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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

What’s not to believe?

by and Marcus Noland | March 16th, 2013 | 06:40 am
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It’s no fun being a press secretary. Just ask White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell. You have to put up with incessant questioning about Dennis Rodman. Then there’s that bit about Pirate Bay, a torrent based file sharing website that often runs afoul of international copyright laws. You’ve probably never heard of Pirate Bay but you have some smart-aleck from the press corps asking about it having been personally invited by Kim Jong Un to move all of its servers to North Korea, land of reliable electricity supplies. At least that one was a hoax.  For now.

At least you didn’t get asked about Portuguese speaking snow-eating bums.  First we have real propaganda videos and then we have this one which turned out to be too absurd even by North Korean standards. A video made the rounds Wednesday purporting to be a North Korean propaganda video. The video claimed to show how Americans are truly living according to North Korea.  The North Korean vision of America is a nationwide shanty town where residents live in tents and are forced to make coffee out of snow.  Worse yet, all birds are extinct as starving Americans have killed off every last pigeon for sustenance. If the video weren’t debunked, we’d be hard pressed to question its authenticity (It turned out that the raw video was a North Korean video about the fall of European democracy, but was mischievously translated to be about starving Americans). This is what happens when the country is stranger than fiction.  Even the Chinese are struggling to sort out truth from satire. Indeed, this country could put the Onion out of business.

It’s even on eBay. Justin Rohrlich over at Minyanville Media gave us the head’s up that someone was selling a matchbox allegedly made in the Camp 25 kwanliso. Noticing that the seller was from Romania, I asked Greg Scarlatiou, Executive Director of the Committee on Human Rights in North Korea, and our resident expert on Romania-DPRK relations to check it out. He contacted the seller, one Gabriel Baciu, and inquired about the item’s provenance. Mr. Baciu has a 100% Positive feedback rating on eBay.

“Pe cutie nu exista nici o specificatie in acest sens, la fel ca si in cazul Inchisorii comuniste romanesti de la Gherla (ai caror condamnati politici erau muncitori in cadrul fabricii de chibrituri binecunoscute, dar pe cutiile de chibrituri nu aparea vreun insemn specific). In cazul lagarului nord coreean, este vorba despre un complex de 17 fabrici si sectii de productie in cadrul carora prizonierii politici sunt obligati sa munceasca din prima si pana in ultima zi de detentie. Printre acestea, se afla si fabrica de chibrituri Chongjin,” Mr. Baciu responded. Or as we would say in English, “There is no such specification on the matchbox. This was the case with the Romanian match factory in Gherla: the workers were political prisoners, but no mention of that was made on the matchbox. In the case of the North Korean gulag, this involves an industrial complex of 17 factories and other production facilities where political prisoners are forced to work from the first till the last day of their detention. The matchbox factory in Chongjin is one of these production facilities.”

According to Greg, the response suggests that Mr. Baciu may be referring to “reeducation camps (kyohwaso, where prison terms are given), rather than political prison camps (kwanliso, where detention is generally indefinite). The Romanian comparison is adequate, but the forced laborers at Gherla were prison inmates (many of them imprisoned for common crimes, possibly some for political offenses as well)…”  Still with us?

The problem, as Greg correctly observes, is that there could actually be a market for this stuff. Produce some trinkets, label them “Proudly Manufactured by Slave Laborers in the DPRK,” and let the eBay bidding begin. Mr. Baciu’s matchbox starts at $50….

Where’s Hunter S. Thompson when you really need him?