Tourists in North Korea Unable To Send Postcards Home Due To “Sanctions”

21 02 2013

No-Postcards-to-North-Korea(, 20 February 2013)  Western tourists in North Korea have been banned from sending postcards home to friends and loved ones, supposedly as a result of “sanctions” passed in recent days and weeks.

In particular, the new “sanctions” make it impossible for European tourists to send postcards home.  The development was reported to NK NEWS by two separate tourist groups who were in the country during the nuclear test and its aftermath.

When trying to send cards home, North Korean guides told European visitors that they were not allowed to send the materials due to “sanctions” passed in recent days.

One North Korean group leader told his visitors that the ban was a result of “Chinese sanctions”, though this looks unlikely because American tourists in another group were allowed to send their own cards home.

When asked for further details, North Korean tourist guides explained that the ban on sending to Europe was because mail would not be delivered to certain destinations. They said that they did not know how long the limitations would last.

While the European Union did apply new unilateral sanctions on North Korea in recent days, none appear to have been focused on the North Korean postal system. These latest sanctions were instead focused on increasing travel bans, asset freezes, and the number of EU sanctioned companies.

It is not clear which countries are behind the latest development, if any. There also remains the possibility that this could be an arbitrary measure on the North Korean side.

Reacting to the potential postal sanctions, Dr. Leonid Petrov, a North Korea Expert at Australian National University said,

    Sanctions never bring anything good and often bite both sides. Sanctions against North Korea, paradoxically, help the Kim’s tyranny survive. Totalitarian regimes can exist only in isolation, where common people have little or no exposure to outside information. The whole philosophy of North Korea’s recent nuclear and missile antics is designed to keep the country isolated.

North Korea has long limited the amount of mail coming in to the country and many third countries have controls over what can be sent there in packages. However, postcards and small letters being sent from the country have not traditionally been restricted. If the latest ban is a result of external sanctions, they would seriously undermine the spirit of the Universal Postal Union, a multilateral postal framework.

As a UN member, North Korea joined the Universal Postal Union in 1974, but has direct postal arrangements with only a select group of countries. But one objective of the union is that, “freedom of transit shall be guaranteed throughout the entire territory of the Union.” This has historically meant that items like postcards and small letters should be deliverable, regardless of where they are sent from.

In the United States, mail is regulated by the Office of Foreign Assets Control and the agency limits mail to North Korea solely to First-class letters/postcards and matters for the blind. All merchandise, currency, precious metals, jewelry, chemical/biological/radioactive materials and others are prohibited.

In related news, a business visitor who returned from the DPRK yesterday told NK NEWS that his North Korean partners were “extremely worried” about what China might do in reaction to the latest nuclear test. He said among his DPRK based partners fear that China could be “deadly serious” about punishing Pyongyang through sanctions that make ordinary business harder to conduct.

North Korea conducted its third nuclear test last week, in face of significant international pressure. The move was instantly condemned by the UN and many observers believe that further sanctions will be applied as a punishment for North Korea in the weeks ahead.

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

His dear leader: Meet North Korea’s secret weapon – an IT consultant from Spain

21 01 2012

Alejandro Cao de Benos_1(by Tim Hume, The Independent, 21 January 2012) Alejandro Cao de Benos – or ‘Zo’, as his comrades call him – is a devoted follower of the late Kim Jong-il and vigorously defends the North Korean government he represents.

As North Korea convulsed in grief last month with the passing of its Dear Leader, the rest of the world tittered nervously. For Zo Sun-il, a North Korean government spokesman in Europe, this made the bereavement doubly hard to take. While he mourned in isolation, his phone rang hot with calls from international media, who marked Kim Jong-il’s demise by gleefully rehashing the more remarkable claims put forward about him in state propaganda: that he was an influential trendsetter in world fashion; that the one time he picked up a golf club, he made 11 holes-in-one. That he didn’t need to defecate.

Zo took their calls, and seethed inwardly. “I found myself alone in the outside world,” he told me, days before Kim Jong-il’s funeral. “It’s so painful to hear words from people that are so completely ignorant. They broadcast these stupid cartoons of Team America, making a mockery out of the pain of the Korean people. This makes me even more angry and resolute to continue defending his honour.”

For comfort, Zo drew on memories of the man North Koreans viewed as a father, and who, unlike the vast majority of his countrymen, he had met personally. He recalled the horn-handled hunting knife he had presented Kim, and the tea set he had received in return. The way that Kim seemed to single him out for personal salutes at military parades. “His eyes looking at me, his face smiling at me. I keep this very dear to me,” he said.

Most of all, the way Kim’s words had guided Zo to reach his own improbable life’s goal: of joining the Communist revolution by becoming part of the North Korean government. “My friends would say, ‘We love you, but what you want to do is impossible’,” he said. “But in his speeches and writings, Kim Jong-il taught me that impossible is a word that doesn’t exist in the Korean language.”

Zo, whose name means ‘Korea is one’, had to take the Dear Leader’s word for that, because he doesn’t actually speak Korean. His friends’ scepticism seems well-founded given that he is a Spaniard of aristocratic Catalan heritage, better known as Alejandro Cao de Benos, and that North Korea is possibly the world’s most paranoid and isolated nation, a nuclear-armed rogue state all but closed to outsiders.

Yet despite this, Cao de Benos – or Zo – has managed to achieve the unique distinction of being granted honorary North Korean citizenship and an official role as “honorary special delegate” to its Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries.

