South Korea

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?

Deez Nuts: On Privilege, Apologies, and Cho Hyun-ah

by Chris Tharp

I have to admit to revelling in the ongoing drama of “Nutgate,” in which then Korean Airlines vice president for cabin service Cho Hyun-ah threw a weapons grade conniption when, on a flight from New York to Seoul, an attendant in first class had the audacity to serve her macadamia nuts in the packet instead of upon a pristine plate. Not content just to dress the offending stewardess down, she unleashed a torrent of abuse upon the whole staff and ordered the taxiing plane back to the gate, where she had the chief purser ejected for dereliction of duty. Almost as puzzling as Ms. Cho’s seemingly cruel and petty outburst is the fact that pilot went along with her demand, breaking aviation safety law in a pathetic attempt to save his own ass. He knew better than to defy HER will. After all, her father, Cho Yang-ho, is the chairman of Hanjin, the conglomerate that owns Korean Airlines. Hyun-ah was  backed up by serious, hard power. If she was so willing to bounce the purser over a nut discrepancy, what fate could await a pilot who disobeyed a direct order from Her Highness? Knowing his place on the strata of Korean social power, the pilot bowed down his head and turned that plane the fuck around.

This story quickly went viral and is still being covered worldwide. Part of it is the absurdity of the narrative: Such a brouhaha over nuts, really? The whole affair seemed so silly and random, but the bullying behavior of the central antagonist colored it with a much darker hue. It shone a light on the seeming untouchability of the 1%, that not only do the uber-rich have all the money, but they consider themselves above the law. This especially tapped into the zeitgeist here in South Korea, where people have been watching the families of the nation’s chaebol (conglomerates) act like modern day aristocrats for decades now. Enough was enough, and it didn’t take long before liberals and conservatives alike were calling for Cho Hyun-ah’s head on a pike.

There is more than just the will to punish bad behavior going on here. We love a good villainess and are very willing to cast Ms. Cho in that role. Throughout my lifetime the media has periodically turned its lens onto those out-of-touch, wealthy women that we love to hate, fire-breathing female figures who live in diamond palaces and run roughshod over the help. Remember Leona Helmsely, aka “The Queen of Mean”? Zsa Zsa Gabor’s infamous slapping of the traffic cop? Or the racist outbursts Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Shott? Cho Hyun-ah is just another notorious woman crowned with the time-honored title of Megabitch. The fact that she’s Asian only ratchets it up to another level. Now she is no longer just a Megabitch, but a full-fledged Dragon Lady. I haven’t seen a real-life Dragon Lady elicit such levels of vitriol since the days of Imelda Marcos. I wonder how many pairs of shoes Cho Hyun-ah owns?


None of this should come as too much of a surprise. After all, Ms. Cho’s English name is ‘Heather.’ Heather Cho. Anyone who grew up in the 1980’s can testify that pretty much any girl name Heather was considered to steeped in venom. This notion was so widespread at the time that they ended up making a hit movie about it. I wonder how Ms. Cho came upon that name. Did she choose it herself? Or, more likely, was it assigned to her by an English teacher who knew what made her tick?

Teacher: So… Hyun-ah. What English name would you like?

Hyun-ah: Hello teacher… I want to be called ‘Sunny.’

Teacher: ‘Sunny?’ Hmmm… let’s see… I don’t know… I see you as more of a ‘Heather,’ m’kay?

One thing I like about Korea is that if you’re a public figure and you really fuck up, you have crawl out in front of the whole nation and perform a giant mea culpa. There is no stonewalling, no subterfuge, no hiding behind layers of lawyers and publicists. You are forced to put one foot in front of the other and hike the walk of shame in front of a battalion of camera-wielding journalists, where, voice a-trembling, you repeatedly whisper ‘I’m sorry’ into a wall of microphones and then bow. I think this ritual of public contrition plays an essential role in a person’s rehabilitation while also serving the public’s need to stick the offending celebrity in the pillory and launch volley after volley of virtual tomatoes. Cho Hyun-ah did this just days after the whole incident went public, and something about it was immensely satisfying. There she was, in her stylish black jacket and grey scarf, strands of loose hair rakishly blowing over her seemingly makeup-free face, while she mumbled her apologies in a barely-audible sigh. The rest of us sat there smugly while she choked down spoonful after spoonful of steaming, fecal-flavored bibimbap for all the world to see. I was absolutely enraptured and never wanted it to end.


