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[URBAN NOTE] Pico Iyer on the emptiness of Pyongyang and Las Vegas

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At the New York Review of Books website, Pico Iyer has a provocative essay comparing the North Korean capital of Pyongyang with the American city of Las Vegas.

Any of us could, of course, list the differences between the two cities of mirages. The one is a shameless efflorescence of capitalism that is, for its enemies, a glittering symbol of the decadence and emptiness of the West; the other the world’s last by-the-book, state-controlled monument to Stalinist brutality, whose forty-story blocks are consciously designed to cow citizens and remind them that it’s a privilege never to leave their hometowns without permission or to be executed simply for glimpsing a foreign newspaper.

The one is a sort of adolescent’s Girls Gone Wild vision of freedom run amok, in which visitors are encouraged to believe that you can do and be anything you like, for a night; the other is a terrifying model of order and regimentation in which even the woman who chatted me up on a showpiece subway train might well have been a prop set there by the government. While drunken frat boys get themselves photographed next to bikini-clad showgirls dressed as flamingoes on Las Vegas Boulevard, in Pyongyang every visitor—on every visit—is obliged to get up in jacket and tie, pass through a dust-cleaning machine, and bow before the embalmed figures of the nation’s two departed leaders. When Hunter Thompson wrote, “For the loser, Vegas is the meanest town on earth,” he hadn’t been to Pyongyang, where even the sometime-winners are abruptly sent before the firing squads.

Yet both cities are products of a mid-twentieth-century spirit that saw what power and profit could be found in constructing mass fantasies ab nihilo—in the deserts of the West, out of the rubble of the Korean War. And both serve even now as billboards of a kind, “theoretical and practical weapons of the system,” as Kim Jong Il had it in a 180-page treatise on architecture, with buildings designed less to be lived in than to be marveled at by friends and enemies alike. Pyongyang is at once a playground for the local elite and a perpetual reminder to the 90 percent of North Koreans who are not permitted to visit of what awaits them if their talent or patriotism—or beauty—are strong enough. But both cities are haunted by a kind of lottery consciousness, which declares that power and glamour can be yours only if divine whim (or a throw of a dice) so decrees.

Written by Randy McDonald

August 18, 2015 at 9:08 pm

[LINK] “North Korean Defector Opens Up About Long-Held Secret: His Homosexuality”

Choe Sang-Hun’s article in The New York Times describes, through the experiences of a defector, what it is like to be non-heterosexual in North Korea. Homophobia there is apparently so intense that homosexuality is not even considered an option. That Jang suffered this is terrible enough, but what’s worse is that other people are still suffering this. (Others, I don’t doubt, have died of this.)

When the North Korean defector Jang Yeong-jin arrived in South Korea in 1997, officials debriefed him for five months but still hesitated to release him. They had one crucial question unanswered: Why did Mr. Jang decide to risk crossing the heavily armed border between the two Koreas?

“I was too embarrassed to confess that I came here because I felt no sexual attraction to my wife,” Mr. Jang said. “I couldn’t explain what it was that bothered me so much, made my life so miserable in North Korea, because I didn’t know until after I arrived here that I was a gay, or even what homosexuality was.”

Mr. Jang, 55, is the only known openly gay defector from North Korea living in the South. His sexual orientation was briefly exposed in 2004, when he lost all his savings to a swindler and contacted gay rights activists for help. He had since avoided publicity in South Korea, where homosexuality largely remains taboo.

Then in late April, Mr. Jang published an autobiographical novel, “A Mark of Red Honor.” In the book and during a recent interview, he described his experiences as a gay man growing up in the totalitarian North, where the government maintains that homosexuality does not exist because people there live with a “sound mentality and good morals.”

[. . .]

“In North Korea, no ordinary people conceptually understand what homosexuality is,” said Joo Sung-ha, who attended the elite Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, in the 1990s and now works as a reporter for the mass-circulation South Korean daily Dong-A Ilbo. “In my university, only half the students may have heard of the word. Even then, it was always treated as some strange, vague mental illness afflicting subhumans, only found in the depraved West.”

