Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Real Miss Universe Controversy

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Breaking: Thailand Actually Enforcing Onward Ticket Requirement! Forty Below In Hades!


Bangkok, Thailand

Hell is freezing over.

Pigs are flying.

Thailand is enforcing the onward ticket requirement.

The End Days must be nigh.

* * * * *

Thai law contains an "onward ticket requirement," a rule which states that travelers entering Thailand without a pre-issued visa must have in their possession an airline or other ticket which they will use to leave the country within 30 days. Without the onward ticket (sometimes called a return ticket), travelers can be denied entry into Thailand.

Thailand has not enforced the onward ticket requirement in years. For as long as I have been traveling, citizens of the United States and many other industrialized nations could walk unquestioned through any immigration checkpoint, at land crossings or airports. (The Thai government does not enforce all laws on the books; each administration determines which laws will be enforced.)

Due to its non-enforcement, the onward ticket requirement became a running joke. People who posted nervous questions about the rule to travel bulletin boards outed themselves as first-timers. One night, some expats and I in Chiang Mai tried to guess how suspicious someone would have to look to be denied entry into Thailand. We came up with a bug-eyed 19-year-old guy with the surname Bin Laden flying in from Islamabad on Pakistan International Airlines with a pristine Egyptian passport and without any hand luggage other than a Koran. That guy might get stopped by Thai Immigration. (Yes, I know that Egyptian nationals do not qualify for the Kingdom's Tourist Visa Exemption program. It was a joke.)

Joke's on us now. Thailand has started to enforce the onward ticket requirement.

Since at least early April, immigration inspectors have begun to request and review onward tickets before issuing an entry stamp. No public announcement was made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as far as I have been able to discern. This being Thailand, the change in policy was not implemented uniformly. Rather, according to anecdotal reports, enforcement began at the land crossings regularly used for "visa runs" by long-term expats who, lacking formal residency permits, leave the country every 30 days in order to receive a new 30-day tourist entrance stamp when they come back in.

Long-term travelers dislike onward ticket requirements, because the rules hamper spontaneity and often force people to buy tickets which they don't use when plans change. Actually, "dislike" understates the matter; long-term travelers hate, despise and abhor onward ticket requirements, and that's on a good day.

There are two principal ways around the requirement. The most obvious is to apply for a formal visa at the embassy or consulate of the country you plan to visit. Sometimes the visa application requires the submission of an onward ticket, but often it does not. Once the formal visa is glued into your passport, the need to present an onward ticket at Immigration should be obviated.

A second, and increasingly common method, of satisfying the onward ticket requirement is to purchase the cheapest possible one-way international ticket for presentation to Immigration. Some air fares on the Asian low cost carriers are so inexpensive that people buy the ticket and throw it out after passing through Passport Control. For example, some travelers comply with Indonesia's (unenforced) onward ticket requirement by purchasing a Lion Air Ticket from Medan, Indonesia, to Padang, Malaysia, which can cost less than $40.

* * * * *

I learned about Thailand's new policy while standing in the Immigration line at Bangkok airport Sunday night. I had just rebuffed a Kazakh woman from cutting in front of me when I noticed that every Immigration kiosk had a piece of pink paper taped to the wall above the officers' heads which required each traveler to produce a passport, a completed Arrival Card, a boarding pass and "an onward/return ticket."

"What madness is this?" I thought. If you had asked me to list the bureaucratic snafus which could have slowed my way through Thai immigration, lack of an onward ticket would not have made the top five. Since I didn't have a return ticket, the Immigration officer could in theory order me to take the next plane out of the country.

The officer, about 28, looked at my travel documents. "Onward ticket please," he said. I explained that I did not have one, because Immigration had never asked for one on the many previous occasions that I had entered the country. I explained that my visits to Thailand were usually short and that, the one time I stayed for several months, I obtained a proper visa, which was duly extended by the Royal Thai Police.

The officer said something in Thai to a more senior female officer sitting at one of the other kiosks. She asked a question. "America," the officer said, holding up my blue passport for her to see. "OK," she said.

The officer stamped my passport and gave me the customary 30 days. "Thank God for Thailand," I thought, not for the first time. The practical, accommodating Thais waived a legal requirement in an appropriate situation. In China, I'd have been shown the door.

"Next time, you need return ticket," the officer said.

"Thank you," I said. Now I know.

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Bar Talk

Beijing, China

Me: Where are you from?

Guy: I am from Norway.

Me: Your Crown Princess is hot.

Guy: I guess. When she's not drunk or pregnant.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Hung At Dawn


Hung at Dawn by M. Ravi (Orion Books 2005).

You have been accused of drug trafficking in Singapore. These are some of the obstacles you now face:

* You will be charged with trafficking even if the amount of drugs found in your possession is relatively small.
* You are presumed to be guilty and must prove your innocence.
* You have no right to a jury; the trial will be conducted entirely by a single judge.
* If convicted, a sentence of death by hanging is mandatory.
* If convicted, you are entitled to one and only one appeal.
* If the conviction is upheld, the final option is to request clemency from the President – and only six clemency petitions have been granted since 1963.
* If the President denies clemency, you will be hanged – at about 6 a.m. on a Friday morning – about three weeks later.

These were the obstacles facing two of Singaporean attorney M. Ravi’s clients, as their cases are recounted in the attorney’s book Hung At Dawn. Innocence was not much of an issue in either case. One client, a Malay named Vignes Mourthi, was arrested after pulling a bag of heroin out of his motorcycle helmet and giving it to an undercover police officer in exchange for 8,000 Singapore dollars (currently US$5,238). The second client, a Singaporean named Shanmugam Murugesu, was arrested at a border checkpoint after officers found six packets of marijuana stowed in various compartments of his motorcycle. The clients then faced the challenging environment of the Singaporean justice system.

Singapore is a former British colony and, as such, has a common law legal system that is recognizable to Americans. However, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew -- who has spent his life molding Singapore in his image – adapted the legal system to reflect what he called “Asian values,” the belief that Asian people prefer prosperity and safety over freedom and autonomy. To that effect, Lee – who had been a successful trial lawyer – gradually abolished jury trials (because jurors could be swayed by emotions) and reversed the presumption of innocence for cases involving drugs and guns (because both threatened public safety).

Ravi became the defense attorney for the two clients at different points in the proceedings and he employed different tactics, but the result in both cases was the same. Both of his clients were found guilty and ultimately hanged at Changi Prison.

The book is not well written. It is repetitive, choppy and disorganized. Ravi tells the story in the third person using a pseudonym and reveals only at the end of the book that it is autobiographical. The Appendix reprints selected filings from the cases, and these documents are unconvincing as legal arguments. (They are also poorly written, but that can be forgiven for emergency applications.)

Frankly, I have criticisms of the manner in which Ravi handled the cases. He became profoundly emotionally involved in the outcomes, which I believe is the antithesis of good lawyering. Ravi’s relentlessness in defending his clients is to be commended, but he admits that he was financially and mentally drained by the book’s conclusion. Too high a degree of emotional investment prevents an attorney from giving sound advice and from making the most practical arguments and is not conducive to a long and healthy career at the bar.

