Peering into North Korea’s Future: the Cyber Angle

Looking out over the DMZ into the drab proto-industrial North Korean villages along the border.

With the death of North Korean dictator and “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il, I join the rest of the world in welcoming this early Christmas gift… at least I hope that it proves to be so.

Egypt’s Mubarak is gone but the country is less stable; post-Qadhafi Libya’s political course is still an open question. So uncertainty is the only safe prediction about North Korea’s near-term political environment. But no nation’s people have endured such unrelenting deprivations (mass starvation, no fuel) for so long in the post-World War II era.

I have no special insight into North Korea’s future. My only DMZ visit on the Peninsula, with a close-up look at Panmunjeom and beyond it “the last Stalinist state on earth,” was in 2006 (see my photos and observations here).

But I have noted the Western-education background (and apparently technologically-intensive current activities) of “The Great Successor,” Kim’s son Kim Jong-Un. One can understand the intense focus which Western governments have trained on the younger Kim’s background and activities, for any clues into his plans – and the plans of those who surround him, or potentially could rival him.

Only a year ago, in October 2010 SCIENCE Magazine published a short but interesting story on Kim Jong-Un, asking “Will Korea’s Computer-Savvy Crown Prince Embrace Reform?”

According to internal North Korean propaganda, informants claim, Kim oversees a cyberwarfare unit that launched a sophisticated denial-of-service attack on South Korean and U.S. government Web sites in July 2009. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service blamed the North, which has not commented publicly on the attack. Kim Jong Un’s involvement cannot be confirmed, says computer scientist Kim Heung-Kwang, founder of North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity, a group of university-educated defectors that raises awareness of conditions in the North… But it’s plausible: Kim claims that Kim Jong Un was tutored privately by a ‘brilliant’ graduate of Universite Paris X who chaired the computer science department at Kim Chaek University of Technology in Pyongyang before disappearing from public view in the early 1980s.” [emphasis added]

To get a feel for how the North’s military has gone about organizing for cyber activities, the best unclassified source I know of remains Christopher Brown’s 2004 Naval Postgraduate School thesis “Developing a Reliable Methodology for Assessing the Computer Network Operations Threat of North Korea.” Brown wrote, by the way, that his thesis was an attempt “to prove that a useful methodology for assessing the CNO capabilities and limitations of North Korea can be developed using only open source information” (emphasis added). Brown also wrote about the early personal role of Kim Jong Il’s eldest son Kim Jong Nam in establishing the priority of computer network operations among military activities (Nam once headed a North Korean intelligence agency, though in recent years he dissipated into a South-Park-like role as a casino-loving playboy).

More recently, there’s information on North Korea’s cyber hacking military units here, where StrategyPage.com concluded (in 2009) that “North Korea is something of a museum of Stalinist techniques. But it’s doubtful that their Internet experts are flexible and innovative enough to be a real threat.”

The contrary view, with a heightened state of alarm about North Korea’s capabilities and intentions, runs through Richard Clarke’s 2010 book Cyber War, where he recounts breathlessly the Soviet-Olympic-style recruitment of “elite students at the elementary-school level to be groomed as future hackers.” In a publicity interview for the book, Clarke told Forbes magazine: “if you ask who’s the biggest threat in the sense that they might use their abilities, it might be North Korea. First, they’re crazy, and second, they have nothing to lose.”  Even China’s People’s Daily English-language version carried a dire summary in December 2010 of North Korea’s aggressive cyber intentions, “Cyber Attack from Pyongyang: South Korea’s Nightmare?”

I hope and expect that cyber activities will not be the immediate focus of the new post-Kim Jong Il leader. Certainly regime transition and  consolidation of authority is the first priority. So far, two days after the actual death, we’re seeing a mannered roll-out of news and propaganda consistent with the clockwork transition from “Great Leader” Kim Il-Sung to his own son in 1994.

Everyone’s watching….

My stroll over to the far side of the famous Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) table, where I was testing the patience of the MP breathing down my neck.

