Male Cinderellas

Jang Song Thaek funeral

Hot on the heels of Kim Jong-pil’s gorgeously atmospheric and unpleasant memoirs, comes former NIS apparatchik Ra Jong-yil‘s book about Jang Song Thaek, which looks to be a humdinger:

… Stories of sons-in-law marrying into privileged families are not altogether uncommon on either side of the Korean divide. Though the stakes were different – no one ended up publicly purged and executed – a useful comparison can be found in the story of Lim Woo-ja, who married Samsung Electronics CEO Lee Kun-hee’s daughter, Lee Boo-jin, also an executive in the conglomerate. In both cases marrying well brought great privileges but also severe consequences.

Jang and Lim share commonalities in their backgrounds. Jang was a talented and ambitious person who earned his way into Kim Il Sung University but who was not from the Kim family’s privileged bloodline. Lim captured the attention of the South Korean media by marrying the Samsung head’s daughter despite being an “ordinary” office worker at the company. Like Jang, Lim’s career after marriage was full of fortune. He was promoted to vice president of Samsung Electronics in 2011, a position out of reach for most employees and, despite their later divorce, he is still serves in an advisory role at the company.

But Lee did divorce Lim in 2014, and Lim has been dogged by legal procedures ever since. Lim would not be purged or killed as Jang was, but has dealt with a steep decline in living standards, later writing of how his son tasted ramen for the first time after the divorce.

Ra’s book on Jang contains many other instances of how family history invades one’s private life, especially in the North: Jang’s older sister had to divorce her husband due to his family’s past record as a landlord during the Japanese colonization of Korea before the end of World War II. Lim’s family faced a similar tragedy. “Including my father, our family couldn’t meet my son from his birth until September 2015, when he turned 9 … Before the negotiations to meet my son, I couldn’t have free time with my son outside,” his letter read.

His ex-wife would cite Lim’s excessive drinking patterns as a reason for their divorce, which, if true, would be something else he shares with Jang. “I cannot stop drinking. Tens of thousands people are starving in the fatherland. I cannot sleep because of those starving people,” Jang used to say, as quoted by the book.

Jang was chosen by Kim Jong Il, who needed an ally during his preparations to succeed from his father Kim Il Sung. The young and talented Jang, who had been deeply affected by Kim’s younger sister, was a perfect partner. Ra says this was why Jang could overcome the differences in social standing between him and the country’s most privileged household. However, it also meant that he would serve Kim Jong Il “hand and foot.” Secretive tasks to satisfy Kim’s preferences were his primary job, including organizing parties with female entertainment for Kim and other elites, as well as obtaining luxury goods for Kim’s family.

This is a critical factor which featured his declining years, the author said. Due to the national emphasis on the bloodline, Jang’s position had fundamental limits. His prominence did not originate from his capacity but through Kim Jong Il’s choice. Between Kim Jong Il’s passing and Kim Jong Un’s rise, Jang’s presence became a nuisance for the young leader, eventually leading to his sudden end in late 2013.

Ra expected that it would take about two years for Jang, the second-in-command, to be removed from the leadership position. It was not only Jang who was purged. Five out of seven officials who served as Kim Jong Il’s pallbearers in December 2011 would eventually be removed; the two who remain, Kim Yong Nam and Choe Tae Bok, don’t have any real authority…

Read more.


Not being absent

Xi and Putin

“I’ll have what he’s having.”

A few days back it was related in the media that Chinese government-affiliated tabloid and rabble-rouser the Global Times had published an editorial saying:

China will look for past references on how Russia has taken action against Eastern European countries which have deployed the U.S.’s missile defense systems at their borders.


Woah, right?

Here it is, in black and white:



So that’s what Xi Jinping meant when he talked about “not being absent“.

When asked if this represented the Chinese government’s position, Hong Lei made vague, generic statements about THAAD being bad for regional stability.

