Minister Kang

When I was a speechwriter for the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations, from 2004 to 2008, Kang Kyung-hwa — Moon Jae-in’s appointee for Foreign Minister — impressed me before I was even hired.

I was interviewed for the job by a panel of five diplomats. At first I was asked the usual stuff: my background, how I heard about the job. Then the questions turned political, which probably shouldn’t have surprised me but did. “What do you think,” one of the men asked me, “about the United States response to 9/11 and the War on Terror?”

I gave what I thought was a diplomatic answer, saying that I appreciated South Korea’s participation in the Coalition of the Willing, and also that I had differences with the Bush administration, but that I didn’t want to criticize my government too strongly.

That’s when Kang Kyung-hwa spoke up. “But isn’t that the beauty of America?” she asked, smiling. “That you can criticize your government?”

The question cut through my bullshit. Somehow she invited criticism of the United States by praising it, and she made it clear that my evasions weren’t good enough. I responded, after maybe a bit more hedging, with something much closer to the truth.

I came to admire Kang for her strength, intelligence, and ability to cut through people’s preset defenses to get to what matters. During my years at the Mission, she had a significant role in the rapid passage of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, transformative global legislation that Koreans should be proud to have played a part in. Since then, she’s done human rights work at the United Nations.

Human Rights, in diplomacy terms, is considered a soft issue, along with social and cultural affairs. When I was at the Korean Mission, it was always women who had the soft-issue portfolios, while the men handled the so-called hard issues: defense,  security. Foreign ministers usually come from the hard-issue side. In choosing Kang, Moon Jae-in is doing more than just selecting a woman. First, he’s selecting an extraordinary woman; second, he’s signalling that issues of human rights and culture will play a central role in his administration’s domestic and foreign affairs.

When I worked with her, Kang Kyung-hwa’s title was Minister. I hope that she’s confirmed quickly, taking on that title again in a much higher-ranking role.

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.

 

Relief in Seoul

Today at work, I heard the sound of a hundred people all beginning to breathe again at once.

They had been, it seemed, collectively holding their breath as the acting chief justice of the South Korean Supreme Court read out the judgment removing President Park Geun-hye from office. It was a dramatic event, and I was listening to it live online, though I couldn’t understand all that much. At first, the court made clear that it was not considering Park’s response to the Sewol ferry disaster in its decision about whether to remove her from office. For a moment, it seemed as if the court might be letting her off the hook.

The exhale came when the acting chief justice declared that Park had shown contempt for the law. The unanimous verdict was clear some moments before it was officially complete. The sound I heard wasn’t jubilation, but more a quiet sense of relief. At lunch not long after, there was a bit of murmur, and more people than usual were glued to their phones.

I don’t speak Korean well enough to gauge the mood more broadly. I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary on my commute home tonight. For dinner, I decided to go get a kebab sandwich at the same neighborhood place where I ate on the night Trump was elected. Gangnam Kebab is now my go-to place for momentous political occasions. The TV news was on.

In Gwanghwamun, where the protests took place and where the presidential Blue House and the High Court are, things are apparently kind of crazy. Two pro-Park protesters died today, either from suicide or in accidents — the details remain fuzzy. There will be one last big rally tomorrow, and my friend who lives in the area has called off plans to come visit me because getting anywhere will be impossible for her.

The last poll I saw showed that 70 percent of Koreans wanted Park out, but her supporters are a passionate group. Her support is strongest among the elderly, who remember her father, dictator Park Chung-hee, as the man who built Korea. Today their protests turned briefly violent as they tried to march on the court. There were 21,000 police officers deployed to the area, and they got things under control quickly.

What’s next

There are lots of questions about what exactly happens next, but the details are getting clearer. The current acting president, the conservative minister selected by Park Geun-hye, will continue to hold power for now. An election must be held within 60 days, and the leading candidate is Moon Jae-in, from the liberal side. The conservatives haven’t got much in the way of viable candidates, and the acting president is seen as their best shot; if he runs, he has to resign his current position within 30 days.

