North Korea’s International University

A trail of thirtyish couples with coffees in hand floated on the streets this morning, like wood planks and barrels from a wreck at sea. Gradually their density increased as I approached a hulking shape looming through the fog, which turned out to be an elementary school releasing parents with free coffees as they returned to their now-childless homes.

It’s back-to-school season in America.

North and South Korea both operate on different school calendars; for them, the school year begins in spring. When I taught English in South Korea, the school year ended in December and started again in early March. North Korean schools start about a month later at the beginning of April.

The difference is probably hard to imagine for most Americans; it conflicts with our whole concept of summer as a time of vacation, of idleness and play, of long days to fill with things other than school.

But for all the difference, going back to school is pretty much the same in spirit everywhere. Kids still have that anxious, excited energy to them and haven’t yet rediscovered the boredom of regular school days. And parents still want to take photos with their darlings before leaving them.

Parents take photos with their children on the first day of school at Pyongyang Middle School No. 1 on April 2, 2012. (Photo credit AP Photo / Jon Chol Jin). 

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North Korea Plays Frisbee!

Continuing the sports theme, I’d like to talk about Ultimate Frisbee. Or, more specifically, Ultimate Frisbee in North Korea. I know, it’s hard to imagine North Koreans running around throwing Frisbees and engaging in just a friendly competitive game. But it’s true!

North Korea is hosting the International Frisbee Tournament, to be held on August 11, 2012. More than 50 Western tourists will participate in this “Peace Tournament” with no political agendas whatsoever, but to simply have fun and make a good impression on the North Koreans as a Westerner. Continue reading

The Olympics and North Korea

I don’t know about you but I have not been able to get any sleep these past two weeks because of the Olympics. The time difference from London to Korea makes us have to stay up all night to be able to see all of the good games. But, let me tell you. It’s been worth it. South Korea has been doing extremely well, currently ranking 5th. It really is astonishing that a country so small would be doing this well. My parents can’t stop talking about that fact.

But South Korea is not the only Korea that has been doing surprisingly well. North Korea has also been raising a few eyebrows. With four golds and one bronze, North Korea has apparently won the most medals since the 1992 Olympics. And they have even set a new world record for the men’s 62 kg class category in weightlifting. I would say that’s doing extremely well for a country in the state that North Korea is in. Continue reading

Now On My Way to Meet You

The talk/talent show is a familiar genre on the giant flat-screen TVs that seem to twitter from every branch in South Korea. Sprinkled liberally with canned laughter, sound effects too cutesy for Western ears, and snarky commentary delivered by subtitles in egregious typefaces, the shows seem odd to a Westerner, but are popular fare on public TVs in restaurants, coffee shops, and spa locker rooms.

A new iteration called “Now On My Way To Meet You” (이제 만나러 갑니다) puts North Koreans on the screen, seeking to offer grounds for common connection between South Korean audiences and the North Koreans living among them as defectors.

Participants Shin Eun-Hee and Shin Eun-Ha smile on the set of “Now On My Way To Meet You”. Photo credit CHANNEL A @ tv.ichannela.com.

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Western Authors and North Korea

Perhaps a few generations ago most Western societies looked upon North Korea with fear and trepidation, having been raised in a time that identified North Korea as a threat during the Cold War. However, now it seems that the image of fear has been replaced with one that revolves around a fascination with devastation and morbidity. The recent popularity of novels written by Western authors about North Korea, such as Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the Westand Brandon W. Jones’s All Woman and Springtime, reveals the growth of the West’s captivation with the tales of the dark lives that the people of North Korea lead. The recent surge of new information coming from novels, which give the West a look into the enigmatic and mysterious self-enclosed world that is North Korea, may not necessarily be written with the intention of shocking and disturbing readers. But many seem to be written with the implication that they are exposing the ugly side of North Korean politics and society. Continue reading

The Aquariums of Pyongyang: a book review and interview with a teacher

Having worked in the field of North Korean human rights, I come across accounts of defectors’ experiences in North Korea quite often. However, I am ashamed to admit that it took me years to finally get around to reading this book. Of course, it wasn’t because I had never heard of it until now. Just about everyone I know that works in the field has read The Aquariums of Pyongyang and I feel like it’s even become a sort of rite of passage.

About a month ago, I met with my high school literature teacher, Mrs. Jeanelle Francis. I haven’t seen her and her husband, another teacher at the same school, since I graduated high school six years ago and I wanted to grab lunch to catch up. When she heard that I was working at a non-governmental organization in Seoul on North Korean issues, she got very excited. She began telling me that she had read the book The Aquariums of Pyongyang and then had incorporated it into her AP Literature class lessons. I later asked if she would do an interview for me regarding her experiences teaching the book, which I have included in the article at the bottom. But first, I’d like to discuss my impression of the book. Continue reading

Why Web Design Matters for North Korea

A revamped design breathes new life into one of the world’s online views of North Korea.

The flag of North Korea is portrayed in a photo of a “card stunt” during the Arirang Mass Games in a screen capture from http://www.korea-dpr.com.

This new one is not actually the official website of the DPRK—that’s naenara.com.kp, which exhibits credentials as the official portal of North Korea by its possession of the top-level domain “.kp” that was officially granted to North Korea in 2007 by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (although the use of the commercial domain signifier “.com” within the URL is curious, it has nothing to do with where the site is actually hosted). “Naenara” means, roughly, “my country.”

Korea-dpr.com, on the other hand, has the familiar “dot-com” ending to it and is hosted on a Spanish server, making it clear that it does not represent a direct connection to North Korea. In fact, the site is run by the Korean Friendship Association, which is headed up by a Spaniard but operated under the auspices of the DPRK’s Committee for Cultural Continue reading

Green Energy and Carbon Credits in North Korea

Clouds are reflected in a reservoir beneath the Huichon Power Station during its opening ceremony on April 5, 2012. (Photo credit AP Photo / Kim Kwang Hyon).

Mention North Korea and a few associations come to mind: nuclear weapons, human rights, famine, weird family dictatorships. It’s often called the most isolated country in the world, the most communist country in the world, the least free country in the world. These superlatives are typical descriptors of North Korea for most, and since few people have any opportunity to engage with North Korea outside of the traditional news media, other conceptions of the country are mostly neglected.

But we here at OneKorea are all about providing new perspectives on the peninsula. We want to enrich your understanding of important issues such as human rights and unification, but we also want to offer entirely new ways of seeing the country. So here’s a new thing to think about when you think about North Korea: ecological sustainability. Continue reading

Emulating the Idols of the “Korean Wave” in North Korea

It seems that everywhere I go, I run into the smiles of the flawless faces of the popular music idols and rising television and movie stars of South Korea. Although they may not be known as a part of what is mainstream popular culture in every location, somehow the South Korean singers, actors, and actresses have found their way into the hearts and onto the playlists of more than a few of my friends and acquaintances throughout the globe. The slim, well-dressed men and women of South Korean music groups and television dramas decorate bedroom walls and influence the fashion and tastes of many of the people I have encountered.

 

But to what extent has the South “Korean Wave” been able to captivate audiences in North Korea considering the division preventing exchange between the two halves of the Korean peninsula? Continue reading

On My Way to See You

There is a new show on Korea’s Channel A called “On My Way to See You”. The show invites female North Korean refugees to talk about the experiences they had as teenagers and young adults in the North. Some of the ladies were performers at North Korea’s national performing arts group in Pyongyang, while others had less privileged lives and witnessed their family members’ deaths to diseases that modern technology could have easily prevent. Kim Jieun, from Youngwon, Pyeongannamdo, had a particularly heartbreaking story about her grandmother.

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