Friday, January 07, 2005


How and why is it that a Japanese term for a wave caused by an underwater earthquake became the standard term for this phenomenon in English? Have there never been any tsunamis in the Atlantic (perhaps the famed Atlantis was destroyed by one)? Didn't Europeans ever get around to coming up with a word for the phenomeon? Surely there are Hindi, Tamil, Javanese, or Thai terms for this phenomenon? Do the locals resent this linguistic imperialism of the economically powerful Japanese? Why and how is it that everyone seems to have decided on "the tsunami" as the best (and only) way to describe the disaster?

Thursday, January 06, 2005


According to this piece in The Japan Times, they're up to all sorts of things:
Heilongjiang province, with its abundant farm land, is a popular destination. North Korean women marry farmers, filling the gap left by female infanticide and abortion prevalent in China. Others move to big cities. My favorite restaurant in Shanghai is owned and run by North Koreans.

Some move on through China and into Mongolia and Vietnam, either staying there or seeking to move on to South Korea. A planeload of such migrants recently arrived in Seoul, allegedly from Vietnam, although this was never officially confirmed.
Some are beggars, some are petty or not-so-petty criminals. Handbag snatching and bank robbing by North Koreans is said to be increasing. Some of the criminals are rogue North Korean Army officers seeking to augment their poor pay.

Some criminals are part of organized-crime syndicates working with Chinese colleagues in drugs and prostitution. Others organize smuggling on a large scale, both ways, to feed the growing numbers of private markets in North Korea and to escape taxes in China (luxury cars and even earth-moving equipment from Japan are smuggled via North Korea into China).

North Koreans running restaurants in Shanghai? Who would've thought?

The article's author, David Wall, makes the common sense observation that there simply is no way the PRC authorities can track down, round up, and deport all of the North Korean illegals in China even if they wanted to:
There is no witch hunt to clear China of illegal North Korean migrants. There cannot be. The Chinese police simply cannot scour the vast areas of isolated mountains and forests looking for migrants or identify them in towns where there are hundreds of thousands of ethnic Koreans.
If he's correct (and he most surely is), North Koreans in China are there to stay for the foreseeable future.


So says, Andrei Lankov in a nice summary of recent economic changes in North Korea. The freefall of the official economy has resulted in a blossoming of heretofore unseen economic activity. This has empowered many groups who were previously suspect. The include

Women were especially prominent in the new small businesses. Many North Korean women were housewives or held less-demanding jobs than men. Their husbands continued to go to their factories, which had come to a standstill. The males received rationing coupons that were hardly worth the paper on which they were printed. But North Korean men still saw the situation as temporary and were afraid to lose the trappings of a proper state-sponsored job that for decades had been a condition for survival in their society. While men were waiting for resumption of "normal life", whiling away their time in idle plants, the women embarked on frenetic business activity. Soon some of these women began to make sums that far exceeded their husbands' wages.

But many hitherto discriminated-against groups managed to rise to prominence during this decade. The access to foreign currency was very important, and in North Korea there were three major groups who had access to some investment capital: the Japanese-Koreans, Chinese-Koreans and Korean-Chinese.

The changes have been so sweeping as to make the recent state-sponsored reforms merely a rubber stamp acknowledgment of contemporary realities:
Until recently, the government did not try to lead, but simply followed the events. The much-trumpeted reforms of 2002 by and large were hardly anything more than the admission of the situation that had been existing for a few years by then. The official abolition (or near-abolition) of the public distribution system did not count for much, since this system ceased to operate outside Pyongyang around 1995.

These changes are, for the most part, to be applauded. I can't help but wonder why, however, it seems that any liberalization from state tyranny inevitably seems to lead to the introduction of new (or old) private abuses and tyrannies:
Even prostitution, completely eradicated around 1950, made a powerful comeback as desperate women were eager to sell sexual services to the newly rich merchants. Since no banking institution would serve private commercial operations, illegal money lenders appeared. In the late 1990s they would charge their borrowers monthly interests of 30-40%. This reflected very high risks: these lenders had virtually no protection against the state, criminals and, above all, bad debtors.
One might hope that market liberalization in some areas wouldn't automatically lead to a state where everything (even sexual services) is for sale, but alas, human nature would appear to dictate otherwise.


Matt Waters recounts some first-hand experience with cheating in China. I can attest that while there may be certain Chinese (or East Asian?) cultural proclivities toward what we in the West might reagrd as cheating, it is hardly an Asian monopoly (and I don't think that Matt is trying to imply that it is). I have encountered plenty of forms of cheating among students of all cultures, nationalities, and socio-economic status.

Of late, I have taken to assigning sections from David Callahan's The Cheating Culture to my students and asking them to write a short essay on whether they regard cheating to be a problem. Needless to say, the vast majority concludes that cheating is indeed a problem. Many agree with Callahan's somewhat overwrought conclusion that much of cheating in today's culture is due to the intense pressure to succeed that many people feel (a pressure that if Matt's experience is any indication, is also strong in China).

A question I have begun asking my students after this exercise is this:
"If we accept as a given that there is intense competition in our society for a relatively few successful positions (best colleges, grad schools, jobs etc.) and if we accept that many will cheat to attempt to gain an edge on their competitors, why isn't the rational and logical choice for the student who wishes to succeed through honest means to turn their fellow cheating students in? If they did so, wouldn't they effectively eliminate a significant number of competitors while maintaining their own integrity?"
In my experience, this solution has never even occurred to most students and even after discussing it in class, none of them will choose to take this route. Apparently, the pressure to not tattle on owns peers is even greater than the pressure to succeed.


