Monday, December 30, 2013

Korea makes it to HuffPo's "most breathtaking photos" of 2013

Over at The Huffington Post, they have released their "52 Most Breathtaking Photos of the Year."

These are arranged chronologically (from January to December), presenting the "most breathtaking" for each week. The photo at #2 is of ice fishing in mountainous Kangwon-do Province's Hwach'ŏn-gun County. Here's the news text from January 5 to January 11:
Anglers cast lines through holes into a frozen river during an ice fishing competition at the Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival on January 5, 2013 in Hwacheon-gun, South Korea. The annual event attracts thousands of visitors and features a mountain trout ice fishing competition in which participants compete with tradition lures or with bare hands. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
The 2014 festival is from January 4 until January 26, if you're interested in playing the Minnesotan. The Visit Korea link is here. I like the name in Korean (얼음나라 화천 산천어축제) a lot better: Hwachŏn's Country of Ice Salmon Festival (I think, even though the English says they're fishing for mountain trout).

I know that in Minnesota, where a lot of my relatives are from, it gets cold enough to sustain months of ice fishing and weeks of Garrison Keillor "News From Lake Wobegon" bits, but I'm not sure if it gets cold enough even in Kangwon-do (where the 2018 Winter Olympics are to be held) for so many people to be on such perforated ice. But I guess rescue photos would also be breathtaking. (I kid! This actually looks fun... Hawaii's "winters" have made me miss the Korean cold.)

At #26, in the week of June 22 to June 28, we have South Korean soldiers in Ch'unch'ŏn dramatizing a major battle on the anniversary of the start of the Korean War. Here's the news text:
South Korean soldiers wear North Korea's military uniforms, acting as North Korean soldiers, as they take part in a re-enactment the battle of the Korean war during a commemorative war victory event to mark the 63rd anniversary of the the Korean war on June 22, 2013 in Chuncheon, South Korea. Korean soldiers participated in the event alongside the Korean war veterans. (Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images)
Of all the American cultural products to be imported to South Korea, I never expected Civil War reenactments to be one of them. This looks like a first-class effort, almost like a movie still. This, too, could be fun (but less so in the winter, when I would prefer to be ice fishing).

At #40, in the week of September 28 to October 4, which I think was Ch'usŏk, they have some cute kids. The news text explains:
Jung Ha-yoon, 2, appears to be stuck inside a ceramic container while playing with other children at the traditional sports square during the "Taste Korea! Korean Royal Cuisine Festival" held at Unhyeon Palace, also known as Unhyeongung Royal Residence, in Seoul, South Korea, on Tuesday, Oct. 1 2013. (Jacquelyn Martin / AP)
While I think it's nice that they're promoting public access to royal palaces like Unhyŏn-gung (which has a neat little tea house inside, if you're ever looking for a quiet way to spend the afternoon in downtown Seoul), this picture hearkens back to images I had in high school from reading Brave New World, with the alpha and beta humans maturing in "decanting bottles." But that's me.

That's it for the ones from Korea. But for things I would consider indirectly Korea-related, above is one at #6 (February 2 to 8). It's of Chinese soldiers in the bitter cold, and it was the front-page photo HuffPo used for this story. My explanation of its Korea relatedness follows the news text:
A military regiment takes part in a morning exercise on January 29, 2013 in Heilongjiang Province of China. The temperature dipped to minus 30 degrees Celsius. (ChinaFotoPress / Getty Images)
Heilongjiang Province is in the border region where China encounters the North Korea-Russia border, with no small number of ethnic Koreans. But where this is relevant is that this would be one of the forces that would invade North Korea were Pyongyang to collapse or were Pyongyang to taking China's leases and purchases (e.g., ports and mines) back under North Korean control.

There are some other great photos there. I'll leave you with nuns and bikinis, from Brazil (#31, from July 27 to August 2):

Happy new year, everyone!


Hyundai and Kia crash and burn on IIHS's new safety tests

Despite a rocky start in the mid-1980s, Hyundai has risen the ranks from being an affordable but clunky and unreliable econo-box to some of the most affordable, reliable, and even stylish cars of today. The Hyundai Genesis was even chosen as the 2009 Car of the Year, and Hyundai was clearly on the must-see list of new car buyers. Hyundai's sister automaker, Kia, followed a similar path.

But now we get news (see here in the Chosun Ilbo) that Korea's top-two automakers are about to be side-tracked. You see, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has come up with new safety tests — specifically a test that determines injury to the driver and damage to the car when the driver's side corner at the front of the car hits an immobile object at 40 mph (64 kph).

I chose this artwork, but I think this was a lot more than 40 mph. 

The result is that Hyundai and Kia can no longer claim "good" overall ratings (the highest of the four) for their vehicles, and that could hurt impressions and sales. To be fair, only 22 of the 180 new 2014 models tested got the good rating, but most other car brands are not as tainted by past bad reputations as Hyundai and Kia are.

Hopefully the poor showing in the new safety test results will be an impetus (as it has in the past) for Hyundai and Kia to improve. In fact, according to the linked article, they Hyundai they will be working to improve performance on the new tests starting with the Genesis.

And while I have faith that they will rise to the ranks of Toyota and Honda again, it would be nice if Hyundai and Kia could strive to be more like Volvo, where they are leaders in automobile safety rather than followers who need to catch up from time to time.


Saturday, December 28, 2013

Strangest place in Korea to have a beer (or coffee)?

This piece from the Huffington Post, which has several entries from Japan, got me wondering where the "craziest" places in Korea would be where you can get a drink.

Off the top of my head, I can't think of anything like Michamwi Pingwe in Zanzibar, pictured above, but I do know that in South Korea we have the Japanese cat cafés as well (possibly as an import — the Japanese love of cats is far greater and longer in Japan than in Korea, but the drive for more and more innovative coffee houses is well established in Korea).

If anyone has any ideas, please share.


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Wildly speculative North Korea intrigue theory #6, the Uncle Sal edition: Kim Jong-un whacked Jang Songthaek because Jang Songthaek whacked his dad

I hate it when North Korean leaders die during finals. It really curbs my ability to let loose on analysis, speculation, and blatant sh¡t-stirring.

Over at One Free Korea, Joshua Stanton cleverly describes what's going on up in Pyongyang as "like The Borgias meets The Killing Fields." Throw in The Godfather to that mix, and you have a taste of what's going on up there, even if you lack details. Surely anyone who has read a detailed history of Korea's historical dynasties or watched a Korean historical drama (사극) can recognize the themes of power and betrayal.

But in South Korea and the rest of the world, all we're left with is imagination and speculation, and some of that speculation can be quite interesting. Here is one that I think is actually plausible, even if it is no more than reasoned speculation. In this, Jang Songthaek is akin to Salvatore "Sal" Tessio, Don Coreleone's partern played by Abe Vigoda in The Godfather.

