Published on 6 Jan 2015
One of the biggest news stories this Christmas was the (un-)cancelled release of Sony Pictures’ movie The Interview. In the movie, Seth Rogan and James Franco try to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. After terror threats against movie theatres showing the film, Sony cancelled the release of the movie. This ultimately increased the movies attention and made the later online release the most successful one this year. Actually, there is a name for this kind of phenomenon: the Streisand Effect. In this episode of INTO CONTEXT, Indy explains why it’s not always smart to try to hide things on the internet.
August 1, 2015
February 15, 2015
At Techdirt, Karl Bode sings the praises of dumb TVs that don’t share your every word with unspecified “third parties” who may or may not have any compunction about further sharing of what happens in your home (within audio range of your TV, anyway):
But it’s something else stupid that Samsung did this week that got less press attention, but that I actually find far more troubling. Numerous Samsung smart TV users around the world this week stated that the company has started injecting ads into content being watched on third-party devices and services. For example, some users found that when streaming video content from PC to the living room using Plex, they suddenly were faced with a large ad for Pepsi that actually originated from their Samsung TV:
“Reports for the unwelcome ad interruption first surfaced on a Subreddit dedicated to Plex, the media center app that is available on a variety of connected devices, including Samsung smart TVs. Plex users typically use the app to stream local content from their computer or a network-attached storage drive to their TV, which is why many were very surprised to see an online video ad being inserted into their videos. A Plex spokesperson assured me that the company has nothing to do with the ad in question.”
Now Samsung hasn’t responded yet to this particular issue, and you’d have to think that the company accidentally enabled some kind of trial ad injection technology, since anything else would be idiotic brand seppuku (in fact it does appear like it has been working with Yahoo on just this kind of technology). Still, users say the ads have them rushing to disable the smart portion of Samsung TVs, whether that’s by using a third party solution or digging into the bowels of the TV’s settings to refuse Samsung’s end user agreement. And that raises an important point: many consumers (myself included) want their TV to be as slack-jawed, glassy-eyed, dumb and dim-witted as possible.
January 16, 2015
Margaret Cho gets into hot water with the perpetually offended for dressing up as a North Korean general:
Korean-American comedian Margaret Cho did an impression of a North Korean general at the Golden Globes that many on Liberal Twitter attacked as racist because apparently not even people of Korean descent are allowed to make fun of Kim Jong Un.
In one of many jokes aimed at the recent Sony cyber-hack, Cho wore a Korean general costume and made fun of the lack of spectacle at the event:
“You no have thousand baby playing guitar at the same time. You no have people holding up many card to make one big picture,” she said in a thick accent. “You no have Dennis Rodman.”
Predictably, people went nuts.
The Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner said Cho was “like, totes racist.” Time deputy tech editor Alex Fitzpatrick questioned how anyone could have seen the bit as anything but “broadly racist.” The International Business Times managing editor called the decision to allow it a “bad call.” And that’s just to name a few.
Cho defended herself, tweeting: “I’m of mixed North/South Korean descent — you imprison, starve and brainwash my people you get made fun of by me #hatersgonhate.”
December 19, 2014
Mark Steyn is never one to hold back an opinion:
I was barely aware of The Interview until, while sitting through a trailer for what seemed like just another idiotic leaden comedy, my youngest informed me that the North Koreans had denounced the film as “an act of war”. If it is, they seem to have won it fairly decisively: Kim Jong-Un has just vaporized a Hollywood blockbuster as totally as if one of his No Dong missiles had taken out the studio. As it is, the fellows with no dong turned out to be the executives of Sony Pictures.
I wouldn’t mind but this is the same industry that congratulates itself endlessly — not least in its annual six-hour awards ceremony — on its artists’ courage and bravery. Called on to show some for the first time in their lives, they folded like a cheap suit. As opposed to the bank-breaking suit their lawyers advised them they’d be looking at if they released the film and someone put anthrax in the popcorn. I think of all the occasions in recent years when I’ve found myself sharing a stage with obscure Europeans who’ve fallen afoul of Islam — Swedish artists, Danish cartoonists, Norwegian comediennes, all of whom showed more courage than these Beverly Hills bigshots.