The election, then, is likely to happen around May 9. There will be primaries before then. Much of the discussion will likely focus on policies toward North Korea, China, and the US — the liberals are likely to want to open discussions with the North while moving closer to China and further from the US — but the biggest issues facing the country right now, I think, are internal: corruption, of course, but also the need to face social issues like poverty among the elderly, family control of the big chaebol conglomerates, unemployment among the young. I’m cautiously hopeful that Korea can make progress on these issues in the coming years.

As for Park, she will almost certainly face criminal charges, and it’s hard to imagine that a Supreme Court that just declared her actions criminal will change its mind anytime soon. She has to leave the Blue House soon, and she won’t get her presidential pension. The trial against top Samsung executives is ongoing as well. That’s about their bribery of Park, plus associated embezzling and perjury. For those who protested against Park, holding these chaebol bosses accountable is nearly as important.

Happy but solemn

This is a happy moment for South Korea, and one that Koreans should be proud of. Their country has reinforced the rule of law through legal means. But it’s not an outright celebration. The joy is tempered by sadness that the situation has come to this pass at all.

One can hold Park accountable and also feel sorry for her. The daughter of a dictator who lost both her parents to assassinations, she is, in a way, yet another victim of Park Chung-hee’s regime. If she behaved terribly in office — keeping secrets, taking bribes, extorting money, blacklisting artists who disagreed with her — it’s not hard to see where she learned her leadership style. It was a mistake to elect the daughter of the dictator. It was a mistake for the daughter of the dictator to run for president.

There is much to be done in Korea, and the next months will be busy. But for now, at least, justice has prevailed.

Equality vs. Individual Freedom

Ever since the French Revolution, people throughout the world have gradually come to see both equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. Yet the two values contradict each other. Equality can be ensured only by curtailing the freedoms of those who are better off. Guaranteeing the every individual will be free to do as he wishes inevitably short-changes equality. The entire political history of the world since 1789 can be seen as a series of attempts to reconcile this contradiction.

– Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Lies About Love and Work

You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

Every now and again, I see this little pearl of wisdom pop up on my Facebook feed, and I think, Yeah, Steve Jobs said this to a bunch of Stanford grads, but I bet he never made this little speech at one of those Foxconn factories in Shenzhen. He probably never made this speech to the janitors who clean the Cupertino campus.

Chasing what you love and never settling is rich people bullshit.

Work is work

You know why people pay you to do your job? Because it’s the kind of activity that no one would do if they didn’t get paid for it. That’s how most jobs are, whether it’s cleaning toilets, cooking Denny’s meals, or doing the QA and writing the code updates that make sure you can still open Adobe FrameMaker in OS X Snow Leopard.

I went to the Apple website to look at jobs, and this is from the first one I saw:

As a Business Leader, you drive the strategy and infuse the business vision into management and store teams in each market location. You foster consistent practices for all locations, but you’re also flexible enough to manage unique variances in your market.

No one wakes up on Saturday morning thinking, I’m gonna manage some unique variances with my kids! I have never, ever, ever, in a conversation or a Landmark course or an AA meeting or wherever, heard anyone say that what they really wanted out of life was a chance to foster consistent practices. Someone might get into it and do it really well, and that’s great. But it’s a job. You do it to get money to pay for things.

And there’s no shame in that, or there shouldn’t be. But what the do-what-you-love rhetoric really has behind it is something much more insidious.

Only the rich do it right

When Steve Jobs tells you that if you do what you love, you can be like Steve Jobs, he’s also saying the opposite: if you’re not rich and successful and respected like Steve Jobs, it’s because you weren’t bold and brave enough to follow your bliss and never settle and do what you love.

In other words, Steve Jobs deserves his money because of his personal merit. That’s the secret message behind every zillionaire saying you should do what you love. He didn’t get rich by a combination of luck, privilege, ruthlessness, and peculiarly lucrative business skills. No, he got rich by following his passion and never settling. Something anyone could do, right? If only we were bold enough.

