In the last two weeks I rolled out a series of impressions from my trip to North Korea (one, two, three, four). Apparently Parag Khanna went to NK at the same time I did (last month) and simultaneously put up his impressions at CNN-GPS, making for an interesting comparison of views this week. (You don’t have to go to the Khanna link, as I have reprinted the piece after the break, with some response comments.)
Dan Nexon and Dan Drezner both noted the coincidence (favorably, I am happy to say), and the blogosphere reaction to the Khanna piece has been pretty negative (look at the piece’ comments and then this, which is genuinely disturbing). I also thought the piece was too puffy and far too pleasant-toned for a place like NK.
I am amazed Khanna didn’t talk up the personality cult, as this is easily what any even mildly politically astute observer would catch, especially in Pyongyang which is ground-zero for the KIS cult. The guides practically beat you over the head with it at every turn. (NB: I tried make this point, about the blindingly obvious KIS cult, by posting a comment to the article on CNN. It failed moderation, twice. Come on, CNN. Really? Why censor me when other commenters are accusing Khanna of being paid by NK? Lame.)
Anyway, all this surprises me, because Khanna seems like a pretty good scholar. I thought Second World was pretty good and cited it in my tangle over Russia and the BRICS earlier this year. More generally, he’s probably a pretty bright guy, and it doesn’t take much political sophistication to see that the NK tour-guides were steering us toward certain images, impressions, ‘heroic’ sites and tales, etc., so that we would leave NK and write something as complimentary as Khanna just did. Khanna didn’t see that? Really? How?
I’m just flabbergasted that someone with his level of sophistication about politics couldn’t detect raw agit-prop staring him in the face. I know Morozov thinks Khanna looks the other way on democracy to praise Asian technocratic authoritarianism. But NK hardly fits that mold; visiting NK is like travelling around Africa, not Singapore. The food is poor quality, the lights don’t work, hot water is rare, but brown water isn’t, the potholes are so bad that no one sits behind the rear axel, etc. There’s nothing technocratic or ‘Beijing Consensus’ about NK. Dilapidation is everywhere, but for the few miles around Kim Il Sung Square. Khanna left that tiny bubble, so he surely must have seen that.
So I don’t really get it, unless there’s a long-term access issue at play. Perhaps Khanna wants to be able to return to NK and thought he had to write a puff-piece piece in order to get another visa in the future. I hear this accusation a lot here in SK. South Korean conservatives often accuse foreign scholars who soft-pedal NK of doing so in order to keep getting visas so they can return, thereby keeping their cachet as ‘insiders’ with ‘unique access’ to NK.
So here’s a gloss on Khanna’s article, noting some pretty disturbing oversights:
“There’s never been a better time to visit North Korea. [? WHY NOW? B/C OF KJU? HE’S BARELY DONE ANYTHING. THERE’S NOTHING SPECIAL ABOUT VISITING NK NOW, B/C TIME MAKES LITTLE DIFFERENCE. THE PLACE IS ALMOST FROZEN, WITH COLD WAR ICONOGRAPHY AND OUTDATED TECHNOLOGY EVERYWHERE. WE COULN’T EVEN MAKE AN INTERNATIONAL PHONE CALL.]
The specter of U.S.-South Korean military exercises, a potential nuclear test, assassinations of defectors in South Korea, and general saber-rattling haven’t prevented a record 4,000 tourists from arriving in Pyongyang this year. There’s even a hopeful air among diplomats that the two Koreas, as well as China and Japan, might find the right balance of words and gestures to smooth out their emotional grievances that fuel regular nationalist flare-ups. [WAIT, HAS KHANNA EVEN READ THE NEWS ABOUT THE NASTY TERRITORIAL FLARE-UP OUT HERE IN THE LAST MONTH OR SO? THE US AMBASSADOR TO JAPAN CALLED KOREA ‘IRRATIONAL’ OVER THIS MELTDOWN. IT’S SO BAD, MY UNIVERSITY’S HOLDING A CONFERENCE ABOUT IT NEXT MONTH.]
The scene at Beijing airport already gives clues into how North Korean society continues to defy economic gravity. Pyongyong elites check in dozens of boxes of household goods (from electronics to wine glasses) for their own use or to resell. [IT’S HIGHLY UNLIKELY KHANNA ACTUALLY WITNESSED THAT UNLESS HE HAD A VERY SPECIAL FLIGHT AND PACKAGE.]