While I often find Mark Steyn’s comments amusing and insightful, the real lesson here may not be the spineless response of Sony, but the impact of a legal system on the otherwise free actions of individuals and organizations: if Sony had gone ahead with the release and someone did attack one or more of the theatres where the movie was being shown, how would the legal system treat the situation? As an act of war by an external enemy or as an act of gross negligence by Sony and the theatre owners that would bankrupt every single company in the distribution chain (and probably lead to criminal charges against individual theatre managers and corporate officers)? While I disagree with Sony’s decision to fold under the pressure, I can’t imagine any corporate board being comfortable with that kind of stark legal threat … Sony’s executives may have been presented with no choice at all.
I see that, following the disappearance of The Interview, a Texan movie theater replaced it with a screening of Team America. That film wouldn’t get made today, either.
Hollywood has spent the 21st century retreating from storytelling into a glossy, expensive CGI playground in which nothing real is at stake. That’s all we’ll be getting from now on. Oh, and occasional Oscar bait about embattled screenwriters who stood up to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee six decades ago, even as their successors cave to, of all things, Kim’s UnKorean Activities Committee. American pop culture — supposedly the most powerful and influential force on the planet – has just surrendered to a one-man psycho-state economic basket-case that starves its own population.
Eugene Volokh makes some of the same points that Steyn raises:
Deadline Hollywood mentions several such theater chains. Yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security stated that there was “no credible intelligence” that such threatened terrorist attacks would take place, but unsurprisingly, some chains are being extra cautious here.
I sympathize with the theaters’ situation — they’re in the business of showing patrons a good time, and they’re rightly not interested in becoming free speech martyrs, even if there’s only a small chance that they’ll be attacked. Moreover, the very threats may well keep moviegoers away from theater complexes that are showing the movie, thus reducing revenue from all the screens at the complex.
But behavior that is rewarded is repeated. Thugs who oppose movies that are hostile to North Korea, China, Russia, Iran, the Islamic State, extremist Islam generally or any other country or religion will learn the lesson. The same will go as to thugs who are willing to use threats of violence to squelch expression they oppose for reasons related to abortion, environmentalism, animal rights and so on.
May 19, 2014
K.J. Kwon, Paula Hancocks and Jethro Mullen report for CNN:
South Korea’s President made an emotional apology Monday over the ferry disaster that killed close to 300 people last month and said she would dismantle the country’s coast guard.
“As the President who should be responsible for people’s life and security, I am sincerely apologizing to the people for having to suffer pain,” said President Park Geun-hye in a televised speech. “The final responsibility for not being able to respond properly lies on me.”
The Sewol ferry sank en route to the resort island of Jeju on April 16, leaving more than 304 people dead or missing. Most of the passengers were high school students on a field trip.
“As a President, I feel a sense of sorrow for not being able to protect them during their family trip,” said Park, whose approval ratings have dropped significantly in the weeks since the sinking.
The Sewol disaster caused widespread outrage in South Korea over lax safety standards and the failure to rescue more people as the ship foundered.
“After serious consideration, I’ve decided to dismantle the coast guard,” Park said. “The investigation and information roles will be transferred to the police while the rescue and salvage operation and ocean security roles will be transferred to the department for national safety which will be newly established.”
May 18, 2014
Victor Davis Hanson on the limitations of #hashtag activism to combat real-world evil:
Nigeria’s homegrown, al-Qaeda linked militant group, Boko Haram, brags openly that it recently kidnapped about 300 young Nigerian girls. It boasts that it will sell them into sexual slavery.