In the case of Vignes Mourthi, Ravi was hindered by a shockingly naive decision made by the client and his family. After the conviction was upheld on appeal, they hired a lawyer to draft the clemency petition to the President, and that lawyer’s name was Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam -- possibly the single-worst person to hire.

JBJ, as he is known, is a Singaporean folk hero. In 1981, he became the first person from an opposition party to be elected to Parliament, and JBJ is a constant thorn in the side of the Singaporean administration. The client's miscalculation, of course, is that clemency petitions are reviewed by the most senior members of the Singaporean administration, who are not going to look kindly upon anything submitted by JBJ. It would have made far more sense to hire a former Attorney General or senior prosecutor.

All that being said, Hung At Dawn is one of the few existing first-person accounts of the Singaporean judicial system in action. If only the book – like the system it portrays – were better.

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Air Babylon


Air Babylon by Imogen Edwards-Jones & Anonymous (Corgi Books 2005).


Air Babylon promises a behind-the-scenes look at the airline industry and delivers a boring soap opera with all the realism of an airplane mock-up used to film porn.

Thus entreats the back cover:

“Do you know the best place to have sex on a plane? Do you know that one drink in the air equals three on the ground? Do you know who is checking you in? Who is checking you out? Do you know what happens to your luggage once it leaves your sight? Is it secure? Are you safe? Do you really know anything about the industry to which you entrust your life several times a year?”

Air Babylon does not answer any of these questions. Air Babylon contains little actual information about the airline industry, nowhere near enough to justify its 411-page length. The book is not – as the back cover implies – a factual expose of the industry. The book is not – as some readers fooled by the back cover might settle for -- a well-researched potboiler set within the world of aviation, like Michael Crichton’s Airframe or Arthur Hailey’s Airport.

Instead, the book is a fictionalized account of 24 hours in the life of an unnamed middle-aged airline duty manager at an airport in southern England. His gay staffer Andy reports to work hung over. A young man in the airport bathroom attempts suicide. A snake is loose on one of the incoming planes. A passenger requests political asylum. Contrived Situation L. Contrived Situation M. Etc.

The conceit is that the book’s author, who bears the veddy English double-barreled name of Imogen Edwards-Jones, has woven all of her research into the storyline. As a further gimmick, Edwards-Jones’ sources are given a collective co-author credit of Anonymous, although I rather doubt they are receiving a share of the royalties.

Edwards-Jones claims to have interviewed “a wide and varied collection” of airline personnel in researching the book. Why did she have to interview any? There is nothing in this book that you can’t learn by reading FlyerTalk or the airline blogs.

The journalistic shortcomings of the book could be overlooked if the story were interesting in its own right, but it’s not. It’s dreck, with paperboard characters and obvious outcomes, and the 24-hour framing structure rapidly becomes tedious. Any random episode of The O.C. is better written; hell, the remake of House of Wax playing on HBO Asia as I write this is more original, and that’s a movie cobbled together entirely out of spare movie parts that someone left lying around the studio.

To save you the agony, here is a summary of what I learned from Air Babylon:

Passengers who use wheelchairs are called “wheelies,” and airport employees who work on the tarmac are called “ramp rats.” Some of the wheelies are frauds, and many of the ramp rats own cars their salaries would not seem to support. The check-in agents assign bad seats to rude customers. Airline personnel don’t make a lot of money, but they drink a lot. Many of the flight attendants are trying to seduce the pilots, and . . . .

Oh, never mind. It’s too dreary.

I am going to order a steak from room service and watch the rest of House of Wax. It's a better use of my time than writing one more word about Air Babylon.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Credit Where It's Due


Colombo, Sri Lanka

Many of the Travel Warnings issued by the U.S. State Department are shrill and borderline hysterical (e.g., Indonesia), but the Travel Warning for Sri Lanka is balanced and informative. Excellent work by the U.S. Foreign Service, America's grossly underpaid diplomatic corps.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Eating Dog Meat Soup


Kaesong, North Korea

“Who wants dog meat soup?” one of the tour leaders asked on the bus. “It’s five euros extra.”

“Dog meat soup is a traditional food of the Korean people,” the head North Korean tour guide explained. “We eat it three times a year on special days.”

A few of the men said they were interested.

A pause settled over the bus as the rest of us thought about it.

“Oh, I’ll do dog,” I said sheepishly, reaching into my pocket for a five euro note.

* * * * *

Koreans eating dog meat is a cliché in America, but it’s an example of cultural misattribution. The eating of dog meat occurs throughout East Asia, but each Western nation tends to associate it with the specific culture where those Westerners first encountered it.

Thus, Americans associate the eating of dog meat with Koreans, because American servicemen first encountered the practice in South Korea after World War II. By contrast, the British associate the canine dish with the Cantonese-speaking Chinese of Guangdong, where Brit traders first came across it. I personally associate dog meat with Cambodia, the first place I saw several skinned and gutted dogs hanging by their teeth from a window in a butcher shop.

In Korean, dog meat soup is generally called bosintang, and you can find online recipes. However, in many Western jurisdictions, the sale of dog meat for human consumption is illegal. For example, my home state of California has declared it a misdemeanor to buy, sell, accept, or even possess “any carcass or part of any carcass of any animal traditionally or commonly kept as a pet or companion with the intent of using or having another person use any part of that carcass for food.” California Penal Code section 598b(a) (scroll down). That being said, as with all such exotica, where there is a will, a wallet and an ethnic neighborhood, there is a way.

* * * * *

All of the dog eaters were seated at one table, and each place was set with nine small bowls made of yellow metal, covered by matching lids. The utensils were plastic chop sticks and a Western spoon.

The metal bowls each contained about three bites of a different dish, ranging from spicy cabbage to salad to sweet pastries. A bowl of moderately sticky white rice was also served to each diner. Bottles of water and local beer were on the table although, as was the case throughout the trip, the restaurant was stingy with the beverages.

After a few minutes, the dog soup came out. It was served in large black earthenware bowls and had a dark brown brothy color with hints of reds and yellows.

Enough with the back story, you say; what does dog meat taste like?

It tasted like beef – gamey, pungent beef.

The dog meat was only one component of the soup, which was rich in spices and vegetables. The meat settled at the bottom of the bowl, and I had to reach in with chopsticks to take it out.

The dog meat was in small, almost cylindrical pieces. It was stringy, not unlike the shredded meat found in Mexican food. The cuts were not in medallions or other recognizable shapes, probably because one dog doesn’t yield a lot of meat for the chef to work with. My slices had a moderate amount of fat on them, which I picked off. The meat was not oily.

It was good! After the initial cultural trepidation, I had to admit that the soup was excellent. It wasn’t as spicy as the hottest chile you’ve ever had, but it was in an adjacent neighborhood. Although the dog meat had a unique flavor, its juices did not overpower the soup or the vegetables. I didn’t ask for seconds, but I didn’t regret the firsts.

“This is actually pretty good,” one of the other travelers said. "It has a real bite to it.”

