Don’t let’s be beastly to the North Koreans

By Citizen Sane

It’s not surprising. Finding something ridiculous in The Guardian and being surprised is like peeling a banana and being astonished to find there’s a banana in there.

Avoiding Guardian articles is more difficult than it used to be. I stopped buying the damn thing years ago and only visit Comment Is Free when I’m feeling masochistic. But in this age of social media there’s a good chance you’ll see at least half a dozen links to their website on Twitter or Facebook every day. And that’s how you’ll come across something like this: Dangerous, isolated and primed for war? North Korean clichés debunked wherein Hazel Smith (professor of International Relations and Korean Studies, and director of the International Institute of Korean Studies at the University of Central Lancashire) will put you in the picture.

The piece purports to be a corrective to clichéd conceptions about the people of North Korea. Which would be fine, although I’m not convinced that people in the West particularly have any conceptions about the residents of the nation itself – more likely they pity the millions of people who have to live in a brutal slave state under the rule of a psychopathic dynasty. Instead most of the article reads like an apologia for the regime itself.

North Korea, you see, is “idiosyncratic”. Idiosyncratic. Never mind the substantiated reports of widespread torture, starvation, summary executions, political imprisonment and death camps (not mentioned once in the extract, by the way). These are just quirks. North Korea is a bit whacky that way, like an eccentric uncle or something.

First myth: North Koreans are different from you and me. North Koreans, argues Hazel as she constructs a straw man so big it can be seen from space (along with, funnily enough, images of a blacked out North Korea at night), are not educationally backward or lacking sophistication. Indeed, despite a “relentless socialisation campaign” (her words) glorifying the Kim family, North Korean society still isn’t completely closed off, despite the best efforts of a regime that, to quote Christopher Hitchens, treats Orwell’s 1984 as an instruction manual rather than a work of literature. Hazel goes on to point out that the DPRK has high levels of literacy and university enrolment but, alas, the government works hard to prevent the free flow of information, permitting access to foreign books and films only if a genuine “need” can be demonstrated. I’d like to see how many such requests there are every year and how many are granted (and how many citizens requesting the materials are seized in the night and sent to prison as enemies of the revolution). I wonder if North Korea has a Freedom of Information Act? Seems unlikely, but then by supposing that I may well be falling back on the lazy clichés that this article is so keen to upend.

Next myth: North Korea is a dangerous and irrational military power. You’d be wrong to think that, despite any evidence to the contrary. No doubt when the DPRK threatens to attack Japan or the United States it’s just being idiosyncratic. It’s just larks. High japes. Banter. The DPRK’s military is dilapidated and poorly funded, they couldn’t possibly be a serious threat to anybody (apart from their own people, of course. And still no mention of the death camps in the article. How curious). They only spent $4.38bn on defence in 2009, for example, a trifling 15.64% of its GDP. A totally reasonable sum for a – no doubt – peaceful nation. Besides, North Korea only has an estimated four to eight operational warheads whereas the United States has over 2,200. There you have it then. North Korea has nuclear weapons, the USA has nuclear weapons. It’s all the same.

Next myth: North Korea is a criminal state. There’s no evidence to support this, it’s all just whispers, smoke and mirrors. Besides, all our media reports are founded on “allegations from defectors and unnamed US officials”. Defectors! Pah! Who could trust those traitors? There’s no real evidence that the state itself is behind any of this.

But hang on. I thought the point of this piece was to show how our conceptions of the people of North Korea were wrong? Indeed, a response on Twitter from The Guardian’s very own Guardian North Korea Twitter account (yes, they really do have one) stated that the author is arguing that “North Koreans – rather than rulers of – are active agents of their own destiny”.

“Active agents of their own destiny.” Apart from those in the death camps, of course. Did I mention that this article doesn’t even refer to the death camps?

Far from debunking any myths, this article instead ignores a very obvious truth: that North Korea is a uniquely paranoid and dangerous regime and that the people it endangers the most are its own. Of course the North Korean people are not any different to the rest of us: they’re just unfortunate to live in a concentration camp masquerading as a country. This article, constructed around puncturing myths that don’t even exist, is nothing but a thinly veiled justification of that regime.

Where else but The Guardian could you read DPRK propaganda dressed up as a piece about challenging prejudices?

P.S. The article doesn’t mention the death camps. Can’t remember if I pointed that out.