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Finding new things to say about Kim Jong Il being dead

We haven’t here done a Kim Jong Il is dead posting until now, probably because what else is there to say besides Kim Jong Il is dead? A new Kim Jong has been installed. Un. From Il, to Un. In English it sounds like going from sick to nothing. North Korea, presently terrible, will either get a bit better, or a bit worse, or a lot worse, or stay much the same. Or, if it gets really lucky, a lot better! Will paid North Korea watchers, experts in North Korean things, do any better than that? I doubt it.

I have called Kim Jong Il Kim Jong Il. Others call him Kim Jong-Il with a hyphen, or Kim Jong-il, with a small i for il. Until today I never knew of this confusion. Blog and learn.

My favourite of the Kim Jong Il is dead postings that I have seen so far is this one, at Mick Hartley’s blog, which features the very last Kim Jong Il picture: King Jong Il looking at toilet paper.

I wrote all that last night, but Mick Hartley now has another Kim Jong Il is dead posting up, in which he quotes somebody called Simon Winchester saying this:

India’s attempt to go it alone failed. So, it seems, has Burma’s. Perhaps inevitably, North Korea’s attempt appears to be tottering. But seeing how South Korea has turned out – its Koreanness utterly submerged in neon, hip-hop and every imaginable American influence, a romantic can allow himself a small measure of melancholy: North Korea, for all its faults, is undeniably still Korea, a place uniquely representative of an ancient and rather remarkable Asian culture. And that, in a world otherwise rendered so bland, is perhaps no bad thing.

Or then again, perhaps … not. No bad thing? Competition for commenters: concoct morally disgusting sentences which begin with “For all its faults …”. You’ll struggle to top that one. These obscene ravings are currently behind the Times pay wall, hence no link, although Hartley does supply one.

Says Hartley:

Better a starving slave state, it seems, than this ghastly modern Americanised culture.

Conservative romanticism raised to a truly idiotic level.

Commenter Martin Adamson adds:

And it’s not even remotely true on its own terms. The architecture of Pyongyang is Moscow 1952. The mass displays are China 1964. Painting is Soviet Academy 1936. Music is Gang of Four Operas 1974. Dress is Bucharest 1988 etc etc.

Assuming this is the Simon Winchester in question, it seems that:

Simon Winchester is a best-selling British author living in Massachusetts and New York City.

Heartfelt apologies from Britain to Massachusetts and New York City. Apparently American culture is itself sufficiently un-Americanised for Winchester to find it livable in. Winchester has a new book out, which looks rather creepy. Let’s all not buy it.

39 comments to Finding new things to say about Kim Jong Il being dead

  • I personally don’t believe the RoK is like a suburb of Dallas or whatever. Certainly their neighbours in Japan remain defiantly (sometimes weirdly) Japanese.

    As to the desire for “cultural authenticity” well I commented this over at CCinZ which I think is not entirely OT.

    Hmm… I suspect there is something deeper or the Frankfurter types are really dumb about recent history. The shah was over thrown by Islamists and the left and it didn’t go well for the left either in terms of whatever vision they had for Iran or indeed their own necks.

    OK, deeper… I’m sticking my neck out here but I believe many on the left admire Islam’s capacity to grip all of human life where an Islamist regime such as the IRI holds sway. In some sense this goes back to the late C19th/early C20th lauding of Islam in various intellectual circles in the West particularly in Britain. This frequently at the expense of the Jews who were seen as “not linked to the land” but to grubby commerce and/or grubby Marxism or whatever and were intrinsically trans-national. This is a sort of romantic noble savage type idea. For a wonderfully batty example John Buchan’s works, particularly “Greenmantle” which revolves around a plot during WWI to support a Mahdi type figure in taking over the Ottoman Empire and force them out of the war. The guy is frequently described using terms like “saintly”.

    Of course the weird conspiracy of Jews as Marxists *and* capitalists doing down decent volk was a central plank of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”.