Leaving Family Behind in North Korea

Ask a North Korean

If you’ve never read NK News’ Ask A North Korean column, you really should. This week’s edition in particular will get you right in the feels:

… When I see street food on the way home, I find myself thinking, My mother would love it if I brought some of those home. But I can’t bring them home because I know my parents won’t be waiting for me at home and I have no way of delivering them to my parents in North Korea. My mother loves boiled eggs and they are cheap street food here in South Korea. I could easily afford them now and I would love to bring them home for my mother only if she was living with me here in South Korea.

I don’t wish much for my life. All I want is to be able to spend everyday life with my parents – the ordinary life many people get to live. I’m still waiting anxiously for the day when unification comes. That day, I will finally be able to live with my parents and bring boiled eggs home for them. I will probably have to wait so many years until that day comes. But I believe that day will come sooner than later if more of you show continued interest and support for North Korean refugees. I ask that your interest not just be limited to the third-generation power succession and all the bizarre things about the North Korean dictatorship. I hope that your interest goes beyond that. Please, show your continued interest in the voices of North Korean refugees and ordinary, innocent North Koreans still living in the North. I truly believe that your continued interest and support mean a lot to the human rights of North Koreans and North Korean refugees.

Thank you.

Read the full column here.



Obama nuke button

“What the hey, I’m outta here in a few months anyhow…”


“It seems clear that what invariably gets us into trouble is our tendency to demonise foreign leaders or foreign groups we neither like nor understand. In such cases, we fill our gaps of ignorance with prejudice, and the result is hostility fuelled by demagoguery, and damage done to all concerned.”

– Donald Gregg, former US Ambassador to South Korea, in his memoir, Pot Shards, published in July 2014

“Clearly reckless and risky, evolving security threat in the hands of somebody who is questionable in terms of judgment.”

– John Kerry, describing the North Korean leadership, 25th January 2016, going against the opinions of the analysts who broadly concurred that North Korea’s nuclear test was a pretty smart move in the circumstances.

“How many world leaders, you think, are just completely out of their mind?”
“A pretty sizable percentage. Some of these people, you must meet them, you’ll just be chatting and you look in the eyes and go, ‘Oh, this guy’s gone’. Part of what happens is, these guys, I think the longer they stay in office, the more likely that is to happen.”

– Barack Obama exercises the international diplomatic skills for which he has become so celebrated, while chatting to Jerry Seinfeld in December 2015

知己知彼,百战不殆。(If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.)

Sun Tzu, probably sometime in the 5th century BC

See also under: This; I am normal, you are exotic

Let’s Talk about Nukes (Baby)

Homer rides the bomb

There’s been so much interesting communication surrounding North Korea’s possible H-bomb test that I decided to save it all up and cover it in one long, rambling, semi-coherent post.

You’re welcome.

Firstly, was it an H-bomb? Probably, strictly speaking, not. It should have been far bigger if it really was an H-bomb, whereas in fact, this test appears to have been slightly smaller than the previous one. There’s a good reason that most countries prefer to test their H-bombs at sea.

According to analysts, this was not the only WMD-related bit of trickery on display either. It seems that recent videos of submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launches may have been strategically edited to make them look more impressive than was, in fact, the case.

In short order, the 24-hour rolling Chinese whispers media turned this into North Korea “faking video footage” and then into “North Korea ‘Hydrogen bomb’ test was FAKED using footage of old Scud missile launch, experts claim“.

Meh. These are journalists writing to a deadline. You can’t reasonably expect them to understand that a nuclear bomb is a different thing from a missile (crash course: the latter can potentially be used to transport the former), and that North Korea tested both in quick succession.

However, while we’re on the subject of maximising the intimidation factor of possibly underwhelming weapons, this is worth listening to. Some guy has converted the seismic signatures of the North Korean nuclear tests into sound files, and they’re incredibly eerie to listen to. If you need reminding why this should scare the hell out of us, have a listen.

But why did North Korea choose to test its bomb now? Well, anti-regime news outlet, the Daily NK, reckons it was to give Kim Jong Un a legitimacy boost ahead of the forthcoming WPK Party Congress, and various other writers – plus Russiahave pointed out that North Korea really has very little to lose by continuing nuclear tests, what with no other country being prepared to go upside Kim’s head with anything more than token sanctions (we’ve covered the symbolic vocabulary of international sanctions here before). However, it seems to be Andrei Lankov who has really nailed it.

