My Next Job?

The Guardian has a three-part series of stories on life in North Korea (originally from NKNews), with this one focusing on young adult life — military service and university education — for the country’s young adults.

This bit struck me:

About a sixth of the population does go to university, which is a high proportion for a country with such a low standard of living. Of course, universities have their own hierarchy.

The most prestigious institution is the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (Pust), which was created by Kim Jong-il and has some strange traditions.

All courses are taught in English by professors who are all foreigners. Any foreigner who is not a citizen of South Korea is welcome – regardless of qualifications – to become a professor. However, given that professors are not allowed to leave campus without permission, are not paid a salary, are not compensated for their trip to North Korea and are fed badly, very few people volunteer.

The majority of North Korea’s Number One university professors are Christian fundamentalists, whose trips are sponsored by their church. Still, it is one of the few places in North Korea where you may talk to a foreigner and learn something about the outside world, and is considered very prestigious.

Of course, with two masters degrees (one from Georgetown University), I could easily teach a foreign language or something akin to Middle East studies (if such things are allowed) at PUST. It might be an interesting way to spend a year.

So, is this my next job? Because something about this really, really intrigues me…

What a Show *This* Will Be!

I’m trying to figure who in Ljubljana — or Pyongyang, for that matter — thinks this is a good idea:

35 years on from their genesis in the then-Yugoslavian industrial town Trbovlje, Laibach are still the most internationally acclaimed band to have come out of the former Communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe. Founded in the death year of then-Yugoslavia’s leader Tito, and rising to fame as Yugoslavia steered towards self-destruction, Laibach have consistently opposed labels of any kind, be they “rock”, “pop”, “techno” or “industrial”. Self-styled engineers of human souls, Laibach can make you think, dance and march to the same music.

In August 2015, Laibach will become the first ever band of its kind to perform in the secretive country of North Korea, a reclusive garrison state as well-known for its military marches, mass gymnastics and hymns to the Great Leader, as for its defiant resistance to Western popular culture.

Laibach’s Liberation Day Tour will coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Korean peninsula’s liberation from Japanese colonization and subsequent division into two enemy states which confront each other in an uneasy truce to this day. The concerts will also be subject of a documentary film scheduled for premiere in 2016.

I’ve long subscribed to the Kanan Makiya school of thought about one-party states and personality-cult dictatorships — that they are works of absurdist art, were deliberately fashioned with that intention, and need to be viewed that way. So, ever since I first came across North Korean media (when I was at San Francisco State University, reading The People’s Korea and listening, whenever I could, to Radio Pyongyang on the shortwave), I’ve always considered the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to be something of a work of art.

A couple of years earlier, while working at KSPC, I discovered Laibach — their full-length cover of Let It Be by The Beatles (oh, for God’s sake, Google them). I even saw them live in San Francisco, describing them as “music to invade Poland by” and noting the show itself was a strange and wonderful pretend kind of absurdist politics. I always though Laibach was something of a complex joke — totalitarian politics as absurdist art. (For example, several people showed up wearing brown SA and black SS uniforms, with a black heart or a rainbow replacing the swatiska in the armband and the death’s head on the hat.) I have a soft spot for this sort of thing.

For example, they could take this Queen song (already chock full o’ fascist images)…

… and turn it into an actual fascist anthem. The kind of thing you might listen to while scheming how to remilitarize the Rhineland or carve up Czechoslovakia.

Or, they take this little Eurovision bubblegum anthem (again, already pregnant with lots of fascist imagery — what was it with europop in the 1980s?)…

… And put it atop a Tiger tank roaring through the Ardennes on it’s way to Paris.

If Laibach is a joke — and honestly, it’s hard to tell — it’s one they’ve been stringing along for the better part of four decades. Long after totalitarian politics stopped having parties, and armies, and ideologies, or even aesthetics. Aside from the catchy “Tanz Mit Laibach,” I’ve not been all that interested in anything Laibach has done since Let It Be (though the collection of national anthems is interesting).

(However, their next album, Spectre — the title probably comes from the first line of The Communist Manifesto — looks really, really interesting…)

North Korea is the final frontier of the sort of thing Laibach is really, really good at. If anyone could do something ironic with the Arirang Festival — the kind of mass spectacle the North Koreans are exceptionally good at — and make it into interesting performance art to back their presentation, then it is Laibach.

But the DPRK is something or an irony-free zone. At least I think it is. It’s hard to tell. Irony is most of what Laibach does. (At least I think so. Again, it’s hard to tell.) I’m not sure anyone in Pyongyang will get the joke that is Laibach. Or know what to do if and when they get the joke.

Or, maybe, just maybe, Laibach has finally met its match when it comes to the party, state, and army as ironic performance art.

Something is Missing Here

I read North Korean media so you don’t have to. And I noticed something in some photos posted on the Rodong Shinmung’s webpage for the Supreme Leader’s Activities. These are the lede photos for the last three entries:

And this

And this

Where’s his flair? You know, the big red flag pin he wears over his his heart bearing the images of both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il? I know he’s worn that pin with his white coat before, such as when he visited the world’s happiest (and best fed, apparently) industrial lubricants factory:


So, in this series of pictures (which were probably all taken on the same day), he’s missing that pin. Where is it? Why isn’t he wearing it? Was it an accident or an oversight (“Oh, shit, Dear Leader, I think you left it on your dresser this morning…”) or is this on purpose?

UPDATE: In this series of photos dated 15 June, Kim Jong Un is still without his flair. Now, if anyone in North Korea can go without, it would be him. But still…

I have no answers, and I won’t pretend to have any either. When it comes to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the only media and sources I trust are those in or from the DPRK itself. Because it’s possible to read between the lines — and deconstruct the images — without speculating too much. But this is interesting.

Someone’s clearly not interested in expressing himself…