North Koreans need food & medicine, not Guus Hiddink’s “futsal” stadium

hiddinkSouth Koreans remember Dutch soccer coach Guus Hiddink as the man who led their team to a successful performance in the 2002 World Cup. But when the history of a united Korea is written, North Koreans are likely to remember him less fondly. Hiddink has just returned from Pyongyang, where he signed a deal to help Kim Jong-Un build yet another expensive leisure facility that falls low on the average North Korean’s hierarchy of needs — a new “futsal” stadium:

“It was a short but a good visit,” [Hiddink] told reporters at Gimpo International Airport in western Seoul. “We talked about installing a Dream Field. I was eager to do one or more even in the North. We signed an agreement that as soon as possible — hopefully before the summer — we’ll have the first Dream Field in Pyongyang.”

The Dutchman said he was already looking forward to his next visit to North Korea, possibly next summer.

“I challenged them to start building what we agreed,” he added. “We will supply, as soon as possible, the necessary equipment and then they can start. If you want something, you can do it very fast.” [Yonhap]

In case you were about to ask:

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The U.N. World Food Program’s 2015 needs assessment gives us a better idea of that hierarchy, for those North Koreans who are excluded from its leisure class:

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These figures, which rely on regime-supplied statistics, may overstate or understate the problem to some degree, and the results of various U.N. surveys vary, depending on how one measures North Koreans’ misery. For example, this 2013 U.N. survey found that 84% of North Koreans have “poor” or “borderline” food consumption. Earlier this year, the U.N. reminded us that many of North Korea’s children will feel the effects of malnutrition for the rest of their lives.

More than a fourth of all North Korean children are stunted from chronic malnutrition, and two-thirds of the country’s 24 million people don’t know where their next meal is coming from, the United Nations said Friday.

The report illustrates a major domestic challenge for North Korea’s new young leader, Kim Jong Un.

A team from the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reporting from North Korea, found that 2.8 million North Koreans “are in need of regular food assistance amidst worrying levels of chronic malnutrition and food insecurity.” It said 4 percent of North Korean children are acutely malnourished. [AP]

While North Korea’s mass casualty famine probably ended around 2000, there were reports of famine on a much smaller scale in 2012, and harvests are believed to have fallen again this year. It’s almost certain that at least some North Koreans who lose their state rations or the support of their families continue to starve to death, out of sight and out of mind, even now.

There is also the complete breakdown of North Korea’s health care system, to the extent that people who can’t afford to bribe doctors into treating them have turned to opium and methamphetamine as alternative medicines.

Guus Hiddink’s futsal stadium would join a long list of new leisure facilities for Pyongyang’s elite, including a dolphin aquarium, a 3-D cinema, a water park, and a floating buffet — amenities that are beyond the imagination of most North Koreans. In 2013, Kim Jong-Un reportedly spent $300 million on a leisure and sports facilities, including a ski resort filled with equipment imported in violation of U.N. sanctions. That same year, His Corpulency spent $644 million on luxury items like flat-screen TVs, sauna equipment from Germany, Swiss watches, and expensive booze. Also that same year, the World Food Program asked foreign donors to contribute $200 million toward a two-year program to feed 2.4 million North Korean women, children, and infants — just a fraction of those in need.

Given that the U.N. Security Council banned the export of luxury goods with after the passage of Resolution 1718 in 2006, can this possibly be legal? Due to the uneven and dilatory implementation of the resolution, it’s almost impossible to be sure. The UN’s tragically incomplete (but non-exclusive) list, still not filled out nine years later, specifically mentions only jewelry, yachts, luxury cars, and racing cars. The EU list prohibits “[a]rticles and equipment for skiing, golf, diving and water sports,” and “[a]rticles and equipment for billiard, automatic bowling, casino games and games operated by coins or banknotes,” but would theoretically allow a European supplier to sell Kim Jong-Un a curling rink, jet skis, or bobsleds. The U.S. Commerce Department’s list of luxury goods is the broadest, and includes any “[r]ecreational sports equipment.” Theoretically, then, Treasury could block any dollar payments to facilitate Hiddink’s project. (The North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act would cut this semantic Gordian Knot by adopting the U.S. Commerce Department list as its definition.)

The obscenity of a nominally socialist state, which monopolizes most of the nation’s resources, squandering the meals of starving kids on luxuries for a tiny elite is the reason why the U.N. adopted the luxury goods ban. I’ll take that argument a step further: it’s a crime against humanity — specifically, what a U.N. Commission of Inquiry has described as “the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.” By knowingly helping Kim Jong-Un to misallocate resources that belong to the North Korean people, and which should be used to fulfill their rights to food and medical care, Hiddink makes himself an accessory to this crime, and places himself before the judgment of history, and perhaps, one day, of the law itself.

If the UN can’t define “luxury goods,” if the EU can’t interpret the UN resolution’s plain language to address the evil it was meant to remedy, and if the U.S. won’t enforce its own regulations, then the good people of Europe and the Netherlands must condemn and ostracize Hiddink for his appalling ethical misadventure.

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Because that worked out so well in 2008 …

The International Olympic Committee is seriously contemplating giving the Olympics to China again — the same Olympics that caused a wave of thuggery, censorship, bullying, and even rioting, and were a public relations fiasco for China.

More relevant for purposes of this blog, it also led to a wave of round-ups of North Korean refugees. That means that the International Olympic Committee’s award of the Olympics to China will likely cost hundreds, if not thousands, of North Korean lives.

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Hey … isn’t that video of Dennis Rodman personally giving banned luxury goods to Kim Jong Un?

Skip to the two-minute mark. Well, that certainly looks incriminating. (Hat tip to a reader.)

[I guess he picked the wrong week to quit drinking.]

If you haven’t read my post explaining the ban on importing luxury goods to North Korea, you should probably start there.* And since you ask, yes, as a matter of fact, I do believe the bottles are engraved with likenesses of Kim and Rodman.