Note that Jang was removed and executed a few days before Kim Jong-il's chess (제사) marking the two-year anniversary of his death. Kim Jong-un did not want his uncle there specifically, which he likely would have been had he held the same posts as before his purge.

KJI did not die of the ills he was widely publicized to have had (e.g., pancreatic cancer). He was traveling and performing his duties when it happened. His death came as a surprise and it took the authorities two days to announce it. My belief is that it is plausible he was in fact killed. The connection to this is that if he was killed, it likely came at the hands of Jang Songthaek or someone acting with his knowledge.

KJU finds this out eventually and is furious. He literally wants his uncle dead. Just look at the kid during the funeral: He was visibly shaken and distraught. His father may have been a murderous tyrant, but he was his dad.

The last thing a KJU now armed with this knowledge wants is for this hypocritical fiend to appear at the chesa pretending to be distraught himself. That would make KJU explode: No, JST must be gone before the chesa. And so it was.

Not exactly the same as Sal Tessio's demise, but a little bit. I'm guessing Jang wasn't as calm and quiet about it.


Sunday, December 15, 2013

Jang Songthaek links and conspiratorial nonsense I made up

Some interesting links on the execution of Jang Songthaek:
That's the edifying part of this post, now onto total nonsense. As I've stated repeatedly over the past few years nobody knows what's happening in North Korea, including the North Koreans. While that's highly distressing if you're actually making plans that involve North Korea, it means that anybody can be a North Korea analyst. 

So let's have a go at it: What do you think are the reasons KJU offed his uncle? Bonus points for getting as Shakespearean as possible.
  • We already have Lankov's speculation (above) that Uncle Jang outlived his usefulness as regent once KJU was confident he'd solidified power and as mentor he basically said a lot of things that pissed off the flabby product of Generation-Y.
  • There's also speculation that Uncle Jang had slept with Kim Jong-un's wife and there's a sex tape of it. Why there would be such a thing, I have no idea, as I'm frankly incredulous. But if I knew it were true and I had to pick a reason, it would be that Uncle Jang slept with North Korea's First Lady in order to spite his nephew, or because he wanted to manipulate his niece-in-law to do his bidding in controlling Young General Kim Jong-un through blackmail. On the other hand, there may be no strategic reason whatsoever and the guy just has a freak-on for doing something as dangerous and risky as bedding the leader's woman. But like I said, I don't think this is true.
  • Kim Jong-un has discovered that Jang Song-thaek, who had long sought power, is responsible for Kim Jong-il's unexpected death in 2011, and KJU had JST killed out of anger and revenge. I haven't read this anywhere, but it popped into my head recently (KJI's death seemed rather out of the blue, despite reports of his pancreatic cancer). 
  • Kim Jong-un recently discovered that JST had KJI killed and felt that he might be next. This would be in line with the actual accusations in the KCNA that he was planning a coup. Such a personal threat would explain why KJU thought that mere exile wasn't appropriate and his uncle had to be permanently eliminated. 
  • Because of China acting like the center of the universe and pushing around North Korea's leadership, Beijing fell out of favor with Pyongyang (and vice versa) and Kim Jong-un sought new benefactors. Russia could be the new sugars daddy, but it would be a bold move on KJU’s part to side with the US and South Korea, or even Japan. Bold, but not totally implausible. The Western-educated and basketball-loving KJU simply wants to stay in power and continue his lavish lifestyle, but who’s to say that’s not possible if he makes peace with Washington and Seoul and tries Chinese-style reforms without the Chinese? Whether he's interested in the lavish lifestyle or not, dragging the DPRK into 21st century would make him a true national hero in a way his father never could be. At any rate, the old guard would be adamantly opposed to this, so they would have to be eliminated. 
  • Uncle Jang was skimming a lot more than people realized and he was making money hand over fist with his deals with the Chinese, in order to put together a nest egg before North Korean collapses or he just simply decided to seek exile in China. 
  • Kim Jong-un is simply a sociopath. This is my least preferred explanation because it falls into the trap that just because we don't understand what is happening means it is incomprehensible or without reason. Sorry, but deadly political intrigue did not begin with KJU, so this is not a satisfying explanation. 
Any other wild and unsubstantiated explanations for what's going on? 

KCNA text on Jang Song Thaek's execution

Jang Songthaek with Chinese
leader Hu Jintao in August 2012
North Korea's KCNA (Korea Central News Agency) released a report on the execution of Jang Song-thaek (장성택, Chang Sŏngt'aek), the uncle of North Korea's supreme leader Kim Jong-un (by way of being KJU's father's sister's husband). It is as scathing as it is long, combined with the execution itself, is meant to send a message to everyone else: Don't get on the Young General's bad side, because he's in charge.

Now, what that means is entirely up for debate. Is KJU solidifying power so that can maintain control in a Songun-style (i.e., "Military First") rule, or is he taking out the trash so that he can begin Deng Xiaoping-esque reform on his own terms without worrying about upsetting other factions? Is it a way to limit influence from China, which seems lately to have designs on North Korean territory?

There are precious few clues and truckloads of speculation, but I'm holding out hope that the Western-educated KJU is smart enough to see the writing on the wall that his geriatric handlers don't, and that revolutionary purists aren't the type to repeatedly invite tattooed former pro basketball players for expedition matches. I'm also assuming that Jang's removal may be blowback against China, which has been buying up North Korean resources and trying to push its way into strategic North Korean territory, such as land and a harbor in Rasŏn along the North Korean-Russian border that would give China an outlet to the Sea of Japan (East Sea).

The truth is that nobody knows anything. Take the situation with KJU's aunt Kim Kyŏnghŭi (his father's sister). As Jang's wife, some are speculating she will be purged as well (though not necessarily killed) while others are speculating that she and other family members were behind Jang's removal. Not sure if Auntie Kyŏnghŭi was on board with her husband being killed, though.

The full text from the KCNA following the jump:

Chinese probe succeeds at lunar landing

But this public relations move backfired when 1.3 billion Chinese television viewers became outraged to find out you actually cannot see the Great Wall of China from the Moon. Beijing reacted by blaming American imperialism and then declaring a no-fly security zone over northern Australia.


Friday, December 13, 2013

In North Korea, no one is safe: Kim Jong-un executes his uncle (alternate title: Winter is coming)

Kim Jong-un's former right-hand man and regent Jang Songthaek
reportedly shortly before he was executed.

After reading of his ouster, many expected this outcome: If Kim Jong-un's uncle and acting regent Jang Songtaek were in control of a faction that the young Kim Jong-un himself had started wiping out in order to consolidate power, it isn't that much of a surprise that the uncle would also be executed, following the fate of several of his cronies recently.

But still, that's his uncle.

In North Korea, no one is safe. And that point has to got to be echoing in the minds of the elite from the top brass down to the provincial rank-and-file.