What follows is that if you’re poor, working shitty jobs, struggling to get by, or doing OK but sort of just getting along somewhere in the middle of a corporation, it’s your personal fault. It’s not the system, so don’t even look there. And whatever you do, definitely don’t start considering the idea that vast accumulations of personal wealth are a problem. They’re a goal — a personal goal, not a societal goal — and if you’ve fallen short, it’s on you.

How to do what you love

So let’s say you really do want to take Steve Jobs at his word. You can do it individually, trying to cut a path that sets you apart from everyone else so that you, and you alone, can do what you love. Or you could consider systemic changes that could allow many more people to lead lives that they enjoy, with more time to devote to what they enjoy.

There’s no simple solution, but there are ideas out there: guaranteed health care that frees people from corporate employment as a survival requirement, guaranteed universal income, sabbatical years, free education. These are some of the ideas I like, but you might have others.

And on a personal level, do your work because there’s work to be done and because you need to make a living, and do what you love because you love it, and stop insisting that these two things have to be the same thing.

Rootless

I don’t live in America.

I live in Korea now. I’ve been out of the US for a while. And there is, pretty clearly, a lot I don’t understand about my country.

This is some of what’s been running through my head the last couple of days. It’s not a balanced analysis or a prediction of the future or a plan of action. I don’t know what America will do next, and I don’t know what Americans should do next. I know I’ve misunderestimated Donald Trump pretty much every step of the way, and I hope I’m misunderestimating him still. I hope he’s a wonderful, beautiful president and in four years I’m totally embarrassed about the fear and dismay I feel now. But I’m not holding my breath.

Are you Jewish?

When I was a teenager, waiting for the bus under the highway at Fourth and Heatherton in San Rafael, California, a dude with a shaved head and a Budweiser tallboy in a paper bag stalked up to me, got right in my face, and barked, “Are you Jewish?”

“Yes,” I said, too startled to think of lying.

“Whadda you play?”

“Guitar?”

“Oh.” He stomped away, leaving me to my confusion. How did he know I played an instrument? How did he know I was Jewish, and why was he asking? There was something clipped, amped up about the way he spoke. I was wary.

A minute later he turned back to me. “Wanna join a punk band?”

“No,” I said. “I’m not very good.”

“You don’t have to be good. It’s punk.”

“Well,” I said, “I’m not really into punk.”

He thought for a moment. “Yeah,” he said, “you prolly don’t wanna join an Aryan punk band anyway.”

I didn’t know the guy, but I knew guys like him. They hung out at a San Rafael club called the Copa, or they drove trucks and hung out in front of the 7-Eleven in Santa Venetia. It wasn’t until years later that it occurred to me that they hung out there, instead of somewhere more pleasant like Denny’s or the pool hall or Caffe Nuvo in San Anselmo, because they had no money, and you can hang out in a parking lot for free.

 

They had crap lives, those guys. They were going nowhere. They had lousy grades and probably got beaten up by the men in their lives. There were probably good reasons for them to be angry. Their resentment had causes. But it wasn’t something I wanted to go explore with them while they were drawing swastikas on their school desks and shooting spit wads at the back of my head. Just because your life is shitty, that doesn’t make it OK to be an asshole.

 

It can happen here

After Trump was elected, I asked my family to make sure they had up-to-date passports for themselves and their children. It’s not that I think the end is nigh, or that America 2016 is Germany 1932. But German Jews in 1932 didn’t think it was going to get that bad either. And if it does get bad enough that my family needs to leave, there’s some chance that the US government might at that point have suspended passport issuance, or just run into endless delays.

Better to be ready.

I grew up Jewish in America, with a sense that I was different. I was taught that the veneer of acceptance was paper thin — that the violence of anti-Semitism could erupt even in what was one of the great safe havens in our history. I sometimes believed that and sometimes didn’t. It irritated me when Rabbi Lipner, the dean of the Hebrew Academy of San Francisco, would rant to us about how our goyische friends weren’t really our friends. But he’d been through the Holocaust, and you had to understand where he was coming from.

Right now I’m thinking that the things that happened in Babylonia and Rome and Persia and Italy and Russia and Spain and Germany and France and Poland and Lithuania and Hungary and Iraq and Egypt and Ethiopia could maybe happen again. Even in America. Now is hardly the moment for that sort of American exceptionalism.

