Tag Archives: politics

Book review: ‘Nothing to Envy | Ordinary Lives in North Korea’

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Photo courtesy of Spiegel & Grau

Mi-ran and Jun-sang had known each other for 13 years and dated for nine. After three years, they began to cautiously hold hands under the cover of darkness once they’d walked a safe enough distance out of town. After six years, Jun-sang mustered up the courage to give Mi-ran an awkward kiss on the cheek, which she quickly rebuffed out of fear and shock.

When Mi-ran escaped with her family to South Korea, she couldn’t risk saying goodbye to Jun-sang. When he showed up one morning to find her family missing, he realized he’d been too late — too late to share with her the capitalist books he’d secretly been reading at university, the South Korean television signals he could faintly pick up at home and his hidden dream of running away with her to Seoul. She was already gone.

The two young lovers are the heart of Barbara Demick’s book, ‘Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea,’ which profiles six North Korean defectors hailing from an industrial town in the northeastern part of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

‘Nothing to Envy’ is an enthralling read — a kind of novelization that follows its subjects through a fifteen-year period. From the death of Kim Il-sung to the horrific famine of the 1990s, ‘Nothing to Envy’ shows North Korea from the perspective of average citizens, far away from the carefully-constructed capital city Pyongyang and the state’s propaganda-filled press releases.

The book provides a quick but excellent background on how North Korea came to be what it is today. One of the book’s most memorable stories is the biography of Mi-ran’s father, which serves to explain her family’s low social status and “tainted blood.” A once popular and confident young man from a Southern farming area, Tae-woo was taken as a prisoner of war by the North and essentially trapped on the opposite side of the peninsula when a power struggle between the United States and Soviet Union resulted in the drawing of an arbitrary border across the map along the 38th parallel.

“Koreans were infuriated to be partitioned in the same way as the Germans. After all, they had not been aggressors in World War II, but victims. Koreans at the time described themselves with a self-deprecating expression, saying they were ‘shrimp among whales,’ crushed between the rivalries of the superpowers,” Demick writes.

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South Korea on the left and North Korea on the right, as seen from the Korean Demilitarized Zone. SCREAMfmLondon

‘Nothing to Envy’ follows its subjects as Kim Il-sung takes control of the DPRK with promises of an idyllic Communist state and, for the first few years, delivers on them. Then, readers see these people struggle to keep the faith after Kim Jong-il rises to power and the country’s economic crisis begins, resulting in the famine that ultimately killed around 3.5 million North Koreans.

Eventually, each of the subjects experiences a life-altering moment of final disillusionment which leads them to leave their country and, often, many loved ones, established careers and educations behind. For Jun-sang, the epiphany finally came when he was able to configure his television to pick up South Korean signals that told him news of the world and, for the first time, honest coverage of North Korea.

“Listening to South Korean television was like looking in the mirror for the first time in your life and realizing you were unattractive,” Demick writes. “North Koreans were always told theirs was the proudest country in the world, but the rest of the world considered it a pathetic, bankrupt regime.”

However, the defectors’ difficulties don’t end once they reach Seoul. The initial euphoria they experience often is short-lived, as they have to struggle to acclimate to modern society and start their lives over from scratch. Work experience and university degrees from the DPRK are useless, so the North Korean doctors and intellectuals we’ve gotten to know over the course of the book find themselves taking jobs as nannies and fast food delivery drivers.

‘Nothing to Envy’ concludes with an epilogue bringing the reader up-to-date with North Korea, briefly examining the first years of Kim Jong-un’s reign as Supreme Leader.

It’s an amazingly moving book, and it paints such a vivid picture of life inside North Korea for the past few decades. Not only is ‘Nothing to Envy’ a good primer on the Korean War and the politics surrounding it, but the personal stories within are so poignant they will stay with you long after reading.

The book’s conclusion is realistic and, therefore, inconclusive. The totalitarian regime in North Korea has already endured longer than anyone expected and continues to this day. Although many North Koreans manage to escape, so many are still living lives not unlike those depicted in the book — some are better off and some worse. And their stories are going untold.

‘Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea’
Barbara Demick
Release Date: Sept. 21, 2010
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Politics
Pages: 336
Grade: A

Click here to read about my visit to the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone.

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Cherry blossoms at Seoul National Cemetery

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Trees in full bloom at Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

Every year, people wait for the perfect few days in April to head out to the best parks in Seoul for viewing blooming cherry trees. Yeouido and Jinhae are particularly popular spots for cherry blossom picnics and photoshoots, but Seoul National Cemetery in Dongjak-dong offers a less crowded, more peaceful alternative.

