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How Israel’s Military Bureaucracy Bungled the Terror Tunnel Threat

Israel’s Operation Protective Edge is now in its ninth cease fire with Hamas. How long this five day truce will last is anyone’s guess. Each of the prior truces was breached by Hamas, and its terrorist partner, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, even before the ceasefire was scheduled to end. The eighth truce was broken on August 13th when rockets were fired fully 2 hours and nine minutes ahead the deadline. Then, just as hurriedly, a ninth truce was declared, this time supposedly for five days.  Hamas’ demands, aired during the discussions in Cairo, were aimed at eliminating the seven year blockade by Israel, and the more recent one by Egypt, under President El-Sisi.

Both blockades were created to eradicate the threats of subversion from Hamas, an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas has demanded a seaport and the re-opening of an international airport, the better to facilitate weapons deliveries, no doubt.  Israel’s counter offer was to increase Gaza fishing rights in the Mediterranean and the number of daily humanitarian truck deliveries of food, construction materials and medicine.

The latest break in the conflict, which is now verging on two months, has led to rising demands in Israel for a commission to investigate why the IDF hadn’t detected and mapped the network of cross-border terror tunnels from Gaza that posed such a great threat to Israel.  By enabling Hamas terrorists to move about unseen and emerge on the Israeli side of the border, equipped to kidnap both soldiers and civilians, Israel had much to lose by not treating the tunnels as credible and imminent threats.  The all-too-real experience during Operation Protective Edge was reminiscent of the five year long captivity of Galid Schalit, abducted in 2006 and held for five years until he was exchanged for 1,037 Palestinian prisoners.

Missteps  occurred during the October War of 1973 and the 34 day Second War with Lebanon in 2006. The Agranat  and Winograd Commissions were convened by Israel’s Knesset to investigate intelligence failures and military operational problems resulting in recommendations for corrective actions. What is apparent during the current Operation Protective Edge in Gaza is that bureaucratic bungling in Israel’s intelligence and planning echelons may have contributed to the IDF casualty toll in Gaza from attacks by Hamas commandos using the terror tunnels.

We have drawn attention to the terror tunnel threat in NER/Iconoclast  articles, <Qatar’s Cyberwarfare Support of Hamas in the War with Israel.  In these articles, we noted the lack of effort by the IDF to detect and map the intricate network of tunnels and underground armories. That was coupled with the discovery that Qatar had joined Iran in funding the Hamas resurgence, including the construction of the tunnels, and equipping Hamas with cyberwarfare capabilities.

Just this past Monday, August 11th, the Jerusalem Post reported this announcement:

Is this IDF announcement a matter of too little, too late?  Could a successful tunnel detection system have been developed earlier?

The Chronicle of IDF Tunnel Detection Missteps

Dr.  Ronen Bergman is the intelligence columnist at Israeli daily, Yediot Ahronoth (YA) (See our January 2013 NER interview with him on the Iran nuclear threat.)  He revealed the chronology of IDF military bureaucracy missteps in an August 6, 2014 YA Magazine article, “The Battle of the Gaza Tunnels”.  Bergman noted how early their investigation had zeroed in on the tunnel threat:

In July 2010, YA planned to publish a comprehensive investigative report warning of a serious military problem, of which only a handful of experts were aware at the time: Hamas’ terror tunnels.

[…]

The Defense Ministry and the IDF went to great efforts at the time to convince us that the tunnel threat was not so serious and that they were taking steps against the tunnels. Additional and even better measures, they said, would be used in no time.

We eventually decided that it was an important and fundamental issue, and published the investigative report.

Bergman observed:

The bottom line was that IDF posts and communities in the Gaza vicinity (as well as on the Lebanon border, facing Hezbollah) are exposed to terror attacks or abductions through tunnels. Further,  the defense establishment has no efficient measures against them. This despite the fact that the Defense Ministry had received proposals for tunnel-locating systems since the early 2000s.

