America is Looking at Things

If you haven’t seen these blogs yet, you should take a look. It started with Kim Jong-il Looking at Things and has now progressed to Kim Jong-un Looking at Things after the “Dear Leader’s” death. It is quite simple. It is a collection of hundreds of photos of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un looking at various things: fish, sailors, rice, etc. This simple collection has amassed an extensive following due to its reactions from the American public. It is rather humorous. Here are few to enjoy:

Looking at a candy bucket.

Looking at a cheese wheel.

Looking at a boot.

Looking at a fish.

Looking at Ri Sol-ju, his wife.

You get the idea. Hundreds of people “like,” reblog, and comment on each of these photos. The Facebook following for Kim Jong-un is 3,411 (9/6/12) and for Kim Jong-il is 56,105 (9/6/12). The popularity of this collection of photos is incredible. After years of watching the erratic behavior of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), it astounds me that these comedic blogs have more following than the effort to reveal a vast, terrifying prison camp system that exists in the DPRK. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I’ll let you decide.

I wondered what others who are aware of the nature of DPRK regime thought of the popularity of these blogs. The question posed to them was: What do you think the implications are in America of the popularity of the Kim Jong-un Looking at Things and the Kim Jong-il Looking at Things blogs?

Dave: “There are two effects. It makes a spectacle of an authoritarian political figure. It’s a good thing because it demystifies the power that he (Kim Jong-un) actually holds as a political leader and makes him appear silly and childish. It is borderline satire. Simultaneously, it reinforces an attitude that the country is not threatening. It washes over the more important political issues.”

Jana: “There’s a positive and negative side. The positive side is that people start to think about these people when they never paid attention before. The negative side is that it could make something that’s a more serious thing in our world into something that people just laugh about. Overall, it’s good to make fun of things though.”

Danhi: “People will take these serious issues as a joke. It will fuel the opinions of people who look down on North Korea. But it might turn people’s attention to North Korea and maybe they will turn around and look more into the issues, but I doubt that it will happen. It detracts from the issues at hand.”

There seems to be a general consensus among Korea watchers that there are both positive and negative aspects of the popularity of these blogs. Some lean more one way than the other, but it is something to think about. Do we as the American public know enough about this regime? If we can laugh at these images, surely we would at least be curious as to what sort of role these leaders play? Ignorance of the issues in the DPRK is tragic and hopefully the popularity of these blogs can help alleviate the problem, but this can’t be done without curiosity in the first place. Does humor outweigh curiosity? Can they not mutually exist? I hope they can.



South Korea’s North Korea human rights bill … why it is stuck on the tracks

On Thursday, August 16, 2012, the President of the United States signed into law the “Ambassador James R. Lilley and Congressman Stephen J. Solarz North Korea Human Rights Reauthorization Act of 2012,” which reauthorizes the North Korean Human Rights Authorization Act of 2004.  In South Korea, by contrast, the North Korea human rights bill (Bill) that has been proposed several times by the conservative party is nowhere near seeing the light of day.  Although liberal parties agree with the purpose of the Bill – to improve human rights in the North – they have persistently opposed the Bill, because, they argue, the Bill is ineffective in fulfilling its purpose; instead, it will likely be used to fund civil society organizations that share conservative ideals regarding North Korea, which they believe ultimately increase, not alleviate, tension in the Korean Peninsula.  This post is to help you better understand their arguments and intends not to take a position on whether the Bill should be passed into law, which I would leave to you.

The main points of the Bill includes:

–      establishing a North Korea human rights advisory council within the Ministry of Unification that would provide advisory opinions to the Minister of Unification in setting a North Korea human rights blueprint,

–      creating the Office of the Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade charged with coordinating international efforts to promote human rights in the North,

–      monitoring humanitarian aid by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as government agencies to make sure the aid reaches intended beneficiaries and is not diverted to the military,

–      setting up a North Korea human rights foundation under the Minister of Unification, whose missions include making grants to North Korea human rights NGOs, and

–      creating a North Korea human rights archive within the Ministry of Justice.

Most of these provisions are not novel ideas or mechanisms in addressing North Korea human rights issues. Both the Ministry of Unification and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade have long engaged on the issue of North Korea human rights.  The archive is already in the National Human Rights Commission of Korea.  Nevertheless, human rights in the North did not improve because of the work of the South Korean government.  The new concept introduced in this Bill is one that allows taxpayers’ money to fund North Korea NGOs; it is also the main source of controversy over the Bill.  Then, the question to ask is, will the NGOs funding provision – a new measure – be effective in improving the human rights situation in the North?

