Tag Archives: Politics

Politics and a Struggling Coal Town

A horse grazes in front of the smoke stacks of a coal refinery in Nueva Rosita, Coahuila.

A horse grazes in front of the smoke stacks of a coal refinery in Nueva Rosita, Coahuila.

Mexican politics is often one giant quagmire of corruption, mistrust, and nepotism, the likes of which are hard to understand for anyone growing up in a country with a stable political climate. The average Mexican has next to no faith in their government, and decades of deception, embezzlement, and greed has done little to change this. And so in true form, the upcoming elections in the summer of 2018 are set to be a contentious and scandal-filled race in which working-class Mexicans will be prodded and coerced to vote for candidates who will likely do very little to help them once in office.

Cristina Auerbach, an activist for miner’s rights, stands for a portrait in front of newly constructed memorial crosses for deceased miners in Nueva Rosita, Coahuila.

A man looks at the monument for the 65 miners who died in the Pasta de Concho mining disaster in front of the Mexico City stock exchange.

As an outsider who is just starting to learn the complexities of Mexico and it’s political system, I am always eager to learn more about the country I now call home. So when Buzzfeed News asked me to travel to Coahuila, a northern state bordering the US, I said yes immediately. I won’t try and explain all the complexities of this story because the journalist Karla Zabludovsky did a better job than I ever could, but it is definitely worth reading.

Set against the backdrop of a failing coal mining town, Nueva Rosita, and a disaster that claimed the lives of 65 miners, this story has all the political intrigue that one might expect from Mexico. Plus I was able to shoot purely stills for this, which after the back pain from carrying video equipment around for the last several years, is a nice change!

Elvira Martinez sits for a portrait inside her father’s home in Palau, Coahuila. Her husband, Jorge Vladimir Muñoz, was killed in the Pasta de Conchos mining disaster that claimed the lives of 65 miners.

Benito Rosales lost two of his brothers, Amado and Juan Manuel Rosales, in the Pasta de Conchos mining disaster that claimed the lives of 65 others.

Two miners are seen silhouetted in the doorway of an abandoned mining structure in Nueva Rosita, Coahuila.

Memorial crosses for the 65 miners who died in the Pasta de Concho mining disaster stand n Nueva Rosita, Coahuila.

You can read the full story here 

Posted in Blog, Central America, Environmental, Mexico Also tagged , , , |

Understanding North Korea – Part 3

The third and final part of my article Understanding North Korea, set to be published in Groove magazine’s July issue, along with a few interviews I’ve done with North Korean defectors. Read Understanding North Korea | Part 1 and Understanding North Korea | Part 2 here.

The Dawning of Awareness

Contrary to common assumptions, modern North Koreans are not completely cut off from the outside world, as the previous generations were. While tunable radios are banned (all radios must, by law, have their tuners fixed to the government stations), cheap Chinese made DVD players are not a rarity. At approximately $30 USD, a DVD player costs a little less than an average North Korean earns in a month. Not cheap, but not overly expensive either – an investment comparable to buying a used car, for example. Certainly not something found in every home, but a realistic purchase for a substantial cross section of society.

Ostensibly permitted so citizens can enjoy biopics of their Dear Leaders, DVD players have given North Koreans the chance to glimpse the outside world through the lens of martial arts films from Hong Kong and South Korean dramas. The cultural impact of the humble DVD is great – Lankov’s colleagues in North Korea have reported that South Korean parts of speech and forms of address are starting to permeate the language.

The political ramifications of such international awareness are obviously undesirable from the regime’s point of view, which has spent decades indoctrinating its people in the evil ways of its Southern neighbor. North Korean propaganda about the South has been so pervasive that many citizens are unable to believe all of what they see in the imported dramas. For them the notion that nearly every South Korean household can afford a car is astonishingly contrary to what they have been told. Just as the North Korean government greatly exaggerates the opulence of its nation, they expect the South Korean government to do the same. But, as Lankov points out, “they do understand there are some things that cannot be faked – the cityscape of Seoul, for example. It is beginning to dawn on them that South Korea is doing well.”

This dawning awareness of South Korea’s modern success can be seen in the changing propaganda methods employed by the Kim administration. While once they asserted that the South was so poor that students had to sell their blood to pay for textbooks, they are reluctantly admitting that South Koreans are not in fact impoverished.

Traditional propaganda campaigns followed the Communist model of portraying North Korea as an industrial powerhouse, glorifying steel mills and smoke stacks while showing South Korea as a place of thatch houses, unpaved roads and sinister looking American soldiers. Now, however, the trend seems to have reversed, with the South depicted as a hellish inferno of pollution and suffocating toxic clouds. Conversely, North Korea is shown to be a pristine natural paradise through posters of political leaders interacting with common citizens in verdant fields and near crystal clear mountain streams. One specific campaign featured a cartoon turtle that was dying in the chemical wastelands of South Korea, and so was forced to flee to the pure waters of the North where he happily splashed for ever after.

