Culture

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UK Foreign Office warns on taking digital media to North Korea

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Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office is warning visitors to North Korea that they need to “carefully consider” any recorded video that they attempt to take into the country.

The warning came in an update to the FCO’s travel advice for North Korea that was made on Tuesday.

“Consider carefully any films or television programmes that you bring into the country, either on DVD or on data storage devices. Those deemed to have an anti-DPRK government message may be confiscated and you may face detention as a result.”

The travel advice is typically updated in response to incidents that have occurred, so it’s likely that travelers have recently faced scrutiny of the content on DVDs and USB sticks they bring into North Korea.

The FCO’s already advised against taking Korean-language books to the country and anything that could be deemed subversive or pornographic. But even more innocuous material can be frowned upon.

“There have been recent cases of travel guides being confiscated at the airport on arrival; they are usually returned on departure,” the travel advice says.

North Korea had previously asked tourists to leave cellphones at the airport to be returned when they left the country, but the country recently changed that policy. Tourists are now able to keep their phone and use it with a SIM card from local cellular company Koryolink.

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Visiting Tokyo’s Korean Book Center

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There aren’t many places in the world outside of North Korea that you can just walk in and peruse DPRK propaganda, but Tokyo’s Korea Book Center is one place that you can.

It was a place I never managed to get to when I lived in Tokyo, so I decided to visit last week when I was back in Japan.

I had imagined the place would be bigger, but it’s really no larger than an average size room. (Click images below for larger versions)

There are three lines of bookcases with books in Korean and Japanese. There’s also some audiovisual content, which I’ll get to in a moment. I saw only one book in English, a biography of Kim Jong Il.

They include titles in both languages published in Japan by the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (with which the bookstore is linked), books from Japanese and South Korean publishers on the North-South issue, and Korean-language books from North Korea.


Without a doubt, the highlight is the North Korean content, but there is little that is fresh. Most of the books are several years old, if not older. It’s difficult to tell roughly how old the North Korean books are without looking inside however, because the quality of printing and binding makes them look older than contemporary western or Japanese titles.

I managed to locate one of the newest books, and the printing and binding quality is much improved:

There’s one bookcase with audiovisual contents, although the majority of it is taken up by a few hundred VHS cassettes of North Korean TV dramas and cartoons. Some carry the Mokran Video label. There’s a very small DVD selection and a few audio CDs.

Among the DVDs are three computer software titles: a North Korean version of Baduk, a Korean dictionary, and a multimedia CD-ROM on Mount Kumgang. All carried the “Korea Computer Center” label.

In a subsequent post, I’ll detail some of the handful of things I bought.

If you’re interested in visiting for yourself, here’s how to get there:

The Korea Book Center is located in Hakusan, an old neighborhood in the center of Tokyo that’s served by the Toei Mita line subway.



View Larger Map

It’s open from 1pm to 5pm from Monday to Saturday, closed on Sundays and public holidays. It has a website at www.krbook.net and its phone number is 03-6820-0111.

Take exit A1 from the subway station, turn right when you get to street level and walk about one minute until you hit the major Hakusan Dori.

From the crossing at the corner, you’ll be able to see the large brown building that houses the shop.

It’s easy to spot because of the large shortwave radio antenna on the roof.

The address is Hakusan 4-33, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo; or if you need one in Japanese, it’s: 東京都文京区白山4丁目33.

Cross over the street, turn right and in no time you’ll be in front of the building.

DPRK are new baddies in Hollywood movie remake

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Imagine, you’re midway through shooting a movie in which China invades the U.S. and all that stands in its way of national domination is a small group of teens. You might think that sentence sums up your biggest problem, but you’re wrong.

Portions of the script and photos from the set have been leaked in China, one of your biggest potential markets, and the Chinese are not pleased.

The Beijing-based Global Times, which always has much to say about Sino-U.S. issues, shouts “U.S. Reshoots Cold War Movie to Demonize China,” and “American Movie Plants Hostile Seeds Against China,” on successive days in its pages.

“Despite the world’s focus on U.S.-China relations in the strategic and economic dialogue and their increasing economic connections, China can still feel U.S. distrust and fear, especially among its people. Americans’ suspicions about China are the best ground for the hawks to disseminate fear and doubt, which is the biggest concern with the movie Red Dawn.” — Global Times, Beijing

MGM postponed the planned 2010 release of the movie due to financial difficulties but later went on to schedule a 2011 release. Now it’s due out later this year, hitting U.S. screens on November 2, and there’s a change: the baddies are no longer China but North Korea.

