WhiteKnightTwo, the mothership

I wish I'll eventually be able to afford a trip on the WhiteKnightTwo that was recently rolled out. Even better would be a ride on the yet incomplete SpaceShipTwo, the spaceplane that will take passengers on a suborbital trip near the edge of space. It would be a blast of a ride, with exhilarating G-forces on the way up and a few minutes of free fall at the top. And the view will no doubt be breathtaking. Although I do wonder if it's feasible to take a camera up with you and take pictures. You might be enjoying free fall and the view too much to spare any attention for taking pictures!

At $20,000 a ride, the first of which will probably be in a couple of years, the price is far too steep for the average proletariat like me. At least the price includes training on the WhiteKnightTwo and the actual suborbital ride on SpaceShipTwo, and prices might actually drop to an affordable level within my lifetime. Of course, a few years after Virgin Galactic starts its suborbital flights, I'll probably also start pining for a stay at a space hotel, like the one Bigelow Aerospace is hoping to launch within the decade. It would be even more out of my price range, though, with millions of dollars required for a single stay.

Tourist murdered by North Korea?

The shooting that resulted in the death of a tourist last week is unacceptable by itself. There is no way North Korea could justify the lethal shooting of a 53-year old unarmed housewife, short of her being a threat to another's life or extremely sensitive facilities. And it's laughable to think that such justifying circumstances could have occurred; if she was a threat to someone's life then they would have no reason to hide it and in fact would have every reason to publicize it, and I can't believe that even the North Koreans would be incompetent enough to locate an extremely sensitive facility near a tourist resort. Anything less, even including espionage, would at most rate a detention.

While it would be bad enough if it was just an extremely unfortunate incident caused by an undisciplined and hair-trigger soldier, North Korea seems to be doing everything it can to make it look far worse. While I'm usually skeptical of conspiracy theories, it's as if they want us to believe that this entire incident was staged by the North Korean government. The following facts make the whole thing stink:

  • Previous incursions into restricted areas were merely warned away without shots being fired.

  • North Korea is stonewalling any investigation by outside parties.

  • The account of the incident provided by North Korea is fishy.

    • If the explanation provided by North Korea were correct, then a 53-year old woman would have had to walked 3.3 kilometers, or 2 miles, on sand within 30 minutes, which doesn't sound terribly realistic.
    • Witnesses claim they heard gunshots 30 minutes after when North Korea claims the incident happened.
    • Witnesses also claim that they heard only two gunshots, despite the claim by North Korea that a warning shot was fired before the two lethal shots.
  • North Korea blames South Korea for the incident with no explanation. A North Korean kills an unarmed South Korean and somehow it's the fault of South Korea? How is this supposed to work?

What's going on here? What is North Korea aiming for? What is it they want that would outstrip their desperate need for the large amount of hard currency they earn from the tourist resort? As a non-member of all the governments involved, I feel no compunction about indulging in fanciful speculations:

  • Somehow all the facts are according to North Korea's claims, and the witnesses are just remembering incorrectly. North Korea is just being its usual obstinate self.

  • North Korea did a half-assed job of investigating what happened, and they don't want to get embarrassed by outside investigations showing how incompetent they are.

  • North Korea is trying to do a minor coverup, perhaps trying to protect the responsible solder who might happen to be the son of an important Party member, to hide the fact that he was drunk, or to dodge responsibility for the lack of discipline and sloppy maintenance of the resort boundaries.

  • North Korea is using this unfortunate incident as a chance to break off, or at least dampen, diplomatic relations with South Korea.

  • The tourist was part of an espionage operation by South Korea and was killed when discovered.

  • An internal power play is occurring using this incident as an opportunity, resulting in miscommunications and a sloppy investigation. Or perhaps false information is being deliberately fed to the higher ups in the North Korean government to weaken their power.

  • This was a deliberate act of cold-blooded murder by North Korea for political gain. Perhaps the guarding soldier had standing orders to kill any tourists straying into a restricted area at the earliest opportunity, so it could have been anyone that was shot.

What could be the truth? I have no idea. I just hope that North Korea doesn't get away with it without any negative consequences.

Dealing with the Kumgang Resort

One of the worries that I had about the shooting at the Kumgang Resort last Friday was that the governments involved might want to sweep the incident under the rug and handle it like an unfortunate accident. The South Korean government calling the incident an "accident" in a press briefing didn't help assuage my fears. So when I heard from SBS News that the South Korean government wants a thorough investigation, it helped lift a little of my worries.

Unfortunately, it sounds like the incident may have more to it than just a woman straying into a restricted area and being killed by a hair-trigger North Korean soldier. This is very bad all by itself, but there are signs that the whole thing is much worse. One little bad sign is that the North Koreans and the resort management indeed screwed up in that they did not fence off the restricted area completely and neglected to put up any warning signs.

Much worse is that the official explanation of what happened provided by the North Koreans looks fishy. If they are to be believed, then the victim must have traversed 3.3 kilometers, or 2 miles, in 20 minutes. While it's possible a 53-year old housewife could have jogged the distance in the claimed amount of time, it doesn't sound realistic, especially when she was just "going out for a walk". I just hope it's a misunderstanding or at most a misguided attempt to coverup a minor screwup by the North Koreans, instead of something much more major. The incident as it's publicly known is already bad enough.

Killing a tourist

To remind us that North Korea is an oppressive totalitarian regime, they shot a tourist dead near the Mount Kumgang resort today. A 53-year old South Korean housewife went out for a walk alone, and somehow ended up in a restricted military area. After running away in panic when she was warned to stop, probably being terrified at the big guns being aimed at her, she was shot and killed.

It's not known how this happened, but if the North Koreans did their job properly and made sure that no one could wander outside the tourist area without warning, then she showed very poor judgement. This wouldn't be too surprising, since in any tourist group large enough there is bound to be those who have a poor sense of safety. And it's hardly an obscure fact that North Korea is an extremely oppressive nation to its own citizens, and their treatment of foreigners is not so hot, either. Of course, it's also entirely possible that the North Koreans screwed up and neglected to fence off certain portions of the tourist resort.

However, regardless of whose fault it was, there should not have been any deaths! Why couldn't they have just warned her back to the tourist resort? At worst, they should have just detained her. I don't see any justification for a shooting. It's not like a 53-year old housewife would have been armed to the teeth, leaving the North Korean guards no alternative. Even if she ignored their warnings and ran away, it wouldn't have killed the guards to run after her or get some vehicle to chase her.

Are North Korean soldiers so used to shooting any of their own citizens who show any sign of defiance? Have they forgotten how to detain harmless people intact, or have they never known such skills in the first place? The political oppression and rampant disregard for human life in North Korea has always been at intolerable levels, and there is no sign of any improvement. North Korea is politically and economically isolated for a reason, and that reason lies with themselves, no matter how much they would like to blame someone else.

This shooting incident will also bring nothing but harm to North Korea's own interests. It could derail economic aid from South Korea and the United States, plans by the United States to remove North Korea from its list of terrorist nations, and the six-party talks concerning its nuclear program. Without a significant show of goodwill, be it in the form of reforms or a meaningful apology with matching levels of action, North Korea stands to lose a lot from this incident. Or at least I hope the rest of the world treats the way this incident deserves to be treated and not sweep the entire affair under the rug. For now, all tourism to the Kumgang resort has been suspended.