kottke.org posts about North Korea
Harvard graduate student Christopher Carothers recently travelled to North Korea and, because he was an American white man who spoke Korean, he was able to talk with some everyday North Koreans. The conversations he had make for fascinating reading.
Our tour group visited a local high school in a city north of Pyongyang. The students were disappointed when none of us could name three female North Korean heroes from their revolutionary history.
I didn't mind their patriotism, and their curiosity was refreshing. But when asked how I liked Pyongyang, what could I say? Usually I just said polite things and was rewarded with beaming faces. But was I being fair to these young adults? Doesn't intercultural exchange require some basic honesty? I told Jong Ho that I liked Korean people and appreciated how clean and grand their capital was.
"However," I went on gingerly, "I have to admit that Pyongyang is a poor city and out of touch with the modern age. Even a poor provincial capital in China wouldn't be envious."
He took this in for a minute and looked thoughtful.
"It's okay," he said with a smile, "I'm very glad to meet you."
Carothers chatted with his tour guide about politics:
"Who will be the next leader of America?" she asked. I explained about our two parties and gave her my best guess.
"But even if the party switches from Democratic to what are they called, Republicans, relations with Korea are always so tense. Why? Why does a big country like America continue to provoke a small country like Korea? No one wants war. We always say we are ready for war, but no one wants war. I don't understand politics."
"What American provocations do you mean?" I asked, curious. "Didn't the Great Marshal Kim Jong Un threaten to turn Seoul into a sea of flames?"
"Well, he's responding to American military exercises. Always with the military exercises with the South."
"I think, uh, many countries do military exercises," I tried to explain. "Some are defensive. Honestly, many Asian countries including South Korea are concerned about China's growth and the North getting nuclear weapons and so have asked to work with the U.S."
"The U.S. has many nuclear weapons. Isn't it ... hypocritical?"
"Maybe. But should a country that can't provide electricity properly in its capital really have nuclear weapons?"
"I see," she said quietly.
The whole thing is well worth a read. Some of the photos accompanying the article were taken by Christian Petersen-Clausen, who also recently visited North Korea as a tourist. (The photos at the top of this post were taken by Petersen-Clausen as well.) Keegan Hamilton interviewed him about his photos at Vice.
He said one surprise from the trip was that many North Koreans seemed "pretty damn aware" of life in the outside world. He saw people in Pyongyang using smartphones, which are connected to the country's propaganda-filled "intranet" and blocked from calling foreign countries, but says he was told it was relatively easy for people to procure Chinese or South Korean SIM cards. Foreign media, smuggled into the country on USB sticks, was also reportedly common.
"They watch Chinese and South Korean soap operas, they see the cars, the fashion, everything," he said. "It's basically rubbed in their faces how poor they are, while at the same time they can't talk about that."
Many videos and photo projects promise a glimpse of life inside North Korea "as you've never seen it", but I believe this video by JT Singh and Rob Whitworth actually delivers the goods. It's one of those 3-minute time lapse portraits of a city that are in vogue, with the North Korean capital Pyongyang as its subject.
Time lapse videos are interesting because they show movement over long periods of time. The Western conception of North Korea is of a place frozen in time, so the time lapse view is highly instructive. (thx, jeff)
Update: Sam Potts, who travelled to Pyongyang and North Korea in 2012 and took these photos, finds this "deeply fake as filmmaking". From his Twitter acct:
Re the time lapse of Pyongyang video, it feels deeply fake as filmmaking, to me. Thus I mistrust it as a document of what real PY is like. You don't see any of the details to that reveal, even in PY, how very poor a country it is. Some of those buses didn't have tail lights. They had blocks of wood painted red to look like tail lights. And the library computers are incredibly poor quality.
Gizmodo's Alissa Walker also noted the propaganda-ish nature of the video. At the very least, the video is a dual reminder of the limitations of time lapse video in showing the whole story and of how manipulative attractively packaged media can be.
Back in January, an astronaut on the International Space Station took this photograph of the Korean Peninsula, which shows the stark difference in nighttime light levels in North Korea compared to the neighboring countries of South Korea and China.
I remember seeing a satellite photo several years ago, thought it was fake, then heard it had been photoshopped to accentuate the darkness, and dismissed the whole thing as a hoax. I can't believe the whole country is that dark. (via in focus)
Kenji Fujimoto spent more than a decade as Kim Jong-il's personal chef and his children's nanny. This is his amazing story.
