Comment on Haggard: The North Korean Restaurant Franchise

Stephan Haggard is an endless source of extreme quantities of highly enriched North Korea information. His ‘blog’ posts (which are usually more like mini-journal articles, trenchantly done but lighter and more fluent in style)  at Witness to Transformation place him at the prow of a mighty and miraculously regular enterprise, so it’s only courteous to add data in the form of a comment if you’ve got something worthwhile to share.

On a recent post by Haggard on the question of foreign currency and North Korean restaurants, I shared the following comment:

…There is a lot of movement from place to place (North Korean businesses seem largely allergic to high rents); no sooner have you located a North Korean restaurant than it is demolished or is moved. In other words, one has to be careful in adding up businesses that in fact may be the same business in a new location. Is the “newest” North Korean restaurant/karaoke bar in Yanji a retooled version of the one that used to be in the Luojing Hotel? Beats me. I think they make a hell of a lot more money doing karaoke than serving food. Incidentally, a Budweiser (beer of champions, and imperialists) is about 8 times cheaper at these places than the North Korean beers which are presumably hand-imported, and often bottled (illegally) in used Qingdao bottles. Careful economizing runs parallel to the epicureanism.

Along those lines, this essay by Chris Green deserves more discussion — because it considers the notion of North Korean profit margins outside of the criminal sphere, to which the rest of us are fluttering irresistibly.

Personally (signposting for a tangent…), I think the restaurants need to be considered from the cultural aspect, as this certainly does come into play from the North Korean control point of view. The restaurants are bubbles of North Korea which endure and are sustained precisely upon a direct, if not wholly uncontrolled, exposure of the workers to foreign capitalism, foreigners, and of course South Koreans in Izod shirts. Perhaps if more South Korean youth groups touring China would make stops into such establishments, a few more minds could be changed (or washed, depending on your perspective), even as the Songun melodies blare on…

Microreads, Macrothemes, Memes

This past week conspired to make microblogging the internet attack of choice, and this week seems contrived to have the same effect.  If you want to keep up with my tiny blasts of analysis and reading on China and North Korea this week, my Twitter feed is the place to go.

I’m in Minneapolis/St. Paul for a weekend of Asia-Himalayan scholarship, presenting a paper on a Chinese-English translator-scholar Liu Shengqi’s five years in Lhasa, 1944-1949.

In the meantime, I was quoted in this Foreign Policy article about North Korean music, and have been thinking at least a bit about “the foundations of Chinese modernity.”


North Korean Metaphor War: Whether Adrift or Storming Forward in the Post-Cold War Epoch, the DPRK Remains Not So Much an Enigma as a Deep Cultural Bunker Into Which One, Generally Speaking, Can Only Enter By Pounding on a Piano

If I had a nickel for everytime I read the words “according to Kim Jong Il’s former Japanese chef” I could buy enough rice to feed entire boatloads of squid fishermen in the sea whose name was called Korea by an Italian in Mongolia in the 1250s.

Which is to say that the repetition of data, after certain repetitions, becomes not data at all, but a blockage.

Accrochage: phalanges of the trained musician bring plangeant glissandi to those pleasantly-drifted into halls named for dead dissidents, the only kind we truly respect.

A melismatic turn in North Korean music would be a sign that Syrian friendship has finally inflected itself upon the layered harmony of that so-called “friendship” which fails to share a common tonal intercourse!

But let’s just talk about books, specifically, this one:

Hartmut Koschyk, ed., Deutschland, Korea: Geteilt, Vereint (Munich: Olzong Verlag, 2005). 

In which Bonhoeffer in Korea is discussed and Doris Hertrampf, the former German Ambassador in Pyongyang, reminds us of certain basic facts; a book in which Uwe Schmelter, on page 311 of her essay (“Ist die deutsch-koreanische kulturelle Zusammenarbeit eine ‘Einbahnstrasse’?”  pp. 301-312) brings down my house-of-cards-mind with a real revelation that undermines, to modify a Rumsfeldian phrase but to shear from it the referent to the cultural destruction of Iraq, “what I thought I knew about what I thought I knew.”