Bergman noted this comment from IDF Col. Ilan Sabag, Engineering officer in the Southern Command:

The Southern Command is aware of the existence of Hamas infiltration tunnels reaching into our territory. As far as the Southern Command knows, these tunnels are meant to be used in due course to kidnap soldiers. The Southern Command estimates that Hamas will decide when to use the tunnels in light of considerations related to the Shalit deal, etc.

He added that the Southern Command lacked any efficient means to locate the tunnels (apart from intelligence), and that the measures deployed along the route surrounding the Gaza border were no longer in use, as they were unsuccessful.

Bergman chronicled the missteps and bungling by the IDF bureaucracy in tackling the tunnel threat.  As early as 2001, during the Second Intifada, the IDF knew that Hamas and the PIJ were bringing weapons into Gaza through smuggling tunnels. The development of tunnel detection began in earnest when Tzahal turned to the Geophysical Institute of Israel (GII) for assistance. The GII had designed a “seismic fence” composed of a network of geophones placed several meters underground to detect tunnel digging. The geophones were connected to a central computer to alert IDF intelligence of suspicious tunnel activity. These successful tests were conducted near the Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza and reported to Tzahal.  Bergman contends that if Tzahal had pursued the development of the seismic fence proposed by the GII 13 years ago, then perhaps by 2014, they might have detected the network of Hamas tunnels, which could have enabled IDF military planners to prepare operational plans to enter and destroy them.

Bergman points out tha following a terrorist attack from tunnels in the Philadelphi corridor which Israel controlled along the Gaza Egypt frontier, the Ministry of National Infrastructure  (MNI) in 2004 wrote to Tzahal, reminding them:

“Following an initial inquiry, I am under the impression that there is the technological ability to deal with the problem, in the immediate timeframe, through active and passive means,” he said optimistically. “We are talking about available equipment which could be purchased and activated immediately”.

According to Bergman’s investigation, Tzahal basically told the MNI that they believed they were working on something better with two civilian contractors.

The IDF Ground Commander in 2004, Maj. Gen Yiftah Ron-Tal, undertook a WWII expedient.  According to Bergman, Aluf Ron-Tal sent aides to Texas to procurea machine called the Trencher capable of penetrating tunnels dug 25 meters below. Despite repeated efforts in 2005 and 2006, not much of a priority was given to development of alternatives by Tzahal to the original GII seismic fence proposal.

Bergman reports a conversation with a senior officer in Israel’s Ministry of Defense who indicated that a think tank effort on the tunnel threat had been convened. The think tank included the GII, and had been given funding to come up with viable options, following the 2010 YA investigative report.  Bergman cites a Tzahal source currently saying:

This field is relatively new and we do not have that kind of experience in it, nor is it clear in which direction we should be going or which direction will be successful. We turned to sources worldwide, and realized that no country has an effective solution to this issue.

To which Bergman counters:

Nonetheless, if you take into account the years of related activity since 2000, it’s been 14 years already. How much longer will it take?

Bergman and concerned Israelis got their answer with the Jerusalem Post report which suggested that a successful test indicated that a system could be implemented beginning in 2015.  Again, that system development is too little, too late for Operation Protective Edge. Israel’s well-known ability to develop leading edge technology in record time was ignored by the very people who would have benefited from it the most.

Is There a Hezbollah Tunnel Threat in Israel’s north as well?

Also on Monday, August 11th, the Jerusalem Post reported this statement:

The IDF does not know of any infiltration tunnels crossing from Lebanon into Israel, head of Northern Command, Major General Yair Golan, said Sunday.

Speaking to a forum of front line communities in Kfar Vradim in the North, Golan said that tunnels do not pose a strategic threat on the northern border, but that the IDF was prepared to handle the issue, despite being unable to confirm that any tunnels exist.

