How Not to Write About North Korea

Writing responses to every column on the Internet with which I disagree would be impossible, but yesterday’s column on North Korea by Chris Roper in The Guardian was so thoroughly ignorant, misguided, and disappointing that I felt compelled to examine it further.

It’s a happy truism. Scratch a politically correct liberal, and you’ll find a human being. And it appears that racism is the default state of being for humans. Don’t ask me why, it just appears to be the way we are. Perhaps when those happy-go-lucky Catholics tell us we are all born in sin, this is the sin they mean.

“Don’t ask me why, it just appears to be the way we are” isn’t a strong foundation for the argument that all human beings are inherently racist. Since race is a socially constructed concept, it’s hard to believe that discrimination and hatred based upon that concept isn’t also socially defined and mediated. In any event, asserting without evidence that all human beings are racist doesn’t bode well for the rest of this column.

Take North Korea, and the current hoo-ha about its threat to launch missiles against the US. It seems that some people think it’s okay to caricature Kim Jong-un based on his ethnicity, culture and appearance. Ooh, look at the little dancing fool with the crazy hairstyle! If we did the same to, say, China’s Xi Jinping, there’d be a massive outcry. On the face of it, China is up there with North Korea in terms of human rights abuses and lack of democracy, but we don’t spout off on public platforms about those crazy Chinese and their weird customs.

First, caricatures of world leaders are ubiquitous and most of the negative ones, like those of George W. Bush throughout most of the 2000s, aren’t racially charged. That doesn’t mean that racist caricatures haven’t existed in the past, like those of Japanese leaders during World War II in the American media, nor does it deny that racist depictions of Kim Jong-un and North Koreans are out there, but it does mean that caricatures and mockery shouldn’t be taken as inherently racist.

Second, Western nations and human rights organizations frequently criticize the Chinese government for the abuses it commits. None of them would agree with the statement that human rights abuses in China are anywhere as bad as human rights abuses in North Korea. In China, the free press is constrained; in North Korea, it is non-existent. In China, travel is restricted; in North Korea, it is forbidden. In China, the rule of law is weak; in North Korea, it is illusory. Treating all regimes who violate human rights as equivalent and interchangeable only minimizes the depths of abuses in places like North Korea.

Just because the North Korean culture is so utterly alien to much of the West, we allow ourselves to caricature the North Koreans and their leader. Admittedly, if you’re raised in a system of culture that doesn’t favour the theatrical and the hagiographic, you’re going to find the sight of prancing soldiers a little weird. But think about it before you join in with the chorus of ridicule: for the so-called civilised West, there’s probably very little difference in the quality of the disdain they feel for our own dancing Jacob Zuma.

It’s a little ridiculous to say Western culture, which gave us Versailles, the Olympic Games, and George S. Patton, doesn’t favor theatricality and hagiography. Military parades, which I presume is what Roper refers to by “prancing soldiers,” also take place in every country that has both a military and a parade. The North Korean military parade trope is only so prominent because that’s often all we see of the reclusive country. (We can thank the regime’s absolute control of the North Korean press and aggressive propaganda campaigns for that.) The Zuma quip appears to conclude that since mocking the South African president for dancing would be racist and wrong, mocking North Korea for its military parades is also racist and therefore wrong. I’m not sure that logic is, well, logical.

Of course, we have the self-same West to thank for the fact that North Korea exists at all. I’m oversimplifying massively, but the arbitrary division of Korea by the Allies after World War II is certainly a contributing factor to what we’re confronted with today. It’s kind of like Saddam Hussein-era Iraq, another gift bestowed on the world by the greed of western powers. And the American involvement in using North Korea as a pawn in their Cold War jousting with Soviet Russia means that the Kims have usefully had as caricatured an enemy to use for propaganda purposes.

Rarely do respectable newspapers publish paragraphs so rife with falsehoods, misrepresentations, and ignorance. I don’t know how Roper defines “the West,” but it certainly didn’t force the Soviet Union to prop up Kim Il-sung’s puppet regime in the late 1940s. Nor did “the West” pay for Kim Il-sung’s train ticket to Moscow in 1950 where he begged Joseph Stalin to give his assent to North Korea’s plans to conquer the South. The aging Soviet despot gave it, and “the West” sent thousands of troops to fight a three-year war against North Korean and Chinese forces to save South Korea from communist rule. Given the disparity in human rights and economic prosperity between North Korea and South Korea today, it’s a good thing the United Nations did. Indeed, “oversimplifying massively” would be using terms like “the West” so broadly that they lose all substantive meaning. Whether using phrases like “the greed of western powers” and “the so-called civilized West” in an exhortation against caricaturing an entire nation would be irony, hypocrisy, or both is also an open question.