So says, the Natural Resources Defence Council, basing this conclusion on satellite photos of DPRK military installations:
Kyodo News ("SATELLITE PHOTOS SHOW OUTDATED N. KOREAN MILITARY FORCES", 2005-01-06) reported that a US environmental group unveiled Wednesday some 100 commercial satellite photos of DPRK defense, nuclear and other facilities taken over the past two to three years, concluding that its conventional military weapons are outdated and do not pose a threat to the US and ROK. "From what has been seen of North Korea's capability, certainly not a threat to the United States...not much of a threat to South Korea," Thomas Cochran, the nuclear program director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in releasing the photos at a press conference.

Why and how an environmental activist group became competent to draw conclusions about military capabilities from commercial satellite photos is not readily apparent. What is apparent is that the NRDC has a certain agenda that minimizing the North Korean nuclear threat would support:
Cochran also said the photos suggested that there is no need for nuclear weapons, especially the earth-penetrating bunker busters being developed by the US, to remove targets, adding that the DPRK can be dealt with using conventional weapons.
I would still be interested in taking a look at those photos though.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005


But was he ever in a great film? Posted by Hello

Remember that parlor game "six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon"? I must confess I have spent an hour or two thinking up the names of actors and trying to make the connection with the ubiquitous Bacon. In many cases, it would take me three or four (or more) connections. Well, the Oracle of Bacon at Virginia clearly demonstrates that I do not know my movies very well. I have tried a few dozen names and the farthest degree of separation I can come up with is three (Gong Li). If anyone can do better, I'd love to hear about it.

While your at it, submit your proposal for the best Kevin Bacon film ever. This might be harder than finding someone who is separated from Bacon by 4+ degrees.


Rebecca MacKinnon points to an interesting story of a Chinese reporter who was detained while visiting and taking pictures of a hotel and casino in North Korea. The very existence of such a place demonstrates the complexities and contradictions of contemporary North Korea.

--The hotel boasts a website which contains the endearing English appellation: "EMPEROR HOTEL AND CAINO." The Chinese title "??" (yinghuang) rendered as "Emperor" is a curious one. It could mean either "glorious [or famous] emperor" or "English Emperor" (wow, my Chinese is getting rusty).

--The website boasts luxurious rooms complete with refrigerators and satellite tv. One wonders whether the North Korean maids sneak a peak at forbidden tv shows while they turn down the beds.

--The hotel also boasts luxurious saunas and a business center with a
"Fully equipped conference room, IDD, facsimiles, photo copyingplus multi-lingualcomprehensive secretarial services will satisfy all your business needs."
Again, one wonders whether the locals are allowed to avail themselves of these high tech gadgets. Moreover, what Chinese businessman is going to want to conduct business in North Korea when, if the Chinese reporter's experience is any indication, he
"didn't have his mobile phone to contact his paper or family as he had to hand it in at the border as mobiles are banned in North Korea."
and the soldiers who confiscated his digital camera had apparently never seen one before.

Such institutions may bring in some hard foreign currency but I can't imagine that it will help local morale all that much to see Chinese businessmen enjoying forbidden fruits in North Korea while all the locals are likely to be allowed to do is cook and clean for them.

Monday, January 03, 2005


According to the Donga Ilbo, the times they are a changin' in North Korea:
North Korea, in an effort to enhance the productivity of collective farms, has decided to implement agricultural reform policies in March or April that would divide the current group unit into a group of two or three households.

If this policy is to approve de-facto family farming in North Korea, the first phase of the socialistic agriculture reform that China had implemented in 1978 will start again in the hermit kingdom, experts said.
Of course the key difference between China in 1978 and North Korea today is that China had a huge and potentially quite productive agricultural sector. Essentially all it took was for Zhao Ziyang to mandate that the PRC state get out of the way, and Sichuan was off to the races. North Korea, by virtue of geography and climate, lacks a similar producitve potential. Moreover, I suspect that a significantly higher proportion of the DPRK population lives and works in non-agricultural sectors than China in 1978. Thus, any expected increase in surplus is likely to be proportionally much smaller. Still, this is probably a positive development, not least for the farmers themselves, who now might have a chance of making a living.

Sunday, January 02, 2005


Courtesy of Tyler Cowen
58,000 major incidents of social unrest took place in China in 2003 -- an average of roughly 160 a day and 15 percent more than the year before.
Interesting and, perhaps, troubling. However, I'm not exactly how that compares to other nations given China's larger population size.


If street vendors are any guide, perhaps so.
North Koreans perch in ground-floor apartment windows selling dumplings and cakes, smoked fish, beer and soft drinks, said Leonid Petrov, a fellow at the Korea Foundation in Seoul who visited Pyongyang in August.

People sew or repair clothes from small workshops. At night, vendors set up pojangmachas -- small tents selling street food that are a frequent sight in Seoul.

In markets, vendors hawk Chinese noodles and candy, clothes, bags and boots, Petrov said.

People also can buy secondhand computers and are increasingly going online to chat on the country's internal version of the Internet that is blocked off from the outside world.

"Everything is on sale in North Korea," Petrov said.
And, there are small signs of changes in mind-set as well:
New restaurants are springing up in Pyongyang, where business-savvy owners offer dishes on the house and discounts for return customers -- part of a new sense of entrepreneurship that has emerged in the past year, said Kathi Zellweger of the Catholic charity Caritas, who has visited North Korea 47 times -- the last time in September.

"Before, people had no idea about costs or prices. Now, it's dinner table conversation," she said.
But, before we get too excited, some words of caution:
The changes also have yet to make much of an impact outside the capital, and government spending still is heavily focused on the country's vast military.

Analysts differ on whether the opening of North Korea's economy amounts to a real change in the isolated regime's thinking or is just a reaction to people taking matters into their own hands to survive.

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