Tag Archives: North Korea

A One and a Two

‘A One and A Two': One Part Love Story, One Part Reflection on a Divided Korea


When graduate film student Sungho Ahn came across a news article about a North Korean student studying in the U.S. a few years ago, the sheer thought of someone from the North being on an American campus took him aback. Of course, as someone pursuing his masters in film at USC, he then let his imagination take over. A series of questions danced around in his head: What if I met someone here, and she was North Korean? What if we fell in love? Could we find a way to be together, even though I am from South Korea and she is from the North?

Such questions eventually led to the making of A One And A Two, a short film he directed, starring Korean American actor Tim Jo and South Korean actress Hyunkyung Ryu.

A One and A Two, in the words of the director, is “one part love story, and the other, a reflection on the split between the two Koreas.” He added, ”I thought I could kill two birds with one stone.”

In the film, Jo (who starred in the former ABC sitcom The Neighbors) plays Sang-yup, a Korean American student at an American university, who meets and falls hard for fellow student Geum-song (played by Ryu of the Korean films The Servant, My Wife is a Gangster 2). But their blooming romance is put to the test once he finds out she’s from North Korea.

timjoTim Jo

Ahn believes his modern-day Romeo and Juliet-inspired tale takes a different approach than Hollywood or the South Korean film industry in how it treats North/South Korean subject matter. “In South Korea, they’re too political or in the spy genre,” Ahn said. “In America, they have always treated the country as evil or in a comedic way, and the [North Korean] people are commonly portrayed as poor, skinny and bedraggled.”

ryuHyunkyung Ryu

As a result, audiences may find the portrayal in A One and A Two quite surprising, as Ryu’s character, Geum-song, hails from an elite North Korean family that is wealthy and well-educated. Ahn said that while doing research for the film, he discovered that many children from elite North Korean families have studied abroad during their college years.

But the filmmaker, who formerly worked at a documentary film company in Korea before coming to the U.S., also noted that the research aspect proved the most challenging, as it was difficult gleaning first-hand accounts from North Korean students about their experiences studying abroad.

“I tried to meet North Korean students here, but they kept avoiding me. They were scared to talk about North Korea,” Ahn said. “There was a guy  [Yi Han-yong] from Kim Jong-il’s family who defected to the South. He decided to reveal his identity and went on television talking about his past. A few months later, he was mysteriously assassinated.”

According to Ahn, the film is meant to be more than just a simple love story. He hopes audience members will reflect on the deeper thematic message. “First, the focus should be on the couple and their sad love, but when the film is over, I would like the audience to look at the bigger picture and think about this divided country,” Ahn said. “Korea is the only country in the world to be still split into two. It’s devastating.

“When the film’s over, I want the audience to think about the two characters’ ending. About what happens to them, and what that means,” he added.

Jo said he appreciated the opportunity to star in the film because he finally had the chance to portray a character that reflected his real-life background as a Korean American. “As actors, oftentimes, we’re inserted into other people’s stories. We explore characters that are part of a larger story,” Jo said. “But if, and when, we’re given the opportunity to tell our own stories, to shine a light on the experiences of our culture, I’m so proud of that. I think we’re extremely qualified.”

The short is in post-production and is expected to be completed by late December 2014. It will be playing the festival circuit after that, with plans to expand it into a full-length feature film, said Ahn.

For more information on the film, including how to support the project with a donation, visit www.oneandtwofilm.com.

Photo of Tim Jo via Zimbio
Photo of Hyunkyung Ryu via Koreandrama

North Korea Ice Bucket

ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Reaches North Korea


By now, it’s nearly impossible to not have seen or heard of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge—that is, unless you reside in North Korea.  The viral campaign has now reached one of the most reclusive countries in the world, thanks to Pras Michel, a founding member of the Fugees, who took his challenge in North Korea’s capital on Sunday.

For his challenge, Pras had two buckets of ice water doused on him by his friends at a pier along Pyongyang’s Taedong River. Passerby on foot and boat were seen caught by surprise and laughing.

The two-time Grammy-winning rapper said he thought that Pyongyang would be the perfect place to perform the popular charity challenge since it is unknown in the country.

“I thought I’d put a little twist to it,” Pras told The Associated Press. “When we go to places, my crew, we stick out. You can tell instantly these guys aren’t from this neck of the woods. But the people have been good to us.”

He added that he passed the challenge to four others including his former bandmate Lauryn Hill and Prince Harry.

Pras flew into Pyongyang on Saturday to watch an international pro wrestling match and “explore.” He stated that he is currently working on several projects including a documentary about Haiti’s presidential election that is set to come out by the end of the year.

Over 3 million people around the world has participated in the challenge, raising more than $100 million for ALS research. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that can result in paralysis and death.

