Category Archives: education

Educating Japan’s Crown Prince, 1859

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 46-47:

Sachinomiya’s schooling began in 1859 when Prince Takahito (1812–1886) was appointed as his calligraphy teacher. The fact that Sachinomiya’s first teacher was a calligrapher suggests the importance attached to being able to write a distinguished hand. Although calligraphy was of only minor importance to a European prince, in Japan it was an indispensable element in the education of the aristocracy. A member of the imperial family was required to display his skill as a calligrapher on relatively few occasions, but it was essential that whenever he did write, his handwriting would be not merely acceptable but an imposing mirror of his character. It is difficult to say how proficient Emperor Meiji eventually became, however, because so little survives in his handwriting.

Sachinomiya had actually begun calligraphy practice during the previous year, but this instruction was apparently casual; now that he was in his eighth year, he was expected to study calligraphy (and other subjects) systematically under appropriate tutors. Prince Takahito was chosen to teach the prince calligraphy because his family had long been renowned for its penmanship. …

From this time on, Prince Takahito came several times a month on appointed days to offer calligraphy instruction to Sachinomiya. On June 4 the pupil presented for his teacher’s approbation some characters of which he had made fair copies, an occasion for a further exchange of gifts. By August 10 the young prince, apparently pleased with his own progress, was presenting to attendants samples of his calligraphy—one or two characters each, most frequently naka [中] and yama [山]. [These two ubiquitous characters were the first ones our daughter learned to recognize at age 2 when we lived in Zhongshan (中山) City, Guangdong in 1987–88.]

In the meantime, he had commenced another kind of study, reading the Confucian classics. On May 29 Fusehara Nobusato (1823–1876) was appointed as his reading tutor. During the first session with his pupil, he read a passage from the Classic of Filial Piety three times. Naturally, a boy of seven could not be expected to understand a Chinese philosophical text, even when read in Japanese pronunciation; but before long, Sachinomiya was able to recognize characters and read them aloud, following his teacher. This method of learning, known as sodoku [素読], was surprisingly effective, as we know from the generations of Japanese who learned Chinese in this way and were later able to read and write it competently; but it must have been excruciatingly boring for a boy to recite by the hour words that meant nothing to him.

As soon as Sachinomiya completed the sodoku reading of the Classic of Filial Piety, Emperor Kōmei commanded that he begin reading the Great Learning. In a sodoku class of boys of the same age, there might at least have been the pleasure of friendly emulation or perhaps fun shared at the expense of the teacher, but Sachinomiya at first had little companionship in his lessons. The nobleman Uramatsu Tarumitsu (1850–1915) became Sachinomiya’s sole school playmate in 1861, when he was eleven and the future emperor Meiji was ten (by Japanese count).

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China’s New Tibet Policy, 1994

From Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Random House, 2020), Kindle pp. 144-145:

Tibet policy was handled by the United Front Work Department, a Soviet-inspired organization designed to coordinate relations between the Party and outsiders, including ethnic minorities. At a meeting in 1994 known as the Third National Forum on Work in Tibet, the Party directed the United Front to rein in Tibetan religious life. “The struggle between ourselves and the Dalai clique is not a matter of religious belief nor a matter of the question of autonomy; it is a matter of securing the unity of our country and opposing splittism,” read an internal version of the statement produced at the forum. The monasteries, they claimed, were breeding grounds for activism.

The new policy criminalized many aspects of Tibetan culture and religion. In the past, Communist Party members had been prohibited from visiting temples and monasteries and keeping shrines in their homes, but now the ban was extended to all government employees. That was a large slice of the workforce in a Communist system and included teachers, bus drivers, conductors, and the millions who worked for state-owned enterprises. All monks and nuns were also targeted for what was called “patriotic education,” indoctrination sessions to foster loyalty to the Communist Party.

At first these new policies applied only to what the Chinese designated as the Tibet Autonomous Region, centered around Lhasa. As part of Sichuan province, Ngaba was still enjoying the intellectual and cultural renaissance that had begun the decade before. But by the late 1990s, the United Front decided to expand the campaign, and their first target was Kirti, as one of the largest and most influential monasteries in the region.

It started so abruptly and dramatically that monks remembered the exact date: June 15, 1998. A work team of officials from the United Front and the State Administration for Religious Affairs showed up at Kirti. They set up a long table and chairs at the entrance to the assembly hall, a long gold-peaked building raised three feet off the ground, which gave the impression of being on a stage. All of Kirti’s monks, some of them quite elderly, were directed to sit cross-legged on the pavement in front like children—a breach of etiquette that was shocking to the younger monks who had never seen anybody position themselves above their seniors in that way. They also were appalled by the way the Communist Party officials were chain-smoking. Tibetans don’t smoke as much as Han Chinese and certainly never in a monastery.

