우물 안 개구리

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

2 Responses to “The North Flank Guard”

  1. Sayaka says:

    Looking forward to the third posting. Well argued as always. This whole paradigm regarding North Korea that you are pointing out is totally puzzling.

  2. Benjamin says:

    Well written and thought out post. I can not even stand to call myself a liberal because of the many liberal flanks which support such awful, inhumane and authoritarian causes.
    Honesty about the tyranny of North Korea is best and those who often say they can not understand North Korea and her actions tend to be liberals (who are wishing for the best from this communist “utopia”).
    In a chat with a South Korean who said in all seriousness, “North Korea is just misunderstood and is really a nice place…South Korea would be so much better if we’d find a way to be more socialist like North Korea.” I wish that was made up.
    People from the right of the political spectrum fall from Nationalist or protectionist reasons, while, as you point out so well, the left often falls from it’s desire to change and right injustices, no matter what the outcome.

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