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.

Adam Johnson Wins Pulitzer for Orphan Master’s Son

From the NYTimes. 

Mr. Johnson, 45, was cited by the board for an ‘exquisitely crafted novel that carries the reader on an adventuresome journey into the depths of totalitarian North Korea and into the most intimate spaces of the human heart.’

While writing the novel, Mr. Johnson said, he read propaganda and books approved by the regime. He eventually included Kim Jong-il, the late North Korean leader, as a character in the book. ‘I came to, not feel for him, but to see a human dimension in him,’ he said. ‘He was a very cunning person, a very witty person. He had flaws like all people. The more I studied him the more I realized that he was a very human figure.

Richly deserved award. Here’s my review of the Orphan Master’s Son.

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Richardson, Schmidt, and North Korean Naivete—Making Matters Worse

It’s Bradley K. Martin’s fault. A decade ago, his outstanding history of contemporary North Korea, “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty” sparked my deep-seated curiosity about life in North Korea.

Next I read Barbara Demick’s harrowing “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.” Then Adam Johnson’s brilliant “The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel.” Last week, Blaine Harden’s riveting “Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West.” Next in the queue, “Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad,” by Melanie Kirkpatrick.

If you’re more a viewer than a reader, watch “Inside North Korea” and “Camp 14: Total Control Zone.”

One can’t read those books and watch those films and not be alternately repulsed, saddened, horrified, angered, and ultimately, changed.

I believe most people are rational, well intentioned, and deserving of respect. From the time my daughters first started talking, I took time to explain to them my expectations, decisions, and actions. In turn, I tried to defuse conflicts by listening to them. I believe in non-violent social change. Like Gandhi, I believe that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” I believe diplomacy always holds more promise for international conflict resolution than military action.

And so why did former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson’s and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt’s trip to North Korea anger me so much last week? Because my North Korea self-study has challenged much of what I believe to be true about global politics. I’m not sure anything I wrote in the previous paragraph applies to North Korea. The leadership is not rational and the regime isn’t just evil in the context of contemporary world politics, but in the course of human history. I have absolutely no faith that diplomacy will bring about any meaningful change. I’m not sure of the best course of action, but I know Richardson and “Rock Star” Schmidt are making matters worse by helping delude the outside world that North Korea is changing for the better.

It’s reprehensible for Richardson to say, “the naming of a new U.S. secretary of state could also help reset dialogue”. Yeah right, North Korea is the way it is because of Hilary Clinton. That’s an embarrassingly stupid statement for someone with Richardson’s credentials to make. And when a CNN television anchor interviewed Richardson, all she was concerned about was 44 year-old Kenneth Bae, an American being held in North Korea. No concern for the 23 million ordinary North Koreans whose lives are the most hellish on the planet.

Blaine Harden and Suzanne Scholte explain the problem this way.

“In a media culture that feeds on celebrity, no movie star, no pop idol, no Nobel Prize winner stepped forward to demand that outsiders invest emotionally in a distant issue that lacks good video. Tibetans have the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere, Burmese have Aung San Suu Kyi, Darfurians have Mia Farrow and George Clooney. North Koreans have no one like that.”

In part, that’s why I resolve to use this humble blog from time to time to inform others about North Korea, to agitate on behalf of impoverished and imprisoned North Koreans, and to criticize naive, misguided public figures.

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Book Review—The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel

Despite the preponderance of superficial on-line communication in these most fast paced of days, my reading over the last fourteen months convinces me that long form non-fiction and fiction writing may be as healthy as at any time in the recent past. That’s my way of saying, damn I’ve read a lot of amazing books recently.

None more so than Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel. I don’t write well enough to adequately credit Johnson for one of the more creative, imaginative, and haunting novels I’ve read in a long, long time. I’m sure you’ve seen a movie or two that left you completely drained as a result of the film’s suspenseful arc, quality of acting, and artistic beauty more generally. Immobilized, you just kind of stared blankly as the credits rolled. That’s how I felt upon finishing The Orphan Master’s Son. Unable to get off the bed, I wondered who is this extraordinary guy with the ordinary name, where does his imagination come from, and how and the hell did he write that? Total and complete awe.

