Interview on North Korea

While I’m still trekking through Tibet, journalist Richard Horgan  in Los Angeles has put together a rather flattering profile of my North Korea work entitled “Concerto in NK Minor.”

Here is the full text of the interview upon which the article is based (questions themselves to be posted subsequently, but I think the thrust of the answers is clear and may be of interest to readers).

1.  To read KCNA is indeed to enter into what appears to be a clinically bizarre world, but one that has a great deal of internal consistency all the same.  The agency was an important object of his own power grabs in the 1960s, so far as Kim Jong Il is concerned, KCNA represents a triumph of North Korean socialism and one that does one hell of a job reminding everyone how much they hate the Japanese, among other things.  Some people find it ironic that the KCNA website is hosted in Japan, but than again, a great deal of North Korea’s financial, moral, and technological support comes from the pro-DPRK ethnic Koreans in that country.  Tessa Morris-Suzuki does a bang-up job in her books of explaining how deep these ties go.  As far as KCNA’s odd and delectable idioms go, I think their construction betrays the fact that no American English majors, however desperate they might be for employment, have entered the DPRK for cheap work as translators.  Maybe this will change once we hit 2012 and enter the era of Strong and Prosperous Verbs?  Finally, in a certain sense, the most shocking fact about KCNA is that it remains blocked to readers in South Korea.  It is as if the authorities in Seoul are living in 1955, fearing that Kim Jong Il will use KCNA code words to non-existent legions of pro-North guerrilla fighters in South Korea.  Call it Operation “Stern Reprisal.” 

2. We seem to be approaching a moment in North Korean history that might best be analogized as China in 1976, when the whole Maoist personality cult hung in the balance.  So your question is rather significant. Will North Korea forge forward with a new Kim-demigod, or mothball the cult and get some collective leadership that mouths vestigial revolutionary slogans while pursing the capitalist road?  The North Korean regime has been steadfast in its determination to extend and develop its cult of Kim, and, to its marginal credit, the propaganda seems to imply that a new generation of Kims will be open to enhanced technological development and foreign (which is mainly to be read as “Chinese”) investment.  No one in the West really gave much credence or analysis to Kim Jong Il’s recent China trip as a means of cementing the family myth or draping Kim Jong Un in the flag of bloody anti-Japanese revolution, but that’s partially what it accomplished.  As for Kim Jong Un going to middle school in Switzerland, you can’t beat the French- and German-language media on this, including an article in LePoint of Switzerland that described what wonders Kim Jong-Un’s ascension would work on the already-thriving North Korean-Swiss relationship.  Who knows?  Perhaps Kim Jong Un can open up a new friendship front in monarchist-tolerant Europe, get a huge basket of aid in return for opening relations with France, swizzle his family’s money stashed in Zurich, and keep human-rights organizations in Geneva muzzled.

3.    China has been overt in its desire for “opening up and reform” in North Korea, and the DPRK has occasionally obliged in not making the Chinese Communist Party look idiotically idealistic.  In the West, we tend to focus on China’s inhumane refugee repatriation policy and Beijing’s reluctance to sanction the DRPK for its nuclear development.  So no one in the West seems to give China much credit for the way it deals with North Korea.  But to the extent that North Korea is able to open up at all and avoid Gotterdämmerung (TM Richard Wagner/Joshua Stanton), it is going to be largely because of the Chinese model and due to Chinese investment and support.  Can the United States afford the cost of a North Korean collapse?   When China refers to Kim Jong Il as “head of the DPRK Workers’ Party and Secretary of the DPRK National Defence Commission,” they’re saying, “we will deal with whomever takes those positions,” and we want continuity.  When China allows a ton of Kim Jong-Un rumors from South Korea into the Chinese Communist Party press (apart from the allegation that he throws cats), it means they aren’t crazy about the Kim family cult.  The domestic media climate in China as regards North Korea is a point of fascination for me and I tend to delve into this subject frequently on my blog.  The situation can be summed up very easily: in China, most people don’t give a damn about North Korea, but for anyone who wants to know, there is plenty of coverage: In a quantity outstripping the major news outlets in the West by far (and via a bureau in Pyongyang), the Chinese press covers North Korea. Virtually every website available in the West is available in China, including blogs like Joshua Stanton’s that are explicit in their Cold- War style desires to use Chinese territory to launch a rebellion in North Korea’s border regions.  (Blogspot sites, however, are blocked, which means I can’t read Good Friends’ defector reports.)  I regularly talk to Chinese of all different social strata about North Korea, and they are all absolute realists: like us, they all want to see change in North Korea, but none of them wants to deal with “chaos” in getting to the goal.  Generally speaking, the Chinese people are better informed about North Korea than Americans, and the Korean War is remembered much more widely in China, though of course from a Chinese point of view. 

