Monday, February 28, 2011

Is this an idle threat?

Y'know, before the shelling of Yŏnpyŏng-do Island by North Korean forces, I would have taken with a grain of salt any threats by Pyongyang to fire on South Korean activists releasing balloons with messages and dollar bills attached to them that are intended to waft over the DPRK and into the hands of some peasant.

Threats like this one:
A massive propaganda campaign by the South Korean military drew an ominous warning from North Korea on Sunday, with Pyongyang saying that it would fire across the border at anyone sending helium balloons carrying anti-North Korean messages into the country.

A statement carried by the North’s official news agency said the balloon-and-leaflet campaign “by the puppet military in the frontline area is a treacherous deed and a wanton challenge” to peace on the Korean Peninsula. The statement, attributed to a North Korean military official, said further balloon sorties would be seen as offensive provocations that would result in “direct fire” by North Korean Army units.
But that was before the shelling of Yŏnpyŏng-do. Now I'm not so sure such warnings are as glib as we once thought, nor should we be as blasé as we once were.

Still, since then ROK President Lee Myungbak made it absolutely crystal clear that South Korean forces would get really mad the next time North Korea attacked South Korean soil, and there would be repercussions.

Would South Korea let North Korea have it if, say, North Korean artillery shelled Imjin-gak, the touristy area near the DMZ near which some of the balloons were released? One would hope that this time they really mean it, but Pyongyang could easily (mis)calculate that they don't. After all, South Korea going too far in any response risks a much wider war, a war that would likely spell the end of North Korea but only after considerable loss of life among South Koreans.

Yŏnpyŏng-do was a game-changer. All bets are off. My money is still on North Korea calculatedly pushing things just shy of an attack requiring a full-blown response, but who knows?

The Marmot's Hole has more on this threat, especially at a time of military exercises conducted by the US and ROK militaries.

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Human breast milk — It's what's for dessert

The next time any Brits complain to me about (some) Koreans eating dog meat, I'm going to point out the London creamery that sells ice cream made from human breast milk. Yup.

I imagine ordering goes something like this:
PATRON:
I'd like some of the Madagascan vanilla in a cone, please.

ICECREAMIST EMPLOYEE:
Single or double?

PATRON:
Double D, please.
Thanks, I'm here all week.

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Bilingualism good for the brain

Here's a good reason to learn Korean beyond 맥주 하나 주세요! or 얼마예요? Having two (or more) languages bounce around in your noggin is good for your brain:
But neuroscience researchers are increasingly coming to a consensus that bilingualism has many positive consequences for the brain. Several such researchers traveled to this month's annual meeting of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., to present their findings. Among them:

• Bilingual children are more effective at multi-tasking.

• Adults who speak more than one language do a better job prioritizing information in potentially confusing situations.

• Being bilingual helps ward off early symptoms of Alzheimer's disease in the elderly.

These benefits come from having a brain that's constantly juggling two — or even more — languages, said Ellen Bialystok, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto, who spoke at the AAAS annual meeting. For instance, a person who speaks both Hindi and Tamil can't turn Tamil off even if he's speaking to only Hindi users, because the brain is constantly deciding which language is most appropriate for a given situation.

This constant back-and-forth between two linguistic systems means frequent exercise for the brain's so-called executive control functions, located mainly in the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain tasked with focusing one's attention, ignoring distractions, holding multiple pieces of information in mind when trying to solve a problem, and then flipping back and forth between them.
What kind of bilingual education, however, is an entirely different matter, the article notes. Many of the studies appear to be on adult users of two or more languages, not little kids who are proficient speakers of one language but who are learning a different language in which they are not immersed. Would Korean students learning English a few times a week at school or in a hagwon gain any such benefit?

Nor does it even try to answer the question of how schools can best teach, say, kids who speak Spanish, Korean, or Mandarin at home but must eventually learn English so they can do well in school.

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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Snow down to 500 feet in SoCal?



Growing up in Southern California, the mountains to the north, which reach over 10,000 feet in some places (Mt Baldy, Mt San Gorgonio, etc.) would get enough snow for moderate skiing (maybe Los Angeles should hold the Winter Olympics if things go south in Sochi). Orange County, whose Mt Santiago (aka Saddleback Peak) is over a mile high, would also get its share of the white.

Each winter, it is common for snow levels to get down at least to 4000 feet once or twice, and occasionally to 3000 feet or even 2000.

But tonight they are expecting snow flurries down to 1000 feet, and possibly even 500 feet. That covers a lot more Southern Californians than usual. For a change, a white dusting around the Hollywood sign won't be an illegal import, while farther north San Francisco may get its first snow in thirty-five years.

UPDATE:
The snow has begun falling (this link includes records of when snow last fell in various parts of the Los Angeles area's low elevations).

UPDATE 2:
The official snow level only reached down to 1700 feet, but people below apparently got dusted. The above picture is downtown Los Angeles, whose buildings' base is only a couple hundred feet above sea level.


Meanwhile, down in Orange County, this happened to be the first day of lifeguard tryouts. The would-be lifeguards had to brave the water — which is cold even in the summer — amidst 40°F temperatures (about 4°C or 5°C). These are not polar bears; they are the unemployed.

