Visualize Whirled Peas

by Chris Tharp

Oh North Korea, such a naughty little thing. How it blazes incandescent in the Western psyche. We just love to hate the place, don’t we? It’s a defiant, inscrutable nation, ruled by a blood succession of grumpy-faced, outlandishly-coiffed chubbies whose constant saber-rattling, fire-breathing, and generally bellicose bellowing raises eyebrows along with military alert levels. That’s right, North Korea talks some serious shit. On multiple occasions they have threatened to turn the South into a “sea of fire.” They have played the race card in the ugliest manner, referring to President Barack Obama as “a monkey,” and “a crossbreed with unclear blood.” More recently they’ve slandered South Korean president Park Geun-hye as “a crafty prostitute” and “America’s comfort woman.” Damn. And in one of their grander rhetorical moments of late, they labeled U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry “a wolf” with a “hideous lantern jaw.” As cutting as that is, I’m not sure if I can really disagree; the former senator does indeed rock an insectoid mandible that looks like it could grind gravel into dust. But I’m told he speaks exquisite French.

Being a pariah state carries a certain amount of mystique, so it should come as no surprise that the North attracts its fair share of nutbars and self-aggrandizers. Every few months there is a story of some wide-eyed Christian preacher bum rushing the Stalinist state from the Chinese side of the border, wading across the Yalu River armed only with bags of Bibles and good news. He invariably gets arrested and paraded in front of cameras for a forced confession before the ever-beaming Jimmy Carter flies in to save the day (If he’s busy building houses somewhere, you can always call Bill Clinton). Add naive television journalists, a (probably) mentally-ill ESL teacher, and the “basketball diplomacy” of Dennis Fucking Rodman (who is rumored to have gotten so drunk during his mission to the North that he took a dump in the hallway of his hotel), and you have positive cavalcade of attention seekers who have all figured out that the road to international media coverage runs straight through Pyongyang.

Now we can add Gloria Steinem to this ever-growing list. Ms. Steinem, of course, is famous for her ceaseless agitation for the rights of women from the 1960’s on. For many years she was the face of the feminist movement and I’d like to think has generally been a force of good on this planet. She has fought for equal rights day in and day out and  for this I applaud her. She’s also ceaselessly agitated for peace, which is a good thing, right?


Peace. It’s such a seductive idea. After all, who is against peace? That’s like being anti-Christmas or hating babies. Everyone wants peace, even North Koreans, so when Ms. Steinem announced that she was co-chairing a “women’s march for peace” on the Korean peninsula, it seemed like a laudable idea, prima facie. After all, this is technically a very dangerous part of the world where hostilities could kick off again at any time, with disastrous results all around. Is there anything wrong with calling attention to that fact?

Women have often been peacemakers. After all, in the wars it is the men who do most of the fighting, leaving the women without husbands, brothers, and sons. In Aristophanes’s famous play Lysistrata, the title character attempts to end the Peloponnesian War by convincing all of the women in the town to withhold sex from their husbands. That’s right, all of the ladies go on a pussy strike and it works. Peace prevails and the people can get back to getting at it again. Thanks, women.

However, when I first read about this women’s march, which was called “Women Cross DMZ” (Someone forgot to take their creativity pills!), I for one didn’t go all tingly inside. In fact, my eyes did a 360 in their sockets. While no expert on intra-Korean relations, I have spent a decade here, read a lot on the subject, and try to keep track of the news. A peace march? Really? What were they possibly  hoping to achieve?

Gloria Steinem and the other organizers said that they wanted to bring an end to the Korean War, which technically never ended since no peace treaty was signed. Really? 65 years of conflict and loggerheads resolved by linked arms and a rousing rendition of “Cumbaya”? Please pass the barf bag.

North Korea was the first to leap at the opportunity to host this march, which should come as no surprise, since these kind of vague calls for peace and reunification are right in their wheelhouse. The North has been clamoring for a peace treaty for a long time now, which was echoed by Women Cross DMZ. The South refuses to sign for myriad reasons, laid out clearly in this excellent, in-depth article on the march over at Korea Expose. South Korea eventually agreed to let the women cross, though from the start the conservative Park government was cool to the idea. Why was that? Because such a superficial, ineffective gesture would only play right into the hands of the regime up North. And that’s just what happened.