Written by Randy McDonald

June 5, 2015 at 10:53 pm

[BLOG] Some politics and economic links

  • 3 Quarks Daily had a roundup of reactions to the PEN/Charlie Hebdo controversy.
  • City of Brass notes the role of the Nation of Islam in keeping the peace in Baltimore.
  • Crooked Timber considers if the British Labour Party might gain by creating a separate Scottish Party, and wonders what British Euroskepticism means for Ireland.
  • The Dragon’s Tales notes the new importance of immigration from China and India for the United States, looks at China’s negotiating of a naval base with Djibouti, wonders if Russia while buy Chinese naval vessels, and notes the Ukrainian capture of two Russian soldiers.
  • A Fistful of Euros argues that Greece, for all of its faults, is facing doom in order to consolidate the Eurozone.
  • Geocurrents’ Martin Lewis examines the Latin American political spectrum.
  • Lawyers, Guns and Money wonders what a Korean war might look like, examines the risks faced by Indonesian migrants, and looks at the India-Bangladesh border.
  • The Map Room’s Jonathan Crowe shares an unduly controversial map of shrinking sea ice in the Canadian Arctic.
  • Marginal Revolution notes that immigration does not undermine institutions, wonders about the need for Scottish separatism, examines the myth of abandoned British austerity, wonders how to fix Ukraine, and suggests urbanization can boost economic growth.
  • Personal Reflections’ Jim Belshaw reflected on the Indonesian executions.
  • Registan predicts political crisis in Kyrgyzstan.
  • Towleroad notes</a that a European court has ordered the compensation of LGBT activists attacked in Georgia in 2012.
  • The Volokh Conspiracy considers Iranian attacks on a ship registered to the American protectorate of the Marshall Islands and Libyan attacks on a ship registered to New Zealand’s Cook Islanders.
  • Window on Eurasia argues that the European Union’s Eastern Partnership has failed, looks at Ukrainian hostility to Russians fighting in the Donbas, argues Russian cannot hold the Baltic States, looks at Russian Muslim demographic boosterism, notes the decline of Russian in southern Kazakhstan, looks at Armenia’s alignment of its Muslim institutions with Iran, notes the plight of Ukrainian refugees and returning Donbas fighters in Russia, and notes Russia’s loss of influence in Ukraine.
  • The Financial Times‘ The World notes Polish concern over the Night Wolves, a Russian motorocycle gang.
  • Yorkshire Ranter Alex Harrowell argues that British Labour should rebuild by opposing things and not working on the more difficult task of finding new policies.
  • </ul?

[LINK] “After 70 years apart, North and South Koreans speak increasingly different languages”

The Associated Press’ Hyung-Jin Kim describes, here at the Waterloo Record, a growing divergence in language between South and North Korea. One country is becoming increasingly globalized, while the other is not. The longer-run consequences of this for a shared Korean identity is obvious, although so far the differences as described seem to be matters of terminology, not deeper issues like grammar.

On one side of the line that has divided two societies for so long, the words arrive as fast as globalization can bring them — English-based lingo like “shampoo,” “juice” and “self-service.” To South Koreans, they are everyday language. To defectors from the insular North Korea, they mean absolutely nothing.

Turn the tables, and the opposite is true, too: People in Seoul furrow their brows at homegrown North Korean words like “salgyeolmul,” which literally means “skin water.” (That’s “skin lotion” in the South.)

Two countries, mortal enemies, tied together by history, by family — and by language, but only to a point. The Korean Peninsula’s seven-decade split has created a widening linguistic divide that produces misunderstandings, hurt feelings and sometimes even laughter. The gap has grown so wide, scholars say, that about a third of everyday words used in the two countries are different.

