여성대통령 탄생, 미래를 주시한 한일관계구축을 위해

이번 기사에서는, 한국의 첫 여성 대통령 탄생과 박근혜 대통령의 대북정책을 바라보는 일본 언론 요미우리신문(読売新聞)의 사설을 소개해 보려고 합니다. 사설의 주제는 대통령 선거 직후인 2012년 12월 21일 「여성대통령탄생 미래를 주시한 한일관계 구축(女性大統領誕生 未来見据えた日韓関係構築を)」입니다.

먼저 동사설에서는, 박근혜 대통령에게 경제의 재건이나, 한일관계 재구축 등에 있어서 지도력을 발휘하여 새로운 시대를 열어줄 것을 기대하고 있습니다.

또한, 박근혜 당선인의 대북관에 대해「남북대화재개의 전향적인 자세는 보이지만, 본격적인 지원은 신뢰관계구축이 전제」라고 한 박 당선인의 입장을 소개했습니다. 북한이 장거리 미사일 발사를 강화하는 것 등, 또다시 핵・미사일개발을 진행하고 있는 것에 대하여 한미일의 연계강화를 중시하고 있는 박근혜 씨의 대통령 당선은 일본에 있어서도 환영할 일이라는 입장을 표명하고 있습니다.

더욱이, 한일관계의 재구축을 다시 한번 요청하며, 국내의 반대에도 한일국교 정상화를 단행하여 한강의 기적을 이룩한 박정희 전 대통령의 이야기도 소개 하고 있습니다.

요미우리 신문은 마지막으로 새로이 선출된 아베(安部)총재의 「긴밀히 의사소통을 한 뒤 대국적인 관점으로 한일관계 관계를 더욱 심화시켜 나갈 것을 희망한다」는 발언을 인용하며, 역사문제가 더 이상 양국의 부정적인 영향을 주지 않기 위해서, 양국의 노력이 필요함을 주장하고 있습니다.

필자의 소견으로는, 역사문제의 해결은 무엇보다도 중요하며 가해국인 일본이 먼저 진실된 사죄를 하는 것이 전제되지 않는 한 한일 양국의 관계 정상화는 언제까지나 불완전할 것으로 생각됩니다. 그렇지만, 일본이 진정한 사죄를 구하는 날, 한국 국민들은 그것을 받아들이고 새로운 평화의 시대를 열어나가야 할 것입니다. 대북정책에 있어서 한미일 3국의 연계는 외교상 반드시 필요한 일입니다. 그러기 위해서는 먼저 관계가 최악으로 달하고 있는 한일관계의 회복이 전제되어야 할 것입니다. 또한, 대북 정책에 있어서 국익만을 생각한다면, 또는, 이상적인 평화만을 생각한다면 완전한 통일은 이루어지지 않을 것입니다. 그러므로 극단으로 기우는 대북정책이 아닌, 원칙을 갖되 유연성 있는 대북정책이 이루어지기를 기원합니다.

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Crazy North Koreans, Crazy Americans

I visited the Lincoln Memorial once, and I was moved. Who isn’t? The statue is massive, magisterial, and yet the warmth, empathy, wisdom, and humility of that great man shines even through the cold marble. It’s an impressive monument.

I’m thinking of this because I recently watched “Lincoln”, Steven Spielberg’s newest movie and a recent Oscar contender. Like many viewers, I was amazed by Daniel Day-Lewis’s acting. He showed the president’s confidence, conviction, and humor in the face of adversity. Though it was surely only a poor facsimile of the man himself, that fine portrayal honored a man who may have been our greatest president.

And then I read B. R. Myers’ book The Cleanest Race, which, taking Lincoln as a brief example, clearly shows the fallacy of writing off North Korean people as crazy, of thinking, “even they can’t possibly believe their own propaganda.”

In fact, Myers shows, their belief in their own propaganda is not enigmatic, but very understandable. Look at what I believe about Lincoln: I don’t know the man, and I don’t know much about him beyond the conventional high-school history textbook account. I can quote a few lines of the Gettysburg Address. (I admire Lincoln almost equally for the rhythm and clarity of his prose as for his morality or his politics.) I watched a TED talk about him once (one of my favorite TED talks, actually).

But what do I know of the real Lincoln? All I know was taught to me by history textbooks and college professors, by statues and by movies. How is this different, Myers asks, from North Korean propaganda, which also relies on textbooks, on teachers, on statues, on movies? Are we any different to glorify Lincoln than the North Koreans to venerate the Kim family? Even their myths are quite similar: compare the log cabin in Kentucky where Lincoln was born to the legend of Kim Jong Il’s humble birth in a snowcapped log cabin at the foot of Mt. Baekdu.

In defiance of death, we all seek to find meaning in causes beyond ourselves. That’s part of why I admire Lincoln; he is proclaimed to be one of the greatest leaders of my culture, my country. It’s true that Lincoln played a significant role in the emancipation of black people in America; but I don’t think that’s really what I’m thinking about when we watch the movie. I’m not carefully considering his actual contributions, studying the legislation he championed, or reviewing his philosophy; I’m believing that he represents an ideal of governance largely because that’s how he’s represented to me. In short, I think he’s great because everyone says he is. And so the people bowing at the foot of the 66-foot statue of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, the people weeping at the death of their Dear Leader are hardly different from my own feelings of pride and humility at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

The Lincoln Memorial on a foggy evening on January 12, 2013. Photo credit Ehpien via Flickr.

The Lincoln Memorial on a foggy evening on January 12, 2013. Photo credit Ehpien via Flickr.

Myers does an exceptional job of bringing a further truth home to us: that it is not that surprising that North Koreans are faithful to a dynasty that has materially failed them, even as Americans are faithful to a political and economic system that is manifestly failing us. We just believe what we’re told; if we’re liberals, we blame our economic woes on the war spending, and if we’re conservatives, we blame liberal government spending. It’s a little more complicated than that, but this is how most people think about politics. And North Koreans just blame the Americans, because that’s who the people who ought to know tell them to blame.

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How Brian Myers Made Me Rethink The Power of Culture

Brian Myers might have changed my mind. I’ve said in the past that I think cultural influence (i.e. the spread of foreign media) is the most effective way to effect a broad North Korean change in attitude toward other countries. Maybe I’ve believed this because that’s the way it has worked for me: with Korean TV, Japanese literature, Russian literature, as I come into contact with the culture I tend to like the countries that own them more and more.

But maybe Myers is right. He argues in his book The Cleanest Race that cultural influx from South Korea in the form of CDs and DVDs won’t soften North Korean attitudes toward the outside world. He notes that imperial Japan loved Hollywood films, yet still sustained intense animosity toward America. The Nazi Luftwaffe painted images of Mickey Mouse on their planes, yet still sustained intense animosity toward America. Even South Korea, which has become a hotbed of Western cultural influence, was ready to believe in 2002 that a U.S. tank ran over two schoolgirls intentionally (an overview of the case is on Wikipedia), and to believe that the U.S. malignantly imported deadly beef in 2008 (overview available on Wikipedia). So, Myers says, even if every North Korean comes to know and love South Korean dramas and American pop stars, their hostility to our respective governments will remain.

At first I thought, “that’s pretty accurate: shallow cultural experience obviously isn’t enough.” But, said I to myself, there is more that cultural influence can accomplish. Myers himself admits that the true danger for the North Korean government is a matter of awareness. He says,

 

“Most dangerous to the regime… is the inevitable spread of public awareness that for all their anti-Americanism, the South Koreans are happy with their own republic and do not want to live under Pyongyang’s rule.”

 

Most North Koreans, in Myers’ analysis, don’t realize that South Koreans enjoy their standard of living, that they like their government and don’t yearn for Pyongyang rule. Nor do they realize that most South Koreans, sadly enough, feel little urgency about Korea becoming a united nation again. If North Koreans understood this, their whole attitude toward their government would change, since their support is predicated on the assumption that American influence is the only thing standing in the way of national unification, and American military domination the most important threat to North Korean happiness.

Can’t culture accomplish this? It seems that it could show these things in a relatable way.