Not only does he point out that any from-scratch nuclear programme requires much testing as a matter of course, (any idiot can build a bomb – here you go – building a better bomb, however, requires huge amounts of test data), but he notes:

The diplomatic damage could be easily have been neutralized, had the North Korean diplomats been ordered to be less active last year. It would make much more sense to wait for the test which, as the North Korean government knew, was coming, to weather the predictable diplomatic storm and then start sending delegations across the globe with peaceful initiatives and sweet talks of cooperation and investment. Cynically speaking, a little nuclear test would probably help to advance the message of peace, love and aid. It is always advisable first look menacing and then talk sweet. But the North Koreans did exactly the opposite.

Worse still, it seems to be a pattern, since we have seen this before. In 2011-12 North Koreans negotiated the so-called “Leap Day Agreement” with the U.S. (signed on February 29, hence the name). This agreement implied that North Korea would receive regular shipments of the U.S. aid in exchange for its willingness to refrain from nuclear tests and missile launches. From the North Korean point of view, this was a good agreement, since the American diplomats, often working against the mood which at the time prevailed in Washington, essentially agreed to pay Pyongyang for temporarily freezing its nuclear and missile program.

However, the 2012 Leap Day Agreement survived for merely a fortnight. In mid-March the North Korean government told the world that soon North Korea would launch a “satellite,” essentially testing long-range missile technology, and the agreement collapsed, leaving much bad feeling behind. Even now, four years later, all talks in the U.S. State Department about negotiating with the North are bound to be met with a reminder about the failure of the “Leap Day Agreement.” Essentially, this debacle made negotiations impossible for years to come.

Once again, had North Koreans back then decided to wait, and have a missile launch first, only to negotiate later, they would probably secure a great supply of free food for a promise (admittedly, rather shallow) not to do this again. So, it was an easily avertable problem. The only reason why it happened was the inability or unwillingness of the North Korean top leadership to coordinate the actions of the diplomats with the plans of its military-industrial complex. Had Kim Jong Un or somebody with sufficient power just bothered to order diplomats to remain quiet for some time, the 2012 debacle would not have happened.

Back then, the situation could be explained by the hectic nature of the power transition period: The negotiations and launch coincided with sudden demise of Kim Jong Il. However, this time, when similar mistake happened again, such excuses are rather difficult to make: Kim Jong Un is in control of his realm.

The conclusion is not very encouraging. It is possible that, at least in some cases, North Korea might resemble a ship without rudder – or, perhaps, a ship whose captain spends too much time entertaining his guests. This is dangerous in many regards, but let’s hope that Kim Jong Un and his advisers eventually learn from their mistakes.


(We’ve also covered the fact that North Korea’s various state organs increasingly seem to be working at cross-purposes, and speculated on the possibility of an autocracy without an autocrat before.)

This certainly seems consistent with North Korea’s post-test diplomacy, which has focused on the argument that the nuclear programme is a necessary defence against US threats. In one of his increasingly frequent interviews, Ambassador to London Hyon Hak Bong pointed out relatively mildly that “We develop nuclear weapons not to threaten the world with war but to protect our independence. We want peace, but our nation has been victimised for centuries by one invader and then another.”

Meanwhile, in an oddly touching follow-your-dreams piece in the Pyongyang Times, a local university student wrote about how the nuclear programme can be understood as a victory for juche (“self-development”).

In a rather more forthright declaration, KCNA announced that “strategic patience” had been “completely defeated” and cited Iraq and Libya as examples of the fate that awaits nations that don’t have a nuclear deterrent. And, well, the least you can say is that they’re not actually wrong…

Interestingly, China seemed to back this argument up via a Xinhua thinkpiece, which was more or less equally pissy with both sides, criticizing the US and the DPRK in roughly equal proportions.