Ask your black friends whether they think America is capable of sustained ethnic violence.

I suppose this is what #blacklivesmatter has been saying all along: that it’s frightening to live in a place where a certain part of the population wants to hurt and humiliate and maybe kill you, and the people in charge don’t seem to mind all that much, and they seem to think that maybe you’ve had it coming. Black people have dealt with that pretty much nonstop for the last hundred fifty-odd years. It was worse before that.

And no, I don’t think anyone’s coming for the Jews first. It’s queerfolk (also me), people of color, Hispanics, immigrants, Muslims, the vaguely Muslimlike who should be most afraid. (The Jews weren’t first on Niemöller‘s list either.) I expect that there will be ugly abuses in the immigrant roundups. People will end up dead. People will disappear. Courts will say that no one is at fault, that rights don’t extend to non-citizens, that mistakes are inevitable. That, I think, is much more likely than any sustained reign of anti-Semitism.

Cold comfort.

Rootless cosmopolitanism

The night Trump was elected, I had dinner with a black woman from Brooklyn. We ate kebabs in Gangnam and talked about not fitting in. I told her that I realized a while ago that I live in foreign countries because I feel like I don’t belong, rather than feeling like I don’t belong because I’m living in foreign countries.

My friend is looking for somewhere outside the United States to live, maybe find a husband and start a family. But in much of the world blackness is something to appropriate before discarding the actual people. Koreans love hip-hop but don’t necessarily love black girls.

She wondered if I knew what it was like to have your culture endlessly appropriated while you yourself are devalued. I explained that that’s what Christianity is for Jews: we’ve been beaten up with our own holy scriptures for two thousand years now. Jesus was a hero to most…

We Jews get accused a lot of disloyalty to whatever country we happen to be in. Often the result has been expulsion or internal exile. That happens enough times, and everywhere begins to seem provisional. It’s not an accident that some Jews have a tradition of wearing shoes and dressing for travel at the Passover seder. The story of our people begins with a violent expulsion.

The places I belong are the places where the wanderers intermingle, where cultures blend: big world capitals, backpacker havens, university campuses, international corporations. They’re often elitist places. They’re not salt-of-the-earth places. My people have mostly not been allowed to own land or be salt of the earth. We live on trade, exchange, ideas, intangibles. We invented an incorporeal God, and we’ve been in on some pretty serious abstract thinking, whether it’s psychology or relativity or Communism or third-order financial derivatives.

Abstract ideas are both difficult to grasp and enraging. It’s actually true that unseen forces control people’s lives: viruses and quantum mechanics, yes, and also the opaque machinery of international finance and trade, and invisible gases that change the climate. And if you’re not happy with your life, you get mad at those unseen forces, and at the people who seem to be in control of them.

This election — yes, I’m still talking about that, somehow or other — was a repudiation of all the thinky, abstract people on both sides, as much a smackdown of Paul Ryan and Bill Kristol as of the left. It turns out the angry mob doesn’t care that much about supply-side economics or constitutional originalism. They want insults and cruelty.

The center does not hold

There are moments in history when the center does not hold. Are we at one of those moments? It’s hard to know. It isn’t 1914 or 1939. But these moments creep up on us. As of January, the three largest countries in the world will be run by a shadowy Communist regime, a Hindu nationalist, and whatever Trump is. Europe seems to be in the process of dismantling the economic arrangements that have made continental war impossible. Marie Le Pen and Frauke Petry are ascendant. The Philippines has elected a goon. Being a moderate is not in style.

Here in Korea, the inept daughter of the old dictator was elected president in a spasm of nostalgia for authoritarianism, and a lot of people here felt the way a lot of Americans feel right now. She’s currently embroiled in a bizarre scandal that has left her with an approval rating of 5 percent and left South Korea with no functioning leadership.

I’m not sure right now how I feel about democracy.

(As has happened so often in world history, the Persians were ahead of the curve and get no credit: the Iranian revolution might be the first great spasm of the nativism and tribalism and nationalism and fundamentalism that is seizing the world.)

