The List

7 Things North Korea Is Really Good At

Hey, even a basket case is good at something.

In the spirit of Ben Smith's "11 BuzzFeed Lists That Explain the World" for the May/June 2013 issue of Foreign Policy, the FP staff decided to look at the world through BuzzFeed's eyes for a day. For more, check out 14 Hairless Cats That Look Like Vladimir Putin, 9 Disturbingly Good Jihadi Raps, 36 Mustaches That Explain Why There's No Peace in the Middle East, and 1 Pentagon Weapons System That Was on Time and Under Budget.

1. Building tunnels

Twelve million North Koreans live in extreme poverty, but the country's citizens are very good at building underground tunnels. In fact, the Hermit Kingdom built a massive network of clandestine tunnels unlike any other in the world. Designed as a means to mount a massive military invasion from the north, the tunnels are "large enough to shuttle through an entire military division per hour," according to Popular Mechanics. GlobalSecurity.org estimates that Pyongyang has built up to 20 tunnels that snake through the Demilitarized Zone.

 

2. Counterfeiting U.S. dollars

North Koreans are so good at counterfeiting the dollar, U.S. policymakers have actually considered halting production of the $100 bill. "These ultra-counterfeits are light-years beyond the weak facsimiles produced by most forgers, who use desktop printers," wrote Time magazine's David Wolman last year. "With few exceptions, only Federal Reserve banks equipped with the fanciest detection gear can identify these fakes."

 

3. Hacking



Sure, the country only provides Internet to a sliver of the population. But, as the North's latest cyberattacks on South Korea demonstrated, its chosen few hackers are particularly adept at their job. The Washington Post's Max Fisher wrote about how Pyongyang cultivated its cyber workforce back in March:

In 2011, Al Jazeera interviewed two defected North Koreans who claimed to have participated in what they described as a vast and highly professional cyberwarfare department, which allegedly recruited its hackers straight out of primary school.

The government hackers, they said, are sent to China or Russia for training and are rewarded with special housing and privileges for them and their families. They get such special treatment in part to reduce the temptation of defecting, given that the hackers are allowed rare access to the Internet and thus knowledge of the outside world's relative prosperity. 

 

4. Doing more with less

If you don't have much, you learn to make do. North Korean expert Robert Carlin, a visiting scholar at Stanford, has witnessed this quality a number of times during his visits. "Watch a North Korean who doesn't have the right tools fix a machine that is supposed to be fixed ONLY with a No. 4367A Sears Craftsman gizmo, patent pending, or start a car that has long ago given up the ability to start," he told Foreign Policy. "There isn't enough electricity and the lights go out? The North Koreans light candles and keep on with their lives. We once had a North Korean scientist thank us dryly for not sending heavy fuel oil on time, thereby causing the electricity to fail, thereby permitting his technicians to learn to take apart and put together a very sensitive, complex piece of equipment IN THE DARK." 

 

5. Cheap labor

Labor is cheap in North Korea, which is one incentive for a tiny number of corporations to do business in the isolated country. Despite the North's decision to shut down the Kaesong industrial complex in April, there are still penny-pinching tycoons who've managed to set up businesses in the North to take advantage of the rock-bottom labor wages. "Their comparative advantage is cheap labor ... hence their export of labor to earn hard currency," Jae H. Ku, director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins, tells us. 

 

6. Massive and coordinated displays of propaganda

The Arirang games. It's basically North Korea's version of a video wall, but instead of TV screens it's hordes of children holding up colored cards. See video:

 

 

7. Seafood

The sale of North Korean seafood is banned in South Korea due to hostilities between the two countries, but the demand is such that South Korean vendors break the law to provide it to customers. "Customers prize North Korean fisheries products," reports Choson Ilbo. A vendor tells the newspaper, "We have openly labeled shellfish that come from North Korea because customers think they taste better." In some ways, it's easier to avoid pollution in the water in North Korea because so much of it is deindustrialized.

The List

36 Mustaches (and a Few Beards) That Explain Why There’s No Peace in the Middle East

A brief history of the Middle East, as told through facial hair.