I’m not saying that North Korea deserves our respect, far from it. The Guardian’s comparison of North and South Korea is revealing about what a terrible place North Korea is. And it’s true that the North Korean Kims have actually bumped Ms Kardashian off the number one spot on the popular “Ten Kims That Make Global Extinction A Not Entirely Tragic Thought” list that National Geographic’s magazine compiles every year.

The third sentence, which I have bolded for emphasis, was actually published online by a globally-renowned newspaper.

According to the data, a South Korean lives 10 years longer than a North Korean, 79.3 years versus 69.2. For every 1,000 live births in South Korea, 4.08 of the infants die on average. In the North, a tragic 26.21 die. And the homicide rate per 100,000 people is 2.6 in the South, and 15.2 in the North. And the stat that means nobody in North Korea will ever read my column: 81.5% of South Korea has access to the internet, but less than 0.1% of North Koreans do.

So sure, it’s a messed up place.

I don’t doubt that Roper disapproves of North Korea’s government, but it’d be hard to be less sincere about it by rattling off a few dehumanized statistics. North Korea is a carceral state from which no escape is possible, dotted with city-sized concentration camps housing almost 200,000 “enemies of the state”. Its totalitarian regime spent six decades shaping an entire society towards rabid xenophobia and military confrontation with the West solely to justify its own brutal grip on power. Millions of North Koreans suffer and starve so that Kim Jong-un and his inner circle can build nuclear weapons and threaten to turn neighboring nations into “seas of fire”.

So sure, it’s a messed up place.

But that doesn’t make it okay to devolve to old patterns of jingoistic racism, and turn “North Korean” into another iteration of the terrible N-word. Recently, the Washington Post ran a story quoting John McCain referring to “the crazy people” running North Korea, and there are headlines along the lines of’s “Diplomat: ‘Crazy’ N Korea deserves hard line“. It’s the kind of rhetoric that makes diplomacy difficult and aggression more palatable. I’m okay with calling Kim Jong-un an evil dictator, but not with a blanket statement about crazy people.

Is it possible that John McCain is calling North Korea’s leadership “the crazy people” not because he’s a jingoistic racist, but because North Korea’s leadership is threatening nuclear war against South Korea, Japan, and the United States for no reason whatsoever?

Is it conceivable that John McCain finds the North Korean government’s threat to launch nuclear weapons against the United States of America – a superpower wielding more military might than any organized society in the totality of human existence has ever possessed – so ludicrous and detached from reason itself that the only possible explanation is pure madness?

Could that be why he chose to refer to North Korea’s leaders as “crazy people”? Or is it more likely that he harbors a hatred of all North Koreans so virulent that its only historical parallel is the bigotry historically faced by African-Americans?

In State of Mind, Nick Bonner and Dan Gordon’s amazing 2004 documentary about the Mass Games in North Korea, he follows two young girls around as they get ready for what should be the culmination of a dream of theirs: to perform in front of the Gracious Leader. They practice for a year, and, of course, Kim Jong-Il can’t be bothered to turn up, despite (if memory serves me) having a choice of around 40 performances to pick from. But what I mostly remember from the film (and this is a facile reading, which is necessary to interrogate) was the fact that most North Koreans seemed to have little problem with the style of leadership. So when we make fun of the craziness of Kim Jong-un, we’re making fun of an entire belief system and culture, which is racism at its facile best.

Because two young girls seemed happy to glorify a Stalinist cult of personality that sends entire families to concentration camps if a single relative dissents, Roper concludes that “most North Koreans seemed to have little problem with this style of leadership.”

Because most North Koreans seem to have little problem with this style of leadership, Roper concludes that mocking the 28-year-old leader of the world’s last totalitarian state, whose father and grandfather spent six decades shaping North Korean society into absolute obedience through brutality and starvation, is “racism at its facile best.”

Few things are more discouraging for this young unemployed writer than the knowledge that someone was paid to write what I just read.


Nothing to Fear

Earlier today, a North Korean diplomat at a United Nations conference on nuclear disarmament threatened South Korea with “final destruction,” drawing sharp rebukes from the ambassadors present. Last week, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon — the third such test in seven years — and received universal international condemnation, including from its largest ally, the People’s Republic of China. Such behavior would be unacceptable from any other country, and yet from North Korea it is almost expected. Why?