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Tibetan Monastery Schools

From Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Random House, 2020), Kindle p. 143:

MONASTERY SCHOOLS ARE often criticized for their old-fashioned ways. Students are instructed by rote memorization and are disciplined with the rod when their eyes invariably droop from the tedium. Kirti, however, was more like an elite boarding school. The school, which had opened in 1994, taught math and science as well as the traditional subjects like Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan language. The Dalai Lama, frustrated by the inadequacy of his own education as a young monk, had called for Tibetan monasteries to offer a more modern curriculum. Many Tibetan writers, filmmakers, and academics were monastery-educated. Kirti itself produced notable figures such as the vice president of PEN International’s Tibetan Writers Abroad, Lobsang Chokta Trotsik, and Go Sherab Gyatso, an essayist and blogger.

The young monks engaged in a ritualized form of debating, as integral to their studies as it is among Talmudic scholars. One group of monks would be assigned to defend a thesis, and the others to challenge it—punctuating the question with a sharp clap of the hands. If one took too long to answer a question, the other monks would protest with a round of three claps, indicating disapproval. A successful defense of a thesis would be approved with a vigorous round of stomping on the pavement, the monastic equivalent of a high five. The subject itself might be existential—what is the meaning of the Buddhist dharma or the impermanence of worldly phenomena—but it was carried out with such gusto to make it exercise for the body as well as the mind. The debates took place outdoors in the large courtyard in front of the main assembly hall, where members of the public could watch. Sometimes the debates lasted until eleven P.M. Dongtuk would tumble into bed past midnight, exhausted and exhilarated. He loved it. He was one of the best debaters in his age group, which gained him status not usually afforded to a short, unathletic boy with poor eyesight.

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A Sino-Tibetan Romance

From Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Random House, 2020), Kindle pp. 80-81:

Nobody was more surprised than Gonpo to learn that Xiao Tu had developed romantic feelings toward her. She didn’t consider herself much of a beauty. Her dimpled cheeks and the slight gap between her front teeth gave her a girlishly cute, jolly appearance that masked her abject loneliness. Her eyebrows curved upward in perpetual question marks. Working in the fields had darkened a complexion that was already a shade too dark by Chinese standards of beauty. She didn’t feel particularly feminine either, dressed in a baggy, padded military-style uniform with two pockets across the chest and two pockets below the waist.

Xiao Tu was one of the most popular bachelors on the farm. He had a long, straight nose like a Manchu princeling and a clear complexion. Not only was he a good dancer, always the most coveted partner, he was invariably onstage doing comedy routines. He came from a family of teachers; despite the Communists’ attempt to eradicate the privileges of class, when it came to dating, education and background still mattered.

“You can have anybody you want. Why this one?” his friends asked him. “Why a Tibetan?”

Among the recognized ethnic minorities, some were so assimilated as to be virtually indistinguishable from Han Chinese, who made up 90 percent of the population. That was not the case with Tibetans. For all the Communist propaganda about harmonious relations, prejudices ran deep. Han Chinese often disparaged Tibetans as savages. Luohou, or backward, they called them, and often still do. Tibet in Chinese is called Zang, 藏, a character that literally means “storehouse” or “treasure,” but Chinese would sometimes use the homophone zang, 脏, meaning “dirty.” This was a more conservative era when intermarriage was frowned upon. In Xinjiang, which was largely Muslim, intermarriage between local Uighur women and Han men was illegal until 1979.

It wasn’t hard for Xiao Tu to answer the question of why. Gonpo stood out among the other young women who eyed him on the dance floor. She was without pretense or affect. She didn’t flirt with him; she didn’t tease him. She was utterly straightforward, and, he felt, honest in a way that others were not. She said exactly what she thought without calibrating her words to elicit some reaction from him. He trusted her completely, and she trusted him. With little of the melodrama that often accompanies young romance, the two became inseparable.

His family raised no objection. Xiao Tu’s grandmother had been a devout Buddhist before the revolution; she approved of her favorite grandson marrying a woman with core beliefs. They liked that Gonpo was a studious type. They had been quietly supporting Gonpo’s studies by sending books. As for Gonpo, she had no surviving family to object one way or another. Xiao Tu’s qualities were beyond what she had ever imagined in a partner.