Requiem for a forgotten dream

In 2000, Al Gore was elected president after a campaign that didn’t get caught up in the question of why he once wore a brown suit and in which a third-party candidate was not able to convince any significant portion of the electorate that the two major parties were basically the same.

Al Gore became president, and his administration kept up the pressure on Osama Bin Laden’s obscure terrorist organization, occasionally firing cruise missiles into faraway places, which kindhearted liberals like me tended to find shameful. FBI and CIA monitoring quietly disrupted a plan to hijack some planes.

The Gore administration put global warming at the center of its agenda, and America used its considerable economic weight to push China to join a global carbon trading regime.

Rudy Giuliani retired quietly at the end of a tumultuous two terms as mayor of New York, and his nastiness came to seem sort of charming as he became a fixture on NY1, arguing with Al Sharpton.

Early in Gore’s second term, a hurricane hit New Orleans, and everyone agreed that it was a good thing the Army Corps of Engineers had repaired the levees. And an administration undistracted by foreign war hiked interest rates sharply in 2006 and began investigating the shady practice of bundling subprime mortgages as investment vehicles.

And the center held.

And there were no pulverized bodies raining down on New York or floating bloated in the streets of New Orleans, and there were no hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, and there were no CIA torture sites spread around the world, and there were trillions of dollars that weren’t spent on fruitless wars, and ISIS didn’t emerge from the chaos of those wars, and our police weren’t militarized with the surplus gear and PTSD from those wars, and revanchist fascism didn’t become the new normal around the world.

 

Primaries and Democracy

There’s a lot of discussion of primary elections right now, and in a few weeks everyone will forget about all of it. But in the meantime, it’s worth considering what primaries are, and asking what you think they should be.

In the United States, primaries are the way that (some) political parties choose their candidates for public office. In most countries, that’s not how it works; rather, party leaders vet candidates and decide who best represents the party. In the US, over the course of the 20th century, the primary system developed to make candidate selection more democratic.

If you think of primary elections as the mechanism by which a party chooses its candidates for a general election, then an open primary makes very little sense. The primary is for members of the party.

The party aspect is important because it means that individual candidates don’t have to qualify for the ballot. If you’re the chosen candidate for a party that qualifies, you’re on the ballot.

This mechanism probably saves a lot of money and agita, but it’s not inherently required. It would be possible to separate candidacies from parties entirely, if we were willing to insist that each and every candidate individually got enough signatures to get on the ballot wherever necessary.

A more plausible approach, if you want to make the whole process less party-driven, is to let parties choose who gets on the primary ballot, but then have open primaries followed by a general election between the top two candidates, regardless of party. You could end up with two Democrats or two Republicans, and no one else. California has adopted this approach for some elected offices.

Parties and democracy

There’s a big question, though, and that’s whether you think political parties should have an important role to play in American politics. I don’t have a simple answer to that. Do you think there’s a value in every election having a bunch of implausible candidates from implausible parties on the ballot? Is there something great about the way the Working Families Party in New York always nominates all of the Democratic candidates so you can vote for them on the WF ticket instead? Do we want political leaders — who, let’s remember, are themselves elected, not just materialized by magic — to play a role in selecting candidates, or should the process be purely electoral?

It’s easy to sort of default to wanting everything to be as democratic — as voter-driven — as possible. But we should keep in mind that we don’t live in a pure democracy. We have a representative democracy, with a lot of undemocratic mechanisms — two senators per state (originally appointed by the state governments), lifelong Supreme Court membership, the electoral college. You can see these mechanisms as flaws; that’s a reasonable idea. But to dismiss them without thought is maybe a bit hasty.

Beyond that, it’s worth remembering that we’ve had political parties for a very long time. They have tended to play a role in unifying disparate elected officials around unifying ideas and principles. Parties are a mechanism by which activists can push new ideas into the political mainstream. Rather than trying to elect a revolutionary outsider (President Debs, anyone?), you bend your party so that its representatives come to support your plank: integration, say, or not raising taxes, or banking reform, or denying climate change.

