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.  

[cinema faux]

The Korea Society is presenting three nights of happy workers: Films from the North will be shown on May 12 through 14.

I’m sure they’re all stellar, like all socialist art. And who can resist any film that “took the Bulgarian box office by storm in the late 1980s”? That’s Hong Kil Dong, a kung fu movie that sounds less horrible, or perhaps just more surreal, than the films about turning your town into a model socialist village and going to the countryside for emergency agricultural work, respectively.

So, who’s game?

[misreading korea]

A friend of mine sent me a link to a Salon story titled A Taste of North Korean Beer Propaganda, which is centered around a bizarre claim that North Korea’s beer brand, Taedonggang, has a picture of a historically significant American schooner on its cap.

One does not even have to read Korean to work out that Taedonggang is named after the Taedong River — it’s mentioned in the Wikipedia article on the beer — and from there, it’s not hard to do a little Googling and find out that the picture on the bottle cap is of the Chongryu Bridge, which crosses the Taedong in Pyongyang.

Why Salon so completely missed this is beyond me. It smacks of pure laziness. I expect we’ll be hearing from them any day about the Marlboro-KKK connection.

[whaddaya know?]

So the early report is that a deal has been reached with North Korea: energy aid in exchange for steps toward disarmament.

It’s very preliminary still, and this whole thing could collapse over a North Korean demand for more energy than the other five powers are willing to give, or, more likely, over shifting North Korean positions on what disarmament steps they will take and when.

It will be interesting to see, as the details emerge, where exactly this leaves the Bush administration in terms of its North Korea policy. Did the hard line work? Were the Bushies right all along to toss the Agreed Framework over North Korea’s dabbling with uranium? Were they right to insist on talking only through the six-party framework rather than one on one?

The last question is the easiest to answer: No. The North Koreans have proved far more willing to compromise since Chris Hill, our lead negotiator, started talking one-on-one with the North Koreans (albeit in a format that the Bush administration, never sticklers for reality, continue to insist doesn’t qualify as one on one). As for the rest of it, let’s keep in mind that we’re now asking North Korea to roll back its plutonium-bomb developments, which wouldn’t exist if not for the collapse of the Agreed Framework.

There is no indication that the central problem of a poor, hostile, dictatorial, aggressively criminal North Korea has been solved. Still, if we’re all stepping back from the brink of nuclear war, that’s good.

For more on North Korea, check out Richard Bernstein in the New York Review, who notes that back in the early Clinton years, conventional wisdom had it that the communist regime in North Korea would wither and collapse like so many others had in Central and Eastern Europe. At this point, I think a more realistic model is that of China and Vietnam, where the Communist Party has maintained control while transforming into something new and pro-capitalist. And the road to such a transformation is through engagement, not isolation.

The Kim dynasty seems unlikely to collapse through internal decay, though one never knows. And even if it did, that would hardly be the end of our troubles: a headless state full of fanatical militants with no food is not a pretty prospect for any of its neighbors. Only engagement has any chance of creating a North Korea that can join with South Korea to become a prosperous, peaceful Korea.

Update: It turns out that South Korea’s lead negotiator is Chun Yung-woo, with whom I had the pleasure of working closely on a number of occasions when he was Deputy Permanent Representative at the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations. In my experience, he was extremely intelligent, incisive, charismatic and tough-minded — ideal for his current role, really. Should an accord be signed, I will have to send him a note of congratulations.

[it depends what your definition of “is” is]

From the BBC:

This is not an instance of bilateral negotiations,” White House spokesman Tony Snow told Reuters news agency.

“What you had …this week in Berlin were talks with Chris Hill and a North Korean representative as preparations for the six-party talks.”

Oh. Sure. Not negotiations, talks. Right. That makes all the difference. Thank goodness it was talks and not negotiations!

Either way, the US seems to be showing some flexibility on a number of issues, including economic sanctions, which means that there is now the actual possibility of negotiation at the upcoming resumption of the Six-Party Talks.

[the genius of diplomacy]

See, here’s the crazy thing about diplomacy: sometimes engaging in it works better than declaring it pointless.

For years, the North Koreans have been trying to get the US to engage in talks. But the Bush administration has insisted that the only way we could ever possibly talk to North Korea is in the format of the Six-Party Talks, with Russia, China, Japan and South Korea in the room. The successes of this approach include North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests last year.

Now, in a surprise move, the US seems suddenly to have decided that bilateral talks could be possible. How did this come about? Well, Assistant Secretary of State Chris Hill made this discovery while in bilateral talks with senior North Korean officials.

Does this strike anyone else as spectacularly tortured? Our high-level officials met their high-level officials, with representatives of no other country present; at this meeting, they discussed the possibility of bilateral talks?

The whole argument against bilateral talks was that they would somehow encourage the North Koreans to more bad behavior by demonstrating that prior bad behavior got them what they wanted. And so we did: nothing. That’ll learn ’em! Of course, this is typical Bush admin thinking, which puts talks with us on a pedestal as the ultimate prize to be earned for doing what we want, instead of seeing talks as how we convince other countries to do what we want. Traditionally, talks have been seen as relatively safe, even if they’re not expected to produce results, while wars have been seen as relatively dangerous, even if they’re expected to go well. The Bush administration has turned that thinking on its head.

But now something seems to have changed. This is good. Talking to North Korea is wise. Talking to all our enemies would be wise. And perhaps one day we will have a government that realizes you flip more bad guys with dialogue than with waterboarding.