Liberal parties pointed out that the North Korea Human Rights Act of the U.S. (Act) proved otherwise.  To facilitate the dissemination of information in the North, the Act authorized the President of the U.S. to provide grants to broadcast organizations, including Radio Free Asia and Voice of America.  While having a positive impact on people outside the North, such as North Korean refugees and defectors, the Act did little to improve human rights inside North Korea.

The same goes true for the Bill, liberal parties argue.  Cynically dubbing the Bill as a “leaflet bill,” they assume that it will likely fund the NGOs mainly interested in sending balloons and leaflets containing information that criticizes the Kim regime.  As with the broadcast organizations, this measure will prove ineffective, only to provoke the North Korean government and, therefore, seriously hamper any future efforts of the South Korean government toward peaceful engagement with the North.

Admittedly, those who oppose the Bill fail to come up with an immediately effective way of fulfilling the purpose of the Bill, i.e., improving human rights in the North, which would constitute an alternative to sending balloons and leaflets.  Instead, they emphatically remind us that we do not have the luxury of confronting a simple question when it comes to issues dealing with North Korea.

Although the Bill of South Korea was reportedly inspired by the Act of the U.S., as evidenced by their similarities, there are inherent differences between the two countries in terms of strategic interest vis-à-vis North Korea.  For example, for South Korea, a peaceful unification has the potential to lead to a major breakthrough on the South Korean economy that is currently stagnant and raise it to the next level by expanding the domestic market and taking advantage of natural resources and cheap labor in North Korea, making the unification arguably an event of existential consequence for South Korea.  Parenthetically, the unification may be the surest way to improve human rights in the North.  The U.S., however, probably sees the unification through the lens of regional balance of power with China in mind.

On the other hand, if the South Korean government only employs the stick against North Korea and calls on the international community to coalesce around it, the consequent isolation will probably accelerate subordination of the North’s economy to China, as is happening now.  To make matters worse, if the South and North confrontation escalates and an armed conflict somehow arises, it would be Koreans both South and North, not Americans, who would sustain catastrophic damages.  Thus, South Koreans have every reason to develop their own policy toward North Korea distinct from that of the U.S. and, in so doing, should resist the temptation to expect simple answers to this difficult question.

Some of those who oppose the Bill believe that it is time to bridge philosophical differences over how to see and deal with North Korea through public discussions rather than pressing with the Bill that polarizes South Korean society without yielding pragmatic solutions.


DPRK Soccer: Controversy and Heartache in the Pursuit of Glory


The international community sardonically calls the DPRK the “Hermit Kingdom.” The term illustrates every aspect that outsiders have come to identify regarding the DPRK: closed, isolated, and desolate. In contrast to the descriptors of the DPRK mentioned here, both the men’s and women’s soccer teams constitute one of the few instances of international participation outside of the nation’s calculated (and some say rogue) political maneuvers in the international arena.

With the 2012 Olympics just around the corner, one would figure minimal DPRK participation in the summer edition of the games. Outside of a bronze medal for their women’s volleyball team at the 1972 Munich games, the other 42 DPRK medals have come from individual efforts (i.e. Judo, Boxing, Weightlifting, table tennis, etc). For the country’s soccer teams, they represent a significant source of national pride due to their increased visibility compared to its other sports. North Koreans love the Chollima (a horse of unlimited endurance used in various DPRK propaganda efforts) like any other hooligan-filled,passionate, soccer-crazed nation if not more. The government in Pyongyang has astutely understood the importance of the people’s relationship with their biggest source of national pride and has dedicated significant resources to encourage success and even greater support.

In spite of the people’s great sense of pride in the national teams, history points to a difficult past with few outstanding moments. In fact, few glorious moments have materialized for the Dear Leader.