Notwithstanding Gen. Golan’s comments, we drew attention to intelligence as far back as 2010 that a significant tunnel threat to Israel existed under its northern frontier with Lebanon.  We noted:

he massive network of tunnels under Gaza mirrors the system of tunnels that criss-crosses southern Lebanon, which were built to avoid Israeli drone surveillance of Hezbollah’s movement of missiles across Lebanon from Syria. The IDF was warned about these Hezbollah tunnels as early as April 2010, and was also given information about cross-border tunnels that were being built at the time with assistance from the IRGC, using North Korean tunnel-building technology. Eye witness accounts reported the construction of a large tunnel that was being built to run from southern Lebanon to central Haifa, and a number of small bore tunnels that were being built, to emerge within northern Israeli towns and kibbutzim. These were designed for Hezbollah’s child warriors who would be sent heavily armed and would be instructed to fire on anyone they see once they emerge in these towns.

Corroboration of that came in an Israel National News (INN) article, “Expert Says Terror Tunnels a Threat in the Galilee.  The editors at INN suggest that “Hezbollah could be building Gaza-esque tunnels into Israel”.  Hezbollah, as we reported, was already deeply engaged in building their complex tunnel network. At the time the INN article appeared, their network was far along in its construction. When their tunnel to Haifa, originally designed to accommodate trucks, became unusable because its air-handling system could not cope with the exhaust fumes in the 25 mile run, the tunnel was retrofitted for trains rather than trucks. The massive underground network extended northeast to the Syrian border, and honeycombed throughout southern Lebanon. It  providing storage for large missiles, ammunition, and military vehicles, as well as covert routes for the transport of materiel and men.

At the time this report was received by Israeli military intelligence in 2010, the Hezbollah network was already well-developed and was an ongoing, complex project with the deep involvement of the IRGC. The threat at the time was already credible and, from all accounts, was being taken seriously. However, the development of the technology that could have detected the construction of a tunnel 100 feet underground was apparently not available.  Its development had not been put on a fast track, as it should have been.

Here are some of the observations of the Israeli expert:

Geologist Col. Yossi Langotsky (res.) for five years was a Commander of Operational Intelligence and won the Israel Security Prize twice. Despite his expertise, however, his warnings about terror tunnels were apparently ignored.

“For nine years I raised hell, and said [terrorists are] digging tunnels into Israeli territory, and the state security system is not organized with enough seriousness required to deal with the intensity of the threat,” he recounted. This operation, he noted, is the result.

[…]

“It’s amazing to me that, less than a year ago, the Army removed the guards posted near several Gaza belt communities,” referring to a controversial IDF decision earlier this year. “It indicates that they have not internalized the real danger.”

Langotsky then turned to the threat from Hezbollah on the Lebanon frontier based on the North Korean tunnels that crossed the DMZ into South Korea.

He noted the ability of Hezbollah to build tunnels threatening the Galilee:

Geologically, the ground in the Galilee is softer and easier to dig compared to the earth in the Koreas, and added that the close relationship between Hezbollah and North Korea is already well-known. North Korea has reportedly played an important role in helping Hamas dig its own tunnels from Gaza, as well as providing them with rockets.

Langotsky concluded:

But action must be taken now, he said, before the situation in Lebanon mirrors that in Gaza.

“The facts were known,” he said, regarding terror tunnels in the Gaza belt. “The system went to sleep for a few years and did not do what needed to be done.”

One wonders whether the warnings about the vulnerability on Israel’s northern frontier might have prodded Tzahal to correct its threat reduction priorities on several fronts; tunnel detection, mapping and strategies for destroying those in existence  and those yet to come, under both frontiers. Four years later, we wonder why it didn’t.

Israel’s military faces sobering facts about weaknesses in its defense plans that must be overcome so it can faithfully protect its citizens. Langotsky told us that he had warned current IDF Chief of Staff General Benny Gantz about the threats. But sadly, something fell into the bureaucratic cracks, ignored or overlooked by the decision-makers of Tzahal in Tel Aviv.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the New English Review. The featured image is of an IDF soldier in Gaza tunnel during Protective Edge.  Source:  AP Photo.

