K-pop and fancy sneakers: Kim Jong Un’s cultural revolution
By ERIC TALMADGE
Wednesday, February 13
PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — Dancers in hot pants. Factories pumping out Air Jordan lookalikes. TV dramas that are actually fun to watch.
North Korean pop culture, long dismissed by critics as a kitschy throwback to the dark days of Stalinism, is getting a major upgrade under leader Kim Jong Un.
The changes are being seen in everything from television dramas and animation programs to the variety and packaging of consumer goods, which have improved significantly under Kim. Whether it’s a defensive attempt to keep up with South Korea or an indication that Kim is willing to embrace aspects of Western consumer culture that his predecessors might have viewed as suspiciously bourgeois isn’t clear.
“The most important thing for us is to produce a product that suits the people’s tastes,” Kim Kyong Hui of the Ryuwon Shoe Factory told The Associated Press recently in the facility’s showroom, which is filled with dozens of kinds of shoes for running, volleyball, soccer — even table tennis. “The respected leader Kim Jong Un has instructed us to closely study shoes from all over the world and learn from their example,” she added, pointing to a pair of flame-red high-top basketball shoes.
To be sure, North Korea remains one of the most insular countries in the world. Change comes cautiously and anyone who openly criticizes the government or leadership or is seen as a threat can expect severe repercussions. But there appears to be more of a willingness under Kim to experiment around some of the edges.
The most visible upgrades are on television and its normal menu of propaganda programs and documentaries in praise of the leaders.
Viewers of the main state-run TV network — the only channel that can be seen anywhere in the country — are now stopping their routines to watch the latest episodes of “The Wild Ginseng Gatherers of the Imjin War,” a historical drama set in the late 16th century, when Korea was struggling against a Japanese invasion.
The anti-Japan, nationalistic theme is nothing new. A similar theme was used for Kim Jong Un’s first big contribution to the television lineup, an animated series reviving a popular comic from his father’s era called “The Boy General” that made its debut in 2015. The animation, set in the Koguryo period when Korea was fighting off Chinese incursions, was such a hit that people would stop whatever they were doing to watch it. A Boy General game was created for mobile phones. New episodes are believed to be forthcoming.
What the TV drama, first aired last July, and the Boy General animation share that’s new is their high production values.
The acting in the movie is grittier and more compelling, the plots more engaging and the sets and costumes are decidedly more elaborate than previous projects. Even the dialogue spoken in Japanese by the villains, played of course by North Korean actors, is generally accurate, though delivered with a heavy North Korean accent. The Boy General, meanwhile, makes skillful use of computer effects and is visually on par with some of the best animation in the world.
The improvements reflect awareness within Kim’s regime that the North Korean public is increasingly familiar with foreign pop culture despite severe restrictions that make it impossible for most to travel abroad or freely experience foreign movies, music or books.
That familiarity is particularly true of the North Korean elite, who are accustomed to seeing brand name products from Dior to Sony on the shelves of upscale stores in Pyongyang, the capital. Cheap knockoffs from China are common in marketplaces around the country.
Watching South Korean movies or listening to South Korean music is illegal. But a lot makes its way over the border and, even for those who would never dream of taking that risk, the officially approved cultural fare isn’t entirely void of foreign treats.
Bollywood films are popular in state-run cinemas — 2009’s “Three Idiots” with Aamir Khan, for example, was recently shown in a cinema just across the street from Kim Il Sung Square. North Korea’s educational channel regularly features long clips from foreign documentaries, and dog-eared Harry Potter books are among the most popular items at the People’s Grand Study House, North Korea’s biggest library.
North Korea’s “approach to the influx of foreign media has been to ‘modernize’ media production to provide an attractive and competitive product that caters to younger generations for whom older productions are no longer attractive,” said Geoffrey See, the founder of the Choson Exchange, a Singapore-based non-profit that supports change in North Korea through exposure to knowledge and information in business, entrepreneurship and law.