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Quote Of The Day

"Advertising at its best is making people feel that without their product, you're a loser."

-- Advertising Executive,
Quoted in The High Price of Materialism by Tim Kasser (MIT Press 2003).

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Interesting Reads From A While Back


Hong Kong, China

One of the realities of life in East Asia is that hardcopies of favorite American and British magazines arrive weeks after publication. Luckily, I'm not in a hurry. Some good reads that are also available online:

Jianying Zha on the imprisonment of her brother by Chinese authorities for the crime of starting an independent political party, in The New Yorker.

Christopher Hitchens on the rise of English jihadism, in Vanity Fair.

Clive Crook on the popularity of private schooling among impoverished Indian familes, in The Atlantic.

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Welcome, New Readers! Bookmark and Stay A While!


Hong Kong, China

The last two weeks have seen the highest readership levels in the history of Knife Tricks, so, if you're a new reader, welcome! Please add Knife Tricks to your bookmarks and visit every few days. In essence, I write about travel, politics, music, books and Things Of Interest To Paul.

A grateful flash of the knife to the news and travel sites which have mentioned my recents posts. Jaunted ran two funny notices, and L.A. Observed posted two serious ones.

Thanks also to Flyertalk's View From the Wing, The Flyertalk Trip Report Forum, Gridskipper, Helzerman's Odd Bits, North Korea Economic Watch, The SKS Boards, This World Traveler and WorldHum.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

The Three Ages of ABBA: You Are There

1974. The Beginning. Hitherto an obscure group of established Swedish pop stars, ABBA becomes a transcontinental smash with this performance of “Waterloo” at the Eurovision Song Contest.
1979. The Height. Who needs the Yanks? During the second half of the 1970s, ABBA is the most popular band in the world outside the United States. Obvious points about this video: The women are perfect. The men are perfect dorks. None of them can dance.
The End. No, so far as swan songs go, a short set on “The Late, Late Breakfast Show” wasn’t exactly a rooftop concert in central London, but the result was the same. Bjorn takes off his guitar at the end of this clip, and ABBA never again performs in public.

Prestidigitation In Pyongyang, Part 1


Pyongyang, North Korea

Through the corner of my eye, I saw old women harvesting grass from public parks. At the edge of my peripheral vision, I saw men carrying tables on their backs. As the guide was pointing one way and stating that Sunday was a day of rest for everyone except farmers, I looked in the other direction and noticed a work detail carrying shovels and other tools.

North Korea is a country experienced at the edges of your senses. The monuments and buildings and people placed directly in front of you are the polished exemplars that the regime wants you to see and, from them, extrapolate to the rest of the country.

“All of Pyongyang is a propaganda city,” one of the Americans in my tour said. “Pyongyang is not representative,” explained the documentary A State of Mind. Pyongyang is the showcase capital, which contains perhaps 10% of North Korea’s 23 million citizens. (The government’s population figures are, like everything else it says, untrustworthy). Pyongyang is not North Korea, but our tour – controlled in every measure by the North Korean authorities – would try to convince us that it was.

The DPRK Routine

Less than 1,000 American tourists have visited North Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953, explained Nick Bonner, the head of Koryo Tours, the leader in travel to the DPRK. As it is, the regime generally only allows U.S. travelers to visit during the staging of Mass Games, a patriotic acrobatics and gymnastics performance, which were being held this year.

While the regime welcomes the hard currency and would like to appear more accommodating to travelers, the government is deeply suspicious of all non-Koreans, especially Americans. Consequently, U.S. travelers to the DPRK are kept under the tightest controls, marching through a pre-determined itinerary in the constant presence of guides and mingling with work-a-day North Koreans under only approved circumstances intended to flatteringly light the country.

“This is not France,” one of the British tour leaders said while explaining the rules. Don’t wander off. Do whatever the North Korean guides say. Don’t argue with the guides; they believe what they believe, and you’re not going to change their minds. Don’t call it “North Korea;” call it “DPRK.” Don’t take any photographs from the bus. Don’t take any photographs of the military. Don’t take any photographs that “might reflect poorly on the country.” Don’t take any photographs at all without the express prior permission of the guides. Clearly, North Kor-- the DPRK is not a growth market for Kodak.

We had almost no free time. The wake up call came at 7 a.m.; breakfast was served in a utilitarian banquet room at 7:30 a.m.; meet in the lobby at 8 a.m. The daily routine was this memorial followed by that park and a pre-packaged event like a circus and then another memorial and so on, until we were dropped off at the hotel at 10 p.m., exhausted.

The Yanggakdo Hotel

The hotel was the Yanggakdo Hotel, a 47-story “deluxe” hotel where the North Koreans house most foreigners. The great advantage of the Yanggakdo Hotel is that it is isolated on Yanggakdo Island in the Taedong River – the waterway that bisects Pyongyang. While it was theoretically possible for a traveler to leave the hotel and explore the island – which contained a gold course and a theater/stadium complex but no residences or shops – the bridges to Pyongyang were guarded. There was no way to enter the city proper.

The degree of physical control in the DPRK was unique in my experience. Even in Turkmenistan under the Turkmenbashi – the Avis of loony dictatorships – I could walk around the capital city of Ashgabat unaccompanied.

“The hotel rooms probably aren’t bugged,” one traveller said, “the TVs don’t even work half the time.” Only two elevators seemed to be running, one of which was glass, allowing you to see the city you couldn’t actually visit. The hotel had four restaurants, called Restaurant No. 1, Restaurant No. 2, Restaurant No. 3 and Macau.

There were two “entertainment complexes” in the basement of the hotel, with separate entrances. Anybody could enter the first one, which had a karaoke bar, a bowling alley, a shoe repair shop and a sauna where the wives of Chinese businessmen could get a facial; this section of the hotel was staffed by North Koreans.

The second entertainment complex was for foreigners only, and the North Koreans were forbidden from entering. The complex – operated by Hong Kong gambling magnate Stanley Ho – included a casino, a bar, a restaurant (the aforementioned Macau) and a sauna where Chinese businessmen could get more than a massage; this section of the hotel was staffed by Chinese.

The preferred currency was euros, although if you had U.S. dollars or Chinese yuan, that was fine; the cashiers – all women – would create an exchange rate on the spot and charge you accordingly. No haggling.

The hotel convenience store sold cheap booze and rotgut cigarettes, plus bottled water and the usual toiletries – mostly Chinese brands. One store was devoted to books written by the Leaders. Another store was a typical tourist crap-a-rama with vases and other objects adorned with landscapes and animals.

Purchasing an item from one of the hotel stores was a multi-step process. First, you pointed to the item, which was often in a locked display case. Second, the woman behind the counter wrote a multi-copy receipt in Korean and handed all of the copies to you. Third, you took the receipt and your money to a different woman, sitting in a partitioned booth, who processed the transaction and handed back to you a copy of the receipt, now bearing an official marking. Fourth, you handed the processed receipt to the woman behind the counter and received your purchase. The point seemed to be to prevent any worker other than the woman sitting in the booth from handling cash.

