Ceauseșcu’s classic limo, a gift from Iran’s Shah, sold for €37,000 in Bucharest auction

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At a Bucharest hotel known as a “den of spies” during the Cold War, the former Romanian dictator’s car was sold to Iranians nostalgic for the days of the Shah.

The couple who have travelled from Dusseldorf to buy the former dictator of Romania’s car aren’t buying it for its Cold War connection – but for its connection to Shah Reza Pavlavi and because, they say, it reminds them of their childhood.

“For us the meaning of this car is not related to Ceaușescu, it’s the relation to the Shah,” says Behrus Akbari, speaking to press after the auction, shortly after she and her husband had beat an unknown telephone bidder to buy the car for €37,000.

The couple, dressed opulently and speaking German and English fluently, see it as an important addition to their collection of classic Iranian Paykan cars at their home in Germany. Ms. Akbari admits that they own over 40 such vehicles but refuse to name the priciest.

“It means a lot to us as Iranians, it’s traditional. We have a car collection, we have a Paykan collection, and a W116 from the Shah, the original car. We don’t have a personal relationship to the Shah, but we do have a personal relation to Iran.”

Read more here.

The father and son accused of helping North Korea develop WMDs

In the first major case of its kind, Taiwan nationals Gary and Alex Tsai stand trial for co-ordinating machinery exports for the DPRK

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“I ate what they gave me in the jail,” the defendant told Judge Charles Norgle, speaking through a Mandarin interpreter, to show that he was following proceedings.

“What was it?”

“Milk and cereal.”

“And how was it?”

“It was…OK.”

The court proceedings for a case involving North Korea, the FBI and an alleged arms supplier and money launderer from Taiwan began with a conversation about breakfast.

The defendant, 69-year-old Taiwanese businessman Hsien Tai Tsai, also known as Alex Tsai, was pleading guilty to a litany of crimes related to supplying equipment for the production of weapons of mass destruction to North Korea and money laundering.

Read the full story here.

The UFO-loving sect trying to make the Swastika cool again

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The Raëlian movement believes it is an extraterrestrial peace symbol

Spare a thought for those who headed down to enjoy the sun on Saturday the 12th of July on Brighton Beach and Coney Island in New York City, when their sunbathing was interrupted by a plane flying overhead and a banner displaying a swastika – the ultimate symbol of unflinching fascist hatred – and the message: “Proswastika”.

Needless to say the beach goers were not amused – submitting several complaints to the local councilman Mark Treyger, who told the press that “it’s a very chilling image, in light of the fact that southern Brooklyn has the largest remaining number of World War II and Holocaust survivors”.

“There is no place for this in New York City,” he continued.

But while many New Yorkers sunbathing that day may have feared that a flying swastika trumpeted a Neo-Nazi comeback, what they were actually seeing was a new campaign by the Raëlian International religious group, the beginnings of “Swastika rehabilitation week”.

Raëlian philosophy is a unique concoction of science fiction ideas and Eastern-style spiritualism, and argues that life on earth was created thousands of years ago by extraterrestrial scientists who they call the “Elohim”.

The Elohim, according to Raëlians, have made numerous attempts to teach humans the true meaning of their existence: coming to earth in the forms of Jesus, Mohammed, and Buddha before eventually revealing themselves to a French journalist and race car driver, Claude Vorilhon, in 1974. Determined to spread the message and prepare for the return of the Elohim, Mr. Vorilhon changed his name to Raël, and began the movement which now boasts 85,000 members across the world.

Behind the campaign is longtime Raëlian apparatchik and high level “guide” Thomas Kaenzig, who now serves as leader for the Swastika rehabilitation campaign worldwide. This is not the first time Thomas has been in the media spotlight. In 2002 he acted as spokesman and Vice President for a Raëlian-affiliated corporation: Clonaid, which controversially claimed it had cloned the first human, a practice Raëlians believe will lead to immortality.

Here he is in 2003 talking on American TV about the project.

I called him up at his home and he kindly answered some questions.

What, broadly, are the goals of your campaign?

The goal is basically to rehabilitate the swastika symbol. Basically in the mid-2000s Germany tried to ban the swastika throughout Europe, make it illegal to show the swastika symbol throughout Europe. And it was at that moment that Raël, leader of the Raëlian movement said “well hang on, this symbol is part of our official symbol” – for us Raëlians it only means good things. The swastika for Raëlians means infinity, which is the symbol coming from Elohim so there’s nothing more sacred than this symbol.

