The Korea Situation

Here on the Korean Peninsula, something big is happening and everyone knows it. What was once a stable regime now has an uncertain future. You see signs of the political changes everywhere.

Literal signs.

I’m talking, of course, about the South Korean election, which is the most significant thing happening here, at least from the perspective of most South Koreans. There are election signs everywhere!

Why, what you you thinking?

Nothing has changed

I’m aware that for better or worse (mostly worse), I’m the Korea expert for a lot of people I know. My credentials extend as far as a couple semesters of politics courses focused on the region plus a few years in a minor role in the South Korean government a decade ago, plus I read things and I live here. So read on with that in mind.

So yeah, the North Korea nuclear thing.

North Korea has nukes and has had them for a while. North Korea has missiles and has had them for a while. North Korea is developing longer-range missiles and has been developing them for a while. There’s nothing happening this week that’s substantively different from what was happening six weeks ago when no one was talking about North Korea. North Korea has had the ability to nuke Tokyo for maybe a decade, and we’ve lived with it, just as we live with Pakistan having both nuclear weapons and a very serious Islamist insurgent problem.

Tensions are high, but the US is going to great lengths to signal that we’re not going to war. The secretary of state and vice president assured South Korea that the US wouldn’t launch an attack without Seoul’s approval, which is not likely to be forthcoming. There’s zero panic in South Korea, and no real reported panic in North Korea either.

We’ve been here before. We’ll probably be here again. As it goes on, ignore right-wing cranks who insist that this is the red-line moment and that the situation demands action now. Ignore left-wing cranks who insist that this is all American provocation and North Korea is just misunderstood. None of that is true. North Korea’s regime is brutal and murderous, with a horrific human rights record. They just killed a guy in a Malaysian airport. They’re not nice. They’re also not nuking anyone next week. And the best solution to the situation is not outright war, just as you don’t resolve a hostage situation by blowing up the whole neighborhood (well, maybe Russia does).

So take a deep breath. If you’re American, calm down and keep protesting the president for the actual awful things he’s doing. If you’re South Korean, make sure to vote in the upcoming election. And if you’re president of a nearby country, please see if you can avoid starting a war.

 

Don’t Visit North Korea

Vientiane, Laos

Yes, it’s possible to visit North Korea. No, you shouldn’t do it.

As the horrifying case of Otto Warmbier unfolds, it’s clear that North Korea is interested in taking American hostages. Warmbier has been sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster in his hotel room.

It’s unclear whether Warmbier will ever serve that sentence, but if he does, he will not be alone in the labor camps. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are there already, in the conditions that upset us so much when we consider an American being sent there, and often for reasons as stupid and paltry.

Visits to North Korea are not really visits to North Korea. They’re visits to a performance of North Korea, staged by the government. Your money for your visit goes to the government. It sustains the same government that is destroying Otto Warmbier’s life without remorse as part of its power games. The same government that holds out the promise of family reunions, only to withdraw at the last moment, toying with the hearts of its own citizens. The same government that has kidnapped teenagers from Japanese beaches. The same government that the UN found has committed human rights abuses “without parallel in the contemporary world.”

If you have a real reason to go to North Korea, like the volunteers at Choson Exchange, then go. Otherwise, don’t.

I realize that by posting this, I am disqualifying myself from going to North Korea. I shouldn’t go. You shouldn’t either. It’s not safe, and it’s not right to support the regime. We are only pawns in their game.

Helping Resettled North Koreans to Succeed

I am raising funds for Liberty in North Korea’s empowerment programs. These programs are a lifeline to North Koreans who have escaped their oppressive regime, but now need to make a new life on the outside. They don’t have the networks of family and friends that we take for granted — they left those things behind.

But we can help. I am hoping to raise $1000 by the time I leave for Asia on October 28. (You won’t see my donation because I already have a standing commitment to Liberty in North Korea’s general fund.)

Please donate. You can make a difference on one of the world’s toughest issues!

Ms. Lee on Mr. Shin

Recently I wrote about the troubling case of North Korean defector Shin Dong-hyuk, who admitted to giving inaccurate accounts of his life in North Korea.