A computer terminal was dedicated to internet use; the catch was that you could send e-mails – charged by the kilobyte – but you could not receive e-mails or otherwise access the web. Calls to the United States cost 8.2 euros (US$11.05) per minute, which is why my friends were spared a midnight “Guess where I’m calling from?” call.

None of the stores in the hotel accepted North Korean currency from foreigners, because we weren’t allowed to have any. We weren’t allowed to see any. We would receive change in euro coins or in bubble gum.

The currency restriction is an example of how the North Korean regime would rather control travelers than profit from them. Applying free market logic, it makes sense to trade North Korean funny money for convertible currencies. Applying command-and-control logic, it makes no sense to give a bunch of untrustworthy foreigners a tool they could use to move freely about the city. As I learned later, the government is chary about allowing ordinary North Koreans access to currency. Money is power, and all power in North Korea is held by the Army and the Party.

If you’re determined to obtain some North Korean money, you can discreetly ask hotel workers until you find an entrepreneur willing to trade at an inflated rate. I didn’t bother, because I had purchased DPRK bills several months earlier from the vendors at the Chinese bordertown of Dandong. The bills were probably phony, but that was the attraction; can you conceive of something more existential than “counterfeit North Korean banknotes”?

In any event, we had no opportunity to spend DPRK won. Our every meal was included in the package price, and, as I mentioned, we had no free time, starting from our landing at the airport . . . .

TO BE CONTINUED

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Caveman Politician


Hong Kong, China

If you want an example of the type of troglodyte that does the bidding of the Chinese Communist Party, meet Ma Lik.

Ma (pictured) is the chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, one of the city-state’s political parties. The DAB, as it's known, is a front organization for the Chinese Communist Party, and whatever the DAB leaders say or do is usually an effective barometer of Beijing’s position. (Interestingly, the Communist Party declines to operate under its own name in Hong Kong, even though the Party has the right -- as does anyone -- to organize and field candidates. It declines to do so, in part because it does not want to have its popularity tested in actual elections.)

Although Hong Kong has a free press and limited democracy, the media and politicians exercise restraint on delicate topics, the most tender subject being the crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protesters. So it was doubly shocking this week when Ma lobbed a mouth grenade that discussed the most sensitive topic in the most insensitive manner.

“We should not say the Communist Party massacred people on June 4[, 1989]. I never said that nobody was killed, but it was not a massacre,” Ma, who is also a deputy in the rubber-stamp National People’s Congress, said during a news conference. “A massacre would mean the Communist Party intentionally killed people with machine guns indiscriminately.”

Ma denied the reports that People’s Liberation Army soldiers burned bodies in the square. “If bodies could have been burned so easily in Tiananmen Square, there would not have been such a long queue for cremation,” Ma said, contradicting his assertion that only a few people died.

Ma also voiced skepticism of the accounts of tanks running over bodies and grinding corpses into "mincemeat." Even pigs run over by tanks do not become mincemeat, Ma was quoted as saying.

Charming. And notice how Ma slipped in the word “indiscriminately,” thereby implying that discriminate machine gunning of peaceful protesters is fine.

Ma’s statements were so outrageous that his backers up north anonymously disavowed the comments, and Ma, who is suffering from colon cancer, apologized Wednesday for his “rash and frivolous” examples before checking into a hospital on the mainland and becoming unavailable for further comment.

Although the statements about the Tiananmen Square massacre received the most attention, other opinions voiced by Ma were as troubling, because they reflected the totalitarian attitudes of Party leaders and operatives.

During the news conference, Ma said that “gweilos” – the Cantonese word for “foreigner” which literally means “ghost” -- should not be allowed to define what happened during the Tiananmen Square protests, AP reported.

This classic pander to Chinese xenophobia and self-regard raises the question of exactly who should define Tiananmen Square, since the state-run Chinese media rarely raises the topic, preferring to fill its pages with uncritical excerpts of speeches by high officials. Ma’s day job is as a publisher of a financial newspaper, so it stands to reason that he believes that he is one of the non-gweilo voices who should define "the events of June 4th," as the crackdown is often referred to in Hong Kong.

Ma also expressed a preference for thought control as a tool to win elections.

Currently, the city council, called the Legislative Council, of Hong Kong is half elected by voters and half elected by “functional constituencies” which represent specific trades or business interests. Real power is held by the mayor, called the Chief Executive, who is selected by an 800-member committee controlled by Beijing. The 800 people on the committee are the only Hong Kongers allowed to vote in the mayoral election, the result of which is always a foregone conclusion.

Most voters and politicians in Hong Kong who call themselves “democrats” want to implement “universal suffrage,” meaning that all Hong Kong residents of a certain age would vote in elections for mayor and for all city council seats.

Many outside observers are shocked when they learn that the government of China has legally obligated itself to implement universal suffrage in Hong Kong. “The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage,” reads Article 45 of the Basic Law, the city’s constitution. “The ultimate aim is the election of all the members of the Legislative Council by universal suffrage,” reads Article 68.

The problem with these “ultimate aims” is that the Basic Law does not provide a deadline by which universal suffrage should be implemented. Instead, the authorities have the discretion to increase democracy “in the light of the actual situation” and “in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress.”

That means never.

Most Party members and their coat-holders hide the fact that they have no intention of abiding by their promises to bring full democracy to Hong Kong. Each proposal by the democrats for free elections is met with technical objections or referred for further study or greeted by false promises of vague reforms next election cycle. The plan is as obvious as the television transmitter on Victoria Peak: To run down the clock until July 1, 2047, the day on which the Basic Law, by its own terms, becomes null and void.

Ma's objection to universal suffrage is the classic canard that Hong Kongers are “not ready” for democracy. His reason: Hong Kongers do not yet accept the Chinese Communist Party as their rightful ruler.

“In the past I have said universal suffrage should be introduced in 2047,” Ma said during the foot-in-mouth press conference. “Now I think it is appropriate to introduce around 2022 because by then, hopefully, half a generation would have gone through the new national awareness education.”

“Consciously or unconsciously," Ma said, Hong Kongers were resistant to the idea that the Party was the ruler of "our sovereign state" and were drawing a line between themselves and the Party, the South China Morning Post reported. "It is difficult to push for [universal suffrage] under these conditions." Ma recommended changes to the school curriculum and to teacher training.

In other words, elections can be allowed in Hong Kong after half a generation of brainwashing ensures that the locals vote to retain the dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party.

These are the people who run China. They are not our friends.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Lauren Terrazzano, 1968-2007


Lauren Terrazzano, a Newsday reporter and columnist with whom I worked briefly at The (Boston University) Daily Free Press, died Tuesday from lung cancer. She was 39.

Lauren was part of the Newsday team of reporters who won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Reporting for their coverage of the crash of TWA Flight 800. At Newsday, she met her husband of 14 months, Al Baker, who currently works for The New York Times.

At the college newspaper, she served as an Assistant News Editor, covering campus issues. "I remember working with Lauren during those many long, late nights at the Freep," said former Daily Free Press editor John Madden. "She was a creative and skilled writer and a hard-working and meticulous editor -- just an all-around quality person (not to mention fun)."