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Cherry blossoms signal the coming of spring weather in Seoul. SCREAMfmLondon

Seoul National Cemetery is known for its weeping cherry trees, which have flower-covered branches that hang low and swing in the wind. The elegant weeping cherry tree branches fit the tranquil mood of the cemetery.

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Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

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Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

The cemetery is reserved for Korean veterans, including those of the Korean independence movement, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Several former Korean presidents are also buried there. In addition to the cherry trees, there are photo exhibits and memorial monuments to appreciate.

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Cherry blossoms at Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

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Cherry blossoms at Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

Although viewing cherry blossoms is so popular in modern-day South Korea, the country’s relationship with the national flower of Japan is actually kind of complicated. Because Yoshino cherry trees were planted on Korean palace grounds during the Japanese occupation of Korea, the continued cherry blossom festivals have been controversial. Some Koreans view the trees as symbols of the occupation, and many trees have been chopped down as a political statement.

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Cherry blossoms at Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

Regardless of the contentious history of cherry blossoms in Korea, the beautiful and short-lived blossoms still attract huge crowds during the first few weeks of April. This weekend, the weather was warm, but the skies were gray — not with fog but with awful air pollution. Such is spring in 2016.

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Spring! SCREAMfmLondon

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Cherry blossoms at Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

DMZ: Imjingak, Observatory and Unification Village

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Barbed wire fences lining the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone. SCREAMfmLondon

The Korean Demilitarized Zone is, in fact, the most heavily militarized border in the world. At the end of the Korean War, the DMZ was established to create a barrier (2.5 miles wide) between the Republic of Korea on the south side and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north.

Somehow, though, this area has become a kind of dark tourist attraction where you’ll spot carnival rides, fried food and smiling cartoons on the South Korean side, despite the fact that the countries are still — technically — at war. Just this August, there were two notable incidents at the DMZ: two South Korean soldiers were injured after stepping on landmines allegedly laid on the southern side of the DMZ, and at the end of the month, North and South Korea exchanged artillery fire in response to some disputed audio broadcasts that were being made via loudspeakers across the border.

Regardless, the DMZ remains a huge tourist attraction in South Korea. There are a number of places available for visits if you want to learn more about the relationship between the Koreas. Here is my guide to a few of these spots:

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The Korean DMZ. SCREAMfmLondon

Imjingak

Imjingak is a park located in the city of Paju, north of Seoul. It’s sometimes called Imjingak “resort,” and it’s a little disconcerting.

On one side of the village is a sizeable amusement park where people play on bumper cars and there is continuous pop music blasting from overhead. There are gift shops selling Korean souvenirs, and there are a wide variety of vendors selling delicious street food around every corner. There’s even a pretty thorough soybean museum detailing all the uses of the beans and offering samples. The whole feeling is like being at a state fair.

But the other side of the village is a stark contrast. Barbed wire fences surround the area where the Bridge of Freedom juts out into the distance. The bridge was formerly used by South Korean soldiers returning home from the North and is now decorated with brightly-colored ribbons that are memorials for lost family members or messages to those still living in North Korea. In front of the bridge is the Mangbaedan Alter, which was constructed so that people separated from their families or hometowns in the North could gather on traditional Korean holidays such as New Year’s Day and Chuseok.

Imjingak displays a very strange dichotomy: there are war memorials just outside the doors of a Tony Moly cosmetics store. It’s pretty somber until some laughing children run past you to get on the merry-go-round. But it’s also very hopeful. One of the most poignant spots at Imjingak is a wall of bricks, each representing a country that endured a civil war or other division but was eventually united again.

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South Korea on the left. North Korea on the right. SCREAMfmLondon

Mt. Ohdu Unification Observatory

The Unification Observatory is a five-story museum from which you can look out over the Han and Imjin Rivers and see North Korea up close.

From the roof, powerful binoculars allow you to see all the way from Seoul to Mount Kumgang in North Korea. As I was gazing out across the landscape, I watched a tiny figure riding a bike down a dirt road on the North Korean side. According to the employees at the observatory, most of the visible North Korean buildings are for propaganda purposes — meant to make the area just over the border look more prosperous than it is. I watched the little figure riding his bike for a long time, wondering who he was and what he was doing and if he was thinking about all of the eyes peering at him through binoculars from the other side of the river.

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A depiction of a typical North Korean home. SCREAMfmLondon

Inside, the museum offers a variety of information on North Korea and the DMZ. There are a lot of interesting North Korean artifacts and maps to help illustrate important locations such as the military demarcation line. Two grim dioramas depict typical rooms in a North Korean elementary school and a home. In the classroom, you can walk inside and peruse the books taught in North Korean schools. In both rooms, the portraits of North Korea’s former supreme leaders, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, keep watch over the comings and goings.

