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.

Things I Learned About North Korea From Reading The Comments Section

North Korea is one of those topics that grips my attention with morbid fascination. It boggles my mind to imagine a world so removed, so disconnected, and so absolutely alien to my own human experience. My interest goes far beyond “this is a crazy dictatorship with nuclear technology,” which seems to be as far as the rabbit hole goes for most people. For me, it’s the idea of what life is like in such a place. It seems like something out of a novel and it’s chilling to know that all the books I’ve read, like Barbara Demick’s poignant Nothing to Envy are filed in the non-fiction section.

I saw a great article about a tourist’s experiences in North Korea. The author’s own reactions are the highlight of the post: a combination of empathy and shocked amusement wrapped in a witty shell. I think shocked amusement is a normal human reaction to something so strange and unsettling; humor is one of the brain’s ways of dealing with stress, after all.

I don’t think this is cruel, superficial, or insensitive. Joking about how bizarre and weird such an experience is doesn’t mean insensitivity to the very real and very horrible human rights violations (only Eritrea has a worse record of human rights violations than North Korea). When you’re faced with something like that, the mind really has only a few options: try to laugh, try to forget, or shatter.

The reason why I’m writing about this article is not because of the article itself (although it’s very good and I think you should read it), but because of the comments the article has spawned. The author wryly notes early in the post:

Before I talk about what I learned, I’d like to quickly say hi to whomever from the North Korean government is reading this. Only the highest-level officials have access to the internet in North Korea, and I learned that the job of one of them is to scour the internet for anything written about North Korea and keep tabs on what the foreign press is saying. So hi, and haha you can’t get me cause I’m back home now and I can say all the things I wasn’t allowed to say when I was in your country.

The comments section unequivocally proves this to be true. Here are a collection of some of the best gems. Most of them are posted anonymously, although a few do have rather dubious sounding “Western” names attached. I won’t be offering any commentary as I think the rebuttals are fairly self-evident.

From “Anonymous”:

Actually, it was a rather contrived article full of swearing that was meant to make Americans feel good about their own massive police state. Enjoy feeling smug about yourself and your “free” country? Get a kick out of feeling “pity” for those poor North Koreans. Pull your head out and try fixing your own broken country, namely the USA.

From “Anonymous”:

Yes, it does sound a lot like the USA since 911. Of course, its easier to see the speck in the other guy’s eye, ya know? Not that N. Korea isn’t much worse and very sad because it is. But do take heed because they are working on making the US into the same kind of place. Current attack is against free speech under the guise of protecting “real journalists” – warning, warning, warning. We all must have the same protections.

From “Anonymous”:

Funny post, but some of it sounds pretty similar to the place where I live:
1. The leaders are a really big deal…
Like the POTUS (Mr. Peace Prize Terror Tuesday, and all the others before him), and the Fed chairman?
2. Everyone lies about everything all the time…
Like saying “the recession is over!”, or “unemployment is going down!”, or “inflation is low!”, or “the FED knows what it’s doing!”, or “college is a good investment”, or “we stand for Freedom! Yeah!”, or “marijuana is bad for you! booo!”, or “the Terrorists are going to get us!”, or “our military is killing people over there so they won’t kill us over here!”, or “the government cares for your safety!”, or “fluoride is not bad for you!”, or “the Healthcare Act was written to benefit the people, not the insurance companies who wrote it!”, or “Syria bombed its own people with chemicals, so now we need to go over there and bomb their people with even more killing metals!”, or “Iraq has WMD’s”, etc., etc., etc., etc., etc.
4. Propaganda is absolutely everywhere…
Like chanting “allegiance” and singing songs about how great the country is and how the country is God’s favorite, to start every school day, and at church, and before every collegiate and professional sporting event? And parading soldiers out in front of everyone all the time to be admired? Like that?
7. The details of the leader’s birth (and college career, professional career, criminal history, etc.) is not a subject you should try to gather information on…
Hmm, too much to list on this one, about every leader this country has ever had.
8. The same physical place can be fancy and shitty at the same time…
Washington D.C., New York, LA, Chicago, Houston, etc.
9. Still talk about the Wars… all the ones we had no business starting or participating in?
12. Lacking a sense of humor about the places that hold the bodies of dead leaders… See #1…

From “Kacuncica Davidovic”:

Well in many bulletpoints North Korea is not much different than modern USA.

From “Anonymous”:

True. This piece of slanted propaganda is only meant to titillate those Americans that are already brainwashed. The biggest police state in the world is the USA. Only in the US would you be informed that you are being totally spied on and everything recorded and then not to worry about it! Mindless American bootlickers unite!

