Women in the Markets of North Korea

It is a challenge to report on North Korea without talking sometimes about the hardships in the country. On this blog, we generally try to focus on fostering greater understanding of this place so different from our own, and to do that we often play up the “good news” or choose lighter fare to cover, since so many sources focus instead on the negative. We try to provide a picture of hope.

But, to deserve the respect of our readers, sometimes we have to cover difficult issues. We’ll touch on some such issues in this post.

A new report by the Peterson Institute for International Economics examines the advantages and disadvantages of being a woman in North Korea. It used a detailed survey of refugees living in South Korea to build a picture of life inside North Korea over the past ten or twenty years.

A woman sells snacks at a roadside stand on April 21, 2012. Photo credit David Guttenfelder / AP Photo.

One of the most prominent features of gender inequity in North Korea is the role of women in private markets. Women tended disproportionately to be shed from government or party jobs, which along with the military are deeply biased toward men; women also tend generally to be less likely to hold a job in general. Continue reading

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). 

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.

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

”Everyone Thinks Highly Of South Korea”: Part 3 of 3 on Outside Media in North Korea

A diagram from InterMedia shows the pyramid structure of the outside media environment in North Korea. Photo credit InterMedia.

In posts 1 and 2 of this series on outside media in North Korea we saw all sorts of accounts from defectors about the procurement, consumption, and utility of outside media in North Korea.

Now it’s time for a conclusion.

What effect does all of this foreign media have on North Koreans? We’ve seen already that it can affect the way they run their businesses, the way they fill their free time, and even the way they speak. It also affects the way they think, although proponents of sending material specifically targeted at North Koreans should be aware that it might not have the same effect as, say, South Korean TV dramas. The study’s authors cite defectors who were appreciative of the lack of overt messages or careful selection of subjects in dramas, and note that “North Koreans are well-practiced consumers of heavy-handed propaganda and the absence of such propaganda in South Korean dramas increases their credibility in the minds of many North Korean viewers.” In other words, North Koreans aren’t that easy to fool; they are used to propaganda, and rather than brainwashing them, it has made them sophisticated and world-wise. Continue reading

“It Works Like A Market Economy”: Part 2 of 3 on Outside Media in North Korea

A radio tower stands in North Korea. Radio inside the country is limited to state transmissions, but citizens are often able to pick up transmissions from China or South Korea. Photo credit InterMedia.

In part 1 of this series we were introduced to the surge of outside media availability inside North Korea, reported in a recent survey of defectors and others with recent inside experience in North Korea by InterMedia. In this post we’ll go deeper into the role outside media plays inside the isolated country.

DVDs aren’t the only source of information on the outside world. CDs, cassettes, USBs, and even micro-SD cards are flourishing in black market trade, providing additional access to outside films and TV shows. Access typically comes through border residents or through the political and economic elite; the media are then shared with trusted contacts throughout the country. Some people in positions of power can even “order” a show or film brought in and it will make its way across the border through a network of bribery and smuggling. Continue reading

“Once You Start Watching, You Simply Cannot Stop”: Part 1 of 3 on Outside Media in North Korea

A screenshot of Lee Min Ho and Son Ye Jin from the first Korean drama your correspondent ever watched, “Personal Preferences.” South Korean dramas are one of the most important sources of new information now becoming available to North Korean citizens. Photo credit MBC.

Typically I scan the web for my information about North Korea. Most of my sources are from Internet news stories, usually in US or Korean media. But now and then I stumble upon a primary source, and they are phenomenally, refreshingly satisfying.

This post comes from such a primary source.

North Korea, according to a new study produced by InterMedia, is experiencing a huge increase in foreign media penetration. The study finds an increased awareness of the outside world, positive perceptions thereof, and a growth of trust between citizens.

Hopeful observers recall the surprising effect of access to technology in the Arab Spring revolts in 2011 and imagine a similar uprising in the future for North Korea. A more logical analysis suggests that any change will be slow. Access to outside media in North Korea is still extremely low; mobile penetration is around 2%, and 80% of North Korean citizens say that word-of-mouth is the most common means of information dissemination in the country. State media comes in a distant second at 40%.

