Thursday, February 25, 2010


Japan rice-crop art (link here; I came across it here).


First giving in to the seductions of British confectionery. Now this!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Some have noted (and criticized) the barely veiled expressions of enmity and dominance that takes place between U.S./ROK and DPRK soldiers at the "Joint Security Area" at Panmunjom.

Alas (or fortunately), the DMZ has nothing on the India-Pakistan border


in North Korea. So says Gordon Flake. Or does he? When the Korea Times article gets down to specifics, they are actually a bit scanty. First, Flake notes that the pace of change is slower than other places such as China.
"North Korea as a society, of course, they are changing. But the relative pace of change there is slower than the pace of change in all other nations." This is a stark contrast to what has happened in China over the same time period, he said.
He then observes that the much ballyhooed North Korean interest in English is exaggerated:
He said the alleged shift of North Koreans' foreign language preferences from Chinese and Russian to English represented only a narrow segment of society ― mainly the elite in Pyongyang.
And that's pretty much it. I suspect that Gordon would agree with me that this is a case of the headline seeking press exaggerating or twisting one's intended meaning almost beyond recognition.

Friday, February 19, 2010


"weaken Japan's claim to Dokdo," reads the Chosun Ilbo headline.
Measuring 115 cm by 123 cm, one map was produced by the Japanese Army in 1877 and depicts the country's sovereign territory in detail, but does not contain Dokdo. In 1889, Japanese surveyors created the country's first-ever map on a 200,000:1 scale compiled from all of the maps that had been produced until that time, but even that makes no reference to Dokdo, Hosaka said.

Of course as anyone who has watched this ongoing dispute can attest, pro-Takeshima forces can point to their own array of maps to back their claims as well (an example from 1846 is below)

This is not the place to determine which side is "correct." But I do wonder whether either side has ever articulated a standard by which maps can be used and evaluated to adjudicate such a claim. Does it take a simple 51% majority of maps for one side to carry the day? A super-majority (60%? 75%)? An overwhelming preponderance (90%)? Does it matter what kind of maps are used, or who produced them? Or are maps just an apparently objective and scientific source that in reality cannot ever lead us to a definitive conclusion?

Thursday, February 18, 2010


For those who pine for the days in which knowledge of the political workings of the Soviet enemy was often gleaned from grainy photographs of the politburo, I give you Kim Kyông-hûi.

Sister of Kim Jong Il and wife of Chang Sang-t'aek, Kim Kyông-hûi would appear to be in a potential position of power. This is something that folks that watch North Korea have known for some time. So why the sudden interest? Enter the grainy photo.

followed by breathless commentary from the media.
Kim Jong-Il's only sister appears to be wielding more power in North Korea after making a comeback to the frontline of the regime last year, South Korea said Wednesday.

Kim Kyong-Hui, 64, was newly added to a diagram of the North's power structure released by the South's unification ministry after returning to the public spotlight for the first time in nearly six years.

The annually updated diagram, which offers a glimpse into changes in the North's elite power system, showed her heading an organ which oversees light industries under the ruling Workers' Party of Korea.

"Since her comeback, the sister has frequently accompanied Kim Jong-Il in his field inspections," ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-Joo told AFP.

For Kim's (alleged) residence, see here.

For some more (and better informed) commentary (and another grainy photo), see here.

As for me, all of this puts me in the mood for some late Cold War music, Sting's "Russians" perhaps? Or I could always go for the soundtrack to Chess.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Note the following news stories:

S Korea to send hand sanitizers to DPRK to help prevent flu spread
SEOUL, Feb. 16 (Xinhua) -- South Korea will send hand sanitizers worth one billion won (867,000 U.S. dollars) to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) by around Feb. 20 to help fight spread of A/H1N1 virus there, the government said Tuesday.
One can argue whether H1N1 is the most pressing health and development issue in North Korea but it is hard to argue that the announcement would appear to be a sign of benign intentions on Seoul's part.