I suppose I tend to believe in the power of art—for that’s what I think I really mean when I am saying “culture.” I think art has the power to give us a window into the lives of others. There’s a fantastic movie called that: “The Lives of Others.” It’s a German film, and it won the Best Foreign Picture award a few years ago. In it a disciplined, all-business Nazi spy assigned to monitor artistic “subversives” softens; he watches them day in and day out, and comes to understand and even like them.

But thinking about it more, even for this character in the movie, it wasn’t art that changed his mind: it was spying. Long, sustained awareness of what other people are doing and saying even when they think no one is watching. Time spent in the same building as them.

After all, maybe that’s the only thing that will really teach us in the end: time. Hector Berlioz agreed that time is a great teacher. (He also added, “Unfortunately, it kills all its pupils”). But that time takes many hours, months, and even years. Art, no matter how good, just doesn’t give us enough time with a subject. Even real life doesn’t always do the trick: I mean, I’ve spent a year and a half in Korea and I’m not sure how well I understand the people in it.

Anyway, I’ve changed my mind: I think Myers is right, that cultural imports alone won’t be enough to change North Korean people’s minds about the outside world. Coming to any true understanding—for them, for South Koreans, or for Americans—will take a long time.

 

Jay McNair

The Interior Life: R. L. Stevenson Writes About North Korea

Surprisingly, an English author who died in 1894 knew a great deal about North Koreans. I was re-reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s little-known essay “The Lantern-Bearers” and it perfectly called to mind the people of North Korea (maybe that’s weird?). I feel like a broken record harping on about how we shouldn’t trust initial impressions of North Korea, but I found this great illustration and I have to share it.

 

Plus it’s such a great essay. More people should know about it.

 

Stevenson writes about his boyhood in Scotland, where in the summers at a seaside village he and the other boys would have a contraption called a bulls-eye lantern. They wore them on their belts and would venture forth after dark with the lanterns carefully concealed under a top-coat. He writes:

 

They smelled noisomely of blistered tin; they never burned aright, though they would always burn our fingers; their use was naught; the pleasure of them merely fanciful; and yet a boy with a bull’s-eye under his top-coat asked for nothing more.

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A Dietz “police regular” tin bulls-eye lantern. Photo credit Dutchman Dick via authentic-campaigner.com

Stevenson explains how he would walk through the streets, every now and then encountering another boy. They would each anxiously check to see that the other had his lantern, and once a group of them was collected, would head away from civilization:

 

Four or five would sometimes climb into the belly of a ten-man lugger, with nothing but the thwarts above them—for the cabin was usually locked—or choose out some hollow of the links where the wind might whistle overhead. There the coats would be unbuttoned and the bull’s-eyes discovered; and in the chequering glimmer, under the huge windy hall of the night, and cheered by a rich steam of toasting tinware, these fortunate young gentlemen would crouch together in the cold sand of the links or on the scaly bilges of the fishing-boat, and delight themselves with inappropriate talk.

       But the talk, at any rate, was but a condiment; and these gatherings themselves only accidents in the career of the lantern-bearer. The essence of this bliss was to walk by yourself in the black night; the slide shut, the top-coat buttoned; not a ray escaping, whether to conduct your footsteps or to make your glory public: a mere pillar of darkness in the dark; and all the while, deep down in the privacy of your fool’s heart, to know you had a bull’s-eye at your belt, and to exult and sing over the knowledge.

 

As ordinary as each boy might seem on the outside, walking through the streets at night in an ordinary top-coat, what was inside was completely different.

 

With this as his ammunition, Stevenson takes down the realists:

 

Say that I came on some such business as that of my lantern-bearers on the links; and described the boys as very cold, spat upon by flurries of rain, and drearily surrounded, all of which they were; and their talk as silly and indecent, which it certainly was. I might upon these lines, and had I Zola’s genius, turn out, in a page or so, a gem of literary art, render the lantern-light with the touches of a master, and lay on the indecency with the ungrudging hand of love; and when all was done, what a triumph would my picture be of shallowness and dulness! how it would have missed the point! how it would have belied the boys!…

       For, to repeat, the ground of a man’s joy is often hard to hit. It has so little bond with externals (such as the observer scribbles in his note-book) that it may even touch them not; and the man’s true life, for which he consents to live, lie altogether in the field of fancy…. [T]he poetry runs underground. The observer (poor soul, with his documents!) is all abroad. For to look at the man is but to court deception. We shall see the trunk from which he draws his nourishment; but he himself is above and abroad in the green dome of foliage, hummed through by winds and nested in by nightingales. And the true realism were that of the poets, to climb up after him like a squirrel, and catch some glimpse of the heaven for which he lives.

       And, the true realism, always and everywhere, is that of the poets: to find out where joy resides, and give it a voice far beyond singing.

       For to miss the joy is to miss all…. [to] miss the personal poetry, the enchanted atmosphere, that rainbow work of fancy that clothes what is naked and seems to ennoble what is base; in each, life falls dead like dough, instead of soaring away like a balloon into the colours of the sunset; each is true, each inconceivable; for no man lives in the external truth, among salts and acids, but in the warm, phantasmagoric chamber of his brain, with the painted windows and the storied walls.

 

I think he could be talking about observers of North Korea. If all we imagine when we think of a North Korean kid is a child stunted by malnutrition, coughing from some preventable disease, learning rote propaganda about the Kim dynasty, then we have missed too much. The externals are important, but they don’t tell us anything about the life that is lived inside the mind. If we never imagine the North Korean child with a bulls-eye at his belt, “soaring away like a balloon into the colours of the sunset,” we’re missing the life that is, in most ways, more real than anything else.

 

I’ve only quoted bits and pieces of the original essay (even if it seems like I’ve quoted much more); the whole thing is well worth reading, and you can find it at Gutenberg.org.

 

Jay McNair

Book Review: The Cleanest Race

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A screenshot of the cover of The Cleanest Race. Image credit Melville House at mhpbooks.com.

 

North Korea has more cultural DNA in common with imperial Japan than with its communist neighbors China and Russia. So says Brian Myers, author of The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters, and he makes a compelling case. He takes pains to trace a cultural succession that began in 1905, when Japan invaded Korea and began a ruthless colonization and indoctrination of its people. He argues that North Koreans inherited the imperial concept of racial purity (and that Japan meant them to), and that it became the foundation of North Korean self-conception and the basis of their government’s claim to legitimacy.

Essentially, this racial purity means that North Koreans are like children: pure but vulnerable. Hence the need for a protector and a parental figure to guide and lead them against a cruel world bent on domination.

You’ll have to read the book to get more than that from me; suffice to say, it’s an interesting thesis.

I found his arguments cogently written, persuasively explained, and clear. The book was a pleasure to read, actually; he writes very well. Sometimes his evidence felt a little thin; for instance, he claims that Mt. Baekdu didn’t derive any special significance until Japanese veneration of Mt. Fuji came into the picture after 1905, and my research suggested that it’s been of special importance since 1767, if not earlier. Myers also gets a little overenthusiastic about delving into the hyperbole of North Korea’s propaganda assertions; but it’s entertaining, not least for Myers’ sly sense of humor and irony. At 200 pages, it’s a relatively quick read, but an informative and important one, both for general understanding of North Korean ideology and for a more informed approach toward dealing with the country politically.

He claims that traditional American attempts at engagement or buying nuclear concessions with aid or trade are doomed to fail, because the very legitimacy of the North Korean government depends on antagonism toward America. I thought this was one of his strongest points; though it doesn’t tell us what we should do, at least it explains the failure of our traditional (and current) policies.

The Cleanest Race is published by Melville House; you can find it at their website at mhpbooks.com. (Full disclosure: I’m currently working for Melville House, so I do have a somewhat vested interest in believing it to be a great book.)

 

Jay McNair

Myanmar and North Korea

In November 2012, President Barack Obama made a historic visit to Myanmar to applaud and support the former military state’s democratization process. Myanmar’s transition to democracy in March 2011 surprised the world—for the previous five decades, it was seen as a pariah state that wielded authoritarian rule, despite harsh economic sanctions and criticism from world leaders.           

Though isolated from the international community, Myanmar had found an ally in North Korea, another obstinate, pariah state. Generally, Myanmar and North Korea have shared a good relationship. Prior to Myanmar’s transition to democracy, the two enjoyed full diplomatic, economic, and military relations. Embassies were established in both countries. As late as 2010, Myanmar was purchasing North Korean military equipment, including small arms, missile components, and nuclear technology. Granted, the Burma-DPRK partnership has hit low points when North Korea killed four Burmese officials during an attempt to assassinate the South Korean President in 1983. But the two have always managed to restore ties through economic and military exchanges.