Those terrorists have a long and unapologetic history of murdering kids who dare to enroll in school, and Christians in general. For years, Western aid groups have pleaded with the State Department to at least put Boko Haram on the official list of terrorist groups. But former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s team was reluctant to come down so harshly, in apparent worry that some might interpret such condemnation as potentially offensive to Islamic sensitivities.
Instead, Western elites now flood Facebook and Twitter with angry postings about Boko Haram — either in vain hopes that public outrage might deter the terrorists, or simply to feel better by loudly condemning the perpetrators.
But if we are postmodern and sensitive, what do we say or do about premodern racists with nuclear weapons, like the North Koreans?
A recent article from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency suggested that President Obama “does not even have the basic appearances of a human being … It would be perfect for Obama to live with a group of monkeys in the world’s largest African natural zoo and lick the bread crumbs thrown by spectators.”
How does the West deal with a mentality like that, originating from a country armed with nuclear weapons? Pyongyang owns no television show that we can boycott, no sports team that we can root against.
What do we do in the face of 19th-century evil that is unapologetic, has lethal weapons at its disposal, and uses savage rhetoric to goad us? Tweet it to death?
What about the sultan of Brunei, who just enacted sharia law that orders stoning for women found “guilty” of adultery or for homosexuals engaged in sex acts? That is a different sort of war on women than that invoked by Sandra Fluke, who lamented that she did not have free birth control from the government.
April 16, 2014
BBC News on the apparent diplomatic incident taking place at M&M Hair Academy in South Ealing:
North Korean officials paid a visit to a London hair salon to question why it had used their leader Kim Jong-un’s picture in a poster offering haircuts.
The poster in M&M Hair Academy in South Ealing featured the words “Bad Hair Day?” below the leader’s picture.
Barber Karim Nabbach said embassy officials were shown the door and the salon’s manager spoke to the police.
The Met Police said: “We have spoken to all parties involved and no offence has been disclosed.”
The salon put up the poster on 9 April and the next day two men claiming to be officials from the North Korean embassy visited the salon and demanded to meet the manager, Mo Nabbach.
Karim Nabbach said: “We put up posters for an offer for men’s hair cuts through the month of April. Obviously in the current news there has been this story that North Korean men are only allowed one haircut.
H/T to Eric for the link.
April 1, 2014
Published on 28 Mar 2014
Kim Jong Il, who was the supreme leader of North Korea until his death in 2011, was a leading authority on gymnastics, cinema, literature, war, cooking, and the arts. He wrote 1,400 works when he was in college, including a senior thesis that was an achievement comparable to Columbus’ discovery of America. He revolutionized the opera, personally discovered that Paleolithic man originated on the Korean Peninsula, and came up with a theory of art that was as impactful on modern culture as the Copernican Revolution. Why did the supreme leader always wear sunglasses? That’s because his eyes were constantly bloodshot from staying up all night figuring out ways to help his country.
These are details from celebrity ghostwriter (and former editor of Overheard in New York) Michael Malice’s new book Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il, a strange, tragic, and humorous first-person account of the supreme leader’s life. On March 18, 2014, at an event held at New York City’s Museum of Sex and sponsored by the Reason Foundation, The New York Times columnist John Tierney sat down with Malice to discuss the book.
Highlights from the event included a discussion of how Malice came to write Dear Reader (1:28); why Kim Jong Il is despised by North Koreans (7:00); how North Koreans are forced to engage in regular self-criticism sessions in which they’re denounced by their peers (9:00); why it was a surprise that Kim Jong Il succeeded his father, Kim Il-sung (12:00); why there’s no hope that political change will come to North Korea anytime soon (20:20); Ayn Rand’s influence on Malice (23:20); why Kim Jong Il hated the Mona Lisa (27:15); an example of a North Korean joke (29:15); why Malice thinks the media’s coverage of Dennis Rodman’s relationship with Kim Jong Un is deplorable (31:35); the story behind the 1987 bombing of Flight 858 by North Korean agents (33:20); the origins of the Korean famine (41:00); Kim Jong Il’s “spot on critiques of U.S. foreign policy” (42:00); why North Korea allows its citizens to reunite with family members from South Korea (43:30); the relationship between China and North Korea (50:00); and North Korea’s nuclear capabilities (51:15).
