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North Korea's Dangerous Deceptions

On the latest Global Pulse episode, Korea Family Feud, host Erin Coker reviews world reaction to rising tensions between North and South Korea. Watch the episode below and share your thoughts!

With a simple YouTube search you can find hundreds of North Korean karaoke videos featuring catchy pop tunes. Some show scenes of young couples on dates eating ice cream. Others highlight hydroelectric dams. Oddly, some mix both in the same video. The most popular of these videos is "Pangapsumnida." It displays scenes of naval and air prowess spliced with images of families reuniting under North Korean flags. The bizarre imagery plays out as a sort of Northern fantasy in which Korea is once again reunited -- as a socialist Korea, of course. Watching "Pangapsumnida" is both fascinating and eerie. Who knew a song sponsored by a brutal dictatorship could be so catchy? It's eerie because the video allows the viewer to temporarily forget the horror that is modern North Korea.

That suspension of reality is perhaps North Korea's biggest export. Desperate to sugarcoat the bleak reality of successive famines and international scorn, North Korea's propaganda machine pumps out some of the most elaborate deceptions on earth. Consider for example, the Arirang Mass Games. Imagine an Olympic opening ceremony in which every reference to sport is replaced with odes to the Great Leader and scenes of the industrial and technological wonders possible under socialism. Regardless of the contrived message, Arirang is quite possibly the most spectacular show on earth. It features up to 100,000 gymnasts and performers moving with razor-sharp precision.

North Korea's deception machine doesn't stop at catchy songs and gymnastics routines. It extends all the way to its own Potemkin village, Gijeong-dong. Gijeong-dong is the only urban area in North Korea visible from the South Korean border. It features a small assembly of concrete buildings and the world's largest flagpole. What it apparently does not include are actual residents. Although no one can be entirely sure what happens at Gijeong-dong (commonly called Propaganda Village), many believe the village is actually unlivable and that the buildings are hollow. Electric lights turn on in unison as if by a flip of a switch, and few people walk around during the day.

Luckily, very few outside of North Korea are fooled by the deception. North Korea's belligerent behavior and abysmal human rights record continue to earn it well deserved scorn from around the globe. While it's difficult for a westerner to swallow any of the outlandish propaganda North Korea feeds us, it might amaze us that we too might be influenced by more subtle propaganda every day, whether by advertisements or our own societies. Propaganda can be powerful. Images and sounds stick to the mind easier than words do, regardless of how odious we find the message. If you don't believe me, try watching “Pangapsumnida” a few times. I guarantee you’ll start humming it when you least expect it.



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California's Budget Crisis and Higher Education

On the latest Global Pulse episode, host Erin Coker reviews world coverage of the budget crises in both California and Greece. Watch the episode below and share your thoughts!
Going to the DMV is never a joyful experience. Due to the budget crisis the trip has become even more excruciating. The State of California has closed DMV offices on the first and third Friday of every month in an effort to save money. This means the offices are more crowded on operating days. This also means it takes even longer for the staff to call your magic number. This might not sound like much, but when you’ve been flipping through a tattered three month-old edition of Better Home and Gardens for two hours, it can feel like a lifetime.

Californians are having to learn to get used to these inconveniences. The budget crisis has affected virtually every interaction citizens have with the state. Bus schedules are slower. State employees are getting their salaries cut. And while all Californians are affected to one degree or another, perhaps the most impacted are students of the state's public universities.

When I started attending San Francisco State in 2004, semester student fees for residents was $1,256.00. In the past six years that number has nearly doubled to $2,370.00. The problem isn’t just that students are now paying more for their education, but that they’re getting less in return. Luckily I had finished school by the end of 2008, before most of the effects of the budget cuts had really been felt. However, for many of my friends still studying at SFSU the budget cuts have taken a toll.

Nicole Dixon is a Cell and Molecular Biology major who started work on her degree in 2004. She’s found it impossible to complete her degree within four years due to budget cuts. “I haven’t been able to get the classes I need each semester. When I did get into classes it was because I had to fight my way in and plead with professors to let me crash them.” She’s also noticed that the budget cuts have affected the quality of her education, “We’ve had fewer classes. Professors have to get all the material crammed into a semester with five less instruction days due to furloughs.”

Even the classrooms themselves have been impacted by the budget crisis. “There aren’t enough chairs in classes. Professors won’t print handouts anymore. There aren’t even markers in some classes to write on the whiteboard,” Dixon said. When asked if she would do it all again she remarked, “Knowing that I couldn’t graduate in at least six years seems unacceptable for a four-year degree. I would have rather gone somewhere where I knew I could get my classes. I thought I’d be in dental school by now.” Nicole isn’t alone. Many Californians are beginning to look for education elsewhere, as the public universities in California continue to face budget cuts.

