For an American emissary looking to have an impact, there’s no better place to visit than North Korea. Most of the world is shut out of Kim Jong-un’s country, and the U.S. government has so few levers to influence policy that any American who finds his way in will make news.
That doesn’t mean the news will be good news. Former UN Ambassador Bill Richardson and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt didn’t accomplish much during their January visit, and basketball carny Dennis Rodman was as embarrassing as one would expect. In North Korea, even tourists can make headlines: Laura Ling and Euna Lee were detained in 2009 after filming refugees on the China-North Korea border. They became flashpoints in the U.S.-North Korean standoff because Pyongyang had nothing else to work with.
Unfortunately, the latest outsiders to insert themselves into the picture are hackers that answer to the name Anonymous, the group that became famous by mixing digital activism with clandestine revenge. Anonymous has begun a campaign against North Korea, crashing several North Korean websites, hacking North Korean social media accounts, and perhaps infiltrating North Korea’s intranet. Anonymous is promising more attacks to come. There is a chance for serious trouble here.
North Korea, let’s remember, has proven nuclear capacity, the most militarized border in the world, and lies between South Korea, an advanced industrial democracy, and China, the world’s preeminent authoritarian state. The DPRK is governed by an untested 29-year-old princeling under unknown amounts of internal pressure to assert his leadership through demonstrations of militarist machismo, even if it starves his people. For outsiders, Kim is a wildcard. We can’t know how far he will go or how he might react if he doesn’t get what we think he wants.
When Anonymous or Wikileaks targets a Western government or a multinational company, the result is a mosquito bite — annoying but not an essential threat. With secretive, brittle North Korea, Anonymous poses a much more serious threat, particularly in a moment when Kim Jong-un may feel backed into a corner.