Fear, Miscommunication, and the Folk Hero Nasreddin Hoca

A statue of Nasreddin Hoca in Brussels (photo credit: tuhfe)

Ah, the charades of political dialogue! North Korea sends a memo urging unification and expressing its willingness to open immediate channels of dialogue with South Korea. The memo reads in part, “The resumption of dialogue and the improvement of relations hinge completely on the willingness of the South’s government.” Once the South gets its act together, in other words, the North is ready and willing to cooperate.

There are just a few small preconditions, we discover. Among them: withdrawal of US troops, apologizing for not showing proper respect toward Kim Jong Il’s death, apologizing for the false accusation of North Korean involvement in the March 2010 torpedo attacks on the Cheonan… the list demonstrates that any “dialogue” that the North might be willing to engage in would be one-sided.

Of course, this message is an improvement from North Korea’s earlier absolute unwillingness to have any relations with the South while President Lee Myung Bak remained in office. Indeed, it might signal in a backhanded way a willingness to engage in dialogue, even if not all preconditions are met.

But on the whole, it seems unlikely that the North will allow any attempt at the dialogue they claim to want. I do wonder if North Korea’s diplomats believe their memo to be clear and obvious. Maybe they actually feel wounded by the torpedo accusation (the action could have been taken by a rogue commander), wronged by the South’s attitude toward the death of their demigod, threatened by the hawkish permit of 30,000 US troops at their doorstep when all the North wants is a peaceful coexistence in preparation for reunification. Their own military activities seem hawkish, too; but maybe, like the South, they view it as a response to the fear of aggression from the other side. It is very difficult to get inside the minds of North Koreans, when their beliefs about the world contradict our own so powerfully.

Political relations are as imperfect as any other form of human interaction. Writer Elif Batuman explains the difficulty in her book The Possessed:

Walking along a deserted road one night, the story goes, [the folk hero] Nasreddin Hoca noticed a troop of horsemen riding toward him. Filled with terror that they might rob him or conscript him into the army, Nasreddin leaped over a nearby wall and found himself in a graveyard. The horsemen, who were in fact ordinary travelers, were interested by this behavior, so they rode up to the wall and looked over to see Hoca lying motionless on the ground.

“Can we help you?” the travelers asked. “What are you doing here?”

“Well,” Nasreddin Hoca replied, “it’s more complicated than you think. You see, I’m here because of you; and you’re here because of me.” …

This story encapsulates the riddle of free will in human history: a realm where, as Friedrich Engels observed, free wills are constantly obstructing one another so that, inevitably, “what emerges is something that no one willed.” Nobody, least of all Nasreddin Hoca, willed for Nasreddin Hoca to end up lying in the graveyard that night. Nobody forced him there, either—yet there he was.

So true! It is always difficult to achieve one’s intentions, but never more so than when mutually legible communication is lacking. This is an apt illustration of the situation on the Korean peninsula. In Nasreddin Hoca’s example, the two parties were not enemies, but fear led Hoca to act as if they were; I think fear plays a similar role for the Koreas.

The tiger is a kind of mythic symbol for Korea, a testament to its former presence on the peninsula. I’ve never seen a tiger in the wild, but I’ve seen them at the zoo before. A tiger is a powerful animal. It spends much of its time napping, and very rarely openly exhibits the power that it possesses; yet, watching it, I feel that every smallest movement is a betrayal of that immense power. I see the same dynamic in the relations of the Koreas, but not in the power that each possesses—instead the betrayal is of fear. Neither exhibits that fear for the world to see; but every action, even calls for dialogue, betrays its presence.

An Amur tiger (photo credit Tim Sträter)

As Nasreddin Hoca shows us, the confluence of wills can be a turbulent rapid taking both parties on a course neither intended. It will be especially difficult for the Koreas to achieve normal interaction when even the call to dialogue itself is blustering. I don’t know how to banish fear when it seems legitimate, but as long as each Korea is afraid of the other, it may cause both of them to end up—like Nasreddin Hoca—in a graveyard.

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