The Massive Mural That Captures Syria's Surprising Alliance with North Korea

In 1973, to aid in a surprise attack on Israel, North Korea reportedly sent hundreds of troops to Syria. The conflict, which became known as the Yom Kippur War, was an embarrassing defeat for Syria -- Israeli troops made it within dozens of miles of Damascus. Like so many dictatorships, the Syrian government tried to fashion a triumph out of a loss. On the outskirts of Damascus, the October War Panorama museum, a castle-like structure built with the help of North Koreans, memorializes Syria's "victory" over Israel.

If there's anywhere that shares Syria's sense of insecurity right now, it's North Korea, a country that appears to count Syria as one of its closest allies. KCNA, North Korea's official news agency, slathers praise on Syria, and Kim Jong Un recently met with a high-ranking Syrian delegation (to be fair, he also recently met with Dennis Rodman, and looked happier with the former basketball player than with Bashar al-Assad's envoys).

While it's difficult to say how deep their ties run, the two countries are surprisingly suitable partners. Both hate the United States and Israel -- Syria's enmity for its neighbor is well-known; North Korea views Israel as a running dog of the United States and a mortal enemy of its friends Syria and Palestine. (The Syrian nuclear reactor that Israel allegedly destroyed in 2007 was built with help from North Korea.)

North Korea, which over the centuries has been overrun by larger nations like Japan and the United States, views friendly nations able to overwhelm it -- countries like China, Russia, and even Pakistan -- with added suspicion. Syria is more of an equal: Both countries have roughly 20 to 25 million people, and pre-civil war Syria ran a police state nearly as effective as North Korea's. Ominously, the Japanese daily Sankei Shimbun reported that Turkey recently intercepted gas masks en route to Syria from North Korea, according to the Wall Street Journal.  

The bilateral ties extend beyond geopolitics into the realm of culture: what could be called, only semi-facetiously, North Korean soft power. North Korea has exported doctors, construction workers, and artists to Syria and at least half a dozen other countries. It has a surprisingly decent graphic design industry, and fosters a talented group of artists who have created works of social realism for those countries -- often massive paintings showing rosy-cheeked babies, steel mills, and citizens enlivened by their leaders' smile.

Perhaps the best place to observe these links between Syria and North Korea is the October War Panorama museum -- or at least it was when I visited in October 2009, when Syria was a more welcoming tourist destination. (I'm not sure if it's still open, but it was recently in the news after Syrian activists claimed rockets carrying chemical weapons had been fired from the site.) 

The two most memorable parts of the museum are a mural, which shows a majestic Hafez al-Assad flanked by ecstatic Syrians gravitating toward the former Syrian president, and a 360-degree panorama, which could be described as a Stalinist merry-go-round. As I sat on a platform in the middle of the panorama, it began to move, telling through tiny figurines and poorly designed army vehicles the story of Syrians wresting territory from Israeli soldiers circa 1973. 

What makes the mural and the panorama particularly noteworthy is that they are copied from the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang, a creaky building that showcases artifacts from North Korea's "victory" over the United States during the Korean War. In the Pyongyang painting, former North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung replaces Hafez al-Assad, his delighted citizens replace the ecstatic Syrians, and defeated Korean war-era Americans replace dying Israelis. North Korean artists created all the installations, and they look like they're drawn from the same paint-by-number kit.

So why did the Assads choose North Koreans to design their memorial? Maybe national mythologies are difficult to create, and Hafez al-Assad turned to the best in the business. More likely, North Koreans were just the cheapest option. 


With the Olympics Coming to Tokyo, Will Japan Finally Brush Up on Its English?

The news this weekend that Tokyo will once again play host to the Olympics after a nearly five-decade hiatus was greeted with jubilation on the streets of Japan, where many saw the decision as a vote of confidence from the international community and a sign of a long-struggling Japan's "rebirth."

"My heart was pounding before the announcement -- I am so happy," said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Emi Ishii, an office worker in central Tokyo, called the victory "an amazing feeling," while athletes responded to the news with a cry of "banzai!"

It was an occasion to celebrate. But amid all the merriment, some were already pausing to acknowledge at least one realm in which Japan has its work cut out for it over the next seven years.

"English is going to be necessary around town," said one young newscaster on the Tokyo Broadcasting System, according to the New York Times. "Let's start learning English."

Blame it on what some have called an "insular" culture; on teaching methods that emphasize a deep understanding of grammar over practical skills like listening and speaking; on social mores that include a deep aversion to embarrassment -- an inevitability when grappling with the strange sounds and structures of a foreign language.    

Whatever the cause, few dispute the facts: Japanese people, on the whole, can't speak English.

Despite mandatory English lessons for middle and high school students (recently added for primary school students as well), Japanese have a notoriously tough time with the English language. The country was embarrassed last year by a report from ETS, the testing service that administers the TOEFL English-language proficiency test, which showed Japan tied with Tajikistan for the second-lowest average TOEFL scores in Asia. (It was particularly humiliating to be beaten so soundly by North Korea, although, in fairness, it seems like a bad idea to read too much into this: surely the only people taking the TOEFL in North Korea are the country's elites?)

It's an issue that the country's business community has lamented for years, arguing that poor skills in English -- the closest thing the world has to a lingua franca -- make it difficult to expand overseas at a time when Japan has suffered from a shrinking domestic market.

"Japanese study more than 3,000 hours of English," one CEO, Hiroshi Mikitani, who heads the e-commerce company Rakuten, told the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan. "And when you study more than 3,000 hours of English and you cannot speak English, there is a huge issue."

Mikitani went so far as to require English be used throughout Rakuten for internal emails, memos, presentations, and meetings -- a decision the head of Honda called "stupid."

Abe is eyeing changes to Japan's English curriculum as part of his business-friendly, globally oriented reform efforts, and it's possible that the Olympics could help give these plans a shot in the arm: China, for instance, embarked on a push to brush up on English in advance of the 2008 Olympics, offering classes to taxi drivers, policemen, and volunteers, and even including an English word of the day on the evening news. Russia, too, has been studying up in advance of this February's Games in Sochi.

How successful these mass education efforts are at actually improving the level of a country's English overall is pretty questionable, however. As Brendan O'Kane points out here, a few service-oriented phrases aren't likely to stick in people's heads for long once an event is over (I lived in Beijing for a year in 2010, and certainly never met a cab driver who spoke good -- any? -- English, for instance).

Where the Olympics could perhaps make a difference is in convincing Japanese people that investing in English is valuable. Abe has sought to persuade Japan it must be less inward-looking; the national reluctance to learn English is seen by some as a symptom of this larger malaise. Perhaps there's nothing like thousands of foreigners descending on your doorstep to convince you that there's a whole -- often English-speaking -- world out there waiting.