This fact, which opens up a wide swath in an enigma that originated as a great wound some decades ago, is that the Goethe Insitut opened in Pyongyang in 2004 and promptly screened the film Goodbye Lenin under title “Never Cheat Your Mother.”

Were that not enough (were that not enough? what is this “entry”, some kind of Dickens novel? facts mere gruel for the uncared-for yet consequently insatiable?), the book moves on into even more fertile cultural territorium:

Alexander Liebreich, ”Kulturarbeit in Nordkorea,” in Deutschland, Korea: Geteilt, Vereint, Hartmut Koschyk, ed., (Munich: Olzong Verlag, 2005), pp. 313-329.

In which it is established that Liebreich is chief director of Munchen Kammerorchester [Munich Chamber Orchestra]  and a kind of musicologist [Musikwissenschafter], and that he took three trips to Pyongyang from 2002-2006.

What’s that I hear you saying?  You want something unique from this man?  Perhaps, a pebble of data that, when shifted and ground down among other pebbles, portends a thunderstorm, a tidal wave, an upsurge, an Aufschwung of analysis worthy of being gripped like a newspaper on that terrible morning?

The man is a musician, and he notes the unbelievable quiet in Pyongyang in a way that none other would.  Instead of harping on the lack of cars in the North Korean capital (“Shame! Shame! on you for not purchasing our Hyundai-Toyota-Mercedes-Chrysler-Shares-in-Our-Failing-Companies, Shame, North Korea, for clearly the measurement of your damnable system is now complete!“), on page 314 Liebreich says simply:

“Wir unterschaetzen, wie wichtig das klangliche Umfeld fuer einen Menschen, vor allem aber fuer einen Musiker ist (We underestimate how important the sonic environment is for a person, but above all for a musician).”

Yes, by God, yes.  Riding in the back of the Maestro’s tiny red Japanese sportscar between his Baltimore mansion and his millions-dollar symphony hall, I, as an twelve-year-old soprano about to be baptised into the cult of Mahler, had this point driven home by David Zinman.  Recollecting his castigation of a winter audience, Zinman said so pointedly, so naked in both his dependence and his power: “The artist starts from nothing, and must start with a blank page, a white canvas.  Sound is my medium.  I ask merely that you provide me with a blank canvas.”

Giving master classes in Pyongyang, the young German maestro/author now realizes how important the culture of note-taking is in Pyongyang.  Would that he would analyze the national anthem!

And then he does Bruckner’s 8th Symphony in a huge hall.  An absolute rush of North Korean string talent is made available to him.

Defection is not an option and there are too many hours now logged on this fine side of Checkpoint Charlie to mitigate against anything other, but every so often one feels as if one has washed the face of an ancient statue or an inscription on the tomb of a king (buried of course with his concubines), so nobly and so unaffected is a truth expressed.

Humans need silence in order to understand themselves, but when braided up into strands of sound marshalled by Brucknerian successors, no system — even full of the most paternal insticts and their most coercive extensions — can stand up and honestly say “We have nothing, nothing to offer you.”

So let the octaves thunder in Pyongyang, because we have hungry souls.

Hiatus//Documentary Smorgasbord//Steven Chu for President in 2016

I’m on the two-day cusp of departing from Taipei for the beautiful work that awaits in Seattle, and am thus taking my annual last-week-of-July blogging vacation.  I would, in the meantime, like to recommend several fascinating sources for your delectation, enjoyment, and edification.

Don’t miss:

* C-Span’s panel discussions on the origins of the Korean War (particularly the remarks by the guest from London, and the percussive readings at 43:30, followed by discussion of tattoos in POW camps) and Truman’s postwar Japan policy, both of which have something broadly to do with the topic tackled in my dissertation “Chinese Nationalism in the Shadow of Japan, 1945-1950,” a revised version of which has been the object of my present academic “protracted warfare” campaign here in Taiwan.