Again, there’s no right or wrong here. It’s not that simple. But primaries, for now, are party affairs, not first-round general elections, and any thoughts on what primaries should be would do well at least to start with an understanding of what they are.

Change in South Korea

In a major political shift in South Korea, the ruling Saenuri party lost its 16-year majority in the national assembly. Most of my young Korean friends, as well as my friends in the academe, will likely be pleased.

The Saenuri party was trounced in Seoul and in Gyeonggi, the province that has the capital at its center. That’s an expected result; the conservative party finds its greatest support in the Southeast, around Busan. Even there, though, the ruling party lost seats.

More unusual is the emergence of Ahn Cheol-soo’s People’s Party as a major third party on the left, picking up a significant number of seats in the traditional liberal strongholds of Gwangju and Jeolla Province. Ahn is a former member of the Minjoo Party, South Korea’s main liberal party, but what he stands for now is unclear, other than that he stands for change; he seems to have picked up quite a few votes from disaffected conservatives as well as liberals. In any case, it’s interesting to me that the country’s Southwest — home to political activist-turned-president Kim Dae Jung and the scene of the Gwangju  Uprising, which ended in a massacre of students that was the beginning of the end of South Korea’s long era of military dictatorships — has once again turned out to be a political spoiler and a driver of change.

I’m glad to see that Park Geun-hye’s increasing authoritarianism, pervasive corruption, and general ineffectuality have been repudiated. It will be interesting to see what develops politically in the next year, leading up to the presidential election. Ahn has much of his support among the youth, and I would like to see their concerns addressed: high youth unemployment, slowing economic growth, and a culture of corruption and overwork. The country is also in dire need of education reform and more spending on social welfare, particularly for the elderly.

Ahn might also have an opportunity to break the left’s old allegiance to an outdated notion of inter-Korean politics. For decades, the rightist governments and dictatorships in South Korea used the North Korean threat as a cudgel in domestic politics, creating an exaggerated sense on the left that the North Korean threat was only a political tool of rightist oppression. It is not. While it was legitimate in the late nineties to attempt a new path through the Sunshine Policy, Pyongyang’s actions over subsequent decades have made it clear that North Korea was never negotiating in good faith, and the South Korean left should not be naive about the North’s human rights abuses and belligerence.

Beyond that, perhaps Ahn has a chance to forge a new politics that is less dependent on chaebol support and its attendant corruption, and more focused on developing new and independent businesses in South Korea. We shall see. He’s a bit of a blank slate, letting everyone (including me) project his or her fantasies onto him. He’ll need to stand for something now, as he’ll be a major player in the next Assembly session.

 

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.

Trekking Beyond Pai

Pai, Thailand

You learn a great deal when you spend a day and a night with the local people, even when it’s structured and touristic. All the better if you remember that you’re seeing one small corner of a much larger society, presented through one or two viewpoints; the perspective is less sociological than anthropological, which is to say novelistic and personal.

I went on a one-day, one-night trek with Pai Adventure, the same outfit that took me rafting, and with Paul, the same guide who steered our boat. Along the way, I learned about this part of Thailand, where the land of the Tai ethnic group butts against the Shan and Karen peoples in the Burmese borderlands, and what Paul thinks of it.

Into the farms

We began with a drive up past Hong Nam Saen, Pai’s bigger brother out on the main road, until we veered off, down a dirt road, and began our walk into the hills. Along with our guide, Paul, there were five of us: Tammie, a 52-year-old Aussie train driver and florist who has been to 71 countries; Liu, a young Japanese Ph.D. student in biochemistry; and a young French couple, Gaelle and Julian. Gaelle studied cultural management, which strikes me as a very French thing to study; Julian is a pilot, just beginning his career with a small Swiss airline. Julian was also rather ill as we began our trek, and I worried how things might go if his upset stomach worsened into something acute.