South Korea, for its part, returned to a tried and tested riposte: blasting K-pop across the DMZ at ear-shattering volumes, this having been proven to drive the North Korean leadership into a steaming rage. This time around the hits include Apink’s “Just Let Us Love” and G-Friend’s “Me Gustas Tu”, which is rather sweet. North Korea responded by air-dropping flyers calling President Park a bitch.

The US response, by contrast, veered half-heartedly in several different directions before settling into pffft-let-the-next-guy-deal-with-it indifference.

The initial response, tweeted in the immediate aftermath is quite impressively disinterested:

Which is moderately interesting in itself. We’ve apparently reached a point at which the appropriate response to an H-bomb is ennui. Say what you like about modern civilisation, but we’ve come a long way since the 60s.

As one Twitter user commented:

With time it became apparent that something more was needed. The aforementioned additional sanctions were rolled out, to the eternal Soviet cynicism of Lankov:

In the next few weeks we will see a repeat of the same cycle we have seen so many times over the past 10 years.

The UN security council will have an urgent meeting that will introduce sanctions targeting North Korea. Such sanctions will allow politicians to explain to their voters that they are punishing a rogue regime in all ways imaginable – for instance, depriving the leadership of Hennessey cognac and Godiva chocolate. Credulous voters will agree and feel placated, but in actuality, such measures will make little if any difference.

Even if sanctions were to inflict damage on the North Korean economy – which has exceptionally low dependence on foreign trade – the only victims will be common North Koreans, who will just suffer more.

Of course, the top leadership might lose access to champagne, but in their eyes, this is a small price to pay for escaping the fates of Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.


Also, one of the Guam-based B52s was given a bit of an airing, though Van Jackson pointed out that this gesture could well end up being misinterpreted:

What’s the point of perpetuating high-friction hostilities with North Korea if it just encourages North Korean provocations that chip away at the credibility of our extended deterrence commitment to South Korea? Do we actually intend to wage nuclear conflict in North Korea over a nuclear test or a small-scale act of violence along the DMZ? I don’t think so. It’s wholly incompatible with a history of risk averse policy on the Korean Peninsula, and that makes it inherently incredible.

But what if U.S. risk propensity really has changed? What if we are willing to get tough with North Korea the next time it engages in violence or does something more provocative than a nuclear test, despite a history that suggests the contrary? I’ve often advocated a more muscular approach to North Korea. If the United States is committed to firm retaliation and matching North Korean escalation move for move, the B-52 isn’t what’s going to convince North Korea of that.

One reason is that the B-52 is a routine signal that we’ve trotted out many times; it’s part of our history of backing down followed by muscle-flexing. There’s no way for North Korea to know that this time is different, which means we’re inviting a war by permitting North Korea to think we won’t retaliate even though we will. We want North Korea to interpret the B-52 as “We really mean it this time,” but they see it as “business as usual.”

Another reason the B-52 overflight fails to convey resolve is the very fact that it’s not really much of a signal at all. In Robert Jervis’s most underrated work, The Logic of Images in International Relations, he draws a crucial distinction between signals and indices:

“Signals are statements or actions…issued mainly to influence the receiver’s image of the sender…They do not contain inherent credibility…Indices are statements or actions that carry some inherent evidence that the image projected is correct because they are believed to be inextricably linked to the actor’s capabilities or intentions.”

Unless signals tie the hands of the sender through some reliable mechanism that forces it to commit, signal “receivers can be expected to at least partially discount them…” Add to this a Korea context in which U.S. nuclear signals have been part of a pattern of both hostility and irresoluteness, and you have a feckless symbol of U.S. and South Korean antipathy toward North Korea, not resolve.

Now I’ll grant that nuclear signaling with the B-52 does serve one constructive purpose: assurance of a South Korean ally that in recent years has grown to question the reliability and utility of the U.S. extended deterrence—that is, “nuclear umbrella”—commitment. The South Korean government clearly supported the B-52 deployment; it was, after all, escorted by South Korean fighters, which hasn’t always happened during past B-52 overflights.