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I wouldn't buy the iPhone4 for Verizon, but that's just me.

Let me start off by saying I am not a shill for AT&T, even though they've been my (mostly) reliable service provider since I first owned a cell phone in the US (November 2006). And I have nothing against Verizon, well, except for them ripping off my septuagenarian auntie to the tune of nearly a thousand dollars by jerking her around from plan to plan, telling her she would be getting the cheapest plan for her needs when they were actually spinning her into excessive 45¢/minute calls, and then using predatory practices on her by browbeating the poor woman into a cell phone she didn't want or need and thus locking her into another two-year contract, while also neglecting to tell her, until a month later when it would be too late, that there would be a $150 service deactivation charge for ending service on her the phone formerly used by her octogenarian husband, a World War II veteran who is now in a nursing home she can't really afford.

But other than that, I have nothing against Verizon. This is all about the iPhone4, recently released in a Verizon-ready edition.

For starters, it has the same antenna issue as the iPhone4 for AT&T: if you hold it in just the right way, so that your fingers and palm bridge all the little gaps in the three-piece antenna that rings the device, your signal deteriorates, sometimes to the point of dropping calls. Like the AT&T version, it can be fixed with a bumper. And frankly, the bumper can be an enhancement, preventing the device from slipping and guarding the body from coming into contact with something hard during a drop, all in colorful style.


The antenna issue is serious enough that Consumer Reports says that's reason enough to not recommend the Verizon version, just as it did with the AT&T version:
The Verizon iPhone 4 has a problem that could cause the phone to drop calls, or be unable to place calls, in weak signal conditions, Consumer Reports engineers have found in lab tests.

The problem is similar to the one we confirmed in July with the AT&T version of Apple's newest smart phone. It can occur when you hold either version of the phone in a specific but quite natural way in which a gap in the phone's external casing is covered. The phone performs superbly in most other respects, and using the iPhone 4 with a case can alleviate the problem.
But that's no reason to buy the AT&T version over the Verizon version. The real problem is something else: Verizon's network is such that some of the most important multitasking features are lost when talking on the Verizon-based iPhone4, something that does not happen when using the AT&T-based iPhone4.

Using a Verizon iPhone4 at the Royal Hawaiian Apple Store in Waikiki, allow me to demonstrate.

This is a screen grab of me trying to browse the Internet while talking on the phone (I called myself from the demonstration phone inside the Apple Store). It simply states that I cannot use Safari while I'm talking on the Verizon iPhone4. As soon as I hung up, I could go back to browsing.

Now some of you might say, "What's the big deal? I don't need to browse while talking." Well, I do enjoy being able to look stuff up while on the phone. Sometimes the conversations I'm having, like with the aforementioned auntie, require me to look things up while I'm talking.

This extends to other Internet-based services as well, such as Google Maps, demonstrated below:

Please bear in mind, this is not an obscure test of some rarely used functionality: the fact is that I frequently go to the iPhone4's map function (which is Google Maps) while on the phone. You might be trying to locate someone, or help them locate you, etc., or figure out where you're going.

Similarly, I also check out the apps for Yelp, Wikipedia, and even the Apple Store (which I used to make Genius Bar appointments) while using the phone. With AT&T, this is absolutely no problem; with Verizon, it is absolutely impossible.

Now, there are other reasons to consider Verizon over AT&T. Supposedly some people get better service with Verizon, although I have had little complaint about my AT&T service. In Hawaii, it's great. In California and Nevada, it is as good as my auntie's Verizon service. The only time I had a problem was on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, where I had to literally sit on the edge of the canyon with my hand extended over the abyss in order to pick up the faint signal coming from the South Rim's Grand Canyon Village, ten miles away, but that's apparently a problem for everyone. However, if AT&T's service is not a problem in your area, go with the AT&T phone. Otherwise you're missing out on what I consider one of the key features of this very smart smartphone.

Some say that AT&T's service, relative to Verizon's, will improve as more and more iPhone4 users shift to Verizon or Verizon picks up new customers who had waited for the iPhone4 to come to Verizon: much of AT&T's slowdown (wish I could find the link for this) came from having so many intensive iPhone users, a problem Verizon may now face.

And with a new iPhone5 (or at least an iPhone 4s) expected in the pipeline sometime around July, why not just wait a little more? Maybe the Verizon model of the next-generation iPhone will have resolved these issues.

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Friday, February 25, 2011

Has Kim Jong-un already risen to number two? Or is our media analysis a bunch of number two?

[Note: This post and its companion are a compilation and expansion of two recent comments I left at One Free Korea, slightly expanded upon here.]

On display on the giant display.
Is this a picture highlighting Kim Jong-un, or is this a scene from a video 
congratulating Kim Jong-il on living another year that has been captured as a 
still shot and is presented by the New York Times in such a way 
that it looks like it was the centerpiece of the show?  

