Tag Archives: military
November 1, 2009

School in the DMZ / Yankees in North Korea / Potemkin picnickers

Over the past few weeks there have been several interesting articles about North Korea. The first, “Soldiers, Mines and Sounds of Children Playing” is actually about the South Korean Taesung Elementary School, the only school inside the Korean DMZ.

Kim Han-seul, a fifth-grader, attends a most unusual school. Each morning, his school bus picks him up at a bustling town outside the Demilitarized Zone that separates South and North Korea. It drives through wire fences, tank traps and military checkpoints along a road flanked by minefields.

After a 50-minute drive escorted by a military jeep with a blue United Nations flag, the bus unloads Han-seul and a score of other students at Taesung Elementary, the only school inside the Korean DMZ, a heavily armed no man’s land guarded on both sides by nearly two million troops facing off in an uneasy truce.

The second article is from NPR’s Louisa Lim, who spent five days in North Korea and basically had the exact same itinerary as my tour group. In this article she details the DPRK’s misrepresentation of history at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum and the USS Pueblo and interviews U.S. tourists who were visiting the country while she was there:

For those few American tourists — about 300 so far this year — who visit the Hermit Kingdom, the experience can be discombobulating. The Americans are segregated from other tourists, even at mealtimes, and often feel they are given a hard sell on the evils of American imperialism.

Scott Nguyen from California said the message was clear.

” ‘You evil capitalist swine pig. You screwed us over, and you’re continuing to screw us over. If I had the opportunity, I’d punch you right now.’ That’s really the feeling that I got,” he said, adding that even after leaving North Korea, he was still feeling the effects of the relentless barrage of propaganda.

“In some sense, I have to retrain myself to call it United States of America, and not Imperialist America, because that’s all we heard,” he said.

But Frank Cruise from Detroit, who was in the same tour group, said he hadn’t felt any personal animosity against him.

“Maybe some people were more suspicious than others, but I liked the people very much,” he said.

I dunno, maybe they had different rules in place after our group left, but the part about Americans being segregated from other tourists is false. Yes, there were no non-Americans in our tour group, but that was only because other nationalities are not as restricted as Americans (i.e., you can stay for longer than five days and take the train out of the country rather than fly). All tour groups, American or not, eat breakfast in the same banquet hall, and when we were confined to our hotel for the night we hung out with plenty of non-American tourists.

As for the experience, yeah, it’s quite “discombobulating” as she puts it, but I didn’t personally feel any animosity from the North Koreans we interacted with. Or at least I didn’t get the impression that they wanted to punch me (who knows, maybe they did, but they certainly put a smile on their face while they fantasized about it). Rather, it seemed to me that the long-winded speeches on U.S. Imperialism were basically lines that the guides had memorized and were required to recite at various points throughout the tour. There was no emotion behind the speeches. I was amused when, during our trip to the DMZ, one of our guides actually apologized ahead of time that the North Korean officer would be using the phrase “U.S. Imperialists” several times. The propaganda videos, museums filled with artifacts from wartime exploits that never happened, and anti-U.S. rhetoric never affected me because I knew it just wasn’t true. It was just depressing that the entire populace was being lied to.

The third article “Picnic in North Korea” describes another tourist’s recent trip to North Korea and her suspicion that the picnic of joyous locals was staged:

To get to the beach, you walked a path where a young boy sat painting a picture of the waterfall — it was almost too picturesque. The locals had spread out a feast of kimchi, bulgogi, mounds of fat purple grapes, cold bottles of beer. Soon some of the picnickers were cheerily exhorting us to join them, even picking up food with chopsticks and depositing it straightaway in people’s mouths. Beer was poured; songs were sung. It was the first time I’d seen North Koreans smile wide, toothy grins.

After a while the tour guide sauntered over and reminded us that we weren’t supposed to talk to locals. She didn’t sound convinced of her own words. I suddenly started to see everything anew. Why were the picnickers here in the middle of the workday? Why was their food, those perfect pyramids of fruit, untouched before they pulled us over? Even the boy; I peered at his easel as I walked back and saw he was using a kind of paint-by-numbers kit.

This article was rather timely, as over the past few weeks I’ve had several friends ask me if our “impromptu dance party” with the Pyongyang picnickers was really that impromptu. My gut feeling is that it wasn’t staged (and there were several big differences between my experience and Ms. Lee’s), but truly I just don’t know. I suppose the government could have rounded up hundreds of its citizens, placed them in a park with food and drink, and instructed them to be hospitable to the group of 16 unimportant American tourists who would soon be walking through the park. I certainly wouldn’t put it past the regime. But then again, we’ll never know.

