Monthly Archives: February 2015

Nothing to celebrate about Kim Jong-Il on Feb 16

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North Korea’s so-called dear leader, Kim Jong-Il, should be remembered as his country celebrates his birthday on February 16, 2015, for presiding over one of the world’s most brutal and repressive governments, Human Rights Watch said.

“Kim Jong-Il ruled North Korea based on rights abuses, repression, and ruthlessness and prioritized maintaining his power over the welfare of the people, even as the country was facing widespread starvation,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director.

“Unfortunately, his son Kim Jong-Un, North Korea’s new leader, has continued many of his father’s abusive policies without pause.”

Kim Jong-Il took over the country in 1994 after the death of his father, Kim Il-Sung, who had ruled North Korea since 1948. His economic mismanagement combined with natural disasters forced the country into what later became known as the Arduous March, a severe famine that provoked despair and massive starvation. Kim Jong-Il and his government focused on a policy ofsongun (military first), which allocated the country’s remaining scarce resources and food to the Korean People’s Army. Kim Jong-Il ensured that the military and government elites were least affected while a still unknown number of North Koreans – estimates range from several hundred thousand to 3.5 million – died of starvation between 1994 and 1998, the most acute phase of the crisis.

Kim Jong-Il’s rights-abusing legacy also includes a massive system of kwanliso (gulag-like political prison camps) to instill fear among the people. Between 80,000 and 120,000 North Koreans are estimated to still be in kwanliso, which are characterized by systemic abuse and deadly conditions, including torture and sexual abuse by guards, near-starvation rations, back-breaking forced labor in dangerous conditions, and executions.

“The world should remember Kim Jong-Il’s brutality and his government’s horrific record of rights abuse, which only now has finally reached the international community’s agenda,” Robertson said. “The world needs to show North Korea that these serious human rights abuses will not go unpunished, and that there needs to be justice for these actions.”

[Read full Human Rights Watch article]

Photos of North Korea

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In this June 20, 2014, photo, young North Korean schoolchildren help to fix pot holes in a rural road in North Korea’s North Hamgyong province. [Photo by David Guttenfelder/AP]
North Korean farmers herding cattle home in the evening rain.
Soccer on the street.


Cinema for Peace Foundation will drop DVDs of The Interview into North Korea

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At a press conference on Monday during the Berlin Film Festival, Jaka Bizilj, the founder and chairman of the Cinema for Peace Foundation, announced his organization will drop DVD copies of The Interview into North Korea by hydrogen balloons.

North Korean leaders moved to block the release of the comedy film, which chronicles an assassination of the country’s leader Kim Jong-Un, but now the film is heading to North Korea by air.

Bizilj told reporters, “We will start sending hydrogen balloons with DVDs of The Interview to North Korea so that the people there can watch the movie. They can copy the movie and have their own impression if it’s a good or bad movie, because for us, it’s not a question of whether it’s good or bad; no matter if you like something or not, you have to fight for freedom to exercise this art.”

He added the timing and exact location of the drop wouldn’t be revealed, as it could endanger locals: “The army will stop anyone even picking up a copy of the DVD.”

The film’s star, James Franco, was also present at the press conference, as were Pussy Riot stars Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina, who performed their first English-language song at the festival on Monday night.


The North Korean diet has changed little over 50 years

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A study of United Nations data shows the diet of North Koreans has changed little over the past 50 years.

National Geographic studied changes in diet from 1961 to 2011 in 22 countries, including North Korea. The study found that a North Korea adult consumed about 2,103 calories a day in 2011. That represents an increase from 1,878 calories in 1961. But it is much lower than the 2,500 calories a day suggested by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

The data also suggests the average North Korean has an unbalanced diet. National Geographic magazine also says the diet of North Koreans is more dependent on grain than any of the 22 countries studied.

North Koreans also eat very little meat.The amount of meat consumed dropped sharply during the country’s famine in the 1990s. But after the food shortages ended, the amount of meat consumed remains low. An average North Korean consumed 141 grams of meat a day in 1989. By 2011, after years of famines and food shortages, that number had dropped to 67 grams.

In 1961, North Koreans had a similar diet to South Koreans. But in the past 50 years, the South Korean diet has improved. The daily caloric intake has increased from 2,140 to 3,329 per person. The percentage of grains in the South Korean diet has dropped from 82 percent to 43 percent. In 1961, meat represented just two percent of the South Korean diet. By 2011, it was 12 percent.