However, since Myanmar announced its transition to democracy, it has taken measures to end relations with North Korea. After Former President Lee Myung-bak visited Myanmar in May 2012, Myanmar said it would cease its weapons exchange program with Pyongyang. In October 2012, Burmese President Thein Sein publicly announced it was willing to cut Burma-DPRK military ties. In November 2012, Myanmar agreed to sign a nuclear agreement that would allow increased scrutiny by UN nuclear inspectors, effectively ending North Korean shipments of nuclear materials to Myanmar.

Myanmar’s relationship with North Korea has continued to erode at a rapid pace. If Yangon is to sever ties completely with Pyongyang, then North Korea will be even further isolated. This could potentially have large implications for North Korea, economically and morale-wise. Will this encourage Pyongyang to take the same path as its former ally?

Furthermore, Myanmar is evidence that a former military state can open up, contrary to expectations. Though it was a brutal military state that committed atrocious human rights violations for over fifty years, it is now making rapid strides towards democracy. Given their similar pasts as autocratic military regimes, perhaps Myanmar can counsel North Korea on how to open up and establish civilian rule. Hopefully North Korea will follow in Myanmar’s footsteps.

 

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Upcoming Challenges for the Two Koreas

            About a year has passed since Kim Jong-un was declared the supreme leader of North Korea. At the moment of Kim Jong-il’s death and the following succession process, experts and scholars expressed mixed feelings about North Korea’s third-generation succession. Many insisted that it was too early to tell the future of North Korea under the new leader. However, after a year of a seemingly stable leadership, some express both a sense of hope and concern for what may follow in the next couple of years. According to JoongAng Ilbo’s news article and research done by the National Assembly Research Service, the North Korean regime may undergo drastic reforms within the next three to four years. This research states that Kim Jong-un will become increasingly pressured to make decisions to accommodate North Korea’s worsening economic system. The report further predicts that Kim Jong-un could face serious internal struggles from the elite group while carrying out major reforms.[1]

The purpose of such research is to inform the incoming government. However, it is difficult to grasp whether or not the incoming government can accommodate each and every prediction. Although President Park Geun-hye has expressed her willingness to meet with Kim Jong-un to achieve “trustpolitik” [2] and increased flexibility, North Korea’s latest rocket launch has already put a further strain on inter-Korean relations. While South Korea would welcome major economic reforms as predicted in the research, the current situation demonstrates how extremely difficult it is to coordinate policies towards a nuclear North Korea. While I sincerely hope that Park’s ambitious goals regarding inter-Korean relations are manageable, the incoming government will be left with very similar problems from the Lee administration that it will need to address, including Beijing-Pyongyang relations, denuclearization of North Korea, and strengthening inter-Korean economic relations.

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Park Geun-hye meeting with visiting Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun

Source <http://koreajoongangdaily.joinsmsn.com/news/article/Article.aspx?aid=2965344&gt;

            It is too early to predict the future of North Korea or inter-Korean relations regarding that matter. However, it is possible that Park administration may have caught North Korea at the verge of major transformation. Whether or not such transformation brings the two Koreas closer to unification is unclear and impossible to predict, but I hope that the incoming government continues to actively engage its citizens in preparation for unification.


[2] Read more about it at: Park Geun-hye. (2011). “A new kind of korea: Building trust between seoul and pyongyang.” Foreign Affairs, 90(5), 13-18.

 

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How We Should Study the North

It has been argued that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) still remains the terra incognita of many academic fields. While there have been substantial contributions to North Korean studies over the past decade, our understanding of the DPRK remains plagued with misconceptions and false assumptions. Mass media continues to project an image of the North clouded by stereotypes and hysteria, making it difficult to study from a point of view other than that of an outsider. Yet, it is no longer the case that lack of information or interest that renders the study of North Korea challenging. Borrowing the words of Charles Armstrong, if seen as a “foreign policy ‘problem’, [the North] will not be taken seriously as a subject of research” (2011). With the recent surge of scholarly work on North Korea, many publications provide more reliable claims based not on the ‘know thy enemy’ disposition, but on evidence and rigorous research.

            No matter how systematic and sound the research methodologies can be, one’s work will always have to bear the limitations due to the endless amount of concerns with regards to the reliability of statistics on North Korea. At first glance, the concerns on reliability are grave enough to discourage one from conducting research on North Korea. Therefore, any statistical figure on the North cannot be taken at face value but must be collected in a time-series format to allow observation of trends over time periods of interest.

There are infinite variables that can possibly affect a state’s economy and the North’s case is certainly not an exception. Moreover, what makes the DPRK most unpredictable for North Korea watchers is its reliance on a policy of strategic deception, or maskirovka in former Soviet terminology.[1] Over the past decades of the Republic’s history, its economic policies have swung like a pendulum between inch-by-inch decentralization and recentralization. However, as I have discussed already in my previous writing, the most obvious and consistent feature of the DPRK is that it has never experienced a change in the government. Furthermore, once the oscillations are contextualized on a political historical timeline, it becomes very noticeable that little to none of the political basis on the North’s economy has been modified. Never has the North shown signs of weakening the emphases on self-sufficiency (jaryukgaengseng) and the national ideology of Juche.

In the context of the fact that two Koreas are still technically at war, efforts must continue to be taken in order to deter the further hostilities from the North, thus preventing an escalation. Nevertheless, if perceived as a ‘surreal enemy’, one’s research on the North would fail to provide insights into the North’s internal rationale that drives its policy decisions. Such an approach does not provide us a solution, but a list of the reasons why the North’s internal and external status-quo is not sustainable.

Sooner or later, the North will have to make adjustments to its political and economic policies. As a matter of fact, a reform through a collapse of the Kim regime is certainly a possible scenario. However, regardless of whether the DPRK’s reform will be classified as ‘Chinese-style’ or ‘Vietnamese-Style,’ or even ‘DPRK-style,’ a successful transformation into to a functioning economy and a responsible member of a global society is virtually impossible without some degree of the regime’s decentralization, and self-drive by the North. It is equally as important to investigate what kind of political dynamics other states need to construct before they can actively engage with Pyongyang, without being deceived by the North’s maskirovka.

References

Armstrong, C. (2011). Trends in the Study of North Korea. The Journal of Asian Studies,70(02), 357-371. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0021911811000027

Marumoto, M. (2009, March). Project Report: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Economic Statistics Project (April-December 2008). Retrieved December 19, 2012, from http://uskoreainstitute.org/research/special-reports/dprk-economic-statistics-report/

Merril, J. (1989). Korea: The Peninsular Origins of the War. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press.


[1] There are many examples of such actions, dating back to June 1950 when the North offered Seoul a new peace and unification initiative just a week before the surprise attack (Merrill 1989, 176). A more recent and notorious example is the fabricated data the North submitted to the IAEA about the status of its nuclear development program.

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Richardson and Schmidt goes to North Korea

 Former New Mexico Governor Richardson and Google Executive Chairman Schmidt visit the Korean Computer Center in Pyongyang

Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Google’s Chairman Eric Schmidt have made a controversial trip to one of the most isolated places in the world – North Korea – to send 3 powerful messages. Despite what the State Department has called “ill-advised” and “unhealthy” idea due to the tension U.S. has with North Korea after the recent rocket launch, Fmr. Gov. Richardson holds his view very strongly and stated that it is very crucial to engage with North Korea and that they have been very successful in doing so.

 

So what kinds of messages were delivered in North Korea by the two high-profile, private citizens? Schmidt states that the first message was to “urge the North Koreans to have a moratorium on missile activity and nuclear tests. Secondly, to find out about the American detained there, Kenneth Bay, and ensure that he be properly treated, and then thirdly, to spread the message about an open society, the Internet and cell phones.” Although they didn’t get a chance to meet North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jung-Un, Richardson said he seems to be much more open to the idea of Internet, and spreading the information to the People of North Korea rather than keeping it just as a part of the government. His assumption is backed up by seeing Kim Jung-Un getting more involved with the People of North Korea and making more public speeches, unlike his father.