The easiest explanations for North Korea’s behavior, to which uninformed commentators spring first, fall within two broad categories. The first is that North Korea is simply evil. George W. Bush most notably described North Korea as a member of the “Axis of Evil,” and not undeservedly so. North Korea is a carceral state ruled by a totalitarian regime in which virtually all human rights and civil liberties are suppressed, in which thousands die during the country’s periodic famines, and in which 200,000 political prisoners languish in concentration camps. Christopher Hitchens, who visited North Korea in 2010, even called it “a nation of racist dwarves” — the famines had resulted in such widespread malnutrition that the average North Korean stood six inches shorter than his or her South Korean counterpart. While the North Korean regime is one of the most horrific and brutal in human history, descriptors like “evil” don’t shed further light on its international posturing.

While describing North Korea as evil is simply unhelpful, describing its leadership as “crazy” — the other common reaction by the commentariat — is flat-out false. Mental illness in dictators is notoriously unreliable, and is often rejected outright by historians when assessing the motives of Hitler, Stalin, and Saddam Hussein, “bad doesn’t equal mad.” Furthermore, dismissing them as madmen ignores the complexity and strategy underlying their actions, even if those actions are unconscionable.

Calling dictators crazy reflects a broader cultural misunderstanding of their power structures. That style of amoral leadership is anathema to most preconceived notions of government and the state. Central to liberal democracy is the idea that the state derives its legitimacy from the will of the people. Over the past three centuries, this concept has evolved from an Anglo-American eccentricity into the dominant political ideology on the planet. In 2013, it is an idea to which even authoritarian regimes in China and Russia must pay lip service, albeit through rigged elections, oft-ignored constitutions, and inconsistent protections of human rights and civil liberties.

Not so in Pyongyang, where the Kim dynasty and its inner circle have fashioned the entire North Korean society along two intertwined illusions: first, that invasion and conquest by the United States and other Western powers is perpetually imminent, and second, that Kim Jong-un, like his father and grandfather before him, is the only thing standing between the ravenous imperialist hordes and the valiant North Korean people. This worldview, propagated by a steady and relentless domestic propaganda campaign, forms the ideological basis for Kim Jong-un’s rule.

To maintain that authoritarian status quo, Kim Jong-un must feed the illusions upon which it rests. To that end, he has taken a highly-aggressive stance towards South Korea and the United States to both justify his regime’s existence and to consecrate his nascent leadership of it. To demonstrate boldness despite Kim Jong-il’s failing health, North Korea launched an artillery bombardment of South Korean territory in 2010 in their most brazen attack by the North since 1953. To demonstrate strength as tensions rise across East Asia over the last six months, North Korea tested nuclear weapons last week — the ultimate symbol of scientific and military might. To demonstrate resolve by an untested Kim Jong-un, the regime’s aggressive overtones towards its neighbors have reached a fever pitch over the past three years, coinciding with the natural instability brought about by the transition from the ailing Kim Jong-il to his 28-year-old son.

These provocations are not undertaken without careful consideration. Kim Jong-un and his inner circle know that if they actually started a war against the United States and its allies, they would lose. Despite latent hand-wringing in American political circles and the over-exuberant boasts of international rivals, the United States is a superpower and possesses the world’s preeminent military force. Although North Korea could kill tens of thousands in its initial attack — Roger Cavazos’ analysis of their oft-repeated threat to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire” is a must-read on this — it is highly difficult to see a way in which the North Korean regime could survive that war, much less win it.

At the same time, there’s a vast difference between the reality of American aggression and North Korean propaganda thereof. The regime knows that the United States won’t launch a pre-emptive war against them despite repeated provocation. Such a conflict would be an unmitigated bloodbath that would devastate the Korean peninsula and cost hundreds of thousands of lives. There’s no popular or political support for it at all in the United States, even among hard-liners, and the risk of a broader war against China would be too great. Because of this, the regime knows it can get away with shenanigans that that the international community otherwise wouldn’t put up with, even including nuclear weapons tests and artillery bombardments of South Korean territory. At the same time, Kim Jong-un can’t be so overtly aggressive that China abandons them altogether or that Barack Obama throws his hands up in frustration and flattens Pyongyang once and for all. The goal isn’t victory, but survival.

Behind what the average American would call the actions of a madman or a lunatic lies a sinister calculus. The North Korean regime must raise international tensions to such a level that they can justify their totalitarian system while simultaneously not be so overly threatening that the United States or China feels compelled to take action. So far, they are succeeding.