He spends about half of every year in Pyongyang, where he has close ties with the upper echelons of the regime. There, he hosts foreign delegations and acts as an intermediary for external parties wanting to invest, make documentaries or simply visit the country. (He maintains he has “never received a single cent” from North Korea, although admits to clipping the ticket on deals he helps see to fruition.) The other half of the year he acts as a roving ambassador, making media appearances with each new flashpoint arising from North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship, his talking points drawn from the state ideology of juche, or self-reliance.

A rotund 37-year-old with a brusque bearing (as a young man, he spent a year in the Spanish army), Cao de Benos speaks forcefully and formally, favouring archaic terms of statecraft like “plenipotentiary”. For public appearances, he wears a North Korean military uniform heavy with state medals, or black suits cut in the distinctive, high-buttoned style of his adopted homeland, from which his scrubbed, clean-shaven face emerges like a pink balloon.

It took a decade of wooing of North Korean officials before Cao de Benos, who has a background in IT, sought and received permission to set up the country’s first website, in 2000. “Imagine you’re bringing flowers every day to a girl and she’s always rejecting you,” he recalls.

The webpage he built established the first fixed, broadly accessible conduit for communication between North Korea and the world beyond its borders. “Imagine the power in my hands!” the webmaster marvels.

Although he had envisaged attracting “high profile people” – diplomats, entrepreneurs, journalists – Cao de Benos says the site was soon being used by “the most normal people in the world”, wanting to contact the DPRK (The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). From their ranks, Cao de Benos founded the Korean Friendship Association, a club for people wishing to express solidarity with a totalitarian regime whose deadly famines, spontaneous acts of aggression and nuclear weapons programme has it viewed even by its closest remaining patron, China, as a dangerous liability.

On a Saturday afternoon last November, about 20 people assembled before the North Korean flag in a community centre in Camden, north London, for a meeting of the Korean Friendship Association.

Turnout was smaller than expected, given that Cao de Benos claims his organisation has 15,000 members, but the founder was unbowed. Flanked by a display of ideologically sound texts (sample title: “Kim Il-sung: The Great Man of the Century”), he seemed to be channelling his mentor as he delivered a stream of bellicose, anti-American invective.

“If they dare to touch a single inch of the DPRK, we will unleash all our force,” he promised. “If you shoot even one nuclear bomb over US territory, it’s enough to destroy the country,” he went on. “The people will start killing each other, because everybody has weapons in their houses… It will be the Far West once again.”

Though many in the audience wore militaristic attire, the impression was more that of a Boy Scout jamboree. At such meetings, KFA members are awarded badges and posters, and jostle to outdo each other with their trainspotters’ grasp of the minutiae of North Korean life.

Like other followers of niche enthusiasms – medieval role players, American Civil War re-enacters, Japanese anime obsessives – the KFA’s members seem not completely at home in their own world, seeking instead a deeper affinity with a distant, idealised time or place. For them, North Korea’s isolation, its status as a mysterious, forbidden kingdom in an otherwise globalised world, is the source of its unlikely mystique. “It’s the only exotic country,” explains Frank Martin, a 49-year-old Parisian bank manager and KFA member, who has twice visited North Korea on KFA solidarity tours.

North Korea is seen as the ultimate outlier, boldly defying not just global corporate capitalism, but modernity itself. Their fantasy worker’s paradise hews to simpler, nobler values than exist in the benighted West. “They’re not having an easy time of it, the Koreans, but what drives them? What keeps them going? How can they have such grit, whereas in the West they fold over any given problem?” asks George Hadjipateras, a 36-year-old London office clerk and ideological true believer whose affection for North Korea as Communism’s last great hope extends to collecting the republic’s music, and picketing the US embassy once a year. He doesn’t believe the “lies” he reads about Kim Jong-il in the Western media, but has never visited the DPRK because he doesn’t like to travel.

“Sarcasm doesn’t exist in DPRK,” Cao de Benos notes at one point, giving a list of things that do: “Honour, respect, order, discipline”.

Cao de Benos was a serious-minded teenager seeking a solution to the world’s problems, when he first found himself drawn to North Korea in 1990. “I didn’t want to dedicate my life to be a slave in the capitalist system. My dream was to be a part of the revolution,” he recalls.

When, at 16, he came into contact with a North Korean delegation at a World Tourism Organisation exhibition in Madrid, he was mesmerised. “They treated me as though I were their own son,” he recalls. Two years later, he made his first trip to North Korea, with money saved working nights at a petrol station. There, his infatuation deepened. “In DPRK, not only did I find a reflection of my ideal politics, but also of an ideal way of life. I was feeling I was half-Korean.”

In the following years, he developed close relationships with officials as high-ranking as Kim Yong-nam, the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, who in theory jointly ruled the country as part of a tripartite executive with Premier Choe Yong-rim and, before his death, Chairman of the National Defence Commission Kim Jong-il. (Like many things in North Korea, theory and practice surrounding this arrangement do not necessarily align: Kim Jong-il’s power was absolute.)

Cao de Benos’s fidelity to a rogue state has come at considerable cost. When his interest began, during the time of perestroika, he says, “saying you were a Communist was close to saying you were a terrorist”. He lost jobs and friends, upset his family, and became “a very isolated person”. But he says his convictions never wavered. “If I had taken a different path, in IT or politics, I could have enjoyed success much earlier and without problems. I wouldn’t be a millionaire, I’d be a billionaire. But I’m a revolutionary person. I had to go a very hard and painful way that no one else has taken.”

