TIME North Korea

North Korea Pushes Farmers For More

North Korea Feeding the Nation
A North Korean woman walks on a trail through a rice paddy southeast of Pyongyang, North Korea on June 21, 2014. For more than four decades, farming in the North was characterized by heavy use of mechanization swiftly followed by chronic fuel and equipment shortages and stopgap policies. David Guttenfelder—AP

North Korea needs sustainable agriculture as much as it needs nuclear power to keep enemies at bay, which has led to a push for self-sufficient farming — but for it to succeed the country would have to sanction capitalist-style reforms

Rim Ok Hua looks out over her patch of farm just across the Tumen River from China, where rows of lush, green young potato plants stretch into the distance.

As North Korean farmers go, Rim is exceptionally lucky. The Changpyong Cooperative Farm where she works is mechanized, has 500 pigs to provide fertilizer and uses the best available seeds, originally brought in from Switzerland. In most fields throughout the country, farmers work the fields by hand, or behind bony oxen.

However, this year, even more than most, they are all under intense pressure to feed a hungry nation.

Leader Kim Jong Un has succeeded in establishing his country as a nuclear power, and even sent a satellite into orbit. Now, with prolonged international sanctions and largesse from former communist allies mostly gone, Kim is calling on farmers to win him another battle. In 2012, and again this year, he promised the nation it would never face famine again.

But can isolated and impoverished North Korea ever escape the ghosts of famines past?

For more than four decades, farming in the North was characterized by heavy use of mechanization swiftly followed by chronic fuel and equipment shortages and stopgap policies. That legacy has left its mark not only on the North Korean psyche, but on its countryside.

Hillsides denuded of trees for terraced farming plots produce little but increase the risk of damage from erosion or landslides. Goats, which are everywhere after a mass goat-breeding campaign in 1996, eat their way into hillside shrubs, which makes the landslide problem even worse. Overuse of chemical fertilizers has trashed soil fertility in many areas.

North Korea has struggled to obtain tractor fuel for more than two decades. Housewives, college students and workers brought in from the cities, along with military units, make up for the lack of mechanization at crucial times.

There are many less tangible problems: state-controlled distribution, top-down planning and a quota system that doesn’t fully encourage innovation and individual effort. All these factors make North Korea’s agricultural sector a very fragile ecosystem. Almost as soon as this season’s rice was transplanted, the North’s Korean Central News Agency reported that tens of thousands of hectares of farmland had already been damaged by drought.

Even so, North Korea is by no means an agricultural lost cause.

As the summer growing months approach, the North Korean countryside is bursting with the bright greens of young rice, corn, soybeans and cabbage. On hillier ground lie orchards for apples and pears. Whole villages are devoted to growing mushrooms — another “magic bullet” innovation from the 1990s. It seems every valley and flatland, each nook and cranny, has been turned into a plot for some sort of crop.

In the minds of North Korea’s leaders, agricultural self-sufficiency is as much a key to the nation’s survival as nuclear weapons are to keeping its foes at bay. North Korea needed massive international aid during the devastating famine of the 1990s.

There are some signs of improvement. The combined overall crop production for this year and 2013 is expected to increase by 5 percent, to 5.98 million tons, according to a joint report compiled by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Program. The report, released last November, estimated the North would still need to import 340,000 tons of cereals.

About 16 million of North Korea’s 25 million people rely on state-provided rations of cereals, and stunting from chronic malnutrition is estimated to be as high as 40 percent in some areas. But according to U.N. monitors, North Koreans have been getting larger rations of rice, potatoes and corn over the past two years. The production gap in the FAO-WFP report, meanwhile, is the smallest North Korea has seen in about two decades.

North Korean farmers are learning sustainable farming, with more use of manure and better compost, said agricultural consultant Randall Ireson. He recommended rotating and planting a wider variety of crops, particularly soybeans, and using organic fertilizer.

“No magic technology is needed,” he said. “Just good ‘best farming practices.’”