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Caught Between Russia and China

From The Amur River: Between Russia and China, by Colin Thubron (Harper, 2021), Kindle pp. 26-27:

Into Soviet times this ritual of homecoming quietly continued, a lifeline more profound than simple nationhood. Then the 1930s Terror brought a bewildering dislocation in which the Buryat identity became itself a crime, and people burned or hid their genealogies, erasing their own past in a severance that is even now unhealed. ‘We lost our inheritance.’ He is talking in a sombre monotone. For him, his people’s authenticity springs from the steppelands. ‘But our nomad children go to boarding schools now, where they learn Russian or Chinese curricula. Soon they no longer remember how they enjoyed riding a horse or milking a cow. They probably don’t even know what a cow is.’

I stare at him, at his formal suit and tie, and wonder how many urban dwellers feel their true homeland to be a remote campsite where the earth throbs under them. Yet his grandfather was not a herdsman, he says, but a talented journalist. He was the wrong class from the start.

‘One evening, in 1941, he thought he was among friends and said he hoped Hitler would win the war so that the Reds would stop oppressing Mongolia. That night the KGB took him away. He vanished into the Gulag. In those days Germany was closing in on one side, Japan on the other. No one felt safe. My grandfather returned only with the death of Stalin in 1953. He died three months later, peacefully, at home, as if this was what he’d been waiting for.’

‘Does your father remember him?’

‘My father never spoke of it. I grew up in ignorance. Then came the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Gorbachev’s perestroika, but that all seemed far away to us, not like with you. But we had our own revolution and in 1991 our archives were opened. Then I was able to read my grandfather’s interrogation. And suddenly all that had happened struck home. We were very Sovietized, you know, very brainwashed. And when I read, I broke down and wept.’

In this time of resurgent nationalism people’s anger found its target not in Choibalsan – long promoted as a patriot hero – but in the distant abstraction of Stalin.

‘Yes, some of us hate Stalin. But we don’t mind the Russians, you know. We quite like them.’ He suddenly frowns. ‘I don’t quite understand this either, after everything they did. Perhaps it’s because they brought us culture, European culture. They gave us medicine and education. We started from very low down, you see, started from almost nowhere. A century ago we were at the mercy of the Chinese, and they robbed us . . .’

This still astonishes me. The Russians crushed the Mongolians’ native culture, devastated their monasteries and almost liquidated their elite. Yet it is the Chinese, dominant in the country for three centuries until 1921, who are regarded with visceral loathing and distrust. Their instruments of torture are lavishly displayed in the state museum, beside the account books of their avaricious traders. And it is the merciless usury of Chinese merchants that has endured in people’s imagination. Half the country was said to be in their debt. There are Mongolians even now who believe themselves haunted by long-dead Chinese, warning them away from buried treasure. Neither lamas nor shamans had been able to exorcize them.

Soviet propaganda may have prolonged this old antipathy; but it was the avalanche of Chinese immigration early in the last century that turned the country to violence and at last into the arms of Russia.

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Nights in Mongolian Yurts

From The Amur River: Between Russia and China, by Colin Thubron (Harper, 2021), Kindle pp. 24-25:

The Onon flows in an arc of light to our north, and we are crossing a land unfamiliar even to Batmonkh. Overnight we find simple hikers’ camps, but there are no hikers. In the guest gers the walls are of beaten felt, thick and warm, and breakfast, if we are lucky, includes fried dumplings and home-made yoghurt. One night some weathered herdsmen vacate a family ger for us, its walls weighted with logs against the wind. Inside, the nomad furnishings are still in place. Its willow framework radiates down from a circular smoke-hole, and a stove on the floor sends a rusted pipe skyward. The household altar no longer harbours photographs of Party leaders, but has returned to older sanctities. Crude paintings of Tibetan Buddhist deities and protectors – the benign White Tara and the fearsome Black Mahakala – are propped on a tin of Imperial Best Quality Biscuits. Beneath them, beside a miniature prayer wheel, some juniper seeds are burning, while behind hangs a bundle of dried curds for sacrifice to the local mountain spirit. The family gives us a dish of cold mutton bones, then leaves us to sleep: I on the only bed, while Batmonkh and Tochtor lie among blankets on the floor.