Just to be clear, I don’t think Dennis Rodman should do time over five bottles of liquor, but when you flaunt your disregard for the law, you almost force the feds to do something about it, even if that something is a modest civil penalty and a Cautionary Letter.

Of course, five bottles of liquor may not be quite the full extent of it, either. Chad O’Carroll at NK News has done some first-rate investigation of this story. Don’t miss this one — it’s an absolute must-read.

It’s hard to watch something this … insane and not laugh. Try harder; so will I. The luxury goods ban is in place because most of the other 23 million North Koreans are living on the verge of starvation while this tiny oligarchy lives like this. There’s nothing funny about that.


* Or, you can watch it on Arirang News, whose report uses language nearly identical to my post, but spares me the burden of attribution. Start at 1:45. You’re welcome.

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So, Dennis — other than that, how is the trip going so far?

Dennis Rodman’s September trip to North Korea included a trip to Kim’s yacht near Wonsan, which Rodman described as “like going to Hawaii or Ibiza.” Evidently, this trip hasn’t been as pleasant:

A day after the former basketball star sang “Happy Birthday” to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and led a squad of former NBA players in a friendly game, Rodman issued the apology through publicist Jules Feiler in an email message to The Associated Press.

“I want to apologize,” Rodman said. “I take full responsibility for my actions. It had been a very stressful day. Some of my teammates were leaving because of pressure from their families and business associates. My dreams of basketball diplomacy was quickly falling apart. I had been drinking. It’s not an excuse but by the time the interview happened I was upset. I was overwhelmed. It’s not an excuse, it’s just the truth.

“I want to first apologize to Kenneth Bae’s family. I want to apologize to my teammates and my management team. I also want to apologize to Chris Cuomo. I embarrassed a lot of people. I’m very sorry. At this point I should know better than to make political statements. I’m truly sorry.” [AP]

Even Kim Jong Un appears to have been taken by surprise when Rodman burst into “Happy Birthday.” And Max Fisher, who often emphasizes the quirky aspects of North Korea, thinks “Rodman may have crossed some sort of line,” and has reached “the point where what he’s doing stops being funny and becomes something more serious.”

So, to summarize — Rodman has fallen off the wagon, made himself into a national pariah, driven away some of the retired players who joined his tour, hardened global attitudes against his new best pal, and quite possibly freaked out Kim Jong Un himself — which may be the most unwise thing he’s done all week.

If anyone asks Rodman what he gave Kim Jong Un for his birthday, we might also learn whether he’s also in legal trouble for violating U.S. sanctions laws.

But at least he still has Jesse Jackson, who isn’t wrong when he says that Rodman is the reason we’re talking about North Korea. And to be fair here, a lot of us have piled on Rodman for not talking about human rights, but he is, after all, just a washed-up basketball player. What people are really upset about is Rodman’s effusive and cretinous affection for a mass murderer. If Rodman had just stuck with the story that he’s not a diplomat and that’s not his job, plenty of people would have accepted that.

As Rodman implies, it’s the diplomats who are responsible for talking to Kim Jong Un about human rights. Unfortunately, Kim Jong Un isn’t willing to meet with them, and the specific person whose job it is to “promote and coordinate North Korean human rights and humanitarian issues“ is a nice, quiet man you’ve never heard of because he’s wholly ineffective in that role, because he’s trying not to rock any diplomatic boats (or, if you prefer, yachts).

But strategic silence isn’t going to change North Korea or achieve our national interests. We brought Iran back to the bargaining table by sanctioning it to the edge of extinction. Why not North Korea? Because the Obama Administration has no North Korea policy, and its sanctions against North Korea are pale shadow of our sanctions against Iran. Our sanctions against Iran were forced down the Obama Administration’s throat by Congress. Hopefully, that will happen with North Korea next.

But what then? Even when our diplomats do meet with the North Koreans, they do everything they can to sideline, bury, and marginalize the question of human rights. Rodman certainly is the easiest target here, but the smarminess of our diplomats, the incompetence of the Obama Administration, and — above all — the atrocious conduct of Kim Jong Un himself are really more deserving of serious criticism.

[Update: This post has been corrected to note that Rodman’s “Ibiza” experience in Wonsan was in September 2013, and not his “last” trip to North Korea (which was in December). Oh, and it was Rodman, not Kim Jong Un, who sang “Happy Birthday” to Kim Jong Un.]

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And now, a long list of people who think Dennis Rodman is a tool.

Update: Jesus wept (hat tip):

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Charles D. Smith, one of the former players who went to Pyongyang with Dennis Rodman, is still in Pyongyang, but he’s already saying he feels “remorse” for going because of the public backlash against the trip, and because of Rodman’s mouth:

“The way some of the statements and things that Dennis has said has tainted our efforts,” Smith said. “Dennis is a great guy, but how he articulates what goes on — he gets emotional and he says things that he’ll apologize for later.”


“I feel bad for Dennis, I feel bad for the players,” Smith said afterward, adding that when he played for the United States in the 1988 Olympics he felt elation. “I felt huge, I felt on top of the world. But I feel the reverse now,” he said. “I feel a lot of remorse for the guys because we are doing something positive, but it’s a lot bigger than us. We are not naive, we understand why things are being portrayed the way they are. We can’t do anything about that, if we could we would. 

“We’re not skilled in those particular areas,” he added. “Dennis is definitely not skilled in those particular areas.”

Smith isn’t the only one:

Many of the players on Tuesday expressed second thoughts about going ahead because of an outpouring of criticism back home in the United States.

As of yesterday, both the NBA and the National Basketball Retired Players’ Association had publicly denounced the trip.

I know I’ve already reported on the press event with Suzanne Scholte, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, and Rep. Elliot Engel, but I have to link Time’s report on that event, which notes that Engel “is working on bipartisan legislation to expand and enforce sanctions on North Korea.” Also joining Engel were “a mother and daughter who escaped North Korea.” The daughter said this:

Jo Jin Hye, a 26-year-old North Korean escapee who fled the country with her mother and sister and now lives in Virginia, echoed the appeal to call off the match. Jo had previously testified before a United Nations commission on human rights abuses in the country.

