Posts Tagged ‘North Korea’

You knew this was going to happen… Somebody edited the video of North Koreans mourning the death of Kim Jong Il and set it to the “I’m So Ronery” song from Team America: World Police.

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There’s a good article in The Atlantic about the proliferation of North Korean state-run restaurants popping up in East Asia. Here’s an excerpt:

Among the city’s growing cohort of Korean restaurants, Pyongyang Café has an unusual claim to fame. It is run by the North Korean government, part of a far-flung chain of restaurants that funnels much-needed foreign exchange to the ailing regime in Pyongyang. Andrey Kalachinsky, a veteran journalist and local analyst, said that in the Soviet era, when Vladivostok was a closed military city, the Pyongyang Café was the only foreign eatery in town — a symbol of the political and economic ties between the Soviet Union and Marshal Kim Il-Sung’s Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

At the Vladivostok restaurant, there is little to suggest any connection with the regime just 428 miles distant. No pictures of the Kim Il-Sung grace the walls, no slogans stamped out in shrill red Korean script. Instead, the décor excels in a sort of kitschy chinoiserie: the walls of one room are covered with naturalistic motifs — golden autumn leaves and towering cliffs — complete with a fake tree that “emerges” from the painted-on scene. Overlooking my booth was a framed poster of a woman looking out coyly from behind a large fan, the Chinese character for “double happiness” inscribed on every second blade.

The whole thing is worth a read, but I can tell you the description I quoted in the previous graphs is accurate. I went to one of these restaurants in Dandong, China back in 2007. We had a private room with a karaoke machine and a view of on the Yalu River. We had waitresses who brought our food and they serenaded us with a North Korean song. Unfortunately, none of the people in my group spoke Korean so we had no idea what the song was about – whether it was a WPK song or something else entirely.

In a bit of cultural diplomacy, we decided to reciprocate and sing a song for them. While deciding which song to pick from the karaoke machine, I looked out the window and saw the Yalu River Bridge, which connects China to North Korea. The bridges were repeatedly bombed by the United States during the Korean War, and one of them – now dubbed the Broken Bridge – was left intact in its bombed out state, and remains so to this day. In that moment, I suggested – with a completely straight face – that we sing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Much to my surprise, two vocally talented members of my group actually did it. I don’t think the waitresses got the joke, though.

Here are a few other details I recall from that trip that weren’t mentioned in the Atlantic article. Our guide told us that the restaurant staff were believed to be the children of high-level party officials in Pyongyang. They undergo extensive job training in Pyongyang – including waiting tables and Mandarin proficiency – before being sent over to mainland China to work at a restaurant. The other detail he told us was the rumored existence of a collective punishment policy to deter defections. If one waiter or waitress defects while in China, the other members of his or her training class are recalled back to North Korea, presumably to be punishment. While a job waiting tables in the United States isn’t considered that big of a deal, for the waiters and waitresses working at these restaurants our guide told us, it is a big deal because they are among the elite few chosen to represent their country abroad.

I recently finished reading “Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis” by former CNN correspondent Mike Chinoy. Before I go any further with this, I should note in the interest of full disclosure that Mike was a teacher of mine at USC, and that I transcribed several interviews and contributed some research for this book.

It’s an excellent read, although the nuances of nuclear proliferation policy may be a bit complicated for a person unfamiliar with the issues surrounding America’s complicated relationship with North Korea. Mike does a good job documenting some of the behind-the-scenes power struggles within the Bush administration. There’s enough duplicity and backstabbing going on to rival any reality TV show, only that there are real world consequences as a result.

The major characters in this book – secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, nonproliferation chief John Bolton, North Korea negotiator Christopher Hill, and others – come across as dedicated public servants regardless of their position on the ideological and diplomatic spectrum in handling the North Korea issue, even when they are at each others’ throats.

Mike also does a good job at analyzing the M.O. of the North Koreans, parsing through the public and private statements of government officials as well as the official reports from the North Korean news agency to put developments and events into context, and how these comments often foretold of positive or negative developments in the U.S.-North Korea relationship. It’s easy and tempting to try and dismiss the North Koreans for their behavior, and wonder about how accurate the caricature of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Kim Jong Il really is (I’ve been guilty of that), but they certainly do not come across this way in the book.

If there is such a thing as being able to figure out what makes North Korea and Dear Leader tick, Mike is probably pretty close to it. He once said to me words to the effect that Kim Jong Il was as rational as a person could be in an irrational environment. Some of the words and actions of the North Korean government do seem irrational, and even childish at times. Their nuclear test in October of 2006 was neither of these, but rather something akin to Glenn Close’s famous line in the movie Fatal Attraction: “I’m not gonna be ignored.”

There are no bombshells in this book like George Tenet’s infamous slam dunk comment, but Washington Post diplomatic correspondent Glenn Kessler reviewed Meltdown and has a far better understanding of the news value and significance of what Mike uncovered in the course of his reporting for this book.

Regardless of who wins the election next week, the next president will have to figure out how to continue dealing with North Korea and make sure that the relationship does not deteriorate the way it did during the past eight years.

Interesting comments from CIA Director Michael Hayden during an interview with Fox News on what he sees as the potential national security threats to the next administration. The key graphs in the article:

While the increasingly fragile status of impoverished North Korea renders it a special threat, the flood of petrodollars coming from the so-called “Axis of Oil” — Iran, Venezuela and Russia — poses another threat to American security.

Hayden said oil prices, which are still hovering around $100 per barrel, have emboldened these oil-rich nations. “Oil, at its current price … gives the Russian state a degree of influence and power that it would have not otherwise had,” he said.

Russia’s invasion of Georgian territory in August and Iran’s continued work on acquiring nuclear weapons only compound the threat.