In the spirit of Ben Smith's "11 BuzzFeed Lists That Explain the World" for the May/June 2013 issue of Foreign Policy, the FP staff decided to look at the world through BuzzFeed's eyes for a day. For more, check out 14 Hairless Cats That Look Like Vladimir Putin, 7 Things North Korea Is Really Good At, 9 Disturbingly Good Jihadi Raps, and 1 Pentagon Weapons System That Was on Time and Under Budget.

1 - 2.

As World War I was raging, the British and French carved up the map of the Middle East to preemptively divide the imperial spoils from the Ottoman Empire's fall. The agreement, negotiated by François Georges-Picot, who appropriately sported an imperial-style mustache, and Mark Sykes, seen here with a chevron-style 'stache in need of a trim, created a blueprint for Western European control in the region that would set in motion the next century of puppet governments, periodic uprisings, and ethno-religious rivalries.

University of Montreal/Wikipedia

 

3 - 8.

These guys are just awful. Osama bin Laden, the founder of the international terrorist network al Qaeda; his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri; and his acolytes from across the region -- Nasir al-Wuhayshi and Said al-Shihri, the emir and deputy emir of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, leader of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb; and former AQIM leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar. Each sports his own variation of the Salafist scruffy beard. A 2009 study found that despite its supposed targeting of Westerners, al Qaeda hasn't shied away from killing member of the Ummah. With a death toll of eight Muslims for every one "apostate," al Qaeda and its affiliated mustaches are definitely preventing peace in the Middle East.

 

9.

Al Qaeda's Sept. 11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, has tried a couple looks -- he wore a particularly bedraggled mustache before going back to being a beardo.

Wikipedia

 

10.

After running a brutally repressive regime that used chemical weapons on its own citizens -- and waging a decade-long war against Iran in which unarmed civilians were used to clear minefields -- the United States toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his notorious chevron-style mustache in 2003.

Getty Images

 

11 - 13.

Hussein's rivals in Iran haven't helped calm tensions in the Middle East either. In addition to waging the Iran-Iraq War, the country's leadership supports terrorist groups and brutal regimes around the region and may be developing nuclear weapons, while suppressing domestic dissent with political violence. Islamic Republic founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's beard (and glare) are legendary, but don't be fooled by current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's grandfatherly whiskers or President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's scruffy cheeks.

Gabriel Duval/Sajad Safari/Spencer Platt/AFP/Getty Images

 

14.

Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah, appreciates the importance of Iranian patronage, and of grooming his rather stately beard.

Haitham Mussawi/AFP/Getty Images

 

15 - 16.

Another recipient of Iranian assistance is Bashar al-Assad, who has spent the past two years waging a civil war against a popular uprising-turned-armed rebellion. His brutality is a learned behavior; many feel he lives in the shadow of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who also ruthlessly suppressed Syria's population -- and his father's mustache, which grew much fuller.

Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

 

17.

It hasn't given way to civil war, but the two-year-long protest movement in Bahrain isn't contributing to regional peace either. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and his mustachioed regime haven't helped matters, conducting mass arrests of activists and even the doctors that treated them after clashes with police.

Mandel Ngan -- Pool/Getty Images

 

18.

Assad's cruelty has only been matched recently by the late Muammar al-Qaddafi. Though he spent most of his career as the self-proclaimed brother leader of the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriyah clean-shaven, his facial hair matched his growing disconnect from reality later in life. By the end he had adopted some more scraggly stubble, and he lived his last days on the lam as the mustachioed "mad dog of the Middle East."

Wikipedia

 

19.

Qaddafi was contributing to unrest in the Middle East decades before the civil war in Libya. He is believed to have ordered the assassination of the Lebanese cleric Musa Sadr, who established the Movement of the Disinherited during Lebanon's civil war. Sadr's movement became a rallying point for Shiite nationalism in Lebanon and, in time, became an ideological predecessor to Hezbollah and generations of beards to follow.

Wikimedia

 

20.

The 1960s and 70s were turbulent times for the Middle East. There was the rise of the Palestine Liberation Organization and its leader, Yasir Arafat. Arafat renounced terrorism in 1993 and, in his later days, his mustache thinned to a wiry, somewhat unsettling shadow of its former self.

STF/AFP/Getty Images

 

21 - 22.

Fresh off the revolutions of the 1950s, the Middle East settled into a cold war between upstart military autocracies, with Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt leading the way, and conservative monarchies, with King Saud bin Abdul Aziz's Saudi Arabia foremost among them. The Egyptian-Saudi rivalry has subsided in recent decades, but some of its undercurrents remain.