The men’s side of Chollima garnered the most success over the years out of the two teams. Since its first victory over the People’s Republic of China 1-0, the men’s side has fashioned only a handful of notable successes in international competitions. During their 1966 World Cup Campaign, the Chollima upset Italy 1-0 to take second in Group 4 and be the Asian side to progress past the Group Stage. In their quarterfinal match with Portugal, they took a 3-0 lead after 30 minutes before falling 5-3. In the 1976 Montreal games, the Chollima again lost in the quarterfinals, this time to Poland 5-0. On November 15 2011, the Chollima defeated Japan 1-0 in front of 50,000 DPRK supporters (and only 150 Japanese supporters) at the Kim Il Sung stadium in Pyongyang during the third round of the AFC World Cup qualifiers. The tense relationship between the two nations that dates back to Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula in the first part of the 20th century surfaced in this match. While the DPRK was already eliminated, this win avenged a 1-0 loss to Japan at Saitama Stadium in September. Several reports documented the tape-delay and rebroadcast, typical of international fixtures in the DPRK.


Since these successes in 1966, 1976 and 2011, the Chollima produced mediocre to average results at best and not without controversy. During the 2006 World Cup qualifiers, the team came under controversy for its fan behavior against Iran. In the match, a penalty was not awarded to the Chollima while instead the Syrian referee gave a red card to a North Korean player. Enraged, the fans threw objects onto the field and prevented the Iranians to leave. During the 2010 World Cup, expectations were high since it was the DPRK’s first since the 1966 campaign. In the end, the Chollima crashed out of the group stage with the worst record (0-3) and goal differential (-11) in the entire tournament triggering what amounted to a humiliating public inquiry at home.


The women’s side has had a significantly shorter and less successful history. They did not qualify for athe Women’s World Cup until 1999 (started in 1991). They have advanced out of the group stage only once in 2007, but fell in the quarterfinals. In 2011, five players were banned for testing positive for steroids. DPRK officials blamed the positive test on the use of deer gland medicine to treat a lightning strike that allegedly affected many players on the training pitch. For these positive test results, they were banned from the 2015 Women’s World Cup. This controversy spilled over into the recent Olympic qualifier, with the Australian coach openly criticizing the decision to allow the Chollima to participate despite the ban from the 2015 World Cup.


For the upcoming games, only the women’s side will be able to play at the end of July. Indeed, the women represent the more consistently successful team in terms of world rankings (currently 8th to the men’s 89th ranking). Despite the lack of true success for both sides, precedent leads us to believe that the DPRK cannot afford to just scrap the entire team because of their failure — as one might expect such a repressive regime to do—mainly because of a dearth of talent in the DPRK soccer system. In fact, the 2010 inquiry was considered a light punishment for such a humiliating performance.  Despite their harsh rhetoric toward foreign-born nationals, they have allowed players born in Japan to play, again lending to the small player pool. It is quite hard to expect success from a country so resource-deprived in a sport as big as soccer is, but it is the only hope that the DPRK has for some form of international glory.



Reunification: The Refugee Influence

As almost sixty years have passed since the two Koreas have separated at the 38th Parallel, the question remains: Will there ever be a united Korea? Reunification between the two Koreas is essentially going to be like putting a block into a circle—an epic social, economic, educational, political, and environmental undertaking for which neither state is currently prepared. The only precedent of the reunification of a country separated into two entities by war is East and West Germany from 1961 to 1989. The German example shows that reunification must begin with a warm welcome of refugees into the mainstream.

New York Times article published on July 12, 2012 sparked this idea for me (“Young North Korean Defectors Struggle in the South”).  The article focuses on the struggles of the approximately 500 North Korean defector students currently enrolled at South Korean universities.  Many of these students have free rides, but their North Korean pasts and Dickensian experiences of begging on the streets do nothing to help them compete against their South Korean equivalents.  Education experts report that half or more of North Korean defectors are dropping out, while the dropout rate among South Koreans is just 4.5 percent.  This is likely because most of the North Koreans have only a few years of elementary school education more focused on political indoctrination than reading and math—a stark difference to the South Korean classmates, who spent the evenings and weekends of their childhood at academies preparing for entrance exams.  One North Korean defector student admitted,

“I felt like someone from the 1970s who was put on a time machine and dropped in the 21st century”.

If we are going to see a successful united Korea, there will need to be changes made to help North Korean students and other refugees rise to the level of their South Korean cousins.

The reunification of East and West Germany provides a model for the workings of a North-South Korean union.  Like Korea, the two Germanys were different in economic models (market economics vs. socialism) and political regimes (democracy vs. communism).  The West and South were (and are) strengthened by other capitalist democratic nations, while the East and North were/are supported by other communist nations like the USSR or China, although promises of continued support is unsure. Also, the capitalist democratic nation in both cases (West Germany and South Korea) saw the greatest economic comeback after war, whereas the East and North parts saw greater economic depression and social oppression.