These mobile dwellings, and the fragile villages that absorb them, seem natural to the Buryat Mongols who inhabit this region. Their recent past is dark with flight and persecution. Early in the last century, with revolution and civil war engulfing their Russian homeland, they fled south into a more tranquil Mongolia. But already the country was sliding under Russia’s shadow, and soon Stalin’s flail fell on them at the hands of Khorloogiin Choibalsan, a Mongolian despot as ruthless as his Soviet mentor. Through the 1930s night-time arrests took away thousands of Buryats for execution or the labour camps. They were charged with pan-Mongol conspiracies or with spying for a newly aggressive Japan. In an age of fear, they were judged fatally different. Between 1937 and ’38, at the height of the bloodbath, half Mongolia’s intelligentsia was purged, along with 17,000 monks.

Yet the Buryats remain settled in a deep band south of the Russian border. At 42,000 people, they number less than 2 per cent of Mongolia’s population; but their talents have won them unequal influence and resentment, and it is they who occupy the watershed of the sacred Onon river from its source in the Khenti mountains to its departure over the Siberian frontier to our east.

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North Korea’s “First Sister”

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 245-247:

As one of the few people who Kim Jong Un trusts, Kim Yo Jong has come to play a crucial role in her brother’s regime, acting as a kind of chief of staff, protocol officer, and executive assistant all in one. She is his right-hand woman and gatekeeper.

In this way, the siblings are following the example set by their father. Kim Jong Il was very close to his younger sister, Kim Kyong Hui, the one who married Uncle Jang. He adored her, one family member would later say. After he sent his half brother into exile, she was really the only family he had. She played a crucial advisory role to her brother and held important positions within the Workers’ Party right up to her disappearance at the time her husband was executed by Kim Jong Un.

The two women were seen together at Kim Jong Un’s equestrian center at the end of 2012, both of them wearing brown jackets and riding white horses. Kim Kyong Hui appeared to be grooming her niece for the role of First Sister, just as Kim Jong Il had groomed his son.

Kim Yo Jong is several years younger than her brother; exactly how many years is anyone’s guess. The South Korean intelligence service says she was born in 1988; the US government thinks it was 1989. When she joined her older siblings in Bern, registered as Pak Mi Hyang, her birthdate was declared as April 28, 1991. That seems too late and may have been changed to get her into a younger class in Switzerland as she learned a new language.

A photo from this time shows a girl of about eight or nine with a bright smile and chubby cheeks that are a stark contrast to her angled face of today. She is wearing a choker necklace, the kind that was fashionable in the late 1990s, and a red dress. Like her mother, she loved to dance.

She led a cloistered life, growing up in the royal palaces of North Korea. Her father called her “sweet, sweet Yo Jong” and “Princess Yo Jong” and thought she was quick-witted and possessed good leadership skills. Kim Jong Il identified both Kim Jong Un and Kim Yo Jong as having an aptitude for political life.

She had joined her brothers in Switzerland and attended the same public school in Bern. She stayed there until late 2000, having completed the American equivalent of sixth grade. She is thought to have finished her schooling with a private tutor and then to have studied at Kim Il Sung University.

We didn’t see her again until it was time for her brother to take the reins. She appears in the grainy family photo taken under the tree in Wonsan in 2009, and she was at the same Workers’ Party conference in 2010 where her brother emerged as their father’s successor. She stood alongside Kim Jong Il’s fifth “wife,” who worked in the leader’s personal secretariat. This suggested that the First Sister was working in the secretariat too.

Then she was seen at her father’s funeral, a gaunt figure in a black dress, her face down as she walked behind her brother toward their father’s body. But so little was known about her that no one was sure who she was, leading to the speculation that she might be Kim Jong Un’s wife. At that stage, no one knew about First Lady Ri Sol Ju.

From the earliest days of her brother’s leadership, Kim Yo Jong has been there, supporting him.

While the glamorous Ri Sol Ju is at Kim Jong Un’s side to make him appear a more modern leader and convey a sense of aspiration, Kim Yo Jong is working. The first lady may swan about in bright outfits and clutch her husband’s arm, but the First Sister is usually seen in the background, making sure everything goes smoothly.

She could be seen popping out from behind a pillar on a balcony overlooking a huge military ceremony in Pyongyang in 2017, bringing documents to her brother that were apparently related to the spectacle taking place in the square and sky in front of them. At the opening of a flagship residential district in the capital, she was there on the stage, making sure that the photographers were in place and everything was ready before her brother arrived. She’s often checking her phone.

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North Korea’s Masters of Money

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 147-148:

Private property ownership is still technically illegal in North Korea, but that hasn’t stopped the emergence of a vibrant housing market. Sometimes people lease out the right to live in the apartments assigned to them by the state; at other times, masters of money sell the apartments they’ve been allocated in these new developments for substantial profits.

