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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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.