Opinion

Ian Bremmer

When hackers bully a bully: Anonymous vs Kim Jong-un

Ian Bremmer
Apr 11, 2013 15:16 UTC

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.  

The hope and beauty of a North Korean stalemate

Ian Bremmer
Mar 30, 2012 15:40 UTC

President Obama’s recent trip to South Korea may have gained attention for his “open mic” slipup with outgoing Russian President Medvedev over missile defense, but that’s just a media distraction from the importance of Obama’s visit to the Korean peninsula. After Kim Jong Il’s death in December, the U.S. took an early lead in negotiations with North Korea doing so because Obama and his team thought it could be an easy diplomatic win. With the promise of aid and food, the U.S. could let new leader Kim Jong-un quietly drop the consistently belligerent stance the country has taken in what passes for its foreign policy.

It’s now clear that easy win is not going to happen. Despite Kim’s titular status, we still don’t really know who is in charge in North Korea. While there have been no major coups, protests, or blowups, there have been plenty of smaller events, like military executions due to insubordination, that point to a high likelihood of purges happening in the regime. Now factor in that North Korea has gotten decidedly more, rather than less, militant on the nuclear arms front. Its announcement of a satellite test is a thinly veiled attempt to launch a long-range ICBM. The global community is perceiving it as such with South Korea threatening to shoot the missile down. The vitriol coming out of the North Korean propaganda machine is as hardline and aggressive as we’ve seen in many years.

Several months into the Kim Jong-un regime, there’s little cause for optimism. There’s much cause to be on heightened alert, though, because other than belligerent press releases, the new regime has not shown any ability to deliver on its promises. The South Koreans recently held live-fire exercises on five islands near the disputed Yellow Sea boundary with North Korea; their angry neighbors, despite loudly promising a response, did nothing. As much as we can be glad there was no international incident as a result, it’s not a good sign if the reason the North Koreans didn’t follow through on their threats was that the Kim Jong-un regime was unable to control the military well enough to direct it to do so. The regime change, in other words, has not yet stabilized.

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