“I want to say, NBA player people, please don’t make Kim Jong Un happy. And I want to say if you want to help North Korea, just help normal people like us. Just the North Korean people, not the North Korean government,” he said.

Next up, Kenneth Bae’s sister, who really should be doing more interviews and making more public statements about her brother:

His sister, Terri Chung, told Anderson Cooper 360 that Rodman’s comments were shocking and outrageous. But she said she was upset because Rodman didn’t use his relationship with Kim to help gain her brother’s release from the hospital. “He was in a position to do some good and to help advocate for Kenneth,” she said. “He refused to do so. But then instead he has chosen to hurl these outrageous accusations against Kenneth. He clearly doesn’t know anything about Kenneth, about his case. And so we were appalled by that.”

She said her brother was in North Korea legally working as a tour operator. She hoped one of the former basketball players would take a chance to ask for amnesty for him. “This isn’t some game. This is about a person’s life,” she said. [CNN]

The White House piles on:

“I did not see some of the comments that Mr. Rodman made, but I am not going to dignify that outburst with a response,” Carney added. “I am simply going to say that we remain gravely concerned about Kenneth Bae’s health and continue to urge the DPRK authorities to grant his amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds.” [CNN]

I’ll close with the most surprising source of criticism.

Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told CNN he was “disappointed” by Rodman’s performance. I think Dennis Rodman crossed a line this morning by implying that Kenneth Bae might be guilty, by suggesting that there was a crime,” the politician said. “There is no crime. Kenneth Bae is an American detainee that’s been there a year in bad health, who deserves to come home.”

He said Rodman “drank a little bit too much of the Kool-Aid from the North Koreans.” [CNN]

Anything to stay relevant, I suppose.

Thanks to Dennis Rodman, several hundred million more people now know that North Korea is one of the world’s worst human rights violators, has a massive gulag system, is inhabited by shrunken, half-starved people, and is led by an impulsive, morbidly obese playboy. Keep on rocking, Dennis.

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Lifestyles of the Deeply Stupid, Pyongyang Edition (or, Dennis Rodman, the accidental activist)

Despite the loss of his sponsor, Dennis Rodman is back in Pyongyang with several other NBA has-beens for what Rodman calls a “birthday present” basketball exhibition game for Kim Jong Un. Rodman appears to be taking his talking points directly from KCNA:

“The marshal is actually trying to change this country in a great way,” Rodman said of Kim, using the leader’s official title. “I think that people thought that this was a joke, and Dennis Rodman is just doing this because fame and fortune.” Instead, he said, he sees the game as a “birthday present” for Kim and his country. “Just to even have us here, it’s an awesome feeling. I want these guys here to show the world, and speak about North Korea in a great light,” he said. “I hope people will have a different view about North Korea.” [AP, Eric Talmadge]

Separately, as he was departing from Beijing, Rodman said this:

“It’s about trying to connect two countries together in the world, to let people know that: Do you know what? Not every country in the world is that bad, especially North Korea,” Rodman told The Associated Press in an interview outside his hotel before heading to the Beijing airport with the team. “People say so many negative things about North Korea. And I want people in the world to see it’s not that bad.” [Fox News / AP]

I think Anderson Cooper said it best when he called Rodman “deeply stupid.”

When a reporter from Sky News suggested to Rodman that he had a responsibility to raise the issue of human rights as the only American with such access to the  North Korea leader, Rodman responded “That’s not my job. The only thing I am doing right now, I am only doing one thing: this game is for his birthday. It’s for his birthday. “And I hope that if this opens doors and we can actually talk about certain things, then we can do certain things, but I am not going to sit there and go in and say ‘Hey guy, you’re doing the wrong thing.’” “That’s not the right thing to do. He’s my friend first. He’s my friend. I don’t give a (expletive). I tell the world: he’s my (expletive) friend, I love him.”


When asked if he was aware of the estimated 200,000 political prisoners in North Korea, Rodman answered “Are you aware that lots of people in America is locked up like that too?”   [Fox News / AP]

Is that so, Dennis? Locked up like this? In a way, Rodman is an archetype of visitors to North Korea. The more contact he has with the place, the less he seems to know about it.

Rodman denies he’s doing this for the money, of course. He claims that “proceeds from the game would go to a charity for the deaf in North Korea,” which raises the same questions we’ve been debating since Medicins Sans Frontieres left North Korea 20 years ago over its inability to monitor the distribution of its aid. What Rodman didn’t deny, however, was what he’s making from endorsements and other downstream affects of being an attention whore. But there is growing evidence that Rodman is becoming toxic.

NBA Commissioner David Stern issued a statement Monday night. “The NBA is not involved with Mr. Rodman’s North Korea trip and would not participate or support such a venture without the approval of the U.S. State Department,” Stern said. “Although sports in many instances can be helpful in bridging cultural divides, this is not one of them.”

Jesse Jackson, who initially sent out two tweets supportive of Rodman, later deleted at least one of them.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center and the North Korean Freedom Coalition teamed up on Monday to hold a press conference to denounce Rodman’s visit. They were joined by one of the finest human beings on Capitol Hill today, New York Democrat Rep. Elliot Engel, who is the Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee:

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), ranking minority member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Suzanne Scholte, head of the North Korean Freedom Coalition, held a public event in New York Monday to urge a group of ex-NBA players to boycott an upcoming basketball game in Pyongyang. They were joined by two North Korean defectors in the event hosted by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a human rights organization.

Dennis Rodman and several other NBA old-timers are in the reclusive communist nation for a match against a North Korean team on Wednesday to mark the birthday of leader Kim Jong-un. They argue their move is part of “basketball diplomacy,” an expression apparently stemming from “ping pong diplomacy” between the U.S. and China in the early 1970s.

“That’s completely nonsense,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told Yonhap News Agency in a phone interview. He said, “We are not against using sports to try to produce a political breakthrough,” but a problem is the North’s intent. The communist regime is just exploiting the sport for propaganda in a bid to distract global attention from its political unrest and human rights abuses, said Cooper. He quoted Engel as saying that playing a basketball game for the North’s leader is like having lunch with Adolf Hitler.