AFP/Getty Images

 

23.

The Muslim Brotherhood is one such undercurrent. Nasser suppressed the Brotherhood and imprisoned and executed its foremost ideologist, Sayyid Qutb, whose prison manifesto Milestones remains a foundational text of modern political Islam. His influence extends beyond the Muslim Brotherhood, though, and his work has been cited by violent extremists, including al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Wikipedia

 

24.

No discussion of peace in the Middle East would be complete without a mention of the Arab-Israeli conflict. And while where that conversation should start is an open conversation, it should probably include fin de siècle Jewish intellectual Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. His book The Jewish State and (arguably to a lesser extent) his flared mustache and square-cropped beard were instrumental in establishing the movement that, half a century later, would lead to the establishment of the state of Israel.

Wikimedia

 

25 - 26.

In 1917, with Britain preparing to assert control over Palestine, British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour wrote a letter to Baron Walter Rothschild declaring that Britain would support "a national home for the Jewish people" in the Palestinian territory. Balfour (and his lightly curled handlebar) and Rothschild (and his flared Hungarian-style mustache and Carnegie-esque beard) set the stage for Jewish immigration to Palestine under the British mandate.

Wikimedia

 

27

Israeli leaders have suffered from a dearth of facial hair, but Israel's hawkish former foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is a notable exception. Lieberman, who sports a Van Dyke and a neard (that's shorthand for neck beard), called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recent apology to Turkey a "serious mistake" and likened the latest round of nuclear negations with Iran to Hitler's invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Ariel Schalit -- Pool/Getty Images

 

28 - 29.

Israel's latest spat with Turkey started in 2010, when a flotilla of Turkish activists tried to deliver aid to Gaza and was intercepted by the Israel Defense Forces, which has blockaded the Gaza Strip since the militant group Hamas came to power. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, who sports a close-cropped beard, and political leader Khaled Meshaal, who has a salt-and-pepper beard with a high-contrast mustache, have flirted with negotiating for peace with Israel, but they have also periodically fired missiles across the border and refuse to acknowledge Israel's right to exist.

Mohammed Abed/Agianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images

 

30 - 31.

Under the governance of the Islamist Justice and Development Party for the past decade, Turkey has pursued a policy of "zero problems" with its neighbors -- an approach that is wearing increasingly thin. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, whose modest mustaches lack the signature grandeur of their Ottoman forebears, have engaged in domestic feuds with Turkey's military, sparred diplomatically with Israel, and supported opposition groups fighting the Assad regime in Syria.

Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

 

32.

On the positive side, the Turkish government appears close to ending one protracted conflict. The country's leaders recently announced an agreement and the start of peace negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers' Party and its leader Abdullah Ocalan. Ocalan (or Apo, as his followers affectionately call him) waged a decades-long Kurdish insurgency in the southeast of Turkey. And while he was arrested in 1999 and is now imprisoned Napoleon-style in isolation on an island, his impressive chevron mustache is still hoisted on banners at Kurdish rallies around the region.

Joseph Barrak/AFP/Getty Images

 

33.

The Turkish government is also sheltering Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, who, along with his mustache, fled an arrest warrant in Iraq, where he stands accused of commanding a political death squad during the country's civil war.

Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

 

34.

Some have suggested that the charges against Hashemi are politically motivated and were orchestrated by his rival, Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki. Human rights and democracy groups warn that Maliki, who sometimes rocks a sort-of stubbly look but has been known to grow out a modest horseshoe mustache, may be shifting the country back toward a repressive autocracy.

 

35.

Jason Reed -- Pool/Getty Images

Maliki rose to power during the U.S. occupation of Iraq. There are any number of U.S. officials who diminished U.S. influence in the region by backing the war in Iraq, and some who played a greater role, but none reached the facial-hair heights of the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2005 to 2006, John Bolton, whose walrus-style 'stache became an icon of anti-internationalist neoconservatism.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

 

36.

It's hard to do nuance in an 1,000-word weekly column, but Thomas Friedman's formula of glossing over the details with platitudes and pop culture references has produced a swath of New York Times readers who mistake these for analysis. It's not surprising that Friedman's "mustache of understanding," has become a multifaceted meme unto itself.

Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press