As a result, real estate prices have soared, with prices in Pyongyang increasing as much as tenfold. A decent two- or three-bedroom apartment in the capital costs up to $80,000, but a luxury three-bedroom apartment in a sought-after complex in central Pyongyang can fetch $180,000. It is an unimaginable sum in a country where the official government salary remains at about $4 a month.

Another reason for the real estate boom is the almost complete lack of a banking system. The masters of money can’t stash their cash in an interest-bearing account or investment fund, so they channel it into bricks and mortar.

Ri Jong Ho’s entrepreneurial good fortune began in the mid-’80s, when he began working for Office 39. By earning money for Kim Jong Il’s slush fund, he was enabling the Dear Leader to buy all that cognac and sushi. That made Ri an important person to the regime, and he lived a good life as a result.

His last job was in the Chinese port city of Dalian, not far from the border with North Korea, where he was the head of a branch of Taehung, a North Korean trading company involved in shipping, coal and seafood exports, and oil imports. He had previously been president of a ship-trading company and chairman of Korea Kumgang Group, a company that formed a venture with Sam Pa, a [notorious] Chinese businessman, to start a taxi company in Pyongyang. Ri showed me a photo of him and Pa onboard a private jet to Pyongyang.

As head of the Dalian branch of the Taehung export business, Ri would send millions of dollars in profits—denominated in American dollars or Chinese yuan—to Pyongyang. In the first nine months of 2014, until his defection in October that year, Ri said he sent the equivalent of about $10 million to the regime. Despite all the sanctions, the US dollar is still the preferred currency for North Korean businessmen since it is easiest to convert and spend.

It didn’t matter that there were supposedly stringent international sanctions in place. Ri’s underlings simply handed a bag of cash to the captain of a ship leaving from Dalian to the North Korean port of Nampho or gave it to someone to take on the train across the border.

But Uncle Jang’s downfall at the end of 2013 spooked many masters of money, including Ri. He and his family escaped from Dalian to South Korea and then eventually to the United States.

He clearly made a tidy sum of money for himself on the sidelines of his official job. The family lived a comfortable life in the Virginia suburbs. But even in the United States, Ri was cagey about meeting me and careful about what he said. “There are so many other stories, but I can’t tell you all them. Do you understand?”

He gives occasional public speeches about the North Korean regime—and much more private advice to the American government—while his children work on their English and study to go to an American university. They want Ivy League or, failing that, Georgetown.

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North Korea’s Caste System

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 120-123:

Why, then, if so many North Koreans know about the outside world, and know that the regime is lying to them, has the system survived? The answer lies in the unparalleled brutality of the regime, which has no compunction in meting out severe punishments for the smallest hint of disaffection.

To enforce the lie that he’s the best man for the job, Kim Jong Un has perpetuated North Korea’s political caste system with zeal, rewarding those deemed most loyal to him and ruthlessly punishing those who dare question him.

This caste system is another legacy of his grandfather. When he was creating his ideal state, Kim Il Sung borrowed some of the feudal practices of the Chosun Dynasty, which had ruled Korea for five centuries until almost 1900. He adopted the Chosun-era system of guilt by association. It is this system that, even now, can lead to three generations of an entire family being imprisoned, sometimes for life, for one person’s wrongdoing.

He also stole the discriminatory class system called songbun from the Chosun era, dividing North Korea into fifty-one different categories that fall into three broad classes: loyal, wavering, and hostile.

To this day, in Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, the loyal are given every advantage. They are the 10 to 15 percent of the population who are considered the most politically committed to the system and have the most interest in it continuing. They get to live in Pyongyang and receive better schooling, including the possibility of attending Kim II Sung University. They are set up for plum jobs and have a head start on Workers’ Party membership. The loyal caste live in better apartments, wear better clothes, eat better and more food, and are more likely to be able to visit a doctor who actually has medicine.

At the bottom are the hostiles: the Japanese collaborators, the Christians, the skeptics. They comprise about 40 percent of the population and are generally banished to the inhospitable mountains of the north, where winters are unbearable and food is scarce even by North Korean standards.

These “undesirables” have no social mobility and no hope of advancement. Their lives revolve around a collective farm or factory—an assignment that, for the last few decades, has meant fending for themselves.

In between the loyal and the hostile is the wavering class, the ordinary people who make up about half the North Korean population. They exist in a kind of limbo. They have no chance of going to college or having a professional job, but if they’re lucky, they might secure a good assignment during their military service that will help them work their way to a slightly better standard of living.

