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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Cry Freedom

I was running with a friend one early morning recently when he started complaining about the gradual, seemingly inevitable, decline of freedom in the U.S. It takes a whole village, government intrusion, I’ve heard it all before, but this time I snapped.

“FOR EXAMPLE?” “Well, making fast food restaurants list the calorie count for every item on their menus.” “Wow, that is egregious, giving consumers more information to make better decisions. Maybe we should go into grocery stores and remove the same nutritional information from all the canned goods and other items. What else?” “Forcing people to wear helmets.”

I guess he’s correct, if by freedom we mean more specifically the right to eat crap without knowing it and the right to crack our heads open when we fall off our bicycles and motorcycles.

Then over breakfast, I kicked on National Public Radio and listened to Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera’s story. Nabagesera has just been awarded an international human rights award for fighting for LGBT rights in Uganda where homosexuality is illegal. Earlier this year, her closest colleague, David Kato, was killed, most people believe, for being openly gay.

And then we have the stirring examples of Tunisian, Egyptian, Yemenis, and Syrian democracy protestors willing to die so that their fellow citizens might have the right to assemble, vote, and speak freely.

The U.S. is imperfect, but thanks to our constitution, we can assemble, vote, and speak freely about our right to eat crappy food and crack our heads open. And we can choose where and how to live, work, worship, and raise our children.  We can criticize our elected officials without fear of reprisal and we can tweet and blog until our heart’s content.

Maybe Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly should lead an Arab Awakening tour abroad so that my right wing nutter friend and his friends can better appreciate the freedom they seemingly take for granted.

Jonathan Franzen, Freedom

Best (and lengthiest) sentence I’ve read in a long time.

When Seth, at a dinner party, mentioned Patty for the third or fourth time, Merrie went noveau red in the face and declared that there was no larger consciousness, no solidarity, no political substance, no fungible structure, no true communitarianism in Patty Berglund’s supposed neighborliness, it was all just regressive housewifely bullshit, and, in Merrie’s opinion, if you were to scratch below the nicey-nice surface you might be surprised to find something rather selfish and hard and competitive and Reaganite in Patty; it was obvious that the only things that mattered to her were her children and her house—not her neighbors, not the poor, not her country, not her parents, not even her own husband.

I did not read The Corrections, but may have to now. Franzen is pure genius at capturing interpersonal conflicts based upon class differences and contrasting world views.

I highly recommend Freedom.