For more on Malice’s time in North Korea researching the book, read his account from the August/September 2013 issue of Reason.
March 9, 2014
It’s not clear whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper is going to Seoul to actually sign a free trade agreement with South Korea or if it’s just another grip-and-grin photo-op to announce an as-yet-unfinalized deal:
Harper said on his 24 Seven webcast that this would be Canada’s first trade deal in the Asia-Pacific region.
“It adds, obviously, to the important deals we have in the Americas and in Europe now. And it’s really given the Canadian economy as good, if not better, free-trade access than virtually every major developed economy,” he said.
Harper added that South Korea is “a relatively open economy, a relatively, very progressive economy and advanced democracy, and it has trade linkages all through Asia itself.” He said it’s “probably the best gateway you can get into long-term trade agreement access into the Asia-Pacific region.”
NDP trade critic Don Davies said growing trade with South Korea and Asia in general is a good thing. But he was skeptical that the week’s coming ceremonies would amount to much more of a repeat of Brussels.
“Are they going to go just to shake hands, have a photo-op and sign an agreement-in-principle without the actual details or text to be released?”
Davies again assailed the government for a total lack of transparency, and questioned whether the deal would be able to protect jobs in Canada’s auto sector.
“In trade deals, it’s details that matter,” he said.
“The Conservatives have the least transparent trade policy probably in the developed world. They are closed, they are secretive and they don’t involve a lot of stakeholders; they don’t involve the opposition.”
The deal would mark progress toward expanding trade with Asia, a major economic priority of the Harper government. Coming on the heels of the Canada-EU pact, it would allow Prime Minister Stephen Harper to trumpet his first significant free-trade deal in Asia, and give impetus to other negotiations, particularly with Japan.
February 17, 2014
Every time somebody suggests that Toronto be seriously involved in an Olympic bid, I become a big supporter of the other competing cities. Toronto is dysfunctional enough without adding the cost, disruption, and anti-democratic central planning aspects of hosting the Olympic games. In Samizdata, Michael Jennings looks at the shenanigans going on both in Sochi with the current Winter Games and in future venues:
The 2018 Winter Olympics are in Pyeongchang county in South Korea. Assuming that North Korea does not collapse or try to start a war between now and then, this will be straightforward, as these things go. A vast amount of money has been spent building new world class ski resorts at Alpensia and Yongpyong. These have largely been built already. They were built in anticipation of Pyeongchang winning the Winter Olympics. Pyeongchang also made unsuccessful bids for the games of 2006 and 2010, and has therefore been building for some time. There are already large financial black holes from the construction of these venues, but one cost overruns will be anywhere near as bad as have come from the highly corrupt race to get things built on time that took place prior to Sochi. Plus there have been and will be time for lots of test events to get the venues right. Of course, there are still highly expensive new highways and railways to be built, and a lot of indoor venues to be built for the ice events in the coastal city of Gangneung. As national pride is at stake, South Korean taxpayers will undoubtedly suffer painfully, but South Korea is a rich industrial democracy with competent people in charge. These games will likely go smoothly, but they will cost a lot — just not as much as Sochi.
The venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics has not yet been decided, but the IOC announced last year there were six final bidders: Stockholm (Åre), Sweden; Oslo, Norway; Krakow, Poland (Zakopane, Poland and Jasná, Slovakia); Almaty, Kazakhstan; Lviv, Ukraine; and Beijing (Zhangjiakou), China. [It has always been the case that the indoor ice events would be held in a city and the outdoor snow events in a mountain resort. In recent times the need for the city to be close to the resort has been relaxed somewhat, and I have listed the mountain resort(s) in brackets if it is a long way away from the official host city].