Tech Trip to Argentina

With Luis Ruvira, President of the Argentine American Dialogue Foundation, after my speech at the Argentine Council on International Relations

I’m traveling in Argentina this week, on a trip sponsored by the U.S. Department of State in their official Speaker’s Program. The U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires had requested of DoS an American technology speaker “who can talk about technology innovation and bleeding edge kinds of things.  The goal is to highlight the role that innovation and technology plays in creating a better society.” I was delighted to accept the invitation when asked by my friend Lovisa Williams of the State Department’s Internet Steering Committee.

Most of the trip is being spent in Buenos Aires, second largest city in South America – so large it is constitutionally recognized as an autonomous federal entity alongside the 23 Argentinian provinces, with its own government ministers and municipal administration. I am also enjoying side visits to Rosario and La Plata, large cities and provincial capitals. I’ll write about several aspects of the trip separately.

Working together to cram in a series of whirlwind meetings have been my excellent co-hosts, the U.S. Embassy and the respected Argentine American Dialogue Foundation. Below are the highlights of the visit, plucked from my official agenda:

Monday 9/19: Meeting with the Minister of Education for Buenos Aires city and visit to the Escuela Gauchos de Guemes school which is studying the social and educational benefits of having given each child their own netbook. Tour of the Universidad Abierta Interamericana (UAI) (the Open InterAmerican University), visiting their robotics labs, meetings with engineering students, and a separate meeting with authorities from the university and national civil servants. Meeting with Pedro Janices, National Director at the National Office for Information Technologies (executive-branch component of the President’s Office; Pedro has been called “the Argentine CIO,” and has worked with the first U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra.)

Tuesday 9/20: Public speech at the Argentina Council for International Relations (CARI, one of the most important think tanks in Latin America), topic: “Governments 2.0 and the impact of new technologies.” Lecture at the American Club of Buenos Aires, with participating companies from the American Chamber of Commerce of Argentina, members from the academic sector and public servants (including the Head of International Relations of the National Ministry in Science and Technology). Tour of the Supreme Court of Argentina, meeting with Deputy Chief Justice Highton, who was the first woman appointed to the Court (under a democratic government).  Videoconference lecture on “Innovation and Government” at the National Technological University (UTN), transmitted live to 13 campuses of the University in the interior of the country.

Wednesday 9/21: Trip to Rosario, second largest city in Argentina and capital of Santa Fe Province. Visit and tour of largest tech firm in Rosario, Neoris; lunch with Neoris Latin American President Martin Mendez.  Meeting with the Secretary of Production and Local Development for the city of Rosario, subject “Creating conditions for local technology-industry growth.” Meeting with Rocio Rius of the Fundacion Nueva Generación Argentina (Argentina New Generation Foundation). Lecture at the Universidad Abierto Interamericana (UAI) campus in Rosario on new technologies and their impact on government; audience of authorities and students from UAI and other universities, faculty from the Engineering School, and also local public servants.

Thursday 9/22: Trip to La Plata, capital city of Buenos Aires Province.  Meeting with Governor Daniel Scioli (Vice President of Argentina 2003-2007) and other provincial civil servants, including Undersecretary of Institutional Relations, Director of Interministerial Relations, and Chief of Cabinet.  Public Lecture at the National University of La Plata, guest of Dean of the Informatics Faculty.

Friday 9/23: Participate in opening ceremonies in Buenos Aires of the IX Congreso Internacional en Innovación Tecnológica Informática (CIITI, Ninth International Congress on IT Innovation). Visit to Universidad Argentina de la Empresa, (UADE, Argentine University of Enterprise), meetings with faculty/students from Government, Law, and Engineering departments, and tours of laboratories. Lecture at the American Club of Buenos Aires. Meeting with Director of the Business School at Argentine Catholic University, and Dean of the Faculty of Economic Sciences. Private meeting at Embassy with U.S. Ambassador Vilma Martinez. Panel speaker on “Ciberculture Y Gobierno” (Cyber-culture and Government) at the IX Congreso CIITI with international panel.

I’ve been on several other State Department-sponsored trips before (to Mexico and, many years ago near the end of the Cold War, to the Soviet Union), but I must say that this frenetically busy jaunt through lovely Argentina may be my favorite. I’ll write more over the next few days.

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MSR gets wired, WIRED gets MSR

MS Research in natural-user-interaction technologies
MSR natural-user-interaction immersive technologies

WIRED Magazine’s online site ran a great long profile of Microsoft Research late yesterday, with interviews and project features: “How Microsoft Researchers Might Invent a Holodeck.”