With attendance being capped at many Cal State Universities, many students don’t even have access to the educational opportunity I had only a few years ago. As bad as California’s economy is now, how will California look twenty years down the line when it doesn’t have the same educated workforce that made it such an innovative place to begin with? The deficit is huge and cuts have to be made, but education is an important investment. It’s not only an investment for students who want better jobs, but also for a state that must continue to nurture its human capital.



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For Haiti Earthquake Coverage, Would Less Have Been More?

In the latest Global Pulse Episode, host Erin Coker looks at media coverage of the Haiti earthquake. Watch the episode and share your thoughts below!


Does the excessive coverage of Haiti’s earthquake – not to mention the questionable journalistic and medical ethics involved when doctor/reporters can’t decide whether to operate or do interviews — give the viewer a better understanding of the disaster? Or is it little more than the casting of journalists as action heroes? 

The New Republic’s Chief Editor, Noam Scheiber, in his recent article taking the news establishment to task, wrote that “in Haiti the dozens of redundant dispatches are stressing an already perilously fragile situation.”

In a follow-up interview with Global Pulse featured in this week’s episode, Scheiber says, “More information is great. But if an airport is being taxed with a volume way above its normal capacity and as a result aid workers, doctors and nurses can’t get in, then I think we have gotten to the point where one good—information—is trumping another good—relief workers…to the detriment of the people we are trying to help.”

The solution, Scheiber thinks, is a so-called “disaster pool.” Comprising a limited number of reporters in country, the disaster pool would share information with news outlets in a similar manner that White House correspondents share “pool reports” with the dozens of journalists unable to attend a briefing. You can download an MP3 of the complete Scheiber interview here.

This might preclude scenes like those we used in this episode, of Anderson Cooper and Katie Couric aiding wounded children, but it may give networks more time for in-depth stories that discuss Haiti’s tumultuous history, the roots of its abject poverty and what day-to-day life was like for the average Haitian pre-earthquake.

Journalist Marc Cooper, characterizing the coverage as “myopic” and “disaster porn”, on his blog, wrote, “It's a totally legit news story for CNN or anyone else [to] zoom in on this or that dramatic and heart-rending rescue of one or another victim trapped in rubble. But every one of those stories is also a stark and rather sickening reminder of how the daily pre-earthquake deaths, starvation and deprivation were considered SO non-newsworthy.”

This reminds me of my own trip to Haiti in the fall of 2008, as part of a disaster response team after a series of hurricanes killed hundreds of people and badly damaged the city of Gonaïves. While the storms made headlines, the fallout apparently wasn’t on a large enough scale to warrant widespread news coverage. 

Looking back, what I remember most is the darkness. There is little electricity in Haiti, and the nighttime’s dim storefronts and weak candlelight gave the impression of a city that was a relic of another age.

Will Port-au-Prince once again become a forgotten city? As this article from the Columbia Journalism Review reminds me, there was once, and is likely to be again, only one full-time American journalist in Haiti.



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10 Bright Spots in a Pretty Bad Year

In this week’s special edition of Global Pulse, host Erin Coker reviews 2009 news stories that will matter in 2010. Watch the episode, and share your thoughts, below!


Between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an upsurge in violence in Pakistan, Iran’s political upheaval and the global financial crisis, 2009 has been tumultuous to say the least. Even for someone immersed in global media, it was difficult at times not to hit the cheap (and the not-so-cheap) wine just to get through the daily barrage of bleak news.


Which is why I took it upon myself to drum up 10 of the year’s more positive stories. Some were widely reported, others warranted only a fleeting mention, but all stand out as bright spots on an otherwise challenging year. A good reminder that even in the darkest of times, a silver lining can be found if you look hard enough. I’ll drink to that!

1. A Different Kind of Hotel Rwanda
Following the instability and brutal civil war that plagued the central-African nation in the late-1990s, tourists are returning to the country to marvel at its mountain gorillas and lush landscapes. Tourism revenues rise 11 percent in the first quarter of 2009, compared to the same period last year. Even better, the Cartagena Summit on a Mine-Free World announces that Rwanda is officially “landmine free” – a distinction that is doubtless welcomed by tourists and residents alike.


2. Afghanistan and Pakistan Get More Schools
Non-profit activist Greg Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute (CAI), continue to build schools in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan, even in Taliban areas. Because CAI schools rely heavily on community involvement, militant groups have largely avoided destroying or damaging what are perceived as locally-backed projects.  To date, the CAI has built 130 schools in the two countries. To learn more about CAI or to get involved, visit


3. Aceh Rebuilt
Five years after the Indian Ocean Tsunami devastated communities in Aceh, Indonesia, rebuilding efforts in the hardest-hit province are wrapping up. In November, aid group CRS announces that it has met its reconstruction goals in Aceh.


4. Karadzic Faces the International Criminal Court. Sort of.
Although the alleged Bosnian Serb war criminal boycotts the opening of his trial, claiming that he did not have sufficient time to examine the evidence against him – 10 years on the lam wasn’t enough time? – Radovan Karadzic does appear in court on November 3. The trial is expected to resume in March of next year.