North and South Koreans are generally able to understand each other given that the majority of words and grammar are still the same. But the differences show how language can change when one half of the country becomes an international economic powerhouse and the other isolates itself, suspicious of outside influences.

America’s huge cultural influence through its military presence, business ties and Hollywood has flooded the South Korean vernacular with English loan words and “konglish,” which uses English words in non-standard ways, like “handle” for steering wheel, “hand phone” for cellphone and “manicure” for nail polish.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 18, 2015 at 10:25 pm

[LINK] “North Koreans Walk Across Frozen River to Kill Chinese for Food”

Events like this surely can’t augur well for relations between China and North Korea.

A spate of murders by North Koreans inside China’s border is prompting some residents to abandon their homes, testing China’s ability to manage both the 880-mile (1,400-kilometer) shared frontier and its relationship with the reclusive nation.

The violence reflects a growing desperation among soldiers, including border guards, since Kim Jong Un took over as supreme leader in Pyongyang three years ago. As well as seeking food, they are entering China to steal money.

“Bribes were one of the key sources of income for these guards to survive, but after Kim Jong Un came to power and tightened controls, it became difficult for them to take bribes, thus the criminal deviations,” said Kang Dong Wan, a professor of international relations at Busan’s Dong-a University in South Korea.

The murder of four residents of a border village last month prompted China to file a complaint with North Korea, risking tensions between the two allies in contrast to Kim’s recent overtures toward South Korea. Kim defied China in 2013 to conduct North Korea’s third nuclear test, and in the same year executed his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who had promoted commercial ties with China.

In the December incident, a North Korean soldier shot four residents of Nanping, a border village of about 300 in northeastern Jilin province. Around 20 villagers have been murdered in Nanping by North Koreans in recent years, a senior local official said in an interview.

Some residents are leaving the village, located within sight of an unnamed North Korean army base, said the official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject matter.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 19, 2015 at 10:44 pm

Posted in Politics

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[NEWS] Some Sunday links

  • Al Jazeera notes that Tunisia is still on the brink, looks at the good relations between Indians and Pakistanis outside of South Asia, suspects that a largely Armenian-populated area in Georgia might erupt, and reports on satellite imagery of Boko Haram’s devastation in Nigeria.
  • Bloomberg notes that a North Korean camp survivor caught in lies might stop his campaign, reports on Arab cartoonists’ fears in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo, notes the consequences on Portugal of a slowdown in Angola’s economy, and notes that the shift in the franc’s value has brought shoppers from Switzerland to Germany while devastating some mutual funds.
  • Bloomberg View warns about anti-immigrant movements in Europe and notes that Turkey’s leadership can’t claim a commitment to freedom of the press.
  • The Inter Press Service notes Pakistani hostility to Afghan migrants, notes disappearances of Sri Lankan cartoonists, and looks at HIV among Zimbabwe’s children.
  • Open Democracy is critical of the myth of Irish slavery, notes the uses of incivility, and observes that more French Muslims work for French security than for Al-Qaeda.
  • Wired looks at life in the coldest town in the world, and notes another setback in the fight for primate rights.

[NEWS] Some Friday links

  • Al Jazeera notes ethnic violence in Assam, the despair of people in Yemen who go about their lives amid chaos, Iran’s advantage in the Middle East, the organization of Lebanese domestic workers, and Cambodia’s predilection for spiders.
  • Bloomberg View suggests the US should try for a Cuba-style opening with North Korea, criticizes the response of Hong Kong’s leadership to protests, notes the consequences of Palestine’s membership of the International Criminal Court, and suggests that the death of malls has been greatly exaggerated.
  • The Inter Press Service notes the rapid aging of Latin American populations, suggests falling oil prices could lead to decreased military spending, wonders about the future of democracy in the Middle East generally and in Libya specifically, notes a South African crackdown on Zimbabweans lacking papers, and looks at issues with the world’s poorest nations.
  • Open Democracy argues for a bold defense of immigration and argues human rights should take priority over traditions.
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