 4.  I have no idea why I keep coming back to the North Korean border region, except for the fact that it is probably the most interesting place in the entire world.  The trips give me what appear to be insights into North Korean-Chinese interactions (and North Korea’s past and possible futures) in the huge “contact zone” that is Manchuria.  As a historian, the trips net me fascinating materials: I manage to find everything from Cultural Revolution court documents about alleged Kim Il Sung worship at Yanbian University to North Korean textbooks from the 1950s.  I’ve been going to the border region intermittently and annually for just shy of a decade now; my current rhythm gets me there two or three times a year.  In 2001, I went to Liaoyang and met a few Chinese People’s Volunteers; I also took my first trip to Dandong that year with a Manchu lady who, at the age of fourteen in the middle of the Korean War, moved to Dandong and braved various American air-raids in order to support her five little sisters and “make revolution” by working in a clothing factory.  Back in 2001 (like in 1951), there were a lot more North Korean refugees floating around the region who you could find in pretty much any city in Manchuria.  I recall when one North Korean kid, who was probably eight years old, with cigarette burns all over his arms, was clinging to my ankles in search of a few yuan: this Manchu grandma shooed him away, and explained she didn’t have much sympathy for refugees, having been one herself during the Chinese civil war.  Those experiences caused me to think more about China’s relationship with North Korea, and I suppose I have been thinking and learning about it ever since.  I don’t know what happened to the North Korean kid; perhaps we’ll meet again under better circumstances. 

4a.  It is rather telling that both Robert Park and Alion Gomes treated China as a transit point, not a site for mobilization.  Here in China (anywhere in China, including the border region), there is virtually no overt support for the messianic message brought by Park into North Hamgyong.  Ignoring the rather fascinating individual personality quirks of the border crossers (and even figures like Norbert Vollertson), media coverage in China rarely delves into the reasons behind Americans going into the DPRK, because this would be to call attention to problems that, so far as the Communist Party is concerned, should not concern Chinese people.  Going back to 2009 and the case of Laura Ling and Euna Lee:  Chinese news reports basically interpreted their border crossing and arrest as the relatively ignorant behaviour of crazy foreigners just running around on the soil of sovereign territories they don’t understand.  So the original Current TV project on sex trafficking of North Korean women into China was never raised in the PRC media, and is still a largely taboo topic.  China never publicizes the existence of “the underground railroad” in the border regions and is clearly keeping a very close eye on South Korean Christians in Manchuria (along with Korean Chinese Christians more generally, whose churches operate openly, even profusely, in the region). 

My personal view on this is that pro-refugee groups in the US and elsewhere need to recognize that they are operating in a very difficult public relations environment in the PRC: almost all northeastern Chinese know of the problems in North Korea, but their sympathies have dwindled; they have “refugee fatigue” after the relatively open assistance of the late 1990s.  The good news is that China is in the midst of a growing awareness of rights and public legality and human trafficking which bodes well for a more open debate in China about how to handle economic migrants, children of mixed ancestry, and women in the Chinese sex industry in from the DPRK.  The bad news is that the Party controls the pace of the debate and may wait another decade before bringing it into the open, and there are almost no Chinese NGOs tackling the problem directly.  Moreover, if discussed openly in the Chinese media, the refugee issues have the potential to send North Korean bureaucratic counterparts into a rage.  So they remain a relatively low priority for the Chinese government.  