In addition to Steinem, two Nobel Peace Prize laureates were on board for this event, Mairead Maguire (1976) from Ireland and Leymah Gbowee (2011) from Liberia, lending the affair some much-needed gravitas. But it was the inclusion of lightning rod Christine Ahn that really set some people off. She is a Korean-American activist who has been often accused of having strong North Korean sympathies. The women of course toured Kim Il-sung’s birthplace when they were up North, and the state’s official paper, the Rodong Shinmun, quotes Ahn as praising the founder, though I suspect it was manufactured. Ahn is no idiot, and it’s unlikely she would spout such nonsense knowing what sort of microscope she was already under, though some of her other quotes featured on this DC-based blog seem pretty damning. Like other Northern-apologists, she seems totally unwilling to criticize or blame the regime for any of its woes. She has also engaged in what is the South Korean left’s version of 9/11 Trutherism: the conspiracy theory that North Korea was in no way responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan, in which 44 Southern sailors died.

I don’t think that Gloria Steinem or most the women on this march were pro-North Korea, but I do think their naivete was weapons grade. Yes, they went to North Korea and met with other women (every single one of whom was vetted, coached, and selected by the regime I’m sure) to ‘hear their stories,’ were feted by the government, posed for photos, and then bussed to the DMZ, where they crossed at the Kaeseong Industrial Zone (on buses, not foot) before heading into Seoul for a meeting with fellow activists. They were met with some supporters and plenty of protesters in the South, and, according to reports, their march was met largely with derision in the local media. I wonder why?

From what I read, the people behind Women Cross DMZ believe that person-to-person contact with North Koreans will somehow magically help open up the country. This sounds so reasonable but is, of course, nonsense. Plenty of foreigners visit North Korea, and like Steinem and her sisters, they are ushered to the same spots, surrounded by minders, and only meet ‘approved’ citizens. As a result, there can never be any real, meaningful, person-to-person exchanges. It’s all staged and monitored. These women are also of the predictable Why can’t North and South Korea just sit down and talk? school. They are under the starry-eyed illusion that North Korea can be trusted or reasoned with, which it can’t. The regime has shown time and time again that it only uses negotiations as a way to squeeze concessions from the South while breaking every promise it makes. I have become a hardliner on this issue: don’t talk to North Korea. Isolation and containment must be the only policy. Anything else just rewards the people in charge, who are terrible, terrible human beings. Look no further than abject failure that was the “Sunshine Policy.”


North Korea is probably the most awful regime on earth. We love to hate it because it IS that bad. It’s a paranoid, racist place where one “wrong” thought can have you and and generations of your family killed or sent off to a slave labor camp. Their laundry list of sins and abuses is lengthy, clear, and well-documented. The only way they can bargain anything on the international stage is through threats and fear, though hosting events such as Women Across DMZ help to ameliorate this prickly image. Posing in front of the cameras and treating both Koreas as if they are somehow equal–economically, politically, or morally–IS legitimizing that regime. It is nothing more than a propaganda coup for the pack of gansters that runs the joint. These women gladly played the role of ‘useful idiots’ while wasting everybody else’s time.

Gloria Steinem should know this; after all, this wasn’t her first rodeo. One can’t help but think her involvement in this whole silly affair was one old woman’s desperate cry for relevancy before she fades away for good. It was a condescending move, reeking of entitlement.  Here comes the wise benevolent white woman to save these wretched souls. Lasting peace has only eluded the peninsula for almost 65 years because Gloria Steinem, peace sisters in tow, never deigned to stroll across the DMZ.

And look: They made a quilt.


Can someone please smother me with it?

American Interlude

by Fred Colton

There was a small US Army checkpoint building in the DMZ and the North Korean soldiers kept crashing their heavy trucks into it to be a pain in the ass. It was on a narrow road near the Joint Security Area and they’d purposefully take the corner by the checkpoint too fast so they would skid into the little building and knock the aluminum roof off. Vehicular bowling of sorts.

