Author Archives: Joel

Private Markets for Food Aid

From Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden (Penguin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 1129-1146:

Food aid from the United States, Japan, South Korea, and other donors mitigated the worst of the famine by the late 1990s. But in an indirect and accidental way, it also energized the market ladies and traveling entrepreneurs who would give Shin sustenance, cover, and guidance in his escape to China.

Unlike any other aid recipient in the world, North Korea’s government insisted on sole authority for transporting donated food. The demand angered the United States, the largest aid donor, and it frustrated the monitoring techniques that the U.N. World Food Program had developed around the world to track aid and make sure it reached intended recipients. But since the need was so urgent and the death toll so high, the West swallowed its disgust and delivered more than one billion dollars’ worth of food to North Korea between 1995 and 2003.

During these years, refugees from North Korea arrived in the South and told government officials that they had seen donated rice, wheat, corn, vegetable oil, nonfat dry milk, fertilizer, medicine, winter clothing, blankets, bicycles, and other aid items on sale in private markets. Pictures and videos taken in the markets showed bags of grain marked as “A Gift from the American People.”

Bureaucrats, party officials, army officers, and other well-placed government elites ended up stealing about thirty percent of the aid, according to estimates by outside scholars and international aid agencies. They sold it to private traders, often for dollars or euros, and delivered the goods using government vehicles.

Without intending to do so, wealthy donor countries injected a kind of adrenaline rush into the grubby world of North Korean street trading. The lucrative theft of international food aid whetted the appetite of higher-ups for easy money as it helped transform private markets into the country’s primary economic engine.

Private markets, which today supply most of the food North Koreans eat, have become the fundamental reason why most outside experts say a catastrophic 1990s-style famine is unlikely to happen again.

The markets, though, have not come close to eliminating hunger or malnutrition. They also appear to have increased inequity, creating a chasm between those who have figured out how to trade and those who have not.

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Filed under democracy, economics, food, Japan, Korea, NGOs, U.N., U.S.

Manchuria Again a Promised Land

From Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden (Penguin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 1886-1905:

The capacity of the Chinese borderlands to absorb North Koreans is significant—and significantly underappreciated outside of Northeast Asia. The area is not all that foreign—or unwelcoming—to Korean-speaking migrants.

When defectors cross into China, the first “foreigners” they encounter are usually ethnic Koreans who speak the same language, eat similar food, and share some of the same cultural values. With a bit of luck, they can, like Shin, find work, shelter, and a measure of safety.

This has been going on since the late 1860s, when famine struck North Korea and starving farmers fled across the Tumen and the Yalu rivers into northeast China. Later, China’s imperial government recruited Korean farmers to create a buffer against Russian expansion, and Korea’s Choson Dynasty allowed them to depart legally. Before World War II, the Japanese who occupied the Korean Peninsula and northeast China pushed tens of thousands of Korean farmers across the border to weaken China’s hold on the region.

Nearly two million ethnic Koreans now live in China’s three northeast provinces, with the highest concentration in Jilin, which Shin entered when he crawled across the frozen river. Inside Jilin Province, China created the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, where forty percent of the population is ethnic Korean and where the government subsidizes Korean-language schools and publications.

Korean speakers living in northeast China have also been an unsung force for cultural change inside North Korea. They have affected this change by watching South Korean soap operas on home satellite dishes, recording low-quality video CDs, and smuggling hundreds of thousands of them across the border into North Korea, where they sell for as little as fifteen cents, according to Rimjin-gang, the Osaka-based magazine that has informants based in the North.

South Korean soaps—which display the fast cars, opulent houses, and surging confidence of South Korea—are classified as “impure recorded visual materials” and are illegal to watch in North Korea. But they have developed a huge following in Pyongyang and other cities, where police officers assigned to confiscate the videos are reportedly watching them and where teenagers imitate the silky intonations of the Korean language as it is spoken by upper-crust stars in Seoul.

These TV programs have demolished decades of North Korean propaganda, which claims that the South is a poor, repressed, and unhappy place, and that South Koreans long for unification under the fatherly hand of the Kim dynasty.

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Filed under China, economics, Japan, Korea, labor, language, migration

Political Implosion Journalism

From Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden (Penguin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 178-195:

As a correspondent for the Washington Post in Northeast Asia, I had been searching for more than a year for a story that could explain how North Korea used repression to keep from falling apart.

Political implosion had become my specialty. For the Post and for the New York Times, I spent nearly three decades covering failed states in Africa, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the breakup of Yugoslavia, and the slow-motion rot in Burma under the generals. From the outside looking in, North Korea seemed ripe—indeed, overripe—for the kind of collapse I had witnessed elsewhere. In a part of the world where nearly everyone else was getting rich, its people were increasingly isolated, poor, and hungry.