The decades-long cinematic arms race between North and South Korea

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In recent years, North Korea has become the antagonist of choice in Hollywood action movies such as Olympus Has Fallen and the remake of Red Dawn. That trend is mostly a matter of convenience: studios don’t want to antagonize any more plausible military powers that also happen to be emerging movie markets, including China and Russia.

But using North Korea as a workaround became less convenient in December when The Interview, starring James Franco and Seth Rogen a pair of lackadaisical journalists who land an interview with Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) and are asked by the CIA to assassinate him, prompted saber-rattling from the North Korean regime and threats of violence against theatres that had the temerity to show the movie.

While North Korea’s reaction to the US might have been unnerving for Americans, who are still adjusting to the impact of international audiences on their movies and television, the incident shouldn’t have come as a surprise. With The Interview, the US blundered into a regional cultural arms race that’s been going on for decades.

In The Interview, the two journalists are invited because Kim Jong-un happens to love The Big Bang Theory. That’s no flight of fancy: The first major position of the present leader’s father, Kim Jong-il, in his father’s regime was overseeing the Bureau of Propaganda and Agitation, including North Korea’s movie operations. Kim Sr. reportedly loved Elizabeth Taylor, Sean Connery, James Bond movies, Friday the 13th and First Blood.

Paul Fischer’s book A Kim Jong-il Production is a highly illuminating look at the middle Kim’s cinematic obsessions and the cinematic arms race between the two Koreas. Some of that competition was driven by the recognition that movies could be powerful political tools. North and South Korean children saw propaganda films about the evils of the government and people on the other side of the border. A drama Sea of Blood, which Fischer identifies as a turning point in Kim Jong-il’s movie-making, established the standard elements of a North Korean movie. At the same time, South Korea was making its own investments in movies.

As the balance of cultural influence shifted, Kim Jong-il implemented a plan to revitalize North Korean cinema that makes the present regime’s threats over The Interview seem less ridiculous and more plausible. In 1978, Kim ordered the kidnapping of a South Korean actress, Choi Eun-hee, and her director husband, Shin Sang-ok. Kim put them both to work revitalizing North Korean cinema.

In the fight for both international prestige and peninsular influence, South Korea obviously seems to be winning. The New York Times recently reported on just how powerful a temptation South Korean soap operas can be to North Koreans, but this is hardly a new phenomenon. Pirated DVDs have long been available on the black market in cities like Chongjin, and the North Korean government has long been trying to deter people from buying or owning them by making such acts a “betrayal of the fatherland”.

Paradoxically, it may have been Kim Jong-il’s attempts to create a more sophisticated North Korean cinematic culture that helped stoke North Korean hunger for higher quality, which often meant imported, stories.

Fischer writes that a North Korean defector told him that before: “We just watched our films and documentaries and accepted them the way they were. We thought that’s how movies are. But after the Shin Sang-ok era, we had new eyes.”

P.S. –Director Shin and actress Choi collaborated on a number of North Korean projects, but ultimately, they managed to escape, leaving Kim without a captive auteur, or a long-term plan to develop North Korean culture.

[South China Morning Post]

The North Korean Residents Society of southwest London

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Joong Wha Choi, 48, was formerly a government business consultant in North Korea who defected and is now president of the North Korean Residents Society, an organization aimed at helping refugees settle into their new lives in the UK, as well as informing the public about the human rights offenses taking place in North Korea.

After Joong Wha defected to China, he would send money he earned back to family in North Korea through a network of brokers happy to undertake the illegal transfers for a hefty commission. However, he soon realized that all the money in the world wouldn’t change life for his relatives, that the government in North Korea had to change for anything to become truly different.

I asked him if many North Korean defectors feel a duty to bring about change in their home country. His response: “I sometimes say to myself that it would be great if there was somebody else who risked their life to escape and could be the one to get things done.”

He paused, and then continued, looking weary. “In the past, there have been systems run by kings and queens, and even these monarchies would give some acknowledgement to the welfare of their people. But not the North Korean government—all they want to protect is their own power. I live a comfortable life now here in the UK, but this is a society that somebody else has worked hard for, and I have come to enjoy somebody else’s sacrifice.”


The Other Interview film

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Defector Park Ji-hyun has spoken of her year of hell in a North Korean labor camp, where starving prisoners ate rats to survive. She was forced to scrub and unblock toilets with her bare hands.

“You could say the whole of North Korea is one big prison,” Ms. Park said. “The people were all hungry. There weren’t even rats, snakes or wild plants left for them to eat.”

