-il, or the need for translators.

     Kenneth Bae is a Korean-American who has traveled to North Korea several times on business grounds. However, he has also been known to aid Christian groups in either spreading the Gospel or to assist them in getting people out of the country (both activities are strictly forbidden). On Nov. 3, 2012 Bae was visiting the Rason Special Economic District with five Europeans when he was arrested, it is claimed, for carrying a thumb drive filled with pictures of starving children, of conducting a smear campaign against the government, and of planning to toppled the DPRK government in collusion with the U.S., South Korea, and interestingly, China.

Bae was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. In July 2013, after being sent to a prison camp, he became severely ill and has been detained in a prison hospital since he can no longer take part in manual labor. Because the United States does not have diplomatic relations with the DPRK, all diplomatic matters are handled by the United States' protecting power, Sweden. And due to this it becomes increasingly difficult to ensure his release. Bae's imprisonment has also been a point of irritation for Dennis Rodman thanks to his "friend for life", Kim Jong-un.

     Merrill Newman is an 85 year old Korean War veteran from the United States. During the war he was a member of the United Nations Partisan Infantry (also known as the "White Tigers") and engaged in guerrilla type activities as well as training anti-communist insurgents. In October 2013, Newman traveled to North Korea, something many veterans have done before, for a nine-day trip. At the end of the trip, on Oct. 26, Newman boarded an Air Koryo plane, but just prior to takeoff he was escorted off the plane and arrested.

Although word of his detainment quickly reached the U.S. embassy in Beijing via one of his travelling companions, North Korea did not acknowledge his arrest until late November. Then, on Nov. 29, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) released a video of Newman reading from a prepared document in which he "confessed" and apologized to a wide array of war crimes. It was also alleged that he had, during his visit, been in possession of forbidden and subversive items. He was finally released on Dec. 7, thanks in part to our friends the Swedes.

Generally speaking, so long as you follow the rules during a trip to North Korea you aren't likely to be arrested, detained, or otherwise harassed. However, people who are of South Korean origin, who fought during the Korean War, or whose family had fled the North during the war are more likely to be targeted. Kenneth Bae was born in South Korea and he was also a part of a Christian organization (Christians are particularly singled out for persecution) and, there is a chance he really was engaged in illegal activities. Of course, what the North considered illegal most of the world calls fundamental human rights. Bae could end up being released due to his health (it wouldn't look good if he died) but it's just as likely he will spend years more in prison.

In Merrill Newman's case, he was part of hostilities during the war (a war which technically is still ongoing), and his name, along with the names of thousands of others, were known to DPRK authorities before the 1953 Armistice was even signed. It is likely they singled him out not to capture or to kill, but to be used in domestic propaganda and then released, which is what happened. The valiant North Korean soldiers had finally caught an imperialist invader and forced him to confess to all the things the North routinely accuses the west of doing.

Anyone interested in travelling to North Korea, especially if you're an American, needs to be aware of the rules. If the North Korean government allows you to visit it's a good bet they have checked out your background and they will use the several sanctioned travel agencies to assist in determining your history, and thus your likely hidden agenda for going to the country. Carrying thumb drives, non-DPRK newspapers & books, Bibles, CDs, DVDs, U.S. currency, are all no-noes. Photography is controlled and if you tick off your minders you will either have your camera run over by the bus or confiscated, be immediately kicked out of the country, or if they're in the mood, you'll be charged with crimes against the state - something you really don't want to have happen. Here is an interesting & lighthearted article on being a tourist "20 Things I Learned While I Was in North Korea".

Jang Sung-taek

As I discussed earlier, Jang Sung-taek, Kim Jong-un's uncle, was executed on Dec. 13 for crimes against the state. Among the charges were: attempting to overthrow the government, collapse the economy, and degrade the cult of personality. His death was the highest level execution - and most public - since the time of Kim Il-sung. Jang's associates were also rounded up, including hundreds of family members (regardless of their actual guilt or complicity) and were either killed or sent off to concentration camps. These events are connected to a wider series of purges which Kim Jong-un has conducted ever since coming to power in 2011, all in an attempt to solidify his own absolute power. He was executed by firing squad.