Behind door #2:
Anti-Pyongyang flyers sent from South as North marks Kim's birthday
In South Korea, some 100 defectors from the North released huge balloons carrying anti- Pyongyang leaflets and small radios near the heavily fortified North-South frontier.

The protesters, shouting "Down with dictator Kim Jong-Il," attached $1 bills to the flyers in a bid to encourage North Koreans to pick them up despite the risk of punishment.
To be sure, the actions of individuals in an open and pluralistic society such as the ROK cannot and should not be taken as indicative of the "official" position of the ROK government, but it isn't hard to see how many in the DPRK might think otherwise.

One wonders whether either gesture will actually have an impact.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


“A colleague once defined an academic discipline as a group of scholars who had agreed not to ask certain embarrassing questions about key assumptions.

–Mark Nathan Cohen, Health and the Rise of Civilization, 1989, cited in Taubes, Good Calories, Bad Calories, 229.

Friday, February 12, 2010


I have recently had the opportunity to read B.R. Myers’ book The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters. I was scheduled to comment on the book at an event hosted by the Wilson Center but, alas, “snowmageddon” intervened and the event was canceled.

This was disappointing because I was eagerly anticipated discussing what is clearly a very important and sure to be influential book. I highly recommend that anyone with interest in North Korea—scholarly, policy-related, or more general curiosity—read it.

I don't know if time and energy will permit a full-fledged discussion on this blog of all the fascinating facets of the book and ats provocative arguments, but I do want to raise and discuss one issue in the book:

Myers contends that the DPRK regime does not attribute divine powers or characteristics to its leaders, either Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il. Specifically:

“No matter what some American Christian Groups might claim, divine powers have never been attributed to either of the two Kims” (Myers, Cleanest Race, 13).

It goes without saying that this claim flies in the face of what is conventional wisdom in at least the United States if not elsewhere. However, upon further reflection and a little but of poking around, I find that I am somewhat convinced by Myers’ contention. There are a few caveats, however.

First, Myers notes later in the book that DPRK propaganda does at times engage in deification of the Kims but that it is always careful to place such words in the mouths of fawning foreigners not North Korean officials or citizens. This seems to me to be both meaningful and a bit misleading. The distinction between foreigners’ claims and “official” North Korean claims may indeed be real and significant but it may also simply be a way for the DPRK to have plausible deniability about whether it actually supports the claims. If Myers could point to some examples in which fawning foreigners were actually corrected by their North Korean interlocutors (“nodding sympathetically, Mr. Kim told the Spanish guest that while it may indeed seem like Kim Il Sung is a God, we must remember that he is merely a man?....) it would bolster his argument about the significance of the distinction.

Second, it isn’t always clear what is meant by “divine powers.” What kinds of powers or abilities place their possessor in the category of the “divine”? One can certainly find many what appear to be official claims of remarkable if not supernatural abilities of the Kims. A few examples:

--Scott Snyder’s recollection of a 1991 conversation with North Korean officials: “The Great Leader hasn’t made any mistakes yet” (Snyder, Negotiating on the Edge, 38).

--A memo to teachers on educating for and about Kim Jong-il: “In other words, it is proper to regard the eyes of Kim Jong-il as an indicator of right and wrong” (Martin, Fatherly Leader, 209; citing Choe In Su).
-The fact that Kim Jong Il has allegedly published 700 volumes while his father published 1300! (Martin, Fatherly Leader, 352).

--An “anecdote” about Kim Il Sung demonstrated that, with merely a glance, he is able to guess precisely how many persimmons are in a tree

--The fact that Kim Jong Il can detect when a musical instrument is out of tune, even when professional musicians are unaware of the fact (Choe In Su, Kim Jong Il: The People’s Leader, 106-110).