 

As Richardson describes, the trip was labeled as a “private humanitarian mission” and it was assumed that they would try hard to negotiate the release of a South Korean born American citizen, Kenneth Bae who was held hostage since November 2012. But the effort had not been successful.

 Eric Schmidt, Bill Richards

I would say it is still very questionable as to how established Kim Jung-Un feels about his domestic strength with his people is and whether he is ready to engage in diplomacy. I don’t doubt Richardson’s statement about how Schmidt was a “rock star” among the North Korean students, scientists and software engineers when he was emphasizing about the importance of the Internet; however, it is not necessarily the People whom we have issues with. It’s difficult, if not impossible, for the outsiders to get the message to the People of North Korea because the government is very strict with its censorship. Many countries, especially South Korea has shown tremendous effort in engaging and negotiating with North Korea in the past decade with the Sunshine Policy. Rather than heading towards confrontation, many countries have reached out to have dialogues and diplomacy, but it was mostly the government of North Korea closing itself up to others rather than opening up. Although Richardson states that Kim Jung-Un has taken various economic measures to show that he is willing to reform, I think it is too early to assume anything and we lack evidence to make such an assumption.

 

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North Korea’s Environmental Persona (Or Anima?)

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A typical North Korean town is visible in the distance in Sinwon county, South Hwanghae province, DPRK. Image credit Frühtau via Flickr.

 

Robert Winstanley-Chesters is a graduate student in the School of Geography at the University of Leeds. You would think a British geographer would have little to do with the Korean peninsula, but Winstanley-Chesters has an uncommon geographic focus: North Korea. Recent articles he has written have titles like “Forests as Spaces of Revolution and Resistance: Thoughts on Arboreal Comradeship on a Divided Peninsula” and “‘Landscape as Political Project?’ – Pragmatic and Reflexive Policy Development in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Revealing a Multifunctional Approach to Forestry Strategy”. With titles like those, who could resist?

I came across his name in the program for Central European University’s early September conference on “Whither the Two Koreas?” in Budapest. Beyond impressing me with the bold use of the word “whither”, the conference has introduced me to several scholars on Korean affairs, and Winstanley-Chesters is one of the more interesting.

Further investigation on his profile at the University of Leeds reveals extensive writings about environmental themes in North Korea; you can read many of them on SinoNK.com, where he is a frequent contributor.

One of his articles from March 2012 deals with the death of Kim Jong Il the previous December. At the time, the state news reported that nature itself appeared to mourn the Dear Leader’s passing:

“Bears live in deep forest and sleeps in a burrow in winter. That day, however, the bears appeared on the road in the daytime, on which Kim Jong Il took his way, and roared for a long time. It was really mysterious…even beasts seemed to cry with sorrow for the demise of the heaven-born great man…” (Rodong Sinmun,2011)

It wasn’t only bears that day; Manchurian cranes adopted postures of grief and magpies mourned in massive flocks, while ice cracked thunderously in the caldera lake of Mount Baekdu. The state news reportage of these events, claims Winstanley-Chesters, is one small part of the DPRK’s attempt to engage the natural environment in the legitimization of the regime.

This bit of news about the environment is only one part of the picture. North Korea also uses environmental criticisms to denounce countries like the U.S. and Japan, implying its own virtue and legitimacy by comparison. The DPRK participates in regional environmental forums such as the Greater Tumen Initiative and the North East Asia Forest Forum; it is in the process of constructing massive hydroelectric dams, and even sells carbon credits to developed countries. In these ways and others, North Korea is paying a lot of attention to its environment, and I think that’s a good thing.

So, the KCNA may be wrong to use nature to justify the current political regime dynasty, as Winstanley-Chesters argues it is doing. But I’m more interested in what North Korean people might be thinking than what the regime is thinking.

I’m writing this article on my back deck. It’s a quiet day on our street, so there isn’t much noise from cars. The neighbor’s cats prowl through every now and again on missions of their own devising; birds rustle in the leaves behind the shed, and a bee just flew past and settled on the ashes of the fire pit, crawling over cinders. The sunlight has a peculiar strength through the bare branches of the trees, a quality it seems to have mostly in early morning or late afternoon when the angle of the sun is low and acorns or leaves on the ground cast sharp shadows. I’ve noticed that the more time I spend outdoors, the more I get an odd sense that there is life, agency, purpose, and connection between even inanimate things. The caps of acorns seem to hold a profound significance I can’t quite explain.

Most of the time, of course, I am still doing what most Americans do: I’m living in a big city; I’m looking at screens for far too many hours of the day; I’m getting around by car. Nature is effectively excluded from the routine of my life. So whatever it is I am experiencing about nature, I’m sure it’s nothing compared to what the average North Korean in the countryside knows and feels. Citizens of Pyongyang aside, most North Koreans get by with little electricity, little auto transport, and few electronic devices. With no screens or traffic to distract, they seem likely to be very connected to the natural environment; if I find meaning in the caps of acorns, it might not seem very ridiculous to North Koreans to suppose that a Manchurian crane’s posture or the cracking of ice on a lake are related to the death of their leader; they might see the whole country as bound up in one great purpose.

This is what Winstanley-Chesters glimpses; he, however, sees the pronouncements as evidence of a conscious, intentional narrative strategy on the part of the KCNA. Perhaps it is, but I think it might also be a more earnest or unconscious part of their national psyche.

Jay McNair

Who Is North Korea’s KCNA News Aimed At?

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A screenshot of the website of the Korean Central News Agency. Image via http://www.kcna.kp.

 Picture yourself on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, where the food of summer is blue crab. When you eat crabs, someone dumps a couple dozen of the bright red spidery crustaceans coated in Old Bay seasoning in the middle of a table clothed in heavy brown paper, and you go to work with hammer and sharp knife to extract the meat. You have to work for your food, but that’s why people like it.

But you never see people eating crabs alone. It’s just too much work for too little reward. If you’ve got a group of friends, you sit around drinking beer and eating crabs, and the time you spend laboring over tiny pieces of meat is worth it because you’ve got company. But if you’re on your own, you probably just order a crab cake sandwich, skip the hard work, and enjoy the fruits of the labors of others.

Learning about Korean affairs can be kind of like eating crabs. No one wants to read professional journals of political affairs to find out what’s going on in North Korea, unless they are making a party out of it with a bunch of friends. Maybe they should—the content is often fresh, well researched, and carefully thought out, everything that conventional media coverage is not. But the sweet delicious meat of scholarly papers is usually wrapped in a hard, spiky, forbidding shell of field-specific jargon and seasoned with a convoluted grammar that burns worse than Old Bay seasoning. It takes too much time and effort to crack that shell, and few people are willing to go it alone. So most people read the news, which is easily digestible, even though most news doesn’t have that much meat to it.

So let’s spend some time together eating crabs. We will be dinner companions, you and I.

Our first crab is named Jana Hajzlerova. She is a professor in the Czech republic, and in a recent interview with NK News she describes interesting conclusions from her research on thematic agenda and narrative structure in the KCNA news.

Essentially, she’s researching the stories that North Korea is telling its citizens and the world, and trying to figure out why are they telling them. The small stream of stories coming out of North Korea is dominated by the KCNA, which is the leadership’s central news desk. Since it’s the party’s main voice, it’s worth analyzing.

She argues that this voice is not, as is commonly believed, speaking mostly to foreign audiences. Instead, the stories are directed mostly at North Koreans themselves.

Why?

First, more than half of the current news was taken up with reporting on world conflicts, most of which had no direct connection to North Korea. Beyond showing that the reporters are less information-isolated than we often imagine, this is also puzzling. Why spend the news reporting on a conflict in the distant Middle East? Such reporting usually involves North Korea taking sides against the U.S.; Hajzlerova says it is effectively telling North Korean citizens, “we’re not alone in this, the U.S. attacks just about every country it wants to, and so we have to resist.” This gives legitimacy to the North Korean government’s military-first policies.

Second, KCNA news is usually somewhat dated by modern standards. One North Korean has said (in the wonderful “Ask a North Korean” feature on NKNews.org) that she was surprised to find out that the South Korean news reports on events in real time. Dated news is only helpful for people with no other alternative—so that means it must be targeted at North Korean audiences.