Now defector and advocate Hyeonseo Lee has written about Shin in the New York Times. With eloquence and far more personal, direct insight than I could ever provide, she’s made some of the same points I wanted to get across. Here’s the heart of it:

This unfolding saga is troubling to me and to other defectors who tell the truth about the horrors of life in the North. The furor over Mr. Shin’s confession is really a sideshow, a distraction from the larger issue: Pyongyang’s continuous abuse of human rights.

Mr. Shin has been examined by doctors who believe he was subjected to torture and child labor, given the evidence of his scars and unnaturally bowed arms. We shouldn’t lose sight of that when discussing his lies.

It’s easy to see how Mr. Shin was tempted to obscure the truth. For defectors, sometimes doing so is the only way to survive.

Beyond that, she talks about the hardships and challenges North Koreans face when they arrive in South Korea, and the need to give them with greater support, which organizations like Liberty in North Korea work to provide.

There are many reasons North Korean defectors lie, as Lee notes. But at its heart, the issue remains the North Korean regime and its human rights abuses, not the personal foibles and mistakes of some of its victims.

Ms. Lee on Mr. Shin

Recently I wrote about the troubling case of North Korean defector Shin Dong-hyuk, who admitted to giving inaccurate accounts of his life in North Korea.

Now defector and advocate Hyeonseo Lee has written about Shin in the New York Times. With eloquence and far more personal, direct insight than I could ever provide, she’s made some of the same points I wanted to get across. Here’s the heart of it:

This unfolding saga is troubling to me and to other defectors who tell the truth about the horrors of life in the North. The furor over Mr. Shin’s confession is really a sideshow, a distraction from the larger issue: Pyongyang’s continuous abuse of human rights.

Mr. Shin has been examined by doctors who believe he was subjected to torture and child labor, given the evidence of his scars and unnaturally bowed arms. We shouldn’t lose sight of that when discussing his lies.

It’s easy to see how Mr. Shin was tempted to obscure the truth. For defectors, sometimes doing so is the only way to survive.

Beyond that, she talks about the hardships and challenges North Koreans face when they arrive in South Korea, and the need to give them with greater support, which organizations like Liberty in North Korea work to provide.

There are many reasons North Korean defectors lie, as Lee notes. But at its heart, the issue remains the North Korean regime and its human rights abuses, not the personal foibles and mistakes of some of its victims.

The price of a chat

When Obama came to power, he made clear that he was willing to sit down and talk with the leadership of pretty much any country, including several that we have long considered enemies and threats. It’s a good principle. Conflict is expensive and talk is cheap. What harm could there be in at least keeping the lines of discussion open?

Except that talk is not always cheap. When South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun met with Kim Jong-il in 2000, the price South Korea paid for the privilege was $500 million. Further meetings have come with escalating costs. North Korea tried to get $10 billion in cash plus aid from President Lee Myung-bak in exchange for a meeting.

There’s a tendency on the South Korean left to see the conflict with North Korea as perpetuated by the South Korean right and the United States. If only the United States and South Korea would talk to North Korean leaders directly, instead of threatening them with isolation and sanctions and military might, the thinking goes, we could achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula.

This line of thinking made a certain amount of sense in the 1990s, during the Sunshine Policy era. The world’s communist regimes were either collapsing or transforming. The cold war was over. South Korea too was undergoing a profound political shift, from right-wing military dictatorship to left-wing democracy. President Kim Dae-jung was right to try a new approach to an old and serious problem.

It didn’t work.

The North Korean regime, it turned out, was pocketing the money it got from summits while continuing with unacceptable behavior, particularly its nuclear program. The regime has kept itself alive however it can, playing regional powers against each other, dealing in meth and missile parts, oppressing its citizens.

So when North Korea begins to talk about talking, we should look carefully to see whether they’re arriving hat in hand. Are they looking for a dialogue, or are they just looking for a handout? Considering how little has been gained from past talks with North Korea, neither South Korea nor the United States should buy what Pyongyang is selling. Let Pyongyang deliver some sample goods first — a constructive conversation of any sort at all, really — before South Korea spends more money on empty words.