Still, the Kim family dynasty kept the lid on. Totalitarian repression preserved their basket case state.

My problem in showing how the government did it was lack of access. Elsewhere in the world, repressive states were not always successful in sealing their borders. I had been able to work openly in Mengistu’s Ethiopia, Mobutu’s Congo, and Milosevic’s Serbia, and had slipped in as a tourist to write about Burma.

North Korea was much more careful. Foreign reporters, especially Americans, were rarely allowed inside. I visited North Korea only once, saw what my minders wanted me to see, and learned little. If journalists entered illegally, they risked months or years of imprisonment as spies. To win release, they sometimes needed the help of a former American president.

Given these restrictions, most reporting about North Korea was distant and hollow. Written from Seoul or Tokyo or Beijing, stories began with an account of Pyongyang’s latest provocation, such as sinking a ship or shooting a tourist. Then the dreary conventions of journalism kicked in: American and South Korean officials expressed outrage. Chinese officials called for restraint. Think tank experts opined about what it might mean. I wrote more than my share of these pieces.

Shin, though, shattered these conventions. His life unlocked the door, allowing outsiders to see how the Kim family sustained itself with child slavery and murder. A few days after we met, Shin’s appealing picture and appalling story ran prominently on the front page of the Washington Post.

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Filed under Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Korea, publishing, U.S.

Born and Bred in the NK Gulag

From Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden (Penguin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 119-134:

In stories of concentration camp survival, there is a conventional narrative arc. Security forces steal the protagonist away from a loving family and a comfortable home. To survive, he abandons moral principles, suppresses feelings for others, and ceases to be a civilized human being.

In perhaps the most celebrated of these stories, Night, by Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, the thirteen-year-old narrator explains his torment with an account of the normal life that existed before he and his family were packed aboard trains bound for Nazi death camps. Wiesel studied the Talmud daily. His father owned a store and watched over their village in Romania. His grandfather was always present to celebrate the Jewish holidays. But after the boy’s entire family perished in the camps, Wiesel was left “alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy.”

Shin’s story of survival is different.

His mother beat him, and he viewed her as a competitor for food. His father, who was allowed by guards to sleep with his mother just five nights a year, ignored him. His brother was a stranger. Children in the camp were untrustworthy and abusive. Before he learned anything else, Shin learned to survive by snitching on all of them.

Love and mercy and family were words without meaning. God did not disappear or die. Shin had never heard of him. In a preface to Night, Wiesel wrote that an adolescent’s knowledge of death and evil “should be limited to what one discovers in literature.”

In Camp 14, Shin did not know literature existed. He saw only one book in the camp, a Korean grammar, in the hands of a teacher who wore a guard’s uniform, carried a revolver on his hip, and beat one of his primary school classmates to death with a chalkboard pointer.

Unlike those who have survived a concentration camp, Shin had not been torn away from a civilized existence and forced to descend into hell. He was born and raised there. He accepted its values. He called it home.

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Filed under Germany, Korea, labor, religion

Advent of Night Baseball

From The Greatest Minor League: A History of the Pacific Coast League, 1903-1957, by Dennis Snelling (McFarland, 2011), Kindle Loc. 2436-2453:

The concept of baseball played at night was nothing new; barnstorming teams had done so for years. There had been experiments with temporary lighting beginning in the late 1800s, including an exhibition held at Athletic Park in Los Angeles in 1893. In June 1927, two New England League teams played a seven-inning game at Lynn, Massachusetts, under temporary lights before several thousand people who were surprised at how well they could follow the action and noted that players seemed able to react quite well to the ball.

Lee Keyser, owner of the Des Moines Demons in the Western League, had attended a number of college and high school football games at night and was impressed with the quality of lighting at those events. Confident that a permanent set-up would work for baseball, he invested twenty thousand dollars to install 146 floodlights mounted atop a half-dozen ninety-foot-tall poles at the Demons’ stadium and then announced that Des Moines would open its 1930 home season on May 2 at night against Wichita. “If the game is successful … I look for most of the minor leagues to follow the example of Des Moines and install floodlights for night baseball,” said Keyser. “If it is unsuccessful, it will mean that sooner or later the minor league clubs will have to go out of business due to steady decrease in patronage.” Several major league executives made plans to attend the game and a national radio audience tuned in to the contest, which was carried by the National Broadcasting Company.