In one part of the museum, visitors can leave messages urging for the reunification of the Koreas, and a mock-up of the Berlin Wall crumbling down serves as inspiration.

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A soybean feast in Tongilchon. SCREAMfmLondon

Tongilchon Unification Village

Tongilchon is a very small agricultural village near the DMZ. There are few buildings in the area save for the market where you can pick up Korean souvenirs (again), ginseng, liquor and soybean products. The village is centered on farming, and those living within this area are exempt from paying taxes and from Korea’s mandatory military service.

Tongilchon is located so near the Civilian Control Line that entrance to the village is strictly guarded. Military officers boarded our bus and checked everyone’s identification before letting us continue.

In Tongilchon, we stopped into a fantastic little restaurant to feast upon everything soybean. I have never had tofu so delicious, but everything at the Tongilchon feast was perfect.

The town is a very peaceful spot, and it’s a unique place to stop while exploring the infamous DMZ and its surrounding areas.

Live: Astronautalis at The Satellite

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Astronautalis performs at The Satellite in Silver Lake. SCREAMfmLondon

The first time I saw Astronautalis, I was well underage. I had to get to the venue — a dive bar on Second Street in Reno, Nev. next to the Triumph tattoo parlor — early enough to talk my way past the bouncer guarding the front door, and then I tried to stand inconspicuously off to the side until the show started.

To this day, that concert remains one of the best live performances I’ve ever seen, and one of the few that has completely blown me away, changed everything. I went home and downloaded the first two Astronautalis albums, knowing that I would be going to see him perform as long as he was willing to play.

On March 22, Astronautalis headlined at the Satellite on Silver Lake Boulevard alongside Playdough, Transit and the Dead Men.

Quite a lot of time has passed since my initial introduction to his music, and a lot has changed. But a lot has not. Astronautalis started as a one-man act with only his laptop full of beats and his own manic energy to accompany him onstage. He’s now backed by a guitarist and drummer. He’s grown a beard. But he’s still effortlessly charming. His music is still a high-energy, lyrically-challenging combination of hip-hop, talkin’ blues and indie rock. A live Astronautalis show is still a vivid experience to be had, and I’m still here.

I valiantly suffered through the abysmal opening acts preceding the Astronautalis set, and to say they were abysmal is not at all an exaggeration. The first group, LA transplants calling themselves the Dead Men, had some good instrumentalists (a harmonica player and keyboardist, in particular), but the songs were so badly written it was almost funny to hear them singing the praises of “Orthodox Jew porn” and violently hurting women. Almost funny.

I hoped the evening would improve when Canadian rapper Transit took to the stage next, but it did not. I remember that he is Canadian because he told the same joke about “sweating maple syrup” roughly 146 times, whenever he wasn’t trying to name-drop someone successful he had once interacted with, including Gene Simmons, who he allegedly turned down for a record deal, opting instead to maintain his artistic integrity and sell CDs in the back room of the Satellite for five dollars. As for his artistic integrity: well, he sang an entire song called “Friend Zone” about a woman who (for some reason) valued his company, but it still pissed him off that she wouldn’t sleep with him.

The final opener, Playdough, had the best stage presence of the three, and being able to command a room is like 60 percent of the battle. Some of his set was amusing, but most of it was pedestrian. He gave an excessively long speech about how great he is at freestyle and how much he loves to do it. Despite the grandiose build-up, his delivery was amateurish. Think “Fox in Socks,” only not as clever.

And, finally, Astronautalis came onstage, sipping whiskey and wearing neatly cuffed jeans over black combat boots. He is so uniquely talented that he easily and consistently blows away his opening acts; he also far outperforms his own band. The fast-moving set included many tracks from his most recent full-length release, 2011’s “This is Our Science,” including “Thomas Jefferson” and “Contrails.”

Astronautalis — a Minnesota native — told the crowd how he made the most of his afternoon in Silver Lake with a picnic and some kite-flying in the balmy spring weather before launching into “Midday Moon.” Through a smirk, he sang the song’s second verse: “It was a windy day, / The kind that makes me hate LA / ‘Cause God gave them a perfect sun, and they think gangs and smog were hardly a fair trade.”

