Inside the Time Warp that is North Korea

26 02 2012

Tom Farrell (The Irish Times, 25 February 2012)

Though in power for just over two months, the personality cult around Kim Jong-un is already thriving, reports the first Irish journalist inside the country since his accession

THE NATION he ruled may still be an international pariah, but to judge by the International Friendship Exhibition, the late Kim Jong-il was a popular man indeed.The building housing the exhibition rises from the pine-forested hills of North Pyongan province, close to North Korea’s border with China. It appears as a huge box of burnished concrete, topped by a multi-coloured “hip saddle” roof. Like most buildings erected by the North Korean state, it seems like a cross-breeding of Soviet modernism and Korean tradition, a melding of the communist and the Confucian. Flanking the immense patterned doors are soldiers in fur hats, each carrying a silver-plated Kalashnikov rifle.

When Kim Jong-il, the “Dear Leader”, died on December 17th last, State television broadcast images from the snowy capital of Pyongyang. In the streets, in public squares and at various monuments, crowds of North Koreans wailed. The purpose of the exhibition parallels that footage, purporting to demonstrate that the love of foreigners for North Korea’s rulers almost matches that of its subjects.The world’s youngest head of state led the Dear Leader’s funeral procession. At 29, Kim Jong-un has already been named Great Successor.

An editorial in the Pyongyang Times on December 24th stated: “The journey through our revolution is arduous and the present situation is grave, but no force in the world can check the revolutionary advance our party, army and people are making under the wise leadership of Kim Jong-un.”

…On February 16th, what would have been Kim Jong-il’s 70th birthday was marked with parades, gymnastic displays and the unveiling of statues. Worship of the Dear Leader plays an important part in buttressing the authority of the latest incarnation of North Korea’s personality cult.

THERE IS plenty of evidence of this phenomenon in Pyongyang. At first glance, the city gives the impression, accentuated by the fierce cold, that the clocks stopped ticking 30 years ago. China next door may have embraced all the trappings of consumer culture, but its flashing neon signs and billboards for cosmetics or soft drinks are almost non-existent here.Yet cranes are visible on the skyline. In some parts of the city construction sites are alive with the splutter of jackhammers and helmeted construction workers. These could be sites in the South Korean capital of Seoul were it not for the bundles of red flags fluttering nearby.

Much of this building is going on in the central sectors of the capital and close to the banks of the river Taedong. Further out fresh apartments are going up: the government recently pledged to house an extra 100,000 people in the city of three million in 2012. Visitors to Pyongyang have noticed an upsurge in the amount of Japanese and European vehicles on the capital’s once somnolent traffic lanes. “Far more than even 12 months ago,” says a British businessman who travels regularly to Pyongyang…

WATCHING ALL this, it could be tempting to surmise that perhaps the first stirrings of a Soviet-style glasnost or perestroika are under way. But such speculation would be premature. The surge in construction work around Pyongyang was authorised some years ago by Kim Jong-il. Scaffolding and sheeting now cover the most hallowed of the estimated 34,000 separate statues of the dynasty’s founder. At Mansu hill, a 65-foot high statue of Kim Il-sung stands in burnished bronze, one arm held aloft. North Korea will mark the centenary of his birth in April. Far from indicating a new engagement with the outside world, the building work anticipates a further burst of cultic worship.

“What I’ve been struck by since January is how much Kim Jong-un has been paraded by the regime,” says Aidan Foster Carter, an expert on North Korea at Leeds University. “After Kim Il-sung died in 1994, the country effectively shut down for three years and Kim Jong-il was little seen. It’s the opposite now: the regime’s rhetoric has been very strong since 17th December.”This dynastic regime is notorious for its belligerent nature, having conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 and with international talks to resolve the nuclear issue having stalled. North Korea also possesses intermediate-range ballistic missiles including the Taepodong-2, which could theoretically hit targets in Alaska.

The neophyte Kim Jong-un is surrounded by ageing and highly conservative generals and ministers, most notably his uncle, Jang Song-taek (66), the vice-chairman of the powerful National Defence Commission. His grandfather formulated a national ideology called Juche (self-reliance) and his father augmented this with a policy of Songun, roughly translating as “military first politics”. It is rumoured that Jang Song-taek was the de facto North Korean premier during Kim Jong-il’s final years, when he was debilitated by a stroke.“Jang Song-taek is a purely political figure, very conservative and ostensibly anti-market,” says Leonid Petrov, a Korea expert at the University of Sydney. “In this, Jang Song-taek ensures Kim Jong-un’s accession and stability in North Korea. Any reform in North Korea will destabilise the situation.”

…Once outside the capital, the North Korean countryside in winter is spectacularly bleak. The main highways usually do not see much traffic, but when they ice over groups of a dozen or more people materialise, hacking and pounding the roads with shovels. Bundles of red flags rise at intervals from the countryside. In fields and on the crests of hills, stone slabs rise decorated with Korean characters. These translate into such slogans as “Long Live Kim Il-sung” or “We will do as the party tells us”…

See the full text of this article here…

North Korea and ’80s pop music

24 02 2012

(23 Feb. 2012) On this week’s Closeup, ABC Radio National “Drive” travels to North Korea, by way of the 1980s Norwegian pop hit ‘Take On Me’ by A-ha.