“For consumer goods, it also ties into a state policy to encourage more domestic production and import substitution,” he said.
Kim’s first attempt to update the pop culture scene started almost as soon as he assumed power in late 2011 with the creation of the Moranbong Band, an ensemble of female vocalists and musicians who are the “soft face” of his regime.
Although the members all belong to the Korean People’s Army, they are known for performing in miniskirts and wearing their hair fashionably short. They have released dozens of songs, all of which get lots of exposure through concert tours, DVDs and airtime on television.
They are beginning to look a bit passe, however.
In February last year, North Korea sent some of its top musicians, including a female quintet that performed in black shorts and red tops, south of the Demilitarized Zone to perform during South Korea’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Two months later, Kim was in the audience as the South Korean girl group Red Velvet put on what is believed to be the first real K-pop show ever held in Pyongyang. The North Korean act that performed in South Korea was so well received that Kim sent them to Beijing last month for another goodwill tour.
Still, military orchestras and classically trained vocalists who perform in traditional “Choson-ot” gowns remain the mainstay of the Pyongyang musical scene. The girl band’s performance in Beijing was backed up by the state’s military chorus and orchestra, all in full uniform.
More importantly, there has been no effort to delink the arts from politics.
When the musical group returned to Pyongyang, Kim urged them to continue to “conduct original artistic activities pulsating with the party’s ideology” and act “courageously as mouthpieces of the party,” according to state media.
Talmadge has been the AP’s Pyongyang bureau chief since 2013. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: EricTalmadge
Why Trump failed to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, and how he can do better at the next summit
February 13, 2019
Author: Stephen Collins, Professor of Political Science, Kennesaw State University
Disclosure statement: Stephen Collins does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will meet in Vietnam in late February for a second summit, with the goal of ending a nuclear standoff between the two countries.
After the first meeting between the two leaders in Singapore in the summer of 2018, Trump declared a breakthrough in U.S.-North Korean relations. He tweeted that there is “no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”
Eight months later, however, it is clear that North Korea’s nuclear weapons arsenal have not been curtailed in any significant way. The arsenal is estimated to include as many as 60 weapons and the rockets to deploy them are able to reach any spot in the U.S.
The U.S. intelligence community’s Worldwide Threat Assessment, released in January, declares that North Korea has retained its nuclear arsenal. The Pentagon’s 2019 Missile Defense Report calls the regime an “extraordinary threat” to the United States.
Why have the nuclear negotiations failed to yield progress in the nuclear disarmament of North Korea?
My research on diplomacy has led me to believe the stalemate is a result of Trump’s trade strategy toward North Korea’s neighbor and trading partner, China, and the U.S.’ sanctions strategy towards North Korea.
Both will need to change if progress is to be made.
Trump decided to launch a trade war with China in 2018, immediately following his summit with North Korea.
That’s a problem because Chinese cooperation is key to Trump’s effort to impose maximum pressure on North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. More than 90 percent of all North Korean trade is conducted with China alone – giving Beijing, by far, the greatest economic leverage over Pyongyang. China began wielding this leverage in 2017 as it started enforcing UN trade sanctions on North Korea. However, in the past year, China has retaliated against Trump’s tariff hikes on Chinese exports in part by relaxing its enforcement of sanctions on North Korea.
Coal imports, construction projects and tourism from China to North Korea have all increased. There has been a sharp spike in oil and gasoline smuggling operations into North Korea, mostly from Chinese ships.
U.S. allies and major trade partners, including Europe and Japan, share many of Trump’s concerns about China’s suspect trade practices and how it harms their economies. But they believe less combative approaches to China are preferable. A shift away from the confrontational approach would likely lead to increased Chinese cooperation with the sanctions campaign on North Korea.
The U.S. strategy towards North Korea is based solely on forcing the country to surrender its entire nuclear program before offering relief from sanctions.
Studies have shown that sanctions alone can be insufficient to convince a foreign government to abandon a program that it has long viewed as essential for its survival.