Like upscale Iranians ferrying in and out of Dubai, the international, multilingual and urbane class may seem like precisely the ones to support regime change, but also profit the most from the status quo. [DID HE REALLY JUST WRITE ‘INTERNATIONAL, MULTILINGUAL, AND URBANE’ ABOUT THE NK GANSTER ELITE HE JUST WITNESSED VIOLATING UN SANCTIONS IN THE BEIJING AIRPORT?]
If you’re willing to part with your mobile phone at Pyongyang customs (hint: you have no choice, but they’ll give it back to you on departure), you’ll clear the airport with an efficiency that puts New York’s JFK to shame. [ARE YOU SERIOUS? THE AIRPORT RUNWAY IS UNEVEN. WE HAD JUST TWO GUYS STAMPING PASSPORTS FOR 200+ PEOPLE. ‘CUSTOMS’ OPENED EVERY DUTY-FREE BAG TO CHECK JUST WHAT KIND OF HOOCH WE WERE BRINGING IN TO GREASE THE WHEELS OF THE TRIP. WITH JUST 6 FLIGHTS A DAY INTO THE WHOLE COUNTRY, OF COURSE IT’S ‘EFFICIENT.’ MY LECTURE HALL AT SCHOOL IS BIGGER THAN THE PYONGYANG AIRPORT TERMINAL. COME ON.]
Despite Typhoon Bolaven battering the country at the start of our visit, we came during a week when student groups, worker units, and families from all parts of the country flocked to Pyongyang for the Arirang mass games, which take place in the 150,000-capacity May Day stadium and feature up to 100,000 performers in the most spectacularly choreographed precision movements ever staged — almost every single night. North Koreans are no longer afraid or suspicious to engage with foreigners. [!!! I THINK MY HEAD JUST EXPLODED. WHEN WE RODE THE PYONGYANG METRO, PEOPLE WERE FREAKED OUT JUST TO SIT NEXT TO US. THE STAFF YOU MEET ON THE TOUR, WHO SEEM ‘UNSUSPICIOUS,’ HAVE ALL BEEN HEAVILY BACKGROUND-CHECKED IN ORDER TO BE ALLOWED TO INTERACT WITH YOU.]
Soldiers and students, bus drivers and guards, all smile and wave, snap pictures and shake hands. [BECAUSE THEY ARE TOLD TO. YOU COULDN’T SEE THAT? OUR TOUR GROUP GOT TO REPEATEDLY CUT IN LINE FOR RIDES AT THE PYONGYANG FUN-FAIR AND PEOPLE SMILED ANYWAY, BECAUSE THEY KNOW GROUPS OF FOREIGNERS ARE MINDED BY THE SECRET POLICE.]
We encountered locals at the mass games, film studios, world’s deepest underground metro, art schools, and delicious restaurants. This is not a society voluntarily marching in lockstep.[GAH! ARE YOU SURE YOU WENT TO NORTH KOREA? DIDN’T YOU JUST TELL ME YOU WENT TO THE ARIRANG GAMES, WHICH IS 10,000 PEOPLE MOVING IN PERFECT LOCKSTEP, WHICH IS THE WHOLE POINT OF THE PERFORMANCE?]
Like Iranians and Cubans, they are told one story but increasingly encounter the other viewpoints through media and tourism. [OH GOOD HEAVENS. THEY LEARN ZERO FROM US. ONLY 4000 OF US COME A YEAR. WE CAN’T TALK TO ANYONE NOT APPROVED; ALMOST NONE OF US SPEAK THE LANGUAGE, AND THE MEDIA IS PROPAGANDA ROUND THE CLOCK. WE EVEN GOT IT ON THE PLANE DURING THE SAFETY INSTRUCTIONS. (THAT’S TRUE, BTW; WE LEARNED ABOUT HOW GREAT KIM JONG IL WAS BEFORE WE LEARNED HOW TO USE OUR SEATBELTS.) NORTH KOREANS CAN’T EVEN CHANGE THE CHANNEL IF THEY’RE LUCKY ENOUGH TO HAVE A TV IN THEIR HOMES. WHERE THEY REALLY GET OUTSIDE INFO IS FROM THE BLACK MARKET/UNDERGROUND RAILROAD NETWORKS ORGANIZED DURING THE FAMINE PERIOD THAT NOW BRING IN SK MEDIA ON DVD AND VHS. THIS IS OLD NEWS…]
Our appreciation of their beautiful cultural offerings reminds them that they are a rich civilization temporarily trapped in an anachronistic state. Outside of Pyongyang one witnesses the reality afflicting many of the country’s 20 million-plus citizens: poverty and malnutrition. Most of those labeled defectors into China are actually economic migrants, and even in Pyongyang one can tell which children come from poor villages by their ragged sandals and brownish hair, made lighter by long hours under the sun in the fields. [HERE KHANNA HAS DRIFTED INTO GENUINELY IMMORAL ‘USEFUL IDIOT’ TERRITORY, IF HE REALLY THINKS THAT BLACK HAIR REDDENS NATURALLY IN THE SUN. IT DOESN’T. THAT’S FROM MALNUTRITION; THAT’S PART OF CHLDHOOD STUNTING FROM BORDERLINE STARVATION. HONESTLY, HE SHOULD PROBABLY APOLOGIZE FOR THAT LINE.]