We have to make sure that we have to help people understand that there’s nothing bad originally about the symbol, for sure we had this monster called Hitler who used it for his purposes but it’s been hijacked and used as a symbol. And this is not only for us Raëlians but for more than one billion people on this planet, we’re talking about Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and of course many others for whom this symbol is very special.

So that is why in the late 2000s we created proswastika.org. And the goal, again, is to reclaim this symbol for mainly for the western world. I dunno if you’ve travelled to Asia, I have a lot. And I can tell you that this is a non-issue out there and quite a lot of countries in Asia the symbol is recognised everywhere – in Japan and Korea, China and India.

Why is the swastika in particular so important to Raëlians?

The link between the symbol and why it’s so important for the Raëlist movement is the Elohim, it means infinity, and the symbol they gave to us is the Star of David interlaced with the swastika. And we can find the swastika symbol on this planet, if you go on our website we have about six, seven hundred pictures of swastikas around the world, and it’s interesting to see this very famous symbol, the swastika, all over the planet, in civilisations that have no link between each other thousands of years ago. So there’s gotta be a common origin, and that common origin is the Elohim, our creators.

So the swastika is an alien symbol?

Yeah that’s the symbol they use, that’s their symbol. It’s the symbol that they gave humanity basically.

What has been the general feedback to the campaign?

Overall I’m very happy with the feedback we’ve had from the campaign. We’ve had a lot of positive feedback in general, particularly from Hindus, Buddhists – we had people saying “thank you so much for taking on this campaign, in my daily life when people come to my home I constantly have to explain ‘I’m not a Nazi’”. It’s something very positive and something very beautiful. So a lot of support from these communities and a lot of encouragement. 

We’re not here to offend, we’re here to educate.

What would you say to those that say the symbolism is so extreme and represents something so terrible, that it can never be rehabilitated?

A few things to mention here. Of course I’m very sensitive to what people had to go through during Hitler. The Raëlian movement is a pacifist movement, and we denounce any form of violence and killing which is, yeah, the ultimate horror. 

For sure, Hitler was a monstrosity, but then again I think the last thing anyone would want, the descendants of the families who went through World War Two, is for Hitler to take credit for something he doesn’t own. Associating the swastika with Hitler and Nazism, you only give credit to him and his ideology.

The second thing which is a very important point is, people say ok it’s an ok symbol in the East, not int the West. I don’t agree with that statement, it’s actually wrong. The swastika as a symbol can be found worldwide. Including in Israel!

Is the purpose of the campaign purely the rehabilitation of the swastika, or are you also interested in promoting Raëllan ideas?

I think those two go hand-in-hand together, because everything the Raëlian movement does is to promote Raëlian values. It’s who we are, and the Swastika is part of our official symbol. So basically in 2007, that’s when Raël said it’s time we start using the swastika again, following the actions of Germany on an EU level that’s when Raël said we have to change the symbol back.

Have you noticed an increased interest in Raëlian philosophy since the increased media attention?

Well, you know, we’re not here to find new members, to recruit new members or anything like that. As Raëlians we’re here to inform the public about who we are and what we do, what people do with that is totally up to them. Well we’ve had huge media interest in the last few days, so are more people gonna come to Raëlian events? Probably.

But you know it’s gonna take years, so [recruiting isn’t] so important. People can do with the information whatever they want. I never try to convince anybody about it, just say here’s a flier, go on the website. The Raëlian movement is really here to inform people.

You gained significant media attention in 2002 for your involvement in Clonaid. What have you been up to since then?

A few things to clarify here – the Raëlian movement is not involved in any human cloning.

The Raëlian movement supports cloning from a moral and philosophical point of view, just as we support all progressive things, things which bring humanity forward. So yes, I’m involved with Clonaid, but there are only a few Raëlians involved, there are also non-Raëlians involved with Clonaid, it wouldn’t make a difference between the Raëlian philosophy supporting the concept of cloning from a moral philosophical point of view.

What else has the Raëlian movement been involved in? The Raëlian movement’s been involved in many other progressive actions and movements for social change. There are two bigs ones: one coming up, is “go topless” day, basically fighting for gender equality, the next go topless day is coming up at the end of August.

The other big project the last few years is the Clitoraid project and fighting female genital mutilation. We’ve build a hospital in Burkino Faso, where women can come and have their clitoris rebuilt for free.

