Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Counting Down in North Korea

"Kim Jong-un climbs into the saddle as he inspects the training ground of a horse riding company of the Korean People's Army (KPA) Unit 534 at an undisclosed place in North Korea." Image Source: KNS/AFP/Getty Images via the Telegraph.

As far as modern media go, North Korea is a testing ground. In the Age of Communications, North Korea is one of the few places on earth where there is no constant feed of data with the surrounding, outside world. The state still controls its population with 20th-century-totalitarian-style propaganda.

North Koreans' only exposure to the outside world is through pirated DVDs, which are having an impact on attitudes in the country. As one North Korean 2010 defector put it in 2012, "I was told when I was young that South Koreans are very poor, but the South Korean dramas proved that just isn’t the case." The main report on this issue comes from Intermedia in 2012 and is entitled: A Quiet Opening: North Koreans in a Changing Media Environment:
Global watchdog organizations such as Freedom House and Re­porters Without Borders routinely rank the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) as the country with the least free media in the world. Indeed, for more than half a century, North Ko­rea’s leaders have relied on a domestic media monopoly to control what information North Koreans can access and how narratives around that information are presented. But the situation on the ground is changing, thanks in large part to North Koreans’ expanding access to unsanctioned foreign media and information sources. ...

The project’s assessment of the current state of the media environ­ment in North Korea suggests that substantial numbers of North Koreans are able to access various forms of foreign media. These include foreign TV and radio broadcasts, and particularly foreign DVDs brought into the country from China by cross-border traders and smugglers. Other vectors for information from abroad include smuggled mobile phones capable of receiving foreign signals, and the exchange of illicit foreign content on otherwise legal MP3/MP4 players and USB drives.
Even the secretive régime is changing part of its Stalinist approach and has its own Youtube channel, here. This is odd, since most North Koreans don't have access to the Internet, which means that the channel is aimed at foreigners. Kim Jong-un has approved strange media events, such as an American basketball exhibition game, promoted by Dennis Rodman.

The Technological Revolution has sparked social and political upheavals across the globe. Will Millennial revolutions reach North Korea as well? Observers feel that they are counting down to a change for this communist dictatorship. Can online media expose and realign the ruling dynasty's power relationships? Kim family members vary in their engagement with the modern media. Most live completely outside the public eye. Others show a slowly developing media savvy.

Some commentators speculate, with Kim Jong-un's recent effort to "eliminate factionalist filth," that conflict between North Korea and its neighbours is inevitable in 2014. They argue that external conflict could unite the country's leadership and halt the pace of change.

As far as uniting the leadership goes, those commentators may be wrong. North Korea began 2013 with apocalyptic nuclear threats, and the Americans responded late in the year by flying nuclear-capable B-52 bombers over the Korean peninsula. Critics argue that the Americans have been threatening North Korea with the 'Hiroshima Doctrine' for fifty years. The North Korean leadership seems to have taken a message from the 2013 Korean Crisis. This year's New Year's news in relation to the outside world was quieter, but from inside the Hermit Kingdom, there are reports of internal dissent at the top, of hair-raising purges and possibly-attempted palace coups.

In December 2013: "Very good likelihood of survival: Kim Jong-un with his aunt Kim Kyong-hui." In January 2014, those odds dropped for Kim's aunt, who has lately suffered from ill health. Image Source: AP via Sydney Morning Herald.

When patriarch and leader Kim Jong-il died in 2011, the world's press assumed that his youngest son and heir would fall under the sway of his paternal aunt, Kim Kyong-hui and her husband Jang Sung-taek. What happened next over the following two years is unclear. State news blackouts foster a black market in information, the more grim and outlandish, the better. Jang was later sensationally arrested by Kim Jong-un's elder brother Kim Jong-chul. Almost no other country could then have a rumour circulated that Jang was stripped naked, along with five aides, and executed by 120 starving dogs in December 2013 - and have people believe it. Other reports state that Jang and his aides were executed with anti-aircraft machine guns.