--The fact that Kim Jong Il is a remarkable golfer
The course record is pretty otherworldly too. During his maiden round at North Korea's only golf facility over 10 years ago, "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il opened with a hole in one, and required just 18 further strokes to finish the Par 72 course. He only missed the ultimate score card by taking two at the Par Five 18th

Now perhaps these aren’t specific and precise invocations of “divine” powers but it isn't always clear where the realm of the remarkable human ends and the supernatural and the divine begins.

More generally, the DPRK media (the KCNA for example) is replete with cases of natural phenomena corresponding with auspicious dates and anniversaries connected to the Kims. Examples:
--in 1997
Mysterious phenomena
Pyongyang, July 14 (KCNA) -- Mysterious phenomena occurred in succession across Korea with the approach of third death anniversary of the great leader President Kim Il Sung. The dark sky suddenly grew as bright as Xaylivhwolam-ri, Kumchon county, north Hwanghae Province, and three clusters of red cloud made their way toward Pyongyang around 9:57 p.m. On July 3. two minutes later, clouds in the shape of a swift horse racing with wings appeared and drifted toward Pyongyang three times. The cloud was followed by lots of reddened clouds from 11:15 at night. Around 8:10 p.m. July 4 when the rain, which started falling in the morning, stopped and a twin rainbow crossed over the Statue of the President in Jangyon county, south Hwanghae Province. Close to 10:40 at night darkness went away and a strikingly bright star glittered in the sky above the Statue. There was thunder and lightning in the fine sky above Haeju city and other areas in south Hwanghae Province, between zero hour and two hours forty minutes on July 8. in Wonsan city, kangwon Province, the sun shone and a twin rainbow crossed over the President's Statue for twelve minutes after a three-minute-long shower from the fine sky. When the inaugural ceremony of the immortality tower near the Kumsusan Memorial Palace was held on the morning of July 7, scores of swallows flew round the immortality tower till the end of the ceremony. That same morning a wagtail sat and cried on the immortality tower in Ichon county, Kangwon Province. A swallow flew about the portrait of the President three times in the meeting room of the Kwaksan county town management office in north Phyongan Province and wept in sorrow between 7 and 7:30 on the morning of July 6. An owl sat on the newly-erected immortality tower in Woljong-ri, Panmun county, Kaesong municipality, and looked at a picture of the president for ten minutes on the morning of July 7. Nine flowers came into bloom on a 12-year-old pear tree in the yard of Kim Kye Bok's house on the Ryongmun Cooperative Farm in Ryongrim county, Jagang Province, from July 1 to 5. Two eight-year-old pear trees had nineteen flowers in full bloom in other places of the county. Thirteen pear trees near the office of the mechanization workteam of the Hwadae county sericulture farm in north Hamgyong Province had some 80 flowers in full bloom between July 4 and 5.

Again in 1997

Wonders of nature
Pyongyang, July 12 (KCNA) -- Korea has seen many wonders everywhere on the threshold of the third death anniversary of President Kim Il Sung. They were rapidly spread as memorial legends about a great man produced by the heaven. A dark cloud was heavily hanging in the sky above Mt. Paektu in dusk about eight hours p.m. On July 3. all of a sudden, a flash lightning zigzaged, closely followed by claps of thunder as if it were breaking the mountain. Then a torrential rain fell heavily on the surface of the water on Lake Chon, the first of its kind since the observation of Mt. Paektu. Black and red waterfalls came down from each cliff of the craters and tinged the water surface. A big column of water rose 20 odd metres high in the center of the Lake, sending up clouds of spray. Such a phenomenon repeated several times while it was raining as much as 200 milimetres till about 20:00 on July 4. According to the members of the Mt. Paektu general exploration team, it is reminiscent of the time when muddy waterfalls came down and columns of water rose following the death of the President on July 8, three years ago. Double rainbows appeared one after another in the sky above Mt. Paektu. They also rose around the statue of the President on Mt. Tonghung in Hamhung. Three white herons flew in the sky above the Statue of the President among children which was placed in front of the Kaesong schoolchildren's palace. They circulated the Statue, chirping sad and disappeared. Then, it was drizzling before pouring for ten minutes. It is mysterious that the heavy rain fell only around the Statue. The witnesses say that even the sky, land and birds honored the memory of the great man produced by the heaven.

