Syria memories: grieving for a dictator

Syria
The death of North Korea’s Kim Jong-il has led to some very strange television–the Dear Leader lying in state, throngs of North Koreans weeping uncontrollably, even rumors of miracles such as grieving birds.

The images coming out of North Korea led to a discussion with some of my Facebook friends over whether or not the outpouring of grief was genuine or staged. I lean towards staged, since the only news we’re getting is from the state media, which has tried to raise Kim Jong-il and his father Kim Il-sung to the status of demigods. Then again, in the cloistered lives the North Koreans live, perhaps they do feel a sense of loss. Even the BBC discussed the issue and came to the conclusion that we can’t know for sure.

SyriaThe whole thing made me remember my trip to Syria back in 1994. Pictures of Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad and his family were everywhere–in shops, on the streets, in the front rooms of private homes–as you can see in this photo of what looks like a hotel lobby with portraits of Hafez and his son Bashar, courtesy flickr user Bombardier. Bashar now rules Syria (perhaps not for long) but it was his older brother Bassel who was supposed to take over. When I was there it was common to see photos of Bassel and Hafez side by side, and most Syrians assumed he’d rule Syria one day.

In Syria in those days, if you kept your nose clean the authorities generally left you alone. If you stood up against the government, they leveled your city. So Syrians toted the line in public. In private, however, many quietly told me how much they hated the regime. One admitted he’d never say such things to a fellow Syrian for fear that he may be a member of the secret police. In Syria, there are lots of secret police.

Then, on 22 January 1994, Bassel died in a car accident. I’ll never forget the grim military music that played on the state radio and television for several days afterwards, and the constant coverage the state media gave to his life and unexpected death. As soon as the news broke that first day I went out onto the streets of Damascus. Shops were closed and there were far more soldiers and police on the streets than usual. A rally was already forming in one of the main squares.The rally wasn’t very big, just a few dozen young men chanting slogans in support of the regime. There was no counter demonstration. Strangely, the cops seemed to be trying to calm the most vocal supporters. One young man got onto the shoulders of another to be more visible and started loudly chanting the praises of Hafez al-Assad. The cop made him get down and stop. It seemed that any outspoken statement, even one in support of the government, was viewed with suspicion.

The government declared several days of national mourning. All shops were to remain closed. I had befriended a shopkeeper near my hotel, a friendly fellow with good English who changed money at a black market rate for a steady stream of backpackers. Let’s call him Samir. I won’t tell you his real name or occupation for obvious reasons.

Samir lived frugally. I got the impression all that hard currency was going somewhere else. A nest egg? Support for extended family? I never asked. He was like many such people I’ve met in my travels in that he enjoyed talking to foreigners as much as he enjoyed making money off of them. I changed money with him only a few times, but every day we sat sipping sweet Arabic tea and having long conversations about everything except politics. Samir never discussed politics, not even on January 22.

In fact, all Syrians were silent with me on the subject of Bassel’s death. While they didn’t look choked up about it, they didn’t want to risk saying anything about the dead son of the dictator, not even to a foreigner. I saw no evidence of grief, not even at that rally. Those young men in the square only seemed to be doing some very public brown nosing. The rest of the people of Damascus just went about their day-to-day lives and kept quiet.

The days of mourning were declared over and Samir reopened his shop. I was just about to enter for our morning tea when a cop showed up. He told Samir that the mourning period was still on, and demanded to know why the shop was open. Samir cringed and pleaded that the radio said the mourning period was over. The cop told him that was wrong (it turned out they’d extended it at the last minute) and that he better close his store quick. Then the cop left. He could have hauled Samir before a judge, or demanded a bribe to keep him out of jail. Instead he just walked away. Perhaps he wasn’t fond of the al-Assad family either.

It was the least mournful period of national mourning I’ve ever seen.

So are the tears for Kim Jong-il genuine? If Syria is anything to judge by, they aren’t, but Syria and North Korea are two very different cultures and Syrians were never as cut off from the world as the North Koreans. So, as usual with the world’s most isolated country, we once again have to shrug our shoulders and say we don’t know.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Kim Jong-il’s death, besides the political instability, is that the passing that same week of Václav Havel has not received the attention it deserves. Havel was a dissident playwright in Communist Czechoslovakia who refused to stop making his art despite being repeatedly imprisoned by the government. In 1989, Communism fell and he became president, helping to lead his country’s transition to democracy. He did it with no bloodshed and a minimum of ill-will. And then he went back to his writing. Check out this obituary of Václav Havel to learn more about a leader whose death really does deserve tears.

Five American-style North Korean restaurants for foodies

This may not have been the case a few years ago, but Pyongyang is definitely on its way to becoming a culinary destination … well, maybe not. Nonetheless, it is pretty wild that the self-isolating regime has let slip some pretty wild information about the dining options available in the capital. If you can finagle a way into North Korea and somehow get yourself a bit of freedom to move, there are now some interesting restaurants for you to visit.

Swing an eating trip to Pyongyang, and you may find yourself munching on the familiar. There are several western-style restaurants popping up in this strange city, so eating like a local may mean eating like you’re home.

Let’s take a look at five restaurants in Pyongyang and how you could scarf that grub in style:1. Okryu Restaurant: just opened last week, this soon-to-be hot spot garnered a mention by the Korea Central News Agency, which means its launch was intended to be made public. The claim is that this place can accommodate thousands of customers, so live on the edge and skip making a reservation.