At a lavish Wonsan guesthouse, Fujimoto prepared sushi for a group of executives who would be arriving on a yacht. Executive is Fujimoto's euphemism for generals, party officials, or high-level bureaucrats. In other words, Kim Jong-il's personal entourage. Andguesthouse is code for a series of palaces decorated with cold marble, silver-braided bedspreads, ice purple paintings of kimilsungia blossoms, and ceilings airbrushed with the cran-apple mist of sunset, as if Liberace's jet had crashed into Lenin's tomb.
At two in the morning, the boat finally docked. Fujimoto began serving sushi for men who obviously had been through a long party already. He would come to realize these parties tended to be stacked one atop another, sometimes four in a row, spreading out over days.
All the men wore military uniforms except for one imperious fellow in a casual sports tracksuit. This man was curious about the fish. He asked Fujimoto about the marbled, fleshy cuts he was preparing.
"That's toro," Fujimoto told him.
For the rest of the night, this man kept calling out, "Toro, one more!"
The next day, Fujimoto was talking to the mamasan of his hotel. She was holding a newspaper, the official Rodong Sinmun, and on the front page was a photo of the man in the tracksuit. Fujimoto told her this was the man he'd just served dinner.
"She started trembling," Fujimoto said of the moment he realized the man's true identity. "Then I started trembling."
The man in the tracksuit invited Fujimoto back to make more sushi. Fujimoto didn't speak Korean, so he had a government-appointed interpreter with him at all times. At the end of the evening, a valet handed the interpreter an envelope.
"From Jang-gun-nim," the valet said.
Perhaps the reason Fujimoto hadn't known he'd been serving Kim Jong-il was because "no one ever called him by his real name," Fujimoto said. "Never."
Eric Schmidt, the former CEO and current Executive Chairman of Google, recently visited North Korea and took his daughter Sophie along. Upon her return, she wrote up a very interesting account of her trip. Her report contained a surprising number of Twitter-length nuggets of goodness1; here are some of them:
Our trip was a mixture of highly staged encounters, tightly-orchestrated viewings and what seemed like genuine human moments.
The longer I think about what we saw and heard, the less sure I am about what any of it actually meant.
Nothing I'd read or heard beforehand really prepared me for what we saw.
Most of the buildings they visited -- offices, libraries, etc. -- were not heated:
They're proudly showing you their latest technology or best library, and you can see your breath
They weren't allowed to have mobile phones, there were no alarm clocks, and they were told their rooms were probably bugged:
One person suggested announcing "I'm awake" to the room, and then waiting until someone came to fetch you.
It's like The Truman Show, at country scale.
Very little in North Korea, it seemed to us, was built to be inviting.
You could almost forget you were in North Korea in this city, until you noticed little things, like the lack of commercial storefronts.
There is only revolutionary art. There is only revolutionary music.
I was delighted to learn that [Kim Jong Il] and I shared a taste in laptops: 15" Macbook Pro.
No one was actually doing anything.
They're building products for a market that doesn't exist.
It's a fascinating piece and worth putting up with the weird 2-column layout to read the whole thing.
 In fact, almost every sentence is tweet-length. Do young people naturally write in SMS/tweet-length sentences these days? ↩
Born in a North Korean prison to parents in an arranged "reward marriage", Shin In Geun grew up in the camp and then escaped when he was in his early 20s.
On summer nights, boys would sneak into a nearby orchard to eat unripe pears. When they were caught, the guards would beat them. The guards, though, did not care if Shin and his friends ate rats, frogs, snakes and insects. Eating rats was essential to survival. Their flesh could help prevent pellagra, which was rampant, the result of a lack of protein and niacin in their diet. Prisoners with the disease suffered skin lesions, diarrhoea and dementia. It was a frequent cause of death. Catching rats became a passion for Shin. He would meet his friends in the evening at his primary school, where there was a coal grill to roast them.
This grim tale is an excerpt from a book about the escape, Escape from Camp 14.
The North Korean leader died two days ago and now no one knows who's in charge or what's going to happen, which is pretty much par for the course for North Korea.
Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader who realized his family's dream of turning his starving, isolated country into a nuclear-weapons power even as it sank further into despotism, died on Saturday of a heart attack while traveling on his train, according to an announcement Monday by the country's state-run media.
Whatever else might be said about him, Kim sure liked to look at things.
Sam Gellman visited North Korea as a tourist earlier this month and returned with some nice photos. This shot is from the Mass Games but there are also many street scenes depicted.