Cooper said he is also in contact with the National Basketball Retired Players Association to issue a related statement.  [Yonhap, via here]

Whatever the impact on Rodman himself, his visit is doing Kim Jong Un much more harm than good. For years, the greatest disadvantage advocates for North Korean human rights faced wasn’t really disagreement, which is mostly confined to a lunatic fringe, it was simply a lack of attention to the issue. There was no George Clooney or Richard Gere drawing public attention to this issue. Now, in his own perverse way, Dennis Rodman has become our George Clooney.

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Christine Hong really should tell us what she thinks about Kim Jong Un’s sweet new ski resort.

Kim Jong Un’s reign must be a dark time for North Korea’s apologists on the far left. Those who elevate equality above all other values (or say they do) must be hard pressed to find solidarity with a regime that has imposed the world’s most obscene case of economic and social injustice. Under Kim Jong Il, North Korea was no paragon of socialist equality. Since his dynastic succession, Kim Jong Un has added the arch-heresies of gaudy consumerism and an adoration of the coarsest elements of pop culture.

Even Bruce Cumings — Bruce Cumings — recently called Kim Jong Un “a modern Caligula,” and for once, I can’t argue with him. Off-hand, I can’t think of a richer target for “critical studies” than this one:

Kim Jong Un ski

Even so, U.C. Santa Cruz Assistant Professor Christine Hong, writing at something called “Critical Asian Studies,” lobs a verbose, meandering screed at advocates for the human rights of Kim Jong Un’s subjects, a growing number of whom are themselves North Korean, and whom Hong quite casually calls “typically ‘beneficiaries of past injustice'” and “future violence.”

Typically,” she says, apparently unconcerned that such sweeping bigotry and assignment of original sin would draw any challenge. Or, more plausibly, notice.

This is horrid stuff, on many levels. Its hackneyed language reads as if it was taped together out of ribbons from Chomsky’s shredder bin. As “scholarship,” it offers no useful data or citations of factual evidence about North Korea. Its citations of “authority” are, with few exceptions, pre-owned arguments and epithets borrowed from the co-habitants of Hong’s own echo chamber. Its most distinctive qualities are the yawning sloppiness of its arguments, and a sentence structure that combines the verbal economy of a filibuster with the literary coherence of a cattle auction. I can’t recall when I’ve seen so many words yield so little light or joy.

Hong first attacks the definition of human rights itself (“a hegemonic interpretive lens”), in a transparent effort to strip this term of any useful meaning. If I understand her correctly, she’s complaining that “the privileged ideological frame” that disapproves of the mass imprisonment and murder of political prisoners — and their kids — has influenced more people than “other epistemic forms” that perpetrate it. But if “human rights” means anything, no advocate for that concept could abide how North Korea treats its people today.

Next, Hong tries to pound the words of human rights advocates into a Jell-O mold of Don Rumsfeld’s head, arguing that human rights advocacy must be a subterfuge for invading North Korea — a straw man argument against something no one of consequence supports. In her strained effort to make all human rights advocates sound like a caricature of … well, me, Hong omits any mention of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry or the powerful words of its avowedly liberal, openly gay Chair.

Hong mendaciously accuses the U.S. of “withholding” humanitarian aid; in fact, Pyongyang has impeded the delivery of aid by the U.S. and U.N., and diverted aid to its loyalists and military. Rather than allow monitoring and other safeguards against diversion, Pyongyang forced the World Food Program to slash its feeding program from 6.5 million recipients to just 1.9 million (later increased to 2.4 million), rejected 500,000 tons of U.S. food aid, and expelled U.S. aid workers. It agreed to, then quickly reneged on, a moratorium on missile launches for 240,000 tons of U.S. food aid. When it received more food aid, it bought less food from abroad and spent the difference on other “priorities.” Some NGOs, such as Medicins Sans Frontieres, withdrew rather than help Pyongyang use food as a tool of control.

Then, Hong plods onward to a factually selective, ham-handed evasion of the Kim Dynasty’s responsibility for everything from the Korean War (“a civil and revolutionary war, a people’s war” frustrated by a “counterrevolutionary” U.N. intervention), its atrocities against own people, and the squalid life it imposes on them.

Hong blames this squalor on “the violence of sanctions” that “predictably stifle the economic growth of North Korea, in effect declaring it off-limits to potential investors and restricting the country’s access to capital, as well as exacerbating the suffering of the North Korean people.” Having found a scapegoat at a safe distance from Pyongyang, Hong calls the sanctions “formidable,” which is curious, because they are not formidable, and also because she fails to cite any of the authorities on which U.S. or U.N. sanctions rest, or explain what any of those authorities do. This, evidently, is what passes for scholarship in some quarters.

I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate that Christine Hong really has no idea what U.S. or U.N. sanctions do (that’s the more charitable of the two alternatives that come to mind). Had Hong bothered to read the object of her criticism, she would know that those sanctions are not, as she would have her readers to imagine, a broad-based attack on North Korea’s economy, but a set of limited sanctions focused on North Korea’s trafficking in WMD components and technology, weapons, contraband like drugs and counterfeit currency, and luxury goods — and poorly enforced at that, as we’ll soon see. Hong doesn’t offer any analysis of what legitimate industry would, but for sanctions, lift North Korea’s economy with Chollima speed.

(To be fair, Hong would have her readers imagine that our North Korea sanctions are almost as tough and comprehensive as I wish they really were. Of course, I favor broad exceptions for food imports and humanitarian aid, I’d make the transparent delivery of humanitarian aid a specific objective of a sanctions program, and I’d forfeit Kim Jong Un’s ill-gotten wealth to pay for it.)

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Hong takes great care not to mention that a principal target of sanctions is Kim Jong Un’s appetite for luxury goods. After all, how in the world could she defend that? Still, I’d love to know, and each non-sequitur Hong offered only made me wonder how she would justify, say, a decision by the leader of a half-starved nation to spend millions of dollars on a ski resort.