By 1970, talks of reunification began to get serious.  Widespread discontent spread like wildfire in East Germany.  During this time, an estimated 570,000 East Germans escaped to West Germany.  The USSR started to lose control.  Finally, in November 1989, the demonstrations reached a boiling point and the Berlin Wall separating the two blocs was torn down.  Reunification began.

Because of the economic disparities between the East and the West, when the two entities reunified, East Germans had problems adjusting to the new Western system and had to endure a sense of being labeled second-class citizens. Many feared to find jobs. West Germans grew weary as taxes increased to fund the reunification. However, West Germany’s robust economy and advanced welfare system played a key role in incorporating East Germans. Systems such as welfare and public security were repaired and expanded. The West also had well-developed and effective social organizations and civic groups through which ordinary citizens could propel cross-cutting social cleavages that would bridge the social gap. Overall, it was the general consensus among the West German public that reunification was a good and necessary thing that required the participation of the entire country that allowed for a successful unification. Helping North Korean defectors adjust successfully to South Korean society is an inseparable part of reunification.

For more than sixty years, the communist North and democratic South remain separate entities sharing all qualities but political structure.  This division has left room for the sister countries to develop staggeringly different cultures, economic models, social structures, and other systems. At the end of May 2012, there were a total of 23,700 North Korean defectors in South Korea. However, like the students in the New York Times article, they still face alienation and ostracism, and many of them face inadequacies in language proficiency, advanced math and science skills, business, and social adjustment. North-supporting South Koreans have a tendency to treat defectors as traitors, and anti-North South Koreans often have a biased view against defectors. Former Foreign Minister Han Sung-Joo proposes:

“In order to [bridge the gap between the North and the South], the government and society need to roll up their sleeves to provide them with jobs, welfare benefits, housing, education, training in language and social adjustment, and even customized help to deal with their unique circumstances and ensure that their human rights are protected”.

The success of a united Korea stands on the efforts of both North and South Koreans to work together—to be unified.  Like in the case of East and West Germany, a Korean reunification must begin with the open arms and open minds of its united brothers and sisters.


Spotted: Kim Jong-Un and “The Mystery Woman”

By now we should have all seen and heard about the infamous pictures of Kim Jong-un with a slim, shorthaired, well suited, young North Korean woman. And of course, we’ve also read the headlines filled with various assumptions of who that woman might be. So who could she possibly be? And what does this say about Kim Jong-un and the North Korean regime?

Two possible assumptions:

1. Sister


Kim Jong-Un’s little sister following the footsteps of her older brother?

Some sources have identified this “mystery woman” as the Supreme Leader’s younger sister, Kim Yo-jong. According to the various sources, she has supposedly studied abroad in Switzerland with Kim Jong-un in the 1990s and last appeared in public view in December of 2011 during the mourning of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il. Unfortunately, these are the only facts that the world knows about her due to the lack of public knowledge regarding the lives of the North Korean rulers and their families. This lack of public information ultimately illustrates the attempt of the North Korean government to keep such information undisclosed.

However, this public appearance of Kim Jong-un’s “little sister” may signify the government’s efforts to reduce such secrecy of the private lives of its rulers. It certainly seems plausible to assume that the government is trying to minimize secrecy as they have recently released pictures of the Supreme Commander’s mother, Ko Young-Hee through a North Korea’s propaganda video, The Mother of Great Military-first Chosun. Perhaps the “mystery woman” could be the “little sister”, Kim Yo-jung, who seeks to become a higher rank official by accompanying her older brother to formal events. If such is the case then let’s just hope that the government is in fact seeking to curtail the degree of secrecy regarding not only its leaders, but also the government and the country as a whole.

2. Lover


The couple publicly displayed their romantic relationship by color-coordinating their outfits?

The second assumption of the “mystery woman” is the potential being of Kim Jong-un’s “lover.” If she is his actual lover, she is predicted to be Hyon Song-wol, North Korea’s former popular singer in the Bochonbo Electronic Music Band. Like the many comments regarding this alleged relationship, there are many stories on Hyon Song-wol as well. The most popular story in the news is the classic Romeo and Juliet plot that apparently Kim and Hyon were once lovers but had to be separated due to Kim Jong-il’s disapproval. If the story is true, then it certainly seems like the lovebirds have succeeded in reuniting after the death of the Dear Leader.