On 24 December 2013, the Sydney Morning Herald thought, nevertheless, that the leader's aunt, Kim Kyong-hui's chances of survival were still "very good." But on 7 January 2014, the National Post reported (via the Chosun Ilbo newspaper) that Jang's wife has died either by heart attack or suicide; she last appeared in the international press in December. Her daughter, Jang Kum-song, Kim Jong-un's first cousin, committed suicide in Paris while studying there in 2006, after her parents opposed a marital proposal.

"Kim Jong Il’s half-brother, Kim Pyong Il, with daughter [Eun Song] and son [In Kang]." (2007) Image Source: Daily NK.

Starving dogs or no starving dogs, the leader's family members are dying off. The Sydney Morning Herald reported:
In the mid-18th century, Korea was ruled by King Yeongjo, who governed according to austere Confucian principles. One day, he began to hear reports that his son, Crown Prince Sado, was addicted to wine and women; more worryingly, Sado would wander the streets at night, randomly committing murder. There were even rumours that Sado sought to overthrow the king and seize power. Fearing for the safety of his kingdom but unable to order the death of his own son, Yeongjo ordered him placed outside in a box used for the storage of rice. Most Koreans know what happened to the "rice box prince," as Sado later came to be known - he died of starvation and suffocation, as those in the palace heard his cries for help. Fast-forward 250 years later, and we're back asking the same question: Is blood really thicker than water?
You may want to keep track of the rest of the family. Kim Jong-il had "one younger sister Kim Kyung Hee [now deceased] (married to Jang Sung Taek [now deceased]) as well as half-brothers (to different mothers) Kim Pyong Il [above, with his children], Kim Young Il (deceased 2000) and half-sister Kim Kyung Jin (51, married to Kim Kwang Sup, Ambassador to Austria [in 2007])." If you want to know more, check out the blog, North Korea Leadership Watch, which has profiles on family members. It also has information on the Party brass, the generals, and figures in North Korea's security apparatus.

Kim Jong-nam was the heir apparent in North Korea's leading communist dynasty until 2001. Image Source: NPR.

Kim Jong-un's oldest brother, Kim Jong-nam, fell out of favour with his father in 2001 when he was caught secretly attempting to visit Japan to see Tokyo's Disneyland; he was traveling under a "Dominican Republic Passport while using the Chinese name Pang Xiong (which means 'fat bear')." He "was [also] known as a 'familiar figure' at a bathhouse in Yoshiwara, which is one of Tokyo’s red light districts." There are rumours that his uncle was executed in December 2013 for secretly meeting with him. The 42-year-old playboy lives in Macau, the last European colony in Asia, which was Portuguese territory until 1999. In 2010, a South Korean reporter cornered the disgraced heir against an elevator in the Altira Hotel in Macau:
A JoongAng Sunday reporter confronted Jong-nam, 39, in the 10th-floor elevator bank of the Altira Hotel after a late-morning meal with an unidentified woman, who looked to be a Korean in her 20s. He had previously given interviews to the Hong Kong and Japanese press, but for South Korean media it was a first.

Jong-nam appeared cool as he allowed his picture to be taken, blue Ferragamo loafers and all. But he kept the talk and his answers short.

Asked how he had been, he said, “Fine, now are you satisfied?”

As to rumors that he had been telling people in Macau that heir-apparent Kim Jong-un, who was born in 1984 (although North Korean media last year reported he was born in 1982), is the son of one of his father’s mistresses, and thus should be out of the line of succession, he replied “I do not have any idea of what you just said.”
Kim Jong-nam now feels that his younger brother, aged 30, will not last long as dictator and he advocates reform in his country, with improved relations with South Korea.

Kim Jong-nam's son, the leader's nephew, Han-sol, sparked a scandal in 2011 when South Korean media discovered his Facebook page. Gawker:
South Korean media discovered Kim Jong-Il's grandson's Facebook page on Saturday and are having a field day picking over his blog and photo galleries. Turns out he's just a geeky high schooler who likes American movies and gets in comments flame wars. ...