AP photographer David Guttenfelder was recently granted "unprecedented access" to locations in North Korea...In Focus has a selection of the photos he took.
A collection of photos of Dear Leader looking at things: corn, your desktop, wheat.
Actually, I can't recall seeing a photo of Kim doing anything but looking at stuff. (thx, steve)
Wikipedia has a list of all the ridiculous titles that have been used in the North Korean media to refer to Dickhead-in-Chief Kim Jong-il. A sampling:
Sun of Communist Future
Highest Incarnation of the Revolutionary Comradely Love
Beloved and Respected General
Invincible and Iron-Willed Commander
World's Leader of The 21st century
Glorious General, Who Descended From Heaven
For losing all of their World Cup games, including a 7-0 defeat at the hands of Portugal, the North Korean soccer team was subjected to six hours of public shaming.
The broadcast of live games had been banned to avoid national embarrassment, but after the spirited 2-1 defeat to Brazil, state television made the Portugal game its first live sports broadcast ever. Following ideological criticism, the players were then allegedly forced to blame the coach for their defeats.
What's annoying, beyond the obvious totalitarian issues, is that they played really well against Brazil, the top-ranked team in the world at the time.
The NY Times interviewed eight North Koreans who recently left their country about the increasingly dire conditions there. It seems impossible, but the November currency devaluation has made life worse for what was already essentially a country of slaves.
His daughter tried to comfort him. "Father, I will keep this pair of pants until I die!" she pledged. He told her the cutting board would be her wedding gift.
"At that moment, I really wanted to kill myself," he said. He gestured toward the safe-house window and beyond toward nighttime Yanji, brightly lighted and humming with traffic. "It is not like here," he said. "Here, it is not a big deal to make money. There, it is suffering and suffering; sacrificing and sacrificing."
He said he lay awake night after night afterward, fixated on the navy track suit his daughter had coveted. She had said it put her thick winter sweater and plain trousers to shame. He had put her off because the cheapest ones were nearly $15. When she brought it up once too often, he had cursed and shouted, "People in this house need to eat first!"
"I cannot describe how terrible I feel that I didn't buy that for her," he said, his voice trembling.
Kim Jong-il: putting the dick in dictator since 1994.
North Korea operates several restaurants outside of the country (in Cambodia, China, and elsewhere in Asia) in order to procure necessary foreign currency and as a front for money laundering operations.
Visitors to the restaurant are ushered into an air-conditioned, flood-lit hall filled with dozens of glass-topped tables. Unlike North Korea proper, which is wracked by economic sanctions and constant famines, the food here is fresh and abundant. The menu features specialties such as Pyongyang "cold noodle" (served encrusted with ice), barbecued cuttlefish, stringy dangogi (dog meat) soup, and countless variations on the kimchi theme, all served with glutinous white rice.
Christopher Hitchens reviews a new book about North Korea by B.R. Myers: The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters.
Unlike previous racist dictatorships, the North Korean one has actually succeeded in producing a sort of new species. Starving and stunted dwarves, living in the dark, kept in perpetual ignorance and fear, brainwashed into the hatred of others, regimented and coerced and inculcated with a death cult.
Two books by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il are available at Amazon: Kim Jong Il on the Art of Opera and On the Art of the Cinema. From the preface of the latter:
The cinema is now one of the main objects on which efforts should be concentrated in order to conduct the revolution in art and literature. The cinema occupies an important place in the overall development of art and literature. As such it is a powerful ideological weapon for the revolution and construction. Therefore, concentrating efforts on the cinema, making breakthroughs and following up success in all areas of art and literature is the basic principle that we must adhere to in revolutionizing art and literature.
Here's more information about Dear Leader's cinematic and operatic interests.
On the Art of Opera describes how Kim and his dad, the late Great Leader Kim Il Sung, discovered the husk of a tired art form and gave it a much-needed shot of North Korean communism. Any impartial observer would agree that Kim's aesthetic prescriptions are every bit as crowd-pleasing as his economic policies.
"In conventional operas," Kim writes, "the personalities of the characters were abstract, their acting clumsy, and the flow of the drama tedious, because the singers were forced to sing unnaturally and their acting was neglected." Furthermore, until the arrival of the Kims, "no one interwove dance and story very closely."
