Monday, July 16, 2007


WHAT does the world really know about the regime of Kim Jong Il, which appears ready to yield to foreign pressure and bribes to close down the reactor at Yongbyon that has provided enough material for a handful of nuclear devices? The answer, despite defectors' tales and the best efforts of Western intelligence agencies, diplomats and academics, is still: much less than the known unknowns. That Mr Kim runs a vile regime is not in doubt, with North Korea's 20m-odd people the victims of backwardness, malnutrition and political repression. Yet so secretly does it conduct its affairs that speculation is easier than analysis.

Some known knowns. Since the mid-1990s North Korea's unique brand of Stalinism—even more horrifying than those tried elsewhere—has entered a process of slow disintegration. Famine during the 1990s is reckoned to have killed perhaps a tenth of the population. Only with difficulty can survivors still believe in the long-promised socialist paradise, or find fresh reservoirs of gratitude for Mr Kim.

Foreigners living in Pyongyang report a change in attitudes. Once in awe of authority, people now defy it. They break petty rules: sitting on the moving rail of the escalator; smoking beneath no-smoking signs; and blocking traffic by selling furniture in the streets, to the frustration of the white-gloved traffic ladies. More seditious still, people are breaking the seal on their radios that keeps them tuned only to the state frequency.

Another measure of changing attitudes: in bus queues or at sweet-potato stands, people are readier to chat to foreigners than they were just a few years ago. Signs of petty capitalism and informal markets, once unheard of, are everywhere. Crime is on the rise too, and where there are black markets, mafia-type protection rackets probably follow. Chinese lorry-drivers complain of highway banditry, as gangs jump on to the back of slow-moving lorries and pull off goods.

Despite Stalinism's decay, Andrei Lankov of South Korea's Kookmin University suggests that the regime, which during the famine may have faced collapse or military rebellion, now actually feels more sure of itself. It has restricted the operations of foreign aid organisations. And it has largely recentralised the distribution of food and other essentials, after the system broke down during the famine. So all the rewards in the form of cash and commodities that North Korea expects to reap from its nuclear diplomacy could easily be used to reinforce the command economy, and buy loyalty.

In recent months a crackdown has taken place along the porous border with China. The law is once again being rigorously applied to North Koreans caught crossing illegally. The punishment is five years in prison camp. There is little sign that the gulag is any less brutal: a report by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a human-rights group, pieced together what is known from defectors' accounts and satellite imagery. It put the prison population at 200,000, with 500,000-1m having died there over the years.

As for the elite, what little is known suggests a regime riven by bickering. It appears to have problems filling government posts: the job of foreign minister has been open for months. In April the prime minister was replaced by Kim Yong Il, who analysts suspect may be more hardline. Political advisers from the army seem again to have growing influence. For a while after the six-nation agreement in February on North Korea's denuclearisation, the usual officials in military uniform suddenly stopped accompanying Mr Kim in public; Mr Kim also visited relatively few military sites compared with civilian ones. The uniforms are now back.
In May Mr Kim himself stopped appearing in public, prompting speculation about his health, with rumours of diabetes and heart problems. His health is perhaps the regime's most closely guarded secret, so all this is pure conjecture. But it is known that he is 66 and was once a heavy smoker and drinker.

If Mr Kim was frail, he has bounced back, appearing this week with China's foreign minister. Still, inevitable gossip has been fanned about succession in this communist dynasty. Mr Kim's two younger sons, in their 20s, have started appearing in public with their father for the first time since their mother died in 2004. Mr Kim's eldest son (by an earlier mistress), Kim Jong Nam, 36, had been written off as a potential successor after the embarrassment of being caught entering Japan with a fake passport to visit Tokyo's Disneyland. He has recently been living in Macau, but this year popped back for his father's birthday. Some of the fuss that North Korea made in the six-party talks about funds frozen in a Macau bank may have been for his benefit.

South Korean analysts, in particular, predict a collective leadership after Mr Kim's death, and the regime's indefinite continuation. But an orderly succession cannot be taken for granted. And if the regime were suddenly to collapse, one cast-iron certainty is that the countries that would have to deal with the mess—chiefly South Korea, the United States and China—are wholly ill-prepared.


