Real Daily lives in North Korea

All we actually know about Kim Jong-un is that he’s young...
May 31st, 2012
30

When discussing the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea we have a tendency to obsess over images of colorful parades, mass games and relayed grainy images of missiles being launched into a technicolor sky. Cut to Hillary Clinton wearing an awkward coat and peering through a Soviet-era pair of binoculars and you have your average formulaic

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About the Author

James Pearson

James Pearson (@pearswick) was the NK News Seoul Correspondent.

Join the discussion

  • http://twitter.com/jonascjoiner Jonas J.

    When I think of the DPRK, I do enjoy their spectacle and their heritage, I think of people who don’t have basic human rights.  Forget Juche (and I appreciate your explanation of it), until these people are allowed to move, vote, and be informed of the world around them, they will always be slaves to their government.  

    • http://www.koreabang.com/ James Pearson

      I support improving the human rights situation too. Point is, if you ever want to achieve progress in that direction, the first thing to try and do is understand what human lives in North Korea are like. They’re not -all- dropping like flies. Even with the “elite”, I think it’s important to try and understand how they at least see themselves, rather than discount them because they’re, well, “elite” (I’m not saying you suggest this, just reinforcing the point).

  • http://twitter.com/jonascjoiner Jonas J.

    When I think of the DPRK, I do enjoy their spectacle and their heritage, I think of people who don’t have basic human rights.  Forget Juche (and I appreciate your explanation of it), until these people are allowed to move, vote, and be informed of the world around them, they will always be slaves to their government.  

    • http://twitter.com/pearswick James @koreaBANG

      I support improving the human rights situation too. Point is, if you ever want to achieve progress in that direction, the first thing to try and do is understand what human lives in North Korea are like. They’re not -all- dropping like flies. Even with the “elite”, I think it’s important to try and understand how they at least see themselves, rather than discount them because they’re, well, “elite” (I’m not saying you suggest this, just reinforcing the point).

  • Kevin

    Excellent article – too many ‘NK watchers’ choose to simplify the totality of NK through one simple lens. The fact that we can’t all agree on which lens that should be is a great indicator that we need to take our blinders off!

  • Kevin

    Excellent article – too many ‘NK watchers’ choose to simplify the totality of NK through one simple lens. The fact that we can’t all agree on which lens that should be is a great indicator that we need to take our blinders off!

  • Pa_B

    You are buying into the life is OK nonsense they want you to think. sure, people get by, but they always do in dictatorships. only solution is to bring regime to an end.

    • http://www.koreabang.com/ James Pearson

      Don’t really understand how that offers anything constructive to the issues at hand. Sounds like you’re simplifying the argument a bit.

      The only solution is to encourage the regime to adopt slow and gradual reforms/change. It’s doing this at the minute. So one of the things we can do is try and understand these people as human and help them adapt to what could potentially be a very different kind of lifestyle under new leadership.

      Again, I support human rights etc but I find myself banging my head against the wall all the time, largely thanks to a massive gap in our knowledge and understanding of Korea, let alone the Northern side.

      ” So often, there is a human element of life behind the last slither of the iron curtain that we neglect to engage with, either because we obsess with the actions of the state or we dismiss any attempts by the regime to relay images of North Korean normality by Pyongyang as misguided propaganda.”

      Here, you prove my point entirely.

  • Pa_B

    You are buying into the life is OK nonsense they want you to think. sure, people get by, but they always do in dictatorships. only solution is to bring regime to an end.

    • http://twitter.com/pearswick James @koreaBANG

      Don’t really understand how that offers anything constructive to the issues at hand. Sounds like you’re simplifying the argument a bit. Try reading it again, slowly this time.

  • http://profiles.google.com/dcmusicfreak DC Musicfreak

    This article is largely a strawman argument:

     ”Just like you and I, North Koreans eat, sleep, drink and breathe. They fall in and out of love. Some have girlfriends and boyfriends that they keep secret from their parents”    Who questions this?

    • http://www.koreabang.com/ James Pearson

      Well, there’s a general conception within broader media circles that all are “slaves to the government” or most North Koreans are “brain washed”. I don’t deny that many might feel they have to display loyalty to the regime (for self-protection more than anything) but there are aspects of normality within North Korea that are completely ignored. I wouldn’t dismiss it as a straw man case – you’re battling against a pretty dominant opinion here. 

