I recently contributed to a report for the FT on Korea. Unfortunately, it came out the very day that it was announced that Kim Jong-il had died. So nobody read it!
Here are my contributions, should anyone wish to see them..1 comment
Its been ages since I wrote anything on this site. But Korea is getting even more interesting than usual, so its about time I updated things a little. Kim Jong-il is of course dead, and no-one knows what is coming next. Over the next few days and weeks, expect to see a whole army of talking heads telling you what’s going to happen to North Korea; the thing to remember though is that nobody has the slightest clue. Even Kim Jong-eun himself.
We all have our theories though. My own view is that in the short term, we’ll see absolutely no difference. NK will continue to be run in a completely secretive fashion, and whatever goes on behind closed doors will stay behind closed doors. I don’t think there will be any quick collapse, revolt, or anything like that. There will be a need for everyone up there to demonstrate loyalty to Kim Jong-eun, even if privately, some will just be biding their time. In the medium term (ie. 6 months – 1 year) though, there could be some sort of power struggle. A quiet power struggle, conducted and concluded behind closed doors.
Kim Jong-eun lacks experience, legitimacy, and everything else required to rule. But what he does have is a name, and the short-term reins of a system built around his father/grandfather, and held together by fear. And for now, he has Jang Song-taek/Kim Kyung-hee behind him. China will also support his rule, in so far as it furthers Beijing’s interests. There are also many elite officials and military officers who will not want upheaval, since they are doing just fine under the current system.
China also wants to see as little political upheaval as possible, but does hope for Deng Xiaoping-type economic reforms from North Korea. Now NK is in transition, Beijing will have more opportunity to influence things. Can North Korea become like China, a politically authoritarian, capitalist state?
The US can influence things too, by extending an olive branch. Relations had been improving recently anyway, but Kim Jong-eun (and his ‘regents’) may lash out if they feel threatened at this point. If Jang Song-taek is reform-minded in the way that some say he is, a positive gesture by the US may be a good thing. Also, it would help reduce the influence of China, the most important stumbling block for potential reunification.
The caption just above the baby’s buttock flesh reads ‘From the moment you were born, you were already a global challenger’.
I don’t remember what I was like when I was born, but I’d guess that I was just a helpless, crying puke machine. I certainly wasn’t a global challenger of any description.
Korea is an interesting place. Its good to work hard, and be successful and all, but I’d like to see people being encouraged to just sit on their bum and do nothing once in a while.3 comments
I took a long-haul flight the other day. Being 6′ 3” and not rich enough to afford business class (please buy my book when it comes out…) I hate flying. My companion for the journey was an extremely large, elderly woman, who proceeded to speak to me in Arabic for seven hours straight, despite the fact that I clearly had no idea what she was talking about. Just to make the experience even more pleasurable, her consumption of something in the order of 8 glasses of cola made her into a rather boisterous belcher.
To pass the time, I had a read of the ‘country guide’ section of the in-flight entertainment screen (there are only so many episodes of ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ one can watch without starting to absolutely bloody detest Raymond. For me, ‘only so many’ in fact means ‘one’). As can be seen from the pictures above, they offer information about the particular countries the airline flies to: climate, area in square kilometres, and the like. However, one country gets slightly different treatment:
‘Small in size, Qatar is enormous in value. It has achieved in decades what other countries take centuries to accomplish. Its citizens embrace the future with unswerving optimism and enviable potential…’
You may be shocked to learn that the folks behind this glowing praise are in fact Qatar Airlines. I wondered if they had hired the same people who write all the hilarious North Korean propaganda I read on a regular basis for my job.
It makes me think.. who is this stuff being written for? Does the writer truly expect a non-Qatari reader to take a look at this and go ‘why yes, Qatar is clearly the best country in the entire world, and furthermore, is fully deserving of its opportunity to host the 2022 World Cup’? Or are they just writing it to impress their bosses?
There are schools of journalism, schools of marketing, and so on – so perhaps someone should introduce propaganda studies as an academic discipline, instilling in the budding exaggerator an appreciation of how to subtly persuade the reader, rather than make them laugh their head off. I can see it now: a school of propaganda, small in size, but enormous in value.