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Yonhap, quoting the South Korean National Intelligence Service, reports that Kim Jong Un spent $300 million building “leisure and sports facilities, including the ski resort,” at a time when 84% of North Korean households can’t find enough to eat. That expenditure is three times the amount that the World Food Program asked donor nations to contribute to feed hungy North Koreans last summer.

There’s nothing new about this pattern. I’ve already elaborated on some of the luxuries Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un bought that cost more than the amount needed to feed every hungry North Korean. I’ve explained why each of the MiG-29s in these satellite images killed as many North Koreans by starvation as one B-29 killed at Nagasaki. Lest any future prosecutor have difficulty proving his charges against the one responsible, KCNA helpfully offers that the ski resort was “built on the personal initiative of supreme leader Kim Jong Un and under his wise leadership.” (The unlinkable KCNA article is preserved below the jump.)

The U.N. Security Council first imposed sanctions on North Korea’s luxury goods imports in 2006, long after the famine ended, mostly humanitarian reasons. Historically, North Korean dictators have preferred European brands. Since at least 2007, EU regulations have prohibited persons and businesses under the jurisdiction of its member states from directly or indirectly selling or transferring “luxury items,” a term defined to specifically include “[a]rticles and equipment for skiing, golf, diving and water sports.”

Last summer, when Switzerland refused to sell North Korea ski lift equipment worth almost exactly as much as Switzerland’s annual humanitarian aid allocation for North Korea, North Korea called the refusal “a serious human rights abuse that politicizes sports and discriminates against the Koreans.” Today, as if for the express purpose of taunting the world, KCNA borrows the operative word of the U.N. sanctions in describing Masik Pass as a place “for the people to enable them enjoy luxury and comfort under socialism.”

Masik Pass has done the world two great services. First, it has helped make an even bigger fool of Christine Hong, and second, it has illustrated how poorly the world is enforcing those sanctions. After the Rodong Sinmun published these photos, a Swedish manufacturer expressed surprise at seeing his company’s snow cannons there. Immediate suspicions fell upon a Chinese reseller. Writing for The Daily Telegraph, NK News’s Chad O’Carroll notes that plenty of other equipment at Masik Pass appears to have been imported in violation of U.N. sanctions, and even identifies the manufacturers, prices, and countries of origin:

A “Ski-Doo” Snowmobile manufactured by Canadian owned Bombardier Recreational Products & Vehicles was visible in pictures circulated by AFP, while at least seven snow blowers produced by Sweden’s Areco and at two snow ploughs produced by Italy’s Prinoth were visible in pictures released Thursday. A further snow plough produced by Germany’s Pisten Bully was also visible.


Johan Erling, the chief executive of Areco said that he had “no idea” how at least seven Areco snow cannons had turned up in North Korea, pointing out they could have been supplied through any number of intermediaries, formal or informal.

Mr Erling said that the seven snow blowers pictured by KCNA, known as the Areco Supersnow, cost anything between £13,900 to £22,400 each.

How North Korea could have acquired so many without his company’s knowledge was beyond him, Mr Erling said. Areco sells around 40 units per year to its Chinese reseller and the units pictured in North Korea are no more than 1.5 years old, he added.

The Italian produced snow ploughs visible in the picture published by KCNA are the Prinoth BR350 (yellow) and Prinoth Bison X (silver).

A previously owned BR350, first produced in 2006, is currently selling on a Canadian website for £48,400 while the Bison X, first produced in 2008, has a higher market value.

The red plough is a Pisten Bully unit, made in Germany. Units like the one pictured can be found online from £70,000.

Neither Prinorth, Bombardier Recreational Products & Vehicles or Pisten Bully could be reached for comment about the transfer of equipment to North Korea.

Bjørn-Erik Skjærvik, a Norwegian snowmobile reseller, said the unit pictured by AFP is the Skidoo GT550, produced in either 2011, 2012 or 2013. The GT series retail between £4500 to £7260 each.

Observers had already questioned just how many of “the people” will really enjoy Masik Pass. The fact that North Korea had to photoshop an image to manufacture a crowd of skiers suggests an answer.

photoshop of ski resort

[via, incredibly enough, The Hankyoreh]

In the top image, the man in the green-and-black jacket appears in triplicate, and the building in the foreground, if compared to the Rodong Sinmun slideshow and other images, appears to have been cropped and inserted, but turned 90 degrees in the process (study the eaves of the roof).

Kim Jong Un’s ostentatious, conspicuous consumption puts North Korea’s left-leaning apologists on ground they can’t defend, and that increasing numbers of them won’t even try to defend. Once, John Feffer offered an apologia for Kim Jong Il’s policy choice to sacrifice millions of people for North Korea’s “defense” against imperialist hegemons. Hong won’t offer a defense against Kim Jong Un’s obscene squandering on waterparks, amusement parks, 3D cinemas, and ski resorts. Instead, she chooses the obtuse alternative of ignoring their existence. But pretending that there is no elephant in the room is not an argument; it is a tacit admission that the argument is too ridiculous for even the regime’s most tendentious apologists to offer.

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Breaking: Baby Born in Pyongyang. Not Breaking: 600 Others Die in Wonsan

If I could ask Dennis Rodman one question, notwithstanding the fact that the answer would only be a string of obscenities and non-sequiturs anyway, it would be this:  Would you have played Sun City?

I’ve already argued the comparison between North Korea and South Africa once, so I see no need to rewrite it. I went to work in South Africa for three months in 1990–after Mandela was released, and after the government had begun to repeal the apartheid laws.

I’m old enough to remember a time when the correct way to respond to severe and pervasive human rights violations was to enforce a cultural and economic boycott against the perpetrators, to show our moral outrage to them, and to deny them the cultural and economic benefits of the outside world.

Like all analogies, it’s imperfect, particularly because the abuses in North Korea are far worse than they were in South Africa.

