Me and North Korea
In sociology, at least according to Goffman, someone who is a criminal, overweight, disabled, unemployed, addicted, etc might be considered to have a spoiled identity. That is, there is something about them that isn’t “normal” and which may prevent them from easily passing as normal. They are stigmatized for being deviant. People may even avoid that individual for fear that even by association, somehow the stigmatized identity will reflect upon them. For instance, “good people” don’t befriend drug addicts, so clearly the person who is friends with that individual must also be deviant.
North Korea is a country with a spoiled identity (even though I have not seen this applied to countries). No one wants to be friends with North Korea or associate too closely. This is especially true for socialists. Socialists are already looked upon as deviant…so there is a lot of distancing between “us” and North Korea. After all, we don’t want to appear crazy, brutal, warped, etc. Now, people are intelligent enough to differentiate say….the Inquisition and…a Lutheran pot luck. Both may fall under the umbrella of Christian activities over history, but there is generally a nuanced understanding of Christianity which does not equate the two as equal. Yet, when it comes to North Korea or communism in general, a lot of very diverse events and ideas get lumped together into the big bad that is Marxism. This lumping together feels something like the logic of “So, perhaps the Lutheran Ladies Aid Society serves tater tot hotdish…but Christians are inherently terrorists…as the Lord’s Resistance Army has shown us….therefore they are also evil.” Logic fail, right? Nevertheless, it seems challenging to elevate public awareness regarding the hundreds of varieties and expressions of socialism. (Which, by the way, North Korea does not consider itself Marxist as this is a western idea and they prefer the homegrown ideology of self-sufficiency, nationalism, and a leader/human based theory of history known as the Juche ideology).
In my observation, there is a fear of too closely associating with North Korea due to the fear of being lumped together with them. So, how do we talk about North Korea? How can be move beyond letting fear shape the discourse?
I don’t like when people make jokes about N. Korea. For one, there is a racist undertone usually. Like…Team America where Kim Jong Il is a funny looking Asian guy who can’t pronounce “r” and “l.” Instead of lonely, he sounds horney, which seems to poke fun at Asian masculinity. In real life, it seems to me that the Kim family is depicted as weird and villainous if not occasionally a Fu Manchu enemy from the East. North Koreans themselves are humorless, robotic, uniformed, brain washed drones. North Korea is always “the other.”
Speaking of the “other,” I recall a documentary or news program wherein North Koreans were interviewed and didn’t know who Nelson Mandela was. This was used as evidence of how closed off from the world the populace was. Before picking on North Korea, I would like to interview some average Americas. I imagine that there are probably quite a few who would also fail to identify Nelson Mandela…this in a country with the luxury of too much information! I only use this as an example of how North Korea is presented as so dissimilar from us. Which, certainly it is, but it is also politically useful to point out similarities or at the very least…humanize the populace.
Outside of humor and “othering” is some real compassion. No one wants to see people suffer famine, dictatorship, repression, and prison camps. But, compassion ends with the idea that something must be done. The U.S. must do something. This cry for justice does not consider the fact that TEAM AMERICA world police….tends to make things worse. It also ignores the fact that the United States has supported dictatorships and undermined democracy when it is of interest to do so. Don’t forget that South Korea was ruled by U.S. supported dictatorships until the late 1980s!
Nevertheless, there seems to be a somewhat popular sentiment that we should just go to war with them and either get rid of the problem or liberate them. Would the lives of North Koreas be improved by a war? Our lives certainly wouldn’t be. Is it the job of the U.S. to liberate North Korea? I think we need to liberate ourselves first. As I have mentioned before, we have the largest prison population in the world. We are our own police state in a way, certainly with domestic spying and the militarization of the police. Certainly, compared to North Korea, we have many things such as the illusion of democracy through two paid off nearly identical parties, consumer goods, a higher standard of living, greater power, legitimacy, and wealth in the world, and (despite well-founded criticisms of attacks on them) a much greater degree of civil liberty. Yet, we still have a lot of work to do and many areas to improve.