  • http://profiles.google.com/dcmusicfreak DC Musicfreak

    This article is largely a strawman argument:

     ”Just like you and I, North Koreans eat, sleep, drink and breathe. They fall in and out of love. Some have girlfriends and boyfriends that they keep secret from their parents”    Who questions this?

    • http://twitter.com/pearswick James @koreaBANG

      Well, there’s a general conception within broader media circles that all are “slaves to the government” or most North Koreans are “brain washed”. I don’t deny that many might feel they have to display loyalty to the regime (for self-protection more than anything) but there are aspects of normality within North Korea that are completely ignored. I wouldn’t dismiss it as a straw man case – you’re battling against a pretty dominant opinion here. 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/3QHZ4OIS34IXDJOYP5TSTZ76VI Josh

    This article is one of the few which define (for a lack of better word) NK as a country with its life…its people….how this world works or least part of this world. Too many think this state is nothing but a giant non working factories with robots inside it.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/3QHZ4OIS34IXDJOYP5TSTZ76VI Josh

    This article is one of the few which define (for a lack of better word) NK as a country with its life…its people….how this world works or least part of this world. Too many think this state is nothing but a giant non working factories with robots inside it.

  • James_C

    Great article, James. I really enjoyed this. It picks out the reality many foreign press / media / south koreans all willfully ignore.  Fact is, news about nukes and human rights always sells more. as do labour camps and other such reports.
    but while those are all important issues, why should a nation be defined by them?

  • James_C

    Great article, James. I really enjoyed this. It picks out the reality many foreign press / media / south koreans all willfully ignore.  Fact is, news about nukes and human rights always sells more. as do labour camps and other such reports.
    but while those are all important issues, why should a nation be defined by them?

  • Ed22769

    I have read this article twice, and am still at a loss to discern exactly what point the author is trying to make. If it is the banal observation that, yes, North Koreans are people, too, then I thank him for that riveting insight. But, exactly how does the author think we can cultivate a more effective engagement with the North on the nuclear and human rights fronts by our deference to this fact?

    This article engages in the most appalling kind of intellectual sophistry by asserting that NK society is really no different from any society in the free world. For Mr. Pearson, moral relativism is just good manners, I suppose. I guess we should discount the fact that whatever sphere of small “f” freedom North Korean citizens operate in is completely circumscribed and dictated by the State. In short, there is no true freedom. Anyone who does not find himself in a gulag spends his days fearing being put in one. There is not even a semblance of respect for the dignity and aspirations of the individual. Your worth is measured by your usefulness to the regime and nothing more. That in the midst of this hellish reality a person tries to organize his or her daily existence and lose him or herself in the minutiae of mundane human interactions says nothing about the the larger inhumanity in which that person exists. Yet, the author can only bring himself to make the most oblique, obligatory, and ultimately, dismissive reference to this reality by bizarrely conceding that defector stories, including those of prison camp escapees, deserve to be heard, but should be deemed merely one point of view among many into the wonderfully quaint mosaic that makes up this communist wonderland. Has the world ever heard a positive testimonial of North Korean life from a citizen not questioned under the gaze of a state minder?

    The author’s apparent view towards the horrific testimonials – all independently and exhaustively corroborated – of NK defectors betrays the utter irony imbued in an article which seeks to argue for a more nuanced, circumspect, and nonjudgmental attitude towards this nadir of political modernity, yet consistently displays a curious myopia in its dissection of the available literature on the NK situation. Consider the article’s condescending reference to Barbara Demick’s “Nothing to Envy,” which movingly revealed the sheer human devastation wrought by the evil incompetence of NK’s political apparatus and its command economics. This brilliant work, a National Book Award finalist, was rightly praised for providing an unprecedented window into how ordinary Koreans, those kept hidden from the world’s view by the propagandists in Pyongyang, fought – and failed – to survive the worst man-made famine in modern human history and, by extension, the regime. Yet, for the author, the book provides a only a limited perspective into the larger NK experience. Does the author think the Pyongyang governing elites and the walking fossils in the military were unfairly left out? The author may have forgotten that what made the book so affecting was not any sensationalist portrayals of starvation, state repression, or the inexorable disintegration of an industrial society, but the individual, everyday stories of survival amidst hunger and death it told: the survival of hope, joy, ingenuity, and love in the face of a living dystopian nightmare. Ultimately, the book is about the triumph of individuals over the oppressive power of the state. It is probably the most sympathetic, honest, and representative book on the NK experience, untainted by propaganda or political agendas.

