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The humble tablet computer has emerged as the key witness in a bizarre corruption scandal engulfing Seoul. For weeks, journalists have been prying into a mysterious friendship between President Park Geun-hye and Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a dead cult leader whose family has long been close to Park’s. The story first seemed like a routine case of nepotism—Choi appears to have filched some seventy million dollars from Hyundai, Samsung, and other corporations through her connections with Park. But things soon grew stranger and more insidious. A tablet once owned by Choi was found to contain nearly fifty draft speeches and classified documents from the President’s cabinet meetings, many of them heavily edited.
It was later revealed that Choi had played a role in choosing Park’s ministers, as well as her clothes. At a press conference last week, Park admitted to having sought Choi’s advice and counsel, and bowed deeply in apology. In the days since, as protesters have marched in Seoul and other cities, the President has fired her chief of staff and several top aides—all reputedly close to Choi—and appointed a new Prime Minister. Choi is now in police custody, facing criminal charges, and Park’s impeachment or resignation seems inevitable.
That the President may be ousted because of a tablet is a nice bit of irony; she and her supporters have long used technology to intimidate their political adversaries. The orphaned daughter of Park Chung-hee, a South Korean general who took the Presidency in a 1961 military coup and was later assassinated, Park Geun-hye became the country’s first woman head of state through a coordinated cyber-attack on public opinion. During her 2012 Presidential campaign, the National Intelligence Service and the Ministry of Defense, supportive of the incumbent Saenuri Party, covertly posted some twenty-two million tweets and thousands of online messages accusing Park’s opponents of, among other things, being North Korean sympathizers. While in office, she has invoked nationalsecurity concerns to censor the Internet, eliminate an opposition political party, arrest dozens of activists, and seize the offices and Web sites of leftist labor unions. Her preferred legal tools are anti-Communist holdovers from the Korean War; scholars of the region call her strategy “politics by public security.”
Just before the damning tablet was found, I discussed the brewing scandal with Taeyoon Choi, an artist and computer programmer who splits his time between New York and Seoul. We’d met to talk about a separate instance of technological intrigue, involving a separate Korea. Earlier in the fall, an American security researcher named Matt Bryant had made a fascinating, if fairly minor, discovery. As part of a larger project, Bryant had set up an automated system to collect data on the Internet’s top-level domains—the large swaths of the Web that fall under familiar suffixes like .com and .gov. Every few hours, Bryant’s tool would query servers around the world and post what it found to GitHub, a popular code repository for software developers. For months, he received no replies from North Korea, but then, on September 19th—seemingly as the result of a slipup—one of the country’s servers responded. What it sent was an apparently complete index of the .kp domain, an address book for the North Korean Internet. There were a total of twenty-eight websites.
Though many of these sites were previously known, it was illuminating to click through them as a whole. Choi and I embarked on our virtual tour, via his Apple laptop, from the co-working space New, Inc., a vast expanse of raw-wood tables and gleaming white walls adjacent to the New Museum, on the Lower East Side. Amid these high-tech surroundings, the sites’ slow load times and old-fashioned styling felt especially pronounced. (Choi referred to the aesthetic as “Web 1.0.”) We read Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s take on Donald Trump at naenara.com.kp, admired socialist-soap-opera-style movie posters on korfilm.com.kp, and perused insurance reports at knic.com.kp. On the foodculture site cooks.org.kp, we tallied varieties of indigenous rice and watched videos of an annual cooking contest set in a chilly-looking hall—not a smile or a spectator in sight.
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