Okay. I’m going to break my earlier statement about not commenting. Let’s clear something up, just in case there was any doubts.

If you are able to complain about the “lack of freedom of speech” in a public forum, you still have freedom of speech. You’ll know when free speech is gone, because nobody will be able to say anything about it. (Complaining about the erosion of free speech is still vital, however, as it safeguards against that erosion.)

The day I know we’ve slid into an actual authoritarian police state will be the day when I do not see numerous books on the shelf in a public library accusing the current President of destroying the country, being an idiot, or just being evil in general. We won’t have a news networks that are pathologically dedicated to mocking everything the government does. Those things don’t exist in a police state. You don’t get to be a talking head on a popular news network, you get to be shot in the head.

Thus, it’s paradoxical, but I actually take comfort in seeing Fox News continue to be ridiculously anti-President (or CNN during times of Republican dominance; they like to change things up like that). As long as they’re around, I can be certain that the First Amendment is alive and well.

Yeah, there’s a lot that’s going wrong. The PRISM thing comes to mind as an example of a larger problem (although for most people, the idea of privacy is completely ridiculous considering our level of social media narcissism.) This whole “let’s play chicken with the debt ceiling” is somewhat troubling, especially since the Teabag core seems hellbent on nihilistic immolation at this point.

Still. All things considered, we’ve got it pretty good. South Koreans have it pretty good. Most of us in the industrialized world have it pretty good, admittedly to varying degrees of good.

Hopefully, someday North Koreans will have it pretty good, too.

Keeping It All In Perspective

So it seems like North Korea has been in the news a lot lately. Well, actually, there’s no ‘seems’ about it; you can’t open a blog or RSS feed without reading a terrifying headline about the impending nuclear apocalypse. I suppose that by writing this post, I’ll be including myself in such august company. Oops.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, in my reading, I tend to fixate on a subject for a while before moving on to the next one. While I don’t think that this makes me an expert on the Korean geopolitical situation, I do believe I’ve read enough about the topic to have something above a passing familiarity with North Korea and the developing situation over there. And in my (admittedly amateur) opinion, I think that it’s important to keep a few things in mind while the Google News headline is PENTAGON SAYS NUCLEAR MISSILE IN REACH FOR NORTH KOREA.

Seems pretty scary, right? North Korea is undeniably crazy, based on past experience such as its scientific discovery of the unicorn and the fact that it insists on being called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, despite the fact that such a name is both embarrassingly redundant (how many Democratic Republics belong to somebody other than the people?) and also wrong (how many Democratic Republics are actually totalitarian dictatorships?)

It seems that people like to overstate the military danger that North Korea possesses. That’s not to say that North Korea can’t be dangerous, just that it’s substantially less dangerous towards those of us living in the Unite States since we’re separated by that negligible body of water known as the entire Pacific Ocean.

If North Korea has developed a nuclear device capable of fitting onto a ballistic missile, that’s very bad news for South Korea, Japan, Australia, and every other US friendly nation. That is very bad news, indeed, and if things fall apart, a whole lot of people could be killed.

Keep in mind, however, that there is no scenario in which North Korea can win other than by doing what it’s always done, which is nothing. Many of their people are still starving to death. All China has to do is say “yeah, we’re done,” turn off the flow of resources that it’s been supplying, and North Korea collapses. They can’t go it alone and if they ever unleash a nuclear weapon, you can be they’ll be completely alone. It’s your basic WarGames scenario.

So while the headlines keep rolling out about the growing nuclear threat that is North Korea, keep in mind that while North Korea has the “largest military on earth with 9,495,000 active members,” it is also one of the most poorly equipped armies in the world. It’s an army that has been crippled by its own economic weakness. Most of its equipment dates back to the Cold War or earlier. Its military budget is $8 billion dollars. South Korea’s military budget is almost twice that.

It sounds like a lot to read that North Korea boasts “the largest submarine fleet in the world.” It’s less impressive when you consider that most of these submarines were acquired as scrap from Russia. What I’m trying to say is that history is filled with examples where having more guys doesn’t mean anything when the enemy has better weapons. Every single country North Korea has a grudge against (pretty much everyone) has better weapons.

I’m not saying that we should ignore North Korea; frankly, I consider it to be one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world today. However, that concern doesn’t lend itself to any real feelings of fear on my part. I think there’s rather too much fear going around these days and it’s helpful to be reminded that many, if not most, of the things we fear will never actually come to pass.