Banned books – Slaughterhouse Five

Apparently, when Slaughterhouse Five was stricken from the public schools of Oakland County, Michigan in 1972, the circuit judge called it

“depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar, and anti-Christian.”

Yes, it is great. I think that same sentence could be used to describe war, which is what this book is about.

This is the story of Billy Pilgram – he has come unstuck. In the book this manifests as time travel but what I understand is a man broken by war from the moment he arrives, unarmed, and having to retreat from the Battle of the Bulge. After being dragged unwillingly by former school-yard bully made soldier, Roland Weary, for an indeterminate amount of time, the two are captured by German soldiers and become prisoners of war. Roland doesn’t survive the journey back into Germany. As a POW Billy is in Dresden when it gets bombed by the allied forces. So it goes.

Billy was never born to be a soldier. At one point the Germans look at the rag-tag collection of American soldiers they’ve captured and wonder at the group. All the good soldiers have been killed and this lot is all that’s left. Billy is a particularly pathetic specimen. Due to lack of supplies he wraps himself in a blue sheet to keep warm and wears some silver boots. Everyone laughs at Billy; some seem to think he is trying to make some unfunny commentary with his clothing.

slaughterhouse five red.jpg

It is very tough and very funny; it is sad and delightful; and it works.

Slaughterhouse Five is one of those books that people frequently seek to get banned. Unlike the Hunchback of Notre Dame, I can see why some people would want to ban this book. It paints a picture of war that is not heroic or patriotic or any of those positive tints we try to give to the killing of others in the name of some cause or other. Its much more Catch-22 than Band of Brothers. But, like Hunchback of Notre Dame, this is a great book that should be available to all.


North Korea and the Panama Papers

The Panama Papers are a massive data leak from the tax-avoidance specialist firm, Mossack Fonseca (MF). And even the most amateur North Korea watcher knows that where ever there is secrecy and grey legal areas you are sure to find North Korea lurking around trying to make illicit trade deals and otherwise hanging out with like-minded criminals and criminal states.

So far it seems that MF acted on behalf of

at least 33 company shareholders, directors and other beneficiaries who were under sanctions by the U.S. Treasury department, the European Union and the United Nations”.

North Korea is being highlighted in two cases. The first is DCB Finance involving British banker Nigel Cowie and North Korean official Kim Chol Sam. The company is alleged to have helped finance North Korea’s weapons programmes. Nigel apparently moved to North Korea 1995 and lived there for a decade, which means he was there when the famine was at its worst and in 2003 when North Korea announced its withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. He denies any knowledge of any illegal dealings. Hmmm.

(Source: GlobalZero.org)

MF did end its relationship with DCB in 2010 after someone suggested they look at their own paperwork showing that the company was registered in Pyongyang. One employee acknowledge that this ‘should have been a red flag’. Though to be fair, when you’re dealing with tax-avoiding elites, corrupt officials, dictators and other nefarious characters and countries it can hard to spot an actual sanctioned company from the ones which should be sanctioned.

(Source: Washington Post)

The other case involves two Australian-based men who apparently set up two companies which announced mining deals with North Korea and registered on the Australian Stock Exchange. An ex-UN official on the UN Security Council Panel of Experts for North Korea sanctions spoke to the ABC in Australia to clarify that “the deals involved North Korean entities under sanctions” and that he was “absolutely stunned” by the lack of attention paid, presumably by the Australian authorities, to the public announcements of the companies mining deals.

But of course it’s not just North Korea accessing the services of MF. In South Korea, 195 individuals have been identified so far. This includes former President Roh Tae-woo’s son, Roh Jae-heon. He’s claiming that he never did anything with the companies. Hmmm.


Happy Birthday VH – banned author #1

Today happens to be Victor Hugo’s birthday. I wouldn’t normally pay any attention to this but since I just finished reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame it seemed like a good day to blog about how much I liked the book – a lot! This was the first of at least six banned books which I plan to read this year. It is absolutely crazy that someone(s) somewhere tried to have this book banned. How dare they!!

(Picture source: Life and Legends)

Sometimes you need to be wary of classics. In my mind they fall into one of two categories: 1. great stories that are amazingly well told, or 2. commentaries on an era which are often depressing and can make little sense unless you understand more about that time period.  Fortunately THND is in the first category (although some chapter did drag out a little).

