Japan from the inside out


Posted by ampontan on Sunday, September 18, 2011

PEOPLE who think they have to go out of their way to find current events-based political or social satire just don’t know where to look. Alert observers have long understood that actual events and their presentation by witless media jesters contain more real mirth than anything contrived for a mass audience. Why buy a ticket or sit through commercials to consume the humor of expensive gag writers? Pay attention and the comedy comes to you.

And here comes example number one from USA Today Travel:

North Korea’s first cruise ship set sail last week with 130 or so passengers, most of them Chinese tour operators and foreign journalists traveling on a junket, an attempt by the poverty-stricken pariah state to woo visitors – and foreign currency.

See what I mean?

“A lot of people like going to obscure places. And this is the most obscure part of a very obscure country in tourism terms — the least visited part of the least visited country,” Simon Cockerell head of the Koryo Group, a Beijing-based tour operator specializing in North Korea, told AFP.

I’m willing to bet cash money that the intrepid travelers flush enough to make this trip to Obscuria and fork over their foreign currency to the Kim Family Regime are the same sort of people — if not the same people and their children — who insisted on economic sanctions of the South African government a generation ago to prevent them from getting their hands on foreign currency. And I’d wheel a quinella that they’ll use the experience of their vacation cruise as material for an arch monologue at the dinner party they’ll throw when they get back home.

The newly refurbished, yet reportedly rusty, 39-year-old Man Gyong Bong, a former ferry, made the 21-hour cruise from the coastal city of Rason to the resort area of Mount Kumgang.

To get the joke, you have to know that the Man Gyong Bong is the same ship that once cruised between North Korea and Niigata, Japan, until the Japanese prohibited its entry as a navis non grata. But now it’s been refurbished, or “repurposed” as an article in the Huffington Post amusingly had it.

Understatement makes for the most elegant of satire:

The mountain resort opened in 1998 with financing from South Korea and the prospect of thawing the freeze that has existed between the two Koreas since 1953. A series of problems – including the shooting death of a South Korean tourist in 2008 by a North Korean guard – didn’t help business. Then last month, the North Koreans seized the resort’s assets. Now they’re actively seeking Chinese visitors, London’s Daily Mail reports.

Dumb and Dumberer must be one of the Western films in the Dear Leader’s personal library. The North Koreans had an excellent source of foreign currency through a resort at a tourist destination that the South Koreans paid for because many South Koreans were willing to pay to visit. But killing a tourist and nationalizing the facility is not the sort of hospitable welcome that will attract well-to-do Chinese and Americans with money to burn for trips to obscure locations.

Americans comprise a tiny segment of foreign visitors to North Korea, whose tourist scene isn’t exactly robust. But 2012, the 100th anniversary of the birth of “Eternal President” Kim Il Sung (which could spark some spectacular public spectacles) could be an opportune time to visit.

One wonders whether USA Today Travel would have thought the Rally of Victory during the fifth Nazi Party Congress in Nuremburg — recorded for posterity by Leni Riefenstahl — was another spectacular spectacle that could have been an opportune time to visit.

The English-language edition of the Asahi Shimbun was just as entertaining. Their humor starts with the dateline:


Though the USA Today sensibly stuck with Mt. Kumgang, the Asahi retained the – san suffix, which means “mountain”. In other words, the Asahi journalist is filing a report from Mt. Kumgang Mountain. It’s even funnier when you realize that the same construction is used in Japanese for Japanese mountains. The patient explanations of the redundancy by the Japanese over the past few decades have resulted in smoother usage everywhere but in a Japanese newspaper.

The ship, the Man Gyong Bong, used to ply a route from North Korea to Japan, but Tokyo banned port visits to protest North Korean missile tests in 2006.

To which should be added the Japanese suspicion that Japanese-born Korean nationals with ties to the North were using it to transport hard Japanese currency. And let’s not forget that a former North Korean engineer testified before the U.S. Congress that the vessel was also used to ship missile parts.

Some stories are so good they’re worth repeating.

North Korea, which desperately needs foreign currency, is hoping to woo Chinese to the Mount Kumgangsan resort to fill the void left by South Korean visitors after a woman tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier in 2008.

And the result:

The disappearance of South Korean tourists is believed to have dealt a serious blow to the North Korean economy. South Korean sources estimate that North Korea gained at least $480 million (37 billion yen) from the inflow of South Korean tourists.

Pyeongyang has regrouped by formulating a business plan:

North Korean authorities hope to attract 100,000 Chinese tourists a year.

