Korea Explained

They have cheerleaders for baseball. How cool is that?
They have cheerleaders for baseball. How cool is that?
Despite the gentle reassurances of Ambassador Dennis Rodman (yes, you now live in Bizarro world), not many people believe that North Korea is run by a sane person. Just last year the nice folks in Pyongyang threatened to turn Seoul into a “Sea of Fire.” That is different than Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire. Also not as catchy. But the problem is that, for all the high comedy that North Korea provides, they also do have real nuclear weapons. The kind that go boom and make lots of people very dead. And if they can’t figure out how to fit them on a missile they sure as hell can load them into a plane. That may seem retro to you but to the people it could land on the delivery method is irrelevant. The Chinese, North Korea’s staunchest allies, have been quietly staying quiet. In the “let’s avoid WW III” sense, that’s good news. If North Korea does do something they know as well as anyone else that America would bomb Pyongyang back into the stone age. Which, given their current level of technology, might be an upgrade.

But Americans are, in the main, woefully ignorant of our strange little enemy and our Gangnam loving allies to their immediate south. So, today, I thought I’d offer you a glimpse into each so that you can better understand the world around you.

First, Caitlin Dewey shares with us a look at the North Korean equivalent of Facebook.

Most North Koreans can’t access the Internet, and only foreigners can use the country’s brand-new 3G cellular network. But the country has still developed its own rudimentary social network — which you can now see for yourself, thanks to a SXSW panel the Associated Press’s Jean Lee gave this weekend.

Lee shared this screenshot from the unnamed social network, which is more of an intranet bulletin board and is used largely to post birthday messages, especially among university students and professors.

In a Twitter message, Lee said she hasn’t seen “much more than that” on the boards. Despite a widespread interest in technology there — many people have Chinese-made tablets they call “iPads,” and Kim Jong Eun has billed himself as something of a computer nerd — there’s little overt interest in undermining (or opening) the system. Lee said many people are actually proud of their domestic intranet, and she has seen no sign of underground usage.

Lee, the AP’s Korea bureau chief and the only American journalist allowed regular access to North Korea, made headlines earlier this year when she sent some of the first tweets and Instagrams on North Korea’s Koryolink network.

That 3G network, which Lee said she considers a small step toward Internet openness, is still available only to foreigners. North Koreans use “Red Star,” a state-run operating system that includes government-sanctioned Web sites and local message boards, which means they can’t access Western social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

“North Korea is one of the unique countries in the world because virtually every computer or technology that could be used for some social media application is regulated by the government,” Ramest Srinivasan, who studies social media and regime change, told the Post in 2011. “The North Korean censorship approach runs all the way down to the level of hardware.”

A friend of mine is from North Korea. He shared an interesting anecdote with me once. He said that while stealing foreign copywritten materials is almost a state sponsored hobby, stealing anything belonging to the state is an automatic death sentence. And the state can randomly decide what is and is not fair game.

It’s like a daily game of Russian Roulette.

Our allies, and their neighbors to the south, a/k/a South Korea, are a little less stressful on their citizens. In fact, if a South Korean offers to let you “take a load off” they may mean it quite literally as South Korea holds the only, as far as I know, Toilet Theme Park.

The porcelain god finally gets its altar at South Korea’s Haewoojae, loosely translated as “a place of sanctuary where one can solve one’s worries”, but better known in English as the Toilet Culture Exhibit Hall and Theme Park.

The toilet park, which officially opened on 4 July 2012, started life as the vision of Sim Jae-duck, known as Mr Toilet thanks to his efforts to improve the city toilets at the 2002 World Cup during his tenure as the mayor of Suwon City, South Korea, where the park is now located. He also helped found the World Toilet Association, which is dedicated to improving sanitation around the world.

In 2007, Sim constructed the world’s first toilet-shaped house in Suwon City, in which he lived until his death in 2009. After he passed away, the house was converted into a museum, documenting the world’s water closet culture through men and women’s bathroom signs from around the globe, photographs of public toilets and information about the importance of sanitary bathroom facilities.

The museum was expanded into a full-fledged theme park in 2012, complete with scatological sculptures and different styles of toilets, such as squat toilets traditionally used in Korea, European chamber pots and historical urinals shaped like little four-legged creatures with a round hole in place of a face. While visitors are welcome to mimic relieving themselves (making for some fun photo opportunities), the park has its own set of modern bathrooms available for the real thing. The park does not have traditional rides, but guests are encouraged to interact with the exhibits and various sculptures.

The park opens from 10am to 6pm daily, and is closed Mondays. Admission is free, though the museum accepts donations to continue its mission to improve toilet hygiene and education.

Haewoojae, whose corporate motto is, and I am not making this up, Let’s be a toilet angel, features South Parks Mr. Hanky on their front page. Since, as we all know, nothing says “toilet angel” like sarcastic Christmas poo.

I’m sure you agree.

Anyway, there you have it. Go to North Korea and enjoy an internet that is slightly more functional than a clay tablet and risk death or go to South Korea and be flush in friendship.

Visualtraveling – ‘Kim Il-Sung’s Birthday Party’ from Patrik Wallner on Vimeo.

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