Monthly Archives: July 2013

Amid the anniversaries of the 60 years since the start of the Cuban revolution and the signing of Korean truce last week you could have forgiven yourself for, upon recent revelations relating to the find of missile parts on a North Korean Ship, that history was repeating itself. Only this time it is perhaps more appropriate to call it the mini Korean missile crisis.

Reflecting on the various fates of past or current communist nations and others such as Vietnam amid these two anniversaries has led to ask some questions. For example, if Cuba had suffered the same intensity of bombing as North Korea endured by the UN would the situation in these two countries have been more similar? One can point to the impact the Vietnam War had on Vietnam and the fact that McDonald’s, a fitting symbol of Capitalism, is opening its first outlet there in 2014 and make an argument against. Today Vietnam is keen to attract foreign investors in addition to KFC, Starbucks and Subway. All three already have a current presence here. Brands like these are popular with its youthful population whose experience with the conflict was not as direct as their parents. In North Korea however the memory of devastating air raids by UN forces is an enduring propaganda tool for Kim Jong-Un’s regime to continue it’s isolationist policies.


A Starbucks store in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam.

Yet one can also argue that, compared to conventional weapons used by the UN effort in North Korea, employment of chemical weapons such as Agent Orange by the United States during the Vietnam war has had significant long-term effects. This is due to consequent dioxin exposure that can lead to illnesses such as birth defects and cancer. While there have been limited efforts to deal with this legacy, such as those to safely remove contaminated soil from a former major US army base at Na Dang airport, to this day the US still denies it is responsible for the effects of Agent Orange.

In Cuba meanwhile they are looking to the future with, perhaps, a little more positivity. Indeed the statement by Raul Castro that “The historic generation is giving way to the new one, with tranquillity and serene confidence, based on the preparation and competence to keep the flags of the revolution and socialism flying high,” on Cuba’s revolution anniversary is at odds with North Korea’s own anniversary parade of antiquated weapons. Economic reforms in Cuba, similar to those in China have contributed to a substantial emergence of private industry. Like Vietnam’s own implementation in 1986 of what is referred to as the Do Moi reforms, it comes from a realisation that its highly bureaucratic and state centred economic system was no longer able to meet the essential needs of its people, especially when they both could no longer turn to the USSR for support. Today in Cuba, though, as this Reuter’s article claims there is a general lack of opportunities due to a stagnating economy, despite reforms. This particularly impacts the young. Ulisses Guilarte, head of the party in Artemisa province reportedly told Reuters “It is clear the economic situation is difficult, undoubtedly. The young people view their aspirations as still distant,”. Despite this element of capitalism, however, security apparatus to strictly control political dissent is still maintained in Cuba and Vietnam as in China. In Cuba for example Human Rights Watch has repeatedly highlighted measures such as short-term detentions, beatings, travel restrictions and forced exile.

What the find of missiles parts in a North Korean freighter tells us is the importance of acquiring nuclear weapon capability to what many academics refer to as North Korea’s Juche philosophy. This may also explain why the regime’s has so ardently remained tied to its Marxist inspired principles for so long when compared to other small countries like Vietnam and Cuba. The origins of this philosophy has its roots in a centuries-old tradition which drew inspiration from Confucian ideas. These dated back to the original state philosophy of independence espoused by ancient Korean rulers. North Korea application of this in a contemporary political context draws comparisons with Adolf Hitler’s own policy of Lebensraum. Like Lebensraum in Nazi-era Germany, it is a critical part of North Korea’s national policy, which priorities self-reliance above all else. Its three main aspects are Chaju (political independence), Charip (economic dependence) and Chawi (military independence). To partly understand this context it is important to that North Korea emerged after the humiliating occupation by the Japanese that preceded the influence of USSR after Japan’s defeat in WW2. In constructing the socialist revolution in North Korea, Kin Il Sung warned that the North Koreans must “…resolutely repudiate the tendency to swallow things of others undigested or imitate them mechanically”. Such a philosophy, when applied in the realties of today’s globalised world, is at the expense of the very lives of North Korea’s people.

Due to economic and political problems that North Korea faced in the wake of the USSR’s collapse and the death of its then new leader, KIm Jong-Il, it responded by emphasising the Chawi aspect through a military first policy. The attempt to develop nuclear weapons is therefore one way to maintain political legitimacy in the eyes of the people in place of compromised economic dependence in the form of international aid. It should be noted that Vietnam also has a sense of self reliance but have used economic reform rather than a military first policy in an attempt to ensure the communist party’s survival.

These are articles I have published for my university’s online university Newspaper, Cardiff Met Retro. Link to index of original articles as they appeared on the Retro website –

This article was originally published on the 20th May 2013.

With summer approaching it is likely that many people may be considering volunteering abroad during the break. An often recurring reason is that including such experience can boost your CV. Yet what does this tell us about our societies broader attitudes?….

When we see images of people in poorer countries in distress the idea of volunteering abroad may seem, naturally and immediately appealing. Indeed, the recent clothes factory collapse in Bangladesh and cyclone which hit the city on the 16th May certainly brings into focus the contrast between the lives of many within developed countries and those who live in poverty worldwide. In this regard the desire to volunteer can simply reflect an instinctive idealism and a self-perception of heroism and to this degree it is important to emphasise the genuine positive intentions of many volunteers. It is also important to recognise the positive potential of volunteering; it just requires research to identify genuine opportunities. Unfortunately however, as Daniela Papi expresses in this BBC radio programme, this can however disguise a naivety which can have an actual negative impact on the very community you aim to assist. In a collective sense volunteering abroad has been argued to either intentionally or very often, unintentionally, express a position of western superiority, both financially, culturally and intellectually to whom we serve.

Judging from her own experience it appears that Daniela Papi is arguing that indeed, like any academic project it is necessary to research before undertaking a project to acquire important knowledge on the subject area, gain the necessary skills and then plan in detail. Within the context of volunteering this is to prevent the activity from becoming something we apply to people rather than for people. Upon reflection, it can only ensure that your efforts genuinely empower the community by recognising their needs rather than applying our own preconceived ideas. This can potentially prevent the community becoming continually reliant on outside help. Daniela Papi admits that much of the money she had raised from a 2005 bicycle trip across Cambodia for various projects – focusing on teaching about health and the environment – had been wasted or landed in the pockets of corrupt local officials. Essentially she explains that upon reflection she came to the conclusion she had very little knowledge on the country, health or the environment. She argues in many of its consumer driven aspects volunteering is a growing system that is, in many instances failing the communities while too focused on benefitting volunteers themselves.

A particularly disturbing development is that of orphanage volunteering in Cambodia. In what can be seen as a consequence of the accelerated growth within the tourism sector of volunteering the number of these orphanages has increased from 153 to 269 in five years according to a 2011 Unicef report – which also estimates that three-quarters of children have one or more living parents. Some are made to look intentionally grim to increase donations that benefit their corrupt owners. This is a trend that affects communities in many poorer countries including Ghana and South Africa. This more consumer driven sector has even been described as colonial by Voluntary Service Overseas.

What this shows is that individuals, despite their most humane intentions must be more self-critical of their own intentions and ability and recognise the potential negative consequences of their attitudes. We have to ask questions of ourselves and take responsibility to learn before we serve otherwise our values have no real and positive value, effect or worth. A change in approach also helps to reduce the impact of those within the volunteer sector that are willing to take advantage of naivety to their own benefit, like in Cambodia.