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Did North Korea really publish pictures of a biological weapons facility?

Vice News (By Avi Asher-Schapiro):

North Korea might have just revealed that it has the capability to produce massive quantities of biological weapons.

On June 6, a North Korean scientist defected to Finland with 15 gigabytes of electronic evidence that he claims documents how the country is testing chemical and biological agents on its own citizens.

That same day, North Korea’s state media released photos of Kim Jong-un touring what it described as a pesticide factory called the Pyongyang Bio-technical Institute — but experts tell VICE News that this same facility is likely meant to produce massive quantities of weaponized anthrax.

Kim touring the Pyongyang Bio-Institute in June. The photos show fermenters and bioreactors. (Photos via Rodong Sinmun)

Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, first discovered the significance of the photos. She provided VICE News with an advance copy of her analysis of the images, released today, in which she concludes that, “given North Korea’s known history of interest in biological weapons, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Institute is intended to produce military-size batches of anthrax.”

The multi-million dollar facility is ostensibly intended to produce bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a bacteria commonly used for pesticides.

If you’re a biological weapons expert, and see a facility for bio-pesticide, you immediately ask yourself: what kind?” Hanham said. “Then when you see packages of Bt, you should know that it’s a close cousin of anthrax — it’s produced the exact same way.

The Pyongyang Bio-Institute was constructed between 2010 and 2011 and is run by Korean People’s Army Unit 810. Pictures of the equipment published by North Korean press reveal nearly all the necessary components of a biological weapons program: incubators to grow bacteria, ventilation hoods to safely handle biohazards, fermenters and bioreactors used to grow bacteria, and a spray dryer to transform spores into a fine powder.

They messed up,” Joel S. Wit, a former State Department official and a senior fellow at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, told VICE News. “If you’re a technical expert, it’s clear looking at this facility that it can be used for biological warfare, particularly anthrax. The science is not in dispute.”

An independent expert on North Korean military capabilities confirmed to VICE News that the photos most likely show an operational biological weapons facility.

Kim Jong-un peers into a Level II safety cabinet. 

Pesticide production is “an old and well-used cover for a biological weapons program,” Hanham explained. Iraq and the USSR both created dual-use facilities that were used to make pesticides and biological weapons.

Hanham noted that even if the facility is used to produce the pesticide, “in one day it could be converted to an anthrax facility. All you have to do is sterilize the equipment.”

The facility might have been developed with help from a foreign agricultural aid organization. In 2005, with funding from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and Chinese equipment, the UK non-profit CABI helped North Korea establish a pilot facility at the country’s Plant Protection Institute, located nine miles away from the alleged bioweapons facility, where it trained North Korean scientists in the production of Bt pesticide. The institute “was likely a training ground in preparation for the large-scale facility that Kim Jong-un toured,” Hanham writes in her report.

Teaching how to make Bt is essentially the same as teaching how to make anthrax,” she said.

She stressed that she does not think that CABI knowingly aided the development of North Korea’s bioweapons program. CABI did not respond to requests from VICE News for comment.

The problem here is you have tech that can be used for civilian and military purposes,” Wit explained. “It’s clear that more vigilance is necessary in the future.”

A spray dryer that creates a vortex to dry the bacteria spores into a fine powder. 

Experts told VICE News that the Pyongyang Bio-Institute likely represents the most revealing glimpse into North Korea’s bioweapons capabilities that has been made public — but noted that it remains unclear how the facility fits into North Korea’s overall program.

It’s similar to their nuclear weapons programs,” Wit said. “We can’t prove they are doing it, but looking at the facilities, we can make a judgment. That’s what this is about.”

Very little is known about the origin of capability of North Korea’s biological program,” said Hanham.

Though many experts believe that the country acquired a sample of anthrax and other epidemiological bacteria from Japan in 1968, it’s impossible to verify that it has actually developed a stockpile of the toxic agent. A South Korean government white paper published in 2012 suggested that North Korea is capable of producing a variety of biological weapons, “including anthrax, smallpox, pest, francisella tularensis, and hemorrhagic fever virus.”

