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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Live-Blogging the Kim Jong-il Holiday Spectacular

Being in South Korea when the death of Kim Jongi-il was announced was interesting, working for the national news agency makes it more so. So, why not live-blog the day of the funeral, in between my real work and facebook play . . .

0959 (Korea) and time for the Holiday Spectacular to begin. The funeral of the "Dear Leader" is expected to closely follow that of his father Kim Il-sung, the "Great Leader" in 1994. An hour of fresh lamentations at the bier in Kumsusan Memorial Palace, followed by an impressive cortege and military escort to take the body and entourage through Pyongyang then back to the palace, where his corpse will join that of his father's. Il-sung remains North Korea's "Eternal President."

1016: A story comes in regarding new anti-submarine drills planned in South Korea next year in response to the torpedoing of the Cheonan by the North last year. The exercises will be surprise simulated submarine infiltrations where they try to get as close as possible to SK patrol ships without being observed - let's hope there are no unexpected surprises . . .

1020: SK's nuclear envoy leaves for the US for talks with his counterpart - I wonder what about . . .

1025: Purty picture *squirrel*

1045: South Korean civic activist based in France made unauthorized condolence visit to North Korea. She was jailed for two and a half years the last time she visited the Norks and prosecutors plan to arrest her if she returns home.

Two private condolence delegations were given permission to visit and returned yesterday. One was led by Lee Hee-ho, the widow of SK President Kim Dae-jung, who authored the "Sunshine Policy" of reconciliation with the North and was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for arranging the first inter-Korean summit that same year. Hyundai Asan, the SK chaebol  that held  monopoly rights to tourism packages to the North, was later charged with paying hundreds of millions of dollars to the Norks in return for the summit. That's quite a pricey Nobel.

The chairman of Hyundai Asan, Chung Mong-hun, indicted in 2003 and facing years in prison, died in an apparent suicide.  His widow, Hyung Jong-eun, led the other condolence delegation. Both were approved by the South as the North sent official delegations South after the deaths of Kim and Chung.

On the issue of condolences and delegations, the Norks last Mondy when announcing Kim's death were very clear NO foreign delegations were welcome at the funeral. Many analysts read that as a sign Kim's successor, youngest son Jong-un, had not yet consolidated power. By Friday, after the visits by Lee and Hong had been approved and the South had sent a message of "sympathies . . . to the North Korean people," the Norks had tweaked their message. Not sending an official delegation and not offering "condolences" was an "unpardonable insult" to their dignity.

Same shit, different Kim . . .

1110: The inter-Korean factory complex has closed for two days to honor the "Dear Leader."

1122: Many images of excessive grief from the North - I believe they are stage-managed and definitely hysterical but still quite genuine. Kim was not only the "Dear Leader" but seen as the father of the people, and those residents we see in Pyongyang have a far better standard of living than those in rural areas, so therefore more to lose.

It's a time of concern about choosing to align with the winning team, I'm sure, but it seems clear, at least in the short-term, that team will be led by Jong-un, with the help of Uncle Jang and the military. The penalties for a wrong choice can be harsh

1136: Oddly, after the excess of coverage the Nork's media has shared this last week, there's not yet any footage of the funeral or even acknowledgement that it is underway. I doubt the Hermit Kingdom has gone back in its shell . . .

1138: New Year's Day will be an interesting one for Nork-watchers. The North traditionally releases a New Year message that is thought to signal their intended path for the next year. They usually make for good reading, promising such treats for their neighbors as "nuclear holocaust" and "prompt, merciless and annihilatory action."

It will be fascinating to see what they wish us for next year . . .

1149: Those damn Norks never do what we want. No doubt they'll start releasing news at noon as per usual, that way they not only upset the US news cycles but keep analysts there awake past their bedtimes (they need beauty sleep more than most) AND mess with my lunch hour . . .

1203: The Kiwi is off to forage (eats roots and leaves) but will return anon. If you're bored while she's away, Andrei Lankov's analysis of the NK economy makes for interesting reading.

While I agree that the NK economy has improved a lot recently and that there is a lot more investment flowing in, I also keep in mind that money coming in does not mean money trickling down to the people, and the UN report last year on child malnutrition. A synopsis can be found here.