Federal Study: America’s Electrical Grid Vulnerable to Sabotage/Terrorism

On February 9, 2014 we reported on the Wall Street Journal’s investigation into an apparent terrorist attack on the Metcalf Substation  of Pacific Gas and Electric  (PG&E) in Silicon Valley, “The Metcalf Incident: California Power Station Terrorist Attack Reveals Highly Vulnerable National Grid”.   We noted:

In the early morning of April 16, 2013, the Metcalf, California transmission substation in Silicon Valley was attacked by what federal investigators believe was a highly professional terrorist team.  That sniper assault caused 17 transformers to crash severing power to Internet Service Providers and other power users in Silicon Valley.  Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) was forced to increase and reroute power to the area served by the disabled transmission station.  Power outages were avoided.  It took 27 days for PG&E to repair and bring the transmission substation back online.

The question of the vulnerability of the national grid surfaced because of the relentless investigations conducted by the former Federal Electrical Regulatory Commission (FERC) head, Jon Wellinghoff, whose term ended November 2013.

Today’s Wall Street Journal had a follow up report on FERC simulation studies conducted  under  the sponsorship of  Wellinghoff that revealed how vulnerable the national grid could be to sabotage of less than 9 critical transformers,  “U.S. Risks National Blackout From Small-Scale Attack.”  Among the concerning revelations in the WSJ investigative report were:

The U.S. could suffer a coast-to-coast blackout if saboteurs knocked out just nine of the country’s 55,000 electric-transmission substations on a scorching summer day, according to a previously unreported federal analysis.

The study by FERC concluded that coordinated attacks in each of the nation’s three separate electric systems could cause the entire power network to collapse.

A small number of the country’s substations play an outsize role in keeping power flowing across large regions. The FERC analysis indicates that knocking out nine of those key substations could plunge the country into darkness for weeks, if not months.

With over 160,000 miles of transmission lines, the U.S. power grid is designed to handle natural and man-made disasters, as well as fluctuations in demand. How does the system work?

“This would be an event of unprecedented proportions,” said Ross Baldick, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

Note these  comments of former FERC Chairman Wellinghoff:

The study’s results have been known for months by people at federal agencies, Congress and the White House, who were briefed by then-FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff and others at the commission. As reported by the Journal last month, Mr. Wellinghoff was concerned about a shooting attack on a California substation last April, which he said could be a dress rehearsal for additional assaults.

“There are probably less than 100 critical high voltage substations on our grid in this country that need to be protected from a physical attack,” he said by email this week. “It is neither a monumental task, nor is it an inordinate sum of money that would be required to do so.” Mr. Wellinghoff left FERC in November and is a partner at law firm Stoel Rives LLP in San Francisco.

FERC has given the industry until early June to propose new standards for the security of critical facilities, such as substations.

This latest WSJ report on the vulnerability of the national electrical grid noted in conclusion:

While the prospect of a nationwide blackout because of sabotage might seem remote, small equipment failures have led to widespread power outages. In September 2011, for example, a failed transmission line in Arizona set off a chain reaction that created an outage affecting millions of people in the state and Southern California.

Sabotage could wreak worse havoc, experts said.

“The power grid, built over many decades in a benign environment, now faces a range of threats it was never designed to survive,” said Paul Stockton, a former assistant secretary of defense and president of risk-assessment firm Cloud Peak Analytics. “That’s got to be the focus going forward.”