This is the third wake-up call, with the other two happening two and four years ago, respectively, at the dawn of winter. In 2009, it was the currency obliteration, which effectively wiped out popular belief that despite hardships the government was there to take care of them. In 2011, it was the death of Kim Jong-il that left the ruling elite staring at an untried and youthful new leader being thrust upon them. Now that he's shown his true colors, that anyone can be wiped out for perceived disloyalty, it may be time to go big or go home.

More thoughts later, but for now re-read those last two links for an idea what I'm talking about.


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

More on the purge of Kim Jong-un's uncle and regent Jang Songthaek

Kim Jong-un [right] with his now disgraced uncle in happier times.
(Apologies for the repeat, but I love this joke.)

First Kim Jong-il's death and now the purge of Kim Jong-un's uncle and acting regent, Jang Songthaek (mentioned yesterday). Why do major upheavals in North Korea always happen during finals?

Since I don't have the time to synthesize this into a neat little package full of contrarian predictions, I'll just add a link or two for now. For starters, here is the Korea Central News Agencies report on the purge (it's long, tldr, in fact, but I urge you to at least look at the bold-face and then read my notes below):
The Jang Song Thaek group, however, committed such anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts as gnawing at the unity and cohesion of the party and disturbing the work for establishing the party unitary leadership system and perpetrated such ant-state, unpopular crimes as doing enormous harm to the efforts to build a thriving nation and improve the standard of people's living.

Jang pretended to uphold the party and leader but was engrossed in such factional acts as dreaming different dreams and involving himself in double-dealing behind the scene.

Though he held responsible posts of the party and state thanks to the deep political trust of the party and leader, he committed such perfidious acts as shunning and obstructing in every way the work for holding President Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in high esteem for all ages, behaving against the elementary sense of moral obligation and conscience as a human being.

Jang desperately worked to form a faction within the party by creating illusion about him and winning those weak in faith and flatterers to his side.

Prompted by his politically-motivated ambition, he tried to increase his force and build his base for realizing it by implanting those who had been punished for their serious wrongs in the past period into ranks of officials of departments of the party central committee and units under them.

Jang and his followers did not sincerely accept the line and policies of the party, the organizational will of the WPK, but deliberately neglected their implementation, distorted them and openly played down the policies of the party. In the end, they made no scruple of perpetrating such counter-revolutionary acts as disobeying the order issued by the supreme commander of the Korean People's Army.

The Jang group weakened the party's guidance over judicial, prosecution and people's security bodies, bringing very harmful consequences to the work for protecting the social system, policies and people.

Such acts are nothing but counter-revolutionary, unpopular criminal acts of giving up the class struggle and paralyzing the function of popular democratic dictatorship, yielding to the offensive of the hostile forces to stifle the DPRK.

Jang seriously obstructed the nation's economic affairs and the improvement of the standard of people's living in violation of the pivot-to-the-Cabinet principle and the Cabinet responsibility principle laid down by the WPK.

The Jang group put under its control the fields and units which play an important role in the nation's economic development and the improvement of people's living in a crafty manner, making it impossible for the economic guidance organs including the Cabinet to perform their roles.

By throwing the state financial management system into confusion and committing such act of treachery as selling off precious resources of the country at cheap prices, the group made it impossible to carry out the behests of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on developing the industries of Juche iron, Juche fertilizer and Juche vinalon.

Affected by the capitalist way of living, Jang committed irregularities and corruption and led a dissolute and depraved life.

By abusing his power, he was engrossed in irregularities and corruption, had improper relations with several women and was wined and dined at back parlors of deluxe restaurants.

Ideologically sick and extremely idle and easy-going, he used drugs and squandered foreign currency at casinos while he was receiving medical treatment in a foreign country under the care of the party.

Jang and his followers committed criminal acts baffling imagination and they did tremendous harm to our party and revolution.

The ungrateful criminal acts perpetrated by the group of Jang Song Thaek are lashing our party members, service personnel of the People's Army and people into great fury as it committed such crimes before they observed two-year mourning for Kim Jong Il, eternal general secretary of the WPK.

Speeches were made at the enlarged meeting.
I think they really hate this Jang guy.

There is so much intrigue to digest from that journalistic tirade, and pundits and politicos will be chewing on that for quite some time. At least until finals are over and I'm done Christmas shopping.

I myself would only like to draw your attention to the item I boldfaced, about North Korean resources being sold off to China on the cheap. That right there represents an increasingly public Pyongyang-Beijing rift that, I believe, is going to be the pivot around which most future events turn. At the very least, it tells us that North Korea is resisting being part of the Manchurianization of North Korea, and that may be a good thing. (China trying to integrate North Korea into an economically developing Northeast Asia economic sphere and thus fundamentally altering the regime in Pyongyang may be a good thing, but trying to swallow it up and turn it into a satellite state or Inner Chaoxian Autonomous Prefecture would be a disaster.)

In the meantime, though, I encourage you to read Joshua Stanton's analysis at One Free Korea (here and here), as well as The Marmot's Hole's analysis of what kind of drugs and what kind of hookers Jang was using.


Monday, December 9, 2013

A major game changer in North Korea?

Kim Jong-un [right] with his now disgraced uncle in happier times.

There are recent reports today that North Korea's dynastic ruler, the Young General Kim Jong-un, has ousted his uncle, Jang Sŏngtaek, the powerful regent-like figure who seemed to have orchestrated his nephew's rise and solidification of power.

From the Los Angeles Times:
In a palace intrigue that could shake the foundations of North Korea, 30-year-old leader Kim Jong Un has purged from the leadership the powerful uncle who had been his de facto regent for the last two years, North Korean news media confirmed Monday.

Declaring that Jang Sung Taek was "soaked with the capitalist lifestyle," the Korea Central News Agency reported that he had been removed from all his posts and expelled from the governing Workers' Party. Jang, 67, had been seen as a moderating influence on the young Kim.

North Korean state news outlets said the political bureau of the Workers' Party met Saturday and "adopted a written decision to dismiss Jang from all of his positions and release him from the party." Kim reportedly attended the meeting.

South Korea's state spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, reported last week that Jang appeared to have been ousted from his position as vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, citing the recent public execution of two of his close confidants.
I guess Uncle Sŏngtaek should just be happy he's still alive (for now, at least). Indeed, as I was watching the first season of NBC's Revolution on Netflix the other day, I remarked to "M" that the arbitrary way in which the ruler of the Monroe Republic was executing those he's just a short time earlier thought were loyal followers had echoes of Pyongyang's palace intrigue. Throw in a bit of Hunger Games punishment of people outside the capital and a bit of starvation, and you've got the DPRK.