Twelve thousand fans crowded into the stadium, and while the game was a less-than-artistic Moines jumped out to a 12-0 lead after three general consensus was that the quality of baseball was as good as it would have been during the day. Problems remained to be solved, including dark spots along the foul lines, and a fielder lost one pop foul in the lights, but Lee Keyser was undeterred. He addressed the national radio audience between the sixth and seventh innings and declared, “My reaction to night baseball is that it is glorious and wonderful. The players are happy, the crowd perfectly satisfied, and it means that baseball in the minor leagues will now live.” The Chicago Tribune agreed with Keyser that night baseball might well be a “life saver” for the minor leagues.

Continuing to struggle in Sacramento, Lew Moreing took notice. He quickly ordered lights and had them installed. On the night of June 4, 1930, at precisely 8:31 P.M., Moreing flipped a switch, generating a buzz from forty banks of lights, each carrying a trio of sixty-thousand-watt bulbs. The lights slowly grew brighter, illuminating the playing field as hundreds of people in their automobiles, surrounding the stadium to witness the spectacle, began honking their horns in celebration.

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Early Days of Baseball Radio Broadcasts

From The Greatest Minor League: A History of the Pacific Coast League, 1903-1957, by Dennis Snelling (McFarland, 2011), Kindle Loc. 2224-2241:

Radio was becoming wildly popular, and in 1927 two important developments accelerated growth in the fledgling industry. First, radio manufacturers reached agreement with the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) to use company patents that were essential in mass production of radio sets. Second was the development of the alternating current radio tube, which made it possible to manufacture radios that could be plugged into a standard electrical outlet.

Mass broadcasting to the general public was on the horizon and sports were to be a major beneficiary of this new technology. Baseball had been broadcast on radio since 1921, and the New York Yankees had aired the World Series for several years, more or less in the same play-by-play fashion as today. However, most baseball coverage consisted of a simple recitation of wire accounts sent by telegraph to the local station, providing only the actual details of the game without commentary.

KHJ in Los Angeles broadcast play-by-play results of the World Series in 1925 to great fanfare, relaying results from three thousand miles away almost as they happened. By 1927 KPO radio in San Francisco was using a direct line from Recreation Park to provide play-by-play details of every game. In Oakland and Seattle, game accounts and scores were provided nearly every day except Sunday. William Wrigley, who had a direct telegraph wire into his home on Catalina Island so he could keep abreast of his Chicago Cubs, took notice of radio’s potential to promote the last-place Los Angeles Angels. Hoping broadcasts would drum up interest in an otherwise uninteresting team, Wrigley announced that KHJ would cover the Angels every day.

There would be lively debate about radio in the PCL [= Pacific Coast League] over the next few seasons – Bill Lane for one remained there was no turning back. At the league meeting following the 1928 season, a resolution was defeated that would have banned radio from the ballparks. Though yet in its infancy, radio would soon become as inseparable from baseball as newspapers were.

Ironically, at the same time radio was becoming established, a new invention was being developed on the second floor of a warehouse at 202 Green Street in San Francisco, near Telegraph Hill. This new all-electric technology would further revolutionize broadcasting and the world of sports. In January 1927, Philo T. Farnsworth, the twenty-year-old son of an Idaho farmer, met with Crocker Bank vice president James J. Fagan and pitched his idea. Fagan, whose son would later own the San Francisco Seals, was able to convince W.W. Crocker, president of the bank, to invest in it. Nine months later, Farnsworth completed the first successful demonstration of his new technology at the Green Street warehouse. On that day in San Francisco, modern television was born.

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Filed under baseball, publishing, U.S.

Grandfathering the Spitball, 1920–1934

From The Greatest Minor League: A History of the Pacific Coast League, 1903-1957, by Dennis Snelling (McFarland, 2011), Kindle Loc. 1520-1526:

In late October 1919, American League president Ban Johnson proposed that “trick” deliveries, such as the spitball and shine ball, be declared illegal. At the major league meetings in February 1920, both the American and National leagues adopted the proposal, allowing a one-year grace period to pitchers identified by their teams as those relying on the spitter for their livelihood.” The Pacific Coast League followed suit, ruling that players currently in the league could continue to throw the spitter, but that pitchers new to the PCL could not. At the end of that first year, St. Louis Cardinals spitballer Bill Doak was among those asserting that banning himself and fellow spitballers from using their best pitch would likely end their careers.

Doak’s argument carried the day and the spitball remained a legal pitch for seventeen men during the remainder of their careers, including Ray Fisher, who did not play after 1920. This group continued as an endangered species of sorts until 1934, when Burleigh Grimes threw the last legal spitter in the major leagues.

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