In rural North Korea, some of those changes are well underway.

Nestled in high country near the scenic Mount Paektu, the Taehongdan district became a national priority development area for potatoes around 2002. The Changpyong farm is one of its shining successes.

“We don’t need chemical fertilizer,” boasted farmer Jo Kwang Il, one of the cooperative’s 500 workers. “We have pigs to produce tons of manure a year. They also provide meat, so that benefits our whole community.”

For the whole agricultural sector to succeed, more systemic, and politically risky, changes may also be needed, such as relaxing central government command and bringing state-set prices for crops more in line with what farmers can get for surplus sold in farmers’ markets. Farms and divisions within them could then afford to reinvest their profits in small walk-behind tractors, rice-transplanting machines, fuel or fertilizer. This kind of action, however, could move North Korea closer to sanctioning capitalist-style markets and reforms, which it has long resisted.

In the meantime, as she stands near her potato patch, Rim says it’s been nothing but rain here in the high country.

“The weather hasn’t been so good lately,” she said, squinting into the glare of the overcast, late-morning sky. But then, after a pause: “All of us farmers are working harder than ever. It will be a good harvest this year.”

 

TIME North Korea

Japanese Pro-Wrestler Plans Pyongyang Extravaganza

Kanji "Antonio" Inoki, pro wrestling legend turned politician, is surrounded by journalists during a press conference in Tokyo on July 7, 2014.
Kanji "Antonio" Inoki, pro wrestling legend turned politician, is surrounded by journalists during a press conference in Tokyo on July 7, 2014. Kyodo News/AP

About 20 wrestlers and martial artists are expected to attend, although organizers have not announced their names or nationalities

(TOKYO) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may have found a new friend for life.

Hot on the heels of former NBA star Dennis Rodman’s basketball antics in Pyongyang on the young leader’s birthday, a Japanese pro wrestling legend turned politician is planning to entertain the North Korean capital with a martial arts extravaganza next month — and hopefully meet some senior leaders while he is there.

Kanji “Antonio” Inoki was to leave for Pyongyang on Wednesday to set the final details for the Aug. 30-31 event, which organizers say will feature pro wrestling, taekwondo, the Japanese martial art aikido and a traditional Korean style of wrestling.

Like Rodman, who said he and Kim were friends for life even though his trip to Pyongyang in January was a public-relations disaster, Inoki is both a savvy showman and charismatically eccentric. For a politician — he’s serving his third term in Japan’s parliament — he is also famously fond of being politically incorrect.

During the Gulf War, Inoki organized a pro wrestling show in Iraq and he has visited North Korea nearly 30 times. His proactive position on Pyongyang ties has gotten him in trouble before. He was suspended in parliament last year for 30 days after making an unauthorized trip to the North.

Government officials are not expected to protest his current plans, however.

Though he is a household name in Japan, the square-jawed, 6-foot-3 Inoki is probably best remembered elsewhere for fighting Muhammad Ali in Tokyo in 1976, though he spent much of the bout on his back kicking at Ali’s legs. Inoki was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2010. He retired from the ring in 1998.

If all goes as planned, this will be the second time Inoki has helped arrange a pro-wrestling show in Pyongyang — and the first was a huge success.

In 1995, Inoki fought American Ric Flair in what was called the “Collision in Korea.” That two-day event, held in Pyongyang’s huge May Day Stadium, drew a reported 380,000 spectators and was the biggest pay-per-view in pro-wrestling history. Ali was among the guest attendees.

Tokyo has cut off virtually all official ties with Pyongyang since 2006 over its nuclear weapons program and other issues, but Inoki runs a non-profit that opened an office in Pyongyang last year to promote international sports exchange. His connection to North Korea comes from his mentor, Rikidozan, a postwar wrestling legend in Japan who was born in the North.

Last week, Tokyo announced it was lifting some unilateral sanctions after the North agreed to revive a probe into the fates of at least a dozen Japanese who were abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 80s. Though Tokyo will continue to enforce UN sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear program, the breakthrough on the abductions issue is expected to allow more contact between the countries.