A survey of defectors from and travelers in North Korea provided the authority for the survey. About 650 defectors, refugees, and travelers were interviewed in 2010 and 2011 and the results analyzed in “A Quiet Opening: North Koreans in a Changing Media Environment”. Continue reading

Unification Support in Rural Provinces

Barley fields by the sea in Dalchon village in Jeollanam-do, South Korea. Photo credit Korea.net, http://www.korea.net/NewsFocus/Travel/view?articleId=97027.

Jeollanam-do province covers the southwest tip of the Korean peninsula, a fragmented fringe of islands and irregular coastline. Like every other province in South Korea, it is largely covered with mountains, but the fertile lowlands around the coast make it the agricultural breadbasket of Korea: farmers comprise 25% of its households (compared to the 7% national average). Checkered fields of rice, barley, and wheat are everywhere, dotted with small villages at the intersections of roads.

The provinces in present-day Korea date from the Joseon dynasty, when all of Korea—North and South—was divided into eight provinces, each one named after two of its principal cities. This southwestern province had Jeonju and Naju; take the first syllable of each and it becomes Jeon-na, or Jeolla if you follow Korean pronunciation rules (Chinese characters are involved, which complicates things). By this system California might be called Los-San. The rule applies similarly to most of the other provinces in Korea.

But if the naming conventions are the same, everything else about it is different. It’s the most typically “backward” province in the small country, due mostly to its rural constituency and a historic repression begun under the longest dynasty and continued, though slightly abated, in modern politics. The region is notable for dissent and major uprisings against the national government, and has long lacked significant support for its development. Continue reading

Some Reflections on the Internship on the first Anniversary of its Commencement

The author and fellow participants on the 2011 March for Peace and Unification. Photo credit Park Chan-yong.

When I was first to meet the MOU overseas correspondents, I stood outside the Central Government Complex building in the growing darkness. The back gates have two guards posted on them, South Korean policemen quite a few years younger than I am, and they were very sorrowful when they told me I could not go in without an ID badge. They struggled to find the words in English. These three aspects of the guards—their youth, and sorrow, and struggle—made me sympathetic enough that I waited outside instead of bluffing my way in.

The other members of our group arrived gradually; they drifted up the street and attached to our group, like plastic bottles to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We talked and swirled intermittently as we waited, explaining and re-explaining schools and majors and life situations. I have had similar meetings many times before and since, but this was remarkable for its cocktail-party-on-a-sidewalk-outside-a-government-building feeling, an unusual locale, though we eventually moved to a proper restaurant once all our group members arrived. But even from the very first meeting, it was clear we were about to have an unusually unforgettable summer. Continue reading

Military Service and Support for Unification

South Korean marines train at Baengnyeong Island near the North Korean border. Photo credit Seo Myeong-gon / Yonhap / AP.

South Korea is a little bit smaller than Kentucky, yet it has the sixth-largest standing military in the world. There is only one country that is remotely similar in size with a comparable military: North Korea.

Because the war between North and South Korea is technically still ongoing, military service in both Koreas is compulsory, though only for men. In the South, all men must serve for two years. In the North, it’s ten years. We know instinctively that the North Korean military is drastically different from the U.S.’s, just as almost everything about North Korean society is drastically different from ours. The compulsory service in the South, though, also makes the South Korean military quite different from what we’re used to here, and it affects not only the military itself but also society at large in interesting ways. Continue reading

Kim Jong Un’s First Speech Exalts Military, Unification

Kim Jong Un speaks at a military parade in Pyongyang celebrating the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth on April 15th, 2012, as seen from space. Photo credit Digital Globe, Inc. via MSNBC.

As far as we know, Kim Jong Il, late president of North Korea, spoke publicly one time only during his thirty years in the limelight of his country’s ruling party. When he did, it was a single line. His father, Kim Il Sung, had given a speech during celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the North Korean People’s Army’s establishment; after the speech, the younger Kim stepped to the microphone and voiced his only public sentiment: “Glory to the heroic soldiers of the Korean people’s army!” (see it in this video).