What does this all mean? Well, that all depends on why it happened and what Jang was really up to. Was he really a "moderating force," and if so moderating what exactly? If he was keeping the Western-educated Kim Jong-un from becoming his country's Deng Xiaoping (something I've suggested a few times now), maybe that moderating presence was a mitigating force that kept Kim Jong-un for going too far with Chinese-style reforms recommended by Beijing.

And if so, perhaps there's a bit of peresnorka in the country's future. Let's hope so.


Saturday, November 30, 2013

Pyongyang authorities release purported confession by Palo Alto detainee

The octogenarian Korean War vet has confessed to his crimes, a good indication he'll be released soon.

We'll have to wait until he's safely out if the DPRK to see if he really did anything to provoke the authorities or if it really is a case of mistaken identity.,0,7367578.story

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

South Korea says 16th century royal seal at LACMA may have been stolen

The Los Angeles Times has the story here:
South Korean government officials want the United States to investigate the circumstances surrounding a 16th century Korean royal seal that they believe was stolen out of a shrine in Seoul before being acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Korean officials allege that the gilt bronze seal — which has been part of LACMA's collection since 2000 — is one of more than 40 such signets from the Joseon Dynasty that went missing after the end of the Korean War. The Korean government has long thought some of the missing artifacts were stolen by American soldiers and taken to the United States.

A federal law enforcement source said U.S. officials were looking into the Korean seal but would not provide details. The source spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing.

In a statement, LACMA said there was "credible evidence" that its seal was "removed unlawfully from the National Shrine in Korea."
Beware, because these "stolen artifacts" stories often end up generating a lot of animosity toward the country where the possibly stolen artifacts are being kept.

France knows this all too well, but I don't feel much sympathy for them because their own soldiers took the stuff as an act of war to force open the Hermit Kingdom back in the 19th century.

At this point, I'm not going to assume guilt until I see hard evidence. There's looting and then there's rescuing, and it's entirely possible that these items were innocently obtained — even purchased — by GIs looking for a souvenir and not knowing it was something of serious value that would be missed.

At any rate, LACMA should take this seriously and look into it.


Monday, November 25, 2013

All those Merrill Newmans look alike

I reported last week on a US citizen being detained by North Korea. We have since gotten information on the identity of the latest American guest of the Pyongyang Palazzo: the North Koreans have confirmed that he is Merrill Newman, an 85-year-old veteran of the Korean War. Mr Merrill E. Newman lives in Palo Alto, California.

It immediately made me wonder if North Korea is going to use him to make the case of American war crimes during the Korean War to undermine support for the US presence. Frankly, that would be a stroke of public relations genius.

Naturally, such an argument would be Bruce Cumings-esque in its wholesale disregard of the far, far, far, far worse atrocities committed by the North Koreans (who, by the bye, started the war in the first place), but an ignorant American populace and a sensationalist Western press might not bother to put things in that kind of perspective.

And it all gets even more messed-up from there. There is some speculation in the Western press that the North Korean authorities have arrested the wrong Merrill Newman. The Merrill H. Newman they were presumably after, the platoon leader who won the Silver Star (presumably for killing loads of North Koreans by "launching a series of highly coordinated attacks which inflicted heavy casualties upon the enemy") is sitting pretty at his home in Beaverton, Oregon, with no plans whatsoever to return to the DPRK. Crater Lake, where he is seen at right, is more his speed.

The Washington Post runs with this speculation, addressing it as one of four possibilities for why the North Koreans arrested Mr Newman. One of them is (as I'd addressed in my earlier post) the possibility that he was proselytizing, as Mr Park and Mr Gomes before him had done. Now that this has come to light about the Silver Star winner, I'm guessing that the mistaken identity angle is the most likely explanation but that North Korean authorities will shift gears and try to squeeze some concessions out of any agreement for his release.

I hope Mr Newman's health is good, because he could be there fore a while (but it's a good bet that the North Koreans will actually make sure he's taken reasonably good care of.)


Putting the NK in "crank"

Some day, years or decades from now, North Korea may just implode and South Korea will be left to absorb this failed state and all its problems. Among them will be a terrible problem with methamphetamine addiction and production (see also herehere, and here).

In fact, North Korea is increasingly gaining notice as a major manufacturer of methamphetamine, known in South Korea as hiroppong. And that's why it's not all that surprising to find that US drug enforcement authorities are targeting those who would transport and sell North Korean methamphetamine in the US.

From AP, via Huffington Post:
Five foreigners were charged in the United States on Wednesday with plotting to smuggle 100 kilograms of highly potent methamphetamine that was produced in North Korea.

The men were arrested in Thailand in a sting operation in September and brought to New York on Tuesday night. All pleaded not guilty to conspiracy charges on Wednesday before a judge ordered them held without bail until their next court date on Dec. 5.

Two defendants were members of a Hong Kong-based criminal organization that marketed meth produced in North Korea, U.S. authorities said. The others — two citizens of Great Britain and a resident of Thailand — agreed to store and transport the drugs, they said.

According to court papers, the suppliers sold more than 30 kilograms of North Korean meth in 2012 that was seized by authorities in Thailand and in the Philippines. The meth tested more than 99 percent pure, the papers said.

In 2013, the suppliers agreed to provide 100 kilograms to confidential sources working with the Drug Enforcement Administration who claimed there was a ready market for it New York City, the papers said. One of the defendants bragged that the organization was the only one able to get meth from North Korea after pressure by the United States prompted a government crackdown on production there.
With talk of 99% purity, global trade, stockpiling, etc., this is starting to sound like a real-life version of Breaking Bad, something noted by several of the news services.

Anyway, here is a picture of those accused:

The five arrestees in Thailand are (front row, left to right) Slovak Alexander Lnu, Filipino Allan Kelly Reyes Peralta, Briton Philip Shackels, Taiwanese Ye Tiong Tan Lim, and (second row center left) Briton Scott Stammers).

I've heard a lot of people argue whether going on individual tours to Nroth Korea is propping up the regime there, and I've heard people debate whether ethnic Koreans in Japan who send money back to relatives in North Korea are indirectly assisting the government, both arguments with merit on each side. But make no mistake: People who would do something like this are the scum of the Earth. They are not only feeding an addiction that rips people, families, and communities apart, but they are doing so in a way that profits a terrible regime. And these folks are lucky they're being handed over to the Feds, because in the US they won't get the death penalty for their crimes.


Thursday, November 21, 2013

I guess it's the puke brown that's so slimming

Meanwhile, the same Huffington Post has a piece condemning fashion magazine Elle for highlighting North Korea as an example of military chic:
What were they thinking?

Someone, somewhere in the depths of luxury magazine Elle thought it was a good idea to feature “North Korea chic” in September’s edition of the magazine (the page was subsequently replaced).

“Some iteration of the military trend stomps the runways every few seasons,” the article purred. “This time, it's edgier, even dangerous, with sharp buckles and clasps and take-no-prisoners tailoring.” Dangerous indeed for those actually in North Korea and subject to being executed for simply watching a foreign video. Or for those beaten to death.