Obituaries: Newsday. Associated Press. NYT Internal Memorandum.

Articles about Lauren: "Too Young For This: Facing Cancer Under 40." NYT Wedding Announcement.

Lauren's recent columns are here.

Lauren's TWA Flight 800 reporting cannot be directly linked. Her work can be read on the Pulitzer Prize website (scroll to and press "1997" at the top of the frame, press "Spot News Reporting," press "Works").

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Day Someone Tried To Kill Me


Hong Kong, China

Excerpted from The Reagan Diaries (edited by Douglas Brinkley):

"Mon. March 30 [written Sat. April 11] My day to address the Bldg. & Const. Trades Nat. Conf. A.F.L.-C.I.O. at the Hilton Ballroom -- 2 p.m. Was all dressed to go & for some reason at the last min. took off my really good wrist watch & wore an older one.

"Speech not riotously received -- still it was successful.

"Left the hotel at the usual side entrance and headed for the car -- suddenly there was a burst of gun fire from the left. S.S. Agent pushed me onto the floor of the car & jumped on top. I felt a blow in my upper back that was unbelievably painful. I was sure he'd broken my rib. The car took off. I sat up on the edge of the seat almost paralyzed by pain. Then I began coughing up blood which made both of us think -- yes I had a broken rib & it had punctured a lung. He switched orders from W.H. to Geo. Wash. U. Hosp.

"By the time we arrived I was having great trouble getting enough air. We did not know that Tim McCarthy (S.S.) had been shot in the chest, Jim Brady in the head & a policeman Tom Delahanty in the neck.

"I walked into the emergency room and was hoisted onto a cart where I was stripped of my clothes. It was then that we learned I'd been shot & had a bullet in my lung.

"Getting shot hurts."

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Monday, May 14, 2007

The Korean War Is Now


Pyongyang, North Korea


The Past Is Present

Contemporary North Korean society does not exist. In politics and culture and fashion and industry, North Koreans live in a perpetual 1953. On paper, the Korean War has never ended (because the two sides signed an armistice not a peace treaty). But, while South Korea has turned its attention to development and the global economy, the North Korean regime justifies its existence by constantly referring to the war as if it ended yesterday and could re-commence tonight.

Present-day North Korea cannot be explained without reference to the Korean War, which is a living reality to people in the North and a faded memory for the rest of the world, preserved primarily by reruns of M*A*S*H.

I know you want to read about my trip to North Korea, but the trip does not make sense without a basic understanding of what happened during the Korean War. I understand that you didn’t log onto this website for a history lesson, but, to the North Koreans, this is not history, this is current events, this is now – although the people in the North learn a version that is barely recognizable to us. So here, as brief and as interesting as I can make it, is the story of Great Leader Kim Il-sung and the Korean War (Rest of World Edition):

A Diligent Student of Stalin

In 1910, Japan formally annexed Korea after decades of meddling in its affairs. Heavy-handed Japanese rule created anti-Japanese political and military movements, as well as the migration of many Korean families to China.

In the early 1920s, the Kims, a middle-class family from Pyongyang, moved north to the Chinese region of Manchuria, probably to escape a famine. The family’s eldest son, Kim Song-ju, was educated in Chinese schools, became enamored with Marxist ideology and ultimately joined both the Chinese Communist Party and anti-Japanese guerilla movements – particularly after Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931.

Around 1939, Kim Song-ju fled to Russia, where he received further training and became an officer in the Soviet Army. Kim impressed his host, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who decided to groom Kim to be his front man in a Soviet-dominated, post-war Korea.

At some point, Kim Song-ju began to call himself “Kim Il-sung,” the name of a previous Korean war hero and a name which alludes to the sun. (Similarly, a Georgian revolutionary named Ioseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili wanted to project a tougher image and re-named himself “Man of Steel,” i.e., “Josef Stalin.”)

As World War II drew to a close, the victorious allies made plans for what was to be, in the view of the Anglo-Americans, temporary post-war occupation but what was to be, in the view of Stalin, permanent territorial gains. The general principle was that a defeated country would be temporarily governed by whichever ally accepted the Axis surrender on the ground. To that end, the Soviet Union – which had waited until two days after Hiroshima to declare war on Japan – started to move troops into northern Korea.

President Harry S Truman offered to divide Korea at the 38th parallel, with the Soviet Union administering a trusteeship north of the line and the United States administering to the south. Stalin agreed, Korea was “temporarily” divided, and Kim Il-sung was placed in command of the north.

Once in charge, Kim Il-sung created a carbon-copy Stalinist regime in which all operations of the state were controlled by the Korean Worker’s Party. All economic activity was organized by the state, which owned all property and reaped all profits. Kim Il-sung was arguably Stalin’s most ardent protégé.

Invading the South, With Uncle Joe’s Permission

Not content with control of only the North, Kim Il-sung repeatedly requested Stalin’s permission to invade the South, which Stalin granted in Spring 1950. On June 25, 1950, North Korean troops invaded the South. The surprise attack was successful, with the North Korean army conquering Seoul, the capital of the South, several days later.

In a series of resolutions, the United Nations Security Council authorized military intervention. (The Soviet Union, which held a veto, was boycotting the Security Council at the time; the “China seat,” which also held a veto, was held by Taiwan, a U.S. ally.) U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur was placed in command of U.N. troops, which included soldiers from the South, the United States and 15 other nations.

By September, the North Koreans had driven U.N. forces to the edge of the Korean Peninsula, where they were trapped in the port city of Pusan (now transliterated Busan). But the North’s territorial gains came at a price. Its supply lines were being destroyed by daily bombardment, and morale among ill-equipped Northern soldiers was flagging – although, on the map, they were winning the war.

The tide of the war altered when MacArthur, in the final triumph of a career marked by military victories and political miscalculations, invaded the North behind enemy lines at Inchon. U.N forces recaptured Seoul. Much of the North Korean army was surrounded and separated from its country, and U.N. forces moved deep into Northern territory, approaching the Chinese border.

This turn of events alarmed Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung, who ordered several hundred thousand Chinese army “volunteers” to cross the Yalu River, which forms the border between North Korea and China. The U.N forces were now fighting Chinese ground troops, with air support from the Soviet Union. President Truman thought that World War III was beginning.

Between October 1950 and July 1951, the U.N troops and Chinese-North Korean troops fought a series of battles in which many of the Southern gains from the Inchon landing were eroded. The North Korean-Chinese army recaptured Seoul and later lost it again. By July 1951, the two armies were at a military stalemate near the 38th parallel, where combat began about one year earlier.

The diplomats took charge, and the sides began to negotiate a ceasefire. Talks continued for two years, while the armies fought inconclusively in battles which resembled the sclerotic trench warfare of World War I. Two difficult negotiating points were territorial gains – the South wanted the North to relinquish conquered land – and prisoners of war – the North wanted North Korean and Chinese POWs to be repatriated even if the POWs did not want to return.

