Obama, Don't Take It Personally, North Korea Just Hates Black People

"In 1965, the Cuban ambassador to the DPRK, a black man, was squiring his wife and some Cuban doctors" around Pyongyang, the scholar of North Korea B.R. Myers wrote in his 2010 book, The Cleanest Race. "Locals surrounded their car, pounding it and shouting racial epithets. Police called to the scene had to beat the mob back with truncheons."

I thought of this anecdote after reading about an anti-Obama rant published on May 2 by the Korean Central News Agency, which contained such quotes as "it would be perfect for Obama to live with a group of monkeys in the world's largest African natural zoo and lick the bread crumbs thrown by spectators." While news agencies run by the North Korean government regularly insult foreign officials, they usually don't use language redolent of Nazi pulp novels. I don't read Korean, but the translated excerpts are the angriest pieces of writing I've seen in a long time.

Myers argued in his book that North Korea is best understood not as a Communist society, but one where race-based nationalism is the state ideology. The country's forced cult of personality has fashioned the Kims into "motherly leaders," who are guardians of the Koreans purity and innocence, and protect them from the danger and contamination of the outside world. This helps explain the regime's longevity -- 64 years and counting. Indeed, racial purity is the only thing that North Korea -- whose population includes so few foreigners that it can plausibly claim to be 100 percent Korean -- does better than everywhere else.

Like in many places around the world, North Korea reserves special vitriol for blacks. After Dennis Rodman and members of the Harlem Globetrotters visited Pyongyang in January, a journalist from the online newspaper Daily NK claimed that a North Korean source told him people were "asking each other, 'where did they find that group of goblins?'"

In a paper on North Korean relations, the researcher Benjamin R. Young cites several examples of the official media's degradation of blacks, including the 1985 anti-American film The Tale of 15 Children. In the movie, Americans capture 15 North Korean children and debate selling them into slavery. The children meet a cartoonishly incompetent African-American slave -- played by a Korean in blackface -- who is too dumb to speak. "The North Koreans understood that African-Americans were second-class citizens in the U.S. but they were also represented as less intelligent (if not subhuman) in North Korean propaganda," Young writes. (North Korea has decent ties with many African nations, but state ideology often doesn't interfere with foreign policy.)

In their 2009 book The Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom, Ralph Hassig and Kongdan Oh relayed the story of a May 2006 meeting between North and South Korean military officers. The southerner offhandedly mentions that rural farmers in South Korea sometimes take foreign brides -- incensing the North Korean officer. "Our nation has always considered its pure lineage to be of great importance," he snapped. "Not even one drop of ink must be allowed to fall into the Han River."

The Han River is a major river flowing between the two Koreas -- and it's hard to think of a more visceral symbol of North Korean racism than its fears of black ink polluting a clear river.


The Dark, Sordid History of the Court That Ousted Thailand’s Prime Minister

Thailand's Constitutional Court may have finally done what months of anti-government demonstrations failed to do -- unseat Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

In a ruling Wednesday, the court ordered Yingluck to step down, finding her guilty of abusing her power by transferring a senior civil servant to a new position in 2011 and freeing up another job for a relative, an accusation she denies. The court also ordered nine cabinet ministers to resign. The remaining members quickly appointed Deputy Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan as interim leader.

The roots of Thailand's political crisis come down to simple math: Thailand's opposition Democratic Party does not have the votes to compete against Yingluck's Pheu Thai party, comprised primarily by rural and lower class voters from the north, at the polls. The Democrats, who led the demonstrations against Yingluck, have not won an election in almost 20 years.

In place of free and fair elections, opposition politicians have leaned on elite bureaucratic institutions -- the courts, the army, the crown -- to maintain their power. These institutions form the backbone of Thailand's traditional political establishment, whose authority is threatened by Yingluck's electoral majority.

For Yingluck's supporters, the ruling represents the latest effort by the opposition to oust the democratically-elected leader by underhanded means. Anti-government demonstrators, comprised primarily of southerners and urban elites, took to the streets in November 2013 in an attempt to unseat Yingluck and have battled the government in the streets for the better part of the last six months. But until now, they have had little success in achieving their goal of removing the Shinawatra family from the Thai political scene.

Few among these institutions have played such an outsized role in the current political crisis as the Constitutional Court. The court, as Dominic J. Nardi, an expert on Southeast Asian politics and a Ph.D candidate at the University of Michigan, writes, "was not necessarily created with the altruistic goal of protecting fundamental rights. Rather, constitutional court justices serve to enforce the policy preferences of the political elites who appointed them -- a sort of ‘insurance policy' against populism or electoral defeat."

Indeed, the ouster of Prime Minister Yingluck is only the latest example of the type of politicized judicial activism that has come to define the bench. The Constitutional Court, established in 1997 as an additional check on Thailand's various government branches, had a mixed record in its early years. It initially took an aggressive tack in combating official corruption, removing a number of politicians in graft probes during the late 1990s. The court actually exonerated Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's brother, in a corruption case after he came to power in 2001 behind the same coalition of rural, lower-class voters who support his sister.

Yet in the mid-2000s the court became increasingly aligned with Thailand's traditional political power brokers. In 2006, after opposition politicians boycotted the vote, the court invalidated the electoral victory of then-Prime Minister Thaksin. Later that year, the army seized control of the government in a bloodless coup. Facing corruption charges, Thaksin left Thailand in self-imposed exile.

Thailand's military leaders established a new Constitutional Tribunal in the wake of their ascension to power. In 2007, the tribunal dissolved Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party, alleging fraud in the 2006 election.

These decisions were only the beginning of a judicial effort to dismantle Thaksin's political machine. In 2008, the court removed Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, a Thaksin ally, because he allegedly accepted payments to be on a cooking show.

High-profile acquittals of leaders of the Democrat Party, the main opponents of the Shinawatra political dynasty, have hardly helped the court's reputation for issuing one-sided rulings. In 2010, the court dropped electoral fraud charges against then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his ruling Democrat Party.

In November 2013, the court ruled against a proposed constitutional amendment that would have changed the structure of the Senate. As currently structured, one half of the legislators in the 150-member body are appointed by judges and civil servants. The measure would have converted the chamber to a fully elected 200-member institution. The opposition Democrat Party petitioned the court to review the bill on the grounds that it gave too much power to Yingluck's Pheu Thai party, which maintains greater popular support.

After the decision, Supot Kaimook, one of the nine judges of the Constitutional Court, claimed the court was concerned about the rights of the minority. "Thailand's democratic system allows the majority to set the standard," he wrote. "But once it uses its power arbitrarily and suppresses the minority without listening to reason, this makes the majority lose its legitimacy."

This system, he asserted, could no longer be called "democratic." "It results in the tyranny of the majority," he said.

The court, it seems, can always be counted on to combat tyranny -- the kind of tyranny that will strip the Bangkok elite of their power, anyway.

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