    I invite everyone to re-read the author’s piece with the following in mind: NK is essentially a laborcamp-state; fear, not nationalism, is the glue that keeps the country together because everyone fears running afoul of the state; in NK, you cannot freely travel within the country much less outside it; you cannot read or watch anything you want much less anything critical of the government or in conflict with its ideology; you cannot protest or petition the government; you and your family can be deported to a labor camp without due process and for any reason or no reason; every North Korean knows of the prison camps and fears being sent there; the NK policy of every liberal democracy has distinguished between the regime and its people.

    • http://www.koreabang.com/ James Pearson

      Thanks for your lengthy review. Again, you further prove my point that there is a dominant tendency to view the DPRK through quite a simplified lens of “good” vs. “evil” or “black” vs. “white”. You seem to see it as a case of Pyongyang elites vs. the starving masses. I don’t deny that either of those groups exist, I’m merely suggesting that things are a little bit more complicated than you might first assume. Nor do I try and convince people that North Koreans are “people too”, although thank you for drawing attention to the fact. What I do say, however, is that there are some smaller, more mundane aspects of normality that we completely dismiss or are unwilling to entertain as fact. But understanding this aspect of North Korean life is hugely important. You paint a picture of a state where everyone but those in a position of power live in daily fear for their lives. Again, there is clearly no doubt that many people do, I don’t dispute this fact, but to put it in such absolute terms is an unhelpful over-simplification. 

      I don’t suggest that “NK society is really no different from any society in the free world” so I’m not sure whom you’re arguing there. I also, quite deliberately, make the point that the stories in Demick’s books are incredibly important. Having read the article twice, you’ll notice I begin discussing her book with “it goes without saying that the stories of these people should not go untold” and conclude with “by no means does this go to suggest that the plight of defectors should be ignored. They provide us with a valuable insight into North Korean society and certainly help develop our understanding. The danger only arises if we try to paint a picture of daily lives in North Korea solely on these accounts.” A clumsy double-disclaimer, but a very deliberate pre-emptive addition in anticipation of an argument like yours. This does not mean to suggest that the accounts of defectors should be given equal weight to the accounts of pro-regime propaganda as you seem to suggest I argue.

      Your characterisation of a labour camp state, held together by fear, is not a useful description. My underlying point is that more effective engagement with the regime can help change the situation on the ground for the better. How are we supposed to pragmatically engage with something if we don’t even know what it is we’re engaging with?

      • Ed22769

        Your points are well-taken, and I thank you for your considered reply.  I agree that the ideal course is to find ways to more effectively egage the country, and fundamental to such an approach is garnering an understanding of how the larger NK society operates on a daily basis and what motivates it, beyond the caricatures that make for good copy in media reports and analysis.  However, success of such an approach depends on the cooperation of a government that truly seeks openness and understanding, inasmuch as the government holds all the reigns of power.  The decades-old conundrum we face is a regime that does nothing to promote such a broader understanding of the country and its people.  Everything is pre-packaged and filtered to project only a one-sided and distorted view of the country.  Indeed, it is not so much the West that paints a black-and-white cartoon portrait of the country, it is the NK leadership, itself, that fosters such a view with its intransigence.

        The South’s “sunshine” policy was a serious attempt at setting aside the old paradigms that colored our prior dealings with North Korea.  This open-ended policy sought to bring NK into the light by smothering it with unconditional economic aid and cultural and political engagement.  What NK got was a currency lifeline to maintain its nuclear research and ensure its supply of cognac; the South got cheap labor, a new tourist destination (since closed when a tourist was shot in the back by a North Korean soldier), and a short-lived series of 20 minutes meetings between families separated by the war.  What meaningful and permanent concessions did the South receive, in terms of political cooperation and improvement in the living conditions of ordinary North Koreans?  All the well-meaning South got for its unprecedented efforts, in the end, was a multi-billion dollar shakedown, a sunken naval ship, an artillery barrage, and 50 South Korean dead.