The first half of the day was spent mostly in farmland that has been carved out of the surrounding mountain jungle: fields of peanuts, red bean, and especially corn. As we walked, paul explained the economics of each crop — the price per kilo, the kilos a field could produce, how long a farmer had to work to grow that much — and came up with hourly rates that did not make farming seem like a good proposition. We calculated that the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of no one living on less than a dollar a day was being met by farmers who were earning something like B150 ($4.50 or so), but Paul also explained that when he worked on farms in his younger years, his B30 would buy him enough for a great heap of food at the market and a tuk-tuk home, while now just the tuk-tuk is B20. It makes sense that prices would be rising in a country that has an unemployment rate of less than 1 percent, and also that the rural farmers would bear the brunt of it.

Added to their burden is the corn situation. According to Paul, the government encouraged people to clear the jungle and plant corn, which the government promised to buy at a subsidized rate. You could hear the trees falling “like elephant crashing, boom! boom! boom!” Paul told us, waving his hands in every direction. The trouble began when the subsidies ran out. The corn variety the farmers grow is for animal feed, not human consumption, and whether it’s GMO or not I’m not sure, but it’s one of those types where you have to buy the seeds again each year. Without the government coming in to buy the stuff at fixed prices, Paul estimated that the farmers struggle to net more than B50,000 (about $1400) in a year on a plot of land that takes three people to work. The seeds, the weed killing chemicals, and even gasoline to ride motorbikes back and forth to the farm every day, cut into the profits. (All day we saw farmers putting by on motorbikes, up and down the rutted dirt trails, going empty into the hills and coming down with sacks of crops.)

We climbed up a long way into the hills, then stopped for a break in a small village where there was a shop run by an old Shan couple. The old woman served us coffee — hot water and Nescafe, which I hope is less disastrous than the “Mexican coffee” that did in my brother and me some years back — while the old man sat and sipped his can of Chang beer, setting it down beside two empties. It was 11:30 am.

A short while later, we stopped for lunch at a shelter in a cornfield. Paul pulled out plastic bags of rice and chicken curry, and we all tucked in, except Julian, who had just managed to keep down a few swallows of the warm Coke he’d bought back in the village. Paul topped it off with some bananas he’d cut from a farmer’s tree along the way, and then we all napped for a while to the buzzing of flies and the rustle of corn leaves.

Into the forest

The second half of the hike took us into wilder territory, off of the farmers’ motorbike paths and into dense forest with great stands of bamboo. As soon as we entered, the air was cooler, wetter, and still. Paul warned us to put on our bug spray: bamboo, he said, means mosquitoes. He also cut a leafy branch and began swatting it in front of his face as he led us, to knock away spider webs. I found out why when I took the lead a bit later — Paul made a pit stop — and walked into a couple of webs before attempting to make my own spider swatter.

We went up and down and up again through the forest, past spectacular karst mountains that we had seen at a distance at the beginning of the day and suspected Paul was joking about when he said we’d be walking to them. According to Paul, we started at 400 meters and topped out at around 1800.

Along the way, at one of our breaks, Paul told us a story. At the beginning of the world, the Buddha came to all the different peoples to give them languages and alphabets. But at the end, he ran out, and there were two countries left, Burma and China. So Burma looked around, saw a horse walking by, and decided to make the tracks into its alphabet. And China saw a chicken scratching the ground, and that became the Chinese characters.

The climax of the long walk up was a soaring view of a vast cave across the canyon, a giant gaping mouth in the mountain where Paul told us he has led rappelling expeditions. After the cave, we began a descent that took us back into farmland, past banana groves and down to the Shan village where we spent the night. On the way down, in what felt like safer territory than the forest, Paul almost stepped on a cobra that was hissing at him, head reared, but I didn’t see it. He said it set his heart pounding.

Into the village

Lukhaolam, which means “bottom of the mountain,” sits in a bowl of karst ridges and peaks. It’s full of chickens, dogs, old people, and children — we walked around, handed out some candies, played soccer with some local kids — but few young adults, most of whom have headed for the cities for jobs that pay better than farming. I was reminded of the village setting where Laurel Kendall did her research in Korea in the 1970s: it was rural and shamanist, yes, but with electricity and televisions, not far from a road, and tied to the expanding Thai economy and the wider world.