Third, the KCNA was consistently and aggressively negative about the former South Korean president Lee Myung Bak—(making reference to him rather than the current President Park Geun Hye since she has only started her term very recently). This isn’t surprising, but what perhaps is surprising is that in their stories, the South Korean people are victims under Lee Myung Bak’s evil reign. This could be aimed at South Koreans, but most likely it is intended to further North Korea’s claim of legitimate rule over the entire peninsula. If Lee Myung Bak is ruling unfairly and illegitimately, it just makes sense that North Korea would be justified in deposing him, to save the poor South Korean citizens. This image legitimizes the North Korean government’s would-be role as savior and liberator of the Korean people.

Hajzlerova’s perceptive interviewer points out that this exactly mirrors how Western media portray North Korea: the people are mostly victims living under an evil villain’s tyrannical rule.

Perhaps we should consider our own media’s narratives more carefully. We know the KCNA is wrong that South Koreans want North Korea to sweep in and free them from their democratic society led by their evil president; perhaps it is presumptuous of us to imagine that all North Koreans are praying for deliverance from the evil rule of Kim Jong Un, and especially presumptuous to imagine that we, not the North Korea people, are the right ones to deliver them from that evil.

 

Jay McNair

The Gateway Drug Of Intercultural Exchange: Korean Drama

 

NKNews.org has a new feature called “Ask a North Korean”; Kim Jae Young, who recently escaped from the DPRK and now lives in South Korea, is the correspondent. Every week, a reader’s question is chosen and Kim answers it with a short essay about life in North Korea.

It’s just one person’s perspective, but it’s an amazing resource. Details from a person’s life and simple stories do so much more to teach us about a foreign place than do news reports about the latest rocket launch. She covers diverse topics, including typical holidays, romantic relationships, how propaganda is experienced, South Korea’s confusing coffee culture, and North Korean perceptions of South Korea.

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A screenshot from the Ask A North Korean feature at NK News. Image via nknews.org.

 

I want to talk about her first post, which answers the question: “What do North Koreans really think about South Koreans?” Kim says that it really depends on where you are in North Korea; citizens who live near the borders with China, for instance, “know a lot about South Korea.” She goes on to explain that most of this is from foreign media smuggled across the border (a topic covered in a previous OneKorea series). But far from the border—that is, for most of North Korea—foreign media has made much slower inroads, so most North Koreans probably know less about South Korea than is indicated by the reports of defectors, who comprise so much of what we know about the country and are mostly from the border regions.

Kim was in high school before she had any non-state-mediated exposure to South Korea, and—like many people all over the world—that first exposure was through a Korean drama. Korean dramas have become popular internationally (want to see one? Hulu.com has a whole category dedicated to Korean dramas), and they’re a big part of North Korean foreign media exposure to their southern neighbor. Kim’s first Kdrama, “Stairway to Heaven”, opened her eyes to the differences in material welfare between North and South Korea, and forged an emotional connection as the death of the drama’s heroine sent her into a three-day depression.

 

daviddec2 A promotional image for the Korean drama “Stairway to Heaven.” Image credit kpopgayo.com.

 

It was a gateway drug; after the Kdrama, Kim soon began searching out Korean radio channels. She would alter the family radio by means of a matchstick, so she could listen to the foreign broadcasts, tuned “not louder than the whisper of an ant.” Soon she realized that her state-fed perceptions of South Korea were often wrong, and this seems like it must have been a major factor in her eventual decision to go to South Korea.

Her story proves the power of cultural exchange. Governments are wise to pour money into programs that inform, like Radio Free Asia: that’s what would-be defectors turn to eventually. But programs that entertain are often most powerful at offering an initial point of access to something we know little about. It’s a critical link in the acquisition of information—it gets us interested. If we want more North Koreans to understand foreign nations, they need more access to our culture’s entertainment.

And if we want more Westerners to understand North Korea better, we need more entertaining points of access for more people. That’s why movies like “Comrade Kim Goes Flying”, or books like The Orphan Master’s Son, are so important. Still, they don’t substitute for media actually produced in North Korea.

So, go read the stories at Ask a North Korean. Be informed and entertained. If you find something you like, share it with people you know—you are a critical link to a greater understanding of North Korea.

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“Bol” Movie Review: The Power of Words

“Bol Nay Ke Liye Ijazat Nahi Himmat Chahiye”

It takes not consent, but courage to speak up.

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Despite its probing of human rights conditions in Pakistan, Shoaib Mansoor’s “Bol” was selected as a contender at the Pyongyang International Film Festival (PIFF) 2012. Source: “Bol” Official Website

I categorically avoid South Asian movies, quality withstanding. Bollywood, Tollywood, Lollywood, you name it. Averaging about three hours in length, these films leave me more exhausted than ever, hence my disinclination to watch “Bol,” the Urdu feature film that made rounds in multiple film circuits. “Bol” made one of its recent stops at Pyongyang International Film Festival (PIFF), where it won the Award for Best Photography, from the slim pick of sixteen contending features [1].

“Bol,” director Shoaib Mansoor’s sophomore venture is nothing if not bold, and is one of the newer crops of Pakistani releases that serve as a nod to the various socio-economic problems, mostly rooted in the Shariah, that has plagued Pakistan since its inception. “Bol” alludes to the many facets of the misogynistic mindset harbored by South Asian men in general —the pervasiveness of spousal abuse, female infanticide, discrimination against the “third sex,” ethnic and religious minorities— in effect, becoming a microcosm of the societal evils in Pakistan. Including all of these themes seemed absolutely ludicrous and a tad bit ambitious as well. I failed to imagine why the Pakistani government selected “Bol” to be screened at any international film festival. Cinematography aside, it manifested everything that is dark about the Pakistani society. More than anything, I found the choice of “Bol” amongst the other films screened at PIFF absolutely astounding. It would seem ironic that a nation slammed with allegations of human rights violations would be reluctant to disclose the violations of another on the silver screen.

For me, “Bol” is the poignant tale of a woman’s bitter fight against the privileged male-dominated society. It wasn’t your everyday South Asian musical, despite starring Atif Aslam, arguably one of the most famous pop acts in South Asia.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e_DxgZU5yoI[U1]

Set in Lahore, “Bol” is the story of Zainab, a woman on the verge of execution. As the oldest sister of the six, she confronts the brunt of her father’s frustrations regarding his wife’s multiples miscarriages, delivery of stillborn children, and “inability” to conceive a male heir to bear the family line, as well as the finances. The male child eludes him as Zainab’s mother births a hijra[i], much to his displeasure. The film follows Hakim, Zainab’s religious father, who struggles to maintain his integrity amidst financial instability, his qualms about the existence of his effeminate sire Saifee, and his desire to have a son. He eventually murders Saifee, gives birth to a daughter with a courtesan, and a series of events unravel that culminates with his death at the hands of Zainab. The film ends with Zainab asking the audience, “Why is only killing a sin? Why isn’t giving birth one?”

The film has its flaws. The arguments between Zainab and Hakim concerning the Holy Quran become repetitive, and some issues are never discussed. Technical glitches aside, the film never provides the back-story of Zainab’s divorce, furthers the life vs. choice debate, or explores the responsibility of parents to assume their children’s existence. Then again, the reality of some prevalent human rights issues makes up for the mangled storyline consisting of women’s emancipation, trans-sexualism, right to education and religiosity—none of which are ever fully addressed. The film never begs for sympathy, but does not lose its heart in the process. It remains sincere in its demands for equal treatment of all human beings. It makes us question a society where killing is a crime, but giving birth, without the intent to provide the child a dignified life, is not.

Humaima Malick, the actress playing Zainab, becomes the instrument for female emancipation with poise and élan. She is the only one who refuses to acquiesce to her father’s demands, and the male-dominated society by extension. She dares to speak, and make us think. She makes us attach ourselves to the lives of her sisters who were denied proper education by their “religious” father, and those sisters who fell victims to infanticide. In making us consider these issues, she establishes that with sufficient resolve, one can bring the heaviest of issues to the fore, as expressed by the film’s tagline.

What makes this film powerful and relatable is the universality of the problems it sheds light on, as well as the need to address them. Replace the Pakistani father with an Indian one, and infanticide would still persist. Such issues are seemingly prevalent in North Korea, which had previously been accused of denying reproductive rights to the disabled and those with genetic mutation, alongside killing disabled newborns as well [2].