        Wishful thinking cannot substitute for a clear-eyed assessment of the nature of this particular regime.  I just can’t see how greater appreciation of the North Korean people gets us anywhere with a regime which does not respect its own citizens’ desires to make a good life for themselves and leave a better world for their children.  The NK regime respects only power, and it knows that its preservation of that power depends on the subjugation of its people and the stifling of any attempts at true reform.  Nothing will truly change, as long as the regime is sustained.  In short, it is not our perceptions that have to change, it is the very regime in Pyongyang.

        One would hope NK would follow the path Burma is now taking.  But, to do so would spell the end of this Kim dynasty, and Kim Jong Un and his cadre know it.  So, why would they do something that is fundamentally threatening to their own survival?  Burma is turning out to be a welcome exception to the rule regarding how dicatorships operate.  North Korea is not.  Consequently, there is no real mystery about NK.  We know what these types of regimes are all about.  Yet, that is the nub of the problem because we know such regimes will almost never willingly relinquish power, absent mass revolt or revolution.  Nothing in the North Korean societal dynamic suggests that such a change is in the offing.

        I would suggest that it is our genuine appreciation of the humanity of everyday North Koreans that is motivating our efforts now to change the human rights situation on the ground in NK.  Perhaps the more productive path to ultimate reform is to side-step the regime’s obstinance and engage in a public campaign to call attention to the plight of the North Korean people.  Information continues to seep into the country, via cellphones, CDs/DVDs, USB drives, word of mouth, despite the regime’s attempts to muzzle it, and I believe the North Korean people are slowly undergoing an awakening.  Information is dangerous to dictatorships because it provides people the means to assess their own situation and, hopefully, make choices about their lives.  North Koreans have never been allowed to make a choice about their future.  I believe this is slowly changing.  Let’s continue to help till this ground and plant the seeds of change.

        • http://www.koreabang.com/ James Pearson

          “In short, it is not our perceptions that have to change, it is the very regime in Pyongyang.”

          You’re absolutely right, and at no point would I suggest otherwise. However, there are many things we can do to encourage the regime to adopt the changes it needs too. It’s not simply a choice of one vs. the other.

          I appreciate the other points you make, but you seem to have drawn a straight line from the failure of the Sunshine Policy to the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyong-do. This, again, is a huge oversimplification of a very complicated state of affairs. Sunshine Policy requires generations, not minutes, to introduce change in Korea and it, or something like it, is the closest thing we have to improving relations between the two Koreas.

          Rather than me continue a conversation that goes far beyond the scope of the article, I would encourage you to listen to a debate between two NK heavyweights here: http://www.intelligencesquared.com/quick-debates/korea-debate

  • Ed22769

    I have read this article twice, and am still at a loss to discern exactly what point the author is trying to make. If it is the banal observation that, yes, North Koreans are people, too, then I thank him for that riveting insight. But, exactly how does the author think we can cultivate a more effective engagement with the North on the nuclear and human rights fronts by our deference to this fact?

    This article engages in the most appalling kind of intellectual sophistry by asserting that NK society is really no different from any society in the free world. For Mr. Pearson, moral relativism is just good manners, I suppose. I guess we should discount the fact that whatever sphere of small “f” freedom North Korean citizens operate in is completely circumscribed and dictated by the State. In short, there is no true freedom. Anyone who does not find himself in a gulag spends his days fearing being put in one. There is not even a semblance of respect for the dignity and aspirations of the individual. Your worth is measured by your usefulness to the regime and nothing more. That in the midst of this hellish reality a person tries to organize his or her daily existence and lose him or herself in the minutiae of mundane human interactions says nothing about the the larger inhumanity in which that person exists. Yet, the author can only bring himself to make the most oblique, obligatory, and ultimately, dismissive reference to this reality by bizarrely conceding that defector stories, including those of prison camp escapees, deserve to be heard, but should be deemed merely one point of view among many into the wonderfully quaint mosaic that makes up this communist wonderland. Has the world ever heard a positive testimonial of North Korean life from a citizen not questioned under the gaze of a state minder?