1313: One of the many interesting things I noticed when I first came to South Korea was the almost universal tendency of offices to close for an hour or two over lunch. Thus, while you can go to the bank during your lunch break, don't bother phoning a government office or even most travel agencies to utilize your break productively. Be like most "salarymen" (the SK term for mid-level business people) and do that during work hours instead.

So, while my colleagues and I mostly worked through our lunch break last Monday, when the "Dear Leader's" death was announced, it's back to business as usual today and nothing expected until the reporters return at 1330.

1350: It appears the (North) Korean Central News Agency has decided to talk again and the funeral was delayed several hours by heavy snowfall throughout the country. More to follow, perhaps . . .

In the interim, I guess I'll go back to facebook stalking Doctrine Man while waiting for my online opponents to take their Scrabble turns and planning New Year's Day dinner . . .

1400: We're getting the live feed now and the Norks really DO know how to put on a show . . .

The initial voice-over was creepily reminiscent of Boris Karloff (speaking Korean while trying not to cry, so perhaps not that reminiscent) and the rows and rows of NK military against the snow-covered background are impressive.

For the record, the KCNA said the snow was the sky "grieving" for Kim Jong-il also . . .

Jong-un is walking at the front right corner of the hearse carrying his father's body, with Uncle Jang behind him in a suit, not the military uniform he has been in the past few days. Those on the right are in suits while the uniformed military walks to the left of the hearse. Pageantry and symbolism - Disney has nothing on the Norks . . .

1411: Much weeping and wailing from citizens lining the route, some jumping up and down also but that may be just to stay warm . . .

1415: Myths to cement Jong-il's importance in the North's history books:

These are from Yonhap but I can't access the link right now so will post this for now.

In one account, an unidentified bird was seen brushing off snow from a statue of Kim Jong-il last week, "breaking the hearts of many people" who heard the story, the official Radio Pyongyang reported.
"As I was unable to calm my heart from a guilty conscience, a white bird larger than a dove suddenly brushed off the snow from the shoulders of the leader's statue," one eyewitness was quoted as saying by the radio station.
And . . .

A soldier was quoted by the North's state television on Sunday, saying that he saw a tree budding in temperatures as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius.
The official Korean Central News Agency reported last week that residents near the inter-Korean border saw a "series of blinding blue flashes accompanied by thunder" on Wednesday. These occurred in five-minute intervals during heavy snowfall between the hours of 4 a.m. and 5 a.m., it said. The English-language dispatch was titled "Even nature seems to mourn demise of great man."
"Witnessing this, citizens of the city said that the demise of Kim Jong-il was so heart-rending that even the sky seemed to writhe in grief," the dispatch said.

1440: Mass hysteria among the military lining the motorcade route also - I'm sure there's an aspect of "WTF happens now?" to it . . .

Long lead shots of the motorcade are eerie, headed by the lead car carrying a massive portrait of Jong-il and everything obscured by the snow except headlights . . .

1509: Goose-stepping looks painful . . .

1551: Having just finished editing a long analysis on North Korea for a sister publication, plus watched hours of snow swirling around Jong-il's motorcade as North Koreans grieve hysterically, the Kiwi feels it might be time to head home soon. Photos and updates can be found on the Yonhap site and a live feed should be available here.

Let's see what tomorrow brings - no doubt SSDK again.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Ding Dong, the Kim is Dead . . .

Yesterday, at about 10 a.m. local, the South Korean national news agency for which I work got a heads-up that there would be an official announcement from North Korea at noon. To put that in perspective, last month the Norks were threatening to turn the South's presidential palace into a "deluge of fire" because of military exercises to mark the first anniversary of the North bombing a border island. For the past week or two, they have been alluding to the "consequences" of the South illuminating three huge Christmas Tree structures on their border. We expected something similar.

The lunch break in my office starts at noon but, not surprisingly, we stayed to hear what the Norks had to say. Then stayed to report that the Dear Leader was dead, and how that might affect many aspects of life here on the Korean Peninsula and further abroad. At the same time, I was communicating with friends around the  world on social media sites and a little stunned by the lack of knowledge many displayed. After a full day of editing how Kim's death might play out socially, financially, militarily, politically and in terms of foreign affairs, I headed to the VFW and discussed similar matters with U.S. military and contractor friends.