Writing at One Free Korea, frequent commenter Glans noted:
Kim Jong-Un is now #2. Anyhow, the NY Times says that Chosun Ilbo says that an anonymous source says so. Read the report by Mark McDonald.
Hmm… I'm still skeptical about The Kim Who Wasn't There. It doesn’t help that the article’s author appears to confuse himself:
South Korean government officials could not immediately confirm Kim Jong-il’s promotion, and KCNA had made no mention of it by Wednesday afternoon. [emphasis mine]
I think he meant Kim Jong-un [this has since been corrected by the NYT]. L'il Kim. I wonder where else Mr McDonald’s confused. This is the NYT, right? You’d think they’d have better editing than that. (Or was this a case of me grossly misreading the article at 1:30 a.m.? There are so many Kim Jong-x running around.)

I’m also skeptical of the claim being made that this promotion means “he has been elevated to North Korea’s #2.” It says he was “named to the post of vice chairman of the defense commission” [emphasis mine], but isn’t there already a vice chairman in the form of his own uncle? Did Jang Songthaek lose that post? If not, then Kim Jong-un is more like #3, not #2.

I’m wondering if this can be a “definitive declaration” when the KCNA doesn’t even carry it (so far). Sorry, but I’m skeptical that the same people who thought for so long that Kim Jong-un was 김정운 and not 김정은 suddenly have such a clearer picture of what’s going on up there.

When we start seeing official portraits and/or badges of Kim Jong-un, that means he’s been anointed.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Another English teacher suicide in Pusan?

Stories of suicide sadden me and piss me off at the same time. When they come about, I have little desire to write about them, and fortunately I can point to previous posts and have you read those.

In the wake of another apparent suicide by an English teacher in Pusan, I will just point you toward the post I wrote last April when the same type of thing happened, and ask you to read the links within that post.

I'll also direct you toward a post in ROK Drop that highlights efforts by ATEK to get help for people who need it. Ignore comment #2; that guy can be a dipshit sometimes.

Suicide remains a permanent solution to a temporary problem. There are people out there to help you get through whatever is tormenting you.

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Freakanomics on pay-as-you-throw trash policies

Having lived in Seoul off and on since I was a teenager, I remember when our great city made the ground-breaking shift toward requiring us Seoulites to pay for our garbage bags, in an attempt to encourage recycling of plastic, glass, paper, etc.

This was done as we were fed nearly daily doses of news about how Nanjido, the local landfill shown above in the mid-1980s, was essentially full. (The once gag-inducing site whose offensive odors would waft over Mapo-gu has since been filled in and is now the site of a recreational complex that is anchored by Sang-am World Cup Stadium.)

Though they highlight Taipei instead of Seoul, Freakonomics Radio has an interesting podcast (I subscribe to this on iTunes) that talks about the economics of trash. Sadly, what has worked quite effectively in Korea and Taiwan (even to the point of helping romance bloom) has failed or met considerable resistance in some parts of the United States.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

And today it's Diamond Head

Ill have something on the Netizens' discovery of Blackout Korea [also here and here] sometime after I get down.

(HT to the loads of SoKos who triggered Sitemeter while linking to an earlier post on that).

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Monday, February 21, 2011

A beautiful day for Pearl Harbor

I'm taking a group of eight visitors from Japan to the newly remodeled USS Arizona Memorial, including the USS Bowfin submarine exhibit. An interesting but somber place. I'll include a "review" later, but for now this is all I can do on my iPhone.

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Did a Chinese official confirm the ascension of Kim Jong-un?

[Note: This post and its companion are a compilation and expansion of two recent comments I left at One Free Korea, slightly expanded upon here.]

Mr Meng and Mr Kim, as presented by Reuters.
Kim Jong-un is in the back with the sycophants.

A couple of recent North Korea-related news items have led a few bloggers and commenters to ask me whether I should rethink my position that Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il's son and presumed heir, is little more than "The Kim Who Wasn't There" (see here, here, and most recently here).

First, there is this item at One Free Korea:
“Meng Jianzhu, China’s public security minister, congratulated Kim’s youngest son Jong-un on his appointment as vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission last year, “hailing the successful solution of the issue of succession to the Korean revolution,” KCNA news agency reported. This is followed by some “expert” interpretations of what “succession” means in this context, but I don’t find those interpretations very persuasive.
This comes from a Reuters article entitled, "China openly backs North Korea succession plan: KCNA" (a similar article from Yonhap is here). Joshua himself invites me to address the issue:
Over to you, Kushibo
Hmm... I'd really like to see which KCNA report they're referring to; that is, I'd like to see the actual report. This one (here in Chosŏnŏ) about Mr Maeng meeting Kim Yongnam doesn't really bear out the above interpretation:
Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the DPRK Supreme People's Assembly, met and had a friendly talk with Meng Jianzhu, minister of Public Security who is state councilor of the People's Republic of China, and his party at the Mansudae Assembly Hall Monday.

Meng said that the Sino-DPRK friendly relations sealed in blood are fraternal and comradely.

He underscored the need to strengthen and develop the Sino-DPRK relations provided by the leaders of the elder generations of the two countries generation after generation.

He noted that his visits to several places during his stay in the DPRK provided an opportunity to know well about the shining achievements made by the Korean people in the building of a thriving socialist nation by displaying the revolutionary fighting spirit and traits.

He expressed belief that under the wise leadership of Kim Jong Il the Korean people would register greater success in the future, too. [emphasis mine]
It would seem Mr Maeng Kŏnju, according to the KCNA, seems to think that Kim Jong-il will be the one leading North Korea 앞으로 (in the future).