But the B-52 is also problematic from an ally assurance perspective. Unless we plan to initiate a new program of constantly sending the B-52 to Korea—creating new indices, in effect—its deployment is too temporary to shift South Korean perceptions of U.S. reliability.


This was swiftly followed by a new OPLAN stating that in the event of war on the Korean Peninsula, the US will strike North Korean nuclear and missile bases.

US RoK oplan

Also, a plan for a joint US-RoK exercise simulating a nuclear attack on the North.

Unfortunately, all this good work was immediately undone when President Obama omitted to mention the nuclear test in his State of the Union Address. According to the White House this was to avoid giving North Korea “attention” (It being well-known that North Korea disappears if you don’t look directly at it. Always use a pinhole camera or special goggles.)

Naturally, this being Obama’s last SOTU, he wanted to end on a high note and not bring downer subjects like North Korea into the equation. The South Koreans did not see it that way, however, with the Chosun Ilbo producing a we’re-not-angry-just-disappointed op-ed entitled “Obama Speech Shows He Cares Little About N.Korea”.

Almost immediately, several opinion pieces came out hinting more or less openly that South Korea should acquire a deterrent of its own, despite this idea being so taboo that the Daily NK felt obliged to preface its own article with a trigger warning.

In the end, however, the South Korean government settled for dropping some pretty heavy hints about deploying the US-made THAAD missile defence system on its territory, an idea that China hates enough that the threat alone was apparently enough to convince it to throw its support behind additional UN sanctions.

The Chinese internet reacts to North Korea’s nuclear test

nuclear test observers

I translated these posts from the Tiexue bbs (a site specialising in fenqing and armchair generals, plus a few genuine experts) for a news piece. They weren’t used in the end, so enjoy.

I was rushing for a deadline, so the translations are quick-and-dirty, and – to be perfectly frank – I don’t care sufficiently to rework them. The sense and the tone are there.

They come from this page and this one.

朝鲜半岛无核化及和平统一是中国一贯的主张并为之积极加强跟各方沟通,朝鲜核试有美国威胁的成分,更多的是美国为一己之私故意毁约和刺激朝鲜的结果,但朝鲜也违背了自己的承诺并给中国带来了影响。 据报道今天上午,位于中朝边界的延吉、珲春、长白县等地均有明显震感。延吉市民反映,当时桌椅摇晃持续几秒,有单位对室内人员进行了疏散。一高中操场地面出现裂纹,学生全部疏散,考试中断。这只是在核试时中国遭受到的影响,严格来说问题不是很大。大的问题有两个,一个是核武器的维护保养问题,如何确保安全不发生核泄露进而危及中国是中国方面要考虑的问题,朝鲜核设施离中朝边境太近,一旦出事有可能给中国带来危害。二是核设施及核武器的安全保卫,网上就有前几年某个国家派出特种兵偷袭朝鲜核设施被全歼的传言,不知真实与否,但无论平时还是战时,这些目标都是敌方侦察打击的重点目标,受到攻击会波及中国

“The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula has always been China’s goal, and China has always tried to strengthen communications between the parties. While North Korea’s nuclear policy is somewhat influenced by the US threat, it’s more the result of the US’s selfish and deliberate breaches of faith, which have provoked the North Koreans, and this is the result. Nevertheless, North Korea has also violated its agreements with China, and its actions have had an effect on us. According to reports thsi morning, the explosion was felt in various places on the China-DPRK border: Yanji, Hunchun, Changbai and other places. In Yanji tables and chairs started shaking and people were evacuated from buildings. A school playground cracked, students were evacuated and exams were interrupted. China felt the effects of this nuclear test. Sure, strictly speaking it’s not a big problem, but there are two major issues. Firstly there’s the question of maintenance: we have to consider how we are to make sure that a radiation leak in North Korea doesn’t affect China. North Korea’s nuclear facilities are close to the border, so an accident could potentially harm China. Secondly, there’s the question of the security surrounding North Korea’s nuclear installations. According to internet rumors, a few years ago a commando raid was carried out on North Korea’s nuclear facilities. I don’t know whether this is true or not, but whether in peace of war, these are key targets for enemy reconnaissance, and any attacks on them will have a spillover effect in China.”

