Wednesday, March 28, 2012

What exactly is the Associated Press doing in North Korea?

As far as international engagement with North Korea goes, it’s been plainly established that any such engagement only looks nice, and can not possibly be the cause of any substantial change within North Korea. If a North Korean orchestra or soccer team goes abroad, or is visited by a Western counterpart, the result will not be that democracy and human rights rub off onto North Korea, but that everybody involved feels good about doing something that makes the newspapers but doesn’t really mean anything.

Trains crossing the inter-Korean border, American orchestras visiting Pyongyang and North Korean musicians in Paris all make headlines for their sheer novelty. So, it was only natural for a Western media outlet to set up shop in Pyongyang and facilitate these sort of lame, meaningless exchanges that could be termed as “engagement”, as though the function of a Western media outlet in Pyongyang would be anything resembling its function elsewhere in the normal world.

The Associated Press, with a great deal of fanfare, opened a bureau in Pyongyang last year. Sort of. Technically, neither of the Associated Press journalists, writer Jean H. Lee and photographer David Guttenfelder, are based out of Pyongyang. They’re based out of Seoul and Tokyo respectively because while there would be more than enough work to do in Pyongyang, they’re not given enough access to the country for there to be anything resembling full-time work based in Pyongyang.

The AP does have two full-time employees in Pyongyang, as this Isaac Stone Fish notes in this excellent report into the AP’s presence in North Korea. The actual AP presence in North Korea consists of two North Korean employees, a writer and a photographer. They were not made available for interviews and Andrei Lankov, a professor who knows as much about North Korea as anyone else in the outside world, put the odds of Kim and Park being North Korean spies or security agents at 99%.

So, the idea of North Korea opening up to the West by allowing an AP bureau turns out to be two journalists allowed temporary visas to visit the country on carefully minded visits, along with two full-time employees, no doubt on assignment by the North Korean security apparatus, manning what must be the Potemkin village of AP bureaus.

When asked about the absurdity of the situation, the AP noted that communication is monitored even in the West. When told about Lankov’s belief that Kim and Park are almost certainly spies, AP’s media relations director Paul Colford reportedly said, “I don't know Mr. Lankov, I'm unfamiliar with his point of view, and I'm not going to comment on it”. Translation: I’ve never heard of one of the foremost experts on North Korea in the English-speaking world but I know that he’s right and I’m not even going to try defending the indefensible position that we’re in.

It would be one thing for the AP to go on the same chauffeured trip around Pyongyang that’s offered to any tourist willing to pay about a thousand euros for a five-day trip. It’s another, however, for the Associated Press to play a willing role in spreading North Korean propaganda to the West.

One Free Korea, rightly skeptical of this entire enterprise from the moment it was announced, was the first place to report that the Associated Press is co-sponsoring an exhibit a photo exhibit commemorating Kim Il-sung in New York along with the KCNA (the North Korean state news agency). Lee defended the exhibit on Twitter as being just about “interesting pictures”, but let’s get clear: the Kim dynasty is far more abhorrent than the Assad regime in Syria or the government of apartheid-era South Africa. We would never even fathom giving them a forum in our society, but the Associated Press is doing so with the North Korean government.

The exhibit itself is small potatoes, but to pass this, or anything associated with the Associated Press’ presence in North Korea, along as evidence of North Korea opening up to the West is a blatant falsehood. North Korea might open up to the West, but it will only do on its own terms, which is to say that any opening up will profit the regime at the expense of the West. On the surface, it looks as though the Kim dynasty is losing something by allowing the Associated Press to work in North Korea, but let’s get real.

The only things that the Associated Press reports are the things it is shown by the state. Moreover, what it is shown by the state has to be reported with at least a somewhat positive spin, because any actual journalism on the part of AP would likely result in a swift end to the existence of its North Korean bureau. This, in effect, turns the Associated Press into a KCNA-lite, an overseas branch of its state media that reports the perspective of the North Korean state to a far larger audience than the KCNA, and in far less awkward English at that.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Kazakhstan: growing fast, maybe even fast enough to grow out of Borat's shadow

This video just about sums up the problem faced by the Central Asia region. Sandwiched between China, Russia, the Indian subcontinent and the Caucusus, it something of a cipher, so much so that the Borat skits and movies are probably the greatest source of information we have about the movie. It would be one thing if they were even slightly rooted in facts, but they're just nonsensical jokes about a country and a region that we barely understand.