Sweden has already withdrawn their bid, and Norway appears to be close to doing so. The reason: they are seeing the immense expense and horrible shenanigans going on in Sochi. A little secret of the Olympics is that many of the the same people run it every time — the host city largely just picks up the bill. Once the event has ridiculous expenses and large amounts of outright corruption attached to it, this all comes with it to the next venue. Receiving kickbacks on construction projects becomes what it is all about.
Relatively uncorrupt places like Norway and Sweden look at this, and find that they want nothing to do with it. As great centres of winter sport, they have many of the right facilities already, meaning less scope for construction industry kickbacks. This means that for some of the IOC the fact that a country is already prepared for the Games is actually a negative rather than a positive.
Anyway, though, the point is that the two countries best able to host the games end up not being serious candidates.
As for the others: Poland and Slovakia would run the games just fine, but a fair bit of infrastructure and facilities would need to be built. Krakow is a lovely city. Zakopane is a lovely resort, and the Tata mountains are a suitable place for the games, even if the best downhill resorts are on the Slovakian side rather than the Polish side. (Some of the infrastructure construction would not be too counterproductive: Poland built lots of new roads, railways stations and airport terminals before the Euro 2012 soccer tournament, most of which were needed anyway and were part of Poland’s long term post-communist infrastructure modernisation). The Olympic games are not what money should be spent on in the present economic circumstances, though, and one also hopes that the richer countries of the EU are past paying for the Olympics to be held in the poorer countries of the EU (see Athens 2004). But with the EU, who knows?
February 15, 2014
The Economist looks at the gosh-wow technical specs of South Korean internet access, governed by the sensibilities of a restrictive, censorious regime:
Why South Korea is really an internet dinosaur
SOUTH KOREA likes to think of itself as a world leader when it comes to the internet. It boasts the world’s swiftest average broadband speeds (of around 22 megabits per second). Last month the government announced that it will upgrade the country’s wireless network to 5G by 2020, making downloads about 1,000 times speedier than they are now. Rates of internet penetration are among the highest in the world. There is a thriving startup community (Cyworld, rolled out five years before Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook, was the most popular social network in South Korea for a decade) and the country leads the world in video games as spectator sports. Yet in other ways the futuristic country is stuck in the dark ages. Last year Freedom House, an American NGO, ranked South Korea’s internet as only “partly free”. Reporters without Borders has placed it on a list of countries “under surveillance”, alongside Egypt, Thailand and Russia, in its report on “Enemies of the Internet”. Is forward-looking South Korea actually rather backward?
Every week portions of the Korean web are taken down by government censors. Last year about 23,000 Korean webpages were deleted, and another 63,000 blocked, at the request of the Korea Communications Standards Commission (KCSC), a nominally independent (but mainly government-appointed) public body. In 2009 the KCSC had made just 4,500 requests for deletion. Its filtering chiefly targets pornography, prostitution and gambling, all of which are illegal in South Korea. But more wholesome pursuits are also restricted: online gaming is banned between midnight and 6am for under-16s (users must input their government-issued ID numbers to prove their age). Sites from North Korea, including its state newspaper, news agency and Twitter feed, are blocked, as are those of North Korea’s sympathisers. A law dating back to the Korean war forbids South Korean maps from being taken out of the country. Because North and South are technically still at war, the law has been expanded to include electronic mapping data—which means that Google, for instance, cannot process South Korean mapping data on its servers and therefore cannot offer driving directions inside the country. In 2010 the UN determined that the KCSC “essentially operates as a censorship body”.
December 16, 2013
If you feel the urgent need to denounce a class traitor or arch imperialist running dog, the site you need to visit is the North Korea Press Release Generator:
Welcome to the North Korea Press Release Generator, which produces random denunciations based entirely upon last week’s official announcement and various other statements put out over the years by the DPRK’s official journalistic organs. You can even denounce your friends, and share news of their imminent execution on Twitter and Facebook! Refresh the page for a fresh official condemnation.