    Oddly enough by most standards John Buchan was not left-wing in the slightest.

    But that was a work of fiction Nick. Well flash forward to the real world in the ’70s. A US intel report back then used the same words about Ayatollah Khomeini. Curious really.

    Post and comments here.


    This strange romanticisation (from a distance, natch) is a very complex phenomenon which I think is complex because it transcends trad. left/right distinctions. If you want a sort of explanation the best I can get to is it’s a sort of cultural defeatism and a belief that you need an authoritarian government of whatever stripe – either a dear leader or a sharia state or whatever to maintain culture.

  • To be honest I cannot help wondering if it is a spoof. Could any western person who has the slightest idea what North Korea is like really be this moronic?

  • There must be an awful lot of woodwork in the world for all these creatures to hide in. Time for some serious fumigation, and it looks like it’s coming.

  • South Korea has the most exciting and influential popular culture in East Asia. Saying that this is somehow not Korean and is simply depravity caused by American influence requires an enormous wilful blindness. Everything influences everything. Always has in successful and vibrant societies. When that is not happening, that is when things are wrong.

    Korean cinema is certainly having an influence on American cinema, although the level of violence and general creepiness and weirdness usually has to be toned down a bit for tame American audiences.

  • “For all his faults, Hitler loved animals and was kind to his personal staff, did much for the preservation and prominence of traditional Bavarian folk culture, and was a great patron and promoter of classic music”.

    Bringing Hitler into it is too easy, though. (We in England do our best to ignore that the Nazis also loved Shakespeare).

  • Example #57498375287485092857 of how “multiculturalists” have no problem hating certain cultures (especially American culture).

    Wicked little hypocrites, they are.

  • RIchard Thomas

    I understand the uneasy feeling when parts of ones own culture start to be pushed aside by another. It’s only natural. But if you look at it honestly and dispassionately, it often really is that that aspect of the foreign culture is superior to the aspect that is being displaced in one’s own. Sometimes, it is even that that aspect is often one that originated in one’s own culture, infected that foreign culture then is coming back at you, improved and enlivened.

  • Others call him Kim Jong-Il with a hyphen, or Kim Jong-il, with a small i for il. Until today I never knew of this confusion.

    The Korean writing system uses an alphabet unique to the Koreans in which the letters that make up a single syllable are grouped together into a square block and these blocks are separated by spaces. (Separating syllables instead of words is sometimes seen in other writing systems in places influenced by the character based Chinese writing systems also. For instance Vietnamese is written using a Latin alphabet, but a space is placed after every syllable, so Viet Nam or Sai Gon or Ha Noi). Korean writing is not based on pictographic characters like Chinese though – it is purely alphabetic. When you translate a multisyllable word from the Korean writing system into a Latin alphabet, your choices are to leave the spaces in between syllables, get rid of the spaces between syllables, or do something in between, such as place a hyphen.

  • Michael, you are scary.

  • Jonathan

    ” For all its faults…” Nazi Germany did have awfully smart uniforms.

  • To add to what Michael said: family names are usually one syllable, and given names two (there are exceptions, but they are very rare). Depending on social class in the past, there either were or weren’t systems for choosing the given name – but it’s not uncommon for all siblings to have given names that start with the same syllable. So, two out of three syllables of the names of members of the same family in the same generation would be the same, and only the final one distinguishes. For example, my girlfriend and her two brothers were all Lee Hyun-X. In any case, the hyphen is meant to show that the last two syllables “Jong” and “Il” belong together, even though they are distinct words. They are not distinct on the same level that “Kim” is distinct from the other two. It would be hilarious to start using parentheses instead: Kim (Jong Il).