That was in 1992. The Western media heard his voice a few more times; for instance, in this video from 2007. Still, he gave no more speeches that his own country would hear.

Kim Jong Un gave his first public speech on April 15th, during the 100th-anniversary celebrations of his grandfather’s birth. It is the nation’s most important holiday. The younger Kim’s speech was extensive—20 minutes long—and stands in sharp contrast to his father’s reclusiveness.

Yet the content of the speech matches the sentiment shared by his father’s single line almost perfectly. Continue reading

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

The Associated Press’s Newest Bureau

Pictures from North Korea:

A North Korean shovels snow at the foot of Mt. Paekdu on April 3, 2012. Photo credit David Guttenfelder/AP.

 

The Associated Press opened their first full news bureau in North Korea in January. This is tremendously exciting to all of us DPRK-watchers who want more, more, more news coming out of the country, and I think it’s partially responsible for the sustained higher media profile of North Korea since Kim Jong Il’s death.

The bureau operates out of Pyongyang. The official opening was planned for December 2011, but the news of Kim Jong-Il’s death broke just as Tom Curley and Kathleen Carroll, respectively AP’s president and executive editor, arrived in the capital city. Everything was postponed for the mourning period, and the official opening of the bureau itself was put off until January 16th. Still, the staffers in Pyongyang—already set up to operate—got straight to work covering the story of Kim Jong Il’s death.

Two North Korean journalists staff the AP bureau full-time; the Korean Central News Agency (the only North Korean news outlet) pledges full cooperation with the AP. This is pretty standard operating procedure for the AP, but it’s very interesting in the news-strangled case of North Korea to hear that some of the stories the AP produces will be developed by North Koreans. However, most of the news stories on AP’s site are produced by Western writers based in Seoul or the US or even Sweden.

The two North Korean journalists are supervised by the AP’s bureau chief for the Korean peninsula, Jean Lee, who makes frequent visits to Pyongyang from her base of operations in Seoul. The AP’s chief Asia photographer, David Guttenfelder, also plays a major role, producing many exceptional photos. These two account for the main coverage accreditation. Continue reading

A German Story, Part 3 of 3

We open in medias res of Horst’s story. If you haven’t read Parts 1 and 2, you should go back and read them before continuing: [hyperlink to Part 1 post].

When we last left our hero, Horst had left East Berlin for the first time in his life and was eating pizza in West Berlin.

Also, we are in West Berlin. And on this day Helmut Kohl [the Chancellor of West Germany] is visiting. He was traveling in Poland, and came back to West Berlin for this day and on the street we are on we see a big crowd of people and cars coming this way, and helicopters flying overhead. And this is Helmut Kohl. So I am standing there and next to me is a beige Opel sitting right there. And a large man walks up to me, very big and as tall as I am and very stern, just like this.” He demonstrates again, and it is intimidating. As I said, he is a believable actor and is also at least two meters tall. “And he throws the car door open”— fearing that I missed the verb, he adds, “Not opens it, but rather really throws it open—right into me, so.” Horst is acting his own part again and bends over in agony, clutching his crotch. “And out of the car steps Helmut Kohl! This was his car! Not some black state vehicle, but this beige Opel. So he is walking past me and I am bending over in pain. Hahaha. And so that is my first impression of Western government,” he adds, grinning, clutching his crotch again in memory.

“All right, now is when you should take notes again. A couple of years after, a friend told me that he remembered walking by the gate on Wednesday. The 8th. And a GI—the very lowest, a GI—told him, hey, do you know the Wall is going to be opened tomorrow? And he believed nothing of it, because it was just some GI and he hadn’t heard anything about it. So he forgot. Continue reading

A German Story, Part 2 of 3

We open in medias res of Horst’s story. If you haven’t read Part 1, you should go back and read it before continuing.

When we last left our hero, around 2100 hours on the night of November 9th, 1989, he had been confronted by Italian friends telling him the Wall had fallen. He did not believe them for a second, and denied their news with such authority that they believed him and returned to bed.  Horst returned to his apartment and shut the door.