Sinister American GIs throw babies down a well

Depicting North Korea as an industrial powerhouse was once a preferred form of propaganda.

As awareness of the outside world's economic successes dawns, North Korean propaganda is shifting to portray the country as naturally pristine.


The Future

Claiming to know the future of North Korea for certain is pure hubris, but based on the current trends, and testimonials from recent defectors, it is possible to speculate with some hope of accuracy. What is clear is that North Korea is changing, and in a typical communist dictatorship change marks the beginning of the end. Unfortunately for the Kim dynasty, the end will be harsh and very likely violent, predicts Lankov.

“I talk with the North Koreans a lot, roughly four or five times per week,” says Lankov, “and what is clear is that people who are now in their 20’s and early 30’s have very different ideas from their parents. They know North Korea is a poor place and they are [relatively] less afraid of the government. They no longer feel the Kim Jong Il method is the only method. While these people are still young, they will soon become the majority.”

Ironically, what is preventing the collapse of the North Korean regime is, in many ways, its enemies. With the possible exception of the US, most outside powers do not want the status quo to change. In a sense, the Kims are unusually lucky dictators.

South Korea, the nation that would seemingly be most eager to end the war, is perhaps the most wary of reuniting. Though lip service is usually paid in favor of reunification, a significant number of youth will admit that while they support the idea in theory, they do not want to deal with the realities – namely the huge cost to South Korean taxpayers. “I definitely support reunification,” says Hwang In Gi, a graduate student in Seoul, “as long as we don’t have to pay for it.”

This may sound like a heartless attitude, but South Koreans have worked exceptionally hard over the last five decades to transform their country into an economic success. For the average taxpayer, the cost of reunification would be substantial. If the United States annexed all of Central America, for example, and then asked American citizens pay for the cost of modernizing and improving the quality of life in the new territories, there would be predictable outrage. Asking South Koreans to pay for reunification is much the same except that in this case, North Korea has been threatening to kill them for the last 70 years.

Though South Koreans might not want to rush into reunification, North Korea will inevitably collapse. Exactly how is a matter of debate, but Lankov suggests several possibilities: An overly zealous police officer could go too far with a physical punishment and spark a violent riot which would spread across the country, forcing Kim Jong Eun and his elites into exile. Perhaps elements of the military that have less of a stake in the regime will decide it is time for a change in the power structure and stage a coup. It is even possible that Kim Jong Eun secretly desires to implement massive reforms and pursue political economic models that he studied while living in Switzerland. Maybe he has a bleeding heart and just wants all his people to be happy. It is impossible to know anything for certain.

But no matter what happens, sooner or later something will; the system is broken and unstable. “I would not be surprised if we learned tomorrow that there are riots [in North Korea],” says Lankov. “But I would be equally unsurprised if in 2027 we are discussing the 25th successful long range nuclear missile test. Being outsiders, we can know only that their system is rotten, but not how seriously. We just can’t know.”

Posted in Blog, North Korea Also tagged , , |

Understanding North Korea – Part 1

Professor Andrei Lankov is the head of Korean studies at Seoul’s Kookmin University. As a citizen of the former Soviet Union, he was able to complete part of his undergraduate studies in Pyongyang as part of an educational exchange. This has given him a unique perspective on North Korea, the country that is arguably the most talked about on the news, while also being the least understood. Also a columnist for the Korea Times, I was lucky enough to hear him speak about the world’s last closed nation while photographing the third week of the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights conference in Seoul.

I decided to split this article into three parts to make it a more comfortable read. Read the second part here

Professor Andrei Lankov i

Professor Andrei Lankov in Sinchon, Seoul

Illogical. Irrational. Unpredictable. These are the kinds of words that are likely to be associated with North Korea and its dictatorial government. The infamous Kim family dynasty has been described as the world’s only remaining communist monarchy and they rule over a malnourished population, commanding an enormous military funded by a broken economy. There are few countries on earth that garner as much international curiosity as North Korea, possibly because so little is understood about it. So how have three generations of Kim males maintained control for so long? Are they as irrational and unpredictable as they may seem? What is the actually happening in North Korea and what does its present reality mean for its future?