  • With regard to the subject of the post – however idiotic it is to fret about cultural pollution (I defy anyone to name a single industrialized nation on the globe whose culture isn’t heavily influenced from outside – and of course no one is more “polluted” in this way than the very America everyone seems to like to accuse of cultural imperialism), this is an opinion that carries a lot of currency in South Korea. Unlike in Japan, there is a lot of talk in Korea about what’s authentically Korean, and a lot of worrying that Korea is losing its culture. A native brand of cola, for example, names itself after the day of liberation and advertises itself as “cola independence.” You see, because if Koreans are going to drink cola, which is foreign, they should drink KOREAN cola. It’s got to be one of the most ridiculously chauvinistic corners of the earth, and there is indeed a lot of feeling in the South that whatever else is wrong with it, North Korea is at least inarguably the more “Korean” of the two. Why ANYONE would want to be Korean on those terms is beyond me, but there you have it.

  • So, is he still dead?

  • Snag

    He may be dead, but he shot a round of 63 at the Ho Chi Minh Country Club yesterday.

  • Paul Marks

    I was going to say stuff (about how North Korea is NOT an example of ancient Korean culture,and…..) but it has all already been said, both in the post and in the comments.

    Mr Winchester is clearly a deeply stupid man.

  • Paul Marks

    Still I am waiting for the globel warming defence of North Korea.

    “South Korea is so evil you can see it from SPACE – all that neon. Whereas noble North Korea is dark at night – no energy being used”.

    It must be so good to be dark and cold – during a Korean winter.

    One can not even burn the bodies of people who have died (of starvation or of the cold) as this would release C02 and get Mr Winchester upset.

  • nigmalg

    “To be honest I cannot help wondering if it is a spoof. Could any western person who has the slightest idea what North Korea is like really be this moronic?”

    Attend any of the local Massachusetts institutions and be amazed.

  • Laird

    If you’re looking for “new things to say about Kim Jong Il being dead”, might I offer “Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!” ? (I know it’s not precisely new, but I think it might be in this context.)

  • For more weirdness about Kim Jong-Il’s name, the name he was given at birth was apparently “Yuri Irsenovich Kim”. Kim Il-Sung was in exile in Russia at the time of Kim Jong-Il’s birth, so he was initially given a Russian style name. (I am not sure of Soviet law at the time required this – it may have). The “Irsenovitch” is a patronymic. “Irsen” being a Russianisation of his father’s (adopted) given names “Il-Sung”. I suspect that this is not mentioned much in official North Korean propaganda.

  • Jay Thomas

    This times article is one of the most utterly evil things I have read in a long time….

  • South Korea has the most exciting and influential popular culture in East Asia. Saying that this is somehow not Korean and is simply depravity caused by American influence requires an enormous wilful blindness.

    Exactly! I was going to say, which South Korea is this bloke talking about?

  • Cultural chauvinism and insularity is a well known characteristic of the Koreans, as Joshua says. Some of this is a consequence of their physical place in the world: in a corner stuck between the Chinese and the Japanese, both of who are historically larger and more powerful.

    This is just a guess – I’d like to hear what Joshua above has to say on it – but I suspect that amongst older and more conservative South Koreans, there is a backlash against modern Korean pop music, modern Korean movies, modern Korean art, modern Korean television, modern Korean celebrity culture etc, pretty much as you can find popular culture dismissed as worthless trash by at least some of the older and more conservative bent just about anywhere. (It could be that many Koreans who enjoy and even create that popular culture hear this sort of thing so much themselves that they feel a little guilty about enjoying it, too). These people will be mostly the same as the people who fret endlessly about how foreign influences (particularly from America) are destroying the “authentic” Korea, and they will conflate the two things as being the same. Rather than noticing that Korea has a vibrant popular culture, they will dismiss it as simply being an American influence (which they also don’t like) destroying authentic Korean culture.

    Someone like Simon Winchester goes to Korea, asks for introductions in Korea, gets introduced to well connected older and conservative people in Korea, they tell him this, and things that they show him will be things that confirm their prejudices. So he comes back and repeats it, without going and seeing much for himself.