About 20 wrestlers and martial artists are expected to attend, although organizers have not announced their names or nationalities. Organizers say the International Pro-Wrestling Festival in Pyongyang will likely be broadcast over the Internet. It is to be held at Pyongyang’s Chung Ju-yung Stadium, which has a capacity of 15,000.

Inoki, who is 71, told reporters on Monday that while in Pyongyang for the event he hopes to meet with senior North Korean officials. It remains to be seen whether Kim himself will be among the spectators.

The event would be the biggest sports show with a marquee foreigner since Rodman and a team of other former NBA players and streetballers took to the basketball court in Pyongyang’s Indoor Stadium in January.

Rodman dedicated the game to his “best friend” Kim, who along with his wife and other senior officials and their wives watched from a special seating area. The capacity crowd of about 14,000 clapped loudly as Rodman sang a verse from the birthday song and then bowed deeply to Kim, seated above him in the stands.

Rodman called the event “historic,” but he was widely criticized by members of the U.S. Congress, the NBA and human rights groups who said he had become a public relations tool for North Korea’s government. Rodman apologized publicly for his conduct while in North Korea, and entered rehab soon after his return to the United States.

 

TIME North Korea

20 Years After His Death, Kim Il Sung Still Casts a Powerful Spell Over North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang at midnight on July 8, 2014.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang at midnight on July 8, 2014. KCNA/Reuters

His look and persona are consciously imitated by his grandson, Kim Jong Un

When Kim Il Sung’s heart stopped beating exactly 20 years ago — on July 8, 1994 — the propagandists didn’t let the mere fact of his death get in the way. The 82-year-old founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was revered like a god in life — and after it.

Two decades later, mythmaking is as important as ever for Kim’s grandson, dictator Kim Jong Un, who has just led the official memorial to the Great Leader.

North Korean propaganda casts the Kims as protectors of a country under siege. School children learn that Kim Il Sung was an exceptional warrior who, while camping at the base of Mount Paektu with his comrades, defeated a force of Japanese colonialists. He later repelled the imperialist Americans in the 1950–53 Korean War.

According to official history, his heir, Kim Jong Il, was born at the base of the same scared mountain, and the birth heralded by a rainbow. According to North Korean hagiography, Kim Jong Il grew up to become a master tactician, writer and filmmaker. Legend has it he shot 11 holes-in-one in his first ever round of golf.

Kim Il Sung’s North Korea was never the socialist paradise portrayed on posters, but through the 1960s it was at least a functioning, if brutal and repressive, state. The collapse of the Soviet Union and disastrous agricultural policies changed that. In the 1990s, while successor Kim Jong Il practiced his soon-to-be-legendary swing, North Koreans starved.

Understandably, young Kim Jong Un prefers to bask in his grandfather’s, rather than his father’s, glow. South Korean analysts believe the young leader consciously emulates his grandfather’s look and public persona. Whereas his father avoided the public, Kim Jong Un, like his grandfather, is often photographed among, even touching, his subjects.

Channeling his granddad reinforces Kim Jong Un’s link to a not-so-distant revolutionary past. Since coming to power in 2011, he has promised to push ahead with the twin development of his country’s economy and nuclear-weapons program. He has made good on the second part, conducting the country’s third nuke test, while keeping up the violent rhetoric and threatening, among other things, to rain fire on the U.S. “Break the waists of the crazy enemies, totally cut their windpipes and thus clearly show them what a real war is like, ” he once urged his soldiers, according to state media reports.

An actual conflict would almost certainly cost him his kingdom. But young Kim knows that for North Korea to survive he must convince his people that the enemy is at the gate — and that he, alone, can stop them. Grandad would have approved.

