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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Slave to the Blog: the New Year’s Edition

by | January 1st, 2013 | 06:43 am
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To welcome in the new year, let’s see that’s Juche 102. I thought that I would take a quick stroll through some of the stories we blogged on or at least meant to blog on in the past year.

First, as even the most casual reader of this blog knows, we have a thing for the pharmacological misadventures of North Korean athletes so were disheartened to see the report in November that Kim Jong-un was now making sports performance an element of military-first politics.  Performance-enhancing drugs can’t be far behind. Kim and wife Ri Sol-ju had attended performances of the 25 April National Defense Sports Group, the KPA’s elite athletics organization which is subordinate to the KPA General Political Department, and then watched a volleyball match. According to KCNA, Kim said, “To turn the country into a sports power by developing the sports is an important work for increasing the national power in every way and demonstrating the indomitable spirit and dignity of military-first (so’ngun) Korea. We spare nothing for the sportspersons.” Cue the East German national anthem.

For a more serious treatment of the subject, this book review in the FT by Simon Kuper, who oddly enough I met at a North Korean human rights conference, is not a bad place to start. Serendipitously, last month I was stuck sitting on an airport security bench with Carl Lewis, protagonist of one of the books that Kuper reviews. Amazingly trim, the guy still looks like he could jump 20+ feet.

And while waiting for NPR to finally run Louisa Lim’s story on gender in North Korea, I’ll note that the South Korean government is picking up the slack, bringing socialism to North Korea, and relieving North Korean women of “the double burden.” According to an unnamed Unification Ministry official quoted by Yonhap, MOU is seeking discussions with the North Korean government “over the plan to build two nurseries accommodating 600 infants in the Kaesong Industrial Complex,”  South Korea currently operates a single day care center that providing care for 600 North Korean infants under the age of 1. About 50 North Korean nannies are employed there. Maybe Seoul should send some consultants to Washington.  We could use some easily accessible high-quality day-care here…

Dog bites man: on 7 December the South Korean Export-Import Bank for the fourth time asked North Korea to pay the money owed on its food aid loans, and informed Pyongyang that it would start charging an additional 2 percent of the debt as delay damages.  As we observed in a previous post, the $6 million that North Korea owes is peanuts, particularly in comparison to the resources expended on its missile and nuclear programs, a point that the Unification Ministry has begun making. The payment came due in June.  Perhaps the Unification Ministry should hire a collection agency.

One topic that I thought had been addressed in a previous blog post but apparently was not was the story of Swiss hotelier Kempinski getting involved in operating the famous leaning 104 storey Ryugyong Hotel. Well, according to Deutsche Welle Japanese activist Ken Kato is now calling for the firm to pull out of the deal, alleging that the project violates UNSC 1874 which prohibits financial transactions that could support North Korea’s “nuclear-related, ballistic missile-related or other weapons of mass destruction-related programs or activities.” The report quotes Kato saying “I am trying very hard to get them to pull out of North Korea because what they are doing there is illegal under United Nations sanctions. I wrote to the management and the owners of the company three weeks ago with evidence of North Korea’s illegal actions, but I have not had any replies yet.” According to DW, “Kato sent out another volley of protest letters after North Korea defied the UN and the rest of the world to launch a rocket and put a satellite into orbit on December 12. Kato has also written to the governments of the United States, Germany and the Crown Property Bureau of Thailand as the Thai Royal Family owns a stake in Kempinski. “As you know, North Korea has been supplying missiles to Thailand’s neighbor, Burma, and I think Thailand’s participation in the Ryungyong Hotel could be a major scandal due to North Korea’s renewed provocations,” said Kato.

I was intending to write a blog post on North Korean badge pins but lost all the secondary source material so I can’t actually refer back to an earlier post. But as the Daily NK reported a while back, the National Security Agency has begun distributing a new pin badge to senior staff featuring the image of Kim Jong-un. The new badge is being worn instead of the familiar “twin badge” of both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il “that most North Korean cadres have been wearing since Kim Jong Il‟s death in December last year.” In keeping with Kim Jong-un’s strategy to align his image with that of his charismatic grandfather the paper reports an unnamed North Korean source, explaining that the new badge is similar to one of the original Kim Il-sung badges, which featured a portrait of country’s founding leader in the middle of a rectangular badge. The new shows an unsmiling Kim Jong-un against a simple background without decoration. Anyone on the border drop us a line and tell us how much their selling for there.  Or better yet, just send us one.