All the same, his work has earnt him a minor degree of celebrity in North Korea, where he writes newspaper articles and performs revolutionary songs at government banquets. “People will approach me with their babies if they see me in the street, or invite me for a drink,” he says. He makes no secret of the fact he enjoys the status his role as a gatekeeper affords him, in North Korea as well as beyond it, among media, businessmen and other curious parties seeking access to this closed-off regime. “Suddenly, I’m a very, very respected person, even among people who are not Communists.”

Not everyone agrees. Deploying a term historically used for Western sympathisers of the Soviet Union, a former participant on one of Cao de Benos’s tours to North Korea describes him as a “perfect example of the ‘useful idiot'”.

The one-time traveller – who does not want to be identified for fear of jeopardising future trips – had taken the tour out of a sense of goodwill and curiosity, “to see if North Korea could really be as bad as everyone said it was. It was”.

“You mostly just wanted to cry,” the tourist recalls. “It’s like you’ve witnessed a terrible car accident, and you slow down just enough to see, but you’re not allowed to do anything. And then you leave, and you know there’s no ambulance coming to help.”

The group witnessed events and settings that were clearly laid on for their benefit, and increasingly felt their presence was being mined for propaganda. Closely monitored, the visitors had no opportunity to discuss their concerns. Even after the tour’s conclusion, back in the safety of Beijing, they remained too shocked to dissect their surreal ordeal. The fakery was so obvious that the trip might have seemed farcical, were it not for the ominous sense that there could be terrible consequences if events deviated from the approved pathway – both for the group, and any North Koreans dragged into their gyre.

One such departure from the script was captured in a Dutch documentary, Friends of Kim, which follows a KFA trip to North Korea in 2004. During the tour, Cao de Benos breaks into the hotel room of an American journalist in the party, stealing his tapes and denouncing him to authorities. The terrified reporter, under threat of imprisonment, signed a confession and an apology for filming sensitive sites, and was allowed to flee the country.

Incidents like this have earnt Cao de Benos a reputation as a dangerous ideological brown-noser, eager to report on anyone whose actions might be politically suspect in order to curry favour with his superiors. Certainly, it was witnessing this type of behaviour which has led the former tourist to conclude: “In my view, he’s a narcissist. And he loves the power and control he has over there. He does have real influence. People are frightened of him, and he likes that power. I think his primary motivation is that he’s special there.”

For his part, Cao de Benos says he has no qualms about taking action against the journalist during the trip featured in the documentary. He would have been blamed if the journalist’s report had eroded the dignity of North Korea. To the best of his knowledge, while his denouncements have led to North Koreans being demoted in rank, no one has been sent to a prison camp as a result. Besides, he says, those camps – in which international human rights groups say 200,000 political prisoners are held in inhumane conditions, starved or worked to death or publicly executed – are not the great evil they are made out to be.

“These are re-education camps. With 24 million people, sometimes you may have a few criminals. We believe not in punishment but in rehabilitation. It’s a kind of psychological therapy.”

Another misunderstanding he is keen to clear up is that North Korea is a hereditary dictatorship. “There’s no one person that decides everything and can do whatever he wants,” he explained, two days before Kim Jong-il’s funeral. As to whether the dictator’s third son, Jong-un, would become “the next beloved leader of Korea, it is up to the people of Korea to recognise him as such”.

The people of Korea must have liked what they saw as, four days later, Kim Jong-un was formally named supreme commander of North Korea’s military, making the untested political novice, believed to be 28, the world’s youngest head of state.

Dr Leonid Petrov, a Korea specialist at the Australian National University, has had contact with Cao de Benos for more than a decade, and doubts that he, or any other rational outsider, could genuinely believe North Korean state propaganda. He believes the KFA president is making the right noises ideologically so that he can straddle both worlds, carving out a profitable niche as a middle man and deriving status, access, and financial rewards through his consultancy work.

“Alejandro believes that to be close to the establishment he has to play the role of a revolutionary Westerner who is more North Korean than the North Koreans are,” Petrov says. “I really doubt he is a brainwashed individual who believes North Korea is the paradise for workers. Even North Koreans don’t believe in that.”

“I don’t think he’d like to spend the rest of his life in North Korea,” he adds. (Cao de Benos responds that he would love to live in Pyongyang permanently, but that would prevent him from performing his spokesman role in the West.)

The member of his tour party agrees – “You can’t possibly believe that stuff if you’ve been there” – and says while believing state propaganda is understandable for brainwashed North Koreans, it’s unconscionable in a Westerner who knows the outside world.

“To come back and tell North Korean people that everything they hear is correct – that the rest of the world is evil, out to cut each other’s throats, that war and oppression is everywhere… he perpetuates that. He’s not forced to; he does that for personal gain and power and prestige. It’s horrible.”

Cao de Benos bristles at the suggestion he is motivated by anything less than genuine ideological commitment. “I will take this as a type of jealousy from people who have no goals in their life. I have lived a life of big things,” he reminds me. “I only care about the opinions of the people that love me, my comrades.”

Given his position, he need neither answer nor fear their criticisms from the West. And despite the recent upheaval, that position so far appears secure. Kim Jong-un is “a very military person” who is “exactly like” his father, he says, and who, most importantly, “represents the continuity of our ideology”.

“He’s an important sign that although Dear Leader Kim Jong-il is passed away, there’s not going to be any changes,” says Cao de Benos, perhaps hopefully. Whatever North Koreans might make of that, it suits him down to the ground.