The scenes set in Kazakhstan were actually filmed in Romania, the language we most commonly hear in the movie is Polish, and the Kazakh we see on the screen is actually Russian, and nonsensical Russian at that, nothing more than consonants strung together like somebody mashing his hand on a keyboard.

While it is true that most the Central Asian region has barely changed since the fall of the USSR, Kazakhstan is actually the exception. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are every bit the dictatorships they used to be, with every bit of the deep, entrenched poverty they suffered during the Soviet era. Kyrgyzstan has made the transition to a democracy, albeit an imperfect one, but a democracy nevertheless, though, like its fellow Central Asian democracy in Mongolia, that has not yet translated to a better life for its people.

It is Kazakhstan that stands out in following the sort of heavy-handed reforms that Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong made, followed by China: a single-minded focus on economic growth at the expense of civil liberties and political freedoms. What makes Kazakhstan a little bit different from these four countries is that their development didn't come about through money from natural resources. It's not exactly a miracle to get rich while sitting on huge oil reserves, but countries in better situations have done worse, so let's give Nursultan Nazarbayev, in control of Kazakhstan for almost three decades now (he was the secretary-general for the Kazakh SSR before becoming president post-independence), just a little bit of credit for not screwing up one part of his country.

So, the comments on the video above, while they're bang on when they talk about repression, are not a hundred percent accurate when they talk about poverty: Kazakhstan is not as miserable a place to live as Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, where the people have neither money nor freedom. In Kazakhstan, they have a little bit of it, thanks to Nazarbayev's megalomanical dreams of turning his country into a regional hub. It is unlikely that Central Asia will become relevant any time soon, but if it does, Nazarbayev will have to deserve at least some of the credit, much as China's dictatorship deserves some credit for the country's ascent out of poverty.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Movie review: Gabi (가비)

For how interesting of a topic it deals with, Gabi (가비) is not a particularly well-done movie. It has some great scenes, but overall it took one of the most fascinating episodes in Korean history and turned it into an elaborate tea party. Okay, so it was a coffee party, Gabi(加比) being an outdated word for coffee, but I walked away decidedly underwhelmed.

Gabi deals with a pair of events that has been discussed many times online and offline, including English. The far more significant event is the time Gojong, the last real king of the Joseon dynasty, spent at the Russian legation in Seoul in 1896 because he feared for his security from the Japanese.

The lesser event, though the one that gives the movie its name and figures prominently throughout, is that Gojong tried and grew to like coffee while at the Russian legation. It is sometimes reported that Gojong was the first Korean to try coffee, which is simply not true. Accounts of Koreans drinking and enjoying coffee go back as early as the early 1880s.

The movie begins with a look at the intrigue at play as Korea fended off Japanese and Russian attempts to gain influence on the peninsula, but then turns into a feature film-length version of those cringe-worthy ads that seek to “brand” Korea domestically or internationally.

The character of Tanya, played by Kim Soyeon, is a well-known barista who impresses Russian men with her ability to remember orders even when a large group changes their seats, and then impresses Antoinette Sontag, a prominent figure in turn-of-the-century Seoul, with her ability to brew coffee. Just when you think that the whole thing is going to be a nauseating ode to the ability of a Joseon dynasty woman to impress white people with her piety and virtue, along comes Gojong.

Gojong, like his contemporaneous Chinese counterpart Guangxu, was a weak and ineffective emperor who tried well-intended reforms that doomed both his dynasty and his country. He was portrayed quite well by Park Heesun, a man perplexed as much by the gravity of his situation as much by how far he had sunk, in contrast to Kim Soyeon’s role as something of a prototypical Korean Air flight attendant.

I confess that I didn’t understand much of the movie, but to me the movie did a good enough job of portraying Gojong’s isolation and his attempts to navigate a way out of the crisis, but that was only when we weren’t being treated to Kim Soyeon solemnly serving coffee with all the mechanical movements and personality of the aforementioned flight attendants.