But that doesn't matter if the media have an agenda to foist, or at least reputations to preserve (and admitting you don't know what's going on is a good way to tarnish your reputation). From the article Joshua linked:
"(But) we can interpret that as a sign of acceptance on the part of China's political and power elite with regards to North Korea's succession," said Park Young-ho, of the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
In other words: Mr Maeng says one thing, but we can "interpret" that to mean that other, different thing we've already decided it means. In other other words, "These are not the droids you're looking for."

Thank you, but I'll stick to the manifest content of these dreamy pronouncements. The latent interpretation is just too fuzzy. Particularly when it's coming from people who had no clue that "Kim Jong-un" was 김정은 and not 김정운. I mean, really, are we supposed to place all our faith in the tea leaf-reading of "experts" and journalists who got the guy's name wrong in Korean because they only had access to it in English or Japanese?!

I'll reiterate my position: I do believe that someone is trying to push Kim Jong-un into a position of leadership, perhaps as a figurehead, a puppet, a dupe, a symbol around which to rally the people, a source of stability, whatever, BUT this is by no means the done deal that we are being led to believe it is, as the South Korean, Japanese, and Western media are looking for evidence though which to prove that interpretation, even to the point of misleading us (in the free world) that the North Korean hoi polloi are being pushed to accept it.

Mr Kim and Mr Meng and the other Kim, presented by Fox News.
Look, suddenly the L'il Kim is up in front. But where was he mostly?
Did everyone have a chance to come up front? Did others? Just KJU?
We actually know very little from this picture, but we're tempted to assume a lot.

This father-to-son transfer of power will not likely be pushed onto the hoi polloi until it is on solid ground within the ruling elite, which is a somewhat shaky prospect. It might happen, but it hasn't happened yet. We will know when this has happened because it will be evident in the North Korean media and on regime paraphernalia, like the official portraiture and badges. Such Kim Jong-un hagiography, portraiture, and paraphernalia have not yet materialized, which was a key element of the aforementioned link.

Meanwhile, all this tabloidesque focus on palace intrigue (Kim Jongchol at an Eric Clapton concert, really?!) utterly ignores the real story that is going on, the Manchurianization of North Korea, whereby China is pushing the Pyongyang regime to accept Chinese-style reforms so as to stabilize the country by making it more prosperous and integrating it into Beijing's own plans for what used to be called Manchuria.

Kim Jong-un is not in charge now and possibly never will be. Heck, given the events of the last few years, I'm not entirely sure Kim Jong-il himself is actually in charge, but that's an issue for another day.

UPDATE (an hour later):
Ah, I finally found the KCNA article in question (朝鮮語), but it makes little difference. Here's an excerpt in English:
Kim Jong Il thanked for this and asked Meng to convey his regards to the senior officials of the Chinese party and state including Hu Jintao. He had a cordial and friendly talk with Meng.

Meng warmly congratulated Kim Jong Il upon his reelection as general secretary of the WPK and Kim Jong Un upon his election as vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission of the WPK at the historic Conference of the WPK, hailing the successful solution of the issue of succession to the Korean revolution.

Witnessing the reality of the DPRK, he was deeply impressed by the signal achievements made by the Korean people under the leadership of Kim Jong Il, he said, adding that the Chinese people are rejoiced over as over their own the achievements made by the fraternal Korean people.
Is "the issue of succession to the Korean revolution" supposed to mean "the issue of Kim Jong-un's succession to Korean leadership"? That seems a stretch. Interesting that the Korean-language omits that part.

UPDATE 2 (the following morning):
[Note: this was originally a comment I left at OFK.] Joshua, I don't know that we were actually ever that far apart on it. With the government slots the untested General Kim Jong-un has been given, it's been clear at least since last October that he's being pushed up by someone.

However, what I take issue with is how the media, many experts, and even the government have not only accepted this uncritically, but they have also massaged recent events to fit an interpretation that the ascension is on the fast track. Cumulatively, I feel we are being misled.

The track record is abominable. Kim Jong-il is not dead from pancreatic cancer (remember that one?), he is not immobile from a stroke, and Kim Jong-un is not 김정. Yet think how confidently these were presented and how uncritically they were accepted.

Kim Jong-il almost certainly had a stroke, and then the collective media (South Korean, Japanese, and Western) fell over themselves trying to report Kim Jong-il to death. Every little sign was an indicator of his imminent demise, and pictures that showed him walking around were deemed to be faux-toshop fakes.

Yet it seems almost no one bothered to open up a medical manual or go to WebMD.com and see what actually happens with a minor stroke. Nothing related to his actual condition should have been surprising, but it turned out to be totally unexpected by a press and public that was sure he'd be dead by the first half of 2010.

Even the article you cited in this post refers to Kim Jong-il as "ailing North Korean leader Kim Jong-il." I won't take too much issue with the word ailing because technically it's true. The guy is probably taking Coumadin cocktails several times a day, but the word ailing suggests he's on a downward trend when in fact he seems to be recovering adequately and normally from the stroke. Indeed, he may be on an upward trend.