This was in 1973, my grandfather said. The war had been on pause for twenty years at that point but the passive aggression still simmered at the border. He was an Air Force engineer stationed at Yongsan and he got orders to construct a stouter building of reinforced cinder blocks with a sturdier roof on top that would rip open the next kamikaze truck like a can opener—which is what happened when they finished the building. It was an atypical job site, with North Korean soldiers buzzing by in their trucks. Atypical, but manageable. The axe murder incident was still a few years away and so the border tension hadn’t yet been cranked up to a full boil.

My grandfather told me this sliver of a story when I was back at home for Lunar New Year. My visit is a key stop on the hometown comeback tour. We each had a bottle of Beck’s, as per the ritual, and he started talking when I mentioned my visit to the DMZ. He was an Air Force lifer and did tours in Vietnam and Germany and wherever else the Pentagon brass thought a Communist domino was about to fall. He has on-the-ground anecdotes from the Cold War but he’s never been very forthcoming with sharing them. Comets pass by more often. I figured it was due to our lack of common ground. A shared last name only does so much to bridge the chasm between someone who remembers a time before North Korea and Israel existed and me, a member of the softest generation of all time.

Things changed when I moved abroad. I wasn’t of much interest to him until then. I’ve learned that what works is traveling to the same countries my grandfather did forty years ago and then coming back home with a few stories chambered. Usually they contain the right keywords to trigger a memory and when they do, you’re suddenly conducting a History Channel interview.

After the Becks we had braised lamb and wine with my grandmother to complete the ritual. They had opera coming out of the speakers by the fireplace. The grandparents went to bed and I went out to the brick sidewalk to be collected by two high school friends. I was home for the first time in a year, so we had to go drink. We rolled out of the colonial enclave my grandparents live in and slid around corners on gray slush. You could have hidden a column of tanks in snowpiles from the last blizzard. This is Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a seacoast city which could be a carbon copy of an English town except for the accents and that they drive on the right.

The bar’s ceiling was held up by rough wooden columns that will give you splinters. It was the setting for the most sacred of stops on the comeback tour: talking shit with the townies for a few hours. Putting down an imprecise amount of tall lagers and becoming very loud and very certain about things. Most of the reunions are devoted to reminiscing, running through our squad’s Greatest Hits, a set list sanded and smoothed over time. Stories that every group has, like the parking lot brawl five years ago that started when Brian made fun of someone’s Limp Bizkit shirt, a brawl we only won because one of our guys was a Division II linebacker.

Then we shifted gears and talk about who just died. There’s a new body every time I come home; one guy was a Marine who got shot in the head and the rest have been overdoses. You can’t really draw a clear cause-effect line from it all, but the deaths seem to underscore the bleak always-winter ambiance in the Northeast. My friends eventually asked why this is all it ever is, why I only surface for about seventy-two hours a year. I gave the rambling answer of a drunk, an expat’s manifesto of sorts. I said that I’ve been getting more detached the more time I spend abroad, and that it’s led me to appraise America as I would any other foreign country. Besides my family and twenty-four hour breakfast diners there’s not a lot I miss. You can get everything else overseas. Public transport in most cities is abysmal, if it exists at all, which means you have to own a car and pay all the hidden fees that come with it. It costs more to get sick here than it does anywhere else I’ve been. The rant continued: I’ve had to pay four figures in court fees because I got pulled over without proof of insurance in the glove box. What I didn’t say out loud, to not come off as such a highly-enlightened prick, was that I’ve started to weigh everything experientially, to think about what kind of stories I want to be collecting. You can stay busy punching Boston Irish guys in a cold parking lot or you can motorbike Filipino Islands and watch the run rise over the Tibetan Plateau.

Then it was back to the airport for the return hike to Asia. More places to see; that hunger never really goes away. We got airborne before the next storm hit. It was 6 a.m. and the plane made a slow cut over downtown Boston, with its small towers and stone churches, whited-out and glowing soft on the harbor. Beautiful, even if you’ve seen it a hundred times. But only from up here, really, and only from a distance.