On July 27, 1953, the two sides signed a 63-paragraph Armistice Agreement which required each side to fall back two kilometers from a pre-determined “Military Demarcation Line,” which wasn’t much different from the original border at the 38th parallel. The four-kilometer strip of land in between, which ran from one side of Korea to the other, would become one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world, known by the patently incorrect name of “the Demilitarized Zone.” By its terms, the Armistice Agreement went into effect at 10 o’clock that night. The fighting was over.

Juche

Except that it wasn’t -- and still isn't -- in the minds of the North Koreans. Kim Il-sung had started a war which cost the lives of more than one hundred thousand North Korean soldiers, which ravaged the civilian population and which resulted in almost no net territorial gain. In addition, his patron and mentor Stalin had died four months before the ceasefire. So Kim Il-sung did what dictators do when staring at the results of their disastrous choices: he fervently changed the subject.

Juche” became the new state religion. “Juche” is a philosophy of Korean self-reliance – first announced by Kim Il-sung in a speech given in December 1955 – under which all North Korean citizens are required to provide for the independence and strength of the nation. The country was, in Kim Il-sung’s telling, under constant threat of imminent attack by U.S. imperialists. In fact, the story went, the South would merge with the North but for the bullying of the “American bastards.”

Kim Il-sung also took advantage of a Korean cultural tendency to venerate leaders. Copying yet another page from Stalin’s playbook, Kim Il-sung unleashed a cult of personality, in which his sayings and "on-the-spot guidance" were the principal components of North Korean law and media. His official portrait (one pictured above) was placed everywhere. He once suggested that half of all art be about his battles against Japan and the United States and that the other half be about his forging of a stronger nation. He leaned heavily on the literary association of his adopted name with the mythological power of the sun.

People around the world studied juche, Kim Il-sung told his people. The entire world lauded and honored Kim Il-sung, he and his mouthpieces repeatedly stated. All North Koreans were required to have pictures of him in their homes – which is what the peoples of the world will voluntarily do after the defeat of the evil Americans, who might attack at any minute to prevent the spread of the juche ideal.

The propaganda reportedly became worse after Kim Il-sung died in 1994. The designated successor, Kim Jong-il, had little of his father’s charisma and none of his father’s military record. (Kim Jong-il never formally served in the army he leads.)

Kim Jong-il kept the spotlight firmly on Dad. Kim Il-sung’s body was preserved and placed on display in the opulent Kim Il-sung Mausoleum. Kim Il-sung was declared Eternal President. Thirteen years after his death, Kim Il-sung and his overarching philosophy of kimilsungism is portrayed as the foundation of the state. Propaganda which features Kim Jong-il oftens depicts the son as the father's rightful heir.

This is the North Korea that I visited, a nation trapped in the past by leaders who perpetuate the nationalist fantasy that the regime’s greatest defeat was the country’s greatest victory -- a nation taught from birth that its absurd and jingoistic philosophy is studied with seriousness by scholars across the world -- above all, a nation brainwashed into obedience by raising the spectre of a demonic Other poised to attack. As a citizen of that Other, I felt compelled to visit.

TO BE CONTINUED

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Editorial Note on Datelines


Hong Kong, China

Please note that the datelines which appear in italics at the top of most Knife Tricks posts are not traditional newspaper datelines, which would indicate the city from which the post was filed. Although the datelines are often the city from which the post was uploaded, the various internet censorship regimes in Asia, as well as technological difficulties, have convinced me to forego formal datelining. A Knife Tricks dateline refers to the post’s “center of gravity,” where it was principally conceived, researched, written, and/or where it would have been uploaded if we lived in a world of perfect technology and absolute freedom of speech and movement.

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A Sleepy Southern Town


Hong Kong, China

It's not often that someone uses the words "sweet" and "charming" in the same sentence as "Robert Novak," but here goes: Robert Novak's column today about his first summer reporting in Washington -- exactly 50 years ago -- is a sweet and charming reflection, similar to the late David Brinkley's Washington Goes To War.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Technical Difficulties

^%&^$#^%%*&**!!!

And I'm a train for the next two days.

I'll post in detail about North Korea as soon as I can.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Pyongyang: The Graphic Novel


(Note: I wrote this review of Pyongyang before I visited North Korea. A substantive post about the trip will follow tomorrow.).


Pyongyang: A Journey In North Korea by Guy Delisle (Drawn & Quarterly 2003).

“At a certain level of oppression, truth hardly matters, because the greater the lie, the greater the show of power.”

So writes French Canadian animator Guy Delisle in his graphic novel, Pyongyang. Contracted to oversee inexpensive North Korean animation assistants, Delisle spent two months in Pyongyang, the capital of the world’s most isolated country.

His stay was not a luxury, corporate boondoggle. He stayed in a drab room in the Yangakkdo Hotel, one of the few Pyongyang hotels open to foreigners. All of the international travelers were placed on the 15th floor, the only floor that was lit.

Delisle had his choice of two hotel restaurants, called Restaurant No. 1 and Restaurant No. 2. He and the other long-term visitors – mostly business people and workers for non-governmental organizations – anticipated with relish the planned re-opening of Restaurant No. 3.

Journalist Christopher Hitchens has referred to North Korea as a slave state and a country where private life is outlawed. Delisle sees hints of this reality. “Volunteers” are always painting bridges and trimming lawns. Propaganda posters and loudspeakers are everywhere, even in the countryside. North Koreans can be glimpsed taking fruit from trees. There are no handicapped people.

Delisle can only guess at the reality of North Korean life, because he and most foreigners are kept isolated. He has a guide and an interpreter, who accompany him almost everywhere. “Doormen” prevent him from leaving his hotel. There is almost no opportunity to interact with ordinary North Koreans.

The North Korean state keeps its people in a state of perpetual hysteria, according to Delisle. The government preaches that the United States is the great enemy, poised to invade at any moment; but for the U.S., the two Koreas would merge peacefully. Delisle wants to tell the Northerners that South Koreans have become fat and happy and have little appetite for assimilating their impoverished and uneducated cousins, but he keeps his mouth shut.

The propaganda machine is constantly spewing the most incredible assertions. Dear Leader Kim Jong-il was born on the holy mountain of Paektu under a double rainbow and a shining star. Universities across the world teach the principles of juche, the nationalistic creed of North Korean self-reliance. The North Korean Army defeated the Japanese in World War II.

“There’s a question that has to be burning on the lips of all foreigners here,” Delisle writes. “A question you refrain from speaking aloud. But you can’t help asking yourself: Do they really believe the bullshit that’s being forced down their throat?”

Delisle concludes that it doesn’t matter. The crazier the story – Dear Leader King Jong-il hit 11 holes-in-one the first time he played golf – the more fervently North Koreans will claim to believe it and force themselves to believe it. The alternative is execution or a sentence to the work camps.

The truth is not relevant. The only reality is the total power of the North Korean state over its subjects.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Three Obligatory Tourist Photos


Pyongyang, North Korea

With Great Leader Kim Il-sung.

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Nampho, North Korea

With Dear Leader Kim Jong-il.