Some of the scenes depicting Joseon-era Seoul (or Hanseong, if you will) were really interesting, though I left the movie with the taste of vomit rather than coffee in my mouth thanks to the last line of the movie, which was something along the lines of, “to one man, coffee was love; to another, it made him an emperor”. Gojong declares a Korean Empire near the end of the movie, a curious moniker that fit the circumstances, I suppose, but sadly was not enough to avoid absorption by the Japanese.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Manning in, Tebow out on the Broncos?

This Slate article sums up the imperfect but ultimately correct decision that John Elway and the Broncos made in signing Peyton Manning to, presumably, replace Tim Tebow as quarterback. It may not come out in my perennial taunting of the Broncos as sitting prey for the more-talented Chargers, but I was once a Broncos fan and still like to see them win. After 1998, though, I lost interest in the Broncos and started following that underachieving nerd, Peyton Manning. Finally, the two situations have met.

Manning is not a great choice at quarterback, due to age and health. Still, it's not a bad choice. Brett Favre was a good-but-not-great choice for the Jets and Vikings, and Joe Montana took the Chiefs to the playoffs even though he wasn't quite the Joe Montana who won four Super Bowls with the 49ers. We will find, maybe in a year or two, maybe even three, that the Broncos still have the same void at quarterback that they've had ever since 1998.

With the choice of having Manning at quarterback, I think we can see how absurd it was to ever have Tebow starting at quarterback. It's not impossible for Manning, due to a variety of reasons, to completely bomb, playing a few awful games before finding his way to the bench or retiring. It's similarly not impossible for Tebow to continue to inexplicably win games. But, of course, it's also not impossible for me to win the lottery on three consecutive days. Odds are that Manning will have a good if unspectacular year while Tebow will either not play, play a different position, or maybe continue to inspire the same unyielding belief that fuels the convictions of UFO enthusiasts.

Lest we forget, Tebow started 13 games last year, including two playoff games. Yes, he won eight of them, including six in a row, but it's really not that hard to find a second-year quarterback on a good team who can go 8-5. Kordell Stewart had similar years, as did Michael Vick and quarterbacks who are far more forgotten for having far less athleticism than Stewart, Vick or Tebow. Tebow is very exciting and fans love to see him play, but he is at best an average quarterback, and likely below-average.

In those 13 games, Tebow lost four of the last five, completed more than 20 passes just once, and completed a total of 25 passes in his last three games, including a stellar 6-of-22 performance at home against the Chiefs with a playoff berth on the line. The only objection there is to signing Manning to replace Tebow is that Manning isn't a long-term answer, which is true, but he's a short-term answer, which is more of an answer than Tebow is.

The Broncos have a very talented team, and have fielded many talented teams over the last decade who were either devoured by Peyton Manning's Colts in the playoffs, or who foundered due to a strong quarterback, sometimes both. This might be their chance to make a deep run into the playoffs and do so with confidence instead of novelty or surprise, as in the past.

Friday, March 16, 2012

A quick trip to Yeosu

I went to Yeosu last month for two days. I had heard many good things about the city, which is hosting Expo 2012 later this year. Yeosu, compared to other places by the sea, is not much of a tourist destination, but that might be one of the best reasons to visit. Of course, the Expo will change everything, creating what is sure to be a cluster of awkwardly-designed shiny, stainless steel buildings lying around the city.

Yeosu is something of a nightmare to get around due to its coastline and the mountains in the background, but that also makes it quite beautiful. Compared to other cities of the same size, there aren’t as many hotels, pensions or other Compared to other cities of the same size, there aren’t as many hotels or pensions in Yeosu, particularly not in the city centre. When you get a good view of the city from the sea, you get to see old, squat buildings rising in the distance, without many newer ones.

Change is coming, if you look the opposite way at Dolsan-do, the deceptively large island connected to Yeosu by the famously colourful Dolsan bridge, the calm nighttime view is shattered during the day by mounds of construction. Dolsan-do is excellent for two of my favourite hobbies, sashimi and hiking. You can take a bus from the downtown across the bridge to the Sashimi Town (돌산회타운, clumsily translated in a few places as “Dolsan Korean Sashimi Centre”) or set off on a hike across the island, which could take about 30 km.