Leonid Petrov, lecturer in Korean studies at the University of Sydney, is your expert guide. He speaks Korean and has travelled to North Korea several times.

And he’s joined by Norwegian artist and director Morten Traavik, who made a video of North Korean music students playing ‘Take on Me’ on piano accordion, which has now gone viral on YouTube ( North Korean students play “Take On Me” )

Listen to the full audio segment here…

THE PROMISED LAND, Barents Region / North Korea, 2012

Part 1: ñ3
After years of devising artistic projects inside the ‘world’s most secluded country’ (see also projects DISCOCRACY and ROCK STEADY NORTH KOREA!), Morten Traavik is now overseeing this unique collaboration.  For the first time ever, a larger group of North-Korean are visiting Norway and Northern Europe, as participants in THE PROMISED LAND: a project that brazenly aims at the opening of minds over a divide of mutual suspicion, challenging established truths and prejudices about ourselves and each other.

Part 1: ME/WE
Calls on both locals and visitors to the international arts festival Barents Spektakel 2012 to take part in a pioneering record attempt and a test of our ability to act together as one: with the help of North Korean mass games instructors we will try to create Norwayís biggest living picture, hopefully with several hundred participants. Following the signals of the North Korean instructors, every participant turns over pages of a colorful flip-book, becoming one of the hundreds of living pixels forming huge, shifting mosaic pictures of well-known motives from the High North. ME/WE also puts our communal spirit to the test: Are we western individualists able to subordinate ourselves to the collective discipline necessary to act together as one, if only just for some hours? Join the project and find out! The ME/WE performance is accompanied live by the accordeon  virtuosos of Kum Song (Gold Star) Music School Ensemble from the North Korean capital Pyongyang. ( ME/WE – A North Korean mass game in Kirkenes, Norway )

In Western media-influenced society almost everyone can be a star with relatively little effort. Popular shows such as X-factor and Idol bring the dream of stardom within reach for generations of youth, where image and personality often are at least as important as skills and talent to ‘make it big’. North Korean culture,on the other hand, is characterized by an extreme focus on practice and technical skills, with stylists and marketing being a somewhat lower priority. North Korean young musicians keep a high international level, and among the country’s national instruments we find the accordeon. From Kum Song (Gold Star) School of Music in Pyongyang, Traavik has brought a quintet of the school’s most talented accordeon students to perform a concert program of Korean and international hits during the festival, as well as accompanying the ME/WE performance live.

Traavik has collaborated with North Korean software engineers to develop the simple and fun strategic computer game Norway On Norway. Inspired by todayís Korean peninsula, here it is Norway that is divided in two opposing sides: South and North. The player can choose to be South Norway or North Norway with the goal to reunite the whole country under oneís own colour. Just like on the chess board of global politics, the player has to rely on skills and luck in equal measures to achieve success, while handling not only outside interference from bigger foreign powers like EU, USA and Russia, but also conflicts of interest with indigenous minorities like the Saami.


BBC News, 10 Feb. 2012
Alastair Lawson,  ‘North Korean A-ha accordionists ‘destined for stardom'”
Full article, 02.02.12:
Full article

YouTube 01.02.12:
Take On Me by a-ha, North Korean style
Full clip

Norsk Kim-show
Dagbladet, 07.01.12

Publikum blir kunst
Finnmarken, 17.02.11

A Path to Unification

20 02 2012

The Cosmopolitan Civil Society (University of Technology Sydney) and the Korean Studies Department (SLC, University of Sydney) are pleased to invite you to attend a special seminar by Professor Park Ki-Seok (Kim Il-Sung University, Pyongyang)

Date: 22 Feb (Wed) 2012 (in Korean with English interpretation)
Time: 10:30-12:00 AM (free admission, refreshments provided)
Location: UTS Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Research Centre, Level 3, MaryAnn House, 645 Harris Street, Ultimo, Sydney.

Summary: It has been more than six decades since Korea was divided. The North and the South remain completely isolated from each other politically, economically, and culturally. The absence of transportation, postal, or telephone communication between them has led to the growing differences in language and everyday life. Defectors from the North and occasional visitors from the South face a cultural shock when confronted with the realities of life on the other side of the DMZ. What are the main socio-cultural differences that make the unification of Korea problematic? How can we help ordinary Koreans in the North and the South reconcile and re-unify?

* Dr. Park Ki-Seok is a Research Professor at the Kim Il-Sung University in Pyongyang. A linguist by training, he looks at the national language as the foundation for future development and re-unification. Dr. Park has published two books: “The Spring Water-like Language of Pyongyang” (2009), and “The Four Seasons of Pyongyang” (2011).

Listen to the audio file (Part 1) here…

Listen to the audio file (Part 2) here…