It’s also difficult to assess to what degree North Korea might be in violation of international protocols that regulate the equipment used to make biological weapons, such as the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, to which it is a signatory. But the production of anthrax is not technically banned — the US and its allies regularly produce anthrax for research purposes. A violation occurs only if the agent is stockpiled and intended for military use.

A group of 41 countries known as the Australia Group also regulates the export of equipment that can be used to make biological agents.

There’s a very complicated network of rules and regulations around bio-weapons,” Hanham said. “It’s very hard for me to say definitely if a violation has occurred. We don’t know where all this equipment came from, and when it arrived in North Korea.”

Nevertheless, she insists the size of the facility should be cause for serious alarm.

It’s not the biggest in the world, but it’s still pretty large,” she said. “I’ve never seen images like these published before.”

GQ takes an inside look at the North Korean Film Festival

“Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” by Barbara Demick

Screen Shot 2015-01-13 at 10.52.35 AM

Audrey Magazine:

Between The Interview debacle and Margaret Cho’s controversial impersonation of a North Korean general at the Golden Globes, North Korea has been a popular topic in the media as of late. However, as LA Times correspondent Barbara Demick reminds readers in her book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, the North Korean people are suffering, starving and dying every day regardless of whether North Korea is trending in the American media news cycle or not.  In the book, Demick interviews six North Korean defectors all from the city of Chongjin. Unlike Pyongyang, the city of Chongjin is an industrial mining town off the eastern Coast, and one of the hardest hit by the 1996-99 famine.

Throughout the book, Demick helps tell the incredibly human life stories of these six ordinary people without any sentimentality or gloss. They think, they observe, they love, they grow hungry, they escape, and they don’t forget what they’ve seen and experienced during their time in North Korea. Some of these defectors, still haunted by their past, even have trouble adjusting to life in South Korea years after their escape. Demick commits to telling these stories with sobering realism and refuses to sensationalize their stories for easy digestion. As Demick said herself in a Reddit AMA, “the outlandish stories take away from the real tragedy– which is that millions of North Koreans perish slowly, painfully as a result of chronic malnutrition.”

Details: Paperback, $9, amazon.com

Kim Jong-un wants to open a restaurant in Scotland

 Complex:

Kim Jong-un would like to open a restaurant in Scotland serving North Korean cuisine. The dictator already has a chain of restaurants throughout Asia called Pyongyang, and apparently possesses a soft spot for Scotland due in part to his love of whisky.

Experts claim Kim Jong-un is also fond of Scotland following the country’s attempts at gaining independence from the UK last year, as North Korea is keen to bolster its European ties with left-leaning countries.

He has previously opened a branch of the diner in Amsterdam (the first North Korean restaurant in the western world), although North Korean officials say the notion that their glorious leader is to open another in Scotland is “a nonsense.”

Let’s hope the food doesn’t look anything like this.

Audrey Magazine: Get to know “The Interview” actor Charles Rahi Chun

CHARLES-RAHI-CHUN-sony-hacking-the-interview2

 Audrey Magazine:

Looking back at 2014, there was no movie quite like The Interview. A comedy about a fictional assassination attempt of North Korean’s current sitting leader Kim Jong Un, The Interview‘s release was preceded by the largest corporate hack in history, an online terrorist threat, and a last minute cancellation of the release which was quickly amended to a limited and online release after Sony, the distributor, was criticized by none other than President Obama himself. We spoke to one of the actors from The Interview, Charles Chun, who plays General Jong.


 

Audrey Magazine: What made you decide to become an actor? 