North Korean defectors and the truth

North Korean defector and human rights activist Shin Dong-hyuk has recanted some of his testimony. He has admitted that aspects of the story he has told and retold about his experiences of torture and imprisonment in North Korea were wrong. Much of the testimony of defector Yeonmi Park has also been called into question.

It’s easy to see telling the truth in black and white terms: you say what’s so, or else you’re lying. But memory and truth-telling are not so simple. Before you judge Shin and Park — and certainly before you decide that all North Korean defector testimony is suspect — it’s worth looking a little more deeply into how we tell our own stories and what it means to tell the truth.

Learning to tell the truth

We assume that our concept of the truth is universal and inborn. It’s not. As Americans, we learn from a young age the importance of telling the truth, even if it’s a truth no one wants to hear or that might have negative consequences for us. That’s what the story of George Washington and the cherry tree is about. We also spend decades in school learning critical thinking skills, embedding us in a particular theory of truth where things are considered more true when we footnote our sources, read closely, show our work in math class.

North Koreans have none of that. Suki Kim has written about the difficulty of assigning her North Korean students to write essays: “Writing inevitably consisted of an endless repetition of [Kim Jong Il’s] achievements, none of which was ever verified, since they lacked the concept of backing up a claim with evidence.” She is speaking here of the intellectual elite among North Koreans. Someone like Shin Dong-hyuk, raised in North Korean prison camps, would have even less capacity for critical thinking, for sorting fact from fiction.

We also tend to imagine as universal our ideas that the truth is something independent and separate from us, and that there is moral value in knowing and admitting that independent truth, regardless of the consequences. North Koreans are raised in a culture where speaking or even knowing certain truths is dangerous.

But no one ever tells North Koreans, “Do not speak the following truths or facts.” Instead, the very concept of what is true is altered: what is true is what can be spoken, and what can be spoken is what is true. North Koreans are not trained to consider sources, whether their own empirical experience or otherwise. What’s true is what everyone says is true. That doesn’t mean truth is static or that new truths can’t ever emerge — even truths that go against the government line — but rather that truth value is increased by perceived consensus and undermined by the sense that no one else is saying the same thing.

Memory and politics

Now imagine North Koreans arriving in South Korea. They spend an initial period in isolation, being debriefed by intelligence officers (incidentally, in what one defector described as the most luxurious accommodations she’d ever experienced). They are being asked by officials in their new homeland to recall details from years or decades earlier, from their childhoods. They have no access to maps, to Wikipedia, to family photos. They can’t ask their parents what really happened. They are being asked to reconstruct everything, but memory is notoriously slippery. Events move out of order, they shift and change. (This happens to Westerners too: in my research on Korean shamanism, my main informant has had to modify her story several times, and there are certain incidents that other informants remember differently.)

Then these defectors enter South Korean society, where the political spectrum offers two main ways of thinking about North Korea. The left — still traumatized by the old right-wing dictatorship’s habit of calling every democracy protestor a North Korean spy — sees North Korea as unfairly maligned and threatened. They believe that South Korean and American militarism and provocation perpetuate the status quo on the peninsula, keeping the right in power and keeping North Korea defensive and isolated. They imagine that unilateral moves by South Korea, and especially the removal of US troops, would bring about a substantive shift in North Korea. The right sees North Korea as an unreliable negotiating partner and an ongoing military threat. They see North Korea as exacerbating tensions to manipulate the surrounding powers and perpetuate their regime, and they see the left as hopelessly naive. They also see North Korean defectors as suspect, potentially spies sent by the North Koreans to cause problems in the south.

Most North Korean defectors choose to live quietly, without engaging in political action. But for those who feel compelled to do something about the homeland and people they left behind, they must find their way within these competing narratives. The right is far more receptive to defectors than the left, and the right rewards stories that show how bad the North Korean regime is. Internationally too, stories of suffering and deprivation are good capital. They’re what we want to hear about North Korea.