Highlights from Astronautalis’ live set included a few new takes on some of his best-known songs, including a remix of “Dimitri Mendeleev” that he describes as less aggro and more dance-y than the original, as well as an up-tempo, rock-driven reboot of “The Trouble Hunters.” “The Trouble Hunters,” a rousing fight song about the Battle of Trenton, is always a climactic moment at Astronautalis shows, and the song is so great that it deserves to be a huge hit, if we lived in the kind of society that allowed for songs about the American Revolutionary War to top the Billboard charts.

Additionally, the band played a few new songs that are being readied for the next album release, and to my delight, they included “This City Ain’t Just a Skyline,” a previously-unreleased outtake from “This is Our Science.” The track was uploaded to SoundCloud on Feb. 22, and its melodic synth beats against Astronautalis’ jaunty vocals immediately cemented it as one of my favorite new singles of 2014.

One of the staples of an Astronautalis set is his freestyle segment, during which he takes topic suggestions from the audience (can’t be anything he’s ever rapped about before, i.e. nothing about US history) and combines them into one epic impromptu song. The difference between Playdough’s freestyle and Astronautalis’ is stark: Astronautalis doesn’t go on about it, but instead brings an unparalleled frame of reference and incomparably sharp wit in order to deliver a memorable, one-of-a-kind freestyle that speaks for itself.

The most fun topics are those provided by the drunks who have no idea what’s going on but really enjoy shouting, rather than the premeditated topics prepared by the hipsters trying to look smart (the guy who suggested the international rules governing the conduct of submarine warfare as a freestyle topic, I’m looking at you). Back in Reno all those years ago, I remember a wayward frat boy slurring his suggestion of “T-Shirt on Your Head Tuesdays,” and then I remember watching with stars in my eyes as Astronautalis actually rapped eloquently and hilariously about whatever the hell that means.

And that’s the amazing thing about Astronautalis’ live performances: each one is so distinctive. I feel like I always learn something valuable at an Astronautalis concert, in the sense that hanging around truly interesting people makes you want to better yourself. Can’t say that about too many musicians, can you?

Live: ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Battle of the Seasons

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Willam, Detox, Michelle Visage, Pandora Boxx, Ivy Winters, Carmen Carerra, Sharon Needles, Alaska Thunderfuck and Manila Luzon perform in “RuPaul’s Drag Race” Battle of the Seasons. Via Pandora Boxx/Facebook

On Feb. 6, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” Battle of the Seasons brought eight performers from the reality television show, as well as host Michelle Visage and RuPaul himself, to Club Nokia in downtown Los Angeles for a phenomenal display of theatricality.

Individually, Willam, Alaska Thunderfuck, Pandora Boxx, Sharon Needles, Detox, Manila Luzon, Carmen Carerra and Ivy Winters all took the stage to show off their individual talents at least twice.

Interspersed between performances were videos of the stars backstage and on the road, as well as promotional material from the sixth season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which will premiere on Feb. 24. The entire event was incredibly seamless and professional. But with a lot of dick jokes.

While I would deem the whole evening a success, some performances stood out more than others. My jaw actually dropped in awe at Ivy Winters, who juggled gigantic knives while wearing a tall, silver-horned helmet and walked on stilts to Little Mix’s “Wings.”

Alaska wowed me with her singing talent and impressive vocal range during an impassioned cover of Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself” (a nod, perhaps, to announcing the breakup with longtime boyfriend Needles late last year), as well as her original song “Ru Girl.”

Detox and Willam were fantastic as usual as two thirds of DWV (missing fellow drag queen Vicky Vox, who has not appeared on “Drag Race”) while performing their parody songs “Chow Down (at Chick-fil-A)” and “Boy is a Bottom.” Detox, especially, is not a bad rapper, and her black light shoes were fantastic, although her solo numbers were considerably less interesting. Willam, however, looked amazing, performed flawlessly and had a commanding stage presence throughout. But, of course.

And Needles, my personal favorite and the fifth season winner of “Drag Race,” was as hilarious, creepy and sexy as I’ve always dreamed she would be. For her first number, she was carried onstage in a coffin before launching into “Call Me on the Ouija Board” from her 2013 album “PG-13.”  It’s a really, really great goth-pop song with a catchy hook, smart lyrics full of tongue-in-cheek references to classic horror movies and a super polished sound. I actually haven’t stopped listening to it since. In the song, Needles declares, “I’ll be your Carol Anne, / I’ll be your pentagram. / Let’s dabble in the black arts.” Onstage, Needles picks up a dollar bill that was thrown at her and takes a few bites out of it before throwing it back.

Fun aside, there was also talk about the growing popularity of the show and its increasing influence on creating “drag queen society,” which is not entirely an exaggeration. The show and its contestants appeal to a wide range of audience members, reaching many underrepresented demographics. The wide appeal of fun, kitschy drag queens has allowed for stars that use the platform for political advocacy.