In 2006

Double solar halo over Mt. Paektu;
Officials and other working people were very pleased to say that the double solar halo that appeared in the sky over the holy land of the Korean revolution in the run-up to the April auspicious jubilee reflects the warm congratulations the servicepersons and people are offering to Kim Jong Il.

This is not necessarily an indication of the divine nature of the Kims but rather a more general indication that the Kim family has received and continues to enjoy the Mandate of Heaven. But, given that some of the amazing natural phenomena occur on the death anniversary of Kim Il Sung, this is clearly not merely an indication of Heavenly support for the DPRK’s present ruler.

Moreover, “Eternal President of the DPRK,” (the Constitutionally-defined title of Kim Il Sung) certainly seems to imply immortality if not divinity.

Having note all of this, however, I still find myself acknowledging and largely accepting Myers’ larger point: the vast majority of the DPRK-produced literature about the Kims emphasizes far more their human characteristics, and indeed their ostensibly pure Korean characteristics than their astonishing supernatural abilities. The Kims-as-supermen/gods trope is more a function of lazy and credulous outsiders gravitating toward the most sensational aspects of North Korea rather than its more pedestrian reality.

Thoughts? I’d love to be made aware of actual examples of DPRK propaganda that indicate otherwise.


For reasons unknown, a life-size cardboard cutout of George Washington has taken up residence in our Department's mail and copy room. I'm not sure where he came from or why he is there (his presence would probably make more sense in my previous place of employment). I do know that his presence there has startled me more than once, especially in cases in which I entered the darkened room after hours, turned on the lights and discovered that I wasn't alone.

Apparently, the father of our country has been seduced by confections from the tyrannical mother country.

I wonder if George has ever tried a Choco Pie?

Thursday, February 11, 2010


According to this article:
North Korean craftsmen have completed a giant bronze monument named "African Renaissance" on a hill near Dakar International Airport in Senegal.
At 50 m in height, the monstrosity is taller than the Statue of Liberty in New York and represents a heroic couple apparently about to launch their child into the sky.

I suppose one can't really blame P'yôngyang for exploiting a North Korean comparative advantage in monument building. Nor can one really be surprised at how the DPRK was remunerated for its pains:
The cost of construction was reported at US$25 million, but experts estimate it would have been nearer $70 million. The Senegalese president told the WSJ that he had "no budget for the African Renaissance, so instead offered a prime chunk of state-owned land in exchange, which North Korea has since resold at a large profit."

Monday, February 8, 2010


Apparently having solved every other pressing social and economic problem in sight, the powers that be have gone after the pernicious social ill of wearing pajamas in public.
The South China Morning Post reports that the city's Qiba neigborhood "has mobilized neighborhood committee officials and volunteers since July to talk people out of the habit of wearing pajamas in public."

The article also consults Chinese sociologist Zhang Jiehai, who says pajama-wearing in public began "as a matter of practicality because people lived in cramped conditions with no clear line between public space and private place."
Will this campaign work? I await reports of the results with bated breath.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


at least according to a survey reported here.
According to a survey of 1,083 middle- and high-school students nationwide, 70.3 percent of the respondents said that reunification is needed.
For at least some, the reason for this conclusion is based less on the essential indivisible unity of the Korean people and more on the implication of a unified Korea on regional geopolitics:
"Japan and China have recently made territorial claims over our land, which I believe resulted from our weak national standing," Kim said.

"Through reunification, the two Koreas can complement each other's weaknesses and become a more powerful nation so that other countries would not vex us over such sovereignty issues."

Also nice to know that South Korean students (at least 3/4 of them) remember at least a little of the history they are taught in school:
The survey also found that 73.2 percent of the respondents were aware of when the 1950-53 Korean War broke out.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010