More: the BBC recently published an article explaining why North Korea’s official insults are so over-the-top. I would also be remiss not the point to the pioneering NK Random Insult Generator, created by NK News in 2005.
October 30, 2013
In sp!ked, Stuart Derbyshire looks at the unprecedented drop in total fertility rate in most of East Asia:
Fertility rates in East Asia have fallen catastrophically since the early 1970s and are now the lowest in the world. In all parts of Asia, the total fertility rate (TFR) has fallen by half or more in the past 35 years. In Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, the TFR hovers between 1.0-1.3. For a population to replace itself, the TFR needs to be above 2.1. Thus, if these trends in fertility are not substantially reversed, the population of Asia will rapidly shrink as the continent heads into extinction. How did this happen?
Most commentators are inclined to blame the falling rate of TFR on the influence of modernity on women. Speaking in 1983, for example, Singapore’s then prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, infamously remarked that educating women and bringing them into the workforce had undermined their more traditional role as mothers: ‘It is too late for us to reverse our policies… Our women will not stand for it. And anyway, they have already become too important a factor in the economy.’
Falling fertility in Asia involves not just the rejection of motherhood but a broader rejection of intimacy and responsibility of many kinds. About two fifths to one third of women in Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan are choosing not to marry. Increasing numbers are not even bothering to date. When I ask my students why this is, they shrug and talk about the hassle and expense, as was highlighted in a recent article. Children are expensive and they are also demanding, intrusive and may not turn out how you desire. Similarly, relationships are messy and difficult, with the ever-present possibility of disappointment. It is easier to live at home, hang out with friends and avoid intimate contact.
The problem in Asia is not modernity but rather the postmodern self-conscious denial of human agency and subjectivity. Young Asian men and women deny that they can be independent and deny that they can forge meaningful intimate personal relationships and so, instead, they accept the relative comforts of living with parents and the relative ease of being single. This denial of independence, intimacy and responsibility is a problem across the world and is bound up in a disregard for human agency typical of mainstream commentary on the environment, terrorism, economics and most other scientific and social issues. The impact in Asia may be more devastating because of the relatively sudden displacement of traditional Asian values without any broader narrative of what modern Asia is. Unlike America and Europe, Asia does not have a clear continental story, no obvious heroic past, unifying welfare state or pan-Asian vision that might blunt a turn towards the denial of the self.
September 2, 2013
The South Korean government is in the same situation as the Canadian government: needing to purchase replacements for Cold War era combat aircraft and having a very limited budget to do so. After analyzing their specific needs, South Korea isn’t going to buy either the F-35 or the Eurofighter Typhoon:
On August 18th South Korea selected Boeing’s F-15SE Silent Eagle as the sole candidate for Phase III of its Fighter eXperimental Project (F-X) over Lockheed Martin’s F-35A and the Eurofighter Typhoon. The decision has drawn vociferous criticism from defense experts who fear the selection of F-15SE may not provide the South Korean military with the sufficient Required Operational Capabilities (ROCs) to counterbalance Japan and China’s acquisition of 5th generation stealth fighters.
In hindsight, Zachary Keck of The Diplomat believes that Republic of Korea’s (ROK) preference for the F-15SE over two other competitors was “unsurprising.” After all, Boeing won the previous two fighter competitions with its F-15-K jet. In 2002 and 2008, South Korea bought a total of 61 F-15K jets from Boeing. South Korea’s predilection for the F-15SE is understandable given its 85% platform compatibility with the existing F-15Ks.