    The author’s apparent view towards the horrific testimonials – all independently and exhaustively corroborated – of NK defectors betrays the utter irony imbued in an article which seeks to argue for a more nuanced, circumspect, and nonjudgmental attitude towards this nadir of political modernity, yet consistently displays a curious myopia in its dissection of the available literature on the NK situation. Consider the article’s condescending reference to Barbara Demick’s “Nothing to Envy,” which movingly revealed the sheer human devastation wrought by the evil incompetence of NK’s political apparatus and its command economics. This brilliant work, a National Book Award finalist, was rightly praised for providing an unprecedented window into how ordinary Koreans, those kept hidden from the world’s view by the propagandists in Pyongyang, fought – and failed – to survive the worst man-made famine in modern human history and, by extension, the regime. Yet, for the author, the book provides a only a limited perspective into the larger NK experience. Does the author think the Pyongyang governing elites and the walking fossils in the military were unfairly left out? The author may have forgotten that what made the book so affecting was not any sensationalist portrayals of starvation, state repression, or the inexorable disintegration of an industrial society, but the individual, everyday stories of survival amidst hunger and death it told: the survival of hope, joy, ingenuity, and love in the face of a living dystopian nightmare. Ultimately, the book is about the triumph of individuals over the oppressive power of the state. It is probably the most sympathetic, honest, and representative book on the NK experience, untainted by propaganda or political agendas.

    I invite everyone to re-read the author’s piece with the following in mind: NK is essentially a laborcamp-state; fear, not nationalism, is the glue that keeps the country together because everyone fears running afoul of the state; in NK, you cannot freely travel within the country much less outside it; you cannot read or watch anything you want much less anything critical of the government or in conflict with its ideology; you cannot protest or petition the government; you and your family can be deported to a labor camp without due process and for any reason or no reason; every North Korean knows of the prison camps and fears being sent there; the NK policy of every liberal democracy has distinguished between the regime and its people.

    • http://twitter.com/pearswick James @koreaBANG

      Thanks for your lengthy review. Again, you further prove my point that there is a dominant tendency to view the DPRK through quite a simplified lens of “good” vs. “evil” or “black” vs. “white”. You’re seem to see it as a case of Pyongyang elites vs. the starving masses. I don’t deny that either of those groups exist, I’m merely suggesting that things are a little bit more complicated than you might first assume. Nor do I try and convince people that North Koreans are “people too”, although thank you for drawing attention to the fact. What I do say, however, is that there are some smaller, more mundane aspects of normality that we completely dismiss or are unwilling to entertain as fact. But understanding this aspect of North Korean life is hugely important. You paint a picture of a state where everyone but those in a position of power live in daily fear for their lives. Again, there is clearly no doubt that many people do, I don’t dispute this fact, but to put it in such absolute terms is an unhelpful over-simplification. 

      I don’t suggest that “NK society is really no different from any society in the free world” so I’m not sure whom you’re arguing there. I also, quite deliberately, make the point that the stories in Demick’s books are incredibly important. Having read the article twice, you’ll notice I begin discussing her book with “it goes without saying that the stories of these people should not go untold” and conclude with “by no means does this go to suggest that the plight of defectors should be ignored. They provide us with a valuable insight into North Korean society and certainly help develop our understanding. The danger only arises if we try to paint a picture of daily lives in North Korea solely on these accounts.” A clumsy double-disclaimer, but a very deliberate pre-emptive addition in anticipation of an argument like yours. This does not mean to suggest that the accounts of defectors should be given equal weight to the accounts of pro-regime propaganda as you seem to suggest I argue.

      Your characterisation of a labour camp state, held together by fear, is not a useful description. My underlying point is that more effective engagement with the regime can help change the situation on the ground for the better. How are we supposed to pragmatically engage with something if we don’t even know what it is we’re engaging with?

      • Ed22769

        Your points are well-taken, and I thank you for your considered reply.  I agree that the ideal course is to find ways to more effectively egage the country, and fundamental to such an approach is garnering an understanding of how the larger NK society operates on a daily basis and what motivates it, beyond the caricatures that make for good copy in media reports and analysis.  However, success of such an approach depends on the cooperation of a government that truly seeks openness and understanding, inasmuch as the government holds all the reigns of power.  The decades-old conundrum we face is a regime that does nothing to promote such a broader understanding of the country and its people.  Everything is pre-packaged and filtered to project only a one-sided and distorted view of the country.  Indeed, it is not so much the West that paints a black-and-white cartoon portrait of the country, it is the NK leadership, itself, that fosters such a view with its intransigence.