One of Pyongyang’s crown jewels is the 150-meter tall Juche tower, which celebrates the country’s ideal of self-reliance. Plaques in the lobby commemorate the visits of dignitaries and earnest academics from Gambia, Tunisia, Pakistan and dozens of other nations who devoted serious study to North Korea’s Juche ideology in the 1970s and 1980s. We all know what’s happened to them. North Korea too feels on the cusp of a new phase. [WE SAW ABSOLUTELY NO PHYSICAL EVIDENCE OF THAT. IF HE MEANS CHINESE AID, THAT’S NOT NEW. NK HAS PLAYED OFF ITS NEIGHBORS FOR AID FOR DECADES. WHAT’S NK IMPORTING RIGHT NOW, IN THIS ‘NEW PHASE’? FOOD? CONSUMER GOODS? NO. GRANITE, SO THAT IT CAN RECUT ALL THE JUCHE COLUMNS AROUND THE COUNTRY TO INCLUDE KJU’S NAME NEXT TO HIS PREDECESSORS.]
Though it hasn’t accepted Japanese apologies for World War II imperial atrocities, and its many monuments excoriate in stone America’s Korean War aggression in which 420,000 bombs were dropped on Pyongyang alone (greater than the number of residents in the city at the time), the concrete high-rises with intermittent water supply and belching buses are all reaching the end of their shelf-life. Soviet support and fuel subsidies collapsed in the early 1990s, and food security has been tenuous ever since. Most investment now comes from China, but much less so ideological support. Nominally committed to the same Communist ethos, China has still become one of the world’s largest economies while North Korea lacks a credit rating. It’s not likely that the young regime of Kim Jong-Un will actually collapse. Though the Arab Spring teaches us not to put much faith in the softer sons of iron-fisted rulers, North Korea is a deeply Confucian society and symbolically views itself as still run by Jong-Un’s late grandfather and national revolutionary Kim Il-Sung and father Kim Jong-Il. Jong-Un is something of a caretaker while the old clique continues with anti-Japanese propaganda, nuclear brinksmanship, and threats against the South. The country’s premier, Kim Jung Nam, has been increasingly visible as a decisive government official, but as with everything else in North Korea, it is a carefully staged diversification of authority [‘DIVERSIFICATION OF AUTHORITY’? IN NK?! WHAT PROOF OF THAT HAS HE GOT?], not a transition towards democracy.
As one wanders [LET’S GET THIS STRAIGHT – NO FOREIGNER ‘WANDERS’ IN NK; I WENT TO THE LAVATORY ONCE WITHOUT PERMISSION, AND OUR MINDER CAME RUNNIG AFTER ME.] through lively [‘LIVELY’? ARE YOU SERIOUS? DID YOU SEE STREET VENDORS OR A COLORFUL STREET MARKET? DIDN’T YOU SEE MILITARY EVERYWERE? HAVE YOU EVER SEEN A REAL BUSTLING ASIAN STREET MARKET IN BUSAN, HANOI, HONG KONG?] street arcades full of roller-skaters [‘FULL’ – I THINK I SAW ABOUT 5 KIDS IN NK WEARING ROLLER SKATES] and volleyball games, one has to hope that Confucian communism can make enough space for capitalism such that the burden of isolation falls on the regime rather than society.