* Discussions with major Soviet historian Robert Service about his monumental biographies of Trotsky, Stalin, and Lenin, which include excerpts from this rather interesting video below and pictures of the immense icepick which killed Trotsky in Mexico City in 1940, an incident which I’m sure we all remember very well:

* Following up on previous discussion on this blog about testimony about North Korea by the old hand Selig Harrison to the U.S. House Committee on International Affairs in June 2009.  We were waiting on the transcripts to arrive, and now they have.

* Discussion of the role played by Energy Secretary Steven Chu in the BP oil disaster management.  I may as well tell you right now that I believe that Steven Chu should be the next President of the United States.  Yes, that’s right, America!  You need to get on the Steven Chu bus for 2016!  I’m quite sure he doesn’t want the job and would rather return to doing scientific research with international collaborators, and possibly working up his latent Chinese fluency, which is precisely why he deserves to be President.  Imagine a President who can talk smack to the CCP in the putonghua about the number of coal particles per cubic meter of air in Shaanxi!

The SUCCESSOR (with no need to have Jang Song Taek intervene, none whatsoever!), Steven Chu in DC; courtesy Arizona State University Dept. of Physics

Steven Chu in Beijing; courtesy Bloomberg

* Speaking of people in new jobs, basketball fans and observers of my old hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, will enjoy this forward-looking discussion about coach Byron Scott’s plans for progress in the post-LeBron James era.  This blog has discussed LeBron James’ previous campaigns in Shenyang, Liaoning province; an interesting look by a sports writer describes how the city of Beijing was central to recent axis-turning moves in the National Basketball Association.

* And, in keeping with this blog’s title (and my own proclivities and pedagogical influences from Janos Starker, and, more recently, my unlikely clashes with victims of the war in Berlin), I hope you enjoy this short excerpt of cellist Karim Wasfi, is also music director of the Iraqi Symphony Orchestra:

It also goes without saying that I very much want to meet this person and am determined to play some of his music in the next three-year period.  However, apart from the tremendous work by the soloist/composer, the orchestra is young and its string sound is really rather anemic, with the exception of the guest concertmaster, E. Marc Thayer of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.  I was fortunate to have dinner with Marc in St. Louis a few weeks after his return from Iraq, and learned a great deal from him about the nuts and bolts of musical diplomacy in Kurdistan.    He is continuing cooperation with two violin students he met there.

Why do I care about musical exchanges with Iraq?  Because people interested in cultural diplomacy with China are connected, and because I’m interested in this as a possible future model for musical diplomacy with a more open DPRK (or integrated northern Korea).  I do think that it’s important that, in the event of a German-style reunification/absorption/annihilation of)  North Korea, that the old DPRK’s musical culture is not completely jettisoned.  And contrary to what Christopher Hitchens rather drunkenly asserts (among a host of other errors) in his otherwise interesting “Axis of Evil” speech, not everything in the DPRK  is about the Kim family, particularly when it comes to musical training and performance.  I don’t mind admitting that I’ve read more than a few sentences about education and music in Kim Il Song’s Works with which I can wholly agree.  (At this point I might remind readers of the potential for anti-Chinese sentiment in the Works and assert that any successor to Kim Jong Il had better be damned adroit in reinterpreting the 88 volumes of those Works in order to justify new reforms, but then again that would be gratuitous).

* More discussion of the Dalian oil spill in China, along with a review of Chinese-language news stories focusing on US-ROK naval exercises and Sino-German relations, is available on my Twitter feed.

I should be back on or around August 1, hopefully with some news about new publications and/or submitted manuscripts, since some people, after all, are keeping track of their scholarly statistics.

Ste-ven CHU! Ste-ven CHU! STEVEN CHU in 2016...You heard it here first. Hell, the man might even have some new ideas for how to save the city of DETROIT. See you in ten days.

North Korean Successor Buzz Suddenly Silent: Correcting and Explaining the Daily NK’s Report

The Daily NK reports on the somewhat mystifying drop-off in North Korean discussion about the ostensible successor, Kim Jong Un.  (Part 1 is here; Part 2 is here.)

In general, the Daily NK reports are highly valuable, but their translations from the original Chinese/Korean are full of errors and innuendo.