– Qiu Weixian


“If N. Korea has an H-bomb, it was forced into getting it by the US and the Japanese; the Japanese have created a rod for their own back here. North Korea couldn’t deliver a bomb to the US, but it could hit Tokyo!”

– “Bu Gan Dang”

“I agree with the OP basically. The cause of North Korea getting this bomb is its feeling of insecurity. The US deliberately set out to foster this sense of insecurity. In order to feel secure, North Korea is developing nuclear weapons. However, the weapons certainly won’t be used, if only because North Korean technology isn’t advanced enough to threaten the US. Moreover, using a nuclear bomb won’t solve any of North Korea’s problems. It’s a harsh truth, but developing nuclear weapons won’t help North Korea any more than it helped the former Soviet Union to survive.”
– “25660208”

“North Korea can use this to blackmail China. If we cooperate, they can threaten to sell bombs to the Dalai Lama and the Uighurs. Either China gives them the cash, or they give the bombs to someone to weaken us. So what if China has second strike capacity? Who would we attack in retalliation? Now Japan has an excuse to develop nuclear weapons. What with that and the South China Sea business, we’re living through interesting times. And what about South Korea? They might decide to team up with Japan.”

– Yinhe Yujia

He makes a good general point, but the image of the Dalai Lama brandishing nukes is just brilliant in every possible way. Like raging Gandhi in Civilization:

Gandhi nukes Civilization

朝鲜的核武能够威胁到日本韩国就足够了,而目前这种 情况下,美国为了避免日本发展核武,只能重新将东北亚作为重点了,。

“North Korea’s threat to South Korea and Japan should be enough; under current circumstances if the US wants to persuade Japan not to develop nuclear weapons it will have to re-focus on Northeast Asia.”

– “Shuidi Dalishi”


“Seems like Mother Russia is stirring up trouble in the Far East. Whether it’s explosions from nuclear bombs or landmines, underground or above ground, it’s the result of Russian technical assistance or Russian products. Alone, North Korea wouldn’t have the power, technology or money. Russia is under enormous military and political pressure in the Ukraine, Eastern Europe and the Midle East. Russia has to stir up the North Korean nuclear issue to drag China into things and share the heat, so this nuclear test pretty much must have involved Russian participation. After all, China is the only military power not bogged down in the Middle East, and China’s military is not weak. China does not want the North Korean regime to collapse. Basically, there’s no question that Russia played a disgraceful role in this. That’s just my opinion, I invite polite discussion.”

– “zx5181680000”


“North Korea has long been a source of discord among us, why can’t we get our country to take in more North Koreans? Sometimes opinions like your make me feel really sad; why make excuses for Fatty III? Causing regime change in North Korea would not be impossible.”

– zx5181680000

想当初,中国和越南是同志加兄弟的关系,可是后来还是交恶了,当初越南没有核武器,中国就算出兵惩罚越南,也不用担心越南的核报复,但是要是当初越南有了核武器该怎么办?现在朝鲜进行核试验,朝鲜的核武器根本不成熟,还不能造成太大的威胁,要是以后朝鲜成为第二个越南该怎么办?所以为了避免当初越南的悲剧重演,一是不能让朝鲜半岛统一;二是坚决反对朝鲜拥核.如果朝鲜实在过分, 中国可以全面制裁朝鲜;如果朝鲜敢威胁中国的国家安全,中国绝对敢于出兵灭掉金家,然后扶植一个听话的朝鲜领导人上台。

“Originally the relationship between China and Vietnam was like that between comrades and brothers, but then we became enemies. Vietnam didn’t have nuclear weapons, so China could send troops in to punish the Vietnamese without worrying about nuclear retaliation. What would we have done if Vietnam had had nuclear weapons? Now North Korea has carries out nuclear tests, their weapons program is still not mature and for the moment they’re not a big threat, but in the future they could become a second Vietnam. What should we do about North Korea? How to avoid a second Vietnam tragedy? Firstly, it is impossible to unify Korea, secondly, China should firmly oppose North Korea’s nuclear programs and apply sanctions if North Korea goes to far. If North Korea threatens China’s security, we should definitely send troops in to dispatch Kim and replace him with a more obedient leader.”