You may also have heard about the AP’s exclusive(!) scoop that Kim Jong Un has a daughter (and there was much rejoicing ….). Oh, wait, sorry–Dennis Rodman actually told us that, too. Anyway, every child is born innocent, and here’s wishing she lives a longer, healthier life than most other kids born in North Korea today, and that no one ever puts her in charge of anything.

This would all be awfully funny if it weren’t really so awful.

As for the AP, maybe they should amend their undisclosed MOUs with the North Korean government to replace their news bureau with a web cam mounted on a windowsill. They don’t seem to be getting much for their money lately. That’s probably the best possible outcome for the rest of us, because at least they’re cranking out less disinformation, propaganda, and fauxtography than they did during the first year of their experiment.


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Who Let North Korea into the Paralympics?

The Chosun Ilbo reports:

North Korea will participate in the Paralympic Games for the first time ever in London this summer. A Yonhap News report cites Tokyo-based pro-North Korean media as saying that its athletes have been gearing up for the 2012 London Paralympics, which will run from late August to early September.

It adds that North Korea was granted provisional membership in the International Paralympic Committee in March, and that its athletes are now training in China.

Have any of that event’s organizers asked North Korea to explain the report by U.N. Special Rapporteur Vitit Muntarbhorn that this regime “rounds up disabled people and sends them . . . to special camps, where they are sorted by handicap and subjected to ‘subhuman conditions?'” Or that it takes handicapped children from their families and sends them to camps where they become subjects for the kind of experiments Josef Mengele would have admired? Are the organizers of the Paralympics merely uninformed, or are they like the organizers of the World Cup — lacking in any consistent standards?

I have no way of knowing how many of those reports are true, of course, but I do know that in the case of North Korea alone, we fail to demand the right to investigate them.  I can’t top Stephan Haggard’s phase for this:  North Korean exceptionalism.

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Just about everyone pans Sohn Hak-Kyu’s proposal to share the Olympics with N. Korea

It seems that I was not alone in my reaction to Sohn Hak-Kyu’s addle-brained suggestion of sharing the 2018 Winter Olympics with North Korea. The idea has since been rejected by the Chairman of the International Olympic Commission, the government of South Korea, and 73.3% of South Koreans. So that would seem to be that. Or so we can hope.

Here, by the way, is what caused me to suspect that Sohn only proposed the idea to appease his hard-left base as he enters the presidential nomination contest.

But the comparison of North Korea’s treatment with South Africa’s is a constant source of delectable irony. Whereas the IOC enforced a boycott of South Africa, the IOC insists that Japan grant North Korea free access to Olympic events there despite North Korea’s abduction and imprisonment of Japanese citizens.

So is North Korea’s regime really less racist than South Africa’s was?

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Sohn Hak-Kyu’s Olympic Folly

2011-04-19t091219z_01_sen202_rtridsp_0_korea-politics.jpgWhy did I shudder when I heard that South Korea had won the winter Olympics? Because I knew it was just a matter of time before some imbecile had an idea like this one:

Rep. Sohn Hak-kyu, chairman of the opposition Democratic Party, said Monday the party would push for “some events at the 2018 Winter Olympics to be staged in North Korea.

He said he would also bring up the issue of forming a unified team with the North in future talks with the ruling Grand National Party and the government.

“We are seriously reviewing ways of involving the North in the hosting of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics,” Sohn said during a party supreme council meeting.

“We will make the PyeongChang Olympics the turning point in Korea’s divided history. [Korea Times]

I cannot believe this man actually believes what he just said. I can believe he believes that some of his potential voters believe what he just said, which saddens me. It certainly didn’t take long for North Korea to endorse this idea. They’re all about sponging off the neighbors they periodically attack.

If you take Sohn at his word, he’s still chasing the lost dream of bribing North Korea into being nice, making up, and joining hands, which seemed to be all the South Korean left stood for during the decade it held in power in South Korea. But it’s one thing for them to want to finance Kim Jong Il as part of a novel experiment, as long as they could still theorize plausibly that financing North Korea’s regime would moderate, reform, and transform it. It’s another thing for them to want to finance North Korea’s regime after events have conclusively refuted that theory, and after Kim Jong Il opened a low-intensity conflict that killed dozens of South Koreans, terrorized thousands more, and depopulated a small but highly strategic piece of South Korean territory. The Commander of U.S. Forces in Korea doesn’t think we’ve seen the last of North Korea’s escalated provocations. Meanwhile, we’re still seeing constant reminders of the Sunshine Policy’s costly and failed legacy:

Hyundai Asan is suffering snowballing losses after tours to Mt. Kumgang in North Korea were halted in the wake of fatal shooting of a South Korean tourist in the resort. Park Wang-ja was shot dead by a North Korean soldier on July 11, 2008 and Hyundai Asan’s sales losses have accumulated to W390 billion (US$1=W1,058) over the three years, with staff dwindling from about 1,000 to just over 300, a spokesman said on Sunday. [Chosun Ilbo]

The idea behind Sunshine was to leverage South Korea’s financial advantage to buy influence in the North and thus transform its political system, but something like the opposite is closer to the truth. Plenty of South Korean money poured into the black hole of North Korea, but some South Koreans were so desperate to see results justifying that cost that North Korea ended up gaining more political influence in the South than vice versa. North Korea’s determination not to reform itself meant that even attempts to use sporting events to bridge political and cultural differences often widened them, and sometimes ended horribly for the North Koreans involved. We even saw North Koreans begin to impose their censorship on political expression on South Korean territory. North Korea’s own approach to sports has been, like everything else in North Korea, relentlessly political and defiant of the ways in which other human beings are expected to behave (possibly to include its doping rules). When it loses matches, North Korean coaches revert to unsportsmanlike excuses that their athletes were struck by lightning or poisoned by their hosts. After a decade of the Sunshine Policy, there’s more evidence that it changed South Korea’s political system than evidence that it changed the North’s.

And we can look forward to five years of that if Sohn Hak-Kyu becomes of the President of South Korea.