Since so many people in the English-language Internet realm rely on Daily NK, it’s important we correct the record to reflect facts.  Otherwise, shortcuts taken by the Daily NK’s translators (and the occasional sensationalist bias sprinkled in through the translations) will continue to cloud our understanding of what could be going on inside the DPRK.

What I lay out below is a tentative format for revised Daily NK revisions.  As an individual besieged at the moment by various other duties, it’s hard for me to carve out the time to do it all.  But given the passion of my students (present, former, and future) and the powers of the net, I’m hopeful that this project might evolve into a separate blog of running translations of Chinese-North Korean news focusing, at least at first, on Daily NK.

Bold-face text below indicates the presence of information left out from the Daily NK English edition.

Author: 文成辉 [Moon Sung Hwee, originally defected from Jagang province in 2006]

Article title: 传闻“金正云因分派主义被中断偶像化”: 中断“脚步歌”…“150天战斗”成果中没有金正云的名字 [News States: "Kim Jong Un Factionalism Causes An End to His Idolization," End to "Footsteps Song," "150-Day Battle" Achievements Do Not Include Kim Jong Un's Name]

Article text:

[1] 朝鲜当局禁止在公开场所歌唱赞扬金正云的歌曲“脚步”,还禁止使用“白头的将军金正[云] 军大将”的宣传口号,其背景让人关注。 North Korean authorities have been forbidden to openly sing “Footsteps,” the song praising Kim Jong Un , and also forbidden from continuing to use the propaganda slogan “Paektu’s General, Great Generalissimo Kim Jong Un,” [creating a] backdrop such that people become cautious.

[2] 6日跟DailyNK通话的咸镜北道消息人士说:“7月初为止还高声宣传说‘白头山青年大将金正云站在社会主义强盛大国建设的前列指挥’,目前却没有任何表示。”“连学校都不让学生行军时歌唱‘脚步’。”  On September 6, a news source from North Hamgyong province called Daily NK to say: “Until early July 2007, propaganda was still stridently saying “‘The Young General of Mount Paektu Kim Jong Un is commanding the vanguard of the construction of our strong and prosperous socialist state.’ Now there are no similar declarations, including in all the schools where students are not allowed to sing the song, ‘Footsteps,’ during military drills.”

[3] 接近尾声的150天战斗“8月以前说是‘金正云大将亲自发起和指挥’,目前却不再出现那些宣传口号了。”“从目前来看,‘150天战斗’结束也不会出现金正云大将领导能力的话了。”  Nearing the coda of the 150-Day Battle: “Before August it was said that Captain Kim Jong Un was personally initiating and commanding.’ Now these propaganda slogans have not been repeated. Looking at the current situation, one also cannot say that ‘the 150-day battle’ was completed through the capable leadership of Captain Kim Jong Un.’”

[4] 金正云的名字从宣传口号中突然消失,朝鲜内部就传开了“金正云着手进行干部工作,企图进行亲信政治,引起了金正日的不满”的消息。 Kim Jong Un’s name has suddenly disappeared from propaganda slogans.  Sources inside North Korea transmit the news that that “Kim Jong Un commenced doing work with cadre, attempting to implement a personal politics, arousing the dissatisfaction of Kim Jong Il.”

[5] 上个月24日,咸镜北道某市的宣传秘书对此表示:“金正云伪造了干部文件引起了金正日的不满。”“据说金正日非常生气金正云诬陷诚实的干部,让他们下台后起用自己的势力来搞分派主义。” On August 24, the Propaganda Secretary of a city in North Hamgyong Province stated: “Kim Jong Un forged files of cadre and aroused the dissatisfaction of Kim Jong Il….It is stated that Kim Jong Il is very annoyed with Kim Jong Un’s planting of false evidence of honest cadres, forcing them to step down, and then using his own power to engage in factionalism.”

