Who wore it better?

Park Geun-hye ice hockey

President Park Geun-hye playing iceless hockey (?) at the Daegu Athletics Promotion Centre.

Leaving aside the oddly surreal fact that an Athletics Promotion Centre apparently features as its key attractions ice hockey without the ice and a virtual reality ski-lift (neither I nor the original article have a convincing explanation for either of these things), what do you think of when you look at this picture?

Was it this?

Putin ice hockey

It’s not as if Putin’s the only politician ever to have played hockey. Nevertheless, what’s interesting here is the way that – whether you approve of his PR or not – he’s raised the macho bar for everyone else.

If he didn’t exist, I would have scrolled wearily past that Park shot as one does with all the millions of pictures of politicians gamely missing easy football penalties that seem to have become an obligatory part of public discourse these days. However, because he does exist I couldn’t see the picture of Park – who, incidentally, is an entirely serious and competent politician – without automatically making a comparison.

In rather the same way that (as Borges tells us) Kafka created his own precursors, politicians create each other, simply by acting as points of comparison. If you’re up against someone wacky, you’ll look duller by comparison. If you’re up against someone stupid, you’ll look smarter by comparison. The audience isn’t making a conscious choice at any point in the proceedings, they’re just situating you within your environment.

Alexander Wendt described the process of identity creation for states as a sort of ongoing battle between their own perceptions of themselves (or how they wish to be seen) and the way that others see them. Seeing Park lining up this shot, it struck me that individuals face the same struggle.


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.

Secular saints

Lion dance truck

Chinese New Year was a couple of weeks ago and Yuanxiao is coming up, so the streets of Singapore are thronged with lion dance trucks rushing between assignments.

If you’ve never seen a lion dance, here’s my favourite:


Companies pay for them to entertain their employees and clients and bring good luck, as do some rich families.

In fact, there is a law on the books in Singapore that bans noisy public religious displays, and which is much disliked by Tamils as it means that they can’t hold Thaipusam parades outdoors. Chinese New Year, however, escapes the ban because it’s not, strictly speaking, a religious festival.

Sure, there’s a lot of superstition and folk religion involved (that guy in red up there not smoking a cigarette is the God of Wealth). However, none of it is central to the event, which is merely the ticking over of the calendar from one year to the next. If the gods, spirits and Buddhas want to put in an appearance at what is an essentially human festival they’re more than welcome, but their attendance is not required.

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.

A bomb is a bomb is a bomb?

Rusian war fotage Syria

We’ve been blathering on about the superior quality of recent Russian war footage for months, so it’s nice to see that France 2 apparently agrees with us.

RT just caught them passing off footage of Russian bombing raids as NATO film stock.

Read the background and see the video here. No wonder the Russians have been taking such pains over copyrighting their material.

Why you so fat?

CNY power play

Young people dread Chinese New Year. While they get red envelopes full of cash, they also get some pretty brutal criticism from their relatives for being too fat/too thin/not married yet/insufficiently fertile/not having a good enough job. Think Jewish grandparents, but ruder.

This year, the rebellion begins.

Singaporean teens and 20-somethings have begun compiling a Google Doc of all the passive-aggressive remarks they have had to endure over new year, and it has gone viral. You can read it here.

More about politicians’ offices

Yep, a return to an old obsession of ours. Here’s a picture of Kim Jong Un signing the order to launch the latest rocket. What do you think?

Kim Jong Un office

  1. That’s one awesome lamp. I would buy one of those.
  2. Anyone been to Pyongyang and recognise the view from that window?
  3. This looks like his real office, or at least someone’s real office. (Unlike the stage-sets used by certain politicians we could name…) Usually when we see photos of Kim sitting at a desk it’s in some sort of semipublic area, not a personal space like this. This development seems to confirm a trend towards more intimate, informal portraits.
  4. Don’t you wish you could see the picture in that frame on the right?
  5. Is that a whiteboard in the background, or just some sort of fancy panelling? It looks to have been stamped with a red star logo in any case.