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Korean men still lag behind female golfers,0,5905170.column
Korean men still lag behind female golfers
Andrew Carter
July 11, 2007

The revolution began, best anyone can remember, late on a summer night some eight years ago. It was actually early morning by then, local Korean time, when a 20-year-old Korean named Se Ri Pak won the 1998 U.S. Women's Open in Kohler, Wis.

From half the world away, in Pak's homeland, little girls sat in front of televisions, ignoring the need for sleep in the wee hours and dreamt of what it might be like to be Pak. And Korean fathers, too, looked upon their daughters and wondered if they might possess an untapped golf gene."

I picked up a golf club because of her," said In-Bee Park, a Korean who was 10 years old when she stayed up all hours that summer night in '98. "The year she won [the Women's Open], that's when I started playing golf."Park, a rookie on the LPGA Tour, finished tied for fourth a couple of weeks ago in the most recent Women's Open. Years ago, she was one of countless Korean girls whom Pak inspired to play golf, and Park is now one of 45 Korean-born women on the LPGA Tour.

It's no secret, of course, that Pak's influence on the LPGA Tour has been monumental. There are 42 more Korean-born players on the women's tour than there were during her rookie season in '98. Pak, only 29, qualified earlier this season for the LPGA Tour Hall of Fame, and her accomplishments have made the ever-growing Korean presence on the women's tour easy to explain.

What's far more difficult to explain, though, is the absence of a similar Korean presence on the PGA Tour. K.J. Choi, the first Korean-born golfer to compete on the men's tour, walked off No. 18 on Sunday at Congressional Country Club in Maryland, and for the second time in six weeks, he was a champion. He won the Memorial Tournament in early June.

After another victory ended on Sunday, someone asked him whether he was "bigger" in his homeland than Pak. And to that, Choi said, "I think we're both, Se Ri and I, walking a similar path right now. You can't really compare the two of us -- who is better, who is more popular. You can't really say that."

I think what she has done on the LPGA Tour is tremendous. . . . She was a pioneer on the LPGA Tour."She was, indeed. But why has Pak's deep and wide mark on golf failed to leave an imprint on the men's game? Why are there so many Koreans on the LPGA Tour and so few on the PGA Tour?

Among the 45 Koreans on the LPGA Tour this season are 14 rookies. The total number of Koreans has risen steadily since Pak's American breakthrough almost a decade ago.Yet Korean representation on the PGA Tour has remained stagnant since Choi's rookie season in 2000, and he has but only three fellow countrymen on tour now.

Michael Yim, Choi's agent, tried to explain on Tuesday why the numbers are the way they are."There are many differences," he said, speaking of the men's and women's game. "You can't really pinpoint the one specific reason."

Then Yim, who is Korean himself, listed his theories -- how Korean women face an easier road to qualify for the LPGA Tour than men do when trying to reach the PGA Tour. How Korean men must serve in the military, which Choi did after he graduated high school. Yim said Korean families -- though fast becoming more westernized -- still are old-fashioned and rely on men to be primary providers, and that women are able to take more chances with their futures."

When [men] try to make the move from Korea to the U.S., it's not only them that they have to worry about," Yim said. "They have to worry about bringing the whole family over -- and what if you don't make it?"Just the fact that you have to worry about the whole family acts as a deterrent."

And there's another reason, too, maybe most obvious, for the wide gap in gender representation: physique."When you look at it from a physical point of view -- the western guys are a lot more physically developed, and they have a physical advantage over Asian guys," Yim said. "Whereas with the women, the physical side doesn't really [matter] as much."

It's not to say, of course, that Koreans on the LPGA Tour aren't without unique challenges, perhaps none more daunting than adapting to American culture.

"You have to quit all the Korean stuff," Park said. "Korean [TV], Korean movies. When I first came to America, I had to quit all those Korean things."

As he was making his way through another victory on Sunday, one of Choi's fans held up a sign that made reference to his nickname, which is "Tank."

"Move forward just like a tank," he said later. "Just progress. It's how I felt when I first came over to the U.S. starting out . . . There were a lot of hurdles for me to overcome."And so far, at least in the men's game, he's one of the few Koreans who have had to endure. For a while, Pak began a revolution in women's golf. The men's game still is awaiting when a similar one might come, if ever.