October 14, 2009

North Korea: U.S. Imperialists attempt to retake the USS Pueblo, and fail miserably

If you’ve known me for a while then you’re well aware of my interest in touring US warships. Ever since I can remember, my parents would take me down to San Diego so we could visit whichever ship was open to the public. I’ve been on everything from aircraft carriers to dock landing ships to guided missile cruisers. It’s a good way to see your tax dollars at work and convince impressionable youngsters that the navy life is for them (I will admit that to this day I still think of escaping the cubicle and enrolling in Navy OCS. At least I would live near the ocean, where there might be waves…).

Still, North Korea is probably the last place I would have expected to walk the decks of a U.S. navy ship. Yet, anchored on the bank of the Taedong River in Pyongyang is the USS Pueblo, a still commissioned U.S. naval ship captured by the North Koreans on January 23, 1968. It is the only U.S. naval ship currently held captive by a foreign entity, and the North Koreans are very, very proud of this trophy. They have made the “US ARMED SPY SHIP PUEBLO!” (as they refer to it) into a tourist attraction and gladly show it off to visitors, including U.S. Imperialists such as ourselves. For background information on the USS Pueblo, I highly recommend this website run by the USS Pueblo Veteran’s Association.

This monument marks the location where the General Sherman, a U.S. merchant marine schooner, was destroyed by the Koreans in 1866. The North Koreans claim that one of Kim Il-Sung’s ancestors led the attack on the Sherman. There is, of course, no actual evidence to support this assertion.

The Pueblo

Our tour guides

The North Koreans claimed that the Pueblo was in North Korean waters. The United States denied this, saying the Pueblo was in international waters. Regardless, the North Koreans opened fire on the Pueblo with 57mm guns. You can see some of the resulting damage to the ship in this photo.

The Pueblo was lightly armed, with only two .50 caliber deck guns and small arms. Commander Lloyd Bucher did not give the order to return fire. Instead, the crew began frantically destroying classified material so that it would not fall into North Korean hands. One sailor, Fireman Apprentice Duane Hodges, was killed during the attack on the USS Pueblo. The remaining 82 sailors were captured when the North Koreans boarded the Pueblo. They remained prisoners of the North Koreans for 11 months and endured brutal treatment, including torture and starvation.

You may not know what happened to the men of the Pueblo. The crew cooperated with their captors, appearing in press conferences and public appearances criticizing the US government. On March 4, North Korea gave the US representative of the armistice commission a letter, signed by the entire Pueblo crew, admitting the ship had violated the communist country’s waters and committed “hostile acts.” According to the letter, the crew expressed no anger at their captors, but rather guilt for their own actions.

To understand these confessions, we need to look at North Korean brutality. The North Koreans beat Charles Law for six hours with a hammer handle while a communications technician was struck 250 times with a two-by-four block of wood and left, semi-conscious, in a pool of his blood. The technician confessed to everything, including escape plans from a James Bond movie.

It also must be said that the men did resist with subtle language and hints, indicating that their confessions were not of their free will. Commander Bucher, after being beaten and tortured, signed the confession with a false serial number and date of birth. One letter had at the bottom in tiny Morse code “this is a lie.”

Interior of the Pueblo.

Trying to contact the Pentagon to request air support. No luck.

The “admission of guilt” that the crew was forced to sign.

The Pueblo crew was released on December 23, 1968, eleven months after their capture. This is how the Pueblo’s commanding officers were welcomed home by the U.S. Navy:

Based upon its findings of fact and the formal opinions which it derived from those findings, the Court of Inquiry recommended that Commander Lloyd M. Bucher, U. S. Navy, the Commanding Officer of USS PUEBLO., be brought to trial by General Court-Martial for the following five alleged offenses: permitting his ship to be searched while he had the power to resist; failing to take immediate and aggressive protective measures when his ship was attacked by North Korean forces; complying with the orders of the North Korean forces to follow them into port; negligently failing to complete destruction of classified material aboard USS PUEBLO and permitting such material to fall into the hands of the North Koreans; and negligently failing to ensure, before departure for sea, that his officers and crew were properly organized, stationed, and trained in preparation for emergency destruction of classified material.