Here’s what Open Road Films, the MGM unit that will release the movie, has to say about it:

In Red Dawn, a city in Washington state awakens to the surreal sight of foreign paratroopers dropping from the sky – shockingly, the U.S. has been invaded and their hometown is the initial target. Quickly and without warning, the citizens find themselves prisoners and their town under enemy occupation. Determined to fight back, a group of young patriots seek refuge in the surrounding woods, training and reorganizing themselves into a guerilla group of fighters. Taking inspiration from their high school mascot, they call themselves the Wolverines, banding together to protect one another, liberate their town from its captors, and take back their freedom.

If this sounds a little familiar, check out Homefront. The computer game was modeled on a North Korean invasion of the U.S. in 2027.

Here’s a taster of the upcoming movie:

North Koreans gaining more access to foreign media, says report

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Cracks in the information wall that has long surrounded North Korea are increasingly allowing citizens in the country more exposure to foreign media, according to a report published on Thursday.

The report, produced by Intermedia for the U.S. Department of State, was based on surveys of several hundred defectors, refugees and travelers, and found “substantial numbers” are able to access outside media.

It’s based on a relatively small sample of a few hundred people made up of those who have already made it outside the country, either by defecting or crossing the Chinese border for trade. Therefore, the results can’t simply be extrapolated to the entire nation, but the report provides some fascinating insight into life in North Korea today.

The most prevalent form of foreign media is DVDs, smuggled into the country from China and usually containing South Korean dramas.

Almost half of 250 of North Korean refugees and travelers interviewed in a 2010 survey reported having watched foreign DVDs. That was significantly more than the 27 percent who said they had listened to foreign radio and 24 percent who reported watching foreign TV.

The broader audience for DVDs and a willingness to share viewing with trusted friends is getting foreign content to people that don’t fit the typical profile of a foreign radio listener. It’s through DVDs that many North Koreans get their first glimpse of the world in general and South Korea in particular, the report said.

In contrast, foreign radio broadcasts reach fewer people. The same 2010 survey found 27 percent reported listening to broadcasts from stations such as KBS, Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.

The majority of listening is done late at night, with the 10pm to 1am timeframe attracting most listeners. That’s reflected in the broadcasting schedules of international stations, which schedule most programs on air during the late evening hours.

Listening to foreign radio presents some challenges, from getting a radio with an adjustable tuner to listening through atmospheric static and government jamming, but it remains the only medium capable of delivering daily news into all of North Korea.

Some respondents reported viewing of foreign TV broadcasts. Reception is typically limited to border areas because signals from South Korean and Chinese stations don’t reach more than a few tens of kilometers into the country.

Along the northern border, Yanji TV from China was watched weekly by 15 percent of those surveyed. Only 4 percent reported weekly viewing of South Korea’s KBS. The lower number probably doesn’t reflect a relative lack of popularity but rather a smaller number of survey respondents from southern provinces and technical differences between the North and South TV standards.

While many North Koreans still have no direct access to foreign information sources, the report found those with direct access are increasingly willing to share thinformation they learn with their family and trusted friends.

If representative of wider North Korean society, the findings suggest that fewer North Koreans are willing to report on each other than before. In the past, some defectors have talked about hiding their foreign media consumption from members of their own family for fear of getting reported to authorities

But getting caught accessing foreign media, such as cross-border radio, remains risky and penalties can be severe, the report said.

The entire report can be downloaded from the InterMedia website.

(Disclosure: InterMedia provided domestic travel for me to attend the report launch and asked me to speak at the event.)

The Simpsons Kim Jong Il

‘I’ is for the Internet he bans

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Kim Jong Il made a surprise appearance on the season premiere edition of Fox TV’s “The Simpsons” on Sunday night. And so did “the Internet he banned.”

The episode, which marked the beginning of the 23rd season of the hit animated show, features a former CIA agent called Wayne. Played by Kiefer Sutherland, Wayne becomes a security guard at the nuclear power plant and eventually saves Homer’s life.

It’s right at the end of the show that he reveals he was “in a North Korean prison being forced to write a musical about Kim Jong Il with a car battery hooked up to my nipples.”

The musical, called “Being Short is no Hindrance to Greatness,” included a song that spelled out the name of the Dear Leader. The song started out with some quite cutting lines but then lost a little imagination and faded out:

“K is for Korea just the north part, I is for the Internet he bans.

M is for the millions that are missing, J is for our human-tasting jam.

O is for oh boy we love our leader, N is for the best Korea north.

G is for gee-whiz we love our leader …”

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