Someone born with bad songbun has no hope of moving up the social hierarchy. The upper levels, however, can plummet all the way to the bottom if they put a foot wrong. Through this system, and the constant threat of being demoted down the classes, Kim Jong Un has been able to maintain power.

If you’re a member of the loyal class—living in Pyongyang and able to earn some money on the side of your ministry job to send your children to university—you would think twice before openly questioning whether the leader could really drive a car at age five or criticizing the decision to spend millions on nuclear weapons instead of on hospitals and schools. There is always someone to keep an eye on you and report if you’re not sufficiently devoted to the regime. At the grassroots level, it starts with the inminban, literally “people’s group,” a kind of neighborhood watch system. Each neighborhood is broken down into groups of thirty or forty households, with a leader who is always an interfering middle-aged woman. It is her job to keep an eye on what people in her assigned households are up to. North Koreans like to say that the leader of their neighborhood group is supposed to know how many chopsticks and how many spoons each house has.

She is responsible for registering overnight visitors—in North Korea, a person can’t stay at a friend or relative’s house without notifying the authorities—and often, together with the local police, conducts dead-of-night raids to ensure there are no forbidden guests or that residents like Man-bok or Jung-a are not watching South Korean movies. She inspects everyone’s state-issued radio to make sure they haven’t tuned it to anything other than the state station. She checks cell phones to make sure they don’t contain unauthorized music or photos from the outside world.

She also encourages neighbors to report on one another. If a family is thought to be eating white rice and meat suspiciously often, people might wonder how they’re making their money.

North Koreans live in a system where every aspect of their lives is monitored, where every infraction is recorded, where the smallest deviation from the system will result in punishment. It is ubiquitous, and it keeps many people from even raising an eyebrow at the regime. The neighborhood leader needs to report transgressions in order to stay in good stead with the higher authorities, especially the two main security agencies.

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Kim Jong Un’s Tiger Mom

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 50-52:

The apartment on Kirchstrasse was more modest than what he was used to back home, but Kim Jong Un could live a relatively normal existence there. And he could devote himself to his favorite pastime: basketball. It was his mother who first sparked his interest in the sport. There’s an old tale that Korean mothers, North and South, like to tell their children: if you play basketball, you’ll grow taller.

Kim Jong Un was short as a child, and his father was not a tall man—he was only five foot three, and famously wore platform shoes to try to compensate—so Ko Yong Hui encouraged her son to play basketball in the hope the tale was true. He grew to be five foot seven, so maybe it worked a bit.

She was thrilled to see her son taking to basketball, a sport that she believed would help him clear his mind and loosen his childhood obsession with planes and engines. Instead, Kim Jong Un’s mother and aunt soon saw that basketball had become an addiction too—the boy was sleeping with his basketball in his bed—and one that came at the expense of his studies. His mother would visit Bern regularly to scold her son for playing too much and studying too little.

She arrived on a passport that declared her to be Chong Il Son, assigned to the North Korean mission at the United Nations in Geneva since 1987, but the Swiss knew exactly who she was. After all, she arrived in the country in a Russian-made Ilyushin 62 jet bearing the insignia of Air Koryo, the North Korean state airline. The plane, which bore the tail number P882, was for VIPs only. It even had a full bedroom onboard.

All sorts of bags and merchandise would be loaded on and off the plane, watched carefully by Swiss intelligence. They monitored Ko Yong Hui closely, keeping records of everything from her shopping expeditions on Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse, one of the world’s most exclusive shopping avenues, to her hospital bills at fancy private clinics on Lake Geneva.

They also knew who her children were. They called Kim Jong Chol “the tall, skinny one” and Kim Jong Un “the short, fat one.” But the new Swiss attorney general, Carla Del Ponte (who would later become chief prosecutor in the international criminal tribunals on Yugoslavia and Rwanda), had forbidden the Swiss authorities to monitor the children. In famously discreet Switzerland, they were allowed to just be children—even if they were the children of one of the world’s most notorious tyrants.

When Kim’s mother arrived in Bern, she would bring handwritten notebooks containing one thousand Chinese characters, which form the basis of most Korean words, that she had made and photocopied so the children could keep up with their language skills. She told her sons that they had to memorize five or six pages a day, the kind of homework that torments Korean children the world over.

She was what we today would call a tiger mother, pouring a lot of energy into her children’s education and going through their journals and homework no matter how late she returned to the apartment at night.

But Kim Jong Un had other priorities.

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