But, what do you say to those who want some immediate action to improve the lives of North Koreans? My only answer is if we push for fewer prisons and prisoners here, more equality and justice here, less war-mongering…the world will be better. North Korea can look at us and point out our own hypocrisy. It can look at our human rights and our militarism and use these things to justify their own fears. See, like our government, which built power upon our fear of criminals, terrorists, and communists over history…and harnessed this fear to sell expensive domestic and foreign policies…North Korea is also founded upon fear. Fear makes dictatorship legitimate. If I was a North Korean I would fear the U.S.! Why wouldn’t I? What reason would I have not to? What have we done to appear as a nation of justice, peace, and equality? And, that fear makes their regime all the more legitimate. It is a lame answer. It is one that is perhaps overly simple. But, I will stand by the notion that if we truly want to help them, we must stand for justice, equality, and peace here.
A socialist answer would be to try to build ties of solidarity with North Korean workers or somehow, as workers, aid them in their own liberation. The country is so closed off and the stakes so high, this is tremendously difficult. This is why the locus is organizing within the United States against the various social ills within our own country. However, at some basic reformist level, I am not opposed to cultural exchanges or anything that normalizes relations or gives some immediate relief to the people. While these reformist answers through feel good charities and NGOs may promote a softer form of imperialism, I think that this could play a very small, immediate, and supplementary role in building ties between people or good will.
In 2010, I traveled to North Korea- without telling my family. I studied in South Korea, then went to Beijing to visit my friend Rose. Rose’s friend was a tour guide for trips to North Korea…so I went on a trip that year to North Korea. It was the first year that North Korea allowed American tourists into the country year round. North Korea…obviously…is really unlike any country in the world. It is a place where you turn your cellphone in at the airport in Pyongyang as it is not allowed in the country. The airport had a blackout when I arrived and was no larger than the Duluth airport, with probably fewer flights each day. Despite hacking controversies, it is a country that almost entirely lacks internet (though Intranet is available at some libraries/universities). The roads are empty of cars and there are no advertisements and few foreign products (except Chinese products). The air is completely clear- quite a change from Beijing-owing to lack of automobile ownership and dire economic times. There is little litter, which is quite striking. In contrast to hyper-modern, technology and image obsessed South Korea, North Korea is folksy and frozen in the 1950s/60s. The differences are sometimes astonishing, but really….in some ways not so different. Rather than propaganda for Coke and plastic surgery, road signs are always propaganda for the leadership of the country. In many industrialized countries, women starve themselves for beauty. There, people have simply starved. All of our grotesque excess is a dictatorship as much as theirs, in a way anyway. I was told that women there learn how to shoot a gun by the age of 14. Gender is unusual, as women wear drab military clothes or out of date styles. The expression of self through clothes and technology is missing. I was told that everyone can fight and is willing to fight the U.S. (though Japan is sometimes mentioned as well.) A mistrust of Japan is something that both Koreas share. The pervasive militarism is supported by a culture of fear. The U.S. is truly feared there. So, it was interesting to be an American there. I wanted to show that not all Americans are war mongers who would like to intervene in North Korea. I sang the International on the bus with my guides! I hope that maybe they could see Americans differently.
I had a great time and it was a fascinating peek into dictatorship. This sounds very voyeuristic and hedonistic. Of course, it is. I am the outsider who gets to gaze upon it. I get to leave and have another notch on my belt for interesting adventures. I am sure that there is something unethical about it. Yet, I don’t claim to be an example of ethics or morals. I just wanted to go there and see it. Three tour guides, a hotel on an island, a bus of Chinese, Australians, Kiwis…and me. We drove across the country to Kaesong. I did see people in parks and at the Mass Games. I saw farmers along the side of the road or soldiers at the demilitarized zone. I saw elderly men fishing. Some were smiling and laughing. At the Mass Games, there appeared to genuine emotion and engagement in the story of their history as told through synchronized gymnastics. Despite everything, some people do seem to have times of joy. How widespread is it? How enduring? I don’t know, but it was nice to see that it isn’t a monolithic gray misery for everyone at all times.
I don’t wish to come across that I support North Korea’s regime, but I think that the trip was educational and I am certainly sympathetic to North Koreans. I don’t villainize them nor feel they deserve to be “liberated” by force of a foreign intervention. I don’t idealize their lack of cell phones or lack of advertisement, even though I generally am critical of various aspects of capitalism. Therefore, it is a difficult balancing act to be a critic of capitalism, a supporter of North Korean independence, and a critic of North Korean dictatorship/human rights. I feel that I can never quite convey my feelings or thoughts on this issue properly- as I certainly don’t want to be seen as pro-North Korea. After all, theirs is a spoiled identity. I can’t besmirch my “good” reputation as a socialist by appearing too close. And I’m not. I was just a visitor.