Watch this Wall Street Journal video  interview with National War College Professor Dr. Richard Andress:

In our February 2014   Iconoclast post  we cited the vulnerability of critical   transformer substations throughout the national grid, the lack of sufficient replacement manufacturing capacity in the US and the dependence on foreign manufacturers in China,  South Korea and Germnay.That more than 100 military bases were supplied by the civilian electrical grid.  We also revealed the differing attitudes of leading electrical industry groups and Congressional lassitude on the matter of passing enabling legislation. We said:

The  North American Electric Reliability  Corporation (NERC), the principal electric utility standard setting organization,  has opposed passage of the Shield Act calling the network “resilient”.  Au contraire  says  an official of Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) cited by the WSJ: “The breadth and depth of the attack was unprecedented” in the U.S., said Rich Lordan, senior technical  executive. “The motivation”, he said, “appears to  be preparation for an act of war.”  When we checked the websites of House Energy and Commerce Committee  Chairman  Fred Upton (R-MI ) and  Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-KY) their major concerns as regards the security of the grid is vulnerability to cyber attack.  According to the WSJ  retiring  House Energy and Commerce Ranking Member Henry Waxman (D-CA) raised concerns  about the lack of federal  authority to undertake protective actions regarding the safety of the national grid during FERC oversight hearings in December 2013.

The revelations of this follow up WSJ report buttress the conclusions of our earlier post:

Whether it is  a terrorist attack like the Metcalf substation incident, the threat of a massive geomagnetic storm during  an EMP caused by either North Korea or Iran , this latest WSJ report should embolden US taxpayers and electrical users to request serious  Congressional  consideration of HR 2417: The Shield Act .   If any of those events occurred  that would  bring us back to pre-industrial times. The estimates are that more than 200 million Americans could succumb to a  pandemic  virus from lack of food, water, sanitation  and  medical treatment caused by the breakdown of industrial , transportation and communications networks.

If you are concerned about this lack of security of the national  grid, you should consider signing  the Protect The US Grid  petition requesting Congressional consideration of the Shield Act, here.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on The New English Review.

Emotional Dictatorship by Michael Nolan

The trouble with a vision for society is the body count. The more specific the outcome you want to impose, the more dissent you’ll stir up. So you’re going to have to find a lot of places for all the bodies, or give up your grip on power.

There’s a silver lining for the State, though: “If a government is willing to kill as many people as necessary to stay in power, it usually stays in power for a very long time.”

So says Andrei Lankov, a Russian expert on North Korea, in the Frontline documentary Secret State of North Korea.

But the story here isn’t what the documentary has to say about the nature of totalitarianism. That’s worth documenting, of course; it’s difficult to believe such horrors are or ever have been real. But that’s not what makes this Frontline special.

That comes from the video shot on the down-low by a network of North Koreans and smuggled out to the rest of the world. We see Jiro Ishimaru, editor of Rimjingang, a Japanese magazine staffed by North Koreans reporting in secret, meeting with his sources. One, a State employee, freely acknowledges that he’ll be killed if he’s caught. “But I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to do this, no matter what. I’m just one person. Even if I have to sacrifice my life, someday something is going to change.”

The footage is often little more than jittery scenes of people going about their daily routine. But such is life under totalitarian rule: The mundane is fully shot through with politics. So any image of it, generated outside of State control, is a threat.

The footage itself will either break your heart or give you new faith in humanity. Probably a little of both. Consider this exchange between one of Ishimaru’s reporters and a group of homeless kids huddled around a tiny fire:

Reporter: Does anyone here work so you can have food and a bed?

Child: What work do you mean?

Reporter: Do you know how to chop wood?

Child: I don’t have an arm, so I can’t.

Reporter: You don’t have an arm? Why don’t you have an arm?

Child: It got cut off by a train.

From the looks of it, there’s a good chance they spent their day begging for anything from passersby—that is, when they weren’t picking through piles of garbage, occasionally lifting something and taking a bite.

So the obvious reasons why this footage would be considered treason have to do with compliance: If people saw how bad it really is, they might question the regime.

Individual malcontents aren’t that much of a problem for rulers this brutal. But then that’s another reason why non-State accounts of daily life pose a threat: People might find out they’re not alone. Others are unhappy also; some even show defiance. And sometimes, they get away with it.