– Xuehuagao

That last bit isn’t a mistranslation, by the way. The actual word used is 听话. If you came here looking for a glimpse into the future, that post is it.

I am become death and the destroyer of worlds (!)

Kim Jong Un nuke order

If you were ordering a nuclear test, would you end your note with an exclamation mark? I probably wouldn’t, but possibly that’s just me. I’ve been told before that my emails come across as rather soulless.

In fact, Kim’s handwritten note announcing the H-bomb test reads:

Let’s begin the year of 2016 — a glorious and victorious year when the historic seventh conference of the Workers’ Party of Korea will be held — with a thrilling sound of the first hydrogen bomb explosion, so that the whole world will look up to our socialist, nuclear-armed republic of Juche and the great Workers’ Party of Korea!


Which is actually quite endearing. It’s certainly filled with more childlike wonder and enthusiasm for the future than most of the other leaders’ new year messages that we covered here (which tend more towards weary resignation), even if it does have an eerie pre-Fallout 1950’s air to it.

Fallout 4

If you’ve been admiring Kim’s penmanship, incidentally, rumour has it that he’s been practising specially to make his handwriting look more like his grandfather’s.

Kim Jong Un handwriting

Kim Il Sung’s is on the left


What do Lee Kuan Yew, Osama bin Laden and Wu Zetian have in common?

Lee family house Oxley Road

If you answered memorials – or more correctly a lack thereof – you’d be correct.

While Osama bin Laden was controversially burried at sea so as to provide no physical memorial that may become a focus of discontent (ironic, given that his own branch of Islam hates them anyway), the other two made a conscious choice to go un-memorialised into that dark night.

Wu Zetian, for her part, is popularly supposed to have considered herself so badass that no epitaph would be adequate, and thus was buried beneath a stele with no inscription. (There is a slight problem with this version of history, in that it was relatively common at the time to put up blank gravestones, making Wu’s wuzi bei less exceptional than it seems. Nevertheless, it’s such cool story that we’re going to endorse it anyhow.)

Similarly, Lee Kuan Yew specifically requested no statues or memorials, and even specified in his will that the family home on Oxley Road in Singapore should be torn down following his death. He said this was because he disapproved of personality cults, though one can’t help but suspect that a certain part of him had Wu Zetian’s reasoning in mind as well.

And besides, when you come down to it, the entire city functions as a better memorial than anything else we could cobble together.

Nevertheless, as we already discovered with Lee’s do-not-ressuscitate order, respect and admiration do not necessarily lead to compliance, and already commentators in the media have begun calling for Lee’s last wishes to be ignored:

This should be an open and shut case in a country that has been run in a rational, practical and pragmatic way. But here comes an issue where the state is asked to listen to the heart and support what is essentially an emotional decision.

Lee Kuan Yew and his immediate family want their pre-war bungalow at 38 Oxley Road torn down despite its deep historical and heritage value. It was there where modern Singapore’s destiny was made. It was in the basement of the house where more than half a  century ago that the momentous decision to give birth to the ruling People’s Action Party was made.

It was also there that Lee and other founders of modern Singapore met to discuss and plan the country’s self autonomy and subsequent independence from Britain.

That in themselves are good enough reasons why the Lee family’s wish  should not be granted. With misty-eyed Singaporeans caught in the grip of a heritage hysteria which coincided with the country’s golden jubilee joy, a request like this seems misplaced.


Interestingly, just after Lee’s death, the Singaporean NGO Choson Exchange had a group of North Koreans in the city for a study trip. They happened to be passing by Oxley Road and decided to stop and take some pictures of the house. You can’t actually see much more than some roof tiles from the road, as the picture above shows, but hey, they’re North Koreans: paying respects to the houses of dead leaders* is what they do. Given that it was a sensitive time, the local police and soldiers were on the qui vive, and one of them ran out to order them to stop behaving so suspiciously.
“They must have felt right at home,” I said to the CE guy who told me the story.

