North Korean monuments under the African sun

Interview | Tycho van der Hoog on the shady world behind the façade of remarkable structures

The Heroes’ Acre in Windhoek, Namibia: the statue of the unknown soldier strongly resembles Namibia’s first president Sam Nujoma

A surreal discovery: North Korea built monuments all over Southern Africa. When Tycho van der Hoog (25), researcher at the African Studies Centre Leiden, encountered a Stalinist-looking building in the center of Namibia’s capital city Windhoek, he could not believe his eyes. What is the story behind these structures? And what can these monuments tell us about North Korean ties to the African continent?

“I was in Namibia to conduct fieldwork for my research on the history of beer brewing in southern Africa. On my first day in the country, I strolled through the capital city Windhoek. To my surprise, I bumped into a colossal, coffee-pot shaped building with a metres high, bronze North Korea-style statue of former Namibian president Sam Nujoma.”

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Tycho van der Hoog

From locals, Van der Hoog learnt that North Koreans constructed this building. “The combination of a sunny, African country and North Korean totalitarian architecture felt like a brain error. From that moment on, I was completely under the spell of that strange structure.”

Van der Hoog decided to dedicate his Master thesis to the existence of Northern Korean monuments in Southern Africa. “I started digging and quickly stumbled upon fascinating discoveries: who would expect to find Kim Il Sung’s speeches translated into African languages in Namibian archives?” 

AK-47

“Many of the monuments I visited, are not frequently visited by tourists or locals. Take the “National Heroes Acre” in Zimbabwe for example – located ten kilometres from the capital city Harare, built to commemorate Zimbabwean guerrillas who fought in the liberation war. A gigantic cemetery, with a grandstand with a capacity of 5000 people and shaped like two AK-47’s – the prime weapon used in the liberation war.

Overview of the National Heroes' Acre in Harare, Zimbabwe. Seen from the top, the monument resembles two AK-47's. The famous gun is also portrayed on the national coat of arms
The National Heroes Acre in Zimbabwe. Seen from above, the site resembles two AK-47 rifles.

Liberation movements

“These monuments however, do serve a purpose. If you want to grasp the story behind these structures, you need to understand the history of independence struggles in southern Africa. Most of these monuments are built to commemorate independence struggles and portray scenes of glorious battle fields against former colonisers and oppressors. In doing so, the monuments legitimize the power of the current political leaders of these countries.”

“From the 1960s onwards, many independence movements in Africa were supported by North Korea through political assistance, weapons supply and training. The leadership of many African liberation movements were invited to North Korea for magnificent tours through Pyongyang and were received as statesmen in waiting. From the moment countries such as Namibia, Angola, Mozambique and Zambia became independent from its colonisers, these independence movements were transformed into political parties. Many of these parties continue to rule today.”

“To put it quite bluntly, many African leaders could not care less about UN sanctions”

“North Korea too is ruled by a former liberation movement. Kim Il Sung, the alleged founder of the DPRK, fought against the Japanese as a guerrilla. To strengthen the personality cult of Kim Il Sung, the North Koreans became experts in designing propaganda art that depicts the independence struggle against Japanese colonial rule.”

“By asking the help of the North Koreans in constructing nationalist monuments, palaces, cemeteries and museums, African countries use North Korean imagery to say: ‘we are the ones who freed this country, therefore we have the right to govern it.’”

More obscure are North Korea’s motives for building monuments in Africa. Van der Hoog: “I suspect the prime reason to be money. If we want to understand why North Korea, despite all the sanctions, is able to survive in a hostile international environment, we cannot ignore the role of African countries. To put it quite bluntly, many African leaders could not care less about UN sanctions.”

Het standbeeld van de Onbekende Soldaat in de Heroes' Acre in Windhoek. Het standbeeld vertoont grote gelijkenissen met de eerste president van Namibië, Sam Nujoma.
The Heroes’ Acre in Windhoek, Namibia.

Tip of the iceberg

“The National Independence Museum in Windhoek was built in 2014, in the midst of UN sanctions against North Korea. It sure seems as if North Korea is in cahoots with Southern African countries to evade sanctions. Are the United Nations being tricked? To obtain a comprehensive image of the scale of North Korea’s ties to Africa, much more research is needed. But that is easier said than done.”