For instance, the filmmakers mention that private enterprise has taken root and is being tolerated. As reported earlier in The Economist, the women of North Korea are doing much of the heavy lifting. In this documentary, we see a woman who runs a private bus line angrily shouting back at—even slapping—a soldier who tries to interfere. “If you’re an officer, where are your stars then?” she says. “You bastard! You’re an asshole!” she adds a bit later.

The next scene shows a woman being hassled for wearing pants on the street. One officer hits her. Another says, “Stop it, bitch!” when they tie on an armband describing her offense and she rips it off. She tells the officer to watch his mouth, and even when a senior officer steps in to intimidate her, she challenges him: “Why aren’t you telling off those people wearing pants?”

Much of what’s shown here runs counter to the narrative I used to think I knew: The Kims had shut their country off so successfully that North Koreans were brainwashed into believing the regime’s propaganda.

And besides, they wouldn’t be able to communicate and organize if they did become discontented. Between the social breakdown that always accompanies totalitarian rule and the stunted technological development of the country, there isn’t going to be any Twitter-fueled Arab spring or Orange Revolution rocking Pyongyang any time soon.

That may turn out to be the case. But then again, we hear Su Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst, telling us that the CIA knew nothing about Kim Jong-Un until he was suddenly brought forward as the new ruler.

And Victor Cha, a former member of the National Security Council, points out that nobody saw either the collapse of the Soviet Union or the Arab Spring coming—but that afterward, both looked obvious.

The Fear

Secret State adds to the stories of the Kim dynasty’s devotion to brainwashing. But it also discusses the execution of Kim Jong-Un’s uncle, carried out shortly before the documentary aired. Some analysts think this indicates conflict between hard-liners and reformers. It certainly seems like a guy with no military background and such big shoes to fill (at least according to the party’s propaganda) needs to let people know he’s not to be trifled with.

Taken together with the scenes of North Koreans learning to fend for themselves, I started to get my head around the one question that always crops up when I read accounts of life under dictators: Why? Why do the jailers keep the cells locked up? Why do third- or fourth-generation rulers continue to tighten the fist?

I doubt it’s a short answer. Or rather, there’s no short answer that really gets to it. But I think fear is right in the middle of all of it. There’s the conventional type, at least for dictatorships: Jang Jin-Sun, a former State propagandist, describes North Korea as an “emotional dictatorship”: The State seeks to dominate people’s thoughts and feelings. North Koreans are told their rulers are like the sun: Get too close and you’ll get burned, but get too far away and you’ll be cast into the void. Then there are constant “news” reports about an imminent American attack from which the party can keep them safe—but only if they give it absolute obedience, even love.

This stuff is the carrot; there’s no telling how effective it is. But there’s the ever-present stick as well. My guess is that everyone in North Korea knows someone who disappeared suddenly. One defector describes life after her family began slipping away for a shot at the border: “I was always being watched. The people watching weren’t just from the government. The people who were watching me were my friends and neighbors. I knew all of this but had to act as if I didn’t.”

Or consider this surreptitiously recorded conversation between a group of North Koreans:

Woman: There can’t be a rebellion. They’ll kill everyone ruthlessly. Yes, ruthlessly. The problem here is that one in three people will secretly report you. That’s the problem. That’s how they do it.

Man: Let’s just drink up. There’s no use talking about it.

Things like the execution of Kim Jong-Un’s uncle send the message right down the chain: Nobody’s safe. Kang Chol-Hwan, a North Korean defector, described in The Aquariums of Pyongyang how his family—staunch party members who donated a fortune to the party—wound up in Yodok concentration camp. They were untouchable until, suddenly, they were not.

This documentary made me think that the fear starts at the top, and the security apparatus, the propaganda, the gulags—all of it—amounts to little more than an attempt to placate that fear. For one thing, there are the consequences: Losing power in a totalitarian environment usually means torture and death, even if you escape.