While screening a film like “Bol” may not be indicative of a better human rights regime as one may argue, it could still be considered as coming to terms with rampant human rights issues. Granted, that might be an over-projection of thoughts, but the endeavor to screen a film as unique as “Bol” demonstrates a willingness of the DPRK to open up and “cross cultural boundaries,” as my fellow correspondent Jay McNair aptly stated [3]. The recognition of human rights concerns in “Bol” brought people together in the divisive world of politics in South Asia, akin to what the screening of “Comrade Kim Goes Flying” at the Pusan International Film Festival may have achieved for the two Koreas.

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It may be too soon to say whether such measures will be pivotal to unification. On the surface, “Bol” has introduced its North Korean audience to a new language, a new culture, and a new perspective on life. Therein lies the beauty of the common language of films, one that is blind to cultural and political differences. And, we are drawn closer to each other because of it.

“Bol” premiered on June 24, 2011 in theatres across Pakistan and stars Humaima Malik, Atif Aslam, Mahira Khan, Iman Ali, Shafqat Cheema, Manzar Sehbai, Zaib Rehman and Am


[i] A South Asian terminology for those with irregular male genitalia, traditionally translated into English as “eunuch” or “hermaphrodite.”Hijras are typically born with male physiology, with only a few having been born with male intersex variations. In the context of this movie, “Hijra” may be interpreted as a homosexual in the process of becoming transsexual. For further  information, please use the following link: http://androgyne.0catch.com/hijrax.htm

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Understanding North Korea, Part I (Propaganda)

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It is vital to understand North Korea in order to effectively plan and prepare for unification. In doing so, this series will look at North Korean society in a variety of ways. Personally, I have always been fascinated by propaganda, specifically communist propaganda. It is absurd, but plainly fascinating at the same time. Given my fascination, this article aims to shed some light on North Korea through its use of propaganda.

Purity is of special importance in North Korean culture. Prior to an official meeting between South and North Korean generals in 2006, the former mentioned that farmers are increasingly marrying women from other countries – to which the latter replied “[o]ur nation has always considered its pure lineage to be of great importance, I am concerned that our singularity will disappear”. The South Korean general dismissed these marriages as a mere “drop of ink in the Han River” to which his Northern counterpart said “[s]ince ancient times our land has been one of abundant natural beauty. Not even one drop of ink must be allowed”1. This obsession with purity is reflected through the extensive use of white color in North Korean propaganda. It is therefore not surprising that Mount Baekdu and Pyongyang are commonly depicted as landscapes covered in snow.

“The snowstorm rendered Pyongyang – this city steeped in five-thousand year old, jade-like spirit of the race, imbued with the proudly lonely life-breath of the world’s cleanest, most civilized people – free of the slightest blemish… covering everything in a thick white veil of purity.2

It is also interesting to note that women are generally dressed in white – whether it is Kim Il Sung’s mother handing him a gun with which he would later start the war of liberation or the famous “Flower Girl” (The Flower Girl, 1972, is the country’s favorite movie2).

david3 Furthermore, it is also possible to understand how North Korea sees its place in the world via looking at the famous picture of Bill Clinton and Kim Jong Il.

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The painting in the background is no coincidence because it symbolizes the world’s harassment of North Korea and how it literally stands as firm as a rock. This imagery has been commonly used, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union; indicating that North Korea sees itself as the last bastion of socialism.

Joseph Goebbels once proclaimed that “we have made the Reich by propaganda”, underlining that there is more to it than just plain imagery. Looking at the examples above, it is clear that this holds true especially for North Korea, where propaganda plays a vital part in society. Understanding it also means better understanding North Korea – a necessity when it comes to a prepared unification.

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Photo Credit:

1: http://mancunion.com/2012/02/20/business-as-usual-for-north-korea/

2: http://old.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/feature/49806

3: http://www.wbur.org/2009/08/04/clinton-nkorea

Citation Credit:

1: “Two Koreas’ Top Brass Resort to Racist Mudslinging”. Chosun Ilbo (English Language Edition). May 17, 2006

2: B. R. Myers. (2011). “The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves – And Why It Matters”. New York: Melville House Publishing.

 

Abductions by North Koreans Still Remain Unresolved

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35 years ago in November, Megumi Yokota at the age of thirteen disappeared while walking home from her school in a village of Niigata Prefecture, Japan. Investigations concluded that she was abducted by a North Korean agent in western Japan, where she was dragged into a boat to be sent off to North Korea and was forced to teach Japanese language and culture for the training of North Korean spies. This disturbing and bizarre kidnapping was a crime that captivated Japan during the late 1970s to early 1980s. Megumi was not the only one. In 2002, at meeting with Japan’s Prime Minister, Kim Jung Il admits that North Korea has abducted numerous Japanese people during the period of 1978 to 1983. North Korea has admitted to thirteen abductions in total during the period and eventually let five Japanese citizens return home. However, the real number of abductions will never be known.

Her parents, now in their eighties, still believe that Megumi is alive. Ms. Yokota says that she raised Megumi until she was thirteen and she knows what her strengths and characters are. North Korea claims that Megumi has committed suicide due to mental illness and stress on March 13, 1994 (originally announced as 1993 but corrected to 1994). Megumi’s parents have received her ashes—what North Korea claims to be her ashes— but the DNA test has been inconclusive. The Yokota family has taken this case to the highest level, as far as the White House in the United States, but they have not been fortunate enough to receive definitive answers. Mr.Yokota says that the Japanese government can’t just sit back and wait, that the Japanese government needs to demonstrate its strong determination to bring Megumi back. But the reality is not as easy as it sounds.

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What still remains in question is whether Megumi has married a South Korean national, Kim Young Nam and even has a daughter who is now in her twenties currently living in North Korea. Megumi’s husband has also confirmed that Megumi has committed suicide in 1994 and has had suicidal attempts before her death. Later, however, it was found that Kim Young Nam was not allowed to speak freely during his interview in Pyongyang and that “it looked as if he was reading a script”.

It is still broadly believed that Megumi is still alive due to certain evidences South Korea media was able to obtain. In November 2011, a South Korean Magazine Weekly Chosun presented a 2005 directory of Pyongyang residents that listed a woman named Kim Eun Gong who had the same birthday as Megumi. The Japanese government has verified the list, but has yet to identify the woman listed. There have been controversies that the woman listed is actually Megumi’s daughter, but due to North Korea’s strict surveillance, everything remains uncertain.

Megumi has also received a lot of media attention by documentaries, songs, television shows and movies about the life and the process of abduction. Despite all this, the Japanese government has not been very active in resolving abduction cases caused by North Korea. Ms. Yokota hopes that the new North Korean leader, Kim Jung Eun may work more towards peace because of his exposure to the West, but we can only wait to see such changes. “I just want to hold her in my arm, after all she’s been through.” says Ms. Yokota as her final comment during the interview when she was asked if she thinks she will ever see her daughter again.

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Disability Rights in North Korea: Turning Over a New Leaf

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 Swimmer Rim Ju Song became DPRK’s first Paralympian upon his participation in the 50m freestyle heat.

Photo: Telegraph.co.uk

 

The new decade marked mostly positive changes in the DPRK’s policy towards the disabled, showing a remarkable shift from the ostracization and cruelty many claimed they have been subject to. Whether such developments reflect a substantial change in the paradigm on broader human rights remains to be foreseen.

 

In the minds of many hopefuls, and skeptics alike, North Korea might have possibly achieved a milestone as it sent its first Paralympian to the London Olympics in the form of Rim Ju Song, a construction-worker-turned-swimmer [1].

 

The “Catch-22”: He couldn’t really swim, let alone master the minimum of two strokes required to compete. Despite finishing last in the heats, he has emerged as a pioneer. His stardom is set to inspire disabled people across North Korea and beyond.

 

Rim’s anecdote, however, serves as an anti-thesis to the commonly acknowledged perception of the North’s human rights practices. An oft-cited report by Vitit Muntharbhorn, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, paints an unflattering spectacle of the North’s perpetual human rights violations, as well the services offered to persons with disabilities [2]. Accounts from refugees reveal that those with disabilities are deported to the outskirts of the city, and detained in “Ward 49,” a throwback to the gulags from the Stalinist era. In addition, in a system of selective breeding, the disabled and those with genetic mutation are denied their reproductive rights, with disabled newborns being killed as per some recent accounts.

