*** What follows is an draft/book review I never got around to finishing. Guess I'll update it someday.
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Christopher Hitchens once joked that it seems as if somebody had given Kim Il-Sung a copy of 1984
and had asked him if they could actually succeed in bringing about the society envisioned in Orwell's masterpiece. Il-Sing would reply, "Well, I don't know, but we sure can give it the old college try, can't we?"
As a minor fanatic about all things North Korea, this little item I found at Powerline
(now several days removed), concerning the North Korean internal response to the historic New York Philharmonic concert in North Korea piqued my interest.
According to a press release from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, North Korea
has taken actions to try to blunt the diplomatic significance of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra's recent visit to Pyongyang.
In an apparent attempt to avoid overemphasizing the significance of the event, DPRK media have afforded relatively modest treatment of the 26 February New York Philharmonic visit.
Per the reported original agreement, Pyongyang broadcast the concert live via television to a limited domestic audience. According to UN data, there are approximately 55 TV sets for every 1,000 North Koreans, totaling an estimated 1.3 million TV sets for the entire country. By comparison, South Koreans own 347 per 1,000, approximately seven times more (BBC, 10 October 2006).
The concert was not broadcast on radio, Pyongyang's most pervasive public communications vehicle. In fact, during the performance Pyongyang radio aired instead two anti-US programs -- an attributed talk entitled "Dangerous US War Strategy Against Korea" and a dialogue entitled "Who Is the Ringleader Intensifying Tension?"
The party daily all but sidelined the performance, relegating the report on the concert to the bottom of page four with a short accompanying article and photo (Rodong Sinmun, 27 February). Furthermore, the picture, although not necessarily small, appeared to be deliberately cropped to remove the United States and North Korean flags -- one on each side of the stage -- the inclusion of which would have been an easy opportunity to suggest the importance the regime places on improving US-DPRK relations.
As could be expected. The North Korean communist regime will not allow the unbroken stream of anti-American government propaganda to cease just because some group of musicians visited the country.
I'm torn on this issue. On the one hand, we want North Korea to come out of the Cold War/Korean War-era mentality it has locked itself into. We want its doors opened to scrutiny, democracy, abundance, scientific and commercial success, and many of the other things that we in the West and in free societies take for granted.
No doubt, fans of this cultural gesture would argue that the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, and they might indeed be correct on this point.
Then again, we're talking about North Korea here. I'm not sure such altruistic well-wishers who favor such reconciliatory gestures as the proverbial diplomatic carrot are aware of what exactly North Korea is. North Korea is a sworn enemy of the United States.
Their soldiers and much of the general population re perpetually training for all-out war. The only people in North Korea that appreciate or even have a kind word to say about the United States are no longer living in North Korea, for obvious reasons concerning their safety, or have been erased. Schoolchildren are raised to read write, and to worship at the alter of 'The Great Leader' and 'Eternal President' of the DPRK, Kim Il-Sung
. There is no choice - either you live a life of servitude and adoration of the government, or you can subsist on rifle butts to the chin and several kernels of corn per day in the concentration camps.
The problem for the Party leadership highlighted by this press release, of course, is that the DPRK oligarchy and Kim Jong-Il
know what any kind of genuine good will generated in the collective consciousness of the populace (to the extent that one can exist independently of the Party consciousness) by this trip would mean in the context of the steady diet of propaganda the North Koreans have been fed by the government for five decades.
Allowing such news to continue on a semi-regular basis, or even to reach and sink in with the general population at all not only would mean the end of the Korean Worker's Party, but the end of North Korean society as we've come to understand it. The entire political, economic and cultural framework of the DPRK is based on old-style Stalinist communism. Endless (and I do mean endless) streams of government propaganda coupled with comprehensively restricted and government-controlled media makes the assimilation of information from outside of their system virtually impossible.
The catastrophic collapse
of such a meticulously constructed communist dictatorship by the simple introduction of something as simple as the freedom of the press could cause a humanitarian crisis not even rivaled by the wars in the Middle East. I've read several different pieces on the possible collapse of North Korea and it's potential impact on the religion and indeed the world. There would be millions of refugees flooding across the border of China. Heaven help them if they make a break for the de-militarized zone. This is all not even considering the significant loss of life and destruction that would no doubt erupt between the two sides if the system goes bust and the prevailing wound of the Korean War
gets torn open again.
I've finished The Aquariums of Pyongyang
, a horrifying testimonial from a former inmate at the Yodok prison camp named Kang Chol-Hwan. After moving to North Korea from Japan years after the Korean war (pushed to do so by their grandmother's militant communism and activism), the family spends a short time living a 'normal' life in Pyongyang. Without warning one day, the family is arrested by secret police and is sent off to Yodok for failing to be sufficiently subservient and adoring of the Great Leader, Kim Il-Sung. What follows is ten years of hard labor, squalid living conditions, starvation, disease, torture, brutality, indoctrination, public executions and merciless killing. Somehow, Kang survived and managed to escape the prison state of North Korea through China. He's currently living as a journalist in South Korea.
He was one of the lucky ones. North Korea doesn't take kindly to defectors. According to the AFP, they recently executed a group of people trying to escape to China.
It became apparent after watching videos like the ones linked in this post and piecing together bits of the limited information we can get out of the country that the vast majority of people living across North Korea are starving, dying of disease, politically enslaved and are otherwise suffering in some way. They have no idea they are being lied to, and if they do, they are powerless to do anything about it. They don't know that there is an outside world other than what the Party has been inculcating within the population from its collective birth.
Any attempt to insert 'counter-revolutionary' information into the North Korean system will be distorted, filtered, or more likely never shown at all. When the West (even their brothers across the 38th parallel) makes a reconciliatory gesture, the Korean Worker's Party swings into action and "corrects" the reality, so that the people (save high party officials controlling the information flow) will never know what is happening. It is almost a moot point anyhow - citizens in North Korean society would be unable to safely ask any questions of any government official or even their neighbors without being snitched on. A visit from the regime's secret police, even if they should choose to spare you from a trip to the concentration camps, seems to be enough to keep everything under control.
So what of it?
Do we continue to facilitate by North Korea's isolation, fearing perhaps an irrational and aggressive response from the nation? As evidenced by Kim Jong-Il's behavior in recent years, he remains an unpredictable and dishonest broker in diplomatic affairs, and is openly hostile to the United States. Who knows.
Do we continue to transmit the message that as long as they remain a repressive, Stalinist regime posing a threat to regional stability, they will no be rewarded in any way? They don't seem to be listening, and the international community, predictably, will take no action and will offer tacit support and de facto approval of the regime's activities.
Do we at least make a consistent effort to fight a quiet, subversive cultural war against the DPRK propaganda machine until we can get it to break apart from the inside? We sure as hell will try, but when one factors into account the archaic information and electrical infrastructure in North Korea, this seems less likely. The system hasn't been updated in decades, power outages are nightly, there is no Internet, an outdated phone system, no independent media, no commerce, etc. It is a society stuck in a different time, and has fought bitterly to preserve this antiquated system from another era.
Do we continue on the path we're currently on, which has more or less enabled the status quo to continue unabated? Neither option is particularly palatable. Looks like that's what we've been doing, save some quiet diplomacy. No wonder nothing ever changes.
For more information and some good documentaries about North Korea, check out these recent BlogoVault posts: Welcome to North Korea
, and A Spectacle Like None Other