Mythmaking is a long-time specialty of Pyongyang-watchers

7 12 2010

by MARK MacKINNON (Saturday’s Globe and Mail, Dec. 04, 2010)

“There’s wistfulness in the young man’s eyes, a longing for home as he walks purposefully along the edge of a lake that looks to be somewhere in Central Europe. But he doesn’t dress like the locals. Even thousands of kilometres away from the place of his birth, the young man proudly wears a collarless grey Mao suit and military-style greatcoat, the favoured attire of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung. The young man in the portrait – which was photographed hanging in a museum by a sharp-eyed Canadian tourist to North Korea – bears a striking resemblance to Kim Jong-un, the twenty-something youngest son of Kim Jong-il and the recently named heir to power in the Hermit Kingdom…

…If it is him, and a majority of the experts consulted by The Globe and Mail believe that it is, the portrait marks the first glimpse anyone outside North Korea has had of how the regime will sell Kim Jong-un to a people conditioned to believe his father is their infallible Dear Leader and his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, an immortal who remains president despite his death in 1994. It would be laughable, perhaps, if the new propaganda campaign weren’t accompanied by new military recklessness – including last month’s deadly shelling of a South Korean island – intended to give Kim Jong-un, already praised as “the Young General,” victories to claim as his own.

Out of half a dozen North Korea scholars who were sent a copy of the portrait, only one [Andrei Lankov] disagreed that the subject was likely Kim Jong-un. The other experts saw it as the launch of a massive propaganda campaign that will attempt to portray the heir apparent as having been sent abroad to learn foreign ways and technologies, while always keeping North Korea and its people in his heart. Several who saw the portrait noted the physical resemblance (though the heir apparent is much flabbier in recent television footage), as well as a background that looks to be Interlaken, Switzerland, where Kim Jong-un is known to have spent time while studying at the International School of Berne in the late 1990s.

“It’s big news,” said Brian Myers, an expert on North Korea at Dongseo University in South Korea. “It’s hard to be completely certain on the basis of an untitled image alone. … But I cannot imagine a schoolboy outside the Kim family meriting this kind of painting, and it is very similar in mood and layout to depictions of the young Kim Il-sung and the young Kim Jong-il. So I would assume that it is Kim Jong-un although it is not a particularly striking likeness in view of the Kim Jong-un we have seen photographed in the past few months”…

…The portrait appears to be the start of an effort to turn that potential liability into in asset. “It goes to the heart of what will be the regime’s main problem in glorifying the boy, namely the fact that he was overseas during at least part of the famine or [so-called] Arduous March. The regime is for some reason loath to let foreigners see this nascent personality cult,” Prof. Myers said. “We have seen footage of [Kim Jong-un], and of course we can see him on the TV news every few days … but we know next to nothing about how the regime is articulating his biography. This painting offers important insight into what kind of mythobiography the regime is either planning or is already teaching the masses in party meetings, study meetings etc. outside the view of foreign visitors.” He noted that the young man in the painting was gazing at the sun rising in the east, another suggestion that North Korea consumed his thoughts, even while he was far from home…

“It will start with pictures likes this, TV documentaries, poems and some writings and then, the next breakthrough point, he’ll appear on a lapel badge with his dad we assume,” said Paul French, author of North Korea: the Paranoid Peninsula, referring to the lapel pins of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il that all North Koreans are forced to wear. Mr. French said it was surprising the regime has decided to deal head on with Kim Jong-un’s foreign education. “The next great theorizer of Juche theory strides out to soak up foreign culture for the good of the people,” he joked after viewing an e-mailed copy of the portrait. “Of course, I doubt very much if he strolled around Switzerland dressed quite so revolutionary, though the coat and hat are reminiscent of the 2009 Banana Republic collection.”

There is, however, some debate among Pyongyang-watchers over whether the picture is important. Andrei Lankov, a respected North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, scoffed at the notion that this was the new boy’s coming-out portrait. “This is his grandfather. Generalissimo Kim Il-sung. The background and school uniform leaves no doubt about it: the late 1920s,” Prof. Lankov wrote in an e-mail after seeing a copy of the portrait. Kim Jong-un’s likeness to a young Kim Il-sung is uncanny to the point that some have speculated Kim Jong-un may have undergone plastic surgery to accentuate the similarities and cement the link between himself and his supposedly immortal grandfather. Prof. Lankov also said the houses in the painting’s background looked more like traditional Korean homes than anywhere in Switzerland.

However, that opinion is, thus far, a minority one among those who have viewed the portrait. Mr. Toop, for one, said he knew he was looking at something different as soon as he laid eyes on the picture on the wall of Rajin Art Gallery. Tourists in North Korea are shown hundreds of portraits, busts and statues of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung over the course of their stay, so it’s unsurprising that something new would jump out after several days in the country. “I identified the portrait as Kim Jong-un when I first saw it,” the 54-year-old Mr. Toop said. “To my knowledge, neither Kim Il-sung nor Kim Jong-il can be situated in a Western backdrop like this at any time in their youth.”

See the full text of this article here…

Opinions of Real Experts

Koen De Ceuster: “This is not Kim Jong Un and all the pundits that think they have struck gold with this have only proven how much they like to believe in their own stories. I was shown, through another source, the same painting and did a close analysis. First of all, the painting is dated 2001. Secondly, why does no one catch the badge on the cap? Though not legible, clearly Chinese.