What’s even better was that her dad, Cho Yang-ho, apologized too. One of the richest men in the nation hauled himself in front of the cameras and confessed his heartfelt regret that he didn’t do a better job in raising her. I was both impressed and dumbfounded. Here we had a father taking responsibility for the behavior of his grown, 40-year old daughter, basically admitting to the fact that he had overindulged her growing up, recognizing that this may just have some bearing on her actions today.

Can you imagine if this happened back home? If the parents of our most awful citizens came forward and apologized on behalf of their spawn?

“On behalf of our family and the whole nation of Canada, I’d like to offer my most sincere apologies. It’s time I faced the fact that my son Justin is indeed a malignant, no-talent puddle of shit. We are very sorry for encouraging him to go into music, but even sorrier for having him in the first place.”

“We’d like to express regret for buying our daughter Paris a Caribbean island for her 8th birthday. We should have just gone with the pony.”

“Perhaps I shouldn’t have paved the way for Jr. to go into politics. It wasn’t prudent of me do to so, since it resulted in two illegal wars and a gutted economy for the benefit of his cronies. I’d like to apologize, but… screw it, let’s just keep blaming it all on the negro.”

The whole notion of parents apologizing for their adult kids is very Korean. Most Koreans take this idea of collective responsibility very seriously. North Korea takes it to the extreme, where several generations of one family will be thrown into the gulag over the supposed sins of just one member. But I’ve seen it here in South Korea, first hand. In 2007 a student massacred 32 people in a mass shooting on the campus of Virginia Tech in America. Early reports told us that the shooter was Asian, but for some time his exact ethnicity was unknown. Koreans were tight lipped on the story, presumably praying inside that the murderer was anything but Korean. When it turned out that he was indeed a Korean kid, for days I was subjected to deeply felt apologies from Korean friends, acquaintances, and students, with many of them directly apologizing on behalf of their entire nation.

“I am so sorry he was Korean. We are so ashamed.”

“It’s okay,” I’d say. “You don’t need to apologize. Really.

“But I am sorry.”

“What? Did you send him money to buy bullets?”


Please Japanese. Please Japanese. Please Japanese.

Cho Hyun-ah was detained on December 30th and is now holed up in a cold, South Korean jail. She has been indicted on five different charges and faces up to 15 years in prison for her nut meltdown. Her father stripped her of all her positions within Hanjin’s companies, and seems very willing to sacrifice her onto the pyre of public outrage. I wonder how long it is before they brand the word BITCH into her back with a hot iron and force her walk to walk naked through the freezing streets of Seoul. She’s getting her commupance and then some, but I have to admit that I actually feel sorry for her. The satisfaction that so many of us get by knowing that she is suffering is not an attractive human emotion. It’s ugly, because at times we’ve all been terrible people. Our willingness to spit in Ms. Cho’s disgraced face runs counter to Christ’s “Let him who has not sinned cast the first stone,” which you don’t have to be a Christian to recognize as one of his finest moments. That was also a situation involving a very unpopular woman. Hmmm… I sense a pattern here.

Spurned by the public, fired from her jobs, abandoned by her father, facing hard time… what’s a former heiress to do? Well she’ll have to serve whatever sentence is handed down, but when she comes out, I have a business idea I’d like to pitch her way: I think she should open an S & M dungeon. Just picture it: The whole thing is done up like the first class cabin of a jumbo jet. She is dressed in a skin-tight PVC catsuit, along with an Nazi SS cap and patch over one eye. She sits, legs crossed, in an airline seat and carries a bullwhip. The slave is lead in on a leash. He wears a chief purser’s uniform with the whole of the crotch cut out. A leather gimp mask covers his face. A ball gag occupies the cavity of his mouth. A butt plug in the shape of a miniature Boeing 747 is rammed deep into the recesses of his ass. In his trembling hands is a pack of macadamia nuts. At Madam Cho’s feet is a plate made of the purest white porcelain.

