Passport

How I Smuggled 'Porn' Out of North Korea

On Wednesday, the occasionally reliable South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported that a dozen performers, including Kim Jong Un's ex-girlfriend, were executed for making sex tapes, some of which "have apparently gone on sale in China," violating North Korean laws against pornography. The story has been picked up by Fox News and the Telegraph, among others, though it's impossible to judge its veracity. Still, this seems as good a time as any to tell the story of how I smuggled pornography out of Pyongyang.

On a trip to North Korea in September 2011, my tour group stopped in the city of Kaesong near the South Korean border. One of the few North Korean cities open to U.S. tourists, Kaesong is perched near the Demilitarized Zone, the heavily fortified, 160 mile-long border separating the two Koreas. Tourism in North Korea involves minders shuttling you between Kim family monuments, punctuated by pre-arranged restaurant meals and, occasionally, opportunities to shop. Right around the time we were allowed to photograph a rock memorializing Kim Il Sung's last known calligraphy, our guides took us to a little stand. And in one of the few places selling goods to foreigners, amid bitter ginseng candies and wooden backscratchers and berry liquors, I purchased a silkscreen that, to my untrained eye, looked a lot like topless women bathing by a lake.

Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, tells me the silkscreen, pictured above, is a reproduction of a well-known painting by 18th century Korean artist Sin Yun Bok, called "A Scenery on Dano Day." For North Koreans, "this will have a soft porno appeal," he says.

This probably wouldn't be remarkable anywhere else, but North Korea is one of the world's most conservative countries. It was shocking when Kim Jong Un appeared on television in July 2012 with (unlicensed) Disney characters, but more because the video also included women in strapless dresses -- bare shoulders in public are practically unheard of in Pyongyang, outside of a gymnastics outfit. In The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, defector Chol-hwan Kang gushes about his first experience with erotic film in South Korea. "One night seemed too short a time to make up for a lifetime of North Korean prudishness," he wrote in his 2000 memoir. "We had entered a fairyland. We couldn't believe our eyes."

Obviously, porn exists in North Korea. Former CIA official Henry Crumpton, in his 2012 book The Art of Intelligencewrote "I've never met a North Korean diplomat who did not want porn, either for personal use or resale." And in 2009, South Korean media released a video, allegedly for internal North Korean use, featuring scantily clad women dancing to pop tunes.

As I was leaving the country, a border guard at the Pyongyang Airport, perhaps suspecting I was a journalist, gruffly and methodically searched through my bag. He unpacked my clothes, ruffled through my books, and peered into my Dopp kit. When he came across the red bag housing my silkscreen, I grew nervous and smiled awkwardly. He unfolded it and stared at the image. If memory serves, I was the last one of my tour group to go through security, and my mind briefly raced through the consequences of spreading illicit materials in the world's most repressive country. He looked up at me, only to flash a delighted grin, gently return the silkscreen to its bag, and wave me through.     

Passport

Assad's 11-Year-Old Son Could Be the Newest Soldier in Syria's Propaganda War

"I just want them to attack sooo much, because I want them to make this huge mistake of beginning something that they don't know the end of it."

Those just may be the words of Bashar al-Assad's 11-year-old son, Hafez. A Facebook account claiming to belong to Hafez posted a rambling, defiant message about what appears to be an imminent U.S. strike on Syria. The Syrian president has three children -- Hafez, Zein, and Karim -- of which Hafez is the oldest.

First, some serious caveats are in order. It is impossible to confirm with any certainty that Hafez wrote these words. There is nothing official about the Facebook page -- and indeed, the owner of the account claims to be a soccer player for FC Barcelona and to have graduated from the University of Oxford. But such fantasies would, of course, not be out of place on the Facebook page of any 11-year-old.

Meanwhile, the clues suggesting that the Facebook account is real are hard to fake. Hafez's post appears to be "liked" by the children and grandchildren of the top figures of the regime: The son and daughter of Assef Shawkat, the former deputy minister of defense, approved of the message. Sally and Ali Khierbek -- members of the powerful Alawite Khierbek family, headed by Deputy Vice President for Security Mohammad Nasif Khierbek -- also liked the post. The picture used by the account also appears to be a professional photograph used by the Assad family. Finally, the biography on the account claims that its user went to a Montessori school in Damascus -- a fact that coincides with what we know about Hafez from Vogue's 2011 profile of first lady Asma al-Assad.

As might be expected of an 11-year-old in an extremely politically charged environment, the post represents a faithful accounting of the Assad family's perspective on its struggle against both domestic insurgents and the United States.

"12 hours we waited [for the military strike]…. 48 hours they said, we're waiting," the post begins, before launching into a denunciation of the U.S. military. "America doesn't have soldiers, what it has is some cowards with new technology who claim themselves liberators."

The post acknowledges that the U.S. Army may be superior to the Syrian military, but that the determination of Syria's armed forces give them a leg up over foreign invaders. "[M]aybe they will destroy the army, but they will never destroy these remnants and little bits of resistance, it's who we are, we were born to fight and resist, we will fight them everywhere until they get out."

The post ends with a promise to fight until the last man: If America invades, Hafez writes, "they don't know our land like we do, no one does, victory is ours in the end no matter how much time it takes."

We can't prove this was written by Assad's son -- but at the very least, it was written by someone doing a convincing impersonation of what the family believes.