TIME East Asia

North Korea to Send Cheerleaders, Athletes to South for Asian Games

Pyongyang's cheerleaders have previously been lauded by Seoul for their meticulous choreography and peaceful cheers, and Kim Jong Un even made one of the delegation his wife

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North Korea announced on Monday that it will send a cheerleading squad and 150 athletes to the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, on Sept. 19, in a display of goodwill incongruous with several weeks of intermittent missile and rocket launches amid bellicose rhetoric.

The longtime adversaries remain at odds over a civil war from 1950 to ’53 that was never properly resolved. North Korea last week fired several short-range rockets into the sea ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the South Korean capital Seoul during which Pyongyang’s nuclear program was discussed.

The North’s cheerleaders, who have been lauded by the South in previous visits for their meticulous choreography and peaceful cheers, will ostensibly be dispatched to build tolerance between the neighbors, reports Reuters. “It is necessary to put an end to all kinds of calumnies and vituperation that foster misunderstanding and distrust among the fellow countrymen,” read a government statement, according to the North’s state KCNA news agency.

These overtures come just as young North Korean despot Kim Jong Un oversaw a mock military assault on a South Korean island on Saturday. Last week, North Korea also demanded that Seoul end its annual joint military drills with the U.S., although this was met with flat refusal.

Kim Eui-do, a spokesman for the South Korean government, said organizers would discuss the North’s proposal of sending a cheerleading squad and athletes to the event, reports the South China Morning Post. North Korea also sent cheerleaders to the Asian Athletic Games in Incheon in 2005. Leader Kim has since married one of the cheerleaders from the squad, Ri Sol Ju.

[Reuters]

TIME East Asia

The Chinese President’s Visit to Seoul Says Much About Shifting Alliances

SKOREA-CHINA-DIPLOMACY
China's President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan are welcomed upon arrival at Seoul Air Base on July 3, 2014 Ed Jones—AFP/Getty Images

The two-day trip is the first time a Chinese leader has chosen to visit South Korea before calling on the North

South Korea is a good neighbor. North Korea, not so much. That’s the message China sent this week as President Xi Jinping stopped by Seoul for a two-day visit. It is the first time a Chinese leader chose to visit South Korea before meeting with the Kim clan first — a deliberate slight to North Korea and a sign of shifting alliances across Asia’s northeast.

South Korea and China are not natural allies. China backed the North in the 1950–53 war that split the Korean Peninsula. Since then, Beijing has been North Korea’s greatest ally, serving as patron and protector to Pyongyang — a closeness Mao Zedong once likened to “lips and teeth.”

But the bonds of authoritarian brotherhood have frayed of late. Beijing is rather tired of the North’s nuclear theatrics and increasing unwillingness to prop up its sluggish economy. The North’s bold young dictator, Kim Jong Un, has yet to meet with Beijing’s top brass. As news of Xi’s Seoul trip broke, he was busy lobbing rockets into the sea.

Shared frustration with the North has given democratic South Korea and authoritarian China some common ground. They have since discovered they share much else, including a thriving trading partnership and an old foe: Japan. Amid ongoing territorial disputes, the legacy of Japan’s 20th century imperial expansion and the country’s wartime record have become a focal point for East Asia, particularly Seoul and Beijing. They recently collaborated on a museum that pays tribute to Korean man who, in 1909, assassinated a Japanese colonial official.

Not wanting to be outmaneuvered, Tokyo has made a quiet overture to Pyongyang. Sitting within range of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, and an ally of the U.S., Japan is hardly a North Korea fan. But, on July 3 as Xi flew to Seoul, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that he would lift some economic sanctions on North Korea in return for its pledge to investigate the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s. Japanese and North Korean diplomats have already met in Beijing.

TIME North Korea

North Korea Tests Missiles Ahead Of China-South Korea Meeting

Or perhaps Seth Rogen and James Franco's new movie is to blame?

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The hermit nation says it launched two short-range missiles into international waters, with leader Kim Jong Un on hand to watch the test on Sunday morning.