So how is Sohn’s theory still plausible to any thinking person? I can’t imagine that many of its supporters are attracted to it for logical reasons. Most people, regardless of intelligence, arrive at their conclusions for emotional reasons that resist evidence and logic. Their intelligence is mostly squandered on elaborate justifications for what they’ve already decided to believe. Plenty of intelligent people still do support Sunshine-like policies because they can’t see any better ideas and feel compelled to advocate for something, if only so that they appear to have answers. But on what basis can they still argue that it might work? What has North Korea done to deserve a piece of this action in any sense at all? And once again, why is North Korea allowed into the Olympics in any capacity whatsoever? After all, for years, the IOC didn’t let South Africa in, and as racist a place as South Africa was, at least they didn’t kill babies for being racially impure there. And we ought to remember that we object to racism because the basic presumption of equality is just one of many human rights. If the IOC has made the decision to stand for one such basic right, how can it justify holding an Olympic event in a place that does this to people?

The pendulum effect being what it is, I have a terrible feeling that someone like Sohn could actually win the next presidential election in South Korea. If so, I’ll probably regain my sense of urgency about getting American troops the hell out of South Korea. I suppose Sohn could be proposing this to appease the far left wing of his party. Sohn is a defector from the more conservative Grand National Party. He recently defeated the loser of the 2008 presidential election, Chung Dong-Young, as leader of the left-wing Democratic Party. Sohn isn’t from the Cheolla provinces, the DP’s base. It’s doubtful that he’ll be the DP’s presidential nominee without a challenge from within his own party, or from another left-wing party. In South Korean election years, the only thing you can rely on is that there will be frequent and dramatic shifts of party affiliation, nomenclature, and loyalty.

In the meantime, North Korea is changing — not because of any officially sanctioned cultural exchanges, joint ventures, or feel-good sports spectacles, but in 23 million small ways, and despite the regime’s desperation to stop that change. North Korea is changing anyway because even among the world’s most downtrodden people, there is an emerging market for the basic needs that the state refuses to provide, and also for knowledge, news, and entertainment from the greater world. Because of this, the metastasis of its political system is now probably too advanced for the Olympics to save:

A Chongjin source reported from North Hamgyeong province on June 26th, “People are copying and renting out South Korean dramas in Chongjin.” The source said that there are so many interested in the dramas that where previously they might gather in secret to watch them, now people are trading them as a business. The transaction method is comparable with video rental Stores in the South.

“Those trading in the CDs can’t do so legitimately and always have to be on the lookout for the authorities. But they are getting repeat customers from those who are addicted to the products,” said the source.

The CDs are produced in China and smuggled into North Korea in large quantities. In order to assure the success of the operation, it is essential for the traders to establish sound corrupt relationships with the security agencies. [Open News]

Even if the regime manages to forestall events like those in Syria and Libya for many more years, the next generation of propagandists and enforcers won’t believe in the system, and the inhibitions of the common people about hiding that disbelief are eroding steadily. There’s reason to hope that by 2018, North Korea will have undergone some dramatic change of government, or be in a state of such disarray that reality will hush this misbegotten idea.

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Hans Blix Goes to the Olympics

If I were pitching this as a script for a dark comedy, I describe it as combination of Boys Don’t Cry, Slapshot, and Team America:

Professor Arne Ljungqvist, chairman of the IOC’s Medical Commission, has said he will look into the matter after North Korean defenders Song Jong-Sun and Jong Pok-Sim failed doping tests at Germany 2011. [….]

Ljungqvist says he wants to know more about testing in North Korea, but is realistic about finding out more about doping checks in the Asian totalitarian state.

“I understand the mistrust of others, but I do not really know much about doping controls in this country, which has a closed society like no other in the world,” said Ljungqvist at the 123rd IOC Session in Durban, South Africa.

Which means, of course, that the doping standards that apply to other countries will have to be relaxed, just for North Korea.

Let’s just hope that IOC does a more creditable job getting to the bottom of this than FIFA did at getting to the bottom of those “criticism session” allegations. Taken to extremes, the drugging of female athletes disfigures them. You do remember what East Germany did to its female athletes, right? In one case, it turned a Heidi into an Andreas.

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Once again, North Korea makes soccer entertaining.

And to think people wonder why I blog about North Korea.

North Korea’s coach blamed his side’s 2-0 loss to the United States on his players getting struck by lightning in the build up to the Women’s World Cup. Kwang Min Kim claimed that some of them were hospitalised with electrocution after a training match on 8 June.

Maybe their treating physician had one of those special transmitters, too. This probably calls for some kind of criticism session, though if Lloyd’s were still issuing insurance policies in North Korea, I’m sure they’d charge a higher premium against criticism sessions than lightning strikes.

By the way, wasn’t their 2008 World Cup coach named Kim Jong Hun, or has he been airbrushed out of the team yearbooks?

“When we stayed in Pyongyang during training our players were hit by lightning, and more than five of them were hospitalised,” said coach Kim, without naming the affected players specifically.

“Some stayed in hospital and then came to Germany later than the rest of us. The goalkeeper and the four defenders were most affected, and some midfielders as well. The physicians said the players were not capable of participating in the tournament.

“But World Cup football is the most important and significant event for a footballer, so they don’t want to think about anything but football.

“The fact that they played could be called abnormal, the result of very strong will.”

Yes, something certainly is abnormal here — starting with the patent hypocrisy of welcoming North Korean teams to international sporting events, yet ostracizing South African teams from them for the expressly political purpose of pressuring the South African government to change its repellent and racist political system. Excluding racism from polite society is perfectly fine with me, but let’s be morally consistent about it. As offensive and oppressive as apartheid was, was it really more oppressive, offensive, and racist than this?

Update: The discrepancy in the coaches’ names might be explained by the fact that this is the women’s team we’re talking about today.