“It puts the nuts on the plate.”


“It puts the nuts on the plate.”



This works for me. Maybe it will for her as well. After all, doesn’t everyone deserve a shot at redemption?

Sea of Ire – One Writer’s Battle Against North Korea’s Most Worrying Mega-Cliche

By John Boscskay

In November 2010, North Korean howitzers opened fire on a populated area on Yeonypoung, a South Korean island near their maritime border, killing four people and causing widespread damage. The nearly hour-long barrage was a response to South Korea’s annual military exercises, during which the South Korean army fires artillery from Yeonypoung into waters they control but which North Korea also claims. Every year since the attack, North Korea has protested the drills, and last year was no different. Like the asshole at a nightclub who threatens to beat the crap out of you for brushing against his shoe, North Korea warned that if the drills didn’t stop, they would turn the South Korean presidential office (“The Blue House”) into a “sea of fire.”

As a writer and language teacher who has been living in South Korea for 15 years, North Korea’s warped sense of proportion is only slightly more disappointing to me than their continued reliance on the “sea of fire” cliché, which has been so thoroughly abused that it’s hard to recall a time before it was commonplace. The phrase first appeared in the inter-Korean dialogue in 1994, as nuclear anti-proliferation talks between North and South broke down. With the talks spiraling toward collapse, North Korea’s lead negotiator, Park Young Su, in an apparently unscripted outburst, declared that “Seoul will be turned into a sea of fire” and stormed out of the conference room. Concise, memorable, and suggestive of apocalyptic wrath, Mr. Park’s “sea of fire” immediately set the region on edge, but, for reasons we may never know, was considered inappropriate by North Korea’s leader, Kim Il-sung, who had Park sacked a month later.

Mushroom cloud (omegarobot)

The ominous phrase faded from use, but was apparently deemed appropriate by Kim Jong-il in 1999, when North Korea threatened to turn both South Korea and the U.S. into a ‘sea of fire’ if attacked. Throughout the following decade, the phrase was hurled about with wanton disregard for both human life and lexical variety: in 2003, when they threatened Seoul with a “sea of fire” while unleashing a barrage of unflattering adjectives on the U.S.; in 2004, when they threatened Japan with an explicitly “nuclear” sea of fire; and a year later, when they threatened to preemptively strike U.S. military bases, turning them into seas of fire while “thoroughly” wiping out anyone who helped them (read: South Korea and Japan).



Perhaps aware of the need to mix it up a little, in 2008, the KCNA warned that “everything will be ashes, not just a sea of fire”, which was encouraging but either contradictory or redundant, depending on how you read it. Later that year, Vice Marshall Kim Il-Chol threatened that a North Korean counterstrike would somehow be “unimaginably more powerful than nuclear weapons,” and that it would “not merely turn everything into a sea of fire but reduce everything treacherous and anti-reunification to debris and build an independent reunified country on it.” I don’t even know what that means, but it sounds eerily like a Stalinist version of the Genesis device from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – a large torpedo that instantly reduces a lifeless planet to subatomic particles, then quickly reassembles it to make it habitable for the North Korean Worker’s Party.

Whatever he had in mind, the imaginative new threat was never elaborated, and North Korea was soon back to their old tricks. In 2010, when the South Korean military set up towers of loudspeakers at the border and repeatedly blared the song “Hit Your Heart” by the K-Pop group 4Minute, the North Koreans threatened to not only blow up the speakers (which is forgivable if you’ve heard the song) but to turn Seoul into a sea of you guessed it.

With the ascension of the 28-year-old Kim Jong-un to power in late 2011, I held out tentative hope for an end to the nuclear brinkmanship, or at least to the hackneyed phrases that accompany it. North Korean defense officials quickly squashed that, declaring that the world “should not expect any changes from us.” As if to underline the point, they warned that the “sea of bloody tears” of the North Korean people and army would turn into a “sea of revengeful fire that burns everything.”


