“Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” by Barbara Demick


Between The Interview debacle and Margaret Cho’s controversial impersonation of a North Korean general at the Golden Globes, North Korea has been a popular topic in the media as of late. However, as LA Times correspondent Barbara Demick reminds readers in her book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, the North Korean people are suffering, starving and dying every day regardless of whether North Korea is trending in the American media news cycle or not.  In the book, Demick interviews six North Korean defectors all from the city of Chongjin. Unlike Pyongyang, the city of Chongjin is an industrial mining town off the eastern Coast, and one of the hardest hit by the 1996-99 famine.

Throughout the book, Demick helps tell the incredibly human life stories of these six ordinary people without any sentimentality or gloss. They think, they observe, they love, they grow hungry, they escape, and they don’t forget what they’ve seen and experienced during their time in North Korea. Some of these defectors, still haunted by their past, even have trouble adjusting to life in South Korea years after their escape. Demick commits to telling these stories with sobering realism and refuses to sensationalize their stories for easy digestion. As Demick said herself in a Reddit AMA, “the outlandish stories take away from the real tragedy– which is that millions of North Koreans perish slowly, painfully as a result of chronic malnutrition.”

Details: Paperback, $9, amazon.com





Margaret Cho Responds to Accusations of Racism For Her Golden Globes Sketch


With all the controversy surrounding The Interview and the cyberattack on Sony, we can’t say we didn’t expect at least a few North Korea jokes from Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, the hosts of last night’s Golden Globes. However, no one seems to have been prepared for the skit from Margaret Cho– one which has been a topic of controversy since it aired.

It goes without saying that Margaret Cho was a prominent figure at the Golden Globes this year. While this would normally call for a celebration (there’s hardly ever any Asian American representation at this event at all), this actually left some viewers uncomfortable. After all, Cho did not appear on stage as herself. Instead, she was “Cho Young Ja,” a North Korean army general and journalist.

With an over-powdered face and an exaggerated accent, Cho Young Ja commented on the Golden Globes by saying, “You no have thousand baby playing guitar at the same time. You no have people holding up many card to make one big picture. You no have Dennis Rodman.”

Of course that wasn’t all. The general also commented on Netflix’s Orange in the New Black (“It’s funny, but not ha-ha funny… Also, Piper and Alex’s relationship is very toxic”) and even demanded a picture with Meryl Streep.


As you can imagine, this appearance was met with a storm of mixed reviews. On one hand, there were more than a few viewers who believed her skit was blatantly racist.

“First of all, let’s just call Margaret Cho’s long, dwindling joke at the Golden Globes last night what it was: yellowface,” writes  on Vulture. “Hollywood needed a punching bag after the Sony hack and ensuing debacle with The Interview, and Cho willingly suited up.”

Others took to twitter to share their dislike.



However, as the aftermath continued, there seemed to be a change of course. More and more viewers stood up to defend Cho and her skit.



It was only a matter of time before Margaret Cho chimed in on the controversy by speaking to Buzzfeed:

I’m of North and South Korean descent, and I do impressions of my family and my work all the time, and this is just another example of that. I am from this culture. I am from this tribe. And so I’m able to comment on it.

When we have British people playing American icons, there’s no backlash. But for Asian-Americans, it’s a very particular set of expectations that we are set to maintain, and that in itself is racist.

I think that we’re being held down by that incredible tide of invisibility that we’re constantly fighting. Whenever there is visibility, it’s shocking. Whenever there is visibility on our terms, it’s shocking. That’s why any visibility is so highly scrutinized. I’m so used to it that it doesn’t alarm me, it doesn’t bother me.


I welcome the controversy. And I don’t care.



Feature Photo Courtesy of latimes.com

Must-Read of the Week: “Without You, There Is No Us” by Suki Kim


Through a strange turn of events, Korean American journalist Suki Kim finds herself invited to join 30 other Westerners to teach English at North Korea’s Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, an exclusive school for 270 sons of North Korea’s elite. During the six months she is there in 2011, Kim takes meticulous notes, saving the documents only on a USB stick and keeping it on her person at all times. The result is the memoir Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, chronicling her interactions with her students, the iron grip of her “minders,” and the constant fear of being watched, of being reported, of saying or doing something wrong.

At times, Kim feels love and compassion for the young men in her charge; at other times, she’s terrified that they are spying on her. She can’t decide if they really believe the things they do (that the Korean language is so superior it is spoken in every country, that their Juche Tower is the tallest in the world) or if they just say they do for fear of retribution. They know of Bill Gates, but they don’t know about the Internet. They play basketball and are familiar with the NBA, but they’ve never heard of skiing. It’s a fascinating — and sad — glimpse into the most isolated country in the world.


Details: Hardcover, available October 14, $24, crownpublishing.com.


Instagrams from North Korea

Associated Press reporters David Guttenfelder and Jean Lee have been posting photos and videos from inside North Korea on their Instagram feeds. This is the first time anyone has posted on Instagram from North Korea, and the immediacy of their updates lends a new perspective to our understanding of the secretive nation.

Earlier this year, North Korea began allowing foreigners access to its mobile Internet service, Koryolink. While foreign visitors can use the pricey 3G service to tweet and upload photos, North Korean citizens are restricted to voice calls.

Guttenfelder writes, “On Jan. 18, 2013, foreigners were allowed for the first time to bring mobile phones into North Korea. And this week the local service provider, Koryolink, is allowing foreigners to access the Internet on a data capable 3G connection on our mobile phones. In the past I could post geolocated phone photos to my Instagram feed by turning my online laptop into a hotspot to link my iPhone or iPod touch by wifi. But, today I’m posting this directly from my phone while riding in the back of a van in #Pyongyang. The window on to North Korea has opened another crack. Meanwhile, for Koreans here who will not have access to the same service, the window remains shut.”

Many of the shots capture rehearsals of the Arirang Mass Games as North Korea prepares for the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the July 27 armistice that ended the Korean War. But there are also glimpses of daily life and commercial offerings in addition to images of propaganda.

Top image: “Korean War veterans enter a cemetery for their deceased fellow war veterans in #Pyongyang.”

A view of Pyongyang from Guttenfelder’s hotel.

“The yet to be completed 105-story pyramid shaped Ryugyong Hotel can be seen from about anywhere you stand in Pyongyang. The North Koreans started building it around 1987.”


“DPRK in B&W. North Korean farmers tend fields near #Kaesong.”


“North Korean veterans of the Korean War gather together in a stadium in #pyongyang before a mass ‘dance party’.”


“Inside the new Korean War museum on #Pyongyang, tiny models in a glass case depict U.S. Army Major General William F. Dean, the highest ranking American captured during the Korean War.”

guttenfeldernk4“A North Korean communal farm seen from the air.”


 “North Koreans in a passing car this morning in #Pyongyang.”


“#NKorean schoolgirls sneaking a moment from a political ceremony to share a laugh. Their haircuts and school uniforms remind me of what my mother wore as a schoolgirl in Seoul in the late 1950s. Last month,#Pyongyang, #DPRK.”

Check out the reporters’ feeds for more footage as it comes.