우물 안 개구리

12/13/2010

The North Flank Guard: Everyday Life in North Korea

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 2:03 am Print

This is the last of three postings in this series. Read the first posting here for an explanation of the idea of the “North flank guard” and the second posting on its reactions to the Yeonpyeong incident last month here.

In 1985 Roland Jahn, an East German dissident who had been expelled from the country by the Stasi, illegally reentered the GDR. Though he soon returned again to the West at the urging of his fellow dissidents, he managed to smuggle in a video camera. On October 9, 1989, during one of the rapidly growing Monday protest marches in Leipzig, this video camera made its way in the hands of Aram Radomski and Siegbert Schefke who filmed on a night when all foreign journalists had been expelled from the city. The day after the protest, during which some 70,000 or so protesters gathered peacefully and chanted, “We are the people,” the first uncensored footage of the Leipzig marches was shown in the West and therefore, since a majority of East Germans also watched West German news reports at the time, in the East. The reports helped spread the protests and contribute to an explosion in their size.1 The anniversary of that night, which we now know came very close to ending in a brutal police crackdown, is still remembered today as one of the key events of that momentous autumn of 1989.

Footage of such protests, and government reactions to them are no guarantee of success for mass movements. The huge amount of reporting only a few months before covering the June protests in Tian’anmen show this only two well. In authoritarian China, where students are able to relatively easily bypass the internet censorship of Jingjing and Chacha, clearly many of the relatively unpolitical youth of today have either not seen, or have at least not been moved to action by footage such as that of the famous Tank Man, as a PBS documentary suggests.2 However, even if states are effective, to various degrees, at controlling information flows, few would deny, that getting and spreading such footage taken inside authoritarian states that offer no protections for freedom of press, and collecting reports from those who are experiencing life within—however fragmentary or riddled with contradictions—is an absolutely essential component to promoting resistance to state oppression and mobilizing concern and support outside.

If this is true for reporting on large political movements, I believe it also holds true for the far more modest goal of reporting on the changing daily lives in a country like North Korea, where there is no known organized dissident movement. Where great economic hardship prevails, mass protests are completely out of the question, and even being caught watching South Korean television dramas can land you in a labor camp or worse, the collecting of video fragments and anecdotes of daily life still requires incredible courage and can contribute in a small but meaningful way to growth of a political, or at least journalistic subjectivity. Thus the Rimjin-gang (림진강/リムジンガン/臨津江) project, which in 2008 began to publish a journal, and online articles containing the fruits of journalistic efforts of a small number of North Koreans who still live in or move into and out of the country, is incredibly valuable. It helps give us a view of North Korea that goes beyond the tired depictions of goose-stepping soldiers or of Kim Jong-il looking at things . It allows a very small number of North Koreans, as paid journalists, the opportunity to learn the skills of gathering information, analysis, and to participate in the creation of their own narrative of life within the country, albeit within the constraints—as is the case with any journalistic publication—of the editorial direction of the project’s founder, Ishimaru Jirō.

It is thus with deep frustration that I read the December 6 Japan Focus article by Suzy Kim about the project: “Understanding North Korea: Rimjin-gang Citizen Journalists out to cure the “Sick Man of Asia”?” Below I discuss the more troubling aspects of the article.

(more…)

  1. Mary Elise Sarotte 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe Princeton University Press (2009), 20-21. []
  2. Part six of the documentary shows the film maker presenting an image of the Tank Man to a few Beijing University students. I have my doubts about this scene, in which the narrator claims that students don’t know anything about the Tank Man. He may be right, generally speaking, but in this specific case at least one of the students whispered “89″ but then reported not being able to recognize the image. It is possible the students knew or suspected the reference but refused to acknowledge it on camera. []

12/10/2010

The North Flank Guard: A Military Exercise Escalated into Artillery Exchange

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 2:26 pm Print

This is the second of a three part series. Read the first posting here.

On November 28, a South Korean artilleryman mistakenly fired a single 155mm shell north into the Demilitarized Zone during a drill. Although the defense ministry notified its counterparts in North Korea of the mistake some two hours after the incident, it was all too late. North Korean artillery forces, fearing that the attack was the prelude to a full scale invasion, responded by firing over a hundred shells into the south, pounding a South Korean military base but also a nearby village community, resulting in four deaths, including two civilians.

This is how a military exercise can escalate into an artillery exchange. It reveals the dangers of having two bitter opponents, armed and opposing each other on opposite sides of a thin stretch of land with nothing but a fragile armistice preventing the continuation of a war that still awaits its peace treaty. While each side must keep their front line forces prepared for an outbreak in hostilities by means of military exercises, even the smallest mistake like this can result in tragedy.

Of course, this is not what happened. There was an artillery shell mistakenly fired into the demilitarized zone on November 28, and it did reportedly take two hours for the North to be informed of the mistake, but this is not the incident that recently resulted in a deadly North Korean artillery attack on a South Korean military base and a nearby village.

Instead, the island of Yeonpyeong, one of a small collection of islands which hug the North Korean coast but which, under the terms of the 1953 armistice, remain under South Korean control, came under artillery attack from the North on November 23, in the first such incident since the end of major hostilities over fifty years ago. Four people died, many were injured, and an entire community was evacuated while the village on this heavily militarized island shared the fate of the nearby bases.