Photo via The Associated Press.

north korea daum map

Daum Launches Detailed Maps of North Korea


On Friday, Daum launched a map service that covers North Korea’s entire territory, becoming the first South Korean Internet portal to offer public access to North Korea’s geographical information.

The map service shows all nine North Korean provinces and includes its administrative districts and their names as well as locations of mountains, roads, landmark buildings, and railroads. Users can now access the map for free through their personal computers and smartphones, both in satellite and electronic view, according to Daum.

daum map of nkoreaDowntown area of Pyongyang, as shown on Daum Maps on August 30.

The National Geographic Information Institute (NGII) had created the map on a scale of one to 25,000 and 50,000. Previously, they had only provided the information to state agencies that dealt with North Korean affairs until the Ministry of National Defense, Ministry of Unification, and the National Intelligence Service all agreed to opening the map to the public in March.

Since the geographic data was compiled between 2007 and 2009, the map is dated and the image resolution is not as sharp as Google Maps. However, Daum stated that its map depicts the most accurate and current information of North Korea.

“The date is a lot older than Google’s,” said Kim Chang Woo, a NGII researcher. “But the map covers all areas of the North while Google only provides a few big cities like Pyongyang and Sinuiju.”

While Daum updates their maps every year and has more current information with higher quality, the company has decided to only provide older maps of North Korea for national security reasons, reports Korea Joongang Daily.


Japanese Wrestler-Turned-Politician To Host Pro-Wrestling Event In NKorea


Hoping to “ease tensions” between North Korea and Japan, wrestler-turned-politician Antonio Inoki is organizing an international pro-wrestling tournament at the end of the month in Pyongyang, reports The Washington Post.

The most notable participant is American pro-wrestler and former mixed martial artist Bob Sapp, who’s popular in South Korea for fighting Choi Hong-man in 2005. At least 21 fighters around the world will head to Pyongyang for the event, including Eric Hammer, Bobby Lashley and wrestlers from Japan, Brazil, France, China and the Netherlands, according to Inoki.

“Sports events bring people together,” Inoki, a 71-year-old who achieved fame by fighting the likes of Muhammad Ali and Hulk Hogan, told The Post. “That’s what I’ve been saying for a long time. This is sports entertainment. Olympic Games are a competition between countries, but here spectators can freely choose which star to cheer for and unite as one.”

The 6-foot-3 Inoki is now a lawmaker in Japan’s upper house, but still wears his trademark red scarf from his wrestling days. He added that the event, which will incorporate techniques of Korea’s taekwondo and Japan’s aikido as well as pro-wrestling, will help ease the strained relations between North Korea and the rest of the world.

Inoki’s relationship with North Korea began in 1995 when he hosted a tournament in there that was also meant to smooth relations between countries. He was inspired by his mentor and the late Korean Japanese pro-wrestler Rikidozan, better known among Koreans as Yeokdosan. His trip next week will be his 30th visit to Pyongyang.

As a politician, Inoki boasts a track record of using sports to promote peace and humanitarian efforts. In 1990, he paid several visits to Iraq when over 100 Japanese citizens were abducted by Saddam Hussein’s regime to be used as shields during the Persian Gulf War, said The Post article. He hosted a wrestling-centered “peace festival” in Baghdad at the time, and that effort, along with the Japanese government’s negotiations with Iraq, eventually led to the release of the Japanese hostages a few days later.

The geopolitical relations between North Korea and Japan have been contentious, to say the least. While North Korea stands at odds with Japan’s reluctance to admit to its wartime atrocities, it didn’t help its own cause by abducting at least 17 Japanese citizens during the 1970s and ’80s to coerce them into teaching the Japanese language and culture to train North Korean spies.

fall6Fight between Antonio Inoki and Hulk Hogan on the cover of a wrestling magazine

Pope Francis waves to Catholic worshippers as he arrives to lead a mass at Gwanghwamun square in central Seoul

Pope Francis Wraps Visit to SKorea With Message of Reconciliation


While it was the images of Pope Francis riding around in a Kia Soul that went viral last week when he first arrived in South Korea, it was his calls for forgiveness and reconciliation that resonated on Monday before he left the country.

“Let us pray, then, for the emergence of new opportunities and dialogue, encounter and the resolution of differences, for continued generosity in providing humanitarian assistance to those in need, and for an ever greater recognition that all Koreans are brothers and sisters, members of one family, one people,” he said during a Mass in Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul.

Pope Francis 2

“Peter asks the Lord: ‘If my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ To which the Lord replies: ‘Not seven times, I tell you, but 70 times seven,'” he continued. “Unless we are prepared to do this, how can we honestly pray for peace and reconciliation?”

The New York Times reported that after the pope’s appeal, the South Korean government issued a statement asking North Korea to accept a proposal from last week to restart high-level dialogue. In perhaps a more conciliatory tone, Seoul said that if North Korea were to “behave responsibly,” it would be ready to “discuss any subject,” which includes the possible easing of economic sanctions imposed after the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean warship, in 2010. The South blamed the North for shooting a torpedo that sunk the warship, a charge the North has denied.