Han Sol's blog posts and Facebook status updates also caused a stir, as they seem to be at odds, politically with his grandfather. According to the Chosunilbo, he posted a poll on his Facebook account asking if people preferred Democracy over communism, saying he liked the former. This is not surprising, given that Han Sol's father was exiled from North Korea over his pro-Western leanings. But pretty sure grandpa would purge him for less than that!

Han Sol had a couple Twitter accounts as well, and a blog (all since deleted)—the blog listed Love Actually and Remember the Titans as his favorite movies, and his interests as traveling, photography and "spa." Good to see he's not taking after his grandfather and secretly building nuclear weapons in his spare time.

However, Han Sol apparently shares Kim Jong Il's distate for Americans, as evidenced by a long flame war he apparently got in with someone named NickyAmerica in the comments section of a YouTube video posted to North Korea's official account. "Fuck off fatty," he tells NickyAmerica…. "go drop your cigarette and your cheesburger and go read a book. I'd suggest you to go study some geography."
Han-sol gave an interview to a Finnish TV network in Bosnia in 2012. The 17-year-old said:
"I’ve always dreamed that one day I would go back and make things better and make it easier for the people there. ... It’s really sad I can’t go to the other side (South Korea) ... . But we can, if we put in a little effort, step-by-step, come to a conclusion and unite."
In April 2013, Bosnian media reported that Kim Han-sol had gone missing. But reports from December 2013 stated that he had resurfaced under police protection in Paris where he is studying at Sciences-Po. You can see the 2012 interview with him below the jump.

Interview, Part I, with Kim Han-sol, son of Kim Jong-il's oldest son (2012). The interview is in English and begins at 1:35. Video Source: Youtube.

Interview, Part II, with Kim Han-sol, son of Kim Jong-il's oldest son (2012). Video Source: Youtube.

Caption for the above video: "Kim Han-sol interviewed by Elisabeth Rehn for Finnish television. Kim Han-sol is the grandson of Kim Jong-il. He never met his grandfather. At the time of this interview in 2012, he was studying at United World College in Mostar, Bosnia and Hertzegovina. Elisabeth Rehn (b. 1935) was a UN Under-Secretary General and the Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995-1999. Before that, she was a member of the Finnish parliament (1979-1995) and Minister of Defence (1990-1995). Rehn helped found the United World College in Mostar."

In 2011, the Associated Press tried to break down North Korea's barrier to information going out to the broader world. In an unprecedented move, AP opened a news bureau in Pyongyang, with government permission, headed by photojournalist David Guttenfelder. His video retrospective of his experiences is posted below. See his instagram page and Twitter feed for continually updated photos from inside North Korea. In December 2013, Petapixel reported on the impact Guttenfelder has had with these photos:
Guttenfelder’s images, both in newspapers and on Instagram, have given the whole world a peek behind North Korea’s own Iron Curtain, and in the video above he explains the power of photography as if pertains to this secretive and isolated world. It’s hard to overstate the impact Guttenfleder’s work has had, and the importance of the images he sends out of the country. Before the AP sent him, photos from North Korea came almost exclusively from the country’s propaganda-driven news agency.
See one of Guttenfelder's most amazing photos, Rice Wine with Vipers at the Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang, taken in December 2013, here.

August 2013 interview with Lord Alton, including remarks on history and religion in North Korea. The broadcaster is World Over, a global Catholic mouthpiece. Video Source: World Over via Youtube.

From North Korea's official Youtube channel. Soldiers playing in a kazoo band (2011). Video Source: Youtube. 

"People watch a live TV news program showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's uncle Jang Song Thaek, second from right, being escorted by military officers during a trial in Pyongyang on Dec. 12. Jang was executed afterward." Image Source: NY Daily News.

Interpretation of Jang Song Thaek's execution. Video Source: Telegraph.

North Korea by the numbers, Telegraph's tongue-in-cheek quick summary of the country's events since Kim Jong Il died in December 2011. Video Source: Telegraph.