Here’s how they’ve executed that plan:

(F)acilities on the Man Gyong Bong are pretty primitive. The wash basin did not work most of the time.

Orange-colored lifesaving equipment was manufactured in August 1988, according to descriptions written in Japanese.

It took 27 hours from Mount Kumgangsan to Rason, seven hours longer than scheduled, because of strong winds, according to a sailor.

How long will it be before they decide to speed up the voyage by employing the enormous labor pool at local concentration camps as galley slaves?

The ship was repainted just a week ago and finished trial operations the day before we went out.

Unfortunately, the Asahi reporter didn’t mention whether the entire ship has been painted this time. When it sporadically sailed to Japan, there were reports in the Japanese media that only half of the Man Gyong Bong had been painted — that half of the ship facing the shore when docked.

The North Korean authorities seem to like that half-and-half concept. Here’s the painted side of the resort:

Mount Kumgangsan was almost deserted the day we visited. A bathing resort on a stretch of a white sand beach was desolate, duty-free and other stores were closed, and a beautifully tended golf course was empty.

And the unpainted side of the resort:

Barbed wire lined the roads, and soldiers kept guard. Many districts had signs that they are managed by the military, and there were warnings of land mines.

No wonder the golf course was empty. What duffer would risk life, limb, and his favorite mashie niblick after his drive sliced off the fairway?

A Chinese media representative said, “North Korea has made more progress in opening up its economy to foreigners than before.”

Yes, they haven’t gunned down any tourists for three years now.

Eavesdropping on the arguments between the Joseon neighbors is always entertaining:

Kim Guang Yun, a senior North Korean government official in charge of the Mount Kumgangsan international tourist zone, was scathing of South Korea’s decision to suspend tours to the mountain resort.

“It is the South Korean government that suspended the Mount Kumgangsan tourism for three years for political purposes and broke the long-term contract (to develop the area),” Kim told the participants of the observation tour. “I want you to clearly understand this point.”


According to South Korean officials, North Korea gave 50-year exclusive rights to the Hyundai group and agreed to solve disputes through negotiations and protect investors’ assets. But North Korea announced last year that it would confiscate the assets held by the South Korean government. It also deprived the Hyundai group of exclusive rights this year. Sources said South Korean companies, including Hyundai Asan, invested a total of $320 million in the Mount Kumgangsan area.

Meanwhile, the South Koreans display their own considerable talent for farce:

The South Korean government is considering bringing the case to an international organization to settle the dispute.

When another country steals their steals their property and kills their citizens, they’re hot to trot to an international organization for dispute resolution. When they stole Takeshima from Japan and killed some Japanese citizens during the heist, and the Japanese suggested dispute resolution by an international organization, they just got hot.

Taking the comedy to another dimension is a YouTube video of a report on the cruise. If the scenes of the sink, the staterooms, and the on-board entertainment don’t have you boiling tea in your navel, the narration surely will. The author was shooting for the pose of ironic snark that passes for wit and repartee in some circles these days, but he missed so badly it’s turned into two minutes of verbal pratfall.

And speaking of verbal pratfalls, wait’ll you hear the narrator’s pronunciation of “karaoke”.

Really, this story has more laughs per minute than The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, with the bonus of not having to watch the host mug shamelessly for the camera or playing pretend on different levels.

Finally, if the people in charge of this enterprise are thinking of hiring Western entertainers for the Man Gyong Bong cruises, here’s the perfect match. The combination of performer, performance, and audience are funnier by accident than the previous video tries to be on purpose, and Kim II’s heir apparent Kim Jong-Un could mingle with the other candidates for metabolic syndrome and feel right at home

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2 Responses to “Cruisin’”

  1. username required said

    This is not a luxury ferry but I thought it was an interesting comparison. Just some domestic ferries plying the Seto Sea to Kyushu etc. Try full screen, headphones and wait for the ending. It was made by a Belgian.

  2. toadold said

    It does get hysterical sometimes but with the current administration in the US I’m closer to crying more often than laughing.
    “Congress should pass these free trade agreements.” “Uhmm, Mr. President, they can’t do that until you sign them and return them to Congress.”
    “The North Koreans are not starving, it is just a scam to get more aid.” “Satellite photos show “death camps that North Korea claims don’t exists.” “Defecting North Koreans show signs of long term malnutrition, that cause stunted growth and mental abilities, and cause difficulty in adapting to fast paced South Korean economy.”

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