Yeosu is a pretty good place to eat, though I suppose that it helps if you like seafood. I found the food fresher than in other places, particularly the kimchi, though the kimchi in Jeollanam-do seems to be something of an acquired taste. Grilled eel is very popular in Yeosu, which is great, because I love eel. There is a great cluster of restaurants in a planned restaurant district by the Yi Sunshin Square and, in a touch that would be welcome elsewhere, the names of the restaurants are not translated, but rather transliterated. So, instead of referring to that “red seafood place”, you would actually learn its name.

Compared to nearby Suncheon, Gwangju, Mokpo or even Boseong, I don’t think Yeosu has as much to do, but I would rank it with Boseong as being one of those great places in Jeollanam-do where you can go relax, do nothing and enjoy yourself. Boseong, of course, is far more rural and itself is something of a one-hit wonder with its green tea fields. Jeollanam-do itself is my second-favourite part of Korea to travel to after the mountains of Gangwon-do. If you just want to get as far from the Seoul area as possible, some part of Jeollanam-do is typically a better, quieter choice than somewhere in Gyeongsang.

When you travel, travel in class by Mugunghwa train.

This man spent about 30 minutes on the train shouting obscenities at politicians and people from Jeolla. Here he is engaging the poor ticket seller, shown trying to keep herself from laughing, in some asinine conversation, while somebody with an actual question comes forward impatiently.

A meal of grilled eel for breakfast.

Dolsan bridge at night.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Book #2: Arrival City

Arrival City is a book written by Doug Saunders, a writer for the Globe and Mail, by far the best newspaper in Canada. From what I knew about the book before I bought it, I imagined it to be a rather standard look into how cities around the world, particularly the developing world, are growing at a tremendous rate.

However, it turned out to be a very well-researched and written book about development, immigration, economics and cities. Calling it the best book about cities since Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities, as one review on the cover did, might be too much, but the book is certainly very insightful. As such, it is well worth the $15-18 it might cost you.

First, when Saunders uses the term 'arrival city', he is referring to a city or a neighbourhood within a city that is used by migrants to launch their lives in that city. The prototypical example would be the immigrant-heavy neighbourhoods of cities in northeastern North America from a century ago, but more salient examples today might be the Chinese cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen, where migrants from rural China come to gain a foothold in the city.

The characteristics of a successful arrival city are somewhat counter-intuitive. It is okay, Saunders writes, that an immigrant-heavy neighbourhood is poor, because it is likely that it is a revolving door, with immigrants who have established themselves moving out to other neighbourhoods, to be replaced by new migrants. A classic example might be the Toronto suburb of Malton, where I'm from. I regularly meet people who used to live there, or know someone who used to live there, but now live elsewhere, which is usually a more prosperous second-ring suburb. Malton continues to struggle, but as long as people don't live there permanently, it is fulfilling its function as an arrival city.

In many ways, though, Saunders would consider Malton to be a failure. The downtown immigrant slums of a century ago worked better as arrival cities because their density allowed for greater business and the development of networks and communities that led to establishment and success within mainstream Canadian society. Malton, by contrast, is more like the Parisian suburb of Les Pyramides in this sense. Les Pyramides, which played its role in the 2005 immigrant riots in France, is a low-density post-war suburb that stifles the sort of mingling and networking that arrival cities hopefully foster.

On the other hand, the exodus of chain stores from Malton has led to the establishment of independent South Asian businesses, the establishment of which is a typical hallmark of success. Stores selling Indian clothes, Pakistani kebabs and Chinese groceries are certainly a more hopeful sign than those same immigrants working for minimum wage in somebody else's business.

Toronto's immigrant-heavy suburbs are an anomaly not just for their low density, but also because most of those who live there come from cities. The typical immigrant, according to Arrival City, is actually somebody from a village, not a city. It is also true that countries rarely immigrate, but rather villages, regions and provinces. Consider that about 1% of Canada speaks Punjabi, but only about 2% of India, thanks to the large number of Sikhs who have come to Canada. Consider that Westerners constantly differentiate between Cantonese and Mandarin thanks to the heavy migration of Hong Kongers around the world, even though there are about 15-20 speakers of Mandarin for every speaker of Cantonese.

