When Nationality Binds and Blinds

You know the story. A former NBA player recruits a team of retired professional basketball players to play an exhibition game in front of Kim Jong Un on his birthday. Obviously, the players haven’t spent any of their post NBA lives learning anything about life in North Korea. The whole trip, especially the players clapping adoringly while the team leader serenaded Kim Jong Un with “Happy Birthday”, was almost too surreal to process.

Understandably, the media was quick to criticize the player and his friends. But the national-centric nature of the media’s criticism warrants criticism. And as far as I’m aware, there hasn’t been any. Never mind that 1m North Koreans died during famines in the 90s, that hunger is still a daily reality for most North Koreans, or that state prison camps have doubled in size since Kim Jong Un’s ascension two years ago. Learn more here.

The media’s criticism has focused on only one thing, American missionary Kenneth Bae, whose story is tragic. Bae, who is in declining health, is being held against his will for allegedly cataloging the extent of hunger among North Koreans under the guise of Christian missionary work. Bae’s story deserves media attention, but not at the expense of tens of millions of ordinary North Koreans whose daily lives have always been a living hell.

Our passivity about the plight of ordinary North Koreans explains the myopic media coverage we’ve been subjected to. Interestingly, Bae was born in South Korea and moved to California when he was 17 or 18 years old. Overtime he not only gained citizenship, he secured the one thing that seems to make him far more important than all the North Koreans combined, a U.S. passport.

Our passivity about our media’s national-centrism is an embarrassment. The North Korean media spotlight is in actuality a sporadic lighting of dim, fast burning individual match sticks. Given that, it’s especially important that our first instinct is always to honor the humanity of everyone held captive in North Korea irrespective of their nationality.

Our Passive Acceptance of Evil

I’ve been subjecting my unlucky, long-suffering wife to a string of intense foreign flicks. Most recently, In a Better World, which won the Oscar for the 2011 Best Foreign Language Film. One reviewer explains that “the film examines the different ways people react to injustice, and looks at how what counts as ‘revenge’, as opposed to ‘justice’, is a matter of perception.” Watch it and let me know what you think.

How do you react to injustice? What, if anything, do you do when you see an adult hit a child in public? What, if anything, do you do when you learn someone is a victim of domestic abuse? What, if anything do you when your tax dollars make it possible for drones to kill bad guys and innocent civilians anonymously from the sky?

I know what you do when an evil person, family, or cadre in Zimbabwe or North Korea hits, impoverishes, and imprisons on a national scale. Nothing. Most people cope with the atrocities of those regimes by not paying attention to them. If we don’t even know where Zimbabwe and North Korea are, who Kim Jong-un and Robert Mugabe are, or what Zimbabweans’ and North Koreans’ lives are like, it’s so much easier to just make fun of how backward the countries are.

On the other hand, if we’re better than our popular culture, and press pause long enough to learn what life is like for fellow humans who were born in the wrong place at the wrong time, it’s impossible to watch the North Korean succession without getting sick to your stomach.

The North Korean tragedy is nearly impossible to grasp, but here’s an imperfect analogy. If your politics are anything like mine, after John McCain picked Sarah Palin to be his running mate during the 2008 U.S. presidential election, you had a few “Oh shit, there’s a possibility of an ill-informed, right wing dilettante becoming president” moments. Forget President Sarah Palin. Instead imagine if the vote was canceled and Jenna Bush was appointed President. Jenna, not Barbara because she revealed a greater capacity for cruelty. One of Jong-un’s alleged childhood pastimes was torturing small animals.

I miss Christopher Hitchens’ writing. This incredibly vacuous New Yorker essay on North Korea’s Kim Jong-il’s funeral ceremony/performance begs a question—who will fill his shoes? Without Hitchens’ passionate, populist voice the Kim Jong-un succession has even more of a feel of inevitability.

I get it, the immediacy of the evil in North Korea pales in comparison to the violence in our own neighborhoods and communities, but the scale of human suffering deserves more of our attention. We can and should be committed to a more peaceful and just 2012 both in our own communities and on the Korean Peninsula.