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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

99 well-read balloons

... floating in the North Korean sky.

This is a really beautiful news story.

It answers a question I had posed to myself in 2001, walking around the heavily policed Tiananmen Square, when it was announced that Beijing would host the Olympic games just past.

I remember thinking, as I scrutinised the secret police scrutinising me back, that the story of the Olympics in Beijing was going to be less about China opening up to the world and more about China closing down the usual global coverage of the games.

I couldn't see otherwise, unless there was a regime change in the interim. On the net, behind the great Firewall of China, you couldn't access any decent Western news source. I'd been on a train crossing Siberia and found out more about what was going on at home than I did in the capital of the most populous state on Earth. Even in Mongolia, there was greater access to information.

In the end, the Chinese did just enough to facilitate the foreign press, while attempting pretty successfully to keep a lid on free information flowing to their citizenry. But times had changed in those intervening seven years.

The press in Hong Kong, the movement of Chinese citizens across the planet and back, the growth of a new, post-Tiananmen dissidence abroad all contributed to the slow thaw of the Chinese Communist Party's 'mushroom' policy towards their people - ie keep them in the dark, and feed them shit.

But North Korea is like China used to be. It has all the crazy Stalinist-Maoist hallmarks, like isolationism, state-sponsored famines, loopy leaders seeking to deify themselves.

They're too poor for the internet and computers, by all accounts. Only the apparatchiks can access information from abroad, never mind travel there. Even Burma gets some tourists (not that I condone propping up the junta there, but tourists bring information to the locals.) The poor North Koreans really are mushrooms, stuck with only one bullshit source of information.

So fair play to the private citizens from the South who've taken it upon themselves to float news into the rogue state inside helium balloons. It's an inspired, inexpensive, low-tech, effective method for getting news and information into North Korea.

I can appreciate why the South Korean government is annoyed. Of course this will raise tensions at governmental level. Possibly for the North Koreans, it will raise problems domestically. But that can only be a good thing.

Right now, I'm simply delighted at the idea of mad Kim and his cadre frothing at the mouth as balloons explode in the sky, showering their nation with news that the information-starved people of the country are so hungry for.

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