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.

“LGBT rights in North Korea is a bit like LGBT rights on the moon”

being-gay-dprkFollowers might be interested in a piece I did for the fantastic NK News, an independent news service focusing on North Korea, which you should all sign up for. It’s about LGBT rights in what is, essentially, the most secretive and closed society in the world – the truth is much more interesting, and nuanced, than you’d think.

Ji Min, like nearly all other young North Korean men, took part in regular compulsory military training. Once a year, professionals from the cities such as him were drafted and sent off to do military service for about two weeks.

Working with Ji Min was another young man of marriageable age, who the army had given the task of distributing food, rations and other necessities to the soldiers – a job which could make one quite popular with your fellow soldiers. Furthermore, on the job they were exposed to many unmarried girls, and “some of them were really pretty,” Ji Min recalled.

But Ji Min’s friend was not interested in the girls – he was more interested in Ji Min.

“He always treated me so nicely,” said Ji Min, who defected from the DPRK in 2005. “I was (very) favored by his effort to get me out of hard training or to give me delicious food. I am wondering why he really did so to me when he ignored all those girls who tried hard to get his attention.”

Western readers may not be so perplexed – it’s possible Ji Min was the subject of a homosexual crush.

Homosexuality in the DPRK is one of the most mysterious things about this mysterious state – how is a subject, still something of a taboo even in the west, treated in one of the most authoritarian and conformist states in the world?

Read more here.

Tanzania won’t deny N. Korea is providing military assistance

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Interesting story I did for NK News. Essentially part of a broader pattern of countries like the DPRK doing business secretly in Africa.

LONDON – The Tanzanian Minister of Foreign Affairs has refused to confirm or deny allegations that North Korean military technicians are working in his country.

The claims, published initially in the online magazine Africa Confidential on August 2, allege that the Tanzanian military is engaging North Korean experts to repair its Soviet-era MiG-21 fighter jets and help import arms via private front-companies to the East African nation.

If true, the report could mean that Tanzania is in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1718, which prohibits North Korea from engaging in the trade of a wide range of specified military hardware.

Foreign Minister Bernard Membe on Tuesday would not confirm or deny the report, and argued that if Tanzania were hiring military technicians from the DPRK, they would not be breaching sanctions.

The Tanzanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was in the process of “crosschecking with other offices,” such as the Ministry of Defence and the military.

But the U.S. is a close ally of Tanzania and and any military cooperation between Dodoma and Pyongyang would be frowned upon by Washington.

You can read more here.

The sordid tale of how I was censored by Straight Pride UK

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A few weeks ago, when thinking of interesting things I could write for this blog, I remembered a weird organisation that gathered some attention on the internet a month or two ago.

The organisation is called Straight Pride UK. It’s a strange group which believes that the tide of Gay rights has gone too far, and that now heterosexuals have become the oppressed minority. Essentially their philosophy  is spun from the same reactionary cloth as “Men’s Rights activists”  –  the notion that, having essentially run Western society for most its existence, progressive demands that Christian white straight males share some of their total grasp on power is somehow a removal of their rights.

Anyway, I wrote to Straight Pride asking that they answer some questions. Stipulating that I was “a freelance journalist”, I sent them some questions, about what they do and what they believe.

About a week later they responded with an attached document with the title “press release”. I went through the questions, corrected the horrendous grammar, and organised it so it coherently answered the questions I’d posed. I also noted that two rather pointed questions I’d asked, regarding the problem of the bullying of LGBTI youth and the nature of other “pride” movements, had not been answered. I sent them an email about this, saying that I’d give them the opportunity to respond but, if they didn’t, I’d “make it clear in the article” that they avoided the questions. They didn’t get back to me for 2 days, which I thought ample time to write two sentences.

Fully satisfied that my journalism had made them look like the arses they are, I hit the publish button, and sat back, feeling all together really pleased with myself. I called the article “It’s great to be straight… yeah”, too, which I thought acutely summed up their philosophy and referenced a mid-90s dance album I rather like.

The article gained a lot of traction, too. A friend and I put it on Reddit, and I got thousands of hits. In my short career of attempting to become a respectable journalist, it was one of the most successful things I’d done.

Then came the email from Straight Pride UK’s press officer, Nick Steiner:

“It has been brought to my attention that you have published the email that I sent you to, you did not state this in your email request, nor you did have consent to do this.

I therefore request that you take down the article that you have placed on your blog.

You have 7 days in which to do this, failing this I shall submit a DMCA to WordPress to have it removed.”

I laughed this off, and responded to the email arguing their case was absurd:

1) There was no indication on the “press release” they sent me that it was copyrighted material. Nor did they make any mention of the fact that anything they gave me was copyrighted.

2) I wrote “I’m a journalist and I’d like to ask you some questions” in my first email. If you’re a press officer and you don’t know what this means, then you really aren’t qualified to have your job.

3) In my email about the questions they didn’t answer, I made reference to “the article”. If that isn’t an indication that I’m going to publish something then I really don’t what is.

I thought this was a good enough defence, and I assumed this would all be swept under the carpet, and that their rather sad attempts to remove my article because it made them look stupid were all for naught.

I was wrong – within a few days WordPress caved to them without question, removing my article and telling me if I tried to publish it again I’d be suspended, but that I could challenge the takedown of my article. I responded that yes, I very much would like to, and was emailed a form I’d have to fill in. One of the requirements was that I “consent to local federal court jurisdiction, or if overseas, to an appropriate judicial body”.