Thankfully, Navy Secretary John Chafee ordered that all charges be dismissed.

On the deck

None of us knew how to drive a ship, thus foiling our plans to reclaim the Pueblo.

Near the end of our tour, we were all led down to the ship’s mess hall, where we were shown a video explaining the North Korean version of the Pueblo’s capture. We were actually shown the first 10 minutes of the video several times, as the DVD kept freezing up, forcing one of the embarrassed sailors to scramble for another copy. The video’s distortion of history was quite hilarious, and ended with the line “Death to the U.S. imperialist aggressors, the sworn enemies of the Korean people.” Well then. Following the video, our guide then yelled out, “OK U.S. group, let’s go!” Yeah, thanks. Go ahead and let everyone else on the boat know that we’re a bunch of Yankee imperialist dogs.

North Korea claims that this is an unmanned U.S. submersible they captured in August 2006. The U.S. denies that this is a U.S. sub. Who knows.

More photos here.

May 19, 2009

2009 Joint Service Open House @ Andrews Air Force Base

I still have a ton of Costa Rica photos to upload, but here are a few photos from this past weekend when Liz, Nick, and I went to the Joint Service Open House at Andrews Air Force Base. You basically spend the day checking out all the cool military equipment that your tax money buys and eating junk food like hamburgers and funnel cake. Mmm tanks and funnel cake. What could be more American?



Bunker buster


Cockpit of a DC Air National Guard F-16

The Golden Knights (U.S. Army parachute team)

Liz and I in the Huey


Crazy Red Bull helicopter that did a bunch of tricks



Manning the Mk 19 grenade launcher atop the Stryker. Liz and I had to wait in a line full of seven year-olds for our turn to climb up there. No, seriously, everyone playing in the Stryker was at least 20 years younger than us.

Patriot missile battery


I’m on a boat, I’m on a boat, everybody look at me

USAF Thunderbirds. These guys put on an amazing show.

December 10, 2008

I tend to have the same reaction when forced to listen to Drowning Pool

For many detainees who grew up in Afghanistan — where music was prohibited under Taliban rule — their interrogations by U.S. forces marked their first exposure to the pounding rhythms, played at top volume.

The experience was overwhelming for many. Binyam Mohammed, now a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, said men held with him at the CIA’s “Dark Prison” in Afghanistan wound up screaming and smashing their heads against walls, unable to endure more.

“There was loud music, (Eminem’s) ‘Slim Shady’ and Dr. Dre for 20 days. I heard this nonstop over and over,” he told his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith.

October 21, 2007


National Air and Space Museum

Drove down to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center today. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum doesn’t have enough room at its location on the National Mall, so they built the Udvar-Hazy annex near Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia to display more of their collection. It opened in December 2003, but I hadn’t made it out there until today. Visiting the Udvar-Hazy Center is a must do if you have any interest in aviation, as the collection of aircraft assembled in this giant hangar is truly impressive.

National Air and Space Museum

SR-71 down below

Boeing 707 and Concorde
Boeing 707 and the Concorde

Enola Gay
Recognizer that B-29? It’s the Enola Gay, the bomber that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945.

Enola Gay
Enola Gay
Enola Gay

Space Shuttle Enterprise
Space Shuttle Enterprise
Space Shuttle Enterprise – NASA’s first shuttle, built for atmospheric test flights. It was originally supposed to be named “Constitution”, but a bunch of Star Trek fans waged a letter writing campaign and NASA caved-in to nerd pressure, thereby naming the shuttle “Enterprise” (sorry, I can’t stand Star Trek).

Concorde supersonic airliner. DC to London in 3.5 hours.

This is what computers used to look like…and you couldn’t even play games on them.

SR-71 Blackbird
SR-71 Blackbird

Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer
Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer, the plane Steve Fossett used for his record breaking solo nonstop flight ’round the world.

North Vietnamese propaganda rocket
North Vietnamese propaganda rocket

Korean War MiG-15
MiG-15 used in the Korean War.

Korean War MiG-21

A-6 Intruder. This was one of my favorite planes as a kid, probably because of the movie.

This would probably be the first thing I would purchase after spending time in a Soviet prison, too.

Yokosuka MXY7 Ohka</a> (Cherry Blossom), rocket powered kamikaze aircraft”><br />
<a href=Yokosuka MXY7 Ohka (Cherry Blossom), rocket powered kamikaze aircraft.

Rest of the photos are here.