  • John K

    ” For all its faults…” Nazi Germany did have awfully smart uniforms.

    It helps if you have Hugo Boss to design them.

  • “For all his faults Joe Stalin had a keen interest in science…”

    Now everyone knows about Lysenkoism but did you know that Stalin objected to Fermi-Dirac statistics because fermions “refused to collectivise”. Truly a Renaissance Man.

  • Steve P

    You cruel unfeeling bounders! Why can’t you think of those less fortunate? What with the deaths of Gaddaffi and now Kim-whatsisface, poor George Galloway’s mantlepiece is going to look pretty forlorn with its lack of cards.

  • To continue Michael’s thread –

    It’s been a decade since I lived there (I taught English in Seoul from 2000-2002), so this can easily have changed, but my impression at the time was that Koreans of all ages were extremely proud of their film industry – justly, in my opinion. Shiri was only a couple of years old then, though, so some of that will have been simple pride in their popularity abroad. There was a grumbling from some corners about some movies being “too Hollywood,” but not more than you would find from time to time in Germany or France.

    Pop music was different. Strangely, given the obvious inclination toward boy- and girl-band dance pop and hip-hop, the worry was more that they were imitating Japan. The idea that Japan might have imitated America was rarely mentioned. The main concern was that Korean pop be more technically accomplished than its Japanese counterparts (i.e. better singing, dancing, etc.) – which it was, but also less creative in my opinion. Older people universally hated it and listened instead to the Korean version of Enka (those cheesy Japanese ballads you see in WWII movies). Lots of older people spontanously burst into song at inappropriate times, as an aside.

    There was a lot of social capital to be had from CLAIMING (loudly) in public to listen to traditional Korean music, but if you felt like being a dick and asked someone who their favorite traditional musicians were, they could rarely name any. That said, my girlfriend’s mother did actually listen to it regularly, so that impression might be a false one based on the skewed section of the population I came into contact with.

    The place you saw a fair amount of nationalism was to do with food. Kimchi has all kinds of magical healing powers, Korean food is superior to western food, and lots of people will claim to hate things like pizza and hamburgers, and I actually believed them. There is, of course, plenty of western food available in Seoul, but I can well believe that a large slice of the population there has barely tried it. Alcohol is almost exclusively Korean, even though the native brands of everything are HORRIBLE.

    The place where you saw the MOST nationalism was to do with literature. The part of the population that doesn’t mostly read comics reads mainly Korean authors, and they are very upset that no Korean has ever won the Nobel Prize in literature. There are plenty of conspiracy theories involving the Japanese to explain this. But they’re not big readers, for all that.

    My overall impression with regard to the North was that there was the obvious generational divide. Anyone who remembers the Korean War unambiguously hates the North, and if they complain about South Korea being inauthentically Korean they’ll usually talk about the Park years as having been better (which is ironic, considering what a big fan of Japan President Park was). Younger people are much more interested in the North, and some of them have goofy opinions about what it’s really like. But a lot of this is radical chic – they know conditions are awful up there, and it’s mostly a way of flirting with mild danger (expressions of support for the North, owning a North Korean flag, etc. etc. are all actually forbidden by law, but this law is usually not enforced these days – so it’s sort of like smoking marijuana in the US. You *probably* won’t get arrested for it, but in some cases the authorities throw the book at you, so it’s usually safe but not always).

    But from almost everyone there’s a grudging admission that North Korea, whatever its faults, has carved its own path, and gets a lot more attention than the South. And if there’s anything every South Korean secretly wants, it’s for their country to matter on the international stage, however that’s achieved.

    My impressions, of course, no evidence to back any of this up.

  • NickM: And presumably Bose-Einstein statistics were okay because the Bosons did collectivise? That is, er, well, dazzling.