Kim Jong Un has vowed that North Korean disarmament will not happen without the U.S. making concessions.
The U.S. could just as easily use gradual relief from sanctions as leverage in exchange for disarmament steps. In the past, when North Korea took nuclear disarmament steps in 1994 and 2008, they did so partially in response to offers of sanctions relief and aid from the United States, South Korea, Japan and other allies.
There are steps beyond sanctions relief that can also prod North Korea towards disarmament. Security guarantees are among the most important incentives to offer during negotiations. North Korea has made it clear, that any substantial disarmament will come only after the U.S. and its regional allies promise never to attack North Korea.
A large economic, energy and food aid package from the U.S. and its allies could markedly improve the quality of life in North Korea. The country urgently needs assistance, and the ability of the U.S. to meet this need gives Washington leverage over Pyongyang. In his recent speech, Kim Jong Un declared that economic growth is the nation’s top priority. Per capita income in the country is just one-tenth that of South Korea, and 40 percent of the population suffers from malnutrition.
Sharing the burden
Aid would not be cheap.
A study estimated that an effective aid package would cost US$30 billion. However, the costs could be spread over time, and would be shared across donor nations.
This happened in 1994, when nearly 50 countries contributed financially to a deal which, although it eventually broke down, significantly curbed North Korea’s nuclear activities for many years.
Trump’s second summit with North Korea provides him a second chance to reconsider his unyielding trade approach to China, and his reluctance to use incentives to encourage North Korean disarmament.
Persuading China to resume its cooperation with the embargo would increase for Kim the costs of resistance, and adding incentives would enhance the benefits of compromise.
Taken together, these measures could increase the chances that North Korea will finally begin dismantling its nuclear arsenal.
How urban agriculture can improve food security in US cities
February 13, 2019
Author: Miguel Altieri, Professor of Agroecology, University of California, Berkeley
Disclosure statement: Miguel Altieri does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Partners: University of California provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.
During the partial federal shutdown in December 2018 and January 2019, news reports showed furloughed government workers standing in line for donated meals. These images were reminders that for an estimated one out of eight Americans, food insecurity is a near-term risk.
In California, where I teach, 80 percent of the population lives in cities. Feeding the cities of the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area, with a total population of some 7 million involves importing 2.5 to 3 million tons of food per day over an average distance of 500 to 1,000 miles.
This system requires enormous amounts of energy and generates significant greenhouse gas emissions. It also is extremely vulnerable to large-scale disruptions, such as major earthquakes.
And the food it delivers fails to reach 1 of every 8 people in the region who live under the poverty line – mostly senior citizens, children and minorities. Access to quality food is limited both by poverty and the fact that on average, California’s low-income communities have 32.7 percent fewer supermarkets than high-income areas within the same cities.
Many organizations see urban agriculture as a way to enhance food security. It also offers environmental, health and social benefits. Although the full potential of urban agriculture is still to be determined, based on my own research I believe that raising fresh fruits, vegetables and some animal products near consumers in urban areas can improve local food security and nutrition, especially for under served communities.
The growth of urban agriculture
Urban farming has grown by more than 30 percent in the United States in the past 30 years. Although it has been estimated that urban agriculture can meet 15 to 20 percent of global food demand, it remains to be seen what level of food self-sufficiency it can realistically ensure for cities.
One recent survey found that 51 countries do not have enough urban area to meet a recommended nutritional target of 300 grams per person per day of fresh vegetables. Moreover, it estimated, urban agriculture would require 30 percent of the total urban area of those countries to meet global demand for vegetables. Land tenure issues and urban sprawl could make it hard to free up this much land for food production.
Other studies suggest that urban agriculture could help cities achieve self-sufficiency. For example, researchers have calculated that Cleveland, with a population of 400,000, has the potential to meet 100 percent of its urban dwellers’ fresh vegetable needs, 50 percent of their poultry and egg requirements and 100 percent of their demand for honey.
Can Oakland’s urban farmers learn from Cuba?