It didn't take long for the world to render its judgement – outrage on social media condemned Elle for its breathtaking ignorance and insensitivity.

The magazine's mea culpa quickly followed: We regret the reference to North Korea in our post on the season’s military trend, and have removed the image. We apologize to those we offended. It wrote on its website.

It’s worth pausing to consider where the outrage over “North Korea Chic” stems from.

Human rights activists become used to hearing distressing stories of cruelty and brutality against the powerless and the innocent. It is the price we pay for helping to bear witness and demand justice.

But even for the more hardened amongst us, North Korea, provides some of the worst and most gut-wrenching stories imaginable: torture, starvation of children, beatings, random killings, forced labor in brutal camps.
When most people get their news and "information" about North Korea from late-night comedians making fun of Tub Dynasty (and I'm directing this more at Jay Leno and David Letterman), it's no wonder there's a disconnect between North Korea and the horrors committed there.


Another American detained in North Korea?

This is what is being reported, and apparently it is not an ethnic Korean (like some previous occupants of the Pyongyang Palazzo). Smart money, however, is on it being someone with a religious motive.

Not that I wish to disparage those with a religious motivation, since a lot of the people doing the heavy lifting and dirty work to move North Korean refugees along the underground railroad from China to a third country (or into consulates and embassies within China) are Christian clergy and laypeople.

From Reuters, via Huffington Post:
North Korea may have detained an elderly U.S. man last month who entered the country on a tourist visa, Kyodo News Service said on Wednesday, citing an unnamed diplomatic source.

Kyodo, in a report from Beijing, said the possible detention could become another diplomatic bargaining chip for North Korea, which has held Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American Christian missionary, since November 2012. Bae has been sentenced by the Pyongyang regime to 15 years of hard labour.

The U.S. State Department echoed U.S. embassy officials in Beijing and Seoul who said they were aware of the reports but could not confirm them.

North Korea claims the man, who apparently is not of Korean descent, has broken the law, according to Kyodo. The man entered North Korea for sightseeing last month with a valid visa, Kyodo quoted the diplomatic source as saying.
Detaining American citizens seems to be a cottage industry in the DPRK.

North Korea has acknowledged detaining a Korean War veteran named Mr Merrill Newman, and there is speculation that they may have mistaken him for a Silver Star recipient of the same name.


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

As always, thank you for your service and sacrifice.

A wounded American Marine is carried on stretcher improvised from a machine gun, Korea 1950 [source.]

Today is Veterans Day in the United States (known as Remembrance Day or Armistice Day in other parts of the world). Judging from FaceBook and Twitter feeds, it appears a lot of people do remember what this day-off is all about.

I'm thankful to all who sacrificed their youth and sometimes their lives so others — their countrymen or people in a far-off land — could live in freedom. That includes Korea, of course, as I am thankful to all the South Koreans and Americans and people of the sixteen other allied nations that fought under the United Nations command.

A column of American Marines marches down a canyon road dubbed "Nightmare Alley" during their retreat from Chosin Reservoir, North Korea, 1950 [source].

The last known veteran of World War I, Florence Green, died last year at the age of 110. Today there about 1 million US veterans of World War II, some in their mid- to late-eighties but mostly in their nineties. Veterans of the Korean War are about a half decade to a decade younger, but their numbers were always smaller than their WWII brothers and sisters. Vietnam War veterans range from folks in their late fifties to Baby Boomer retirees, while veterans of the Gulf War and subsequent conflicts are still in their forties and younger and will be around for quite sometime.

They have fascinating stories, and if you encounter one, buy them a cup of coffee and sit down and listen to some of them. In a relative's nursing home I frequently visit on the Mainland, I have met quite a few, including a woman who flew newly built aircraft from California to Hawaii (straight out of an AFKN commercial) and a recently deceased nonagenarian who served in the all-Japanese 442nd Infantry in Europe during World War II.

To them and all, thank you.

These British troops on the first stage of their trip to the front lines in England, 1939 [source]

Sunday, November 10, 2013

What can we do to get celebrities to accept North Korea as today's version of "Sun City"?

I ain't gonna play Sun City.

That was the refrain in the 1980s, when celebrity after celebrity stated they would not support South Africa's oppression in any way, shape, or form until Apartheid were dismantled.

Perhaps we need to revisit this notion, as obscure basketballer Dennis Rodman and now obscure rap artists Pacman and Peso have been heading for Pyongyang to make headlines (and perhaps a little bit of money).

From the Huffington Post:
Two Washington, D.C. rappers are readying themselves for a trip to North Korea in the hopes of becoming famous.

Rappers Pacman and Peso, whose real names are Anthony Bobb and Dontray Ennis, first made headlines back in September, when the Washington Post got hold of their plan to go to North Korea and film a music video with the help of a Kickstarter fund. Pacman and Peso had teamed up with Ramsey Aburdene, a commercial lending professional and aspiring producer. They then met Michael Bassett, a veteran once stationed in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Bassett studies the region in grad school and helps plan cultural exchange tours.

Then, the idea was hatched to go to the Hermit Kingdom, film the video, have it go viral and become superstars.

“This is my only option now,” Peso, who said he could be "doing wrong in the streets or get locked up," told the Washington Post of the North Korea trip. “If it was to work.”

Now, the plan is a reality. Their Kickstarter fund, "Pacman & Peso Make A Music Video In North Korea," has since raise more than $10,000, surpassing their goal of $6,000.

The rappers will head to North Korea in two weeks, the Washington Post reported Friday. After a $5,100 donation from hedge fund manager James Passin, they applied for passports and set a date for their guided tour.

“We’re not trying to be political heroes or anything like that,” Aburdene told the Guardian. “We understand there is terrible stuff going on in North Korea, but there is terrible stuff going on here that people aren’t straight up about.”
Terrible stuff in DC has little to do — in kind or degree — with terrible stuff in the DPRK. This is a publicity stunt, and it's disappointing that they got $10K to do it.

I am of two minds when it comes to individuals taking private tours and doing do-gooder stuff* in North Korea — I think such individuals undermine the propaganda message of self-reliance and demonization of outsiders — but celebrities (even minor ones) tend to legitimize the regime.

*If all goes well, I might end up on a medical mission of sorts working within North Korea. 


Boost your bike (and prevent it from getting boosted)

Those in Korea may find it hard to believe, but Honolulu is probably an even worse city than Seoul for bike commuters. Both cities lack safe bike lanes along major thoroughfares, but at least Seoul has those long bike routes along the rivers (although Honolulu has loads of buses that can accommodate bikes in the front, though that's not exactly bike commuting).