Finally, in the left top corner, a Chinese-style entrance to a compound can be seen. In fact, if anything, this is probably Kim Il Sung in front of a Catholic church in Jilin City. This is certainly speculative, but given Kim Jong Il’s visit to a Catholic church in that city during his last visit to Manchuria late August 2010, and the reference he made to the fact that his father had found sanctuary there once, this may well be what is depicted here. In any case, definitely not Kim Jong Un.

What I find fascinating is how “we” are all excited about the fact that Kim Jong Un spent some semesters in Switzerland, but fail to wonder whether this is also newsworthy in North Korea! Given that I have never seen any reference to the fact that Kim Jong Il spent a year in Malta, I very much doubt his passage to Switzerland will ever be part of the North Korean myth building. All the more so of our myth building, as it turns out.

When Kim Jong Il went to Manchuria, the intention was clear: it was a pilgrimage along revolutionary sites. The church must feature as a revolutionary site for the North Koreans, otherwise he would not have visited. By clicking on to the photo of the young Kim Il Sung, it is obvious that that is the same badge in the painting (the bottom of the character/s is visible in the painting, as it is in the photo: ). Knowing Korean practices, chances are that this photo was used by the painter for inspiration. Anyone familiar with genre paintings in North Korea knows there is a story in the painting. That means that clues are hidden in the painting to make it understandable/legible to a North Korean viewer.”

*Dr. Koen De Ceuster – lecturer at Leiden University, Institute for Area Studies (LIAS)

If it were real, what would the painting tell us?

by By Ruediger Frank (38 North)

…According to the official mythology around the top leaders, in 1925 Kim Il Sung—at that time still called by his real name Kim Song Ju—left his home country at the tender age of 13 for Manchuria. He did so promising to return only after he had liberated his then occupied country from Japanese colonial oppression (picture 2).

This is one of the key moments of North Korean propaganda and the starting point for the Kim Il Sung myth. Kim Il Sung expressed his feelings in his official autobiography: “While singing, I wondered if would ever feel our land again, when would I be returning to the land of my forefathers. I felt sad and determined. I swore that I shall never return until Korea was freed.”

Not being on the peninsula represents an almost unbearable pain for any good Korean patriot. In that sense, living abroad is a major self-sacrifice; at least it will be depicted as such. Self sacrifice is a recurring theme of the cult not only of Kim Il Sung’s first wife Kim Jong Suk, but also around Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il as reflected in numerous stories and paintings of long working hours, restless travel around the country, caring about every little detail, sharing their simple food with the soldiers, sleeping on the floor in a peasant’s cabin and so forth. Therefore, we have reason to believe that Kim Jong Un’s exile will either be negated, or displayed as a period of deliberately endured hardship in order to study the enemy…

…The dating of the painting does not provide a clear answer either. On the contrary, it raises a number of questions. It is dated February 16, 2001. If this is correct, we can almost exclude that the man on the painting is Kim Jong Un because even if the decision to promote him to become the next leader of North Korea was made around 2005, it would still have been painted too early. However, this is, again, not the final answer. Those of us dealing with art and propaganda of North Korea know that documents and paintings have frequently been backdated in order to make new policies look less like changes. Prominent examples include songun (“military first”) and juche, North Korea’s doctrine of self-reliance. We can therefore realistically expect that Kim Jong Un’s history will be backdated at some point…

…You see why it is so tempting to brush all doubts aside and treat the painting as being one of Kim Jong Un. However, it most likely is not. Similar paintings of Kim Il Sung have existed since at least the 1980s; the background is most likely Jilin, China in the 1930s, and the idea of starting the Kim Jong Un cult in Rajin and with his European exile is too far-fetched. I suggest we use this example both as an etude in the anecdote-based Pyongyangology, and as a warning of how easy it can be to derive far-reaching conclusions from questionable evidence. Do we need culture-specific expertise? Obviously, we do. Otherwise, we risk basing policy decisions on a hoax…

*Ruediger Frank – professor of East Asian Economy and Society at the University of Vienna.

Osaka black mark in Kim’s life?


OSAKA–Without fail, North Korea’s propaganda machine deifies any location associated with the Kim dynasty, but the birthplace of the mother of future leader Kim Jong Un is unlikely to be accorded such reverence. In any event, the sad history of her family in Osaka is hardly the stuff of legend. Specifically, Ko Young Hee came from Osaka’s Tsuruhashi district, an area that for decades has had a thriving Korean community.

According to a resident of the neighborhood, someone linked with North Korea recently came to check on the site of her birthplace, long an empty lot. Kim Jong Un is the third son of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and the grandson of Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea. In September, Kim Jong Un was anointed heir apparent. His mother was born in June 1953, a month before a cease-fire agreement was reached in the Korean War. Her father was called Ko Tae Mun. He was born in 1920 in Jeju island when the Korean Peninsula was under Japan’s colonial rule. Ko Tae Mun came to Japan when he was 13 to join his father…

…A former high-ranking Chongryon official said a legend about Kim Jong Un could be created along the following story line: “Ko Tae Mun carried on the will of Jeju islanders who fought bravely under the guidance of Kim Il Sung. After fleeing to Japan, he returned to North Korea to be embraced by the greatness of Kim. Ko gave up his life to serve as a soldier for Kim. Kim Jong Un would be an individual who carried on the great revolutionary bloodline from Jeju.” Tsuruhashi would have no place within that legend…

See the full text of this article here…

“Europe – North Korea. Between Humanitarianism and Business?”

23 10 2010

“Europe – North Korea. Between Humanitarianism and Business?” has recently been published by LIT in Germany. In honor of the launching of the book, a workshop will take place at Seoul National University on Wednesday, October 27, 2010.