Even though South Korea is a proper democracy, the people in charge still have a certain tendency to want to control what gets said about them, especially online. I wrote an article for The Economist on this phenomenon, and Korean radio station TBS (which broadcasts in English) asked me for an interview about it.1 comment
Those whose job it is to take an interest in North Korea tend to go through phases, when it comes to their opinion of The World’s Only Remaining Stalinist State™. The first is ‘Damn, these bastards are crazy’; this is followed by the realisation that Kim Jong-il is an ‘evil genius’, a sort of cartoon Bond villain, crazy like a fox rather than just plain crazy. A more nuanced view may come later.
While Kim’s ability to play China and the US off against each other whilst poking sticks at Lee Myung-bak remains in little doubt, a recent scandal involving an international fraudster and a former England football manager must surely put a small dent in his crafty-as-a-bag-of-weasels reputation.
Russell King, a rather rotund convicted fraudster, first introduced himself to an old-school London investment firm as a manager of the Bahraini royal family’s billions; so impressed they were that they gave him a 49% share of their company. He then used that firm to engineer a takeover of Notts County, a small Midlands football club. Following that, he hooked former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson – a man famed for bouncing from mega-club to national team to sex scandal – to take County to glory.
His aim though was not Premier League success. He and Eriksson showed up in Pyongyang, the latter’s presence no doubt accounted for by the need to impress the North Korean authorities. There, he managed to get whoever makes the decisions on these things to grant him the right to mine all of the country’s gold, in return for promises of worthless shares and cash that no doubt never existed.
The scheme has since unravelled, and King is at large in Bahrain. But North Korea undoubtedly offers great opportunities for the brave scammer: it is a country with little experience of capitalism, and limited access to deals with any large international firm that cares about its reputation – with the possible exception of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-09-06/kim-jong-il-bowls-for-murdoch-dollars-with-video-games-made-in-north-korea.html ). There are others (who I will not name) who are using their North Korean connections to rip off foreign investors – if your money seems to have disappeared down a hole in the ground in Pyeongan province, who are you going to complain to?3 comments
Apparently, there was going to be a large Gut on display today.
Fortunately, I’m not talking about Newcastle United fans. Gut (굿) is the main ceremony of Korean shamanism, and is held to exorcise evil spirits, or bring about a piece of good fortune, such as a bountiful harvest. Since mountains are considered sacred places, it is common for such ceremonies to be held at altitude.
The main mountains in Seoul where Gut are held are Inwangsan, and Namsan. Inwangsan is home to the former royal shamanic shrine, Guksadang. To the untrained eye (ie. mine), it looks very much like a small Buddhist temple, and indeed, the fact that there are temples very close by – as well as Seonbawi (‘zen rock’), could make it easy to confuse the two. Shamanism and Buddhism though, in Korea at least, are very closely related. People who follow shamanism are also often Buddhists, taking whatever they need from each.
I found out about the Gut from a friend, but apparently, this was false information. When we got there, what we saw was something like a ‘practice’: serious Mudang (shaman priests, for want of a better term) apparently go there for a few hours each day, incanting spells, and making ritual use of dried pollack (Buk-eo), fruit, alcohol, and even pig entrails (not pictured), which are sliced up with a ceremonial knife, sharpened rigorously for the occasion.
It was clear that they didn’t want us around. There is a suspicion among those involved in Musok (shaman practice) that the current (pro-Christian) government is out to get them, and thus, they tend to be averse to people coming along and poking their noses in. There are in fact signs around the place prohibiting ‘prayer and shaman activity’, so maybe it is understandable that they don’t want the publicity.
What is interesting is that right next to Guksadang is a little convenience store, selling dried pollack along with their instant noodles and soft drinks; you can also buy ‘josang-ot’ (ancestors’ clothes), to be ceremonially burnt in honour of one’s forebears.1 comment
This is something I recently did for Seoulist, a new lifestyle website for English speakers living in Seoul. I’m arguing that contrary to popular opinion, Gangnam is actually the worst place to invest in property, and in fact, people should look to places like Itaewon, and even rougher locales like Yeongdeungpo, if they want to make money…
Thanks for coming to my website/blog thingy. Here, I’ll post some quickly scribbled opinions, longer pieces that don’t really suit The Economist, advice on English writing for Korean readers (please feel free to send questions), and whatever else takes my fancy.
My book, by the way, is coming along fine, and should be out in the summer..
Have a great weekend!