The country often uses such unannounced displays of military power as a means of expressing discontent with the U.S. or South Korea, which considers the test a hostile act. North Korea could be concerned with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s upcoming visit to South Korea, as China has historically been an ally to North Korea and usually visits it first.

Or it could be motivated by the upcoming film The Interview, which stars Seth Rogan and James Franco as assassins going undercover as journalists during a mission to kill Kim Jong Un. The North Korean government has called the film an “act of war” and promised a “merciless” retaliation if it is released.

TIME movies

Strike Up the Banned: 5 Films That Sparked International Incidents

"BORAT: Touristic Guidings to Minor Nation of U.S. and A. and Touristic Guidings to Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan"
Borat Sagdiyev, played by actor Saha Baron Cohen, attends a signing for his new book "BORAT: Touristic Guidings to Minor Nation of U.S. and A. and Touristic Guidings to Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" on November 7, 2007 in Los Angeles. Vince Bucci—Getty Images

The Interview was far from the first film to spark the ire of the country that it depicts. A brief history of films that have struck a nerve with global leaders

According to the trailer for their upcoming film, The Interview, James Franco and Seth Rogen (or at least the characters they play) will be sent to North Korea to assassinate Kim Jong Un. As you might imagine, the Supreme Leader isn’t exactly taking this in stride and has promised “merciless retaliation” against the U.S. for the faux assassination.

Extreme? Maybe, but then again you’ve never been fake-killed for millions of people around the world to see — and by Seth Rogen and James Franco no less. Maybe if it had been Jackie Chan or Jean-Claude van Damme (two of Kim’s favorite movie stars), things would be different, but no, it’s the guy who starts Twitter fights with Justin Bieber and the guy who posts the world’s most awkward selfies on Instagram.

And we’re not talking about any old leader here. This is Kim Jong Un, grandson of a god and friend to Dennis Rodman. He isn’t accustomed to being fake-insulted, let alone fake-killed. How would he explain it to all the friends who have to be his friends or else they’d be real-killed? Just something to consider.

Regardless of how you feel about Kim’s reaction, it is by all accounts the most outspoken response to a movie by the state (or in this case, head of state) that is the subject of the film. It is not, however, the first. Here are five other films that have been denounced, condemned or otherwise banned by governments who find that the movies hit too close to home.

Cry Freedom (1987)

Nominated for three Academy Awards in 1988, Cry Freedom chronicled the relationship of journalist Donald Woods (Kevin Kline) and activist Steve Biko (Denzel Washington) during apartheid-era South Africa in the late 1970s. Unsurprisingly, South African officials were somewhat uncomfortable with a film that depicted rampant discrimination, political corruption and racial violence in the segregated country. Though the movie was initially approved by South African censors, explosions and bomb threats accompanied the film’s debut, which may have helped spur the government to action. Stoffel van der Merwe, the Minister of Information, called Cry Freedom “crude propaganda” and said that the portrayal of South African security forces would undermine their public image.

Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003)

The sequel to Angelina Jolie’s first Tomb Raider film sparked the ire of Chinese officials, one of whom said, “After watching the movie, I feel that the Westerners have made their presentation of China with malicious intention.” The movie was partly filmed in Hong Kong, and was criticized by Beijing for making the country appear to be without a functioning government and instead run by secret societies. “The movie does not understand Chinese culture. It does not understand China’s security situation. In China there cannot be secret societies,” one official said.

District 9 (2009)

Neill Blomkamp’s allegorical film about aliens — or apartheid-era South Africa, if you look just a little closely — was nominated for four Oscars but was not a hit in Nigeria. According to the country’s Information Minister, Dora Akunyili, the Nigerian characters were portrayed as criminals and cannibals, and government officials also took exception to the fact that “the name of our former president was clearly spelt out as the head of the criminal gang and our ladies shown like prostitutes sleeping with extra-terrestrial refugees.” The film was banned in the West African country.