I have written about or mentioned all of the individual projects or technologies on my blog before, but the writing at WIRED is so much better than my own – and the photographs so cool – that I thought I should post a link to the story. Continue reading

Virtual recipe stirs in Apple iPad, Microsoft Kinect

Who says Apple and Microsoft can’t work together?  They certainly do, at least when it involves the ingenuity of their users, the more inventive of whom use technologies from both companies (and others).

Here’s a neat example, “a just-for-fun experiment from the guys at Laan Labs” where they whip up a neat Augmented Reality recipe: take one iPad, one Kinect, and stir:

Some technical detail from the Brothers Laan, the engineers who did the work:

We used the String Augmented Reality SDK to display real-time 3d video+audio recorded from the Kinect. Libfreenect from http://openkinect.org/ project was used for recording the data coming from the Kinect. A textured mesh was created from the calibrated depth+rgb data for each frame and played back in real-time. A simple depth cutoff allowed us isolate the person in the video from the walls and other objects. Using the String SDK, we projected it back onto a printed image marker in the real world.” - source, Laan Labs blog.

As always, check out http://www.kinecthacks.com/ for the latest and greatest Kinect hacks – or more accurately now, the latest cool uses of the openly released free Kinect SDK, available here.

There are several quiet projects underway around the DC Beltway to make use of the SDK, testing non-commercial but government-relevant deployments – more detail and examples at the appropriate time. We will eventually release a commercial SDK with even more functionality and higher-level programming controls, which will directly benefit government early adopters.

In the meantime, I may report on some of the new advances being made by our research group on Computational User Experiences, who “apply expertise in machine learning, visualization, mobile computing, sensors and devices, and quantitative and qualitative evaluation techniques to improve the state of the art in physiological computing, healthcare, home technologies, computer-assisted creativity, and entertainment.” That’s a rich agenda, and the group is in the very forefront of defining how Natural User Interaction (NUI) will enhance our personal and professional lives….

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The almighty ampersand linking R and D

According to Wikipedia, the lowly ampersand or “&” is a logogram representing the conjunction word “and” using “a ligature of the letters in et,” which is of course the Latin word for “and.”

In my line of work I most frequently encounter the ampersand in the common phrase “R&D” for research and development, although I notice that with texting and short-form social media the ampersand is making something of a comeback in frequency of use anyway.

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Kinecting Communities

On April 16 I will be speaking at the Mobile Citizen Summit in Washington DC (registration still open), which brings together “practitioners across the  government, nonprofit, advocacy, and political spaces—the kinds of  people who develop the strategy and the tools to reach, engage, educate,  and enable citizens across the country and around the world.”

But I’m going to be talking about “mobile” in a different way than others still use the term, i.e. they focus on a handheld device, while I will be focusing on the mobile citizen. As I have said before I don’t believe our future involves experiencing “augmented reality” by always holding up little 3-inch plastic screens in front of our faces. Natural user interfaces and immersive computing offer much more to how we access computational resources – and how technology will help us interact with one another. Here’s an example, in a story from the past week.

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Through the Afghan Looking Glass

The news today that the United States government will be paying $367 million dollars to Russia, for 21 Russian Mi-17 “Hip” helicopters for use by Afghanistan’s military, for some reason made me recall something I heard Monday.  I was talking about the Libya crisis to an E-Ring friend and former colleague in the Pentagon who told me, “the difficulty in Libya is that this is all new territory for us, new because it’s more complex, and so we have to figure it out as each new complication comes along.”

That’s one way of looking at modern life, as if drowning in too much data. Perhaps there’s another, driven more by longer memory, and analysis “à la recherche du temps perdu.”  Let’s set down some facts, past and present, and see if any lessons emerge. With apologies to Mark Twain whose forward to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn reads:

“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By Order of the Author”

Once upon a time, not so long ago (the 1980s), the United States armed Afghan “rebels” against an oppressive central government and its foreign puppetmaster patron, the Soviet Union. The rebels pre-existed the foreign involvment; in fact there is difficulty finding a historical point in the region’s history when there weren’t “rebels” against anyone claiming to be “the government.” (If it’s easier for you, imagine the residents of the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia.)

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