That morning South Korean forces had conducted an artillery training drill but no shells struck on or near North Korean shores before the North launched its attack. Southern forces shot their shells to the southwest, in order to avoid crossing the Northern Limit Line (NLL) which has, rightly or wrongly, served as the maritime border between the two sides for decades.1 Nor was this exercise some irregular or sudden move to threaten the North, being part of a monthly drill not associated with any larger joint US-Korean military exercises. That morning North Korean forces demanded a halt to the drill, but this too was anything but new. North Korean forces regularly demand a halt to such exercises in the South, including those in the contested maritime territory around the NLL.

As far as I can tell, we are left with a picture of a morning that was business as usual: North Korea protesting South Korean drills, whether or not those are connected to the larger joint exercises, North Korea contesting the Northern Limit Line, and South Korean forces conducting their monthly drills, firing to the southwest into the sea, an act that North Koreans nearby have surely seen them do many times before. Is there a casus belli here? I fail to see it. At the very least (and I still don’t think this would be enough), the North would need to offer some clear and public indication that they will no longer tolerate any further artillery fire into the contested seas and that further exercises will result in a military response. The problem, of course, is that it is difficult for the North to make any such warning credible when they threaten not just military force, but the complete destruction of its enemies on a fairly regular basis. Even if North Korea was trying to make a unique and credible threat in its messages on November 23, what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate that North Korea must itself take responsibility for.

So how has the North Flank Guard responded to this incident? Let me offer two examples: The statement recently issued by the Alliance of Scholars Concerned about Korea2 and the Factsheet: West Sea Crisis In Korea by Nan Kim, posted with an introduction by John McGlynn at Japan Focus and also available as a PDF directly from the National Campaign to End the Korean War.
(more…)

  1. The Northern Limit Line, established unilaterally by the United Nations Command in 1953, without consultation with North Korea, cuts to the north of the islands left in South Korean control. While it aimed originally to prevent southern ships from going north and serves a useful security purpose to protect the islands, North Korea has contested the line since the 1970s. It also violates the 1982 UN Law of the Sea Convention provisions for a 12 nautical mile coastal limit. The maintenance of the line is an important part of the unfair economic environment for northern fisherman in the area, as well as blocking direct egress of ships from the North Korean coast there. The North Koreans claim a line much farther to the south, the acceptance of which would surround South Korean islands, barring a small corridor, with North Korean military waters, an untenable arrangement. I’m very much in favor of adjustments in the line, fair coastal access for North Korea, and a fair division of the economic bounty of the region, all to be accomplished through negotiations between North and South Korea, but the reality today is that the security tensions in the region, and the fact that the region around the NLL has become a graveyard for those who died in so many conflicts in the waters will make it difficult or not impossible to make any changes while tensions are so high. The more blood is spilled in the region, the more each side will harden their views. For helpful background see John Barry Kotch and Michael Abbey “Ending Naval Clashes on the Northern Limit Line and the Quest for a West Sea Peace Regime” Asian Perspective 27.2 (2003). []
  2. They do not give the statement a separate page so I unfortunately cannot offer a permanent link to it. []

12/9/2010

The North Flank Guard

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 1:40 pm Print

In politics, a direct attack is not always the most effective. One way to proceed is to target someone or something that is seen to represent a more extreme, a more pure representation of your opponent’s ideas and concentrate at least some of your efforts here. Let us call this the “politics of envelopment.” One of the most misguided responses to such a threat of a politics of envelopment, however, is what I will call a “flank guard” form of active defense. Alas, on the political left, and especially among those who, including myself, might be described as democratic socialists, this approach is all too common. The “left flank guard” often takes the form of a spirited defense of even the most indefensible extremes on our flank. The most common ways this is actually carried out is by means of evasion (of accusations), dramatic reversals (“On the contrary, you are the terrorist!”), distraction (“Look at those literacy rates!”), and good old fashioned omission of inconvenient truths.

With the end of the cold war, the “left flank guard” has mostly been deployed in the defense of authoritarian leaders who emit that nostalgic socialist scent (e.g. Venezuela), historical figures who are seen as worthy leaders of revolution but who lost in their struggle for power (e.g. Trotsky), or any resistance or liberation movement that is seen as the best current option for opposing some hated regime (e.g. Hamas). The important point to make here is that few of those in the left flank guard really believe that freedom of expression should be curtailed as it is in Venezuela, that enemies of the revolution should be mercilessly slaughtered, as did Trotsky, or that theocracy is a good supplement to generous social policies. Yet, for some reason, their defenders believe that the survival of our political cause requires us to take a stand and vigorously defend those whose oppressive policies and brutal violence often far outmatch those of our current opponents. I, on the other hand, find this tendency nothing short of repulsive, but more importantly, of no benefit to the cause of social justice.

In the academic world of Korean studies, we might call this phenomenon the “North flank guard,” because the form it takes is:

1) A mobilization of scholarly efforts against opposition to the North Korean regime or those who highlight its human rights issues.

2) A refusal to clearly acknowledge North Korean responsibility for the escalation of tensions at numerous points in the last few years. This treats North Korea as a passive force, reacting only to provocation, rather than as an active composite subject which carefully calculates the potential domestic and international gains to be made from any new crisis.

3) The minimization or sometimes omission of any mention or substantive detail of the oppressive characteristics of the North Korean regime.

4) The fallacious pursuit of a historical argument which seeks to trace all contemporary woes back to the sins of Japanese colonialism, or to US and Soviet military occupations. Let’s call this, “The argument of original imperial sin.”

In the next two postings, I want to introduce a few of the most recent examples of the “North flank guard” in action and why I find it deeply troubling.

The second and third postings:

The North Flank Guard: A Military Exercise Escalated into Artillery Exchange
The North Flank Guard: Everyday Life in North Korea

Powered by WordPress