[6] 也就是说,没有干部任命权的金正云诬陷不合自己心意的干部,试图用自己的亲信来替代,金正日就动了怒。That is to say, no cadre appointed [as a consequence of] Kim Jong Un’s dishonesty were compatible with the regarded highly cadre; when [Kim Jong Un] attempted to say that he was bringing his own relations in in his own trusted people to substitute, this made Kim Jong Il very upset.

[7] 也有人估计,金正日的健康情况好转后,内部认为不用那么快进行金正云的继承问题了。There is another person who estimates that after the change in the situation in Kim Jong Il’s health, the internal [North Korean government] believes that now the move to solve the succession problem is not so urgent.

[8] 3日,《好朋友》也引用当地消息人士的话说,各省和中央机构表示“在朝鲜还没有研究领导人继承问题。目前伟大的将军还非常健康,积极开展现场指导工作,今后十年也能硬朗地领导国家,所以下达了终止讨论继承人问题的方针。” On September 3, “Good Friends” also quoted a local news source who stated that every province and central party organization stated that “in Choson [North Korea] there is still no research on the problem of leadership succession.  Now our Great General is still very healthy, and continues to develop leadership today.  From today forward, the next ten years could be clearly bright for leadership in our country, therefore transmit guidelines to the lower levels that debate about the succession problem should be ceased.”


My Analysis

[2]  Students appear to have wanted to sing the song, but were forbidden from doing so. It’s worth recalling that North Korean students are among the most highly-trained musicians in the world, particularly in the arena of political songs, and snap up new tunes and lyrics quickly.  They also want to please their instructors.  And so it is strange for that instructor to forbid them to sing the song.  It is also worth noting that the song was sung not in the classroom but during their military drills!  As in everything else, context matters.

[3] Here we lose the connotation: The North Korean people have been so conditioned to hearing and responding to propaganda directives that the absence of a directive is cause for nervousness.  And the people were prepared to repeat the particular slogan about Kim Jong Un’s leadership of the 150 day struggle!

[5] This is a significant translation oversight.  Kim Jong Un being accused of factionalism, as opposed to just appointing a few friends (e.g., corruption/nepotism) has a deep pedigree in North Korean politics, and is a very serious charge indeed.  See James Person or Andrei Lankov’s work on 1956.

[6] Still needs some work — I would be delighted to receive a bit of assistance on interpreting this particular paragraph. Do the newly-appointed officials have any voice in the debate?

I welcome any comments on readability and method, particularly if you are a reader of Chinese interested in cooperating to produce more regular revised translations from Daily NK.

If only I hadn't fed my successor to artist Damien Hirst's "shark in formaldehyde"

If only I hadn't fed my successor to artist Damien Hirst's "shark in formaldehyde"

Oh yes, since our own Dear Leader (who the paranoid have yet to compare to Emperor Hirohito) has advised arduous study, inaugurating my own “150-Day Semester Battle,” here are a few terms, via MandarinTools, for those interesting in picking up a few Chinese characters relevant to the post above:

yīn cause; reason; because

中斷 中断 zhōng duàn to discontinue; to break off

偶像 ǒu xiàng idol

成果 chéng guǒ result; achievement; gain; profit

his; her; its; theirs; that; such; it (refers to sth preceding it)

背景 bèi jǐng background; backdrop

突然 rán sudden; abrupt; unexpected

诬陷 xiàn (v) entrap; frame; plant false evidence against sb

誠實 诚实 chéng shí honest; honesty; honorable; truthful

gǎo to do; to make; to go in for; to set up; to get hold of; to take care of

rèn to assign; to appoint; office; responsibility

心意 xīn regard; kindly feelings; intention

試圖 试图 shì to attempt; to try

引用 yǐn yòng quote; cite

下達 下达 xià (v) transmit to lower level people

方針 方针 fāng zhēn policy; guidelines

分派主义  fen pai zhu yi — factionalism

Lankov blistered his hands scrounging in archives; scholarship as an act of physical labor; fine source on North Korean factionalism.  Does a Beijing faction in fact exist in the DPRK?

Lankov blistered his hands scrounging in archives; scholarship as an act of physical labor; fine source on North Korean factionalism. Does a "Beijing faction" in fact exist in the DPRK?