I’m a student. I don’t have the money, time, or patience to go through with potentially having to go to court over this. All in all, I just could not be bothered to challenge the decision.

So I accepted the takedown, feeling thoroughly shit about myself.

Then I get another email from Straight Pride UK, which pissed me off even more. They demanded I take down the material (which I had) but also that I:

“…remove all references to Straight Pride UK, The Straight Forward Project, along with images, and links, from your Blog.”

Ok.

So not content with forcing me to eat a shit sandwich on dubious grounds by making me take down my work, they now demand that I never write anything about them again. Are these people kidding? Who the hell do they think they are that they can simply demand that I not write about them again, in an email with the pointedly sinister name of their solicitors at the bottom?

This, for me, was the final straw, and why I decided to write this article.

Because I find it absurd that this silly little group can simply demand that remove all my references to them because it makes them look bad. What are they afraid of? Their views make them look stupid enough, why the need to so aggressively bully and harass me? Why do they care so much?

And are they so cowardly that an article criticising them is enough to attempt to pursue a tenuous legal case against the author?

It really boggles the mind.

Update: Having published this article this morning, Straight Pride responded with their usual response to criticism, tweeting:

and hilariously describing me as “not a official journalist” (whatever that means):

But it was too late for Straight Pride UK. My article prompted an incredible storm on Twitter, with some even tracking down my original article in web archives and publishing it. My article got hundreds of retweets and reblogs, and any attempts by Straight Pride UK to take it down now will accomplish nothing.

The internet really can be amazing, and I want to thank everybody for their support and good will.

Keep up the good fight everyone!

“There can be no military intervention in Syria”: Interview with Syrian activist Edward Dark

Edward's city, Aleppo, in February this year.

Edward’s city, Aleppo, in February this year.

Edward Dark is the pseudonym for an activist living in Alleppo, Syria. Involved with the uprising against the Assad regime since its beginnings, he has been a vocal critic of both the regime and extremism in the opposition. He is also an avid user of social media and a testament to the power that Twitter has had in the Arab Spring, regularly posting news and updates on the situation in his city, despite internet outages and power cuts. Having followed his Twitter updates and writing for a while now, I wrote to him asking if I could ask him some questions.

Obviously Edward Dark is a pseudonym and you can’t reveal too much about your identity. But could you tell me how long you’ve been involved in the Syrian revolution and what prompted you to get involved?

I was involved since the very beginning, in small protests and online activism, as well as media – spreading news and videos about was going on. Later I got involved in aid work as refugees started arriving in increasing numbers to Aleppo.

Why Edward Dark as a name?

it’s just an amalgam of various fictional character names in novels and short stories I used to read.

Is the situation in Aleppo improving at all? What is the political situation in the city, and who are the main rebel groups in Aleppo and how do they behave?

Well, the situation in the city is getting progressively worse. Rebels are besieging the city, and have launched a fresh offensive to try to capture it entirely. This is causing a lot of fighting and civilian casualties as you can imagine.

There’s a shortage of all types of basics and services over here. There are too many rebel groups to count, some are home grown, others are Islamists backed from abroad and foreign fighters. Most rebel groups here are either too extremist, or are just basically criminal in nature which means a lot of human rights abuses and crime is going on.

In this piece you wrote about the betrayal of the Syrian revolution and the descent of the country into sectarian violence. Who would you argue is most responsible for this and how do you think the revolution could/could have been saved?

Obviously the regime deliberately stoked violence and sectarianism in order to crush the uprising and drive people to take up arms. A lot of peaceful activists were killed or arrested or fled the country, which meant the extremists got the upper hand in the uprising. Foreign influence, especially from Gulf countries also helped stoke violence and sectarianism too. They helped finance the extremist groups who adhered to their political agendas.

It was recently announced that the death toll in Syria has reached 100,000. What do think would be the ideal response of the international community to this? Are you in favour of western military intervention in Syria? And what do you think the outcome might be of the supposed peace talks that are in the works?

There can be no military intervention in Syria, it just wont work and will make the situation worse. With the current state of affairs, if the regime collapses the country will be split and large parts of it will fall into the hands of Al Qaeda and criminal warlords. The only way out is a UN mandated and enforced peace settlement between the major parties in this conflict. This is our only hope.

What is your assessment of the international media’s coverage of the war in your country?

Very bad, in the case of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, they have deliberately misreported and disseminated false or misleading information about Syria in line with their governments’ political goals. CNN isn’t very good either. BBC and BBC Arabic has been the most consistent and impartial in their coverage of Syria.

Give us a brief overview on your impressions of the main opposition groups.

They are hopelessly divided and incompetent, furthermore they have no credibility on the ground with rebel groups or local activists. Some are even merely stooges of the regional powers that prop them up and pay their salaries.

What is the feeling among Syrians about the mood of the regime compared to, say, a year ago?

In some areas, like Damascus and Aleppo, the regime has seen growing support among the population previously sympathetic to the uprising as compared to a year ago. This has been due to the increasing crimes of the rebels and the chaos and destruction their military campaign has brought.

One more question on the broader region. What do you make of the situation in Egypt? Was the military right to remove Mohammed Morsi and how do you think the situation will develop over the next few months?

I can’t really comment on Egypt. While I’m against the rise of political Islam in the region, I’m also wary of a military rule. It’s just two types of fascism. A long term stable civilian democracy is what is needed.

Thank you very much.

Edward is brilliant on Twitter – you can follow him here. He also writes occasionally for Al-Monitor.