A box of fire

One noticeable change has however occurred under Kim Jong-un’s tenure: rather than conjuring nuclear annihilation, ‘sea of fire’ is used more literally to describe limited attacks involving any sort of fire at all. Case in point: the aforementioned attack on Yeonpyoung Island, in which incendiary shells set fire to fields, trees and a couple dozen buildings. This November, they even threatened to turn individual structures, like the Blue House, into a sea of fire, which would only seem to require a lagoon of fire, or, if you’re feeling generous, a bay. Maybe ambiguity is what they’re going for, or maybe they’re being lazy, but either way it screams rookie mistake. Here in Busan, a city more than 300 kilometers from the DMZ, nuclear missiles worry me. Artillery rounds? Not so much.

It’s hard to square such rhetorical complacency with a country whose fluency in insulting people has inspired the creation of a random insult generator, an Internet honor previously reserved for William Shakespeare. Verbally eviscerating one’s enemies is something of a national pastime in North Korea. According to defectors, this type of invective is instilled in society by the state-run newspapers, which regularly slander enemies of the state in order to rally the people around the ruling clique. If there were an international competition of political “Your Momma” putdowns, North Korea would own the podium every year. I can imagine North Korean high school kids facing off in the schoolyard:

Your mother is such a sycophantic political dwarf that her remarks often reveal her utter ignorance of Juche ideology, to say nothing of her fitness for parenting tomorrow’s revolutionary vanguard!

Is that so? Well your mother is such a half-baked philistine that she couldn’t mercilessly wipe out an enemy bulwark if the Korean people’s glorious victory depended on it!

While they do overuse stock terms to describe us Yankee “imperialists” and our South Korean “puppet” allies, the KCNA have also displayed an ability to stretch and flash their chops, especially during the “brigandish” (one of their favorite adjectives) administration of George W. Bush. The KCNA referred to the Bush team as “a bunch of tricksters and political imbeciles who are the center of a plot breeding fraud and swindle,” and often called them out singly for verbal smackdowns. President Bush, who famously tarred North Korea as a member of an Axis of Evil, was described as a “hooligan bereft of any personality…a half-baked man in terms of morality and a philistine who can never be dealt with.” When Bush had a shoe thrown at him by an Iraqi reporter in 2008, the KCNA waxed poetic, writing that Bush just stood there “like a chicken soaked in the rain.” They landed some of their best zingers on jaynebootonhis cabinet, calling Vice President Cheney a “mentally deranged person steeped in inveterate enmity towards the system [in North Korea]” and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a “human butcher and fascist tyrant who puts an ogre to shame”.

Despite the chutzpah of these KCNA broadsides, reading them you soon notice that they employ an inordinate number of antiquated words like “trickster” “stooge” and “lackey.” According to Joo Sung-ha, who defected from North Korea and is now a journalist in South Korea, this is because they rely on dictionaries published in the 1960s and have few or no native speakers to proofread their diatribes. The result of this linguistic isolation is that North Koreans roll out our old verbiage in much the same way that Cubans deploy our old Plymouths, Buicks, and Chevys: keeping them in wide circulation despite a dearth of imported parts, polishing them to a surprising luster, and revving them up with obvious relish. OK – denouncing someone as a ‘flunkey’ might not achieve the same degree of cool as a Havana cabbie in a ’52 Ford Victoria, but there’s an oddball charm in the glimpse it offers of a bygone linguistic moment, painstakingly restored by those quirky curators of Cold War bombast.


Hold on to your sphincters, Korea.

Having seen their potential, it’s disappointing to pick up the paper and read that we’ve once again been threatened by a “sea of fire”, which now sounds more like an award-winning 5-alarm chili than code for Armageddon. Will KCNA broadcasts someday swear to turn Washington into a “moldering mound of marble” or transform everything below the DMZ into a “rat’s nest of ruined rebar”? I don’t know, but the status quo has got to go.