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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

STTB: Mailing it in from the Beach Edition

by | August 19th, 2014 | 06:00 am

Hage and Ali

Jim Hage is an accomplished runner, a nice guy, and a complete obsessive. He’s been running every day for more than 30 years and has covered more than 100,000(!) miles during this streak. I learned how to say “wind chill” in French from an anecdote about arriving late one night in Montreal in the dead of the winter and venturing out to keep the streak alive. When my wife and I travelled to Australia for a wedding and the flight left late afternoon DC time and arrived in Sydney early morning two days later, we started laughing on the airplane imaging Jim in a pair of running shorts and a singlet running up and down the aisle of the 747 to keep the streak alive.

OK, so now its mid-August, I’m in Hawaii and ought to be frolicking on the beach with my kids, but no, Haggard and I are reinforcing our respective obsessive tendencies so here I am writing a blog post on North Korea. As obsessives go, maybe Jim Hage doesn’t have too much on me. He definitely doesn’t have much on Haggard.

So where to start? Just when you didn’t think that it couldn’t get any worse in the realm of Northeast Asian public diplomacy, South Korean National Assemblywoman Kim Eul-dong of the Saenuri Party, granddaughter of anti-Japanese fighter and anarchist Kim Chwa-chin, unveiled a new memorial in Harbin to the victims of Unit 731, the Japanese Imperial Army’s germ warfare unit which operated in China during the Second World War. Last year Japanese Prime Minister Abe caused an uproar in Asia when he was photographed posing in the cockpit of a Japanese military jet numbered “731” which the Japanese foreign ministry dismissed as a misunderstanding.

To make matters worse, there are rumors that the Abe cabinet is going to do another investigation into the Kono Statement on the sex slave issue.  Like the last one made matters better. Parenthetically, they may be energized in this adventure by the revelation in the Asahi Shimbun that a popular testament of the wartime sex trade is a fabrication. I dunno. Maybe they should consult Pope Francis. He’s got a direct line to the Almighty and he thinks the story is real. No comment from the Curia on what Francis thought of that North Korean military salute.

Maybe Koryo Tours can organize an “Anti-Japanese” tour of Harbin hitting the Ahn Jung-guen shrine and now this latest contribution to preserving historical memory. At least they’d probably be better able to guarantee the safety of their clients on that tour compared to some of the others they operate. The government of Australia has now joined the US in issuing a warning regarding travel to the DPRK, stating in part:

“We advise you to reconsider your need to travel to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Restrictions are placed on foreigners, with very different laws and regulations applying to behaviour. There are intermittent DPRK threats against international interests…foreign visitors have been subject to arbitrary arrest and long-term detention. Foreigners may be arrested, detained or expelled for activities that would not be considered crimes in Australia, including unsanctioned religious and political activities, unauthorised travel, or unwarranted interaction with local nationals. Take particular care to ensure that you do not bring anything into the country that may be perceived by DPRK officials as religious, pornographic or political in nature. Mobile devices will be monitored and electronic devices searched by DPRK authorities…”

I’m in paradise, but this is all pretty dreary. So a big shaka to my friend Fred Zimmerman for passing along a TIL anecdote from reddit that somehow escaped the collective attention of the crack Witness to Transformation team:

“Muhammad Ali was invited to North Korea in 1995 with a collection of other athletes. Though he didn’t speak much during the visit, at one function, as officials claimed they could take out the US or Japan whenever they wanted to, Ali declared loudly “no wonder we hate these mother****ers.”

A hui hou.

Comments (2)

I should point out that my first visit to the DPRK was in April, 1995 to attend the two-day international wrestling match arranged by the Japanese professional wrestler Antonio Inoki in honor of his mentor, Rikidozan, a Korean wrestler in post-war Japan (revered in both North and South for his anti-Japanese stance). Inoki wrestled in the US and Japan. During one period he competed against Muhammad Ali, a boxer vs. a wrestler. When he organized the match in Pyongyang he invited Ali to attend. I was staying in the Koryo Hotel for the matches and remember being in the lobby and seeing Ali standing by the entrance door. I met him and had my picture taken with him, a fellow Chicagoan. Pretty amazing experience!

As a side note, the event was staged in the May Day Stadium with reportedly 150,000 in attendance. Supposedly when the North Koreans were told that this was a world record for attendance at a live wrestling match, they ordered in thousands more the second night to set the bar even higher.

And to keep the thrills coming, who was the bad guy in the matches? The blond American, Rick Flair. His role was to be mean to Inoki, using dirty tricks, etc., but eventually the noble Inoki was able to defeat him to the delight of the partisan crowd. Good always triumphs over evil, even in North Korea :-)

And in conclusion, the first night the crowds were pretty quiet. They were really shocked to see all the mayhem going on in the ring. Apparently the officials told the second night’s crowd that this was in fact more like theater than an actual fight and they were able to get more in the spirit of the event.

Walter L. Keats August 19, 2014 | 11:55 am


I hope you are enjoying your well deserved respite in paradise.

I would like to point out that in both the Australian and US travel warnings regarding North Korea they mention “arbitrary arrest.” In my educational experience “arbitrary” refers to a random act or one based on a whim, not one based on reason or a system. I am not aware of any of the detentions in the recent past that could be described as “random.” Being detained for crossing a border without permission does not constitute an arbitrary action. Being detained for promoting religious activities, contrary to DPRK laws, does not constitute an arbitrary action. Tearing up your visa in front of immigration officials and being detained does not constitute an arbitrary arrest. The only detainee I have much sympathy for was Mr. Newman who was not aware that the Korean War has only paused, not concluded, but even he was not detained arbitrarily.

Why does any of this matter? Presumably our diplomats should be in the forefront of the proper use and meaning of words. What else do they do? If they can’t express a situation in clear, accurate, objective terms, then they are not diplomats but propagandists. Such obfuscation can only endanger all of us as we try to find a solution to this seemingly intractable situation.

Walter L. Keats August 19, 2014 | 11:38 am


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