Van der Hoog was denied access to certain archives. “If you ask too many questions, the government gets nervous. Not so strange, considering that research by the United Nations has revealed that the same company that constructs the North Korean monuments in Namibia, “Mansudae Overseas Projects”, serves as front company for North Korea’s biggest weapons trade company, KOMID. The monuments are just the tip of the iceberg of North Korean activities in Africa.”

“I do not reveal any of my informants’ identities in my thesis. It could harm them gravely”

Here, Van der Hoog enters a shadowy world, not free from dangers for the scholar. In 2016, two Japanese journalists in Namibia were arrested, questioned for hours and their gear confiscated. The journalists revealed a story on a North Korean ammunition factory. They were deported the same day.

Those who enter the world of sanction evasion and international arms trade needs to be careful. “An experience like this could also happen to me. It is clear that the monuments are a façade for shady business. This is why I do not reveal any of my informants’ identities in my thesis. It could harm them gravely.”

Elements of the Heroes' Acre in Zimbabwe, including the statues of the Unknown Soldiers and the basilisk
The National Heroes’ Acre in Zimbabwe constructed by Mansudae Overseas Projects.

“For my prospected PhD research, I am in the process of finding funding to dive deeper into the world of the North Korean monuments. Which deals go on behind the façade of North Korean art in Africa? And how can we be serious about sanctioning North Korea for their nuclear programme, while turning a blind eye to the – often illicit – trade with African countries? Many questions remain unanswered.”

Tycho van der Hoog’s thesis “North Korean monuments in southern Africa: Legitimizing party rule through the National Heroes’ Acres in Zimbabwe and Namibia”

An updated version of this thesis will be published as a book by the African Studies Centre Leiden in 2019.

Black masks and burning flags

Homophobia turns violent at Incheon’s first ever queer parade

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View from the “safe zone”. Behind the police await 1000 raging anti-LGBT protestors. Picture by Lee Kyu Yong.

Incheon/Amsterdam – On september 8, the first ever Queer Culture Festival in Incheon was violently obstructed by anti-LGBT protesters. 300 festival visitors were surrounded by some 1000 opponents of the queer festival. For nine hours, the festival visitors were stuck between police lines without access to water, food or toilets. The severity and the scale of the violence painfully lays bare a side of South Korea that few are aware of.

“From the moment we got off the train we realized: this is different from other times.” For Kyu Yong Lee (21), it was not the first time to attend a queer festival, but he has never been as afraid as on that day in Incheon. “Christians screamed we would go to hell and spat on us. We could not even access the festival grounds”. Many others had similar experiences. Woohyeon Baek (19) visited the Queer Culture Festival together with his friends. “It was my third time going to a queer festival. I went there to hand out flyers on asexuality and meet new people.” Baek managed to reach the square the queer parade was scheduled to take place, but was soon surrounded by a raging mob of anti-LGBT protesters. “I spent more than eight hours in pure fear. The police formed a circle around us. Behind the police were the protestors. We could not leave, not even to visit the restroom or buy a bottle of water at a convenience store.”

Constitution

But why is there such a strong resistance towards the LGBT community in South Korea? According to Maaike de Vries, Korea expert at Leiden University, South Korea is a sexually conservative society where LGBT emancipation is still in its infancy. “In South Korea, gender stereotypes are deeply-rooted: patriarchal systems still often determine women’s status and power, single-sex education is common practice and a two-year military service is mandatory only for males. Queer festivals like the one in Incheon pressure the classical male-female model.”

And although homosexuality is not illegal in South Korea, same-sex marriage is prohibited. De Vries: “Within the South Korean armed forces sexual acts with the same sex is punishable with one year in prison. What might even be more problematic, is that South Korea is one of the few OECD countries where prohibition of discrimination is not included in the constitution.”

Men with black masks

For Lee and Baek, the riots started by the homophobes came as a crushing blow to the cast. In South Korea, it is common that queer festivals face protest by the Christian community. However, the extreme response of the anti-LGBT protestors at the Incheon queer festival shows a new level of unprecedented violence. Lee: “I saw a man in a wheelchair being beaten. A protestor tried to rip our clothes and set them on fire. At first, I was worried. Then, my worries quickly changed into sheer panic. I thought I could die.”