2005 video hit A Girl In The Saddle Of A Steed, featuring Kim Jong Un's ex-girlfriend, who was executed by firing squad on 17 August 2013. Video Source: Telegraph.

David Guttenfelder talks to National Geographic about his work reporting for AP in Pyongyang. Video Source: Youtube.

A retrospective of Guttenfelder's photos from North Korea, assisted by modern, hand-held technology. Video Source: Youtube.

"The Associated Press'[s] photographer David Guttenfelder and reporter Jean Lee are posting Instagram videos from inside North Korea. Here, a North Korean woman works at a restaurant while a propaganda video plays on the TV screen behind her." Image Source: David Guttenfelder / Instagram via NY Daily News. See the surreal video feed of the blaring TV in this scene, here.

Intermedia 2012 report on North Koreans' access to media. Video Source: Youtube.

My avatar on this blog is a still of the animated character, Aeon Flux. She was the creation of South Korean animator Peter Chung. Chung once explained that his show Aeon Flux, which featured two battling neighbour states of totalitarian Bregna and anarchic, dynamic Monica, was not a story about East and West Germany, as many viewers assumed. Rather, the 1990s' animated MTV series was a gnostic allegory which described the co-existence of North and South Korea ever since the 1953 armistice. In 2009, he wrote to a young fan of his series:
[O]nce viewers get into their heads that certain details of personal history may have been the source of influence on an artist's work, they often get stuck thinking of that as the only correct angle of interpretation of the work. The last thing I want is for anyone to think they need to know anything about my life experiences in order to understand A[eon] F[lux].
With that out of the way, since you raise the question, I will answer yes [the situation between North and South Korea did serve as influence for Aeon Flux].
I've stated in interviews and on the DVD commentary that the rival states of Bregna and Monica were inspired by my observation of the conflict between North and South Korea.
I was born in Seoul on April 19, 1961. 4-19 is the anniversary of the popular revolution that overthrew pres. Syngman Rhee. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/April_19_Movement
Both my parents are originally from North Korea. They escaped to the South during the Korean War.
My father was a commodore in the Korean Navy, then worked in the Korean diplomatic service under pres. Park Chung Hee, eventually becoming ambassador. My father had a good relationship with pres. Park, who is the real-life personification of the benevolent dictator. He was a strict authoritarian. He also raised the living conditions for the country leading to the prosperity and openness enjoyed by Koreans today. Park was assassinated in 1979 by the head of the KCIA. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Park_Chung_Hee
The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone "No Man's Land") between North and South Korea is the most heavily armed and mined border in the world.
The conflict between North and South is a man-made absurdity, a cause of suffering and wasted lives derived from adherence to ideology. The border is arbitrary. The people of North and South Korea are the same people. They have the same names, speak the same language, possess the same temperament, the same physical traits.
The atmosphere of [South] Korea during the 60s and 70s is very different from what you see here today. Nationalist propaganda was the pervasive cultural form of expression, including grade school art and music projects. The threat of North Korean infiltration was palpable and real. Parents warned their children against contact with strangers because they might be agents from the North. Spy incidents were always in the news. I remember the marching, the uniforms, the nationalist songs, the school lunch inspections, air raid drills, curfews, the ubiquitous portrait of Park Chung Hee.
The divided mentalities in Korean culture have rarely been explored with such piercing, human symbolism as that presented by Peter Chung. His most poignant episode in that regard is Thanatophobia (see it here). You can see my earlier post on Chung's series here.

See my earlier posts on North Korea, here and here.


  1. I can only shake my head when American news outlets that snicker whenever a Chinese newspaper plagiarizes an Onion article and presents it as factual, original reporting will themselves turn around and circulate any silly load of road apples like that starving dog story without doing the most rudimentary fact-checking expected of a middle school journalism project.

    1. The starving dog story was exactly the kind of thing that would go viral on the web, which means, true or not, it was an example of media savvy. If it's true, it's also a horrific abomination. I don't think North Korea watchers are under illusions as to how brutal the regime can be. But even for them, this was - out there.