5. Kidnapped Aid Workers Released
After being seized by Somali gunmen in Kenya, three aid workers with Action Against Hunger are released three months later. In a similar bit of good news, assailants also free kidnapped aid workers snatched in Sudan’s Darfur region.


6. U.N. Demands Halt to Rape as War Weapon
Unanimously voted in, resolution 1888 reflects the 15-member body's "demand for the complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence with immediate effect." Plans are in the works to create a special U.N. post to front the effort.


7. Detained Journalists Freed in Iran, Iranian Writers Honored
Following domestic and international protests, jailed U.S./Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi is released from a Tehran prison. Saberi had been originally sentenced to eight years in prison for “having collaborated with a hostile state.” Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari is also released after being held for nearly four months following Iran’s June elections. In November, Human Rights Watch honors four Iranian writers with prestigious Hellman/Hammett awards for their courage in the face of political persecution.


8. Latin America Takes Steps Towards Equality
Mexico City backs a gay marriage bill, making the city the first in Latin America to legalize gay marriage. In another first, Uruguay passes a same-sex adoption bill, granting same-sex couples the right to adopt children.


9. Zimbabwe Slowly (Very Slowly) Improving
Following political instability, runaway inflation and a devastating cholera outbreak, Zimbabwe is making some inroads to recovery. HIV prevalence rates continue to fall and inflation is dropping. After months of fruitless negotiations, Zimbabwe’s rival leaders reach an agreement on commissions for human rights, election and the media, possibly putting an end to ongoing political deadlock.


10. Child Brides Take a Stand
A Saudi court rules in favor of an 8-year-old girl seeking to divorce her 47-year-old husband. Soon after the decision, the Saudi justice minister announces plans to enact a law protecting young girls from marriages. In rural India, young girls follow the lead of Rekha Kalini, who attracted widespread attention after refusing a forced marriage.


For more news highlights from 2009, catch the Global Pulse year-end special Once and Future News 2009-2010.


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War and Fallout: What is Behind the Pakistan Violence?

In the latest Global Pulse episode, Pakistan at War, host Erin Coker asks who is to blame for the violence in Pakistan. Watch the episode and share your thoughts below!

Wednesday's market bombing in Peshawar capped off a particularly deadly month in Pakistan amidst a shored up military campaign in the country's western region of Waziristan.  More than 100 people died in Wednesday's attack, many of them women and children.

Global media largely attribute the recent bloodshed to the Pakistani Taliban's attempt to destabilize the government in retaliation for recent military efforts to drive extremists from the country's volatile North-West Frontier Province.

However, militant violence in Pakistan has been on the rise long before the government launched its new offensive. According to the terrorism database, South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), terrorist violence killed 2,155 civilians in 2008, compared to 140 in 2003. Similarly, nearly 1800 civilians have been killed in the first 10 months of 2009, exceeding the total number of civilian deaths from 2003 to 2006, according to the SATP.

Some international and media experts note that the Pakistani Taliban has absorbed Punjabi militants and other separatist groups, resulting in a new and dangerous band of extremists. These militants are further bolstered by al-Qaeda members who have taken refuge in the country's tribal areas near the Afghan border. This new incarnation of militants, notes the Council on Foreign Relations' Jayshree Bajoria, is "more violent and less conducive to political solutions than their predecessors."

In a Foreign Policy editorial, the Washington, DC-based Atlantic Council attributes Pakistan's inability to contain the growing extremist threat to a lack of modern military might and calls on the U.S. to furnish Pakistan with adequate weaponry to defeat the Taliban. Failure to do so, argues Shuja Nawaz, will result in continued terror strikes on the public. 

However, Pakistani blogger Riaz Haq blames the violence not on a lack of American weapons, but on government intelligence failures. "The best way to stop the increasing carnage on the streets of to stop the attacks well before they occur," writes Haq. "Unfortunately, however, the intelligence agencies which are supposed to frustrate the blood-thirsty attackers appear totally ineffective, even paralyzed."
While the exact cause of the surge in violence may be up for debate, the toll it is taking on Pakistani civilians is undeniable.

The renewed clashes between government forces and the Taliban in North-West Frontier Province have resulted in a second wave of refugees fleeing the fighting, adding strain to already-crowded camps. According to the U.N., fighting in South Waziristan has forced an estimated 139,400 people from their homes [PDF link] and could displace thousands more.

The latest bombing in Peshawar has also disrupted the lives of Pakistan's urban residents. "The people want to go back to their mundane routines," writes Murtava Razvi in a Dawn editorial. "Youngsters want to go out to the parks, to the beach, to bowl, to eat out. Women want to go shopping unescorted, and men want to go about their daily chores without worrying about families left at home. This isn’t happening anymore."



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