But there’s more to it than that. North Korean defectors are trying to piece together coherent narratives from fragments of memory. When they arrive in the free world, they are bombarded with information they could never have accessed: satellite images of places they had mapped differently in their minds, Wikipedia entries that clarify the dates of events they remember in different order, competing accounts from other defectors that call into question particular memories. Defectors’ stories change because they are struggling to understand what is actually true and how to express it. Yeonmi Park, for example, has responded to criticisms of her changing accounts:

Much of the time, there was miscommunication because of a language barrier. I have only learned English in the last year or so, and I’m trying hard to improve every day to be a better advocate for my people. I apologize for any misunderstandings. For example, I never said that I saw executions in Hyesan. My friends’ mother was executed in a small city in central North Korea where my mother still has relatives (which is why I don’t want to name it) … Also, I apologize that there have been times when my childhood memories were not perfect, like how long my father was sentenced to prison. Now I am checking with my mom and others to correct everything.

What’s told and what’s true

So does all this mean that we can’t believe North Korean defectors?

No. What it means is that we should be careful not to take any one personal narrative as the solid, documented, verified truth. Each defector is a human being. Some human beings are more honest than others, some have better memories. Some, like Shin Dong-hyuk, keep secrets.

We should also be careful not to trust critiques too quickly. The Diplomat got a number of its facts wrong in trying to show that Yeonmi Park got her facts wrong. Nor are defectors the only ones with political agendas. Soft-pedaling North Korea’s human rights record — saying it’s not as bad as has been reported, holding up the human rights shortcomings of other nations in comparison — serves particular agendas.

What we can trust is the weight of testimony from hundreds or thousands of defectors. For example, the UN report on North Korean human rights violations relied on the testimony of 80 witnesses. When defector after defector describes the harrowing conditions of detention and torture in similar terms, it becomes less important whether this one was tortured at age 13 or age 20, whether that one saw an execution in one town or another.

What matters is that defector after defector talks about fear, imprisonment, starvation, beatings, executions. These are not fantasies, and they’re not a grand plot by South Korea’s intelligence services, and they’re not a trick of the American military-industrial complex to keep Northeast Asia in a state of war. We can see satellite images of prison camps. We can see the scars on Shin Dong-hyuk’s body.

7 thoughts about The Interview

People know I’m into Korean things, so they’re asking me what I think about The Interview, the hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment, and the subsequent pulling of the film from theaters.

1. The quality of the film is irrelevant

This point seems to confuse a lot of people, who are busy debating whether the film is The Great Dictator. As part of that debate, some are pointing out that The Interview is “a bad film.” This is kind of unfair considering that no one has seen it. But more importantly, it’s utterly irrelevant. So what if it’s terrible? Sony didn’t get hacked because the movie was good or bad, and the movie didn’t get pulled from theaters based on its quality. In geopolitical and ethical terms, the quality of the movie is a non-issue.

2. It’s OK to make a movie about assassinating a sitting head of state

It might or might not be in poor taste, depending on your taste. But it’s not wrong. Hollywood produces and distributes movies on every conceivable topic, glorifying all kinds of horrific violence, depicting the destruction of the United States, and on and on. One of the great classics of American cinema is about our own government plotting to bring about global nuclear armageddon. The Interview might be a lot of things, but incitement it is not, and it falls easily into the realm of speech that’s protected.

3. It’s OK to make fun of North Korea

Again, you might or might not find it to be in poor taste. But it’s OK to make a movie that makes fun of Hitler (cf. The Great Dictator, The Producers) or a comedy set in the Holocaust (Life Is Beautiful), or even a film that makes fun of a Kim who rules North Korea (Team America). The Atlantic gets it completely wrong in saying that North Korea isn’t funny. North Korea is hilarious, as dictatorships usually are, and one of the best weapons against them is humor.

North Korea’s leaders have been the butt of jokes on SNL, 30 Rock, in Team America, and elsewhere because they’re self-important buffoons. They should be lampooned. Dictators everywhere should be lampooned. Democratic leaders should also be lampooned. Making fun of the people in charge is important work.

