food / travel

Back In The USSR, Russian Eyes On The New North Korea

In Pyongyang
In Pyongyang
Victor Agaev

PYONGYANG â€" In the Beijing airport, as I was preparing to fly to North Korea, you could practically smell the communism. Traders were checking large, beat-up bags of household items. A family was buying a large appliance in the duty-free shop.

The North Koreans were easily identifiable: They were required to wear buttons with portraits of the great leaders: Kim Jong-un’s father and grandfathers. It was also clear that the North Koreans we traveled with were VIPs, for as soon as we arrived in Pyongyang, they were whisked away by an official while the rest of us â€" a bunch of foreigners, a dance group and a few business people â€" waited in line for the inspection and registration.

All of the travelers had to declare each and every piece of technology we brought into the country. Foreign SIM-cards are worthless in North Korea. Only foreigners are allowed to make overseas calls, and those have to be made from a special cubicle at the hotel and cost about 10 euros per minute. It’s possible to send emails, but the process resembles the old way of sending telegrams: You write the text, in English or Korean, on a piece of paper at an official center, then someone else sends your email. The answer is delivered in a similar way. No one is permitted to go on the Internet.

Judging by the type of inspection on the border, another main goal is to prevent people from bringing in anything that resembles pornography or any film that shows that peoples’ lives in the rest of the world â€" especially in South Korea â€" don’t conform to what the official propaganda depicts.

On the plane, passengers got a glossy magazine called “Korea” in various languages. Every half hour the video screens showed a military choir singing about heroes and victory. Soon you discover that, no matter where you go in North Korea, there will be monitors and public televisions showing those same military shows and army concerts, all of which sing the praises of Kim Jong-un. Often, the shows highlight Kim carrying on a tradition started by his grandfather of “leading in place,” where Kim goes to factories or military outposts to personally participate in events like “personally experiencing a plane prepared by the North Korean working class.”

In both his hyperactivity and his universality, Kim Jong-un has surpassed both his father and his grandfather. His father, for example, visited 7400 sites over the course of around two decades. But the current leader goes further, hugging children, launching rockets himself, visiting hospitals and farms. The young Kim is presented as a master of all trades, and failing to listen to his suggestions can be disastrous. Rumor has it that the architect of the recently opened airport in Pyongyang paid with his life for failing to follow Kim's “recommendations.” But like so many things in North Korea, no one is quite sure if the rumor is true, and verification is impossible.

City of contrasts

The airport seems modern, so do the buildings on the way to the city. But on second look, the high-rise apartment buildings aren’t actually built to be lived in: It’s like the set on a movie, built for the eyes of international visitors. Then there’s the symbol of Pyongyang, a hotel in the shape of a rocket. Construction started on the hotel 25 years ago, and millions of dollars later, it’s still not done.

It’s all rather nice to look at as long as you’re driving on the street, and don’t stop. Nighttime can feel ominous, as there tends to be one dim light on in the center of an apartment. And that's in the center of Pyongyang â€" elsewhere, there's no electricity. As such there are 35-story buildings with no elevators.

The streets and the public squares in the city center resemble a Hollywood movie about the Soviet Union. There really are columns of students and soldiers marching through the streets, like in the USSR in the 1930s. Even the watchmen on the streets wear the same white jumpsuits as they did in Moscow back then.

One of the traffic policemen dressed in white makes a show of stopping traffic to let some important person’s limousine pass. It’s a useless show, since there are basically no other cars on the road.

Foreign currency and laughs

Visitors in North Korea are primarily a source of foreign currency. They are forbidden to convert their money to North Korean wons, and must pay for everything in dollars, euros or Chinese yuans. Officially, 900 wons is worth around a dollar, but in practice, if you’re buying something, the actual exchange rate is several times higher.

That makes it hard to know how much an average Korean actually spends on any individual good. Apparently miners make around 50,000 won per month, but a Chinese-made shirt also costs about 50,000 won.

Many items can only be bought with special permission, anyway, and big-ticket items likes cars and apartments are only available directly from the government. Some special categories of people have been able to purchase cars: the class of nouveau riche businessmen, show business stars and Koreans who have family in Japan. Generally speaking, the government tries not to touch people with family in Japan, so as not to lose a good source of foreign currency.

Paradoxically, propaganda is another source of much-desired foreign currency. A propaganda postcard costs a dollar, while a copy of a 1950s-era poster depicting Koreans annihilating American aggression goes for $25. Tourists laugh as they buy the poster, but one wonders whether the North Koreans understand just what is so funny.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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