And power could be lost at any time. The State’s authority rests on a fragile base: The consent of those who are ruled. Left to their own devices, they’re fickle. But ruled with an iron fist, any crack in the State’s power can quickly fracture the entire edifice. I wonder if Kim Jong-Un knows this, and lays awake and night wondering when it will all shatter. Maybe he buys his own propaganda and sleeps like a baby. I hope he doesn’t survive long enough for us to find out.

The Revolution Will First Be Televised

But this is what makes the documentary truly compelling, beyond the novelty value of the smuggled footage. The State is no longer the only one peddling images. There’s Ishimaru’s network of covert reporters, but smuggled DVDs and thumb drives full of movies and TV shows do a brisk business.

The documentary accompanies Jeong Kwang-Il, a defector living in South Korea, on one of his regular drives up to the Chinese border to drop off his contraband. We see him meeting, at night, with a border guard he’s bribed. Jeong demonstrates how to work a new item: hand-cranked radios.

These are especially important, because other defectors have organized a radio station in South Korea, Open Radio North Korea, aimed specifically at those they left behind. Still more of them—we’re told there are more than 20,000 defectors living in South Korea alone—broadcast On My Way to Meet You, a slick-looking variety show that, without the narrator describing the action, looks much like much of the rest of South Korean TV. This is a compliment: These are people who’ve suffered terribly, and they speak of that, but life afterward is possible. They sing, they get goofy, they experiment with different hairstyles and makeup and fashion.

Which brings up another fascinating point: Something as simple as a run-of-the-mill travel program can be a powerful agent for change in the context of North Korea, where its audience is seeing an entirely different world than the one they’ve been told is all there is. Watching two teenagers discuss what’s going on in a DVD of a group of middle-aged South Koreans touring Europe is simultaneously tragic and endearing.

Heroes of the Revolution

I was living in Seoul in 2006, when Kim Jong-Il—father of the current putz-in-chief—tested a nuclear weapon. I didn’t react particularly reasonably, though I managed to make it through my day’s work. While waiting on a bus near city hall and wondering whether to pack my bug-out bag as soon as I got back home, I noticed a mass of people marching down one of the main thoroughfares. The cops were out in force. After a moment’s panic, I realized the cops were just minding traffic and the crowd was demonstrating on behalf of the disabled. A generation before, not too far south of there, the military rulers of South Korea had massacred people doing much the same thing.

The memory recurs for me now because, as powerful as State political theater might be, there’s an even stronger message: It doesn’t have to be like this. There’s nothing inherent in the North Korean situation that means the North Korean people have to suffer like this. It can get better, much better, and relatively quickly. More and more people are sending this message—the defectors’ networks, sure, but also the smugglers of SIM cards and the people on the inside scratching out spheres of private action. And more and more of it is getting through.

The fact that the images are now flowing both ways, though, is cause for reflection. There’s the issue I mentioned earlier, of the consent of the governed. It sounds very simple: cease to consent, and go in freedom. But then few of us have ever been subject to people who will “kill as many people as necessary.”

But for those who are? They find themselves confronted with nearly impossible dilemmas: Do they preserve their own lives despite the oppression? Do they sacrifice their lives in what might turn out to be a pointless act of defiance? Do they flee, knowing that—at least in North Korea—the punishment is likely to fall on family members (one defector describes being shipped off to the gulag because of the actions of a third cousin he didn’t even know)? What about those who wind up in the police or army? When they’re told to haul this guy off and torture that woman, do they choose to be the agents of oppression—or decline and immediately become victims of it?

This is the real meat of Secret State. Not the ample opportunities it provides for histrionics about the broader world context (like, say, juxtaposing the gulag with America’s prison population). The story here is, in every sense, life on the street, at the level of individuals facing down these dilemmas and forming up with others who’ve had to weigh these same questions and take these same risks.