Paul might have followed the others into the cities, but I suspect he has a conservative streak that keeps him tied to his homeland. He spoke wistfully of how the Shan used to have their own state, and he claimed to prefer his own village because it doesn’t have electricity, and he said that unlike a lot of local people, who supported Thaksin Shinawatra’s red shirt faction in the recent conflicts in Thailand, he supports the military government and its campaigns to root out drugs and addicts, sometimes by breaking into people’s homes and shooting them even though they don’t actually have any drugs — and this from a guy who also used to smoke meth when he was younger. He also showed me scars all over his legs, shrapnel wounds from a bomb that exploded when he was in the army, fighting off Burmese at the border in what he called the “quiet war” that has gone on for decades in the region: the Burmese army runs drugs, while the Thai army tries to put a stop to it. And he complained that Thai people sit around waiting for the government to help them, when really they should do something for themselves. In assessing his perspective, I imagined what his equivalent might be in the United States, and came up with a part-Navajo wilderness guide: someone with a minority tribe’s distrust of the central government and the disposition to maintain old ways and live on the land.

Paul, who is in his late thirties but looks much younger, told me a lot about himself, especially after he’d cooked dinner and had a few drinks, and after the other tourists had gone off to bed. Paul has two daughters and a girlfriend who is their mother. He used to run around with women a lot, especially the exotic tourists he had access to, but for the past seven years he’s been faithful. He told a story about the time he ended up in jail for the weekend because of a bar brawl that broke out between northerners and southerners over some German girls the former had brought in, and said he was glad he hadn’t brought his gun or his knife or his brass knuckles. He also explained that he’s a kind of village chief in his hometown, so he gets called in for every sort of problem: pythons in the house, domestic disputes (caused by “no fucking, no cooking, whatever”), or anything else that comes up. In fact, when we found him the next morning, we learned that Paul had only slept a couple of hours when the men of the town woke him up to lead a hunting expedition for some sort of big cat they’d seen. Paul was sneaking up on the animal and asked the others to hold back, but someone fired a rifle over his head, wounding the animal but not killing it, and it got away.

We stayed with a family that regularly hosts trekkers, getting paid for their hospitality. The household consisted of some old men, an old woman, and a five-year-old girl whose parents have gone to Chiang Mai for work. We sat on the bamboo floor of the kitchen — the bamboo stays cool even when the teak walls don’t — and ate chicken curry and fried vegetables over mountain rice. Above the doors were abstract woven wicker talismans and drawings put into plastic sleeves, provided by the village shaman for protection. Paul, who is half-Shan, half-Chinese, is Buddhist, as is his Burmese girlfriend, but this village was shamanist. Such villages, he explained, have both a secular chief and a shaman, usually an old man who is good with the spirits. As far as I could gather, the role is not hereditary, and like Korean shamanism, it includes spirit possession and expensive rituals: sometimes a family has to sacrifice six or seven pigs to feed the surrounding villages, spending several years’ wages, to bring good luck. I asked whether shamans undergo spirit sickness before they become religious figures, but Paul didn’t know.

We were all in bed by 9 pm, though the village continued to buzz with conversation and the barking of dogs for an hour or so after that. I made do with earplugs as I lay on my mat under the mosquito net, but by midnight or so, there was little sound but the chirping of insects. Around 3 am the roosters started up, and by five the village was coming back to life, though I slept through it until about seven. I came out to find Tam drinking coffee; she’d already gone into the village and joined in a community cleanup, pulling thistles with her bare hands and signing the register of participants. We were alone in the kitchen for a while, heating the water again over the fire, and then I stood out on the deck and watched the mist rise off the ridges as the sun crept in. (Later Paul explained that the raised houses let you hang things underneath, and also keep the pythons out.) Gradually the others emerged, Julian last, much better for a night of sleep. Paul fried us some eggs for breakfast, served alongside fresh-cut onions and tomatoes and toast he’d done on a grill. then it was time to pack up and go. Most of the others were going rafting today, but I’d already done it, and Gaelle doesn’t like that sort of thing, so the two of us waited in the middle of nowhere, by two little shops on either side of the highway, for the minivan that would take us back to Pai.