Don't Laugh at North Korea's Drones!

A downed drone believed to belong to North Korea has become an object of international ridicule since its discovery on a disputed South Korean border island this week. Variously described as "toy-like" and "a model airplane," the drone carried a small, low-resolution camera and appeared similar to another drone recovered by South Korea on March 24. Both vehicles are almost comically simple compared to America's arsenal of drones, and, as such, quickly became symbolic of North Korea's apparently limited military capabilities.

To be sure, these drones are a far cry from the models on display during North Korea's grand military parade in Pyongyang last year:

But we probably shouldn't write off the Hermit Kingdom's military might. While parts of North Korea's defense arsenal are indeed woefully outdated -- much of it was inherited from, or based on, decades-old Soviet and Chinese weapons -- its military capabilities are hardly a joke. It has an estimated 1.2 million soldiers, for instance, and hundreds of warplanes and attack helicopters. Most importantly, of course, Pyongyang has nuclear weapons.

The Defense Department noted as much in its most recent annual report to Congress. Despite aging equipment and limited resources, "North Korea's large, forward-positioned military can initiate an attack against [South Korea] with little or no warning" and can "inflict significant damage" on South Korea, its neighbors, and U.S. forces in the region, the report said.

The ridicule heaped on North Korea's lilliputian drones reflects a broader conception of North Korea as backwards and isolated, but that thinking obscures the ways that the communist nation has built a military arsenal that has kept the U.S. and South Korean militaries at bay for the better part of seven decades. North Korean artillery, whose firing coordinates have been refined over the course of the decades-long stand-off, can basically obliterate Seoul.

North Korea also has the fourth largest military in the world, and retains a large ballistic missile arsenal which, while outdated, contains weapons capable of reaching targets throughout Asia.The age of its equipment shouldn't be taken lightly either. A case in point: the military's submarine force, which the report described as "unsophisticated but durable" proved its mettle in 2010 when one of its submarines covertly attacked and successfully sank the South Korean warship Cheonan, killing 46 sailors.

For another example of how less sophisticated military technology can bedevil far superior military forces, consider the threat posed by Sweden's Gotland-class diesel electric submarines. In exercises during the mid-2000s, a diminutive sub repeatedly sank Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, the crown jewel of the U.S. Navy.

Meanwhile, the North Korean armed forces have copied U.S. arms and developed an unmanned target drone that the Pentagon believes to be modeled after the Raytheon MQM-107 Streaker target drone. In March 2013, North Korea carried out live fire drills with the drone, pictured below:

Which is all to say: Sure, it's all fun and games until someone gets hurt.

South Korean Defence Ministry via Getty Images / Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images / NORTH KOREAN TV/AFP/Getty Images


Ai Weiwei Plays Vaguely Steampunk Water Smuggler in New Sci-Fi Movie

This post has been updated.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has staged shows in just about every major metropolitan city in the world (his latest just opened in Berlin). He designed Beijing's iconic "Bird's Nest" stadium for the 2008 Olympics -- then proceeded to denounce it. Thanks in part to his efforts to expose how state corruption contributed to the massive death toll in the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province, Chinese authorities have targeted him for surveillance and arrest. Hell, he's even an FP Global Thinker. Now, he can add another line to his resume: movie star.

Playing a water smuggler in a world without the stuff, Ai stars in the forthcoming ten minute sci-fi short The Sand Storm. The film is directed by Jason Wishnow -- the former head of video at web conference heavyweight TED -- and features Ai in what seems like a fitting concept for the artist: a dystopian flick that examines the consequences of extreme climate scenarios. Ai, it turns out, was born to play a steampunk water smuggler:

With shooting complete, Wishnow has launched a Kickstarter page for the film and is hoping to raise $33,000 to cover production expenses and an upcoming marketing effort. Filmed in Beijing against that city's smoky, polluted skies, veteran cinematographer Christopher Doyle -- perhaps best known for his work on Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love -- shot the film, and his distinctive aesthetic is present in the snippets so far made available:

According to Wishnow, the film was shot in extreme secrecy and with a tight deadline. "When the air is toxic and your lead actor is under surveillance, you make a SHORT film and you shoot it FAST," Wishnow writes on the film's Kickstarter page. "We told no one what we were up to. The crew used code names and ever-shifting modes of communication, tapping cloak-and-dagger pulp-fiction playbooks on loan from movies, novels, and late-night television."

But as Wishnow explains on the page, his star wasn't too happy about that situation and posted an Instagram photo of the production *:

In other words, this isn't really a film that the Chinese authorities didn't want made. Surely the Chinese authorities monitor Ai's Instagram feed and his communications intensely. Had they vehemently opposed the production, they could have just picked him up and thrown him in jail.

But that doesn't particularly matter for the purposes of this film: Wishnow would like you, the consumer, to think that this is a film the Chinese authorities didn't want made.

Art critics frequently argue that as an artist Ai underwhelms and that his global celebrity really comes from his ability to meld his artwork with his political activism, which can only be described as brave, committed, and principled. But as a result of his dual role as an artist and a celebrity activist, Ai stands at the forefront of what might be called the dissident-chic aesthetic. And as attendance figures at Ai's shows and the global popularity of a band like Pussy Riot (whose music is terrible) illustrate, it's a sensibility in high demand.

Taken together, artists such as Ai and Pussy Riot have come to stand for a set of values that deeply appeal, especially to young people: anti-state, nonconformist, radical, and amorphously left-wing.

Based on what little we know about Wishnow's film, it appears to line up quite nicely with those values. It will probably do quite well. In 2014, striking back at the surveillance state still sells.

*This post has been updated to include the Instagram photo posted by Ai Weiwei from the set of The Sand Storm. An earlier version of this post stated that the photograph appeared to have been deleted. (Return to reading.)