        The South’s “sunshine” policy was a serious attempt at setting aside the old paradigms that colored our prior dealings with North Korea.  This open-ended policy sought to bring NK into the light by smothering it with unconditional economic aid and cultural and political engagement.  What NK got was a currency lifeline to maintain its nuclear research and ensure its supply of cognac; the South got cheap labor, a new tourist destination (since closed when a tourist was shot in the back by a North Korean soldier), and a short-lived series of 20 minutes meetings between families separated by the war.  What meaningful and permanent concessions did the South receive, in terms of political cooperation and improvement in the living conditions of ordinary North Koreans?  All the well-meaning South got for its unprecedented efforts, in the end, was a multi-billion dollar shakedown, a sunken naval ship, an artillery barrage, and 50 South Korean dead.

        Wishful thinking cannot substitute for a clear-eyed assessment of the nature of this particular regime.  I just can’t see how greater appreciation of the North Korean people gets us anywhere with a regime which does not respect its own citizens’ desires to make a good life for themselves and leave a better world for their children.  The NK regime respects only power, and it knows that its preservation of that power depends on the subjugation of its people and the stifling of any attempts at true reform.  Nothing will truly change, as long as the regime is sustained.  In short, it is not our perceptions that have to change, it is the very regime in Pyongyang.

        One would hope NK would follow the path Burma is now taking.  But, to do so would spell the end of this Kim dynasty, and Kim Jong Un and his cadre know it.  So, why would they do something that is fundamentally threatening to their own survival?  Burma is turning out to be a welcome exception to the rule regarding how dicatorships operate.  North Korea is not.  Consequently, there is no real mystery about NK.  We know what these types of regimes are all about.  Yet, that is the nub of the problem because we know such regimes will almost never willingly relinquish power, absent mass revolt or revolution.  Nothing in the North Korean societal dynamic suggests that such a change is in the offing.

        I would suggest that it is our genuine appreciation of the humanity of everyday North Koreans that is motivating our efforts now to change the human rights situation on the ground in NK.  Perhaps the more productive path to ultimate reform is to side-step the regime’s obstinance and engage in a public campaign to call attention to the plight of the North Korean people.  Information continues to seep into the country, via cellphones, CDs/DVDs, USB drives, word of mouth, despite the regime’s attempts to muzzle it, and I believe the North Korean people are slowly undergoing an awakening.  Information is dangerous to dictatorships because it provides people the means to assess their own situation and, hopefully, make choices about their lives.  North Koreans have never been allowed to make a choice about their future.  I believe this is slowly changing.  Let’s continue to help till this ground and plant the seeds of change.

        • http://twitter.com/pearswick James @koreaBANG

          “In short, it is not our perceptions that have to change, it is the very regime in Pyongyang.”

          You’re absolutely right, and at no point would I suggest otherwise. However, there are many things we can do to encourage the regime to adopt the changes it needs too. It’s not simply a choice of one vs. the other.

          I appreciate the other points you make, but you seem to have drawn a straight line from the failure of the Sunshine Policy to the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyong-do. This, again, is a huge oversimplification of a very complicated state of affairs. Sunshine Policy requires generations, not minutes, to introduce change in Korea and it, or something like it, is the closest thing we have to improving relations between the two Koreas.

          Rather than me continue a conversation that goes far beyond the scope of the article, I would encourage you to listen to a debate between two NK heavyweights here: http://www.intelligencesquared.com/quick-debates/korea-debate