However, the most convincing explanation seems to be the fear of “structural disarmament” of the ROK Air Force should it choose to buy yet another batch of expensive fighters to replace the aging F-4 Phantom and F-5 Tiger fighters. Simply stated, the more advanced the fighter jet, the more costly it is. The more expensive the jet, the fewer the South Korean military can purchase. The fewer stealth fighters purchased, the smaller the ROK Air Force.
Here is a mock-up of the F-15SE, courtesy of Wikipedia:
July 24, 2013
In this month’s Reason, Michael Malice recounts his tourist trip to the Hermit Kingdom:
As background reading for my trip, I devoured several books about the nation (though Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader by Bradley K. Martin and Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick should be sufficient for anyone planning a visit). Like most other don’t-call-me-a-hipster New Yorkers, I also watched The Vice Guide to North Korea on YouTube, in which Vice honcho Shane Smith claimed that in North Korea, “there’s nothing normal that happens ever.”
My experience ended up being completely different from Smith’s — about the only thing we shared in common was that we coincidentally ended up staying in the same hotel room. I witnessed vast amounts of human normalcy in the most abnormal society on Earth. When I waved to teenage girls, they giggled. When I smiled at toddlers, their grandmothers beamed with pride. The people on the streets of Pyongyang are often alleged to be actors staffed for the benefit of tourists, but there is no amount of training in the world possible for a theater production of that scale.
The first step to entering North Korea is getting debriefed by the Western tour agency that acts as your liaison. I expected a long litany of do’s and don’ts from Phil, our Western guide in Beijing, but his advice was actually quite relaxed. “The North Koreans really like and admire their leaders, so we need to respect that. We will be laying flowers at the statue of Kim Il Sung and bowing before it. Does anyone have a problem with that?” No one did. “That’s about it. Just don’t be a jerk and everything will be fine.”
We tend to think of North Korea as being stuck in time, but that is an incoherent description. One can get stuck in traffic or in line at the airport, but “time” is a very big place. In the parking lot encounter, for example, the soldier was dressed in a 1950s military uniform. The woman wore the sort of cringeworthy 1980s pantsuit that a fresh-off-the-boat Soviet immigrant might view as the acme of style back home. Both were “stuck in time,” in different times, like a flapper talking to a hippie.
So while the contemporary Internet might be forbidden in North Korea, there’s a thriving black market in VCRs — the better to watch foreign videotapes on. Though I didn’t think of it at the time, the woman and the solider provided a perfect metaphor for where the modern dynamism in North Korea lies. The army is stuck in a Cold War rut, while the black marketeers — more often than not female — become “wealthy” and powerful by flouting the laws and bribing whoever they need to bribe. It’s capitalism de facto, not de jure. And it’s growing, as the poverty-stricken government becomes increasingly unable to feed its enforcers.
Although North Koreans are kept ignorant of much that happens outside the state — and just as much that happens inside it — they’re not completely isolated:
I couldn’t figure out how to ask Kim about world events or history. I knew this would be a touchy subject leaving for little back-and-forth. Picking her brain would easily come off as arguing, and would cause her native paranoia to kick in. I wanted to ask about the Holocaust, but knew World War II was an extremely sensitive area. I thought of the most world-famous event I could that would have little bearing on North Korea, and so at one point simply asked Kim if she had heard of 9/11.
“Of course,” she said, rolling her eyes at my obtuseness. “We saw it on the television.”
Her reaction was telling. She clearly felt that, though the media might be biased, it wasn’t particularly censored. In her view, the state media wouldn’t keep such major world events a secret.
I still remain quite surprised that they played the actual video. Despite the obvious reveling in America taking a hit, one can’t show 9/11 footage without showing something that most of us no longer register in those shots: the New York City skyline. The closest thing in Pyongyang is the 100-plus story Ryugyong Hotel (“The Hotel of Doom”) a never-finished monstrosity that’s been dubbed the worst building in the world and usually excluded from official photos. The comparisons between the wicked New York of their propaganda and the glowing skyscrapers, calling to immigrants like sirens of myth, could not be any greater.