It’s been a crazy year for North Korea, yeah? While I was in Cape Town last week, the nuclear tests by North Korea were the only other story that was able to make its way to South African television news amidst the Oscar Pistorius story. Allowing myself the morning to take it slow and have breakfast before hopping on the train to visit the beach, I tuned in to a dialogue held on Al Jazeera.
Five months ago, I began my tour through the Heartland with Liberty in North Korea. I’m undeniably nostalgic about my time on the road, sleeping in our van at times, a different city seemingly every night, setting up for our presentations at universities all over. I miss it. The focus of our tour was to change the conversation about North Korea, moving away from the political stalemate and towards its personal side. Just this week, LiNK launched their latest tour, and with it, a new film featuring the personal story of my friend Danny, who years ago escaped from North Korea.
With these ties to the North Korean issue, I often have to distance myself to get a sense of what the general perception of North Korea is like. My news feed is no longer an unbiased indicator, after all the friendships I’ve made with people more knowledgeable about the wholeness of the issue.
So, in Cape Town, on the other side of the earth from LiNK’s headquarters, I tuned in. I’d already known North Korea was picking up steam in the public’s eye. President Obama referenced the nation in his State of the Union, after having been mostly quiet about the regime in his first four years. And there’s a lot of buzz surrounding the missile tests and the UN Security Council’s deliberations. Were I on the current tour, I’d imagine having to keep all the more up to date with the headlines on a daily basis. Last fall was pretty quiet in Pyongyang, compared to this year.
The Al Jazeera host invited three correspondents to discuss- a global studies professor in Tokyo, another British academic, and a foreign policy analyst in Hong Kong. They discussed the nuclear tests, the treat that North Korean nukes posed to the world, and the effectiveness of further sanctioning what is already the most isolated country in the world. Not mentioned in their conversation were the Auschwitz-like prison camps, the rampant starvation, or the growing refugee crisis.
At the end of their discussion, one of the correspondents said something to the extent of, “further sanctions will make it difficult for Kim Jong Un to feed his people, who will have nothing to show off other than missiles.”
Sadly, that comment by an academic reflects a very problematic portrayal of North Korea. While chronic food shortages have plagued the country since the nineties, the government continues to invest solely in military, showing that the Kim regime has little interest in feeding its people to begin with. I’ve met North Korean defectors and have heard absolutely nothing of the ordinary North Korean citizen taking pride in missiles. In spite of the continually leaking propaganda, the ordinary North Korean, like anybody else around the world, desires to have his basic needs met. In fact, according to a recent Reddit conversation with a defector hosted by LiNK and Movements.org, “propaganda is not important any more, people are driven by profit.”
What happens when we only see North Korea through nuclear-watch lenses? We mistakenly believe that every North Korean is an unstable warmonger, intent on the destruction of the U.S., and we let fear, rather than compassion, dictate our actions. Furthermore, this reinforces the identity of the North Korean people under the Kim regime, rather than defining the country by its everyday individuals.
Since I started with LiNK in August 2012, North Korea has confirmed a few missile launches, a few videos showing the U.S. in flames have leaked, and I’ve gone from California to Johannesburg. Yet what remains the same is the need for North Korea to be defined by its people.
There are some efforts to shift this focus. In the last issue of The Economist, a pair of brilliant articles focused on how North Korea’s economy was falling into the hands of ordinary entrepreneurs, engaged in the black market, giving its people more leverage. More attention is going towards the political prison camps thanks largely to Google Earth. There’s even talks of a BBC Korean language broadcast potentially being aired in Pyongyang.
LiNK launches the film Danny From North Korea in cities across the U.S. starting this week. If anything, organize a screening and get people tuned into the story of my friend Danny. It matters that North Korea isn’t just defined by bombs, but by ordinary people.