One problem both cities have in terms of getting people out of their cars and onto two-wheeler is the myriad of hills that make bike-riding a chore in at least one direction. This nifty little device, though, could help mitigate that. Sure, it's a cheat, but for those who ride because they want a little exercise and freedom and not a full-blown sweaty workout, this could be just the ticket.


Saturday, November 9, 2013

Bloomberg going light on China?

The New York Times is reporting that Bloomberg has decided to start holding back on it's critical pieces on China, in fear of being locked out of the Chinese market.

It's another example – and there are many – of Beijing bullying other countries, organizations, individuals, etc., into playing along with their distorted reality.

One thing I thought was funny was that the folks at Bloomberg compared their efforts to stay in Beijing's good graces with various news agencies going along with Nazi Germany back in the 1930s.

Pinkberry founder guilty of assaulting homeless man in Los Angeles

I reported about this here and here, Pinkberry founder Young Lee getting arrested for senselessly beating a homeless man senseless. Well, after nearly two years, Mr Lee has been found guilty of assault with a tire iron and will likely spend a considerable amount of time in jail.

From NBC's local news bureau in Los Angeles:
A co-founder of the Pinkberry yogurt chain was found guilty Friday of beating a homeless man in Hollywood with a tire iron in an attack allegedly sparked by the transient’s sexually explicit tattoo.

Young Lee – who is no longer involved with the frozen yogurt company he helped to found – was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon after using a tire iron June 15, 2011, to attack a homeless man panhandling near the Vermont Avenue exit off the Hollywood (101) Freeway.

As Lee's sport utility vehicle approached the off-ramp, Donald K. Bolding was changing his sweatshirt, exposing a sexually explicit tattoo, according to court documents.

“Instead of driving away with his passengers as a reasonable person would have done or rolling up his window, or just ignoring the plaintiff, Lee, having taken deep offense of the tattoo, rolled down the window and began an argument with the plaintiff,” Gary Casselman, the plaintiff's attorney, wrote in court documents filed in a separate civil case.

Lee, now 49, parked his SUV on Vermont Avenue, grabbed a tire iron and continued arguing with Bolding, now with both of them on the sidewalk, court documents said.

The beating broke Bolding's arm and gave him a concussion, his attorney said.

The transient said he was bleeding when he ran into oncoming traffic in an effort to avoid being attacked further. He testified that he was ordered to get on his hands and knees to apologize as he fell against a fence.
With only one store in Honolulu, I've never actually set foot in a Pinkberry (known affectionately in SoCal as Crackberry). I have, however, entered the struggling Red Mango a few times.


Friday, November 1, 2013

A case of prolonged euphoria

By definition, all Hyundai-related things are Korea-related, even when they're a Long Island Hyundai dealership with a risqué ad...

Given their sister carmaker Kia's own history with questionable advertising, maybe Hyundai and Hyundai dealerships should be a bit more circumspect.


Monday, October 28, 2013

In South Korea, a man-bites-dog story involves ROK citizens heading north

You know how we sometimes read about pro-Pyongyang dupes in South Korea (many of them chinboistas) and we shake our heads (or our fists) and say, "Why don't they go up and live in North Korea if they think it's so wonderful?!"

Well, reports AFP (via Business Insider), some of them actually do.


Is math ability genetic or something else?

Is one "born" a math person? Using Korea, Japan, and China as exemplars, these folks argue that math ability is more about culture than genetics. And, they suggest, Americans should follow that lead. (This is not a new idea, of course, but it popped up again today.)


Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Economist on South Korea's test hell

The Economist has an article that addresses that perennial issue of what to do about the sunûng, South Korea's grueling college entrance exam.

With so much of their future riding on it, the test causes all sorts of distortions, not just its outsized academic influence but the gobs and gobs of money spent on prep and the opportunity costs of the time invested studying it (particularly among those who delay entrance for a year or two instead of opting for a "lesser" school). 

Its continued existence indicates its societal value (i.e., providing a reasonably objective equalizer) but also the failure of reform: for as long as I've lived in South Korea, "fixing" the test has involved mostly tweaking at the edges and not an effort to sit down and work out a new testing regimen that is fair and still holds onto those societal values without being such a huge juggernaut.


Sunday, October 20, 2013

What Asia leads the world in

I thought that this snarkily accurate graphic was fairly interesting (HT to Marc). I've blown up the East Asia portion for relevance.

Apparently Taiwan leads the world in being forced by a bigger China not to be recognized as a country.


Police and emergency workers not to be held responsible in death of girl following Asiana Airlines crash

Ye Meng-yuan [left] and Wang Linjia [right] were
two of the three killed following the Asiana Air crash.

Saying that the aftermath of a Asiana Airlines jet smashing its tail into the end of the runway and then spinning around and crashing was a "very chaotic scene," local prosecutors decided not to file charges against anyone for striking a 16-year-old Chinese girl who was killed by a rescue truck.

Ye Mengyuan's family's lawyers will still likely focus on whom they refer to as "the responsible parties," which will certainly include Asiana Airlines and the pilots for the death.

Frankly, this doesn't sit well with me. Emergency response personnel are supposed to be trained to handle "extraordinary circumstances." And it doesn't bode well that they have run over a passenger on the tarmac on a bright and clear day when they know there are hundreds of passengers escaping burning wreckage.

And then there's this response by San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White, reported in the Los Angeles Times:
"If not for the professional recute, triage, treatment, and transport operations that were conducted by all involved agencies, it is likely that there would have been a greater loss of life," she said.
It seems almost calculated as if to say that having saved so many others makes it acceptable that they killed (not failed to save, mind you, but actually killed) this other one.


Friday, October 18, 2013

Hyundai zombie mobile

If you're a fan of The Walking Dead (as I have become), you may have noticed the frequently featured Hyundai Tucson, purchased by Maggie before the end of the world, and often driven by her boyfriend Glenn, another Korean person/place/thing prominently featured on the show (theirs is a relationship that could be the subject of its own post here at Monster Island).

Surely this is product placement, but given that TWD is proudly filmed in Georgia and Hyundais are proudly made in Georgia, it's an easy match.

Anyway, that's what I had in mind when I read about this defensive vehicle for the zombie apocalypse, a Hyundai Santa Fe Sport, re-engineered (surely in violation of warranty) for driver survival when the dead start rising up and become walkers, biters, or what have you. Similar to the Veloster they revealed earlier this year.

Very cool. I want one, and maybe I'll get one. It could come in handy in Honolulu.


More North Korean photos to drive Elgin nuts

See what you will about North Korea and its leadership, but they certainly give Japanese otaku something to do:
Never shy about promoting the benevolence and power of president Kim Jong Un, North Korea's state media recently released this image of the young leader:

At first blush, it appears to be a fairly tame photo of Kim doing president-y things with his cadre of lieutenants. But as Kotaku suggests, upon closer look, the photo seems to have been manipulated with Photoshop. Note the strange shadows (or lack thereof)...
The title of this post, as you may be aware, is in reference to The Marmot's Hole guest blogger R. Elgin going nuts over Kim Jong-un's now-dead father also freakishly defying they physics of shadows (I was user-81 in the thread).