And now? "The 'Sea of Blood'-style opera," he observes, "has opened up a new phase in dramaturgy." In case you've been living in a cave, Sea of Blood is North Korea's longest-running production, the Cats of Pyongyang. It has been staged 1,500 times, according to the official Korea News Service, which calls it an "immortal classical masterpiece." Kim claims to have revamped the form by chucking the aria out the window and replacing all solo performance with a cunning Kim innovation: the pangchang, a more satisfying off-stage chorus representing groupthink.
The new restaurant hotness in NYC: A Taste of Pyongyang.
After a lengthy stare down, the maitre d' shows you to your table. Once seated, you must adhere to two conditions: you will cook your own meal with your own ingredients, and no photography. If you refuse these terms, you will be warned that a crushing defeat will soon be brought down upon your soul. Don't give in, though; stick to your guns (to coin a phrase), and ask calmly for a menu. But don't press your luck by asking for water. This is very important.
From Freed Journalists Return to U.S. in the NY Times:
"Thirty hours ago, Euna Lee and I were prisoners in North Korea," Ms. Ling said in brief remarks to reporters, blinking back tears. "We feared that at any moment we could be prisoners in a hard labor camp. Then suddenly we were told that we were going to a meeting. We were taken to a location and when we walked through the doors, we saw standing before us President Bill Clinton."
One could imagine a chart of the possible range of human experiences from negative to positive circa 2009; near one end would be "prisoners in a North Korean hard labor camp" and near the other, "personal meeting with President Bill Clinton".
Update: Christopher Hitchens says that Clinton's trip did little but gratify and flatter Kim Jong-il.
The Kim Jong-il gang was always planning to release them. They were arrested in order to be let go and were maintained in releasable shape until the deal could be done. Does this not -- or should this not -- slightly qualify and dilute our joy in seeing them come home? Does the Dear Leader not say to himself, That was easy? Are the North Korean people not being assured, through their megaphone media, that the sun shines so consistently out of the rear end of their celestial boss that even powerful U.S. statesmen will appear at the airport to bring apologies, pay tribute, and receive custody of uninvited guests in the workers' paradise?
North Korea is in the news. Not much is known about the secretive country, but a group of interested citizens has been mapping North Korea on Google Earth using snippets of news reports here and there.
More than 35,000 people have downloaded Mr. Melvin's file, North Korea Uncovered. It has grown to include thousands of tags in categories such as "nuclear issues" (alleged reactors, missile storage), dams (more than 1,200 countrywide) and restaurants (47). Its Wikipedia approach to spying shows how Soviet-style secrecy is facing a new challenge from the Internet's power to unite a disparate community of busybodies.
"Here is one of the most closed countries in the world and yet, through this effort on the Internet by a bunch of strangers, the country's visible secrets are being published," says Martyn Williams, a Tokyo-based technology journalist who recently sent Mr. Melvin the locations of about 30 North Korean lighthouses.
Update: The map itself is available here. (thx, brian)
There's just too much good stuff on the internet today. So rather than flood the site with a bunch of posts, I'm going to clear out my tabs and round them up here.
Dear Prudence: "I cheated on my wife while sleepwalking. What do I do now?" I've heard quite a few weird/bad things about Ambien in the past few months. Also, paging Emily Gould from The Awl, please A this Q.
Rocketboom covers Single Serving Sites in their spin-off series, Know Your Meme.
The Big Picture peers into North Korea with a collection of photos of the dictatorship taken from neighboring China.
Maira Kalman visits Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Supreme Court, illustrating the story beautifully as usual.
I return to the court to hear Justice Ginsburg speak to law students. And in answer to the question "How does it feel to be the only woman on the court?" she answers simply, "Lonely."
The Society of Publication Designers has been busy posting nominees for their upcoming annual awards on their blog. Last year's winners are here. (thx, david)
Jamie Zawinski has used his keyboard so much over the past eight years that he's carved grooves into the M and N keys (with his fingernails?) and completely worn through part of his Alt key.
Philippe Chancel's photos of North Korea. "No country, no regime, past or present, has ever conceived such an environment of ubiquitous propaganda, not even those who instigated or experienced the marxist-leninists revolutions of the last century. Not even Nazi Germany." (via conscientious)
Jimmy Carter on the North Korean situation: "What must be avoided is to leave a beleaguered nuclear nation convinced that it is permanently excluded from the international community, its existence threatened, its people suffering horrible deprivation and its hard-liners in total control of military and political policy."
The super amazing brain and abilities of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. "Kim pilots jet fighters, pens operas, produces movies and accomplished a feat unmatched in the annals of professional golf by shooting 11 holes-in-one on the first round he ever played."