Here are some answers from Johnson himself:

When I arrived at Pyongyang’s Sunan Airport a few years ago, my head was still spinning from a landing on a runway lined with cattle, electric fences and the fuselages of other jets whose landings hadn’t gone so well. Even though I’d spent three years writing and researching The Orphan Master’s Son, I was unprepared for what I was about to encounter in “the most glorious nation in the world.”

I’d started writing about North Korea because of a fascination with propaganda and the way it prescribes an official narrative to an entire people. In Pyongyang, that narrative begins with the founding of a glorious nation under the fatherly guidance of Kim Il Sung, is followed by years of industry and sacrifice among its citizenry, so that when Kim Jong Il comes to power, all is strength, happiness and prosperity. It didn’t matter that the story was a complete fiction–every citizen was forced to become a character whose motivations, desires and fears were dictated by this script. The labor camps were filled with those who hadn’t played their parts, who’d spoken of deprivation instead of plenitude and the purest democracy.

When I visited places like Pyongyang, Kaesong City, Panmunjom and Myohyangsan, I understood that a genuine interaction with a North Korean citizen was unlikely, since contact with foreigners was illegal. As I walked the streets, not one person would risk a glance, a smile, even a pause in their daily routine. In the Puhung Metro Station, I wondered what happened to personal desires when they came into conflict with a national story. Was it possible to retain a personal identity in such conditions, and under what circumstances would a person reveal his or her true nature? These mysteries–of subsumed selves, of hidden lives, of rewritten longings–are the fuel of novels, and I felt a powerful desire to help reveal what a dynastic dictatorship had forced these people to conceal.

Of course, I could only speculate on those lives, filling the voids with research and imagination. Back home, I continued to read books and seek out personal accounts. Testimonies of gulag survivors like Kang Chol Hwan proved invaluable. But I found that most scholarship on the DPRK was dedicated to military, political and economic theory. Fewer were the books that focused directly on the people who daily endured such circumstances. Rarer were the narratives that tallied the personal cost of hidden emotions, abandoned relationships, forgotten identities. These stories I felt a personal duty to tell. Traveling to North Korea filled me with a sense that every person there, from the lowliest laborer to military leaders, had to surrender a rich private life in order to enact one pre-written by the Party. To capture this on the page, I created characters across all levels of society, from the orphan soldier to the Party leaders. And since Kim Jong Il had written the script for all of North Korea, my novel didn’t make sense without writing his role as well.

I agree with “Maine Colonial” the author of the top-rated of Amazon’s 69 Orphan Master’s Son reviews who wrote, “The book can be confusing, as it jumps from one narrator to another, one time period to another, one style to another, with no explanation. But it’s so vividly written, I didn’t worry about the shifts and came to enjoy the crazy-quilt style.”

Maine Colonial also references an interview Johnson gave in which he said he sees his book as a “trauma narrative,” in which a survivor of traumatic experiences tells stories that are similarly disjointed and that “bend and mix genres as characters attempt to patch their stories back together using the stories they find around them.”

In the weeks and months immediately following 9/11, I remember reading and hearing lots of analysis that suggested our intelligence forces couldn’t thwart the attack in part because no one could visualize one of that nature and scope. If Johnson ever tires of teaching creative writing at Stanford, it would behoove our nation’s security agencies to tap his unparalleled imagination.

Best read after Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.

Grade—A.

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.

The Politics of Travel

The North Korean dictatorship now sees tourists on cruises as the best way to generate some foreign currency with which they can keep buying western luxury goods for themselves. Fifty-four pictures here.

Do the mostly Chinese tourists have no conscience? Don’t they realize they’re propping up the most heinous dictatorship in the world?

Easy to rip them I suppose, harder to reflect on the ways our travels sometimes negatively impact the people and cultures we visit.

