Chai Digest: North Korea Edition

I have been intermittent in my blogs posts in August, summer lethargy mainly. I need to push through my North Korea Victory Day trip and go back through trips I did not cover.

Reports this week that Kim Jung-un had has ex-girlfriend and others executed, and their families sent to prison camps (Chosun Ilbo) is heart-wrenching reminder to head the call of the FT’s David Pilling to Keep up the pressure on Pyongyang over human rights and not treat it the regime as a joke:

None of these facts is new to anyone who has been paying attention. Still, the world tends not to look at North Korea through a human-rights prism. Pyongyang is seen primarily as a security threat – a would-be nuclear power that is destabilising the region with its crazed missile-firing antics. People even view North Korea, a founding member of the “axis of evil”, as almost grotesquely funny. In Team America: World Police , a satirical puppet movie, Kim Jong Il has an amusing lisp and drops Hans Blix into a tank full of hungry sharks when the UN weapons inspector asks to look around his palace. The tendency to see North Korea as a bad joke somehow takes the pressure off the world to probe its catastrophic human rights record.

I have traveled to North Korea twice. Going alone is a ethically fraught decision. What particularly fascinated me in this trip was how there is a slice of people visibly prospering and then a wider populace that seems to just be trying to get by and have as much of a normal life as can be had. Now several generations into the regime, much of the population only knows glimpses of life elsewhere through illicit media. How do they navigate life, what must they do to avoid the slip that can send them and their family to the prison camps, how do they relate to others? There are so many questions that are we can only get glimpses. Yet on Victory Day, far from Pyongyang, I saw families dancing and drinking on a beach in happiness that seems impossible in such a place.

I have no answers. Some articles from fellow observers are a small start.

NBC’s Ann Curry, who we met briefly, filed this report on the festivities commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistace, know in the north as Victory Day. CNN a Q&A on the experience, a piece on the Mass Games, and I particularly like A sneak peak through the keyhole by Ivan Watson, capturing moment like the dehydrated exhaustion from the brutal heat of the parade:

They waited for hours under the hot sun until Kim Jong Un made his appearance in a shaded grandstand overlooking the square named after his grandfather. Soldiers and citizens then spent the next several hours, goose-stepping and cheering in the summer heat to the music of a military marching band.

Finally, sometime around noon, the Respected Leader waved goodbye. The moment he left, both parade participants and spectators crumpled to the ground. Many were clearly victims of heat stroke and exhaustion.

I saw a soldier, wearing the full dress uniform of his marching band, nearly unconscious in the tiny spot of shade made by his stand of cymbals. An elderly veteran sat gasping on the sidewalk in another spot of shade, visibly distraught.

NK News had a rundown on the rogue’s gallery of dignitaries attenting the parade, Which foreign faces stood out at North Korea’s military parade?

The Reuters Photographers Blog by Jason Lee has great images in Five days with my North Korean minders.

Travel blogger Wandering Earl took a sponsored trip after the holiday and his ruminations on the country are interesting.

I have cited this before, however My Week in North Korea by Michael Malice, A Soviet-born America, at reason.com is the best travelogue I have read on the country. You must at least read its chilling end.

And closing with hope for a new beginning in Lunch with the FT: Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person born in the gulag known to have escaped, and , ‘Witness Number One’ in the first United Nations inquiry into the human rights record of the North.

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  1. […] Part of the nomadic lifestyle that I’ve begun came from the passionate curiosity I have about events and lands far away. To balance out some of my travel reading, one of my favourite blogs is Rapid Travel Chai, who is perhaps BoardingArea’s most interesting authors on ‘unusual’ travel. He has an interesting post reflecting his thoughts in planning a trip to North Korea here. […]