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North Korea and South Africa: A Study in Hypocrisy

After less than three weeks, FIFA has closed its investigation into allegations that players and coaches of North Korea’s losing soccer team were subjected to criticism sessions when they returned home. But when you go to FIFA’s web site, it’s apparent that FIFA’s “investigation” consisted of opening and reading a letter from the North Koreans denying it. I have no inside knowledge of whether the allegations are true, but I know that FIFA has no more idea of the truth of this matter than it did when it cleared Uday Hussein of charges of torturing Iraqi athletes (an iron maiden was later found behind Iraqi Olympic Committee headquarters).

But rather than speculating about the unknowable, I ask why North Korea is invited to international sporting events at all, and why liberals who rightly pressed to sanction South Africa and opposed constructive engagement, now advocate that precise thing in the case of North Korea, whose human rights record is far worse than South Africa’s.

Update: Sadly, The New Ledger is no more, so I’m republishing the piece below the fold:

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So, it might have been “the game of their lives” after all.

Several of you have e-mailed me (thank you) about the announcement that FIFA will open an investigation into reports that North Korea has ordered “harsh ideological criticism” sessions and hard labor for the players and coaches of its unsuccessful World Cup team.

“We sent a letter to the football federation to tell us about their election of a new president and to find out if the allegations made by the media that the coach and some players were condemned and punished are true,” FIFA President Sepp Blatter told reporters on Wednesday. “We are doing this as a first step and we will see how they answer.”

Just pray they don’t get sent to one of those Peace Forests.

Most of the reports source cite a Radio Free Asia report, which in turn cites “unidentified sources in North Korea and a Chinese businessman described as knowledgeable about North Korea affairs.” This AFP story hints at an another, unlikely source of damning information:

It followed new, unspecified, evidence brought to its attention by Chung Mong-Joon, the powerful South Korean former chairman of Hyundai, who is also the president of the South Korean Football Association.

The tradition of the Chung family and the Hyundai Group has been one of strong support for more-or-less unrestricted aid to, and accommodation of, North Korea.

In any event, I still couldn’t say (and don’t care) who won the World Cup, though I think we all now know who the big loser was. Let this be a lesson to all of the “expert” analysts out there who like to credit Kim Jong Il as a diplomatic genius, mostly as a way of explaining away how badly the State Department played a much better hand — admittedly, one that’s gotten steadily worse in the last 20 years.

If Kim Jong Il is really the Machiavellian supremo some would have us think he is, then I suppose we can agree that a few soccer matches don’t really mean a thing to him, and that game performance was merely incidental to the propaganda performance. If so, Kim Jong Il played his hand disastrously for foreign and domestic audiences alike. Only a self-deluded cretin would have been so certain of his team’s odds against the likes of Spain and Brazil to have dispensed with the simple precaution of a taped delay. Instead, the population of Pyongyang witnessed a Jesse Owens moment on live television.

Kim Jong Il’s greater unforced error was the diplomacy of imagery for a global audience. There was nowhere to go but up; North Korea has set the bar pretty low for its international image. Had the regime behaved according to minimal standards of sportsmanship, and had its players and coaches been directed to show just a bit of openness and humor with the press, this World Cup could have been a spectacular P.R. success, something defeat on the field would not have changed (you remember the Jamaican bobsled team, don’t you?). It was a perfect missed opportunity to prove people like me wrong — one that, if played more skillfully, would have paid off in the form of sponsorships, investments, and public opinion among nations where half of the voting public is, after all, of below average intelligence. Shouldn’t I question the media narrative of a ruthless totalitarian dictatorship? Isn’t the very normality and decency of these misunderstood people reason enough to doubt that their government really sank a South Korean warship without any provocation whatsoever? Might there could be some hope for reform, openness, and a negotiated disarmament after all? Well, no, actually, you say, but you’re not utterly ignorant of North Korea’s history and Kim Jong Il’s character — which places you in a statistically insignificant minority of World Cup viewers and of humanity in general.

My working theory is that, contrary to the best efforts of its useful idiot squad, North Korea doesn’t really want to be “demystified.” That’s not the brand image it sells to desperate diplomats, gullible investors, or even to those same inadequate social misfits from Barcelona to Oakland to Seoul, for whom its projections of brutal power have such a powerful psychological appeal.

But then, all of this is beside the point of the real question, which is just what happened to these players. We really don’t know, and based on things like this, I strongly doubt we ever will during this regime’s duration:

The head of the Asian Football Confederation, Mohammad bin Hammam, said Wednesday that he had spoken with four players last month, but that they had not reported mistreatment.

I’m glad FIFA opened an investigation — I called for one, after all — but this doesn’t mean I’m optimistic that it will enlighten us much. For example, asking North Korean players whether they’ve been mistreated, presumably while the minders are taking careful notes, foreshadows what we can expect from this investigation. You simply can’t get the truth from North Korea if you don’t understand how the regime works. These guys clearly don’t understand how this regime works.

More broadly, I can’t name a single occasion when an international institution did demand and get transparent cooperation from North Korea in getting to the truth of any matter (which reminds me that China is presumably a member of FIFA, too). Failing that, what international institution has ever held North Korea accountable for not giving its transparent cooperation, such as by denying it the benefits of membership in that institution? As a reader put it, FIFA will probably pull a Maggie Chan, but I suppose I should keep an open mind until my worst fears are eventually confirmed.

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North Korean Soccer Team Faces Criticism Session

Once again, this is why North Korea should be banned from FIFA play pending further investigation and monitoring of how it treats its players and coaches:

The team and coach Kim Jong Hun were summoned to a meeting at the People’s Palace of Culture in Pyongyang on July 2, the U.S.-financed Radio Free Asia reported Monday. Sports Minister Pak Myong Chol was among some 400 government officials, athletes and others at the six-hour-long closed-door session, the report said. Team members were forced to reprimand their coach at the end of the gathering, the report said. [….]

The report cited two unidentified sources in North Korea and a Chinese businessman named Yu, described as knowledgeable about North Korea affairs. [AP]

Of course, these “criticism” sessions are a part of everyday life for all North Koreans, and hopefully, this doesn’t necessarily mean the players or the coach will suffer a darker fate. It just raises an obligation for FIFA not to look the other way.

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