2. Samtaesung:
a relatively new addition to the Pyongyang culinary scene, this burger joint is open 24 hours a day and still recommends making reservations to pick up your food. This is a place to see and be seen, especially if you’re tight with the regime: Kim Jong-il‘s sister, Kim Kyong-hui, is said to benefit personally from all the cash spent there.

3. Pizza (no name given): dine on pies with ingredients shipped in from Naples and Rome. The first North Korean pizza parlor is said to have been created at the request of Kim Jong-il himself, so you know the quality is going to be top notch! So, without a name, how can you expect to find the place? Ask where the pizza joint is; it’s not like there are dozens.

4. Beach (outside the city): get outside of Pyongyang, and you still have some options. In Wonsan, at the beach, you can find even more pizza. Just remember to wait at least 20 minutes before jumping back into the waves!

5. Cubby’s: this is the restaurant that never happened in Pyongyang. Originally the dream of a New Jersey BBQ joint owner, plans to expand Cubby’s to Pyongyang were explored. The owner, Bobby Egan, befriended some North Korean diplomats assigned to the United Nations in New York City and even took a few trips over to his buddies’ homeland. Alas, according to his recent book, the plans for a DPRK franchise never came to fruition.

[photo by John Pavelka via Flickr]

Former chef to North Korean dictator dishes on change prospects with Kim Jong-un

It looks like Kim Jong-un will follow in the footsteps of his father, Kim Jong-il. This succession plan, of sorts, will extend the Kim dynasty in North Korea to a third generation, separating the top dog even further from the supposed revolutionary exploits of the country’s first leader, Kim Il-sung.

With new blood, of course, the question of change is inevitable. Under Kim Jong-il, there have been brief, constrained flirtations with some activities that could be described as capitalism, particularly in the depths of the famine that struck the nation. Marketplaces for privately grown or procured goods opened, resulting in a black market in plain sight that was subject only to occasional government intervention.

So, can we look for Kim Jong-un to loosen the family’s (allegedly) merciless grip on the country? One man doesn’t think so.

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Kenji Fujimoto (not his real name) used to be a personal chef to the current dictator, and despite the pseudonym, sunglasses and bandana – all to conceal his appearance and identity, for security reasons – he somehow finds the media when it’s time to comment on his former employer.

Fujimoto told reporters in Seoul last week not to expect too much too soon. The Wall Street Journal does report that there is long-term hope, however:

Kim Jong Eun, the dictator’s third son who’s emerged as his likely successor, will ultimately have to open up the country, above all, to feed people, Mr. Fujimoto said. But the younger Kim won’t be able to do so in the near term because of his fragile standing in the party.

“He will have no choice but to continue policies set by his father at least for several years,” Mr. Fujimoto said. “So it’s not until a decade later when a policy change, if any, would materialize.”

The chef escaped from North Korea in 2001, without being able to take his wife and two children. He has since written four books about his experiences in the DPRK.

Fujimoto watched the next leader grow up, telling the Wall Street Journal, “I’ve seen him since he was seven, and he always took the lead when he played with his brothers, and his strong leadership disposition was clearly visible.”

[photo by yeowatzup via Flickr]

New Pyongyang restaurant opens to rave reviews

Forget Manhattan, Pyongyang seems to be the hottest spot for new restaurant openings. Sure, there seems to be a new dining option popping up in New York City every time you blink … but that’s to be expected! When new options come to North Korea, it’s a bit more noticeable.

Only two weeks ago, word hit the west about a new burger joint in the North Korean capital, called Samtaesung, with links to Kim Jong-il’s younger sister, Kim Kyong-hui. Well, there’s now another hot spot in the city, according to the Korea Central News Agency, the official “news” mouthpiece of the regime.

The KCNA reports that a 6,000 square-meter restaurant, Okryu Restaurant, was just finished. Apparently, it can handle thousands of visitors and “is a catering centre for providing best service to people.” This is a start that would make most capitalist restaurateurs salivate!

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And, as is always the case with the North Korean media, it only gets better:

With the appearance of the elegant, magnificent and exquisite restaurant, a good combination of national, classical and contemporary architectural styles, the area of Okryu Restaurant has turned into a street of catering facilities built in a peculiar Korean architectural style to be proud of.

The opening was celebrated with a ceremony last Friday, and some major people were in attendance: “Jon Ha Chol, vice-premier of the Cabinet, Ryang Man Gil, chairman of the Pyongyang City People’s Committee, officials concerned, soldier-builders, officials and employees of the restaurant.”

[photo by yeowatzup via Flickr]

Kim Jong-il likely to inspect biggest North Korea military parade in history

Who doesn’t love a parade, right? Well, there’s a big one coming to Pyongyang. A large military parade is in the works, reports Yonhap News Agency, and it’s expected to be “unprecedented” in scale. In fact, it’s likely to be the largest military parade North Korea has held, possibly twice as large as its predecessors.

Troops, armored vehicles, missiles and other hardware have been amassed at Mirim Airbase in North Korea‘s capital since July 12, 2010, and the rehearsals have involved up to 10,000 soldiers. Kim Jong-il, the Dear Leader himself, is said to be on the hook to inspect the parade.

So, what will be on display? Look for movable missile launch pads, which will probably be used to showcase a variety of missiles under the regime’s control. Further details are being kept quiet.

One defector told Yonhap, “Given the scale of the event this time, however, chances are high that it will be arranged by the National Defense Commission and attended by Kim Jong-il.”


[photo by yeowatzup via Flickr]