Which means this documentary shows us real heroes, and I generally take pains not to use that word. Those who recorded the footage and smuggled it out, those who smuggle the videos in and around, the people bringing in and distributing cell phones, the women refusing to be cowed by a brutal regime and its brutish enforcers—all of them became heroes the instant they decided not to comply any longer. Even the former propagandist eventually came out on top of a situation that requires heroism simply to make decisions that, from the comfort of a blank, uncensored word processor document, can be made to look relatively simple.

So it’s ultimately encouraging, this documentary, though the hope comes at a terrible cost.

And at the risk of looking foolish later, I’d like to offer a prediction: North Koreans are unlikely to be freed by U.S. diplomats, U.N. sanctions, or a sudden change of heart (or maybe discovery of one) by China’s ruling party. North Koreans are going to be freed by North Koreans, like the defector who tells us, “I was very scared, but I thought it’s better to die than live like an insect.”

He wasn’t the first person to think that. And he won’t be the last.

ABOUT MICHAEL NOLAN

Michael Nolan is the managing editor of The Freeman.

Red Dawn? They have nukes!

The following commentary on events on the Korean peninsula are from the Heritage Foundation:

North Korea on the Edge

Yesterday, North Korean officials warned foreigners in South Korea to leave that country. Today, the foreign ministers of the Group of Eight (G8) countries—the United States, Britain, Russia, Japan, Canada, France, Germany, and Italy—are meeting in London to discuss North Korea’s threats.

Americans are taking notice. CNN reports that “more than four in 10” Americans in a new poll say “they see the reclusive nation as an immediate threat to the United States…That’s up 13 percentage points in less than a month.”

Heritage’s experts have been following the threats closely—in fact, senior research fellow Bruce Klingner, formerly the CIA branch chief for Korea, warned of the growing risk of a clashin late March.

VIDEO: Watch North Korea experts explain where these threats are coming from

Klingner says in his latest paper this week that the escalating threats are new and “more dangerous”:

Perhaps most worrisome is that the regime’s threat du jour is occurring so rapidly. In the past, Pyongyang would issue a threat and then allow Washington and its allies time to respond, preferably by offering benefits to buy its way back to the status quo ante. The current rapid-fire threats conflict with previous North Korean behavior and reduce the potential for de-escalating the crisis.

A few things to note:

North Korea is capable of firing missiles. 

Heritage’s Michaela Dodge warns that “North Korea can already hit Hawaii, parts of Alaska, and California. It can also hit U.S. forward-deployed troops in South Korea, Japan, and Guam…While the Obama Administration does not believe that North Korea is capable of hitting the U.S. with a nuclear weapon, the U.S. has a history of underestimating North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs.”

The U.S. has already responded to the threats—but more commitment to missile defense is needed.

The United States has sent nuclear-capable B-2 and B-52 bombers, F-22 fighters, and Aegis destroyers to South Korea. The Obama Administration reversed just a few of its harmful cuts to missile defense, now that the President realizes those defenses might be needed. But at the same time, the Administration has cut half a billion dollars from missile defense. This is the wrong direction to take.

Diplomacy doesn’t work with Kim Jong-un. 

Klingner recommends tough sanctions against North Korea and others violating U.N. resolutions. The U.S. should “resist the siren song” of engaging North Korea in talks, while backing up our allies with a sustained show of force.

We can’t afford to be wrong. As Klingner says:

North Korea is easy to ridicule…Its leader could well play the villain in a James Bond or Austin Powers movie. Self-appointed ambassador Dennis Rodman’s visit affirmed the image of the reclusive regime as the ultimate reality show. As such, the tendency has been to dismiss all North Korean threats as bluster. That would be a mistake.

Read the Morning Bell and more en español every day at Heritage Libertad.

UPDATE: They have nukes!

FIRST TARGET: JAPAN