Argo (2012)

The 2013 Oscar winner for Best Picture told the story of the CIA’s mission to retrieve Americans trapped in Tehran during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. Though the film was widely criticized for historical inaccuracies, it was the Iranian government itself that had the strongest “Argo f— yourself” reaction. Mohammad Hosseini, the Iranian Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, denounced the movie as “an offensive act” that was motivated by “evil intentions.” Argo was banned in Iran and plans were made for the state-affiliated Arts Bureau to produce The General Staff, a film that would tell the true story of American hostages held in the country. Though the “big production” film was announced in January 2013, there have been few updates in the past year.

Borat (2006)

Borat presents the most complicated case of these controversial films. Borat the character — a misogynistic, homophobic and anti-Semitic news reporter from Kazakhstan, played by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen — had been around since even before Baron Cohen’s Da Ali G Show debuted in the U.S. in 2000. The character quickly gained notoriety and garnered even more attention once it was announced that he would get his own movie. Initially, Kazakh officials were not at all pleased. “We do not rule out that Mr. Cohen is serving someone’s political order designed to present Kazakhstan and its people in a derogatory way,” Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman Yerzhan Ashykbayev said in 2005, a full year before the movie’s release.

As the film’s release neared, however, Kazakhstan seemed to soften its stance, in spite of threatened lawsuits and rumored bans. Though officials strongly urged that it not be distributed in the country (and it wasn’t), Erlan Idrissov, the Kazakh ambassador to the U.K., said he found the movie amusing in parts and wrote that it “placed Kazakhstan on the map.” In 2012, Foreign Minister Yerzhan Kazykhanov credited the movie with increasing visa requests to visit Kazakhstan by tenfold: “I am grateful to Borat for helping attract tourists to Kazakhstan.”

Though Kazakhstan ultimately changed its opinion of Borat, that seems unlikely to happen with The Interview and North Korea. Kim Jong Un’s repudiation is far from the country’s first condemnation of a film. The 2009 disaster film 2012 was reportedly banned by then-leader Kim Jong Il because it depicted a series of catastrophic natural disasters in 2012 — the very year that North Korea was meant to “open the grand gates to becoming a rising superpower,” coinciding with the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung, the nation’s founder. Anyone caught with a bootlegged copy of the film was allegedly charged with “a grave provocation against the development of the state,” which could carry a prison sentence of up to five years.

If the punishment for holding a copy of a film that didn’t have anything directly to do with North Korea inspired that still a punishment, it would likely be wise for North Korean citizens to stay as far away from The Interview as possible.

TIME

Pictures of the Week: June 13 – June 20

From Iraq’s eternal war and Spain’s early Word Cup exit, to a deadly double twister in Nebraska and Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s submarine ride, TIME presents the best photos of the week.

 

 

TIME Asia

This Is a Really Bad Time to be a North Korean Weather Forecaster

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gives field guidance to the Hydro-meteorological Service in this undated photo released by North Korea's KCNA in Pyongyang
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gives field guidance to the hydrometeorological service in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang on June 10, 2014 KCNA/Reuters

The Brilliant Leader wants accurate weather forecasts, and he wants them now. No pressure, comrades

North Korea’s weather forecasters had a rough day at the office.

The country’s hydrometeorological service received a public telling off by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, according to state newspaper Rodong Sinmun.

Kim criticized the weather service’s methods, saying it produced “incorrect” forecasts, needed to “fundamentally” improve equipment and lacked “modern and scientific” approaches to its work.

During his tour of the facilities, he said the agency was “very important” but needed to “rapidly and kindly provide information about weather’s influence.”

While so-called “field guidance” tours are common for North Korean leaders, government officials are rarely scolded in public.

The BBC reports that Kim’s last reproach came in May 2012, following a visit to a theme park in Pyongyang.

TIME Photos

The Most Surprising Photos of the Month

Time looks back over the past month to present a selection of underreported, improbable and astounding images that caught the attention of our photo editors. From Darth Vader to cheese rolling, each photograph, we trust, will surprise you.

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