  • Korean beer is a bit insipid, but “HORRIBLE” is too strong, I think. I’ve certainly had good evenings drinking it. (Japanese beer is better, that said). I love Korean food, although I don’t really care for kimchi that much. However, simply stating it is the best and never trying anything else is just stilly.

    And yes. Korean cinema definitely does deserve all the superlatives that anyone wants to throw at it.

  • Dishman

    I have to ask, what is “American Culture”?

    It seems to me that American Culture is about as pure as our language. English doesn’t borrow words from other cultures, it actively steals them.

    When American influence touches another culture, it provides a collection of the best ideas we’ve copied from other cultures, including the culture it’s touching. The touched culture can then pull in whatever ideas it finds valuable.

    The argument to ‘preserve cultures’ is then an arguement for stasis in direct opposition to learning.

  • You guys really aren’t trying:

    “For all it’s faults … The Rwanda Genocide was an important step in removing the western-colonial established classism from Rwanda.”

    “For all it’s faults … the African Slave Trade helped establish trade between Europe and Africa.”

    “For all it’s faults … Unit 731 undoubtedly came up with some interesting observations on the human body.”

  • Well, yes, Michael. But what would he have made of a Josephson Junction?


    … For all it’s faults the KKK helped facilitate a rebirth of the cotton sheet trade in the South after the Civil War.

  • Rich Rostrom

    I’ve actually got one of Simon Winchester’s books (The Professor and the Madman) – it’s pretty good. An Amazon scan shows him writing popular non-fiction about interesting subjects. (The Alice book is a lurch into facile academoid literizing; but it’s only one book.)

    Which is not to deny that he is being a complete twit about North Korea – the classic western liberal trope of prizing the “authenticity” of the “natives”, and overlooking the gigantic misery involved.

  • “Simon Winchester is a best-selling British author”
    I often wonder about that phrase “best-selling”

    I mean there are a lot of British Authors who have sold a lot of books so where is the Bar for “best-selling” and shouldn’t that designation be limited to just one author???

    As an American I know that I speak and understand a mongrelized version of English, but I always thought the term best signified penultimate

  • I’ve also read the book “The Professor and the Madman” (“The Surgeon of Crowthorne” in its British ediition), which basically tells part of the story of how the Oxford English Dictionary came to be. One of those little books that finds an interesting little story from the past and simply tells it. It is quite good.

    Winchester was apparently a senior writer for Conde Nast Traveler for a while, and has also written a lot of travel books, none of which I have ever read. I am torn now between avoiding them like the plague and dipping into them out of curiosity in order to see if all his views about foreign countries are this offensive.

  • Ivan Ivanovich

    “For all it’s faults” The experiments on twins done by Josef Rudolf Mengele at Auschwitz gave us valuable information on genetics.

  • Richard Thomas

    Dan, I’m not sure about your understanding of best-sellers but I think that your internal definition “penultimate” could probably do with a refresh.

  • Gilligan

    For all it faults the Nazi govenment built the Volkswagen and the Autobahn.

    For all its faults, the Nazi government introduced millions to the health benefits of a calorie restricted diet, a policy that the North Koreans have seen fit to emulate.

    For all it faults, Nazi science did research into the effects of high altitude and cold on human physiology that has never been duplicated.

    For all its faults, the Nazi T4 program was able to eliminate birth defects from the population.

    For all its faults, the Nazis developed an effective cure for schizophrenia and other mental illness.

  • Ryan M.

    TO bring in “A Christmas Carol”. . . .

    “For all it’s faults … The Rwanda Genocide was an important step in removing the ‘surplus population’ from a portion of Africa. After all. . .

    “If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

  • Paul Marks

    So many South Koreans note that North Korea gets more attention.

    And South Koreans also want to get their country noticed.


    March into North Korea and free (and unify) the country.

    Now if only there was a plan for dealing with the Norts Nukes……

    The South Koreans are good at bio tech – and have stong military values.

    Is developing “Rogue Trooper” a possibility?