From bombs to Olympic banners: Can winter sports diplomacy stop a war in the Korean peninsula? North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un took the world by surprise with his announcement that his nation and South Koreawould unite under a single banner at the Winter Olympics. Was it a diplomatic masterstroke or a cynical stunt? Journalist Jean Lee pieces together what really led to this public relations coup.
North Korea’s participation in these Olympics runs the risk of rewarding bad behavior and handing Mr. Kim a diplomatic victory that he will brandish as proof that his strategy was right. Still, we have to start somewhere after so many years of tension.
Romance, humor, tension — everyone loves a good sitcom, even North Koreans. But in North Korea, TV dramas are more than mere entertainment. They play a crucial political role by serving as a key messenger of party and government policy. They aim to shape social and cultural mores in North Korean society. And in the Kim Jong-un era, they act as an advertisement for the “good life” promised to the political elite.
If President Trump thinks that his threats last week of “fire and fury” and weapons “locked and loaded” have North Koreans quaking in their boots, he should think again. If anything, the Mao-suit-clad cadres in Pyongyang are probably gleeful that the president of the United States has played straight into their propaganda.
While Kim Jong Un stares down his enemies abroad, it's easy to forget that he's also fighting a battle from within his own borders: to survive at all costs. Like any autocratic leader, he's under constant pressure to maintain order and allegiance. But his youth and inexperience make staying in power that much more of a challenge, which in turn requires absolute control. Opposition must be eliminated. No one is safe, not even his own family.
We in the United States often call the Korean conflict the “Forgotten War.” My high school history textbook in Minnesota devoted barely a paragraph to it, and growing up as the child of Korean immigrants, I knew almost nothing about a war my own parents survived as children. But the war is very much alive and present in North Korea, and the standoff with the United States figures prominently in their propaganda, identity, and policy.
After the 14th-century Korean ruler Taejo, founder of the Joseon dynasty, chose the youngest of his eight sons to succeed him, a spurned son killed the heir apparent and at least one of his other half brothers and eventually rose to the throne. Today, rumors of royal fratricide are again swirling, this time around the court of Kim Jong-un, the ruler of North Korea.
It was party time in Pyongyang. Workers scrambled to hang congratulatory banners in the lobby of the Koryo Hotel, my home away from home in the North Korean capital, where I was posted as an Associated Press correspondent. A gaggle of cooks, still in aprons and chef’s hats, dashed out from the kitchen to watch the festivities, and mothers tightened the pink bows in their daughters’ hair as the girls fidgeted in anticipation.
Two years after he made history by becoming the Navy's first black pilot, Ensign Jesse Brown lay trapped in his downed fighter plane in subfreezing North Korea, his leg broken and bleeding. His wingman crash-landed to try to save him, and even burned his hands trying to put out the flames.
A year after leader Kim Jong Un promised in a speech to bring an end to the "era of belt-tightening" and economic hardship in North Korea, the gap between the haves and have-nots has only grown with Pyongyang's transformation.
North Korean farmers who have long been required to turn most of their crops over to the state may now be allowed to keep their surplus food to sell or barter in what could be the most significant economic change enacted by young leader Kim Jong Un since he came to power nine months ago.
Her eyes well up when Li Pun Hui recalls her role in a historic example of "ping pong diplomacy."
"For 50 days, 24 hours a day, we lived together as one, trained together, slept in the same room and ate all our meals together," Li told The Associated Press at an interview in Pyongyang. "We shared the same food and our feelings."
Scores of soldiers march through a zone sealed off by green mesh fencing and checkpoints. A crew of about 1,000 soldiers and 2,000 police officers works around the clock, along with thousands more civilians in street clothes and hard hats, spurred on by billboards that rate their performance.
But they are not building tanks here at the foot of Mansu Hill, or weapons, except perhaps for a propaganda war. They are building 3,000 new apartments, a department store, schools and a theater, in the hope of selling a modern version of Pyongyang to the people of North Korea albeit one that most will never get to see.
In his last public appearance, late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il went shopping. He peered at the prices affixed to shelves packed with everything from Pantene shampoo to Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. And he nodded his approval of Pyongyang's version of Walmart, which was soon to open courtesy of China.
The visit played up a decidedly un-communist development in North Korea: A new culture of commerce is springing up, with China as its inspiration and source.
The resemblance is striking: the full cheeks and quick smile, the confident gait, the habit of gesturing with both hands when he speaks.North Korea's young new leader, Kim Jong Un, appears to be fashioning himself as the reincarnation of Kim Il Sung, his grandfather and the nation's founder, as he seeks to solidify his hold on the nation of 24 million in the wake of his father's death last month.
Communist North Korea is a world both foreign and familiar, a place where the men wear Mao suits and children tote Mickey Mouse backpacks, where they call one another "comrade" and love their spicy kimchi.
North Korea is undergoing its own digital revolution, even as it grapples with chronic shortages of food and fuel. It is still among the most isolated of nations, with cyberspace policies considered among the most restrictive in the world. Yet inside Pyongyang, there's a small but growing digital world, and a whole new vocabulary to go with it: CNC, e-libraries, IT, an operating system called Red Star and a Web portal called Naenara.
He plays like Rooney but behaves a little like Beckham. He loves his cars, his rap music and his clothes, and changes hairstyles more often than you can say "Kim Jong Il."North Korea striker Jong Tae Se is not your average North Korean.
With both North and South Korea in the World Cup for the first time, many on this war-divided peninsula were hoping that sports could cross the border and unite people. But the sinking of a South Korean warship in March has shattered the mood and heightened tensions between the two nations, turning the World Cup into a missed opportunity less than a month before the games start.
Photos and video by Jean H. Lee from North Korea's Masikryong ski resort in Kangwon, Province, taken in January 2014. South Korean skiers are slated to train in North Korea as part of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.