So, some thoughts on what might happen now, with the proviso that much about North Korea is supposition and guesswork BUT when you study it closely, there are noticeable trends. It's also a particular interest of mine and I spend a lot of time discussing the possible meaning of those actions we see with experts from South Korea, the United States and China. Many of the opinions I previously held have changed of late because of conversations with a Chinese friend and colleague who did his PhD on North Korea while in China. It's enlightening to add that perspective to the mix.

Kim Jong-il's death was sudden and unexpected, to everyone. North Korea has been building up to next year's 100th anniversary of the birth of NK founder Kim Il-sung, by which Jong-il had pledged to make the North a "thriving" nation. Yes, I know how laughable that sounds to most outsiders and how impossible it would sound to the North's starving rural populace but much investment has been made by outside countries recently and you can even take a birthday tour.. There has been supposition that the senior Kim would take that opportunity to hand over the reins to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. I don't think he was expecting to die before then either.

That is not necessarily a bad thing. As amusing as Jong-il may have been in "Team America World Police," he was never so funny on the world stage. Psychologically, take any child, constantly assure them they are God-like and all-powerful and never, ever say "no" to them and you have the recipe for a monster. Have that child reach adulthood ruling a country where his word is law and nobody dares say "no" because to do so means death, and you have Jong-il. It has long been a concern that, as he watches his empire slowly slip away (increasing defections, technology opening borders virtually and bringing news of the outside world to the Hermit Kingdom) and his health decline, and with only a third-and-last choice successor to continue the dynasty, he might choose to go out with a bang rather than a whimper. That would secure his place in the history books forever. Obviously, that's now off the table.

Jong-un is not Jong-il. By all indications, he's a bit of a disappointment. He also had a completely different upbringing and doesn't, I believe, have the arrogant self-confidence of his father. Remember, this is the third son, and he was only chosen as heir-apparent a year ago because both his older brothers were sorely lacking. He was not raised to expect to become "Dear Leader" and is possibly well out of his depth. That could play out well or badly, depending on the advice and guidance he receives.

The transition looks likely to be smooth, at least at first. The military has already pledged to support Jong-un and the generals hold immense power in the North. The people are accustomed to feudal and dynastic succession and also have a history of accepting young rulers. Korea (and China, it's strongest neighbor and major ally) have in their histories child kings (and emperors) mentored by regents. Jong-un is not quite a child, but he is young and untested. To support and mentor him, he has Kim Kyong-hui, his father's younger sister who is a four-star general and a member of the North's Politburo, and her husband, Jang Song-thaek, vice chairman of the National Defense Commission and an alternate member of the Politburo. If Jong-un heeds their advice and that of the generals,  he should survive. At least in the short-term.

Longer-term, there is likely to be the political and power jockeying that takes place with any leadership transition. The most likely sources of trouble are probably within the military. Mid-level officers with ambition may want to move up more quickly than is occurring and could take advantage of the situation. Lower down the food chain are the frontline soldiers and guards, whose tendency to do things without thinking them through or clearing them with their chain of command may increase in the current uncertainty. Last month's reported shooting of a supposed North Korean defector across the river border and on Chinese soil was unlikely to be on orders from above but it happened. China, mere days after the report, gave a group of 19 NK defectors official transit to South Korea, rather than sending them back to a less-than-welcoming repatriation as they usually do. Those two events may not be related but hair-trigger responses from undisciplined border guards could easily get out of hand.

Jong-il's death does not mean automatic reunification. Even if Jong-un fails as a leader and is removed, the military has long held power and will not give it up easily.

This may be a game-changer in next year's general (April) and presidential (December) elections in the South. Current voter sentiment is against a conservative ruling party that is viewed as corrupt and favoring the rich (why does this sound familiar?) and could be seen to result in a leftist, pro-unification, anti-U.S. government next year. That may change as South Koreans, post-Jong-il's death, consider the cost of reunification, particularly in the current economic climate.

"May you live in interesting times" is often viewed as a curse. For a writer, interesting times are a blessing, even if occasionally uncomfortable. There is no question that these are interesting times on the Korean Peninsula.