The media should stick to reporting what they know and do a better job of separating fact from speculation, while removing their hopeful agenda from the equation. And we should call them on it.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

How green is my balli balli

Several Korean or Korea-connected automobiles have made the greenercars.org's list of the Greenest Vehicles of 2011, even though they include gasoline-powered engines.

They are the Hyundai Elantra, the Chevrolet Cruze (some of which are made in South Korea), and the Chevrolet Volt (whose batteries are made by a division of South Korea's LG Chem, but in the Detroit area). In certain categories, other Hyundai or Kia vehicles, like the Sonata, also get good ratings.

The "meanest" cars include the F-150, aka the "Hillbilly Hummer," which Ford may want to foist on the South Korean market via the KORUS FTA.

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Jong 2:16

Today is the Fear Leader's Birthday, so what better time to trot out what is one of my all-time favorite headlines and a few of the pictures that go along with them.
I'll reiterate what I wrote last year:
I guess if there's one thing to celebrate on the Dear Leader's birthday, it's that he's gotten one year closer to death (and I'm optimistically assuming that his eventual demise will trigger an eventual end to the regime, unlike, say, the last time a DPRK leader died).
Geez, this guy really has some staying power, and here we all were thinking back in 2009 that his time left on Earth was being measured with a stopwatch. If only there'd have been someone holding up their hand and saying, gee, maybe we're making a bunch of speculative assumptions about his health that simply aren't substantiated.

Oh, wait... there was! (How badly the press and those singing chorus got it on that one directly informs why I'm so skeptical about The Kim Who Wasn't There.)

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Korea to perform harakiri if Pyongchang fails to get 2018 Winter Olympics

Well, not quite. But they might as well have said that:
South Korea faces "national disgrace" if its third bid to secure the winter Olympics fails, the sports minister said Tuesday on the eve of an IOC inspection.

Culture, Sports and Tourism Minister Choung Byoung-Gug, speaking in the eastern alpine resort of Pyeongchang, emphasised the government's determination to back its bid for the 2018 event.

Pyeongchang lost out to Vancouver for the 2010 Games and to the Russian resort of Sochi for 2014.

"Considering our national power and achievements of winter sports on the international stage, it must be a national disgrace if we lost the bid three straight times," Yonhap news agency quoted Choung as saying.
Look, Mr Choung, winning bids are not made of tears, appeals for unification with psychotic neighbors, or, now, warnings that your country will face national disgrace. A successful bid shows that you've got the train service and other ground transport to get people to the facilities (check!), you've got massive infrastructure to handle all the visitors (check!), it's easy to get to the facilities from major airports (check!), there's a lack of any separatist movement that might cause trouble during the games (check!), you've got a good likelihood of snow when the Olympics roll around (or the ability to make it in case Mother Nature isn't being cooperative), or perhaps a threat that you will cut off energy supplies to IOC members' home countries.

Cut it out with the "national disgrace" rhetoric. Focus on the snow and the infrastructure (and maybe how awarding this to South Korea helps promote winter sports in East Asia), because on these factors, South Korea rocks.

And consider dropping that stupid e from Pyeongchang: if they can't pronounce it, they don't want to go.

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Monday, February 14, 2011

Daily Kor for the week ending February 14, 2011: Let it snow!

With the IOC coming to check out Pyongchang in reference to their third bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics, Mother Nature couldn't have picked a better time to belch over half a meter of snow all over Kangwon Province. Let's not forget that a lack of snow is a concern for the Winter Olympics, even in Vancouver and especially in places like the summer resort of Sochi, Russia.

On an administrative note, this blog reached 300,000 hits yesterday since I officially started keeping track. It was eight-and-a-half months ago that I hit 200,000, and eight-and-a-half months before that that I officially hit 100,000. That's only one-eight of Marmot's Hole's daily numbers, but still respectable, I think.
  1. Inter-Korean talks end as North Korea walks out (NYT, LAT)
    • North Korea rejects new talks with "sinister" South Korea (BBC)
  2. Bank of Korea keeps base rate at 2.75 percent (AP via WaPo, WSJ, Bloomberg)
  3. Washington and Seoul sign amendments to KORUS FTA (AP via WaPo)
  4. IOC arrives in Korea for inspection of Pyongchang (Pyeongchang) facilities for 2018 Winter Olympics bid (Yonhap)
  5. SK and Samsung engineering arms win $2.5 billion construction order for major gas plant in Saudi Arabia (AFP, Yonhap
  6. South Korea offers easier loans for tenants and tax incentives for builders in bid to curb rising rents (Reuters)
  7. Foot-and-Mouth Disease spreading across North Korea (Yonhap)
  8. In wake of Foot-and-Mouth Disease outbreak, South Korea plans to increase tariff-free pork imports (Reuters)
  9. Democratic Party ends boycott of National Assembly (Joongang Daily)
  10. Op-ed: Is angry Tea Party rhetoric to blame for Cupid's violent rampage? (MSNBC)

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Sunday, February 13, 2011

iPhone Nano?

When it comes to the highly competitive smartphone market, it looks like Apple is trying to expand... by shrinking. From Bloomberg:
One version would be cheaper and smaller than the most recent iPhone, said a person who has seen a prototype and asked not to be identified because the plans haven’t been made public. Apple also is developing technology that makes it easier to use the iPhone on multiple wireless networks, two people said.

Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs, who remains involved in strategic decisions while on medical leave, would use lower prices to widen the iPhone’s appeal and keep it from losing further ground to Android devices. Less expensive iPhones may also ratchet up pressure on Nokia Oyj, whose handsets are especially popular in Europe and some developing markets.
All I can say is: Meh. I have the iPhone4, bought after two years of using the iPhone 3G. For my taste, the iPhone4's "retina display" got the resolution just right so that you can fit enough on that small screen and have a comfortable, workable browsing experience. If they make the screen any smaller, it would be like going back to the 3G screen (similar to the 3Gs), and that means a less-than-stellar user experience by Apple's own standards. Prior to last June, I used my iPhone 3G for all kinds of things, but with far less emphasis on web-browsing; with the iPhone4, however, it is like having a portable computer in my pocket.

This idea of theirs, if true, is not like shrinking the MacBook Air to an 11-inch screen, which Apple has done quite handily, and methinks Apple may realize a bit too late that it has made a mistake. If some consumers want a "cheaper" iPhone experience, Apple should let them keep buying the older model at a cheaper price (as they do now with the 3Gs, just $49 in the US, down from $99 when iPhone4 first came out).

Anyway, if this is the big new iPhone-related item that is supposed to be coming out in late spring, I'll give it a pass. I am perfectly happy with my iPhone4 and can't imagine many non-software-related upgrades that would make me switch to a new iPhone5, whatever it may be.

Steve Jobs hold press conference to taunt
iPhone4 users that he has a white one and they don't.

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Saturday, February 12, 2011

The one where kushibo almost ate his words. Almost.

So the other day I'm going through my list of must-read blogs, and I encounter this piece of news at One Free Korea and at Korea Beat, both referring to this post in NK Daily The Daily NK, about people in North Korea burning official portraits of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jongsuk.

Well, I will admit kushibo did a double-take. I have been highly critical of how easily the South Korean, Japanese, and Western media have accepted the notion that "the succession of Kim Jong Eun... is moving at breakneck speed," and I have pointed out repeatedly that the KCNA is providing the North Korean people with virtually no mention of Kim Jong-un even though the Chosun Ilbo and The Daily NK would have us believe that his stature is being raised so high and so quickly that the besieged North Korean people are reacting adversely to his ascension.

So when I saw the above photo in Korea Beat, I thought I'd finally seen evidence that my working hypothesis is wrong, or at least no longer accurate. Maybe I was still a bit bleary-eyed, but at the time I could have sworn that Korea Beat said the two portraits being burned were Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un.

You see, if official portraits and/or badges of Kim Jong-un were distributed for the public to see and wear, that would be a clear, necessary, and even irrefutable sign that the Pyongyang regime has gone ahead with selling the North Korean public on the idea that KJI's son will be their next leader. If that were an official, stylized portrait of Kim Jong-un, then that would mean his rise has been accepted — perhaps irreversibly — by the ruling apparatus and they now are pushing the North Korean people to follow.

But it turned out that the portrait at left in the photo was Kim Jongsuk, the mother of Kim Jong-il and already an established member of the Great Chosŏn pantheon. In other words, not Kim Jong-un. Still no signs of the public deification of Kim Jong-un, despite what the media would have us believe.

[Frankly, I blame a combination of things for my brief oversight: (a) the North Korean portrait makers depicting Kim Jong-il's mom as a bit manly, (b) the portrait defacers giving Kim Jongsuk facial hair, (c) talk of the political significance of Kim Jong-un's otter pelt hat leading me to subconsciously think that Kim Jongsuk's long flowing hair in the back was actually some frilly fur thing worn by Kim Jong-un to keep warm, and (d) the unisex V-neck of the traditional chosŏnbok, which provides no clue of its wearer's gender.]

But wait a minute, kushibo, if the North Korean people aren't being force-fed grandiose claims about Kim Jong-un, what about all that writing? Some of the accompanying handwritten remarks are clearly about Kim Jong-un, so that must mean something, right?

Well, I'm glad you asked that question, curious reader. Apparently, someone in North Korea is aware of Kim Jong-un and all the talk of his rise to power, and that someone has decided it would be appropriate to write notes about this. The question is, who is that person? North Koreans along the border with China may have enough exposure to Chinese news media that they would be clued into non-Chinese media's obsession with Kim Jong-un's ascension, but would that be enough to precipitate the spattering of Kim Jong-un-related stories coming from defectors?

My working hypothesis is that The Daily NK and other organizations that rely on clandestine reporting methods deliberately or (more likely) inadvertently distort defectors' reports of KJU sightings by asking leading or loaded questions whose answers lead to foregone conclusions: "Have you seen any evidence of Kim Jong-un's rise?" might easily yield an affirmative answer to a new defector who may feel obliged to please this new aid-giver. The result would easily be an apparent picture of Kim Jong-un having a higher profile than he actually does (as evidenced by the dearth of Kim Jong-un mentions in North Korea's official news media).