“So I went back to my reading and then I closed the book and really listened to the radio, no more in one ear and out the other. And there I heard it, the Wall is open, and then it all made sense, before with the . . . Continue reading

A German Story: Part 1 of 3

This story was told to me by Horst one Friday morning, November 9th, when I was the only one who showed up for class. Horst was a professor of mine when I studied abroad in Germany. He is quite tall, probably 200 pounds, dark hair, dark eyes, olive skin, has an air about him like he may have been a former military officer. He is full of conspiracies, and when I knew him he was in the process of building a bicycle-powered wood-chopper for his cottage in the event of a crisis-level power failure. He carries around first editions of 17th century books, his finger marking the page.

In this particular class, we went through some of my questions about grammar, such as “Ob…?” implicit questions and how one uses Intentionalpartikeln such as doch, bloß, mal, etc. Then he said that he thought that today we would work on hearing comprehension, he would tell me a story and I should take notes, and then I could write something up and we could see how I did. So he told me this story.

If you are a particularly acute student of history—as Horst was—you might recognize the date on which he told me this story as a significant one. November 9th is the date the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

Horst was 26 at the time; he had grown up his entire life in East Germany, behind the Wall. Continue reading

On Internet and Accordions

The final examination a teacher must pass before graduating in North Korea is a critical one: a test of competency on the accordion. It’s the so-called “people’s instrument”, apparently because it’s easy to bring along on marches to construction sites or to labor in the fields, and needs no accompaniment save perhaps a voice singing a classic song like “We Have Nothing to Envy in the World.”

A student practises the accordion in Pyongyang, North Korea (photo credit LivingIf)

It is harder these days to unearth information on the accordion’s role in North Korean culture, because on Google almost every single search concerning accordions and North Korea returns a link or article concerning a video that has been making the Internet rounds, of a quintet of young North Korean accordion players improvising on the theme of a-ha’s “Take On Me”, that awesome ’80s pop song. You almost certainly know the song, famous for its memorably rotoscoped music video blending live action with penciled drawings. Continue reading

Fear, Miscommunication, and the Folk Hero Nasreddin Hoca

A statue of Nasreddin Hoca in Brussels (photo credit: tuhfe)

Ah, the charades of political dialogue! North Korea sends a memo urging unification and expressing its willingness to open immediate channels of dialogue with South Korea. The memo reads in part, “The resumption of dialogue and the improvement of relations hinge completely on the willingness of the South’s government.” Once the South gets its act together, in other words, the North is ready and willing to cooperate.

There are just a few small preconditions, we discover. Among them: withdrawal of US troops, apologizing for not showing proper respect toward Kim Jong Il’s death, apologizing for the false accusation of North Korean involvement in the March 2010 torpedo attacks on the Cheonan… the list demonstrates that any “dialogue” that the North might be willing to engage in would be one-sided.

Of course, this message is an improvement from North Korea’s earlier absolute unwillingness to have any relations with the South while President Lee Myung Bak remained in office. Indeed, it might signal in a backhanded way a willingness to engage in dialogue, even if not all preconditions are met. Continue reading

Prospects of an Open Economy in North Korea

One of thousands of statues of Kim Il Sung in North Korea? Nope, this is a statue of Mao Zedong in Chengdu, China (photo from ArianZwegers)

Since Kim Jong Il’s death many articles have explored the likelihood of an open North Korea. Everyone hopes that the recent change in person in North Korea’s leadership might be synonymous with a change in governance. The media attention might also be the result of attempts to capitalize on more exciting angles on North Korea, but let us explore the possibility that maybe we are sensing something about to happen; maybe the change in leadership might herald a new day for North Korea.

The Atlantic has an interesting piece on the historical precedent in China of movement from Communist dictatorship to economic opening. China in 1976 was in a similar position to North Korea’s in 2012, coming off of the death of Mao Zedong to his hand picked successor, revealed only just before his death: Hua Guofeng. The thought is that Kim Jong Un is a near-perfect analogue to Hua Guofeng Continue reading