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Dick Tracy-measuring contest

Apple is rumored to be coming out with one, but Samsung has beaten them to the punch: A computer on your wrist. Samsung's commercial is exquisite in its powerful simplicity that evokes an unstoppable evolution. The technological fantasy of past movies, television shows, and comics (hence this posts's title) is now a reality.

Now that the Samsung Galaxy smartwatch is out there before the iWrist, iWatch, iHand, or iWhatHaveYou, Apple will look like an also-ran when (and if) they ever come out with theirs. Of course, that isn't the worst thing in the world; after all, Samsung followed Apple into the world of smartphones and tablets, and they're doing just fine.


Sunday, October 13, 2013

The spy who wrote me

Choe Sanghun of the New York Times writes about a book penned by a former North Korean spy that lifts the veil on the inter-Korean spy game. The article, at least, makes an interesting read, but I haven't gotten hold of the actual book yet.

Some will say that this book is just part of President Park's anti-North propaganda campaign, but to me, the recruitment and utilization of chinboistas rings true — and goes a long way toward explaining the anti-US and anti-government moves of the left when they bring us things like the Mad Cow protests. (And I will not fault President Park for her intransigent stance against the DPRK since, after all, it was their operatives who killed her mother.)

An excerpt:
In May 1990, he and a colleague left the port of Nampo aboard a vessel disguised as a Japanese fishing boat, stopping in China to pick up supplies from a North Korean cargo ship before entering international waters. There, the agents set off in a submersible to the South Korean island of Jeju.
The pair operated in the South for the next five months, sending coded reports to Pyongyang, using radios hidden in a mountain by earlier agents. At midnight, an announcer on Pyongyang Radio would read their handlersf instructions in a series of five-digit numbers. Mr. Kim and his bosses used the text of a popular South Korean novel to decipher one anotherfs messages.

In October, the two agents returned to Pyongyang by submersible, carrying with them one of the two South Korean dissidents they had recruited as spies, whiskey and wristwatches as gifts for their bosses, and far more precious cargo, a North Korean woman who had operated as an agent in the South for 10 years.
Read the rest on your own.


Saturday, October 5, 2013

The secret to world peace is pistachios and Dennis Rodman

Who knew that a major US industry — in this case the pistachio growers of America — would have an entire publicity campaign surrounding What Americans Know About Korea™?

We already had Psy hawking pistachios during the Superbowl, with I guess some connection between his fluorescent suits and the color of the little nuts, and now Dennis Rodman and his buddy Kim Jong-un, most famous recently for his trips to North Korea to promote peace between the DPRK and the USA.

Fortunately for the Wonderful Pistachios campaign, K-pop has brought all kinds of Korea images to the American public. Maybe the next commercial will have the guy from oldboy cracking open a few of those nuts with his hammer.


Monday, September 30, 2013

Fire destroys Itaewon block

The details are still a bit sketchy, but it appears from this piece that a decent-sized block of shops (and restaurants?) in Itaewon about half a dozen buildings to the west of the iconic Hamilton Hotel has burned to the ground:
Nearly a block of Itaewon near the Hamilton Hotel caught fire earlier this morning at approximately 7:15 a.m. As of 9:00 a.m., the fire appeared to have been extinguished and investigations are currently underway to determine the cause of the fire. There have also been no reports of injuries. Currently, the area between Itaewon station and the entrance to the main strip (Noksapyeong station direction) has been closed off and neither automobiles or buses are being allowed through.
I'm not sure how deep that fire was, but on the side street directly behind there (which runs behind Hamilton Hotel as well) there's a whole slew of bars and eateries that are a key part of the Itaewon rejuvenation (heck, the hipster renaissance of Yongsan altogether). While my first thought is that I praythat no one has gotten injured or killed, I'm also hoping the restaurant row was unscathed. We'll have to check and the English-language dailies for more details tomorrow.

One can't help but look at this picture and wonder about the parking situation in Itaewon's back streets might have affected the firefighters' response. Judging from the pictures, most of them are along the main drag, spraying water across the non-burning structures so that it will fall downward onto the burning buildings. Was this because parking regulation violators had their cars along the side of the streets so that the fire trucks and other emergency vehicles couldn't approach? This is a perennial problem, but one that could be dealt with far more effectively.


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

OC Weekly highlights "rare" Korean-American boxer

The OC Weekly has a piece on boxer Daniel Kim (not to be confused with actor Daniel Dae Kim). Being the first Korean-American boxer (in the Southland [i.e., Southern California] at least) is major barrier-breaking:
He also notes that by stepping into the ring, he's stepping outside the cultural norms and social expectations placed on Korean Americans.

"Growing up, I was left with a strong impression that pursuing a future as an athlete was impossible or a waste of time," he observes. "Professionally boxing as a Korean American allows me to challenge these cultural and social sentiments while proudly representing Korean and other Asian Americans in a domain where we are vastly underrepresented and often taken lightly."
Although South Korea has produced its share of boxers, immigrant Korean parents and 1.5-generation parents would prefer their kids to be brain surgeons than brain injured, so boxing is not terribly big in the Kyoto community. But if Daniel Kim starts making it big, who knows?


Monday, September 16, 2013

Hume's Bastard, RIP

I just got word that a long-time, low-key fixture in the K-blogosphere has passed away. Joseph Steinberg, formerly of Pusan and perhaps better known as Hume's Bastard to those at The Marmot's Hole, died this weekend in Texas.

He left occasional comments here at Monster Island (such as at this post on the anniversary of the Rodney King riots), but I also knew him in person, even if only briefly. Back in 2004, I worked with him for a short while on get-out-the-vote campaigns (mostly absentee ballot registration for US citizens) when he was based in Korea's #2 city.

I remember him as a cynical and somewhat argumentative fellow, but he was also honest and sincere. His wife was nice, too.

Requiescat in pace, Mr Steinberg.


Monday, September 9, 2013

Tokyo awarded 2020 Summer Olympics

A lot of Japanese are quite ecstatic, now that Tokyo has been chosen over Madrid and Istanbul to host the 2020 Summer Olympics. It will have been fifty-four years since Japan last hosted the summer games in 1964 (but only twenty-two years since they hosted the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympiad).

Tokyo was considered the "safe choice" to host the games, since Turkey has the civil war going on next door in Syria and Spain is going through considerable economic difficulties. Japan's Prime Minister gave assurances that the still on-going Fukushima nuclear disaster will not pose safety concerns.

In fact, I think that the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami provided a pretext to award Japan the games. I don't mean that in a disparaging or condescending way: The Olympics are often awarded to encourage or reward worthwhile goals (both Japan and South Korea were awarded the games in part to highlight their respective post-war recoveries).