We also are involved in fighting for sexual minorities – gay pride, gay rights initiatives and actions. We also have one minute for peace meditations that we do around the world, where people gather and meditate for peace in public.

Thanks Thomas!

Raëlians, as UFO-believing sects go, are possibly one of the least harmful fringe religious groups out there. They’re not gonna stalk and harass you like the Church of Scientology, or incite their members to suicide like Heaven’s Gate.

With their commitment to equal rights, peace and love, sexual freedom and tolerance, it’s almost possible to set aside their leftfield philosophy and enjoy them as fun loving and harmless kooks that they are.

Speaking to Thomas, the Raëlians come across as more oblivious than deliberately offensive. They, of course, are correct that the Swastika is not just associated with Nazism and Fascism – their website is filled with hundreds of examples of its use in architecture, traditional dress, and religious texts throughout history and across the world.

But flying a Swastika over New York, a city with a high concentration of Holocaust survivors and their descendants? Maybe it’s not up to the Raëlians to decide whether that symbol is ok now.

Photo credit: Wikimedia user Kmarinas86

Inside the Kim family business: Office 39

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NK News article on the Kim family’s secretive slush fund for hard currency.

It’s been accused of many things: international drug dealing, insurance fraud, counterfeiting U.S. dollars. The list of alleged international illicit activity by North Korea’s Office 39 is long and complex.

But one thing is for sure: It is involved in the acquisition of hard currency for Kim Jong Un and the DPRK’s ruling elite, and has employed a variety of schemes to raise these funds.

Office 39’s purpose, at least in principle, is the funding of North Korea’s “royal economy”: the money funding the luxurious lifestyles of Kim Jong Un and his inner circle. Or, as one source put it: “buying the Danish hams and the French cognac.”

Getting concrete information on Office 39’s activity is extremely difficult if not involved in national intelligence sources, Martin Uden, former coordinator of the Panel of Experts at the United Nations on North Korea sanctions, told NK News.

Click here to read more.

The weird, weird world of North Korean elections

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Article I wrote on North Korean elections, which are held this week, for NK News.

If you’re a North Korean citizen trying to make an (underground) living in China, there’s one event that will certainly bring you back home: election day in the DRPK, when many flood back into the country to have their votes counted whenever they are called.

Why? According to defector Mina Yoon, who left North Korea in 2011, elections function mainly as a means for the state to keep track of its population’s whereabouts and to keep track of defectors.

“The government checks the list of voters and if your name is not on the list, they will investigate it”, she told NK News. “It is often during election that the government finds out about defectors and people who have been missed”.

Read more here

Note: A shorter version of this piece appeared in The Daily Telegraph – read it here.

Introducing Monique Macias…

Monique Macias has a fascinating story. The daughter of the ruthless President Francisco Macías Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, by chance she grew up in Pyongyang, North Korea and stayed there when her father was overthrown in a bloody coup d’etat.

Her observations as an foreigner and an African woman who grew up in the world’s most secretive state are completely unique, and she’s agreed to begin writing a column for NK News, which has already received a lot of attention! Have a look.

For those interested in reading more, here’s her second column: On growing up as an African woman in North Korea. Fascinating stuff. Read it here.

Michael Malice: Kim Jong Il’s “unofficial” ghostwriter

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I interviewed Michael Malice, a brilliantly eccentric guy who’s written an “unofficial” autobiography of Kim Jong Il – check it out. 

If some of the stories that the North Koreans told their people about Kim Jong Il’s life are true, Michael Malice jokes that everyone in the country would have to be “high-functioning learning disabled.”

He points to a story he read from 1982, when the Dear Leader was presiding over the construction of the Tower of the Juche Idea in Pyongyang.

“In the books they say he came up with the idea to make it the tallest tower, which no one had ever thought of previously,” he said. “Are you telling me these other architects never considered making it the tallest? Like, do they have learning disabilities?”

He recalled sharing this thought with a North Korean refugee he met in New York, saying that she “was laughing so hard she was crying.”

Malice ghostwrites celebrity autobiographies for a living – he’s written autobiographies for all kinds of eccentric characters: a professional wrestler, a rock singer and a comedian, among others. But in his new book, Dear Reader, he said he’s created a whole new genre of literature: the “unauthorized autobiography,” and has written the life story of late Dear Leader himself, Kim Jong Il.

Read the rest here.