Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Romania and North Korea – a brief tale of two generations

Posted in business and convergent technologies by Timothy Platt on December 25, 2011

I read and hear of cyber attacks that look to have come from North Korea with much of that directed towards the United States, South Korea or both. Much of what I read about concerns relatively straightforward and even standard attack approaches (e.g. distributed denial of service attacks based on malware that uses encryption and a multi-tier botnet architecture.) But perhaps more to the point, the apparent goals of these exercises tend to be so limited in scope as to raise questions of why so complex an effort would be launched. The obvious reason is that these are in fact limited live-fire exercises intended to both test offensive systems capabilities, and to probe and test defensive response systems and their capabilities.

• North Korea has sought to develop a credible nuclear weapons capability and arsenal.
• While its chemical and biological weapons programs receive less attention there is evidence that North Korea has also made significant effort to develop weapons of mass destruction of these categories too.
• It should not be a surprise, given the North’s military and militaristic track record that it would seek to develop an arsenal of cyber-weapons too, and particularly as South Korea and the West have become so reliant on networked computer and information systems, and both for business and their private sectors and for government and national defense.

North Korea has one and only one external patron: the People’s Republic of China. And there must be times that China’s leadership wonders why it has agreed to this. The relationship between China and North Korea in fact goes back to before the Korean War, in which China supported Kim Il-sung’s government. China sees North Korea as a vassal state, and at least in part as a buffer between it and South Korea and their government and influence.

I find myself thinking back to the days of the old Soviet empire with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and their buffer state system as embodied in the form of their Warsaw Pact partners. And I find myself thinking of one of those partner states in particular as I write this: Romania (and see Communist Romania.) Romania played a special role in the Soviet system – their government agencies were responsible for carrying out a range of activities that the Soviet Union wanted to see done, but that it did not want to risk their being seen as doing.

The Soviet Union for example had its Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti or Committee for State Security (KGB) which carried out both internal and externally facing police, and surveillance and intelligence gathering roles. As a rough point of comparison to the situation in the West and in the United States in particular, its KGB carried out, among other things all of the activities that in the US were managed by both its Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and its Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as well as by several other agencies – but without the level or types of regulatory oversight and accountability written in the charters and laws that set up those agencies. Communist Romania (the Romanian People’s Republic from 1947 to 1965, and the Socialist Republic of Romania from 1965 to 1989) had its KGB too. And the Romanian KGB carried out actions and carried through on implementing programs for which the Soviet Union – their patron, would want to be able to claim plausible deniability.

With the break-up of the Warsaw Pact and then the Soviet Union itself, it is not a coincidence that so many of the Romanian KGB’s now former employees sought new ways to ply their skills and their trades. And one result of that, was that Romania became an early hotbed for cyber-crime and both for phishing and related attacks and for the development and management of commercially oriented botnets.

Does China use, or at least seek to use North Korea at least at times, in ways analogous to the way that the Soviet Union used its Romania? That is a question for which there are no easy answers. If they do, does China seek to use North Korea as a route to achieving certain of its goals while still retaining plausible deniability as to its involvement in them? That is a possibility too, though I add that North Korea cannot probably be considered a reliable partner where any subtlety would be required.

China is still at least nominally a communist nation even as it seeks to build an entrepreneurial free market economy on top of that foundation. North Korea is arguably the last remaining true believer Stalinist communist nation and takes a view of the world that China abandoned when it first broke with the Soviet Union – to the extent, that is, that it ever sought to follow Stalin’s example. (See Sino-Russian relations for historical notes through the end of the Soviet Union, and Sino-Russian relations since 1991 for more current insight. And I particularly recommend with this posting in mind: this discussion of the Sino-Soviet split that began at the end of the 1950’s and continued from there.) There are factors and forces that hold China and North Korea together even as there are differences that would tear them apart.

I write this posting as a thought piece and to raise some questions and issues. China and its leadership must see North Korea and its activities as a source of embarrassment and of complicating problems. China also feels a historically rooted sense of responsibility towards North Korea. Their shared history is complex. I write this in part because I see it as important to view North Korea in its context and particularly where it looks to be acting out at its most outrageous worst. And China is always an important part of that context and an intended audience for all that North Korea’s leadership does.

You can find this and related postings at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time.

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  1. Timothy Platt said, on December 25, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    I write and upload my blog postings in advance and finished my posting: Romania and North Korea – a brief tale of two generations some three weeks ago. Since then, significant change has taken place in North Korea with the death of their supreme leader, Kim Jong-il. As an indication of how insular and cryptically closed off the North Korean government is, no one in the West has ever been quite sure as to precisely how old Kim Jong-il was. He was the son of the leading founder of North Korea: Kim Il-sung and the second in succession to what appears to be a developing dynasty of power for that country. And one of his younger sons, Kim Jong-un is on his way to become a dynastic third in a row – and not only do we in the West not know precisely how old he is, there is even uncertainty as to who of a few possibilities his mother is. Yesterday, a week after his father’s death, he took the very significant step to supreme leadership in his country of being offered supreme leadership of their military.

    The governing philosophy that serves as North Korea’s core implementing principle for its version of Stalinist style communism is called Sŏn’gun – or military first. So this is a defining step. And now that he has been offered this position and even publically begged to take it he can and will graciously accept. That is part of the emerging pattern along with his being identified in the North Korean press as being “heaven-born” just like his grandfather and father were. That, I add, is an honorific only offered in reference to these dynastic leaders and can be seen as their version of beatification for those about to ascend the throne.

    Kim Il-sung was the Great Leader, Kim Jong-il was the Dear Leader, and it is certain that Kim Jong-un will receive his own personally defining title too as his near-deification takes place and his cult of personality takes form and hold.

    That noted, the basic discussion of my 12-25-2011 posting still holds. And in fact it is during precisely this type of transition that China would find its greatest value in being North Korea’s one channel to the outside world, and its one real ally and “friend.” Right now the world is in the dark as to what is happening in North Korea and in knowing what might follow – and China has the only flashlight. I expect to post further on this in the coming year.

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