When teaching and living in Ethiopia, I took what I thought at the time was an excellent picture that captured the harsh reality of poverty in the developing world. It was of two young girls who had hiked up to the top of the hills north of the capital city, Addis Ababa, with a huge thicket of wood branches on their tiny arched backs. Technically it was National Geo-like, and even more impressive after the excellent matting and framing job. After having it hanging in our home for quite a few years, the haunting, absent look on the girls’ faces started to trouble me. Despite being someone who values my privacy, I hadn’t asked for their permission. I raised my camera with my fancy zoom lens, pointed it right at them, and snapped.

There was no reciprocity in our interaction, no balance. I’ve since taken it down and use it as a discussion starter when teaching about cultural globalization.

I have other similarly unflattering travel stories. We don’t like to think about, let alone tell those stories though, opting instead for innocuous ones as if our travels are apolitical.

Our travel negatively impacts the physical environment; our physical presence inevitably changes the cultural environment; and our loding, dining, and recreational decision making tends to create distant economic winners and local losers.

To mitigate our negative impact, maybe we should travel less often, over shorter distances. And when we do travel far afield, we should strive to do so as global citizens, not amoral global tourists like the damn Chinese on the North Korean cruises.

It Could Be Far, Far Worse

For the most part, I’m grateful for the numerous blessings in my life including my health; my wife; my daughters; my mom, siblings and extended family; my personal freedom and civil rights; my work; access to excellent films and literature; the Pacific Northwest, and a surplus of Honey Bunches of Oats.

But I get frustrated with myself for not being as appreciative as I should all the time. Sometimes, when sitting in faculty meetings, or in traffic, or for hours at the doctor’s office, I can even begin to feel sorry for myself.

The ancient Stoics had a strategy for being joyful, negative visualization. Negative visualization entails taking a few minutes out of one’s enjoyment of life a few times each day or week to think about how all the most positive things in one’s life could be taken away. What if a loved one were to suddenly die? What would my life be like without my wife? Without a daughter? Without my mother? What if I was severely injured and couldn’t swim, cycle, or run? What if we lost all our life savings through disastrous decision making or an unprecedented financial meltdown?

All of those questions combined pale in comparison to one I’ve been batting around this past week: what if I lived in North Korea?

I’m fascinated by North Korea partly because I briefly lived in 1990 Marxist Ethiopia, partly because the curtain around it is drawn so incredibly tight, and partly because of Bradley K. Martin’s lengthy, riveting history of 20th Century Korea, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.

Yesterday, I finished another genius work titled Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick. One hundred eighty five, five star customer reviews on Amazon, not bad. Demick, a former LA Times correspondent based in Seoul, tells the story of six North Koreans she got to know after they defected first to China, then South Korea. She introduces each character when things are, as always in North Korea, extremely repressive, and then they endure the mid 90’s collapse of the already pitiful economy and the famine that killed somewhere between ten and twenty percent of the population, including some of their parents, siblings, and young students.

It’s going to take awhile to shake this book. Actually, I hope I never do. In fact, the next time I look in the frig and wonder what to make given the paucity of pickings, I hope I’ll remember that some North Koreans are picking individual kernels of corn and grains of rice from animal waste and then eating them or climbing trees to cut off and then eat the soft underside of the bark. The next time the internet is down, I hope I remember that in North Korea there is no internet. And the next time my government demonstrates its fallibility, I hope I remember that in North Korea government officials burn unopened letters in the winter for warmth.

Those references just scratch the surface of how evil the Kim dictatorship is and how utterly brutal life is in North Korea. My vote for the worst address in the world. I’m surprised more North Koreans don’t attempt to escape across the Tumen River. And the frustrating thing is the world seems content not to do anything probably because they threaten to unleash their military might on Japan and South Korea. That “can’t do anything” mindset is much tougher to accept given Demick’s storytelling. We are at best selective humanitarians.

Thank you Deborah Demick for the disorienting stories and the reminder that life is far, far worse in North Korea than people as privileged as myself can ever fully grasp.