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.

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  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. []

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