Meanwhile, the police took a passive stance. “They pushed the protesters away, filmed the faces of the attackers with cameras on sticks, but arrested nobody”, Lee confirms. On top of that, Baek shares another grim experience: “many of us saw young men wearing black face masks, you know, the ones people wear when there is much pollutions in the air. They were the most aggressive of all. I think they were gangsters, hired by the Christians to fight the police”.

After the Queer Festival, Baek has sought psychological help to deal with the trauma caused by the events that unfolded on that day. “I don’t sleep well anymore. I now suffer from panic attacks.” Yet, he is determined to keep on visiting queer festivals: “there are so many prejudices about queers. When the Korean press writes about us, they say we hand out penis-shaped candy to kids. Some newspapers claim homosexuality causes cancer.

We organize these queer festivals to inform the public and fight against this prejudice nonsense” Lee agrees, “At home, I cannot talk about my bisexuality. When I meet my friends at the queer festival, our rainbow flags are burned. I don’t want to live in a world where the LGBT community can only meet on internet. I just want everyone to know we are normal.”

Despite of the resistance by homophobe groups, the Incheon Queer Culture Festival organization proceeded with the queer parade, be it five hours later than planned. But until the last minute, the festival visitors faced discrimination and humiliation: “when the parade finally came to an end, the homophobes told us they would allow us to walk back to the train station, but only if we would fold our rainbow flags. The police asked us to adhere their demands. Many rainbow flags were burnt that day.”

 

“FAKE REFUGEES OUT”, a photo report of the July 7 anti-refugee demonstration at Gwanghwamun, Seoul.

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Many parents brought their children

Seoul – While the sun sets over Gyeongbokgung palace, an angry mob shouts “fake refugees out!” About 1500 people have gathered at a demonstration organized by an online organization called “refugees out”. The target of protest are 500 Yemeni refugees who arrived at Jeju Island earlier this month. The diverse demographics of the crowd surprised me: among the protesters were many students, families, elderly, young couples.

The most eye-catching demonstrators were four men dressed in super hero costumes. A Korean journalist told me that they are famous netizens with a large share of followers among right winged internet users. The presence of these netizen-protestors reminds us that the Refugees Out Movement has its roots online. At online forums such as “refugee out”, demonstrations and petitions are spread among thousands of members. (https://cafe.naver.com/refugeeout/). On these blogs, headings such as “RAPEFUGEES NOT WELCOME” show that the online rhetoric is even more extreme today’s demonstrator’s chants.

 

Among the speakers at the protest, there was a man who reportedly lived in Saudi Arabia, and vividly described “the oppressed lifestyle caused by Islam law that will definitely come to Korea if we allow refugees to settle”. Also, there was a girl from Jeju island who held an emotional speech about how refugees will rape Korean women and steal jobs from Koreans in the near future. While she burst out into tears, the crow started chanting “Uri nara!” (Our nation!) and “Kungmin mŏnjŏ!” (Korean citizens first!). Other speakers screamed that refugees will distort the harmonious South Korean nation and bring unwanted cultures to South Korea.

 

Anonymous

Like many of protesters, almost all speakers wore face masks or sunglasses in order to remain anonymous. I couldn’t help but feel some frustration towards their attempts to hide their identity. When protesting in public for a cause you strongly believe in, hiding your identity seems cowardly. Or perhaps even the protesters themselves did not feel completely comfortable with their message.

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A young man sings a K-pop song
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This student holds a sign saying “deport fake refugees, abolish the refugee law”

The atmosphere became especially awkward when two Muslim families provokingly walked past the stage, not saying a word while simply pushing their stroller along the crowd while kindly waving at the people. I expected the aggressive chants to increase, but instead, people looked away uncomfortably while being confronted with the silent protest of the Muslim family.

Clashing ideologies

While the anti-refugee demonstration came to an end, youngsters with rainbow flags painted on their cheeks walked down from Seoul’s City Hall plaza. Today, tens of thousands of people celebrated the Gay Pride Parade in the biggest LGBT-event ever held in South Korea.