Besides concerns over radiation, one other point going against Japan would have been the old formula of continental rotation, where IOC members tended to eschew awarding the games to a country in the same continent as the previous games; since South Korea is hosting the 2018 Winter Olympics, it would be a tougher sell for next-door Japan to get the games two years later. But this trend was bucked when Russia (in Europe) was awarded the games immediately after Britain (also Europe).

I'm quite happy for Japan. This is a shot-in-the-arm needed for a proud but economically, demographically, and geopolitically beleaguered country, and I hope it provides the psychological boost they so want and need. The New York Times had the same idea:
Winning the Games also appeared to affirm Abe’s efforts to restore Japan’s confidence at a time when it has appeared increasingly eclipsed by neighboring China.

“Japan has seemed to be overshadowed by the rise of China and other developing nations,” said Harumi Arima, an independent political analyst. “These Olympics will give Japanese a chance to feel reborn, to feel for themselves that Japan can still be vibrant.”
Congratulations, Tokyoites and Japanese. I look forward to some very cool Games in seven years.


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Rodman bounces back to Pyongyang to visit

We interrupt the lead-up to the US War in ______™ with news that basketball legend-in-his-own-mind and Kim Jong-un BFF Dennis Rodman has returned to North Korea to meet with The Young General. He emphasized that he was not there to secure the release of Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae, who reportedly is in a labor camp, not getting Pyongyang Palazzo treatment that former the original Stupogants (Euna Lee and Laura Ling) received.

From AP via Huffington Post:
Former NBA star Dennis Rodman landed Tuesday in North Korea and said he plans to hang out with authoritarian leader Kim Jong Un, have a good time and maybe bridge some cultural gaps – but not be a diplomat.

Rodman was greeted at Pyongyang's airport by Son Kwang Ho, vice-chairman of North Korea's Olympic Committee, just days after Pyongyang rejected a visit by a U.S. envoy who had hoped to bring home Kenneth Bae, an American missionary jailed there. The North abruptly called off the official visit because it said the U.S. had ruined the atmosphere for talks by holding a drill over South Korea with nuclear-capable B-52 bombers.

Rodman said the purpose of his visit was to display his friendship for Kim and North Korea and to "show people around the world that we as Americans can actually get along with North Korea."
This news comes about a week after South Korean media sources said Kim Jong-un's ex-girlfriend had been executed for making porn and distributing Bibles, possibly at the behest of his new wife.

From USA Today:
A jarring report out of North Korea claims that Kim Jong Un's former girlfriend was executed by a firing squad last week.

Chosun Ilbo,an English language newspaper in South Korea, said unnamed sources in China told it that Hyon Song Wol (of "Excellent Horse-Like Lady" fame) was arrested on Aug. 17 along with about a dozen others; Hyon was a singer, and a number of the others were members of the Unhasu Orchestra.

They were accused of making a sex tape and selling it and were shot three days later for violating the country's pornography laws. A source said some allegedly had Bibles in their possession, and all were treated as political dissidents.

The report has not been independently verified by other media outlets. Chosun Ilbo is one of Seoul's main daily newspapers.
While that story got a lot of press, I'm skeptical of its veracity. When the "news" was released, I frankly didn't know what to make of it. It comes from the Chosun Ilbo, a conservative newspaper that reports almost any rumor coming out of North Korea as true. The thing is, defectors who've escaped North Korea (and these are people who deserve our sympathy no matter what they tell their handlers once they reach the South) are incentivized to provide bad stories about what is happening up north, including things like this.

The ex-girlfriend's singing troupe was accused of making porn (a big no-no) and carrying and/or distributing Bibles (another huge no-no), but these two no-nos are rarely ever a go-together. It sounds like a mishmash of defectors' say-anything stories that ultimately points to a mismatch. That's what my gut tells me (but it could be a throw-anything-at-them accusation from North Korean hardliners who

On the other hand, we do know that outrageous things really do happen up there, so this could be true (with the ham-handed reasons for their execution being an example of throw-everything-at-them accusations engineered by North Korean hardliners). So she really might be dead from an executioner's gun, along with all those others in her once-famous singing group, they could all be jailed, or heck, they may be living out their lives somewhere quietly (or even hiding out in China).

I'd still like to hold out hope that the Western-educated and basketball-loving Kim Jong-un really is poised to bring about change and is not allowing (or is at least curtailing) the sociopathic housecleaning of his forebears and handlers.

(Oh, and to tie the first sentence up with the rest of this post, CBS News just had a US Senator saying that dealing with Syria's use of chemical weapons is important to send a message to North Korea. What a perfect bow.)


Monday, August 26, 2013

LA Times on KCON

Midway through the past decade, a lot of people scoffed at efforts to make K-pop and Korean pop culture "a thing," but it really does seem to be taking off, evidenced by things like KCON (highlighted in the Los Angeles Times):
Alyssa Tolentino, 18, came all the way from Chicago to see the South Korean male pop group EXO perform in Los Angeles this weekend.

But before the show, she gave a performance of her own at the KCON convention Saturday at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. Taking the stage during a midday talent contest, she donned a rubber horse mask and worked through dance moves she had picked up from a music video.

Afterward, out of breath and sweaty, she revealed her true dedication. "Today's my move-in day for college, so I missed it," she said. "But it's worth it."

That level of fandom from Tolentino, who was supposed to be starting her life as a film major at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, may seem extreme, but it's typical among people at KCON, a convention for fans of the energetic and diverse sound and culture of Korean pop music, or K-pop.

About 10,000 people attended the first KCON last year in Irvine. For this year's conference, organizers expanded the convention to two days. That reflects the increasing popularity of K-pop in the U.S., said Ted Kim, president and chief executive of Mnet America, the K-pop cable network and Internet hub presenting KCON, which costs $60 to $300 to attend.

The Internet has made it easier for music buffs to discover new genres, and more Americans have been introduced to the culture through the viral success of rapper Psy, who broke out in the U.S. with the song "Gangnam Style."

Korean pop music encompasses a wide range of sounds, borrowing from European dance music and hip-hop and relying heavily on boy and girl bands, similar to the Lou Pearlman-arranged American pop singing groups of the 1990s. Girls' Generation, a popular act whose nine members wink at the camera in brightly colored videos, and 2NE1 (pronounced "twenty one") have both signed with major U.S. labels.

The groups are typically assembled by music companies, and performers often train for years before going public. Like hip-hop, K-pop encompasses its own world of fashion and dance. "Fans see something very positive, whether it's the music, the fashion or the dancing," Kim said. "This is a really smart audience and they know what's being manufactured and force fed."
And the story of Ms Tolentino rings true. Trust me, it's not just Korean-Americans and other Asian-Americans propelling this forward.