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Demilitarized Zone, United Nations Command, Panmunjom, Korea

Straddling the border, which runs down the center of the table. Notice, through the window, the North Korean soldier standing about one foot within North Korean territory.

The dateline reads "Korea" because I like to think that, at least in this one hut in which the two sides hold meetings, Korea is united.

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Air Koryo Boarding Pass

Flying The Communist Skies: Air Koryo To North Korea


Beijing, China

A flight attendant announced that beverage service would commence thanks to “our Dear Leader Kim Jong-il.”

Air Koryo flight JS152 from Beijing, China, to Pyongyang, North Korea, had been in the air about 20 minutes and had flown about 150 miles. But the entire Air Koryo experience, including the return four days later on Flight JS221, was like flying 30 years back in time. (For plane spotters and North Korea obsessives, I flew tail number P-885 to Pyongyang and P-881 back.)

The plane to Pyongyang was an Ilyushin 62-M, built by the Soviet Union in 1979 and kitted like a set from The Spy Who Loved Me. No cool corporate off-white here. The surprisingly comfortable economy seats were covered in puke green cloth upholstery with an indistinct pink pattern. The cabin’s interior shell was cast in a shade of beige which belonged in a Southern California ranch house from the era of earth tones. The plastic window shades were not opaque but a dark translucent brown.

The tray table was larger than on a contemporary plane, but the netting in the seat-back pouch was strung so tight that a bottle of water could not fit. The flight to Pyongyang had no overhead bins, only racks on which carry-on luggage was placed; the return flight had small bins molded from bile yellow plastic. I wondered where the Soviet designers found their color charts.

* * * * *

The weirdness started at the gate in Beijing’s airport, where I noticed the North Koreans, who are easy to distinguish from other Koreans. North Koreans are the ones wearing red lacquer pins of their late leader General Kim Il-sung (who is still President despite his death in 1994) on their left lapels, over their hearts.

All North Koreans are required to wear a Kim Il-sung pin when outside their homes. There are two principal designs, a large pin with Kim Il-sung’s face on a flag-shaped red background and a second design with the Great Leader’s face set in a small red circle. My North Korean guides later informed me that pins are distributed once a year at work and that there is no significance to the various designs; they are distributed as available.

About one-third of the waiting crowd were North Koreans. Another third were Korean-Americans, South Koreans and Chinese, and the final third were Caucasians. The plane was perhaps two-third full on the inbound journey, and packed on the return.

Three North Korean security officers, in blue uniforms, were standing on the tarmac supervising the loading of luggage onto the plane. I had never before seen that level of official attention given to the loading of luggage.

A plainclothes security officer, in the black pants and black shirt that is the de facto national dress of North Korea, stood at the end of the jetway, immediately outside the aircraft’s door. He scrutinized each passenger as we embarked, but he may also have stood the post to prevent cabin crew from defecting.

The Ilyushin had a strange three-compartment configuration. A small Business Class (in a country without private enterprise) was followed by an Economy section of perhaps ten rows. Next was the galley -- which completely divided the aircraft -- followed by the bulk of the Economy seats. The general seating order seemed to be: North Koreans in front, then Chinese and then other Koreans, with the white Americans at the back of the bus.

Most of the flight attendants looked like cast members from a Korean remake of Blade Runner. The one flight attendant in Business Class was wearing a bright red hanbok, a traditional Korean cloak. The other flight attendants, all women, were dressed in bright red jackets with padded shoulders and a red-and-white candy cane cravat. Each wore white gloves with an embroidered rose on the back of the hand, and each had her hair pulled tightly with a brooch and a small snood over a bun. As is often the case in Asian societies, these women had powdered their faces to look as white as possible, which accentuated their red lipstick and heavy black mascara and eyeliner. Of course, each wore a Kim Il-sung pin over her heart.

Patriotic music was playing as we found our seats. After we settled in, the flight attendants offered a choice of in-flight propaganda. I chose the English-language edition of The Pyongyang Times. The off-lead story – headlined “Books and writings extol Korean leader” – began with the sentence: “The world people in the five continents are highly praising President Kim Il-sung with immense reverence for him.” Great, I quipped to myself, the mathematical computations needed to keep this plane aloft are being made by people who do not know the correct number of continents.

I was placing my life in the hands of a 28-year-old machine built by a country that no longer existed and operated by a country that could not generate enough electricity to power its capital. I had to laugh.

* * * * *

Sitting near the back of an Ilyushin, you feel the thrust. All four engines are bolted to the tail, and you literally feel the airplane being pushed down the runway. The high-pitched whine of the engines is reassuring. Many modern airplanes are so baffled and muffled that you wonder how they reach take-off speed. With an Ilyushin, you know there’s enough power to launch that bird into the sky.

Lunch was served in a hinged plastic tray, with a black bottom and a transparent top. The menu was standard Asian airline grub: smoked meat wedges, cucumber salad with spicy cold chicken, a dinner roll, and rice with gravy and vegetables. The meal was nothing memorable, but it was being served gratis on a 90-minute flight, while American carriers charge for food on flights of up to six hours.

There were a lot of Nos. No video screens. No headsets. No frequent flyer program. No web site. No in-flight magazine (unless you counted copies of Pictorial KOREA; articles included “Ever-victorious Korean People’s Army” and “Japanese Reactionaries Run Amuck To Oppress Chongryon”).

But there were a lot of Yeses. Yes, the cabin looked clean and well-maintained. Yes, the plane departed and landed on time. Yes, the flight attendants were obviously selected for their beauty, common on Asian carriers.

When we crossed the Yalu River, a flight attendant announced that we had entered North Korean airspace. "Sixty-two years ago, our President, Kim Il-sung, came across the river with great ambition for his country and to liberate his country from Japanese imperialism," she said. Of course, by the time of the Yalu River crossing in September 1945, Japan had already surrendered, but I doubt that detail would have made a difference to the pale flight attendant.

* * * * *

I previously noted that Air Koryo received one star from the Skytrax rating service, a score which denotes “very poor standards of product across all travel categories.” After flying these two segments, I think the rating is unfair and beside the point.

Air Koryo should not be judged by the same criteria as Malaysia Airlines or LAN Chile. Air Koryo is its own animal, as unique as a moon lander or a vehicle you would take to the center of the earth.

Air Koryo is a flying circus featuring strangely coifed, vampiric flight attendants who work in a cabin straight out of a 1970s’ airport movie while travelers read palpably insane propaganda as they jet to an isolated dictatorship which is officially governed by a dead man. It’s not a drama; it’s a comedy of the absurd. Embrace the situation, and Air Koryo becomes enjoyable.

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Saturday, May 05, 2007

Taking Wing


Beijing, China

I am off to Beijing Capital Airport. Chances are, it will be impossible to post from North Korea, but, if there is any opportunity, I'll try. Otherwise, I will post again on Wednesday, hopefully having returned to Beijing with a copy of Kim Il-sung On The Art Of The Cinema.