By far the most interesting and the most significnat argument Saunders makes is that the shift in the world's population from a mostly rural one to a mostly urban one is inevitable, dramatic and highly desirable. In 1950, 70% of the world lived in villages. A few years ago, this was reduced to 50%. By 2050, only about 30% of the world will be rural, meaning that an extra 2-3 billion people will live in the world's cities. While this presents images of horrendously polluted, over-crowded cities, the reality is that life in the city is better in just about every way.

Saunders is, of course, not talking about having great Thai restaurants and independent bookstores, but rather, things like poverty, food security, life expectancy and virtually every indicator of human wellness. While governments, academics and international organizations have spend decades romanticizing rural existence, it is a grinding, brutal, and dangerous existence to which sharing a tiny apartment with a dozen other people is preferable (and we know this because people vote with their feet).

The fact that China went from being about 25% urban to being 50% urban in the last 20 years probably has something to do with the fact that more than half a billion people have climbed out of poverty in that same period. The problems of life in Chinese cities are as immense as they are well-documented, even in English, but then, the 150 million rural migrants in China have clearly shown that it is a life worth living.

The lesson to be learned by the world is how to help urban migrants establish themselves in the city, China's crisis is due to its hukou system, not how to improve rural life or how to encourage people to stay there. As I learned from reading about why coffee farmers make so little even though coffee is expensive, there are simply too many people growing too much coffee; the answer is for far fewer people to farm and for the rest to do something else.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Book #1: The Grapes of Wrath

I'll be the first to admit that I thought this book was about grapes, if not literally, than in some indirect form. That the title has much of a relation to the novel as the name of this blog has to its contents was irrelevant and, after learning of the origin upon finishing the book, probably gave it some extra points in my heart. The Grapes of Wrath, for those who are as ignorant of twentieth-century literature as myself, is set in Depression-era America, tracking an Oklahoma family as they are forced off their land and drive across the country to California to search for work.

I learned a lot about America from reading this book, much as most of what I've learned about America comes not from the major cultural exports of America, but from what's in between them: the low-budget commercials that I saw on the nearest FOX and NBC affiliates to Ontario (WUTV-FOX and WRGZ-NBC). At some point before, say, World War II, I feel as though it was possible to talk about a distinct American culture and know what you were talking about, before even Korea had an ROTC, public prosecutors and multiple Starbucks on every corner. Then again, the Americanisms in this book are the ones we recognize easily even today, particularly in the manner of speaking and the love affair with the car.

Grapes of Wrath has a lot of sentence fragments that often seem overly dramatic and seem to have inspired countless teenagers to write drivel in the same style, but I liked them for the most part in the book for brevity. Often Steinbeck did wax philosophical in these short sentence fragments, but at least they were comprehensible compared to, say, the paragraphs-long descriptions and ruminations that Kafka served up.

It would be an omission to note that the book, set in the Dust Bowl era as the Great Depression stretched along, makes for a remarkable parallel with present-day America, itself finally starting to make a slow recovery from a horrendously deep recession. The prominence of banks as inhuman monsters in both the book and modern America is perhaps a coincidence, but what is not is the desperation that takes hold of those in the book, as well as many of those in American, seen in both how many people have been unemployed for over a year, as well as how many people apply for open positions. The Joad family is by no means skilled at anything other than farming, more or less analogous to today's unskilled manufacturing workers, who bore the brunt of an economic catastrophe.

The Joad family, once it makes it to California, compounds life for those already living there, functioning with other migrants from the Midwest and Southwest to drive down wages. This is, in effect, analogous to the backlash Mexican workers have seen in America during the recession. We would never think to use the word Okie as an epithet today, but it was a dirty word in contemporary California, even if you were from Kansas or Texas. While many of the state and county tactics for driving out internal migrants were callous and illegal, other policies which recognized the migrants could not be driven away and decided to improve the situation to the best of the government's ability mirrored the other side of today's immigration debate.

Running through the book is the latent fear of Communism, one that no longer has any relevance in America though it remains some currency in South Korea. Workers who demand a higher wage or any sort of decent treatment are branded reds, and much of Steinbeck's rage against corporate America would probably strike us as boilerplate socialist thought. But Steinbeck makes a relevant point, one that may have been lost as society became overly complex, that caring about people over corporations is not a sign of weakness or the absence of masculinity, but that it's only logical to care about people when thinking about how a society ought to be.