Nevertheless, there is a major debate regarding this assumption as well. The controversy is that communist regimes, including North Korea in the past, never placed a spotlight on the first lady. And North Korean leaders specifically made sure that their wives were not on public display as these men were notorious for having mistresses. Because such interactions with other women other than their spouses are utterly shameful considering the North Korean legal marriage system and their inner moral compasses, the wives of the leaders were often kept under the light. And in the case of Kim Jong-un and his “mystery woman,” Hyon Song-wol is clearly having an affair with the Supreme leader as she was last seen married to a military officer and pregnant. How ironic is it that the Supreme Commander is breaking his own national laws while the regime is very stringent on the punishment of the crime on adultery? But due to his confidence and distinction from his ancestors, Kim Jong-un is evidently more passionate about love as proven by his “public date at the variety show,” which has received major attention by the news media with their headlines of the “Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh Show.”

Doesn’t it sound quite odd? Well, such inclusion of American characters and the “public date” does not seem out of place at all if you consider his recent wish to create a new image of North Korea by catching up with the “global trends.” It merely seems as if he is taking his words into actions by incorporating not only American materialism, but also the Western culture, as other leaders around the world usually make public appearances with their spouses (think of Barrack and Michelle Obama). Thus, let’s just hope that such events are tangible signs that Kim Jong-un, the “man of his words,” is ready to transform his country.


Despite all of the assumptions and curiosities out there, only the involved man and woman (and the North Korean government) know the sole answer to the question of who the “mystery woman” is. But until the truth comes out, we can just wonder how North Korea would be if the country finally untangled and opened up the mysteries of the hermit kingdom to the world, or became more Westernized by taking a step out of the traditional Soviet-style Socialist regime.


Prelude: the Four

A real human tragedy.  The week of February 5, 2012:  an estimated 24-44 North Korean defectors in China are detained by Chinese authorities and face repatriation to North Korea.  When word crosses international borders that these detainees are under threat of torture, imprisonment, and even death if repatriated, the international community protests with a resounding cry.  Demonstrators stage rallies; celebrities make speeches; musicians sing songs; the South Korean President, Lee Myung Bak, urges nonrefoulement; the UN Human Rights Council convenes to discuss the situation; Congress holds a hearing; a South Korean Congresswoman fasts. March 9, China reportedly repatriates 33 North Korean defectors back to North Korea.  Seven days ago, June 25, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea publicly executes 4 of the 44 defectors who fled.

We, those invested in North Korean human rights issues and these defectors’ lives, did what we could.  We raised awareness, rallied the masses, evoked emotional appeal, made headlines, pierced governmental bureaucracy, and shook the government of the People’s Republic of China.  Yet, despite our most zealous efforts, we wonder if we have merely been swinging at the wind.  And while the shock and proximity of the result paralyzes us to a lull, we carve out creases in our soft chairs, sigh, and wonder what we can do.

A recurring theme that North Korea and human rights specialists promulgate for inciting change in North Korea is the influx of information.  Assimilating, synthesizing, and disseminating information is the spark plug in any mechanism for meaningful change, and a proven step.  The Arab Spring and the 1987 June Democracy Movement in South Korea are a couple examples where communal discontent began in nascent stages with gatherings in homes, coffee shops, and Internet forums to exchange views and information regarding the current plight. Our fight begins not with physical weapons, but with an arsenal of messages that deliver hope, enlightenment, and the myriad of possibilities in the world.  Already, there are reports of South Korean media outlets illuminating messages of truth through the cracks of North Korea’s surveillance. Then, we shall provide the international community and North Koreans with accurate, current, and well-researched information of the profoundly dismal human rights situation in the DPRK. We gather the kindle and let the self-awareness of their destitution and the sears of the DPRK government’s hypocrisy light the flame.

Thus, let us make controversy, because what is more controversial than the fact that millions of North Koreans die from famine while former Dear Leader Kim Jong-il spends millions on mansions, cognac, and exotic pets? Temperamental bandwagon fans are welcome. Celebrities bring your exposure.  International organizations make your stand. Governments raise your voice to the systematic and profound human rights abuses.  Yes, continue the fight, because four hearts have stopped beating while ours continue.

By Daniel