Now don't get me wrong: I'm not bashing The Daily NK and I think they do incredible work, with many on their team risking their lives to get word out of and into North Korea. But that halo doesn't magically preclude what social scientists call experimenter bias, and that makes me somewhat skeptical. After all, the Kim Jong-un drama has attracted a lot of attention to the North Korean issue — and how pathetic is it that it takes palace intrigue and not the ongoing deaths of hundreds of thousands for the foreign media to pay serious attention! — and it might be forgivable for The Daily NK to milk that new focus for what it's worth. As long as they're not lying or knowingly reporting distortions, I don't have too much of a problem with what they're doing, given the big picture.

Now back to the portrait burning. According to The Daily NK, this was done by some peasant, but by a party official:
The North Korean defector who provided the video clip explained, "A Party official from North Hamkyung Province burned the pictures and wrote 'bastard Kim Jong Il’ and ‘Kim Jong Eun is the child of a concubine' on a piece of paper at his house on January 1st this year. The video clip was produced and leaked to display the person’s hostility towards Kim Jong Il and worsening public opinion within North Korea."

The person also wrote a message on the reverse side of the paper, "Kim Jong Il is a bastard, Kim Jong Eun is the son of concubine. Not once did he talk about being married, and now he is facing death he is suddenly looking for his son? We cannot accept this.”
Bear in mind that this is all according to the defector who brought the tape, a tape which The Daily NK has chosen not to show. Now, if it's legitimate, protecting the identity of the official who burned the portraits is sound, but there's always something inherently risky in taking someone else's word for something without evidence. The Daily NK suggests that the official portraits could only be in the hands of a party official, though I'm skeptical of that claim as well (is there no theft in North Korea?).

So at this point I see two major possibilities of who is behind the portrait burning. One is that it really is a North Korean party official way up in North Hamgyŏng Province, and he or she somehow got this tape of this brazen act to a defector who got it to The Daily NK. Getting the word out that there are disgruntled party officials could be useful information. And it certainly would be something I predicted could come out of the Great Currency Obliteration of 2009:
Unless there have been behind-the-scenes provisions for connected people to exchange considerably more than the $40 or $60 limit, then those middle-level party cadres who run the show outside of Pyongyang suddenly have a lot less stake in keeping the regime going.
The other major possibility is that this is all the work of defectors, who have gotten wise that South Korean, Western, and Japanese media are eager for "news" of Kim Jong-un's prominence in North Korea, to the point that such defectors are staging such things for their benefit. Now this does not mean the whole story is pointless or useless. Nowadays these things have a way of filtering back to North Koreans themselves, and even if this was staged by a ballsy defector (in or near North Korea), it might have a psychological effect on those North Koreans who later hear about it or see the pictures.

Interesting times, though I still believe Kim Jong-un is The Kim Who Wasn't There™. Maybe this week I should redo the KCNA experiment to see how much the Brilliant Comrade is actually mentioned, since I haven't done that in over a month. Who knows, maybe things have changed... and I would be the first to admit it.

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Friday, February 11, 2011

Urban Girl Comes to Get Married

I've been a bit busy, but I'm taking a break to watch a weekly North Korean film series. Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

North Korea triples public executions since Great Currency Obliteration

In late 2009, I predicted that the revaluation of the North Korean currency (they lopped off the last two zeroes) and especially the restriction on how much could be converted to the new money (a move meant to curb the underground markets that effectively wiped out the life savings of millions of people) could lead to enough disgruntlement that we would witness a sea change in how North Koreans see the Pyongyang regime.

In short, many would clearly see that, an endless loop of propaganda notwithstanding, the government was not on their side. Moreover, the resulting decimation of the markets would mean that for millions of people outside Pyongyang and the spheres of power, it would be far harder for them to secure the sustenance needed for survival. And that means that at some point in their grim calculus of how to respond to the regime, what I referred to as "the tipping point of death," doing nothing would become a deadlier option than doing something. This sea change in attitudes, I believe, will turn out to be a key factor in the eventual collapse of the DPRK.

Sadly, news today suggests that North Korean authorities, who were blindsided by the ensuing wrath of the people and sometimes violent public displays of anger that occurred in the wake of them wiping out the life savings of the citizenry, may have recognized the very thing I was talking about. Specifically, The Japan Times is reporting a tripling of public executions since the currency revaluation:
Public executions have more than tripled in North Korea since the dictatorship in late 2009 redenominated its currency and in the process sparked widespread public discontent, according to a recent report seen by The Japan Times.

According to the confidential South Korean government report obtained by Lee Young Hwa, an economics professor at Kansai University, 52 North Koreans were publicly executed between December 2009 and last November, compared with 16 reported executions between January and November 2009.
We were already aware that the supposed architects of the currency revaluation were executed, but the other public executions were also meant to quash any attempts by the populace to rise up about this life-or-death issue:
The report said the surge in executions was a direct result of the redenomination and was aimed at instilling fear to dampen increasing public discontent aimed at the dictatorship.

"The number of public executions began increasing in 2009, when the succession of power from Kim Jong Il to his son and heir apparent, Kim Jong Un, became full-fledged," said Lee, a North Korea expert who also heads the organization Rescue the North Korean Refugees — Urgent Action Network (RENK).

"The report is a warning that North Korea's iron-fisted reign of terror will harden under Kim Jong Un," he said.

