“Normal” North Korea

Often times, when we think of North Korea, we have an image of people with grim faces and lifeless eyes walking through a drab city full of grey tones. We think of these people as mere puppets of the North Korean government putting on shows for the foreign tourists with a forced smile on their faces. They become part of the picture we paint in our minds of starving children and prisoners. How often do we actually think of these people as just people who have daily lives just like you and I do? Granted, our lifestyles may be extremely different. But the fact that they have lives separate from the one we imagine them to have is very true. Dr. Andrei Lankov addresses this in his article in The Korea Times.

For those of you who do not know who Andrei Lankov is, let me offer you a brief introduction. Dr. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia and is now a renowned specialist in Korean studies. In 1985, he even spent some time studying at Kim Il Sung University of North Korea. In 2004, he moved to South Korea to teach at Kookmin University, which is where he remains today. He is one of the few foreigners in South Korea who can offer a scholarly perspective on North Korean issues. If you follow North Korean news and issues, you have probably come across his name quite a few times.

In his article “Normal North Korea,” Dr. Lankov talks about his experience of visiting North Korea in September of 1984. As he first drove through the streets of Pyongyang, he explains that what he saw was quite unexpected. Russia at the time was by no means a democratic state but was far more open and “permissive” than North Korea was. Therefore, having come from Russia, he had expected North Korea to look like a scene from George Orwell’s book 1984, which is ironic considering the year of his visit. He explains it as follows: Continue reading

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Different Ways of Seeing North Korea

Chinese president Hu Jintao (right) speaks with Kim Jong Il in May 2010. Photo credit Korean Central News Agency, via The Guardian News.

What sound does a dog make?

This is a question that we probably don’t think too much about after elementary school. In English, the answer is bow wow, or maybe woof woof, depending on the size of the dog you choose to imagine, or the state you grew up in. To most English speakers, these answers are pretty obvious, and restricted in their range of responses.

But in France, dogs go ouah ouah. In Swedish: bjäbb bjäbb. In Japanese: wan wan. In Greek: gav gav. In Italian: bau bau. And in Korean: mung mung.

To people from other countries, the sound of a dog barking is heard differently, and it is as hard for them to hear bow wow in a dog’s bark as it is for us to hear bjäbb bjäbb. I’ve heard Koreans laugh out loud at the thought that a dog says bow wow, just as I’ve heard English speakers laugh at the idea of a dog saying mung mung. Continue reading

Thoughts on Kim Jong-il’s Death

Kim Jong-Il in August 2011

Originally I had intended to write about South Korea’s plan to put up a hundred-foot tall Christmas tree. North Korea was quite upset about this affront to their nation, declaring it to be tantamount to psychological warfare, and threatened that “unexpected consequences” would ensue if the tree went up. Where North Korea is concerned, almost all consequences are unexpected, so I found their threat convincing enough.

But a rather unexpected circumstance popped up on its own, a development more compelling to write about: Kim Jong-il died. I found out after work on the 18th; I had called my boss to talk shop on the walk home and as I was about to hang up she told me. We both sounded happy when we got off the phone with each other. I reflect that most people outside North Korea seem pretty happy about the news, though they may not proclaim it loudly. But the tone of the activity seems, on the whole, celebratory. Continue reading