The high-level talks could also include restarting reunions for Korean relatives who were separated during the Korean War. When the governments met in February, the plan was to schedule one around the Chuseok holiday on Sept. 8, but those plans have so far fallen through, following the way of the talks.

The South Korean Catholic Church had invited a North Korean delegation to the pope’s Mass, but the North rejected the offer.

The pope also met with seven of the 55 surviving “comfort women” on Monday. The women, who were invited to sit in the front row during the Mass, presented a painting by a former sex slave who died in 2004 to Pope Francis. Titled “A Flower That Did Not Blossom,” the painting shows a Korean girl in a traditional hanbok among pink flowers.

Pope Francis 1Pope Francis meets seven comfort women, now in their 80s and 90s, at the Monday Mass.


Pope Francis kisses a child upon arriving for Mass at Gwanghwamun square in Seoul. Reuters / Korea Pool / Yonhap

Prior to Monday, Pope Francis partook in a number of events that began last Thursday. He led a Mass to beatify Paul Yun Ji-chung and 123 other Korean Catholics who were killed by Korean rulers through the 18th and 19th centuries, when Catholicism was spreading rapidly and seen as a threat to the Confucianism-based society.

The pope also met dozens of sick and disabled people in a rehabilitation center in Eumseong, along with the grieving family members of those killed in the April Sewol ferry disaster, according to Yonhap News. He baptized a father of a victim at the Vatican Embassy in Seoul, when the man approached him with an impromptu request.

South Korean Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung presented two gifts to the pope after Monday’s Mass: a crown made with a part of a barbed wire fence in the inter-Korean border, and a statue of St. Mary, the symbol of the Cathedral of Pyongyang Diocese. As he left South Korea later that day, Pope Francis imparted one more blessing as his plane left for Rome:

“I invoke divine blessing upon you all as I renew my prayer for peace and well-being on the Korean peninsula,” he said, according to an air traffic controller.

Photos via Reuters/Korea Pool/Yonhap and European Pressphoto Agency


China Executes 2 SKoreans for Drug Trafficking Crimes


Demonstrating its absolute, zero-tolerance policy for drug crimes, Chinese authorities this week executed two South Korean men convicted of trafficking drugs from North Korea.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry confirmed that the two citizens—a 53-year-old surnamed Kim and a 45-year-old surnamed Baek—were executed on Aug. 6, after being sentenced to death this past March by the Intermediate People’s Court in Baishan City, in Jilin Province, reported the Korean news site, The Hankyoreh.

Their crimes date back to 2011, when Kim was reportedly caught smuggling 14.8 kilograms of the methamphetamine, philopon, into China. Authorities said Baek purchased 12.3 kilograms of it.

Jilin Province, located in the northeastern part of China and sharing a border with North Korea, is notorious for drug trading between the two countries.

South Korean authorities apparently tried to appeal to the Chinese government to stop the executions, but to no avail. “The government provided all consular support starting from when the two men were caught,” said South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Noh Kwang-il, according to The Hankyoreh report. “After they were sentenced to death, the government also made requests at various levels to have the death penalty waived on humanitarian grounds.”

The executions were consistent with China’s harsh policy on drug offenders. Citizens from England, Japan and the Philippines have also been executed for drug offenses in the last five years, according to The Hankyoreh.

Another South Korean, arrested in the Shandong district in eastern China for drug smuggling in 2009, is currently awaiting execution, according to the International Business Times.


Exhibition Shows Off the ‘Tomorrowland’ Visions of a NKorean Architect


Whenever a movie set in the future premieres, it’s always interesting to what the director envisions society will look like decades or centuries from today. In such films, the future almost always is either littered with death and destruction (Terminator Salvation or Rise of the Planet of the Apes) or saturated with stunning neo-modern skyscrapers and superstructures (Cloud Atlas or The Fifth Element).

Hollywood’s take on futuristic architecture has been on display for quite a while, but for the first time ever, people now get the chance to see how a North Korean architect envisions buildings of the future. Currently on exhibition at the Venice Architecture Biennale in Italy is “Commissions for Utopia,” which depicts futuristic buildings designed by one of the country’s brightest young architects—someone who Wired reported has little exposure to modern architecture:

In the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, “architect” is a government job. There are no private projects, and young North Korean architects come out of school with only a faint understanding of the field as it exists outside their deeply isolated country. Recently, however, one young architect was given a rare chance at an outside commission by a client named Nick Bonner.