Charles Chun: My dream as a kid was to be an actor, but despite enjoying it in junior high school and performing and choreographing dance at Connecticut College, I didn’t honor this dream [until] a friend of mine took me to a dive bar in the lower West side of Manhattan to check out a cajun rock band called the Cowlicks. Physically, they were standing on stage, but emotionally, spiritually, and artistically, they were so into their music as if nothing else mattered, because they were doing what they love. In that moment, I realized I needed to pursue my dream of being an actor, and whatever the result, to know that I went for it.

AM: Can you explain your role in the movie?

CC: Sure. I play General Jong, the right-hand general to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. He’s an amalgamation of some of the hard-line generals of Kim. Seth and Evan, the movie’s co-writers along with Dan Sterling really did their research and wanted to illustrate the real life dynamics of North Korea, which is naturally comedic in a very tragic way. My hope is that the film will bring much needed attention to the atrocities that have been happening in North Korea under this fear-based totalitarian regime for way too long.

 

AM: What was the audition process like?

CC: I’ve played a variety of roles now in North Korean themed films and tv episodes, from U.N. Ambassador in The Art of War III, to a defecting North Korean scientist in Undercovers and a terrorist in Lie To Me, and it’s the job of casting directors in the entertainment community to know this. The casting folks at Sony reached out to my manager for a meeting, at which I performed two key scenes in the script and I was hired. Once I arrived on set in Vancouver and Seth and Evan saw that I worked well with their improvisational film-making style, they kept adding me to more and more scenes. It was a blast.

 

AM: What was it like on set? I imagine it must have been a set full of laughter, so what was the funniest joke that someone made? 

CC: I find Canadians to be amongst the friendliest and good-natured people I know. Seth and Evan, the co-creators and co-directors, have been best friends since pre-Kindergarten in Vancouver, and Seth and James Franco have been friends since their years on Freaks and Geeks.  Randall Park, who is amazing as Kim Jong Un, is a friend who I’ve known for 15 years as well.  So given all of these familiar dynamics, the set was very open and friendly, which is the best atmosphere for creativity, particularly for their improvised film-making style.

The funniest gag was probably when [spoiler] one of my North Korean comrades’ head explodes and his brain matter splatters onto my face. They use this machine that blows a chunk of red corn syrup with bits of fake brain matter with a kind of force that simulates… well, not that I would know, but a head exploding.  We had to get it in one take, given the mess involved and this huge splatter of blood and brain matter landed squarely onto my face. But as I was grieving for my comrade, a glop of brain matter began to slowly slide over my left eye while I was crying and I had to stay focussed and serious in grief, while this gross goop was sliding down my face. Everyone had a good laugh with that sequence.

It was a really fun shoot, and at the time, no one sensed the crazy escalating series of events that would make this such an international controversy and symbol for America’s freedom of speech and expression.

 

AM: What was it like for you when Sony announced that they would cancel all the screenings of the film? How did your friends and family react? Have you had to worry about any of your personal information being leaked?

CC: Everyday since our world premiere on December 11th, there has been some new twist or development. It feels like a gripping Netflix series. I was really bummed that Sony cancelled the Koream/Audrey red carpet premiere because it’s the kind of film to celebrate with our community. I’m just returning from my annual kundalini yoga retreat, and having been without news for just a few days, now that I’m back, it’s like catching up on several missed episodes of a Korean soap opera.

My friends and family have been really supportive and also in disbelief over this unbelievable series of events. It’s a comedy that’s gotten our President, the Republican National Committee, the far left and far right to all agree on saying, “go see this movie!”  It’s become a symbol of American freedom.

I’ve been asked by a number of reporters whether I’m concerned about my safety and I feel it’s shocking that this has become a legitimate question to ask. I’m an American actor living in Los Angeles, not in some Communist state and yet, this is a valid question to ask given the circumstances, which is just crazy. I love my freedom and choose not to live in fear.

 

AM: Have you been in contact with any of the other cast or Sony? How have they reacted?