More tourism, mobile phones [ONLY ELITES GET LEGAL CELLPHONES – THIS WAS PRETTY OBVIOUS TO SEE…], and industrial joint ventures all help. One of the most promising is the Chinese funded special economic zone of Rason at the intersection of Russia and China, a warm water port that would serve all three countries. A decade from now, it could be North Korea’s Shenzhen. Another is Dandong, also on China’s border. Suddenly North Korea is making flat-screen televisions and its own DVD players. [WHAT? WHERE DID THAT LAST LINE COME FROM? THE QUEUE AT BEST BUY WILL BE AROUND THE BLOCK FOR THE NK-LED!]
While not wanting to buttress the Kim regime as China has, South Korea fears being marginalized for influence in the North and is returning to the economic engagement of its 1990s “sunshine” policy [THAT IS ABSOLUTELY FACTUALLY INACCURATE UNDER THE CURRENT CONSERVATIVE SK PRESIDENT – COME ON], and is considering expanding investment in its own special economic zone at Kaesong.
But a rail line meant to connect Seoul and Pyongyang remains dormant. Still, the North too fears becoming too dependent on China, and like Myanmar, is courting more foreign investment for those with a high appetite for risk. [THAT PHRASEOLOGY IS MISLEADING, B/C THERE’S ONLY ONE COUNTRY INVESTING IN NK – CHINA, AND THAT’S FAR MORE ABOUT POLITICS AND ASSET-STRIPPING THAN MODERNIZATION. ]
North Korea does indeed have plenty to offer. Its largely mountainous territory is rich in gold and magnesium. Mining operations are picking up, with serious interest from Australia and other extractive giants. Its mighty rivers could be key hydropower resource both to electrify the country and sell power to the South. It also produces agricultural staples like rice, corn, soybeans and potatoes. And of course there could be much more tourism, including to scenic Mt. Paekdu and to witness the centuries of well-preserved Korean traditions in Pyongyang. For example, Beijing-based Koryo Tours has increased its tourist volume from 200 to 2,000 over the past decade, almost half of which are American. The nation’s capital, the largest of its half-dozen large cities, feels like an Asian Kiev. Like Ukraine’s capital, it has broad avenues with revolutionary monuments and fountains, but also a laid-back, leafy feel. [MY HEAD JUST EXPLODED, AGAIN, LIKE THAT GUY IN ‘SCANNERS.’ ‘LEAFY’? – LIKE HAPPY COUPLES STROLLING DOWN UNTER DEN LINDEN? ‘LAID-BACK’? WERE YOU IN THE SAME CITY I WAS, WHERE GUARDS CARRY MACHINE GUNS ALL OVER THE PLACE, WHERE THE INFAMOUS TRAFFIC COPS DIRECT LIKE ROBOTS, WHERE UBIQUITOUS MURALS AND STATUERY REGULARLY DEPICT HARSH MILITARISTIC IMAGES OR KIS LOOKING DOWN ON YOU LIKE BIG BROTHER STRAIGHT OUT OF 1984?]
Czech made trams still roll through the city ferrying workers and students between homes, offices, and schools.North Koreans are not automatons but citizens [HOLY C—! DID HE JUST WRITE THAT? NO VOTE, NO VOICE, NO DISSENT, NO RIGHTS, A THEOCRATIC SUN-KING CULT – THAT’S WHAT CITIZENSHIP IS ALL ABOUT], loyal but misinformed, curious and educated [THAT’S BECAUSE THEY TOOK YOU TO THE ELITE SCHOOLS IN PYONGYANG FOR THE CHILDREN OF THE KWP/KPA LEADERSHIP. WE WENT THERE TOO, SO THAT WE MIGHT GET THE SAME FALSE IMPRESSION. YOU COULDN’T FIGURE THAT OUT?].