Bonner, a British filmmaker and founder of Koryo Tours, a travel company responsible for more than half of all the foreign tourists who visit the country, commissioned the architect to produce illustrations of futuristic tourist destinations for the world’s most isolated country. Bonner is convinced North Korea is bound to become a popular travel spot. According to Reuters, Koryo Tours has experienced “a tenfold rise in business in the past decade” and an estimated 6,000 Westerners travel every year from 700 a decade ago.

Wired magazine said the speculative drawings “could pass as concept art for the Tomorrowland section of Disney’s theme parks.” Here’s a sampling of the unnamed architect’s futuristic renderings:

img_4464-2Sustainability was a key theme for the artwork, and this self-sustaining silk cooperative receives energy from solar panels, wind turbines and watermills. The buildings are reminiscent of a “Korean hand wheel, which is used for weaving.” The randomly interspersed helicopter pads, cable lifts and the infusion of nature show why this location might be a pleasant destination for “workers of the countryside.”


img_4411-2Nature surrounds this “aerial hotel,” which emphasizes open space for customers—that is, as long as they’re not afraid of heights. The uniquely cone-shaped gliding mechanical object on the top left appears to be a futuristic helicopter.


img_4416-2One of the things that Seoul is known for is its sheer number of apartments that crowd the city. Well, in this image, North Korea seems to have solved the overcrowded atmosphere created by blocky apartments by constructing immense conifer-shaped buildings interconnected by cone-shaped tubes, which are apparently ski runs. Self-sustainability once again is evidenced by the solar panels, and interestingly enough, helicopters make another appearance on top of the apartments.


Forget the old RV trucks, travel in style inside you very own flying house, lifted into the air by a single propeller.


What appears at first to be a broken Rubik’s cube is a riverside guesthouse called “The Bird’s Nest.” The house is made up mostly of the surrounding woods and looks as if each pillar or section is its own bird nest. The horizontal pillars symbolize the connection of the house to its surroundings, and so a harmonic relationship between modernity and nature is once again established.

Illustrations via Koryo Tours


North Korea Says It Allows Religious Freedom, Lambasts U.S. for ‘Hypocrisy’


North Korea staunchly denied the veracity of a U.S. State Department report that criticized the isolated country for its “absolute prohibition of religious organizations” and “harsh punishments for any unauthorized religious activities.”

Though the U.S. report assessing international religious freedom is more than a year old, the North’s state-run news agency just this week launched into a tirade against the U.S. for its “hypocrisy” and insisted that North Korean citizens enjoy constitutional rights to practice religion freely.

The U.S. Department’s International Religious Freedom Report, released in April of 2013, didn’t mince words about what it characterized as North Korea’s oppressive restrictions on religious activities, alleging that citizens affiliated with missionaries are severely punished and even executed.

But in response, North Korea’s government on Tuesday went as far as uploading a video to its state-controlled YouTube channel Uriminzokkiri that profiled the newly renovated Chilgol Church, which Pyongyang claims allows Christians to freely worship. A minister surnamed Baek says in the video, “Many Christians come from South Korea and overseas to come to Chilgol Church. We have become a church that does good deeds for the reconciliation and unification between both Koreas.”

North Korea goes on to state how America has acted as a deterrent to religious freedom because its military bombed over 1,900 churches during the Korean War. It also accused the U.S. of fabricating such allegations in an attempt to damage North Korea’s reputation.

“Innumerable are the crimes committed by the U.S. in violation of religions in different parts of the world,” KCNA, North Korea’s state news agency, reported. “Former U.S. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and other reactionary ruling quarters of the U.S. worked with blood-shot eyes to crack down on Islam and bring down the social systems in Islamic countries under the pretext of ‘war on terror,’ not content with describing Islam as fascism.”

In the same broadcast, the North pledged to severely punish those committing “crimes against the law of the DPRK under the mask of religion.”

This statement seemed to apply to recent cases involving foreign missionaries like Kenneth Bae and John Short, who have been detained in the North for attempting to proselytize within the country. Short, an Australian, was released in March, but Bae, a Korean American Christian missionary from Washington state, is serving a 15-year sentence of hard labor after being convicted of allegedly planning to “bring down the government” through religious activities. He has been detained there for two years.

While North Korea’s constitution apparently guarantees religious freedom, Ji Min Kang, a North Korean escapee and contributor to the U.S.-based website NK News, said it’s quite another story in reality. “The basic principles of North Korean socialism are strongly opposed to and incompatible with religious beliefs,” he wrote in an article for NK News.

Kang goes on to state that while the presence of internationally prevalent religions like Islam and Christianity is very limited, folk religion and fortune telling are ingrained into their culture. Despite limited effort through propaganda to discourage fortune-telling activities, they are still very popular and even rumored to have drawn North Korean leaders also to participate.

Kang concludes, however, that although shamanism and folk religion may be prevalent in North Korea’s society, the one religion that citizens are obligated to follow is the ideology of the nation’s founder, Kim Il-Sung.

Photo of Chilgol Church in North Korea, via NK News.