Carerra, who came out as a transgender woman after competing on the third season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” has since become a very public proponent for transgender equality. In January, she appeared alongside “Orange is the New Black” star Laverne Cox on Katie Couric’s talk show to speak about transgender issues, and last year, an online petition aimed at persuading Victoria’s Secret to have Carerra as its first transgender model gathered around 45,000 signatures.

Luzon, also a competitor from season three, has been pretty involved in AIDS awareness since appearing on the show. She and other “Drag Race” alumni appear regularly in public service announcements on Logo TV promoting safe sex and HIV testing.

Fittingly enough, the Battle of the Seasons show took place just as I’ve been following another story of drag queen activism unfolding overseas. On Feb. 1, Irish drag queen Panti Bliss spoke (amazingly effectively and eloquently) about gay rights and oppression in Ireland. Shortly thereafter, a video of the speech garnered such international attention that it has been discussed everywhere from Ireland’s houses of parliament to Russia, where anti-gay legislation was famously passed in 2013 to prohibit “propaganda” in support of “non-traditional” sexual orientation.

All of this just makes me feel like there should be way more drag queens occupying political office.

Film review: ‘Mitt’

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Photo courtesy of Netflix.

A few lofty assertions are made about the Netflix documentary “Mitt” in its promotional material:

1. “For six years, one filmmaker had exclusive access to Mitt Romney.” Well, it really doesn’t seem like it, because the majority of the footage is taken from directly before or after presidential debates or at other integral campaign events, showing very little of the promised “behind-the-scenes” moments of the Romneys in their natural habitat.

2. “Whatever side you’re on, see another side.” Well, not really. It’s not as if Romney As A Devoted Family Man is a shockingly new angle on the story — everyone has been exposed to Romney’s public image already, and “Mitt” doesn’t bother to delve any deeper than that.

But, what was I really expecting?

That isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the documentary. I had similar feelings coming out of One Direction’s “This Is Us” documentary last summer: ‘Well, that was a clearly scripted promotional tool/moneymaking device.’ But, well, duh. And then I went to see it again.

Likewise, I enjoyed watching “Mitt,” but at 92 minutes, it barely scratches the surface, and I wanted so much more.

It begins in 2006, capturing a few choice moments from the lead-up to Romney’s loss to Senator John McCain during the 2008 primary. Leaving out nearly all of the political elements of the political campaign, “Mitt” instead focuses on the family life of the politician (and expects the viewer to keep track of about 112 Romney family members that filter in and out).

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Photo courtesy of Netflix.

My favorite Romney, Josh (identifiable only because he has a slightly stronger jaw than his brother Matt), has a good moment of attempted realism, providing both his “media answer” and “actual answer” to the question, “Is it worth it?” After the 2008 primary is said and done, the family, as a whole, agrees vehemently that running for office is not worth it and they will never do it again.

The documentary then skips ahead several years to file footage of Mitt appearing onstage at the 2012 Republican National Convention to accept his party’s nomination for President. This, I think, deserved much more of a segue.

The film also ends extremely abruptly without showing any return to normalcy or adjusting to life after losing a presidential election. Instead, Ann and Mitt walk inside their home, sit awkwardly on opposite ends of the room, then credits roll.

Mitt is an interesting person, just as villains usually have more interesting origin stories than their good-guy counterparts. Romney’s history is full of incidences of being good but never the best, culminating with his unsuccessful presidential campaign. He idolizes his father, former Michigan Governor George Romney (which is showcased, albeit subtly, in the documentary when Romney speaks passionately about his father’s accomplishments or hangs his father’s old campaign posters on his bus), and has always put great effort into doing things of which his father would be proud.

That’s what I want to watch a documentary about.

I found the rare, honest glimpses into Romney’s true character pretty interesting, and I would love to see a documentary focus more on that. I was pleasantly surprised by his self-deprecating sense of humor. During one of the many family pep talks featured in the film, one of the Romneys (probably Tagg) says, “A year ago, we told you that we’d love you no matter how this thing turned out, and—“ “And now you’re not so sure,” Mitt interjects with a wry smile.

Romney would make for a fantastic character study, but I’m not sure we’ll ever have the opportunity to truly lift the veil. Until then, “Mitt” only provides some partial insight.

‘Mitt’
Release Date: Jan. 24, 2014
Director: Greg Whiteley
Starring: Mitt Romney, Ann Romney and Taggart Romney
Genre: Documentary, Biography, Drama
Rating: Not Rated
Grade: B