For the next banned book I’m now reading Brideshead Revisited. This wasn’t on the long list of banned books presented earlier on this blog site but it has been banned, it was on sale and I’ve always wanted to read it.


HRW – World Report entry on North Korea’s human rights situation (spoiler: its bad)

Human Rights Watch has issued its annual report on the human rights situation in some selected countries. As usual, North Korea is one of the countries worthy of attention for its abysmal human rights record. Like last year’s entry there is more about civil and political rights than economic, social and cultural rights – that’s not necessarily a criticism as much as an observation.

The introduction section gives us a run-down of events at the UN, including the Commission of Inquiry report and developments in the Security Council, Human Rights Council (HRC) and the UN General Assembly (UNGA).  Key developments are the recommendations by the HRC and the UNGA that North Korea be referred to the International Criminal Court and the opening of the UN Office in Seoul dedicated to documenting human rights violations in North Korea.

The report then focuses on six topics:

  1. Freedom of movement – Kim Jong-un’s increased measures to prevent people leaving North Korea and China continues to send people back. Women are at risk of forced marriage and trafficking.
  2. Freedom of Information – the risks of accessing information or using technology to communicate with the outside world
  3. Labour Rights – North Korea refuses to join the International Labour Organisation and there are sub-par labour standards in Kaesong Industrial Complex
  4. Political Prisoner Camps – they still exist and they are still awful places where lots of people suffer and die
  5. Forced Labour – even if you aren’t in a political prison camp doesn’t mean you are free from the risk of punishment through forced labour
  6. Key International Actors – very brief mention of issues/events with the UN (already discussed), Japan (abductees), South Korea (family reunions) and US (sanctions and the Sony hacking case)

This is all very similar to last year’s entry. Last year’s entry had headings on torture and inhumane treatment and executions which are not in this year’s report. This year adds the new heading of forced labour. Updates of what has been happening at the UN level are new but the information about human rights violations is all familiar stuff. I’m a bit disappointed that there is no video to go along with this year’s entry.


bank loans and court rulings – update

Earlier this month I commented about the dispute about mortgage loans in Mongolia. The government has now amended the rules and apparently things are back on track to offer the lower 8 per cent mortgage loans to the public.

However, not everyone sees these loans as a good idea. Jargal, a prominent economist in Mongolia who has a regular news column which is translated in English and published by the UB Post, has dedicated his latest column to highlighting key problems with the private apartment market in Ulaanbaatar, including corruption, lack of transparency and poor planning.

2 Songino 6 construction site I

(Photo: construction of apartment buildings in Songino Khairkhan district)

Diverging a little from the private side, the UB development plans also includes the re-housing of those who exchange their land on which the new apartment buildings are built. The government wants it to seem that everyone who exchanges their land for an apartment is super-happy about getting a new apartment. But this is not always the case. A lot of the development projects have run into serious delays. Like the private market, a weak legal framework, an inexperienced and corrupt government, and lack of transparency are all contributing (among other factors) to delays and disputes. The result is continually expanding ger areas and all the problems that go along with that, including serious air and soil pollution.


Boom, Boom, Bomb – North Korea welcomes the new year

The big news today is that North Korea has claimed to have successfully tested a Hydrogen Bomb!

First signs of this came in the form of ‘earthquake’ readings coming from the northeastern North Korea. This was followed by an official statement issued by the North Korean regime around mid-day northeast Asia time announcing a successful H-bomb test.

The timing is thought to coincide with the upcoming birthday of Supreme Leader and with the New Year. Hip, Hip, Hooray!

My top 3 quotes from North Korea’s official statement:

It was confirmed that the H-bomb test conducted in a safe and perfect manner had no adverse impact on the ecological environment.


Since the appearance of the word hostility in the world there has been no precedent of such deep-rooted, harsh and persistent policy as the hostile policy the U.S. has pursued towards the DPRK.

The U.S. is a gang of cruel robbers which has worked hard to bring even a nuclear disaster to the DPRK, not content with having imposed the thrice-cursed and unheard-of political isolation, economic blockade and military pressure on it for the mere reason that it has differing ideology and social system and refuses to yield to the former’s ambition for aggression.


