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This week our top story explores how North Korea succeeds in planting IT workers in global companies – despite heavy sanctions. We also have an interview with Jabin T. Jacob, an associate professor at the Shiv Nadar University in the Delhi National Capital Region, on China’s “soft power” in South Asia.
The Diplomat Brief
May 22,
Taiwan Fellowship
Welcome to the latest issue of Diplomat Brief. This week our top story explores how North Korea succeeds in planting IT workers in global companies – despite heavy sanctions. We also have an interview with Jabin T. Jacob, an associate professor at the Shiv Nadar University in the Delhi National Capital Region, on China’s “soft power” in South Asia.
Story of the week
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The Growing Harms of North Korea’s Remote IT Workforce

What Happened: With North Korea under strict sanctions due to its nuclear and missile programs, the regime is always looking for new ways to earn foreign currency. One growing program involves employing North Koreans as contract IT workers – which has the advantage of both earning millions for the Kim Jong Un regime and giving North Koreans access to sensitive data and even critical infrastructure, all under the guise of legitimate IT professionals.

Our Focus: Based on open source information from intelligence agencies, as well as industry sources, Glenn Chafetz, the director of 2430 Group, unravels the mystery of North Korea’s IT workers in an article for The Diplomat. Somewhere between 8,000-12,000 North Koreans are believed to be working as IT professionals, often using false identities and sometimes even pretending to be based in the U.S. “Today, North Korean IT workers learn in-demand coding languages, including knowledge of leading-edge AI and ML products, to secure employment at prominent companies using the most advanced technologies,” Chafetz describes. They use a sophisticated mix of digital and physical tactics to obscure who they are, from IP spoofing to having real U.S. residents receive mail on their behalf.

What Comes Next: Hiring a North Korean not only poses cybersecurity risks, but opens up a company to the risk of violating U.S. and U.N. sanctions. But most U.S. companies aren’t equipped to check if the remote IT worker they just hired might be a North Korean – or even aware this is a possibility. “Pyongyang has exploited a unique moment in the evolution of IT services’ business model to attack a target ill-suited to defend itself,” Chafetz concludes. “Few private companies are even aware of the threat, let alone constituted to address it effectively.”

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Behind the News


Jabin T. Jacob

Jabin T. Jacob, an associate professor at the Shiv Nadar University in the Delhi National Capital Region, on differing perceptions of China in South Asia: “[W]here the South Asian government in question is strong and stable, public perceptions are still perhaps somewhat positive This is because there are limits to what China can do… In Pakistan, however, where China has had the freest hand in South Asia, public and elite perceptions have increasingly turned wary of China.”

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This Week in Asia

Northeast Asia

Major Protests Unfold in Taiwan

Even as Taiwan’s new president, Lai Ching-te of the DPP, took the oath of office, the KMT-controlled legislature was moving to expand its power at the executive branch’s expense. The KMT, in partnership with the TPP, tried to push through a controversial law that would allow legislators to summon private individuals or government officials for questioning – with fines or jail time on the table for officials who refuse, even for national security reasons. The speed and obscurity surrounding the bill brought up memories of a controversial trade agreement with China that the KMT tried to ram through the last time it held power. That incident sparked the 2014 Sunflower Movement; Tuesday’s protests were among Taiwan’s largest demonstrations since then. Another demonstration is scheduled for Friday.

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South Asia

Nepal, India at Odds Over Nepal’s New 100 Rupee Note

Earlier this month, Nepal’s Cabinet decreed that the new 100 rupee note would feature Nepal’s updated map from 2020 – which pointedly includes Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura, and Kalapani, three territories claimed by Nepal but administered by India. The move sparked angry backlash from New Delhi, which already suspected the new leftist government was tilting Nepal back toward China. The territorial dispute will continue to re-emerge periodically and roil India-Nepal relations, unless the governments are bold enough to resolve it once and for all.

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Southeast Asia

Fresh Attacks Target Myanmar’s Rohingya Minority

Rights groups this week raised concerns following fresh reports of mass displacements and arson attacks against Muslim Rohingya villages in western Myanmar. The reports came as the Arakan Army (AA), an ethnic Rakhine nationalist force, announced that it had seized control of Buthidaung, a town close to the Bangladesh border, after weeks of fighting. The AA’s victory was accompanied by the widespread burning of homes, visible from satellite images, and the forced displacement of tens of thousands of civilians, mostly Rohingya, from Buthidaung. Initial evidence points to AA responsibility, though the group has denied any hand in the atrocities. Whoever was responsible, the attacks bear a strong resemblance to the genocidal ethnic cleansing campaign carried out by the Myanmar military and Rakhine auxiliaries in 2017, underscoring the Rohingya’s melancholy status as “probably the most friendless people in the world.”

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Central Asia

Angry Mob Targets South Asian Students in Kyrgyz Capital

Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, is no stranger to spontaneous protests, but what happened over the last weekend was unprecedented. Ostensibly triggered by a video that appeared to depict “foreigners” attacking “locals,” crowds of mostly young Kyrgyz men set upon dormitories housing foreign students, mostly Pakistanis. But not everything was what it seemed. Even as details emerged casting doubts on the assumptions that drove the mob, Kyrgyzstan’s nationalistic leaders called the crowd “patriotic youth” and said that their grievances regarding illegal immigration had merit. That’s not usually how the present Kyrgyz government responds to people organizing protests.

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Visualizing APAC

A student checks out pro-Palestine graffiti while walking in the lanes of North Campus, Delhi University.

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Word of the Week



Zhōngguó: Mandarin for “China,” the term appeared frequently in Taiwanese President Lai Ching-te’s inaugural address. Lai avoided referring to “the other side of the strait” (對岸) or “mainland area” (大陸地區), phrases that imply some level of unity between China and Taiwan.

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Thailand’s Grand Reconciliation

The Diplomat Magazine | May 2024

Thailand’s Grand Reconciliation

This month, our cover story traces the tumultuous saga of the Shinawatra clan – now back in the establishment’s good graces 10 years after a coup sidelined both the family and Thailand’s democracy. We also analyze the duopoly formed by Kyrgyzstan’s president and security chief, and probe the contours of the Afghanistan-China-Pakistan trilateral. And, of course, we offer a range of reporting, analysis, and opinion from across the region.

Read the Magazine