5a. Kim Jong Il’s snub of Jimmy Carter was really rather strange.  Not only would Carter’s visit give Kim some much-needed political capital (both international and domestic) at a precarious moment, it was an opportunity for him to play the Americans for more aid and walk in his father’s footsteps.  Perhaps Kim Jong Il was feeling superstitious?  (His own father met Carter in 1994, and succeeded in cooling the very-real drive to war, only to die a few months later.)  To indulge in a bit of armchair psychoanalysis, Kim’s impulsive action reminds me a bit of George W. Bush pointedly ignoring his father’s advice and advisors in occupying Iraq: Even at an advanced age, it is necessary to forge one’s own path even when doing things dad’s way would result in better results.  I think that the Chinese were horrified that Kim Jong Il ignored Carter.  They wanted the master narrative to be about a revival of the Six-Party Talks, and instead Kim Jong-Il took a trip through Ji’an (the old Koguryo capital on Chinese territory, site of an immense if recently quiet historical controversy between China and South Korea) and demands to see someone important, ASAP, in Changchun.  The CCP were able to pull things together, and only the lack of a free media in China prevented this from being treated as the fiasco it was.  Carter has again done yeoman’s work in cooling tensions, and the Chinese have been very receptive and genuinely grateful to this ex-President.    

6. The lack of real analysis of the North Korean propaganda apparatus seems inversely proportionate to the amount of flak directed at it.  Let’s look for just a minute at the Mass Games phenomenon, the best exploration of which to date has been the film “A State of Mind.”  Combine the data that you see in this film along with the best scholarship on the role of dance and music in forging national identity and what you find is that the Mass Games are much less about impressing foreigners, getting currency, or enhancing flash card technique for its own sake and are much more about giving youth North Koreans a solidarity and coordination that is difficult for outsiders to comprehend.  Watch the best South Korean boy band and, by comparison, you will find it to be unbearably sloppy almost to the point of being insulting.  My contrarian thesis about North Korean culture is that in a united Korea it needs to be treated differently than East German culture was, which is to say that it should not be thrown out as completely worthless and tainted by dictatorship.  Kim Il Sung himself had a few very good ideas about music education, and the music education of North Korean people, defanged of the most egregious examples of “emperor worship”, constitutes a very different but still-valuable model which can be peacefully integrated into a united Korea.  Looking again to the Chinese example, the Soviet-era music education system which the PRC implemented in the 1950s is now finally giving way to more Western models, but retains its own distinctive blend.  Call me a regime apologist if you want to, but Pyongyang bureaucrats seem to get it: there are documented and multiple benefits to children who have rhythmic dance and strenuous music education.  They will say it’s all in praise of the Kims, but in practice Pyongyang students have to learn techniques which elite kids in the West (and South Korea) pay big bucks for.  We just call them Dalcroze Eurhythmics and Kindermusic!  At least in major North Korean cities, this is still an important and worthwhile element in life in the DPRK.  If their government would ever allow it, I think North Korean kids could compete at Juilliard and the Cleveland Institute of Music every bit as impressively as their brethren from Seoul.     

7.  I have never read an analogy about North Korea which truly satisfied me, so, inspired by your question, I’ll paraphrase Churchill’s apt phraseology on the Soviet Union in an attempt to generate a few aphorisms of my own:

North Korea is a riddle wrapped in an enigma, bored into a vertiginous mountain; it is the country that refuses to become a collection of marginal provinces; it is pencil markings on the back of twin portraits; it is revolutionary song melodies dying for new words; it is the Friendster of international socialism, everyone else having moved on; it is the carbonized foundations of the great urban dystopia of 2050; it is an alcoholic who is craving (and may yet receive) another liver to destroy; it is writers running out of ink and scratching with the nibs; it is ration cards and useless currency which will someday be horded into art by the North Korean Ai Weiwei who is now a teenager wondering what the fuck is going on; it is a history without a past; it has to prove, somehow, to people who have never been on the edge of starvation, that it was the reason for something good 

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