August 6, 2006

The South Caucasus: Military hardware, art, and too much vodka

Mount Ararat from Yerevan

For our second day in Armenia, we promised Taline and Liz that we would be staying in the city of Yerevan rather than gallivanting around the northern regions of the country. This time, we assured them, we would definitely make it to dinner. Our first sight of the morning was the Cascade, a series of steps built into a hill. At the top of the Cascade is a monument commemorating the 50th anniversary of Armenia’s integration into the Soviet Union. In other words, the Cascade is another typical grandiose and useless Soviet-era construction project. The construction of the Cascade was never actually finished, as the funding dried up after the Soviet Union collapsed. Rather than climbing the 800 steps to the top, Laura and I opted to take the indoor escalators that run along the side of the Cascade. The escalators don’t actually run the entire length of the Cascade, so we did have to hike to the top of the monument. The view of Yerevan that awaited us at the top was totally worth it, though.

Mount Ararat from Yerevan

We got our first glimpse of Mount Ararat, the national symbol of Armenia. There are literally hundreds of products and institutions that are named after this mountain: Ararat wine, Ararat vodka, Ararat cognac, Ararat bank…it’s even on the Armenian coat of arms. In a sad twist of irony, however, Mount Ararat lies not within the borders of Armenia, but those of Turkey. While the citizens of Yerevan may gaze upon Ararat, they may not cross the closed Armenian-Turkish border and travel the mere 20 miles to actually visit it. What a cruel joke has been played on the Armenians, to place their national symbol within the borders of a country responsible for the genocide of 1.5 million of their countrymen.

Mount Ararat is also supposedly where Noah’s Ark landed, if you believe that a 600 year-old man single-handedly rounded up “seven of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, and also seven of every kind of bird, male and female” and put them in a large boat. Personally, I don’t, but that’s just me.

Statue in Yerevan
An odd statue near the top of the Soviet monument

After risking our lives by running across several lanes of traffic, we arrived at Victory Park, an overgrown wooded area with a typical Soviet-era amusement park. While the rusty ferris wheel and roller coaster looked tempting, we chose to visit the “Mother Armenia” statue instead.

Mother Armenia statue

Mother Armenia statue
Mother Armenia looks toward the Turkish border.

This being a Soviet-era monument, there was plenty of military equipment around the plaza.

Armenian artillery
Artillery pointed towards Turkey.

Soviet tank in Yerevan
Soviet tank

Soviet Katyusha
Katyusha rocket launcher

Soviet missile

I had too much fun here.

Inside the Mother Armenia statue there is a small museum dedicated to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The entire museum was in Armenian though, so we could only look at the pictures, dioramas, and military equipment and guess what the labels said.
Our final sight of the day was the National Art Gallery. It was definitely an impressive museum, but my knowledge of art is a bit lacking, so I can’t really describe the place very well (as in the various artists and so forth). Oddly enough, there were artists in various rooms that were painting exact copies of some of the museum’s artwork. And some of them were actually better than the originals.

After the art museum, we met up with Liz, Taline, and Crystal and headed over to a restaurant to meet up with some of their expat friends and enjoy a delicious khoravats meal.

To be honest, I don’t really remember most of it, due to the amount of Russki Standart that I consumed. This was a very, very, bad idea considering we were leaving Yerevan at 8:30am tomorrow to go to Tbilisi. I do remember that the food was incredibly good, though. That’s gotta count for something, eh?

Russki Standart Russian Standard vodka
Best vodka ever

Brian, the toastmaster

Oh God…not another toast.

Uhhh we have to wake up at 8am tomorrow and drive to Tbilisi. Insert obligatory “I’m never going to drink this much again.”

(Next up: Five American girls go on a road trip to Tbilisi. I promise it won’t take me a week to get that post up.)

July 11, 2002

Russia: Military Historical Museum of Artillery, Engineers and Signal Corps in St. Petersburg

The Artillery Museum was definitely my favorite museum in St. Petersburg. Basically, it is a huge building full of cannons and guns. They have other stuff, too, like Napoleon’s uniform.

Sadly, the outside exhibit with all the really cool missile launchers and tanks was closed, but that didn’t stop us from wandering in! Luckily a nice soldier was there to inform us we were not allowed to be there…hey, we’re just stupid Americans, what do we know?

Myself with some type of artillery.

A picture of the courtyard (which was under construction). I only snapped one before the soldier came running after us and told us to leave.

Big guns.

Tanks and missiles.