The extreme anger at the anti-refugee demonstration on the one hand, and the euphoric joy of the Gay Pride on the other, created a bizarre atmosphere in downtown Seoul tonight. At City Hall plaza, people held banners advocating a Korean society that is more inclusive to minorities. Some hundred meters away, anti-refugee protesters screamed xenophobic chants.

And so, the sweltering heat of South Korea’s summer set the stage for clashing ideologies co-existing within one square kilometer of each other. A wave of increasing liberalism on the one hand, and revived internet-based conservatism on the other, all hit South Korea at the same time. In the coming years, South Korea awaits the extremely complex task of finding a place for all opinions in society. But for now, it seems that the 500 Yemeni refugees are caught in the crossfire.

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“Peace between the South and the North, Seoul is also with you.”

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After president Trump and Chairman Kim signed the Joint Statement earlier this week, there is tension in the air. Today, I walked past Seoul’s city hall and encountered this gigantic poster covering almost the full side of the building. The text on the poster reads: “Peace between the South and the North, Seoul is also with you.” In my view, a clear piece of propaganda representing South Korean president Moon Jae-in’s North Korea policy. South Korean president Moon Jae-in has never made a secret out of wanting to achieve unification of the two Korea’s: he wants to leave a legacy, and this poster clearly shows his hopeful wish for peace between North and South Korea.

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Moon Jae-in’s North Korea policy. (Source: Ministry of Unification)

Beside of the strategic location, right in the historic heart of Seoul, it is not surprising that this poster hangs on the city hall. In Seoul’s city council, Moon’s Democratic Party has the majority, making it possible to spread Moon’s message in this prominent way. This is important to address, because other than this poster might suggest, not everyone supports Moon’s friendly North Korea policy.

The main opposition Liberty Korea Party for example, regards Moon’s policy as naive and a thread to national safety, and they are not alone in that. In fact, every South Korean I speak to seems to have a different view on the current rapid developments regarding North Korea. Skepticism, ecstatic joy,  complete indifference, modest hope, confusion, all reactions are equally represented. When watching the Dutch and American news however, the opinions on the United States-North Korea Joint Statement are simply centered around two camps: the skeptics, who regard the Joint Statement as a hollow propaganda show, and the optimists, who see the recent developments as the beginning of a bright future.

Personally, I do not think any expert can make a prediction on how the future will turn out. Some months ago, Trump threatened North Korea with a possible preemptive attack. Now, we see two leaders shaking hands and promising peace. For now, the promise seems hollow, as the statement did not contain any details. Moreover, it does not mention a word about biggest tragedy of our time: the suffering of the North Korean people. However, I must admit that I cannot help but feel that it is special to be in South Korea at this point in history.

#몰카: Hidden Cameras Stir Up South Korea’s Gender Debate

“Did they photograph us, you think?” -“I don’t know… but if I so, I hope I’m smiling!” – two guys joke around while the police fences off an area around a toilet in the K-building at the Sogang campus.  Someone hid a secret camera in the man’s restroom and posted photos on the Korean extreme feminist blog “Womad”. Sogang was not the only university that fell victim to hidden camera’s on male toilets. Cameras were also hidden at Korea University and Sungkyunkwan University, causing the hastag #몰카 (abbreviation for hidden camera) to go viral.

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Facebook post by the Sogang Student Council, informing students about the hidden camera on the male restroom

Earlier that week, a related incident shook up the nation. A male nude model was secretly photographed during a painting class at Hongik University. Likewise, the photo was posted on the Womad blog. Quickly the police identified a female student who was taken into custody. The case caused wide-spread uproar, as the male model reportedly became depressed after being ridiculed by Womad netizens for having small genitalia and being ugly. Soon, an online petition appeared, asking for the punishment of the female student, which was signed 18,000 times in only a few hours.


