Reading North Korean Poems During the South Korean Olympics

 Photograph by Hiroji Kuboto

Photograph by Hiroji Kuboto

Pyeongchang, South Korea, where the Winter Olympics are currently under way, is extremely cold. Subzero temperatures inspired organizers to plan a relatively swift opening ceremony, forced biathletes to reconsider their choice of gloves, and sent television commentators in frantic search of cosmetics that wouldn’t freeze their faces off. Watching the Games, I have been thinking about the temperature fifty miles north, on the other side of the D.M.Z., where basic amenities—never mind battery-powered jackets, space heaters, free coffee, and weatherproof foundation—are harder to come by. Power outages are common in North Korea: in recent years, according to some reports, the country’s net electricity usage fell to nineteen-seventies levels, even as its population grew by nearly ten million. Then there is the untold number of prisoners in labor camps; presumably, their defenses against the weather are grossly limited.

 

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