Although urban agriculture has promise, a small proportion of the food produced in cities is consumed by food-insecure, low-income communities. Many of the most vulnerable people have little access to land and lack the skills needed to design and tend productive gardens.
Cities such as Oakland, with neighborhoods that have been identified as “food deserts,” can lie within a half-hour drive of vast stretches of productive agricultural land. But very little of the twenty million tons of food produced annually within 100 miles of Oakland reaches poor people.
Paradoxically, Oakland has 1,200 acres of undeveloped open space – mostly public parcels of arable land – which, if used for urban agriculture, could produce 5 to 10 percent of the city’s vegetable needs. This potential yield could be dramatically enhanced if, for example, local urban farmers were trained to use well-tested agroecological methods that are widely applied in Cuba to cultivate diverse vegetables, roots, tubers and herbs in relatively small spaces.
In Cuba, over 300,000 urban farms and gardens produce about 50 percent of the island’s fresh produce supply, along with 39,000 tons of meat and 216 million eggs. Most Cuban urban farmers reach yields of 44 pounds (20 kilograms) per square meter per year.
If trained Oakland farmers could achieve just half of Cuban yields, 1,200 acres of land would produce 40 million kilograms of vegetables – enough to provide 100 kilograms per year per person to more than 90 percent of Oakland residents.
To see whether this was possible, my research team at the University of California at Berkeley established a diversified garden slightly larger than 1,000 square feet. It contained a total of 492 plants belonging to 10 crop species, grown in a mixed polycultural design.
In a three-month period, we were able to produce yields that were close to our desired annual level by using practices that improved soil health and biological pest control. They included rotations with green manures that are plowed under to benefit the soil; heavy applications of compost; and synergistic combinations of crop plants in various intercropping arrangements known to reduce insect pests.
Overcoming barriers to urban agriculture
Achieving such yields in a test garden does not mean they are feasible for urban farmers in the Bay Area. Most urban farmers in California lack ecological horticultural skills. They do not always optimize crop density or diversity, and the University of California’s extension program lacks the capacity to provide agroecological training.
The biggest challenge is access to land. University of California researchers estimate that over 79 percent of the state’s urban farmers do not own the property that they farm. Another issue is that water is frequently unaffordable. Cities could address this by providing water at discount rates for urban farmers, with a requirement that they use efficient irrigation practices.
In the Bay Area and elsewhere, most obstacles to scaling up urban agriculture are political, not technical. In 2014 California enacted AB511, which set out mechanisms for cities to establish urban agriculture incentive zones, but did not address land access.
Curtis Stone, owner of an urban organic farm in Kelowna, British Columbia, describes major challenges of urban farming.
One solution would be for cities to make vacant and unused public land available for urban farming under low-fee multiyear leases. Or they could follow the example of Rosario, Argentina, where 1,800 residents practice horticulture on about 175 acres of land. Some of this land is private, but property owners receive tax breaks for making it available for agriculture.
In my view, the ideal strategy would be to pursue land reform similar to that practiced in Cuba, where the government provides 32 acres to each farmer, within a few miles around major cities to anyone interested in producing food. Between 10 and 20 percent of their harvest is donated to social service organizations such as schools, hospitals and senior centers.
Similarly, Bay Area urban farmers might be required to provide donate a share of their output to the region’s growing homeless population, and allowed to sell the rest. The government could help to establish a system that would enable gardeners to directly market their produce to the public.
Cities have limited ability to deal with food issues within their boundaries, and many problems associated with food systems require action at the national and international level. However, city governments, local universities and nongovernment organizations can do a lot to strengthen food systems, including creating agroecological training programs and policies for land and water access. The first step is increasing public awareness of how urban farming can benefit modern cities.
Neil S. Grigg is a Friend of The Conversation, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Colorado State University: Great article, thanks. It shows how the institutional aspects of the issue are formidable, such as providing access to the land and affordable water, as well as to empower the people through training and assistance.