*Kim Jong Il was probably born in Russia. Nevertheless, the Paekdusan Secret Camp version of the tale is more romantic and also provides a location that is more practical for North Koreans to visit on pilgrimages. In light of the fact that we quite happily repeated that Wu Zetian story above, we do not feel ourselves to be in a position to criticise them.

Want to see something heartwarming and a tad bizarre?

Hyundai driving home to North Korea

You may have seen the recent reunions between North and South Korean families in the news. It’s usually presented as a heartwarming story, which it is, with certain caveats:

  1. The North picks participants based on regime loyalty, coaches them on what to say and spies on them during the reunions.
  2. The North knows that this is an emotive issue for the South, so will put a stop to family reunions whenever it’s unhappy with the way relations are going, which is usually.
  3. Reunions used to take place in Seoul and be accompanied by exchanges of letters, but the North put a stop to this because it didn’t want its citizens finding out how much better life is in the South.
  4. Most of the participants are extremely old and when they bid farewell after the reunions they know they will never see one another again. Around half of the people who have applied to participate have died before getting the chance. Some of the attendees selected for this year’s round of reunions were too sick to make it. The South Korean MoU did not bother to select replacements.
  5. Despite all this, over half of separated families do not want to meet anyway. It would be awkward and the younger generation knows nothing about their North Korean relatives.
  6. When families do meet, things aren’t always particularly harmonious.
  7. The South Korean Ministry of Unification is frequently accused of not particularly caring whether reunions happen or not (see point 4), to the extent that many families have given up on official channels and prefer to pay illegal brokers to set up reunions with their family in the North.
  8. For years South Korea (supposedly the good guys) treated people with relatives in the North as potential spies anyhow, only relenting when the government realised they could be used for playing politics with. (Yes, just like the tale of the comfort women…)

Anyhow, that aside, Hyundai has some new virtual test drive software that it’s promoting at the moment, and it’s decided to do so by taking a North Korean guy living in South Korea on a virtual drive around his home town:

Hyundai Motor Company has put together a video documenting a project that allowed an elderly man, long separated from his home in North Korea, to drive back to his place of birth through the use of virtual reality.

The story, called “Going Home”, revolves around 88-year-old Kim Gu-hyeon, who in the spring of 1947 left his home in the north, six years before Korea was divided, and headed south.

Though the 6-minute short film doesn’t explain why he left, Kim felt a great sense of guilt for having left his home and having never being able to return –to never again see his mother and his family.

He is one of 66,000 North Koreans currently living in South Korea –many of whom, like Kim, have been away from their place of birth for more than half a century.

The creative and engineering team at Hyundai visited Kim at home Seoul and had him write down his original home address and describe his hometown in as much detail as possible as they set about recreating it for a virtual drive. After

Hyundai’s attention to detail produced Kim’s hometown landscapes including streets, pedestrians, traffic cops, wild flowers and even mist on the river –all restored in 3D inside a specially designed car.

As our regular readers will know we refuse to give away endings –you have to watch the incredibly touching conclusion for yourself.

You can watch the video at the link. I won’t spoil the ending, but get a box of tissues ready.

Interestingly, it is probably much easier to do this for a North Korean town than a South Korean one. South Korea is has extremely restricive rules regarding satellite imagery of the country, while Google Earth remains one of our main sources of information about the North.

It’s also interesting that – despite the positive reunification message at the end – Hyundai’s marketing guys appear to have a far more realistic view of the two Koreas’ future than pretty much any of the politicians involved in deciding it. While the latter still obsess about German-style reunification, to the increasing disintrest of the voters, Hyundai’s ad guys have posited – for the sake of this clip – a future where the two Koreas remain separate but allow free travel across what is now the DMZ (look for the “Inter-Korean Transit” area at the beginning of the VR section).

Bonus fun round: this is not the only heartwarming incidence of a North Korean encountering VR technology. Check out this picture from Choson Exchange of one of its workshop participants playing with an Oculus Rift headset.