  • NGelle

    I want everyone to keep in mind, that Mr. Pearson regularly works with North Koreans and travels to DPRK. That means that he surely has some considerable insight into this society, even if he gets exposed to their propaganda. But hopefully and probably he’s capable of filtering the “truth” from what he’s shown. There is something I worry more about: He gets security clearance from DPRK authorities everytime he travels there. And he surely doesn’t want to mess up with those guys in order to be able to do his trips there in the future, too. Since DPRK embassies have internet and check who you are in detail before they let you enter the country or only agree to have an interview with you (I made this experience twice), Mr. Pearson can’t publish anything about DPRK which goes far beyond “not extremely positive”, especially if it is as easy to google like his articles and koreaBANG. Don’t get me wrong, I know that this is a common problem for all scholars, journalists, students and so on who work and write on countries which are ruled by dictators and are difficult to enter. You always have to balance between writing what you really think and see and what your (scientific) conclusions are, and writing in a way to preserve your access to the country and protect your sources. That’s hard and often disappointing. But after having read some of Mr. Pearson’s articles, I got the strong feeling, that he is 1.) committed to balance the common view of DPRK as an evil state, which I strongly appreciate, and 2.) he want’s to stay on the safe side for future access, i.e. he presents his arguments (which aren’t very critical at all by the way) in a way that it is hard to distinguish if it is DPRK propaganda in western words or just a different view on the North Korean issues based on facts. In my opinion his approach impairs the quality of his arguments and work, even if I appreciate what I know (very little) about his NGO work. To be frank, I sometimes have the feeling that Mr. Pearson wants to get himself a little fancy when he just should do his work towards an opening of North Korea and shut his mouth about it. And then there is one other point: Mr. Pearson did thank Tim Beal for his support on another article. Tim Beal is the author of “North Korea: A struggle against American Power”, one of the biggest pile of BS I EVER read on the whole topic. I encourage everyone to read this book if you are interested in some very wired and justifying arguments on DPRK’s policy. Anyway, besides all other critique, wheter positive or negative, I want everyone to keep in mind which position Mr. Pearson finds himself in. Mr. Pearson, I’m sure that you could present more critical arguments in a non public environment. But if you really are committed to the North Korean issue, and if you truly want to help the people, don’t balance between publishing and assuring your future travel clearances. Write under an alias or so and get the facts out of the country beyond “the are people, too”. Everyone with some intelligence knows that. And it is incredible for me that you try to disguise student’s field work (I hope you have seen their fields as well as work and living conditions in the countryside, everyone want’s to live in Pyongyang for a reason) as a somehow funny and patriotic weekend trip. I won’t go into detail with the rest of the article, but it seems to me that you either didn’t got behind all of DPRK’s propaganda or that you should just concentrate on your practical engagement, which is great you are committed to. The argument that you want to counter common “evilized” perceptions of DPRK isn’t enough to justify that you take BS arguments of anti-DPRKists just to falsify them with euphemisms and common sense. I am the last person on earth who would say that North Koreans and their leadership are crazy. The regime is very rational indeed, even if their methods completely neglect any human dignity and if you have to keep in mind that all their actions take place in a hubristic and somehow paranoid frame. But life is hard there, even if they have libraries and parks. And food shortages are real. Even if there might be a slight evidence of cautious opening in DPRK, your articles try to get the focus away from all the permanent surveillance and artrocities that happen there. If you are dedicated to the people who live there, don’t spit in their faces by trying to put the living conditions and the government which is responsible for that in a positive light.

    • http://www.koreabang.com/ James Pearson

      Thanks for your feedback. It’s precisely because I am committed to promoting a better standard of living for the North Korean people that I write as I do. I would encourage you to take another look at the work of Tim Beal though, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss what is actually quite an interesting account of the DPRK’s relationship with America and is, nevertheless, a useful view.

      I also wouldn’t be so quick to assume that I didn’t get “beyond the propaganda”. Not every ounce of contact with all things North Korean is necessarily under the watchful eye of the state.

      And I’m pretty sure it’d take a lot more than just offering critical analysis to jeopardise ”security clearance”. The British government, for example, does great work with its embassy in Pyongyang, teaching English with one arm and Human Rights with the other.

      You correctly point out that life is hard there, “even if they have libraries and parks” and that “food shortages are real”. As far as I’m concerned, this is as much a given as the whole “the[y] are people too argument” you allude to. At no point do I dispute these facts. I’m not trying to shift the focus, as you suggest, I’m merely trying to add some new perspective to what we already know.

      Anyway, thanks for engaging, I don’t agree with your characterisation of my arguments but the debate is interesting. And thanks for referring to me as “Mr Pearson”! Makes me feel like an MP.