CC: I’ve been in touch with both Randall and Diana since shooting the film and since our premiere. Can I just say that Randall is really amazing as Kim Jong Un. The film really hinges on his role and performance and the way Randall plays him is so smart and pitch perfect. Diana Bang, who they discovered in Vancouver and plays Sook, is also really excellent and I know audiences will be seeing a lot more of them both and rightly so. I think everyone involved with the film was really disappointed when Sony cancelled the opening, and equally elated when they decided to release it. It’s a very funny movie and it should be enjoyed by audiences who want to see it.

 

AM: What do you hope to take away from all this and what is next for you?

CC: It’s my greatest hope that what WE take away from all of this, as a society, is that the US and the world refuses to be intimidated by the fear tactics of others, whether it’s this corrupt North Korean government who is cruelly oppressing their own people or some other entity. And I hope the take away for the international community is that we cannot continue to allow for North Korea to treat their own people in such soul-crushing, horrific ways.

As for me personally, in addition to enjoying playing doctors, dads and North Koreans in tv and films, my other passion is holistic health and somatic healing, to expand the body’s natural capacity to experience energy and pleasure. You can find more detailed information about the health benefits of these sacred practices and my work here. I’m happy to go into more detail about my journey with this specialized modality, but that would constitute a whole other interview. Suffice it to say, that as an actor, holistic healer and Korean American, I believe we are here to realize our dreams, and hold nothing back within our mind, body and spirit in realizing this.

See what it’s like to use a computer in North Korea

north-korea-red-star-computer

Business Insider/RocketNews 24:

When former Google employee Will Scott had the chance to visit the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, he also purchased a copy of North Korea’s “Red Star 3 operating system before returning to America.

Little was publicly known about Red Star 3.

North Korea used to use Windows, but it has since created Red Star 3, which is designed to look a lot like Apple’s Mac OS X operating system.

From stunning and picturesque wallpapers to removing South Korea from the available time zones, here’s what it’s like to use a computer in North Korea.

This is the startup screen when you first boot up Red Star 3.

this-is-the-startup-screen-when-you-first-boot-up-red-star-3

When installing Red Star 3, you’re prompted to select a city for your time zone. Interestingly enough, Seoul, South Korea, isn’t an option.

when-installing-red-star-3-youre-prompted-to-select-a-city-for-your-time-zone-interestingly-enough-seoul-south-korea-isnt-an-option

This is the login screen.

this-is-the-login-screen

You’re in! You’ll notice Red Star 3 looks a lot like Mac OS X. Past versions looked more like Windows XP. Since Kim Jong Un was spotted using an iMac at his desk back in 2013, some people believe he wanted Red Star to look more like a Mac.

youre-in-youll-notice-red-star-3-looks-a-lot-like-mac-os-x-past-versions-looked-more-like-windows-xp-since-kim-jong-un-was-spotted-using-an-imac-at-his-desk-back-in-2013-some-people-believe-he-wanted-red-star-to-look-more-like-a-mac

This is the word processor for creating documents.

this-is-the-word-processor-for-creating-documents

Here’s the email client.

heres-the-email-client

To access your saved documents, you use Red Star’s file manager, which looks a lot like Apple’s “Finder” management system.

to-access-your-saved-documents-you-use-red-stars-file-manager-which-looks-a-lot-like-apples-finder-management-system

Red Star’s web browser is called “Naenara,” and it is a heavily modified version of Mozilla Firefox.

red-stars-web-browser-is-called-naenara-and-it-is-a-heavily-modified-version-of-mozilla-firefox

This is how you personalize Red Star, and we also have access to the wallpapers that are included.

this-is-how-you-personalize-red-star-and-we-also-have-access-to-the-wallpapers-that-are-included

This wallpaper is titled 다박솔초소의 설경, or “snow at the baksol outpost.”

this-wallpaper-is-titled---or-snow-at-the-baksol-outpost

This wallpaper’s name translates to “Night view of Zhuangzi River fire.”

