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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Slave to the Blog: Possibly Apocryphal Stories of Cultural Misunderstanding

by | August 9th, 2013 | 06:30 am

Sometimes at “Witness to Transformation” we get messages from readers too shy to use the comment function. Our recent postings on postage stamps elicited one such reader missive (details redacted to protect the innocent):

“During one of Bill Richardson’s trips to Pyongyang for a negotiation (maybe this was 1996?) he supposedly walked to the post office near the Koryo hotel and tried to buy one copy of all the different stamps sold there. The North Koreans took this as an affront, a rich American trying to show that he could buy all of their stamps with his traveling money, and refused to sell to him. Legend has it that they also suspended negotiations for a day to show their offense.”

No idea if this is true.  If Ambassador Richardson or anyone else can verify, well that is what the “comment” button is for.

However, my sole attempt to confirm the story elicited this response:

“I had never heard of anything like this, or, if I did and forgot it, it probably didn’t involve anything as extreme as halting negotiations for a day, else I would probably have remembered it. It’s plausible, I guess, that the North Koreans at the stamp shop got offended, or confused or perplexed or something, if Richardson really did try to buy copies of all the stamps. [Redacted former State Department official] used to tell the story from soon after the Agreed Framework was negotiated, when Americans were canning the spent fuel at Yongbyon. The Americans, trying to be nice, invited Korean co-workers to their guesthouse for a meal together. During the meal, which was proceeding pleasantly, one of the Americans innocently said it would be nice to be invited to the Koreans’ dining room sometime for lunch. [Redacted State Department official] said that the Koreans became furious, leaving the American completely puzzled as to why. [Redacted State Department official] explained that the reason for the Koreans’ anger was that, at that time, even North Korean nuclear workers were eating only two meals a day, i.e. no lunch. They apparently assumed that the Americans knew that. I don’t know if this one is true, either (or if I’ve recollected it entirely correctly), but that’s along the lines of what [Redacted State Department official] said.”

But here at “Witness to Transformation” we don’t just traffic in rumor and innuendo. This final story of cultural misunderstanding is guaranteed true.

In an earlier post we included video of Shane Smith, the founder of Vice Media, the folks who brought Dennis Rodman (do we need a “Dennis Rodman” tag?) to North Korea, howling “Anarchy in the UK” in a Pyongyong karaoke joint to the utter befuddlement of his North Korean hosts. (The women from the karaoke place look absolutely stupefied.) So last Friday night Professor Haggard, his wife, and several other current and former colleagues trooped over to a Waikiki karaoke box — or karaoke studio — joint. (No, none of us warbled “More Than This” and despite his self-professed knowledge of obscure 70s funk bands, Professor Haggard disappointed by not knowing the words to “Word Up,” though he did redeem himself on “Super Freak.”)  But I digress.

At some point in the evening I thought that it might be amusing to re-enact the Shane Smith-in-Pyongyang moment and cued up “Anarchy.”

I am the anti-Christ,

I am an anarchist…

Being of a certain generation and cultural disposition, it never occurred to me that there were people in the room that did not know “Anarchy in the UK.” (Indeed, I expected a sing along.) But unlike Shane Smith, my hosts understood English. So when I hit that first line, a look of complete terror passed over the face of one of the women in attendance, by the time I hit the second line, two women were looking at each other with “there is a large man screaming about being the anti-Christ between us and the door” looks on their faces.  I did not know whether to laugh or cry.

Is this the MPLA?

Or is this the UDA?

Or is this the KKK?

And I thought it was the USA,

Or just some other country.