However, a large demonstration last week put the incident in a different light. On Saturday, 12,000 women gathered at Hyehwa station to protest against spy-cam pornography. According to the protestors, the quick arrest of the female student shows a double standard in police handling of such cases. In 2016, 80% of the sexual harassment cases were filed by women, but little of them were ever solved. (Source: The Korea Herald)

The current situation should be seen in the light of the recent #MeToo movement, which had an immense impact on South-Korea, causing film directors, politicians and singers to explain their sexual misconducts in public. Often, the version of Confucianism at the base of the Chosŏn state (1392-1897), Korea’s longest ruling dynasty, is seen as the cause for current gender inequality and #MeToo related cases. For centuries, South-Korea’s society has been shaped greatly by politicized and (deliberately) misinterpreted Confucianism, which placed the male at the center of the family and political power through lineage policy and emphasizing the woman’s role to be a mother and wife.

It takes time for an institutionalized patriarchy to break down, but the #MeToo movement accelerated the process. However, we are now at a state where South-Korea’s deeply embedded gender inequality on the one hand, and radical feminism on the other, has created a toxic debate full of extremes. The recent feminism-turned-man-hating has merely caused for division within South-Korean society, turning public restrooms, universities and weblogs into heated battlegrounds. Hopefully, the #MeToo momentum in South-Korea will not be lost in reckless emotional discourse, but rather form the seed for paradigm change in gender politics in South-Korea, setting an example to the world.

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“Womad”, a blog and forum associated with the recent hidden camera incidents

https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2018/05/356_248651.html

http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20180520000165

From Nijmegen to Seoul

From Nijmegen to Seoul

Ever since I was young, I’ve been fascinated by big cities. Coming from Nijmegen, a university town with a population of only 170.000, I always dreamed about living in a huge metropolis. But now I live in Seoul, it actually feels quite intimidating from time to time. The scale of everything is just unbelievable: the buildings, the subway system, the amount of people, it’s really mind-blowing. But what surprised me more, are the small worlds within the big city. Everyday, I can see the same people, standing at the same spot: the traffic controller in front of the primary school, the girl working at the convenience store, the late-night street vendor who sells snacks to drunk students and salary men. They are the constant factor in my busy university neighborhood where everyone is constantly moving from A to B. To see these people day-in-day-out, and to notice them recognizing me makes the city feel less anonymous. But moreover, it made me realize that Seoul is like an onion: each time you peal the skin off, another layer appears. – I didn’t not come up with this comparison, but I’ve often heard Koreans use this expression to say that there is more on the surface than meets the eye. – and this absolutely applies to Seoul. If you pay attention, you can see the tiny patterns in the bigger whole, get to know the individuals and discover hidden places.

I’ve been living in Seoul since February, but I kept on feeling the need to write down my thoughts on living in South Korea, both to share my experiences with you guys, and to force myself to take some distance from the situations I encounter and put them in perspective. Also, I will use this blog to post my academic essays on Korean society, culture and history. But for now, I will leave it at this short introduction and just post some pics of my life here! In case you have any questions or requests, feel free to leave a comment. Cheers – Ifang

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The view from my classroom floor at Sogang University. Every day I attend 4 hours of language class. The classes are really intense, but for the first time since I started learning Korean, it feels like the hard work is paying of. Last week, I realized that in most daily life situations the Korean sentences just roll out of my mouth. Before, I would first formulate the sentence correctly and translate it in my mind before actually speaking, which really prevented me from talking freely. Often, learning a Language that is so different from your mother tongue is very frustrating, because the progress seems so small in comparison to the hours you put in. So this moment was a quite the milestone for me.
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One of my goals here is to emerge myself in Korean culture and society as much as I can. So, I decided to join FC Eins, one of the Sogang soccer teams. All my team members are Korean, so it still feels a bit awkward from time to time as most of the guys are uncomfortable speaking English, and my Korean is not fluent enough to really understand everything. But attending the after-practice drinking events seems to be the way to break the ice!
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My tiny “one-room” / 원룸. Yes, that thing under my bed is my desk.
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Sogang University. In the building on the right I attend classes on Confucianism twice a week.
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Sogang main gate
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Sogang University
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Although in the middle of Seoul, the Sogang campus is really green and quiet.
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Sogang Library
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The street I live in. Although it is right in between Ehwa Women’s University Station and Sinchon, this old neighborhood is shut off from the noisy city by some high-rise apartment buildings. It kind of feels like a village actually.