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.