Tuesday, April 15, 2008

North Korea

I was about to reply to a post on Brian's blog about his bad day, but after organizing all of my thoughts, finding the web links, the videos, and doing a little bit of more research, I ended up with enough material to write a post.

The only thing that I knew about North Korea before I came to Mokpo was largely informed by TV, movies and the occasional dip into Wikipedia when something interesting would flash across the news desk. To me the North Koreans were part of the axis of evil. And I don't mean the political axis of evil, I mean the Hollywood axis of evil that generates one-dimensional villains, usually consisting of unpronounceable rogue nations who have inherited the same world domination goals as 1930s Nazis:

And star in James Bond music videos:

My first educational supplement was Bradley K. Martin's Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, found by aimlessly browsing at Seoul's WhatTheBook. Published in 2004, the information is a bit dated and needs an updated chapter or two but it's a good way to understand the rise of the communist state and its current state of mind; Martin creates a mosaic of knowledge by drawing on a large collection of interviews and personal visits. There's plenty of reviews and interviews with the author and a good example is FrontPage Magazine's interview that covers the major points of the book.

In that same trip I also picked up The Aquariums of Pyongyang, a memoir about 강철환 (aka Kang Chol-Hwan), his ten years in the Yodok concentration camp, and his defection to South Korea via China. It's a more personal story and a completely different read from Martin's textbook but they complement each other well.

Unfortunately those are all the books I've read on North Korea; I'm a slow reader and by the time I had finished them I had discovered the Internet.

If a place like Mokpo can generate multiple blogs about Korean wackiness then surely an entire country with kimchi and nuclear weapons should have a couple of loyal observers. I don't necessarily agree with all of the views all of the time but I still read the following:
Through the blogs I've watched some interesting videos and documentaries about North Korea. The top of my list is North Korea, A Day in the Life, a 2004 documentary film by Pieter Fleury:
In this narration-less documentary the family of Hong Sun Hui, a female worker in a textile factory, is taking us through an ordinary day in the country of the Beloved Leader Kim Jong Il.

The people undergo an endless stream of propaganda. Unmoved they perform their duty. At the nursery school, Hong's daughter learns that 'flowers need the sun and she needs the love of the Great Leader to grow'. The system of indoctrination, control and self-criticism seems both frightening and ridiculous.

Although unexpected, an escape is underway: English lessons for Hong's brother seem to bring a spark of hope. But 'Internet' is still just a word: it means International Network!
Unfortunately I could only find a sample of the film online and had to resort to other methods to watch it.

The lack of narration is incredibly powerful and it allows the watcher to put the scenes into their own context. For me I not only saw it as a westerner, but also as a person living in South Korea, comparing the two different countries.

Another documentary is Peter Tetteroo's 2001 documentary, Welcome to North Korea and it is available online:

This is a fairly typical documentary of North Korea and many themes that you see here are repeated in other documentaries. A perfect example is the 14 slightly entertaining parts of the Vice Guide to North Korea. It's available from their website:

Again there's tons of other videos online, like this report:

and this documentary on undercover filming:
and this video from Yodok prison camp in North Korea, mentioned in previously mentioned Kang Chol-Hwan's The Aquariums of Pyongyang:

On a lighter note there even a full copy of the Mass Games online for the curious. But after all of this information what can I say about North Korea? Well there's the obvious lessons about Kim Jong Il and the corruption of the worker's paradise but there's also some peripheral lessons that I've picked up along the way.

Same Same but Different
In the west we're accustomed to a political border running somewhat parallel to an cultural border. Coming to Korea I was under the assumption that North Korea went over to the dark side of the force, while South Korea, with the help of the Obi-Wan Kenobi U.S. used the force only for good. Sure the North Korea's wackiness involves human rights violations, but that same wackiness is here in South Korea on a much smaller and less despotic scale:
This photo (from here, via Korea Beat) shows some foreigners taking part in a "Winter Sea Penguin Swim" on Jeju-do. Interestingly enough, Lost on Jeju tells us that local English teachers working under the EPIK program were convinced to take part due to the offer of an extra vacation day for doing so. I have no idea if the people in the photo above are related to that or not, but I can't help but see such photos and think of this painting from the 1984 book "The People's Great Leader" (from here) titled "All the peoples of the world praising Kim Il Sung."
It's not so much the concentration camps but it was in the smaller things where I saw the same-sameness. Like how meetings were handled at the school in A Day in the Life compared to meetings in my school, or how the workers must work harder for the party when I've heard a similar mantra used by English teachers improving English education in accordance with the new administration's policies. In reality it seems like the people in both Koreas are more similar to their counterpart than most people understand; the 50 odd years of communist-capitalist cease-fire seems like is really just sediment laying on centuries of common culture.

North Korea is South Korea's Mexico
This is a concept that was introduced in Bradley K. Martin's book and I'm probably twisting it all to pieces but the gist is this: Reunification is something both sides want, the North maybe a little zealously more than the South. Now, the South is doing all right for itself while the North is at best struggling so the only ways that unification will happen is through a second Korean war or the absorption of North Korea by the South. While it's easy to see how the former is bad the latter is viewed with just as much dread. Germany's unification is a living example that reunification is going to be costly and the sheer volume of people matched with the difference in living conditions is going to be difficult to manage. Basically the South doesn't want to deal with all of the poor people.

So what can the South do? The current plan seems like it is going to help the North understand how wonderful capitalism by working together in economic projects and establishing economic bridges before political ones. While most of this is wrapped up in overtures of inter-Korean brotherly cooperation, I'm going to be cynical and suggest that Korean corporations are more interested in the untapped pool of cheap labour and resources than liberating their fellow man.

Now the corporations are acting just as corporations usually act, out of self interest, but in the context of unification this is a dangerous precedent; while the government sells this as unification baby steps, what incentives do Korean corporations now have to raise the standard of living of their northern brother? If I play devil's advocate then, in some weird Korean way, unification becomes even more costly to South Korea.
With labor costs rising in South Korea, many owners of small and medium-sized factories, say they face two options: closing and moving to China, or closing and moving to Kaesong.
But this is all speculation on my part; in the here and now the new administration has to figure out how it will deal with the current policies. I'll leave the matter of North Korea to the experts and the Koreans who think they're experts.


Jack said...

Hey, nice post. Thanks for the link, and I will make sure to look at this blog. On the watchlist.

Take care, and thank you for reading DPRK Forum.

Jennifer said...

Have you read the graphic novel called Pyeongyang? Ask the Rushings about it; they have a copy... it's definitely worth a read and it will only take you an hour or two at most. Very expository.

It's about a french canadian cartoonist who spent 3 months there. He wasn't allowed a camera, so every night he was there he just drew everything he had seen. Worth a look.