Whether in schools, billiard halls, or karaoke bars (Some Pyongyang girls have perfected Celine Dion’s “Titanic” theme song), the people can be quite open about their concerns. [YOU DIDN’T REALLY JUST WRITE THAT DID YOU? YOU REALLY THINK THEY OPENED UP TO YOU, A FOREIGNER WHO DOESN’T SPEAK THEIR LANGUAGE AND WHOM THEY’LL NEVER SEE AGAIN? STOP DRINKING THE JUCHE KOOLAID! ]
Some mothers would rather their kids practice the piano than spend hours training for the mass games; some teachers want their kids to focus more on math. Outside the capital, where information flow is more a one-way street, Western powers and responsible neighbors have to provide the young Kim with opportunities to change the hostile rhetoric. After the New York Philharmonic performed in Pyongyang, the reciprocal visit was effectively killed by Washington, which rejected the North Korean visas. But how about having the mind-blowing Arirang youth performers take stage at halftime in the Superbowl? Surely Kim wouldn’t call for America’s destruction after that. [JESUS! STOP! PLEASE! AN ARIRANG PERFORMANCE AT THE SUPERBOWL?! ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND? DID YOU WATCH THE SAME MILITARISTIC, HYPER-NATIONALISTIC, BELLIGERENT, JAPAN- AND AMERICA-BASHING, HYPER-CONTROLLED, ROBOTIC, BLATANTLY-LYING-ABOUT-AGRICULTURAL-PRODUCTION, INDIVIDUALITY-CRUSHING, PARTY-WORSHIPING, JUCHE-CELEBRATING, KIM-ADULATING, YOU’RE-JUST-A-COG-IN-THE-COLLECTIVIST-MACHINE PERFORMANCE I SAW? THE AIRANG GAMES IS NOT ‘AMAZING’; IT’S TERRIFYING. IT’S ‘TRIUMPH OF THE WILL’ FOR A POPULATION WITHOUT TELEVISIONS. ALL THE BANNERS ABOUT THE PARTY, THE MILITARY TRIUMPHALISM, THE IMAGES OF THE KIMS, THE BLATANT LYING IN THE IMAGERY ABOUT NK AFFLUENCE DIDN’T MAKE THAT PAINFULLY OBVIOUS?]
Indeed, Jong-Un has an opportunity now his failed Arab counterparts missed: to lead the rehabilitation of his country and enjoy his remaining decades not as a pariah but a statesman, not feared by his people but admired by them. [ADMIRATION FOR THE KIM FAMILY?………..[PROCESSING FAILURE]..…. DO YOU KNOW THAT SK STILL HAS THE DEATH PENALTY ON THE BOOKS, EVEN THOUGH THEY NEVER USE IT DOMESTICALLY, BECAUSE THEY’RE GOING TO HANG MOST OF THE KIM FAMILY AND KPA & KWP ELITE AFTER IT’S ALL OVER?]
Rather than being banned from most international travel he could enjoy basketball games in Europe as he did during high school in Switzerland. Whether or not the North reunifies with the South like West Germany absorbing the East in the early 1990s, the current priority should be turning the country into a passageway between China and South Korea rather than a buffer. There’s no guarantee that economic opening will lead to political reform; indeed, China is if anything a more likely future model of governance for North Korea than outright democratization or sudden reunification. All the more reason then to stop pretending that placing conditions on investment such as freezing the nuclear program will actually work. [I DON’T KNOW ANYONE IN SK, EVEN ON THE LEFT, WHO BELIEVES THAT.]
Diplomacy with pre-requisites has a very poor track record with nuclearizing states. Rather than wait for statues to be violently yanked down in city centers, the goal should be de facto economic integration without political humiliation. The heavily fortified De-Militarized Zone (DMZ), then, would quickly go from Cold War flashpoint to nature park given its unique ecosystem and flora. The past 20 years of revolutions followed by slow, halting, and even reversed transitions from the Balkans to the Middle East teaches us to be guarded in our optimism about the pace of change in countries whose political and economic systems have been frozen in time. Today North Korea is like Turkmenistan, isolated and ideological. Even with a surge of infrastructure investment and technology, a decade from now it could at best become like post-Communist Romania, exporting industry and agriculture but still corrupt and destitute. But it would be an economic passageway with greater freedom and opportunity for its people, and have a greater stake in peace than war. So come to North Korea, and come soon [*SIGH* I’M JUST OUT OF OUTRAGE. GIMME A BREAK. NK AS A HOT TOURIST DESTINATION? WITH LAID-BACK, LEAFY BOULEVARDS? THE KIDS WILL LOVE IT! KIS WILL SMILE HIS BENOVOLENT RADIANCE DOWN UPON THEM!]
The Pyongyang International Film Festival takes place in September with documentaries and avant garde movies being screened from a dozen countries. [YEAH, WELL, YOU SEE THE THING ABOUT ‘AVANT GARDE’ IN NK IS THAT THERE IT MEANS YOU STAND IN FRONT OF THE GUARD SO THAT HE CAN MORE EASILY ARREST YOU THAN WHEN YOU ARE RUNNING AWAY. — JUST READ THE D— HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH PAGE ON NK, PLEASE.]”
THIS COLUMN IS A DISGRACE.
And here’s one more KIS pic for the road…
Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.