“They are the best bunch of Machiavellians in existence,” Andrei Lankov, Professor of Korean studies at Kookmin University, says of North Korean leaders, “They know exactly what they are doing, and they have survived”. Survival, according to Lankov, appears to be the main objective of the current North Korean regime. While 20-30 years ago grand aspirations of a unified Korean peninsula under the control of Pyongyang may have existed, now it would seem that North Korea’s elite are simply trying to ensure that they are able to die comfortably in their beds at an old age. Those in power (an estimated 1-2 million of the countries approximately 25 million citizens) have become accustomed to rule and they have no desire to live out their days in exile – or worse.

One of the more remarkable things about North Korea is the fact that it still exists. Lankov remembers how people in the Soviet Union, as early as the 1980’s, were speculating on how quickly the regime would collapse. The country was economically backwards even then; survival after the death of Kim Il Sung seemed extremely unlikely. It was thought that perhaps Hungary or the former Czechoslovakia would be among the few possible Communist dictatorships able to stand the test of time, but while leaders like Tito and Husák  have long since been deposed and vilified in the passages of history, the Kim family marches on. Though by relative global standards the North Korean elite cannot be considered fabulously rich, living perhaps as luxuriously as a successful Manhattan lawyer, they are certainly comfortable. And they have gotten used to their power.

With the death of his father, Kim Jong Eun now has the precarious job of maintaining his family legacy. While some speculate that his Western education in Switzerland may encourage him to reinvent North Korea following the Chinese example, there are some major obstacles he faces. According to Professor Lankov, there are four foundational principles which the Kim family has used to hold dominion since the 1970’s – No Reforms, Keep the Nukes, Kill the Dissenters (All of Them), and Control the Market.

An inexperienced and untested leader, Kim Jong Eun is heavily influenced by his advisors, many of whom are left over from his grandfather’s administration. “There is no one in the government who could be considered Kim Jong Eun’s drinking buddies. They are relics of the 60’s and 70’s and he has to follow them,” says Lankov. There is no way to know if he likes or hates this situation, but it seems clear that the same policies will continue for the foreseeable future.

No Reforms

There has been speculation that North Korea has been on the cusp of reform since the 1980’s, yet very little has happened. While logic might suggest that the surest way to reinvigorate the dismal North Korean economy would be to institute gradual reforms as China did after the death of Mao, there is one major obstacle standing in the way – South Korea.

In China’s case, there was no “South China” to contend with. The income gap between North Korean and South Korean citizens is estimated to be between 1:15 and 1:40. Even if the most conservative estimate is true, this is still the largest disparity in wealth of any two countries in the world which share a land border. Any reforms initiated by Kim Jong Eun would necessarily open North Korea to the outside world, exposing North Koreans to “mind-blowing pictures of South Korean success. Though South Koreans will admit that there are problems in their [own] society, from a North Korean’s view, it is a very attractive life,” asserts Lankov.

From a dictators perspective, this poses some serious problems. Unlike in China where the population was aware of the successes of the outside world, North Koreans are largely without international awareness. Most Chinese knew that countries like the United States enjoyed very different circumstances than they did, yet they did not blame their government for failing to match American prosperity. North and South Korea, however, were the same country dealing with the same circumstances until the 1960’s. Opening North Korea’s borders after roughly 50 years of isolation would lead to a veritable tidal wave of information flooding the country. Images of South Korean prosperity would reflect poorly on the North Korean regime and place the blame for their dismal situation squarely on their shoulders. North Korean citizens will certainly demand to know why they are malnourished and poor while their neighbours to the South are “rich beyond imagination”.

“Even if [North Koreans] prove to be the best geniuses in the history of economics, it will not be enough. The North Korean people will be impatient, and they will want [improved living standards] now,” says Lankov. There will be a general sentiment that if they unite with South Korea they will immediately be given the same quality of life that the South enjoys. The likely result is an aggressive push to reunify as quickly as possible and the swift deposition of the current North Korean regime. From the perspective of Kim Jong Eun and his advisors, this must be a terrifying prospect.

Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, it was typically the former elites who gained the most. They were experienced, wealthy, politically savvy, and they had connections. They prospered more after the dissolution of the Soviet empire than they ever could have under the communist party apparatus. This will not be the case for the elites of North Korea, who fear a vengeful South Korea.

According to Lankov, the North Koreans know how they would have treated the South Koreans had they won the war, and they have no reason to expect anything different in return. Tyrannical as they may appear to be, the elites love their families like everyone else, which is why they won’t change. They are well aware of the fate of the Gadaffi family in Libya, and they do not want to suffer the same. From their perspective, reforms essentially equal suicide.

“Find me an elite in the world who is happy about surrendering power,” says Lankov. “It is nice for us to talk about reforms while we are enjoying a latte, but for these people it is a life and death matter. Even if their chances of survival are 50%, they are not likely to take the gamble, simply because they love their families. But I put their chances well below 50%.”

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