His case reminds me of the arrest & execution of Pak Hon-yong in 1956. Pak was accused of trying to overthrow the government, of embezzling money (870,000 won as well as gold), and he held incredibly high office right up until the moment he was arrested. In reality, his real crime seems to have been questioning the power of Kim Il-sung.

Attack Notice

The year would not be complete without an obligatory warning to strike without warning. One Dec. 19, the North sent a fax to their southern counterparts warning them that they would hit the South with a "merciless strike without warning." These warnings are actually very common and their content from year-to-year doesn't change much, same for the medium through which they are sent. The purpose of these "surprise warnings" is up for debate, but the rationale behind the North's activities is about as clear as mud. On the one hand, constant warnings and even the occasional real attack has, at least for the past 30 years or so, led the South and international community to come to the bargaining table and allowed the North to elicit aid (food, fuel, cash, etc.). On the other, the North knows full well that it hasn't a chance of winning a true war, yet they are constantly drilling into the minds of their own people that war is always just around the corner and so it can serve as a means of propaganda and stress relief - as well as serving to keep the South in a constant (albeit just below the surface) state of anxiety, which can be thought of as a mild punishment for whatever sins the South had done that week. 

In Film

And now time for Hollywood. Apparently, North Korea has finally entered into public consciousness and because of that, the hermit kingdom known for its isolation has made a big splash on the big screen.

Olympus Has Fallen, featuring Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart, hearkens back to the 1968 Blue House raid in South Korea except this time the target is the White House. In the movie, North Korean assassins have infiltrated the South Korean president's protection unit. During an official ROK visit to the White House, these agents show their true colors and, in conjunction with a "sleeper cell" already in DC, overrun the White House and hold the U.S. president hostage. The goal? To use a top secret U.S. program to detonate our entire stock of nuclear weapons - irradiating the whole country. Thankfully, at the very last moment we're all saved.

The DPRK has a long history of assassination attempts against their southern brethren. Not only did they try to over take the ROK's executive mansion in 1968, they set off a bomb during an official ROK visit to Burma in 1983 which killed 21 people. North Korea maintains 150,000-200,000 special forces personnel and they truly are a force to reckon with. There is little doubt that they have at least considered such an attack on the U.S.

World War Z, is Brad Pitt's zombie apocalypse movie, and while the DPRK did not play a starring role in the film they were mentioned. North Korea was one of the few countries in the world which did not fall due to the zombie plague. Their defense? Since zombification was caused via biting, Kim Jong-un ordered that all of North Korea's 25 million citizens have their teeth removed; a feat accomplished in a matter of days (and according to the related book, they fled underground into the North's myriad of underground bunkers).

Next comes G.I. Joe: Retaliation. In this film, the "Joe's" infiltrate one of the North's many prisons to find an informant and bring him back to the U.S. Later on, the evil Zartan calls world leaders to a conference where he threatens the planet with destruction based on a new weapon. He says that the weapon could destroy each of the countries 14 times, but in the case of North Korea - 15 times (as, presumably. Kim Jong-un gives a "why pick on me?" look).

...and let's not forget Red Dawn from 2012 (it came out in November, so close enough). This remake of the 1984 cult classic was one of my favorite movies of the year. Unlike the Soviet terror in the original, the 2012 version features the DPRK (with help from the Russians, those bastards) unleashing a new, very high tech weapon - an EMP device. The lead character, played by Chris Hemsworth, leads an army of local youths in a battle to rid the American northwest of the surprisingly well fed Korean invaders. While the film's plot is unlikely, the threat of a surprise attack from the DPRK is not.

--Jacob Bogle, 1/17/2014