The book contains 327 pages and has four parts: Part I: Human Rights, Humanitarianism. Part II: Economic, Political and Ideological Relations between East/West Germany and North Korea, and their Legacies. Part III: Capacity-Building and Development. Part IV: Investment, Business, and Business Schools.

The table of contents is available at: – North Korea book.pdf 

October 27, 2010, SNU Workshop Program:

15.30 – 16.00 Registration

16.00 – 16.15 Opening remarks: Prof. Myoung-Kyu Park, Director, IPUS (Institute of Peace and Unification Studies). Congratulatory remarks: Marjo Crompvoets (deputy head of Mission, Embassy of The Netherlands). Prof. Woosik Moon (Director, Center for EU Studies)

16.20 – 17.40 Session: “The European Way toward North Korea”. Moderator: Mr. Pierre Clément Dubuisson (Ambassador of Belgium). Paul Tjia, “European businesses and North Korea”. Prof. Sung-Jo Park, “Aspects of European NGOs and EU’s Asia- Invest Programme in North Korea”. Dr. Bernhard Seliger, “Capacity building in North Korea – the experience of Hanns-Seidel-Foundation”.

17:40 – 18:00 Book presentation.

Why the Sunshine Policy Made Sense

6 04 2010

By James E. Hoare (

At a recent private meeting in London, a former senior United Nations’ official, drawing on experience relating to a wide range of countries, said that transforming a “failing” or “fragile” state was not something that could be done overnight. Those involved needed to think in terms of ten to twenty years rather than weeks or months. Regardless of whether or not one accepts the idea of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) as a failed or even fragile state—and the term is often used in some quarters—the idea that one is in for the long haul in bringing about major modifications in behavior and attitude is certainly a good one to have in mind when dealing with the DRPK. It was such an approach that marked the Republic of Korea’s policy towards the North under former Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.

Since the Lee Myung-bak government took office in the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) in 2008, it is fashionable to dismiss the policies followed by his predecessors as an expensive failure. Sneers about “ATM diplomacy,” innuendo about Kim Dae-jung’s motives, and references to his successor Roh Moo-hyun’s naivety, are the commonplace of South Korean academic and press comment, and are heard much further afield. “Sunshine” or engagement have become terms of mockery. The Lee government has adopted a more aggressive policy towards North Korea. It has not refused assistance outright, but has couched its offers in such a way that rejection is inevitable—the most recent example is the “grand bargain” proposed in 2009 in which the DPRK must first give up its nuclear program to receive security guarantees and aid. This is then played back as evidence that the North is incorrigible and not deserving of assistance.

The Lee government’s approach is based on an incorrect assessment both of the Sunshine Policy and what went before it. “Sunshine” or “engagement” was not something that sprang from Kim Dae-jung’s fertile brain, though he certainly can be credited with refining and developing the idea. The policies pursued by Kim and Roh lay firmly within a tradition that goes back to President Park Chung Hee in the early 1970s and that was followed by all his successors to a greater or lesser degree. However, it was never easy to engage the North and it did not take much to divert earlier presidents from such a policy. Frustrated or annoyed, they eventually gave up the effort…

[…] No doubt engagement was expensive and sometimes the means used to bring it about were shady, but it was producing benefits. The South, and to some extent the rest of the world, now has a far better understanding of how North Korea works then it did before engagement began. Within the North, a large number of people have come to see their southern compatriots in a less hostile light and have some, even if limited, understanding of the economic and social structures of South Korea. Perhaps some of the assistance provided was diverted away from its original purpose, but enough rice and fertilizer bags reached areas far away from Pyongyang and enough people were willing to ask questions about the South to show that the impact of engagement extended beyond a small circle of ruling elite. Slowly, the policy was creating a group of people who could see benefits in remaining on good terms with South Korea and who had wider links with the outside world. Engagement has worked in other countries, most noticeably China, and I believe that it was beginning to work in North Korea. There was never going to be a speedy change in attitudes built up over sixty years, but stopping the process after ten was not a wise decision.

Read the article online at:

*James E. Hoare was Britain’s Chargé d’Affaires to the DPRK from 2001-2002 and opened the British Embassy in Pyongyang.

NKorea defector tells of business deals in West

9 03 2010

By Sim Sim Wissgott (AFP)

VIENNA — Kim Jong Ryul spent 20 years doing business for North Korea’s dictators with European firms, before he defected to Austria in 1994. Now he fears for his life after emerging from hiding this week.

“I’ve come up to the light. But how long the sun will shine for me, I don’t know. I think it will be a short time,” he told AFP. “The North Koreans will try to capture me and kill me. I am very afraid.”

The small 75-year-old with the steel-rimmed glasses and the easy smile spent 20 years procuring legal and illegal goods for North Korea’s regime, saying he easily side-stepped the economic embargo against his country.

During repeated shopping trips to Europe, the fluent German-speaker acquired everything from spy technology, weapons and small planes to luxury cars and carpets, and a gold-plated gun for dictator Kim Il Sung.

One of his regular destinations was Vienna, where Pyongyang knew it could count on banking secrecy, relatively unrestricted trade and lax airport control.

Traveling on a North Korean diplomatic passport, often with a briefcase full of cash, Kim Jong Ryul spent months at a time in Europe, dealing with small firms that happily turned a blind eye on the goods’ destination in exchange for a 30-percent additional fee.