Sunday, December 4, 2011

From the Sublime, to the Ridiculous . . .

This is going to be a fairly random, Kiwi bouncing off walls, kinda post. About things that people take very seriously. Life, love, religion, first amendment rights and inter-species erotica. Oops, that last one was purely for Squiggles.

Of all the amazing things that happened on my three-month, 6,000 mile motorcycle tour of the United States of America earlier this year (and there were epicly amazing things all along the way), three experiences touched me deeply. I've been promising to write about the final one for some time, but it needed to simmer for a while before being ready to serve.

1. Rolling Thunder, Ride for Freedom, 2011.

2. The funeral of SSgt Ergin Vidot Osman in Great Lakes, MI. The family had requested a motorcycle escort and the word was put out quickly by the Patriot Guard Riders and the local HOGs (many of whom, including my hosts in Detroit, are ex-military).

I was stunned as we rode out of the funeral home carpark to see so many people lining the roadsides, bearing American flags or saluting or simply standing with hands on hearts. Local police had roads blocked and traffic signals off for the cortege and all stood at attention as the hearse and entourage passed. As we neared the National Cemetery, about a half-hour ride away, I noticed families in their front yards, honoring Osman's service. Mom, Dad and three kids, just standing silently in respect to honor his sacrifice. I was glad to be a passenger for that trip (thanks, Pirate Martin) as I was too choked up to have been a safe rider.

3. This is the one some of my friends have huge issues with.

While in Kansas City, Missouri, I visited with the Westboro Baptist Church.

Yes, those of the godhatesfags = godhatesamerica = thankgodforieds protests at the funerals of military members, small children and homosexuals. Actually, anywhere they can get an audience.

I wanted to ask them, "Why?"

I've been thinking about their answers for a long while now, and also talking to others about it and them, and Life, the Universe and Everything. I interrogated a friend who is the dean of a bible school about his take on their take on God, talked with my Lutheran host and discussed them over Mexican and Margarita's with two new friends and their church choir. I also relistened to the recording of the 90 minutes I spent at the home of Fred Phelps Jr. talking with him and his brother John, and looked up the bible quotes they gave me. And visited with two Patriot Guard Riders at Ft. Leavenworth.

So . . . thoughts on the WBC . . .

They're intelligent (most of the family are lawyers and one of Phelps Sr's daughters argued and won a Supreme Court case brought against them) and they know their bible. Much better than I, so I didn't even attempt to argue dogma with them.

They believe totally in what they are doing.

They are not interested in "saving" anybody. They believe God has already appointed an "elite" and you're either part of that or you're not. It's a done deal. They also believe God tasked them to help his elite come to him, and they believe publicity is the best way to do that. "God invented the Internet for us," was one of the quotes that stuck in my mind.

They can quote and manipulate scripture as well as anyone I've met, but scripture can easily be massaged to fit most agendas. They're also not the only Christians (or any other flavor religion) I've met who believe sinners (i.e. anyone with a different viewpoint) will burn in Hellfire forever.

Apart from the fact that John was wearing a t-shirt, they seemed a perfectly normal all-American "mom and apple pie" kind of family. We had to move into the kitchen during our talk because it was time for a daughter's piano lesson. The community (there's less than 100 people in the church and most are family members) was building a house for a church member. They served me water, not Kool-aid, and admired the bike.

They know their First Amendment rights, probably much better than those who are fighting and dying for them to have those rights.

I believe they are essentially misguided. I believe they are wrong, I believe that if their view of God is correct, I want no part of him/her/it.

I also believe that everything has a purpose, whether it is the purpose we want or not. And I suspect that the purpose of the WBC may be exactly what I witnessed at the Great Lakes funeral. Their presence at such public events has so incensed middle America that it has made communities take note of the sacrifices made for them by the less than 1 percent that is the military.

The Patriot Guard Riders formed in response to WBC, and stand, non-violently, between them and the families of the fallen. Other ordinary Americans, who mostly have no connection with anyone military (it's a small world), turn out to show support and respect for soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, and I wonder how many would be there without the abhorrence they feel at the WBC's actions.

I hate what the WBC does and the pain its members cause already suffering families, but I have to admire a country that allows them the freedom to do it, and the people who find a non-violent way to counteract their actions.