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.

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.

cn_image.size.northkorea