Different Ways of Seeing North Korea

Chinese president Hu Jintao (right) speaks with Kim Jong Il in May 2010. Photo credit Korean Central News Agency, via The Guardian News.

What sound does a dog make?

This is a question that we probably don’t think too much about after elementary school. In English, the answer is bow wow, or maybe woof woof, depending on the size of the dog you choose to imagine, or the state you grew up in. To most English speakers, these answers are pretty obvious, and restricted in their range of responses.

But in France, dogs go ouah ouah. In Swedish: bjäbb bjäbb. In Japanese: wan wan. In Greek: gav gav. In Italian: bau bau. And in Korean: mung mung.

To people from other countries, the sound of a dog barking is heard differently, and it is as hard for them to hear bow wow in a dog’s bark as it is for us to hear bjäbb bjäbb. I’ve heard Koreans laugh out loud at the thought that a dog says bow wow, just as I’ve heard English speakers laugh at the idea of a dog saying mung mung.

But we don’t often apply this to other areas of thought. We tend to assume that some things are just universal: that North Korea, for instance, is simply an enfamined country under the totalitarian rule of a family dynasty of dictators. A country that must be rescued from itself. We assume that anyone knowing anything about North Korea must at least see that it is a state that serves its people poorly. But, I wonder: do other countries hear the sound of North Korea’s bark differently? We’re pretty used to negative perspectives on the country, so I’d like to briefly explore a few more positive attitudes.

China is an obvious example of a country whose citizens will have a different view of the Hermit Kingdom, because they are North Korea’s only ally. But even outside the political sphere, there are fresh perspectives on the country; some Chinese are wary of the exodus of refugees, which they term economic migrants, in the same way that many in the US are wary of migrants from Mexico and Latin America. Other Chinese have a very different perspective; North Korea is in some ways a holdover of China’s history under Mao, and some Chinese view their neighbor to the East as a kind of reincarnation of China 30 years ago under Mao, and to these older citizens it is an almost nostalgic country, a paragon of real socialism without any of the materialism or inequality or pressures of capitalism that plague modern China.

Norway is another country with a kind of soft spot for North Korea. Their government TV network ran a documentary about a North Korean defector escaping with his mother to Seoul. But the focus wasn’t on the escape to freedom; rather, the story was framed as the escape of a young man now stuck in the bewildering capitalist frenzy of Seoul, and the closing shot is of the man sitting on a hill overlooking Seoul’s neon lights, reading a book about Che Guevara—communist revolution! I wrote recently about a Norwegian artist’s attempt to spread interest and understanding of North Korean citizens by recording them playing a Western pop song on the accordion. Norway, it seems, is much more likely to view the DPRK sympathetically than the US.

Unification will be much less likely to succeed if we approach it from a narrow understanding of what the North has to offer; no single perspective contains the whole truth, and we can learn a lot about how to act with respect to North Korea by looking at how other countries view it.


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