 

For a country where the disabled make up approximately 7.5 percent of the total population, such discrimination is tantamount to and deserving of the attention it has received thus far. A recent feature on Yonhap by Jason Strother further serves as a testament to the experiences of the disabled in the Northern counterpart [3]. Consequently, an overview of North Korean refugee statistics suggests that very few with disabilities make it to the South. While these accounts are not derivative by any means, one may still conjecture how the 17-year amputee Rim’s narrative matches with what we know of the North. This is also where I adopt the idealist’s route.

 

Indeed, Rim’s story is a deviation and may not be representative of his countrymen’s experiences, given that those with disabilities are essentially perceived as a societal and national burden, which, however, might be true of any community. Recent developments in North Korea delineate significant progress in terms of advancing disability rights. In 2003, the country passed the Law on the Protection of Persons with Disability, a legislation promising free medical care and special education, and in 2009 assured the United Nations that its disabled were receiving proper care and schooling [4]. Rehabilitation centers for the disabled have been constructed in the North amidst the hullabaloo surrounding peninsular politics, and the North Korean Federation for the Disabled have been becoming increasingly inclined to accept technical assistance for paraplegics, polio patients, traffic accident victims and wounded former soldiers [5]. As of 2011, it has been celebrating the International Day of Persons with Disabilities and has signed it first MoU with the World Federation of the Deaf with the view of ameliorating the living conditions and promoting equal opportunities for the deaf in arenas of education, culture, arts and sports [7] [8].

 

In a case of unprecedented collaboration, the Federation has also joined forces with the Green Tree Foundation from South Korea, which sends food and supplies across the border to the disabled, and sports equipment to those at the Taeddonggang Cultural Center for the Disabled as well [9]. Most recently, the Federation organized a table tennis tournament for those with disabilities, delineating a significant progress towards ameliorating its human rights record [10].

 

Granted, expecting overnight changes in human rights regime may be a bit of a stretch. However, cooperation between the two Koreas in terms of ensuring disability rights in DPRK is underway, regardless of whether Paralympics may indeed be the endgame for North Korea. Much has been said about unification producing a mightier Korean Olympic squad. Rather, dialogues towards standardizing human rights practices between the two nations need to be promoted in view of paving the path for a more sustainable means of unification.

 

 

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Kim Jong-un: Person of the Year

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The Internet has an almost unhealthy obsession with North Korea, which just might reveal a lot about what young people think of the small, but news-grabbing country.  In the last month, North Korea has successfully launched a washing machine-sized satellite into orbit.  Yet, from viewing the numerous news feeds on Facebook, I could have thought the only recent news story about North Korea was that a Chinese newspaper picked up a satirical article from The Onion that named Kim Jong-un as last year’s Sexiest Man Alive.

The bizarre story of North Korea cropping up on the Internet has been the successful campaign to get Kim Jong-un voted Person of the Year in Time Magazine‘s online reader poll.[1]  The campaign was launched where so many are – on the notoriously offensive image board of the website 4chan—and was executed with the help of automated vote spamming.  This isn’t the first time that 4chan users have manipulated a Time reader poll. In 2009, they were able to use the same tactics to vote 4chan creator Christopher Poole to the top spot.[2]  But the promotion of Christopher Poole has a much more obvious motive than North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.  So why exactly did netizens expend so much time and effort on this prank?

The simple answer is that North Korea’s Kim family tends to be an easy target for mockery.  The absurdity of the propaganda that comes out of the country can often make them more of an entertainment piece than an actual news story.  All this surely contributes to the fact that many young Americans don’t fear North Korea or its militaristic aspirations.  People don’t take Kim Jong-un seriously; pop culture portrays him as a ridiculous little fat man who happens to be in charge of a country.[3] And this is why it would be comical if he were to win Person of the Year.

More specifically, it seems to be the personality cult surrounding the Kim family that is being lampooned.  The logic being that if Kim Jong-un really is the great and charismatic leader that he tries to portray himself as, he could surely be chosen as Person of the Year by popular vote.  Furthermore, the online vote could easily have real world significance and become the joke that keeps on giving because North Korean news agencies are known to publish these types of stories as legitimate.  In fact, that’s exactly what happened – The Korean Central News Agency reported that “politicians, business owners, artists, athletes and broadcasters” nominated Kim for the honor.[4]  Whether or not the North Korean news media truly believed the poll is debatable, but for netizens, the fact that it was reported was surely a win.

The more nefarious reason for North Korea being the subject of this campaign is that it is almost sure to offend people.  Human rights abuses in North Korea are well-known in the U.S., so the idea of an abusive authoritarian leader being voted for Person of the Year will undoubtedly upset certain people.  The campaign escalated when it was decided to spell out “KJU GAS CHAMBERS” with first letters of each candidate’s name.  Someone affiliated with the plan wrote to the media anonymously stating that “there really is nothing too exciting about the meaning…Furthermore, if there was any overt justification for why we chose gas chambers, it’s because we wanted to reference Hitler, who’s [sic] gas chamber antics are always offensive to people.”[5]

But for some, there is more to this story than just a practical joke.  The campaign was co-opted by amorphous hacktivist group, Anonymous with the goal of drawing attention to prison camps so that people will “realize that the regime in North Korea is nothing but barbaric.”[6]

It’s difficult to say that anything good, bad, or even particularly meaningful came out of this stunt.  However, the fact that Kim Jong-un was chosen as the subject of the campaign does shine a light on people’s conceptions of North Korea.

 

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Fellow Correspondents Make Me Believe in Unification

I joined this blog as a member of the 2011-2012 class of correspondents; now the new class of correspondents is fully on board, and my old class is fully phased out, although I’m still writing articles.

It is exciting to see new batches of articles here, articles written by people I’ve never met. I feel a kinship arising out of our shared interests; these are subjects I’ve really come to care about. It’s fascinating to read about their summers with the MOU and compare their experiences to my own (I wish I could have climbed Baekdusan); inspiring to know that a program that is very much in the experimental stages of growth is still experimenting, alive, and growing. It makes me feel like this blog, which I’m pretty sure no one but my loving parents reads as of now, has a future ahead of it.

This gives me an odd hope for unification. All of my research makes it clear to me how difficult unification will be; sometimes I even wonder if it’s possible, desirable, or even worth it to keep pinning hopes—I, who am not Korean and may never even return to the peninsula—on something so abstract and implausible. The gaps are, if anything, only widening— culturally and economically. Sometimes it seems as if certain gaps might be narrowing. A reform is introduced; an NGO is doing good work. But time is widening the most important gap: the felt imperative to unify. As direct memories of a unified Korea fade, so does the urgency of unification.

In any case, even if political unification were to occur tomorrow, any true human and cultural unity would be far away, if the experiences of Germany or Yemen are any indication; perhaps decades or longer. Political unification is a vital goal, but it is not the end of the road.

But when people—especially young ones, even if they don’t seem to matter (If they really didn’t matter, how could a handful of student correspondents matter weighed against the 60 million people on the Korean peninsula? How on earth could a 500-word blog posts have any contribution in changing the path of a peninsula? How could one think our partially informed, youthful opinions have a power that seasoned journalists and experienced politicians lack?)—care about a cause, it seems possible that the cause can triumph.

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The Korean peninsula without political division. Author’s image, taken from the Standard Atlas of Korea, published by Saso Publishing Co., 1960.

Some people in South Korea care about and will prepare for unification. There are not too many, but there are some (like the Ministry of Unification). They probably aren’t enough to make anything happen on their own; there is too much disinterest weighing against them. In North Korea, on the other hand, I think nearly every one of the 23 million people there are interested in unification. It’s a huge part of the political and cultural dialogue, a huge part of the way they understand their position in the world (see especially Brian Myers’ opinions in this interview). I also think North Koreans must know, somehow, that they have a lot to gain from it; access to information about South Korea is growing. They may still be misinformed, but they know there is a destiny for them past the confines of the DMZ, and larger than the bounds of the Tumen and Amnok rivers.

Whatever happens to spur unification—and something will happen—I think it will come from North Korea. That’s part of the reason why I write so often about understanding North Korea, not South Korea; that’s where any action toward unification seems most likely to originate.

