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March 20, 2003

North Korea's Sensible Delusions

I just saw an excellent special on Frontline/World about North and South Korea called "Suspicious Minds". BBC reporter Ben Anderson went to South Korea and toured around and then went to North Korea (undercover, as a tourist) and did the same. I didn't see all of the South Korea bit, but the North Korea part was fascinating. It was really sad -- not like sick-kids-and-rubble-in-Iraq-sad, or Ground-Zero-sad -- more like pitiful-sad. There wasn't as much starvation talk and bleakness as I normally see in North Korea stories, and so even they pity was a different kind than normal. One of the things was my realization that the mainstream North Korean mindset is that they are constantly on alert for American aggression, invasion, or interference. They're still hung up on how we tried to, well, take them over 50-odd years ago. And they see our aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Bush's stated mission of taking out the "Axis of Evil" (co-starring North Korea), as signs that we might look to start military trouble with them at any time in the future.

Now, no doubt they are hung up on propaganda and rhetoric and a truly ill amount of leader-worship and indoctrination, but their concern that the U.S. might try to take control of North Korea seems pretty well matched up with reality. And due to the indoctrination factor, they would apparently all fight to the death to stop anyone from taking over their country. Which isn't all that crazy either if you think about it. We'd do the same thing here in the U.S., and I bet there are plenty of countries whose people would do the same too.

Now they're a pretty small country in comparison to us, and given that our military greatly overshadows almost every other country's, it's safe to assume that they are also pretty small militarily compared to us. So, thinking/knowing that the U.S. ("the U.S. imperialists", they say) wants to take them over, and being utterly opposed to that occuring, and knowing they are militarily outmatched, what do they do? They train and prepare and drill and have 10% of their population in uniform...and they try to build nukes that can reach here. All pretty logical steps to take when you get right down to it, given their perspective. And they resist "Americanization" with all of their will. (Did you know they possess the only captured U.S. ship in the world? It's a museum -- like a glorious trophy to them.)

And we look at them and see a freaky backwards cult nation which is hell-bent on war. But what was sad about that special was not that North Korea is a paranoid isolationist creepy place, but that the U.S. is their enabler.

I can't speak for whatever human rights abuses the government might engage in to achieve their dream, but it's not like that's a big rarity on the globe. I don't mean to wave it away, but when you think about it, the U.S. was engaged in pretty nasty human rights abuses for most of its history -- the country was built on them -- and it makes the human rights bad guy lists still for the drug war and record-breaking incarceration rates. Tell some guy in prison for life for LSD that he's lucky he doesn't live in horrible North Korea and see what he says. For that matter, think about what the phrase "be all you can be" has come to universally mean, or think about the "Pledge", and tell me the U.S. doesn't do the indoctrination thing too. Thinking back to my school days, and picturing the room of murmuring children pledging allegiance to a piece of cloth (and to the republic for which it stands), the little North Korean girl singing about the Great Leader being the sun doesn't seem quite as creepy. Or the Pledge seems more creepy. Anyway...

The leaders in North Korea have a cultural vision that they want to pursue and preserve -- not strange for any country, and even more commonplace in "old world"-style countries. I doubt they pursue human rights violations just for kicks -- they probably justify it in terms of pursuing and preserving their cultural vision. Kinda like our drug war, where people are locked in cells in pursuit of a misguided plan to stop the use of 10 or 11 particular drugs. The people of North Korea are apparently largely on board with the plan of the leaders, in spite of how horrible it (reportedly) is there. This may be entirely the result of the constant indoctrination by the state, but one, it's a little hypocritical for the U.S. to be judging a country for having propaganda and compulsory state-controlled education, and two, plenty of peoples in heavily-indoctrinated countries have woken up and taken things into their own hands. North Korea's literacy rate is reportedly near 100%, and you'd have a hard time convincing me that 22 million literate people can be bamboozled indefinitely -- particularly in the 21st century.

I just get a looming feeling that the U.S. is going to go beyond enabling NK's paranoid isolationism, and on to fulfilling their prophecy. We've set a stage where having nukes (and building up their capabilities) is the only way they see to protect themselves from us. And that is an accurate viewpoint, as I see it. Nukes are the one "magic weapon" which gives the U.S. pause when dealing with a country. In the end, North Korea's possession of nukes may be the one thing that prevents them from getting treated like Iraq. Which is another thing that's sad. And the result is that instead of having a nutty repressive regime taking over South Korea and being nutty repressive isolationist Korea -- a weird egg that would eventually be cracked by the market, like China has been, or by people's revolt like Yugoslavia under Milosevic, or by a combination of revolt and diplomacy like most of Eastern Europe, or by economic pressure like South Africa...well you get the idea -- instead of that we have a still-nutty repressive regime still sitting up in North Korea, with 50 years of largely justified paranoia and resentment toward the U.S. under their belt -- and nukes. Nukes in case we decide to mess with them again. 50 years of "in case we decide to mess with them again." That's what was saddest about the Frontline thing I saw.

Now as I find the website for it, I see that it was an encore showing which originally played in January. So it's stale, but still cool. :-) Be sure to check out the interview with Ben Anderson about his experiences in making the piece.

The last part of the segment was accompanied by a soundtrack of the Elvis song "Suspicious Minds", and it was just perfect. Funny at first, when I realized what it was, but ultimately really touching in the context of the piece and the closing interactions between the reporter and his government "minders". Ben Anderson seems to be a really genial guy, and they had all become pretty friendly over the course of the week he was there, and...well, it was just very touching. You kinda had to be there.

One other thing that came up in the segment was how North Korea, in its Glorious North Korea pageant or whatever it was, portrayed South Korea as a long-parted sibling that they wish they could have back in the family. (Which they could, the story goes, if not prevented from doing so by the U.S. Imperialists). That subtext was another reason the Elvis song hit the mark.

We're caught in a trap
I can't walk out
Because I love you too much baby
Why can't you see
What you're doing to me
When you don't believe a word I say?

We can't go on together
With suspicious minds
And we can't build our dreams
On suspicious minds.

I've had a soft spot for that song for a while I suppose. It's so metaphorically useful! I mean, relationships are relationships, whether between people or between peoples. And we certainly can't build our dreams on suspicious minds.

(Hey, do me a favor and let me know if reading this was worth your time. Post a comment if you have a minute. Was it sucky and rambling, or interesting and useful? I write posts like this a fair amount, and I'd like a little feedback. Feel free to be blunt-- even rude, if it'll help. :-))

Posted by Lance Brown at March 20, 2003 11:52 PM | TrackBack

I've just watched the documentary on German TV and I thought it was not only presented by a very charismatic young journalist ;-) but also rather cleverly made. The whole idea of going there as a tourist, partly hiding the camera, makes it very different from other documentaries and thereby very touching.
Anyway, every country somehow indoctrinates their people, but still we have the chance to see at least a part of what happens in the rest of the world, I reckon. The North Koreans obviously don't.
Thanks for the lyrics. They chose the right piece. ;-)

Posted by: Nicole at March 29, 2003 12:28 PM
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