The North Korean embassy in Vienna often stored the banned surveillance equipment and high-tech devices before they were repackaged and flown out of the country with fake shipping documents and the help of paid-off customs officers, he said.

Not only Austrian but also Swiss, German and French firms did business with the North Koreans, and goods also came from Czechoslovakia.

All this is disclosed in a new book about Kim Jong Ryul’s life, “Im Dienst des Diktators” (“At the dictator’s service”) by Ingrid Steiner-Gashi and Dardan Gashi, whose publication this week brought the old man out of hiding.

A loyal party member who had never put a foot wrong, Colonel Kim defected to Austria on 18 October 1994 during one of his visits here, faking his death to throw the authorities off his scent.

Disgusted by a regime that lived in luxury while its people starved and sick of having his actions dictated to him by up-on-high, Kim left his family behind without a word about his plans. “I wanted freedom, I needed freedom,” he told AFP.

When his family saw him off at Pyongyang airport in October 1993, he already knew he wanted to defect. But he always planned to go back once the regime had fallen and Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994 gave him hope. “I hoped if the great dictator was dead, there would be a change, a revolution.”

“I’ve waited so long and after 15 years I’m still sitting here. A small consolation is this book: that’s something I can leave behind.” For 15 years, Kim Jong Ryul has lived illegally in Austria, trying not to stand out, making few friends and living on savings which he managed to conceal before his escape.

In all this time, he has had no news of his family, whom he never informed of his decision, for his safety and theirs. “I have no clue if my family is still alive or not… Letters would be so dangerous because they all think I’m dead.”

Today, Kim, who owns five TV sets and has taught himself Japanese to better follow news about his country, has little hope of going back.

“To see my family, my son, my daughter once more before I die, that’s my dream… but it is far from likely. “For Asians it is very important to remain loyal to your masters. I violated that, today I’m a traitor. I betrayed the fatherland, I betrayed the revolution.”

Talking to the book’s authors was a calculated risk: “I will die eventually anyway. Why die without having some meaning?” “I’m very afraid, I don’t know where the bullets that will kill me might come from.” But he has no regrets, saying that defecting “was 100-percent the right decision.”

He is nevertheless taking precautions. “Starting tomorrow, you won’t see me anymore. Tomorrow or after tomorrow, I will disappear.”

Read more about Kim Jong-Ryul:

Das neue Leben des Waffenkäufers von Kim Il-sung

Hoflieferant des Geliebten Führers

Money in Socialist Economies: The Case of North Korea

25 02 2010

by Ruediger Frank, “Money in Socialist Economies: The Case of North Korea,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, 8-2-10,

Dated January 29, 2010, the Foreign Trade Bank of the DPRK (North Korea) issued document No. DC033 10-004 to diplomatic missions and international organizations present in North Korea. They were informed that the use of foreign currency was to be stopped, payments were to be made in the form of non-cash cheques, and that the official exchange rate of the Euro to the North Korean Won was changed from 188.2 KPW to 140 KPW, effective January 2, 2010.

Foreign institutions and organizations now have to obtain non-cash cheques from the Foreign Trade Bank, denominated in KPW, in order to pay for accommodations, meals and service fees in hotels, fares for transport services like railways and airlines, communication charges, inspection fees, registration fees and commissions paid to institutions and enterprises in the DPRK, fuel, office materials, spare parts for vehicles, electricity, water, heating charges and rent. Bank transfers are now mandatory for any transfers between international organizations and all money paid to institutions and organizations of the DPRK (including the salary of DPRK citizens working in embassies or international organizations).

A recent visitor to Pyongyang confirmed in a talk with the author that individuals are subject to a cumbersome process if they wish to purchase anything. Rather than using a standard hard currency or exchanging it into the new Won, they now have to obtain a receipt stating the price of the good they want to buy, then present this at a desk where they exchange their money into exactly the needed amount of North Korean money, and finally return to the shop assistant, hand over the exact amount, and receive the product.

In the preceding weeks, North Korea had made international headlines related to what seems to be a concerted economic policy initiative. The domestic currency was reformed in a way that obviously aimed at reducing the amount of money in circulation. A few weeks later news emerged that the use of foreign currencies was banned. This is no doubt a dramatic move with far-reaching consequences. Money matters for personal lives and for society, so when a country initiates a currency reform, it has significant repercussions.

But what are these consequences for the specific case of North Korea in early 2010? Are people in various sectors of society better off now, or worse? Will the economy benefit or suffer? Do the reforms promote or impede foreign trade and investment? Will the domestic political situation become more stable, or will it deteriorate? Are the economic reforms of 2002 reversed, or were they intended to be a temporary measure from the outset? Should we even interpret the currency reforms as part of the process of power succession?…

See the full text of the article here…

Also, see a chapter on North Korea from the new book “Driving Forces of Socialist Transformation. North Korea and the Experience of Europe and East Asia” eds. Ruediger Frank and Sabine Burghart here…

Why do we study Korea?

23 11 2009

Leonid Petrov (The Korea Times 11-27-2009)

In 2009, the Korea-Australasia Research Centre (KAREC) at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) have commenced a national project funded by the Commonwealth Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. Through the Strategic Collaboration and Partnership Fund a total of $9.36 AUD million over three competitive funding rounds will be available to organisations, including universities, higher education providers, businesses and Asian communities.

The KAREC’s National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program (NALSSP) focuses on Korean language and studies education in Australian schools. It is also in line with the government’s aim to increase opportunities for school students to become familiar with the languages and cultures of Australia’s key regional neighbours: China, Indonesia, Japan and Korea.

