Nearly two decades have passed since the famine and economic crisis prompted North Korea to allow a number of foreign actors into the country, yet despite of the increased flow of information the DPRK is, by and large, still placed within the “bad, mad or sad,” paradigm described by British academic Hazel Smith.
Why would journalists and pundits write the same things about North Korea time and again? Some argue that it’s because the country offers little access and makes it hard to confirm or deny speculation. The most probable reason, though, is that the labels applied to North Korea make for catchy headlines and are an easy sell.
But such labels are frequently not justified. For instance, the “Hermit Kingdom” label and words like “secret(ive)” are generally overused, but the general public seldom questions these stereotypes.
Here are three of the most common clichés about North Korea and why they should be questioned.
#1 “A rare glimpse into the Hermit Kingdom/the most secretive state”
Take the notion that North Korea is a “secretive state,” that we can catch only “rare glimpses” into and you have an all-too-typical title for an article on the DPRK. Recent examples of this trend come from a gallery published on Wired, an article at the NY Times and an Instagram collection (please note that this is not a criticism of the content per se; these have some excellent pictures), but the titles are, to say the least, trite. Other notable instances include (but are not limited to) the Cornell Chronicle, National Geographic, CNN, The Daily Mail and Policymic.
However, would a truly “secretive” state allow so many tourists in to take and publish these “rare images from the Hermit Kingdom?” These “sneak peeks through the keyhole” are really showing us that North Korea is making a huge effort to bring foreign investors and tourists in. They’ve tried it all, and not just since Kim Jong Un took power. Ski resorts, sea resorts, cruises, package tours for Chinese/Russian/other tourists, sports diplomacy, dolphinariums and mountain tours, all with abundant coverage by the international press. Where’s the secrecy in all this?
Not only is visiting North Korea possible today, but quite fashionable for some. Furthermore, what is usually depicted as a rare look into the country often reveals what anyone willing to apply for a visa to Pyongyang could see on their own. While some things remain obscure (we still know little about the internal power dynamics or the feelings of ordinary North Koreans, for instance), it is quite easy to find pictures of daily life in North Korea. Check out, for instance, the photo gallery at the website of Pyongsu Pharma in Pyongyang: Not only do we get to see North Koreans going about their business and some new buildings in the city center, but also a number of foreign visitors and doctors.
More can be found on a number of North Korean websites, although access to these materials requires knowledge of Korean. Naturally, some may argue that everything North Korea shows to foreign observers is a facade, but then again, the same would apply to the material that constitute the ‘rare glimpse’ of many media reports. This brings us to the second cliché.
#2 “North Korea’s behavior is strange/unpredictable.”
This is the idea behind a number of articles pretending (or worse, honestly convinced) to have captured some strange and mysterious feature of North Korea. For instance: a few posts have recently been dedicated to the construction of a ski resort, a water park and a number “VIP residential areas” in the capital. Most of these projects have been presented with colorful adjectives (“weird,” “extravagant,” “lavish”), to underline the fact that North Korea’s behavior is baffling and unpredictable, as the country squanders its limited resources on initiatives that do not address its chronic issues.
However, North Korea is in reality quite predictable. In most cases, the regime’s behavior follows a precise set of rules, objectives and motivations that have been detailed through endless political speeches, economic plans and propaganda materials since the 1950s. Most “new” behavior from North Korea is just an adaptation of old patterns to new circumstances.
Moreover, history shows that the result of most economic ventures is of secondary importance to the leadership. Between the 1970s and the early 1980s the North Korean cult of personality reached its extreme, the DPRK embarked not only on a series of costly propaganda projects, but also on a quest for some “get rich quick” schemes intended to bridge the gap with South Korea and Japan in a short time which instead bankrupted the country.
Things are not different today. Given the nature of the North Korean state and its ideology, everything the country does can be considered primarily a propaganda project, from the Ryugyong Hotel to the smallest anti-U.S. leaflet. One may divide the leisure-oriented projects from the serious ones, but they’re all done to appease the most important sectors of the population and the army, to preserve domestic legitimacy. The next time you see a headline claiming to have found something strange in North Korea, research propaganda materials from prior decades. Chances are you will find that a similar pattern was in place many years ago.
#3 “Those who do not openly oppose North Korea are supporting the regime.”
This is not a stereotype of North Korea itself, but those who choose not to report on North Korea using the labels mentioned above, or those who try to engage the regime. The “useful idiots” label is often applied to those who report on more “normal” aspects of the DPRK, or conduct engagement activities in the country. This definition is applied to a wide range of actors, from members of the Korean Friendship Association (KFA) worldwide to NGO workers to tour operators in North Korea. The fallacy here lies in equating talking with the regime to consent for its actions
However, periodic calls for engagement and aid should not be grouped together with anti-American rants and the praising of “Juche” which is characteristic of KFA members. Those who have decided to engage the DPRK in a constructive way, in fact, do not ask for justification of the North Korea’s mistakes nor do they praise its ideology. They instead look for a better future for the North Korean people in a non-confrontational way.
Similarly to what happened with South Africa at the time of apartheid and with Myanmar more recently, the question boils down to “helping the country versus benefitting the elite.” There is evidence from the last 20 years that policies of isolation and containment have not only failed to contain but rather raised tensions, causing North Korea to harden internal security measures and further restrict personal freedoms.
This does not mean that the regime should be given a free pass for its decisions, but simply that its people should not be left to an uncertain future with a regime that maintains a tight grip on society. Favoring engagement, especially of the cultural and technical variety geared towards the creation of better human resources and market economy skills, does not make one a collaborator.
Of course, North Korea does much to feed the arguments of those who want regime change. It makes odd, and at times disastrous choices. It limits its people’s freedoms greatly and has wasted a number of chances to improve conditions. All the more reason, however, to stop the demonization process and realize that North Korean leaders have still a lot to learn, and that for every “strange” thing they do, there’s probably an insecurity they do not know how to address.
All pictures: Eric Lafforgue
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