Nothing is more foolish than dropping a hunting gun before herds of ferocious wolves.

Before we all send our congratulatory messages to North Korea, however, some noted that we can’t be certain that North Korea did actually successfully test a H-bomb. The size of the explosion is also making some wonder if it is actually a H-bomb or that it might be just a small one. Tests in the coming days may help determine the authenticity of the claim but it could be that we won’t know for sure if this is true or if the North Korean regime is just trying to impress/scare the pants off everyone.

The epicentre of the earthquake that hit North Korea at 12:30pm AEDST

(picture sourceUSGS)

What is certain is that we can expect a lot of speculation and punditry on this in the next few days, or until some other more terrible/exciting news comes along to sweep it off the headlines.


What is the point of the Japan-South Korea ‘comfort women’ deal?

The early English twitter and media coverage of the announcement that Japan-South Korea had brokered a deal to resolve the issue of reparations for South Korean ‘comfort women’ was couched in mostly positive language with some journalists expressing the hope that, this time, the apology would be sufficient to end the issue once and for all. Yet, even a basic knowledge of the issue and a small amount of common sense should be enough to see that this deal is as bad, if not worse, than the previous failed apology attempts.

A deal only covering South Korean victims reeks of realpolitik. Given Japan and South Korea’s economic relationship and the strength of the comfort women movement in South Korea it is not surprising that this deal was wrangled with South Korea and not Indonesia, Taiwan, or the Philippines, etc.

But even putting that aside, here are three obvious reasons why this deal is fatally flawed:

  1. The women, their families or representatives weren’t at the negotiating table

The picture attached to most of the stories gave us the first clue that the deal was bogus. Two Asian men shaking hands standing in front of their respective national flags is not a picture that encapsulates the story of an historic acceptance of an apology to female victims of wartime sexual slavery.

(picture source)

As the picture does suggest, none of the women, families or representative organizations were included, consulted or involved in the discussions and negotiations for agreeing the deal. Nor were the women alerted or briefed about the deal prior to it being made public. This is even more evident in the fact that the deal fails to include key asks that the ‘comfort women’ have been calling for and is as equivocal as previous apologies that failed to gain the acceptance of the victims, their families or representatives.

  1. It’s a deal, not an apology

Rather than an unequivocal apology and reparations, this agreement is very much a political deal – South Korea removes the statue across from the embassy and Japan will pay out 1 billion yen of government funds and repeat the same carefully worded apology that avoids acknowledgement of legal responsibility. The deal is already coming under threat as South Korea seeks to take advantage of the vague wording in the deal to avoid moving the statue.

As for the money, it already looks like the proposed Fund is in trouble. A few years ago, two South Korean former ‘comfort women’ set up their own fund, the Butterfly Fund, which works to provide support for victims of wartime sexual violence in conflict areas around the world. This genesis of this fund was the position taken by these two women that the apology counts for more than the money. They said that, if the Japanese government ever paid reparations, they would use that money to support other victims of sexual violence in conflict. In the absence of any apology or financial compensation from the Japanese government, the women set up the fund from private donations. Hankyoreh reports that the Korean Council for Women Drafted into Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (Korean Council) is refusing to engage with the proposed fund which will effectively make it impossible for the new fund to get established.

  1. Victims accept an apology, not governments.

States have the right to apply for reparations on behalf of survivors. However it seems inconceivable in this day and age that a government would apply for reparations without including, consulting and getting the explicit support of the women themselves to accept the agreement. This is especially true when the victims, their families and representative organization are so well organized with the ability to garner public support to back up their position. As we already saw, the Wednesday demonstration following the agreement attracted much larger numbers than usual and the group enjoys widespread public support in opposing the removal of the statue. The failure to involve the victims and gain their support to publicly accept the apology offered by the Japanese government is what will ultimately doom this agreement like all the ones before it.

The victims, their families and representative have made it very clear over the years what they believe would constitute an acceptable reparations package. Given that both the Japanese and South Korean government would have already known that this deal would be unacceptable to the women and that the public support in Korea would inevitably support the women, it is unclear what both sides hope to achieve by this endeavor.


April 2020