4. Seth Rogen and James Franco are acting courageously

And as for that Atlantic article insisting that the film is “not an act of courage” like The Great Dictator because Hitler was at the height of his powers and North Korea is weak? Declaring that “it takes no valor and costs precious little to joke about these things safely oceans away from North Korea’s reach”? Well, it appears that North Korea has been able to hit Seth Rogen and his backers harder than Hitler ever hit Charlie Chaplin and his backers. North Korea has been known to assassinate people it doesn’t like, and quite famously kidnapped and enslaved a couple of South Korean movie people when they were in Hong Kong.

No, North Korea appears not to have gone after Trey Parker or Margaret Cho. But they might have. And they have gone after Rogen and Franco.

5. Sony and the film distributors aren’t cowards

Sony Pictures got hit really hard. Nobody died, so this isn’t the sort of thing where we ought to respond with missile strikes. But their business was paralyzed. And Sony Pictures is a business. And businesses are not moral human beings who take a stand. There is no Martin Luther King, Jr., Inc. Businesses are risk-averse organizations with a profit motive. None of these companies want to risk their holiday-season profits, and none of them want to risk being involved in the actual violence that’s been threatened.

Nor does Sony Pictures have the sense that the US government has their back. This form of cyberterrorism is new, and the US doesn’t know what to do about it exactly. We can’t call in the National Guard and ground all the planes. Sony Pictures is kind of on its own right now, and that’s not a comfortable place to be. I don’t blame them for not wanting to go to war with North Korea over Christmas.

6. We still don’t know whether it really was North Korea

Don’t forget that. These sort of attacks are hard to pin down. It might be a disgruntled former employee. We just don’t know.

7. Isolating North Korea’s economy is not the answer

The other bit of important news this week — way more important than this whole Interview situation — is America’s at-long-last opening with Cuba. We’ve been maintaining a policy of isolation for decades, and it has failed to topple the government of Cuba, resolve human rights issues there, or really serve our interests in any useful way.

So what do we want to do in response to North Korea’s hack attack? Cut off their dollars.

Corporations, as I said, are risk-averse. They don’t like wars or conflicts because they’re hard to predict in quarterly estimates. North Korea is free to be belligerent because it doesn’t have influential corporations. But there is business in North Korea, much of it controlled by the military. Rather than further isolating and limiting that business, it might make more sense to engage with it, embedding it in the global system that makes war unthinkable between any two major economic powers. If North Korean leadership had something significant to lose beyond their own borders, they might be more hesitant to threaten and attack. The way that happens most effectively in today’s world is through international trade.

North Korea doesn’t make that easy, but it may be the best bet for creating a class of influencers in North Korea who have an ownership stake in something significant and who will press within the system for a more moderate approach to the outside world.

Update: President Obama has now confirmed that North Korea is behind the hacking and said that he thinks Sony Pictures made a mistake in pulling the release of The Interview, though he is sympathetic. Sony Pictures responded, putting the blame on the theater distributors and claiming that they are still looking into ways to release the movie.

The Choco Pie-ization of North Korea

Fans of Park Chan-wook, or of his classic thriller Joint Security Area, may remember the scene in which a North Korean soldier spits out a Choco Pie to declare his loyalty to his home country: rather than flee south, where he can get all the Choco Pies he wants, the soldier insists that he will wait until North Korea can produce the best Choco Pies in the world.
Choco Pies have long been a symbol of South Korean modernization: cheap, tasty, popular, utterly manufactured, completely divorced from any preexisting Korean tradition. Now South-Korean born artist (and Columbia alum) Jin Joo Chae has an exhibition at Julie Meneret Contemporary Art on the Lower East Side entitled The Choco Pie-ization of North Korea. Chae highlights the significance of the lowly Choco Pie in North Korea, where a single pie can fetch as much ast $10 on the black market in a country where the average monthly wage is $150.
I’m happy to see South Korean artists finding new ways to acknowledge and engage with North Korea. In this case, Chae focuses our attention on the marketization of North Korea, which often goes unnoticed beneath the news stories about Kim Jong Un and Dennis Rodman and nuclear weapons. I definitely plan to check out the show, and I hope you can too.