Ask A North Korean

It seems like January is the month when my thoughts are steered toward the plight of the people of North Korea, possibly the most brutalized and subjugated people of the entire world (not that brutal human rights violations is meant to be some sort of contest, of course).

Last year I went through a pretty heavy period of North Korea reading: the most powerful book I read was Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. This year, I’m deep into the Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, which is a fictional novel but nevertheless haunting and powerful.

It frustrates me that North Korea is something we don’t talk about as a culture, aside from whatever bonehead things Dennis Rodman has been saying. It may well be that the cultural fatigue induced by Afghanistan and Iraq have curbed the national desire for interventionist politics. Who would want to talk about getting involved with North Korea after the whole Iraq mess? Especially when North Korea has nuclear weapons. Sure, they may not be very good nuclear weapons, but when it comes to nukes, I find the distinction between excellent and decent is rather inconsequential to those beneath their shadows. They also have a powerful mostly-ally in China. So intervention isn’t really a feasible thing.

This is troubling from a humanitarian perspective. What’s the moral course of action in this instance? Iraq was a sobering lesson, regardless of the reasons why it was fought in the first place. I don’t have any answers, only concerns. It is a question where idealism and pragmatism clash directly. No one deserves to live with the kind of oppression and brutality that North Koreans face every day, though. Regardless of the fact that I don’t have a solution, I’m confident on that much.

One thing that I’ve found particular powerful and poignant is hearing the stories of North Koreans who have escaped their country’s regime. Ask a North Korean is an interesting column written by a few North Koreans who have managed to escape the country. Their words are sometimes sad, sometimes amusing, but always powerful. The constant narrative that I found the most striking was how often the desire for Korean reunification is expressed.

I don’t know whose responsibility reunification should be. I can’t help but feel that the US and Russia are responsible for the current division of the country and should take measures to undo the damage that was done. Is that more Western interventionist political posturing? Maybe. Perhaps it’s up to South Korea and North Koreans themselves to pull the country back together and oust the Kim regime.

I don’t know. I’m an outsider, just watching and listening and reading. I certainly don’t have any great insights. I certainly don’t know what the right thing is to do. But I feel that something should be done and it bothers me that more people don’t talk about this particular issue.

An Idealistic Thought For The Day

I know I linked to him in yesterday’s post about Romanticism, but I think David Brin really did have a point about the state of the world (beyond just the scope of Romanticism and the fantasy genre) and I wanted to highlight it in light of some other recent news.

From David Brin’s blog:

“. . . anyone who thinks we’ve gotten worse in our brutal savagery is simply a historical ignoramus.  I mean an ignoramus of historical proportions, who knows nothing of what the Assyrians did to the lost ten tribes of Israel, or the Romans to Judea, or the Mongols to Poland, or the Spanish to every native population they encountered. Or the Polynesians to each other, every year. Do you doubt that I could go on with this list? All day and all week? Can you cite counter-examples? Sure, but not many.

By comparison, . . . the per capita rate of violence on planet Earth has plummeted every single decade.

Don’t believe it? Watch this: Stephen Pinker on the Myth of Violence. Then ponder the most marvelous irony: that you think modernity is more violent and cruel only because modernity has succeeded in raising our standards of decent behavior, making us more self-critical about the travesties that remain.  Crimes that are so much milder than our ancestors committed routinely, without a twinge.”

It’s a good point to keep in mind. I know I fall victim to feeling like things are getting worse. It seems like every other day, some asshole from Tucson is making us all look bad. Or people are getting shot. Or blown up. Or blown up due to negligence. Anyway, it just feels like things are getting worse, even though, as Brin argues, the inverse is actually true.

That despair we’re feeling at the state of the world? That’s not the world descending into hell, that’s us getting more sensitive to the horrors that need our silent consent to continue unopposed. A generation ago, fuckwads like Tucson’s own Dean Saxton couldn’t be publicly shamed for his idiocy. Sure, that means he has a larger audience now and his message will reach more minds. It also means that more people will have an opportunity to say, “fuck you and fuck your ideas.” Contrary to popular belief, there is such a thing as bad publicity. The parts of you that exist on the Internet are eternal. These things have a way of sticking around. Maybe Saxton’s name will come up when he’s applying for a job and his fifteen minutes of fame will cost him. Or maybe this will be the greatest aspect of his legacy and this is how history will remember him, as a hateful misogynist swept aside by the changing times.

Silence and ignorance are the sanctuaries that breed cruelty the most effectively. Sure, it doesn’t make a big difference, calling out one asshole to a small audience on a wordpress blog (even if I did pay for my domain so you know that I’m hella serious). The effective change in the world won’t be felt today. Or tomorrow. Or next week. Or next year. I haven’t made the world any better by writing this post. Nobody saves the world by tweeting about it.

But if you get enough small changes? Over a long enough period?

Then you have enough change to erode mountains. Enough small changes together can move continents.

That’s what our technology is doing for us. It’s making us better by helping us to demand that the world be better. And in the mind of a better person, an injustice that was once ignorable is now intolerable. The world seems more intolerable today than it did yesterday because today we’re less willing to tolerate today what yesterday we could comfortably ignore.