Crime categories that could be subject to the death penalty were increased from five to 21 in March 2008, and further categories were included following the redenomination, including "execution for illegal circulation of foreign currency," and "death by shooting for leaking information via cell phones," the report said.
I, of course, don't really buy the facile conclusion that all this is being orchestrated by or for Kim Jong-il's son Kim Jong-un, aka The Kim Who Wasn't There, but I do agree with the report on the purpose of these executions. The JT article also notes that Christians and others expressing opposition to the regime have also been executed.

And while one might see this as signs of a dark time that is getting bleaker, I hold out hope that the DPRK authorities seeing a need to do this is a direct result of the population's anger toward the regime starting to reach a boiling point. As usually, I'm cautiously (and pragmatically) optimistic.

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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Hundreds of ticket-holding Superbowl fans turned away because seats don't pass fire code; K-blogosphere mocks NFL organizers and questions whether US is up to task of hosting Superbowl

Well, the first part is true, but the second part is not.

But the second part is what might have happened had the same fiasco occurred in a Korean stadium, based on what swirled around the anglophone blogs when (among other problems that are not too terribly atypical of massive events, like traffic tie-ups, transportation snafus, and a dearth of rooms) loads of seats were not yet ready for the Formula One in Yeongam last fall.

I say kudos to the Fire Marshal for not signing off on the temporary seats. It would royally suck to spend so much time and money to travel across the US in snowmaggedon and have to watch the game in a "hospitality tent," but that would sure beat whatever disaster might have occurred if those rickety seats were filled by football fans the size of, say, those people on the right who actually got seats.

And it was a good game, by the way, even if Korean hero Hines Ward didn't pull out a victory in the end.

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Saturday, February 5, 2011

Orange County Crime Story of the Day:
kyopo home invaders

One thing I like about living in Seoul: a general lack of home invasions. But alas, globalization might someday bring them to ROK shores.

Anyway, this story in the Los Angeles Times was about a home invasion in Diamond Bar, a tony Los Angeles County burb just north of the OC, with a tie-in with Las Vegas. Nothing special really, that it's apparently a kyopo gang, caught by the oddest of details:
Detectives had little to go on in the case but learned one of the suspects was a black man who spoke Korean very well, Kim said.

Then last month, investigators learned of a monthlong FBI undercover sting with Las Vegas Metro Police that netted five members of a Korean organized crime group from Los Angeles.

The suspects were allegedly preparing to rob what they believed was a drug stash house in Las Vegas.

When they were interviewed by Asian gang team detectives in Las Vegas, three of the five suspects allegedly implicated themselves in the Diamond Bar home invasion robbery.
They included David Chon, 28, James Han, 28, and Rene Hypolite, 26, who investigators say has African American and Korean parents and speaks fluent Korean.

Investigators also identified three other suspects in the robbery: one who drove the getaway car and two who masterminded the home invasion. The alleged driver, Andrew Kim, 26, of Los Angeles, was arrested Jan. 24 at his home in Los Angeles.
I just hope it's not one of the eleven Andrew Kims I know.

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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Happy New Year!

As 단군 4344년 approaches and 단군 4343년 becomes but a memory...

Wherever your journey takes you...

Here is hoping...

That you have a profitable new year!

새해 복 많이 많이 많이 받에세요, from all of us at Monster Island (actually a peninsula).

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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Squawk like an Egyptian

First Tunisia, now Egypt, perhaps Yemen in the near future, and then who knows. It looks like the Middle East is partying like it's 1989.

Over at One Free Korea, the question has been asked whether what's happening in Egypt could happen in North Korea. Emphatically, the answer is no, at least right now (an opinion Joshua Stanton and I share). The people of North Korea are too partitioned, there are too few electronic resources with which to communicate (despite the growing popularity of cell phone service at least within the cities), and for now the people are too scared. Yes, the Great Currency Obliteration of 2009 has made for a lot of disgruntled people, but things things aren't ready to blow... at least not yet (I think something like this would have to wait until warmer weather anyway, when there would be far more people milling about).

One also has to take into consideration that the North Korean people are probably hearing very little about Egypt anyway. And it's not just the North Koreans: Beijing is also trying hard to censor what North Korea's neighbors in China are also reading.

From the Wall Street Journal:
Chinese authorities have blocked the word "Egypt" from searches on Twitter-like microblogging sites in an indication of concern among Communist Party leaders that the unrest there could encourage similar calls for political reform in China.

Internet censors also appeared Sunday to have deleted almost all of the comments posted beneath the few limited reports on the unrest—mostly from the state-run Xinhua news agency—that have been published on Chinese news sites in the past few days.

The strict online controls illustrate the party's concern that the Internet is providing China's citizens with a new means of information and organization that could challenge its monopoly on power, as has happened with other authoritarian governments in recent years.

Chinese authorities also stepped up their efforts to control the Internet after the "color revolutions" in the former Soviet Union in 2003-05, and the pro-democracy protests in Iran in 2009. They completely shut down Internet access in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang for several months after riots there in 2009.
We certainly wouldn't want to see Tiananmen 2, now would we? So why give the Chinese people any ideas about group protest, toppling a government that's been entrenched for decades and has no direct accountability to the people?

And if China is able to control the flow of information, don't expect the North Koreans to hear much about it either.

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