When it does, and when political unification takes place, it may be three years from now. It may be ten years, twenty, or fifty. But I believe it will happen, because I see that people care even though they have little reason to be passionate, even though they have little power.

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Brian Myers on Perceptions of North Korea

On November 13th the Wall Street Journal published a thought-provoking interview with Brian Myers, professor of Korean studies at Dongseo University. Myers is the author of The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters, published by Melville House.

Myers spent most of his attention on South Korea and how South Koreans can improve negotiations with the North by identifying more with their state and less with their race. I like his argument against ethnocentrism, although I don’t welcome the political nationalism he advises for Koreans; still, he does make a convincing argument that North Korea’s actions can be favorably influenced by greater South Korean attachment to the political entity of South Korea.

He thinks South Korea’s political brand needs to have the emotional connection with its people that North Korea has. He concludes, “If South Koreans were to convey a shared pride in their state, I don’t see how North Korea could keep persuading its people to sacrifice material comfort for the “final victory” of unification.”

This seems true. I was also compelled by Myers’ argument about how Americans should view North Korea. He claims that Americans are mired in a traditional view of North Korea as, first and foremost, a communist state.

Do we think that? I think so, for the most part. We think of the red socialist star on the DPRK flag; we think of its propaganda, its missiles, its goose-stepping military, its nuclear ambitions, and its political dynasty. The media focuses most of its attention on these aspects of North Korea. And that’s where most people get their perspective on the country.

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One thing we think of when we think about North Korea: rows and rows of soldiers. This photo was taken April 14, 2012. Photo credit Ed Flanagan / NBC News.

The government thinks similarly. Myers parrots the words of the average American taxpayer: “Defending the world against communism, that’s our main mission.” The government, knowing that a communist perception of North Korea is the ticket to continued taxpayer support for activity and influence in that part of the world, perpetuates the stereotype. Right-leaning politicians see in North Korea an opportunity to employ American military might and protect the world from the rights violations of a failed ideology. Left-leaning politicians see an opportunity to seek engagement and conduct various trust-building measures. All parties involved get just what they wanted.

It’s a bankrupt view, but this is not to say that there’s no element of truth to it. North Korea conforms to many of our understandings of communism; it has even come to define our current understanding of communism. But that’s not the whole truth.

As an example, North Koreans are famous for their anti-American propaganda. They talk about the Yankee bastards and emphasize America’s imperialist aggressions. Is America an imperial state? Most Americans, focusing on the politically obvious separations of nations around the world, don’t see it that way. But America is the closest thing the world has today to a military, economic, and cultural global empire. Even if it’s not quite aggressive as in the terms of North Korea, housing and drilling 36,000 troops just south of the border is certainly not passive.

So there’s some truth to what North Korea thinks; but the way they think it, and the way they interact with us because of it, prevents any reasonable chance at mutual dialogue. We might try to negotiate with North Korea, but its leaders’ understanding of our intentions as aggressive and imperialist spurs their defensiveness and prohibits genuine dialogue. Our limited understanding of North Korea as a communist state does the same thing: it makes us defensive and prohibits genuine dialogue.

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The people are wearing uniforms, but under the clothing they are just ordinary people cheering on a World Cup qualifying soccer match on October 11, 2012. Photo credit David Guttenfelder / AP Photo.

What instead? I don’t know a simple answer; that’s part of the problem. Whole countries cannot be reduced to simple categories. But Myers implies that the only solution is to learn more. His book The Cleanest Race is a good starting point; so is this blog, hopefully. The more we learn about how North Korea actually works, the more we can interact with the real country and not the communist menace we have in our heads.

 

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Yemeni Unification: Implications

A hundred and fifty miles off Cape Horn, wrapped in the dusty breezes of the western Indian Ocean, lies the isle of Socotra. Socotra is bizarre. It has dragon’s-blood trees, roses that look like elephant legs, and plants bulging rootless out of bare rock. Six to seven million years of isolation have created an island where one-third of the plant species are found nowhere else on Earth

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The dragon’s-blood tree, which oozes dark red resin, grows only on Socotra. Photo credit Piotr Kot via LATimes.com.

Although those strange plant species were able to resist the influence of seeds from elsewhere, the island’s inhabitants weren’t so lucky. They were tugged this way and that by Christian missionaries, Portuguese explorers, the Mahra Sultanate, the British Empire, and finally, in 1967, the new state of South Yemen.

Just as the island’s citizens must have felt themselves to be subject to the winds of political vicissitudes, so did (and does) South Yemen. I delved into the brief history of North and South Yemen in my last post. Basically, North and South Yemen unified in 1990, but the poor and unpopulated southern provinces have since felt themselves unfairly controlled by their northern brethren. Efforts to secede continue to this day.

So here’s a country that unified two decades ago in a peaceful process, but has seen anything but peace since then. Reflecting upon the Yemeni experience, what may, then, can we expect for the Korean peninsula?

That’s what Gabriel Jonsson, author of the 2006 book Towards Korean Reconciliation: Socio-Cultural Exchanges and Cooperation, wanted to find out. I found his book on the 7th floor of Emory University’s library, and was fascinated by his discussion of Yemeni unification and its implications for Korea.

From the first stirrings of unification in the late 1980s, there were concerns that South Yemen (relatively poor, with a low population and an underperforming economy) would be dominated by North Yemen if a rapid unification took place. So the leaders tried to be responsible; they sought a laissez-faire approach to joining the two countries. Israeli professor Joseph Kostiner reported that the North and South Yemen leaders “intended to follow a natural course of unification as set out by ‘the people’ and not a previously imposed, overbearing state-building system, as had been the case in the unification of East and West Germany.” They hoped the political system would regulate itself, creating an organic approach to unification without unnecessary impositions or domination by either party.

Although the process at first was rapid and peaceful, the consensus is that their approach was a bit too laissez-faire. There was considerable mutual distrust, and in post-unification elections the political parties closely reflected the old split between North and South. Soon, economic difficulties proved divisive too: the South Yemeni, accustomed to a state-run socialism, had difficulty implementing a market-run economy. Finally, little thought was given to integrating the two armies; they remained separate, and were one of the direct causes of the civil war in 1994.

The Korean newspaper Hankook Ilbo concluded in a July 9, 1994 article: “The Yemen crisis teaches us that a unification achieved by artificial and mere political means will not be successful and that there must be a relatively long transition period to eliminate mutual distrust and antagonism before unification.” The article went on to advise that “steady interaction should be pursued across the divided land to resolve the sense of heterogeneity among ordinary people.”

Jonsson agrees with that editorial; he draws a clear line between the “political unification” that took place in Yemen, which was at least somewhat successful, and the “human unity” that, he argues, is still not present.

In essence, unification happened too quickly. The “now-or-never” attitude that made unification possible also hamstrung it; in Yemen, it meant that the country was politically unified before its separate political, economic, and cultural systems could be brought in harmony together.

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Yemeni citizens protest against the government on April 4, 2011. These “Arab spring” protests spread rapidly due partly to vestigial resentment in southern Yemen cities. Photo credit Email4mobile via Wikipedia.

Jonsson argues that the key to successful unification is greater pre-unification understanding between the common people of each country. I think he’s right. East Germans had ready access to West German TV. North and South Yemen had large numbers of workers abroad, who could interact with each other informally and then transmit information to their counterparts back home. Even then, neither Germany nor Yemen had a completely successful unification. North and South Koreans, on the other hand, lack any kind of informal knowledge exchange, and Jonsson argues that it’s a major obstacle to achieving effective political or human unification.

So, what lessons to draw? The main one is that there needs to be more contact between the two countries. South Koreans need to learn from defectors and be understanding of them. This miniature integration will prepare them for a larger one. North Koreans will need more chances to learn about South Koreans and their way of life.

Yemen unified suddenly. Anthropologist Paul Dresch tells us that in October  1987—less than three years before unification actually happened—a senior  government official in the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) declared that “except by some historic accident, unity [with South Yemen] will only come about over a long period of time.” This suggests that, even if we think Korean unification is far away now, it could be a real thing much sooner than we think.

But without much greater informal contact between North and South Korea, the chances for a successful human unification—even if events justify a sudden political unification—are slim.

 

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