this-wallpapers-name-translates-to-night-view-of-zhuangzi-river-fire

대홍단의 감자꽃바다, or “daehongdan’s potato flowers”

--or-daehongdans-potato-flowers

This beautiful wallpaper translates to “Iron’s Azalea,” and shows the flowering Azalea shrubs.

this-beautiful-wallpaper-translates-to-irons-azalea-and-shows-the-flowering-azalea-shrubs

“On the horizon” shows a picturesque North Korean farmland.

on-the-horizon-shows-a-picturesque-north-korean-farmland

This gorgeous waterfall wallpaper is called “Echo of the falls.”

this-gorgeous-waterfall-wallpaper-is-called-echo-of-the-falls

범안리의 선경, or “Beomanli’s Outskirts.”

--or-beomanlis-outskirts

This is “Mt Paekdu’s Sunrise.” Paekdu is an active volcano that borders North Korea and China.

this-is-mt-paekdus-sunrise-paekdu-is-an-active-volcano-that-borders-north-korea-and-china

‘The Interview’s’ Kim Jong Un actor, Randall Park, knew it was ‘insane’

Randall Park
Randall Park says video of Kim Jong Un with Dennis Rodman — and Forest Whitaker’s performance in “The Last King of Scotland” — informed his performance as the North Korea dictator in “The Interview.” 

Los Angeles Times: (By Josh Rottenberg)

Before signing on to play North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the comedy “The Interview,” actor Randall Park understandably had a few concerns. After all, this wasn’t just another outrageous Seth Rogen comedy; this was an outrageous Seth Rogen comedy about a plot to assassinate an actual dictator who has actual nuclear weapons at his disposal.

Before he fully dove in, Park wanted to run the idea past two very important people in his life: his South Korean-born parents.

I was super-excited to do it, but I still felt a little nervous about it and I felt like my parents would be a good way for me to test if this was OK,” said Park, who was born and raised in Los Angeles. “They’re immigrants, and they understand what’s going on over there a little better than me.

“As soon as I brought it up to them, they thought it was hilarious.”

With “The Interview” now at the center of a headline-grabbing international incident, not everyone seems to agree.

To say that “The Interview,” co-directed by Rogen and Evan Goldberg, has become the subject of controversy is a massive understatement. In June, a North Korea official branded the film — which centers on a harebrained attempt by a tabloid TV host and producer (James Franco and Rogen, respectively) to assassinate Kim — “an act of war.” Many believe the country may have orchestrated last month’s devastating cyberattack on Sony Pictures as retaliation for making comedic hay out of the killing of its leader, resulting in the release of embarrassing internal emails that have become the talk of Hollywood.

But up to this point Park, who in a very literal sense has a key role in this whole affair, has hardly been heard from at all.

On a blustery late November afternoon — coincidentally the very same afternoon that news began to emerge of a mysterious attack on Sony’s computer system — the actor, 40, sat down to talk about the film, which is scheduled to hit theaters on Christmas.

Previously best known as Gov. Danny Chung on the HBO comedy series “Veep,” Park, who didn’t begin his acting career in earnest until he was 28, hasn’t done a ton of interviews. With blaring headlines about security breaches and leaked emails still days away, this was the first time he was speaking in any great depth about “The Interview” — and he was clearly happy to do it.

I’m just so thrilled to be a part of this movie,” he said. “I want to do as much as I can to help.” (After the leaks, Park was unavailable to comment further on the Sony hacking.)

In the original script he was sent, Park said, the role was not specifically Kim but “a vague North Korean dictator.” Still, he was well aware that the film would push some serious buttons with the regime in Pyongyang.

I thought it was insane but a great idea,” he said. “It’s the type of thing that, if one thing is off about the movie, it just won’t work. But that’s how Seth and Evan approach things in general. They take big risks. When I got the part, I remember thinking, ‘This will be a great way to let people learn what’s going on over there because I don’t think enough people know.'”