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Friday, May 04, 2007

I Laugh, So That I Do Not Shriek In Bowel-Voiding Terror


Beijing, China

Air Koryo, the state-owned North Korean carrier on which I will be flying tomorrow, has the honor of being one of only two airlines with a one-star rating from Skytrax, the airline quality company. The other one-star carrier is Afriqiyah Airways, the national airline of Libya.

The passenger comments collected by Skytrax include: "Revolutionary marching music played before take off and before landing." "Was amused when both pilots came around to say hello to the dignataries with me, presumably leaving the aircraft on autopilot." "I think one of the engines may have been inoperative, but otherwise the flight was fine."

Air Koryo boasts an "all-Soviet fleet" consisting of Antonovs, Ilyushins and Tupolevs which range from 19 to 41 years old, possibly the world's oldest. Air Koryo flies a regularly scheduled international route between the North Korean capital of Pyongyang (FNJ) and the Chinese capital of Beijing (PEK), with irregular service to Bangkok, Macau and maybe some places in Russia. No one really knows from one day to the next. Air Koryo's range of operations is limited by, among other constraints, the fact that many international airports have banned the planes that it uses.

Air Koryo has no official web site. However, a Spanish gentleman by the name of Alejandro Cao de Benos de Les y Perez -- who is a legend among North Korea buffs due to his sincere belief that he is a highly decorated operative of the North Korean government -- has created an unofficial Air Koryo site.

For the record, I depart from Beijing tomorrow (5 May 2007) at 11:55 a.m. on Air Koryo flight JS152 to Pyongyang. I look forward to fully understanding the phrase "a wing and a prayer."

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The DPRK Tourist Card

Beijing, China

Below are scans of the front and back of my Tourist Card, which creates a presumption of access into North Korea, officially called the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). As is the case with all such documents, the immigration officers can still deny entry at passport control.

(I apologize for the software watermarks -- which could not be uglier -- but I do not have the time to find online freeware to convert the .tif scans to .jpgs that Blogger will support. BTW, the Beijing authorities are currently allowing access to Blogger, which was not the case when I was here in November and January.)

On the Tourist Card, I recognized my passport number (which I redacted) and my birthdate (gifts accepted). I assume the lines of text under the photo are my name and gender written in Korean. I have no idea what the rest of the text says.

The documents for entering the DPRK vary according to which embassy or consulate processes the paperwork. The DPRK's London embassy, for example, issues a formal paper visa which is glued onto one of the pages of the traveler's passport. The DPRK's Beijing embassy, which processed my application, does not issue a formal visa; it issues only the Tourist Card.

Previously, the immigration officers at the Pyongyang airport have refused to stamp U.S. passports. After admittance to the country, the DPRK authorities collect the Tourist Cards, which the travelers do not see again.

No visa. No entry stamp. Official retention of the Tourist Card. On paper, it will be like we're not there at all.


UPDATE: Figured it out. The remaining text probably states that the Tourist Card was issued on May 3 for travel from May 5 to May 8, 2007. I was thrown by the North Korean reckoning, under which the year 2007 is known as the year Juche 96 -- the 96th year after the conception of the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung.

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

DPRK Q&A


Beijing, China

Where are you going this weekend?

North Korea.

No, really, where are you going?

North Korea. It’s officially called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. DPRK for short.

Is that safe?

Police states are the safest places in the world.

Come again?

We will be in the company of translators, guides and minders at all times.

Who’s “we”?

The tour leader from Koryo Tours and the other people on the tour, about 25 people in all.

What’s Koryo Tours?

The world experts on travel to North Korea. Three Brits based out of Beijing. Their web site is here. “Koryo” means “Korea.”

These guys are legit?

Completely. They’ve been shuttling people in and out of the DPRK for 15 years.

Sounds suspicious. What else do they do?

They also produce excellent documentaries about the DPRK, to wit:

The Game of Their Lives (about the underdog North Korean soccer team that defeated mighty Italy in the 1966 World Cup);

A State of Mind (about the Mass Games gymnastics exposition); and

Crossing the Line (about a U.S. serviceman who defected to the DPRK) (to be released this fall).

Is it legal for you to travel to North Korea?

Yes. Ordinary tourist expenditures by U.S. citizens are expressly exempted from the United States' economic sanctions against North Korea. Code of Federal Regulations, Title 31, Section 500.563.

Don’t the North Koreans forbid Americans from entering?

Usually, but the restrictions are eased during Mass Games.

What are Mass Games?

A gymnastics exposition extolling the virtues of collectivism and juche (Korean self-reliance). Thousands of athletes (pictured), principally high school-aged, perform elaborately choreographed, multi-media productions praising the Motherland, the Great Leader (Kim Il-sung) and the Dear Leader (Kim Jong-il).

That sounds like something out of Soviet Russia.

As the press often notes, North Korea and Cuba are the only two truly Communist nations left in the world.

When are you going?

From Saturday, May 5, to Tuesday, May 8, 2007.

Why only four days?

That’s all the DPRK allows. I’d stay for a month if I could, but they won’t let me.

How will you get there?

Air Koryo, the North Korean national carrier, flies between Beijing and Pyongyang. The route is serviced by a Soviet-era jet called an Ilyushin-62.

You are out of your mind.

There’s only two ways to get there. Fly, which takes about two hours, or take the train, which takes about 16. I’ve already taken the train from Beijing to the North Korean border town of Dandong, so I might as well have the experience of flying.

How much does all this cost?

1600 Euros, which is about US$2,200, plus incidentals.

That’s steep for four days.

It’s monopolistic pricing in a market with government-created scarcity. You pay the toll, or you don’t go.

How much of that money does the North Korean government get?

The vast majority, I suspect. The airline, the hotel, the guides, the buses – everything in the DPRK tourist infrastructure is owned and/or controlled by the government.

Does it bother you that you are helping subsidize a totalitarian regime?

Yes, but there’s no other way in. As the Dalai Lama said about travel to Tibet, “Go, and tell the world what you see.”

Will you take pictures?

I plan to. The North Koreans are touchy about what can be photographed.

Will you blog about it?

I plan to when I get back. There’s no internet access in North Korea.

Are you going to submit an article about your trip to a newspaper or a magazine?

No. The entry into North Korea is conditioned upon my not writing anything for traditional media. Blogging is OK. If I wrote a published piece, Koryo Tours could have its privileges revoked, and my group’s North Korean guides could suffer the direst consequences.

You’re really doing this?

Yes.

Why?

Why not?

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Back In Beijing

Beijing, China

Calcutta to Bangkok to Beijing in a day and a half. India to Southeast Asia to North Asia. Tiring.

Beijing is preparing for next summer's Olympics. In the lobby of my hotel, a red digital clock counts down the remaining days-hours-seconds to the start of the Opening Ceremonies.

The city is noticeably cleaner than the last time I was here, several months ago. My guess is that the Chinese Communist Party ordered normally tight-fisted landlords to sandblast the decades of grime off their buildings. Even the plazas in front of the train stations are clean, which is positively un-Chinese.

And the city officials re-named the Anus Hospital! Apparently, it was the butt of jokes.

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