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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.