  • NGelle

    I want everyone to keep in mind, that Mr. Pearson regularly works with North Koreans and travels to DPRK. That means that he surely has some considerable insight into this society, even if he gets exposed to their propaganda. But hopefully and probably he’s capable of filtering the “truth” from what he’s shown. There is something I worry more about: He gets security clearance from DPRK authorities everytime he travels there. And he surely doesn’t want to mess up with those guys in order to be able to do his trips there in the future, too. Since DPRK embassies have internet and check who you are in detail before they let you enter the country or only agree to have an interview with you (I made this experience twice), Mr. Pearson can’t publish anything about DPRK which goes far beyond “not extremely positive”, especially if it is as easy to google like his articles and koreaBANG. Don’t get me wrong, I know that this is a common problem for all scholars, journalists, students and so on who work and write on countries which are ruled by dictators and are difficult to enter. You always have to balance between writing what you really think and see and what your (scientific) conclusions are, and writing in a way to preserve your access to the country and protect your sources. That’s hard and often disappointing. But after having read some of Mr. Pearson’s articles, I got the strong feeling, that he is 1.) committed to balance the common view of DPRK as an evil state, which I strongly appreciate, and 2.) he want’s to stay on the safe side for future access, i.e. he presents his arguments (which aren’t very critical at all by the way) in a way that it is hard to distinguish if it is DPRK propaganda in western words or just a different view on the North Korean issues based on facts. In my opinion his approach impairs the quality of his arguments and work, even if I appreciate what I know (very little) about his NGO work. To be frank, I sometimes have the feeling that Mr. Pearson wants to get himself a little fancy when he just should do his work towards an opening of North Korea and shut his mouth about it. And then there is one other point: Mr. Pearson did thank Tim Beal for his support on another article. Tim Beal is the author of “North Korea: A struggle against American Power”, one of the biggest pile of BS I EVER read on the whole topic. I encourage everyone to read this book if you are interested in some very wired and justifying arguments on DPRK’s policy. Anyway, besides all other critique, wheter positive or negative, I want everyone to keep in mind which position Mr. Pearson finds himself in. Mr. Pearson, I’m sure that you could present more critical arguments in a non public environment. But if you really are committed to the North Korean issue, and if you truly want to help the people, don’t balance between publishing and assuring your future travel clearances. Write under an alias or so and get the facts out of the country beyond “the are people, too”. Everyone with some intelligence knows that. And it is incredible for me that you try to disguise student’s field work (I hope you have seen their fields as well as work and living conditions in the countryside, everyone want’s to live in Pyongyang for a reason) as a somehow funny and patriotic weekend trip. I won’t go into detail with the rest of the article, but it seems to me that you either didn’t got behind all of DPRK’s propaganda or that you should just concentrate on your practical engagement, which is great you are committed to. The argument that you want to counter common “evilized” perceptions of DPRK isn’t enough to justify that you take BS arguments of anti-DPRKists just to falsify them with euphemisms and common sense. I am the last person on earth who would say that North Koreans and their leadership are crazy. The regime is very rational indeed, even if their methods completely neglect any human dignity and if you have to keep in mind that all their actions take place in a hubristic and somehow paranoid frame. But life is hard there, even if they have libraries and parks. And food shortages are real. Even if there might be a slight evidence of cautious opening in DPRK, your articles try to get the focus away from all the permanent surveillance and artrocities that happen there. If you are dedicated to the people who live there, don’t spit in their faces by trying to put the living conditions and the government which is responsible for that in a positive light.

    • http://twitter.com/pearswick James @koreaBANG

      Thanks for your feedback. It’s precisely because I am committed to promoting a better standard of living for the North Korean people that I write as I do. I would encourage you to take another look at the work of Tim Beal though, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss what is actually quite an interesting account of the DPRK’s relationship with America and is, nevertheless, a useful view.

      I also wouldn’t be so quick to assume that I didn’t get “beyond the propaganda”. Not every ounce of contact with all things North Korean is necessarily under the watchful eye of the state.

      And I’m pretty sure it’d take a lot more than just offering critical analysis to jeopardise ”security clearance”. The British government, for example, does great work with its embassy in Pyongyang, teaching English with one arm and Human Rights with the other.

      You correctly point out that life is hard there, “even if they have libraries and parks” and that “food shortages are real”. As far as I’m concerned, this is as much a given as the whole “the[y] are people too argument” you allude to. At no point do I dispute these facts. I’m not trying to shift the focus, as you suggest, I’m merely trying to add some new perspective to what we already know.

      Anyway, thanks for engaging, I don’t agree with your characterisation of my arguments but the debate is interesting. And thanks for referring to me as “Mr Pearson”! Makes me feel like an MP.