Humiliation was a ritual in the camp, which was situated within mountains in the Ranam district of the country. Ms. Park said: “If you got caught trying to wash your sanitary towel, you were ordered to wear it on your head, dripping blood and all, and beg for forgiveness.”

Work began at 4.30am and would continue until it was pitch dark – often as late as 9pm. The prisoners would finally eat – but before they could sleep they were forced to reflect on their performance and learn party principles and songs.

“We cleared the land with our bare hands,” said Ms. Park. “Four women had to pull an oxcart, two in the front and two in the back, carrying a ton of soil in the cart. We wouldn’t do this at a walking pace either. We had to run. We were worked harder than animals. Really, it was unspeakably bad.”

Ms. Park had fled North Korea with her son to escape starvation during the famine of the 1990s. She was sent to a labor camp after being caught as a defector in China. “A lot of people died between 1996 and 1998,” she said. “The train station platforms were full of dead bodies.”

After a year in the camp she was ailing so badly she was considered useless, prompting her release. Again she fled to China, where she was reunited with her son. Fearing for their safety, they attempted to get into Mongolia – and Ms. Park fell in love with a man who saved them at the border. The family now lives in Manchester, England.

Park Ji-hyun’s story of brutality is revealed in an Amnesty International film,  called The Other Interview. Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK Director, said: “This is the other film North Korea really doesn’t want you to see, and with good reason.

“People in North Korea are subjected to an existence beyond nightmares. The population is ruled by fear with a network of prison camps a constant specter for those who dare step out of line. Thousands of people in the camps are worked to death, starved to death, beaten to death. Some are sent there just for knowing someone who has fallen out of favor.

[Sky News]


Canadian accused of spying released from detention in China

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Canada says China has released one of its citizens, a Christian missionary who was accused of stealing military secrets while doing humanitarian work with North Koreans.

Chinese authorities released Julia Garratt on Tuesday after six months of detention, while keeping her husband in custody.

In an email to the VOA Korean service, a Canadian foreign affairs official urged the Chinese government to free Kevin Garratt: “While we welcome the recent decision to release Julia Garratt, the Government of Canada remains very concerned with the detention of Mr. Garratt. We have raised the case at the highest levels and will continue to raise it with senior officials. Consular officials have had regular access to the Garratts, we will continue to push for regular access and to provide consular support,” the official said.

The couple has lived in China for the past 30 years and has been running a coffee shop since 2008 in Dandong, a Chinese border city frequented by North Koreans. According to media reports, the couple worked to provide humanitarian aid to the North and trained North Korean Christians inside China.


Russia in bed with North Korea

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A top Russian military official has stated that Moscow plans on conducting joint military exercises with North Korea. If negotiations are successful, the military drills will include naval and air force exercises as well as joint drills between ground troops from Russia and North Korea.

Military exercises involving both North Korea and Russia could increase tensions along the Korean peninsula — where the US routinely conducts joint military drills with South Korea.

Relations between North Korea and Russia have been on the upswing recently. Due to the sanctions placed on Russia over the Ukraine crisis, Moscow has sought to backstop its flagging economy by turning east towards China and North Korea.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has confirmed that he will attend Russian celebrations marking the end of World War II in May. It will be Kim’s first foreign visit since coming to power in 2011.

Recently, Russia offered sympathy to North Korea amid the Sony hacking scandal.  Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich, commenting on the movie “The Interview”, a comedy depicting the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that sparked the dispute, that “the concept of the movie is so aggressive and scandalous, that the reaction of the North Korean side, and not just it, is quite understandable.”

Russia’s ties with the communist North soured after the 1991 Soviet collapse, but have improved under President Vladimir Putin’s watch. Moscow has taken part in international efforts to help mediate the standoff over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, although its diplomatic efforts have had little visible effect.

[Business Insider] [Vancouver Sun]

Kim Jong-un claims struggle of North Koreans in poverty keeps him up at night

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The leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, is claimed to worry so much about the welfare of his loyal subjects that he often “cannot sleep” while thinking of their suffering.

He said on Friday that his dutiful citizens “never enjoyed an abundant life”, according to the Korean Central News Agency. He claimed that the “most important task is to boost the living standards of North Koreans quickly” and that the way to provide them with an “affluent and happy life” was to develop livestock and fishery industries to solve chronic food shortages.

Despite claims made by Kim Jong-un that he is concerned for the well-being and happiness of North Koreans, the country still retains one of the worst human rights records in the world.

Around 200,000 political prisoners have been locked up in labor camps and 80 people were executed by the state for watching foreign films.

[The Independent]