'The Interview' premiere

Before taking on the role, Park — whose mother is retired from a job at UCLA and whose father works at a souvenir shop on Hollywood Boulevard — discussed the movie with people he knew in the local Korean community. Los Angeles’ population of ethnic Koreans is the largest in the United States, numbering roughly 60,000 as of 2008. Park — who grew up in West L.A. and whose grasp of the Korean language, he said, is “pretty bad” — wanted to gauge what the reaction within that community might be.

I talked to friends who are deep in the Korean American community here, friends who are leaders of different subsections of the community,” he said. “I asked them what they thought and felt, and they all seemed to think it was a great movie idea. That helped.”

Park had initially been suggested for the role of Kim by director Nick Stoller, who had cast him in small roles in “The Five-Year Engagement” and “Neighbors.” “Nick was like, ‘I guarantee you’re going to hire him,'” said Rogen.

In fact, Rogen and Goldberg were so blown away by Park’s audition that they cast him almost on the spot without seeing anyone else. “He was the only person we auditioned or discussed,” Goldberg said. “He just delivered.”

In the film, Kim is portrayed as simultaneously a megalomaniacal despot and a vulnerable, overgrown man-child with daddy issues who fawns over Franco’s Dave Skylark. Though very little video footage of Kim exists, Park sought out whatever information he could find to help craft his performance.

There was an episode of ‘Vice’ on HBO where they went to North Korea with Dennis Rodman — I watched that a lot,” he said. “Seeing Kim’s behavior around Dennis Rodman was really telling. I know Kim Jong Un is obsessed with the NBA and he looks nervous around Dennis Rodman — he’s kind of avoiding eye contact. He’s trying to be a leader but also losing it a little bit. That really informed how I approached the character.”

In shaping his take on Kim, Park — who put on more than 20 pounds for the role — was aware he was walking a fine line. He didn’t want to create a cartoonish version of the leader, but he didn’t want to make him too sympathetic either.

We talked a lot about making sure this guy was real,” he said. “I never wanted to play a caricature. But I did think, ‘Am I humanizing him too much?’ Because he doesn’t deserve to be humanized too much.”
For further inspiration, Park studied Forest Whitaker’s Oscar-winning turn as Idi Amin in the 2006 film “The Last King of Scotland.” “I had that on repeat while I was working on this movie,” he said.

Park was at his home in the Valley, where he lives with his wife, actress Jae Suh Park, and their 2-year-old daughter, when he heard the news in late June that North Korea was threatening “a decisive and merciless countermeasure” over the film. Concerned friends called to make sure he was OK, but he wasn’t frightened.

I was kind of expecting it,” he said. Making threats “is kind of their M.O. It’s what they do.”

At some point, Park said, Rogen and Goldberg told him that it was quite possible North Korea had already seen the movie because “they are so good at hacking and getting into things.” But he didn’t think their response would go much further than alarming-sounding bluster.

I know that North Korea, although they seem crazy, they’re smart and there’s no way they would make policy based on a comedy movie,” he said.

Even as the firestorm over “The Interview” continues, Park is already looking ahead to his next major role as the patriarch of a Taiwanese American family in the upcoming ABC sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat.” Slated to begin airing in February, the show is the first network series in 20 years — since Margaret Cho‘s “All-American Girl” — to focus on an Asian American.

It’s a lot of pressure,” Park said. “We’re conscious of the community and we want to do right by it. We don’t want to delve into stereotypes. Hopefully people will like the show in the community and outside the community.

In the more immediate term, though, Park was thinking about one very specific audience member and what he might think of “The Interview.” He wasn’t so sure he’d hate it — after all, Adolf Hitler was a fan of Charlie Chaplin and is said to have watched Chaplin’s 1940 satire “The Great Dictator” twice.

I think it’s a great movie and aside from the obvious stuff — like him getting killed — I think Kim might like it,” Park said. “I don’t know. He’s kind of a cool character, you know?

'The Interview' premiere