As the first milestone of the Project, KAREC has organised a National Strategic Conference, which was held on 19–21 November 2009 at UNSW, Sydney. The purpose of the Conference was to examine the current status of Korean language and studies education in Australia and to establish a long-term strategy to ensure continued development.

The major theme of the Symposium on the 19th of November was the current situation, issues and challenges of, and strategies for Australia’s Korean language and studies education. On the 20th of November, there was a round-table discussion on the coverage of Korea in high school non-language subjects. Korean Studies academics and high school teachers of Society and Environment, English and Arts participated in this discussion. On the 21st of November, a workshop for Korean language teachers in Australia was held.

Why Do We Study Korea?

What motivates us, while residing in Australia, America or Europe, to invest our time, money and effort to examine the past of this small country, squeezed between the giants of East Asia? It must be our interest in Korea’s dynamic present and promising future that stimulates our curiosity about its tumultuous history.

The Korean Peninsula, a land bridge between the Asian mainland and North Pacific islands, for centuries possessed great strategic geopolitical significance and played the role of a middleman in cultural transmission from China to Japan. Transformed under Chinese influence, Korea itself nurtured a unique culture and independent spirit. Despite the rise and fall of local dynasties and foreign suzerains, the Korean people managed to develop and preserve their own identity throughout thousands of years of existence

Practical Implementation of Korean Studies

A training approach that advocates the practical application of Korean studies in economy and trade, politics and international relations, administration and communication can achieve a double benefit.

First, it prepares the students to be better equipped for interesting and well-paid jobs, and, second, helps Korean businesses find excellent local staff and skilled consultants who will promote their export-oriented activities

In Crisis There Is Also Opportunity

The socio-economic and political position of Korea, in such circumstances, is pivotal for success or failure of Korean studies in Australia and elsewhere. When choosing a regional language, students must realize that Korea provides them with many more opportunities than, say China or Japan.

The image of Korea as the bridge or hub of East Asia can be helpful in fulfilling this task. However, studies of language and culture form only a basis for further government-sponsored or industry-linked training

See the full text of this article here…

Also see ‘What do Australian Students Learn about Korea in Australian Schools’ by Jill Wilson here…

Voyage hors du temps en Corée du Nord

20 10 2009

Ryugyong_memorialPar Arnaud de la Grange, envoyé spécial à Pyongyang, (Le Figaro 20/10/2009)

Parcourir la campagne nord-coréenne, c’est un peu se promener dans un tableau de Poussin, où la paysannerie du XVIIe siècle s’affaire paisiblement à récolter le blé ou le raisin. Sur le vert tendre des rizières ou le brun grillé des champs de maïs passent des silhouettes de femmes portant sur le dos des sortes de hottes formées d’un cadre de bois triangulaire, que, même à Pyongyang, l’on vous montre dans les musées. En 2009, dans ce bout d’Asie de l’Est communiste, on repique le riz à la main, la bête de travail est un luxe, le tracteur un rêve. Dans les provinces traversées lors de deux incursions vers l’Ouest et le Sud, toutefois, les champs sont bien entretenus et les villages en apparence guère plus misérables que dans bien des pays de la région.

La règle de ce voyage dans le pays le plus fermé de la planète – se fondre dans le paysage comme l’un des rares touristes le visitant – impose bien sûr une vision singulièrement tronquée d’une Corée du Nord où la propagande est érigée au rang de discipline artistique. On ne voit que ce que l’on vous montre, et ce que l’on peut glaner dans les interstices. Pyongyang, cette fois, donne plutôt l’impression d’un voyage à Sofia ou à Minsk dans les années 1950. Les bâtiments, le tramway, les boutiques en sous-sol des immeubles, tout sent les grandes heures de l’économie planifiée. Pour autant, ce n’est pas cette image caricaturale d’une ville où des hordes de citadins efflanqués et déprimés hantent de grises rues. Au contraire, il se dégage de la «ville des saules» une étonnante impression de calme, avec un air dont les rares voitures ne suffisent à altérer la pureté, de vastes avenues arborées et des rues où les seules agressions publicitaires sont les fresques à la gloire du régime. On y croise des cadres en costume, des femmes à la rassurante et universelle coquetterie, des couples qui flirtent dans les parcs ou le long des rives du fleuve Taedong. Bien sûr, Pyongyang est une vitrine, et les carreaux sont plus sales dans les bourgades de province, voire dans les rues excentrées de la capitale. Et il y a aussi ces longues files de citadins fatigués attendant des bus asthéniques, ces vieilles dames courbées sous le poids d’un sac de toile contenant tous leurs trésors…

…La Chine, avec qui se font plus des trois quarts du commerce, reste bien le poumon du pays. C’est pour cela qu’il y a dix jours, le «Cher Leader» est venu lui-même à l’aéroport accueillir le premier ministre chinois, Wen Jiabao, avant de tenir en sa présence des propos plus conciliants sur le nucléaire. Les Chinois avaient été passablement irrités des dernières frasques atomiques d’un protégé, qui risquaient de leur faire perdre la face. Sous peine de voir la perfusion chinoise s’étrangler, Kim Jong-il devait donner des gages. D’autant que l’hiver approche, avec de cruels besoins en pétrole ou nourriture. Régi depuis quinze ans par des cycles de tensions suivis de laborieuses tractations, le grand jeu diplomatique autour de la Corée du Nord est aussi une affaire de saisons.

See the full text of this article here…

See more photos by Arnaud De La Grange here…